(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘American history

“A good bookshop is like a genteel black hole that knows how to read”*…

Some good news…

Riding strong gains in the second half of the year, bookstore sales increased 28% in 2021 over 2020, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales were $9.03 billion, compared to sales of $6.50 billion in pandemic-ravaged 2020.

The rebound was not quite enough to bring 2021 bookstore sales back to 2019 levels, falling 1% below 2019 sales of $9.13 billion… [but] was higher than the 19.3% increase for the entire retail sector…

Book shops are back: “Bookstore Sales Rose 28% in 2021,” from @PublishersWkly

* Terry Pratchett

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As we browse, we might spare a thought for an author whose works are eminently worth picking up on one’s next bookstore run: social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey); he died on this date in 1895. Born into slavery, he escaped to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.

He was described by abolitionists in his time as a living counterexample to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens; indeed, some Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great thinker had once been a slave.

Douglass believed in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, and in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. When radical abolitionists, under the motto “No Union with Slaveholders,” criticized Douglass’s willingness to engage in dialogue with slave owners, he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

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“How dare you try to hog all the continent!”*…

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869 (source)

Historian Richard White on the greed, ineptitude, and economic cost behind the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, and what that says about the development of infrastructure today…

Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).

Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the country, he saw the railroad men as a collection of myopic and unintelligent executives who could not have survived year to year without government subsidy. Instead of a monstrous kraken, he suggested a better analogy would be “a group of fat men in an Octopus suit fighting over the controls” of a train going off the rails…

Governing (@GOVERNING) talks with White about lessons for today’s infrastructure programs: “Breaking the Myth About America’s ‘Great’ Railroad Expansion.”

See also: “Years of Delays, Billions in Overruns: The Dismal History of Big Infrastructure” “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Collis Huntington (lead investor in the Central Pacific Railroad) to “Doc” Durant (V.P., and operating head of the Union Pacific Railroad) in 1862

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As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that President James K. Polk, citing “Manifest Destiny” in a State of the Union message, proposed that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.

It was the 22nd anniversary of President James Monroe‘s declaration of the New World as a sphere of influence off-limits to intervention by Old World (colonial) powers, and suggesting that any such incursion would be deemed an act of aggression against the U.S. From 1850, this policy has been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. (source)

“The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be”*…

From the annals of temperance, a particularly tasty (albeit tasteless) tidbit…

Near the end of the 19th century, New Yorkers out for a drink partook in one of the more unusual rituals in the annals of hospitality. When they ordered an ale or whisky, the waiter or bartender would bring it out with a sandwich. Generally speaking, the sandwich was not edible. It was “an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese,” wrote the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Other times it was made of rubber. Bar staff would commonly take the sandwich back seconds after it had arrived, pair it with the next beverage order, and whisk it over to another patron’s table. Some sandwiches were kept in circulation for a week or more.

Bar owners insisted on this bizarre charade to avoid breaking the law—specifically, the excise law of 1896, which restricted how and when drinks could be served in New York State. The so-called Raines Law was a combination of good intentions, unstated prejudices, and unforeseen consequences, among them the comically unsavory Raines sandwich.

The new law did not come out of nowhere. Republican reformers, many of them based far upstate in Albany, had been trying for years to curb public drunkenness. They were also frustrated about New York City’s lax enforcement of so-called Sabbath laws, which included a ban on Sunday boozing. New York Republicans spoke for a constituency largely comprised of rural and small-town churchgoers. But the party had also gained a foothold in Democratic New York City, where a 37-year-old firebrand named Theodore Roosevelt had been pushing a law-and-order agenda as president of the city’s newly organized police commission. Roosevelt, a supporter of the Raines Law, predicted that it would “solve whatever remained of the problem of Sunday closing.”

New York City at the time was home to some 8,000 saloons. The seediest among them were “dimly lit, foul-smelling, rickety-chaired, stale-beer dives” that catered to “vagrants, shipless sailors, incompetent thieves, [and] aging streetwalkers,” Richard Zacks writes in Island of Vice, his book-length account of Roosevelt’s reform campaign.

The 1896 Raines Law was designed to put dreary watering holes like these out of business. It raised the cost of an annual liquor license to $800, three times what it had cost before and a tenfold increase for beer-only taverns. It stipulated that saloons could not open within 200 feet of a school or church, and raised the drinking age from 16 to 18. In addition, it banned one of the late 19th-century saloon’s most potent enticements: the free lunch. At McSorley’s, for example, cheese, soda bread, and raw onions were on the house. (The 160-year-old bar still sells a tongue-in-cheek version of this today.) Most controversial of all was the law’s renewed assault on Sunday drinking. Its author, Finger Lakes region senator John W. Raines, eliminated the “golden hour” grace period that followed the stroke of midnight on Saturday. His law also forced saloon owners to keep their curtains open on Sunday, making it considerably harder for patrolmen to turn a blind eye…

Behind this lifestyle tug-of-war lay a cultural conflict of national proportions. Those in favor of the Sunday ban, generally middle-class and Protestant, saw it as a cornerstone of social improvement. For those against, including the city’s tide of German and Irish immigrants, it was an act of repression—an especially spiteful one because it limited how the average laborer could enjoy himself on his one day off. The Sunday ban was not popular, to say the least, among the city’s Jews, who’d already observed their Sabbath the day before.

