Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Newspaper Map

Some New York newsstands still use wooden blocks to keep
papers from blowing away.  The Sun ceased publication in 1950.

When I was growing up, my father’s job involved writing, editing, and a bit of public relations.  As a result, he often received promotional material that combined imaginative graphics with fun facts, and he would diligently pack these items into his leather briefcase and bring them home to my brother and me.

One of our treasures was a poster of the U.S. presidents that stopped at LBJ.  We would spread it out on the wood floor and pore over it, and to this day its configuration of the presidents is how I envision them: in rows on shiny pale blue paper, their portraits in black and white and framed by ovals.  They come to me in heavenly groups of seven (joke) – Washington to Van Buren, William Henry Harrison to Buchanan, Lincoln to Benjamin Harrison, and so on.  

William Henry Harrison framed by an oval

My father also brought home a map of the U.S. marked with all of the major daily newspapers.  The names of the papers were confounding and – because of their association with unfamiliar cities – rather exotic.  

Cleveland Plain Dealer
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Sacramento Bee
Jackson Clarion-Ledger
Des Moines Register
Hartford Courant
San Jose Mercury News

Most of these newspapers were founded well before the Civil War.  The Hartford Courant was founded in 1764.  Obviously, the names are vintage and contain words that are not in common usage today.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, circa World War I

A plain dealer was an honest broker.  Registers and ledgers referred to the endless lists of information, usually related to debt, travel and mail, which occupied many pages of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century newspapers.  Bee possibly meant a group of people working together, like a sewing bee.  But who knows?  Perhaps it referred to the insect bee which gathered and spread news as if it were pollen.

Mercury must have been derived from the Roman god Mercury, who was a messenger.  The picayune was a Spanish coin whose name came from the French word picaillon.  Courant, also from the French, means running.   

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1897

It’s nearly impossible to write about newspapers without bemoaning their slow death.  Yet despite hundreds of consolidations during the past several decades, many of the original names -- or vestiges of them -- remain.  The 1982 merger of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution resulted, for example, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  That’s pretty remarkable, considering our unsentimental penchant for tossing out the old. 

Returning to the sixties.

After my father brought the map home, it took a few days to memorize the names of the newspapers.  I remember walking home from school on a spring afternoon, announcing them inside my head as if it were 1941 and I was a big band leader, introducing the members of the rhythm section.   

 Jackson Clarion-Ledger
Jackson, Mississippi, 1912

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Back to the Future: a century after the 1920 census

Census taker (lower right) with American Indians, 1910

An entire century will separate the 1920 and 2020 censuses, so one would think that the issues surrounding the two surveys are as different as night and day. But that is not the case. Immigration and political power were front and center 100 years ago, just as they are today.

The Trump Administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census has created a national uproar and drawn federal lawsuits and appeals. Opponents argue that adding the question will discourage participation among non-citizens and even legal immigrants, causing an under-count of both of those groups. Using that faulty data, they claim, federal agencies then will apportion resources both inadequately and unevenly, hurting low-income and marginalized communities through the coming decade.

Adding questions to the census is hardly unprecedented.  Since the first census in 1790, the number and type of questions in the survey have been changed periodically. The 1920 census, for example, added several questions.

Woman census taker in Chinatown,
New York City, 1920

Like the proposed 2020 citizenship question, these were directed at immigrants: What was the respondent’s native language? What was the native language of the respondent’s parents?  When was the respondent naturalized? The questions came at a time when both parties urged greater restriction of immigration, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, in response to the widespread post-World War I public backlash against immigrants. 

Some immigrants may have been scared off by concerns about their status. But the people who were really frightened by the prospect of that 1920 census were members of Congress.

What did these legislators fear? Just like today, it was the reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Reapportionment is mandated by the Constitution to assure that representation reflects the distribution of the population. It occurs every ten years, based on census information.

In 1910, when the results of the census were made known, they revealed a total population of 92,228,496, with a rural population of 50,164,495 and an urban population of 42,064,001. Obviously, the next census would report a population greater than 100 million.

Far more significant would be the shift from rural to urban; the next census would show that – for the first time in American history – more people would reside in U.S. cities than on farms.

