Wish You Were There?

A Nostalgic Look at “Large Letter” Postcards:  1900-1951

 

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1937

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1951

post lansing 1951

 

Undated

post yellowstone

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American Victorian People of Color

Dispelling Misconceptions and Preconceived Notions!

Portraits from 1870s to 1890s

 

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HipPo’Boy Sandwiches??!!

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I’ve heard for many years of one of the most famous iconic New Orleansian food favorites…the Po’Boy Sandwich.

poboyroastbeef

While doing research for this blog entry, I checked the Web for the details on this ultimate comfort food.

A po’ boy (also po-boy, po boy, or poor boy) is a traditional submarine sandwich from Louisiana. It almost always consists of meat, which is usually roast beef, fried seafood, chicken, or ham. The meat is served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy center.

…There are countless stories as to the origin of the term “po’ boy”. A popular local theory claims that “po’ boy”, as specifically referring to a type of sandwich, was coined in a New Orleans restaurant owned by Benny and Clovis Martin (originally from Raceland, Louisiana), former streetcar conductors. In 1929, during a four-month strike against the streetcar company, the Martin brothers served their former colleagues free sandwiches [bits of roast beef in gravy served on French bread]. The Martins’ restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as “poor boys”, and soon the sandwiches themselves took on the name. In Louisiana dialect, this is naturally shortened to “po’ boy.” [Source]

Roast beef and gravy Po’Boys are still regularly served today, but variations are wide, with fried seafood perhaps the most popular. Smoked sausage, shredded pork, ham and cheese, and even hamburger are common. In fact, the least expensive version these days seems to be just a pile of French fries dripping in gravy and condiments,   nestled in the French bread loaf. A “dressed” Po’Boy means one topped with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and pickles.

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If you paid attention to the title of this blog entry, you saw that it referred to a “HipPo’Boy sandwich.” You might guess that was just a pun referring to a special kind of Po’Boy favored by 21st century “hipsters.”

hipster

 

No. Actually, it’s a much worse pun than that.  It is literally a contraction of … Hippo Po’ Boy.

And therein lies a very weird bit of American History.

Check out the headlines on this newspaper article from the May 14, 1910 edition of the Grand Forks, North Dakota, Evening Times.

 

grandforks19100514

For those unfamiliar with the term “Bill of Fare”…that is the same as “Restaurant Menu.”

Yes. In 1910 there was a very serious effort made to get the US congress to OK and pay for planning for an extended importation of hippopotami into the US, to be loosed into the bayous of Louisiana and other parts of the South.

Weren’t swamps in Dixie full of big ol’ alligators good enough for some folks?? This 2013 record-setter below (741 pounds, 13 feet, 7 inches) wasn’t from Louisiana, but nearby Mississippi.

gator741

But Louisiana has plenty of big’uns itself, such as this 760 pound, 13-foot four inch gator, taken near Baton Rough LA also in 2013.

la gator 760

760 pounds would make a lot of gator steaks, roasts, and burgers!

And yes, if you live in Lousiana and some other spots in the South, you CAN get gator meat at both restaurants and grocery stores.

gator meat

Gator filets as seen in the package above were described by one online chef as “a little chewy, with the texture of a well-done pork chop. The flavor is somewhere between chicken and fish.” Except they obviously cost quite a bit more than plain old fish. That pack above was from a store…I found lots of sources of gator meat online, but it will cost you more to get it sent to you. Filet can be $15-$20 a pound or more, while you can get burger for about $13 and “legs” (bigger than frog legs and chicken legs, for sure) for about $8.

Yes a 700+ pound gator would yield lots of meals. But so would an average male hippo… at five THOUSAND pounds. Or more.

But actually, the original 1910 proposal to import hippos wasn’t primarily about…beefing up the US meat supply, which was indeed in a slump at the time. At first it was about a more surprising issue.

The Water Hyacinth problem.

Here’s a water hyacinth.

hyacinth

Pretty little thing, isn’t it?!

That’s what a group of Japanese visitors to the “World Cotton Centennial” World’s Fair in New Orleans of 1884 thought.

1884 post card

The Japanese brought along with them a big supply of small token “gifts” to give out to the Americans who visited the fair.

In 1884, the visiting Japanese delegation to the World’s Fair in New Orleans handed out a seemingly innocuous gift to fair attendees. This gift, a beautiful flowering aquatic plant native to South America, was brought home to Florida by a Mrs. W.F. Fuller, who wanted to decorate her backyard fishpond. The plant began to multiply and soon choked the water of her small pond. When she thinned out the plants, a few of them made it into the water at her boat ramp on the nearby St. Johns River. Within a few years, the entire river was covered in a vast floating mat of vegetation so thick that boats could no longer navigate on the river. The plant, water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes), would turn out to be a scourge in America, as it has come to clog waterways and irrigation canals across the country, blocking sunlight and wringing precious oxygen and nutrients from the water.

Source

Other Fair visitors spread the plant back in their home states also. The plant requires air temps that don’t drop below 50 degrees or so very often. Which means that it didn’t spread much to the north. But all across the South, just as in Florida, the plants ran amok. By 1904, the infestation reached California, likely brought in as a single or few plants by some innocent soul like Mrs. Fuller, who just wanted a pretty plant for their own little pond.

Unfortunately, once “released into the environment,” the environment takes over propagating and spreading the plants, such as via waterfowl eating its seeds, flying to another body of water, and pooping. Bingo. That next body of water becomes a new habitat for hyacinths.

Yes, a single water hyacinth plant looks really pretty. And a “vast floating mat” in bloom looks pretty too.

manyblooms

But as noted above, they totally choke out everything else in their wake by sucking up all the oxygen and nutrients in the water. And even blocking human traffic on bodies of water. This was a problem not just for America back around the turn of the last century. It began filtering all over the world, as you will learn from this excerpt from the website of the government of New South Wales, Australia [Source]

Water hyacinth is one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds. It infests rivers, dams, lakes and irrigation channels on every continent except Antarctica. It devastates aquatic environments and costs billions of dollars every year in control costs and economic losses.

Water hyacinth is native to the Amazon basin in South America and was brought to Australia in the 1890s as an ornamental plant. The first record of water hyacinth in New South Wales (NSW) was in 1895. In 1897, the government botanist Mr J. H. Maiden noted that it had spread rapidly in the ponds in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. At that time, he warned that the plant should be kept away from the northern rivers where it ‘may very rapidly become a serious pest’.

Unfortunately, this warning went unheeded and by the early 1900s it had spread along the east coast of Queensland and the north-eastern regions of NSW.

Water hyacinth is justifiably called the world’s worst aquatic weed due to its ability to rapidly cover whole waterways.

As you can see from this 1910 photo from Australia.

