Scandalous Furniture

I cannot imagine attempting to work regularly at my computer desk without my “swivel chair”! When we go on trips, and I have to put up with sitting in a regular chair at a tiny table in a motel room as a temporary place to check my Facebook feed, I am reminded just HOW much I love my swivel chair, which is much like the one pictured here. I hate the screeching sound chair legs make when you screech them across the floor to get your legs out from under the desk. Or, if you are sitting in a carpeted area, how difficult it is to scoot a rigid chair at all…even with casters. Being able to just rotate your chair seat in order to extricate yourself from your desk is so convenient!


It never occurred to me until today to wonder just when the first swivel chair was invented, to know whom I might “thank” for this  modern convenience. I came across this tidbit while looking up something else. I was surprised at how long ago it was invented, and who was the inventor. And that you can actually see the very first model. Perhaps you will be surprised too. Look for the pic at the end of the quote.

A swivel or revolving chair is a chair with a single central leg that allows the seat to spin around. Swivel chairs can have wheels on the base allowing the user to move the chair around their work area without getting up. This type is common in modern offices and is often also referred to as office chairs.

Using an English-style Windsor chair of which was possibly made and purchased from Francis Trumble or Philadelphia cabinet-maker Benjamin Randolph, Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair in 1776.

Jefferson heavily modified the Windsor chair and incorporated top and bottom parts connected by a central iron spindle, enabling the top half known as the seat, to swivel on casters of the type used in rope-hung windows.

When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, Jefferson’s swivel chair is purported to be where he drafted the United States Declaration of Independence. Jefferson later had the swivel chair sent to his Virginia plantation, Monticello, where he later built a “writing paddle” onto its side in 1791. Since 1836, the chair has been in the possession of the American Philosophical Society located in Philadelphia. [Wiki]

jefferson swivel

You can actually have your own Jefferson-inspired spindle-backed swivel chair for your own office. A reproduction can be purchased for only $1,400.


I am, of course, also grateful to the person who finally thought to add casters to the bottoms of the legs of office chairs, and ESPECIALLY to the person who started the trend to generously padding office chairs! Even with its swivel mechanism, I would go crazy having to sit in a spindle-backed chair like Thomas’s all day! And I just found out who that person may be that added both of those features, and did so much earlier than I would have suspected…


The Centripetal Spring Chair or Armchair was a 19th-century American office chair, and one of the first modern designs for office chairs.

Designed in 1849 by the American inventor Thomas E. Warren (b. 1808), the chair was produced by the American Chair Company in Troy, New York. Made of cast iron and varnished steel with wood and velvet upholstery, it measured 107 × 61 × 71 centimeters with headrest and armrests, and had a seat height of 48 centimeters.

The chair exhibited all features of today’s office chairs except adjustable lumbar support: it allowed tilt movement in all directions and had a revolving seat, caster wheels for ease of movement, as well as a headrest and armrests in the armchair variant. Tilting was achieved through the flexion of the four large C-shaped steel springs on which the seat rested, using the sitter’s feet as a fulcrum. The modernity of its design, which included an innovative use of cast iron for the frame, was visually downplayed by hiding the springs behind a dense passementerie (an elaborate trim) and by rendering the frame in the nostalgic, gilded Rococo Revival style.

But it was perhaps introduced a bit before its time…

After it was first presented at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the chair had little success outside the USA: it was deemed immoral because it was too comfortable. The Victorian morality of the time valued rigid, unsupportive seats that allowed sitters to demonstrate refinement, willpower and morality through an upright posture. [Wiki]

I am sure glad to live in an age where I can freely purchase and use a XXX-rated office chair!

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An American Hero

My mother, Pearlie (Allen) Newbauer, died in 2009 at the age of 87. She had been born in Nebraska in 1922. A couple of years later she was blessed with a baby brother, Wallace Allen. Here are Frank and Irene Allen and their first two children, Pearlie and Wallace.

Wallace was a cheerful child who brought joy to his parents and siblings.

Wallace turned 18 right in the thick of World War 2, and like so many other young men of his generation found himself in the military. His choice was the U.S. Army Air Force. That’s him posing proudly in his dress uniform with his family, between Pearlie (on the left) and their younger sister, Maxine, and then between Maxine and Pearlie.

Pearlie loved her brother dearly, and was devastated when word came late in the war that he had died in an air battle over France, while serving as a bomber tail gunner. As I was growing up, she never talked much about him, but there was always a large framed copy of that photo above of him as a little boy, and another of him in his uniform, displayed prominently in my parents’ home wherever they lived. Hanging in a closet was his WW2 brown leather bomber jacket.

In 1986, Pearlie suffered a massive stroke, which left her paralyzed on one side and unable to read and write for the rest of her life. My father, Bob, cared for her at home until just before he died in 2009, and she died three months after he did. Since Pearlie couldn’t read, and had no way to really indulge in any hobbies, Bob was always looking for things to help her while away the long hours. Her memory for incidents of the past had not been affected by her brain injury, and her sense of nostalgia was strong.

So one day in 2001 he dug out a big box of letters Pearlie had kept since WW2. Many of them were no doubt sent between the two of them—they had married in 1942, and Bob served with the Marines in the South Pacific. She wanted to rummage through the letters and have him read some to her. One 1945 letter really caught her attention. It was from a man named Morris Sunshine, and was addressed to her parents in Traverse City, Michigan. Morris had been a good friend of Wallace in the military, and he was writing to mention he hoped to make a trip to deliver his condolences to the family in person.

Pearlie remembered learning that Morris had indeed come for that visit and had spent a few hours sharing thoughts about Wallace with Frank and Maxine who were home at the time, but then the family never heard from him again. She had inherited the letter when her mother Irene had died in the 1980s and had preserved it in her collection for years. When she saw it, and my dad read the message in it to her, it brought in a sweeping melancholy about the loss of her brother so young. She wondered what he had been like during his years in the service, what others thought of him, and wished there was some way to contact the man belonging to this voice from the past who might be able to fill in some blanks for her. Morris would, of course, be past 75 years old himself, and she assumed the chances of finding him somewhere in the US would be close to zero. My dad made a couple of attempts to trace him through the return address on the 56 year old letter, and phone books in the state where he had lived as a young man, but had no success.

Then they happened to mention Mother’s yearning to me on the phone one day. And of course I immediately thought of Google.

It took perhaps ten minutes to find him, but finally on a webpage put up by the USAAF WW2 384th Bombardment Group (Station 106 Grafton-Underwood England) I found a little pic of Staff Sergeant Morris Sunshine.

The picture was on a website section called “Real Stories of Honor,” and accompanied a story written by S/Sgt Sunshine titled “Mission to St. Lo.”

