• Literary Bootlegging

    By 1922, a black market had emerged in New York for banned books. Distribution of such “obscene” material remained illegal in the state until a 1948 Supreme Court decision struck the law down as unconstitutional.

    This 1922 New York Times Magazine article detailed the underworld for books and other literary works:

    And now a committee in Boston places “Simon Called Peter” on the black list. The Roman Catholics put the works of Anatole France on the Index. In New York the latest additions to the list of tabooed books are “A Young Girl’s Diary,” “Casanova’s Homecoming,” and “Women in Love.” All of these books are, however, to be had surreptitiously.

    Distributing such a book could be punished by up one year in prison or a $100 fine for each offense, equivalent to about $1,785 in 2022 dollars.

    1948’s Supreme Court decision Winters v. New York would later strike down the law as unconstitutional, on both free speech and vagueness grounds. A man named Murray Winters was convicted of intending to sell magazines deemed indecent, namely ones featuring lurid details of real-life tales from society’s criminal element.

    The ruling overturning Winters’ conviction was 6-3. Justice Stanley F. Reed wrote for the majority opinion:

    Everyone is familiar with instances of propaganda through fiction. What is one man’s amusement, teaches another’s doctrine. Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to !he protection of free speech as the best of literature.

    Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the minority dissent, noting that New York was one of 20 states at the time with a similar law on the books, all now rendered unconstitutional:

    This body of laws represents but one of the many attempts by legislatures to solve what is perhaps the most persistent, intractable, elusive, and demanding of all problems of society – the problem of crime, and, more particularly, of its prevention. By this decision the Court invalidates such legislation of almost half the States of the Union.

    2021 saw an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books from libraries or schools, according to the American Library Association, at least since they began tracking such statistics 20 years prior.

    In April 2022, New York Public Library began offering access to digital copies of certain banned books for free, to anybody age 13+, anywhere in the country — not just New York City. “Making these books available shouldn’t feel like an act of defiance,” NYPL President Tony Marx wrote in a blog post, “but sadly, it is.”

    Literary Bootlegging

    Published: Sunday, August 6, 1922

  • What Can Amundsen Accomplish?

    A 1922 New York Times Magazine article described Roald Amundsen’s imminent attempt to fly over the North Pole as “the greatest venture into the unknown since Columbus set out from the shores of Spain.”

    Eleven years prior, Amundsen’s party of five had become the first in human history to reach the South Pole, in 1911. The North Pole was reached even before that, by either Robert Peary in 1909 or Frederick Cook in 1908, depending on who you ask.

    Within a month or two Captain Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer, may be the receipient of the world’s congratulations as the greatest of Arctic or Antarctic heroes. Or, on the other hand, his nearest relatives may be the receipients of the world’s condolences. For this intrepid discoverer of the South Pole and navigator of the norhteast and northwest passages is about to embark on what he hopes will be the crowning achievement of his career — an 1,800-mile flight across the North Pole, from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen [in northern Norway].

    The article’s final paragraph estimated that Amundsen’s odds were about 6:1 against. Indeed, the trip failed, as Amundsen abandoned the attempt when his plane became damaged. But his subsequent attempt in 1926 proved successful, the first such trans-Arctic aerial flight.

    Amundsen disappeared in 1928 during a rescue mission and was never seen again.

    What Can Amundsen Accomplish?

    Published: Sunday, July 23, 1922

  • Why Men Leave Home — In Print

    A 1922 article by Frank J. Wilstach suggested more men might have been leaving their wives because their wives were becoming flappers, writing: “There are some things that even the strongest heart is unable to endure.”

    Only lately, however, I heard of a sweet and innocent young male person who was lured into the holy bonds of matrimony by one of the pin-feathered variety. Honeymoon followed, but after three weeks the young man returned to the paternal roof. Dithering with emotion and with great, heaving sobs, he laid his head on his father’s shoulder and cried: “Papa, I’ve come home.”

    To inquire the reason for the departure of this amiable and charming young man from his home would seem supererogatory. If one might hazard a guess, he probably couldn’t longer tolerate the bobbed hair, the sandals, and the fringe around the skirt.

    There are some things that even the strongest heart is unable to endure.

