Our servants were devoted to us and took their duties very much to heart. At a time when houses were still lighted by candles and lamps, a considerable staff was needed to attend to the lighting. The manservant who was in charge of the staff was so grieved when electric lighting was introduced that he drowned his sorrows in drink and died from its effects shortly after.
— A childhood memory of Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), of the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg, from his 1952 memoir Lost Splendor
In 1964, sociolinguist William Labov ran a revealing experiment in three New York department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and S. Klein. Of the three, Saks generally commanded the highest prestige and S. Klein the lowest. Labov had found that one marker of social stratification in the city was the pronunciation of the letter R, and he wanted to see whether this was reflected in the speech of the salespeople at the various stores.
He did this by approaching a salesperson in each store and asking directions to a department on the fourth floor. When the salesperson told him “Fourth floor,” he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me?” This forced the person to say the phrase “Fourth floor” again, this time rather self-consciously.
As expected, Labov found that salespeople at the upscale Saks tended to pronounce their Rs, while those at the lower-priced Klein tended to the broader New York pronunciation “fawth flaw.” But when asked to repeat the phrase, those at Macy’s and Klein’s tended to amend their pronunciation to sound more “classy.”
“How can we account for the differences between Saks and Macy’s?” Labov wrote. “I think we can say this: the shift from the influence of the New England prestige pattern [r-less] to the mid-Western prestige pattern [r-full] is felt most completely at Saks. The young people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s there is less sensitivity to the effect among a large number of younger speakers who are completely immersed in the New York City linguistic tradition. The stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation: very few of them rely upon the older pattern of prestige pronunciation which supports the r-less tendency of older Saks sales people.”
In separate interviews Labov found that two thirds of New Yorkers felt that outsiders disliked the city accent. “They think we’re all murderers,” one man told him. A woman said, “To be recognized as a New Yorker — that would be a terrible slap in the face.”
(William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2006.)
In his Comparative Physiognomy of 1852, American physician James Redfield claimed that people of a given nationality tend to resemble a certain animal, and that the animal’s disposition illuminates the national character. For example, Henry VIII, a representative Englishman, resembles a bull: “A ‘bull-neck’ suggests the idea of a tyrannical disposition, or of irresistible desire, and is never spoken of in the way of compliment. … When oxen draw together in a yoke, they lean away from each other, so as to be under the necessity of holding each other up. This is on account of their great repulsiveness — a trait which was mentioned as being a prominent element of the English character.”
The table of contents gives the general tone:
Chapter 2. Resemblances of Germans to Lions
Chapter 14. Resemblances of Laplanders to Reindeers
Chapter 16. Resemblances of Arabs to Camels
Chapter 19. Resemblances of Italians to Horses
Chapter 23. Resemblances of Chinamen to Hogs
Chapter 29. Resemblances of Frenchmen to Frogs and Alligators
Chapter 34. Resemblances of Jews to Goats
He even compares Turks to turkeys. I’m not aware that he ever actually visited these places, but I suppose that’s not necessary to reach these sorts of conclusions.
In his efforts to reform Russian society, Peter the Great once resorted to banning beards. To bring Russian society more in line with Western Europe, in 1698 he began to charge a fee for the privilege of wearing whiskers, ranging from 100 rubles a year for wealthy merchants down to 1 kopek for a peasant entering a city. Police were empowered to shave scofflaws forcibly.
If you paid your tax you were given a “beard token” with a Russian eagle on one side and a beard on the other. One coin bore the legend THE BEARD IS A SUPERFLUOUS BURDEN.
Because Russians generally resented the law, the tokens are quite valuable now. As early as 1845 collector Walter Hawkins wrote, “The national aversion to the origin of this token probably caused their destruction or dispersion, after they had served their purpose for the year, as they are now very rarely to be met with even in Russia.”
When H.M. Hyndman claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in abject poverty, Charles Booth was skeptical. So he organized his own investigation. His findings, published as Life and Labour of the People in 1889, showed that fully 35 percent of residents in the East End were poor.
In the map above, the red areas are “middle class, well-to-do,” light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family,” dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want,” and black areas are the “lowest class … occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals.” (More of Booth’s maps can be seen here.)
A second volume, covering the rest of London, was published in 1891, and a third, in 17 volumes, appeared in 1902. He pressed for many reforms, but he remained optimistic. “What is needed is more vigorous life in every direction: social, educational, industrial, political and religious,” he concluded. “If they be evidences of vigour, pleasure seeking and extravagance need not be condemned, nor even some excess be dreaded. We may confidently trust in the balance of forces; a running stream is always wholesome; a stagnant pool, the danger.”
