Evolution of a History Nerd

Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.
Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.

A coworker recently suggested I incorporate more “steampunk librarian” content into Nostos Algos. I don’t know if I’m onboard with the usage of “steampunk”, since that’s a very distinct cultural subset, or “librarian”, since I don’t work in a library, but the man has a point. My Instagram is riddled with archives gold, but Nostos Algos is strangely devoid of the same and I mean to fix that now.  In tossing around ideas, I found it difficult to pick a starting point. I encounter awesome stories every day as a consequence of the job, so how can I pick just one and run with it? Eventually, I decided to lead with a post that seeks to explain my evolution as a self-proclaimed History Nerd.

If I’m honest, I am an archivist because I landed an internship class in my final year of undergrad, and that internship turned into contract work that turned into full-time work. No master career plan, just an American History major giddy to find a field that directly utilized my undergrad degree. My major, however, chose me–the teenager that preferred an antique store to a shopping mall that grew into the young lady more at ease with geriatrics than those her own age. I am an archivist by chance, by choice, and also for the same reason I read so many biographies–an acute interest in people.

That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn't into it, and it was awkward for everyone. (Launching of Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)
That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn’t into it, and it was awkward for everyone, but totally entertaining for the table in the back. (Launching of the Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)

This interest has fermented with age. The longer I live, the more defined mortality becomes–fostering a fascination with the limitlessness of individual people who work against the physical limitations of their bodies, as well as the governing bodies that build their civilizations. No matter the epoch they hail from–the 1880s, the 1920s, the 1970s, or now–men and women dream big, accomplish much, fail often, and always die. This has become abundantly clear in my eight years as an archives technician, during which time I’ve processed materials ranging from Civil War discharge papers to records from the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office. Often I’m given a box filled with mementos that visually and textually form the arch of an entire life. Sometimes it’s just a box of discarded records from an abandoned office. In either scenario, however, the human element always shines through: in obvious ways, like an informal photograph showing a grieving graveside widower, but also in less obvious ways, like a defiantly lewd doodle on the title page of an official report.

It’s easy to think of the past as past, and as people who lived in those times as static, unrelatable figures. I believe this is a problem of presentation and perception rather than reality. This problem begins in the monotone way history is taught in lower levels of school, which, by necessity, moves quickly through centuries of stories and rarely delves deeply into individuals save for key figures who accomplished monumental things, be them good or bad. Perception is also affected by the technological constraints of the times that captured moments in black and white, moments that seem so stiff and remote in stark contrast to our digital age of colored animation; when you add differences in dress and custom it seems almost impossible to cross the historical divide. The most crucial component of misperception is an institutional bias that prioritizes the exceptional over the every day.

Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.
Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.

In their quest to acquire the best of mankind–the quintessential Warhol, that first edition Hemingway, MacArthur’s West Point cadet uniform, or Lincoln’s last handwritten speech–many museums have become palaces that honor little else besides perfection, achievement, the heights of humanity. Preserving and showcasing elite objects is a vital component to museum work, but for me and many others in the trenches, the items that excite us most are the ones that should never have survived. Items like movie tickets, catalogs, receipts, pressed flowers in a Nobody’s diary, or the likeness of President Nixon made of binary numbers and printed out by a bored computer technician in the 1970s. One military historian I know was beside himself with glee to see a pair of standard issue Women’s Army Corps socks and nylon stockings from World War II. The things that are used and discarded without a second thought by regular Joes and Janes become the most rare simply because they were the most unwanted–unwanted by those who used them, as well as the institutions pledged to protect our history.

In my time as an archivist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve cataloged the personal effects of some of the most historically significant men of the 20th-century. Men like Brigadier General Frederick Funston–the local lady killer who killed it in the Spanish-American War, “saved” San Francisco from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire (no big deal), and is the namesake of what was once known as 13th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. I’ve unfolded his pants, and preserved his wife’s family photograph album. Men like General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II who lost his battle with cancer while in command of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. I’ve cataloged his favorite rocking chair, which is covered in plush pink fabric. Men like Medal of Honor winner Colonel John C. Gresham, the officer who chose protect native women and children in a ravine while Custer slaughtered their husbands and fathers at Wounded Knee during the Indian Wars. I’ve hung his coat with care.

