Posts Tagged ‘blog: true stuff from old books’.

True Stuff: The Art of Letter Writing

sit up straight

Every now and then you see someone talking about “the lost art of letter writing.” There was a TED talk, and a book last year, and there always seem to be articles and thinkpieces aplenty:

Thomas G. Knoles, the Marcus A. McCorison Librarian at the American Antiquarian Society, has an intimate knowledge of the more than 100,000 handwritten letters, as well as 1,500 manuscript collections, spanning from 1630 to present day, that are housed in the society’s archives.

“Life was so different in the 19th century. People didn’t have television, computers or radios, any of the distractions that they have now,” Knoles said. “Between the fact that it was the only way of communicating with people who were local and the fact there was actually disposable time to write the letters, letter writing was something that was a common practice.”

…While he feels the transition to the computer is a natural one, Knoles said there will be a whole texture of what everyday life was like that is going to be much harder to recapture because people don’t keep letters like they do emails and texts.

“We can grieve for anything that changes, but my own feeling is that you have to accept the fact that things are going to change,” Knoles said. “People grieved when the typewriter came. People grieved in the mid-19th century when the envelope was introduced and before that they used sealing wax.”

“Mass. Scholars Mourn Lost Art Of Letter Writing”, CBS Boston, March 22, 2014

To be clear, I am a fan of letter writing!

• As the quote above says, letter writing, its other charms aside, preserves history. On this site I’ve discussed correspondence by the Wright Brothers and shown off letters my mother received from Isaac Asimov. My mother, a prolific correspondent, has saved bushels of letters we’ve come across decades later, but in the future, we are likely to find few from the era since she began sending emails.

• A couple years ago, I sent letters — 521 of them — to every head of state in the world, every governor in the U.S., 200 of the world’s top CEOs, and the pope. I got 52 letters back!

• People send me letters! I love it when they do. Here’s one I got recently (click for bigger):

another currency by mail scheme

…Of late, however, we faced a quandary regarding your fine publication. Sharp-eyed old Grisby noticed there is a price cited on your mast-head. Imagine our shame at discovering we have been leeches, sucking the bounty of your blood for close to eleven years, without so much as lying about paying…

Enclosed please find the requisite payment of six pence… Notices of subscription renewals should not be sent and will go unanswered. We consider the matter closed.

none the richer, alas

• Hundreds of people sent us letters about Machine of Deathwe asked them to, in exchange for us sending them a death prediction card in the mail. We said “send us anything,” and the results were amazing.

So, I’m firmly on the side of writing letters. But it’s true that it’s somewhat of an affectation these days. I correspond with people all the time, but the last letter I wrote was an angry one to the IRS.

One of my favorite historical books, though, is all about writing letters…

True Stuff: ‘Women Are Funny That Way’, According to 1927

Perhaps you saw this Onion article from about a year ago: “Area Man’s Intelligence Probably Just Too Intimidating For Most Women”


It’s hilarious and terrible and I’ve seen it passed around a lot in the last few weeks. Dudes who know everything about everything are of course valuable contributors to society and thank heaven there are so many of them.

In my regular trawling of old-timey nonsense (of which I post a lot to Twitter), I happened across a brief humor column in an issue of Life magazine, 1927.

Somewhere north of 75% of the jokes in 1927 Life magazine are incredibly sexist, including one on the very same page as this piece, so the fact that this one — besides very clearly poking fun at advertising — seems to deflate the suitor’s balloon a bit is notable for the time.

And of course, “the more things change”, etc.


Women Are Funny That Way

The sign in the barber shop said: “Present a neat appearance. You can win HER by having your hair cut regularly.” Well, it kept me pretty nearly broke, but I visited that barber shop every day.

Then I thought perhaps the trouble lay in my social defects and that I was one of these stupids who never say a word all evening. So I learned French, Spanish, Greek, Crow and Old Crow, Choctaw, Coptic, Cuneiform and Hunt & Pick. I got so cultured up that nobody could pass a wisecrack without my hurling a fast one right back at him.

I drank Listerosis by the gallon, because the advertisement said not to ruin my chances with HER by neglecting it.