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In Australia, it forms dense, impenetrable mats over the water surface. Specific impacts include:

  • blocking irrigation channels and rivers
  • restricting livestock access to water
  • destroying natural wetlands
  • eliminating native aquatic plants
  • reducing infiltration of sunlight
  • changing the temperature, pH and oxygen levels of water
  • reducing gas exchange at the water surface
  • increasing water loss through transpiration (greater than evaporation from an open water body)
  • altering the habitats of aquatic organisms
  • restricting recreational use of waterways
  • reducing aesthetic values of waterways
  • reducing water quality from decomposing plants
  • destroying fences, roads and other infrastructure when large floating rafts become mobile during flood events, and
  • destroying pastures and crops when large floating rafts settle over paddocks after flood events.

Water hyacinth will rapidly take over an entire waterway. Under favourable conditions it can double its mass every 5 days, forming new plants on the ends of stolons. It also grows from seed which can remain viable for 20 years or longer. This enormous reproductive capacity causes annual reinfestation from seed and rapid coverage of previously treated areas, making ongoing control necessary.

The plant also reached Africa in about 1880, likely in the same way…and to this day it threatens “ecological disaster” over much of the continent. It has left parts of the Nile almost unnavigable.

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And is threatening to take over Lake Victoria.

2013 lake victoria Africa

But it doesn’t end even there. It also reached China, probably around the same time, where it is a major threat to the waterways to this day…

china

And also the Indian subcontinent…

india water buffalo

 

india

Where again, it has also never ceased to run amok.

modern bangladesh river

All over the world, many strategies are used to try to deal with the little plants, including huge harvesting machines to try to dig them all out. Which never works totally…

australia

Until doing the research for this article, I had never read anything about a problem with water hyacinths, let alone that they had become, in our time, a literal scourge over much of the earth, on a level of the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible! I am astonished that the news services in general have seemed to ignore anything about the matter. It’s not as though it is hidden in the shadows. There is information about it all over the Internet. But you have to go looking for it. [If you would like to know more, I’d recommend reading this United Nations Global Environmental Alert. It goes into great detail with photos and charts of the amazing extent of this problem. And if you live in California, you may be interested in this extensive report from the California Invasive Plant Council.]

It’s mind-boggling to read the details of all this way back when the problem was just incubating over a century ago, and see how problem solvers were addressing it at the time. It was definitely obvious that no one had an inkling of how wide the problem would become, but it was already well underway in Louisiana in 1910.

Which brings us back to those hippos. And the US meat shortage.

And one man with a crazy idea.

As the United States entered the 20th century, increasing population and industrialization led to a nationwide meat shortage.  Moving west to acquire more land for grazing or hunting became a limited option as the frontier closed and buffalos were hunted into near extinction.  In southern Louisiana, newly invasive water hyacinths, similar to water lilies, transported to New Orleans by Japanese tourists during the 1884 World’s Fair were creating massive ecological dilemmas.  In 1910, an audacious plan was put forth to address both concerns: import hippopotamuses from Africa to the bayous of Louisiana to consume the water hyacinths and provide a tasty source of meat for a hungry nation.

The main proponent of this imaginative plot was Louisiana Congressmen Robert F. Broussard.  [Source]

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Louisianans knew Broussard affectionately as Cousin Bob. He claimed to be related to a quarter of the voters in Iberia Parish—sometimes to a full half of them. “Certain Louisianians may protest they are not his cousins,” one Saturday Evening Post profile noted. “That is a matter of minor importance. The point is that Cousin Bob is their cousin; and he is satisfied, even if they are not. It is quite impossible to stop Cousin Bob from being everybody’s cousin.” A company in New Orleans named a cigar after him. [Book: American Hippopotamus  (AH)]

Broussard introduced the H.R. 23621 bill, dubbed the Hippo Bill, into Congress, asking for $250,000 [worth about 6 million in today’s dollars] for the necessary research and planning and initial trial importations.

Not being an expert in hippopology, he recruited two famous adventurers, deeply familiar with Africa and African wildlife, to provide credibility for his plans.

American Frederick Russell Burnham had a huge reputation going back to his work as a scout in the last years of the “Old West” in the US, and more recently, similar work for the British as part of their military campaigns to conquer the African tribes and Dutch Boers in Southern Africa.

burnhamhat

Burnham was actually the “inspiration” for the founding of Boy Scouting by Robert Baden-Powell of the United Kingdom. In 1896 Baden-Powell was Chief of Staff of British war operations in Southern Rhodesia, and Burnham had been appointed Chief of Scouts for the British Army in Africa. Through working with Burnham for some time, Baden-Powell came to greatly admire Burnham’s “manly skills.”  Baden-Powell hoped to create a boy’s organization that would mold young men into Burnham’s likeness. The two of them had long discussions in Africa about what this would entail, which Baden-Powell turned into the plans for the Scouting organization when he returned to England. As E. B. DeGroot, BSA Scout Executive of Los Angeles wrote of Burnham in 1944, “Here is the sufficient and heroic figure, model and living example, who inspired and gave Baden-Powell the plan for the program and the code of honor of Scouting for Boys.”

So Burnham’s great reputation and record was very helpful to Broussard in his attempts to get his Hippo Bill through congress. Burnham testified before Congress about the feasibility of the plan, and traveled the country doing speaking and writing in favor of it.

The other wild African animal “expert” Broussard pressed into duty to work for his plan, Fritz Duquesne—also known as the Black Panther—was the exact opposite of Burnham.

duquesne

He was almost equally famous, but, as a South African Boer, he had served as a military scout…and soldier of fortune …and life-long astonishingly prolific con-man…on the opposite side of the South African wars from Burnham. (As some writers have put it, each had an assignment from his own government to kill the other.)

Burnham called him [Duquesne] the “human epitome of sin and deception.” Another writer described him as a “walking living breathing searing killing destroying torch of hate.”

As fate would have it, these two men never crossed paths in Africa, but were brought together years later by Broussard. A fascinating story all by itself, that you can read about in a short…70 or so pages…book titled American Hippopotamus available to read FREE at this link: Read Hippo Book.]  The exploits of both of these men read like a screenplay for an extremely exaggerated adventure/action movie, but these dudes were the real deal!) Duquesne also testified before Congress, and then joined in speaking and writing efforts across the land to persuade American politicians and the man on the street to get on board with the plan.

Regarding the practicality of raising hippos, Duqeusne said, “I am able to speak from the point of view of one who knows the practical side of the hippopotamus. I was born and bred among these animals. I probably would have been dead myself but for the hippopotamus for it was the food upon which I subsisted during my boyhood. The hippo can be easily domesticated. It is as gentle as a lamb in all the zoos. It can be led about with a halter. A young hippo will take milk from a baby’s bottle.”

Along with these two “man’s man” rivals, Broussard brought in an opposite of both of them…an aging bookish bureaucratic agricultural expert named W.N. Irwin.

