Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 5

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 5:

Lucky Eddie

(This is the fifth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 “You ask me what we need to win this war.
I answer tobacco, as much as bullets.”

Guess who said that, and when.

It’s a World War 1 quote, from General John J Pershing, leader of the US Expeditionary Force. And he wasn’t exaggerating.

Obviously, the boys in the trenches needed bullets. And food—here is a description of the rations they received:

The reserve ration was first issued during the latter part of World War I to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen. It originally consisted of 12 ounces of fresh bacon or one pound of canned meat known as the Meat Ration – usually, corned beef. Additionally, two 8-ounce cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, a packet of 1.16 ounces of pre-ground coffee, a packet of 2.4 ounces of granulated sugar, and a packet of 0.16 ounces of salt were issued.

But Uncle Sam decided early on that bacon, bread, and coffee wasn’t enough to fortify the troops for battle.

There was also a separate “tobacco ration” of 0.4 ounces of tobacco and 10 cigarette rolling papers, later replaced by brand-name machine-rolled cigarettes.

And thus by the end of the war 14 million cigarettes a day were being distributed to the “doughboys.”

Before the Great War, men in America had been partial to pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Smoking cigarettes was considered in many circles to be a sign of effeminacy. It was a habit affected by “dandies” maybe, but not “real men.” Still, tobacco—and its nicotine kick—was considered valuable in helping to calm nerves, and psychologically lighten hardships. With our men facing trench warfare, gas attacks, tanks, suffering, serious injury, and possible death, Uncle Sam considered the least he could do was provide them with the comfort of tobacco. As it turned out, the easiest and most convenient form in which to distribute it and use it in the trenches was the cigarette. Thus the cigarette quickly lost its reputation as being for sissies.


I didn’t understand until I looked it up recently that the smoke from pipe tobacco and cigars had not traditionally been inhaled into the lungs. The type of tobacco used in cigars and pipes was (and evidently still is) very harsh on delicate tissue, and would immediately lead to coughing and gagging. The idea I guess is to kind of “roll around” the smoke in your mouth and then poof it out. (I found both “cigar smokers’ forums” and “pipe smokers’ forums” on the Internet where guys were discussing the process, and warning newbies not to inhale, but instead just “savor” the “flavors” of the tobacco in the mouth.) Thus nicotine would be absorbed primarily from the lining of the mouth.

But in 1913, just shortly before WW1, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company introduced the Camel cigarette.

The new Camels were made from a blend of different tobaccos, cured in a way which made them mild enough to allow the smoke to be deeply inhaled. This 1915 ad explained how different this “new” kind of cigarette was.

camelsInhalation results in nicotine “speeding” to the brain. It wasn’t long before regular daily use became the norm for many cigarette smokers, as more and more became addicted.

And as you can imagine, with smoking being just about the only “recreation” for the soldiers in the trenches during the War, millions of them came home from that war addicted to cigarette smoking. In fact, many of them came home with a preference for one or another of the brands of cigarettes. You see, the tobacco companies were more than happy to do their “patriotic duty” and provide cigarettes to the troops at or below cost … as long as they were distributed in their branded packages.

The government provided 50 cigarettes per week in the actual ration kits. And canteens across Europe also allowed soldiers to buy as many more cigarettes as they “needed” at or below their wholesale price. Evidently, the government agreed with the tobacco companies to distribute the various brands in the same “proportion” as their place in the market back in the United States.

chesterfieldBy the way, it wasn’t just the American soldier who “needed” tobacco. The other Allies made sure their boys’ nicotine needs were taken care of too. And those boys made sure the folks back home knew that they’d be even happier to receive a care package with extra smokes than to get a box of Mom’s homemade cookies—as you can see from this New Zealand postcard of the time.

nz smoker“Woodbines” were a popular UK brand of cigarettes at the time.


Yes, as General Pershing said, smokes were recognized as being as vital as bullets to the war effort.


smokes posterAnd the American tobacco companies were happy to oblige.

… while the boys went to war to serve our country, the tobacco industry supplied the soldiers with free tobacco so as to do their part to “help” the war efforts.  Soldiers came home addicted to nicotine from all the free cigarettes generously supplied by the tobacco companies, and the industry had customers for life.

Which brings us back to the hero of our story, who was introduced in the previous entry in this series, Eddie Bernays.

 …. Cigarettes were manly things now, the stuff of warriors. And as their use among men soared, so did the profits of the companies making them.

All of which convinced cigarette makers that the time was ripe to open a second front, this time targeting females. In 1928, just as they were beginning that push, Edward L. Bernays began working for George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, which made America’s fastest-growing brand of cigarettes, Lucky Strikes.

“Hill,” Bernays recalled later, “became obsessed by the prospect of winning over the large potential female market for Luckies. ‘If I can crack that market, I’ll get more than my share of it,’ he said to me one day. ‘It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.’”  The war and changing social mores already were helping Hill tap that lode. Many women who’d replaced men in factories or served abroad had taken up the habit, defying the taboo against female smoking, and college coeds were trying to tear down barriers against women smoking in public places. The share of cigarettes consumed by women more than doubled from 1923 to 1929, but it still was just 12 percent, far lower than Hill had hoped. [The Father of Spin, Larry Tye: unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]

But of course, most middle class women of the time did not live lives of adventure and high risk. Offering them a smoke to calm their frazzled nerves wouldn’t be smart psychology. Hill decided that the biggest lure he could use for women would be to promise them that smoking Luckies would help them be attractive. In the “flapper” era of the 1920s, the “slim” figure for women was becoming the standard of beauty. And women were becoming conscious of the role over-eating played in stretching their waistlines. So Hill decided to sell the idea that smoking a cigarette was the most effective way to curb appetite.

 He’d already settled on a slogan—” Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”—

reach…and to bring it to life he turned to the thirty-six-year-old Bernays, whom he’d been paying $ 25,000 a year just to be available.

It was a wise choice. Bernays didn’t invent fashions like the pursuit of a svelte figure, but he was becoming the acknowledged master of accentuating such trends and capitalizing on them for his clients, a process he termed “crystallizing public opinion.” And during his eight-year association with the tobacco tycoon he would make clear his willingness to employ whatever antics or deceptions it took to do that crystallizing, including trying to discredit new research linking smoking to deadly diseases.

In earlier ad campaigns for other clients, Bernays had discovered the power of enlisting “experts” to endorse ideas that would be beneficial in promoting a product. So his first tactic to help promote Lucky Strikes was to start a buzz among experts who could “endorse” the idea that “slim is in.” His photographer friend Nickolaus Muray was persuaded to write to other photographers and artists and “solicit their opinions” on the new, more slender woman as the modern feminine ideal:

  “I have come to the conclusion,” Muray wrote, “that the slender woman who, combining suppleness and grace with slenderness, who instead of overeating sweets and desserts, lights a cigarette, as the advertisements say, has created a new standard of female loveliness.… I am interested in knowing if my own judgment concurs with that of others, and should be most happy to have your opinion on this subject.”  Who could argue that thin wasn’t better than fat? Few did, and the results were forwarded to newspapers, with similar “surveys” readied for actors, athletes, “beautiful girls,” society women, and male dancers.

Eddie hit the topic from many angles. He concocted news releases to send to fashion editors of magazines and newspapers that featured slender Parisian models in all the latest high fashion dresses. He circulated to news editors a testimonial from…

 … the former chief of the British Association of Medical Officers of Health warning that sweets caused tooth decay and advising that “the correct way to finish a meal is with fruit, coffee and a cigarette. The fruit,” Dr. George F. Buchan continued, “hardens the gums and cleans the teeth; the coffee stimulates the flow of saliva in the mouth and acts as a mouth wash; while finally the cigarette disinfects the mouth and soothes the nerves.”

And then there was the testimonial from Moses Teichman. You don’t remember Moses? Here he is, in a photo from about that time, doing the Charleston with a slim young woman.


Born to Jewish parents in 1895 in Austria-Hungary, Moses and family emigrated to the US in 1897. Anti-German pressure at the beginning of WW1 prompted him to change his name because the anti-German sentiments abroad in the land made things difficult for people with German-sounding names like Teichman. So instead of Moses Teichman, he chose to live the rest of his life as…

Arthur Murray.

If you are old enough, you may remember Murray for his “Arthur Murray Party” TV show in the ‘50s. If you are older than that, you may remember him for the mail-order dance lessons he sent out that used footprint diagrams to teach folks to do the fox trot or waltz.

murray 1922

But he was most famous for a chain of dance studios he started in the 1920s, and that continue to this day. The business…

…launched in 1925, involved selling branded dance lessons through franchising. He trained dance instructors for the Statler Hotel chain, who then went to various hotels and gave lessons; Murray kept some of the profits from each franchise. [Wiki]

By the 1930s, he expanded even more, to free-standing, franchised dance studios. But in 1928, when Eddie approached him, he was already a nationally-known dance instructor, in a time when new “dance crazes” like the Charleston and Jitterbug were all the rage, and being able to look good on the dance floor was viewed by young women as a quick road to popularity.

Bernays even persuaded dancing-school entrepreneur Arthur Murray to sign a letter testifying that “on the dance floor, results of over-indulgence are quickly revealed— causing embarrassment not only to one’s dancing partner but also to other dancers by encroaching on more than a fair share of space on a crowded or, as is often the case, on a dance floor of limited proportions. Dancers today, when tempted to overindulge at the punch bowl or the buffet, reach for a cigarette instead.”

Eddie also embarked on less direct approaches, aimed at “changing the culture” even more than changing the habits of one potential Lucky Strike buyer at a time:

 Hotels were urged to add cigarettes to their dessert lists, while the Bernays office widely distributed a series of menus, prepared by an editor of House and Garden, designed to “save you from the dangers of overeating.” For lunch and dinner they suggested a sensible mix of vegetables, meats, and carbohydrates, followed by the advice to “reach for a cigarette instead of dessert.

And he proposed that homemakers hire kitchen cabinetmakers to provide special spaces to hold cigarettes the same as they did for flour and sugar, urged container makers to provide labeled tins for smokes just as they did for tea and coffee, and encouraged home economics writers to “stress the importance of cigarettes in home-making.… Just as the young and inexperienced housewife is cautioned not to let her supplies of sugar or salt or tea or coffee run low, so she should be advised that the same holds true of cigarettes.”

The “reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” ads had been around for about a month when a new wave of ads came out…

 … this time stressing moderation. The “moderation” he had in mind, of course, meant consuming fewer sweets and more cigarettes.

The slogan for this wave of the sales campaign was “When tempted to over-indulge, Reach for a Lucky instead.”


reach2As you can see, the kicker in these ads was the “Future Shadow.”

And as usual, Eddie outdid himself brainstorming on ways to expand the plan.

 Bernays responded with an intricate proposal for a Moderation League, one that, ironically, he wanted to model on the “the Anti-Tuberculosis Association, Anti-Cancer Associations, Cardiac Associations etc.”  Hill balked at the long-range program, but loved Bernays’s proposal to sign up the glamorous Ziegfeld Girls. Six of the dancers formed the Ziegfeld Contour, Curve and Charm Club, signing a pledge to “renounce the false pleasure of the table— fattening foods, drinks, and cloying sweets. But I make no sacrifices: I shall smoke cigarettes.”

 And it wasn’t all just “glamour girls” who were enlisted in the sales blitz. One of the most popular female celebrities of the time was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Charles Lindbergh had recently completed his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 when Earhart was invited to take part in a June 1928 flight that also became a “first”…the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. No, she wasn’t the pilot, just along for the ride on the plane Friendship. (The flight was almost totally on “instruments,” and she hadn’t yet been trained for that type of flying.) But it was known that she was an accomplished pilot, and she went on to fame in her own right.

Conveniently for Lucky Eddie and Lucky Strikes, Amelia had a slim, trim figure.  Here she is in flight gear in 1928, and more demure in formal attire in 1932.

amelia 1928

amelia1932So they could easily capitalize on her Friendship trip, that came right in the middle of their Lucky campaign.

ameliaYes, Amelia gave testimony that Lucky Strikes were the cigarette of choice on the famous flight, and that she, the pilot, and co-pilot basically chain-smoked them for most of the 20 hour trip. As she was quoted saying in another Lucky ad of the time, “I think nothing helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.”

 So…how successful were all these hidden and not-so-hidden methods of persuasion in actually selling the product?

 Hill exulted in a December 1928 letter to Bernays, American Tobacco’s revenues rose by $ 32 million that year, and Luckies “show a greater increase than all other Cigarettes combined.”

By the way, how did the author of the Father of Spin book ferret out so many details and quotes about this and many other Bernays campaigns of persuasion? Because Eddie Bernays was both egotistical and obsessive-compulsive enough to keep originals or copies of practically every slip of paper that he ever wrote or received. And with a career that spanned over 80 years, that’s a LOT of paper. Eddie was literally sure that his would be an undying legacy, and he wanted to make sure future biographers “got it right.” So before his death, he boxed up all of that voluminous material and arranged for it to be left to the Library of Congress—more than 800 boxes.

He also wrote his own 849-page autobiography, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays.

But even that wasn’t enough:

 Still, he wasn’t content. Posterity would have all his papers and his personal perspective on his life story. But he felt it was important that biographers and historians also have a road map to everything he’d written and everything that had been written about him over his long career, one that included capsule versions of the writings, since he’d learned long before that busy authors had limited attention spans. So, in a truly unusual move, he hired a doctoral student to compile a 774-page annotated bibliography on him and his wife Doris. This work— Public Relations, the Edward L. Bernayses and the American Scene: A Bibliography— included 24 pages and 185 entries just on things the New York Times had said about him. There were hundreds of pages more of long excerpts from each book, periodical, and film that mentioned him, or that he contributed to. And there were references to nearly every speech he delivered and letter to the editor he wrote.

… Roscoe Ellard, a Columbia Journalism School professor who reviewed an earlier, ninety-two-page version of the bibliography for Editor and Publisher, said it usefully sketched the history of PR in America. Still, he couldn’t help observing how odd it was for such a work to be commissioned, noting wryly that it had happened only twice before that he knew of— with Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. PR veteran Bill Riis also thought it odd, although not for Eddie, as he wrote, “No one but Bernays would think of selling his own personal clipping book. The trick is, it won’t sell.” Riss was right: Eddie was stuck with twenty-five cases of copies, which he kept in his basement. But the bibliography found its way to scores of libraries and other research centers and is available to anyone interested in reading or writing about him.

Yes, Lucky Eddie was close to one of a kind. Which is why we know so much about the Lucky Strike campaign.

 Seldom if ever had a publicity campaign been carried out on so many fronts, and seldom if ever again will those responsible save, and make public, the details of their orchestrations the way Bernays did when he left to the Library of Congress twenty-four boxes of records pertaining to the American Tobacco Company.

That leaves close to 800 boxes we can dip into to find out more about Eddie’s brand of Hidden Persuasion.

The upcoming blog entries that will explore just a few more examples, making it very clear that using hidden methods of persuasion to get the public to buy your product, your cause, your candidate…or your war…didn’t start with the Mad Men of the 1950s. Up next:

You’ll Find That You’re In the Rotogravure

 PS… but first, just for fun, have a look at a 1957 episode
of the Arthur Murray Party show.
You don’t get to see Arthur, but it’s introduced by his wife Kathryn,
and features a VERY unexpected guest.


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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 4

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 4:

The Wizard of AdZ

(This is the fourth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”


As a young college student in the mid-1960s, I was very impressed with the writings of journalist/social commentator/social critic Vance Packard. I had several of his books, including The Waste Makers, The People Shapers, and Nation of Strangers. But like most people, his first biting commentary I read was his first best seller, from 1957, The Hidden Persuaders.