How did I know that this was the right Morris Sunshine? Because as I looked at the caption on the picture of his bomber squadron illustrating the story, I was startled to notice one of the men in the pic was “S/Sgt Wallace F. Allen.” My uncle. And, even more poignantly and shockingly, as I read the story I finally realized that it was a description of the bombing run during which Wallace was killed by German fire! What are the chances of this?! Morris, a top turret gunner, described Wallace as his best friend, and told of the moment he realized Wallace was dead. And there was no chance he could forget the date—it was the day after his own 20th birthday, July 25, 1944.

At that moment I felt like I had entered the Twilight Zone! I had been taken back by Google to a frozen moment in time that was of major personal significance to my own family.

And I also realized that I had been given an opportunity to get in touch with a Time Traveler who could take my mother back to 1945 to get a glimpse… alive, not dead … of her brother.

There was no contact information for Morris on the website, so I wrote to the webmaster and explained my situation, describing my aging mother and how much it would mean to her to actually hear from Morris Sunshine in person, perhaps by phone. She replied promptly. She had sent my inquiry along to him.

Dear Pam,

I am forwarding this message from Morris at his request. The only way he can communicate with you or your family effectively is by e-mail, as Morris himself so eloquently describes below. Please take care in your communique with Morris, and let him set the rules. He is my special friend.

Your friend –

Carol S

From Morris to Carol:

Dear Carol,

Please get in touch with Pam Dewey for me and tell her that I cannot speak to her by phone because of the strong emotional factor despite the passage of more than 50 years. Previous experience shows that strong emotions take my voice away and I begin to dissolve. Very embarrassing for everyone while I try to find my tongue. So the only way we can “talk” is by computer keyboard.

I do have Pam Dewey’s e-mail address and I will contact her soon. And though I am pleased to be of service to Wallace Allen’s family—he was my dearest friend—I need to put on a special suit of psychological armor before I go into those dark and dusty places in my memory. It’s very rusty, it does not fit very well, and it pinches badly in certain places, so she will have to be patient.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the easiest thing for you to do would be to forward a copy of this letter to her.

Thanks and best wishes.


I certainly understood Morris’s ground rules, and was just thrilled that he was willing to communicate by email with my family. In fact, the two emails he subsequently sent to our family left us with a permanent record of his gracious comments. They were indeed of great comfort to my mother.

Here then is the trip down memory lane into the past that Morry provided for Pearlie:

Email 1

I first met Wallace Allen at the Pyote (Texas) Army Air Corp base where we were assigned to a B-17 aircrew. That probably was in the early months of 1944. All of us had been to air gunnery school in Nevada but did not know what gunnery position we would ultimately occupy until we were assigned to a crew. The crew, as best as I can recall, consisted of Pilot Harlan Peck, copilot Bill Jennings, Navigator Al Bell, Bombardier Jerry Twomey, waist gunner George Hunter, Ball turret gunner, name momentarily forgotten, tail gunner Wallace Allen, waist gunner 2, Frank Rancatore, top turret gunner, me, and Max Algase, radio gunner. The first four people I mentioned were, of course, officers.

Pyote, Texas was in the western desert area of Texas. The sand blew and it was hot, but we were young and willing. I have no memories of Wallace in Texas. I know that we hardly ever went to town because Pyote had nothing to see and we were too young to drink anything but soda pop. There were probably l0,000 guys to every Pyotean girl. So we mostly stayed on base. I remember that every gunner tried out every gunnery position on a B-17 and except in one case, freely chose the one that they wanted. The one case was top turret. George Hunter wanted that position, but the pilot said that he was too short, so he assigned me to that position. Therefore, if Wallace was a tail gunner he chose that position.

(FYI, I am in irregular communication with the daughter of the ball turret gunner—we called him ”Oakie”—but he has alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember me at all. I am also in regular touch with Al Bell, the navigator, who was with us, I think, on that fatal mission to St. Lo. I also am in touch with the son of my bombardier (Jerry Twomey) and learned that he died a long time ago. I am not in touch with anyone else on the crew despite have made strong efforts since I bought my computer 2.5 years ago. (So, you see, Pam, I am a computer novice.) No doubt, some are now dead.

My memories of how we got to England are vague too. In April, 1944 we went to North Dakota (Grand Isle?) and picked up a brand new B-17 which we then flew to Newfoundland, Canada. From there, we flew to Northern Ireland, refueled and landed again in Scotland. On the night flight over the Atlantic, the pilot lost control of the airplane, it went into a steep dive from about l0,000 to 2,000 feet and he was lucky to have pulled it up before we hit the water. (The medical problem is called vertigo.) So we almost didn’t get to England.

I remember that we went by train to what was called a redeployment depot where newly arrived crews stayed until they were assigned to a Bomber Group. We could not leave the depot and were frequently buzzed by US and English fighters. They wanted us to learn what their planes looked like so that we would not erroneously shoot at them. We received instruction on English culture and how American English and English English are two different languages. We also got a lecture on venereal disease and on military law as it applied to desertion.

The depot was in the countryside and we saw many houses with thatched roofs. We thought that the English must be very poor.

Our biggest fear was that we would be assigned to an unlucky bomber group, a group that had lots of casualties. One such outfit, by reputation, was the 100th Bomb Group. If you wanted to frighten somebody you said, “I hear that your crew is going to the 100th!” But after waiting around until weeks, we learned that we were going to the 384th Bomb Group in Grafton-Underwood and took a train there. What happened to the new B-17 that we brought to England, I don’t know.

More later. Autobiography is hard to write. Talk to me, if the Internet will let you.

Best wishes.

Morry Sunshine

Email 2

I have been thinking about what to say to you and your family about Wallace who was my best friend in the Air Force, or Air Corp, as it was called then. After the war, you want to forget about all that and with the urge to forget, you do forget. And with the passage of so many years, I have only a few memories of Wallace. I remember that we went on leave together to London with other members of the crew sometime after D-day. I think that we shared a room together. Once in a while we went to the local town near our air base which was always crowded with soldiers. I think that Wallace and I once took leave together and went to Birmingham. Why Birmingham, I cannot say. It was our bad luck that the survivors of the 101st Parachute Division arrived back from their bloody fight in Normandy when we got there. The 101st tore the town apart celebrating. The British police and the American Military Police had their hands full and the streets were filled with drunken paratroopers. I think Wallace and I decided to return to our hotel where we met up with the crowd I am talking about and our leave was spent mostly meeting paratroopers and trying to keep out of fights.

I suppose that we were about the same age. When I flew my first combat mission about May 20, l944, I was 19 years old, really just a kid. I suppose Wallace—I always called him Allen and he called me Sunshine—was about the same age. In every respect we were ignorant and innocent. We didn’t like Hitler and the Nazis and the Germans, and it was our job to fight. Beyond that our historical knowledge was nil.