William Newton “W. N.” Irwin was a veteran researcher at the pomological branch of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was an apple guy, basically—”one of the foremost fruit experts in the country,” according to The Washington Post. Irwin appears to have spent his career championing ideas that were simultaneously perfectly logical and extravagantly bizarre. (Another of his crusades was trying to convert Americans from eating chicken eggs to eating turkey eggs. The advantages of turkey eggs were just so obvious to Irwin: they were richer, larger, and more nutritious and had thicker shells and membranes, so they stayed fresh longer. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat a bunch of turkey eggs until six months after he’d purchased them. And still, he bragged, “the yolks would drop out round and plump, and the white, or albumen, would be perfectly normal.”) [AH]

And so Irwin agreed to champion a new crusade, this one for importing hippos.

Hippopotamuses eat aquatic vegetation, like water hyacinths—loads of it, Irwin learned. Deposit some hippos in a hyacinth-choked stream, he argued, and they’d suck it clean in no time. That is, hippos could solve Louisiana’s problem with the flower while simultaneously converting that problem into the solution to another—an answer to the Meat Question. The animal, Irwin now told the committee, would “turn the plague that they now have in the South into good, wholesome flesh for our people.” The hippopotamus was a perversely elegant win-win.

Of course, it could be hard to see that logic through all the lavish weirdness of the proposal. But for Irwin—and Burnham—any resistance to their idea came down to simple small-mindedness. The only reason Americans didn’t already eat hippopotamuses, Irwin claimed, was “because their neighbors don’t, or because nobody ever told them it was the proper thing to do.” Like Burnham, he saw the Meat Question as a test of American ingenuity and resolve: To defend our freedom and way of life, some generations of Americans are called to go to war; this generation was being called to import hippopotamuses and eat them. [AH]

The immediate need was to get ahead of the Water Hyacinth Problem, which had the potential to destroy much of Louisiana’s economy. Broussard hoped that the hippos would take the place of, or at least greatly augment, all of the ineffective methods that the state had tried to use to tackle the problem.

I’m guessing that the idea of adding the element of “harvesting” the meat of  some of the hippos to augment the American diet was introduced to make the bill more… palatable for those Congressmen who might wonder why they ought to vote for a bill that seemed to just address a local Louisiana problem.

But once the campaign for the plan got underway, it was obvious what fired the imagination of the public, public leaders, and the public press the most. And it wasn’t helping Louisiana with its flower problem.

The hearing was followed by a surge of excited publicity. “Hippopotami for Dixie,” one headline read. The Chicago Tribune covered the proceedings right above news that Delmonico’s, the famous steakhouse, had been forced to raise the price of everything on its menu due to dwindling meat supplies. Another story speculated that, because full-grown hippopotamuses would be too large to profitably ship to the stockyards in Chicago, smaller slaughterhouses would have to be built on-site, creating a constellation of local food systems, and breaking the monopoly lording over American meat production. [AH]

Former president Theodore Roosevelt publicly supported the idea.  The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and other major newspapers also voiced their approval.  The New York Times exclaimed excitement for “lake cow bacon”. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also advocated on Broussard’s behalf. [Source]

But despite the best efforts of Cousin Bob and his three experts, the Hippo Bill was eventually voted down by a mere one vote, and drifted into oblivion within a year or so.

It’s probably just as well. In spite of Fritz’s glib assurances, Hippos are NOT friendly animals. Even though they are “vegetarians.”

Hippopotamuses are aggressive animals. Hippos that attack other animals are often either territorial bulls or females protecting their calves… Crocodiles are frequent targets of hippo aggression, probably because they often inhabit the same riparian habitats; crocodiles may be either aggressively displaced or killed by hippopotamuses…

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hippocroc

Yes, Fritz was right, you CAN feed a baby hippo from a human baby bottle…

babypigmy

BUT… only if it is a baby PIGMY hippopotamus like the one above.  Pigmy adults weigh less than those big gators we saw at the beginning of this article. Their babies are less than 15 pounds at birth.  The “regular” hippopotamus baby is four feet long when born, and weighs 55-110 pounds. That would take a whole lot bigger bottle than any human baby uses!

And perhaps in zoos the full-sized hippos are mostly laid-back and “domesticated.” But in the real world…

…Hippos are also very aggressive towards humans, whom they sometimes attack whether in boats or on land, commonly with no apparent provocation, and are widely considered to be one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa.

attack

… The hippopotamus is considered to be very aggressive and has frequently been reported as charging and attacking boats. Small boats can be capsized by hippos and passengers can be injured or killed by the animals or drown. In one case in Niger, a boat was capsized by a hippo and 13 people were killed. As hippopotamuses will often engage in raiding nearby crops if the opportunity arises, humans may also come in conflict with them on these occasions, with potential for fatalities on both sides. [Source]

Yes, they might have helped the water hyacinth problem somewhat if Broussard’s scheme had succeeded, but at what cost?!

Although one webauthor who was smitten with the idea of the Hippo/Hyacinth connection story was guardedly optimistic of how it might have turned out:

Hippopotamuses are ferocious animals that kill more humans than tigers, lions, and any other animal in Africa.  However, I cannot help but believe that some backwoods boys would have easily learned how to track, trap, kill, skin, and make hippo meat just another ingredient in gumbo or hippo bacon an option atop eggs cochon de lait. [slow roasted suckling pig served in gravy]

“I’ll take a hippo po-boy, dressed.”  [Source]

For a look at one of Fritz’s friendly hippos in action, click this link to check out this video from the Travel Channel.

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And finally, you can see the actual Hyacinth Hippo in action at this link! Yes, that was the name of the famous Disney Fantasia dancing hippo–who was wooed by an alligator to the tune of Dance of the Hours. (A tune more familiar to later audiences as the music of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”!)

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Posted in Early 1900s | 1 Comment

Flour Sack Fashions: Great-Granny Cooks Up a Family Wardrobe

I remember hearing of “flour sack dresses” ever since my youth in the 1950s. But I recently discovered through rummaging the Internet that my concept of what the term meant was totally in error.

I don’t even remember when I first heard the term, and I’m suspicious that rather than “flour sack,” what I heard originally was “gunny sack dress.” What it conjured in my mind was the hillbilly world of Li’l Abner. I knew that a gunny sack was a tan sack made out of burlap—a thick, scratchy material with a big, open weave.

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It was what hillbillies toted their “stuff” around in, particularly potatoes and the like. In the 1958 rock ‘n’ roll song “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry sang that country boy Johnny, who lived in a shack in the woods near New Orleans, carried his guitar in a gunny sack. And I assumed maybe he got that sack after it was emptied of the potatoes that came in it from the country store.

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So when I heard about gunny sack dresses, I pictured this…

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I was kind of surprised when looking for pics to use for this article that it wasn’t just the Girl Next Door who could pose in that kind of gunny sack in the 1950s.

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Yes, that’s Marilyn.

