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Friday, January 30, 2009

MassConn Island

After reading my last post, Geraldo in Brazil sent along some flattering comments and closed with a suggestion: “How about writing something about Massachusetts or the whole New England?”

I’ve been meaning to, Geraldo. I was waiting for the place to thaw! You provided the impetus for me to do so. But I must say that, compact though this northeasternmost region is —17 individual states are larger than the six states of New England put together — it will take me two postings to even begin to scratch their diverse geography and rich history. Fortunately, New England breaks into two convenient tiers: three states to the south clustered around Boston, and three to the north, packed with trees and moose and offshore lobsters. Let’s look at the lower three this time.

But first, an overview:

Tightly Packed

Bailey's Island
Rock meets sea on Bailey’s Island, Maine, where we also observe a typical New England lobster shack
New England is America’s most defined region. I have already wondered in this space just where the “West” begins, and the Midwest and South are hard to get one’s mind around as well. But there can be no doubt about that six-pack of crusty old states – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. One can live 10 meters across the Vermont line in New York and not be a New Englander – and likely not have the same independent ways or emotional attachment to the past. Or to New England’s thin and rocky land. Vermont is loaded with dairy farms, but the rest of region has been largely subsumed by pines, highways, cottage estates, old and crumbling cities, postcard-quality villages, and those moose.

This is the view across a small lake to the town green in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Note the requisite white church
Named by British sea captain John Smith as he poked around the Massachusetts coast in 1614, New England is a society that was built upon the town. And the towns rose around pleasant, British-style strolling grounds called “greens,” or squares, usually anchored by a dazzlingly white, high-steepled Congregational church. New England’s earliest settlers – other than the indigenous Wampanoag, Nauset, and Pennacook Indians – formed small communities, surrounded by a hostile forest and guided by a stern religion that encouraged isolation, spare conversation, and a deep respect for privacy.

When Americans moved west in the mid-1800s, it was the New England village model that they copied. And the idealization of New England as a hardscrabble, pastoral haven of feisty individualists, rooted in reality, hasn’t changed much.

That’s why I must confess that it’s not my favorite U.S. destination. While New Englanders are not hostile, they practice wariness, as if they’ve never seen a visitor before. Don’t expect animated tales and flourishing hand gestures, and certainly not hugs. “Nope” and “Ah-yup,” can pass for a New England conversation.

A Veritable New England Gabfest

In fact, one of my cherished tall tales is set there:

Two old Downeasters – or residents of downstate, coastal Maine – are rocking on a porch, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, without saying a word.

After about an hour, one of them points to a far-off tree. “Look there,” he says. “That’s a pileated” – a big, red-crested woodpecker.

The other fellow squints in that direction, shakes his head slightly, and replies, “T’aint.”

Nothing more is said for 15 minutes, as the codgers rock on, back and forth, back and forth.

Finally the first old guy struggles to his feet, stretches, and starts down the stairs.

“Well, got to be goin’,” he says.

“Can’t stand an argument.”

Distinguished Company

Daniel Webster
Many observers believe that Daniel Webster’s oration in a debate over tariffs in 1830 was the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress. Maybe his stern New England stare helped, too
New England has been called “the conscience of America” because of its history of great orators (Daniel Webster), emancipationists (Frederick Douglass), and statesmen (father and son presidents named Adams). But it is a region full of complexities and contrasts. Massachusetts thinks of itself as the place where America began, but its Plymouth Colony was founded long after St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia. Rhode Island is steeped in tolerance, its founder, Roger Williams, having been banished by doctrinaire Massachusetts Puritans in 1636 for flouting their religious orthodoxy. Yet Rhode Island investors financed the Triangle slave trade (more on that in Wild Words at the end of this blog). New England’s long, snowy winters and gray, muddy springtimes may cast a pall over its people – making the reticent even more dour – but no other region on earth can match the fire of its fall hillsides.

New England
Beautiful scenes such as this get old after four or five months of New England winter
Much of New England is still pastoral. A few of its cities harbor some of the nation’s most dreadful slums, yet its scenic valleys and small towns come as close as anyplace else to being “America as it used to be.” It is the home of that Puritan strictness and the vigorous Protestant work ethic, but also Irish and Portuguese and French Canadian joie de vivre. Indeed, there are 600,000 or so more New Englanders of Irish than British descent, so it’s hard to figure where the fabled stoicism comes from. Hard, that is, until a rain-sotted Nor’easter comes howling southward out of Atlantic Canada, or an ice storm from the other direction sweeps over you. Shivering under your slicker, you wouldn’t feel much like talking, either.

Why bother, anyway, if you believe the late American journalist and author John Gunther. He once wrote that New Englanders just “love to be agin’ things.” Agin’ as in “against.”

Quaint and Quirky

But heritage tourists, in particular, go to New England anyway, seeking what’s lacking at home: genuine and abundant history, quirky local color, and plain dress, architecture, and speech. Ask a New Englander if he’s lived there all his life, and he’s likely to answer . . . . “Nope. Not yet.”

Although the region is condensed, it’s a chore to explore. Its cities were built for walking and carriage rides, not the modern automobile. Alien labyrinths in a cornfield are more drivable. Almost all of northern New England’s superhighways, and most of the state roads, too, run north and south, connecting busy Boston with Canada. You can get up and down Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine with alacrity, but it can take forever to go from one of those states to the other.

Bustling Boston is New England’s hub, especially when it comes to sports. Its Red Sox (baseball), Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have regionwide support. And football’s New England Patriots play just outside of town
Resentment by rural and small-town people of the resources lavished on big cities is endemic nationwide, but it’s especially strong in New England. In Massachusetts, for instance, you still hear occasional, fanciful murmurs of another Shays’ Rebellion. In 1787, a former Revolutionary War officer, Daniel Shays, led an assault on the federal arsenal at Springfield in an uprising against high taxes and declining farm prices. His outcry was directed against state courts and tax collectors; today, the dissatisfaction is with Boston, which, it is asserted, has drained an unfair proportion of the state’s money, water, and brainpower. And who can argue with that last point, since there are something like 67 different colleges in the metro Boston area?

Red Sox Nation

Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth, perhaps baseball’s greatest player ever, began his career as a pitcher for the Red Sox. But in a trade that will live in New England infamy, the team’s owner sold him to the accursed Yankees, where he became a legend as a home-run hitter
But anti-Boston sentiments stop when it comes to sports, where passion for “Beantown’s” teams runs as deep as the region’s stubborn streak. The baseball Red Sox, or “Sawks,” as they’re called regionally, have a cultlike following from Connecticut’s capital, Hartford, all the way into Canada’s maritime provinces. I single out Hartford because there are a few misguided New York Yankee fans southwest of there, along the New York border. They must endure the same evil eye that Puritan preachers cast upon the men and women who were branded as “witches” in late 17th-Century Massachusetts and subsequently hanged. And one man was crushed with large stones. Ask a Sawks fanatic, and he – or she – will tell you such treatment is too merciful for a Yankee fan.

Once again so you’re clear: Yankees in New England and Yankee fans in New England are not one in the same.

