The Beckers Viewer

Nineteenth century Americans were fascinated with photography. The first photographic experiments were made in Europe during the 1830s, and by the 1860s wet plate photography had become a lucrative business in America. Hundreds of studio photographers cranked out the most popular photographic product of the day: customer portraits printed on visiting cards, a Victorian version of the selfie.

Also popular was the stereograph, an early form of 3D in which two nearly identical photos were mounted on stiff 4×8 inch cards; when seen through the lenses of a special viewer they produced a three-dimensional image. Families would assemble large collections of stereo cards; topics included travel, anthropological, historical, and otherwise educational photos, religious subjects, fine arts, humorous subjects and news of the day. So many of these cards were produced that they are still ubiquitous in antique stores and on sites like Ebay.

Eadweard Muybridge was an eccentric English inventor, shady wild west character, and erstwhile hobnobber with the rich and famous whose photographic experiments would eventually, through the machinations of Thomas Edison, lead to the invention of cinema. In the 1860s, not being suited to the sedate indoor life of a studio photographer, Muybridge took his photographic equipment outdoors and became one of the earliest landscape photographers in America. His stereo views of Yosemite Valley and Alaska were eagerly purchased by Americans who could never otherwise experience such places.

One of Muybridge’s early projects foreshadows motion pictures by about thirty years. He made a series of stereo views of San Francisco taken from atop a hill on the edge of town. By turning the camera slowly left to right and taking serial photos, he made a panoramic representation of the city. Around this time a device was being produced in New York called the Alexander Beckers Viewer; it was a stereograph viewer that could hold up to fifty cards, and the user turned a knob to flip between views. When Muybridge’s panoramic San Francisco views were placed in the Beckers Viewer they produced the effect of what would later, in filmmaking, be called “panning.”

(Ball 75)

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Standard Railway Time

In the 19th century in America, time was determined by the sun. Towns and cities set their public clocks according to when the sun reached its zenith at “high noon.” Thus, even cities that were separated by only a few miles had their clocks set to different times. Railroad stations had multiple clocks, one for each railroad that used the station and one for local time.

Individuals had their choice of sources for the correct time: clocks on church towers and town halls, watches in jewelers’ windows, or factory whistles and bells. Large cities had time balls that would rise and drop every day at noon, by which city dwellers could set their watches; the ritual survives in the annual New Year’s event in Times Square.

Time became standardized when Western Union’s New York time ball dropped at noon on Sunday, November 18, 1883. Standard Railway Time was put into effect after a decade’s discussion among railroad executives, scientists, civil engineers and meteorologists, without benefit of either federal law or public demand.

Many cities and states resisted Standard Railway Time for years, for various political and religious reasons; these dissident voices were finally stilled, and Standard Railway Time made into federal law, with the Standard Time Act of 1918 – the first year in which the US also experimented with nationwide Daylight Savings Time.

(Schlereth 29-31)

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The Pilgrims’ Bible

All of America’s great historical men of letters wrote in a style that owed much to the King James Bible. That book was, for many pious early American families, the only book from which children were taught to read and write, the only one from which children were read to on dark winter evenings. Its soaring, yet earthy prose helped to shape the sound of American rhetoric back in the days when public figures were expected to speak and write with intelligence, clarity and precision.

So it is a surprise to find that the Pilgrim Fathers themselves did not use the King James Bible.

King James’ Authorized Version, completed in 1611, was that monarch’s attempt to reconcile the various factions that existed within the English church, each of which was passionately devoted to its own special translation of the Bible. By including in his translating committee representatives of the various religious groups, he hoped to create a translation that all English Christians could use and love. In this he was more than successful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. And it was particularly difficult to please the Puritan Separatists. Their Bible was the Geneva Bible, a massive encyclopedia of Calvinist thought that included extensive notes, maps and diagrams. Many of its explanatory notes were contentious and explicitly anti-royalist: for example, the word “tyrant,” which does not appear in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva Bible.

When the pilgrims left the distastefully liberal religious atmosphere of England for the Netherlands and thence to Plymouth Rock, it was the massive Geneva Bible they toted along.