Opponents pointed out that existing Sabbath drinking laws were hypocritical anyway. An explicit loophole had been written into the law itself: it allowed lodging houses with ten rooms or more to serve guests drinks with meals seven days a week. Not incidentally, wealthy New Yorkers tended to dine out at the city’s ritzy hotel restaurants on Sundays, the usual day off for live-in servants.

Intentionally or not, the Raines Law left wiggle room for the rich. But a loophole was a loophole, and Sunday was many a proprietor’s most profitable day of business. By the following weekend, a vanguard of downtown saloon-owners were gleefully testing the law’s limits. A suspicious number of private “clubs” were founded that April, and saloons started handing out membership cards to their regulars. Meanwhile, proprietors converted basements and attic spaces into “rooms,” cut hasty deals with neighboring lodging-houses, and threw tablecloths over pool tables. They also started dishing up the easiest, cheapest, most reusable meal they could get away with: the Raines sandwich.

The Raines Law debacle was merely a prelude for what was to come. New York reformers had long allied themselves with the Anti-Saloon League, a civilian organization with Midwestern origins that would morph into one of the most powerful pressure groups in U.S. history. By 1919, the efforts of the ASL made nationwide Prohibition the law of the land, putting an end to such quaint half-measures as the Raines sandwich and replacing the Raines hotel with the speakeasy.

Ubiquitous– and inedible: “To Evade Pre-Prohibition Drinking Laws, New Yorkers Created the World’s Worst Sandwich.”

Laozi

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As we reach for the beer nuts, we might recall that today is National Liqueur Day.

The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquifacere, which means to liquefy. A liqueur is an alcoholic beverage made from a distilled spirit. Distillers flavor the spirit with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers, or nuts. Next, they bottle it with added sugar or other sweeteners. While liqueurs are typically considerably sweet, distillers do not usually age their product long. They do, however, allow a resting period during production, which allows the flavors to marry.

With the broad selection of spirits available in seasonal, fragrant, and often curious flavors (vodkas and rums in particular), there is often confusion of liqueurs and liquors. In the United States and Canada, spirits are frequently called liquor. The most reliable rule of thumb to follow suggests that liqueurs comprise a sweeter, syrupy consistency, while liquors do not. Most liqueurs also have a lower alcohol content than spirits. However, some do contain as much as 55% ABV.

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“Agriculture engenders good sense, and good sense of an excellent kind”*…

In an influential 1943 essay, Polish economist Michał Kalecki staged a contest between capitalism’s pursuit of profit and its pursuit of power. While the benefits of government-sponsored full employment would benefit capitalists economically, Kalecki argued, it would also fundamentally threaten their social position—and the latter mattered more. If wide sections of the country came to believe that the government could replace the private sector as a source of investment and even hiring, capitalists would have to relinquish their role as the ultimate guardians of national economic health, and along with it their immense power over workers. Kalecki thus saw how the desire to maintain political dominance could override purely economic considerations.

This analysis finds a striking illustration in historian Ariel Ron’s award-winning new book Grassroots Leviathan, which advances a major reinterpretation of the contours of U.S. political economy and the origins of the U.S. developmental state—the government institutions that have played an active role in shaping economic and technological growth. In Ron’s revisionist account, the groundwork for the rapid economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century was less industrial and elite than agricultural and popular. “Despite the abiding myth that the Civil War pitted an industrial North against an agrarian South,” he writes, “the truth is that agriculture continued to dominate the economic, social, and cultural lives of the majority of Americans well into the late nineteenth century.” This central fact—at odds with familiar portraits of a dwindling rural population in the face of sweeping urban industrialization—carried with it shifting attitudes toward the state and the economy, dramatically altering the course of U.S. politics. Far from intrinsically opposed to government, a consequential strain of agrarianism welcomed state intervention and helped developed new ideas about the common good…

How a grassroots movement of American farmers laid the foundation for state intervention in the economy, embracing government investment and challenging the slaveholding South in the run-up to the Civil War: “In the Common Interest.”

Joseph Joubert

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As we hone our history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that Mylar was registered as a DuPont trademark. A very strong polyester film that has gradually replaced cellophane, Mylar is is put to many purposes, but main among them– given it’s strength, flexibility, and properties as an aroma barrier, it’s widely used in food packaging.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two million dollars”*…

If you think that our democracy cannot endure with the economic inequality that afflicts the 21st century, go back to the Gilded Age, when Americans worried that the nation could not stand with the economic inequality that arose in the late 19th century. If you think that the nature of work is changing dramatically, go back to the Gilded Age, when the economy was transformed. If you worry that changes in the environment are threatening health and humanity, go back to the Gilded Age when urbanization and industrialization gave birth to those worries. These parallels allow us to step back from the concerns we’re immersed in now and think about our world in new ways. The long lens of history shows us what we’re too myopic to see in the present…

Historian of the period Richard White recommends “The best books on The Gilded Age.” His five choices are each and all eminently worthy of reading; but his explanations for his choices are an education in themselves.

* Mark Twain, The Gilded Age

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As we peer into the not-so-distant-mirror, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867, at the dawn of the Gilded Age, that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl agreed to a treaty effecting the purchase of Alaska by the U.S.; it was briskly ratified by Congress.

The transaction added 586,412 square miles of new territory to the United States at a cost of $7.2 million 1867 dollars (2 cents per acre); in 2019 dollars, the price was $132 million (37 cents per acre).

he US $7.2 million check used to pay for Alaska

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 30, 2021 at 1:01 am

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