You should have seen me delve into Elbert Haldeman-Julius’s Scrapbook. I knew Aristotle as well as Babe Ruth knows his batting average. You have to get next to the best minds of history to be able to knock HER for a loop. I found that out in the magazines.

I became an expert on more musical instruments than Paul Whiteman ever heard of. People used to stand entranced outside my window, under the impression that I was the Street Cleaning Department Band and that Lindbergh had just landed again, or something. You can’t win HER without Art.

I joined all these clubs that prescribe the best book of the month to you. In that way I got four different books every day. A thorough grounding in current literature always goes great with HER. If you don’t believe it I’ll show you the clipping that says so.

That wasn’t the half of what I did to gain HER love.

And still she regards me as something even the cat wouldn’t bring in.

Doesn’t SHE know the rules of the game? What’s the matter with the girl, anyway?

– Tip Bliss.


Here is a comic strip from the same year (1927, a few months later) that I quite enjoyed. Click for a closer look!


I love that they’ve given over a whole page to this gag!


True Stuff: Mortality record from 1665

(click image for bigger)

I love this: Via Slate’s The Vault, “In 16th- and 17th-century London, in response to recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague, authorities instituted the tradition of publishing a bill of mortality each week.”

See Slate’s brief article, with more links, here.

They also link to Craig Spence’s Bills of Mortality blog:

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths. It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis…

The content of the Bills was provided by the parish clerks who reported weekly accounts from each parish to the Hall of the Company of Parish Clerks. The Company then collated and printed a weekly sheet; one side held a listing of the number of burials by parish and from the mid 17th century the reverse listed a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’.

These covered a wide range of illnesses, some of which are readily identifiable to the modern reader and some which are not.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been suffering from ‘scowring’ for weeks

(h/t to @PublicDomainRev, where I first saw this)

True Stuff: The Internet According to 1995

One of my recurring fascinations is reading pearl-clutching editorials over the menacing march of technological advance (such as the telephone, the printing press, or writing itself). So I loved this 1995 column from Newsweek by astronomer and Klein-bottler Clifford Stoll:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…

“Why the Web won’t be Nirvana” — Newsweek, February 26, 1995

Stoll is the author of the 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, in which he was wrong about basically everything the Internet turned out to be. To his credit, he seems to have come around in the years that followed…And I wonder how many of those early curmudgeons eventually came around to the telephone, and how many of them railed against the infernal motor-car! to their dying day.

In a way, it seems Stoll’s pessimism wasn’t from a lack of understanding of the technology — he was an early adopter of Usenet and from what I can tell, was born on a BBS via 200 baud modem, or something.

It’s that he was too close — he only saw the structure as it was, and as he knew it; he couldn’t imagine what someone else, without that depth of understanding, could reimagine for it. (Or even if he could imagine great changes, didn’t think them possible, or likely to occur.)

But they did. It’s amazing what one can accomplish if one doesn’t know that what one is attempting is impossible.

True Stuff: Paul Jones, the Earth-Girdler

The late nineteenth century was full of daredevils, fame-seekers, and people doing absurd things for the sake of doing absurd things. Mass communication was new, and could bring nationwide notoriety to anyone able to break some barrier or accomplish something no one else had. The age of the media-savvy showman had dawned.

Enter “Paul Jones”, described here by George Dollar in The Strand Magazine as “An Earth-Girdler.” (Note: The events described took place in the United States, but Mr. Dollar converted the monetary amounts involved into pounds for the sake of his English readers. At the time, a pound was worth about five dollars.)

What did “Paul” (a pseudonym) claim he would do? Walk around the Earth, starting without a penny to his name and completely nude, and promising to end a richer man than he began. It’s a strange story of completely manufactured celebrity. From the article linked above:

GLOBE-TROTTING is now so common that no one pays much attention to any plan of putting “a girdle roundabout the earth” unless that plan possesses daring originality impossible of execution. The plan of Mr. “Paul Jones,” who recently became the most-talked-of man in Boston, the “Hub of the Universe,” fulfilled the two requirements. It certainly was daringly original, and the chances seemed dead against its accomplishment. Moreover, the fact that Mr. “Paul Jones” was, owing to the nature of the plan, forced to hide his identity under an assumed name, lent a lustre to the exploit that clinched public attention at the outset.