These were great men, but not the men whose effects I’m most honored to preserve. Call it an affection for the underdog, call it curiosity in the lesser known, call it what you want: I gravitate to voices with less volume. If you look at the etymology of the word history, you’ll see it originated as the Greek “histor”, and referred to a learned or wise man; it then evolved to “historia” and embodied narrative history, meaning “finding out”. That encapsulates my approach to history: each day I find out about a different person, place or thing, and my love of that daily discovery comes from the commonalities I always discover. People are funny, situations are awkward, and the history that those people and situations write is equally as entertaining. When I find something particularly weird and wonderful–like a late 19th-century Cavalry officer who wrote science fiction as a hobby–that captures the quirkiness of history, I jump for joy and instantly want to share it.

What's there to do if you're a teenager (and John Muir's niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain't no 1927.
What’s there to do if you’re a teenager (and John Muir’s niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain’t no 1927.

In conceiving this post, I inevitably listened to Bob Dylan–especially his album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan also loved history, and sourced many of the story lines in his early songs directly from old newspaper articles. A line from the last song on the album, “Restless Farewell”, struck me as particularly relevant to the way I mine history for moments that have slipped between the dusty cracks of the sanctioned historical narrative: “If the arrow is straight, and the point is slick it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.”

Somewhere a story is waiting, sticking out from under the dust, and I feel compelled to free it. So tune in to Nostos Algos for future gems, and be sure to follow me (@nostosnic) on Instagram and Twitter or search #historynerd for my latest nerdy posts.


Current Obsession: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff

I would argue Blues is the most important American contribution to the lexicography of music; it added a layer of complexity to Country, and beget Rock and Roll. Born from the hell of slavery and its aftermath, the Blues are weighted with the trauma of poverty and loss or, perhaps more accurately, never-having. It is true sadness seeking song for solace, and when you think of it that way the moniker of “Blues,” gives the music and its origins short shrift. I guess the “Tragic Despairs” or the “Depressions” didn’t have the same ring.

We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of blue blood mixing with the denim-coverall-DNA of the blue collar in a melting pot.* Such a mixed bag, pardon the metaphor swap, is bound to create tension, persecution, as the Haves battle the Have Nots because the beast of social democracy wills it so. This unequal distribution is why Blues came to be and why it remains relevant. The musicians who struggle somewhere in the middle (as so many of us do) and voice this in song continue to interpret this American genre in loving homage. Sometimes, for some people, the Blues just feel right; sometimes we all sing the blues in response to daily traumas, be them little or big.

Enter Hurray for the Riff Raff, the brainchild of a Alynda lee Segarra–a Puerto Rican living in New Orleans by way of the Bronx. This July, the Riff Raff signed to ATO Records which is the New York City label founded by Dave Matthews that was also smart enough to sign the Alabama Shakes. Their album My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, my current obsession, is a little bit country textualized by blues swaddled in a tradition of folky pop. It is as sumptuous as it is spare, and has the simple integrity of a Brumby rocking chair: comforting, sturdy, and American to its core. Two of my favorite tracks are actually covers that offer new perspective on classic songs, such as John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the often-tackled traditional folk ballad “Cuckoo.”  For a 26-year-old lady to add soul to an icon, and a new angle on a tune that’s been part of the American fabric for over a century is impressive and utterly captivating. This is a woman of import, and a band worth following; here’s looking forward to more to come.

*Except that melting pot metaphor we were spoon fed in school doesn’t really fly because it implies we all simmer into a single identity, that of the American, when in actuality our demographics are more akin to a mixed salad, the collegiately preferred term, where each ethnicity adds to the flavor palette in a recognizably unique way. Cute, right? If only this were as harmonious of an existence as it sounds. The truth is that some ingredients inevitably fall to the bottom and drown in dressing never to be tasted, left behind for disposal. In an overly flippant way, that is what happens to the scores of tired, poor, and huddled masses (to borrow from Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty) who understand Blues just by being alive.

Dear Detroit

I  first became obsessed with urban decay (no, not the eyeshadow) and its progeny, the Urban Exploration movement, when I was in college and read too much philosophy. While it’s unhealthy to read Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord exclusively and in tandem, it plunged me into a lot of weird internet journeys during my many sleepless nights; this is when I found the website Forgotten Detroit.

I am rooted in Detroit, Michigan on my mother’s side of the family. There my grandparents met and fell in love while attending Thomas M. Cooley High School, and my Grandmother never understood why I found it so entertaining to hear her speak of 8 Mile (thanks, Eminen). Built in 1928, Cooley High was closed in 2010 and now sits abandoned, a hulking monument to days when Detroit was healthy and children were everywhere. As with all forgotten things, Cooley High is now in danger of demolition.

