Sunday, November 18, 2012

LIFE, No. 1: Up from the bins

It's been a dreary, rainy sort of weekend, and we've been forced to some pretty dire expedients to entertain ourselves.

That included a revisit to "The Bins".

And y'know, the odd thing is that the Bins just didn't seem quite as nasty and filthy as it had when we were there in 2009. I'm not sure if that says something more about the Bins, or about our falling standards of hygiene over the past three years.

Mojo picked up some fairly clean clothing, the kiddos got some sort of toy car apparatus, and I picked up some books, including this thing:

I picked it up because it was an oddity, some sort of collected magazine or journal articles from the first decade of the last century. I enjoy the late Victorian and Edwardian periodicals as art as much as anything, but this looked to be something a little bit more and so it was.

Now if you're old enough - and, frankly, if you're younger than about forty you probably might not remember it - you might remember the glossy picture magazine published with the big red rectangle in the upper left corner with the word LIFE inside it. Before Cosmo, before Vanity Fair, Atlantic, before all the other glossy picture mags, there was LIFE.

In other words, if you're my age or older you might remember a magazine on the checkout stand - and LIFE was still on the supermarket stands when I was a kid, although in the mid-Sixties the picture on the cover was often in color - looking something like this:

LIFE magazine might well have been the iconic periodical in the nation between the Thirties and the Sixties, that is, until the decline of periodical literature in general.

It was the pioneer of "photojournalism" that has become the standard of the 21st Century; pictures supported, and often barely, by words rather than the pictures as the accessory to text as had been the norm up to that point.

But what I had fished out of the blue bin was something else again.

It was a collection - Volume XLVIII, containing July to December 1906 - of the "old" LIFE magazine, the pre-Luce, pre-Thirties version that owed its style and content more to the humor and literary magazines of the 19th Century like Puck or the even older illustrated newspapers like Frank Leslie's than the glossy picture magazine that Henry Luce made of it.

It described itself with the following:
"We wish to have some fun in this paper... We shall try to domesticate as much as possible of the casual cheerfulness that is drifting about in an unfriendly world... We shall have something to say about religion, about politics, fashion, society, literature, the stage, the stock exchange, and the police station, and we will speak out what is in our mind as fairly, as truthfully, and as decently as we know how."

The editors of LIFE had...well, let's just say they had an interesting idea of fun. The pages of the collection are full of all sorts of notions, some of them curiously modern again after 106 years, some of them as archaic as Linear B and almost as incomprehensible.

One of the most fascinating things about this volume is to read about the events of 1906 not as history but as current events. Here's the editorial page for the August 9, 1906 edition of LIFE:
"It is to hold one's breath over Russia, except that her disease is going to run so long a course that it is more convenient for us to watch it to keep on breathing. Old times at this writing are resumed, the Duma being discharged and the familiar apparatus of repression in full operation. The condition of all Russia, so far as heard from, is now such that any prudent person if offered the choice of Russia or Chicago as a place of residence for his family, would be constrained for the time being to choose Chicago."
The editorialist goes on to opine
"Accordingly, the discharge of the Duma has seemed...certain to pospone the organization of Russia's governmental forces and likely to bring on revolution."
How 'bout that? I wonder if the writer lived to know how right he was...

But some of the articles are...well, to a 21st Century reader just bizarre, and shine a rather revealing light into the interior of the heads of the sorts of men who published, and the sorts who read, this sort of magazine in 1906.

Here's a short piece from the same issue entitled One At A Time:
"Women do not mass as well as men do. They lose by aggregation. A street-car full of women makes walking seem attractive. A regiment of men is pleasing. A regiment of women would be disturbing. So there are some flowers that, although individually charming, do no bunch well. Taken in large groups, women are objectionable. It is as individuals or in small squads that they are so incomparably interesting."
I'm not sure that the editor shouldn't have titled the thing A Monstrous Regimen of Women; certainly both seem animated by the same spirit.
At any rate, this volume so tickled me that over the next several months you will encounter here more of the collected insight and wisdom of 1906. There's no escaping it; this odd little volume of forgotten magazines has become one of my enthusiasms and this blog is the uncollated repository for my enthusiasms. You might as well hope for a Republican to stop talking about tax cuts.

Well, one could hope.

For, as the editors of LIFE themselves proclaimed back in the day, "Where there's LIFE, there's hope."


gruff said...

On my (poor) understanding, in 1906 the prospect of a coming revolution in Russia was not inconsiderable, given that one had already happened in 1905, so this gentleman might not be quite the cassandra he seems.

FDChief said...