Alfred Stieglitz's iconic photograph of 
immigrants, The Steerage (1907)
(Permission of the Getty Trust)

Thus, following the 1920 census, the nation would face a major shift in political power. Reapportionment would dictate that less populous states would lose House seats and urban areas would gain them. That was why some rural House members publicly declared, as early as 1918, that the census had little value. Others urged that immigrants be eliminated from the count altogether.

Reapportionment brings a new political balance each decade, but it also can mark significant cultural and social change. Hence the Anti-Saloon League hustled politicians to rush through Prohibition before the House was reapportioned, for a constitutional amendment to ban liquor never would have passed if urban legislators were the majority in the House. 

The census became a metaphor, as in this compelling
1922 poem by the radical writer and activist James Rorty.

Just seven months after the enumerators – as they were called – set forth with their questionnaires, the government revealed the first results of the new census. Ten states would lose rural seats (Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont and Virginia) while ten states would gain urban seats (New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas).  

The prospect of such a drastic political realignment led the House Census Committee to violate its constitutional duty by repeatedly postponing and voting down reapportionment after the final census report. It became a perennial dance.

In their first attempt to avoid such drastic reapportionment, Congressional legislators proposed a measure that would have enlarged the House to 500 seats from 435 seats. It was voted down.

In 1922, President Harding said he’d had enough and insisted that reapportionment occur by March 1923. That vote was deferred. And so it went.

President Warren G. Harding

In 1924, the census committee announced that it would drop reapportionment because “adoption of the 1920 census would seriously affect agriculture and farming sections.”

In 1926, the House again rejected apportionment, claiming that it was not mandatory. Despite public anger and editorial outrage, the House again refused to move on reapportionment in 1928.

Finally, after the results of the 1930 census were announced, the House acted. But the damage had been done.   

If Congress had performed its duty, the Immigration Act of 1924 would not have been enacted. That xenophobic law set severe quotas for Eastern European immigrants and completely excluded most Asians, Indians, and Arabs. And Prohibition likely would have been repealed far earlier than 1933, due to overwhelming opposition among urban residents. 

This 1911 book was one in a series about
boys' adventures in various professions. 

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments about the Trump Administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The decision will dramatically affect reapportionment.

However the Court rules, it is remarkable to behold how closely the issues surrounding the 2020 census echo the past. Again we face a major shift in political power – 100 years ago it was toward the cities; in 2020, if the question is included, it may be away from the cities.

Just as significantly, the decision has the potential to stave off the future. When Congress refused to act on the 1920 census for ten years, it put off major changes in American life related to mass culture and the growing presence of minorities. In 2020, if the question is included and influence tilts back toward rural states, we too may be merely postponing a social transformation.

*Thanks to Mark Olmsted for the title.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Young Man of Nebraska: Alexander J. Stoddard

Nebraska State Normal School at Peru, circa 1900
In Peru, Nebraska, the local news channel used a drone to show where the Missouri River had broken through the levee.  The disastrous flood has destroyed fields, roads, and homes during the past month.

I thought immediately of Alexander J. Stoddard, son of a Scottish farmer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1848 at the age of two.  The family settled in southeastern Nebraska, preceding the homesteaders.  The father married twice and fathered nine children. 

Several of his children grew up to become teachers, including young Alexander.  But it looks like Alexander was the only one who left Nebraska.  He went on to pursue a brilliant career in public education that carried him east and west across 35 years.  

The drama of the Plains – the floods, the droughts, the farming life – that’s what he set out to leave behind.

Alexander J. Stoddard
Nebraska State Normal School at Peru
191o yearbook  

He started on that path at the Nebraska State Normal School at Peru, a teacher training school.  Normal schools proliferated in the U.S. after the Civil War.  By 1909, when 20-year old Alexander arrived at the hilltop campus, the demand for teachers had been rising steeply since the turn of the century.  Anywhere that you could point to in the country was in need of educators. 

At Peru, Alexander became president of his class.  (He also learned to play tennis on the lawn courts.)  After two years, he headed off to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he received a B.A.  In 1917, while skirmishing with the Nebraska draft examiners, he married his childhood sweetheart, Sadie Gillan.  They would have two children.

Southeastern Nebraska
Stoddard was born and grew up in Auburn; attended
normal school in Peru; taught school in Beatrice while
in school at Peru; and received his B.A. from the University
of Nebraska at Lincoln. The dotted blue line at the right
marks the Missouri River.

