Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Makes Things Obsolete?

Isaac Werner's penmanship
When Isaac B. Werner kept his journal, his tool was a pen.  Previous blogs have shared Isaac's effort to improve his penmenship, having a "good hand" an important indication of an educated man.  

Typewriters had been invented by the 1880s and 1890s when Isaac was keeping the journal about his years on the Kansas prairie.  The picture of an 1881 Hammond typewriter below was taken from the Editor's Page of Elle Decor.  Michael Boodro, editor, titled his editorial "When Does An Object of Desire Become Obsolete?"  His question inspired this blog.

I took a typewriting class in high school, perhaps my sophomore year, and as I recall, everyone in my class took typing, both boys and girls.  I believe that was when I asked my parents for a typewriter, and I think my portable typewriter was a birthday gift.  It served me through high school, college, and law school and was my only personal typewriter until the computer age arrived.  I did use electric typewriters for a couple of jobs, and I remember the clatter of keys and the ding of the bell as it reached the end of each row of typing.

1881 Hammond typewriter
In his article for Elle Decor, Michael Boodro recalled that he asked for a typewriter for Christmas when he was twelve, adding that he was an unashamed nerd.  In his editorial he used the evolution of typewriters to explore the impact of technology on the way we live.  However, he also pointed out that even those things which retain their function are often abandoned for reasons of style.  In other words, we often trade a perfectly serviceable automobile for a new model, or we discard clothing and furniture strictly because the styles change.

Mother's Underwood

The Underwood typewriter of unknown vintage pictured at left once belonged to my mother.  She used it to type her articles for the local newspaper, and although the sticker on the back of the machine states ownership of the copyright in Underwood Elliott Fisher Co. and production in the USA, it does not include a copyright date.  Mother loved writing, and becoming a news reporter in her senior years was like a dream come true.  I don't know where or when she acquired the Underwood typewriter, but it has a sticker from a Hutchinson business on the front, and I suspect she bought it when she became a reporter.

Although its date is uncertain, it seems older than the 1970s or early 1980s when Mother first became a reporter.  Unlike Michael Boodro, Mother would not have rejected it because it wasn't a new model.  Rather, it might have suited her imagination of what a 'girl reporter' would have used when she first dreamed of being one.
Nostalgic Mug

When Isaac Werner ordered a book on Spenserian penmanship, would he ever have imagined that slightly more than a century later students would no longer be taught cursive writing?  Will handwriting, even block printing, disappear except for jotting down brief notes as we communicate more and more by e-mail, text, tweets, and who knows what?

The advertisement for the mug pictured at right reads:  "The Lost Art of Penmanship Mug," and continues, "Kids today may not be taught cursive, but some of us fondly remember learning to mind our p's and q's...  Now you can enjoy the nostalgia of pretty penmanship with this 'educational' 12-ounce mug decorated with lower- and upper-case letters."  I believe the generally accepted origin of the saying about p's and q's relates to pub owners calling out to patrons to mind their pints and quarts in case they needed a refill before the legal hour prohibiting serving liquor arrived.  Will cursive penmanship soon be as obscure as the origin of that saying?

Many, including me, have argued that cursive writing deserves to be taught, not only for aesthetic reasons but also because taking the pains to write legibly--even beautifully--encourages thoughtful reflection, something often lost in the hasty pounding of a keyboard, abbreviated texting, and scribbled printing.  The essay in Elle Decor was directed toward the impact of technology on furnishing our homes, but perhaps Boodro's ideas should also cause us to reflect on the impact of technology on communication and reason, as well as beauty.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sedimentary Formations

Natural Bridge near Sun City before demolition
Some of you who are long-time followers of this blog may remember the blogs about the Natural Bridge near Sun City, KS, and you may also remember the blogs about Isaac Werner's potato-selling trips to Sun City, during which he ruminated about the unusual terrain and rock formations.

The photograph at right clearly shows the layering of sedimentary rock in the Natural Bridge near Sun City taken prior to its destruction.  It also shows how water gradually cut an opening in the rock to create the bridge.