This statue of a Revolutionary War “minuteman” patriot stands at the center of Battle Green Square in Lexington, Massachusetts. A minuteman was a militia member who would join the fight at a moment's notice
Yet, ironically, New Englanders themselves are often called “Yankees.” The name came to be associated with hardworking, resourceful people who were stingy with their money. Their ingenuity in the face of hardship came to be called “Yankee ingenuity.” These northeasterners had to be clever, because it was tough to wring a living out of the stony terrain or the sea. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, the British general James Wolfe mocked native New Englanders, even the loyalists in his army, as “Yankee rabble.” But the rabble were roused. They co-opted the term and applied it to a favorite Revolutionary War song: "Yankee Doodle."

(A brief aside here: In the song, Yankee Doodle goes to town, riding on a pony. Then, of all things, he sticks a feather in his hat “and calls it macaroni.”


We know that a lot of Italians arrived in Boston a century later, cooking pasta, but there weren’t many around in the 18th Century. Turns out that back then, “macaroni” was a word for fancy Italian clothes. By sticking a feather in his cap, our Yankee Doodle fellow was making a fashion statement.)

One day, and for more than 40 years, a fife version of "Yankee Doodle" would be the Voice of America’s theme song.

Smokestack Cities

Here’s a big mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that thrived for a time before closing
Industrialization in mills along the falls of the region’s plentiful rivers, and immigration – those Irish, along with thousands of East Europeans who came to work there and in cities – drastically changed Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in particular. The former became one of America’s most urbanized places. Almost half of Massachusetts’ citizens live in the Boston area. Lowell and Lawrence became teeming cities of bells:
This is the bell tower on the Boott Cotton Mill No. 6 in Lowell. The looms are quiet below, but the National Park Service has turned the mill into a monument to the Industrial Revolution

not church bells, but those in the belfries of giant mill complexes, which pealed from 4:30 a.m. until evening to signal shift changes and mealtimes. Thousands of people, including young women called “Lowell girls,” aged 14 to 30, left the farms for the mills’ appealing $3.25-a-week wage. But Lowell and Lawrence and other mill towns deteriorated precipitously after World War II as mill owners succumbed to the blandishments of southern promoters who dangled nonunion labor, inexpensive land, ice-free rivers, and tax incentives.

So by 1980, Massachusetts – and other New England places built on the four post-colonial pillars of textiles, paper, boots and shoes, and fishing – were in dire straits.

But along came the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the mid-1980s, when a sudden and simultaneous explosion of the computer and high-tech defense industries and Wall Street-type financial services ignited a boom that drove up employment and tax revenues. Housing prices doubled in many locations.

Then, just as fast in 1988, came a bust. Desktop and personal computers, developed on the West Coast, rendered New England-made mini-computers almost instantly obsolete; the Defense Department began closing bases; and dozens of banks, including the fanatically expanding Bank of New England, simply collapsed.

History and Ecology

Rose Island Lighthouse
Rose Island Lighthouse, off Newport, Rhode Island, is more properly called a light station, since it had a keeper (and family). Visitors can now stay in the keeper’s old bedroom

Since then, the region has crawled back to life on the shoulders of tourism, biotechnology, higher education, and health services. New England leads the nation in “environmental tourism.” Guests at the Rose Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, for instance, get quite an ecology lesson. The light station is now a museum and travelers’ hostel where electricity use is strictly monitored, showers are short and chilly, and every guest joins in the daily composting and beach clean-up. “It’s a mind-altering experience without the drugs,” the lighthouse foundation’s executive director told Carol and me when we visited.

Block Island
Block Island, Rhode Island, is a time warp to slower, frillier days
And there’s another Rhode Island island worth noting, if you’ll forgive all those “islands” back to back. (Ironically, Rhode Island itself is not one. It’s a weensy wedge of a state stuck between Connecticut and Massachusetts.) On Block Island, about 25 kilometers out into the Atlantic Ocean, visitors can step back into the Victorian Age at hotels that date to the 1880s, wander marshlands, stroll past freshwater ponds, and soak up history that recalls the days of pirates and smugglers as far back as our Revolutionary War. The Nature Conservancy has designated Block Island “one of the last great places in the Western Hemisphere.” And as one whose house is Victorian in décor, and who sometimes pines for the civilized pace of that era, I’d have to agree.

In the fall, New England bed-and-breakfast inns are crammed with “leaf peepers,” come to see the autumn glory
Massachusetts can hardly fend off the tourists who come to see its Revolutionary War landmarks; the sandy shores of the Cape Cod peninsula and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard islands; quaint homes and villages along the Mohawk Trail; and an entire Black Heritage Trail in Boston.

Rhode Island – “Little Rhody” – is smaller than many American cities. Since it was such a haven for people of religions who felt persecuted elsewhere, Italians, Portuguese, French Huguenots, southern blacks, and Jews of many nations settled the tiny colony. The young nation’s most industrialized state early on, it became predominantly ethnic, Catholic, and Democratic in composition.

In the Manner Born

Cornelius Vanderbilt's dining room
This is the sumptuous dining room of Cornelius Vanderbilt's summer-home dining room in Newport. It was patterned after the Salon of Hercules at Versailles in France
In the 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Rich Boy, a character remarks that “the rich are different from you and me.” Yes, observed novelist Ernest Hemingway years later. “They have more money.” And a good place to see what money can buy is the genteel Rhode Island city of Newport, which boasts one of the greatest concentrations of magnificent homes in the world. In the 1880s and ’90s, wealthy industrialists from New York and Boston and Philadelphia began building “summer cottages” there. Cottages, as in ornate and gargantuan mansions. Most famous of all was The Breakers, built in the style of an Italian palace by Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Newport, but not the rest of Little Rhody, endured New England’s industrial booms and busts quite well. (I doubt that’s true in today’s economic downturn, where much of the evaporated wealth emanated from paper deals rather than mills or fishing fleets or assembly lines.)

Land of Prosperity

The ornate, marble Connecticut capitol in Hartford, with its glittering gold-leaf dome, opened in 1879. It overlooks a 17-hectare park
Connecticut, which lies west of Rhode Island, south of Massachusetts, north of Long Island Sound, and east of New York State (remember those holdout New York Yankee fans), began as a string of tiny, independent Puritan colonies, including New Haven and New London. But its most entrenched settlers were squatters who had no legitimate business moving into the Connecticut River Valley. In 1639, they brazenly wrote a document called the “Fundamental Orders” setting up a government. It can be viewed as the oldest autonomous, self-governed entity in the world. That’s why many Connecticut license plates bear the motto “The Constitution State,” referring to those orders, not the nation’s founding document penned a couple of colonies to the south in Philadelphia.

Connecticut River Valley
The narrow Connecticut River Valley forms one of the state’s few richly fertile areas
After the Revolution, Connecticut kept its colonial charter, simply crossing out the name of the king. Because it had no deepwater ports or large cities until well into the 19th Century, it developed America’s first large-scale mercantile elite. In other words, a middle class. The wealthy who could not quite afford a Newport cottage built lovely estates along the sound or Connecticut River, leaving the rest of the stony state to the same sort of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization dramatics that beset its neighbors.

In many ways Connecticut has been an American microcosm. The first great Indian wars were fought there. It was in Bridgeport that the nation’s first sewing machine and gramophones were produced, and P.T. Barnum organized his “Greatest Show on Earth” circus and sideshow there during its heyday. Our first agricultural frontier, stretching westward as far as Ohio, was part of Connecticut’s “western reserve.” (My hometown of Cleveland sprouted on land owned by the Connecticut Land Co.) Connecticut never latched onto a memorable symbol like the patriotic “Minuteman” of Massachusetts or the lobster of Maine. But it has become a day-trippers’ paradise, full of quaint inns, out-of-the-way museums, symphony orchestras in six of its cities, and plenty of boating opportunities on Long Island Sound.


