Tag Archives: illustration

My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point

I’m halfway through My Year in 1918!

Which seems about right. I feel at home in 1918, and I’m in no hurry to leave. I’ve settled into a routine, with my go-to magazines (The Dial, The Bookman, The Crisis), don’t-miss monthly reads (T.S. Eliot in The Egoist, H.L. Mencken in Smart Set, Randolph Bourne in The Dial, and Dr. Wiley’s Question Box in Good Housekeeping—plus there’s a bright new spark at Vanity Fair named Dorothy Parker I’ll be writing about soon), and guilty pleasures (Murad cigarette ads, children’s puzzles in St. Nicholas magazine).

I’ve probably settled into too much of a routine, in fact. It’s been pointed out that I’ve completely fallen down on the job recipe-wise. I could blame the dispiriting nature of 1918 recipes, which tend to focus on food rationing, but ahundredyearsago.com manages to do a whole blog focused on 1918 (or so) recipes. (This week: Old-Fashioned Sour Banana Ice Cream.) So I’ll get out my apron, and I’ll shake things up in other ways as well. There’s more to life than modernism and Erté covers!

What have I learned in six months? First of all, that it’s harder than I thought to identify any kind of trajectory going through history. I do still believe that we’ve made tremendous progress in the last hundred years. The hardest thing to take in my reading has been the ubiquity of casual sexism and racism. (Judge magazine, for example, has a monthly jokes section called “Darkies.”) We have a long way to go, but I don’t think anyone would want to go back to that time.

On the other hand, none of the progressive battles of 1918 have been unambiguously won. (Other than the right to buy alcohol, if you consider that progressive.) The fights for racial and gender equality, reproductive freedom, and immigrants’ rights are still going on, just in different ways.

I knew all these things before, in a general sense. I hadn’t thought much, though, about all the problems that were invisible in 1918 to all but the most far-seeing observers. Magazines were full of ads for unknown killers—cigarettes and asbestos and radium clock dials and lead-based paint. No one was worried about man-made climate change or the sustainability of the oceans. For me, that’s the biggest lesson—for all the obvious problems of today (as numerous and troubling as they are), there must be other grave dangers, already present or on the horizon, that we’re not even thinking about.

As for the tuning-out-of-2018 aspect of this project, that’s been mostly a good thing, and much easier than I expected. There’s a New Yorker cartoon making its way around Facebook with a doctor telling his patient that his problem is that he’s paying too much attention to the news. I’m definitely not that guy. But neither am I the man in Ohio the New York Times wrote about who decided after the 2016 election to cut himself off from all news.

I didn’t read that article, naturally, I just heard about it. I decided at the beginning of the year that, while a total news blackout wasn’t feasible or desirable, I’d read the bare minimum amount of news required to be a responsible citizen. I get news alerts on my iPad and occasionally glance at an article to get the gist. If something really important happens, I’ll read a whole article about it—just one—in the New York Times. I’ve read a few stories about what’s going on in the State Department, where I worked for many years. And, okay, there was that emergency situation when I had to settle an argument about what rock critics think about Jim Morrison. But I haven’t read a contemporary op-ed or magazine article or book review all year, other than a handful of pieces by friends. No current fiction either, except for exchanges of work with writer friends and a few published pieces, like this and this, by my NYU creative writing classmates. (Congrats, guys!)

I do read blogs, because that’s only fair if I want people to read my blog. And Twitter, although my feed these days is mostly focused on World War I and literary modernism and, for some reason, how horrible it is to be an academic in the UK.* I look at Facebook, but I don’t click on articles. I’ve spent more time than I expected doing research for blog posts (confession: LOTS of Wikipedia), and I’ve had to bone up on the technical aspects of blogging. (Notice how much clearer the pictures have become?) With contemporary resources like this, I follow the rule that Catholics are supposed to follow about impure thoughts: they’re unavoidable, but don’t dwell on them.

A couple of months ago, I was eating dinner in a Cape Town food hall and reading an article from the WTOP Radio website about the D.C. boundary stones as research for a blog post. This was one of the few times this year—maybe the only time—that I printed out a contemporary article and read it from start to finish. As I read, a disoriented sensation came over me. “This article is weird,” I kept thinking. But I couldn’t figure out why. I reread it later, and identified the problem. There’s a quote that starts, “One thing that gets really funky with these things is, the Park Service owns the little piece that’s the fence enclosure and the stone, but then [one of the stones] is on Metro ground…” and continues in this colloquial vein. No one in 1918 talked like that! I was experiencing the same kind of reverse culture shock that I used to have in the Foreign Service when I returned to the United States from overseas.