Photo credit:  Moondigger
Many beautiful formations can be found in the United States.  The picture at left, taken from below with the camera aimed skyward "Inside Lower Antelope Canyon" by Moondigger, shows the effect of erosion by wind and water that has exposed the elegant sculpturing of layers of sandstone.

In Southwestern Utah a more rugged example of Sedimentary Formations consisting of siltstones and limestones from the Middle Triassic Period illustrates another means of layering in sedimentary Formations.

Viewed by us but not my photograph
Others of you who follow the blog regularly will also remember my posting of photographs taken of Castle Rock and surrounding outcroppings in that area of northwestern Kansas.

My fascination with sedimentary formations caused me to see one particular circumstance in a geological manner, rather than observing it for what is actually was.

Castle Rock in Kansas
A Kansas "mountain range"
Use your imagination to picture the "mountain range" at right as a sedimentary formation, laid down layer by layer.  That is exactly what I did for a split second as we drove by a Kansas field.  Of course, what I saw was not a mountain range built up layer by layer over eons but rather piles of grain unloaded side-by-side by a Kansas farmer who must have found himself lacking granary storage space.

While it may not have been a mountain range, it was beautiful and offered an interesting comparison of how different materials deposited on top of each other over many eons created the sedimentary rock formations we see today in such places as those pictured above.

The photograph at right shows the grain auger used to transfer the grain from the truck that brought it to the site onto the cleared area on which the grain is being temporarily stored.

The last image shows more closely the layering resulting as the auger deposits the grain on the pile, truck load by truck load.

Beauty is all around us, and with a little imagination, what we see can transport us to imagined places--a wind-shaped canyon, a far-away desert, a distant planet!

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

What is Populism?

Isaac Werner's Journal
The discovery of Isaac Werner's journal is what led to my manuscript with the working title of "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Homesteader and the Populist Movement."  However, what intrigued me as I read his daily accounts of solitary work, neighborhood activities, and trips to surrounding towns, was the social and political involvement that culminated in the Populist Movement.  Although I was raised in Isaac's community, I knew little about the important participation of my community and region in that movement.

I hope I have informed those of you who follow the blog about that involvement; however, the news of recent months has made "populism" a common word.  Just what is Populism?  How could news reporters have described the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as attracting a populist base, and what would their campaigns have in common with the Populism of the late 1800s with which Isaac Werner and his region were so involved?

I'll start with a simple definition.  The word comes from the Latin word populus, meaning people, and is intended to emphasize the power of common people and their right to participate in government through their numbers by using their votes to confront the smaller numbers of the wealthy and political insiders.  While that is a simple definition, the term is used in ways that have very different meanings, depending on the political goals of those being described.

Populism is not unique to America.  Populist Movements have arisen all around the world, and populist leaders have been elected in many countries.  Populism has been employed by both political parties considered liberal and those considered conservative.  It has been used to gather votes but abandoned once in office.  It has been applied to candidates as an insult and as a virtue.  In short, answering the question I raised in my title is probably impossible for one blog!  Perhaps it is nearly impossible for any number of words to pin down!

Political cartoon from the County Capital in St. John, KS
In an article by Marie Antelme posted in April 2017, she wrote:  "...there is no single definition of populism, and no common ideology that defines populist politics."  She did seek to distinguish between "Leftist political populism," which she described as more likely to attract lower- and middle-income voters confronting the wealthy, politically powerful and economically influential elite, and "Rightest" populism, which she identified as more likely to be anti-immigrant, racially resentful, and disliking elites whom they saw as protecting or supporting such outsiders.  Ms. Antelme is an economist with a South African asset management investment firm.  She analyzed populism from an economic perspective, concluding the "Countries with ageing population (like the US and many European countries) need a pragmatic, agreed policy on immigration," and concluding that the political parties in these countries need to find "...the right kinds of jobs--with sufficient pay--in a world of integrated supply chains and disruptive technologies, while providing effective social support as populations age."

