When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania

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Many of the most memorable inventions of the 19th century aided transportation and communication, as seen in this 1876 Currier & Ives print. Library of Congress.

Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.

It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.

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Conestoga wagons were also known as covered wagons or prairie schooners to settlers moving to the American West. Landis Valley Farm Museum.

Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.

One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine.

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Telegraph lineman in Kentucky, circa 1916. Library of Congress.

Just a year after Samuel Morse tested the first experimental telegraph in Washington D.C., the first commercial telegraph was completed between Harrisburg and Lancaster. According to an 1897 lecture by telegraph pioneer William Bender Wilson, the line raised the eyebrow of more than one Pennsylvania Dutch farmer when operators were finally able to get everything working properly:

“During the short life of the line it created quite a stir in the sister counties of Dauphin and Lancaster. The copper wire conductor, stretched tightly between poles, gave the wintry blasts the opportunity of producing somewhat musical, weird and fantastic sounds that could be heard for some distance, to the great discomfort of the rustics. The public mind having somewhat of a superstitious bend, many people in the neighborhood of the line, alarmed by the sounds proceeding from the wire as the wind swept over it, would walk a very considerable distance out of their way, often placing themselves at great inconvenience, particularly after sundown, to avoid passing under or near it. Many dismal stories were told of its supernatural powers, and one woman actually fenced in a pole to prevent her cow rubbing against it, fearing that the milk might be spoiled.”

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The first four members of the United States Military Telegraph Corps in Harrisburg, 1861. Library of Congress.

Some Pennsylvanians like Wilson were quick to embrace the telegraph and set to work building more lines and integrating telegraph communication into government and business routines. The U.S. Army was an nearly adopter, and had a large telegraph corps ready for action by the time the Civil War began. But some locals didn’t quite understand the uses and limits of telegraph technology. As Wilson recorded, there were also people ready to take advantage of their misunderstanding to trick their neighbors:

“David Lechler, a well-kept and humorous man, was the proprietor of ‘The North American House,’ where the office in Lancaster was located, and made the telegraph the basis for playing many pranks upon the public. At this day few can credit the curiosity and credulity which characterized the people in connection with the telegraph, and how few had even an idea of the principles governing it. Lechler, discerning the trend of the mind of the people, turned it to advantage in fun-making, and undertook to unfold the mysteries to those who visited his house. It was his great delight on market mornings together a crowd of countrymen and women in the barroom, and then explain to them in Pennsylvania Dutch the wonders of the great invention. There was no story that he could invent or apply, or that credulity would accept in connection with the telegraph that he did not relate. As soon as his harangue had raised the curiosity of his hearers to the highest notch he would hurriedly enter the room where the telegraph office was located and immediately returning, would show a pair of hose, a handkerchief or a newspaper which he had previously punctured with holes, as specimens of the telegraph’s possibilities, at the same time gravely saying: ‘I received these in just forty seconds from Philadelphia.’ There were none to doubt Lechler’s word or to take into consideration that the line did not extend to Philadelphia, but all, with open-eyed wonder, tried to account for the articles passing over and around the cross-arms [of the telegraph poles] They were satisfied, however, with Lechler’s explanation, that the process was the inventor’s secret which he dared not divulge.”

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Telegraph office in the White House, 1902. Library of Congress.

The pranks and falsehoods that Lechler pulled over the people of Lancaster sound to me a little like the humbuggery that P.T. Barnum was famous for in New York City and all over the east coast in the mid 19th century. If you ever get a chance to read Barnum’s autobiography, you can find dozens of stories like this one, though Barnum was always deceiving other for profit or personal gain. I’m sure Barnum would have been impressed with Lechler’s telegraph prank, though he would have been disappointed that he didn’t make any money off of the trick. The telegraph was one of many new inventions of the 19th century that clever/deceitful operators were able to use to fool the general public- sometimes for a laugh and sometimes to make a buck (to learn more look up Ajeeb the checkers playing robot or the legions of patent medicine inventors of the day).