As Alexander continued his education, the family headed east where he earned a Master’s degree in educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Then he soared; advancing from superintendent of schools in the suburban village of Bronxville, N. Y., to Schenectady, Providence, Denver, Philadelphia, and, finally, Los Angeles.  He also led several prestigious national educational organizations. 

Alexander spent 65 of his 76 years in the twentieth century.  The sweep of his life calls for an exclamation, or at least a smile:  the same man who traveled by horseback from Peru State College to the city of Beatrice, Nebraska, where he taught school to help put himself through school, also fiercely advocated educational television when it came on the scene during the 1950s.

He was a modern man. 

Alexander J. Stoddard, 1946

Nevertheless, nineteenth-century realities influenced his life.  The floods that have devastated Peru and other towns in southeast Nebraska echo the vagaries of the weather that would have tormented his father.  Not to mention the Panic of 1893.

Inevitably, Alexander and many of his peers left the Plains. They did not want to live the farmer’s life, and the lure of the city was hard to fend off. Perhaps there are numbers in a book somewhere, but I will guess that hundreds of them became very fine teachers.    

In this spring of 2019, Peru State College still overlooks the Missouri River, its campus scattered with oak trees and old brick buildings.  A four-year college with an online extension program, it nods to its earlier incarnation with a School of Education.  

Now it’s back in business as the flood waters recede, although irreparable damage has been inflicted on the homes, farms, and roads of southeastern Nebraska.

*Left-click on images for greater detail.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Last of the Washington Square Millionaires

Sleighing in New York by Thomas Benecke, 1855
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)

In 1915 when Amos F. Eno died, he was recalled as an eighteenth-century millionaire philanthropist struggling to hold onto the vestiges of the antebellum city in which he came of age. 

The Great War had begun one year earlier and suffragists regularly picketed the White House.  As a creature of the past, Eno didn’t like it.  He was so out of date that it was hard to imagine that once upon a time the old man’s name perched on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  

A “peculiar expression of static citizenry,” as the New York Times described him, he objected to progress and advancement.  What a perverse outlook in light of the fact that he and his father, Amos R. Eno, contributed mightily to the modernization of Manhattan.

The Enos were real estate developers who owned property all over town, including large swaths of what would become the Flatiron and Financial Districts. They constructed dozens of houses, hotels, and apartment buildings that altered the streetscape of the city. 

Born in 1834, Amos F. Eno joined New York’s Seventh Infantry Regiment as a private in 1862.  He returned from the war a colonel, moved in with his father, and resumed his bachelor’s existence.  The two men inhabited an early nineteenth-century brownstone mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street. 

Amos F. Eno and his father lived in this brownstone mansion
at 32 Fifth Avenue, designed by Detlef Lienau in 1834.*

Amos F. liked to walk around Washington Square, three blocks south of his home, where he met vagrants and bestowed upon them money, food, and clothing. His philosophy was to give charity only when not asked.

At the other side of the economic spectrum, his neighbors included the so-called Washington Square millionaires – men like Robert de Forest, a descendant of French Huguenots, esteemed legal counsel to railroads and utilities, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amos F. Eno (1834-1915)

As society moved uptown to ever more expansive and ornate mansions, the denizens of Washington Square stayed put, as if trapped in a painting by John Singer Sargent.  Inevitably, they would have to head north to restaurants, libraries, and clubs. 

When he died at the age of 81, Amos F. left much of his vast fortune to Columbia University and the General Society for Mechanics and Tradesmen.**  New York University, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor also received bequests.  Evidently none of these institutions had ever tapped on his shoulder and asked for money. 

Members of the Eno family angrily contested the will.  Their lawyers argued that Amos F. loathed Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler and never would have left the school well over $10 million. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surrounded the drafting of the most recent will.  Nonetheless, a panel of judges ruled against the family in 1922.  Fortunately, everyone survived even though they had portrayed themselves as destitute.

New York Supreme Court
In the Matter of Amos F. Eno 

A rather private man, Amos F. would have abhorred the detailed descriptions of his comings and goings that appeared in the court transcripts – 156 pages of friends’, family’s, and servants’ candid testimony about his bad temper, bad leg, and bad manners.  Miss Polly Morgan recounted her week-long visit to his home in 1914.

