Saturday, May 2, 2015

A good thing in 1854

In April 1854 the Pennsylvania legislature did a good thing: it chartered the first black college in America.

Ashmun College was established in Chester County, then mostly farmlands west of Philadelphia. In 1866 the college was renamed Lincoln University.

The college website says it was "the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent." Among its alumni are Langston Hughes ‘29 and Thurgood Marshall ‘30.

Today LU is co-ed, is actually if not substantially racially and ethnically diverse, and has about 2,000 students who are working on bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Resident tuition/room/board adds up to just over $20,000. In the current environment of soaring college costs, that’s a strikingly affordable pricetag for a college degree.

I say the Pennsylvania legislature did a good thing in 1854 because in 1854 it was a good thing to establish a college for black men. No governmental entity, and probably no private venture, would do the same thing today. Our public sensibilities and mores forbid it.

It’s too bad there isn’t a compensating public impulse to offer accessibly-priced college education to all the young men and women who aren’t white with upper-socio-economic parents.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

8th grade graduation test in 1912

Graduating from the 8th grade wasn't a snap in Bullitt County, Kentucky, in 1912.

Students attended mostly one-room schools in the predominantly rural county, south of Louisville. 8th graders took the “Common Exam” in the county courthouse. Some students who earned high scores received scholarships to attend high school. Many of the farm kids in the county didn’t get schooling beyond the 8th grade.

In case your 8th grader or a student you know is grousing about final exams right about now, ask her to take a look at these sample questions from the 1912 Common Exam in Bullitt County. The full test is listed here.

In Mathematics:
“Find cost at 12 ½ cents per sq. yd. of kalsomining [whitewashing] the walls of a room 20 ft. long, 16 ft. wide and 9 ft. high, deducting 1 door 8 ft. by 4 ft. 6 in. and 2 windows 5 ft. by 3 ft. 6 in. each.”

In Geography:
“Tell what you know of the Gulf Stream.”

In Civil Government:
“Describe the manner in which the president and vice-president of the United States are elected.”

In History:
“Give the cause of the war of 1812 and name an important battle fought during that war.”

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Blood-and-thunder" for one thin dime

There were “westerns” before John Wayne put his mark on them.

The men in blue and gray in the Civil War—the ones who could read, and the ones who had buddies who could read—were avid fans of the dime novel.

New printing technologies in 1860 made it possible to churn out an endless succession of cheap (10 cents, hence “dime novel”) so-called “blood-and-thunder” stories, often about heroes of the American West like Kit Carson.

These dime novels in the mid-19th century were the ‘westerns” before Hollywood invented the movie genre of the same name in the early 20th century.

The flood of cheap books was unleashed by improvements in the steam printing press and stereotype plates, the cast metal plates that used a reversed image of a full page on the press. The resulting increase in productivity and cost reduction permitted publishers to do huge press runs of the formula “western” novels that were written by assembly lines of writers. Some of the more respectable authors cranked out a new book every three months. Some of the hacks claimed to be able to produce a brand new novel in 24 hours. As you might guess, originality and quality weren’t the principal standards of excellence.

Jill Lepore, in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, notes: “Blood-and-thunders were ‘sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood,’ one contemporary reported. After the war, dime novel westerns cultivated a vast, largely eastern, and altogether male audience: they were the first mass market fiction sold to men and boys.” (1)

Dime novel readers who weren’t Kit Carson (1809-1868) fans must have been a rare breed. Between 1860 and 1900, the American frontiersman was the hero of more than seventy of the popular books.

(1) Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 212, 217.


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Join 2,998 other people at the movies!?

You may have forgotten that the Mark Strand Theatre opened in New York City 101 years ago.

It was the first mega-theater to be opened in the U. S., at a time when “movies” were hitting their stride as a social and artistic success.

Silent movies, that is. The first "talkies" weren't offered to the movie-going public until the late 1920s.

The Strand was a colossus, and a beautiful one. Before sensational theaters like this one opened for business, the silent films were shown in quite modest venues, often storefront “nickelodeons” named for the first Nickelodeon that debuted in Pittsburgh in 1905. The Strand seated about 3,000 people (!), offered high-rent boxes and a luxurious second-floor balcony, with a two-story lobby for high-class socializing before and after the show.

Within two years, there were more than 21,000 “movie palaces” throughout the United States, some of which exceeded the amenities of the Strand.

Contrast the Strand’s concept and architecture with the boutique “screens” offered today in our grindingly commercial multiplex theaters.

A hundred years ago, folks got dressed up—coat and tie for gents, classy dress for ladies—to go to the movies.