How does this happen? How can cities of this size become spectral and how can we, as conscious citizens, raze the physical manifestations of our history when they become too difficult to maintain? I understand the discourse fed by explanations of socio-political migrations, demography and the export of industry to developing countries. I get it: Detroit has been left without a purpose, and therefore was left by its people. Buildings need a use, and Detroit has not the population to use them. This, for lack of a better sequence of words, makes me sad. Sad for my own family history that is disappearing and sad for future generations who won’t be able to understand our nation’s history by standing inside of it, by feeling granite with their hands, seeing stairwells with their eyes and KNOWING that architects are dreamers because they build something out of nothing, and dreamers built this country.

In short, I am obsessed with Detroit: what it represents and what still exists to be saved. I’ve even (half-jokingly) asked my Fella if he’d relocate from San Francisco to the Motor City. So far, he’s nonplussed and I can’t say as I blame him; this is my calling, not his. No, I don’t have any immediate plans to leave an ideal climate for one that’s depressed and trying to find its relevance in a century that has moved away from its strengths. But the thought is germinating, I’m open to persuasion, and the video featured below encapsulates, in a very beautiful way, my connection to the plight of this urban belle.

On The Whole This Is A High Old Age

Part of the reason I nerd out on history is my fascination with how events repeat themselves, repeatedly. Times change, technology advances, yet we still experience tragedy, comedy and joy in similar ways to that of our forbearers. This means the human condition has remained fundamentally unchanged in the face of societal progress; we have failed to Darwinially adapt. After having experienced the Great Depression, shouldn’t we, as a nation, be able to bear the recent Recession with more grace and shouldn’t our political directors be able to maneuver the solution more deftly?

Granted, our globalized-digitized economies cannot be treated the same as that of the 1930s. Also, the New Deal would never have been so successful had it not been for the gargantuan influx of capital generated by World War II. Aside from these realistic differences, there is always something to be learned from the past such as FDR’s outside-the-box approach of taking a committed capitalistic country down a socialistic path of welfare programs like Social Security. So Social Security is in a bit of hot water these days, what with its looming financial ruin, but the noose of these troubles cannot be hung around the neck of its creators; it should, instead, be strung around the men and women who were supposedly minding the shop for the last seven or so decades. If only the powers that be had the forethought to keep a log of decisions for reference, like a congressional record or something. Wait a minute…

The thing about modern civilizations is that they are obsessed with logging their own history. Actually, that is what it means to be civilized and this impulse is why we have the Declaration of Independence (pro), but also why we have A Shore Thing by Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (con). While Snooki’s elevated presence in our society is regrettable, it is a reality and thusly deserves to be chronicled if for no other reason than to have a record to prevent future Snookis. Thanks to the press we have an ever expanding archive of our national history that is supplemented by diaries that emerge from attics generations later to be published as disseminated works of non-fiction, by novels, by plays, and so on. I’m partial to diaries due to their authenticity, but newspaper editorials—that is, articles published from the point of view of the author and not strictly adhering to the factual—are equally as enlightening. Take this 1877 piece titled “Queer Fancies In Hard Times” originally published in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873 and during the Great Railroad Strike. The sentiments expressed here could also be expressed now, and it reminded me of a recently published book by Emily Matchar titled Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.

Meaning, things are different now…but are…also…the same. The prevalence of second-hand shops, women repurposing things they already own instead of buying new clothes, men oblivious to any change in outfits, and the prevalence of jewels made of paste instead of something wrought from the ground that are discussed in this article are very much of the present. Especially for us “middling grade of women.” Enjoy.