His introduction explained what he meant by the title:

This book is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic new area of American life. It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, “hidden.” The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

Some of the manipulating being attempted is simply amusing. Some of it is disquieting, particularly when viewed as a portent of what may be ahead on a more intensive and effective scale for us all. Cooperative scientists have come along providentially to furnish some awesome tools. The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares—whether products, ideas, attitudes, candidates, goals, or states of mind. This depth approach to influencing our behavior is being used in many fields and is employing a variety of ingenious techniques. It is being used most extensively to affect our daily acts of consumption.

The rest of the book explained how central understanding “the subconscious” was to the methods used by these hidden persuaders.

The findings of the depth probers provide starling explanations for many of our daily habits and perversities. It seems that our subconscious can be pretty wild and unruly. What the probers are looking for, of course, are the whys of our behavior, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favor. This has led them to probe why we are afraid of banks; why we love those big fat cars; why we really buy homes; why men smoke cigars; why the kind of car we drive reveals the brand of gasoline we will buy; why housewives typically fall into a hypnoidal trance when they get into a supermarket; why men are drawn into auto showrooms by convertibles but end up buying sedans; why junior loves cereal that pops, snaps, and crackles.

And it gave numerous explanations of specific “tricks of the trade” contemporary advertising experts of the mid-1950s were using to affect the buying habits of the American public. For instance, they had noticed that “impulse buying” of groceries had grown by leaps and bounds for nearly two decades. Housewives (and husbands, and kids) seldom went to the store with a complete list of groceries they “needed.” And they seldom came home without a significant collection of items they had not intended to buy.

A “motivational analyst” named James Vicary wondered why. He …

…suspected that some special psychology must be going on inside the women as they shopped in supermarkets. His suspicion was that perhaps they underwent such an increase in tension when confronted with so many possibilities that they were forced into making quick purchases. He set out to find out if this was true.

The best way to detect what was going on inside the shopper was a galvanometer or lie detector. That obviously was impractical. The next best thing was to use a hidden motion-picture camera and record the eye-blink rate of the women as they shopped.

Blinking eyes? What on earth does that have to do with buying groceries?

How fast a person blinks his eyes is a pretty good index of his state of inner tension. The average person, according to Mr. Vicary, normally blinks his eyes about thirty-two times a minute. If he is tense he blinks them more frequently, under extreme tension up to fifty or sixty times a minute. If he is notably relaxed on the other hand his eye-blink rate may drop to a subnormal twenty or less.

Mr. Vicary set up his cameras and started following the ladies as they entered the store. The results were startling, even to him. Their eye-blink rate, instead of going up to indicate mounting tension, went down and down, to a very subnormal fourteen blinks a minute. The ladies fell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a light kind of trance that, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis.

… Interestingly many of these women were in such a trance that they passed by neighbors and old friends without noticing or greeting them. Some had a sort of glassy stare. They were so entranced as they wandered about the store plucking things off shelves at random that they would bump into boxes without seeing them and did not even notice the camera although in some cases their face would pass within a foot and a half of the spot where the hidden camera was clicking away.

So what happened at the end of this sleep-walking shopping excursion?

When the wives had filled their carts (or satisfied themselves) and started toward the check-out counter their eye-blink rate would start rising up to a slightly subnormal twenty-five blinks per minute. Then, at the sound of the cash-register bell and the voice of the clerk asking for money, the eye-blink rate would race up past normal to a high abnormal of forty-five blinks per minute. In many cases it turned out that the women did not have enough money to pay for all the nice things they had put in the cart.

junk food

In this beckoning field of impulse buying psychologists have teamed up with merchandising experts to persuade the wife to buy products she may not particularly need or even want until she happens to see them invitingly presented. The 60 million American women who go into supermarkets every week are getting “help” in their purchases and “splurchases” from psychologists and psychiatrists hired by the food merchandisers. On May 18, 1956, The New York Times printed a remarkable interview with a young man named Gerald Stahl, executive vice-president of the Package Designers Council. He stated: “Psychiatrists say that people have so much to choose from that they want help—they will like the package that hypnotizes them into picking it.”

He urged food packers to put more hypnosis into their package designing, so that the housewife will stick out her hand for it rather than one of many rivals.

Packard went on to describe numerous methods the advertisers used to “put more hypnosis” in their package designs.

hypnotismAnd the rest of the book added many more inside insights into other methods used by the hidden persuaders. I was surprised and amazed by the information at the time.

Fast forward 45 years. I’m now in my 60s. I long ago forgot almost everything I read in Packard’s books, including The Hidden Persuaders. Maybe I internalized a tiny bit of it and it fortified my resistance to the persuasive methods…for many years I really have had a complete shopping list almost every time I go to the grocery store, and almost never buy anything on impulse.

But in general I went on to having interests in a wide variety of other topics over the years, and didn’t spend much time ever on thinking about those hidden persuaders lurking out there. I do however remember assuming at the time back in the 60s that this was a thoroughly “modern” phenomenon. Probably developed by MadMen on Madison Avenue starting some time in the late 40s or early 50s. Packard implies as much in his book, even starting his introduction with the term “exotic new” when speaking of tactics aimed at our subconscious.

So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I discovered that this was a misperception on Packard’s part. Either he just hadn’t done much historical study on advertising, or there were limited resources available for such study in the mid-1950s. This is certainly understandable. In the past decade the Internet has created an explosion of easily accessible information in vast quantities regarding just about any historical subject imaginable. Information that might have taken years, even decades, to ferret out from the book stacks and periodical collections in musty libraries fifty years ago is just a google search away now.

Oh, there may be a few tricks of the trade that are fairly new in recent times. But there was an astonishing amount of hidden persuasion going on in America a century and more ago, much of it perpetrated by the advertising industry and used to get people to spend money they couldn’t really afford on things they didn’t need, and to hypnotize people into choosing one brand over another for totally subconscious, even completely irrational, reasons. And people back then were little the wiser about how they were being manipulated than most people are now.

Let me take you behind that long-ago curtain, and meet the Wizard… of AdZ.

In the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, “Oz the Great and Powerful” was just an illusion made with the proverbial smoke and mirrors.


When he was separated from all his methods of illusion, the character played by Frank Morgan wasn’t imposing and fearful at all.


In the same way, Edward L. Bernays didn’t look powerful. He was short, plain.  In fact, some might say he appeared rather wimpy and ineffectual in person.


Don’t let appearances fool you. Eddie Bernays, as he was sometimes called by friend and foe alike, manipulated masses of people more powerfully than most men before or since. Obviously, we know that looks can be deceiving.

eddie adolph

After studying his life and accomplishments, I have come to realize that Eddie Bernays is one of those “most influential people you’ve never heard of.” In fact, although I don’t remember ever hearing or reading his name before a few months ago, since the first time I noticed it I seem to see it everywhere in my reading now. He’s a little like the fictional “Forrest Gump” character, showing up unexpectedly in all sorts of settings.


Back in his heyday Bernays was somewhere around the fringes when all sorts of big things were happening…pulling strings but choosing to stay out of the public eye personally. You can see him in a pic at age 26 in France at the end of a line of people at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WW1. Or here he is on the right at 50 at an event with Eleanor Roosevelt.

1941 eleanorAnd it was indeed a long heyday—born in 1891, he died in 1995 at age 103!  Here he is in 1990 at about 99. Even then he was still giving interviews and talking about his career.

1990 eddieSo what did Eddie DO? He was, as one of his biographers called him, “The Father of Spin.”


He is considered by many to have had the most historical influence of any one person in the creation of the modern role of the “Public Relations man.”

Eddie did P.R. (Some claim he personally even coined the popular use of the term “public relations.”)

Not just “advertising,” he would be very quick to point out if you called him an “Ad man.” The typical ad man, from Eddie’s point of view, was a fellow who badgered people into buying a product, usually with methods that emphasized, either truthfully or deceptively, the details of the alleged fine qualities of the product that made it superior to similar products, and what a great value it was for the price. This is what “advertising” typically meant at the turn of the last century. Like this information from a Sears Roebuck catalog of 1908 on rocking chairs.


This kind of “ad” was purely informational. Catalogs of the time were typically full of this type of advertising. It emphasized paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of teeny print describing every excruciating detail of the bargain you were being offered, along with close-up photos or artist renderings of the item showing its every feature. Why?

Because the typical advertising man of the time was convinced that what people really wanted in order to make buying decisions was practical information, information they could use to make rational purchasing choices.

But you see—Eddie Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud! He had studied his uncle’s writings, and even arranged to have Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” notes from 1915-1917 translated into English and published as a book in America, the first popular exposure American readers had to Freud’s theories.

Yes, Eddie knew all about the unconscious. He knew better than to think that the mass of humankind are coolly “rational beings.” In addition to the theories of his Austrian “Uncle Siggie,” Eddie was strongly influenced by the writings of the French author Gustave LeBron (who popularized the theory of “crowd psychology” with his 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind ) and the British pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter (who wrote a famous book in 1916 titled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.)

As a result of these influences, Eddie had been one of the first of his generation to realize—and act upon—the understanding that “persuading” people…to buy a product, to support a cause, to vote for a candidate…was much more effectively done by applying principles from psychology and psychiatry than by trying to “sell” it to them with a frontal assault on their “rational mind.”

Bernays had been acting on this understanding in his business career for barely a decade by 1923 when he wrote the very first book on the topic of Public Relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Listen to his opinion from that book about the ability for rational thinking of the common man:

The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.

Five years later, in 1928, he wrote another book on the topic, titled Propaganda.


Listen to the “underpinnings” of his PR efforts on behalf of American businesses (as well as his role in “selling” more than one president to the public, the “selling” of more than one war to the public, the “selling” of much more…):

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.

He went on to pontificate:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic [!!] society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

He meant this to be encouraging! Otherwise, he insisted, there would be chaos and anarchy.

Does this sound all a bit creepily familiar? Perhaps that is because it was a well-known fact that Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, was an admirer of Eddie’s writings. Yes, Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda were in Goebbel’s personal library.

I remember a book I read called PR: A Social History of Spin. The author discussed how the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays, despite the fact that Mr. Bernays was Jewish. Goebbels desperately wanted to meet Mr. Bernays and apparantly sent numerous books to him to be autographed. We don’t know if Mr. Bernays autographed them, but Goebbels claimed that he did. Goebbels, who had a PhD in philosophy (which is crucial in terms of understanding how he was able to understand Bernays and apply his writings in the way that he did), apparantly had an even larger library on propaganda than Mr. Bernays and had not only read all of his books, but had largely memorized a good deal of them as well. Goebbels was able to utilize Bernays’ ideas on propaganda in a manner that was the most malicious and homicidal ever seen in the 20th century: to support the Final Solution. [Source]

Eddie regretted this unwelcome connection when its significance became clear in later years, but didn’t take it as “criticism” of his theories—just an example of how they could be used by unscrupulous people. In the right hands … they were the “tools of democracy”!

In Eddie’s own hands they were tools over the years to promote a wide variety of products, ideas, people, causes, and even wars. His corporate clients had included, among many others, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, the United Fruit Company (remember Chiquita Banana?), General Electric, Dodge Motors, and Knox Gelatin. Causes he had helped promote included the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation (he was the one who encouraged them in about 1949 to shorten the name of the disease in their promotional materials to simply MS), the NAACP, and the fluoridation of water. He helped with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. He helped promote US entry into World War 1, the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in 1954, the interests of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. And he was the publicity director for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

worlds fair

Eddie was SO influential in so many areas that he and his tactics are going to deserve several entries in this blog series. In the next entry, we’ll watch the Wizard of AdZ as he orchestrates and choreographs one of his early elaborate PR schemes of Hidden Persuasion:

Lucky Eddie

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 3

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 3:

Plausible Deniability

(This is the third entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

Perhaps you saw the news stories last year about the event described in this NY Times article:

New York Times, 12/6/2012

…ASHULIA, Bangladesh — The fire alarm shattered the monotony of the Tazreen Fashions factory. Hundreds of seamstresses looked up from their machines, startled. On the third floor, Shima Akhter Pakhi had been stitching hoods onto fleece jackets. Now she ran to a staircase.

But two managers were blocking the way. Ignore the alarm, they ordered. It was just a test. Back to work. A few women laughed nervously. Ms. Pakhi and other workers returned to their sewing tables. She could stitch a hood to a jacket in about 90 seconds. She arranged the fabric under her machine. Ninety seconds. Again. Ninety more seconds. She sewed six pieces, maybe seven.

Then she looked up.

Smoke was filtering up through the three staircases. Screams rose from below. The two managers had vanished. Power suddenly went out throughout the eight-story building. There was nowhere to escape. The staircases led down into the fire. Iron grilles blocked the windows. A man cowering in a fifth-floor bathroom called his mother to tell her he was about to die.

“We all panicked,” Ms. Pakhi said. “It spread so quickly. And there was no electricity. It was totally dark.”

The fire started about 7 PM, and it took area firefighters until almost noon the next day to finally extinguish it.


bang fire22012novbang

By then at least 112 people had been found dead and scores more were in hospitals being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.

Though most workers had left for the day when the fire started, the industry official said, as many as 600 workers were still inside working overtime.

The factory, which opened in May 2010, employed about 1,500 workers and had sales of $35 million a year, according to a document on the company’s Web site. It made T-shirts, polo shirts and fleece jackets.

Most of the workers who died were on the first and second floors, fire officials said, and were killed because there were not enough exits.

The fire started on the first floor, probably in cluttered piles of yarn and fabric stored near electrical generators, instead of inside fireproof storage rooms as the (seldom obeyed) law required. Narrow exits on that floor became quickly blocked by panicking workers, and for those on upper floors—all three staircases leading down led through the ground floor. If they tried to descend, they were pushed back by smoke and deadly fumes.

stairsThere were no fire escapes—a dozen jumped to their deaths from windows on upper floors.

When the November fire broke out, [survivor Sumi] Abedin was working on the factory’s fourth floor. When a co-worker smelled smoke and she and some co-workers first tried to escape, said Abedin, managers “shouted at us, ‘There is no fire. This is a lie. Go and work.’” Five minutes later, when the smell had grown stronger, Abedin ran to a door but it was padlocked shut. “I was crying and running around the floors,” she said. Abedin took a different stairway down to the second floor, but found fire blocking any exit there. “Meanwhile,” she said, “power had gone out, and it was dark.” Following co-workers who were lighting the way with a cell phone, she made it back up to the third floor. “I saw many workers fallen in the production area,” she said, “and they had suffocated, and I was crying.”

A few workers forced open a window, and Abedin jumped out. “I jumped not to save my life,” she said. “I jumped to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”

Abedin said she woke up outside with a broken leg and a broken arm. When she turned to help the co-worker who had jumped just before her, he was dead. [The Nation]

Abedin was correct in her concern. Many bodies from inside the building could not be identified.

bodiesAs you can guess, this factory was not making sari dresses for Indian shoppers. It was part of the global supply chain that feeds western megastores such as Walmart and Sears.

Yet Tazreen was making clothing destined for some of the world’s top retailers. On the third floor, where firefighters later recovered 69 bodies, Ms. Pakhi was stitching sweater jackets for C&A, a European chain. On the fifth floor, workers were making Faded Glory shorts for Walmart. Ten bodies were recovered there. On the sixth floor, a man named Hashinur Rahman put down his work making True Desire lingerie for Sears and eventually helped save scores of others. Inside one factory office, labor activists found order forms and drawings for a licensee of the United States Marine Corps that makes commercial apparel with the Marines’ logo.

… Amid the blackened tables and melted sewing machines…an Associated Press reporter discovered clothes and account books Wednesday that indicated the factory was used by a host of U.S. and European retailers.