    While such anecdotes are certainly memorable, the actual data seemed to tell a different story. The U.S. divorce rate in 1920 fell in 1921, then fell again in 1922.

    Why Men Leave Home — In Print

    Published: Sunday, July 9, 1922

  • Sorority of Smoke on Wheels

    With women’s suffrage came an unexpected development: women smokers.

    In the 1920s, as the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center explains, “Passage of the 19th Amendment ushered in new freedoms and smoking in public became symbolic of women’s new role in society.” About 6% of women smoked cigarettes in 1924, but that more than doubled to 16% by 1929.

    This 1922 New York Times Magazine article by Marguerite E. Harrison described the change viscerally:

    The air in the ladies’ dressing room of the Limited was blue with cigarette smoke. Every time the door was opened, small curls of smoke drifted out into the corridor.

    Ten years ago, such a state of affairs would not have been possible. The only passport to acquaintance among women on the “cars” [trains] was helping to mind refractory babies or lending smelling salts to a car-sick fellow passengers. Otherwise women traveled together for days and nights in stony silence. The enforced intimacy of the dressing room only brought maneuvering for place at the mirror accompanied by black looks. A properly brought-up woman regarded every other member of the species encountered under the cicumstances as her natural enemy.

    Now all these barriers are broken down in the freemasonry of the cigarette. The women smokers are bringing about a new democracy of the road.

    As of 2015, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 13.6% of U.S. women smoke cigarettes — lower than the percentage who did so by the end of the 1920s.

  • Jazz Latitutde

    After jazz first emerged in New Orleans in the early 1910s, it spread across the country. A 1922 New York Times Magazine article documented how the genre had by then gone global, summing it up in a single 242-word sentence:

    Jazz latitude is marked as indelibly on the globe as the heavy line of the equator. It runs from Broadway along Main Street to San Francisco: to the Hawaiian Islands, which it has lyricized to fame; to Japan, where it is hurriedly adopted as some new Western culture; to the Philippines, where it is royally welcomed back as its own; to China where the mandarins and even the coolies look upon it as a helpful sign that the Occident [an antonym of “the Orient”] at last knows what is music; to Siam [modern-day Thailand], where the barbaric tunes strike a kindred note and come home to roost; to India, where the natives receive it dubiously, while the colonists seize upon it avidly; to the East Indies, where it holds sway in its elementary form — ragtime; to Egypt, where it sounds so curiously familiar and where it has set Cairo dance mad; to Palestine, where it is looked upon as an inevitable and necessary evil along with liberation; across the Mediterranean, where all ships and all shores have been inoculated with the germ; to Monte Carlo and the Riviera, where the jazz idea has been adopted as its own enfant-chéri [a term meaning “something that is highly favored”]; to Paris, which has its special versions of jazz; to London, which long has sworn to shake off the fever, but still is jazzing; and back again to Tinpan Alley, where each day, nay, each hour, adds some new inspiration that will slowly but surely meander along jazz latitude.

    For a great example of modern-day American music genres spanning the globe, look no further than May’s winner of the annual songwriting contest EuroVision. The winning song was Stefania by the Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra. 

    When I saw the headline that Ukraine had won, I thought, “These contests are so political. I’ll bet the song is actually awful.” But it’s actually amazing.

    For one thing, it’s not tragic at all, like I thought it would be — it’s vibrant and shows the kind of culture that the Ukrainians are fighting for. But it’s also unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, musically speaking. I mean, they have the internet in Ukraine, so they hear 21st century American rap stars. It sounds like half modern rap and half 1800s chants from rural mountainous goat herders. But when you watch the live performance, they look like… cool rural mountainous goat herders, somehow? I’ve never seen anything like it. But I love it.

    Make sure you watch it with closed captioning on, by clicking the ‘CC’ button near the bottom-right of the YouTube video. That way, you can follow the lyrics along in English. That might be turned on by default, depending on your YouTube settings.

  • An Official Lion Hunter

    This 1922 New York Times Magazine profile article profiled Jay Bruce, the first official state mountain lion hunter for the state of California.

