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Throughout lunch Scott was eager to get back to the Museum of History and Culture. As he hurried from the cafeteria to the Museum, all he could think of was the importance of his assignment. The Henderson Collection was a large and varied acquisition, a valuable accumulation of cultural artifacts that scholars would be using forever. Although he recognized that organizing the materials would require considerably more than two weeks, Scott knew that he could at least start the process of evaluation and cataloguing. Once the project began, he felt others would eventually complete it.
Professor Sargon met Scott in her office, and together they walked downstairs to the basement storage room. Here she pointed out film catalogues and other reference books that he might need when working with the old films. “But remember,” she advised him, “not every film here will be listed in a published catalogue. For those titles we have a 16mm movie projector for your use.”
She noted, however, that the large collection of audio recordings actually came with a useful catalogue prepared by Mr. Henderson. This made Scott feel better because each tape contained as many as twelve hours of recorded sound. And since there were thousands tapes, he wouldn’t make much headway even if he dedicated the next two weeks only to the sound recordings.
Then there were the many file cabinets containing a variety of paper materials. “I have no idea what’s in these cabinets,” Professor Sargon told Scott, “but you can rummage through the drawers and give us a general overview of what’s there. If you find anything specific that you think we should know about, please point that out, too.
“They’re numbered consecutively from 1 to 23,” she continued, “so just start with Cabinet No. 1 and go as far as you can.”
Scott was relieved to see electronic equipment for his task. As well as the movie projector, there was a DVD player, a typewriter, and several audio tape recorders. He was also pleased to see a personal computer at the back of the room.
As Professor Sargon left the storage room, she wished the young researcher good-luck. “Remember,” she added, “you’re not expected to finish this job in two weeks. It may require as many as two years to complete. But do your best, and give us what you can. We are relying on you to present us a useful first-look at the donation.”
“Where do I begin?” Scott asked himself as the professor left the room. “This collection is massive.” Still, he recalled the old Chinese proverb that proclaimed, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” And although he wasn’t expected to go very far on this lengthy journey, he wanted to do more than take a few timid steps. He wanted to make a significant contribution. “Onward,” he said out loud as he plunged into the task.
Good student that he was, Scott immediately decided on a plan of action. Each day he hoped to do a little in each area, reading materials from the cabinets, viewing films, or listening to selected tapes when necessary. As he went along, he would enter his findings in the computer. For this purpose Scott created separate files for PAPER MATERIALS, FILMS, and AUDIO TAPES.
He turned first to the films. Because each film was in its own container with its title written on the side, he moved from pile to pile, jotting down titles and the size of each film can. Periodically, he copied this record into the computer.
In truth, Scott wanted to watch most of the movie he listed. But that would take too much time. Occasionally, however, he found films that intrigued him just by their titles. Scott decided that these should be viewed and evaluated more carefully. One of the first to attract him was short film called For the First Time. He had no idea what the film was about, but it sound appropriate as the first movie for him to watch. He carefully threaded the projector and turned it on.
“Wow,” he said, “this is amazing: a film advertising the new line of Chrysler automobiles for 1940—and in gorgeous color.” Scott immediately flashed back to The History Shoppe and how Dr. Pop showed him sales brochures for fancy new cars available in the middle of the Great Depression. He knew, too, that 1940 was still a Depression year. “How ironic,” he thought, “that I should be intrigued by a film that ties me directly to Professor Papadopoulos and what he taught me.”
As he viewed the short movie he was impressed with the beauty of the Chrysler cars, especially the convertibles. But Scott didn’t forget to analyze what he was seeing. He thought about the economic significance of what he was on the screen. How many people could afford to buy a new car in 1940? How did the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 affect sales figures? Were Americans attracted to the new consumer goods for 1940, or were they paying closer attention to national and world events?
He also remembered that 1940 was a presidential election year in which President Franklin Roosevelt broke tradition and was elected to a third term in office. He wondered if sales totals for the new Chryslers and all the other new cars that year had an impact the election.
So many questions emerged from this film. But, as he had learned at The History Shoppe, a motion picture may be concise, but its place in history can be complex, and its insights for the contemporary historian can be significant.
Scott entered his conclusions about the film into the computer. He then switched his focus to Cabinet No. 1 and began sorting through its paper materials. As he anticipated, there was an amazing array of paper materials: books, magazines, collectibles, and even an old stamp album with thousands of vintage postage stamps from all over the world. “Obviously someone in the Henderson family collected stamps,” Scott concluded.