Among the items discovered: children’s shorts with Wal-Mart’s Faded Glory label, hooded sweaters marked “Disney Pixar,” shorts with hip-hop star Sean Combs’ ENYCE tag, and sweaters from the French company Teddy Smith and the Scottish company Edinburgh Woollen Mill. Sears was among the companies listed in the account books.

And American “Dickies.”

faded2faded glorydickiesIf you were aware of this story, you may have read some of the editorial commentary that questioned what, if any, legal—or moral—liability these businesses had in regard to this tragedy. For of course, this was not some isolated situation. Bangladesh is notorious for a lack of oversight of the safety and rights of sweat shop workers in the thousands of factories that hire millions of workers in this poverty-stricken nation. Many if not most of them work in rickety fire-traps, under identical conditions to the Tazreen factory. Exit doors are often locked during working hours—supposedly to limit employee “theft.” Plain old common sense fire safety precautions, such as keeping stocks of flammable materials away from machinery that might generate sparks, are typically totally ignored.

Nobody worries about the welfare of the workers, as they are merely cogs in a giant machine.

Bangladesh is now a garment manufacturing giant, the world’s second-leading apparel exporter, behind China, which is no longer the cheapest place to make many basic goods. Bangladesh has the lowest garment wages in the world, and many of the Tazreen factory’s victims were young rural women with little education, who earned as little as $45 a month in an industry that now accounts for $19 billion in exports.

Starvation wages for work in hellish conditions—all in the name of making sure we can buy a Sponge Bob T-shirt at a rock-bottom price at our local Walmart. Because, of course, we have come to expect rock-bottom prices. Even though most Americans will give lip service to wishing there were T-shirts…and every other kind of goods…to buy that were “made in America.” Nah.  Most of us wouldn’t BUY one made in America, because the added cost of paying even American minimum wages to garment workers would boost the price beyond what we’ve become accustomed to paying.

Yes, Walmart and other retail giants have addicted us to prices that can only be kept “that low” by importing goods manufactured in places like Bangladesh.

“We as consumers like to be able to buy ever-greater quantities of ever-cheaper goods, every year,” said Richard M. Locke, deputy dean of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Somebody is bearing the cost of it, and we don’t want to know about it. The people bearing the cost were in this fire.”

Well, actually there is a way that Walmart and the others could keep their prices low and still sell American made goods produced by workers making at least minimum US wages. They could reduce their corporate profits (and their executive salaries) by some small percent. But see, that wouldn’t be The American Way. After all, “the profit motive” has long been recognized as the fuel that was necessary to propel America to its one-time role as the Most Prosperous Country in the World. You don’t mess with a proven method.

Of course, buying goods from sweat shops where people are burned alive isn’t very good for corporate Public Relations. Which might affect those corporate profits. So the Bangladesh fire was indeed a PR nightmare for Walmart and the others for a while.

After the fire, Walmart, Sears and other retailers made the same startling admission: They say they did not know that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing.

But who, then, is ultimately responsible when things go so wrong?

The global apparel industry aspires to operate with accountability that extends from distant factories to retail stores. Big brands demand that factories be inspected by accredited auditing firms so that the brands can control quality and understand how, where and by whom their goods are made. If a factory does not pass muster, it is not supposed to get orders from Western customers.

Tazreen Fashions was one of many clothing factories that exist on the margins of this system. Factory bosses had been faulted for violations during inspections conducted on behalf of Walmart and at the behest of the Business Social Compliance Initiative, a European organization.

Yet Tazreen Fashions received orders anyway, slipping through the gaps in the system by delivering the low costs and quick turnarounds that buyers — and consumers — demand. C&A, the European retailer, has confirmed ordering 220,000 sweaters from the factory. But much of the factory’s business came through opaque networks of subcontracts with suppliers or local buying houses. Labor activists, combing the site of the disaster, found labels, order forms, design drawings and articles of clothing from many global brands.

Walmart and Sears have since said they fired the suppliers that subcontracted work to Tazreen Fashions. Yet some critics have questioned how a company like Walmart, one of the two biggest buyers in Bangladesh and renowned for its sophisticated global supply system, could have been unaware of the connection.

But of course, the name of the game is Plausible Deniability. “Tsk, tsk! We didn’t know! We would have been aghast if we did!” Yeah. Right.

…David Hasanat, the chairman of the Viyellatex Group, one of the country’s most highly regarded garment manufacturers, pointed out that global apparel retailers often depend on hundreds of factories to fill orders. Given the scale of work, retailers frequently place orders through suppliers and other middlemen who, in turn, steer work to factories that deliver low costs — a practice he said is hardly unknown to Western retailers and clothing brands. The order for Walmart’s Faded Glory shorts, documents show, was subcontracted from Simco Bangladesh Ltd., a local garment maker. “It is an open secret to allow factories to do that,” Mr. Hasanat said. “End of the day, for them it is the price that matters.”

But when the New York Times reporter comes calling, the Escape Clause can be pulled out of the hat. “We had no idea!…”

Tazreen Fashions is part of a larger garment conglomerate, the Tuba Group, which owns at least half a dozen apparel factories in Bangladesh. Mr. Hossain [Tazreen owner] said a team from Walmart’s local office conducted a compliance audit last year and faulted the factory for excessive overtime, while making no mention of fire safety or other issues. Moreover, he said, the local buying houses had also inspected and approved the factory, tantamount, he assumed, to approval from Walmart and the other global brands these middlemen represented.

Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said the company stopped authorizing production at Tazreen “many months before the fire.” But he did not say why.

But of course no one was surprised several months later when Walmart and Sears “avoided even the appearance” of having the slightest connection to “the problem.”

On 15 May 2013, companies whose clothing was manufactured at the Tazreen Design Ltd. factory met in Geneva to discuss compensation payments for the victims of the fire; Walmart and Sears declined to send representatives to the meeting. [Wiki]

Why do I bring all this up in the context of American History? After all, can’t we expect such lack of respect for human life, such carelessness for others, in third world countries like Bangladesh, which don’t live by The American Way? For after all, isn’t The American Way the “Christian” Way? Hasn’t the American Way of Life and doing business always been based on “Biblical Principles”? (Bangladesh is about 90% Islamic, 10% Hindu.)

Maybe in recent decades the modern Walmart corporation and other big American businesses have fallen away from those ideals and become corrupt and greedy. But surely historically The American Way has been greatly superior to the horrid conditions in darkened Bangladesh. Hellish events such as the Tazreen fire and the one described below are tragic, but understandable in uncivilized nations.

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were … aged sixteen to twenty-three…

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice … to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below.

Oh. Wait. That description isn’t from far-flung heathen lands. It’s from Heathen New York City. Yes, once again we are back in the Good Old Days.

good old daysI submit to you a brief overview of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. It was also one of the deadliest disasters that occurred in New York City – after the burning of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904 [over 1,000 people on their way to a German Lutheran church picnic died when that excursion steamship caught fire and sank in the East River] – until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later.

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below.

… Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women’s blouses, known as “shirtwaists.” The factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays, earning between $7 and $12 a week.

As the workday was ending on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire flared up at approximately 4:40 PM in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables at the northeast corner of the eighth floor. The first fire alarm was sent at 4:45 PM by a passerby on Washington Place who saw smoke coming from the eighth floor. Both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.

The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin, which held two months’ worth of accumulated cuttings by the time of the fire. Beneath the table in the wooden bin were hundreds of pounds of scraps which were left over from the several thousand shirtwaist that had been cut at that table. …

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. According to survivor Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself. Although the floor had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Place, flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway, and the door to the Washington Place stairway was locked to prevent theft by the workers; the locked doors allowed managers to check the women’s purses. The foreman who held the stairway door key had already escaped by another route. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they continued to operate.

19110325 triangleWithin three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, which city officials had allowed Asch to erect instead of the required third staircase. It was a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet (30 m) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.

Just as in the Twin Towers inferno, there were heroes of the story that day…

Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo saved many lives by traveling three times up to the ninth floor for passengers, but Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped into the empty shaft, trying to slide down the cables or to land on top of the car. The weight and impacts of these bodies warped the elevator car and made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

A large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, witnessing sixty-two people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building. Louis Waldman, later a New York Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene years later:

“…Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor.

Which also meant there was no way to reach anyone on those floors with a ladder to rescue them.

windows(Picture from the NY Times of that date in 1911 shows x’s on the windows above where the ladder reaches, indicating where victims jumped.)

The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to approach the building.

bodiesonsidewalk(Picture from the NY Times shows forty bodies scattered on the sidewalk next to the building.)

Although early references of the death toll ranged from 141 to 148, almost all modern references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire: 129 women and 17 men. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.

The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

So there you have it. Almost a “script” for the Bangladesh fire. Young women doing exhausting labor at pitifully low wages, in a garment factory sweat shop, a fire started and fed by totally unsafe working conditions, a building ill-equipped for such an emergency, locked exits…a recipe for disaster.

So did anyone end up shouldering responsibility for THIS fire?

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building’s roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair’s trial began on December 4, 1911.

And quickly ended with an acquittal for both. The defense lawyer convinced the jury that the prosecution needed to prove that the owners specifically KNEW that the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. In spite of the fact that almost everyone knew that this was “standard procedure” for this sweat shop.

There was a subsequent civil trial, and the owners lost that one. The plaintiffs won $75 compensation to the survivors of each victim. Which ended up being no sweat for Blanck and Harris—their insurance company ended up paying them about $60,000 over their reported losses. About $400 per casualty. They came out ahead.

But surely they at least “learned their lesson” and dedicated the rest of their lives to factory safety…

Harris and Blanck were to continue their defiant attitude toward the authorities. Just a few days after the fire, the new premises of their factory had been found not to be fireproof, without fire escapes, and without adequate exits.

In August of 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.

In December of 1913, the interior of his factory was found to be littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. This time, instead of a court appearance and a fine, he was served a stern warning.

The Triangle Waist Company was to cease operations in 1918, but the owners maintained throughout that their factory was a “model of cleanliness and sanitary conditions,” and that it was “second to none in the country.” [Source]

There was indeed some public uproar over the horrific event, and it did eventually lead to some changes in New York law regarding wages, hours, safety, and working conditions. But of course that involved … shudder … government intervention into business. Which from what I understand is frowned upon greatly by many in our society today.

Some actually seem to consider the improvement in industrial conditions brought about by some of the muckrakers and reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century to be an infringement on The American Way. Because their primary definition of The American Way seems to be … “I’m free to do ANYTHING I want to get rich, with no lousy government intervention. Because after all, Businessmen are gentlemen, and can be counted on to Do The Right Thing without any external interference by do-gooders. Yessiree, what’s good for Big Business is Good for America!”

Which puts me in mind of General Bashington T. Bullmoose!


GENERAL BULLMOOSE was created by Al Capp in June 1953 as the epitome of a ruthless capitalist. Bullmoose’s motto “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!” was adapted by Capp from a statement made by Charles E. Wilson, the former head of General Motors, when it was America’s largest corporation. He later served as Secretary of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1952 Wilson told a Senate subcommittee, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Li’l Abner became embroiled in many implausible but hilarious adventures with the cold-hearted Bullmoose over the years. [Source]

Bullmoose had a simple boyhood dream: to possess all the money in the world. He very nearly did. Bullmoose Industries seemed to own or control everything. [Wiki: L’il Abner]

So if Big Business is Good for the Country, any government regulations putting a crimp in the style of any such businesses … are Bad for America. And are thus un-American. And ungodly. And not part of The American Way.

Oh. Yes. I remember that Eternal Law undergirding The American Way. It’s somewhere in the Bible, I think. At least in principle. It must be. Lots of people who call themselves Christian have been saying so for a long time.

What any of this has to do with “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Don’t forget the poor” and “The laborer is worthy of his hire” is beyond me.

I guess I just don’t understand Theonomic economics and business.

But there are more things I’ve recently come to understand about history that I never knew before. We’ll look at some more of them in the next entry in this series:

The Wizard of AdZ

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 2

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 2:

Pinching Pennies–’til They Screamed

(This is the second entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1 in order to understand the following material in context.)

The previous entry in this blog series started out with an infographic about the devastating effect for smaller nearby businesses that the opening of a Walmart in a city or town often leads to. (In some cases it has almost destroyed whole small communities, when Walmart would move in with a Supercenter, eliminate the competition, become the “only game in town”…and then decide to abandon the community because business wasn’t quite as profitable as it had hoped. Some small towns have never really recovered.)

In response we explored the fact that this “Walmart Way” of doing business wasn’t in any way “some new thing” in the U.S. The same devastation was wreaked on small businesses a century ago with the rise of the iconic department stores such as Macy’s, Marshall Field, and Siegel-Cooper. (Shown below…the Rug Department of Marshall Field in Chicago 1917.)

marshall field 1917Another anti-Walmart infographic is also making the rounds. This one emphasizes billionaire Walmart’s penny-pinching approach to employee compensation. (They are said to have a profit of something like $17 billion a year these days.)

walmart info2I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the claims in this infographic. But recent news stories have added to this picture. Walmart is currently in the process of building three new stores in the Washington, DC, area, and had announced plans for building three more stores in the near future. But these plans have been put on hold as a result of a bill passed by the DC City Council this past Wednesday (7/17/13). A Washington Post article clarifies what the brouhaha is all about:

Should the bill be signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and pass a congressional review period, retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger would be required to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage.

Once the bill was passed, Walmart came forward and declared that if the bill went into effect, Walmart would not only abandon plans for the three other stores, but perhaps not even finish the stores that are already under construction.

A Huffington Post article gives some background on this stand-off.

It might not surprise you that Walmart is fighting a ‘living wage’ bill in DC, but, if they win, you might be surprised at how it affects the future of your town. The massive retailer’s recent threat to cancel plans for additional stores in Washington, D.C., is part of a strategy to stifle wages for their own benefit that in turn stifles wages for the entire workforce in an area.

First, some background: theWalmart empire originally spread from Arkansas throughout the rural areas and suburbs of the U.S. These comparably low-wage markets are now tapped out. So, Walmart executives’ next targets are urban areas, where strong union membership and liberal populations help to drive up wages significantly in comparison to rural and suburban areas. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011 urban households received an average of $15,779 more in yearly income than rural households. [This is likely in part a result of a significantly higher cost of living in many urban areas than in many rural areas, and thus stronger pressure for higher wages.] Walmart’s low, low wages aren’t greeted kindly amongst city populations accustomed to their comparably higher pay. After seeing Walmart’s devastating effects on rural and suburban America, where Walmart has driven already-low wages even lower by crushing the competition and leaving nowhere else to work or shop, cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC decided that Walmart’s business model wasn’t right for them. So Walmart went about breaking down that political barrier in any way that they could.

Years before Walmart had a solid plan for a store in DC, the company quietly moved in, joining the DC Chamber of Commerce, making donations to local charities, and hiring lobbyists to help them cozy up to politicians. Construction began on three Walmart stores in the District, with plans for three more in the works. With public construction under way, DC residents began to notice and speak out against Walmart. The DC City Council passed a measure this week that would force Walmart and other giant retailers (any store larger than 75,000 square feet and whose parent company has at least $1 billion a year in revenue) to pay employees a starting hourly wage of $12.50.

In response, Walmart has sought to leverage its political power to strong-arm DC Mayor Vincent Gray into vetoing the bill and enabling Walmart to pay its standard low wages to workers in the District while depressing wages in the surrounding communities as small businesses fail and people have nowhere else to work or shop. Sadly, this is not the first time that Walmart has used these tactics to worm its way into unwelcome markets.

Yes, a similar effort by local government in Chicago in 2006 was undermined by Walmart’s strong-arm tactics. Walmart “persuaded” then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to veto the bill. It had called for “mega-retailers” to pay $10 an hour and an extra $3 in benefits. Instead, a full-time Walmart employee in Chicago, seven years later, still gets just $8.25 an hour. (And, of course, close to half of the employees are prevented by company strategies from working full time.)