    By an act of the legislature the position was created in 1918, and on Jan. 1, 1919, a hunter, trapper, and guide from Yosemite National Park was selected by the State Fish and Game Commission for the work. This man was Jay Bruce. For $100 a month, mileage, and $35 bounty and salvage for each lion, he agreed to check the cougars that were killing 30,000 deer and many domestic animals in the mountain regions.

    To date, Bruce has 127 lions to his credit.

    Bruce would hold the position until 1946.

    In 1972, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a law which temporarily banned mountain lion hunting for five years. That policy was extended several times over the years until 1990, when California voters banned the practice permanently with Proposition 117, which passed with 52.4% support.

    However, in 2017, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife began a policy allowing a special “depredation permit” to kill a mountain lion, if the animal had harmed or killed a person’s pets or livestock, and if attempts at non-lethal force had already failed. The first mountain lion killed under the new policy occurred in 2020.

    Back to Jay Bruce in 1922, he was paid fairly well:

    Not only does he get $20 bounty from the state, but he receives $15 for every good skin. These are made into rugs. If he captures cubs alive, his reward is great. A live lion cub is worth $100.

    But he said the real reward was not monetary, but the pursuit:

    “If I had a million dollars, I would still hunt lions,” he said. “The long chase over the snow, racing after the dogs through underbrush, swimming rivers, jumping chasms, alone in the wilderness — that’s life.”

    Here’s a 1920s black-and-white video of Jay Bruce in action, including his voiceover:

    An Official Lion Hunter

    Published: Sunday, June 18, 1922

  • Soviet Smoke Screen and the Hague

    A June 1922 international conference at the Hague aimed to settle Soviet Russia’s economic issues. For example, should the nation be absolved of its WWI debts?

    Although more than 30 nations participated, primarily from Europe, the U.S. refused:

    The Russian memorandum of May 11… set forth that Russia of the Soviets was not bound to recognize the Czar’s debts, was not bound to pay the money Russia borrowed during the war, and was not bound to make compensation for the foreign-owned property Moscow nationalized. … Secretary [of State] Hughes said, in declining the invitation to send a delegation to The Hague, that it is absolutely no use trying to get along with folks who talk that way.

    Charles Hughes’s prediction proved correct. The conference ultimately resulted in a stalemate, with neither side giving in and no binding decisions being reached.

    Another question the conference aimed (and failed) to resolve: what should happen to the formerly-private property that the Soviet government had recently nationalized? Some of it was owned by foreigners, that is to say non-Soviets, so other nations very much had a stake in this issue.

    Under the Soviet regime, no individuals could own real property. And the Russians were not going to give to foreigners a privilege they refused their own nationals. Not only was it against their principles but, a consideration probably stronger, it would be poor politics.

    In 2022, one of the big Russian economic questions is what to do with the oligarchs’ yachts seized by foreign governments, after international sanctions were levied over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Italy is actually trying to decide what to do right now. One of their options is told an auction to sell off the yachts.

    I enter the news-themed humor contest of the news magazine The Week every Friday, and two weeks ago their contest asked readers to title that hypothetical auction. My five favorite winners:

    • the third-place winner from Kenneth Burgan of Grass Valley, California: “Everything Moscow!”
    • from Glen Alfredson of Durham, North Carolina: “Lloyds of Laundering” 
    • from Patty Oberhausen of Fort Wayne, Indiana: “All Sails Final” 
    • from Michael Grossman of San Dimas, California: “Make us an offer—he can’t refuse!”
    • from Pamela Keating of Phoenix, Arizona: “Leningrab”

    Soviet Smoke Screen and the Hague

    Published: Sunday, June 11, 1922

  • One Hundred Years, More or Less

    Back in 1922, living to age 100 was rare — extremely rare. As this New York Times Magazine article described:

    “When we read of someone’s living away beyond his one hundredth birthday we may feel pretty sure that the fable is narrated of an Indian or a negro or an illiterate white, and that documentary support of the claim is not forthcoming. Like the moving of mountains, it is a matter of faith.”

    According to the 1920 Census, that year there were 4,267 centenarians, or about .004% of the population.

    As lifespans lengthen, those stats have exploded since then. The Census Bureau estimates there are currently 97,914 centenarians in the U.S. That’s about .029% of the population.