But it was the accumulation of vintage magazines that most fascinated Scott. He was overwhelmed by the variety of topics these periodicals represented. One title that quickly grabbed his attention was a children’s publication called Tip Top Weekly. The collection contained issues that ranged from the early 1900s to the 1920s. Tip Top Weekly featured serialized stories about adventurous Frank Merriwell and his younger brother, Dick Merriwell. The tales frequently involved the young men’s sports activities at Yale University—from baseball, hockey, and track and field, to horse racing, crew, and chausson, a French form of kick-boxing.
Scott, however, was more attracted by the letters from readers that were published on the back pages of Tip Top Weekly. He considered them more reflective of social realities than the actual stories. For example, Scott was struck by in the correspondence in 1907 from a young reader in Missouri, a letter that underscored the moral lessons the Merriwell stories communicated.
In an issue from 1912, Scott found another informative note treating the U.S. economy. Under the headline
YALE PROFESSOR THINKS TWELVE DOLLARS WEEKLY ENOUGH, the short letter described a contentious issue of the time.
If Tip Top Weekly was youth-oriented, Physical Culture magazine was aimed at adults seeking to maintain or regain their youth. There were several dozen issues in the first Cabinet. Scott was particularly impressed with the articles he found in the issue of August 1924. With titles like “I Won Back My Health at Tennis,” “Foods That Will Build Your Vitality,” and “Our Whole Sick Family Cured by Physical Culture,” he recognized an early self-help approach that emphasized physical exercise and proper diet in the human struggle to stay young and healthy.
But he questioned the accuracy of one article entitled “Vaccination, A Filthy Superstition.” Although the author was not even a medical doctor, he condemned smallpox vaccinations and the people who administered them. Attacking the smallpox serum as the product of “diseased horse blood,” “diseased-calf filth,” and “the sores of a diseased beast,” the writer accused doctors of committing “blood pollution” in order to make money. As the author phrased it, “Nobody but those densely ignorant of the treachery of fee-hungry doctors could ever believe such nonsense as to imagine that any sort of blood pollution could ‘prevent’ any disease, or cure it.”
And as for parents who allow their children to be vaccinated, the writer contended that their excuse had to be ignorance, for “Any mother who would tolerate such a crime upon her healthy child, if she had any true idea of what ‘vaccine virus’ is, or how it is made, would be a fit subject for the insane asylum.” His appeal was not subtle: “When will parents wake up and protect their children from having disease sown in their blood?”
This article made Scott curious about the history of medicine, a subject he had never really contemplated before. Clearly, there had been great debate over the centuries as science and medicine waged war against disease. His interest intensified when he started going through the advertisements he found in the many issues of The National Police Gazette he located in Cabinet No. 2. So many sales pitches in this old journal were for home remedies to treat physical ailments. In the issue of December 18, 1920, for example, he spotted ads for products or treatments that promised a cure for Bladder Weakness, Tape-Worm, Pimples, Blood Diseases, Fits, Catarrh, Hair Loss, Piles, Insomnia, Tobacco and the Snuff Habit, Excessive Weight, Eczema, Rupture, Lack of Energy, Insufficient Bust Size, Unsightly Nose, Sexual Impotence, Goiter, Headache, Neuralgia, Influenza, and All Pain.
“People in 1920 must have been really sick,” Scott thought to himself, as he read one advertisement that seemed to offer the answer to everything that ailed Americans. It proclaimed: “NEW HOME TREATMENT MORPHINE No pain, sickness nor loss of time. Send stamp for book of information. DR. QUAYLE SANITARIUM, BOX Q, MADISON, OHIO.”
As he continued to investigate the contents of the cabinets, Scott uncovered a wide range of magazines and odd books that were reflections of their respective eras. In the early 1900s The Delineator was the leading women’s fashion magazine in the nation, a lavish monthly that emphasized elegant clothing and fine living. Above all, however, the magazine promoted the purchase of paper dress patterns for making clothes at home since its publisher, the Butterick Publishing Company, was also the premier producer of sewing patterns.
Femina from 1915-1916 was also a woman’s publication, but with a different perspective. Published in Boston, Femina called itself “A Magazine for Thinking Women.” Its advertising appeal challenged women: “It is not enough to have a brain. One must use it!” As the editors explained their perspective, “FEMINA has no pet propaganda. It is strictly non-partisan, and to this stand can be traced much of its success. It is not printed for Suffragists or Anti-Suffragists, Pacifists or Militants, Socialists, Prohibitionists or Temperance Advocates. It is published for WOMEN….It compliments the intelligence of its readers, by leaving decision to them….” To that end, the lead article in the issue of November 1915 was “The Future of the Negro,” written by the renowned African-American educator, Booker T. Washington.