The HuffPo article declares:

Mayor Vincent Gray should not allow himself to be bullied out of doing what is right for the workers of Washington, DC. After all, retailers can thrive while still paying a living wage. Costco, which pays its employees an average of $45,000 per year, has reported profit increases in recent quarters while Walmart’s sales have suffered. One reason for Walmart’s decline is that many of Walmart’s customers are also employees who, with more and more hours being cut, can’t afford to buy as much as they used to.

Bringing jobs to Washington, D.C. doesn’t need to come at the expense of a living wage, and nor should it. After all, the more you pay your workers, the more money they have to spend buying your products, and the higher your revenues become. Take it from Costco: the living wage works.

It’s not just the “starting wage” at Walmart that causes concern for many folks. Another HuffPo article explains the realities of long-term employment with the company.

Last year, HuffPost published internal Walmart documents detailing the company’s wage policies, showing the limited raises many workers see over time. A cart pusher who started out at $8 per hour, for instance, can expect to be earning about $10.60 per hour after six years and a promotion. The company told HuffPost last year that half of its hourly associates in the U.S. make less than $10 per hour.

So is the problem that Walmart, with a $17 billion dollar a year profit, can’t “afford” to pay its employees a living wage, at least enough to keep them from needing public assistance just to feed and house their families? (Although in DC they could afford to pay just one person $10,000 a MONTH to do obscure lobbying for them…lobbying that wasn’t even successful in stopping the minimum wage bill. And let’s don’t get into the likely salary range of executives of the corp. The reality is that they are not a company that has to pinch pennies to keep afloat these days.)

Asked if Walmart objected to the living wage bill because the company couldn’t sustain a $12.50 starting wage, Lundberg said it was more about all retailers being held to the same standards, rather than the largest companies having to play by different rules.

“What it comes down to is a matter of fairness,” he said.

Has the way Walmart has used its financial clout across the country to decimate its competition been “fair”? That is no doubt debatable depending on your personal approach to economics and government, and such topics as taxes, unions, and lobbyists. But is it “UnAmerican” and unprecedented? Nah, Walmart’s methods are as American as Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie. And have been typical of corporate/capitalist methods since the American Industrial Revolution really got going in the mid-1800s.

Walmart is only imitating the tactics of its forebears of a century ago, the monolithic department stores. So once again, let’s examine what it was like back in those Good Old Days.

Before Huffpo, before Michael Moore’s documentaries, before Mike Wallace’s 60 Minutes exposés, even long before the invention of the radio, reporters were busy doing investigative reporting and exposing the unpleasant underside of many American corporate institutions. One outlet for the work of such reporters a century ago was McClure’s Magazine:

mcclure indian

McClure’s or McClure’s Magazine (1893–1929) was an American illustrated monthly periodical popular at the turn of the 20th century.The magazine is credited with having started the tradition of muckraking journalism (investigative, watchdog or reform journalism), and helped shape the moral compass of the day.

McClure’s published such writers as Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herminie T. Kavanagh, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Lincoln Steffens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, its major competitors included Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and The New Yorker. [Wikipedia: McClure’s]

McClure’s covers often featured pictures of pretty young girls.

mccjuly1913Although, since a large proportion of their readers were female, they weren’t averse to the occasional beefcake picture.

mccbeefcakeThe October 1910 issue of the magazine featured an extensive study that had been done on the lives of working girls in New York. It particularly focused on “shopgirls,” young women who were employed in sales or stock work at various New York department stores.

You’ve probably seen old-timey pictures of what women looked like in the pre-World War 1 era of the 1900s in the US. It’s the period shown in the popular musical Music Man, which was set in 1912. A dress like that worn by Marian the Librarian in this pic below would have likely been bought at one of the department stores, or by mail-order from one of their catalogs. From the prices in catalogs at the time, I’d say Marian’s dress likely set her back $2.50 or so. Yes, indeed, prices were different back then, but of course so were salaries.

music manSo let’s explore what it would have been like to be one of the shopgirls who waited on the elegant ladies who bought such frothy dresses. From the McClure’s story:

(These articles are based upon information obtained through an investigation conducted by the National Consumers’ League, and covering the earnings of working-girls — wages, overtime work, loss from slack seasons, their expenditure for shelter, food, clothing, etc., down to the last penny of their earnings, and their uncertain struggle to preserve health and vitality. Editors.)

One of the first saleswomen who told the League her experience in her work was Lucy Cleaver, a young American woman of twenty-five, who had entered one of the New York department-stores at the age of twenty, at a salary of $4.50 a week. [Think that through … with the typical six-day work week of the time, that would be less than 75 cents a day. At a nine hour day, that would be less than 9 cents an hour.] In the course of the five years of her employment her salary had been raised one dollar. [That’s one extra dollar per week.]

She stood for nine hours every day. If, in still moments of trade, when no customers were near, she made use of the seats lawfully provided for employees [state law required employers to provide such seating—but did little or nothing to enforce the law], she was at once ordered by a floor-walker to do something that required standing. During the week before Christmas, she worked standing over fourteen hours every day, from eight to twelve-fifteen in the morning, one to six in the afternoon, and half past six in the evening till half past eleven at night. [Think THAT through—from 8 AM to 11:30 PM.]

To put this in perspective, take a look at the shoe styles of 1910.

1909 shoes macysYou can clearly see that these are typical shoes for the shop girls of the time, in this photo from the McClure’s article of a group headed to work in the morning.

group of girlsTHAT kind of pointy-toed, high-heeled shoe is what Lucy would have been wearing as she stood for anywhere between 9 and 14.5 hours a day. No “comfortable running shoes” or the like. Nike-style shoes wouldn’t be invented for another 50 years or so. One of the earliest “sneakers,” Keds canvas shoes with rubber soles, weren’t even invented until 1916. And even if they had been invented earlier, and Lucy owned a pair, she wouldn’t have been allowed to wear them to work. She was expected to dress primly and formally and look like she “belonged” in a fashionable setting…even though she didn’t.

So painful to the feet becomes the act of standing for these long periods that some of the girls forgo eating in order to give themselves the temporary relief of a foot bath. For this [Xmas season] over time the store gave her $20, presented to her, not as payment, but as a Christmas gift. The management also allowed a week’s vacation with pay in the summer-time and presented a gift of $10.

And loyal service to an employer under such exhausting conditions was worth nothing…

After five years in this position she had a disagreement with the floor-walker and was summarily dismissed. She then spent over a month in futile searching for employment, and finally obtained a position as a stock girl in a Sixth Avenue suit store at $4 a week, a sum less than the wage for which she had begun work five years before. Within a few weeks, dullness of trade had caused her dismissal. She was again facing indefinite unemployment. Her income for the year had been $281.

OK, so what did Lucy splurge her $4 or so a week on?

She lived in a large, pleasant home for girls, where she paid only S2.50 a week for board and a room shared with her sister.

Perhaps Lucy and her sister had a room much like this 6 ft. X 13 ft. one shown in the McClure’s article.room

Without the philanthropy of the home, she could not have made both ends meet. It was fifteen minutes’ walk from the store, and by taking this walk twice a day she saved carfare and the price of luncheon.

She did her own washing, and as she could not spend any further energy in sewing, she bought cheap ready-made clothes.

The standard working outfit for almost all shopgirls was a “shirtwaist”—often shortened to “waist” (what we now call a blouse)—usually with long sleeves and high starched collar, and a long skirt.

shirtwaistsIn order to keep up appearances, and look appropriately prim and proper, she’d have to have a freshly cleaned, starched, and ironed waist every morning, although she could get by with just two skirts.

This [buying cheap ready-made clothes] she found a great expense. Cheap waists wear out very rapidly. In the year she had bought 24 at 98 cents each. Here is her account, as nearly as she had kept it and recalled it for a year: a coat, $10.00; 4 hats, $17.00 [As you can see from the picture below from the McClure’s article, of shopgirls leaving at the end of the day, every woman of all ages absolutely had to wear one of those huge hats all the time! And they no doubt took quite a beating in sun, rain, and snow—and jostling crowds—and had to be replaced several times a year ]…

dept store at closing

…2 pairs of shoes, $5.00; 24 waists at 98 cents, $23.52; 2 skirts, $4.98; underwear, $2; board, $130; doctor, $2: total, $194.50. This leaves a balance of 86.30. This money had paid for necessaries not itemized — stockings, heavy winter under wear, petticoats, carfare, vacation expenses, every little gift she had made, and all recreation.

She belonged to no benefit societies [cooperative working class groups that would pool “dues” to help pay for health insurance and such], and she had not been able to save money in any way, even with the assistance given by the home. So much for her financial income and outlay. After giving practically all her time and force to her work, she had not received a return sufficient to conserve her health in the future, or even to support her in the present without the help of philanthropy. [In other words, comparable in a way to Walmart workers who must rely on government programs for the poor.] She was ill, anemic, nervous and broken in health.

And think about those clothes she had. There were no Laundromats back then, no electric washing machines, and no “permanent press” materials.  It is highly unlikely that Lucy had access to the latest improvements in washdays, shown in this 1910 ad for the Happy Day Ball Bearing High Speed washing machine.

happy day(See the lever? You pulled it back and forth continually to make the innards “agitate.”)

No, no Happy Wash Days for her…she likely washed at night, using the poor woman’s washing machine—a tub and washboard. And I doubt if such a tub could hold more than one of those loooong skirts, or even petticoats, she wore.

washboardThe processes involved in doing laundry were very harsh, and the kind of waist made out of cheap cloth that was all Lucy could afford would be worn out very soon by the rough handling necessary for cleaning.  Thus Lucy’s purchases of two cheap waists per month. White cloth in particular would need lots of effort to keep it looking white—usually with the help of a chemical called “bluing.”

White fabrics acquire a slight color cast after use (usually grey or yellow). Since blue and yellow are complementary colors in the subtractive color model of color perception, adding a trace of blue color to the slightly off-white color of these fabrics makes them appear whiter. Laundry detergents may also use fluorescing agents to similar effect. Many white fabrics are blued during manufacturing. Bluing is not permanent and rinses out over time leaving dingy or yellowed whites. A commercial bluing product allows the consumer to add the bluing back into the fabric to restore whiteness. [Wiki: Bluing]

Most detergents in modern times have a built-in bluing agent, but back in Lucy’s day, using bluing in a rinse was a separate step in doing the laundry. She probably used Mrs. Stewart’s.

bluingShe did her own laundry, including the processes, not only of rubbing the clothes clean, but of boiling, starching, bluing, and ironing. This, after a day of standing in other employment, is a vital strain more severe than may perhaps be readily realized. Saleswomen and shop-girls have not the powerful wrists and muscular waists of accustomed washerwomen, and are in most instances no better fitted to perform laundry work than washerwomen would be to make sales and invoice stock. But custom requires exactly the same freshness in a saleswoman’s shirtwaist, ties, and collars as in those of women of the largest income.

The amount the girls of the St. George’s Working Club found it absolutely necessary to spend in a year for laundering clothes was almost half as much as the amount spent for lodging and nearly two thirds as much as the amount originally spent for clothing. Where this large expense of laundry cannot be met financially by saleswomen [by taking the clothes to a commercial laundry or independent laundress], it has to be met by sheer personal strength. One department-store girl, who needed to be especially neat because her position was in the shirtwaist department, told us that sometimes, after a day’s standing in the store, she worked over tubs and ironing-boards at home till twelve at night.

And lest we forget…Lucy would not have been using an efficient electric iron. Back then it would have been irons that you regularly set on a stove to reheat.

flatironLucy’s story was not anything unusual at all for the time. It was pretty typical. Here’s another young woman with an equally grim story.

Story of Alice Anderson, a Check Girl

… Anderson, a girl of seventeen, who had been working in the department- stores for three years and a half. [Meaning she had started at age 13 or 14.] She was at first employed as a check girl in a Fourteenth Street store, at a wage of $2.62 1/2 a week; that is to say, she was paid $5.25 twice a month. Her working day was nine and a half hours long through most of the year. But during two weeks before Christmas it was lengthened to from twelve to thirteen and a half hours, without any extra payment in any form.

She was promoted to the position of sales woman, but her wages still remained $2.62 1/2 a week. She lived with her grandmother of eighty, working occasionally as a seamstress, and to her Alice gave all her earnings for three years. It was then considered better that she should go to live with an aunt, to whom she paid the nominal board of $1.15 a week. As her home was in West Hoboken, she spent two and a half hours every day on the journey in the cars and on the ferry. During the weeks of overtime Alice could not reach home until nearly half past eleven o’clock; and she would be obliged to rise while it was still dark, at six o’clock. after five hours and a half of sleep, in order to be at her counter punctually at eight.

By walking from the store to the ferry she saved thirty cents a week. Still, fares cost her $1.26 a week. This $1.26 a week carfare (which was still not enough to convey her the whole distance from her aunt’s to the store) and the 1.15 a week for board (which still did not really pay the aunt for her niece’s food and lodging) consumed all her earnings except 20 cents a week.

Alice was eager to become more genuinely self-dependent. She left the establishment of her first employment and entered another store on Fourteenth Street, as cash girl, at $4 a week. The hours in the second store were very long, from eight to twelve in the morning and from a quarter to one till a quarter past six in the afternoon on all days except Saturday, when the closing hour was half past nine. After she had $4 a week instead of $2.62 ½, Alice abandoned her daily trip to West Hoboken and came to live in New York.

But instead of things looking up for Alice, they went downhill from there.

Living on Coffee and Rolls at Twenty Cents a Day

Here she paid six cents a night in a dormitory of a charitably supported home for girls. She ate no breakfast. Her luncheon consisted of coffee and rolls for ten cents. Her dinner at night was a repetition of coffee and rolls for ten cents. As she had no convenient place for doing her own laundry, she paid 21 cents a week to have it done.

Her regular weekly expenditure was as follows: lodging, 42 cents; board [food], $1.40; washing, 21 cents; clothing and all other expenses, $1.97: total, $4. Of course, living in this manner was quite beyond her strength. She was pale, ill, and making the severest inroads upon her present and future health. Her experience illustrates the narrow prospect of promotion in some of the department-stores.

And how about the “benefits package” back then?

… In many of the large department- stores, monthly dues, varying with the wage of the employee, are deducted from the pay of each, although in many cases she does not know what the return for the dues is to her. These dues assure to her, while she remains in the store’s employ, a weekly benefit in case of illness, and a death benefit. But if she leaves the store, or is discharged, the management retains the amount she has been forced to pay to it, and receives no return whatever in case of her subsequent sickness or death. While she is in the store’s employ, the sick benefit varies from one half the girl’s wage to a regular payment of $4 a week for from five to thirteen weeks, according to the particular rules in each store. The employee must be ill five days or a week in order to draw it. Otherwise she is docked for absence.

As was often done by the muckrakers of the time, one of the investigative researchers found a job in one of the stores to get an inside look at the life of the shopgirl.

Another kind of meanness in human relations was abundantly witnessed by Miss Johnson, the League’s inquirer, who worked in one of the stores during the week of Christmas good will. The “rush” had begun when Miss Johnson was transferred in this Christmas week from the neckwear to the muffler department on the first floor of one of the cheaper stores. All the girls stood all day long — from eight to twelve and from one to eight at night on the first days; from one at noon to ten and eleven at night, as the season progressed; and, on the last dreadful nights, from noon to the following midnight. The girls had thirty-five cents supper money. Except for that, all this extra labor was unpaid for.

