Found in the LOC: Telegraph Repair, 1862

On this date in 1844, Samuel Morse typed out the first telegraph, sending a message from DC to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought?” Quite: we all know the technological revolution would accelerate exponentially in decades ahead, ending with, at the moment, smart phones. Who knows what will be next… Something more inescapable, intrusive and indispensable, that’s for sure.

That said, today’s truncated Found in the LOC is an image of a telegraph repairman doing his thing circa 1862. He’s like a high-tech lumberjack!

(And for more Found in the LOC, click here.)

Fun with Words: Trump and Obstruction

This semi-regular feature, Fun with Words (aka Etymological Adventures), has previously explored the linguistic roots of collusion, a word with which we’re all familiar due to – well, you know: Donald Trump and his constellation of cronies’ shady dealings. Today we’ll briefly explore another once-rarish term that Trump’s thrust into our everyday usage, collusion’s cousin by association: obstruction.

Born from the Latin word, obstructionem, itself the offspring of Ob, Latin for “in front of,” and the verb strurer, for “to pile or build,” the term “obstruction” emerged in English around the 1530s, and translated literally into “building up” or “creating a barrier” – a barrier like a wall, which, as we all know, real estate mogul Trump wants to make literal at the Mexican border.

In the meantime, Trump’s busying himself building a rhetorical wall against justice, a barrier built through lies and coercion, through acts like intervening in the Michael Flynn case; firing James Comey over his refusal to intervene in said case; drafting a faux narrative for Donald Trump Jr. to regurgitate vis a vis his meeting with Russians; Trump’s recent politicized demands that the DOJ investigate the FBI; and let’s not forget the barriers created by Trump’s unsubtle attacks on people involved in these investigations, not least of all against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has tried to influence by warning him not to nose around his personal finances…. All of this and more builds up a wall of lies and obfuscation that is the very definition of obstruction.

Perhaps one day truth, justice and karma will tear down that wall, burying Trump in a mess of his own making.

(For more Fun with Words, click here!)

Meghan Markle Tops Donald Trump

An estimated 29 million Americans tuned in early Saturday morning to watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry. That’s about 5 million more than in England itself, and about six million more Americans than who watched Will and Kate Middleton marry seven years ago.

Why did so many more viewers tune in to this wedding versus the last? Are there more televisions now than there were then? Is it that we love Harry more than Will; because we’re all fans of Suits, the show on which Markle starred; or is it because Meghan’s biracial and her entry into the British royal family is a watershed historical moment?

Sure, all of that makes sense, but it seems to me that so many Americans are enthusiastic about Meghan Markle becoming the Duchess of Sussex because we like seeing a polished and seemingly empathetic American representing us on the international stage. With the buffoon president’s steady stream of racist, hateful rhetoric, general dishonesty and pungent nastiness sullying our national name, it’s nice to have an American standing with/for dignity and grace —and not just an American, but a biracial woman whose path — and the once-stodgy royal family’s embrace of — is the emotional and sociopolitical opposite of all President Trump represents.

Meghan Markle is the face of America’s future; Donald Trump and his reactionary racism are its past.

(PS: I was going to have a photo of Trump next to fresh-faced Markle for juxtaposition purposes, but it just didn’t feel right having his ugly mug next to such beauty.)

Found in the LOC: 16 Posters By Graphic Great Lester Beall


Last week marked the 83rd anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt creating the Rural Electrification Administration, one the president’s many New Deal efforts to give poor Americans an assist in catching up with urban areas. And as with all such initiatives this one came complete with a series of graphic-driven PSAs like the one above, by Lester Beall.

The unofficial grandfather of modern graphic design, Kansas-born, New York-based Beall broke free from previous realist design rules, toying with perspective, space and planes to create a new, almost collage-like three-dimensionality aimed at eye and heart alike. The designer “must work with one goal in mind—to integrate the elements in such a manner that they will combine to produce a result that will convey not merely a static commercial message, but an emotional reaction as well,” he said.

And it’s this philosophy that garnered Beall a loyal following and booming business over the next decades. While he worked for the government again later, during a Housing Authority campaign against slums, his work in the 1940s was primarily for editorial clients like the Chicago Tribune and Collier’s, the latter of whom he designed the chilling “Will There Be War?” cover featuring Churchill, and corporate entities, including Upjohn Pharmaceutical and Abbott Technologies, for whom he designed corporate magazines. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, he pioneered modern branding for industrial giants like Caterpillar, Merrill Lynch, and International Paper deploy design to create public personas for themselves. Lester Beall died in 1969, leaving an indelible mark on our visual culture.

After the jump, 15 more Lester Beall posters from his time working for the government, mostly for Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Program, and all found in the Library of Congress.