Has my withdrawal from the news made me a less informed person? Well, yes, by definition. Has it made me a worse citizen? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s made me a better one. I analyze what’s happening on my own, rather than through the lens of an op-ed columnist. I focus on what’s going on in the longer term, not on the twists and turns of the daily news cycle. And it’s definitely been good for my well-being. I’ve lost that jittery feeling that comes with compulsively following the news. The troubling things that are happening today make me sad, but I don’t have the sense of lingering depression that many of my friends are experiencing.

When another six months have passed and I reengage with the contemporary world, I think—at least, I hope—that I’ll read more discriminately, more mindfully, and with a better sense of our place on the long arc of history.

* Some favorite blogs and Twitter accounts:

Connie Ruzich on World War I poets (Behind Their Lines,  @wherrypilgrim)

Pamela Toler on fascinating footnotes to history (History in the Margins, @pdtoler)

Leah Budke on modernist anthologies (ModMarkMake, @modmarkmake)

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It (@wiiiai), an indispensable and entertaining source of day-to-day 100-years-ago news.

Daniel Mulhall, who, in addition to his day job as Irish Ambassador to the United States, writes about Irish writers, including Yeats and Joyce (Ambassador’s Blog, @danmulhall)

Frank Hudson, who writes about (mostly) modernist poets and puts their work to music (The Parlando Project)

Sheryl Lazarus, who started out publishing her grandmother’s diaries a hundred years to the day after she wrote them, but since the diary ran out has been publishing recipes and writing about food-related topics at A Hundred Years Ago.

The best and worst of May 1918: Short stories, cover art, ads, and cartoons

I’m back! I’ve been traveling during the past few weeks–from Cape Town to DC to Boston to DC to Boston again and back to DC. Now, belatedly, for the best and worst of May 1918.

Best short story: “The Man Who Came Back,” from Buttered Side Down: Stories, by Edna Ferber (1912)

 

I decided to expand this category to include any short story I read, not just magazine stories from the “current” month. Just in time, because I’m loving this Edna Ferber collection. Ferber, who is best known for later novels like Show Boat and Cimarron and Giant—or, more accurately, for the movies and shows adapted from them—was twenty-seven when Buttered Side Down was published. She writes about ambitious young people from small towns whose big dreams haven’t panned out. They’re the most real people I’ve come across in my 1918 reading.

In “The Man Who Came Back,” Ted Terrill, our handsome hero, has returned to his small town after spending three years in prison. Here’s how, trying to keep up with the smart set, he met his downfall:

In a mad moment he had attempted a little sleight-of-hand act in which certain Citizens’ National funds were to be transformed into certain glittering shares and back again so quickly that the examiners couldn’t follow it with their eyes. But Ted was unaccustomed to these now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t feats and his hand slipped. The trick dropped to the floor with an awful clatter.

Ted is planning to stop in town just long enough to visit his mother’s grave—she died of heartbreak while he was in prison—and make a new start in Chicago, but on the train he runs into Joe Haley, the owner of a fashionable hotel. Joe offers him a job as a bookkeeper, saying that he’d be better off facing up to his crime at home than living in fear of discovery in a new place.

Illustration from “The Man Who Came Back,” American Magazine, April 1911

Ted is trained by his predecessor, Minnie Wenzel, who is marrying a “swell fellow.” His family’s former servant, Birdie, whose face “looked like a huge mistake,” works at the hotel as a waitress. All goes well until one day Joe tells Ted $300 is missing. “Ted, old kid,” he says sadly, “what’n’ell made you do it again?’” Birdie bursts in and unmasks the real culprit, Minnie, who has been pocketing the money for her trousseau. Ted asks Birdie if he can walk her home. But Birdie—and this is what elevates the story from good to great—turns him down. If she let him, she says,

“inside half a year, if yuh was lonesome enough, yuh’d ask me to marry yuh. And b’gorra,” she said softly, looking down at her unlovely red hands, “I’m dead scared I’d do it. Get back to work, Ted Terrill, and hold yer head up high, and when yuh say your prayers to-night, thank your lucky stars I ain’t a hussy.”

Edna Ferber, date unknown

Best magazine covers:

Two favorites in indigo: this one from Woman’s Home Companion, artist unknown,

…and, as always, Erté. This one’s called “Fireflies.”

Also, a paean to spring from The Liberator’s wonderful Hugo Gellert.

Best ad:

May wasn’t a sensational month ad-wise, but I always have a soft spot for Old Dutch Cleanser.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

Worst ad:

Even without the benefit of hindsight, this ad for asbestos looks ominous.

Literary Digest, May 11, 1918

(Although not as ominous as this 1917 ad I came across in Scientific American.)

Scientific American, April 28, 1917

Best cartoon:

Cartooning was in its infancy in 1918, but I don’t think the artistry of that era has ever been surpassed.