This enchanting photograph of the Stonington, Connecticut, Harbor was snapped in 1940
Not typical, though, are Connecticut’s wealth and high education levels. The “Nutmeg State” – I’ll explain the nickname in a moment – is routinely at or near the top in both, and in the price of the average home as well. That’s because many of the denizens of New York City and Boston’s executive suites live and play their polo there.

Connecticut got its nutmeg soubriquet not necessarily because of the nutmeg spice, a precious cargo the state’s sailors used to bring home from trade journeys to Asia. Connecticut Yankees have an especially shrewd reputation in business – so shrewd that it was said they could sell wooden -- meaning phony -- nutmegs to strangers.

There is no such a place as MassConn Island. But the three southern New England states do have a denser, more ethnically diverse, faster-paced character than the three charming, rural states to the north. I’ll give you their story, and my impressions, when we visit “New VerMaine” next time.

None for All

Given the proximity of each of New England’s six states to the others, it’s surprising that the place has so few regional organizations, save in esoteric fields like fly fishing and quilting. Idealists keep pressing for concerted promotion of the Northeast’s wonders, and for economic partnerships in search of new business, no matter which New England state gets the prize. Instead, each state tends to tell its own historic story, extol its own charms, and lay out its own case why it, above the others, offers the most authentic New England experience.

New England isn’t paradise, but it has its allurements, including sunsets like this one over Nantucket Island
“We aren’t Brigadoon [a lost and enchanted Scottish village],” Yankee magazine managing editor Tim Clark told me many years ago. “And we’re not Disneyland, either, although occasionally one worries that we fight so hard to preserve what New England is all about that there’s a danger of its becoming a kind of artificial, under-a-glass-jar exhibit.”


A Chill in the Air

Changing gears: Last time, I told you that President Barack Obama was quite a “city fella.” This week he showed that he’s a hardy one, too.

These are forms of snowflakes, the most dreaded sight in Washington, D.C.
“My children’s school was canceled today,” the president said on Wednesday. “Because of what? Some ice? . . . We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town.” Meantime, at his daughters’ former school in Chicago, the headmaster reported, “I’ve been here six years, and we haven’t closed [schools] yet.”

The weather forecast for Chicago on Friday, the day this is posted: High -8° Celsius. Low -10°. No snow, but just wait! So far, it has been the 10th-snowiest winter on record there. Cold warriors in Chicago. Wimps in Washington.


Which County ’Tis of Thee?

Marian Anderson
Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini said Marian Anderson had a voice heard “once in a hundred years"
If you happened to hear this year’s inaugural concert on the National Mall, and also to catch the swearing-in of President Obama the following day, you heard three different renditions of the patriotic song, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” One was just a snippet, seen on giant screens along the Mall, by acclaimed contralto Marian Anderson, from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson, who was black, was scheduled to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the auditorium, refused to allow her to perform before a racially mixed audience. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing on Easter Sunday on the Mall. She did so, spellbindingly, before an estimated 75,000 people.

This year, young performers Josh Grobin and Heather Headley sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the inaugural concert. Then Aretha Franklin, who’s known as “The Queen of Soul,” sang the tune – whose actual title is “America” but is better known by its first line – just before Obama took the oath of office.

Listening to all three performances, I realized that many, many Americans – myself included from time to time – forget (or do not know) that the musical score of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” is that of the longer-standing, and more famous, national anthem of Britain: “God Save the King.” (Or “Queen,” depending upon who’s on the throne.) I was curious how that song morphed into one about our “sweet land of liberty” across the pond, since that liberty was won at the hands of His Majesty’s government in London.

In 1832, Samuel Francis Smith was a theological student in Massachusetts when a friend asked him to write lyrics to some music the friend had found in a German school songbook. Though Smith could not read German, he could tell that it was some sort of stirring, patriotic tune. Even though “God Save the King” had already been adapted to other “God-saving” purposes in the young United States – “God Save the President,” for instance – Smith apparently never made the connection to the British anthem.

Samuel Francis Smith
Samuel Francis Smith was cheered everywhere he went for writing the words to “America.” Trading even stopped on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange when he visited so that traders could give him a standing ovation
“I instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune,” he later explained. “Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn ‘America’ as it is now known every­where. The whole hymn stands to­day as it stood on the bit of waste paper.” Little did he know when he wrote of the “land where my fathers died” that many of them died in rebellion against the nation whose music would accompany his words. (Click on this link to read the lyrics, and hear the tune, of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”)

Later in 1832, the new song was first performed at an Independence Day rally – no doubt doubling the indignity for the Brits, since it was they from whom our independence was won.

It would be 99 more years before the United States got our own official anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the meantime, “My Country ’Tis of Thee” served as the informal anthem on many occasions.

As beautiful and popular as it is, and as inspiring as are Smith’s lyrics, his song never stood a chance of becoming the official anthem. Can you imagine the band striking up “God Save the Queen,” followed by “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at a big British- American sporting event?


(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!)

Alacrity. Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.

Codgers and Geezers. Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.

Dour. Brooding or glum. One with a dour disposition isn’t enjoying life at the moment. By the way, the word is pronounced “DOO-er,” not “DOW-er,” for reasons that escape me.

Endemic. Present at all times in a country or people. Cheerfulness, for instance, seems to be endemic in the Caribbean Islands. The word also has a medical meaning, referring to the incidence of disease in a population.

Gargantuan. Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: “Godzilla Meets Gargantua.”

Hardscrabble. This word almost defines itself. It’s an adjective referring to a place that’s difficult to work or make money from. And thus, those stuck there have a hardscrabble existence as well.

Soubriquet. A familiar, rather than formal, name, often applied to a person. Thus, parents will call their son James “Jim,” and Jim often becomes “Jimmy.” It’s pronounced SOO’-bri-kay, after the French.

Snippet. A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.

Triangle Trade. Trade among three distant regions, notably this ungodly exchange of slaves from the late 17th to early 19th centuries: Caribbean merchants would ship sugar, tobacco, and cotton to mills in New England or Europe. Those owners would ship rum, manufactured goods, and textiles to Africa. And “slavers” would send captured tribesmen as human cargo to the New World.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Chicago, Chicago – Obamanin’ Town

A week or so before the change of U.S. administrations, I happened to see a brief television interview with a man – a professed Democrat – in what looked like a feed store in the southern state of Arkansas. He said he had voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain rather than Democrat Barack Obama. It wasn’t any of Obama’s policy proposals that bothered him, he said. And certainly not the man’s race. Rather, it was because “he’s a city fella. He don’t understand people like me.”

This is an occasional complaint about our new president, and it has been since Obama made one of the few missteps of his campaign. Badly trailing Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, Obama told some well-heeled contributors at a private function in San Francisco that rural folks back east in that industrial state were "bitter" over lost jobs and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them."

There went any chance that Obama would win over Pennsylvania gun owners, and Clinton trounced Obama in that primary. Though he later captured the state in the general election, rural white males like our Arkansan would be his weakest demographic.

Some say Barack Obama’s “city sophistication” charmed young voters in particular and helped get him elected

Barack Obama is a city fella, all right, notwithstanding his roots in rural Kansas and youthful time spent in polyglot Hawaii and Indonesia. He is, and says he will always be, a man of Chicago, his adopted hometown, where the pace is a touch faster than in Kansas wheat country or laid-back Hawaii. Or the Arkansas Ozarks, for that matter.