Bloomberg writer Stephen Mihm, writing Dec. 13, 2015 during the political campaigns referred back to populism's origins in the late 1800s, describing it as a rural movement arising during the Gilded Age.  He wrote,that "...the Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party" in order to confront "an era of rampant inequality, devastating financial crises and a pervasive belief that the game was rigged against ordinary Americans."  Mihm saw Populists of that era as very different from today's populists, but he listed five things populists of differing times have in common:  1. Anger, 2. Nativism, 3. Dislike of Wall Street, 4. Religious Prejudice (Jews in earlier times and Muslims today), and 5. Conspiracy Theories. (Examples of this might be Foreign Syndicates in the late 1800s buying mortgages to reduce farmers to serfs and accusations of 'fake news' today.)

FDR and Populist ideas

On March 22, 2017, Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio published a detailed examination of populism titled "Populism:  The Phenomenon."  He wrote:  "Populism is a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man, typically not well-educated, being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps, 2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders, 3) the 'establishment elites' in positions of power, and 4) government not working effectively for them. ...Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive."  He summarizes, "In other words, populism is a rebellion of the common man against the elites and, to some extent, against the system."  His article goes further and contains interesting charts and graphs further explaining his analysis.

These three articles were chosen to represent the challenge of specifically defining Populism.  It is the origins of populism in the late 1800s in which Isaac Werner, his region, and his state played such a significant role, with which my manuscript deals.  The next historic period during which populism played a significant role was between the World Wars (1920-1930s).  According to one of Dalio's charts, not since 1930 has such a spike in populism occurred as we are seeing in recent years.

It is important to understand historically how Populism came into existence and the various ways in which the term has been used.  Kansas and Texas, as well as other states with large farming and working class populations, played instrumental roles in the creation of a movement as timely as today's news!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

History in Everyday Places

Recently we attended the annual Willa Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and I was reminded how everyday we have occasions to learn more about the history of our nation and our region.  One of the speakers, Bob Ferguson, a stamp collector, spoke about images on stamps which share history.  Among the images he displayed during his talk was the one to the right, showing the stamp recognizing The Homestead Act.

The image shows a dugout which may very well resemble the type of dwelling Isaac B. Werner built when he first arrived in Stafford County, Kansas.  Partly dug into the earth and partly created with blocks of sod stacked to create walls, it would have been suitable for land like Isaac's where the terrain was less satisfactory for creating a cave.

Mr. Ferguson also showed the first day cover of the stamp honoring Nebraska's first homesteader.  With stamps from his own collection and images taken from the internet, he used stamps to share the history that is to be found in everyday places.  Even the more commonplace stamps we use can remind us of our past, not only historic events but also memorable people--politicians, sports figures, scientists, authors, and movie stars to suggest a few.

We also stepped inside the Red Cloud post office to enjoy another example of history in everyday places.  The paintings on the walls of the post office remind visitors of history in two ways.  First, the subjects of the paintings depict "Loading Cattle," "Stockade Builders," and "Moving Westward."

Second, the paintings also remind visitors of the 1930s and 1940s when they were created.  I had mistakenly believed that the post office art was the result of the Work Projects (WPA) initiated during the Depression to provide employment of various kinds, including the employment of artists to decorate government buildings with murals.  However, the post office art was created under the authority of the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department.  Artists of respected talent were selected by the Section of Fine Arts to decorate public buildings--if funding was available.

The art in the Red Cloud Post Office is oil on canvas created by artist Archie Musick in 1941.  He is considered a Regionalist, and he studied with Thomas Hart Benton.  He developed a particular technique using egg tempera and colored pencil, which technique he employed the remaining years of his career for smaller paintings.  He also authored the book Musick Medley:  Intimate Memories of a Rocky Mountain Art Colony, which described the art world of the Colorado Springs area from the 1920s to the 1950s.

So, while I have chosen to share history through my writing, there are places for us to be made aware of history all around us, including while doing such every-day tasks as adhering a stamp to an envelope and entering a post office to mail a letter.