I was a city kid, and I thought of Wallace as a farm boy but he really wasn’t. I can best describe him by saying that his main feature was “purity.” By that I mean, he was idealistic, sweet, never aggressive, never used bad language, never critical of people who deserved criticism, tolerant, uncomplex, humorous, willing to listen to people he disagreed with, and for all these reasons, was attractive to girls and respected by his crew and bunkmates. Actually, if Wallace had a girl l back in Michigan, he never mentioned her and I suppose that he did not.

A B-17 bomber crew was a small group of tightly-knit people because we depended on each other. I remember on one of our early missions near the end of May, 1944, the ball turret gunner—I remember his name now, William T. Chapmon—realized that he had forgotten to bring his parachute aboard. Unfortunately, he remembered as we were approaching the English Channel on our way to the most heavily defended target in Europe: Berlin. If Chapmon had asked the pilot to return to base, the pilot would done so, but we would not have made that mission. In circumstances like that the whole crew would have had to make a seeming extra mission. In the end, the enlisted men kept Chapmon’s secret. He was ready to sacrifice his life if need be so that the crew would not have to “abort” the mission.

But coming back to 1944, perhaps the best thing that I can do is describe the world of aerial war that Wallace, and his crew and thousands of other fliers faced that summer in 1944. I will do that in my next e-mail.

Actually, after receiving that second email, we lost contact with Morry and never heard from him again. I am suspicious that given his age and serious health issues, he likely passed on before he could write again.

But actually, he did provide that description of “aerial war” in his original story that I had found on the 384th website. I hope my readers will go there to read it, as it has historical significance as well as personal significance, and should particularly be of interest to people fascinated with WW2 history. Below is the portion of the story that discusses the circumstances of my Uncle Wallace’s death. For the historical context leading up to this, and the aftermath, along with some insight into the general war efforts of the time as they affected USAAF forces, see the whole story of “Mission to St Lo” at the 384th “Real Stories of Honor” website section.

Bomber crew, 546th Squadron, 384the Bombardment Group, S/Sgt Wallace F. Allen, tail gunner, back row, third from left.

I remember July 24, l944 for a variety of reasons: first, we were being asked to directly intervene in a major ground offensive; second, the mission would be flown at a dangerously low altitude for slow-moving heavy bombers; third, the bombing had to be very precise lest we bomb our own troops; and lastly, it was my 20th birthday. I can still remember the huge groan of disbelief as we were told that the target would be bombed from l2,000 feet, an altitude so low that we would not need oxygen and the German flak gunners would not need gun sights. (Everybody had a huge respect for the German 88’s.)

If memory serves, this was not the first time we had intervened in a major ground battle. As best as I can recall, we had flown a bombing mission for General Montgomery’s British-Canadian forces trying to break out near Caen. But on that mission we bombed Caen from high altitude, as did the RAF. (It didn’t work, hence the later attempt at St. Lo.)

That morning as I got to our B-17, I was not thinking about my birthday. I was trying, like everybody else, to find an extra flak suit to spread out around the base of my top turret. I think that our crew chief went through planes that were not flying that mission and came back with a few spares. They ended up laying in the waist walkway. It was a day for flak suits, flak helmets, and good luck charms. The only thing we had going for us was the hope that the bomber groups leading the way would take out the flak.

Of course, the mission on July 24th, l944 failed. We could not find the bomb line that separated friendly from enemy forces despite our low altitude, so our squadron brought its bombs home. We had never done that before and I know I was praying that a bomb would not break loose in the bomb bay as we touched down. Because we turned back before crossing the bomb line, I do not think that we caught much flak. It was a classic milk run as far as my crew was concerned. And we certainly hoped that General Bradley could get along without us in the future…a badly mistaken view.

On July 25th we learned that it was St. Lo, again at 12,000 feet. This time I was really worried. We had previously flown to Big B [Berlin] and I had seen lots of nasty flak: big black puffs with angry red-glowing centers following us closely as we dropped our bombs from 33,000 (repeat, 33,000) feet! And we were throwing out hundreds of bundles of chaff too. So the basis for “concern,” i.e., fear, was there. If they were too close at 33,000 feet, think what could they do to you at l2,000! And this time we would not have the advantage of surprise.

The crew chiefs were all running around trying to find spare flak suits again. I should not be surprised if a couple of extra parachute chest packs were put aboard. As I looked at a B-17 crew nearby suiting up and getting ready to start engines, I did not see any brave men. I saw lots of guys hoping that someone would announce that the mission was scrubbed, permanently.

July 25

I have no memories of taking off or crossing the British Channel. … Our squadron was a bit spread out and the pilots were trying hard to get into close formation. As the top turret gunner, I was watching overhead to protect against falling bombs from friendly aircraft. The ball turret gunner was doing the same thing. The navigator and the toggelier were looking for markers indicating the bomb line. The bomb doors were open. We were flying the mission “as briefed,” at about 12,000 feet.

As top turret gunner, I could not see the target area. Looking forward I could see the bomber groups queued up ahead of us. The flak was greeting them. It was not Berlin, Leipzig or Munich but there was enough to trigger the adrenaline and cause the heart beat rate to double, maybe triple.

About that time I heard the tail gunner, S/Sgt. Wally Allen, call out, “Flak! Behind us, and low.” I swung my turret to six o’clock and looked. Black flak tracking us and getting closer. Allen said something again, I don’t remember exactly what. The next burst was closer, still behind us but the flak’s altitude was improving. Projecting where the next shell would burst, I was convinced that we were finished, dead. I keyed the mike and shouted, “Pull ‘er up!” Naturally, as we were on the bomb run, there was no option to maneuver and we didn’t.

The shell exploded with an audible noise behind and just below us. I was astonished to still be alive and that the plane was still flying. I don’t know where the next flak burst went but I do remember the toggelier shouting “Bombs away.” The formation seemed to loosen up and as we turned away from the target I looked down but could only see smoke and dust in the target area.

When we cleared the target area the navigator asked the crew to check in. There was no response from the tail gunner. The pilot ordered one of the waist gunners to investigate. I assumed it was merely some sort of intercom problem. But in a few minutes the waist gunner reported that Wally Allen had been fatally wounded.

As soon as we hit the Channel, the pilot got permission to break away from the Group and head straight to Grafton Underwood. I climbed out of my turret and went back to the waist. I thought that there might be some sort of mistake. The two waist gunners were sitting on the floor. I peered back into the tail and saw that Wally’s parachute had been opened and used to cover his body. I asked George Hunter if he was sure that Allen was dead. He said that he was sure. He did not know where the flak had hit him but there was blood all over. There was nothing to be done, according to George.

I sat down on floor near the waist guns, stunned, refusing to believe that my best friend was dead. Death was something that happened to other people, in other planes, not here and not now. I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I was crying or shaking but I remember somebody putting an arm around me and offering me a cigarette. I was just twenty and it was the first cigarette I had ever smoked.

