Better Late

A curious classified ad from the New York Herald, March 30, 1849:

Found, four dollars, while leaving the cars at Paterson, in the summer of 1845. The loser (or agent) is requested to identify, in some respect, and receive the amount with interest. Address, pre-paid, I Found, Lower Post Office, N. Y. city.

Sara Bader featured the ad in her 2005 collection Strange Red Cow. “We have no idea what motivated this advertiser, who apparently waited years before stepping forward to return this money.”

Progress

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Frightened villagers “killed” the first hydrogen balloon, launched in Paris by Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis on Aug. 27, 1783. Allen Andrews, in Back to the Drawing Board: The Evolution of Flying Machines, quotes a contemporary account:

It is presumed that it was carried to a height of more than 20,000 feet, when it burst by the reaction of the Inflammable Gas upon the Atmospheric Air. It fell at three quarters past five near Gonesse, ten miles [actually, 15 miles] from the Field of Mars. The affrightened inhabitants ran together, appalled by the Hellish stench of sulphur, and two monks having assured them it was the skin of a Monstrous Animal, they attacked it with stones, pitchforks and flails. The Curate of the village was obliged to attend in order to sprinkle it with holy water and remove the fears of his astonished parishioners. At last they tied to the tail of a horse the first Instrument that was ever made for an Experiment in Natural Philosophy, and trained it across the field more than 6000 feet.

Perhaps forewarned, the first man to undertake a balloon flight in North America carried a pass from George Washington.

In a Word

toffs and toughs

fastuous
adj. haughty, arrogant, pretentious, or showy

alabandical
adj. barbarous, uncivilized

floccipend
v. to regard as insignificant or of no account

In 1937 photographer Jimmy Sime caught sight of five boys outside Lord’s Cricket Ground during the annual Eton vs. Harrow match. Peter Wagner and Tim Dyson were Harrow students awaiting a ride to the Wagners’ country home in Surrey, and George Salmon, Jack Catlin, and George Young were working-class boys who had spent the morning at the dentist and hoped to earn some money running errands at Lord’s.

Sime’s photo filled three columns of the News Chronicle‘s front page on July 10 under the headline “Every Picture Tells a Story.” It has been reprinted widely since as an illustration of the British class system, sometimes with the title Toffs and Toughs.

In 1998, journalist Geoffrey Levy tracked down Young and Salmon, then in their 70s, and asked whether they’d resented the Harrow boys. “Nah,” Young said. “We had our lives, they had theirs.” Salmon said, “In those days you accepted what you were and what they were, and got on with it.”

Me, a Name I Call Myself

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It seems a bit arrogant that those of us in the United States refer to ourselves as “Americans” when more than half a billion other people live in the Americas. But what should we call ourselves instead?

“You have properly observed that we can no longer be called Anglo-Americans,” noted Thomas Jefferson in a letter after the Revolution. “That appellation describes now only the inhabitants of Nova Scotia, Canada, &c. I had applied that of Federo Americans to our citizens, as it would not be so decent for us to assume to ourselves the flattering appellation of free Americans.”

What’s a better term? In 1992 Columbia University etymologist Allen Walker Read compiled a list of suggestions that have been made over the years:

  • United Statesards
  • United Statesese
  • Unisians
  • United Statesians
  • Columbards
  • United Statesmen
  • United Statesers
  • Statesmen
  • Staters
  • Unistaters
  • Usarians
  • U.S. men
  • Usonians
  • Usonans
  • Ustatians
  • Uessians
  • Unessians
  • Statesiders
  • Statunitensi
  • United Stateans
  • Unistatians
  • Unitedstatians

Perhaps we’re all counterfeit: In early usage “Americans” applied not to European colonists but to the native Indians whose territory they were invading. John Locke wrote in 1671: “So if you should ask an American how old his son is, i.e., what the length of duration was between his birth and this moment, he would … tell you his son was 30 or 40 moons old as it happened.”

(Allen Walker Read, “Derivative Forms From the Name United States,” paper read at the 31st annual Names Institute sponsored by The American Name Society, Baruch College of The City University of New York, May 2, 1992.)

The High Road

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Editorial guidelines for Spicy Detective magazine, 1935:

  1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
  2. If it is necessary for the story to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details. …
  3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
  4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
  5. Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.
  6. Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.

“The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be intrepreted as being vulgar or obscene.”

(From Nicholas Parsons, The Book of Literary Lists, 1987.)

Chin Up

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“I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy. No one grumbles at one for being dirty.” So wrote professional soldier and poet Julian Grenfell in October 1914, shortly after arriving at the western front.

The unparalleled horrors of the First World War seemed to call forth untapped reserves of mannerly British sang-froid, a “stoical reticence” that artillery officer P.H. Pilditch traced to training in the public schools: “Everything is toned down. … Nothing is ‘horrible.’ That word is never used in public. Things are ‘darned unpleasant,’ ‘Rather nasty,’ or, if very bad, simply ‘damnable.'”

General James Jack reported, “On my usual afternoon walk today a shrapnel shell scattered a shower of bullets around me in an unpleasant manner.” When Private R.W. Mitchell moved to trenches in Hebuterne in June 1916, he complained of “strafing and a certain dampness.”

This unreality reached its peak in the Field Service Post Card, which soldiers were required to complete to reassure next of kin after a particularly dangerous engagement:

I am quite well.

I have been admitted into hospital (sick) (wounded) (and am going on well) (and hope to be discharged soon).

I am being sent down to base.

I have received your (letter dated ____) (telegram dated ____) (parcel dated ____)

Letter follows at first opportunity.

I have received no letter from you (lately) (for a long time).

(Signature only)

(Date)

A soldier would cross out any text that did not apply, perhaps leaving only the line “I am quite well.” “The implicit optimism of the post card is worth noting,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), “the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like ‘I have lost my left leg’ or ‘I have been admitted into hospital wounded and do not expect to recover.’ Because it provided no way of saying ‘I am going up the line again’ its users have to improvise. Wilfred Owen had an understanding with his mother that when he used a double line to cross out ‘I am being sent down to the base,’ he meant he was at the front again.”

(Thanks, Garrett.)

Human Relations

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Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:

  • To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
  • Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
  • When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
  • When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
  • In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
  • When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
  • Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
  • Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”

A Rising Profile

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One characteristic incident of his fearlessness occurred when friends of Mahler recommended the Berlin Royal Opera to engage him just before he had signed to go to Hamburg. The intendant at the German capital, who was said to be anti-Semitic, is reported to have replied, ‘We cannot engage Mahler here, as we do not like the shape of his nose.’ When in 1897 Vienna offered Mahler the directorial and managerial control of its opera, Berlin suddenly awoke to the importance of the artist who was leaving Germany, and made him a proposition financially better than the one from Vienna. Mahler at once signed the contract to go to the banks of the Danube and telegraphed Berlin: ‘Regret that I cannot accept. My nose still the same shape.’

Musical Courier, quoted in Current Literature, July 1911

See Late Acceptance.