Queer Fancies In Hard Times

“It is generally understood that these are hard times, but, for all that, a great man people spend just as much money as ever they did. Our fashionable restaurants, tailors and barkeepers keep up the old tariff of prices. Fifty cent cigars are still displayed; swell receptions are crushed by bejeweled people the same as ever; but while the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor, there is a great middle class among whom we detect economical eccentricities of the most extraordinary type. Collectors have a hard time of it, and how they manage to keep their patience, and preserve even the semblance of decent intercourse with the people they have to dun day in and day out for money, is something we cannot understand. Cheap clothiers enjoy this sort of thing. You can get sums that a few years ago would barely buy a decent vest, a full suit of clothes; though the tailors say that while their cloth was fabulously cheap, there never was a time when people seemed to be so averse to buying, if they can possibly help it. Second-hand shops seem to suffer terribly. In the first place second-hand shops don’t get the goods. People keep all their old clothes now; just as long as there is any wear in a coat a man wears it. You cannot find a second-hand overcoat on a stand, because everybody is wearing his own. Repairers, menders and cleaners are doing well. The patent cement with which boots are patched has become quite an article of commerce. Men are less particular about how their boots look than they were in other days. The middling grade of women look to the mere masculine eye as beautiful, as charming, and as gorgeously dressed as ever; but the feminine eye detects the weakness. First of all, the girls economize on their bonnets. They fake them. They fix them all over—take an old hat and cover it with feathers. In other days a woman who put on a pair of gloves more than twice or thrice was looked upon as an example of economy, while the woman who patronized a cleaner for her gloves was considered on the way to the home of a miser. Nowadays women have their gloves cleaned two or three times. They trim their dresses, nearly worn out, with other colors; they wear new overskirts; they wear old boots at home instead of fancy slippers; they do not indulge so much in embroidery and silk on their under-linen; they have their washing done at home, or by women whom they pay by the week instead of sending it to the laundries. To be sure it does not look so nice, but it is cheaper. Of course the laundries suffer; but the dyeing establishments are doing better than ever. Fashionable modists are hard up, but cheap dressmakers have more than they can attend to. Who knows but what if these times continue every American girl will be her own milliner, and every honest woman her own dressmaker? Perhaps the jewelers—the high-toned jewelers—suffer more than any other traders. Parisian diamonds and Lake George crystals are really taking the place of genuine stone, among the middles classes, and, to a surprising extent, among ladies whose cheeks would turn to the color of their carbuncles if the truth about their precious stones could be but revealed. On the whole this is a high old age.”

Men Seldom Make Passes

The perk of being an archivist and historian to pay the bills is the cultural ephemera I scan daily. At one point in our great nation’s history, sexism and racism were ubiquitous and, as such, invisible. Being a woman of the late 20th- and early 21st-centuries, I was raised in classroom curriculum that bent over backwards to equalize gender in a way that basically skewed it the opposite as so much focus was placed on girls. Do they feel comfortable enough to raise their hands and speak in class? Are gym activities gender neutral so girls don’t feel inferior? You get the picture.

They also spent a significant amount of time educating us about AIDS; they were very, very concerned we were all going to get AIDS. Fourth graders? Getting AIDS? But that’s another discussion for another time.

This over-equal ideological footing may be why I’m able to see the humor in our nation’s past indiscretions, you know, in a “Yes, I smoked pot but I didn’t inhale” and not a “No, I did not have sexual relations with that woman” sense. Meaning, if we can’t laugh at uncomfortable situations that are largely absurd (sexism and racism have no scientific evidence, making them absurd) then what else are we supposed to do, right? As long as it’s merely absurd, like claiming to have smoked pot but not inhaled as opposed to sexually manipulating a young intern with the power of the presidency. See the difference? Good, we’re on the same page.

In the spirit of I-shall-become-stronger-by-owning-the-negative and using it for a positive charge, I therefore find blatantly sexist “news” articles from the 1940s chuckle-worthy. This is especially true when they’re titled “‘Men Seldom Make Passes–‘: Blonde Wins Beauty Contest for Girls Who Wear Glasses”. That’s right, ladies, if you wore glasses in the 1940s you were a segregated minority on top of being a segregated minority. What followed is as follows:

“Vera Parks, a far-sighted blonde, today won first prize in a beauty contest for girls who wear glasses. She had on a pair of octagon-tops with coral mountings which set her back 18 bucks three years ago. The contest took place in the Hotel Piccadilly and was sponsored by the Community Opticians Association, an organization which wants to prove that Dorothy Parker didn’t know what she was talking about when she wrote: ‘Men seldom make passes, at girls who wear glasses.’

‘Anybody ever make a pass at you?’ the winner was asked as she relaxed with a scotch and soda. ‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘my husband.’

Mrs. Parks immediately began planning her trip to Hollywood, which is the prize she receives. She wants to go to a premiere out there and see Claudette Colbert and Ronald Coleman.”

Isn’t that cute? She dreams of Claudette Colbert while sipping a scotch and soda by her husband’s side. She may wear glasses, but she’s still the picture of wifely femininity: simple, sweetly involved in her silver screen stories and liquored up. Yay for the 1940s!