And for more “Found in the LOC,” click here.

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Tom Wolfe, American Wordsmith, 1931-2018

Writer Tom Wolfe, who died this week yesterday at age 88, will long be remembered for pioneering immersive New Journalism via articles on stock car racers, test pilots, celebrities, the well-heeled and dredges alike, most of which were first published at mar New York, Esquire and Rolling Stone. The latter of those publications also serialized his tale Bonfire of the Vanities, a scorching excoriation of upper class American values, or lack thereof. Yet while these narratives are wonderful, the white suit-wearing Wolfe must also be commemorated for his singular impact on our contemporary vernacular.

Not since Benjamin Franklin, coiner of words like “battery,” “condense” and “conductor,” has an American writer had such an expansive, widespread impact on the American language. But Tom Wolfe’s contributions to our vocabulary weren’t just everyday words; they were descriptive phrases that summed up American characteristics. It was Wolfe who popularized terms like “Good Old Boy” and “Radical Chic,” terms that are as ingrained in our vernacular as “apple pie” The first, Good Old Boy, comes from his 1964 profile of North Carolina stock car racer Junior Johnson:

“A good old boy, I ought to explain, is a generic term in the rural South referring to a man, of any age, but more often young than not, who fits in with the status system of the region. It usually means he has a good sense of humor and enjoys ironic jokes, is tolerant and easygoing enough to get along in long conversations at places like on the corner, and has a reasonable amount of physical courage.”

Though Wolfe borrowed the term from the locals, it was he who brought the “good old boy” national renown, and even a modicum of respect.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum were the “radical chic” men and women he called out in a 1970 article ridiculing wealthy celebrities, namely Leonard Bernstein, for cozying up to Black Panthers. Wolfe had no beef with the Panthers; he just found rich folk flocking around fashionable leftists to be an “affectation of worldliness.” And thus “radical chic” would become an epithet of sorts, quite the opposite of “the right stuff,” a phrase Wolfe introduced nine years later, in 1979. Though his usage there was in the context of elite pilots and astronauts, “the right stuff” spread to other occupations and venues, becoming an intangible, American version of “Je ne c’est quoi.”

But Wolfe’s greatest, most expansive coinage came in 1976, right between “radical chic” and “the right stuff:” “The Me Decade,” Wolfe’s descriptive expression for the ego-driven, self-help-seeking 1970s, when atomized individuals, flush with post-war cash, tried to break free from bourgeois bondage and personal hells at Erhard Seminars Training sessions and other outgrowths of what he called America’s Third Great Awakening. Where the first two Awakenings had placed God at the apex of existence, this latest iteration put the individual first.

“…Once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing—they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes . . . Me . . . Me . . . . Me . . . Me.”

Yes, Tom: You… You… You; no one compares.

Today is a Good Day for Adventuring

May 14th sure is a great day for launching unprecedented expeditions: it’s on this date that both the Lewis and Clark adventure and SkyLab took off to new frontiers, albeit almost two centuries years apart.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left the St. Louis region on May 14, 1804, for their continental traverse to the west coast, an adventure that riveted the nation in relative real time: readers devoured every update sent back east and inspired no shortage of unofficial “official” maps based on the men’s dispatches. Never before had Americans seen just what lay between them and the pacific and these images, as well as the official reports, expanded the American imagination to its greatest heights, tilling the rhetorical soil for the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny and other political notions that propelled the nation’s sojourn from sea-to-shining sea.

Meanwhile, fast-forward 169 years, to 1973, and there’s NASA launching SkyLab, the nation’s first long-term space station into the stars, creating a floating laboratory in which astronauts could conduct experiments on how bacteria grew in space, dissect various light rays without the pesky atmosphere eroding them and examine long-term space exposure’s impact on the human body.

Unfortunately, the lab was damaged by a micrometeoroid storm in 1974 and deemed too dangerous to house astronauts, and so SkyLab remained unused in space for five years, until 1979, when it came crashing back to earth. But, as with Lewis and Clark, SkyLab’s record-setting mission encouraged the next generation of Americans to push themselves to even greater heights. Pun partially  intended….

 

Links to Recent Stories On Earth, America

I’ve been away from the site for far longer than I intended, for which I apologize. It will be another few days before the regularly scheduled program starts cranking again, as I continue clearing my desk of pesky editorial debris.

In the meantime, I’d like to share links to some recent stories I’ve written elsewhere…

First, “The Congressman Who Warned Us About Climate Change in 1864,” which I wrote for The Daily Beast in honor of Earth Day.

A few days later Mental Floss published my piece “How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol,” which is a great condensed summary of my book, for those of you who are interested in quirky but critically rigorous American histories.

Alright, off to shovel more vowels and consonants. Be back soon….