Sunday, March 11, 2007

THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT: 84 Years Ago in America


If you've read through this blog, you've probably figured out that I'm a history nerd. And one of the reasons I love the thrift stores is all the great historical opportunities. But it's kind of like a time machine that's on the fritz. You can't really control or predict what you'll find, but if you've got a good eye and an open mind, the cool stuff never stops coming.

I've found US Army uniforms with insignia and duty ribbons from the Second World War, an LP autographed by Sammy Davis, Jr., a pneumatically-inflated dressmaker dummy probably from 1910, a 1960s psychedelic shirt covered with Roy Lichtenstein-like comic book panels, 8mm home movies from the late '50s, luxury cruise ship brochures from the 1930s, and a wide array of cast and crew jackets from more movies and television shows than I care to mention, just to name a few.

Oh, and books. Now, on this site I've exhibited some of the dopiest literary selections one could hope to find, but I also find some amazing books, incredible historical snapshots from our collective past, and often for under a buck. The purpose of this page is document the bounty of the thrift store, but also for me to leave it all in there. But sometimes I just can't resist bringing something home.



Case in point: this plain-looking volume I found a couple of weeks ago, called The American Government , by F.J. Haskin.


Originally published in 1911, this is an "updated" edition from 1923. In fact, it's fairly common to find this type of outdated civics lesson primer on the used book rack. But what really caught my attention about this book was its several pages of fantastic, and sometimes unintentionally funny black and white photographs documenting the progressive state of the American government. Yeah, I like them picture books, and I hope you will too.


I love to see signs of personal ownership like hand inked signatures and dates and such... I just like knowing this was an important item to someone once. I mean, how many of us still take the time to do what Glenn E. Mallory did 82 years ago in Denver? I have to admit, though, that I have no idea what it says just below the date. Something like "Camprivee Living"? Is that some suburb of Denver? Anybody out there have a clue?


But on to the good stuff. "The world's finest precision testing machine," as the caption to the photo states, is so steampunk I can't stand it. I guess this device was used to test the strength of steel bridge beams, and the like, by crushing them under intense pressure... so that dude on the other end is pretty ballsy to be standing by the giant-scary-crushing-killer-screw machine. I'm just saying.


And speaking of cool-crazy-looking old technology, check out these miners in what look like moonsuits, or better yet Boba Fett gear.


Tell me that doesn't look like a rocket pack. And his lantern looks pretty Buck Rogers, too.


So the pictures kind of jump around from contemporary images of American progress to cultural moments from the past. When we see dioramas like this today we sometimes think it's ancient history. But when this book was written, the Battle of Little Bighorn was only 50 years before, the Wounded Knee Massacre was a scant 33 years before, Geronimo had died only 14 years before, and, oh yeah, full citizenship for all Native Americans was still one year away. Adds some poignancy to the caption: "Officials say that more people stand before these groups than before any of the other exhibits" I wonder if that's still true?



Okay, so I love the idea of a hermetically sealed "Master Clock" somewhere in D.C. and how impractical it was to have such a device in the early 1920s. I'm trying to imagine a situation in 1923 when it was absolutely necessary to get super accurate time. And before you got that hyper-precise horological information, you had to go through this guy, the head horologist. Bet he was all like, "Don't touch the clock. Nobody gets to touch the clock but me. I have a key. And a PhD."

By the way, we still have a master clock, except now they use microwave beams fired at atoms.


You think that job's boring? How'd you like to be this poor schmuck, sitting in the basement of the Bureau of Standards with his giant sphere, his array of lamps, his slide rule, and all the time in the world. Hey, it's a living.


So apparently there was a pirate radio station in the basement of Congress. I think the operator looks like he just got caught illegally downloading the latest Al Jolson tune.


So on to warfare. Ah, a simpler time when the sum total of Washington, D.C.'s aerial defenses consisted of four Curtis Jenny bi-plane trainers parked in a grass lot. Oh, but something new has been added -- radio! Yes, according to the author, "An aviator may thus receive instructions from the field while in the air, and may also make a report without coming down." What will they think of next?


Apparently big-ass guns. Five years after the end of the bloodiest conflict mankind had ever known, the so-called War to End All Wars, we were back to celebrating America's ability to blow the crap out of stuff. All these guys are going to be so stoked when they find out there's gonna be a bigger, badder sequel!


This guy's so happy to be sticking his head through a blast hole, he's about to wet himself.


Now this I like. How exciting would it be to see one of these flying over your town? Even the moniker "airship" is kind of romantic. And how wildly-impracticable was it to weaponize a gargantuan, slow-moving, explosive gas-filled balloon? The airship depicted here is actually pretty famous; the USS Shenandoah, which was the first airship built for the US military. Only two years later it was destroyed in a violent thunder storm during a goodwill tour of the Midwest, killing 14. According to Wikipedia, 29 other servicemen survived by "riding three sections of the airship to earth." That must have been fun.


Speaking of warfare, you gotta love this cartoon of a pissed-looking Uncle Sam who's about to give someone a beat-down:

He is the most powerful thing on earth--and all the power he has is yours...

He reads the shifting winds and forecasts the weather...

He marks the ocean lanes to make safe the way of the mariner...

He smites the rock and the dead waste of the desert team with life...

He is the conqueror of disease...

He measures the heat of the stars...


and last but not least...

He speeds the sure, swift flight of the two-cent letter.

Okay, actually that was the least. Nothing heroic about the mail.

This is how the book begins. I guess by the time you got to the pictures you'd have a total hard-on for the American Government. I know I do.

But in some respects, this book is a real downer. All of the rah-rah America stuff is corny to most of us because we live in a post-America-is-a-shining-beacon-to-the-world era. For all their goofiness, the Americans in this book had true optimism. Most of the '20s were an economic boom time and one of practical scientific change, women's suffrage, trans-Atlantic flights, and talking movies. But the public had yet to find out about the Harding Administration's myriad scandals, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War Two, and the Atomic Bomb... a scary ride for the next 20 years, none of which this book predicts.

And that's why some of the optimism in the book, rather than make me laugh actually makes me want to cry. Like this passage about the president:



Haskin writes "The President of the United States... can not be a tyrant, nor even a benevolent despot... under our form of government he who rules is in reality the servant of the people.." I wonder if he or Glenn E. Mallory lived long enough suffer through the depravity of the Nixon years, or the Bush administration, for that matter.


Finally, this is my favorite picture in the book. I mean, if it works the way Haskin says it works, shouldn't we be using the imperial Roman fasces, that is, the Mace of the House of Representatives a whole lot more these days?

Imagine this guy's job description: "Must be able to lift and carry 10-lb. Mace on to the floor of the House of Representatives during moments of recalcitrance and step between combatants in effort to restore order." Congress is such a nasty place these days, I just hope that they give the Sergeant-At-Arms guy a helmet and face mask to protect himself. Hey, it's a living.