Thus Obama is the latest president in a long line who seem to personify the places from which they came.

Salt of the Earth

Harry Truman, once a Missouri hat salesman, and Gerald Ford, a former star football player at the University of Michigan, were good-natured, plain-speaking Midwesterners of the sort who’d lend you, if not literally the shirts off their backs, at least a chainsaw if you needed one. Nobody called them elitists.

Talk about smug! Look at the aristocratic pose by Franklin Roosevelt, in the bowler, even before he was president
Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were witty, inspirational patricians, at ease on yachts and in dinner-party circles. George H. W. Bush, too.

Though the elder President Bush was a self-made, West Texas oil millionaire, his Northeast rearing and accent, Yale education, summer home in Maine, and New York years as United Nations ambassador reinforced an aristocratic mien.

This is the part of the country that has produced three of the past eight presidents
Bush’s son, George W., and Lyndon Johnson years earlier, were archetypal Texans. Johnson, one of U.S. history’s shrewdest deal-makers while in Congress, was a bear of a man with big ears, a good heart, a tall hat, cowboy boots, and a drawl straight out of the Hill Country. Bush the Younger quickly displayed a line-in-the-sand, duel-at-high-noon, man-of-few-words determination of a Texan who knows his way around horses, oil, long guns, and money. Athletes, too; Bush owned a major-league baseball team for a time. Both those who liked Bush and Johnson and those who loathed them agreed they could be Texas stubborn, too.

And this area has given us two recent presidents. Neither this nor the dry Texas prairie, above, is exactly “Obama Country”
Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were divergent kinds of Californians. Not mellow surfer dudes or tuned-out hippies or migrant pickers, for sure. But in the mold of many Californians, each was a Midwest transplant who came looking for a new start and better opportunities. Modest of means himself, Nixon rode the wind of arch-conservative, Communist-fearing, “new money” prosperity in booming Southern California. And Reagan, with ever so much more charm and oozing the confidence of the New West, walked onto the big screen, then into our living rooms on TV, and finally into the White House.

None of these men, though – not even the erudite Roosevelt – was that true city fella from down the block like Barack Obama.

The Pride of Chi-Town

Barack Obama is a big-city guy. THIS big, brawny city: Chicago
Our 44th president is Chicago, if not in breeding then in style and nimble swagger and survival skills. In particular, South Side Chicago – the poorer side and the part of town where most residents are black.

Much has been written of Barack Obama’s multiracial heritage and the exotic places of his past. But to get a fix on the man, you have to know Chicago. As Ronald Reagan was California and George W. Bush was Texas and you could easily picture Harry Truman back in that haberdashery in Missouri, Obama is Chicago.

There’s “Chicago big” and “Chicago tall” as well. Sears Tower is 442 meters tall – 527 meters if you count the antennas

Chicago, not Illinois. Just as New York City is a beehive of bigness in a fairly bucolic state, Chicago is the burly king of the American heartland. Illinois is corn country.

Poet Carl Sandberg called Chicago “The City of Big Shoulders”:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling.

Plenty Big Place

Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s here in Des Plaines, a Chicago suburb, in 1955. He made $366 the first day. This is a recent photo, but the old prices are still posted, just for fun
Still considered by most Americans, including me, to be the nation’s “Second City” even though sprawling Los Angeles has taken its place in size, Chicago is home to America’s tallest building (Sears Tower), the world’s largest private building (the Merchandise Mart, with 36 hectares of floor space), and civilization’s largest free library. Chicago spawned roller skates, the Ferris wheel, zippers, pinball machines, spray paint, the first skyscraper, gangsters like Al Capone, and McDonald’s golden arches. Right in downtown Chicago, you’ll find the only river in the world that was trained to run backward; in 1900, engineers, using a system of locks, turned the flow of the Chicago River around, preferring to ship the city’s sewage west- and southward to St. Louis, rather than into Lake Michigan along Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” of high buildings, fine shops, and resplendent parks.

I think I’ve shown this to you before, and it’s no less embarrassing the second time!
Though more than a century has passed since ten thousand visitors a day came to watch brawny men with sledgehammers deliver the coup de grace to bellowing hogs and steers at the Union Stock Yards, this boisterous, boastful, teeming city of a hundred discrete neighborhoods is still the alpha dog of the Prairie. And it well earns its “Windy City” nickname. Witness (in the photograph to the left) that fellow in red, whose umbrella is fighting a losing battle against gusts off Lake Michigan. That is I in the pitifully inadequate plastic poncho. Chicago’s wind does not just whip or whistle or mournfully howl. It fairly screams off the lake and the plains.

Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz created the “Agora” sculpture in Chicago’s Grant Park, along the lakefront. Chicago has the largest Polish population outside Poland
Yet Chicagoans will tell you that their city is “so livable.” And it is, with 34 world-class museums, America’s best pizza – I’ve tried ‘em all* – 25 kilometers of bathing beaches, almost twice that expanse of bicycle paths, and a veritable outdoor sculptural arcade of bronze rabbits, horses, elephants, surreal human figures, and all manner of other indescribable forms. The Chicagoans I know don’t even notice, any more, Alexander Calder’s 16-meter-tall, steel “flamingo” in the plaza of three downtown federal buildings; Claes Oldenburg’s 30-meter-tall column in the shape of a baseball bat; or Pablo Picasso’s untitled steel creature in the Daley Center plaza.

(*About that pizza: I haven’t really tasted them all. Yet.)

Something for Everyone

Buckingham Fountain, and its spray, are beautifully illuminated at night
While button-popping boastful of its modern art, Chicago also preserves and protects its old treasures. Since 1927, for instance, the city has unofficially marked the beginning and end of summer with both a party and a huge volunteer clean-up of the Clarence Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Modeled after a fountain in Versailles, it has three basins carved from pink marble, and four massive pairs of bronze sea horses.

Cynics and those who were suspicious of the company Barack Obama was keeping as a South Side community organizer have long gloated over the years when Chicago led the nation in judges and council members on the take, votes by dead people, numbers of illegal speakeasies, deaths by gangland machine gun, and excessive-force complaints against its police. The “rackets” – the extortion of citizens and small businesses for a percentage of their earnings – were once a Chicago way of life. The end of the federal prohibition on alcohol, crackdowns by local and federal gangbusters, and the imprisonment or violent demise of prominent mobsters broke the Syndicates, though corruption seems to periodically sprout new tendrils.

Certainties: Death. Taxes.
Cubs Miss the World Series

This is where the Chicago Cubs’ fortunes, already dim, took a turn for the worse. Yet every sports fan who visits Chicago in the summertime seems to want to go see them at the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field
Chicagoans still worry about random criminal acts, but they more often grumble about the bitter blizzards, interminable construction and high tolls on the ribbons of freeways, and the inadequacies of the local professional sports teams. Most especially the “lovable losers” from the North Side: the Chicago Cubs, who have not won the championship of baseball for 101 years (and counting, say those who mock them). You might think recent ineptitude on the field was to blame. But “Cubbie’” fans ascribe their recent misfortune to the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” dating to 1945, when the owner of the downtown Billy Goat Tavern was asked to remove himself and his goat from a Cubs’ game because the animal smelled bad. Since then, just the ball team has stunk.

