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Monday, October 6, 2008

Featherisms

The other day I needed an aphorism, a nourishing nugget of wisdom, ideally couched in wry wit. I found some by the usual suspects:
  • In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes, by the brilliant statesman Benjamin Franklin, who slipped apt adages into his yearly Poor Richard’s Almanack.
  • Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said the work of legendary homespun humorist Mark Twain.
Then, to my astonishment, I came upon an entire column of zingers by a fellow whom I once knew (through his work), and whose droll contributions to American letters I had completely forgotten.

Here’s our mystery man. He cuts a dashing figure, eh?
But I remembered now. This man could, it seemed, churn out twinkly maxims as easily as you and I tie our shoes:
Nothing makes us so sleepy as the bell of our alarm clock.
A good time is seldom had by all.
Flattery must be pretty thick before anybody objects to it.
The most difficult jobs look easy until you try to do them.
Experts never seem to tell us what we’re up against until we’re up against it.
  • Let’s not have any more wars to end all war. And
  • A tinfoil wrapper doesn’t make a bum cigar taste any better.
Just who was this fellow who could so effortlessly pluck the essence from everyday daily life? I’m here to tell you!

Philosophy by Placemat

When I was a lad, my mother would treat me to lunch at a prim restaurant in our hometown, adjacent to Cleveland, Ohio. We never lacked for conversation topics, for staring up at us, right from our paper placemats, were more of this man’s epigrams, updated monthly.
  • Wives who quickly forgive and forget the follies of other women’s husbands might have been one of them. (How would Mother have explained that?)

Or

  • When the gardeners are praying for rain, the picnickers are praying for sunshine. So what is the poor Lord to do?
What this mother did for my 18th birthday was to present me with an entire book of our mystery man’s pithy philosophisms. (I made up that word up and rather like it. Philosophisms!) The book was The Business of Life, a fitting title, since the author - also a Clevelander - had made his mark as America’s “business philosopher.”

His name was William Feather.

“Anyone who can think clearly can write clearly,” Feather wrote in The Business of Life. “But neither is easy.” That’s for sure. It’s akin to wringing an ocean out of a washcloth. (That’s my own weak attempt, miserably short of a Featherism.)

A Keen Eye on the Human Condition

Feather had all of Franklin and Twain’s power of observation:
  • A single fact will often spoil an interesting argument.
  • Many of us are dull, but not as dull as the grandchildren think we are.
  • The kindness lavished on dogs, if evenly distributed, would establish peace on earth.
Did I catch you nodding in agreement?

But Feather also had an edge to his writing that was indicative of the, shall we say, less-enlightened times. When he wrote The trouble with a man who takes his time is that he takes your time, too, for instance, he reflected the custom - as old as “all men are created equal” in our 1776 Declaration of Independence - of lumping the entire female sex into “mankind.” Nonetheless, he was a distiller of the human foibles the likes of which I have not found in a generation.

Reporter, but Hardly an Ink-Stained Wretch

College kids like Bill Feather, circa 1909, were a more distinguished bunch than today’s hang-loose generation. At least Feather certainly was.
This Feather fellow’s father was an English millworker who ended up as a traveling wool buyer, based in Cleveland. His son, our man William, was a voracious student and dapper dresser who breezed through Western Reserve University and then honed his writing as a Cleveland Press reporter. And not on the overnight crime shift. As another Cleveland daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer, would report half a century later, Feather “established a lifelong habit of mixing with important people by capturing most of the assignments to interview visiting V.I.P.s.” He accomplished this simply “because he was better dressed than most reporters in those days.” Clothes were making our man!

Feather trotted down to Dayton, Ohio, where he spent an unhappy year at the elbow of a very, very important person, John H. Patterson, the egomaniacal titan of the National Cash Register Co. Of Patterson, for whom he tried to craft public-relations campaigns, Feather would write, “Visitors were often aghast at [his] seeming extravagance, which was exactly the impression he desired to make upon them. . . . His expense accounts sent needles into the spines of minority stockholders.”