As it turns out, in case you were wondering, “gunny” doesn’t have anything to do with guns. It is an Anglicized version of a word from India, “guni,” that means the same thing burlap means: that rough, open weave material shown above. It is woven from the coarse fibers of sisal or jute plants, and is much more similar to rough materials used for heavy rope than to the soft and fluffy fibers of cotton bolls that are turned into the various kinds of cotton fabrics.

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In my youth…and that of my daughter Mona (who is now 45), gunny sacks were often used in telling humorous stories. When I asked Mona recently if she’d heard of “flour sack dresses,” she also immediately connected the idea with “gunny sacks,” and had only ONE memory connected to the term. A big I Love Lucy (re-run) fan in her childhood, she remembered an episode where Lucy and Ethel wore “gunny sack dresses.” I was surprised to find a whole description of that 1956 episode on a Lucy Wiki as I was doing research for this article.

Lucy Gets a Paris Gown

After going to a fashion show of all the new chic Parisian styles, Lucy makes up her mind that she wants a Jacques Marcel dress. Ricky refuses to spend the money on another designer dress, not after buying Lucy a Don Loper original while in Hollywood the previous year. Lucy decides that she is going to go on a hunger strike until Ricky agrees to buy her a dress.

By the third day of the hunger strike, Lucy looks so gaunt and weak that Ricky is losing his resolve. He tries to force her to eat something, but Lucy refuses to break her vow. When Ricky leaves all upset, Lucy rushes to make a sandwich out of food that she has hidden throughout the hotel room. Ethel is Lucy’s food supplier, and she asks Lucy what to sneak in for dinner that night. Lucy asks for a roast chicken.

Ethel brings back the chicken, and Lucy hides it in a camera bag. Ricky returns with a very nice surprise- he bought Lucy a Jacques Marcel dress, because he can’t stand to see her starve. When Ricky goes to take a picture of Lucy in the new dress, he finds the roast chicken and realizes that Lucy has been faking the hunger strike all along. He intercepts the dress box when Lucy and Ethel play “monkey in the middle” with it, and he runs off.

To trick their wives as a way to get back at them for the phony hunger strike, Ricky suggests that he and Fred have dreses made out of “real potato sacks” and a phony Jacques Marcel label for their wives to wear. They also plan to make Lucy a hat out of a horse’s feedbag and Ethel a hat out of an empty champagne bucket.

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Ricky and Fred proudly present the ugly outfits, and while Lucy and Ethel are puzzled by their strangeness, they’re still Paris originals (so they think), and they proudly wear them out to lunch at a cafe.

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Everyone at the cafe is staring at Lucy and Ethel’s bold fashion choice, including Jacques Marcel, and soon, Ricky and Fred can’t keep from laughing and reveal the truth. Lucy and Ethel are beyond humiliated, and they cover themselves with a tablecloth as they flounce off back to the hotel.

Later, Ricky and Fred have apologized for pulling such a stunt. As part of the make-up agreement, Ricky must buy a Jacques Marcel dress for Lucy and pay for half of Ethel’s dress that Fred has to buy. On the way to the dress shop, the foursome stop to eat at the cafe. They can’t believe their eyes when they see some of Jacques Marcel’s models wearing copies of their burlap creations! Ricky and Fred say that the girls don’t need a new dress now, because they have the originals of what is now a fashion statement. But Lucy and Ethel admit that they burned the burlap dresses as soon as they could.

I didn’t remember that old episode at all, but I guess lots of other folks have, for there are cutesy, collectible little dolls representing Lucy and Ethel in their Paris gowns available right now for purchase!

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And even a Lucy full Barbie-sized doll in full costume.

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The one other thing I remembered about gunny sacks was that they are what has been “stereotypically” used for the iconic “sack race” that has been a staple of group recreation events for over a century. I don’t know if folks still try to find them to use for such races, but they were still typical in the 1970s, as you can see from this 1972 episode of the Brady Bunch

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Since I had connected the concept of “flour sack dresses” with gunny sacks over the years, I couldn’t imagine that anyone—even “hillbillies” like Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae—REALLY wanted to wear such fashions, as they sounded scratchy and miserable to me.

I recently found out that I was totally misled in my assumptions. Back before most people bought their bread in sliced loaves packaged in cellophane at the grocery, the average housewife went through a whole lot of flour every month, and they would buy it in bulk. Prior to the mid-1800s, flour (and other commodities such as chicken feed) was typically sold in bulk in barrels. But starting in the mid-1800s, as cotton prices fell making mass production of cotton goods highly profitable, the industry began shifting to distributing these goods in sturdy cotton sacks.

Yes, many farm goods were distributed in “gunny sacks,” but those would have been the bulkier items like potatoes. The finer weave of the cotton bags was more suitable for flour and animal feed.

And thus by the late 1800s, many families—particularly rural, farm families—would easily accumulate numerous large, empty flour and feed sacks throughout the year. It didn’t take long for thrifty, creative farm wives to realize that these sacks could be “recycled” or “repurposed” to craft all sorts of items. By the turn of the century it was typical for such women to regularly turn their family’s used cotton flour and feed sacks into diapers for their babies, underwear for older children and adults, dishtowels for their kitchens, quilts for their beds. Each 100 pound bag would yield over a square yard of usable fabric.

By the 1920s, the flour and feed container industry was beginning to catch on to the fact that their cotton packaging was having a second life as clothes and household accessories. To take advantage of this trend, and turn it to their own good, some sack manufacturers began making their sacks from colorful dyed yarn, weaving it into cheerful checked and striped patterns of various colors. Sure enough, many buyers began “preferring” the brands packed in this new sewing material, and it proved profitable.

checked

striped

The sack companies went on to build on this advantage by eventually making their percale cotton sacks available in a wide variety of pretty printed patterns.

yellowsack

They even were careful to print their own logo on the sacks in water-soluble ink that would wash out quite easily (some later used a paper band around the sack to display the logo), while the printed patterns remained bright and clear.

washout

The housewife would remove the stitching holding the sides of the sack together, wash out the company logo, and starch and iron the material to make it smooth for sewing.

Once the fabric was prepared, there was very little difference between a length of feedsack dress percale and a length of dress percale purchased in a store as a new yard good. The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.

… In 1927, three yards of dress print cotton percale (the typical amount of fabric needed for an average size adult dress) could cost sixty cents when purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Three yards of gingham dress goods could cost forty cents. In comparison, three yards of dress quality gingham used in Gingham Girl Flour sacks from the George P. Plant Milling Company could be salvaged after the use of two or three one hundred pound bags of flour. [From Feed Sack to Clothes Rack: The Use of Commodity Textile Bags in American Households from 1890-1960 (FFS) ]

The same would be true of sacks of chicken feed. I assume it would take even a large farm family well over a month to eat up 300 pounds of flour. But those who were chicken farmers would accumulate feed bags a lot more quickly!