(Though President Obama is an avid sports fan, these travails may bore him. He roots for – indeed often wears the insignia cap of – the grittier White Sox, who play, usually more skillfully, on the South Side.)

There’s not much else to complain about in Chicago. There are parks everywhere, many connected by a belt line of boulevards. It’s little wonder that Chicago’s motto is Urbs in Horto: “City in a Garden.” (Urbs : where “urban” comes from.)

Melting Pot on Lake Michigan

Lots of people from around the world will have an easy time ordering at this Chicago restaurant. I see the German and Polish, but can you identify the third language for me, and maybe translate?
With the recent heavy in-migration of Koreans, South Asians, and Latinos, Chicago’s tightly bunched European enclaves have been diluted but made more interesting.

Where cities like San Francisco and New York have notable Chinatowns, Chicago has a “Little Seoul” and a Mexican chamber of commerce.

Not to worry: You’ll have no trouble finding a Polish church (or sausage), a German beerhouse, or a Swedish bakery in town.

These scenes from early Chicago span more than a century, from 1729 to 1857

Fittingly in a city of such diversity – and even more appropriate for the place that gave the nation its first African-American chief executive – the “Father of Chicago” was a black man: fur trader Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who in 1799 built a home near the present site of the beautiful Wrigley Building at the mouth of the Chicago River. He established a trading post that served English, French, and Indians alike and brokered peace among neighboring Great Lakes tribes.

This statue of Louis Armstrong stands far from Chicago,in New Orleans, where the great jazzman made his mark. But he made much of his music, and his living, later in Chicago
Chicago was the principal destination of the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the early 1900s, when the mechanization of cotton cultivation pushed more than six million African Americans off the farm and toward the industrial North. Chicago would spawn musical legends like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington; welcome King Oliver and Louis Armstrong from New Orleans; and produce another black man – Dr. Daniel Hale Williams – who performed the first successful surgery on the human heart. Barack Obama, a student of American history, knows of them all, and he certainly knows the nation’s most popular television personality, Oprah Winfrey, who’s Chicago-based as well.

A Catalog of Achievements

Here’s a page from an old Sears Catalog. You could order thousands and thousands of things from these catalogs – even a new house!
A rail line from the east and a canal heading westward sparked Chicago’s tumultuous growth in population, manufacturing, and food processing. By 1900 a former traveling salesman, Aaron Montgomery Ward, and a watch merchant, Richard Warren Sears, would separately bring the goods of Chicago to country stores, farmhouses, and city and village homes nationwide through direct sales from the Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck catalogs. Many frontier homes were built of prefabricated materials ordered from those catalogs and shipped from Chicago.

Chicago’s spectacular greensward along the lake, offset by a long row of skyscrapers, grew above one of the most incredible landfill projects in history. Rubble from the terrible Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was tossed wholesale into Lake Michigan, so that Michigan Avenue no longer bordered the lake at all. What resulted was a stunning – and zealously protected – urban playground that, today, annually draws more than 65 million picnickers, bathers, skateboarders, chess players, fireworks watchers, and nocturnal smelt fishermen.

Here’s a crafty smelt fisherman at work with his net, way back in 1923
That’s right: smelt fishermen. (Just the word “smelt” makes me smile.) The Web site I Fish Illinois calls the smallish Atlantic smelt a “naturalized exotic,” transported from the East Coast and let loose in about 1912. The idea was to offset the dwindling supply of lake salmon, and it worked. There are now millions of smelt, which make tasty meals for the salmon, sturgeon, and pike. To this day, from late March to the end of April, spawning smelt are easy pickings for Chicago’s net fishers, cats, and raccoons. Another online site, for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (greater Chicago), says of smelt, “The flesh is lean and sweet. The gourmet prefers the whole smelt rolled in flour or cracker crumbs and fried in deep fat. He eats head, tail, bones and all.”

Not me, brother. I savor my smelt filleted, or not at all.

How’s that for a meandering, from Barack Obama to Chicago to ichthyology? We return you now to the City of Big Shoulders:

Prairie Optimism

Chicago has wonderful monuments, parks, and sculptures. But perhaps its favorite landmark is the old Chicago Water Tower, which made it through the terrible Great Chicago Fire
Following the Great Fire, a Gothic stone water tower on North Michigan Avenue survived to become a symbol of the city’s rebirth.

Chicago even developed a stirring motto: “I Will,” as it erected new libraries, hotels, homes, and statues in a spectacular rebirth.

“I Will,” back then. Obama’s “Yes We Can,” today.

Architects flocked like smelt to the booming new town on the prairie. (OK, enough with the smelt, which don’t “flock,” anyway.)

Chicago architects made the modern skyscraper possible, and then the city went somewhat wild erecting them. Here’s a recent view from Lake Michigan
Daniel Burnham – who would soon command the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 – and his partner, John Wellborn Root, devised the idea of “floating” a high-rise building on a steel-and-concrete pier sunk in the city’s spongy soil. At sixteen stories, their 1891 Monadnock Building became the world’s tallest office building and is still the tallest wallbearing structure; walls two meters thick support the enormous weight. William Le Baron Jenney improved the design of such buildings with an internal iron skeleton rather than ponderous external walls. Thus he is regarded as the “father of the skyscraper.” Others, notably Louis Henri Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, developed an entire “Chicago School” of architects, building far more practical structures than the ornately detailed centers of commerce that had been the fashion. “Form,” Sullivan preached, “follows function.”

You get two ideas from this photograph, taken about 1943: Chicago was a booming rail center. And it gets mighty cold!
Burnham’s great expo ignited a cultural explosion, including the founding of the Chicago Symphony and the city’s first opera company. Writers like Eugene Field and our Big Shoulders guy, Carl Sandburg, flourished. World War I, Prohibition, and the Great Depression brought disquieting cycles of prosperity, immigration, and crime. So city officials threw another party – another world’s fair – in 1933 that was so popular, they extended it a full year. By World War II, Chicago was a railroad vortex – the Pullman sleeping car was developed there – and the locus of the agricultural Midwest’s “breadbasket to the world.”

Texture: Tough

It was also the center of the nation’s anarchist movement, bootlegging, and, as I’ve noted, the art of political corruption. Chicagoans took it all in stride, perhaps because every corner in every neighborhood traditionally had one or more taverns on it, serving as the community’s six-day-a-week social center. The church parish hall filled the role on Sundays. Two Mayor Daleys – Richard J. and his son Richard M., the longstanding and current mayor, respectively – considered them eyesores, and their numbers began to diminish. Neighborhood gentrification brought trendy art galleries, boutiques, jewelry shops, tapas bars, and cozy restaurants that make Chicago so – what’s that word again? – livable today.

Here’s an early shot of the “El” line on Chicago’s “Loop.” At first the train seems like it’s at ground level. But take a closer look
In Chicago, at least downtown, one is rarely “out of the Loop,” the name for the elevated railroad line that has encircled the commercial center since 1893. In fact, it’s quite impossible to ignore the “El” when trains rattle past your bedroom window. For sure Barack Obama, the son of Chicago, will never be out of the loop, at least for four years.

Chicago Cool

Chicago’s two daily newspapers and a lively free paper called Reader devote long sections to “Chicagoland’s” vibrant club scene. Nightspots in town carry intriguing names like Elbo Room, Set ’Em Up Joe, Empty Bottle, Hoghead McDunna’s, and the Bourgeois Pig. And those are just the rock bars. Folk, country, blues, gospel, jazz, and even Korean percussion, flamenco guitar, Greek music, and players of instruments called the klezmer and cimbalom have regular followings.