The plan, in short, was as follows: “Jones” had made a wager that he would start out on a trip around the world as Nature made him — that is, naked. He guaranteed that he would make the trip in a year, starting without a penny in the world, and without begging or borrowing on the way. He also stipulated that he would make five thousand dollars (£1,000) during the trip, although he was not compelled to bring that amount back with him. If he won he was to get £1,000, and if he lost he was to pay that amount. The minor details of the wager were completely overshadowed, however, by the first clause in the agreement, which made it imperative that he should start out in the “altogether.” How would he do it, and wouldn’t he be arrested? These were some of the questions that were asked.

But the man who made the wager had a surprise in store. A Monday night was appointed for the start, and the Boston Press Club, which had taken a keen interest in “Jones,” offered its rooms for the occasion.

At the appointed time, Jones found himself the centre of a large gathering of newspaper men, sports, men about town, politicians, and others interested. As the moment approached when he was to make the start, the interest grew intense. A committee took him into a private room, removed all money from his person, and Jones, himself, quickly stripped. A placard was now placed on the door as follows:—


Of course, the fee was quickly paid, and the tall, athletic frame of a handsome man dressed on the Garden of Eden plan was now visible to the spectators.

The crowd wondered what Jones would do next. They did not wait long in suspense. With the money that had been taken at the door, Jones sent out a paid messenger for some wrapping-paper and pins. The wrapping-paper soon came in, and with a big pair of scissors the ingenious man set to work. A few deft movements of the scissors, and the paper began to assume the form of trousers. The legs of these were joined together with pins. Then a covering for the waist was quickly made, and a sort of cape to cover the shoulders. The progress of the work was followed with immense interest, and the spectators were lost in amazement at the cleverness and rapidity with which the man worked.

In the illustration on this page we see him as he stood before the Press Club and its guests — a paper man, without a penny to his name, except those which, in a few short minutes, he had collected by the exercise of his mother wit.

At the end of the first evening Jones was two pounds richer than when he began. He sang an original song, and a small admission fee was charged to hear it. He also made copies of the song and sold them to the Pressmen and others who would buy. He sold his autographs for five cents apiece. He also let the spectators feel his muscle, for a nominal sum, and offered to spar anybody for a stake. Nobody, however, accepted. He had several offers for his paper-suit, but would accept none of them. The clever man knew that when the morning papers came out with the account of the previous night’s doings, that suit would have a money value far in advance of the prices offered. So, in his paper-suit, he went out to one of the best hotels — and went to bed.

The next morning everybody in the city knew of Jones’s feat. He spent the early part of the day in making a new suit out of blankets which he had bought from the proceeds of the previous night. This suit served a temporary need for warmth, as it was a cold winter’s day, and, as one may see from the illustration, the suit was somewhat like pyjamas. As yet, Jones had no shoes. The night before he had hastily manufactured a pair of sandals out of two pieces of purchased leather, and these he wore until he had collected money enough to buy some shoes. The purchase of the blankets left him 5 1/2d. short on his breakfast, but a reporter gave this to him for an interview. He now struck the proprietor of the hotel for a job, and got a dollar for one hour’s work. For carrying placards on his back advertising the hotel restaurant he got £2. Thus his morning’s work brought him in 44s.

A clothing-house now came to the front with an offer of £2 for the papersuit, which they prominently exhibited in their window. They also hired him as salesman for the afternoon —- a coup that attracted a large number of people into the shop to see the man in the blanket-suit. The autograph business still went on with profit, and with the proceeds Jones bought a large quantity of new and shiny cents, which he sold as souvenirs at a fancy price. He paid for his supper by working forty minutes as a waiter in a restaurant, and everywhere he went in his blankets, he was followed by large crowds.

