Fist Of History

January, 2012Archive for

Political Cartoon – The Weight of Trusts

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Source: Life Magazine, 1902

Even at the turn of the 20th century hostility to corporate greed and market dominance on necessities was a burning anger.

Historiography and Stephen Colbert

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Stephen Colbert and his current SuperPac, The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPac Americans For A Better Tomorrow Tomorrow, if I have its full name correctly listed, actually provides me a great illustration of the importance of historiography and a shorthand way to talk about the two major schools of thought in how US history is written.  Historiography is, at its most basic, the study of how history is studied.  It is a highly specialized topic, usually only taught to graduate history students, and is usually a course to be sweated through before you get on to other, more fun, topics.  But in the case of Colbert and his SuperPac a rare chance presents itself to explain why it is important and how it shapes our collective story.

Colbert and his SuperPac have made waves, they have had an impact on the 2012 election, and it puts him and John Stewart well into a position to get a mention in future written histories.  The impact Colbert is having on the 2012 election, and people’s perceptions of it, along with his talking about his SuperPac and SuperPacs as a concept, will certainly be analyzed by future historians.  But how they will look at it, well that will really depend on the historical framework they were trained in.  To put this in perspective take a look at two possible, but different, takes on what is happening a future historian might write:

Great Man Theory – In the 2012 Presidential election Stephen Colbert was able to take advantage of a major Supreme Court decision that modified the rules for political action committees so that they could take unlimited donations from corporate and other sponsors.  Throughout the 2012 election Colbert lead the way in exposing, for humorous effect, both the oddities of the rules regarding political action committees as well using his own political funding to launch moderately effective political ads.  Colbert was known for his satirical genius as well as his skill in presenting current events in a manner both humorous, and thought inducing, for his viewing audience.  It was his vision of taking a dry political issue of the period, the political action committee and its impact on politics, and presenting it through mass media and humor as a ludicrous concept, that spearheaded broader political activism in a younger voting block in the 2012 election.  Colbert not only lead the popular groundswell of disquiet at the impact political action committees’ wielded, he spearheaded the movement and ensured its widespread growth.

Social Forces Theory – The year 2012 is a pivotal year when analyzing early 21st century political movements in the United States, during this period due to a widespread economic contraction in the United States, along with the rest of the developed world, a polarization of the electorate was evident in the 2010 and 2012 elections.  In particular, among left leaning younger voters, there was a widespread rejection of many traditional political loyalties and a growing cynicism towards new funding institutions in US politics, in particular the so-called “SuperPac” – a political action committee allowed to take large scale donations from corporate or other organized entities without needing to disclose information on the source of the donations.  In 2012 a popular entertainer, known as Stephen Colbert, sensed a latent potential in the younger voting population for discontent over this particular change to the political scene and, using his late-night television show as a tool to raise awareness of this issue, created his own “Super Pac” and made a humorous mockery of the proceedings.  Colbert’s show was influential in focusing this disorganized and broad discontent in the voting electorate towards a single issue, a focused cynical anger that was reflected in the voting results of the 2012 election (see table 1.6 comparing the elections of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 against polling responses showing rising discontent with the actions of elected officials.)  Colbert was able to carve for himself an unusual place in the electoral process of 2012 by riding a broad wave of young voter discontent.

Now, both takes on what is happening right now are, roughly, valid, and both could be proven using data from the period.  What is key to understanding why this is important is to understand that history is not really about finding the right answer, or even necessarily the best answer, instead it is an attempt by someone with hindsight to try and make a larger story about what happened in the past, point out the most critical bits, and give the reader a sense of an order to what happened.  As well history strives to prove a theory behind events, it tries to sift out a grand plan to the random chunky goodness of what actually happened.

You may ask why this is critical – a small example will show you – ask yourself this, what was the main cause of the US Civil War?  If you answered slavery, congrats, the history you were taught was influenced by the late 19th century take on the US Civil War that treated it as a morality play.  If you answered states rights, congrats, you were taught a historical take influenced by the early 20th century “Southern School” of thought, which discredited the idea of slavery as a key issue and pushed a broader political and legalistic take on what happened.  If you answered economic forces, congrats, you were trained on histories written in the 1960s and 1970s.  If you answered that there was no single main cause, congrats on last time, you were trained on post-modern historical theory which argues that there were many causes for events and weighing them distorts the true complex pull of history.

Bicyclist Cartoon – Bloomers

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Source: Life, 1896

More on the insect wildlife of New Jersey at the time but also fun for the bicycling fashion of the period – for the first time women of middle or high social standing could really get away with pants/leggings.

