Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Before Plymouth Rock….

Our understanding of American colonial history tends to be English-centric, regardless of the fact that both Spain and France had active and substantial colonies on the North American continent.

The whole colonial experience never was all-English, all the time.

For instance, Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596) was the first Englishman to land on the California coast near present-day San Francisco in June 1579. Naturally, he claimed the “new land” for Queen Elizabeth I and England. Just one problem: the English never established a colony in California.

In fact, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (?-1543), a Portuguese explorer, stepped on to a California beach near present-day San Diego in September 1542, about 37 years before Drake got California sand between his toes. Cabrillo claimed the western coast as part of “Alta California” for the Spanish Empire. California was absorbed into Mexico in 1821. The Spanish colonists and their descendants were a presence in California until it was admitted to the Union as the 31st state in September 1850 (after the gold rush started).

N. B. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, by some estimates the California territory was the home of about one-third of Native Americans living in the transcontinental expanse that would become the first 48 American states.     

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Seven kids?!?

Today’s mini-history lesson:

It was a whole lot harder to cut the pie after dinner 150 years ago.
In the mid-1800s, the average American family had seven children. I guess the youngest never got any new clothes until he or she decided to marry.

About 100 years ago, at the start of the 20th century, the average number of kids per family had dropped to a bit over three—by that time, folks had been moving off the farms and shifting to urban life for quite a few years.(1)

Right now the average family has less than two children. In fact, the fertility rate of American women overall has dropped below the biological “replacement rate” of about 2.1 kids.

Immigration is responsible for net population growth in the United States.
(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 21.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015  All rights reserved.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The old gray Magna Charta, she ain’t what she used to be….

It’s 800 years old. It’s one of those famously revered things that really never did mean what lots of folks like to think it meant.

Many folks will admit that they’ve heard of the Magna Charta, the Great Charter “granted” by England’s King John to his barons in June 1215.

Nearly everyone doesn’t know diddly about what the document actually says, or what it actually meant in the hurly burly of English and European political power-plays in the latter stage of the Middle Ages.

There is ill-informed understanding that Magna Charta was the first written guarantee of the rights and privileges of people who were members of the royal family, like barons, churchmen and the yeomanry and peasantry of England.

For starters, the original version of Magna Charta was a non-starter. The English barons pooled their grievances and brought the king to bay at Runnymede, on the Thames River near London. King John (died October 1216) never honored it, and the barons who forced him to sign it notoriously didn’t do much to honor their commitments, either. It didn’t take very long for Pope Innocent III to annul the charter, and the First Barons’ War ensued. Subsequent English kings revived and revised Magna Charta—it was a work in progress for about 80 years, and was finally reissued in more or less final form by King Edward I in 1297.

Magna Charta doesn’t declare many of the noble precepts that have been attributed to it. It most certainly is not the foundation of modern concepts of democratic liberties for all the people.
Magna Charta was a grudging compromise among powerful men who could be called rich thugs without too much exaggeration. The barons intended that it would secure their “rights and privileges.” It may well be true that the average English peasant or working guy didn’t hear about it for generations after it was signed.

By the way, here's a link to an English translation of the original Latin text. Give it a try. You’ll see that it’s not a clarion call for democracy.,

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Only 40 hours!

Almost 90 years ago, the Ford Motor Co. became the first high-profile company to offer its assembly workers a five-day, 40-hour workweek in May 1926. A few months later, the unprecedented work schedule was extended to Ford’s white collar workers.

Henry Ford previously had shocked his big business peers by nearly doubling his assembly workers’ pay to $5 for an eight-hour day in 1914.

Before 1926, a six-day work week had been common throughout America. In the middle of the 19th century, American manufacturing workers put in about 65 hours a week, and the average workweek had dropped a bit to 60 hours by the end of that century. The number of hours on the clock dropped significantly in the first several decades of the 20th century.

The five-day workweek didn’t become standard until 1940, when provisions of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act were implemented.

Let’s note for the record that cellphones did not exist in the early 20th century, so those workers more or less actually did have two weekend days off from their labors.

Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford and president of Ford Motor Co. in the 1920s, explained the rationale for the five-day workweek: “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation….The Ford Company always has sought to promote [an] ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.”

Amen to that.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Change is hard

A lot of folks didn’t know what to do with the new “rock and roll” music in the mid-1950s.

Some folks in Santa Cruz, California, thought they darn sure did know what to do about it.

On June 3, 1956, city officials decreed a complete ban on “rock-and-roll and other forms of frenzied music” at all public gatherings, and justified it because the music was “detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”

Seems that a couple hundred teens in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium had been swingin’ and swayin’ to the music of Chuck Higgins and His Orchestra. Santa Cruz police arrived about midnight to check things out, and Lt. Richard Overton reported the crowd was “engaged in suggestive, stimulating and tantalizing motions induced by the provocative rhythms of an all-negro band.” Of course, the cops shut the gig down and sent everyone home.