Diary of Lois Elaine Jelin: Entry One Hundred Ten

Entry One Hundred Ten

Tuesday, May 20                 Weather marked as Clear.

Dear Diary,

Went to the Hollywood Bowl with Mr. & Mrs. Mendleson, Lynn, Ricky, Bob & me. We saw “I am an American” day. The show was good. But I had an awful time as Bob wasn’t in a very gay mood. His dad bought him a car. I cryed my eyes out when I got home because of him.

Baby sat for Frances.

Editorial Note:

According to Richard M. Fried’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America, I Am An American Day was conceptualized in 1938 by either Benjamin Edwards Neal, creator of the I Am An American Foundation, or The Helios Foundation, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The day was celebrated annually across the United States on the third Sunday of May, and commemorated the citizenship of newly naturalized immigrants and youngsters who had just come of age to vote (then the age of 21).

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the popular event acquired a patriotic immediacy and was used to reinforce and publicly display one’s devotion to the American cause, as a citizen. The end of the war augmented the event’s rhetoric as Cold War tensions focused the narrative on a need to find and report subversive activities; understandably, the popularity of I Am An American Day suffered and it fell out of favor. In 1952, Congress changed the name of I Am An American Day to Citizenship Day, and the date was moved from May to September 17th. It was again reformatted as “Constitution and Citizenship Day” at the request of late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia in 2004, and now celebrates the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787.

Seen below, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Negative Collection, 1950-1961 maintained by the University of Southern California, is the Hollywood Bowl decked out for I Am An American Day in 1951–the very same one attended by our Lois. Perhaps if you scrutinize the crowd long enough you can see her, seated between the Mendlesons and gazing forlornly at Bob.

I Am American Day at the Hollywood Bowl, 1951

The Black Angels, “Young Men Dead”

Teddy Roosevelt is known as many things, but he was perhaps most proud of the title “Colonel.” So enthusiastic was he to prove himself in war, he traded the comfort of a plush leather chair in the office of the Secretary of the Navy for cans of rotten beef in a tropical landscape that would follow him in recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life. But for all of its consequences, leading his Rough Riders to victory during the Spanish American War in 1898 was the event which most shaped the renowned former president; it was the event that made him a man.

Which is why Roosevelt had been sounding the call for American involvement in World War I for three solid years by the time the U.S. finally joined the Allied cause in 1917. Much to the chagrin of Woodrow Wilson, once America entered the fray…Teddy wanted in too. He begged the Secretary of War to allow him the honor of assembling a brigade to hurt the Huns, but was rejected; he was, after all, no friend of the administration in line for special favors. Although likely for the best, as his health was rapidly deteriorating, he was heartbroken, knowing his time was near its end and wanting to leave his corpse on the battlefields of Europe.

But the Roosevelt name found its way into headlines nonetheless. For such an avowed war hawk, his sons had no choice but to take their place in the first American wave to the front; Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Archie and Quentin all played their parts. While most of his sons were fit for war, young Quentin the Aviator was not. The youngest at 19, engaged to a Whitney heir and of a sweeter temperament than the rest, he felt compelled to go to war so as not to disappoint his illustrious father.

Disappoint him he did not. Shortly after his squadron was sent to the front, Quentin took two bullets to the head and his airplane dropped from the sky. Buried where he fell by the Germans who found him first, his grave became a fount of courage for Allied soldiers who made a shrine of his temporary resting place.

While he was certainly proud of his heroic progeny, Roosevelt carried the burden of Quentin’s death until his own a short few months later. Which leads one to ponder the musings of Nathaniel Hawthorne from an article titled “Chiefly About War Matters,” which ran in the Atlantic during the Civil War:

“It is a pity that old men grow unfit for war, not only by their incapacity for new ideas, but by the peaceful and unadventurous tendencies that gradually posses themselves of the once turbulent disposition, which used to snuff the battle-smoke of its congenial atmosphere. It is a pity; because it would be such an economy of human existence, if time-stricken people…could snatch from their juniors the exclusive privilege of carrying on war. In cause of death upon the battle-field, how unequal would be the comparative sacrifice! On one part, a few unenjoyable years, the little remnant of a life grown torpid; on the other, the many fervent summers of manhood in its spring and prime, with all that they include of possible benefit to mankind. Then, too, a bullet offers such a brief and easy way, such a pretty little orifice, through which the weary spirit might seize the opportunity to be exhaled!”

In a word, just what Roosevelt wanted.