Months later, after completing my tour and returning to the States, I went to Traverse City, Michigan to see Wally Allen’s family. We had made certain promises to each other, so I had to go. And I told his father and sister about what we did for General Bradley at St. Lo.

…In 1995, I contracted tuberculosis. The doctor asked me if I was a smoker. I said I had quit years ago. He asked me when I first started smoking and added somewhat sympathetically, it was okay to make a reasonable guess. I said, “I know exactly when I started smoking: it was July 25, l944.” He looked at me in amazement. “How do you know that?” I replied, “That was the day we bombed St. Lo.” Still amazed, he said, “Where is St. Lo?”

It was, of course, sad to read of the details of Wallace’s death, but it strangely brought closure for my mother, especially when combined with the vignette’s of Wallace’s life that Morris had shared. I’m still amazed a decade later that my family was able to take this trip back in time via the Twilight Zone I encountered via Google Search.

What better epitaph could a man want than what Morris Sunshine wrote about Wallace F. Allen:

I can best describe him by saying that his main feature was “purity.” By that I mean, he was idealistic, sweet, never aggressive, never used bad language, never critical of people who deserved criticism, tolerant, uncomplex, humorous, willing to listen to people he disagreed with, and for all these reasons, was attractive to girls
and respected by his crew and bunkmates.

Posted in World War 2 | Tagged | 3 Comments

Mickey Mouse Saves the Day!

mickeycolorOn January 7th, 1942, one month after Pearl Harbor, T.W. Smith, Jr., the owner of the Sun Rubber Company, and his designer, Dietrich Rempel, with Walt Disney’s approval introduced a protective mask for children. This design of the Mickey Mouse Gas Mask for children was presented to Major General William N. Porter, Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service.

prototype mickey

waltAfter approval of the CWS, Sun Rubber Products Company produced sample masks for review. Other comic book character designs were to follow, depending on the success of the Mickey Mouse mask.

mickey2The mask was designed so children would carry it and wear it as part of a game. This would reduce the fear associated with wearing a gas mask and hopefully, improve their wear time and, hence, survivability.

…The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask was designed for small children in a valiant attempt to give them something that would work and still be fun. Ultimately, the Office of Civil Defense bought the M2 Noncombatant Gas Mask for small children to protect them from chemical agents. In tests, with proper coaching and good salesmanship by the leader, young children could be induced to wear the gas mask for extended periods.

mickeykid…The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask was produced as part of the war production program. The Sun Rubber Company produced approximately 1,000 Mickey Mouse gas masks and earned an Army-Navy ‘E’ for excellence in wartime production in 1944. Overall, production of the Noncombatant Gas Masks (and in fact, all gas masks) was one of the most successful production programs of the war. In fact, production had to be curtailed early due to the vast quantity produced.

Of course, celebrity endorsements helped, as usual! Here’s Charlie McCarthy getting his own Mickey Mask.

celebrity model…Thankfully, no chemical attacks occurred in the United States. Mickey Mouse Gas Masks were distributed to senior officials and others during the war as keepsakes. When the war ended, further desire for the mask vanished. It became an old idea whose time had passed. [Source]

Unlike many WW2 collectibles, you won’t likely see any of these masks for sale on Ebay.

…Very few of the Mickey Mouse gas masks survived. The US Army Chemical Museum at Fort McClellan, Alabama, has a hand-made prototype. The 45th Infantry Division Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has a production specimen on permanent display with other gas masks in the combat support area of the museum. The Walt Disney Archives, Burbank, California, has a facepiece without ears, lenses, or a canister, and a mask owned by the founder of the Sun Rubber Company was on display at the Summit County (Ohio) Historical Society’s “Toys Made in Summit County” exhibit in 1982.[ibid]

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The Cure for “Thinking Too Much”!

It was well-known in Victorian times that thinking too much was a health hazard for women. What a relief, then, that John Pemberton came to the rescue of the Weaker Sex with his new Miracle Brew that did indeed “Relieve the Fatigue that comes…from Over-thinking” as promised in the advertisement below.


During the late to mid-19th century, medicines promising to cure multiple ailments from “foul breath,” “irregularities incidental to women” and everything in between proliferated. Many times these bogus medicines were mixed with ice-cold carbonated water and served as cheaper and more refreshing alternatives.

In the spring of 1886, John Stith Pemberton, a Confederate army veteran, had created one of the most elusive and important recipes of all time. This Georgian native mixed sugar, water, kola nut extracts, coca leaf extract, and other secret ingredients into a syrupy concoction that would become the base of the world’s most prolific soft drink the world has ever known. Mixed with soda water, the drink was extremely powerful with cocaine from the coca extract and four times the amount of caffeine of the modern syrup mix. The original recipe of 1886 has since been lost in time. Pemberton’s business partner and Union army veteran, Frank Robinson decided to name the new beverage Coca-Cola. The name derived from its initial selling point: “containing the properties of the wonderful Coca Plant and the famous Cola nuts.” At the time of the drink’s inception, cocaine was a commonly used substance, but was later near-completely eliminated in 1903. [Source]

cokerevives…In the 1880s and 90s, the company utilized lithographs of the young, beautiful, and wealthy. Giving the impression that anyone who was willing to spend a measly five cents could live like the rich for the time it took to enjoy a glass of Coca-Cola. [ibid]

Yes, even if you couldn’t afford the type of shopping trips of the beautiful and wealthy young ladies shown above, you could window-shop-‘til-you-dropped, and then stop by the soda fountain to be “revived and sustained”–and imagine yourself chatting over your glass of Coca Cola with the Rockefellers and Carnegies…before going home to your tenement!

At first the models for the Coke ads were anonymous beautiful and wealthy young ladies. But it didn’t take long for the Coca-Cola company to realize the value of celebrity endorsements.

cokehildaclarkSinger Hilda Clark became the first celebrity model for The Coca-Cola Company. Also known as the First Coca-Cola Girl, Hilda’s image was used on cardboard signs, tin trays, trade cards, bookmarks, drink tickets, and calendars from 1899 to 1903. [Source]

The many moods of Hilda Clark, from prim and proper to a tad sultry graced Coke ads for several years.



Coke calendars became wildly popular around the turn of the century, and Hilda loaned her pretty face and poofy hair to those too.


I don’t know what happened to Hilda, but by 1904 she was replaced by a more regal celebrity.


From 1904 to 1905, Lillian Nordica became the new face of Coca-Cola. Born Lillian Norton in 1857 in Farmington, Maine, Madame Nordica was also a singer who had performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as in many major musical venues in Western Europe and Russia. Early calendars and other promotional items featuring the divas of the time not only launched the popular Coca-Cola Girls advertising platform but Clark and Nordica items had also become some of the greatest hits with vintage Coca-Cola collectors over the years. [ibid]



It would be almost 30 years later before Coke introduced the ultimate celebrity endorser, shown here in 1932 in his very first appearance in a Coke ad.