The Ladies’ Home Journal from 1917-1918 was a traditional homemakers publication, but with a strong commitment to patriotism during the months of U.S. military involvement in World War I. And Judge from 1932 was a weekly humor magazine filled with quips and political cartoons. One cartoon in particular impressed Scott as still relevant because it showed U.S. politicians fiddling while the Capitol was on fire.
The range of books he found only added to Scott’s conclusion that the historian of popular culture could direct his or her energies in an unlimited number of directions. Children’s Game Book with Tricks and Puzzles published about 1910 described dozens of games youngsters of the era could play. A century later, Scott was familiar with some of the games such as Simon Says, Leap-Frog, Musical Chairs, Blind Man’s Bluff, and Hop Scotch. But he had never heard of most of them, games with names like Dumb Crambo, Ruth and Jacob, Jump Little Nagtail, Widdy-Widdy Way, and King Caesar.
“Wow, look at this book!,” he said aloud as his attention shifted to another old publication. Constipation and Our Civilization was a serious health book published in England in 1943. On the same subject, he found Intestinal Management for Longer Happier Life, an American guide book from 1928 that contained chapters with bizarre titles such as “Is the Enema a Friend?” and “Baking Powder, the Sinner.”
Scott was soon captivated by a fat old book of moral advice entitled Know Thyself or Nature’s Secrets Revealed. Published in 1911, this multi-purpose manual had sections on proper diet, the facts of life, beauty, marriage, etiquette, and human diseases that ranged from weak lungs to ingrown toenails. Two colored plates in the book immediately grabbed Scott’s attention. “What Will His Future Be?” and “What Will Her Future Be?” used small pictures to illustrate the inevitably happy life in store for the good boy or girl, and the inevitably miserable life awaiting the boy or girl who fell from the moral high road.
Of all the journals and books he glanced through, however, Scott was most impressed by fan magazines from the 1930s. Scott knew fan magazines. He regularly read about modern movie stars and their latest motion pictures. But the periodicals he found in the cabinet were seemed foreign to him. They were nationally-published fan publications for people who listened to radio programs in the 1930s.
Each dazzling cover, particularly those of the monthly Radio Stars, spotlighted one or more personalities of the industry. Thanks to his parents, he recognized a few names—specifically, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Bing Crosby. But for the most part the magazine covers featured popular performers he knew nothing about. Here were celebrities named Ed Wynn, Kate Smith, Joe Penner, Col. Stoopnagle and Budd, Ruth Etting—and even a ventriloquist and his dummy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Scott had never heard an old-time radio show until he researched his paper for the Young Scholars program. And now he was encountering men and women so prominent and so admired that their faces sold magazines during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But as far as Scott was concerned, they were aliens who could have been from another planet.
This made him wonder what it was about our national culture that made past personalities totally forgotten within a few decades. Browsing through these magazines, Scott felt as though he were investigating an ancient culture. When and why did it flourish? What was it like? When and why did it disappear? Where are its ruins? What museum stores its artifacts?
Scott pondered a dilemma. If a woman had a beautiful voice that sold millions of phonograph records in the 1930s, why was she forgotten by 1965 or 1980 or 2000? If a comedian was uproariously funny at one point in time, why were he and his jokes obsolete within a generation—even if recordings of his humor were still available commercially or online?
Scott thought, too, of the philosophical discussion he had with Dr. Pop about a tree falling in the forest. If no one heard the sound of this falling tree, did it make a noise? Of course in the 1930s and 1940s radio “made a noise.” The old magazines proved that. But, nowadays, if a researcher doesn’t discover and listen to recordings of their broadcasts, would that scholar ever really know American culture in the radio era? And if universities, museums, and public agencies don’t preserve what remains of that time and “noise,” will future historians ever be able to interpret those times accurately?
It occurred to Scott that if he were a professional historian, the Henderson Collection would be a perfect place to find documentary evidence to write about America’s radio past. To Scott broadcasting in and around the 1930s was spellbinding. He considered it an art form. Still, that kind of radio programming had mysteriously disappeared from American culture.
The documents to do research on old-time radio existed in the paper materials, and of course in the audiotape collection here at the university. Apparently, however, no one was doing anything scholarly with these resources. Scott wondered if that was why they remained so long in a campus basement uncatalogued and unexploited.