Interestingly, some Puritans believed that Biblical names should not be translated; the name Adam should read “Red Earth,” and Timothy, “Fear-God.” The Geneva Bible included a list of the meanings of all those ancient signifying names at the back. In imitation of the great figures of scripture, the Puritans took to naming their children after moral qualities, such as Lament, Eschew-evil, Fear-not, and the very popular name Sin-deny. Among William Brewster’s own children were Fear, Love, Patience and Wrestling Brewster.

(Nicolson 74-75)

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White Flour and the American Family

Flour was one of the earliest products in America to become industrialized. The commercialization of flour was to play a critical role in transforming the lives of women and the structure of domestic life in America.

Automated flour mills began appearing just after the close of the Revolutionary War. These mills required about half the number of laborers required by traditional grist mills, and the new technology produced a finer, whiter flour than had been possible with more traditional methods. The high price of white flour, combined with reduced labor costs, made commercial mills a booming business in closing years of the eighteenth century.

White flour, stripped of its germ and bran, did not readily deteriorate during shipping. Therefore, most of this early white flour was produced for export to war-ravaged Europe; very little commercial flour was sold domestically during this period. American families continued to grow and process their own grain, and locally-produced whole-grain corn and wheat meal continued to be staple foods.

The domestic production and use of whole-grain flour required the contributions of each member of a household. Men and boys were traditionally given the job of hand-grinding corn and wheat. If the grain was to be hauled to a mill for grinding, this was father’s job. Because the grain began to deteriorate quickly after milling, the tough jobs of hauling or hand-grinding grains kept husbands and sons busy throughout the year. Mother had it a little easier, because baking with coarse flour was a straightforward process: liquid and leavening were added to the meal, and the batter was then baked or fried into a simple quick bread.

The booming export market for American flour eventually collapsed when the Napoleonic hostilities in Europe ceased. At the same time, the opening of several major canals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states made it cheaper to transport flour domestically, while also making the small-scale production of flour less profitable. So flour from merchant mills began to replace the product of local grist mills in the early nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the Civil War, flour milling was the leading American industry, and homegrown and locally-ground grains had largely disappeared from American tables.

Commercial white flour did not deteriorate as rapidly as home-grown flour. Therefore, it did not need to be continually hauled and milled; large quantities could be purchased at a time and stored. The switch to store-bought flour relieved men and boys of one of their most time-consuming domestic chores, the grinding and hauling of flour.

White flour was also used very differently than whole-meal flour. White flour could be made into pastries, cakes, and white, fluffy loaves leavened with yeast. Soon, quick breads came to be regarded as fare fit only for the lower classes, while white bread became one of the first “status symbols” of the industrial period in America. Unfortunately, cake baking and the production of yeast breads required much time, heavy labor, and attention to detail. All this work, of course, fell exclusively to the housewife.

In short, the advent of industrialized flour meant that the nineteenth-century housewife was spending a lot more of her time working in the kitchen than her grandmother had, while the role of her husband and sons in domestic activity began to disappear.

The switch to white flour helped to make the industrial-era American home into a place of idleness for men and children, but where “woman’s work is never done.”

(Cowan 46-53)

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Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

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The First Phone Book

New Haven, Connecticut was a city of 150,000 people when, in 1878, it became the home of one of the world’s first telephone exchanges.

The District Telephone Company of New Haven was founded by George W. Coy, a former telegraph operator and the inventor of the commercial switchboard. In order to realize his dream of starting a telephone company, he borrowed six hundred dollars to fund the venture, then drafted an advertising circular which explained the potential benefits of telephone subscription. He mailed a thousand copies to the residents of New Haven. From the thousand letters, Coy received only one subscription.

Undeterred, he hired a team of salesmen, each of whom was paid $1.50 for every new customer. This worked a little better, and soon Coy had twenty more subscribers. Installation of the telephones began in November of 1877; lines were strung up informally, attached to trees, roofs or any other handy spot. By January of the next year the world’s first telephone exchange was in operation.