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Land of the Free…

intern pageant

The details of this photo blew me away when I first saw it and it dawned on me what it portrayed. These are Japanese American children in a World War 2 so-called “relocation camp” (sometimes called an “internment” camp, but never a “concentration camp”—which, however, is essentially what they were.)

On December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States. Within a few months, this entire population was gone. Out of fears of espionage and sabotage along the Pacific, the government removed Japanese American men, women, and children from their homes and placed them in internment camps in the interior of the country. Two-thirds of the internees were U.S. citizens. None of them was ever charged with a crime. [Smithsonian]


The “relocated” Japanese had been in many cases given ten days or less to prepare for the move. Each was allowed to bring from their former homes only what they could carry—and since they had to carry their own blankets and sheets and pillows, that didn’t leave much room for clothing—and toys for children or diapers for babies! The living conditions in the camps were Spartan at best and hellish at worst—their locations were specifically chosen because they were in out of the way places such as a mosquito-infested Arkansas swamp, a barren and bleak area of Utah subject to dust storms, or a spot in northwestern Wyoming where winter temps often reached 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. (Remembering that most of these folks were from California and other west coast areas with very mild winters, not told where they were headed—and thus utterly unprepared to “dress for the weather.”)

As you can see from the photo above, taken at one of the two camps which were hastily constructed in southeast Arkansas, the US government did establish makeshift schools for the children within the camps. (Teacher/grade school student ratio of almost 50/1.) And given the circumstances of their incarceration, it was very important that the children, as well as their parents, do as MUCH as they could to “prove their loyalty” to the USA. Thus the effort at ultra-patriotism for a school pageant. Exactly what the little Japanese child in “blackface” in the center back of this photo was proving is not quite clear to me, other than that this “camp” was in Jim Crow Era Arkansas…

I’m suspicious most Americans know little or nothing about the plight of Japanese Americans in that era. The topic has been pretty hush-hush since shortly after WW2 until very recently. I knew almost nothing of it myself until a “face” was put on the circumstances for me. I happen to subscribe to the Facebook feed of George Takei.


Yes, Sulu from Star Trek. He usually posts just humorous sayings and photos. But a year ago or so he posted some pics of himself during a pilgrimage he had made to Arkansas. Yes, George and his family were interned for a time at one of the two camps that were in Arkansas—perhaps the very one in the Pageant Photo. And he returned to the site in recent times as part of a personal crusade to bring attention to this hush-hush history.

takeinowGeorge Hosato Takei ( April 20, 1937) is an American actor and author, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek. He also portrayed the character in six Star Trek feature films and in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager…Takei was born Hosato Takei in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California to Japanese American parents…In 1942, the Takei family was forced to live in the horse stables of Santa Anita Park before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center for internment in Rohwer, Arkansas. The family was later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. [Wiki]

You can see George describe a bit of this experience from his childhood in this video.

Let’s put another famous face on this dark blot on America’s past:


Yes, “Arnold” also spent time as a child in one of the camps.

Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (June 28, 1932 – November 24, 2005) was an American film and television actor who was well known for playing the roles of Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on Happy Days and Kesuke Miyagi in the The Karate Kid movie series, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1984….[Morita was] born in Isleton, California. He developed spinal tuberculosis at the age of two and spent the bulk of the next nine years in Northern Californian hospitals, including the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco. For long periods he was wrapped in a full-body cast and was told he would never walk. It was during his time at a sanitarium near Sacramento that he was given his stage name, “Pat”. Released from the hospital at age 11 [1943] after undergoing extensive spinal surgery and learning how to walk, Morita was transported from the hospital directly to the Gila River camp in Arizona to join his interned family. […later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California—where he may have been during the same time period as the slightly younger George Takei] [Wiki]

Morita also made a short video describing his camp experiences.

Takei and Morita were both children during WW2. Another famous face we can put on the Internment saga was a bit older, a young adult at the time of the forced “relocation.”


Yes, “Detective Yemana” was also a prisoner in one of the camps.

sooJack Soo […best known for his role as Detective Nick Yemana on the television sitcom Barney Miller] was born Goro Suzuki on a ship traveling from Japan to the United States in 1917. He lived in Oakland, California, and was caught up in the Japanese American internment during World War II and sent to Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Fellow internees recalled him as a “camp favorite” entertainer, singing at dances and numerous events. [Wiki]

I find it painfully ironic that those young American citizens in the Pageant Photo were forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance between their own “lived experiences” of the time, and the hype from their teachers about the “Land of the Free” which no doubt accompanied their little patriotic pageant that year.





Posted in Japanese internment, World War 2 | Leave a comment

A Different Hat for Dr. Seuss

hataloneIf you say “Dr. Seuss” to anyone my age (baby boomer) or younger, what will likely spring to mind is the cover of a book that will have simplistic, silly wording and wildly whimsical drawing. Probably The Cat in the Hat, for starters.


Then again, younger people these days may tend to think of a Seussified movie first, starring the Lorax or Horton.


But actually, Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, didn’t start out as a children’s book writer at all. And from what I can tell, most folks are unaware of his earlier work. So here’s a quick little overview of his career.


First off, there’s that “Dr. Seuss” thing. While in college at Dartmouth in the early 1920s, he had become editor-in-chief of the college humor magazine. But after being caught in a gin-drinking escapade (during prohibition…) he was forced by the college’s dean to quit all his extracurricular activities. In order to stay under the dean’s radar and keep working on the magazine, he gave himself the pseudonym “Seuss,” his mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. He later added the “Dr.” in recognition of his dad’s hope he would get a PhD.

He never did get that PhD, as he dropped out of his English PhD program at Oxford in 1925 before finishing. He did, however, earn several honorary doctorates much later for his literary career.

Geisel’s art career took off shortly after he left college. His first nationally-published cartoon earned him $25 from the Saturday Evening Post in 1927. He soon found work as a writer and illustrator for a popular humor magazine of the time, Judge, and began using his “Dr. Seuss” alias regularly from then on.

The real money wasn’t in humor magazines at the time, though…it was in the advertising industry. And thus Dr. Seuss soon found additional work that provided him a profitable income through doing ads for the Standard Oil Company. Particularly popular was an advertizing campaign for the company’s bug spray, Flit.

flit2flit1flit3His work on the Flit ads brought him attention from other advertisers, and throughout the Depression he had steady work doing ads and artwork for a variety of companies and publications.


During this period he tried his hand at a syndicated comic strip aimed at all ages. The 1935 strip, running only on Sundays in the colored comic section, was quite innovative for the time, and very whimsical. But it only lasted for three months.