His mind was filled with questions and conclusions. But he knew his task was to organize, and he had only ninety minutes before the museum closed. He turned his attention to the stacks of film and began jotting down more titles for the database. It was not long, however, before another film title caught his attention: Zeppelins, Dirigibles, Blimps. “What is this weird title all about?” he asked himself out loud.
When he opened the can Scott discovered three short films and a hand-written note on an old piece of paper. He figured the paper must contain Mr. Henderson’s notes about the contents. But when he read it, it didn’t describe the movies in the can. Instead, it seemed to list the sequence in which to project these items. “This must be the order for projecting the films for a lecture or some kind of presentation on the history of dirigibles?” Scott concluded.
It interested Scott. He calculated that if this were really the order of presentation for a lesson about blimps, it might be instructive to repeat that sequence and learn what the original lecturer was trying to communicate. “Let me see if I can repeat the presentation in the order it was made it decades ago,” he thought to himself.
As well as the short films in the can, the list specifically mentioned one of the audiotapes. It only took a few minutes to retrieve the correct tape and prepare the first movie for projection. Scott felt as if he were walking in someone else’s footsteps, but he didn’t know where he was headed.
As soon as the first film began, Scott’s suspicions were correct. It was a short silent newsreel about the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin that was apparently making a momentous around-the-world flight in 1929. As written in the opening title, the film showed the large airship as it floated over Chicago on August 28, 1929 at 5 pm. As Scott watched, he was surprised to see many Chicagoans becoming so excited about a blimp making a long trip.
But, he rightly figured that it might have been one of the first times that an air voyage of such great distance was made. The thought of going around the Earth in less than two weeks, as the title suggested, must have been a major technological feat for people living in the late 1920s, he surmised. It made Scott better respect those spectators on the ground who were attentive as the large vessel circled the city and saluted them. In fact, Scott felt excited, himself, as he viewed the mighty blimp heading eastward from Chicago on its voyage back to Germany.
Scott moved to the second film on the list which he learned was produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. This short movie, entitled Airships, proclaimed a new era, the age of the dirigible. He quickly understood that this was an important document from the early 1930s because it spoke of the great future for blimps, particularly as military weapons. Scott was familiar enough with aviation history to know that dirigibles did not survive as a major force for military or civilian use. Still it fascinated him to hear the announcer proclaim the wonderful accomplishments that blimps would make in the years to come.
Viewing scenes of these big airships floating over large cities in the 1930s, Scott thought about how these aircraft must have been understood in their own time. He reasoned that they were popularly embraced as awesome products of modern technology. Like great ocean liners, zeppelins transported people and products long distance through the air.
Such a positive assessment of the future of the dirigible made Scott wonder why they were unsuccessful, why the enthusiasm of the 1920s and 1930s failed to continue into the late 20th century. He found his answer in the next film on the list.
The third movie had no title, but Scott recognized that it was historical footage of the most famous airship of the time, the German dirigible Hindenburg. Seeing that name on the side of the blimp gave him a good idea of what this film was about. This was because a few months earlier he had seen a TV documentary about this ill-fated airship and how it blew up while landing.
As he projected original footage of the famous zeppelin it suddenly exploded in a horrific fireball. Henry understood immediately how the romance of zeppelin travel went up in flames, too. This is the event that doomed the industry, he decided. If the mighty Hindenburg could simply disintegrate while making a routine landing, who would ever again book flights or ship commercial goods on one? This was not like a random airplane crash caused by bad weather or pilot error. The Hindenburg disaster illustrated that blimp technology was inherently unsound. This airship floated because it was filled with hydrogen which was lighter than air. But hydrogen is potentially explosive. A spark can and did create a catastrophic fireball.
The next example on the presentation list called for the audio tape which Scott had retrieved and placed on the tape recorder. It was listed in the Henderson radio catalogue as “Herb Morrison description of Hindenburg landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey—May 6, 1937.” It was a stunning recording.
Scott listened as radio announcer Herbert Morrison painted a verbal picture of the Hindenburg coming in for its landing. However, when the blimp burst into flames as it neared the ground, the announcer’s description became an anguished human experience. The pain in the newsman’s voice was frightening. And when Morrison began to cry as he explained what was happening, it made Scott very sad. “What a time to be making a recording,” Scott thought, “at exactly the moment this wonderfully advanced machine erupted in a flash of fire and instantly incinerated innocent people.”