Kodak Advertisement

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Source: Life Magazine, 1890

It was a bit depressing today to read about how the Kodak Corporation has filed for bankruptcy.  Founded in 1880 to make photographic plates by 1888 the Kodak company came to dominate the market by introducing its handheld camera with a roll of film, a development which revolutionized photography.  This ad, for that very product, was run in Life Magazine in 1890 and is the oldest Kodak ad I have been able to find to date.  (You’ll note the the camera came pre-loaded with film and could be reloaded for a nominal fee – a predecessor to today’s disposable camera concept.)

Of course, even then companies did engage in playful advertisement to catch the consumers eye, as shown with this example:

Source: Life Magazine, 1901

Alternatively you have my personal favorite example here:

Source:  Life, 1892

Note the misspelling of “camera” – that is not an error in judgement – that is an effort to catch the consumer’s eye – by being “kooky.”

Doble Brothers – the Steam Masters

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Behold probably the finest example of the steam powered automobile – the Doble Brothers Model E, the steam powered automobile of the 1920s.  Basically what you are looking at, technologically, is the product of mechanical and engineering genius applied to a technology that, by the 1920s, most people had considered bypassed by other technologies.  Back in the 1890s through the early 1900s there was a three way battle in power systems for automobiles – electric, steam, and gasoline.  At that time the final winner was not certain, each had advantages and drawbacks, electrics had an incredibly short range but they were easy to use and start.  Steam was more complicated but ran more silently and smoothly than gasoline and had a longer range than electric cars.  Gasoline cars were hard to start and mechanically complicated, but they had better range than the other two options.  By the 1910s the power system wars seemed pretty much ended, gasoline was on top, due to technological enhancements that made it easier to use and start, safe and reliable, and still kept it the range king.  The major maker of steam powered automobiles, the Stanley Steamer Company, had given up the fight by 1919.

Enter the Doble Brothers who were convinced that steam was still the best solution for automobile power, they built a series of cars, of limited production runs, whose purpose was to keep steam in the market and prove it was a viable power system, possibly even better than gasoline cars.  Allow me to walk you briefly through the dream car you see above, the high point of their efforts.  The Doble Model E had a decent range on a single boiler full of water, boosters said hundreds of miles but honestly the range was lower than that.  The Model E was able to get up to full power in 90 seconds, due to huge advances in technology, and had none of the problems that earlier steam cars had – no major corrosion issues or knocking when the car was in use.  It was also mechanically incredibly simple compared to a combustion powered automobile, it did not have a transmission or gearbox, the engine, mounted in the rear, simply powered the rear wheels directly.  It had a top speed of around 60 miles per hour and great acceleration and pickup for the time period. Best of all it could run, technically, on nearly any burnable fuel source.  It was also incredibly silent.

So you might wonder why aren’t we driving steam cars today?  Well the first problem was cost, the base price for this vehicle when it was introduced in 1923 was $8,800.  In 2010 dollars that would be an equivalent price tag of $112,000.  As you can imagine production numbers were low and it was a toy of the really wealthy.  Second, that 90 second start up time was a major problem.  Incredible for a steam powered automobile it was simply too long for consumers who had grown used to the immediate start-up time of a gasoline powered automobile.  Another example of consumer preferences shaping technological progress, speed of use outweighed silence of operation.

The Doble brothers did not find success with their steam powered cars but they went on to other ventures, an interesting side note was one other first attached to them and steam – in 1934 they built the first steam powered biplane and successfully flew it.  Apparently it was silent enough in the air that people on the ground could hear the pilot yelling a greeting to them from two hundred feet up.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Doble Steam Car, Damn Interesting entry on the car, Jay Leno’s Garage video on the car, Steamcar Club website, Newspaper reports on the steam powered biplane.

p.s. – For my Michigan readers I believe there is a Doble on display/in ownership at the Henry Ford Museum.

Fun bicycling beer ad

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Source: Life Magazine, 1896

A fascinating ad that attempted to cash in on the growing bicycling fad of the 1890s – in this ad Anheuser-Busch argues that their beer is an excellent energy pick-up after a vigorous day bicycle riding.  Probably they’d be fine with you enjoying it after tooling around the block, or even after looking at your bike and thinking about biking.  In case you are curious what the difference between “Malt-Nutrine” and “beer” the answer is about 2.5% alcohol content rating, the breweries attempted in this period to sell a less potent version of their product as a digestion aid or liquid food.

Reference:  Weed, Booze, Cocaine and Other Old School “Medicine”

Awesome vintage chocolate ad

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

This ad has so much awesome I just had to share it – a chocolate bar that is “irresistibly delicious,” a “confection, yet wholesome food,” and in addition “it is the only chocolate that can be eaten freely by children, invalids, and persons of weak digestion.”