In the last few years before WW2, Geisel  began accumulating kudos for a fledgling career in writing aimed directly at children. This included several books:


And then there was THIS one … I’m suspicious it hasn’t been “reissued” in quite a few years. Even though nudity is much more prevalent now, one doesn’t usually expect so much of it right on the cover of a children’s book! (Actually, this is very tame compared to the nudity and other R-rated content in some of the WW2-era animated films Seuss was involved in producing as appealing training films “for the troops”!)


And then came WW2. Early in the war Seuss was working at the New York PM newspaper, particularly doing editorial cartoons. Some of these had to do with somewhat partisan political issues (the paper was “pro-Roosevelt,” leaning toward the Democratic party), but many were just out-and-out “patriotic,” encouraging support of the US war effort. He particularly took out frustration in some of the cartoons on “isolationists” such as Charles Lindbergh who advocated that the US “stay out of the war.” A position that became moot, of course, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.


In 1942, Geisel turned his energies to direct support of the U.S. war effort. First, he worked drawing posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board.


Then, in 1943, he joined the Army as a Captain and was commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, where he wrote films that included Your Job in Germany, a 1945 propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II; Our Job in Japan, and the Private Snafu series of adult army training films.

While in the Army, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Our Job in Japan became the basis for the commercially released film, Design for Death (1947), a study of Japanese culture that won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.  [Wiki:Geisel]

Geisel was adamantly against racism when it applied to African Americans and Jews in America during the war years.


But he was surprisingly “hard-line” when it came to treatment of Japanese Americans, supporting the idea of internment camps because of the alleged danger than many would be “collaborators” with the Japanese homeland. (By war’s end, this was proven to be an unfounded concern.)

japaneseGeisel supported the Japanese American internment during World War II. His treatment of the Japanese and of Japanese Americans, between whom he often failed to differentiate, has struck many readers as a moral blind spot.

On the issue of the Japanese, he is quoted as saying:

“But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.” —Theodor Geisel, quoted in Dr. Seuss Goes to War by Richard H. Minear

But he changed his attitude later.

After the war, though, Geisel overcame his feelings of animosity, using his book Horton Hears a Who! (1954) as an allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan, as well as dedicating the book to a Japanese friend. [ibid]


[Geisel began work on Horton Hears a Who! in the fall of 1953. The book’s main theme, “a person’s a person no matter how small”, was Geisel’s reaction to his visit to Japan, where the importance of the individual was an exciting new concept. Wiki: Horton Hears a Who]

After the war, he continued writing children’s books, and even a movie. Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), based on a Seuss story, won an Oscar in the Animated Short Film category.

But it was a turn of events in 1954 that catapulted Dr. Seuss to his greatest fame as a children’s writer.

In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.”

Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.

The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books written for young children achieved significant international success and they remain very popular today. In 2009, ‘Green Eggs and Ham sold 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat sold 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) sold 409,068 copies—outselling the majority of newly published children’s books. [Wiki: Geisel]

Geisel went on to write many other children’s books, both in his new simplified-vocabulary manner (sold as Beginner Books) and in his older, more elaborate style.

beginner booksgreenfoxhop

Geisel received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the professional children’s librarians in 1980, recognizing his “substantial and lasting contributions to children’s literature”. At the time it was awarded every five years. He won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984 citing his “contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”

About that pseudonym again…I only learned today that I’ve been pronouncing his name incorrectly all along.

Geisel’s most famous pen name is regularly pronounced [sooce] an anglicized pronunciation inconsistent with his German surname (the standard German pronunciation is [zoice] .) He himself noted that it rhymed with “voice” (his own pronunciation being [soice].)  Alexander Liang, one of his collaborators on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, wrote of it:

You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice (or Zoice)

But it turns out that I am OK … almost everyone else has mispronounced it for 75 years or so, and Geisel himself eventually just gave up and started using the mispronunciation too!

Geisel switched to the anglicized pronunciation because it “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose” and because most people used this pronunciation.

My own daughter had a growing set of “Beginner Books” herself back in the 1970s. They were commonly sold in “subscription” form, with a new one coming to your mailbox every month or two. There were a wide variety of authors and illustrators, including Dr. Seuss. And someone named Theo LeSeig.


It was a while before I realized who LeSeig was. Duh.

For books that Geisel wrote and others illustrated, he used the pen name “Theo LeSieg”, starting with I Wish That I Had Duck Feet, published in 1965. “LeSieg” is “Geisel” spelled backward.

So how many children and grandchildren did this beloved author of children’s books have?

Though he devoted most of his life to writing children’s books, Geisel had no children of his own. He would say, when asked about this, “You have ’em; I’ll entertain ’em.”

Which he continues to do to this day.


Posted in Pop Culture | 1 Comment

Pony Tales

Pony Tales

Back in the late 1990s, my husband and I took a trip “out West” from Michigan to visit our daughter who was living in Douglas, Wyoming, at the time.

map1At one point we stopped at a restaurant/gift shop somewhere on the High Plains. I’m guessing it may have been near North Platte, Nebraska. Or maybe Kearney, or Gothenburg.

Whichever it was, the route we were on in western Nebraska matched very closely for a short while the route of the old Pony Express, which went from St. Joseph, Missouri (near the intersection of Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska, located right on the Missouri River) across the Plains and Mountains to Sacramento, California. (Most of the mail was actually headed ultimately to San Francisco. It was transferred at Sacramento from ponies/horses to a steamer that took it the final stretch down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. Occasionally, if a steamer was missed, riders would continue on and deliver the mail to Oakland.)


I don’t think the restaurant was on the exact spot of a Pony Express station, but the PEX was obviously a hot topic in the area, and the gift shop played upon the PEX connection as a tourist attraction, with PEX themed souvenirs.

That was the first place I ever saw this PEX “replica poster.”

pony express

I had heard about the Pony Express in passing since my childhood in the 1950s. It was part of the lore of the Old West that showed up in passing in pop culture such as B-Western movies, cowboy comic books, TV westerns, and so on. But I’d not actually ever read any formal “history” of the institution. Thus I was shocked when I saw that poster. I had always pictured Pony Express riders, sometimes galloping like crazy on their ponies to get away from hostile Indians on their own painted ponies…


…(like in the Charlton Heston movie poster above from 1953) as mature, macho guys in their 30s or 40s.

So what was this about “orphans” and “under 18”??

By the time I got back from that trip, I’d forgotten all about the poster, so never got around to looking into the topic. Only recently did I think to google the history of the Pony Express.

The first thing I learned was that the “historical poster reproduction” I’d seen was actually a “historical FICTION” item. Although the poster shows up all over the Internet, most folks admit that it is not based on any actual document remaining from the heyday of the Pony Express. It is a faux poster.