And they didn’t eat popcorn and slurp Coke during the show.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The first modern Olympics cost $50,000 ?

OK, I made up that number. The 1896 Olympics in Athens cost 3,740,000 drachmas. I couldn’t locate a conversion table. I think the Greeks spent less than Boston is going to spend in 2024.

The games of the first modern Olympics lasted only 10 days in April, 1896, with 241 athletes (all men) representing 14 nations.

Most of the events were staged in Panathinaiko Stadium for the entertainment of about 80,000 spectators.

An American, James Connolly, was the first Olympic champion—he won the triple jump on the first day, and received a silver medal and an olive branch. (The gold/silver/bronze medal system was introduced in 1904 at the games in St. Louis).

Men from Princeton at the 1896 games
Besides the traditional track and field events, the 1896 games included swimming, fencing, shooting, tennis and cycling. The beach volley ball fans had to suck it up.

A Greek athlete won the marathon, to the boundless delight of the hometown crowd.

By the way, the marathon is a modern addition to the Olympics—it was introduced at the 1896 games. The distance was 40 kilometers (24.85 miles).

The race commemorates the feat of Pheidippides, a soldier who ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce a Greek victory over Persian invaders.

In 1908, at the London games, the route of the marathon race was fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, the measured distance from its start point at Windsor Castle to the finish line in the stadium.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lest we forget….

On this date in 1865, General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant. 

Nearly all of the fighting and killing in the American Civil War was done.

I have ancestors who fought—and one who died—in the Civil War. I hope all of them, and their brothers in arms, rest in peace.

Requiescat in pace.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

75 miles at a gallop....

Of course you’ve heard about the Pony Express riders, those guys were tough caballeros.

The Pony Express mail service—from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California—was inaugurated on April 3, 1860, just as the Civil War was starting to get hot.

Those hardy riders, including 14-year-old William Cody (he became “Buffalo Bill”), accomplished almost unbelievable feats in the saddle to keep the almost unbelievably expensive mail service in operation for about 18 months.

You may not have heard that the first transcontinental telegraph line put the Pony Express out of service more or less instantly in October 1861. Talk about disruptive technology!

The Pony Express was a good idea waiting to happen. The state of California was admitted to the Union in 1850, but it was essentially out of touch with the eastern states. Regular mail carried on boats took about a month to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast. The Butterfield Express overland stagecoach could carry mail and packages across the western plains in about three weeks at best, and sometimes the stage didn’t make it through.

The Pony Express riders could take a mail packet (about 20 pounds) from Missouri to California in 8-10 days. Unbelievable!

The riders made $25 a week (about $722 in current collars) to cover 75-100 miles per shift, jumping on a fresh mount every 10-15 miles. The Pony Express had about 80 riders on the payroll, and stabled 400-500 horses in more than 100 relay stations along the route.

Here’s another unbelievable factoid: it cost $5 in 1860 to drop a half-ounce of mail into the Pony Express packet. That’s about $145 in current dollars—a 20-pound mail packet was worth about $93,000.

Of course, there were substantial operating costs, but William Russell, William Waddell and Alexander Majors thought they were going to make a killing when they put the Pony Express into operation. However, they never nailed down the juicy government contract they hoped for, and then those pesky pre-Silicon Valley guys rolled out the telegraph….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Age of "Discovery"....

April 2 was the 502nd anniversary of the “discovery” of Florida by a European—the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon (1474-1521) was the first European to step ashore on the Florida coast. He was searching for the mythic “Fountain of Youth,” but that’s another story.

De Leon trudged through the Florida sand for the first time in 1513, nearly 21 years after Columbus didn’t “discover” America. Columbus “discovered” an inhabited island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, most likely San Salvador, and, in fact, he never set foot on the North American continent during any of his four voyages.

The first European to make a North American landfall in the Age of Discovery was the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto (c.1450-c.1499), who claimed Newfoundland in 1497 for his sponsor, Henry VII of England (by the way, he called his favorite explorer “John Cabot”).

This is a rather roundabout way of mentioning that, when the Pilgrim Fathers went ashore in Plymouth Harbor in 1620, they very definitely were not beginning the European exploration and colonization of North America….and they probably didn’t step directly onto the “Plymouth Rock,” as our American legend would have it, but that’s another story.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

When were the good old days, exactly?

President Herbert Hoover didn’t have his own email server. Obviously.

Also, he didn’t have a telephone at his desk when he took office on March 4, 1929.

Hoover was the first president to install a telephone in the Oval Office. Otherwise, he would have had to use the phone in the lobby just outside it.