She drove downtown with him one day when he remained at his office an hour and a half. He spoke to her about his business. He told her that he wished he had no business to do; that he would like to simplify his affairs; that the men in his office were good for nothing . . .

Miss Morgan testified that with respect to dropping his food, and with respect to the condition of his clothing, Mr. Eno “did not look as elegant as he had in previous years.”

Miss Morgan undertook to joke with Mr. Eno. She asked him about his friends, the Democrats, and said “How is your Mr. Bryan getting on, Uncle Mo? And how do you like him?” He said, “Bryan is no good. He is the leader of the suffragettes.”

Amos F. may have been a mean old man, but at least he claimed one great passion.  That was his collection of early American prints, many exceedingly rare and valuable.  To the New York Public Library he left 192 framed and 138 unframed images – a major gift.  Some speculated that the prints had appreciated at a greater rate than his real estate holdings. 

The prints resonated deep inside of Amos F.  He liked the way that they evoked landscapes and streetscapes long passed into history.  They took him back to a place of memory and happiness. 

“He was very much an old New Yorker,” an admirer said.

New York from Brooklyn Heights by A. W. Graham, 1834
(Print Collection, New York Public Library; bequest of Amos F. Eno)

*Courtesy of 
**The size of Eno’s fortune has been estimated between $10 million and $30 million.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Jane Langton in Time & Place

The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton
Original cover; drawing by Erik Blegvad


My mother told me that it wasn’t fair to other children to withdraw the same two library books again and again.  Since I couldn’t kick the habit, they were finally given to me as a birthday present. 

The Diamond in the Window was published in 1962 and The Swing in the Summerhouse in 1967.  I discovered them in 1970.  Across five decades, I can easily recall entire paragraphs; descriptions, dialogue, and detailed drawings. 

The author, Jane Langton, had studied astronomy at Wellesley and the University of Michigan, and held a master’s degree in art history.  She lived in Lincoln, Mass., with her husband and three sons, according to the dust jacket. 

Jane Langton

pictured in a trade journal, 1960s

Her books evoked the way that kids can’t wait to grow up, their impatience with unreasonable adults, the pain of unrequited crushes, and the desire to be popular.  But she stayed away from the trite formulas of adolescent fiction.

Instead, Langton wrote beautiful sentences that captured time and place and the feelings that went with them:  Eleanor suddenly felt overcome by the melancholy of the late summer day and the dusty untidy woods.  

Ingeniously, she wove those feelings together with grand ideas about love, truth, good and evil.  The books contained these and many similar quotations:

·       Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!  (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

·       Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime . . . (R.W. Emerson)

·       Behold a universe in which man is but a grain of sand . . . (Henry David Thoreau)

Eleanor and Edward Hall in the
front hall of their house in Concord, Mass.

(drawing by Erik Blegvad)

As The Diamond in the Window opens, young Edward and Eleanor Hall are living in a dilapidated Victorian house in Concord, Mass., with their Aunt Lily and Uncle Freddy.  The children’s parents died years earlier in a car accident.  Aunt Lily is scrambling to make money to pay off the mortgage.  Uncle Freddy, once a world renowned scholar of Emerson and Thoreau, is now daft and unhelpful. 

One day, standing at the edge of a brook in a field across from their house, Eleanor and Edward spot a keyhole window that they’ve never noticed before.  When they finally locate it, in a secret room at the very top of the house, they are shocked to find twin beds, children’s toys, and a poem that has been etched into the window with a large piece of glass which now forms its centerpiece.     

The children demand answers, so Aunt Lily sits down with them on a faded velvet sofa and opens an old photograph album.  She sighs and tells them about their “Aunt Nora” and “Uncle Ned,” Lily’s youngest siblings; lost children who once slept in the attic room.

Then she tells them about Prince Krishna, a royal but humble man, who came from India to Concord to study with then-brilliant Uncle Freddy.  From the way Aunt Lily tells the story, it is clear that she and Krishna were in love.

Krishna loved Ned and Nora, too, and he created a series of dream adventures for them on which they embarked each night.  The dreams took shape as a hunt for treasures that ranged from diamonds and pearls to a beloved, if neglected, rag doll.  The poem etched on the window, cryptic and full of philosophical references, contained clues. 