William Feather and his son, William Jr., partnered for years after the older man turned mostly to writing. Junior had the business acumen, even though Senior wrote about business.
Tossed aside by the “cash register king,” Feather hightailed it back to Cleveland, where, with money borrowed from his wife, he bought part interest and then full ownership in a printing company. Feather had craved a sole proprietorship, growling that minority partners only “attempt to protect their own little corners of the business in an effort to take as much money out of the company for as little effort as possible.”

William Feather knew next to nothing about printing, and never really learned. He relied on trusty subordinates, including his son, William Jr., who one day would take over and build the business into Cleveland’s largest commercial-printing operation. Early on, the company’s first big job - a 16-page booklet titled Hints for Store Clerks - netted William Sr. all of $150. “I had never made so much money in my life for so little work,” he said.

Wisdom of the Month

The William Feather Magazine had a following of its own, but it reached its greatest circulation via other companies’ in-house magazines, which appropriated Feather’s contents and paid him handsomely for them.
Once a month for an incredible 75 years, the Feather Co. turned out the tiny William Feather Magazine.

Each was the size of a paperback book and, at just 24 pages, no thicker than your big toenail. That was plenty of space for Feather’s touches, such as A clear conscience doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t any conscience.

Companies across America soon paid the wily printer handsomely to slap their own covers on the Feather Magazine. Eventually 300,000 copies of these “house organs” made their way around the country each month. Apparently placemat-makers liked Feather’s work, too.


Feather was a bit of an imp, linguistically. The more someone or some group took umbrage at what he wrote, the more he poured it on.
Once he was wealthy and secure, William Feather provoked paroxysms of outrage by writing about women, whom he delighted in aggravating. He’d had plenty of practice at home, having married Ruth Elizabeth Pressley, a demonstrative actress and suffragette (the accepted term today for those who fought for women’s right to vote is “suffragist”). She could not have been more different from her aloof and aristocratic husband, and after 29 years of marriage, the couple separated. “It’s just a matter of temperament, I guess,” Feather said. No doubt his daggers like these hadn’t helped:
  • A girl may have a mind as keen as a razor’s edge, but if her stockings wrinkle at the ankles no one will listen to her.
  • Before speaking to your wife, ask yourself, “Will I regret what I am about to say?”
  • The trouble is that women want to keep what they’ve got and make the men give up what they have.
Keep Up the Good Work

Everybody at the Feather Printing Co. knew William Feather, and he knew them, even though the printing business had mostly moved on to huge jobs far more complex than his little magazine.
Each day for 35 years after his son took over the business, the elder Feather still toddled into the office. With the bearing of a suave English actor - he was tall and trim like George Sanders - Feather arrived about 11 a.m., ever natty in suit and tie, thrusting his walking stick.

First thing, he’d stroll through the plant, greeting each worker (his assistants kept an updated cheat sheet with their names). Then he’d retire to his office to compose a few dollops and short essays. Later, others would type the pearls onto small index cards and file them by subject in a large wooden cabinet from which the contents of the William Feather Magazine would be selected.

Sometime after noon, Feather’s driver would whisk the old man to the Union Club downtown, where he would take lunch at the same table with the same cast of companions for as long as they lived. All were well to the right of him politically. On a Monday, say, over martinis, Feather would passionately argue one side of an issue. On Tuesday, with a glint in his eye, he’d espouse the other side with equal conviction, just for the devil of it.

Back home at his apartment in leafy Shaker Heights, he would take his evening meal prepared by a housekeeper, and then read philosophers of the ages and thoughtful magazines of the day.

Get to the Point, Then Leave

The master epigrammist to whom you have now been introduced was an accomplished, if impatient, listener. Feather’s grandson, William III, who would one day sell the printing business and is now a general contractor, remembers family gatherings at the old man’s apartment. “Half an hour in, he’d say to all of us, ‘It would not displease me if you left now.’” This was not the crotchetiness of old age. Years earlier, when he and Ruth were throwing cocktail parties, William Sr. would place an alarm clock on the mantel and set it to ring loudly, precisely at midnight.

