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