    That means the centenarian percent of the population was only about 13% as large back then as it is today. Another way of saying that is the percentage is 7.3x as large now.

    Also curious that the 1922 article would refer to somebody celebrating “his” 100th birthday, since the vast majority of centenarians then were female. The 1920 Census said there were 2,706 female centenarians and 1,561 males, or 63.4% women.

    That’s a fairly large discrepancy even as it was, but it’s actually considerably higher now. The Census Bureau currently projects that there are 73,427 female centarians but only 24,487 males, meaning 74.9% women.

    As the song by the band Five for Fighting goes: “You’ve only got a hundred years to live.”

    One Hundred Years, More or Less

    Published: Sunday, June 4, 1922

  • Authors and Alcohol

    Novels often take 2-3 years to write their works. So during the third year of Prohibition in 1922, the New York Times Magazine asked: do writers need alcohol for greatness, and was Prohibition starting to affect the quality of American literature?

    [Sir Arthur] Quiller-Couch asserted boldly that a total abstainer was imperfectly equipped for high literature. [George Bernard] Shaw took violent exception to this statement. He offered Shelley and himself as examples to prove it fallacious. He said, “If Quiller-Couch asserted that alcohol can add a single inch of gray matter to the brain, then I want to know how much he had had when he said it.”

    Altogether, it seemed too good a fight to leave tucked away in England. So a number of American writers have been asked how they felt about it. Hamlin Garland supports Shaw. Irvin S. Cobb and Charles Hanson Towne stand up for Quiller-Couch, each in his characteristic manner. So does Samuel Hopkins Adams, with certain reservations. Gertrude Atherton and Robert Chambers find the issue incapable of a general solution.

    What actually happened was a number of the most prominent American novelists of the Prohibition area avoided the question entirely by becoming expatriates living in Europe, where they could drink to their heart’s content. Notable examples include Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    As for my personal opinion on whether drinking improves one’s writing? I’m publishing this blog post on a Sunday, after having just performed at a piano bar on Friday and Saturday night… and it’s hard for me to imagine that heavy drinking improves people’s ability to do much of anything cognitive.

    Authors and Alcohol (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, May 7, 1922

  • From Molière to America

    In 1922, the Western writer and novelist Owen Wister postulated an interesting thesis: that America’s most famous “writers” were not primarily writers at all, not in the way that (for example) Shakespeare was.

    Wister notes that America’s most famous words globally had come from the pens of those like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln:

    America has produced neither a Molière nor a Shakespeare as yet… If such are to be found at all, I think we shall discover the best of them in pages written by our men of action.

    He who identified lightning with electricity changed science, and his sayings have made the Bonhomme Richard [Poor Richard’s Almanac] remembered. In his day they were translated into almost every tongue, and some still live on the tips of men. He remains our greatest intellect, and he was first and foremost a man of action.

    Then, he who wrote a certain Farewell Address which we count among our few classics, was another man of action. And he who wrote “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” left us in that, as well as in his Gettysburg address, two more classics. Each of those three has written enduring pages more widely known today outside their country, and of more intrinsic weight, than any that I can recall by our men of letters.

    In an interesting tidbit to modern eyes, Wester then references four works of American literature which had achieved some level of international acclaim, three of which are still widely known today — and one of which has been almost completely forgotten.

    It is true that Leatherstockings walked in other lands, that Hester Prynne has made her way beyond English speech, that the gambler of the California mines and the boy on his raft in the Mississippi have voyaged beyond their native shores.

    The first, second, and fourth references were to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1828 The Last of the Mohicans (“Leatherstockings”), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter (“Hester Prynne”), and Mark Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the boy on his raft in the Mississippi”). But what is “the gambler of the California mines”?

    Googling ‘California mines gambler novel,’ the answer appears to be Bret Harte’s 1868 short story The Luck of Roaring Camp, which Wikipedia says “helped push Harte to international prominence.” Maybe at the time, but that’s the one of the four referenced works which has truly faded to obscurity over the years. You never can predict what will last in the cultural zeitgeist.

    From Molière to America (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, April 30, 1922