The work was incessant. The girls were nervous, hateful, spiteful with one another. The manager, a beautiful and extremely rough girl of nineteen, swore constantly at all of them. The customers were grabbing, insistent, unreasonable from morning to evening, from evening to midnight. Behind the counter, with the advance of the day, the place became an inferno of nervous exhaustion and exasperation. In the two weeks of Miss Johnson’s service one customer once thanked her; and one tipped her five cents for the rapid return of a parcel. Both these acts of consideration took place in the morning. Miss Johnson said that this was fortunate for her, as, at one word of ordinary consideration toward the end of her long day’s work, she thought she must have burst into tears.

All of this would be unbearable for most of us even if we were in the best of health. But with no “sick time” available for most of the workers, what was it like to have to work through an illness?

… One girl came, looking so ill that Miss Johnson was terrified. “Can’t you stop, Kitty? You look so sick. For heaven’s sake, go home and rest.” “I can’t afford to go home.” Cross and snappish as the girls were, they managed to spare Kitty, and to stand in front of her to conceal her idleness from the floor walker, and give her a few minutes’ occasional rest sitting down. She went through the first hours of the morning as best she might, though clearly under pressure of sharp suffering.

But at about ten the floor-walker, for whom it must be said that he was responsible for the sales and general presentability of the department, saw her sitting down. “Why aren’t you busy?” he called. “Get up.” At midnight on Christmas eve, as the still crowd of girls walked wanly out of the great store into the brilliant New York Street, someone said, “How are you, Kitty?” She made no reply for a minute. Then she said wretchedly: “Oh — I hope I’ll be dead before the next Christmas.”

Yes, the time of year that looks so jolly and practically “heavenly” in the old-timey pictures most of us have seen from the turn of the last century…

xmasvintage1910familychristmas 2…was actually the most hellish time of year for many low class workers. Including especially those who were forced to rub shoulders most closely with the throngs of holiday shoppers.

[New York law regarding minors]… No female employee between sixteen and twenty- one years of age shall be required, permitted, or suffered to work in or in connection with any mercantile establishment more than sixty hours in any one week; or more than ten hours in any one day, unless for the purpose of making a shorter work day of some one day of the week; or before seven o’clock in the morning or after ten o’clock in the evening of any day. This Section does not apply to the employment of persons sixteen years of age or upward, between the eighteenth day of December and the following twenty-fourth day of December, both inclusive.”

That is to say that, for the holiday season, the time of all others when it might seem wise and natural to protect the health of the younger women working in the great metropolitan markets, for that season, of all others, the State specifically provides that the strength of its youth is to have no legal safeguard and may be subjected to labor without limit.

Indeed, many of these young women were reported to have worked from eight in the morning until ten, eleven, even twelve o’clock at night during the “Christmas Rush”…with a cheap supper furnished by the store as often the only “bonus” they received for this overtime work.

You might be wondering how the big department stores avoided having its high-class clientele be made aware of just HOW underpaid and overworked its staff of young women were. Surely that would be a distasteful bit of knowledge that might mar the pleasure of the luxury shopping experience. Well, the owners of the elegant new Siegel-Cooper store that opened in New York in 1896 knew how to take care of that! The New York Times included a story leading up to the grand opening that included this cheerful assurance: “Persons visiting Siegel, Cooper & Co.’s store will be spared the annoyance of seeing over-worked shop girls behind the counters and children of stunted growth running up and down stairs. There will be separate elevators for the use of the employees.”

Wouldn’t want little Fauntleroy to get an unpleasant glimpse of a ragamuffin while he and mummy were busy picking out a new velocipede for him in the toy department.

fauntleroyAs I originally read these stories of Lucy, Alice, Kitty and others recently, a song popped into my head from my childhood in the 1950s. When I’d hear it on the radio back then, it put such a warm glow around the experience of “Christmas Time in the City,” it made me nostalgic for something I’d never even experienced, it seemed so idyllic! Check it out:

Little did I know. I’ll never think of Christmas Time in the City the same way again.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you’ll hear.


Silver belIs, silver beIls
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Not many smiles for Lucy and Alice and Kitty from all the grumpy, demanding shoppers in the pressing crowds who would rush home with the treasures they’d bought in the Christmas Rush at the Big Box stores of the day. And I doubt many of these young women had the slightest joy in their Christmas Day. It was no doubt just a day of total exhaustion, resting up…to go right back to the grind the next day.

Check out  the next installment of this series and learn some more about The American Way that didn’t start with Walmart, in

Plausible Deniability

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 1

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 1:

Un-American Activities?

A few days ago, someone on my Facebook feed posted an interesting info-graphic.

walmart info

The implication is obvious. Numerous articles on the Internet confirm the details. Consider this excerpt from the New York Daily News, about efforts in 2011 by Walmart to establish stores in Metropolitan New York.

The big-box giant has tried unsuccessfully to sweet-talk its way into our city twice already with promises of jobs, jobs and more jobs. And now it’s knocking again, hoping to capitalize on high unemployment and a protracted recession to scare New Yorkers into thinking that Walmart – and Walmart alone – can propel our struggling communities straight to prosperity.

If history is any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago’s struggling West Side learned the hard way that Walmart’s stores destroy more retail jobs than they create.

In 2006, the big-box retailer promised to bring jobs to the cash-strapped community. But according to a landmark study by Loyola University, the company’s rhetoric didn’t match reality: Within two years of Walmart’s opening its doors, 82 local stores went out of business.

Instead of growing Chicago’s retail economy, Walmart simply overtook it – absorbing sales from other city stores, and shuttering dozens of them in the process.

Researchers at Loyola dubbed Walmart’s store a wash – generating no new sales revenue for Chicago, and no new jobs for hard-off residents.

Chicago’s cautionary tale isn’t isolated. Countless communities, and peer-reviewed surveys across the country, all reach the same conclusion: When Walmart moves in, small businesses, and jobs, move out; Main St. dies. [ New York Daily News ]

There is an unspoken assumption in articles like this, and I’d like to speak that assumption clearly in this blog series. The key term in the quote above is “Main Street.”  When a “big box store” like Walmart moves in, “Main Street” dies.

The author above doesn’t define what is meant by “Main Street,” but what I suggest to you is that it has long been a “short hand term” for the idea that The American Way of Life has, throughout our history, been based on the economic model of the “small independent business.” The promise of The American Dream has been that with hard work and integrity, any man can become a financial success, provide a good and prosperous life for his family, and ensure a continually “better life” in the future for his children and grandchildren. And the most typical outlet for that hard work and integrity would be to be an entrepreneur, provide a service or product of superior quality, and establish a prosperous, well-respected business on “Main Street” in his home town. Joining the collection of other such independent businesses already there.

Each such Main Street in this myth is viewed as being similar to the main street in the fictional Busy Town that my daughter, now in her 40s, remembers seeing in the bubbly, optimistic children’s books of her youth (and later TV shows and video games of her children’s youth) illustrated by Richard Scarry.

busytownscarry merchants Or maybe just like the other main street of her childhood, Sesame Street. There’d be a bike shop, a bakery, a flower shop, a fix-it shop (like Luis’s), a general store owned by a clone of Mr. Hooper.



This idea of American Society being anchored to such a bustling little Main Street has long endured—in spite of the fact that for well over a century, “bustling small town America” has been dwindling, and has long since been almost snuffed out of existence. I even have a number of friends who seem to base their economic theories—and their speculation on how we can “rescue America” from imminent financial collapse—on superimposing a template of that mythical Main Street and its theoretical underpinnings—on top of a whole Babylon of multi-national mega-corporations.

Too many Americans think in terms of what I have elsewhere termed their own historical “Time Ghetto.” All they really know about American history is what they have lived through themselves, or what they have gleaned from snippets of stories from their parents and grandparents, from fading Kodachrome and black and white photo prints in family albums, and what they have absorbed from pop-culture historical—or,  more often, historical fiction—movies and TV shows. They evaluate current circumstances, whether in politics or economics or even religion, as being only the outcome of negative factors extant since they themselves reached adulthood. All time before that was America’s Glory Days. For many people I know, when “looking backward” those Glory Days begin with the 1950s and extend back through our glorious triumph in WW2, our glorious triumph in WW1, the heyday of Teddy Roosevelt, the Gay Nineties, the period of our glorious Conquest of the West, and on back into the mists of history.

And, to keep focused on the general purpose of this blog—relating to “Panic About End-Time Prophecy”—they all too often conclude we are just on the edge of The Great Tribulation and close to the Return of Jesus because the USA no longer matches up to the Myths that they hold about its glorious past.

The issue of the evil, “un-American” exploits of Walmart is only one tiny factor in all this. But it seems to me a good place to begin an examination of “how did we get to this stage” of the Deterioration of the American Way? To read the articles about Walmart, one would think that this attack on Main Street sprang out of nowhere just in this latest generation, like a great dragon swooping down on a peaceful, prosperous nation of villages happy in their Main Street simplicity.

Sorry folks. Reality Check:

Before 1880 businesses like department stores did not exist; what did exist were neighborhood dealers, small dry goods firms, and large wholesalers that fanned out through distributing outlets into cities, towns, and villages. In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishments—multifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power. … Substantial middle-class stores were constructed in many cities and even in small towns at such a rate as to outpace anything comparable going on elsewhere in the world. “You find stores of this category not only in New York, in Chicago, and in Philadelphia,” observed one startled Swiss merchant during a visit to the United States in 1915, “but also well-known stores of enormous dimension in many other cities throughout the United States.”

Department stores overshadowed the scene through the sheer rapidity and size of their expansion, which started in earnest, if chaotically, in the early 1890s as merchants began to tack new wings onto older stores, often creating “shreds and patches without unity or dignity,” as one architect complained. They, along with retailing chains and mail-order businesses of all kinds, dominated merchandising after 1895. And they did so because they contributed to the creation of a new powerful universe of consumer enticements. The mass market merchants succeeded as well because they sold a world of new goods under one roof, concentrated ownership and controlled large capital sums (like other corporations), crushed or absorbed their competitors, and demonstrated great individual skill. [Leach, William R. (2011-06-15). Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (Kindle Locations 547-571). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this blog entry are from this LOD source.]

NO, Walmart didn’t invent the tactic of offering a centralized shopping experience and a wide variety of goods, able to cut prices because of volume production and distribution, able to take advantage of cheap labor in far-flung places, and all the other factors that make it despised by smaller merchants now. Frankly, Walmart can’t hold a tiny candle to the flaming splendiferousness—and soul-less cut-throat business practices—of the department store movement of a century ago.

More than other businesses, department stores revealed the totality of what the American economy was producing and importing. In the 1880s, most stores had only fifteen small departments, but by 1910, many offered upward to 125. Siegel-Cooper’s [New York City] sold in the late 1890s not only staples, yard goods, notions, ready-made clothing, machine-made furnishings, and hundreds of name-brand pianos but also photographic equipment in the largest photographic gallery anywhere, and monkeys, dogs, cats, birds, lion and panther cubs, and tropical fish in its huge pet department.

seigel color

Yes, you may be used to a “department store” like JC Penney or Belk in your local mall. The term originally just meant that they sold more than one type of goods, in various “departments.” But as noted above, by the turn of the last century many went far beyond just clothing and household goods departments.

Stores from Bloomingdale’s and Siegel-Cooper’s in New York to The Fair in Chicago sold huge quantities of preserved and refrigerated meats, canned foods, fresh vegetables, cheeses, breads, candies, numerous coffees and teas, and gourmet specialties.

Macy’s, the first large retail store to merchandise kosher foods, according to the store’s food buyer, William Titon, by 1914 was selling “all the rare tropical fruits and vegetables, irrespective of season.” Its food department had dietetic foods (granola, wheat bran, wheat flakes, peanut butter, whole wheat foods, yogurt, and so forth); 265 different kinds of wine, claret, and champagne; also an assortment of beers, gins, brandies, rums, whiskies, and liquors of “all descriptions,” and, under Macy’s own label, Red Star Brand cocktails (pre-mixed manhattans and martinis).

Wait a minute … you mean that health foods and pre-mixed cocktails aren’t a modern phenomenon? Yup, that’s what I mean. And if you think it took until late in the twentieth century to have a store like Walmart that provided you the convenience of a beauty shop, a branch bank, and an optometrist along with your weekly grocery shopping, think again. Here is a description of the opening of the Seigel-Cooper Department Store in New York, the first of the truly BIG department stores.

seigel largestOn September 12, 1896, the New York Times announced that the store would open that night at 7:30, and thus “end a period of uncertainty for thousands of women who had a live interest in the scheme to equip New York City with a department store which should be the rival of any such establishment in the world.

“The Times reported that 150,000 people had attended the opening of what they called “a shopping resort.” The store was prepared for 190,000 visitors a day, and employed 8,000 clerks and 1,000 drivers and packers. In addition to the usual vast array of merchandise of department stores then and now, Siegel Cooper had a telegraph office, a long-distance telephone office, a foreign-money exchange, stock-trading services, a dentist, and an advertising agency.

But wait…there’s more:

In addition to the expected goods – silverware, linens, clothing and china, for instance — Siegel-Cooper sold groceries (canned goods were canned on the premises), furniture, pets and hardware. An enormous refrigerated room kept meats and dairy foods fresh.  In the fish department, huge tanks displayed the live fish for the shopper’s ease of choice. On the roof, a vast conservatory offered giant palms, orchids and rare plants for sale.

Francis Morrone and James Iska, in their “The Architectural Guidebook to New York City,” wrote “The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageant of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds.”

Of the 124 departments, some were found in no other shopping establishment. The store offered both a dentist and doctor office, a beautician and a barber shop, a post office, an office for theatre tickets and a bank.  In the basement the store operated its own plant for power, lighting, heating and ventilation.  The bicycle department had a track for test rides.

So just how well do you think the mom and pop businesses in the area flourished after this behemoth opened?

Oh, but it wasn’t just a giant flea market with all this stuff scattered about. Visiting it to shop was an experience in itself, more akin to a day at Walt Disney World than to a day shopping at a modern strip mall.  Or Walmart.

The $4 million that Siegel and Cooper spent on their “gracefully ornamented” building bought them the largest department store in the world. The scope of the structure was unheard of – six stories tall and a full block wide, stretching back to Fifth Avenue. Lavish Beaux-Arts ornamentation in marble, yellow brick, terra cotta, copper and bronze recalled “the grandeur of ancient Rome.”

(That grandeur is still there today, although as you see in the current picture from today, the building is now full of separate stores such as Bed, Bath, and Beyond.)

seigel color2

Two gigantic bronze, fluted pillars supported the triple-arched entranceway. On the second floor over-sized windows allowed passengers on the 6th Avenue elevated train to window shop. A ramp enabled those same passengers to enter directly into the store on the second floor. In ornamentation, sheer size and grandeur, Siegel-Cooper outdid all competitors.  Henry Siegel deemed it “The Big Store.”

… Central to the first floor was a fountain in the center of which was a 13-foot high statue of “The Republic,” by Daniel C. French.

In a bid to connect the store’s cultural reputation to the famous 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition that had been held in Chicago, this statue was an authorized replica of the 65 foot statue that had dominated the landscape of that fair.

statue 65

The miniature version was immediately recognizable, as you can see in this colorized photo from the early 1900s.

seigel fountain

Costing $15,000 it was brass with face and arms of white marble. Colored lights illuminated the fountain. “The figure is a heroic one of a female in classical garb,” said The Times. “The arms are extended upward. One hand supports a staff of Liberty, the other a golden orb, on which an eagle perches. On the globe glows an electric star, the light of which is in vacuum and opalescent…”

And so the business of the Department Store Behemoths began in earnest. Seigel’s was just one of the earliest manifestations. I do remember in my childhood in the Midwest in the 1950s hearing of Macy’s Department Store in New York.

macysYou couldn’t miss knowing that name, because they sponsored the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that began in 1924 and  has been televised for many years, right up to the present. Starting in 1927 the most popular feature of the fair were the huge helium balloons of currently popular characters. The very first, in 1927, was Felix the Cat.

felix 1927Mickey was added in 1934.

mickey 1934

Superman was featured in 1940.

super 1940

Here’s another one from 1940. It’s not quite clear why this fellow was included–it’s Eddie Cantor, past his prime and never all that popular with kids, but someone must have thought he’d make a jazzy balloon.


