Look. A lot of people are saying a lot of things about Election Day. The results may take too long. Is absentee balloting trustworthy? And what the hell is up with the Electoral College? It is all very stressful. But these questions are not new, and there are some historical precedents we can lean our tired selves on:
Have a drink with: Postal Inspectors
Don’t mess with the postal service.
Ask them about: Snow, rain, gloom of night, Tommy guns
When former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested recently on charges of defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign known as “We Build the Wall,” it was by agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service. This may seem surprising to many of us, who typically think of the postal service as consisting of affable, hardworking people who look unusually good in shorts and the occasional pith helmet, but for most of American history, the Post Office has been home to the nation’s most powerful federal law enforcement.
Have a drink with: The 1919 Anti-Mask League
NO BARS, okay? NO.
Ask them about: Coughing in large groups
Since COVID-19 became a public health emergency in March, different cities and states have responded with protective measures, many of them including a recommendation or a requirement to wear a mask when in proximity to other people. These mandates have drawn protest from opponents, many of whom feel that masks are unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of individual rights. We can take a lesson from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, during which relaxed mask requirements may well have contributed to a resurgence of the virus in the San Francisco area after an initially successful lockdown period.
During the 1918-1919 flu, many Americans were big fans of masks – Red Cross workers made sure they were making and distributing tons, the Levi Strauss company went from making jeans to mask production, and as Atlas Obscura has pointed out, some people even masked their pets. But the flu roared back after an initial lull in illness, and a portion of Bay Area residents were not at all eager to mask back up. In language that could well have come from modern news reports, anti-maskers complained about masks being useless, about “political doctors,” and about “an infringement of our personal liberty.” In January 1919, a crowd of more than four thousand people gathered at a local rink to protest the passage of the city’s mask ordinance.
Here’s something I found while I was researching this week. It’s a column from a September 1863 issue of Scientific American:
Part of the process of researching a subject is looking at all the adjacent issues that you encounter along the way, building a sense of daily consciousness and public culture in a given era. And I was still shocked – and absolutely should not have been – at the clinical distance with which the authors talk about black soldiers in the Civil War, and the suggestion that even the Union army thought of black men as such commodities that they’d rather send them in than risk white soldiers dying of malaria.
So it’s time to sit in that discomfort, and recommend that we all do more to understand America’s history of inequality. There are a lot of titles here, and this is just a small selection. I’m not going to link them – you can choose where you’d like to purchase (but bookshop.org and indiebound.org are cool because they help you support your favorite local bookstores).
Have a drink with: P.G. Lowery
The best under canvas.
Ask him about: Hustle.
If I say the words “circus music,” you probably have a certain type of music in your mind straight away – something loud, fast and slightly drunk – like this 1902 Sousa band recording of a typical “galop.” And that’s certainly on point, but it doesn’t clue you in to the fact that during the early 20th century, while largely white bands played under the big top, some of the most exciting circus music was happening over in the sideshow, where bands made up of black musicians not only played fast marches and brassy trombone “smears,” but innovated in ragtime, jazz and blues years before they would come into full public popularity. And perhaps the most impressive figure in these groups was the bandleader P.G. Lowery, a classically-trained cornet player who boiled down his many successes into a simple motto: “Good things cometh to he who waiteth as long as he hustleth while he waiteth.”
Chances are, if I say “Glenn Miller,” something like “Moonlight Serenade” floats into your mind on cottony clouds, the dreamy musical equivalent of a Vaseline filter; or maybe it’s the sharp, perky big-band swing of “In the Mood.” Point is, the phrase “early-morning scourge of stuffy Yale professors” is not high on the list of speedy free associations. But in 1943, that was exactly on the nose – and Glenn Miller was waking up sleepy Ivy League students. For America.
Have (many) drinks with: Thomas Fitzpatrick
Hold my beer.
Ask him about: air traffic control
Just last month, a small plane made an emergency landing on a busy street in Washington state (apparently even managing, no small feat, to stop for a red light). These sort of landings are not uncommon, as unusual as they may seem: in the past few months of 2019 alone, small craft have needed to land in decidedly non-airport locations in Florida, California and New Jersey.
For the most part, though, these pilots made the best of a bad situation, and certainly didn’t start their flights thinking they would have to come up with creative landing plans. Back in 1950s New York City, however, there was one pilot in particular who not only enjoyed the practice of, shall we say, non-traditional landings, he very purposely drunk-landed a Cessna on a New York City street. Twice.
Have a drink with: Astronaut Snoopy
Houston? How about Petaluma?
Ask him about: Getting NASA to the moon
Tomorrow will mark fifty years since the splashdown of the Apollo 11 lunar mission (it’s easy to focus on the July 20th landing and next-day lunar walk, forgetting that the astronauts had to go through the equally perilous process of getting home a few days later before everyone could really and truly celebrate). This is an ideal time to revisit a post from a few years ago, talking about NASA and how the space agency used its partnerships with Charles Schulz’ comic Peanuts as a way to buoy up the space program during its darkest times. After the disastrous January 1967 Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts during a “plugs-out” test of the space vehicle, NASA was in need of a mascot to lift spirits, continue momentum towards the goal of landing a man on the moon, and emphasize safety in the process.
Have a drink with: Claire Heliot
“Sentimentalist and lion tamer.”
Ask her about: herding cats
In 1905, the New York Hippodrome opened its doors with a banner performance of A Yankee Circus on Mars, a freewheeling half-circus, half-opera in which the King of Mars, acting as an intergalactic talent scout of sorts, comes to Earth to save a failing New England circus. A splendid spectacle, the show featured an ensemble of hundreds of actors wearing grand robes and frolicking amidst fifty-foot dragon sculptures, live elephants and decadent garden sets. Its star was a lion tamer named Claire Heliot, making her major American debut.
A Yankee Circus on Mars had snapped up Heliot for good reason: she was a sensation in the turn-of-the-century press, journalists marveling over this fair-haired young woman who, alone in the ring in a white satin gown, commanded the attention of a dozen lions. In her showpiece act, Heliot set an elegant table and invited the lions to sit with her, feeding each in turn a hunk of horseflesh with her own fingers, and as a closing flourish offering them “her own pretty head as a delectable morsel for dessert.” (The dinner guests respectfully declined this course.) Heliot’s lions agreeably performed with a group of boar hounds, doing tricks and pulling the dogs about in a chariot; and then in an act that seemed to defy both nature and physics, the lions Sascha and Nero walked from opposite sides of a tightrope towards each other, pausing to balance nose-to-nose in the center.
Heliot would lie down across the bodies of four reclining lions, pose for portraits in her boudoir cuddling the mane of a massive male, and play with the lions as though they were happy kittens. She typically finished her act by slinging a 350-pound male over her shoulders like an overgrown scarf and triumphantly striding from the ring.
Press headlines described Heliot as “frail but fearless.” She was neither; but they did not know what else to say.
Have a drink with: The Liberty Loans Some drill, some till, and some produce the dollar bill.
Ask them about: buying World War I for Christmas
This season not only marks the centennial of the Armistice that brought an end to World War I, but also of the massive public investment campaign that made American involvement in the war possible. In four bond drives conducted in 1917 and 1918, the American public stepped up to fund the war effort by purchasing some $17 billion dollars of U.S. government securities popularly known as “Liberty Loans.”
And if you asked Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo in December 1917, he’d tell you that the hottest Christmas gift around was a Liberty Loan, because nothing screams “holiday spirit” like punching the Kaiser in the snoot.