No wonder Barack Obama is “cool.”

This is the classic façade of the Carson Pirie Scott department store downtown. It and Marshall Field’s were Chicago institutions for more than a century. The former is still going strong. The latter was absorbed by Macy’s in 2005
And Michelle Obama – a South Side Chicago native – is, too. According to Robin Givhan, the often-caustic fashion editor of the Washington Post, “Chicago has never been about fashion. Until now.” Not a slinky or outlandish runway-model sort of fashion, but a solid, Midwest “conservative chic” made popular by the sunny woman who is now the nation’s first lady. “She smoothly shifts from designer dresses priced at more than $1,000 to mass market brands,” Givhan writes. “She shops at Chicago’s exclusive North Rush Street, and she browses the Internet.” Not since the glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s has a first lady so captured the fancy of the stylish set.

When Barack Obama dons his White Sox cap, he makes a Chicago statement as well. He is a “man of the people,” certainly of “city fellas” and gals. In his last days in town, he did not visit with his old colleagues at the University of Chicago School of Law, where he taught. He hung with the barbers, short-order cooks, and pickup-game basketball players of his organizing days.

He also vowed to bring the family back to Chicago “every six weeks or so.” The demands of national and world events may put a crimp in that plan. But the Obamas have no villa in Hawaii; no brush-covered, Bush-style ranch; no Kennedyesque compound on a cape. Just their last family home in leafy Hyde Park.

"Chicago will always be home," Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago lawyer and longstanding friend who is now senior adviser to the new president in Washington, said of Obama. "The White House will be a home away from home.”

Think about that: Perhaps the most famous residence on earth will be nice, flattering, and comfortable, but a second home to their house in Chicago for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama.

And Michelle’s husband, Barack, that city fella.


Chicago Tunes

Here’s an interesting view of “that toddlin’ town”: apartment buildings along the Chicago River that the locals call the “Corncobs.” Toddling is a funny term for such a bodacious, strutting city, since it means walking hesitantly with short, tottering steps
If you were wondering about the “Obamanin’ Town” reference in the headline to this post,” it’s a riff on Fred Fisher’s 1922 song “Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town,” later famously sung by Frank Sinatra. Although Sinatra is most often associated with the gambling resorts of Las Vegas, where he was a superstar headliner, he must have liked the Illinois city by the lake, since just about every night he also sang, “My kind of town, Chicago is.”


(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!)

Bootlegging. Making or selling illegal whiskey. The name is said to derive from an early practice of hiding a contraband bottle in one’s boots. They must have been bigger boots than we wear today.

Ichthyology. The study of fishes. Ichthys is Greek for “fish.”

Ilk. Of a kind or sort. A person of a certain ilk shares the qualities – or foibles – of others of that same ilk. Picky pedants cite a more arcane meaning having to do with baronial estate names, but the informal if imprecise definition above is in vogue today.

Mien. One’s bearing – how you carry yourself. Thus we sometimes read about a person’s low mien (not a Chinese delicacy) or regal mien.

Speakeasy. This was an establishment, carefully guarded by a suspicious doorman, that served alcoholic drinks during the Prohibition period from 1923 to 1933, when such sales were banned. But the term goes back at least 30 years or more before that. Pirate hideouts carried the name, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman who sold liquor without a license is said to have advised her customers to “speak easy” if they wanted to buy some.

Well-heeled. Wealthy. People of means, of course, can afford fine footwear. Fine fighting cocks were also said to be well-heeled with deadly spurs.

Please leave a comment.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pretty as a Picture . . . Postcard

I love to travel across America . . . by postcard!

When I cannot actually get somewhere – or even if I do – I look for a beautiful picture postcard of the place. Not one of those overly bright and blue-sky-perfect cards made from cheap color slides, either. Even you and I can take better pictures than those. I like a touch of subtlety, a hint of surprise, in my postcard images, if you please.

In other words, I prefer old-fashioned picture postcards with a narrow white border, a grainy texture, and “that certain look” – somewhere between reality and somebody’s idea of art. What that look is, and how it came to be, is a fascinating story with lots of history and a little bit of technology. The history part, I think I can handle. We’ll muddle through the technical part together.

There’s a fancy word for the study and collecting of postcards. Don’t worry, I’m a beer-bottle guy, as you read in my last posting. But I do buy postcards, take a short trip down memory lane while looking at them, and then send them to others to enjoy.

That word for postcard-saving is “deltiology,” from the Greek, meaning a small writing tablet. With or without photos, postcards have always been just that: handy little rectangles of stiff paper on which to dash off a note. Where would the phrases, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here” be without them?

But it’s their flip side with the gauzy-looking photographs that’s maybe a touch out of focus – but pleasingly so – that I want to tell you about.

Tickets to the Good-Old Days

This is art, not a photograph, of the horticultural hall at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. It, and plenty of photos, were made into postcards during and after the fair

Picture postcards are bits of nostalgia, the size of your hand. Flights of fancy, too. I’ve been to Chicago many times, for instance, but never to the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and its “White City” that inspired a nationwide “City Beautiful” movement. But I can go to that great world’s fair via dreamy old postcards of its gleaming pavilions, inviting lagoons, and strolling visitors in old-fashioned bustle skirts and bowler hats and sailor outfits.

Nor, much as I get around, will I ever likely make it to a place like Picnic Rocks on the Kennebunk River in Maine. But I can study an intriguing photo of it, as long and hard as I want to, on an old postcard.

This is the scene at Picnic Rock, at least as it appeared in 1900. There’s probably a four-lane highway or something there now!

Vintage picture postcards are paper time machines, showing us how buildings and automobiles, cities and towns, and our people looked two turns of the century ago. You have only to look at an early postcard of the Denver skyline, or downtown Los Angeles, or the Model T Fords parked in front of a small-town saloon in 1912 to appreciate how much we’ve changed, if not progressed. And it’s almost as much fun to see that some of the landscape views in postcards of that period – the waterfall on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan mountain for one – look almost the same today, except for the asphalt over the old dirt roads.

This is what is now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, where senior Executive Branch officials work. When this was taken in 1898, it was the “State, War, and Navy Building”

Lingering over the images, I imagine the slower pace of life, general optimism rather than today’s cynicism, the simplicity and gentility of life these cards depict. (And isn’t it interesting, that connection between the words “image” and “imagine”?) Cities seem so clean, the countryside so unspoiled, the people so prosperous and chipper. How carefree are frolickers on the beach in 1900 – at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, or Atlantic City, New Jersey – in their modest bathing suits that barely reveal an ankle.

Coney Island, 1902. Nary a bare midriff to be found.

First Business, Then Pleasure

Until 1898 in the United States, only the government produced “penny postcards,” costing one cent rather than the two cents you’d pay to mail a letter. No one else was allowed to. The business of “posting” at a “post” office was strictly an official matter.