On his farm outside Cleveland to which the family would repair more than 15 summers, Feather drew this conclusion:
  • After a man has tried to lead a calf he has more patience with human beings. And on 10 trips to Europe and two across America, he took mental notes on the human condition. Dreams are fine, Feather concluded.
  • But bread must be baked today, trains must move today, bills must be collected today, payrolls must be met today. Business feeds, clothes and houses man. (There he went, mankinding again.)
Feather loved to make mischief. He once wrote a Cleveland paper, suggesting that pigeons on the public square be shot and fed to the poor. The response, he reported with glee, was “instant and devastating.”

A close friend of the acerbic Baltimore newspaperman H.L. Mencken, William Feather noted in The Business of Life that “readers of plain writing say they could have written that themselves, and belittle it. Fancy writing fools the highbrows, even the editors. None understand the stuff, but all insist it sounds profound and must be superior.”

Business in His Blood

Feather’s son wrote that William Sr. was not a church-going man but had strong beliefs. “His religion was anchored in the law of compensation,” William Jr. wrote in 1981. “Capsulated, the law holds we receive from life in exact proportion and kind to what we put into it.”

William Feather became a Cleveland “man about town” – a celebrity in refined circles. He even got a lot of ink when he was named foreman of a grand jury that was looking into corruption in city government.
William Feather died that year at age 91. But he had thoughtfully written his own epitaph - half a lifetime earlier, in 1934! Never comfortable talking about himself, he wrote it in third person. The advance obituary read, in part, “He was known to some people as a writer. In his writings he espoused thrift, industry, promptness, perseverance, and dependability. . . . As far as was possible, the subject of this sketch practiced what he preached. Some of his enemies point to this trait as his foremost weakness.”

The latest Feather, William III’s baby son “Little Bill” (William IV), knows nothing of William Feather Sr., of course. Nor do many others any more. But Little Bill will at least have drawers full of William Feather Magazines to get a feel for the man, and his uncanny ability to wring truisms out of daily life, when William IV grows up.


***

William Feather might be called the 20th century’s Benjamin Franklin. What do you think of him and his modern proverbs?


TODAY'S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Crotchetiness. Ill temper and crankiness. The word is often applied to old, eccentric men, in particular, for reasons that escape me, since I’ve known lots of old, eccentric women as well. Note that the root word, “crochet,” is identical to the hook or barb on the instrument that one uses to crochet – pronounced cro-SHAY rather than CROTCH-it – a sweater. The connection may be the barbed, prickly nature of a crotchety old fellow.

Dapper. Up to date in dress and manners. And there’s an extra quality to the word, too, a sort of jauntiness or even raffishness, reminiscent of the movie star Cary Grant. A dapper fellow – and the word is more often applied to men – is not just well appointed. He’s a sauve charmer.

Pithy. To the point. Getting to the heart of the matter in a few words. The word comes from nature. Pith is the central core of a plant stalk. You may have heard of a “pith helmet” – the lightweight, bowl-like headgear that African explorers wear in the movies. It’s sometimes made from pith.

Toddle. To walk with short, slightly unsteady steps. Infants and old folks toddle. And what do we say to an oldster who’s about to toddle off? Toodle-oo! Toodle, not toddle!

Zinger. A “gotcha” or “ouch” line or retort. A zinger is pointed, like the tip of an arrow that’s humming toward an unsuspecting target. Often everyone in the room, except the zingee, laughs when a sharp zinger strikes home. (Don’t search for “zingee.” I made it up. But that’s how words like “zinger” get started.)

Please leave a comment.

2 comments:

suggest said...

Ted,
Just a great article. I had to laugh out loud so many times. I even put one of the quotes on my facebook.
I sent it on to Arv (brother in law...just his thing)
I can see you and your mom reading the placemats...we have done that so many times at the country restaurants.
Thanks

Tenable Protective Services said...

How nice to see this article. My father, Theo "Tom" Gilliland, was Feather's company Treasurer for umpteen years. The pictures you have posted I've seen so many times and those little pocket sized books were always around our house. My Dad seemed to really want to be like "Bill". He even took up playing tennis, not a game my Dad was proficient at. My Dad was the Feather Company's representitive for years at in the Oberlin Rotary. He was very proud of that.

Anyway, good memories, Thanks

Joyce Gilliland