The more he considered what he was seeing, the more he was convinced that the age of the dirigible died not only because of the terrible explosion, but also because of other technologies. The radio recording was terrifying, and repeated playing of Morrison’s verbal description on radio and in motion pictures must have been unnerving for the public, even those who didn’t understand English.
Then there was the motion picture technology. Scott concluded that repeated showing of the fiery footage in theatrical newsreels and in films sold to the general public must have terrified people everywhere. The images were scary enough many decades after the fact, but to see the explosion just after the event and to know that people were instantly obliterated in that horrible mass of fire must have had a devastating impact on the industry.
The fifth and final title on the list was an excerpt from America’s Newsreel Album which, according to writing on the film can, was a U.S. television program in the 1950s. Once he started the projector Scott soon learned that this segment of the broadcast contained an interview with Herb Morrison, the man who two decades earlier made that unforgettable recording of the Hindenburg crash. It amazed Scott that someone years later had the foresight to film an interview with the newsman who helped to preserve such a memorable event.
Obviously, there were newsreel cameramen present at the event. That’s why a movie of the catastrophe existed. Morrison’s sound recording, however, added an emotional dimension that was absent from the silent movie footage. Without that sound recording, Scott concluded, the human agony of the event might have been forgotten by now. Because of Herb Morrison, however, it will always be a shocking experience. It gave Scott a greater appreciation of the necessity of preserving sound recordings.
Scott learned a lot from following the presentation list as it progressed from optimism about dirigibles to great pessimism about their usefulness. In a short period of time he had explained to himself the history of dirigibles.
He was also pleased with himself because he had retraced the order of a lecture presented by the original owner of the collection. Was this person a high school teacher? a college professor? Maybe he spoke before a group of aviation buffs, a civic group, or a church gathering.
Whatever that occasion, Scott realized that he had just learned how to integrate audiovisual materials in an educational lesson. As he understood it, if he knew enough about a topic and had the right materials with which to demonstrate his ideas, he too could deliver a public lecture.
There were still a few minutes before closing, so Scott continued making his list and entering titles into the computer. He found more titles he wanted to watch, but he couldn’t view every one that fascinated him.
But his attention was quickly diverted when he spotted a small black case sitting in the middle of several high piles of films he had not yet investigated. At first he thought it might have been a janitor’s tool chest, or a box of who-knows-what, maybe a carrying case that Professor Sargon or a museum employee mistakenly left behind.
But as he leaned down to retrieve the case he could see that it was a fine leather box. But Scott was puzzled when he read what was written on it:
For Scott Tennyson
“What is this?” he said to himself. It wasn’t his birthday, so he figured this wasn’t a gift book from the Young Scholars program. He wondered how anyone could have known he would be here in the museum’s basement at this time. Maybe it was a just a package of homemade cookies or extra clothes sent by his parents and placed there by Dr. Sargon. But what about that bizarre inscription? That was a strange message to write on a box of cookies.
As he picked up the package and inspected it more closely Scott was startled. In fact he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. On the top of the box in the lower right corner was a seal embossed in the leather covering. It was a replica of the French coin he carried as his good luck piece, the one his mother had given him just before he left for the university—the one that Professor Papadopoulos originally owned. There it was: the profile of Louis XVI, King of the French.
“This is not happening to me,” Scott said. “It can’t be. This can’t be from Professor Papadopoulos? Dr. Pop is gone. He’s back in Greece. Or, can it be from him? Maybe he’s here at the university. Maybe he works in the museum? I don’t really know where he is. I don’t even know if he ever really existed. But he must have something to do with this box.”
Because the box was tightly closed, Scott needed a screw driver or a letter opener, something strong with which to pry open the top. But, where do you find a screw driver or a letter opener in a sea of film cans, tapes and file cabinets? As he scrambled around in search of a tool, the lights suddenly began to flicker on and off. A stern voice immediately came over the loudspeaker system, “Please be advised that the museum is closing in three minutes. Please proceed to the nearest exit. We will be closing in three minutes. All lights will be turned off. Please leave the premises now.”
“This is unbelievable,” Scott thought. “I have to leave the box here unopened. I can’t open it until tomorrow. This is unreal!”
He placed to box on floor under his desk, then quickly shut down his computer for the night and raced for the stairs and the exit. To say that Scott wanted to know what was in the leather box would be an understatement. He was racked with curiosity. But closing time was closing time. He would just have to wait until the next day, even if he was dying to know the contents of this box that came apparently from Dr. Pop. If it really was from Dr. Pop.
|Copyright © 2010 J. Fred MacDonald-All Rights Reserved.|