A farmer’s wife described their family’s commodity bag usage in the book, Feedsack Fashion: “We had two big chicken houses and used fourteen sacks of feed every week. My husband got most of the sacks. He always tried to get two or three of the same pattern so we would have enough to make something. He did a pretty good job of picking them out.”  [FFS]

That wife may have never quite understood the effort it took to meet her sewing needs!

…Feed sacks may have looked like dress fabric, but they were stacked in store piles with little fanfare and employees were surprised by requests to move several hundred pound bags of chicken feed to get to the perfect dress print pattern. One man remembered trips to the feed store as a teenager when it was important to run this errand with several friends because, “his mother’s preferred patterns would always be on the bottom, so he and his “buddies” would have to hoist sacks until they secured the patterns his mother wanted.” [FFS]

As you might guess, all of this was good for the makers of feed sacks (at least the ones who made the prettiest patterns), but not quite so popular among the feed store owners and workers.

…Feed companies began to notice that while a husband may have little preference in the brand of egg mash fed to his chickens, if his wife needed a specific pattern to match a feed bag that she already owned, her husband began to demonstrate a preference. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags and feed supply stores were turned into fabric stores, to the disdain of one feed salesman interviewed in 1948 who said, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds, special brands you know. Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.” [FFS]

chickstarter

bemissackad

percy

bagad2

Early on when I was reading up on flour/feed sack clothing, I was still under a misconception. Most of what I read implied that it was a phenomenon that was particularly centered around the needs of poor families during the Great Depression, from 1930 through the beginning of WW2. This would make a lot of sense, as Depression era housewives would be the most likely to really care about having to spend 60 cents for the cloth to make a dress! But I soon discovered this was only one aspect of the appeal of the sacks.

As I later learned, the practice spread from poorer families up into the Middle Class during the War years. Not so much just because of the savings for the family budget…but for the savings for the War Effort!

When the country went to war in the 1940s, domestic fabric production was put on hold while textile companies created goods for the use of the military. Textile rationing during World War II did not originally apply to feed sacks, which were classified as “industrial” textile products. During the height of war production restrictions, hundreds of colorful dress prints were available at the rural feed store, providing a wider variety of patterns than any store carrying traditional yard goods at that time.

…Cotton bag sewing was both a frugal move and a patriotic one. A newspaper column from May 1944 explained, “ Best of all is the patriotic spirit you show when you salvage fabrics. The housewife who converts cotton bags into the many useful items they are capable of becoming under the magic of willing hands and minds not only serves herself, but conserves essential fabrics for her country.” The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association proclaimed, “A yard saved, was a yard gained for victory!”

tricks

……In 1943, the United States War Production Board standardized bag sizes into six types ranging from 2 to 100 pounds in an effort to reduce waste. The production board approved pattern books for release to the home front. One mother made her young daughter’s entire wardrobe from feed sacks during the war, “the war effort took all of the fabric on the market.” She told an interviewer, “you could buy very little printed fabric.” [FFS]

Some researchers estimate over three and a half million women and children were wearing flour/feed sack fashions during World War 2.

Here’s a look at just a tiny few of the many sack prints that were available, and the variety of garments that were made from them by industrious amateur seamstresses.

Some were good for baby clothes and accessories.

feedsackbonnets

bunny

cutouts

ducks

Some were good for little boys’ shirts.

cowboy

Some were cute for little girl’s clothes.

scotty

ballerina

threelittlegirldresses

And a huge number were appropriate for dresses for older girls and women.

twodressesfeedsack

women

lifesacks2

foursistersdresses

family

 

Some bag companies even produced specialty bags that had make-your-own-stuffed-dolls printed on the material.

lifesacks

Others occasionally provided bag material with outlines printed on them suitable for embroidering.

sewingoutlines

And there were variety prints useful for such things as dishtowels and place mats.

kitchen

 

The beginning of the end of flour sack fashions came soon after the end of World War 2.

…The availability of yard goods began to improve for rural shoppers during the spring of 1945. After the war, the child accompanied her mother to a department store that was fully stocked to pre-war levels and pointed to bolts of traditional yard goods in the window,” Oh mom, look at those pretty feed sacks!”

The industry hobbled along up until the early 1960s.

…By the early 1950s, popularity of the dress print bag began to fade. Traditional yard goods were becoming more accessible all over the country and the rural lifestyle that enabled families to use dozens of one hundred pound chicken feed sacks in a year began to disappear. The cotton industry began to lose some of their most lucrative customers as bag companies began to make the switch to the multiwall paper sack. This new method was less expensive for them to produce, and more effective in protecting the contents inside. To slow this changeover, the National Cotton Council began to sponsor exciting contests in every state in the country to encourage women to become the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”

…Contests took place at state fairs and were advertised along with pattern booklet giveaways in rural magazines like Farm Journal. Regionally, the prizes included expensive sewing machines and even automobiles, with the chance to move on to the national competition and win trips to Hollywood complete with movie studio tours and shopping sprees.  [FFS]

So around the Internet now you can see some samples of vintage flour sack dresses that certainly don’t look like Depression era styles, such as this contest winner from 1956.

1956

But eventually the inevitable end came and all those flowery print sacks disappeared from the feed stores.

The heyday of the flour sack clothing is long gone now. But once upon a time, in a 1946 issue of Time magazine, a manager from Pillsbury Flour had this to say in an interview…

 “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.”

cartoon

Flour Sack Underwear

When I was a maiden fair
Mama made our underwear.
With several tots and Pa’s poor pay,
How could she buy us lingerie?

Monograms and fancy stitches
Were not on our flour sack britches.
Just panty waists that stood the test,
Gold Medal’s seal upon the chest.

Little pants were best of all,
With a scene I still recall.
Harvesters were gleaning wheat
Right across the little seat.

Tougher than a grizzly bear
Was our flour sack underwear.
Plain or fancy, three feet wide,
Stronger than a hippo’s hide.

Through the years, each Jill and Jack
Wore this sturdy garb of sack.
Waste not, want not, we soon learned.
Penny saved, penny earned.

Bedspreads, curtains, tea towels too,
The tablecloths were all reused.
But the best, beyond compare,
Was Our Flour Sack Underwear!

[Anonymous … actually, this poem is “claimed” by several authors all over the Internet. None of whom provide proof of authorship. So we’ll just go with Anonymous.]
Posted in 1930s, Depression, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The African Dodger

 

Most readers have likely heard of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

ladodgers

And if you are old enough, you may remember the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The Dodgers were a Brooklyn, NY, team until they moved to the west coast in 1958.)

brookdodgers

But have you heard of the African Dodger?

dodgerball

At first you might think I was just referring in an odd way to the first African American to “break the color line” of segregated Major League baseball since the 1880s, Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to play for their team in 1947.

robinson

But no, that African Dodger baseball shown above wasn’t a baseball used by Jackie. It is one of tens of thousands of similar ones that were used from the 1880s through the 1940s in a different kind of “ball game.” Which, in its heyday, was just as popular in America as apple pie and baseball.