Art cards and advertising cards, like this plug for one company’s Valentine’s Day line, preceded picture postcards. Note the multiracial host of angels – unusual for the times

But in that year, Congress authorized “private mailing cards,” which could also be sent for just a penny, at the very time that technology allowed incredibly skilled artisans to cover the fronts of these cards with actual photographs, not just woodcut sketches and artistic drawings. Little did Congress know that a stampede for the cards lay dead ahead, in a golden age era in which picture postcards would be sold and sent by the millions. According to the “Postcard & Greeting Card Museum” on the Web site, “The official figures from the U.S. Post Office for [its] fiscal year ending June 30, 1908 cite 677,777,798 postcards mailed. At that time the total population of the United States was only 88,700,000!” That’s about seven postcards sent per man, woman, child, and even newborn in the country.

These pictures of which I speak were black-and-white at first. True color photography was in its infancy and far too expensive to translate to cheap mailing instruments. But evocative black-and-white photographs had been around since the 1860s and the daguerreotype era of the American Civil War, which we treasure today through the studio portraits and battlefield photos of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and their cohorts.

This was a portrait photo President Abraham Lincoln, taken in Mathew Brady’s studio in New York in 1864

In the 1880s Hans Jakob Schmid, a Zurich, Switzerland, printer, founded a company that licensed a process called “photochrom” (without the “e”) that enabled his fellow printers to produce a sort of color print. You’ll see why I say “sort of” in a bit.

This is the rather modest entrance to a mighty business empire: the offices and plant of the Detroit Photographic Company, which produced the lion’s share of quality photochrom postcards

One of the most important photochrom licensees was the Detroit Photographic Company in the U.S. city of the same name. In some years during the picture-postcard boom, Detroit Photographic would produce as many as seven million prints of thousands of views from as many as 40,000 negatives. Some of them were destined for store catalogs, calendars, and advertisements.

On to Something Big

But Detroit Photographic’s “bread and butter” was the production of postcards, which it sold mostly to gift shops and souvenir stands at popular tourist destinations, and to makers of catalogs aimed at what the Library of Congress calls “globe trotters, armchair travelers, educators, and others to preserve in albums or put on display.” Boxes resembling volumes of fancy bound books were available to store one’s photochroms.

Detroit Photogaphic did not just make postcards of city and landscape scenes. It produced this photochrom of a bunch of California poppies

Some were reproductions of works of art, but many were “scenics” of exotic locations to which only the most intrepid Americans would ever go. Detroit Photographic wisely bought the vast collection of images shot by an adventurous explorer and photographer named William Henry Jackson. He had been a government surveyor in the uncharted West, and he took along his camera. This was no easy matter, and not just because of the rugged terrain. Jackson’s cameras were bulky, heavy, and required fragile glass plates that he had to coat with gunk on the spot, out in the wild. Some of his 80,000 images of the American West, including one showing mist and fog caressing Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, became postcard classics.

The mustachioed fellow on the right in this family photo is William Henry Jackson – obviously duded up from his usual rugged outfit that he wore into the wilds

Let me say that again: Working with cumbersome equipment in crude conditions, this one man produced 80 thousand images of the vast American West. He could not hop a flight to Cheyenne, rent a car, drive up paved roads to a comfortable vantage point – stopping at cozy roadhouses, comfy motels, and fast-food joints along the way. Horses were his rental cars. Logging roads were his highways. Bedrolls beneath the junipers were his sleeping quarters. Each photo-shoot site was many days from “civilization.”

Slices of Time

This is one of Jackson’s burro shots. These surefooted animals hauled all sorts of materials up and down the Rocky Mountains

And Detroit Photographic sent him out again. He brought back more images of cowboys, American Indians, and animals, including burros dragging lumber into mining camps, high in the Rockies. Jackson got no credit on any of the picture postcards, but hard-core postcard aficionados knew him and his work well.

Jackson lived to be 99. In his last years, he painted murals in government buildings, including scenes of (you guessed it) the Old West on the walls of the Interior Department Building here in Washington. One of the last surviving Civil War veterans, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River in Virginia.

A Touch of Color

Let me remind you of something. Jackson’s shots – indeed the whole archive from which Detroit Photographic produced pretty postcards – were in black-and-white. It took the miracle of the photochrom process – at least I consider it miraculous – to turn those images into the vivid, color picture postcards I and many others love today.

This is a before (b&W) and after (color) look at the same image of American flag-maker Betsy Ross’s house in Philadelphia

So get out your pencils for the technical lesson on how this was done, at least as I, hardly Mr. Science, understand it. I am guided by, and borrow heavily from, what might be called a “Lithography for Dummies” short course, genially delivered by telephone by Terry Belanger, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Belanger asks us to picture a piece of “shirt cardboard.” Not the kind you’ll find inside a new, folded man’s shirt when you buy it at the store, but a thicker, absorbent cardboard around which commercial laundries used to fold shirts. He then directs us to imagine a big “X” drawn on that cardboard with a wax candle. Next, we wet the cardboard thoroughly. We will quickly note that the water soaks into most of the cardboard but – on the old “oil and water don’t mix” principle – is repelled by the waxy “X.” If we then take a spongy roller, soaked in oily ink, and roll it all over our piece of cardboard, then press a piece of paper against it, a pretty good image of the letter X will appear on the paper. We can repeat this process over and over again to make multiple copies of our X.

Pay attention now. It gets trickier, but more interesting. The same principle applied to making photochromatic postcards using “stone lithography.” (Here we go again with the Greek: lithography from “Lithos,” or stone, and “graphein,” meaning to write. Lithography is writing in stone!) Instead of our shirt cardboard, the folks at Detroit Photographic started with a flat surface made of porous limestone that they coated with a sticky, black, hydrocarbon substance called bitumen, thinned with benzene to make it spreadable. (Imagine the fumes!)

This porous limestone slab is the lithographic stone.

Bitumen is highly light-sensitive. The black goo hardens in direct proportion to the length of time, and intensity, of exposure to light. Next, a black-and-white photographic negative – say one of William Henry Jackson’s big, 20x25-centimeter beauties – was pressed against the gooey stone, and the whole thing taken outside into the daylight. There it all sat for just minutes under a hot summer sun, but sometimes hours on a gloomy winter day.

Throwing Light on the Subject

The daylight “did its thing”: hardening the bitumen underneath the film. Remember, these were negatives; reversed. Dark places on the film – say a tree trunk – would be nearly clear, allowing lots of light to get through to the bitumen. Light places like a bright sky would be dark, so less light would shine through to the concoction on the stone. The stone would cook in the light until the bitumen in the dark spots (that tree trunk) had fully hardened, while the sky and other lighter parts had not fully hardened.

This is a typical black-and-white negative, of an early view of New York’s Bowery neighborhood, from which Detroit Photographic made a photochrom color postcard. Obviously, everything that is really dark is light, and vice versa

The negative was then removed, and the bitumen coating washed in a turpentine solution. This removed all the glop, leaving some bitumen where it had not completely hardened, and all of it where had turned solid. The result was a finished stone, of which Detroit Photographic had thousands, each numbered and stored in racks, all around its production floor.

If the printers had been satisfied to stop at this black-and-white stage, that would have been pretty much it. They could have inked up the stone, run paper across it, and out would have come lovely prints that looked just positive versions of the images in the negatives – with one interesting exception:

They would be backward! If a moose in the photograph were looking off toward the right, it would be looking left on the print. If the entrance to a building were on the right as you faced it in real life, it would be on the left on your page. It took me about 20 minutes to completely figure out why. You don’t have the time. The bottom line is that when it mattered that right was right and left was left, the printers simply flipped the negative when they first put them on the goopy stones. Then the prints came out just as the scene looked through the photographer’s lens.