What starts out here as a great reason to get snarky—about the older generation that just didn’t get it—quickly turns into an ugly example of completely transparent racism.

The cops and the city fathers must have been choking on their Cheerios 10 years later when Santa Cruz was a high-profile nexus of the West Coast counterculture scene. For goodness sakes, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters hung out there.

The Merry Pranksters
And I guess a few more all-negro bands showed up, too.

Like, drug-infused hootenanny, y’know?

I’m guessing that Lt. Overton figured out that change is hard.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Long distance....a different concept

For some folks, a 50-mile commute is routine.

For some folks, worldwide travel is a hoot, every so often.

It wasn’t always so.

Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, mentioned that 14th century manorial peasants might live their whole lives without venturing more than a mile from the spot where they were born.

In Pre-Industrial Societies: New Perspectives on the Past, Prof. Patricia Crone discussed the limitations on development of a market economy (trade) in those pre-industrial societies that evolved all over the world before the late 18th century advent of the Industrial Revolution. The peasants who did subsistence farming in Europe and on other continents were effectively limited to selling or bartering any meager surplus within a range of 4-5 miles from their homesteads, because it was neither practical not profitable to tote the foodstuffs beyond that range. Goods could be profitably transported to distant markets by boat (via river or sea), but peasants didn’t own boats.

It was a small world, in spirit and in fact.

Barbara Tuchman,  A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978).

Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989 repr. 1993), 23.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Great War....not

“FLASH: More than 6,000 American soldiers killed yesterday in Afghanistan.”

Of course it’s not true. It’s not even remotely imaginable, either.

100 years ago, that kind of body count was completely imaginable, In fact, it was so routine it wasn’t even reported in large headlines.

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War I makes plain what we can’t understand today: in almost 4½ years of desperately bloody fighting, the good guys (Entente) and the bad guys (German-dominated Central Powers) killed about 9 million men, more than 6,000 per day, every day, for roughly 1,500 days.

Here’s a specific: on July 1, 1916, British and French troops went over the top at the Somme River. At day's end, the British had almost 60,000 casualties, including about 20,000 dead. Almost 2 out of 3 British officers who led the assault were killed.

They would have had trouble keeping up with the burials during WWI if massive artillery barrages hadn’t literally blown to bits so many of the dead.

A survivor recalled that the repeatedly churned earth around the trenches and in No Man’s Land was almost impossibly fetid because it was actually saturated with bits of decomposing human flesh.

What kept the men in those deadly trenches? Ferguson says ”…men stuck by their pals or mates…But the crucial point is that men fought because they did not mind fighting…murder and death were not the things soldiers disliked about the war…revenge was a motivation…Others undoubtedly relished killing for its own sake…men underrated their own chances of being killed…most men assumed the bells of hell would not ring for them…”

Of course now we can say it was not “a lovely war.” It should have been unendurable, but it wasn’t….

Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, 1998, repr. 1999), 436, 446-47.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bonnie and Clyde, redux

Clyde Chestnut Barrow (1909-1934)

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker (1910-1934)

Bonnie and Clyde died 81 years ago on a rural stretch of Louisiana State Highway 154. Crowds soon gathered at the ambush scene, and many stole souvenirs like locks of Bonnie’s bloody hair and pieces of their clothing. The coroner claimed he saw one man trying to cut off Clyde’s left ear. Fabulous. Revolting.

It was the Depression time. The news media (this was before television, just imagine what the talking heads could do with this today!) went crazy reporting on the rambling banditry of the two lovers. The media did wrong, giving them celebrity coverage and gilding their story.

The 1967 movie with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway cemented the reputation of the duo as down-and-outers who earned the sympathy vote.

In fact, Bonnie and Clyde were small-time robbers and killers who gunned down nine police officers and several civilians. Bonnie basically was along for the ride—a gang member said later he never saw her pull a trigger. She didn’t smoke cigars, either.

Bonnie and Clyde were smalltown kids who grew up in distressing circumstances, had a fling in the center ring and went out in a pyrotechnical bushwhacking bloodbath on May 23, 1934. Texas and Louisiana cops fired about 150 rounds at their stolen Ford V8 car as it sped through the ambush zone. The coroner reported that Barrow had 17 bullet wounds, and Parker had 26.

As it turned out, it was a famous way to die.

No one remembers the names of the people that Bonnie and Clyde killed.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

First woman to run for president? Think 1872….

The first woman to run for president? Think 1872....

It’s not like you need the fingers of more than one hand to count the women who have run for president of the United States.

In fact, Hillary makes two.

Almost 145 years ago, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria California Claflin Woodhull to run for president against incumbent Republican President Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, the nominee of both the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties.

Woodhull didn’t get any Electoral College votes, and there is no authenticated count of the number of votes she received.

In any event, she hadn’t reached her 35th birthday, and was legally ineligible to be elected.

Woodhull, a suffragette, had a somewhat notorious career as a stockbroker, newspaper editor and a high-profile advocate of women’s rights, including the right to vote.

