Two hundred and thirty five Christmas Eves ago the Congress of the Confederation concluded its affairs in Trenton after its brief–less than two-month–stay in that southern New Jersey town. The Confederation Congress’s time in New Jersey was short but not without its highlights; it was there that the Marquis de Lafayette gave his goodbye oration to the United States legislature on December 11, 1784. Forty years later in 1824 Lafayette would return to the United States for a grand tour in which he was received with great interest and turnout everywhere he went.
The image we see above is the French Arms Tavern, where Congress met from November 1 to December 24, 1784. I had a conversation not long ago with someone in which we discussed how official and semi-official business in the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early American periods often took place in such venues as coffeehouses and taverns. I suppose the reason is that infrastructure was just not so prevalent in those times. The men of the Confederation Congress had voted the previous day to move the nascent nation’s capital to New York City. Congress would move in to New York’s City Hall, today’s Federal Hall, on January 11, 1785. One can imagine the men wrapping up their affairs on that long ago Christmas Eve and enjoying a holiday meal before preparing in the coming days for the move to New York.
(image/Architect of the U.S. Capitol)
Earlier today I noted that today is the 246th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Here we see an extraordinary allusion to that 1773 event: a 1906 Puck magazine centerfold depicting “The American dope party.” Puck began publication in 1877 and ended its run four decades later in 1918. Those who live in New York City may know the Puck Building on Houston Street just east of Broadway. That ornate structure is testimony to the magazine’s financial as well as cultural success. Puck was hugely influential and never afraid to take on all-comers, including the likes of Tammany Hall, industrial titans, robber barons, monopolists, grifters, and just plain cronies of whatever stripe. The magazine neatly coincided with the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, who appeared for good and ill on the cover more than eighty times over the decades.
For most of its long run Puck included a political cartoon centerfold. The one we see here does not depict Roosevelt himself, but does capture an issue close to his heart: his attempts to strengthen the nation’s food and drug laws. Many reformers were active in the cause of ending food and medicine adulteration. A government scientist named Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley created a Poison Squad in 1902 to eliminate Borax, formaldehyde, and other “preservatives” from the food supply. Though removed from the formula for Coca-Cola in 1903, cocaine itself remained legal in the United States until 1914; many Americans used that drug for medical purposes, but many others abused it as well. Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his expose of the meat industry, in February 1906. Puck printed this centerfield on June 27, 1906 of “Indians” dumping unhealthy food, medicine, clothing, and “dope” into the harbor. The subtitle in small print at the bottom reads: “A Lesson in Practical Patriotism Taught by the Boston Tea Party.” It was into this milieu that President Theodore Roosevelt stepped to reform the food and drug industries during his administration.
The political and social pressure worked. That summer of 1906 Congress passed the The Pure Food and Drug Act creating the Food and Drug Administration. President Roosevelt signed both that and the Federal Meat Inspection Act on June 30, the same week this cartoon appeared.
(image/Library of Congress)
Today is the 246th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. As I understand it the name of this pivotal event that helped lead to the American Revolution is a construction of nineteenth century historiography; Americans began using the expression “Boston Tea Party” in the 1820s, shortly after the War of 1812. This Nathaniel Currier lithograph from 1846 does not use the term “Boston Tea Party” at all, but the still common “destruction of tea at Boston harbor.” In the lead-up to the Civil War Americans both North and South used and misused the memory of the Revolution for their own purposes. Those purposes could with be either nefarious or to appeal to people’s better angels. Lincoln in his First Inaugural hoped that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave” might forestall civil war, which of course is not what happened in 1861. A century and a half later in our own time it remans the same, with people using and misusing the iconography of the Revolution for purposes good and ill.
We are now just two weeks away from the 2020s. As early as next March will come the first big 250th anniversary of the events leading to the American Revolution: the Boston Massacre of March 1770. I know that some communities are in the nascent stages of preparing for various anniversaries. Major League Baseball has already set the 2026 All-Star Game for Philadelphia, just as they did fifty years previously in 1976 during the Bicentennial. It is my understanding that other professional leagues intend to follow suit, but I guess time will tell.
(image/Owensboro Community & Technical College)
I hope everyone’s weekend is going well. Early last month at the East Coast Toy Soldier Show in Hackensack I took the photo one sees here. It is an original Johnny Tremain playset manufactured by Louis Marx and Company in the late 1950s just after the movie’s release in 1957. That Disney production of course was based on the 1943 Esther Forbes young adult novel of the same name. Calling Johnny Tremain a young adult novel however does not do the book full justice; Forbes fully intended the monograph to be read by adults as well as kids, which is how the best children/young adult literature is supposed to be read. Indeed Johnny Tremain’s actual subtitle is: A Story for Old and Young. Forbes was awarded the John Newberry Medal in 1944 for Johnny Tremain. I’m sure it went well with the Pulitzer Prize for History she had won the previous year for her biography of Paul Revere.
My father, who as a very young man just out of high school worked for a brief time as a longshoreman on the Boston wharves around which the book is set, gave me a copy of Johnny Tremain when I was about ten. Recently, inspired by seeing the playset above, I ordered a new copy to replace my long-lost edition. Thankfully it also contains the poignant sketchings drawn by graphic artist Lynd Ward. I am about halfway through it right now. The book stands up remarkably well. The trick to reading historical fiction is to understand the context in which the particular title was written. One must never read historical fiction with the idea one is actually studying history. Historical fiction is less “history” than “memory,” not so much a study of the past but a take on how we remember and use that past. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels for instance was released in 1974, toward the end of the Vietnam War. Esther Forbes began Johnny Tremain on December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Prior to that she had toiled on the draft of a different novel about the Revolutionary War Era, one with a more neutral, even pacifist theme that rang hollow to Forbes after the surprise Japanese attack. Again, context is everything when it comes to historical fiction.
If one is looking for a good book to give the young (or old) reader in one’s life this holiday season, I have the perfect idea.
I came across this article from The Atlantic and thought I would pass along. I googled the author and, based on his saying that he was twenty-three when he took the job, this story would have taken place around 1981 or ’82 depending on when Sinatra actually came in. I cannot say I am surprised he would buy $800 in books, as he did in this reminiscence told from the perspective of the sales clerk several decades later; largely self-taught, Sinatra was a more erudite and intellectually voracious guy than people might realize. Charlie Parker was the same way. And like Parker, Sinatra was a man of incredible flaws but who at his best could grasp the essence of a person or situation with just a quick glance. It is part of what made them the artists that they were. Anyways, in the lead-up to the anniversary of Sinatra’s birthday this coming week here is a little something to read for those so inclined.
I was in the city at 8:00 this morning when across the street from Baruch College on 24th Street I saw this news flash on one of those kiosks one sees around the city. Thankfully I got my camera out in time to take a quick snap before the message flipped over. December 6, 1790 was the moment when the nation’s capital moved from New York City and Federal Hall to Philadelphia.
Enjoy the weekend.