A few weeks after Hoover began his term, an initially pesky instrument was wired up on his desk. At first, it wouldn’t work properly, but the White House crew put it right.

Let’s be fair: a telephone system and switchboard was installed in the White House in 1878, only two years after Alexander Graham Bell received his patent. However, the telegraph system was the dominant communications channel at that time.

The telegraph stayed in the No. 1 spot in the U. S. through the end of the 19th century—in 1900, almost all of the telephone traffic in America was confined to strictly local calls. The long-distance telephone network became a 20th century phenomenon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When “the poorhouse” was a place….

Before the middle of the 20th century, “the poorhouse” wasn’t an abstract concept.

Through the World War II era, mostly county governments in the U. S. provided much of the care for the indigent and elderly folks who could not afford medical care or couldn’t take care of themselves. 

The facilities—“poorhouses” or, in some areas, “poor farms”—were often marginal or wretched.

They were systematically closed by mid-century, in tandem with a massive, federally-sponsored buildout of hospitals after WWII. In 1954 the federal government started providing funds so hospitals could build separate custodial units for patients who needed an extended period of “recovery,” and people who couldn’t take care of themselves increasingly ended up in extended stays in the expanded hospital facilities. That was the beginning of modern nursing homes.(1)

In the present time, economic constraints in the hospital health care system are reducing a patient’s time in hospital, and steadily pushing the indigent, elderly, helpless and terminal people toward retirement homes, nursing homes, hospice care, private care or no care.

(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 68-71.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jared Sparks, first American historian

We can think of Jared Sparks (1789-1866) as the first American historian.

Obviously he wasn’t the first person to write about American history. You may recall that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32 and then went home to France to write De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America).

Sparks was the first American with public recognition as a scholar of American history. In 1838 he was selected as the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University, and he served in that post until 1849. He was the first academic historian doing original research, and did pioneering work in the collection of primary documentary materials. Sparks also served as president of Harvard during 1849-53.

The first history prof wrote The Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols.) in 1834-37.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Have you “seen the elephant”?

Here’s one you probably don’t know:

Which came first, the Revolutionary War or the first elephant in America?

Think April 13, 1796.

That’s the day Capt. Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, MA, unloaded an Asian elephant from Calcutta in New York City. He sold it to a showman for $10,000 (almost $180,000 in current dollars).

President John Adams and crowds of Americans flocked to see “Old Bet,” a 2-year-old female who grandly toured throughout the United States for the next nine years. President Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “elephantine mammoths” as the hardy explorers were scouting new routes through the American West.

The exhibition of “Old Bet” was such a marvelous spectacle that folks who saw her talked about “seeing the elephant,” and even the folks who were waiting to see her—or missed the opportunity—helped to add those mundane words to the American lexicon. Later, Civil War soldiers added the darker dimension to the phrase as we know it today, when they guardedly recounted the grisly horror of combat with a sanitized acknowledgment that they had “seen the elephant.”

Elephants and circuses are as American as apple pie. Almost 100 years after “Old Bet,” P. T. Barnum did his fantastic best to promote “Jumbo,” a 12-foot-tall African elephant who weighed in at about 12,000 pounds.

Too bad that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced this week that the troupe of 13 elephants now appearing with its traveling shows will be retired in the next few years, and won’t be replaced.

When you were a kid, did you “see the elephant”? 

And, hey, did you get to do the elephant ride when the circus came to your town?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

There’s no place like home….

Before 1950, most Americans died at home, from what were once familiarly described as “natural causes.”

By the 1980s, only about 1 out of 6 deaths occurred at home—most folks died in hospitals or nursing homes. The practice of medicine had expanded to embrace one’s last moments in an institutional setting, instead of the relative comfort of one’s own bed.

The trend toward dying in a hospital bed has reversed itself. Data from 2010 shows that about 45% of Americans departed this life in hospice care, and more than half of those folks received hospice care at home. These U. S. figures are among the highest in the world.

Dr. Atul Gawande writes in Being Mortal: “…our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”

Dr. Gawande explores the often un-mentioned truth that simply “living as long as possible” isn’t the real wish of many people, and probably isn’t what most people really want.

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” (1)

Most folks say that “quality of life” is most important at the end.

Read Being Mortal.

Take some time to think about what “quality of life” means to you.

Talk to your doctor and your loved ones about it.

 (1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 6, 193, 243, 259.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

The wisdom of William Cronon

"What I most fear about this new age
          is its impatience and its distractedness.
  If history as we know it is to survive,

          it is these we most need to resist as we practice and defend                             long, slow, thoughtful reading."