Of course the parade has kept pace with the times, and as characters like Cantor and Mickey have faded in appeal, new ones have been added!

parade spongebob 2009

Yes, I’d heard of Macy’s, but always just attached to the word “parade.” Until only recently, I had thought that Macy’s was one of a mere tiny handful of iconic “metropolitan department stores.” I was wrong. The most famous incarnation of the store, shown in the picture, was built on Broadway in 1902. And within a short time it was only one of many monster stores strewn across the nation. They came on the national scene practically over night, and “changed the game” of the retail system in the country almost single-handedly.

The Retail Wars of the 1890s

The success of the mass market retailers was due to more than their capacity to summon large amounts of capital or to offer a huge assortment of goods under one roof or through a single catalog. There were other, more direct means, which included alliances among merchants, reformers, and state governments to defeat the opposition. In the 1890s, retail wars, emblematic of the turmoil involved in what Alan Trachtenberg has called the “incorporation of America,” erupted (especially in the western states) to challenge even the legality of department stores. “The all-devouring monsters” were destroying the “little man,” some New York City grocers said in anguish.

Even earlier, small merchants began to organize against bigger merchants to resist extermination, reflecting a process underway in Paris and London as well, where, as historian W. Hamish Fraser has written, it seemed as if “retailing were passing out of the hands of the small vendor into those of larger firms.”

In America, however, the resistance of small dealers against bigger merchants unfolded on a larger canvas. “This is a free country,” said the president of a small traders’ group in Kansas City in 1891, “but if this city is to have two or three big stores that are to do all the business, all the little ones must perish.” “I am being victimized by three department houses, and street peddlers,” complained a Kansas City dry goods dealer in that same year.

In the wake of the 1893 depression, small retailers blamed their miseries on the department stores. The “big store,” one retailer argued, “removes much in the matter of independence for men and women in small ways, and compels a dependence which, while it may give more money to the fortunate ones, renders them subject to a central power which in time becomes a tyranny which will leave no boundless America offering homes to the oppressed.” [LOD]

Yes, long before Sam Walton invented his own brand of one-stop shopping, America’s small business men were fighting a war against his more prolific and more powerful predecessors.

Laws were introduced in state capitals from California to New York to tax “the octopus which has stretched out its tentacles in every direction, grasping in its slimy folds the specialist or one-line man”—the florist, the shoeman, the grocer, the jeweler, the furniture dealer, and the like. Butchers and liquor dealers often led the fight. [LOD]

The 2011 battles in Chicago to keep out Walmart, mentioned above, couldn’t hold a candle to the battles of the 1890s and early 1900s.

The struggle was especially heated in Chicago, where, in the wake of the 1893 depression, hundreds of firms went bankrupt. Stores like Marshall Field’s on State Street weathered the storm and even prospered, having straddled the center of the Chicago business district, driven up real estate values to levels unaffordable to small competitors, and cut deeply into the small firms’ clientele by selling the whole range of goods. Since the 1880s, Marshall Field (and his smart second-in-command, H. Gordon Selfridge, later founder of Selfridges in London) had been at pains to persuade all the leading Chicago retailers—John V. Farwell and Co., the Boston Store, Mandels, and even Field’s archenemy, Carson, Pirie, Scott—to cluster closely together on State Street so they could function like an irresistible unified magnet of selling power. “He wanted to build up State Street,” a Field’s executive later recalled of his boss; he “went a long way to get Mandels established and then to keep them there,” and also “helped set up the Boston Store.”

Marshall Field was accustomed to crushing his adversaries. He set his teeth against all labor unions, dismissed any employee who had any ties whatever with unions, and time and again enlisted “professional toughs” or heavily financed the National Guard out of his own pocket to break up strikes.

Real estate values,” said City Council members and the mayor in February 1897, “have been unreasonably and enormously enhanced by the centralization” of the big stores “into one giant retail district.” [LOD]

The parallels between the downside of Walmart and the downside of these forerunners of long ago don’t end with the power-and-profit-hunger of the owners. There is the matter of a creepy parallel between the behavior of the patrons then and now:

Last fall on the day after Thanksgiving (commonly referred to these days as “Black Friday,” when stores like Walmart open in the wee hours to offer Big Bargains to Xmas shoppers) there were the usual reports of ill-behaved mobs jostling one another to claim coveted items. And in the midst of it all, there was one shooting in Florida that ended in the death of a Walmart shopper. A very tragic story.

One of the folks on my Facebook feed bemoaned this development, commenting “Isn’t it awful?! And it’s only going to get worse.” This person was referring to their theory that we were sliding in America toward chaos at best and the Great Tribulation at worse. And they added, “It wasn’t like this a hundred years ago in this country!”

Ah, yes. The theory that our American great grandparents were SO much more altruistic and such better Good Citizens than the greedy slobs today duking it out on Black Friday. The American Way was in its heyday, and Americans were all a shining example to the world of civic responsibility and good manners.

Reality Check:

Seigel-Cooper NY opening 1896

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The formal opening of the Siegel-Cooper company store at Sixth avenue and Nineteenth street, New York, took place this morning, and because the doors were not opened until 9 o’clock there was a jam of several thousand persons in front of the place who were squeezed in a manner which they never experienced before”

seigel open 1896The article is titled “Jam at Siegel-Cooper’s: Caused by a Reported Sale of Cheap Bicycles: Traffic Blocked on Sixth Avenue and the Police Reserves from the Tenderloin Precinct Called Out” and goes on to say,

“The jam was so fast that the captain himself and Policeman O’Malley and McKenna of the City Hall station were wedged in so between the crowd and the building that the captain nearly had his arm broken and McKenna was taken to the hospital with a rib crushed in. O’Malley had his foot badly crushed”

The mob scene or “jam” was apparently caused by a false rumor that bicycles would be sold for “pin-money”Pin money is defined in the 1896 edition of Webster’s Dictionary as “an allowance of money, as that made by a husband to his wife, for personal and private expenditures.”

Further details of the bedlam:

In September 1896 a rumor circulated that Siegel-Cooper would be offering a sale on bicycles — $100 bikes would be sold for $9.99. Before dawn on September 14, 1896 several men in bicycle suits had lined up. By 7:00 the crowd had grown to a few hundred.

And it continued to grow.

An hour and a half later Police Captain Chapman estimated the number at 40,000, blocking 6th Avenue from 17th Street to 22nd. When the doors to the store were finally opened, one patrolman suffered two broken ribs in the crush of the crowd.

Upstairs in the bicycle department “The counter was overturned. The railings were broken. Cases of wheels were knocked down and men in trying to extricate themselves stepped on the bicycles and broke some,” reported The New York Times. “During the trouble dresses were torn and a few women fainted. No one besides the policemen were hurt much.”

There had never been any bicycles on sale that day.

The problems of today in our society, in our politics and our economy, and in every other aspect of our current way of life have not arisen out of nowhere. They are not isolated modern phenomena. They are the end result of a long, long history of the outworkings of the good, the bad, and the ugly of human nature. Simplistic answers that rely on trying to restore an ideal, mythical American Way of Life are doomed to failure.

I don’t personally like the “fallout” of Walmart stores going in across the nation. But I’m not under any illusion that the problems they present are “some new thing.” What Walmart does may be despicable…but it’s not somehow “un-American.” It is, in fact, quintessentially American, part of the American Way of Business for a long, long time! It has been typical throughout American history for big American mercantile businesses to pathetically underpay their employees. It has been totally typical for the desire for huge profits to drive businesses to be cutthroat with their competition. And it has been totally typical throughout our whole history for big merchandisers to have zero interest in whether “Main Street” is preserved.

It is my conviction that zealous modern American Christians who get swept up into trying to bolster a “movement” to somehow “return American society to its nature of a century ago” are investing their zeal in an erroneous goal. And frittering away their limited time, energy, and resources that could be much better invested in finding ways to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a spiritually hungry generation.

It is also my conviction that if such folks could understand more of the factors of the past that have affected the present, they would be better equipped to move productively into the future.

Continue on to the next installment of this series with

Pinching Pennies–’til They Screamed

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 6

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 6: “Big Sister Is Watching You”

(This is the 6th entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

An earlier entry in this series, “Band of Big Brothers,” shared the story of the World War 1-era American Protective League (APL) and its infamous slacker raids. “Slacker” was the term particularly used at that time to label men who tried to avoid the war-time draft, as well as those men working on the home front in factories and elsewhere who didn’t give 100% in their part of the war effort—and didn’t enthusiastically and regularly buy War Bonds to help raise the billions of dollars necessary to pursue the US’s war aims.

slacker paintThe APL story specifically focused on the men of the United States during the war period, from the declaration of war on April 6, 1917 to the armistice on November 11, 1918.  And it described the incredible level of “volunteer” surveillance going on in the country—male citizens spying on, tattling on, and strong-arming other male citizens into behavior believed to be absolutely necessary to Patriotic Americans.

But that could leave an inaccurate perspective on the role played by American women during the Great War. Some posters from the period may leave the impression that women’s main role was just to “give reason”—as wives and mothers—for men to go off to war, staying home to “keep the home fires burning” for when the men would return victorious.

for homeMost modern folks seem aware of the role that women played in World War 2, particularly as a result of the continuing popularity even today of the famous Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” poster, and Norman Rockwell’s rendition of Rosie for a May 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (The generic name Rosie the Riveter was used as shorthand to refer to all the women who had stepped in to “do a man’s job” … such as using riveting guns to piece together metal in the munitions industry.)

rosie1rosie2But I’ll bet many…including me until recently…haven’t realized how involved women were also in World War 1. Yes, they were needed back then in the factories also, with so many men leaving their jobs to go off to the war front, such as these women making bombs.

bomb factory…and these making machine guns.

machine gunsMany women also served as Red Cross nurses …

red crossnurses…and in various functions in the Salvation Army.

salvation army2salvation armyThen there was the “Woman’s Land Army.” American crops were desperately needed to feed the US population, to feed our own soldiers and those of our Allies on the front lines in Europe, and also for the starving populations in many war-torn European countries. Yet large numbers of male farmers and farm workers had left the fields and gone off to serve in the military. So women, particularly young women, many of them from city backgrounds totally unfamiliar with farming, were recruited to work the farms of America.

land armyposterland armyThe city slickers were even given a crash course in farming, sort of like a boot camp!

farm training

These active female roles in the war effort, some even close to the front lines, were filled more often than not by single young women. But what of younger married women with children, and women perhaps too old to do factory labor? There was a common expectation that everyone ought to be taking some sort of active role in the war effort, by at least purchasing War Bonds, and also by cooperating with all sorts of programs promoted by the government. Posters encouraging “Victory Gardens” were plastered everywhere—every woman who had access to even a small plot of ground was encouraged to organize her family to “grow their own” vegetables.

garden2gardenThose who didn’t participate whole-heartedly in every type of victory program were considered slackers. So yes, there were “female slackers” abroad in the land.

And thus there arose “Bands of Big Sisters” to deal with them. To spy on them, tattle on them, and strong-arm them…sometimes with just peer pressure, occasionally with actual physical intervention. For of course everyone needed to toe the patriotic line.

Just as with the rise of the APL, these were not groups imposed from the top down by the government, but grass roots, volunteer, in many cases vigilante groups. And one might think that they arose because of an extended period of “brain washing” by government propaganda, like that in Orwell’s dystopian future of 1984, forcing them to “group think.” No, this was not the case. Strangely enough, in 1916, much of the country, and particularly the women of the land, tended to a position, regarding the “European War,” of neutrality at least, and often of pacifism. In early 1917 even President Wilson was still taking a stand against US involvement. There WAS no government pro-war propaganda. But once war was declared in April, suddenly what some historians have labeled a “war hysteria” seemed to spring up out of nowhere.

There is no doubt that very soon the government did develop an elaborate program of propaganda, through the “Committee for Public Information.” And that program did tend to play upon the hysteria already present. But it didn’t cause it. The initial zeal of so many groups, including the APL and the “General Federation of Women’s Clubs” that will be mentioned below, seems to have been truly a grass roots phenomenon.

It was NOT necessary to have a period of “brain washing” or “indoctrination” by government propaganda to get women to spy on one another. They were more than ready and willing as soon as they were given opportunity.

Diatribes against the “woman slacker” soon filled the popular press and the minutes of women’s clubs. A wartime editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal described the woman slacker as “a woman who cannot take anything seriously, . . . who cannot put aside her little dolls and playthings: who must consume in social frivolity the time and strength that other women are putting into salvatory work.” Selfishness perplexed the politically engaged women who were daily giving all to the nation. Like the draft dodger and the conscientious objector, the woman slacker had cast off the burdens of citizenship with a shrug of her shoulders, leaving others to carry the load.  [From Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (USWY). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source. Any underlining, bolding, or italics in quotations have been added for emphasis.]

Although some men came forward and volunteered for military service with little or no prompting at all after war was declared in 1917, it took a concerted program of enlistment posters, the draft, and other types of encouragement to mobilize the huge army necessary to do America’s part in winning the war. The same was true for getting women involved in war work. There was a flurry of enthusiasm among some women to get involved, but without some coordinated supervision, many worried that it would be ineffective.

Government officials and leaders of major organizations also worried that uncoordinated voluntarism would be inefficient. Among draft-age men, unmediated voluntarism was thought to be prompted by boyish excitement, a gung ho goodwill that Selective Service System administrators sought to channel and put to good use. Reckless female voluntarism was different, frequently dismissed as a frivolous search for entertainment that needed to be controlled rigorously lest it detract from the serious business of war. Student Anna Davenport Sparks told her Smith College classmates that their service, “if it is to be efficient, must not be in an orgy of enthusiasm, but rather in sane, well-planned, quietly-executed activities.” The Ladies’ Home Journal urged readers to serve but serve smartly: “Let every woman … be sure of her talent, and not hinder or complicate by offering herself for work for which she is not fitted.” These concerns reflected the political culture of the era.

Even worse than uncoordinated efforts would be efforts that were all “show” destined to bear no fruit—merely “playing at” volunteer work.

No one could quite decipher what women’s wartime voluntarism was; since it wasn’t work, they feared it might merely be leisure. And so the nation’s clubwomen attempted the same solution the War Department did: selective service under a broad regime of voluntary registration.

During the early months of the war, women’s organizations canvassed their members, dutifully filling note cards with lists of skills that might be useful to the war effort: nursing, sewing, driving, shooting. Philadelphia women gathered ninety-five thousand cards “during the hot summer months” of 1917. Rhode Island and New York included women in the counts of each state’s “Military Census”; the General Federation urged a full government-administered census of women to replace piecemeal registration work within clubs.


honor rollThe General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890. Leaders of a Federation delegation to the White House in 1914 are shown here.

gfwcIt’s still an active organization:

Accomplishments during GFWC’s first century include: establishing 75 percent of the country’s public libraries, developing kindergartens in the public schools, and working for food and drug regulation.

GFWC clubwomen are true volunteers in action—in 2009, GFWC members raised over $39 million on behalf of more than 110,000 projects, and volunteered more than 4.1 million hours in the communities where they live and work. [Wiki article on GFWC]

In some ways, the GFWC functioned in a similar way to the APL during the war years.