This progenitor of today’s telecommunications firms consisted of a small office where Coy himself sat on a soapbox and operated the switchboard he had personally designed and built. The switchboard was referred to as “Coy’s chicken” because of the squawking noises it made, and it rested on top of a kitchen table. The only other office furniture was a packing box which served as the office desk, and an old armchair for visitors. Company records from the time list the value of all the office goods, including the switchboard, at $39.50.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the District Telephone Company of New Haven was a pioneer in American telecommunications. The company, which changed its name to the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) in 1882, was responsible for the world’s first telephone booth (1878), the first pay phone (1879), and the nation’s first school for telephone operators (1907).

And it produced the world’s first telephone directory. In February of 1878, just a month into operations, the District Telephone Company released a printed list of its telephone subscribers. This list is today considered the world’s first phone book. Although other businesses had used telephones before, and even printed lists of subscribers, the New Haven specimen’s claim to primacy rests on the fact that it is the first such list to include private customers as well as business lines.

This phone “book” did not list telephone numbers, only names. Early telephone directories existed solely for the purpose of alerting customers to the existence of other telephone subscribers. To make a call, the telephone user would pick up the phone and tell the operator (all of whom, at this early stage, were male) the name of the person to ring up.

The first New Haven directory lists as the entirety of its contents three physicians, two dentists, two boarding stables, twenty stores and factories, four meat and fish markets, eleven residences, and eight places marked “miscellaneous.”

Although there are many reprints of this famous document, of the 150 copies originally printed only one survives. It is kept at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. The New Haven exchange itself is long gone. The location, at the intersection of State and Chapel streets, was awarded landmark status in 1964, and then torn down in 1973 by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency to make way for a parking garage.

A slightly newer version of the New Haven directory, from November 1878, was auctioned by Christie’s in May of 2008 and sold for $170,500.

(Shea 12-17)

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Article Six

In 1783, the Reverend John Mason of New York complained that “from the Constitution of the United States, it is impossible to ascertain what God we worship, or whether we own a God at all.”

From the very beginning of the experiment called The United States of America, there were those who objected to our famous “separation of church and state.” These early detractors of religious freedom wanted certain churches, or Christianity in general, to have a preferred legal status, and objected to the Constitution’s religiously neutral stance.

One particular article in question was Article Six, which guarantees that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This was a radical departure from the practice, for example, in Great Britain, where religious dissenters were barred from holding public office.

During the Virginia state conference to ratify the Constitution, an initiative was introduced to change the article’s wording to “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God…” Although this change was rejected, religious conservatives continued to press for the inclusion of more doctrinaire, confessional language.

But although all of America’s founders believed in God, each in his own way, those who eventually carried the day were much more interested in fostering freedom than in saving souls.

When a group of Roman Catholics wrote to George Washington to inquire how religious minorities would be treated under his administration, his answer was similar to the one he gave to a Jewish congregation with the same question: regardless of religious orientation, all would be “equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”

(Kowalski 16-18)

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Selling the Great War

President Woodrow Wilson, incumbent in 1916, narrowly won his reelection that year on the basis of a simple platform: “He kept us out of war.”

Yet only months later, in 1917, Wilson became convinced that the U.S. needed to enter the European conflict. But how on earth would he convince the American public?

All his advisers knew it would be a tough sell. But Wilson, who had taught history at Princeton before entering politics, found the answer he needed in the advice of one of his former students, prominent progressive Arthur Bullard, who urged the president to form an official publicity office in order to “electrify public opinion.”

The idea was taken up by another influential insider, Walter Lippman, co-founder of The New Republic. Lippman had become fascinated with the psychology of mass opinion and politics, particularly as described in Gustave LeBon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. According to LeBon, whenever ordinary citizens gathered into a mass assembly, no matter how reasonable as individuals, they became irrational and easily subject to manipulation.

Lippman encouraged the president to appoint an agency for the purpose of convincing Americans that entering the war was a necessary and positive step. Following the advice of Bullard and Lippman, the president issued Executive Order 2594, establishing the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the leadership of progressive journalist George Creel.

The committee’s original instructions were to provide hard facts and information to the public so that they could intelligently draw their own conclusions about the war. But this idea was quickly abandoned.