After supper he added materially to his store by inviting people to a “smoker” in the hotel. It cost nothing to get in, but lots to remain. To sit on the bed for five minutes cost a halfpenny. A chair was let at the rate of a halfpenny a minute, and standing-room was sold for a halfpenny per half-hour. The crowd was large and enthusiastic, so Jones bought a box of cigars and liberally passed them round. No one, however, was allowed to expectorate without paying a halfpenny! This brought in a large profit. Jones now announced that he would sing his original song at 2 1/2d. per head. The audience then unanimously and gratuitously paid him a like amount to quit. At the end of the evening Jones was £20 to the good.

The next day he made preparations for leaving Boston. His plan was to visit several of the Eastern cities, which, through the Press reports, had already been apprised of his wager and the remarkable events of the first two days, and, in these cities, collect enough money to buy a steamship ticket to the Old World. He expected little success in Europe, but would push on steadily to the East, and when he arrived in San Francisco, would begin a lecturing tour in all the principal cities of the United States. Already, indeed, offers for lectures were pouring in upon him. Commercial houses, also, made arrangements with him to advertise them on tour, and to peddle their wares. For this he was promised astonishing sums, and on the second day his thousand pounds were assured.

But before he left Boston he bought a good suit of clothes and a necktie out of the proceeds of the previous day. The remainder he put in the bank. He got shaved, paid £1 for a pair of shoes, and 30s. for an overcoat. He made his breakfast by shining an admirer’s boots, and this gave him the idea of hiring a bootblack’s outfit for a few hours, by which means he made a good sum quickly. Previously he had had photographs of himself taken in his three suits. These he sold at good prices in the various cities he visited. He regularly charged 2 1/2d. for a hand-shake, and thus loaded his pockets with loose “nickels.”

The first city he visited, after leaving Boston, was Providence. He arrived in his quadruple capacity as travelling salesman, advance agent, lecturer, and “globe-trotter.” The Providence Press Club entertained him, and he entertained them by repeating his Boston experiences. In the evening he was advertised to appear at the Pawtucket Opera House, to be examined by a mind-reader. The house was crowded. He had also made an engagement to appear in Boston the same evening, and to get to Boston in time, he was compelled to hire a special train. He appeared on the stage promptly, before an overflowing audience, and made a speech, for which he was paid, it is said, £30. He also sang his song and gave an exhibition of sawing wood. [...]

From Providence he went to Springfield, and here repeated his success. He gave a lecture to a large crowd, sang his song, and sawed wood. An enterprising haberdasher hired him to tend in a shop for an afternoon, and a chemist drew a large trade by getting him to stand at a soda-fountain, draw fruit syrups and lemonade, and sell cigars and tobacco. One of his customers was a police-inspector who had come to arrest him for the non-payment of a debt contracted in Boston before he made the wager. This debt Jones paid. Two days after a claim for £10 was made against him by a firm which had secured him a position as teacher in a Massachusetts town. Another claim for £17 was later produced. Jones paid neither claim, and was locked up. The newspapers then investigated the whole affair, and found that “Jones’s” real name was Pfeiffer, that he had had a college education, and that, being in hard straits, he had invented the story of a wager, and had hoodwinked the Press into giving it publicity. His success was enormous, but short. Strange to say, also, the very people who had become tired of the name of “Paul Jones” were the first ones to express sorrow over his untimely end.

To summarize: E.C. Pfeiffer, Harvard graduate, fabricated a $5,000 wager, stripped naked and offered gapes for a penny, sang songs and figured out how to be paid both to start and to stop, became a celebrity who could sell the clothes from his back and pennies from his pocket…and then ended up in a debtor’s prison. It was a whirlwind two weeks in which he dominated the Boston press.

The interesting part of this story — besides, you know, all of it — was that Pfeiffer’s strange enterprise and ultimately facetious wager inspired a legitimate round-the-globe attempt: the longest bicycle trip ever attempted by a woman.

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a.k.a. Annie Londonderry, took off on a bicycle on June 25, 1894, traveling only with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver. Her story is chronicled in the 2008 book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutin.

More about Annie, and the book, here. I will be honest with you: I started writing this post because I wanted to share the story about the weird man in the paper suit. But then I found this very inspiring story about Annie Londonderry and now I want to read this book myself! LET’S MAKE A BOOK CLUB