William Cronon (b. 1954)
Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cronon is a thoughtful historian of North American history, which includes the millions of Native Americans who were here long before the Europeans arrived.

This seemed like a first-rate follow-up to my post offering Mortimer Adler's thought about reading:

"In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you."
Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902-2001) 

The full post on Adler

The study and appreciation of any history requires reflection, an open mind and a willingness to avoid being distracted for a while. A cozy, quiet place to read is not absolutely necessary, but give it a try…you won't want to read anywhere else.

And look here, you have to get bona fide history from one of two sources: from an oldtimer who was there, who actually lived it, who smelled the smells, who saw the first gusher, who was in the war, who was the first person in town to have indoor plumbing….

...or from a good book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The art of Victor Hugo

“Aimons toujours ! Aimons encore !
 Quand l'amour s'en va, l'espoir fuit.
 L'amour, c'est le cri de l'aurore,
 L'amour c'est l'hymne de la nuit.”

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885)
French Romantic poet and writer

You know Victor Hugo:  Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Les Travailleurs de la Mer….

You might have forgotten that Hugo was the premier French Romantic poet of the early 19th century.

The lines above are the first quatrain of “Aimons toujours! Aimons encore!,” a wonderfully emotive love poem included in Les Contemplations, published in 1856.

My translation:
We love each other always! We love each other still!
When love is no more, hope flies.
Love, the herald of the dawn,
Love is the hymn of the night.

When was the last time you whispered to your beloved: “Love is the hymn of the night”?

Y’know, get Romantic and all….

Try it tonight.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cultural authenticity....wha?

Diane Ravitch thinks we’re missing something in America, and I think she’s right.

Ravitch is an historian of education and a high profile expert on education policy.

She’s also an authentic, reflective thinker and commentator on the American scene.

Almost 25 years ago she edited The American Reader: Words That Moved A Nation, showcasing the span of American wordsmiths from Ben Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac) to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Paul Revere’s Ride”) to Walt Whitman (“O Captain! My Captain!”) to Jacob Riis (The Battle with the Slum) to Margaret Sanger (“The Right to One’s Body”) to Woody Guthrie  (“This Land Is Your Land”) to Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) to Ronald Reagan (Speech at Moscow State University).

In the first revision of American Reader in 2000, Ravitch confessed that she had cut some original content from the 1970s and 1980s because the pieces didn’t “…match the literary quality of the earlier selections and [didn’t] resonate in the national consciousness…”

She explained:
“It seems to me…that cultural authenticity is harder to find than in the past…songs were once shared by children, parents, grandparents and entire communities…The popular songs of recent years have short lives; they were written mainly for teenagers, with lyrics that are neither important nor memorable...I am unable to identify any contemporary poems that are known and loved by large numbers of ordinary Americans…With few exceptions, the political speeches of the recent past seem to me to be singularly devoid of lasting significance…Our presidents in the closing decades of the twentieth century were known more for their slogans, sound ‘bites,’ and off-the-cuff remarks than for the kinds of speeches that once spoke directly to the American public’s hopes and concerns and resonated in its collective memory.
“In this age of instantaneous mass communications, words do not seem to be as precious as they once were.”(1)

Ouch. The shoe fits…but, let’s be candid, it pinches quite a bit.

(1) Diane Ravitch, The American Reader: Words That Moved A Nation (New York: Perennial/HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000), xviii-xix.

History, memory....what really happened?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book review: Address Unknown

Book review: Address Unknown
Washington Square Press, New York, copyright 1938, published 2001

This is a tiny work that delivers gut punches on every other page. Repeatedly, it seems to be overly dramatic and somewhat contrived, except that it’s all too believable and all too horrific.

It’s hard to discuss Address Unknown without including spoiler information, but I’m going to try because I think you should want to take a short time out of your busy day to read this through at one sitting and let the experience overwhelm you.

Max Eisenstein, a Jew in New York, corresponds with his non-Jewish friend, Martin Schulse in Germany, in 1932-34. They have a joint business interest, a New York art gallery. Hitler is setting the stage to become Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

Max and Martin exchange letters. Their correspondence is swiftly transformed from business matters and the chatter of friends, to awkwardly ingenuous, increasingly corrosive and bitterly destructive words that betray Martin’s embrace of the newly-politicized Aryan culture.

Max and Martin cease to be friends. The terrible consequence of their estrangement is no surprise, but not less terrible because we can so easily grasp its nature and implications.

The reader is left to wonder about the dreadful imperatives of human behavior that cannot avoid self-destruction.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015