Creel was convinced that the American public lived “mostly by slogans.” Therefore, he selected a committee of artists and communications experts, including Charles Dana Gibson of “Gibson girl” fame, and George Bowles, the Hollywood promoter behind the distribution of Birth of a Nation, to help him appeal to the public’s appetite for sensation.

The resulting massive propaganda campaign included the distribution of two hundred thousand different images, the employment of several hundred thousand “Four Minute Men” who delivered speeches in movie theaters, a massive censorship campaign, and countless posters, flyers and broadsides.

As Gibson noted, “One cannot create enthusiasm for the war on the basis of practical appeal.” The CPI made no attempt to provide the public with facts about the war. Instead, CPI posters showed sentimental images of American culture and lurid, fearful representations of German soldiers, and appealed to the public’s basest sentiments and most irrational fears and prejudices.

Many reformers watched in horror as the formerly progressive president resorted to crass pro-war propagandizing.  But another group of Americans watched with interest: the new public relations professionals. By paying attention to the CPI’s war promotions, advertisers learned the techniques that enabled them to create a whole new culture of rampant consumerism in the prosperous decade that followed.

(Zeitz 197-199)

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The Emigrant Diet

In 1859, U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy was asked by the War Department to write a guidebook for westward-bound pioneers. The resulting publication, The Prairie Traveler, became the emigrants’ principal manual for safe passage West. In The Prairie Traveler, Marcy spent a chapter advising pioneers on which routes to take and what to bring along. His section on “Stores and Provisions” is a glimpse into how the emigrants may have subsisted along the trail.

Marcy advised first that bacon or well-cured pork be brought along in hundred-pound sacks or packed in boxes, surrounded by “bran” to keep the fat from melting away. Flour was to be sewn up in stout, double-thick canvas bags, one hundred pounds to each. Butter was to be first boiled and skimmed until it was as clear as oil, and then sealed up in tin canisters. Sugar was to be secured into India-rubber sacks and kept well away from any source of dampness.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many people felt that fruits and vegetables were unhealthy. Marcy spent a long paragraph defending the usefulness of vegetables and emphasizing their antiscorbutic properties. Although canned vegetables were widely available, they were heavy, so emigrants were advised to purchase dried vegetables from a particular supplier in New York. Imported from Paris, the vegetables (they are only mentioned generically, no particular variety is named) were sliced and pressed into solid cakes which were as hard as rocks. A piece half the size of a man’s hand, he claimed, could be soaked in water and reconstituted to fill “a vegetable dish,” and would feed four men. A cubic yard of the stuff contained 16,000 rations.

If one were unable, or unwilling, to procure dessicated vegetables, Marcy advised them instead to take along citric acid. This could, if mixed with sugar and water and a little “essence of lemon,” pass as a substitute for lemonade. Other possible antidotes for scurvy were wild onions, wild grapes, greens, or tea made from hemlock leaves.

Another useful item was pemmican, which Marcy claimed constituted almost the entire diet of those working in the Northwest fur trade. To prepare pemmican, you were to take buffalo meat, cut it into thin strips, and dry it well in the sun. The dried meat was then to be pounded into a fine powder, mixed with melted grease, and sewn into bags of animal hide (with the fur, he is careful to mention, on the outside). Pemmican was to be eaten raw, but as a change one could also mix it with a little flour and boil it.

Then Marcy described the simplest and most portable source of calories, used extensively, he claimed, by Mexicans and Indians. It was something called “cold flour,” and it was made by mixing cornmeal with a little cinnamon and sugar. This was to be mixed into water and used as a beverage, and he claimed that on half a bushel of the stuff, and with no other provisions, a man could easily subsist for thirty days.

In extreme situations, a little creativity was to be exerted. Mules and horses could be consumed, but Marcy warned that if the animals were half-starved and stringy, a man would have to eat a lot of this excessively lean meat, perhaps five or six pounds a day, to stay alive. In the absence of salt, a mule or horse steak could be charred in the fire and then sprinkled with a little gunpowder to make it more palatable. Men desperate for tobacco could resort to smoking the roasted bark of the red willow, or sumac leaf. A good coffee substitute could be found in dried “horse mint.”