But the second thing I learned was that the information on the poster wasn’t ALL that far from accurate regarding the nature of the Pony Express. More on that later in this blog entry.

The third thing I learned was that I had entertained for my whole life a false notion that the Pony Express was a major feature of American life of the second half of the 19th century. I never thought through how long it may have been in business, but I had been left with the impression that it had been around for, oh, say 50 or 60 years. Instead I learned that it lasted a total of barely 19 months! The first riders headed out on the cross-country trip in April, 1860, and the last in October, 1861. And, in fact, they had traveled the whole route for barely 11 months…for the final eight months they were only making trips from Salt Lake City to Sacramento.

Nineteen months?? How on earth did the institution get such a major and enduring reputation based on a run of 19 months? We’ll revisit that question after we sort through some of the established historical facts about the Pony Express.


Up to 1860, if a person or business on the East Coast of the US (or the US government, for that matter) wanted to get a message to or from the West Coast, they could expect for it to take at least a month or so by ship around the tip of South America (this was long before the Panama Canal, of course), or three weeks minimum (sometimes up to months) via stagecoach. This was a major inconvenience for many businesses, as well as for the government. In 1850, California became a state, but with the communication lag, it was difficult for it to take an active part in the nation. This became particularly significant in relation to such things as national elections…and even more critical in the time leading up to the Civil War.

The telegraph had been invented in the 1840s, and telegraph communications spread quickly throughout the eastern US. But the telegraph lines had not yet crossed the country. The young railroad industry grew quickly also, with 9,000 miles of track by 1850. But it would be 1869 before a transcontinental railroad was completed, and mail could be delivered by train. So California was left out of the loop.

Into the gap in 1860 stepped the company of Russell, Majors & Waddell, with a plan to speed mail across the country via a relay system of horseback riders. (Although they dubbed their brainstorm the Pony Express, actually they pressed into service both horses and ponies.)

In 1860, there were about 157 Pony Express stations that were about 10 miles apart along the Pony Express route. [Which was about 1,900 miles total.] This was roughly the distance a horse could travel at a gallop before tiring.

At each station stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him.

mochilaThe employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did.

The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety.

The mochila could hold 20 pounds of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse. Included in that 20 pounds were a water sack, a Bible, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver. Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds on the horse’s back.

Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, changed about every 75–100 miles, and rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a quickly moving horse.

And there’s where you get those under-18 orphans. Not too many grizzled 40-somethings weighed 125 pounds or less. So indeed the business did attract teenagers, looking for excitement…and a good paying job. While the average worker of the time earned 50 cents to $1 a day in most unskilled jobs, the Pony Express riders made at least $25 a week—more if they had a particularly dangerous stretch to ride!

In fact, it wasn’t unheard of for kids as young as 11 or 12 to run away from home and try to join the ranks. Some succeeded. Especially if they had no family in the first place and were perhaps living in a foster home under rough conditions. Some riders ended up making good money and moving on to productive lives after the closing of the Pony Express business. Some didn’t.

Billy Tate was a 14 year old Pony Express rider who rode the express trail in Nevada near Ruby Valley. During the Paiute uprising of 1860 he was chased by a band of Paiute Indians on horseback and was forced to retreat into the hills behind some rocks where he killed seven of his assailants in a shoot-out before being killed himself. His body was found riddled with arrows but was not scalped, a sign that the Paiutes honored their enemy. [Wiki]

I don’t know how old Frank Webner, the Pony Express rider in this picture, was when it was taken. But by the looks of his “baby face,” I’d put him about Billy’s age.

There were older riders though, as you can see from this photo. The two fellows in the back were among the first men to ride the trail, and the two fellows seated were later riders. All look to be at least 30 or older. They just must all be pretty “small and wiry”!


My dad was a US postal worker with a rural mail route for much of his life up to retirement in the 1980s. He drove a jeep through snow drifts in northern Michigan, getting stuck in the snow out in the country no doubt numerous times each winter. He got up to go to work VERY early in the morning, since he had to sort all the mail before he could get on the road. But he certainly never had to “risk his life” to make sure all the clients on his route got their postcards and birthday cards from friends and family, bills, Sears catalogs, and all the rest that we all got—back before email and the Internet!

Those wiry, lightweight men literally did risk their lives over and over (riding for hours through blizzards and other lousy weather much of the time, no doubt)—just so, for instance, some business man in New York City could get some details on shipments from his counterpart in San Francisco. For $5 (later dropped to $1) you could send a .5 ounce letter. You could also send a telegram from New York to St. Joseph, then have it printed out and transported to California by Pony Express. In California it would be delivered to the first telegraph station, which would telegraph its contents on to its destination. That would cost you $3.45 for the first ten words (plus whatever the telegraph companies charged you for their part in the procedure.)

letterpost mark

None of this was down in the price range of the average man on the street, of course. In 2013 dollars, the $5 would be about $75. Which would be over two months’ salary for most folks. Probably not that many birthday greetings were sent via Pony Express.

The Pony Express was used frequently by the British Government in forwarding its Asiatic correspondence to London. In 1860, a report of the activities of the English fleet off the coast of China was sent through from San Francisco eastward. For the transmission of these dispatches the British Government paid $135 for Pony Express charges.

The commercial houses of the Pacific Coast cities did not appear to mind a little expense in forwarding their business letters. Often there would be up to twenty-five $1 “Pony” stamps and the same number of Government stamps (for a total of $27.50) on a single envelope.

So it wasn’t a “common” method of communication. But it did do a brisk business for the times.

For the nineteen months that the Pony Express was in service 308 runs were made (westbound and eastbound) for a total distance of 616,000 miles. A total of 34,753 pieces of mail was carried. Of that number 18,456 pieces of mail originated in San Francisco, 4900 originated in Sacramento. At the same time San Francisco received 9553 pieces of mail from the east; Sacramento received 1844. [Source]

And for some fairly significant facets of American history, it was critical.

The Pony Express can be credited with keeping California in the Union during the dark days preceding the civil war when there was a real threat that California would side with the Confederacy. There was some pro-secessionist sentiment in Benicia. Critical, was the question of General Johnston’s loyalty to the Union, for he commanded the entire Department of California. Edmund Randolf, who was a Virginian loyal to the Union, told James McClatchey in 1861 that Johnston was disloyal and was going to turn the Benicia Arsenal’s arms over to the rebellious south. McClatchey hurried a secret message by the new Pony Express to President Lincoln. Brigadier General Sumner, whose loyalty to the Union was unquestioned, was sent to relieve General Johnston. Before General Sumner arrived in Benicia, General Johnston resigned his commission and went to the South.