In a professional game of baseball, if a ball thrown by a pitcher hits a batter in the head, it is called a “beanball.” And it is totally against the rules of the game. For good reason.

 Several players’ careers have been impaired or derailed after being struck with a beanball. Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane was knocked unconscious and later hospitalized for 7 days in 1937, and never played another game. In 1941, Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser was hospitalized for a month, one of numerous injuries which shortened his career. Lou Boudreau played only sporadically after being beaned in 1951, and retired the following season. Tony Conigliaro missed over a year after being hit in the eye, and his vision later deteriorated to the point where he was forced to retire. Dickie Thon returned from a gruesome beaning in 1984, but never matched his earlier success. On September 28, 1995, Kirby Puckett, the superstar outfielder of the Minnesota Twins, was struck in the cheek by a Dennis Martínez fastball, breaking his jaw and loosening two teeth. It would be his last game; during spring training the following year he developed glaucoma, which ended his career. [Wiki]

That’s why…

Starting in 1956, Major League Baseball required that all batters either wear batting helmets or protective plastic liners underneath their caps. Full helmets were made mandatory in 1971, and wearing a model with an earflap has been required since 1983. Minor leaguers (as well as most college, high school, and youth leagues) must wear helmets with a flap covering each ear.

Not so with the game of African Dodger. You see, in this “sport,” the whole reason for throwing the ball was to attempt to deliberately hit a person in the head. An African American person.

magazine

Yes, back in the day you didn’t go to the county fair to win a prize tossing balls at bowling pins or moving metal duck targets.

At the end, thirty feet or so from the counter that closed the entrance, a grinning Negro face bobbed and grimaced through a hole in the back curtain painted to represent a jungle river. The Negro’s head came right out of the spread terrific jaws of a crocodile. “Hit the nigger in the head, get a good ten cent seegar,” the barker said. “Three balls for a dime, folks. Try your skill and accuracy. Hit the nigger baby on the head get a handsome cane and pennant” (Stegner, 1957, p. 47).

This was a common chant at numerous carnivals, fairs, and circuses across the United States throughout the late 19th century until the mid 1940s, as Americans took part in one of their favorite pastimes, “African Dodger.”  [Source]

And although the pic in the magazine above seems to show a person with some sort of “head covering,” this was not at all typical. For the whole point was that the African’s head was not protected in any way. (That was the thrill of the game … to “bean” him.) Nor was he permitted to “pull his head out” of that hole if he could tell a ball was about to hit him directly. He could only stretch his neck this way or that to try to stay out of harm’s way. Efforts that, all too often, failed.

… In Connecticut, Walter Smith was hit “with such force that several of the dodger’s teeth were knocked out, and the ball was locked so securely within the negro’s mouth that it had to be cut to pieces before it could be removed” (“His Mouth”, 1908).  [ibid]

It got especially dangerous for Dodgers when 1) professional baseball players showed up to pay a nickel and take their three turns and 2) even moreso when they sneaked in actual professional “hardball” baseballs to substitute for the relatively lighter commercial African Dodger balls.

In St. Louis in 1913, it was reported that carnival organizers were “unable for hours today to secure an ‘African Dodger’ who would allow baseballs to be thrown at his cranium at the usual rate of three for 5 cents;” the reason was that future Hall of Fame fastball pitcher Walter Johnson was rumored to be at the fair (“Don’t Want”, 1913).

… In 1904 in New York, the Meriden Daily Journal reported how a dodger was smashed in the nose by a professional baseball player. The Journal reported that Albert Johnson dodged “fifty or sixty cents” worth of balls thrown by “Cannon Ball” Gillen of the Clifton Athletic club. Finally Johnson “exposed his head and face a little farther than usual” and was caught by a curve ball that left him unconscious. The article, which was written as a play-by-play commentary on the incident, concluded with the report that it “will probably be necessary to amputate the nose in order to save Johnson’s life” (“Hit African”, 1904).

… In Hanover, PA, William White was assaulted by local baseball players who brought their own heavy balls and “hit the ‘coon’ nearly every time.” The reporter described how “courageously” White took the punishment and wrote that the “negro was pretty well used-up.” Only after this, do we find out that the injuries sustained by White were internal and “may prove fatal” (” ‘Coon Hitting’ “, 1908). [ibid]

19080922hanoverpa

 

Or when some unscrupulous people even used stones.

… There were numerous reports of such incidents; for example, at the Sheraden Methodist Protestant Church street fair in Pittsburgh, John Jones “failed to dodge” and was hit “squarely in the eye” (“Ball Hits”, 1916). In Ohio, Grady Williams was struck in the eye by a stone by someone who “stood to one side and threw a stone at the negro” (“Threw Stone”, 1915). [ibid]

Attempts were sometimes made to outlaw this outlandish “sport,” such as a proposed law in Massachusetts in 1916, and this one to stop it at Coney Island in 1915:

When legislation was presented in 1915 to ban some forms of the game at Coney Island, the headline read: BAN ON “BONEHEAD” HITS. The proposed ban was framed as “depressing news” for those who may be unable to participate in the “soothing exercise of hitting with a baseball the head of an ‘Ethiopian’ as it protrudes from a hole in a canvas sheet.” But don’t just feel sorry for the players, understand that “many persons who have no more profitable use for their heads will join the army of the unemployed” if the bill is passed and Africans are no longer allowed to dodge (“Ban”, 1915).  [ibid]

It would appear in all these instances, such efforts failed. For white folks just couldn’t seem to get their mind around what could possibly be wrong with a cheery pastime that had been a mainstay at fairs and carnivals for decades, enjoyed by young and old alike. And if anyone tried to talk about “danger” to the Dodger, there was a ready answer…

One response to objections to the brutality of the African dodger game was to summon authorities to provide “scientific” findings on the topic. A short article in The Wayne County Democrat cited “authorities on anthropology” who “state that the negro has a very heavy and massive cranium constituting a bony arch of great resisting power. One scientist refers to the ‘common habit of negroes, of both sexes in butting like rams'[which]…indicates that a negro’s head bones have defensive strength unknown in the Caucasian race.” The newspaper assures its readers that the dodger doesn’t mind. “He seems cheerful about it.” The players of the game, the ones who throw the ball, are just men with a “man’s desire to display his powers”, particularly in front of “women friends.” The article finally concludes that until there is evidence that shows “fractured skulls or brain contusions” or until the dodger takes issue himself, the game will continue. A final warning is provided to the dodger who may be considering a new line of work that “He might regret to lose a daily wage that comes with less effort than manual labor” (“The Black Dodger”, 1913).  [ibid]

And so the game continued on.

If it was “off season” in a child’s area, with no fairs or carnivals or circuses, they could invite their little friends over and while away the winter evenings with their own Milton Bradley African Dodger-style table game available from about 1890 to 1910, cheerily dubbed “The Jolly Darkie Target Game.”