To make the journey from the Missouri River to California, each grown person would require 150 pounds of flour or hardtack, 25 pounds of bacon, cured pork, or meat driven on the hoof, 15 pounds of coffee, and 25 pounds of sugar. These were the essential articles needed, and Marcy warned travelers to be careful and not use up all their provisions during the first half of the trip. It is hard to imagine how that could have been a temptation.

(Marcy 30-36)

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Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

American slavery was widely criticized from the very beginning, and many of the nation’s founders hoped, perhaps naively, that the Peculiar Institution would soon die a natural death. But critics of slavery could never seem to agree on how the institution should best be discontinued.

The War of Independence generated a lot of public discourse concerning freedom and personal liberty, and during the last several decades of the eighteenth century, every northern state in the U.S. enacted measures to prohibit slavery. But the hoped-for natural death of slavery did not follow. Partly this was attributable to the fact that the federal government remained largely in the hands of southerners; between 1788 and 1848 all but four U.S. presidents were slaveholders.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, slavery was given a new lease on life. This was due to the sudden and spectacular growth in world demand for cotton, which quickly became the country’s most important export. Slave states and free states alike benefited from the cotton trade, and the antislavery sentiments inspired by the War for Independence soon faded in the light of these new economic considerations.

Still, slavery remained a divisive political issue, and between 1790 and 1830 dozens of antislavery proposals came before Congress. During this period, most antislavery proposals were paired with the idea of “colonization” – the removal of the black population from the United States. Advocates of this idea envisioned a nation peacefully freed from both the institution of slavery and the unwanted presence of free blacks.

Although colonization may sound far-fetched today, it was quite popular in its time, and Thomas Jefferson remained committed to the idea to his dying day. He personally proposed that the federal government purchase all slave children born each year for the purpose of deporting them – yes, infants – so that the slave population would age and eventually die out.

The first emancipation – that of slaves in the north – had contained no provision for colonization. That emancipation had been gradual rather than immediate, and usually included some sort of compensation to the owners. For example, slave children born after a certain date were required to work for the mother’s owner for a certain number of years before eventually becoming free. In effect, these slaves were required to purchase their own freedom with a period of indentured servitude.

It seems to have been assumed in the north that the former slaves would somehow just be absorbed into mainstream society. But this did not happen. Indeed, it should not be imagined that free northern blacks enjoyed either political or social equality with whites; they could neither vote, become citizens, nor serve in the armed forces. Instead, the rapid growth of the free northern black population was followed by a upsurge of anti-black sentiment among northern whites. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, first directed its efforts at removing free blacks from the north.

Although a few African-Americans agreed with the colonization movement, most were strongly against the idea of being deported, either voluntarily or by force, from the land of their birth. Their vision of an America of birthright citizenship and equality before the law helped to give rise to a new, militant abolitionism in the 1820s and 30s.

Abolitionism combined the energies of two impulses – black anti-colonization and white evangelicalism. It rejected gradual emancipation, compensation, and colonization, and called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and an America that was fully biracial. Rather than spending time formulating detailed plans for emancipation, abolitionists focused on altering public opinion, using the public media of the day – lectures, petitions, and pamphlets. Abolitionist rhetoric often appealed to the heart as well the mind, exposing the day-to-day brutality of slavery as well as its weakness as an economic system.

Abolitionists diverged most widely from other critics of slavery in their vision of a post-slavery America. The first racially integrated social movement in America, abolitionism was also the first to link emancipation with equal rights.

This was a radical departure from the mainstream, and many northerners expressed their disfavor by violently attacking abolitionist meetings and destroying printing presses. Still, during the 1830s between 200,000 and 300,000 northerners joined the movement.

Colonizationists resented the spread of abolitionism, and they were responsible for instigating a series of anti-abolitionist riots that swept the north. Their main objection was that abolitionism would harm the cause of emancipation since no southerner would ever accept the idea of equal rights.

(Foner 14-22)

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