All through the spring and summer of 1861 the far west followed the tidings of the ebb and flow of battle, calls for volunteers, the Battle of Bull Run, and the lists of dead, wounded and missing. Because of the rapid communication afforded the military and the timely delivery of news of early Union victories, California and its gold stayed in the Union. [Ibid.]

Although the Pony Express did a lot of good for the short time it was active…it didn’t do a lot of good for its owners. Throughout the whole period it was in service, the PEX only grossed about $90,000—which barely paid for the purchase of the horses used. By the time it went out of business, its owners took a loss of $200,000.  So it’s probably just as well that it didn’t have to keep struggling to “stay alive.” The PEX didn’t close up shop specifically because of the losses…it closed down because it was no longer needed. The first transcontinental telegraph line connecting Sacramento and Omaha, Nebraska went into service on October 24, 1861, (other lines already connected Omaha and points East) and two days later the Pony Express closed its doors.

So back to that question from the early part of this blog entry: “How on earth did the institution get such a major and enduring reputation based on a run of 18 months?”

I think most folks would agree that it was just that it was such a unique, brash undertaking, and fit so well into the “Romance of the Old West,” that its story was easily adapted as fodder for books and paintings…and eventually motion pictures and TV. Oh… and not the real story of the Pony Express. The hyped-up, glamorized version of the dime novels.

The Pony Express was short-lived and its financial collapse essentially ruined its backers. If Russell, Majors & Waddell left significant records, those have never been discovered. One explanation is simply that they did not keep many records; the other is that they destroyed whatever records they had to avoid creditors.

Both Russell and Waddell died within a decade of the end of the Pony Express and never wrote a word about their exploits. Majors, an honest-to-God pioneer in western freighting on the fabled Santa Fe Trail, survived. But Majors, a simple man who was a devout Bible reader, did not compose his memoirs until the end of the 19th century. When he did, his life story was ghostwritten or at least heavily edited by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, a fabled dime novelist and hack. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody …paid Rand McNally to print this hodgepodge of recollections — Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors’ Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border. Majors later complained that Colonel Ingraham had taken liberties with the story.

Despite the best efforts of enthusiasts, we are not even sure exactly who rode for the Pony Express. Majors said that he had 80 men in the saddle, but this was not the modern American space program. It seems plausible, and many personal anecdotes support this theory, that just about anyone could ride for the Pony if they were available and the Pony needed a rider. Dramatic images (and every painter in America from Frederic Remington to those who wished to be Remington painted the Pony Express) always show a rider at full gallop pursued by Indians or desperadoes.

[Such as this Pony Express painting by Western Artist Frank McCarthy (d. 2002)]


But the few remaining riders who were actually interviewed late in their lives never mentioned Indians or desperadoes. They always complained about the weather, understandable if you were riding a horse across western Nebraska or Wyoming in January at night in a snowstorm.

They also complained bitterly about not being paid. Russell, Majors & Waddell were notorious deadbeats. Wags in the American West claimed that the initials C.O.C.& P.P. [for Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, the Pony Express’s “parent company”] actually meant ‘clean out of cash and poor pay.’ [Source]

So even that fabulous $25 a week was more fable than fact.

Yes, it seems that the lore of the Pony Express as it made its way into the movies and TV—and even to having its own modern postage stamp…


…has been based a lot more on the kind of “tall tales” similar to Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan than on solid research. Consider the very first author who introduced the lore to the American reading public:

The first chronicler of the Pony Express was Colonel William Lightfoot Visscher, a peripatetic newspaperman (but not a colonel) who drifted across the American West in the late 19th century. He is, on reflection, a perfect chronicler for such a tale. He never let the facts get in the way of anything he wrote. Visscher’s book A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express was published in 1908, nearly half a century after the Pony Express went out of business. Anyone wondering how the story of the Pony Express became muddled need only consider that it took half a century to write a book about the subject, and its author was a dubious chronicler.

Much of Visscher’s research appears to have been conducted at the bar of the Chicago Press Club, his legal address for many years. A terrible liar, a drunkard, a bad poet and a rascal, Visscher bore an amazing resemblance to comedian W.C. Fields. The colonel was a delightful if completely unreliable historian. We have no idea where he got most of his information, although he appears to have cribbed a fair bit of it from the few early attempts to set down some facts about the Central Overland. Historians of the Pony, such as there have been, have always ignored this jolly old lush, who drank two quarts of gin a day for much of his life but lived to be 82. [ibid]

So it’s probably not wise to give too much credence to the “authenticity” of all those old movies and TV shows about the PEX. But they were no doubt entertaining! Here’s one I don’t remember at all…a TV series that lasted from 1989 to 1992, starring Stephen Baldwin, Josh Brolin, and Ty Miller.

young riders tv

And there was evidently a TV series on the same topic that only lasted one season in 1959.

1959 tv

But long before that, it seems that the real “boost” to the popularity of the Pony Express story came in a different venue, the “Wild West Show” extravaganzas put on by the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.

buffalo bill

Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917), though, is the reason Americans remember the Pony Express today. In essence, Buffalo Bill saved the memory of that enterprise. Long before there were books about the Pony Express, let alone motion pictures, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West presented the Pony Express rider — a fixture in Cody’s extravaganza from the day it opened in Omaha, Neb., in 1883 until the day it closed in 1916.

Not only Americans became dramatically acquainted with the Pony Express through Buffalo Bill; Europeans from penniless orphans in London (let into the show because of kind-hearted Cody) to Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm and the pope in Rome had the same pleasure.

Here’s a pic of a poster from a French appearance of Cody’s Wild West…notice the “Le Poney Express” caption at the bottom.

frenchPart of Cody’s enthusiasm for celebrating this bit of the Wild West was that in his youth, he had actually known Alexander Majors [one of the PEX founders]. After Cody’s father died, Majors gave the boy (who was about 11 at the time) a job, riding a pony or a mule as a messenger for the freight-hauling firm. Never shy of embellishing his past, Cody always claimed to have ridden for the Pony Express — and ridden the longest distance, too! That claim, however, like so many of his yarns, is highly dubious …The best examination of his boyhood, undertaken by a forensic pathologist with an interest in history, would seem to indicate that Cody never sat in the saddle for the Central Overland.

He did, however, do a great deal for the memory of the Pony Express. Without his devotion, it is unlikely that anyone would remember the horseback mail service. Because of Buffalo Bill, people who did not speak a word of English knew what the Pony Express was. Even today there are Pony Express clubs in Germany and Czechoslovakia, reminders of Buffalo Bill’s legwork on behalf of the fast mail.

So there you have it. An almost “flash in the pan” venture that ended up a permanent fixture in American folklore!

But before closing, we don’t want to forget to pay homage to that little known and seldom mentioned PEX venture that didn’t quite work out as expected either…

The Pony Express Air Mail Service


If you enjoy reading about this era in history,
there’s lots more fascinating information about the PEX on the website.

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