18901915jollydarkiemiltonbradley

That one, of course, puts one in mind of that poor fellow who had to have the baseball cut in pieces to get it out of his mouth.

Or there was this similar table game.

dodgertable

Strangely enough, you can actually BUY one of these today.

african dodger

tablegame2

Here it is described on ebay.

This extremely rare “Hit the Dodger” table top game dates from circa 1910 and consists of a wooden board, a tethered ball mounted to a flexible metal rod, a stereotypical metal “Sambo” figure (the target) and a cloth backdrop explaining the object of the game, “Hit The Dodger!/Knock Him Out!/Every Time You Hit Sambo The Bell Rings.” Players would take turns pulling the tethered ball back (like a slingshot) and releasing it, hoping it would strike the figure and ring a bell which was positioned behind it.

Racist memorabilia like this sells well right up to today. The “minimum price” on the game shown above is $200.

Here’s evidence from the 1920s that the ball kept rolling.

There may be no better example of the pervasiveness and brutality of the African Dodger game in American society than an advertisement in the Providence News on September 11, 1924.

Wants African Dodger to Face Balls at Club Fair

Do you want to earn a few precious dollars on the evening of September 19 and 20?

If you do and if you are not at all particular as to what happens to your head why apply at Room 10 in the building at 144 Pine street. Ask for Charlie and tell him you “saw his ad in the paper”. Charlie is looking for a lion-hearted and hard-headed young man who will act as an African dodger at the big carnival to be staged by the West Barrington Community Club. The reward? That is a little matter that you can adjust with Charlie. He will treat you fairly and will see that you reach the Rhode Island Hospital safely in the event that that [sic] one of the baseballs comes in contact with your head.

We beg your pardon for not detailing the duties of an African dodger. He just puts his head through a hole in a big piece of canvass and permits the aforesaid head to be used as a target by young men who toss baseballs.

One day last week an African dodger was killed in Elizabeth, N.J., and the week before a dodger was killed in Hackensack, but don’t permit these deaths to influence you. (“Wants African Dodger”, 1924). [ibid]

And the Dodger-style games were still going strong in the 1930s. You didn’t have to go to some rowdy adult carnival or fair to be involved either. Check out these young fellows trying their pitching arms at a … Young Men’s Christian Association Summer Camp!

campkidsbig30s

I’m guessing they didn’t hire a “colored man” for that event. Some companies had long offered for sale “darky heads” to use for the purpose, such as this carved one from clear back in the late 1870s.

carved head c1878 ball toss

By the 1940s, the African Dodger was still a staple of the American diet along with apple pie. The Popsicle company had a character they used in advertising to kids that they named Popsicle Pete. Pete showed up in some issues of All-American Comics (forerunner of DC Comics) in little adventures. One of which had him and his friends attending a carnival…where Pete was enthused to try his “skill” at socking an African dodger.

cartoon

But of course he would be no match for the comic Superheroes themselves, who are portrayed playing a special “dodger” game. (This gives more evidence how common the idea of the dodger games was in that era.)

ww2 superman dodger

Dodger references weren’t limited to All-American comics, either. Here’s Donald Duck getting ready to pull a dirty trick at the fair himself.

donalddodger

And Popeye and Olive Oyl in 1933 in a movie also starring Betty Boop. In the scene, Popeye stacks a large pile of Dodger baseballs on his arm, and fires them off in a constant volley, hitting the head of the little “African Dodger” over and over and over, leaving him totally dazed.

popeye2

popeye

And even by 1961, the cultural memory of the “game” was so strong it showed up as a “gag” in a Snagglepuss cartoon.

snagglepuss

I’m convinced that most folks born after 1950 or so are oblivious to the proliferation for a whole century after emancipation of such de-humanizing “sport” at the expense of African Americans. And to how deep such things were ingrained in the whole culture of the nation—and not just in the “legally segregated” south. For instance, the reports mentioned above of injuries attributed to the “game” were from places like New York and Pennsylvania. And the “Jolly Darkie” game would have been sold by Milton Bradley across the nation.

It has taken the age of the Internet to make available the documentation…often through “ephemera” of the times…of much of our shameful American past. I believe it is important to understand that past so that we can understand the roots of the present. This is the purpose of the “Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia” at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, that has an amazing website that shines the light on those dark corners, and provides tools for helping all generations sensibly evaluate where we’ve been…and where we should be headed.

The founder of that museum wrote this about the African Dodger games:

It may be hard to imagine a world where such barbaric games were accepted and played, and to understand why people would allow themselves to be targets. This is another example of the complexities of relationships during the Jim Crow era. The idea that African Americans were sub-humans was prevalent and widely accepted. Religious speakers, politicians, and scientists all agreed and “proved” that the African was a “less evolved” creature and therefore not subject to humane treatment. Almost everything in American society pointed to a hierarchical structure, whites on top and blacks at the bottom.

With everyday objects, forms of entertainment, advertising and public policies confirming this hierarchy, it is possible to see how whites came to believe they were superior and how some blacks could internalize these images, practices, attitudes and policies and come to see themselves as inferior and to accept the role of target. It’s also difficult for many to see the negative impact of racist games when playing them is associated with fondness of yesteryear.

 As much as we’d like to think that the attitudes that allowed such dehumanizing of blacks are “all in the past,” that is a very naïve concept. As much as the Internet allows us to see the ephemera of the past, it also allows us to see into dark corners of the present. Shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin, for instance, you could buy on the Internet gun targets of a faceless young person in a hoodie, carrying a box of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, to use for “practice.” $16.95 for a pack of ten.

I’m suspicious that many folks, viewing for the first time the Popeye cartoon mentioned above, would find it just “humorous,” not dehumanizing. And would ridicule anyone who complained about the implications of the scenario in the cartoon, as being too “politically correct.”

We’ve got a long way to go.

Posted in Racism | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Thoroughly American Thanksgiving

rockwell

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The painting was created in November 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. All of the people in the picture were friends and family of Rockwell in Arlington, Vermont, who were photographed individually and painted into the scene. The work depicts a group of people gathered around a dinner table for a holiday meal.

Having been partially created on Thanksgiving Day to depict the celebration, it has become an iconic representation of the Thanksgiving holiday and family holiday gatherings in general. The Post published Freedom from Want with a corresponding essay by Carlos Bulosan as part of the Four Freedoms series. (Source)

Almost everyone has seen this famous Rockwell painting. It captures the warm, cozy feeling of a down-home, old-fashioned American Thanksgiving that most folks yearn for. Even if their lifestyle doesn’t actually allow for such a gathering. But I discovered that there are lots of “alternate” Thanksgiving portraits on the Web. Perhaps you’ll identify more with one of these. Or at least get a chuckle from some.

trailer folk

yuppie

super

muppets

barbie

nascar

disney

simpsons

preppers.jpg

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You’ll Find That You’re In the Rotogravure

You’ll Find that You’re In the Rotogravure

In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade.