Life went along happily until suddenly, one night, the children disappeared.  A nationwide hunt ensued, but they could not be found.  Eventually Prince Krishna disappeared, too.  Still, as the money dwindled and Uncle Freddy deteriorated, Aunt Lily held out hope that Krishna and the children would someday reappear.

 In one dream adventure, Eleanor and Edward find themselves
trapped inside a Chambered Nautilus shell. 
(Illustration by Erik Blegvad)

The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse belong to a literary genre called “magical realism,” which blends realistic narrative elements with magic and fantasy.  As Eleanor and Edward set forth after Ned and Nora, and Aunt Lily schemes to save the house while Uncle Freddy blithely decides to move into a hollow tree in the front yard, the ordinary meets the extraordinary.  

That is because the books are infused with Transcendentalism, a philosophy embraced by Emerson, Thoreau and other New England intellectuals.  Transcendental is defined as “beyond ordinary experience, thought or belief.”  The Transcendentalists sought to understand themselves through the Oversoul, a force that connects all living things.

Connectivity between humans and nature echoes through Langton’s writing.

Several years ago I emailed the author, just to tell her how much I loved her books.  She was then about 90 years old, and replied that she was working on a picture book about Charles Darwin and earthworms.  

Evidently the worms fascinated Darwin.  He could not bear to dissect them, but conducted hundreds of experiments testing their intelligence, orderliness, sensitivity to noise, and food preferences. 

“His experiments with worms will be a chance for someone, perhaps me, to draw lots of wriggly pictures,” Langton explained.

I must have told her about living in different parts of the country and having recently made the leap to Atlanta after three years in rural Virginia.

“Good for getting out of Virginia,” she wrote.  “I escaped from Delaware.  I guess we all have to bust out of some sort of cocoon.”

Jane Langton (1922-2018)

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Journey to Po

The Public Library 
by Guy Wiggins (1935)
He was a master of painting New York City in the snow.
This is Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street.

I went looking for Po, an Italian restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village.  Turns out that it closed more than a year ago.  Like hundreds of the city’s small shops and stores, it was forced out of business by a greedy landlord – a 120% increase on the $10,000 monthly rent, the owner told a reporter.

The restaurant figures in one of my deepest clearest memories, one in which I can see all the way to the bottom of a dark primordial lake.  

It was a snowy night in February, 2015, as I sat on a Fifth Avenue bus heading downtown to have dinner with a friend.  I looked forward to the evening with great anticipation.

Traveling by bus through the snow brought my father to mind.  One of his favorite essays involved a snowstorm in which the writer also boarded a Fifth Avenue bus that lumbered downtown. 

Standing up and holding on tight, the writer unexpectedly found joy in the ride.  Evidently, in the course of most days he felt slightly mournful, as if time were passing and leaving him behind like a rock being worn away by the wind and tide.

Now on the bus, the writer had an epiphany.  Time was passing, but it was taking him with it.  His perspective changed.  Perhaps, he thought, time is a stationary place through which we all move, alone and together.    

Fountain of Time
by Lorado Taft (1920)

I remembered from college a large statue called “Time” on the campus of the University of Chicago.  There was a quotation underneath:  Time goes, you say?  Ah no! alas, time stays, we go. 

My 20-year old self had been willing to embrace this maudlin saying by an obscure nineteenth-century poet.  But now, not so much. 

I got off the bus and started to cross Washington Square Park.  There is a song, Diamonds and Rust, which Joan Baez wrote for Bob Dylan “light years ago,” she once said, after their love affair ended. 

Now I see you standing with brown leaves all around and snow in your hair
Now we’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square
Our breath comes in white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me we both could have died then and there

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (1963)

How stunning to hear those words as a teenager.  Now I feel grateful to have experienced such a moment, but at the age of 16 – not fully comprehending and definitely not ready for it.

Time to pick up the pace.  Around the corner lay dear delightful Cornelia Street, snowflakes drifting under the streetlamps; storefronts drawn by Beatrix Potter.

Something happened when I opened the door and stepped in:  an extraordinary feeling of well-being.  The candlelight shimmered and streamed in every direction.  And there was my friend sitting at a far table along the left wall.

I had boarded the bus just an hour earlier.  Yet it felt like a century had passed, on one hand, and just a few minutes, on the other, during the journey to Po. Gratefully, I sat down in the glow.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.