The weird thing is, of course, she couldn’t vote for herself. American women got the right to vote nationwide only in August 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Direct to California, c. 1869

You need to get from New York to San Francisco in a hurry. By train, it will take 7 days and cost $2,500. Do you go for it?

In 1870, you did. The transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, and it revolutionized travel to the West Coast. A first class ticket cost $136 (about $2,500 today) for a berth in a Pullman sleeping car—for $65 you could get space on a bench in the third class coach. I know, don’t even think about it.

Before the railroad was completed, the best a traveler in a hurry could do was take the Butterfield Express (later Wells Fargo) overland stagecoach. First, you had to get to St. Louis, MO, and then the stagecoach offered a spectacularly uncomfortable ride across the western plains in about three weeks, and sometimes the stage didn’t make it through. Traveling by boat from the East Coast to the West Coast took about a month.

Political shenanigans about the preferred route of the transcontinental line delayed the construction project until the Civil War began. With southern legislators (who advocated a “southern” route) out of the picture, the reps from northern states approved a route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. In the mid-1860s, the national government handed out obscenely large cash grants and generous land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. There was a lot of corruption, and a lot of worker exploitation, and a lot of folks got rich as the two companies laid tracks, starting at the endpoints and ultimately meeting at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

You know the story about the golden spike and all the hoorah celebrating the completion of the rail link across America.

It was a really big deal that spread a lot of benefits around, although the Native Americans on the plains and the buffalo herds got the other end of the stick, you know the story.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

First telephone in White House

President Rutherford B. Hayes may not be famous for a lot of things, but he should get credit for being an early adopter. Of telephone technology, that is.

The telephone was invented by Bell, who famously said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” on March 10, 1876 (for the moment, we’ll ignore Elisha Gray’s famous challenge about the patent). 

Little more than a year later, President Hayes had a telephone instrument installed in the White House telegraph room. Almost 140 years later, President Herbert Hoover installed the first telephone in the Oval Office in March 1929.

Telegraph was the dominant communication technology in 1877 and would remain so for another 30-40 years, until the early 20th century. In fact, in 1877, the U.S. Treasury Department had the only direct connection by telephone to the White House, so Hayes wasn’t getting too many calls in those early years.

By the way, the White House telephone number was “1” in 1877. It’s a rather quaint historical footnote.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Kent State thing

Tip: If the guy has a loaded gun, don’t throw stones at him.

The average American living today hadn’t been born when Ohio State National Guard troops killed four student protesters and wounded eight on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Campus rallies against the Vietnam War had been banned by the college, but about 2,000 students defied the ban and turned out to throw rocks and shout insults at the fully-armed Guardsmen, who had arrived on campus the previous day and had already used tear gas to disperse protesters.

Around noon, the National Guard again ordered students to disperse, fired tear gas and advanced with fixed bayonets. With. Fixed. Bayonets. Within minutes, the young Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into the student crowds. Four years later, a federal court threw out all charges against the shooters.

As it happened, I was in Vietnam at the time, serving our country. When I heard the grisly Kent State news, in US Army headquarters in Danang, my first reaction was: why would angry young men and angry young women provocatively throw stones at scared young men in uniform who are holding loaded guns with fixed bayonets? I also remember wondering where they got the stones—next time you go to a college campus, count the number of stones you see lying on the ground. I didn’t actually feel sympathetic toward the student protesters.

Today, I feel somewhat more sympathetic. I’m real sure that no student in that mob at Kent State was seriously afraid that the guys with helmets and guns would shoot at them. Kent State is part of America, right!?

Today, I feel sad that on May 4, 1970, some Americans who thought they were doing the right thing decided to piss off other Americans who were carrying loaded guns, and some Americans who thought they were doing the right thing aimed their rifles at other Americans and pulled the triggers.

Today, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how hard it is for all of us, separately and together,  to figure out what is “the right thing.”

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sleep tight

It’s been more than 150 years since “Sleep tight” was not a euphemistic expression of good will.

Through the 1840s in America, it was quite common to sleep in a rope bed, that is, a bed frame with stretched ropes supporting the mattress or bedding. Use of metal supports or springs started to come into fashion before the mid-19th century.

Such a rope bed required regular adjustment/tightening with a “bed key” to avoid a sag in the middle of the bed. “Sleep tight” was a friendly admonition to enjoy a night on a bed with snugged-up ropes giving firm support. The Sealy Posture-Pedic mattress hadn’t been invented, so you can imagine that “firm support” wasn’t really the norm.

Sometimes it’s not easy to get a familiar frame of reference for an historical time period like “the 1840s.”

Here are some hints about that decade, roughly 170 years ago:

U. S. presidents in that era were William Henry Harrison, John Tyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame), James Polk and Zachary Taylor.

Florida, Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin were admitted as new states in the federal union.

The California Gold Rush started in 1849.

p.s. here’s the bed key used by Ulysses Grant’s vice-president, Henry Wilson, who was a resident of Natick, MA. The Natick Historical Society has the bed key in its museum, see here

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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