On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.

Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet,
And of the girl I’m taking to the Easter parade.

Irving Berlin had originally written the “Easter Parade” song for a 1933 Broadway musical revue, As Thousands Cheer. It was later featured being sung by Bing Crosby in his 1942 movie, Holiday Inn.

You don’t hear this old song much any more. In fact, I doubt that most young people have ever heard it. But back before the 1970s, when everyone in your home town listened to the same one local AM radio station, it would have been a regular part of the musical diet of everyone, played endlessly as part of the Easter Song Playlist leading up to Easter. (Along with “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” probably sung by Gene Autry.)

I can understand why it’s not played much these days. I’m in my 60s, but even I find the old crooning ballads of the 1940s pretty boring in the 21st century. Actually, I didn’t care for them even back in the 1950s (especially once Rock and Roll got going…Buddy Holly beat out Bing Crosby immediately, and the Beatles kept him on the run.) Then again, if any of my readers are nostalgic for that old syrupy sound, here’s the original version of the song, sung by Bing in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.

As a kid listening to the song on the radio in the 1950s, I remember wondering what a “rotogravure” was, but no one ever told me. It wasn’t mentioned by the DJ on the radio, and I never thought to ask my parents—or look it up in a dictionary.

But of course now, Google and Wikipedia are just a click away. So a few years back I finally thought to look it up. Turns out rotogravure refers to two things. It is first a specific printing process that uses a rotating drum to mass produce a printed document. And instead of being made by a “plate” with raised letters coated with ink and pressed on the paper, it is made by grooves engraved into the surface of the drum, which hold ink and release it onto the paper, including a variety of colors when used, for instance, to print a Sunday comic section of a paper.

And then the term rotogravure also came to refer to the special newspaper sections of photographs which were printed with this process starting around the turn of the last century.

Rotogravure

Once a staple of newspaper photo features, the rotogravure process is still used for commercial printing of magazines, postcards, and corrugated (cardboard) product packaging.

…In the 1930s–1960s, newspapers published relatively few photographs and instead many newspapers published separate rotogravure sections in their Sunday editions. These sections were devoted to photographs and identifying captions, not news stories.

Actually, this Wiki author got it wrong on this entry. The newspapers started printing Rotogravure photo sections much earlier than 1930. The process had been perfected by 1879, but was only profitable if used for high-volume printing, so didn’t take off until the big city newspapers geared up to using it, shortly after the turn of the century. It allowed the papers to print high-quality reproductions of illustrations and photographs, in both black and white and color, on a mass scale, on inexpensive newsprint paper.

… Newspapers offered an efficient way to use rotogravure printing because of the industry’s economies of scale. Etching a metal cylinder to produce a page of rotogravure was expensive, and high volume printing was essential in order to reduce the cost per page. Publishers who invested in the new technology, however, were rewarded. Rotogravure printing is so consistent that color variations are rare, ink does not smear, and pages can be handled (and bundled for shipping) immediately. Newly equipped newspapers were able to print large pictorial sections that increased readership and advertising revenue.

On Christmas, 1912, the New York Times published the first complete rotogravure section and similar pictorial sections began to appear in any newspaper able to afford the cost of the press and cylinders. By the end of World War I [1918], forty-seven American newspapers included rotogravures in their Sunday issues, a number that increased as the financial benefits of rotogravure became evident to newspaper publishers.  Rotogravure sections published during the war documented the war effort, popularized classic paintings, detailed the accomplishments of high society, and captured the carefree life of everyday Americans that co-existed with the ferocity of World War I.  [Source]

The 1949 Easter Parade movie which featured the song was “set” in 1911. Here is a scene from the movie in which a Rotogravure newspaper photographer is taking a street candid photo of the glamorous character played by Ann Miller.

1949annmiller

Look closely at the camera that the newsman is using. I’m pretty sure it’s the same model of a 1911 camera shown below.

1911camera

And here’s the real thing, a sample page of a rotogravure section from a Syracuse, NY, paper in 1930. That’s NY Governor Franklin Roosevelt—a paraplegic polio victim himself—visiting young polio victims.

1930rotoFDR

Here are a few more Roto pages from 1913 through the 1930s.

New Orleans, 1913: Pretty scenes about the area. 

1913roto

New York, 1919. The photo is from a the 1917 Battle of the Somme. 

1919NYtimesabout1917

New Orleans, 1923: Contemporary actresses and dancers.

1923roto

New Orleans, 1924: A beauty contest winner, and a spread showing imagined fashions of the year 2000. 

1924rotofashion2000

Boston, 1926: Sports spreads were exceptionally popular topics for Rotogravure sections.

1926bostonfootball

Minneapolis, 1927: A photo about a dramatic train wreck in Georgia.

1927minn

1931, Minneapolis: Just as on Facebook today, pics of cute kids and animals were very popular for Rotogravure sections. 

1931minne

Ft. Wayne, February 9, 1935: Two pics of Lincoln, no doubt related to his February 12 birthday; and a pic of five year old Shirley Temple with her “favorite leading man” of the time, Jimmy Dunn, who had joined her in four movies in 1934. 

1935ftwayne

Philadelphia, 1937: Full color Rotogravure section featuring latest fashions. 

1937philenquirer

“Hooray for Hollywood,” another famous song from the 1930s (used in the soundtrack for Academy Award ceremonies right up to today) refers to rotogravures too. It describes young women “…armed with photos from local rotos” who want to become movie stars. In other words, these young women would work at catching the attention of newspaper Rotogravure photographers wherever they could around town, so that they could get their photos in the paper as often as possible, and then clip them out to paste in their professional portfolio to show prospective film employers in Hollywood.

Why did newspapers so quickly adopt the idea of Rotogravure sections even though it meant a large original investment in new equipment?

In 1932 a George Gallup “Survey of Reader Interest in Various Sections of Sunday Newspapers to Determine the Relative Value of Rotogravure as an Advertising Medium” found that these special rotogravures were the most widely read sections of the paper and that advertisements there were three times more likely to be seen by readers than in any other section. [Wiki: Rotogravure]

With umpty-billion photographs available for display with just a mouse-click on the Web these days, it’s almost hard to get your mind around a time when it was a big deal to get to see a few photos in your local newspaper! Then again, links to webpages showing collections of unusual, funny, or exceptionally stunningly beautiful photographs are regularly shared on Facebook in our time. And the main reason they are pulled together by the Web creators is the same reason newspapers used to have Rotogravure sections. As the phrase goes now, the photos are “Click Bait” to get more people to come to the webpage and view ads! So the lesson of the Rotogravures is still applicable today. I don’t know about you, but even with those umpty-billion photos available on the web, I never get tired of seeing special photos. Yes, a picture still is “worth a thousand words.”

tankman

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