Sunday, February 14, 2016

When safety standards were more interesting….

In 1912, testing the ruggedness and protective features of a football helmet was a fairly straightforward process:

1912 helmet safety test

Find someone who knew how to simulate diving through the defensive line, strap the helmet on him and do the test.

William "Pudge" Heffelfinger

Football already was starting to hit the big time in 1912. You might say that professional football got started on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 under the table to help the AAA team beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, 4-0 (touchdowns were worth 4 points at that time). Nobody worried too much about head or brain injuries back then.

The thing that bothers me most about the safety test picture is that the three safety consultants appear to be enjoying themselves a bit overmuch. Of course, they didn’t have TV back then.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“…led by donkeys…”

At the outbreak of World War I, Britain had a relatively small professional army (247,000 men). Close to half of them were stationed overseas throughout the British Empire.

Thus, on the home island in August 1914, Britain’s generals mustered about 150,000 men to be the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that crossed the English Channel, to join the French in fighting the German attackers.

Within three months, that half of Britain’s professional army was gone. Most of the men in the BEF were dead.

p.s. Britain’s total WWI casualties: 673,375 dead and missing, 1,643,469 wounded

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492- Present (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 360.

See also:

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Technology 'R" Us

Often we don’t have a really explicit idea of what we mean when we say “We’ve come a long way….”

For instance, 130 years ago doing the household laundry was a bona fide chore—it was hard work. Why? In 1886 a study estimated that “washing, boiling and rinsing a single load of laundry used about 50 gallons of water.”

So what? Think about it: in the days before indoor plumbing, somebody (think Mom and the kids) had to haul that water from some source outside the house, maybe a pump, maybe a well, maybe a nearby spring or waterway.

That’s 8-10 trips—or more—to haul enough water for the wash, almost enough water to fill an oil drum.

That’s just to do the white and light-colored stuff. Think about doing it again for the dark load.

Things did get better, but slowly. By 1940, roughly 40 percent of homes had heating (not from a fireplace or stove), about 60 percent had flush toilets indoors, 70 percent had water coming out of a tap inside the house and a whopping 80 percent had electricity.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What it doesn’t say….

I’m pretty sure that a lot of folks thought teaching was a proper job for women in 1915 in Sacramento.

Of course, there weren’t a lot of other career paths open to women who wanted to work, or needed to work.

I wonder what women thought about applying for a teaching job, and, of course, complying with the rules and regulations. At least, judging by this example, teachers had a more or less free rein in deciding what and how they should teach.

Wait a minute. I just noticed it doesn’t say anything about romping naked with wild animals in public. Does that mean….?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Donkey and elephant enter politics

Ever wondered about the origin of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant?

Thank Thomas Nast, the 19th century political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly.

Think back 146 years, to January 1870, when Nast drew a cartoon titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.” He used the jackass/donkey to depict Democratic newspapers in the South, savaging Edwin Stanton, who had been Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

About four years later, Nast drew a bloated and berserk elephant to represent the Republican electorate during a political brouhaha about the prospect that President Ulysses Grant might run for a third term (he didn’t).

Imagine what Nast might have done with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Your pedestrian ancestors

Imagine living the rest of your life without your car.

Hold on, breathe!  I didn’t say “without your cell phone,” I only mentioned “car.”

In 1903 most people weren’t even thinking “car,” let alone “cell phone.” Most people walked to where they wanted to go, most of the time.

Here’s a slightly blotchy video of downtown Boston more than 100 years ago, with a couple streetcars, lots of horse-drawn vehicles and stunning throngs of people on the move on the sidewalks. Look at how much clothing they’re wearing. Look at the blobs of horse hockey on the street.

The cameraman passes the Jordan Marsh store, and travels on Boylston Street to Copley Square and the Boston Public Library.

Even without cars, look at the traffic!

Notice there aren’t any parking spaces. I guess nobody ever parked really, the streetcars and carriages just stopped long enough to let passengers get on or off.

It’s estimated there were 21.5 million horses and mules in the United States in 1900, about 1 horse/mule for every three people. (Today, about 6.9 million horses for 323 million people, a horse/people ratio of about 1:47).
Boston firemen and their nags in 1900
Of course, this silent film doesn’t convey any sense of the smell on city streets. Imagine what 14,000 horses in 1903 Boston could do to the fragrance of the downtown. About 33 horses can produce a ton of horse stuff daily, so think about 425 tons of manure dropping to the streets of Boston every day. Carting the horse manure out of town was a big business.