But by far best of all is the safety warning – “For Eating Only” – one does have to ask at that point, versus…what other chocolate activities?

Source: Life Magazine, 1902

In the land of the blind…

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king…

A particularly grim story of medieval war comes from the 11th century, during the protracted Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars, specifically during the aftermath of the Battle of Kleidion which took place on 29 July 1014.  The Byzantine forces were lead by the Byzantine Emperor personally, Basil II, and the Tsar of Bulgaria, Samuil.  At the time Bulgaria was a regional bad-ass and had been pressing against Byzantine territories northwest of Constantinople.  (Now Istanbul, everybody sing!)  It was a long battle in rugged mountain terrain, the Bulgarian forces were blocking access to deeper Bulgarian territory by fortifying a key mountain pass, but the Byzantine army was able to successfully force the Bulgarian line and send their army reeling from the field.  The end result was a routed Bulgarian army and Basil II in possession of a mass of Bulgarian prisoners.

Historians disagree on the number of prisoners taken, scholars writing of the battle in the later Medieval period put the total at either 14,000 or 15,000 Bulgarians taken prisoner.  Modern scholars estimate the number was probably closer to 8,000 Bulgarians, going on better translations of documents written closer to when the original battle took place.  Either way, Basil II punished the prisoners, and Samuil, by blinding 99 of every 100 captured Bulgarians.  The 100th Bulgarian of each set was left with one functional eye, so he could lead his fellows back to Samuil.

History from the period claims that Samuil, upon seeing the arrival of his army died of heart attack, a story that is questionable as he died in October 1014, a full two months after these events occurred.  However all sources agree on the punishment Basil II meted out upon the captured Bulgarians.  Some argue it was an understandable punishment, traditional for rebels and Basil II believed/wanted to argue that Bulgaria was a domain of the Byzantine Empire.  Others argue this punishment was inflicted as a means of breaking Bulgarian power.  Either way it was a harsh and brutal punishment even for a violent era.

The phrase that started this post most likely did not originate from these events, but for me whenever I hear that phrase I think of a generation of Bulgarian males, blinded, being led home by a handful of their colleagues who were left with only one eye.

Oh and the image – the top panel is supposed to show the Bulgarian defeat and the bottom depicts Samuil dying of shock at seeing his army.  The Byzantines were as prone as anyone to a bit of post-win propaganda.

Sources:  Battle of Kleidion on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kleidion

Hitler – Time’s Man of the Year, 1938

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Boom!  For those not familiar with this story it is potentially a bit startlingly to learn that Adolph Hitler, Chancellor and later Leader (Fuehrer) of Germany was Time’s “Man Of The Year” of 1938.  A story ran in early 1939 explaining this choice and, online, when you read about this many people spin it as a sign that people at the time didn’t realize what Hitler was, or how it shows Time was trying to glorify Hitler, and if you image search you will see the above as the cover.  Except, it’s not true, for several reasons, first the image above is not actually the cover image for this issue of Time, instead they ran this cover:

Now it is a small image unfortunately and it was a busy cover but basically on the left and right side are lesser figures supporting/benefiting from the Nazi regime, Hitler in the center playing an organ, and above the organ a circular wheel of death and torture.  Not exactly a subtle commentary on the Nazi regime at the time.  Furthermore those who cite this event usually don’t actually read the article Time wrote about Hitler – they could have titled this honor accurately – “Hitler – Time’s Man of the Year, 1938 – because he is an unbelievably huge asshole.”  Check out some direct quotes from the article:

A generation ago western civilization had apparently outgrown the major evils of barbarism except for war between nations. The Russian Communist Revolution promoted the evil of class war. Hitler topped it by another, race war. Fascism and Communism both resurrected religious war. These multiple forms of barbarism gave shape in 1938 to an issue over which men may again, perhaps soon, shed blood: the issue of civilized liberty v. barbaric authoritarianism…

It was noteworthy that few of these other men of the year would have been free to achieve their accomplishments in Nazi Germany. The genius of free wills has been so stifled by the oppression of dictatorship that Germany’s output of poetry, prose, music, philosophy, art has been meager indeed…
These two are just samples – read the whole thing if you have time – the author insulted everything he could about Hitler, even his appearance and upbringing.  What is more shocking though is that this also shows Americans in 1939 were well aware of the dangers Nazi Germany presented – Time outlined Hitler’s ambitions, dangers, and brutal violence in this article.  So if you bump into this bit of fun trivia in the future, and the person talks about how it shows that “no one realized the danger of Hitler” or “it shows how the press supports dictatorships and the reactionary right” just remember that no, this article was devoted to telling the world why Hitler was the key figure of 1938 – he was the world’s biggest dick.

Sources:  Time Archive, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,760539-1,00.html