“The Mail from Home Arrives,” H.C. Greening, Judge magazine, May 11, 1918

Worst cartoon:

 Captions, though, still left a lot to be desired.

“Will you tell me what time the train that starts for Louisville reaches Glenside, and where I can change cars for Caldwell?”
“Madam, I just told you all that.”
“Yes, but I have a friend who wants to know.”

Screenshot (729)-2

Arthur Young, The Liberator, May 1918

 On to (okay, the middle of) June!

Thursday Miscellany: What they did in 1918 because they didn’t have…

1918 situation: You want to make a movie about dolls coming to life.
Obstacle: Animation is in its infancy and mostly happening in Europe.
Solution: Make a stop-motion movie with custom-made dolls.

The 50-minute movie, called The Dream Doll, was released in December 1917.  You can read more about the film-making process in the January 1918 issue of Everyone’s magazine. Sadly, this movie doesn’t seem to be available online. Most silent movies are “lost,” i.e. there are no copies still in existence,* and this may be the case for The Dream Doll. So it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that it was all a dream.

(UPDATE 5/4/2018: My recently discovered fellow back-to-1918 blogger, Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, found two short movies by Moss here.  The first one is from much later, but the second one, Mary and Gretel, is also from 1917 and is presumably similar in technique to The Dream Doll. WIIIAI is also on the swapped babies story, see below.)

Everyone’s magazine, January 1918

1918 situation: You want to show video clips of how to do your bit for food conservation by saving fat.
Obstacle: YouTube not invented.
Solution: Food-saving “movies,” i.e. photo sequences.

In the unlikely case that you want to make butter go twice as far by mixing it with milk and gelatin, or save butter by using chocolate instead, or use your inedible fat for soap making, you can learn how here.

Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1918

1918 situation: Babies maybe switched at birth.
Obstacle: No DNA testing yet.
Solution: Have everyone in the courtroom vote about who looks like who.

The reporters, court clerk, court interpreter, and spectators all thought that the babies had been swapped. The judge agreed, and ordered them swapped back. One of the mothers wanted to keep the baby she’d been raising for the past eight months. Too bad. Case closed!

New York Times, April 28, 1918

This post needs some color, so, apropos of nothing, here is the cover of the May 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

*Reasons: lack of storage space, deterioration, fires, and unawareness that people in the future would care.

Thursday Miscellany: Lady soldiers (ha ha!), a Vogue retread, a fed-up doctor, and an Erté duel

Ha ha, lady soldiers! I was going to ask C.W. Kahles if he’d ever heard of Russia’s all-woman Battalion of Death, but there they are in the upper right corner, running away from a mouse.

Judge magazine, April 20, 1918

This April 1918 Vogue cover, the only repeat in the magazine’s history, first ran in November 1911. It’s worth a second look.

Nutritionist/FDA founder/Poison Squad leader Dr. Harvey Wiley is back, with some sensible child-rearing advice. He often seems like a time traveler from a future era, full of “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this stupid century” exasperation.

Dr. Wiley’s Question Box, Good Housekeeping, April 1918

One of the most pleasant surprises about 1918 is the bright and modern decor. I want to live in this bungalow.

The Delineator, April 1918

There’s often something vaguely sinister lurking under the surface of Erté’s gorgeous magazine covers. This one, titled “The Duel,” is more unsettling than most.

Wednesday miscellany: Naked microscope bookplate people, stylish women, and cherry blossoms

Imagine my surprise when I opened a copy of Hugh de Sélincourt’s 1918 book Nine Tales, digitized from Harvard’s Widener Library, and found these naked people on a microscope. I was all the more surprised because I went to Harvard* in the 1980s and Widener was so conservative that their cataloging system had a separate “X” category for dirty books, which you had to order from the librarian instead of getting them in the stacks. I had to check out Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for a class one time and I felt like a pervert.

So what’s the story? I searched for the bookplate on Google Images and, proving that you can find anything on the internet, was directed to a website for The McCrone Group, a microscopy company, that includes a page about bookplates with pictures of microscopes, written by John Gustav Delly. I learned that Winward Prescott, Harvard ’09, was a serious bookplate collector; his donation now makes up the largest part of the extensive collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library. If you check out the McCrone Group page–which I highly recommend–the bookplate is image 72.

She’s living her best life.

Judge magazine, April 6, 1918

Okay, not courageous at a Russian woman soldier level, but wearing a dress this low-cut to play billiards takes guts.

Illustration from “Camille,” Cosmopolitan, April 1918

And, just in time for the D.C. cherry blossoms, a McCall’s cover by Willy Pogany.

*And, no, people don’t mention this at any possible opportunity. It’s relevant!