Horses were a big business in many ways. In 1900 in Boston, there were 105 carriage dealers, 99 harness makers, 51 hay dealers, 30 wheelwrights, 238 horseshoers and 192 livery, boarding and sales stables.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Eight-year-old kids go on strike

The abuses of child labor are no longer a big issue in America. Child labor was a big deal in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution came to America as early as 1813, when the first water-powered textile mill opened in Waltham, MA. Within a few decades, mills and factories were sprouting along waterways everywhere, and workers streamed off the farms to join immigrants who were employed in them at low wages.

The ongoing abuses of child laborers were condemned (by unionized adults) as early as the 1830s. In the following decades, regulation of the working conditions for kids occurred piece-meal, state by state. By the end of the 19th century, 28 states had enacted laws governing (but now outlawing) the working hours and conditions for children. Work by youngsters was finally outlawed in America when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938.

In 1881 eight-year-old textile workers in Maine—some of them working for 8 cents a day— started a strike when they discovered that kids their age at another mill were making a penny more per day. The three-day strike was partly successful.

Mill owners and factory owners and other 19th century capitalists were forced, over time, to cease exploitation of poor kids on the shop floor.

Cabot Mill
Imagine that you work in the Cabot textile mill. Imagine that you take your eight-year-old son to work with you every day, so he can work for 12 hours for pennies in grimy conditions, with poor lighting, breathing air filled with cotton lint and climbing barefoot on the humming machinery so he can replace the empty spindles.

Imagine that you need his paltry income to keep food on the table for your family.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Amos ‘n’ Andy: good stuff

Just taking a moment here to give a nod to the legendary “Amos ‘n’ Andy” show, a perennial radio/TV show from 1926 to 1966. It was the highest-rated radio comedy in history.

Gosden and Correll

I watched the syndicated reruns on the tube in the 1960s. Listen to an early radio segment here.
Amos and Andy were two genial characters who dabbled in most of life’s experiences. Amos Jones and Andrew Hogg Brown were black characters, although the creators of the series were two white radio personalities: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. They started broadcasting the “Sam ‘n’ Henry” show from Chicago in January 1926, and shifted to the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” format two years later.

Ultimately the show was carried by 70 radio stations nationwide, and attracted 40 million listeners—roughly 1 out of 3 Americans.

Childress and Williams
Gosden and Correll were skilled entertainers in the established vaudevillian “blackface” tradition. By the time the show moved to television in 1951, “blackface” had lost its credibility and black actors played the roles. Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams play the two main roles.

The TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was the first television production with black actors and would remain the only opportunity for black acting talent for 20 years.

Of course, Gosden and Correll—and even Childress and Williams—gratuitously portrayed the racial stereotypes that were commonly accepted in white society at the time. The show was a spectacular comedic success.

I tried without much success to ascertain the popularity of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” among black audiences. I found one reference to a poll (no details on validity) that reported “77 percent of black New Yorkers” liked the TV show.

Think for a moment about what entertainment was like before cell phones, iTunes and social media.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mr. Kite et al.

Our notion of the modern circus got its start in a homegrown ring in London in January 1768.
Philip Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, invited the public to watch him ride his horse around the ring, brandishing his sword while he stood upright with one foot on the saddle and the other on his horse’s head. He was a big hit.

Astley quickly assembled more horsemen, a clown and a band to perform in Astley’s Amphitheatre. His troupe performed for French King Louis XV in 1772. In 1782 a competitor opened the “Royal Circus” in London.

In 1792 an Englishman brought the circus idea  to Philadelphia, and then New York and Boston. One-ring shows turned into two-ring shows and so on, until 1871, when P. T. Barnum and a partner created “The Greatest Show on Earth” with three rings in Brooklyn. Calliope music has been popular ever since.

A footnote to this history:

The Beatles were singing about a real guy in circus history when they sang “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The “celebrated Mr. K.” worked for a showman named Pablo Fanque, who owned the Circus Royal in the mid-19th century. William Kite was Pablo’s riding master, and also a tightrope walker. Lennon and McCartney speculated that “Mr. K. performs his tricks without a sound.”

With all the hoops and garters and the “Hogshead of REAL FIRE!,” Pablo Fanque’s fair must have been a rollicking good show.

Once you get there, it’s hard to hate the circus.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Social Security….not for everyone

Social Security is with us for the long haul. I think it’s a vital foundation element of a reasonably secure society. I think high-income earners should pay a lot more in Social Security taxes (we should raise the maximum for taxable earnings). I think the full-benefit retirement age should be raised.

One of the reasons for the parlous state of Social Security finances is that people are living a lot longer than any politician or policy maker could have imagined in 1935.

The average life expectancy of folks being born now is about 79 years. Thus, the average newborn can expect to collect Social Security benefits for quite a few years under current law.

In 1935, when the Social Security Act was signed into law, the average life expectancy for newborns was about 61 years.