Their first task was to establish a unified home-front fighting food force. And so, on April 12, 1917, just days after the declaration of war, the General Federation asked every member to pledge to conserve food: “I will use only those amounts of food required for adequate nourishment. I will endeavor to control the waste in all kinds of materials in the household and to live simply. I will begin now.”

foodfood2The government cooperated in helping remind everyone of such pledges through posters. Bread was the focus of many of these, because wheat was considered one of the most important exports necessary for the soldiers at the front. Homemakers were encouraged to severely limit the amount of wheat baked goods and cereals that their family ate, substituting corn and rice and other grains.

eat more cornbreadbread2Special groups, such as immigrants, were even targeted by some posters.

immigrants wheat

The rank and file responded wholeheartedly. The New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs supported food conservation in a November 1917 resolution; Dallas women joined in, too. Thirteen thousand Minnesota clubwomen signed the GFWC pledge. Women’s clubs expanded their pledge drives nationwide under the auspices of the U.S. Food Administration, and as they blended state action and civic voluntarism, they also began to blur the line between mobilization and social control.

The Hoover Pledge Drives—so called because they were administered by U.S. Food Administration and its director, although in fact Herbert Hoover had very little to do with them—sought the signature of every woman who ran a household.

pledgeBy the time that blank Hoover Pledge Cards began circulating across America, thousands of clubwomen had long since pledged their loyalty, and these volunteers—almost 500,000 of them—now turned their attention to women outside their own organizations, explicitly taking on the task of regulating the political obligations of other women. Responding to a series of three drives in June and October 1917 and June 1918, as many as fourteen million households signed the pledge.

filing pledgesAnd make no mistake, the “pledge” was viewed by most as much more than just an idle promise.

Women’s adherence to their pledges was also enforced. “Anyone neglecting or refusing to comply with our government’s food regulations will be marked as a traitor in the community,” announced South Dakota’s Food Administration head in 1918. P. M. Harding, who ran the USFA in Vicksburg, Mississippi, announced public hearings, “so that persons failing to co-operate in the nation’s hour of emergency may be known to their fellow citizens.”

And just how did Mr. Harding expect to know that any given family was ignoring the food regulations at their family dinner table?  There would have been no bayoneted soldier going door to door at dinnertime to see if little Johnny was not eating all his food, or Mother was being too generous with piling portions on Dad’s plate, or serving beef too often instead of fish or chicken.

fishNo, no soldier would be needed. Just nosy neighbor ladies.

Sugar was another important food item which citizens were urged to conserve. It could be used in canning certain food items, as part of a diligent effort on the part of women to preserve food from their family victory garden to get through the winter.

victory cannerIn Macon, Georgia, in July 1918, Emma Furman’s daughter Bess returned from the Red Cross knitting circle with news that a neighbor, who had been permitted to purchase twenty-five pounds of sugar after pledging that she would use it for canning, had been caught baking “sweets galore” for her daughter. “She was visited by authority and ordered to show the preserves or the sugar,” Furman noted in her diary. “Not being able to do either [she] was put under a $300 bond.” Furman didn’t pause to identify the “authority” in question, perhaps because authority at that moment was so diffuse.

You can bet that no official government agent was bothering to go door to door to check for “sweets” in houses across the land. They didn’t need to. I have little doubt that some of this lady’s own friends or neighbors tattled on her, perhaps after stopping by her house for tea and noticing the fresh baked sweets on the counter in her kitchen.

Or maybe someone right inside the home might tattle.

Compulsion could even be internalized within the household itself. Mary Aldis found half a slice of bread in her kitchen garbage can during the war. She recounted to readers of the Journal of Home Economics how she “call[ed] my household staff together” and “asked who was the guilty one.” Hanging in Aldis’s kitchen? Not only the Hoover Pledge poster, but also a sign, “in red letters”: To waste a crust of bread is an act of treachery to the nation.”

Gives new meaning to “hyperbole,” doesn’t it! Yes, hyperbole was often the method of choice on posters at the time, such as this one about the “Greatest Crime in Christendom”:


Whatever level of nosiness neighbor ladies may have naturally had, it was magnified and legitimized by all sorts of people in authority.

At times, women’s efforts brought them foursquare into the dynamics of home-front policing. They monitored other women’s loyalty closely. Fear rocked clubrooms in Philadelphia after Red Cross officer Albert Staub told women there of the discovery of surgical dressings soaked in poisonous chemicals, which Staub attributed to sabotage. “You women of Philadelphia must clean house. Go over the list of your members and make sure of the loyalty of every one.… You do not realize the desperate extremes to which those who are against us will go.”

Settlement house workers at New York City’s Greenwich House collaborated with army and navy intelligence bureaus. The New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs established an espionage committee, “asked to be ‘eyes and ears’ for the government, to report suspicious actions, seditious remarks, interference with government meetings and the circulation of false reports concerning war organizations.” Members boasted that “reports sent through this committee to the Department of Justice at Washington were of material assistance to the government.”

Yes, all across the land, the reality was that “Big Sister Is Watching You.”

Americans who wanted to do their part for the war found explicit instruction in an editorial in New York State’s Albany Journal akin to those published in thousands of wartime newspapers: If you ever, on the street or in a trolley car, should hear some soft-shell pacifist or hard-boiled but poorly camouflaged pro-German, make seditious or unpatriotic remarks about your Uncle Sam you have the right and privilege of taking that person by the collar, hand him over to the nearest policeman or else take him yourself before the magistrate. You do not require any official authority to do this and the only badge needed is your patriotic fervor. The same thing applies to women.

Every American, under provisions of the code of civil procedure, has the authority to arrest any person making a remark or utterance which “outrages public decency.”

And all across the nation, among the men of the APL, and the women of the various women’s organizations, this concept of vigilantism was embraced.  However, by the end of the war, it had become obvious to even some of the most enthusiastic that this wasn’t necessarily always a good thing.

In Seattle, Washington, during this era there was a group called the Seattle Minute Men that eventually merged its efforts with the APL. Author Susan Newsome notes the following in an article titledThe Seattle Minute Men: Amateur Spies, Gossip and Lies”:

The methods used by the Minute Men and the information they supplied was often questionable. There are numerous reports that lack evidence other than simple gossip or that show a definite dislike by the agent for the subject he is investigating. Herein lies the greatest problem with volunteer spy organizations such as the Minute Men or the American Protective League: They are not held accountable for their actions or the results thereof. To begin with, many of the reports submitted were lacking any basis for an investigation. Stating that a certain man or woman is pro-German is not enough to warrant an investigation. More specifics are needed such as, What did the man or woman say? Who did they say it to? Were there reliable witnesses? Often times these questions were never answered. …

A good example of one such frivolous report is dated February 21, 1918 reported by C.F.B. The report is based on a complaint from Mrs. Chas. F. Boyd who was not pleased that Mrs. Emory Winship, whose husband was in charge of the Navy Recruiting Office at Bremerton, had a German born maid. Mrs. Winship had testified that her maid was, “as much American in feeling as anyone could be.” Mrs. Boyd felt that someone should do something about this German woman, “on the grounds that this is a poor time to be taking chances on the loyalty of a German woman working in a place where it is possible for her to pick up valuable information for the enemy.” The reply to this report stated that Mrs. Boyd was an overly suspicious woman and over-zealous to accuse. Here is an instant where the German born maid could have lost her job and her only means of support because of the thoughtless gossip of an old woman with too much time on her hands!

Many people today have great concern about the “intrusiveness” of technological surveillance in the US. The latest news about the National Security Agency and its secret (well, formerly secret…) gathering of massive amounts of data from telephone and email traffic, as well as from internet social media such as Facebook certainly brings up visions of Big Brother and Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984. What concerns ME is that so many folks seem to think this is “some new thing” in America, and mostly evidence of a plot by the current administration to impose some sort of totalitarian regime. There is much hand-wringing about how we Americans have “lost our freedoms” and are being manipulated in ways totally foreign to our historical experience. If only we could rise up in rebellion and “take back” the country, returning it to the idyllic bastion of democracy that we had a century ago, all would be well.

I find this incredibly naïve. There has never been a technology that wasn’t almost immediately used…in this country and around the world…in intrusive ways by the authorities. And, in fact, in some ways the intrusions into freedom of speech and freedom of communication were MORE Orwellian a century ago than now, even though the technology was far simpler. Yes, computerized meta-data is impressive, but for the average “man on the street” the ability of the government to gather it may well not end up affecting him personally nearly as much as did the gossipy ladies, uber-patriotic men, and all the huge file-card collections they amassed back a century ago.

And consider the modern concerns about the “Mainstream Media” being a stooge of the administration as many claim today, helping it to establish an Orwellian grip on the populace—back 100 years ago, the government imposed a complete blackout on ALL news in ALL newspapers having even the slightest thing to do with the war effort, other than official news reports provided by the government itself. Absolutely NO speculation or criticism was allowed in the press regarding governmental decisions.

“Regulations for the Periodical Press of the United States during the War.” These regulations— they were not billed as “Guidelines” or “Suggestions,” but as “Regulations”— carefully divided news into three categories, “Dangerous, Questionable, and Routine,” each to be treated differently. Within the “Dangerous” category were three subcategories, “General, Naval, and Military.”

The list of forbidden items under the “General” rubric included all stories of naval and military operations in progress, except for what was officially given out; the movements of official missions; threats against the life of the president; news relating to the Secret Service or confidential agents; and the movements of “alien labor”— that is, foreign-born U.S. workers. Under the “Naval” category, journalists were forbidden to report on the position, number, and identification of U.S. and Allied warships; informational details relating to lights and buoys; the names of arrival and departure ports; data relating to marine mines and mine traps; signals, orders, and radio messages to and from ships; anything relating to submarine warfare; general information on ports, dry docks, and repairs; anything relating to convoys, including their makeup and schedules. Forbidden under the “Military” category were stories about fixed land defenses and fortifications; troop movements; the assignment of small detachments; the concentration of troops at ports of embarkation; and experimental weaponry or aircraft. Of course, any information furnished by the CPI [Committee for Public Information, under its head, George Creel] was always acceptable.

The “Regulations” placed under the “Questionable” heading all matter that might be acceptable for publication, but only with caution— and, usually, only with the explicit approval of the CPI. Here Creel fudged, declining to offer a detailed listing, but instead suggested some example subjects, including training camp routine, technical inventions, and the publication of rumors, especially those of a sensational nature (such as the outbreak of an epidemic in a camp). Anything outside of the “Dangerous” and “Questionable” categories was deemed “Routine,” which meant that it could be published without prior approval; however, Creel urged editors to submit to the CPI anything about which they entertained even the slightest doubt. Such articles would be reviewed and stamped “Passed by the Committee on Public Information,” which meant that they contained no objectionable material but had not been checked by the CPI for accuracy, or “Authorized by the Committee on Public Information,” which meant that the material had been both cleared in terms of security and, after investigation, had also been found to be factually accurate.

And there was no email, but…

…almost immediately after the declaration of war, President Wilson ordered the U.S. Navy to seize all commercial “wireless establishments” (radio stations) and ordered radio operators, amateurs and professionals alike, to cease broadcasting. On April 28, three days after Koons’s order to postmasters, Wilson issued an executive order tightly clamping down on cable, telephone, and telegraph messages leaving or entering the United States.

In other words, during the War there was no such thing as “investigative reporting.” All reporters having anything to do with reporting on the war were taken under the wing of the government, not employees of independent news-gathering agencies that could “go where the news took them.” They produced official news under official guidelines that was distributed through official channels.

The U.S. Army and Navy thought they needed near-absolute secrecy. Creel believed that what they really needed was a good press agent, an “official machinery for the preparation and release of all news bearing upon America’s war effort … a running record of each day’s progress.” The objective was not to serve history but to create among the “fathers and mothers of the United States… a certain sense of partnership,” what a later generation of PR professionals would call “buy-in,” buy-in to a war to which American parents were yielding up their young men.  To accomplish this mission, Creel instantly grasped that the government could not impose itself on the press but would have to co-opt the press, not merely by hiring journalists but by identifying newspapermen “of standing and ability” and swearing them in to government service, placing them “at the very heart of endeavor in the War and Navy departments, in the War Trade Board, the War Industries Board, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor.” The media would be thoroughly integrated into the government, made one with it.

Whereas conventional censorship was designed to keep the press out, Creel’s plan was to take the press in. Whereas conventional censorship was designed to stop the flow of information, Creel’s army of journalists, pledged to government service, were “to take the deadwood out of the channels of information, permitting a free and continuous flow.” The trouble with censorship as conventionally conceived was that it created a vacuum where the people’s perception of reality should be. Popular opinion, sentiment, and belief all abhor a vacuum. Denied information, the people will look to whatever sources present themselves— enterprising reporters, rumor mongers, panic-stricken parents, spies— to fill the vacuum. The CPI would make sure that the mental and emotional space of the American people was always full, full of the reality it supplied.

…Under the CPI war regime, news was not to be the result of investigation, the proprietary product, as it were, of private enterprise, but public property to be apportioned equally to all. The Creel Committee effectively nationalized the news. Not only did it come from a government source, it was treated as government property.

In 2013 one of the biggest issues for many Americans is the way that the current administration in Washington justifies tampering with the freedom and privacy rights of Americans by insisting it is necessary for the common defense. But this is precisely how the administration 100 years ago justified its tampering too, and in many ways I find their approach to have been even more suffocating. The current administration may be listening in to the criticism of its policies all over the Internet, but it does very little to stop such criticism. You really can still get away with calling Obama the Antichrist on your blog, and threatening the government on your Facebook page with armed rebellion if they try to take your gun away. And newspapers and cable news shows can get away with just about any criticism they can throw, no matter how nasty. This was NOT possible a century ago in the media of the time! If you tried to get on the Facebook of the time…the conversational crowd around the pickle barrel at the local grocery store…and indulge in a rant about the president, you didn’t have to worry about an FBI spy collaring you—the sweet little old lady from down the street would take care of the job for him.

Yes, “Big Sister Was Watching You.” As was Big Brother, Li’l Brother…and almost everybody else.

Many of my friends are now paranoid about the power of the governmental Users of Big Technology. I don’t blame them—the possibilities are pretty scary. But I am convinced that there is a power more powerful than that, which they would do well to worry more about. The power of the misguided zealotry of the common man. It is not bounded by time in history, or by the need for technology, although it can harness technology to its own purposes.

We see it in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. I’m put in mind of the Apostle Paul before his conversion. The fears of the earliest Christians weren’t about the secular Big Government of the Roman authorities, with its armies and its modern effective road and communication systems. The misguided religious zeal of a Paul was enough to strike fear in any of them.

Galatians 1:13-14

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (NIV)

Acts 8:3

But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

9:1-2 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

I am personally convinced that American Christians ought not to view their biggest worry about the future as an Orwellian-style Group Think being imposed from above by a totalitarian dictatorship some day.  I suggest that they may eventually find instead that they should have been more worried about the fruit of a grass roots swell of misguided zeal of their own neighbors.

We’ll explore this possibility in coming installments of Oh Say Can You See?

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 5

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 5: “Li’l Brother Is Watching You”

(This is the 5th entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 If you were a “Child of the 1930s”—or 40s, 50s or 60s—you may well have aspired to being a “Crime Stopper” Assistant to the great comic strip detective, Dick Tracy.