The big question before us, though, is: How did the printers produce color, when everything including the film was in black-and-white? I take it you’re ready for the advanced class!

Artistry at the Shop

Employees at Detroit Photographic would make six or so different stones. One would be the full, black-inked one that we’ve described. But they would also look carefully at the black-and-white image and single out parts of it that were, for example, likely green in real life. Grass. Leaves, that sort of thing.

I say likely, because some of this was guesswork, since these fellows had almost certainly never laid eyes on the places shown. They were pretty sure, though, that grass was green, the sky blue or grayish blue, deer and dogs brown, and so on. Doors and clothes, advertising signs and the color of people’s eyes? That was educated guesswork, and a chance for a little creativity.

Here’s that Bowery photograph that’s been colorized using the photochrom process. To my eye, the oranges and browns are a bit overdone. But then, that could be a result of the passage of 107 years or so!

Having already made the image on the lithographic stone, the artisans would make several impressions of it on paper, using water-based black ink. Then on six or seven smooth, clean stones, they’d lay those damp impressions, transferring the impressions of the entire scene to each of those stones.

Let’s suppose that in, say, a photograph of Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies, only a tiny piece was yellow. The ball of the sun, we’ll say. Bending over one of the wet stones containing the entire image of Pikes Peak and environs, the printer would apply a dab of oil-based bitumen in that little spot and that spot alone. After the bitumen dried, he’d wash the water-based ink off the stone. Only the dot of oily bitumen where the sun appears in the photo was left. The printers would do the same thing with other parts of the scene, excising all but the sky and a lake, we’ll say, on the blue stone, and so on.

Then it was time to print, using all six or seven stones. They’d coat the “yellow” stone – the one on which only the dot for the sun remained – and run or press paper over it. All that would show on that paper was little dab of yellow. Then the paper was pressed to the red and blue and green stones, etc., with their partial images. Last came the run with full image in black.

Out of Black, a Veritable Peacock

The result was a surprisingly vivid spectrum of color, all in the right places. This was tricky on several fronts, not only making the color as realistic as possible. It was also tough to run the same paper over so many stones, none of which was precisely the same dimension, and produce a clear and unblurred final image. If one stone, say the one inked in red, was a hair out of alignment, the result could be a postcard that looked out of focus. Thus, there many test runs. And clarity or fuzziness would become one barometer to tell quality work from slipshod efforts.

This is the photochrom view of Utah’s Green River Butte, seen in 1898. Imagine the artistry involved in turning this black-and-white image into subtle shades of color, including hues reflected in the river

Since these early photochroms from which postcards were printed were not true to life but were interpretations, they have a look all their own. I happen to love their unnaturally lemon suns, their extra-black stormy skies, and their unusually bright-pink flowers. The effect is not so contrived as to be jarring. Instead, it’s a remarkable achievement, as you may agree when you look at the ones on this page. It’s hard enough to imagine “colorizing” a black-and-white picture by hand in the sort of “paint by number” fashion. It’s quite another to realize that these artisans brought out subtle color differences in complex scenes using a big-old printing press.

Check out the beautiful color of this 1903 photochrom of a Ojibwa Indian named “Arrowmaker.” Remember, this started as a black-and-white photograph

In today’s times of ultra-reality, multi-megabyte photographic fidelity, and high-definition TV, you may find old postcards cheesy and amateurish. But I can assure you that the millions of people who bought and sent them in 1900 and a few years beyond thought they were state of the art.

They Had Their Day

This shot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is one of tens of thousands of photochroms of European scenes, including those taken in places most Americans had never heard of. Postcards made from them were prized by deltiologists

Several developments damaged, but did not entirely kill, the picture-postcard business. Many of the most desirable cards had come from Europe and showed exotic foreign scenes. With the advent of World War I in the 19-teens, that source was greatly diminished. Wartime at home cut into the printers’ workforce and the quality of the cards. And most of all, the telephone replaced the simple postcard as the preferred method of quick communication.

“Real-photo” postcards, the first that were photographic reproductions, not layered and colorized prints of black-and-white photos, came along. But as I said early-on, to me they look like something Cousin Bill would produce with his Kodak, rather than creative works of the printing art.

Give me an old photochrom, especially a smudged, canceled one with a century-old message from Bertha that she’s having wonderful time and wished husband James were there.


Talk about a dreamy scene! This photochrom image depicts a riverboat turning the bend on the swampy Oklawaha River in Florida

Over in the right-hand column this time, instead of the usual gallery of some of Carol M. Highsmith’s current images, Web guru Anne Malinee and I have assembled two related slide shows. The first is a series of photochrom images as captured by the excellent Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. As I’ve explained, it was these and ones like it from which early color postcards were printed. The second is a series of actual postcards that Carol photographed and digitally scanned. You won’t notice a great deal of difference – a little more fuzziness in the postcard group, perhaps, as they were taken from off the rumpled postcard paper rather than film. We thought you’d enjoy a chance to savor some of the wonderful old scenes, as we do.


Images of a Different Sort

One other quick matter this post, and I go there only because it, too, involves impressive old photographs.

During the 1930s, the United States Government, under the auspices of one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” agencies called the Farm Security Administration, sent photographers across the country to document the severe of the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted ammunition for still more New Deal relief efforts. Many of the classic photos of unemployed workers, and especially farm families displaced by drought conditions, were produced by Dorothea Lange, a onetime San Francisco portrait photographer.

This the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo that spellbound the nation during the Great Depression. Her daughter Katherine, mentioned in my post, is the little girl on her mother’s right – our left

Her most famous photo – indeed the shot that became the symbol of those grim times – was taken in 1936 in a California resettlement camp. It showed a woman, Florence Owens Thompson, whom Lange called “Migrant Mother” flanked by two of her young daughters.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange later wrote. “I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. . . I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

I mention this because not long ago, the American cable-news channel CNN found one of the two daughters shown with their mother in the Migrant Mother photograph. Katherine McIntosh, now 77, was 4 at the time. She says the photo was printed in a local newspaper the next day, but the family of eight – she and her mom and six siblings – had moved on. “The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was,” McIntosh told CNN. “People was starving in that camp. There was no food. We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.”

Instead, nearly everyone in America soon knew who they were. In 1998, the image even adorned a 32-cent postage stamp. Thompson had died of cancer and heart ailments 15 years earlier. And the image of her, Katherine, and Katherine’s sister Norma lives on. Original photographs of the “Migrant Mother” image have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at prestigious auction houses.

Thompson and the kids could have used just a fraction of that amount back in the day.


(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!)

Bustle. This has two quite different meanings. To bustle is to move briskly. As a noun, the concept is often paired with a word with which it rhymes. We speak of the “hustle and bustle” of a city. But as used in my posting, a bustle was a wire frame, or a pad, or even a bow, at the back of a woman’s skirt that accentuated its fullness.

Cheesy. Cheap. Poorly made. It derives from an Urdu word adapted by the British to mean showy. From there, the meaning declined even further to reflect something even more derogatory that has nothing at all to do with cheese.

Chipper. Cheerful, upbeat, self-confident. Chipper people break into a whistle from time to time. Those in a less buoyant mood can find them annoying.

Deprivation. Extreme poverty. A state in which one is deprived of even the basics of life. Be careful with this word. “Depravation,” spelled with the “a” instead of the “i,” means moral decay and degeneracy. That version is an offshoot of the word “depraved.”

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