The act provided for benefits to be paid starting at age 65. Thus, the average person born that year wouldn’t live long enough to collect anything.

Think about that.

The official assumption was that a majority of the folks who lived all their lives with an anticipation of Social Security benefits would never get a dime.

The increase in longevity in the last 80 years has been spectacularly greater than any scientist or statistician or politician imagined during much of that time.

Another footnote in Social Security history:
Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, VT, received the first monthly benefit on January 31, 1940. During her work career she paid a total of $24.75 in Social Security taxes. She died when she was 100 years old after collecting total benefits of $22,888.9s.

Think yin and yang.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Monday, January 4, 2016

“See the [segregated] USA, in your Chevrolet…”

Imagine that you’re traveling with your family by car, and you get held up in a town where you didn’t plan to spend the night.

Imagine whipping out your iPhone to check for local hotels that will rent a room to people like you.

Imagine that most hotels won’t give you a room, because you’re a Muslim. Or gay. Or black.

That’s whacky, you think?

Maybe you never heard of The Negro Motorist Green-Book.

In the 1930s, black travelers started carrying the Green-Book to help them find hotels and restaurants and gas stations that would serve black customers. In some areas there were plenty of hotels and restaurants and gas stations that wouldn’t do that. In some areas, it was called “Jim Crow.” In other places, it was just the way things were.

In 1936 a black New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green thought of publishing a listing “of all first-class hotels throughout the United States that catered to Negroes.” Ultimately, he put together the first Green-Book, initially focused on the Big Apple, with listings for restaurants, service stations, hotels, tourist homes, taverns, liquor stores, beauty parlors, nightclubs, drugstores and tailors. That 10-page book sold for 25 cents. By 1949 it ran to 80 pages.

Every year Green put out about 15,000 copies of the book and continued to expand its geographic coverage. Jim Crow wasn’t confined to the South. One researcher has documented thousands of towns through the U.S. that were called "sundown towns" because they didn’t want black people to linger overnight. The typical advice to black folks was “get out before sundown.” For example, in the early 20th century a Connecticut town put up a sign that said: “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark.”

The Green-Book was last published in 1964. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic….a little history

American schools have been around since the Boston Latin School was opened in 1635.

Yet, what we think of today as public education, K-12, hasn’t been around all that long.

In 1644 the Dedham (MA) town meeting established the first tax-supported public school. Of course, it was for boys only. For long decades, girls might learn to read (so they could read the Bible, for instance), but it wasn’t thought important for them to be able to write or do their ciphers.

Rural Oklahoma, early 20th century
In New England, in the 18th century, “common schools” were established, mostly in the form of one-room schoolhouses for students, who often paid a fee to the teacher.

For most kids, the development of reading, writing and math skills was mostly a family concern until about the middle of the 19th century. By that time, public education and public high schools were becoming common, and attendance was in the process of being made mandatory.

What was taught in this evolution of schools was largely a local concern, often tied to the training and interests of the teacher.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a nationwide standardized curriculum was established, mandating roughly the same array of classes that students are taking today: mathematics, English, science and history.

I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby….but I guess that Americans have never been less proud of our public education than we are today.

I wonder what an 18th century schoolmarm would have thought about the Common Core standards?

My guess is that she probably wasn’t giving passing grades to students who just weren’t getting it….that seems like the bottom line to me.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gen. Grant kicked out the Jews….wha?

I never heard this story before.

Maybe the reason is that it’s an aberration in official conduct, although it speaks loudly about the frame of mind of anti-Semitic people in the middle of the 19th century.

In December 1862 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant signed an order to kick all Jews out of his military “department”—Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Part of Grant’s mandate was to shut down the black-market trade in Southern cotton, and lots of folks thought Jews were doing much of the war profiteering. Grant’s officers immediately started rousting Jewish families out of their homes with nothing more than what they could carry.

Jewish leaders promptly protested to President Lincoln, who had no foreknowledge of Grant’s order. Old Abe immediately ordered Grant to revoke his General Order No. 11, and Grant did so.

I note for the record that Gen. Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868 with strong support from Jewish voters, and he appointed Jews to high federal offices.

Xenophobia and social bigotry are well-seated in the human brain. In the last 11,000 years, “civilization” has spread an easily torn veneer over them.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

First flight—unbelievable

For many people around the world, it was literally unbelievable.

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright cranked up the biplane that he and his brother had built in the back room of their Ohio bike shop, and did what no man had done before: he traveled through the air, perched on a machine.

That first flight wasn’t much to write home about: 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. Orville and Wilbur flew four times that day, and Wilbur handled the last, spectacular feat: he traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds.

A lot of folks thought it was impossible, or at least impossible for two Dayton bicycle mechanics to pull off.