And you were in luck…with just the right combination of cereal box tops and/or stamps or change, you could “send away” (“sending away” for “premiums” was a prime pastime of children of that era) and acquire your very own Dick Tracy Crime Stopper’s badge, to prove your status to the world.

tracy badgeBy 1961 you could send away to the Chicago Tribune and get a whole gen-yoo-wine Crimestoppers Club kit, which would allow you to make gen-yoo-wine fingerprints, gen-yoo-wine secret codes, and much more. There was even a blue “Summons” pad, so that you could fill out an official form and give to the criminals you stopped.

dick tracy 1961 chi tribAlthough ads for such badges and kits, at least by the 1950s, occasionally showed aspiring young female Crimestoppers too, I think these tended to be viewed by most folks as male-gendered items. For the young lady of the family, there was a different Dick Tracy-themed item…in 1951 Dick and wife, the former Tess Trueheart, welcomed baby Bonnie Braids into their family. And it didn’t take long for the toy industry to churn out a Bonnie Braids doll. I became the proud owner of my own Bonnie in 1952, at age 6.

bonnieBut I must admit that didn’t deter me from also dreaming about owning my very own Dick Tracy Wrist Radio. As early as 1945, you actually could get your own “It Really Works” wrist radio.

radioOf course, this was just a teensy little crystal radio, that only picked up commercial radio stations. And look  closely at the illustration… you obviously needed to have a wire antenna connected to a nearby radiator or some such to magnify its pickup. It was painfully clear once you got past the hype in the headlines that this was not an actual “two way radio” you could use to contact Police HQ.

But by the 1960s you could get The Real Thing. Check it out on Youtube.

1961 Dick Tracy Wrist Radio ad

Well, not exactly… the wrist mike was only a part of the gadget…you had to have a big walkie-talkie outfit with a protruding big antenna strapped to your tummy to make it work. Not quite the convenient gadget that Tracy had been using for three decades by then.

But you know what? Even if I had my very own Crimestoppers Badge and Kit and a working model Wrist Radio as a kid, I would never have been under the illusion that I was a REAL crime stopper. I would have known I was just a kid playing pretend. And I’m pretty sure virtually all the other 6 or 8 or 10 year old kids with their badges and summons pads would have understood the same thing. We would have “arrested” each other in pretend games of Cops ‘n’ Robbers, and then parted ways to go home and watch Hopalong Cassidy on TV.

And I’m also convinced that our parents and teachers would have been equally sure that our Crimestopping antics and our summons pads were just child’s play. For after all, the emotional, social, and mental maturity level of most ten-year-olds doesn’t give them the knowledge and wisdom and self-control necessary to be responsible for “policing” others in their community.

I say all that to say this—for some reason, this common sense conclusion about the level of responsibility of ten year olds seems to have utterly escaped the adults of a century ago. To learn more about this odd phenomenon, come along with me back to the Good Old Days of the “Anti-Yellow Dog Clubs.”

The best place to start a look at the America of the early 19-teens (1910 to 1919) is on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. By 1916 you could find Post covers graced by the homey nostalgic paintings of Norman Rockwell. Here, for instance, is his very first Post cover, May 20, 1916. As with many of his later covers, this one focuses on young lads I would expect were about ten years old.

postfirst may 1916

And here is one of his War Years covers, from May 15, 1918, with another lad about the same age.

post rockwell 1918 may 15During this period, Rockwell also painted covers for other magazines, and here is one for the Literary Digest from August 7 that same year. This one also features a boy I would guess is about ten, a young red-white-and-blue patriot proudly displaying various buttons he has received for his “support for the war”—Rockwell titled the painting “Doing His Part.”

doing his part 1918 aug 7Collecting such buttons and badges was as popular at the time as collecting buttons and badges from radio and TV shows was in later decades. Looks like this lad was particularly dedicated in contributing to the Red Cross and Liberty Bond drives.

But after reading about some other “patriotic” efforts of lads his age, I am left wondering if that’s all he did to “do his part.” I’d be curious to know if he was a member of an AntiYellow Dog Club.

Two weeks before the Boy-Meets-Clown cover magazine above was on the stands, a different artist did the Post Cover.

post yellow dog 1918 May 4There were no young boys on this cover this time, but inside the magazine, they were running amok in a short story by an author named Henry Irving Dodge. The story, called “The Yellow Dog,” was obviously aimed at young male readers, although adults were certainly encouraged to read it too—and hopefully pass it on to the young males among their family and friends. And passed along it was! In fact, it became so popular that later that year it was separately published as a small book. And by October, it had been made into a motion picture!

In the story, a super-patriotic man named Albert Walker is discouraged and concerned about the effect on his town’s war enthusiasm and morale because of the presence of “German sympathizers, spies, draft evaders” and others who voice doubts about US involvement in the War and about how the government is managing the War effort.  Walker labels these problematic people “yellow dogs.” He uses the slang term yellow dog to refer to non-descript,  generic mutts, which often tend to be yellow or tan color, the kind of mongrels that live in junk yards. Such dogs were often considered an unwelcome source of disease and fleas to the “nice” pet dogs in town, dogs of specific breeds like bulldog, boxer, Dalmatian, or Cocker Spaniel. In his mind, people who “spread” unflattering comments about the government, unfounded rumors about the progress of the war, and/or criticism of any kind about America are the human equivalent of a yellow dog.

When the adults in town fail to join forces to stop this threat, Walker enlists a group of young boys to become the “Boy Detectives of America.” Their mission is to “confront” any Yellow Dog that they hear saying anything negative about the War, the US, or the US Government, and to boldly ask the person “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” If he didn’t have an immediate, satisfactory answer, he was to be handed a Yellow Dog card.

Walker first came up with the idea when he noticed young boys in his neighborhood “tricking” neighbors at night by ringing their doorbells and then running. Reminiscing about similar stunts he pulled in his own childhood, he notes, “For devilish ingenuity of the teasing kind give me the small boy. Everywhere and always full of mischief. Everywhere and all at once.” And that made him sit up with a jerk and exclaim, “By Jove! I’ve got it! The small boy—the red corpuscle of the country’s blood—the universal policeman—everywhere and all at once!”

Hmm. What a mature idea. Send totally immature, thoughtless, reckless pranksters out to accost adults regarding their convictions about the most controversial political, moral, ethical, and emotionally-charged questions of the day. And praise the hooligans for it. What a plan.

A plan accepted by millions in America, as we shall soon see.

In Dodge’s story, Walker equips the corpuscles with cards full of slogans and ways to identify Yellow Dogs. They embellish and add to these. Sample:

Anybody that says US Bonds ain’t the safest investment in the world, ask him HOW HE KNOWS. If he can’t answer you he’s a yellow dog.

Any man that won’t buy a bond isn’t willing to pay his share of the expenses of our [older] brothers in the trenches who are risking their lives fighting for him.

The income tax dodger is a Yellow Dog.

Anybody that says Colonel Vanderbilt loaned France forty millions is a yellow dog. He ain’t got that much.

We’re the Boy Detectives of our town. There may be Yellow Dogs in Danforth, but there ain’t any yellow pups.

Soon even Walker was amazed at the results. The Red White and Blue Pups embarked immediately on their Children’s Crusade. And it was merciless…

Walker had forgotten how resourceful the small boy really is, how effective his patriotism becomes, once given a chance to express itself along the lines of adventure. He had thought to kindle a bonfire in Danforth. But he found he’d started a conflagration. The air was full of it. Metaphorically, it smarted the eyes and stung the nostrils of everybody. It was not long before every yellow dog in Danforth had been served with a card of identification.

And this included a large proportion of the population…because even those who weren’t “pro-German” or “anti-war” often cheated on their taxes!

A reign of terror had descended upon the place. It got so a man didn’t dare talk sedition even to his wife in the middle of the night in his own bed, lest from out the darkness come—liked the far-famed clarion, Excelsior—the awful, incriminating: “HOW DO YOU KNOW?”

The loyal little Boy Detectives didn’t give their parents away, but they didn’t hesitate to take them to task for anything that savored of sedition. Paterfamilias [the head of the household] found that his redoubts of authority were crumbling before the constant, pin-prick fire of the “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” Paterfamilias hated it and became careful about what he said. He couldn’t take refuge in “Jones told me,” because he knew his boy would go and ask Jones. So paterfamilias began to think. He thought hard. In trying to convince himself he was right he convinced himself he was wrong. He began to realize that the Boy Detective movement was the concrete result of the careless words he and others had spoken; the shafts they thoughtlessly sent out against the Government had returned to torment them.

And now we have arrived back at Orwell’s vision of the future. Except …it’s a vision of the past. But it’s not Big Brother listening in on you in your bedroom. It’s Li’l Brother. A whole platoon of little brothers.

If I had disguised this story just a bit to not make clear the time frame, I think most readers would assume it was a cautionary bit of fiction about a dystopian future. But the readers in 1918 didn’t think it dystopian at all—they embraced the notion of a “reign of terror” by little “red corpuscles,” and thought of it as wonderfully inspiring and patriotic. So much so that they began requesting reprints of the story. At which point it became re-typeset in book form and sold by the caseloads. And turned into that movie I mentioned earlier. AND …was brought to life.

As part of the promotional efforts for the book and movie, author Dodge actually officially organized the Anti-Yellow Dog Club and began advertising it across the country. It took off like a skyrocket. Look at this article I found on the web in an old collection of newspapers from Hollywood, California. This is from the Holly Leaves newspaper of August 18, 1918, just three months after the story appeared in the Post.


Organization of Boy Detectives. Will Help Stamp Out German Propaganda in Hollywood

The latest patriotic organization to be formed in Hollywood is a branch of the “Anti-Yellow Dog Club,” composed of boys of ten years and up, who pledge themselves to act as detectives in ferretting out the “yellow dogs,” otherwise known as pro-Germans. Henry Irving Dodge of New York is the founder and his representative, Edward Lansing Cowles, is organizing the movement in this locality. Early in the week he had seventy Hollywood boys enrolled and a meeting was called at Wilcox Hall for Friday evening to complete the organization. Capt. C. A. Phelps, vice president of the California Loyal League, is scheduled to deliver an address. Paul Winfield of 1975 Cahuenga avenue is the District Supervisor.

Every boy of ten years and older is eligible to become a Boy Detective and lend his aid to running down and eliminating German propaganda Each boy who enrolls as a Boy Detective of the Anti-Yellow Dog Campaign will be given a membership card, a book of rules and a number of Yellow Dog summonses which they will be instructed to hand to everyone whom they hear making an unpatriotic statement.

Yes, just like in the Dick Tracy Crime Stoppers Kit, each Boy Detective got his own summonses to pass out. Except these weren’t just for playing cops and robbers with buddies in the alley. They were for an audacious ten or twelve year old to hand out to any adult stranger within earshot who might say something that his young mind might question. The summons wasn’t really a legal document, of course. And it only summoned the Yellow Dog to appear before the “Court of his Conscience.” But the matter MIGHT not stop in that private courtroom.

After the boys have been recruited they will be divided into squads. Each squad will be under the leadership of a Lieutenant-detective selected from among themselves.

Each lieutenant will have direct charge of, and be responsible for his squad of Boy Detectives, and will report at regular intervals to a District Supervisor appointed by the Anti-Yellow Dog Club.

In Los Angeles, as in every other city in the United States there is a certain element of alien malcontents, whose influence is anything but a patriotic stimulant. Many of them are deliberately hostile to the government, and when these are found by the Boy Detectives their names will be handed over to the regular police authorities for prompt official action.

The other species of Yellow Dog is the born American who thoughtlessly “knocks” the government. This type of Yellow Dog will be brought to his senses by the campaign of ridicule that forms the ammunition to be fired by the Boy Detective force.

The slogan of the Anti-Yellow Dog Club that will be constantly kept in the minds of the Boy Detectives is “Free speech,—yes! Free lies,—no!”

Among the rules of the club are the following:

“Whenever you hear a man say anything against the Government, step right up to him and ask: ‘How do you know?’

“If he don’t know, he is attacking the Government. He is a Yellow Dog spreading discouragement and discontent.

“Hand him a Yellow Dog Summons.

“If he apologizes, take back the Yellow Dog Summons. If he don’t apologize, walk away and let him keep it.”

And Hollywood was by no means an isolated venue for the Boy Detectives. I found similar articles in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, paper even earlier, on August 11; a Prescott, Arizona, newspaper for September 1918; and another in a Ludington, Michigan, paper for that same month. In Prescott and Ludington, the efforts were being organized by YMCA personnel. (In many other cities they were evidently directly organized by local schools.) The Ludington paper also noted that the clubs are approved by Theodore Roosevelt.

Historical references indicate that there were around 1,000 branches of the club across the country. This would indicate tens of thousands of such boys, perhaps a hundred thousand or more. And that was just official groups of the original Dodge efforts. The idea seems to have caught on with adults as well, with copycat groups forming. Printer’s Ink magazine, a journal for advertising men, reported in its July-Sept 1918 edition that the Cleveland Advertising Club was forming its own plan to “fight down German propaganda,” through the forming of a “Yellow Dog Clubber’s Club.” Their tactics were similar to those described in the Hollywood story, but seemed to be planned to be carried out by adults. Another report I saw online mentioned the formation of related groups in factories across the land, sometimes recruiting hundreds of men at a time.

I don’t doubt that all these efforts did a lot to silence open expression of dissent among the populace. But from what I can tell, virtually all the efforts of ANY of these vigilante groups, child or adult, to ferret out any actual “German spies” failed totally. And there was very little success at even finding and targeting actual enthusiastic “German sympathizers.” The primary fallout was the treatment of Americans of German descent—there were 3 million or so of them at the time. Many of these would have been in America for generations, and I would think the majority were likely American citizens. That didn’t make any difference.

The Patriotic American of 1918 was not just incensed at the militaristic current German government. He was carefully primed by peer pressure to hate “the German race.” And EVERYTHING German. Libraries burned classic literature by German authors, orchestras refused to play music by classical German composers. A movement swept across the country to expel all German language classes from American high schools—one school that didn’t cease and desist immediately was even burned down. Frankfurters were re-named Victory Sausages or hot dogs, sauerkraut became Victory Cabbage or Liberty Cabbage . The popularity of owning dachshund dogs plummeted, and some owners took to referring to their pets as “Liberty Hounds” to play down the German connection.  Towns changed German street names. In some places it became illegal to speak German on the telephone…elderly German ladies talking to friends on a party line could be turned in to the authorities.

And just a German last name would get you on the “profiling” list of the Boy Detectives, and other vigilante groups.

The Smallest Soldiers: Teaching Children to Hate

The ‘National School Service’ was sent to public schools throughout the country to assist teachers in making “every school pupil a messenger for Uncle Sam.” Thousands of books from mysteries to comics and adventure stories were published with hate-German propaganda especially geared for children. The School Service had a circulation of 20,000,000 homes, and it was successful. Children in St. Louis, for example, were praised in the local paper for “doing their duty” in the war movement by stoning the daily delivery wagons of a German grocer.

Here’s a picture of my American German paternal grandfather, Lloyd Newbauer. He would have been in his 40s about that time in history. I wonder how he fared as the owner of a small business in Dayton, Ohio?

newbauerAs noted with the American Protective League in previous installments of this series, the US government at the time was definitely engaged in attempting to persuade the American public to support the war efforts enthusiastically. But the government really was not the primary “enforcer” of a gung-ho pro-war mentality in the country. That role was voluntarily taken on by the APL, the Yellow Dog Clubs, and many other vigilante groups. And indeed the federal government was grateful.

By mid-1918, the Department of Justice was receiving fifteen hundred letters a day related to loyalty charges. Attorney General Gregory boasted that, “Never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed.” To which CPI [Committee on Public Information] director George Creel added, “Not a pin dropped in the home of anyone with a foreign name but that it rang like thunder on the inner ear of some listening sleuth.” [Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West]

So we’ve come around once again to my recurring question in this series…was a century ago “the Good Old Days” of America? Should I yearn to go back there, to a time when every man’s home was his castle, no one interfered with his “freedom,” and the administration in Washington hadn’t become unbearably intrusive like it is now?

No thank you. I have no desire to live in an era that gave birth to whole mindless, cloned armies of both Big Brothers and Li’l Brothers fully prepared to attempt to police my every thought and opinion.

But wait. Was this all just a male phenomenon? Nah… stick around for the next entry in the series when we will explore The Rise of Big Sister.

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