In the early days of motoring, bicycle patrolmen with Britain’s Automobile Association would sometimes warn AA members of nearby speed traps. In a 1910 legal case, Chief Justice Lord Alverston found this practice illegal — in effect the patrolman would be “obstructing an officer in the course of his duty.”
So AA adopted a new policy — an AA patrolman would salute any car that bore an AA badge … unless there was a speed trap nearby. The AA Handbook warned members, “It cannot be too strongly emphasised that when a patrol fails to salute, the member should stop and ask the reason why, as it is certain that the patrol has something of importance to communicate.”
On March 28, 1912, bacteriologist Almroth Wright wrote a letter to the London Times arguing that women should be denied the vote and in fact kept away from politics altogether in light of their psychological shortcomings. Two days later the Times printed this response. It was signed “One of the Doomed” but in fact had been penned by 26-year-old Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston:
March 30th, 1912
To the Editor of The Times.
After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have votes?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’
I have been so much impressed by Sir Almroth Wright’s disquisition, backed as it is by so much scientific and personal experience, that I have come to the conclusion that women should be put a stop to.
We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitiveness, and that their presence is distracting and irritating to men in their daily lives and pursuits. If they take up a profession, the indelicacy of their minds makes them undesirable partners for their male colleagues. Later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and, if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up.
Now this being so, how much happier and better would the world not be if only it could be purged of women? It is here that we look to the great scientists. Is the case really hopeless? Women no doubt have had their uses in the past, else how could this detestable tribe have been tolerated till now? But is it quite certain that they will be indispensable in the future? Cannot science give us some assurance, or at least some ground of hope, that we are on the eve of the greatest discovery of all — i.e., how to maintain a race of males by purely scientific means?
And may we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented, and immoral species which has infested the world for so long?
I just ran across this absurd sentence in Love in the Lead, Peter Brock Putnam’s 1979 history of the seeing eye dog:
As late as the 1950s, an association for the blind in a southern city used to post sighted monitors at the entrance for its Christmas party, so that the blind guests who could not see each other’s color would be able to segregate racially.
Apparently this is true. In 1945 federal judge J. Skelly Wright was attending a Christmas Eve party at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans. Across Camp Street, at the Lighthouse for the Blind, he could see another party going on. “He watched the blind people climb the steps to the second floor,” writes journalist Jack Bass. “There, someone met them. He watched a blind Negro led to a party for blacks at the rear of the building. A white person was led to a separate party.”
“They couldn’t see to segregate themselves,” Wright said later. “That upset me a great deal.” In 1956 he ordered Louisiana schools to desegregate. He said that the incident of the Christmas party had given him “my mature and great sympathy for Negroes.” As he told this story to journalist W.J. Weatherby, he “was so moved that he could not complete the story for several minutes.”
In the early 1900s, a train company left a coffin in the rain, resulting in “mutilation” of the corpse. The widow sought damages, which raised a poignant question: Who owns a corpse? An earlier case had held that once it’s buried a corpse belongs to the ground; a person who dug it up improperly would be guilty merely of trespass. But another case had deemed a corpse “quasi-property”: It may belong to no one, but certainly the kin have an interest in it. Joseph Henry Lumpkin of the Georgia Supreme Court wrote:
Death is unique. It is unlike aught else in its certainty and its incidents. A corpse in some respects is the strangest thing on earth. A man who but yesterday breathed and thought and walked among us has passed away. Something has gone. The body is left still and cold, and is all that is visible to mortal eye of the man we knew. Around it cling love and memory. Beyond it may reach hope. It must be laid away. And the law — that rule of action which touches all human things — must touch also this thing of death. It is not surprising that the law relating to this mystery of what death leaves behind cannot be precisely brought within the letter of all the rules regarding corn, lumber and pig iron.
The court ruled in favor of the widow, and this view is widely held today: The survivors have the right to take possession of a body and dispose of it.
In a speech class at Oregon State University in 1967, Charles Goetzinger arranged for one student to arrive covered with a large black bag. Only his bare feet showed. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11 a.m., the student would sit on a table at the back of the room, rarely speaking or moving. Goetzinger knew the student’s identity, but none of the other 20 students did.
At first the students treated the bag with hostility, but this evolved into curiosity and even friendship. When another teacher disparaged the mysterious student, “It made me mad,” said a classmate. “I felt I had to protect him.”
The experiment is seen today as an example of the “mere-exposure effect,” the phenomenon that familiarity breeds preference. The students knew nothing about the man in the bag, but simply encountering him over and over disposed them to like him. In the words of social psychologist Robert Zajonc, “mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus is a sufficient condition for the enhancement of his attitude toward it.”
In a letter to a newspaper, one student wrote, “The Bag has motivated us, made us delve, explore, ponder and try to understand what goes on inside us. … Above all it has made us learn. It has persuaded us, and drastically changed everyone in the class.”