Despite misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it wasn’t long before telegraph lines criss crossed the United States. William Wilson began his career as a messenger boy for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company in 1852, and a few years later began working for the  Pennsylvania Railroad as an expert telegrapher. During the Civil War he served in the United States Military Telegraph Corps and opened the world’s first military telegraph office in Harrisburg, PA. When Wilson died in 1919, telegraphs and telephone lines linked practically every town and village. And a few years after that, radio would come to prominence and connect everywhere that lines couldn’t go.

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Postal telegraph messengers in Indianapolis, 1908. Library of Congress.

New technology, especially when its not widely understood, can be seem equally wondrous and dangerous. The first few years of the telegraph were no exception for many Pennsylvanians. Lots of people today are pretty anxious about new technology too- from drones to internet hacking and the government surveilling our every move.  I wonder how historians will write about the impact of technology on early 21st century America?

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Getting to Know the Culture Industry

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Thomas Hart Benton, “Hollywood” (1937-1938). Image Credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A couple years ago in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I took a course on history and contemporary theory. It was pretty much a combination of philosophy, historical theory, and historiography. A difficult class, but I certainly learned a lot.

One of the projects in the class, as I can remember it, was to design a lecture for undergraduate students about one aspect of historical theory and create an accompanying book list for reading. Given my interest in popular culture and business history, I decided to talk about the “Culture Industry” a theory that came from Frankfurt School historians/theorists in the mid 20th century (see also my blog post on War of the Worlds for more on this theory). I wasn’t able to give this lecture to an actual group of students, but I did film it and post it on Youtube. If you’d like to see the lecture, click here.

A few people commented on the video saying that they’d like to see the slides, so here is a link to my power point: The Culture Industry_presentation.

If you’re interested in learning more, this is my recommended Culture Industry reading list, complete with a variety of primary and secondary sources that explore the commodification of leisure and entertainment from a variety of angles: Continue reading “Getting to Know the Culture Industry”

So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

A Cartoon Takes on the Third Reich: Disney’s Chicken Little (1943)

When I usually think of World War II propaganda, I usually think positive. American propaganda- in the form of posters, articles, radio broadcasts, and films- were no exception. Slogans like “We can do it!” or “Give it your best!” come to mind.  Its easy to find colorful examples of propaganda providing encouragement and positive examples of working hard, achieving victory, and being the best you can be. But this isn’t the whole story. Propagandists also used scare-tactics and images of death and destruction to warn Americans away from bad habits and poor decision making. The war could be won by hard work on the home front, but it could also be lost by mistakes too.

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The “Rosie the Riveter” poster was made by the Westinghouse Company. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Continue reading “A Cartoon Takes on the Third Reich: Disney’s Chicken Little (1943)”

Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…

“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948

Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives. Continue reading “Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past”

Boxing and Other Sports: It’s Personal(ality)

“Sport is the chief share [men] have to-day in the drama of life. Even in France and Spain it has superseded politics as the predominant masculine interest.”

What else is new? It seems like every year professional sports are bigger than ever. No matter what is going on in the world, we can’t get enough of them. Things were pretty much the same in early 1930, except that back then “boxing [was] the innermost shrine of the cult.” (Bolitho 207) Other than the fact that women are much move involved in sports today and that we’re more interested in other sports like football and basketball than boxing, I think this quote is still pretty spot on.

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Madison Square Garden: A monument to athletics, entertainment, and spectacle. Photo credit: Billy Rose Theater Collection, NYPL.

Continue reading “Boxing and Other Sports: It’s Personal(ality)”

Combat on the Screen and on the Page

The other day, a friend asked me what war movies I thought had the most realistic depictions of war and combat. Obviously, no movie is ever going to get war “right.” And anyways how do you define “accurate” for something as huge and complicated as war? Individuals experiences can be wildly different, and their memories of war change over time too so depending on when you ask someone about their experiences in war, you’ll probably get a very different answer. Memory and experience are really interesting topics, but I’ll have to save that for another day. Continue reading “Combat on the Screen and on the Page”