True. It wasn't so much the prediction of revolution but his connection of it with the dissolution of the Duma. It sounds like the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were a troubled time for Russia in a "the peasants are revolting" sort of way. But pretty much everyone I read draws a bright line from the troubles of 1904-1906 and the February Revolution of 1917. The starting point for a lot of the guys who ended up in Kerensky's government seems to have been that First Duma, which made crystal clear how autocratic and regressive Nick II was and would be.

So not so much the prophet of revolution, but for picking up on the troubles highlighted by the dismissal of the Duma I have to give the anonymous editorial writer his props...

Anonymous said...

In about 1969, we moved to an old duplex in a small Kansas town. There was an old garage out back, full of old magazines and bottles.

I read Colliers magazines, and Life magazines from the early '50's. (By the by, also,I fell madly in love with Yul Brynner.)

Sometimes, those looks back instead of through current day allegedly wiser hindsight is SO much more enlightening.

FDChief said...

Labrys: Innit? These old mags are fascinating to read just because of the way they make the people of 1906 come to life; it's their observations on things we know how they turned out but that the people of the day were just flailing around on. Sometimes they were amazingly prescient, sometimes flat out so fucking wrong it's not even funny; the sexism and racism is freaking painful.

And sometimes you get a look into something REALLY different, for example - did you have any idea that in 1906 divorce and remarriage was some sort of huge social battlefield, really, really similar to the degree that gay marriage and abortion are today?

I had no idea. But - and I will post a bunch of the stuff here because it's so intriguing - the editors of LIFE circa 1906 spent an enormous amount of energy and column space pounding the drum for liberalization of divorce laws.

And Yul? My mother went to see him on Broadway in "The King and I" and is supposed to have practically attacked my old man in the cab home he got her so worked up, his manly bare chest and all. You don't like to think stuff like that about mommy and daddy, but, still...the dude must have had IT in industrial strength.

Lisa said...

I love the bins! We don't have anything that expansive here, but plowing through mountains of stuff certainly does satisfy the hunter-gatherer/plunderer in us.

Your LIFE find is magnificent. How civilized:

We shall try to domesticate as much as possible of the casual cheerfulness that is drifting about in an unfriendly world.

And re. women, I will second they generally do not mass well :( I have found relatively few women who would make a lovely corsage; generally, their competitiveness takes over en masse, IMHO. I still meet with some of these, but it is strictly a one-on-one affair, which lowers the posturing.

basilbeast said...

In about 1969, we moved to an old duplex in a small Kansas town. There was an old garage out back, full of old magazines and bottles.

My mom's dad farmed in Northeast Kansas, living in a small town near the Nebraska border. He bought the old schoolhouse where I spent first grade, had a shed and small barn out back of the house, garage, and the basement, all filled with Nat'l Geographics and assorted old magazines and stuff gathered from years and years of farm and small town sales.

The wife and I have NGs from our birthdays and a few old LIFE issues from the 50s and 60s. LIFE was very much looked forward to every week when I was a kid, the only one Mom and Dad withheld from us was the one on how to make a baby with pix of embryos and how it was all done.

Our first sex education, when they let us kids see it.

Every once in a while, we still catch a glimpse of LIFE, a compendium of pictures in the supermarket.

We have one from the 30s, featuring a pictorial on Hitler and how good he was with kids.

A lot like a Ken Burns documentary.


FDChief said...

Lisa: The Bins are...interesting. A whole bunch of the stuff there is just, well, eww. Dirty in the way that some folks let their houses get filthy in that way that makes you want to shower after you leave? That sort of nasty. To give you an idea, we - and quite a few other people - bring and wear those disposable nitrile gloves to handle the objects.

But if you're patient and picky you can find some real oddities there such as these old LIFE issues.

I will disagree with you, though, about agreeing with our commentator on the monstrous regiment of women. I have found that people in general don't improve with numbers - an old platoon sergeant once explained riot control to me as how the intelligence of a crowd is the IQ of the smartest person in it divided by the number of people in the crowd. But my experience is that gender isn't a particular factor. For some people, yes. But typically guys and gals seem about equally subject to the IQ/N process...

I think our editoral writer was more trying to make the point that you delicate little flowers needed to be sniffed individually by discerning gentlemen, rather than mobbing about like a bunch of suffragettes...

bb - the old mags are kind of a fascinating window on our parents' and their parents' world. Pretty cool, that...

Lisa said...

OK -- I'll go with you on that: People have a mob-like quality that is not pleasant. However, in the military, I am impressed with the idea that given a room full of people, if someone asks "Who is in charge?", someone will step forward, which bodes well for crowd control.

Civilian women tend to lack that command structure. But yes, this could be an underhanded way of disallowing group protest activity.