The Wright brothers were deliberate in their strategies to develop and patent their airplane, so they didn’t talk it up much. The world-wide press was not largely impressed in the early years. Five years after the first flight, Orville and Wilbur went to France and did the first highly publicized demonstrations of their heavier-than-air craft. The world went nuts.

da Vinci's flying machine

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) had the idea for a flying machine back in the 16th century, but he couldn’t get the thing to work.

David McCullough's book on the Wright brothers

The other British colonies....

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"We the People..." -- wait a minute

Our Constitution: the people did not speak

The U. S. Constitution is the primary legal and political document in our history, our heritage, our political organization and our culture.

It was written largely by wealthy white men (about two-thirds of them were lawyers), and about 4% of the population voted for the delegates who ratified it.

Vox populi had nothing to do with it, just saying.

“We the People…” is a bit of an exaggeration.

How we got the Constitution is not a well-known story.

I guess some folks may imagine that it was originally written on tablets by those mythical great men, The Founding Fathers.

To make a very long story short, the Constitution is a grotesquely politicized document that was conceived more or less on the sly by colonial delegates whose mandate merely was to fix up the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (ratified 1781).

The Articles of Confederation permitted little centralized power in the brand new republic, and they proved close to useless in the initial efforts to effectively govern the independent colonies, defend their sovereignty and manage their internal trade and civil affairs.

On February 21, 1787, the Congress convened state delegates in Philadelphia for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation" and to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union."

Generally, the delegates were the same elite group of men—wealthy and politically connected—who dominated the state legislatures after the Revolutionary War.

They went hog wild and cooked up the Constitution with centralized “federal” powers that were feared by many political and commercial interests. They did back room bargaining and political horse trading in Philadelphia and among the states to ultimately engineer ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures or specially convened assemblies in 11 states in late 1788. North Carolina and Rhode Island finally joined the crowd in 1790.

By the way, there was no popular vote on the Constitution. In fact, only about 150,000 white men voted for the delegates to state conventions that ratified the document. In 1787, the total white population of the 13 former colonies was about 3,671,000.

First flight—unbelievable

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The other British colonies….

Before I read O'Shaughnessy's "An Empire Divided," it was easy for me to be largely unaware of the British West Indies, the 18th century British colonies in the Caribbean that were, perhaps, more important to King George and his government than those other pesky colonies on the North American Atlantic coast.

Indeed, I suspect I may surprise you by listing the West Indies island colonies:
Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Vincent, Tortola and Tobago.

One of O'Shaughnessy's principal aims is to explain why these profoundly rich "sugar" islands did not join the North American rebellion: the short answer is that British colonists in the West Indies were dominated by largely absentee plantation owners who got rich at home in England by relying on their monopoly of sugar sales in the British empire, they desperately relied on the British navy to protect them against predatory French and Spanish forces in the Caribbean, and they desperately relied on the British army to protect them against the black slaves who outnumbered whites by 8-to-1.

O'Shaughnessy also takes pains to outline his argument that "the defense of the islands influenced British military strategy and contributed to the eventual British defeat at Yorktown," sealing the victory of the rebellious mainland colonies in 1781 (p. xvi). The demands of West Indies plantation owners for protection, and the desire of the British government to secure the vast wealth of the sugar trade, caused naval and army forces to be allocated to the West Indies and thus drawn away from the Revolutionary War theater.

It's easy to ask: how hard did the British government try to win the Revolutionary War? Was it the top priority?

I don't know the answers, but it's one focus of my continued reading.


O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

“Music in my own house? Wow!”

OK, turn off the iPod and just listen to this for a minute.

1920s crystal radio

Scientific American went out on a limb 95 years ago and told its readers:
"It has been well known for some years that by placing a form of telephone transmitter in a concert hall or at any point where music is being played the sound may be carried over telephone wires to an ordinary telephone receiver at a distant point, but it is only recently that a method of transmitting music by radio has been found possible."

Crikey, mate. Music through the air!?

Soon after World War I ended, scientists in the United States, Britain and elsewhere were actively experimenting with ways to improve radio technology that would enable its practical transformation into a full-blown communications and entertainment medium.

1920s radio station
A laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington— it owned station WWV—relied on help from amateur radio operators to explore the technical details of radio transmissions. It had some successes as early as 1919.

Scientific American was ponderously enthusiastic:
"Music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air through an ordinary radio transmitting set and received at any other place, even though hundreds of miles away…the music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus…The possibilities of such centralized radio concerts are great and extremely interesting."

Until the 1920s, the only way to hear live music was to go to the concert hall. The only way to hear whatever music you chose, any time you chose, was to own the record and a phonograph machine.

Let’s not even get started on television.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.