Doing the Locomotion: Chicago and Boston

I've previously mentioned my love of the website Shorpy, with its cleaned up and sharpened historic photographs. I visit almost daily.

One thing I like to look at in the image is what people were up to when they didn't know they were being observed, and particularly how they walk, stand, or lounge. These photographs are almost all urban photographs, so I am probably missing some great rural ambling. But here are some of my favorites, pointing out various individuals of interest. My computer wallpaper is a rotating selection of Shorpy images, these among them.

Each picture links to the much larger image on the Shorpy website, as they request. Most of those images are very high resolution, and can be further expanded. Read the comments. Shorpy has some of the most attentive and well-informed commenters around, if a bit overly concerned with makes of automobiles.

Today I'll cover Chicago and Boston. Later, some places in New York.

That Toddlin' Town

For some reason, my eye has been caught most often by people near where I grew up, in Chicago.

 Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Chicago, Wabash, 1900

Here, for example, is the Wabash Avenue L in 1900. It seems to be mostly about rails and facades, but an attentive commenter picked out this lady.

 We’ll never know where she was headed

We’ll never know where she was headed

This is probably not the main character of a story, but a supporting player who rivets the attention whenever she's onstage. Where did she go once she strode off the edge of this photograph?


Also in Chicago, this time under the L, in 1940, are people dressed in the much lighter summer clothes of four decades later.

 Chicago, Under the L, 1940

Chicago, Under the L, 1940

My eye is instantly riveted by this lady, who really knows how to make getting from one place to another an adventure. Her way of moving is even more impressive when you reflect that she's doing it in heels across paving stones and streetcar tracks.

 “Don’t just get somewhere,  go  there!”

“Don’t just get somewhere, go there!”

And, finally, a scene before the war. Another summer afternoon, just a year later than the previous one, right after work. You see women in summer dresses, older men in hats, younger men bareheaded. Everyone's going somewhere, but in no rush, so I haven't picked anyone out in particular.

 A Chicago, the summer before the war

A Chicago, the summer before the war

Businesslike Bostonians

This shows the end of Bromfield Street in 1908, right where it joins Washington Street. The street looks pretty much the same today. Marliave is still there. That's the Granary Burial Ground at the far end.

 A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

A bit less horse poop, but much the same in 2018

 I hope she made it on time

I hope she made it on time

It looks like the morning commute. My eye is always caught by this lady, hustling to work, not particularly enjoying herself. I've never figured out if that's her lunch she's carrying, her purse, or a beer stein.

 He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about getting there on time. They’ll wait.

Meanwhile, the men look more relaxed. This older gentleman, very well dressed, is looking at the scene, while the two younger men behind him, saunter toward Tremont Street, one with his hands in his pockets.


Then here is what is now Dewey Square, in front of South Station, 1905. The Station has lost much of its bulk over the years, so each wing is shorter, and the elevated train is gone. I actually like elevateds, but most people find them noisy and unsightly. If they're paid for and are working, I'd keep them. Boston went through a lot of effort to bury theirs, and at great expense, though this one was gone long before that.

 In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

In the summer months there is a great farmers’ market here

 “He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

“He had pies in both hands, I’m telling you….”

Lots of people walking in various ways, but I like these two, who, yes, are standing, not walking: a cop in a classic custodian helmet (now associated only with Keystone Kops) and a shorter guy with something to say, standing on a slight slope so that he has a comic look perfect for one of those Mack Sennett two reelers.

The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

 Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 4, Whigs vs Tories

This is the fourth in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

 Is this choice really so hard?

Is this choice really so hard?

OK, so this one is not so much of a crisis as the previous ones. It didn't lead to a bloody civil war, it didn't result in show trials, it didn't cause the existing power structure to switch out their chief executive for the ruler of a sometimes-hostile foreign power. The savagery of the conflict between the nascent political parties, starting under Charles II and reaching maturity as a recognizable party system under Anne, indicates a more functional political system, where the savagery become more rhetorical. While there would be riots and civil broils aplenty over the coming centuries, including invasions by the "OMG, would you jerks go away already?" Stuarts, there would not again be a serious internal threat to the system. Still, it was savage, and in a way that looks uncomfortably familiar.

So let's go back to the reign of Charles II.

Exclusion, and the birth of the Whigs

In the late 1670s, the paranoia of the Popish Plot united with the Exclusion Crisis, that is, the desire to keep Charles's Catholic younger brother James from taking the throne on Charles's death. Charles had no legitimate children, and while his Protestant oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, was popular, there was never any serious possibility of the succession going to him—he did try to invade on James's accession, and was quickly defeated.

A series of Test Acts banned Catholics from serving in various offices. And in 1679, at the height of the Plot, elections returned a highly anti-James Parliament, which promptly proposed an Exclusion Bill. Charles dissoved this Parliament, and there was a frenzied second election. It is now that something like an organized political party, soon to be called the Whigs, emerged. The Whigs met in London coffee houses and at the Green Ribbon Club. They orchestrated what Kishlansky calls "a lurid press keep up interest in the Popish Plot long enough to influence the October elections", and won a strong majority in favor of Exclusion.

Charles had the power to prorogue Parliament, and used it—seven times over the next year. It worked. The derangement of the Popish Plot receded somewhat. And the King's supporters imitated the Whig political organization, and thus the Tories were born.

When Parliament finally met in late 1680, the Tories had some power too. According the Kishlansky, "the governing class was now irredeemably divided". Tory propagandists associated Whigs with the revolutionaries who had killed Charles's father. Over the next five years, Charles regained a lot of his power. He purged the judiciary of anyone not loyal to him, and these judges then made possible "capital convictions for sedition and ruinous judgments for slander" against the King's opponents. Then the Rye House Plot (1683) gave Charles cover for arresting and purging his opponents.

The maturing of party politics under Anne

By the early eighteenth century, under Queen Anne, the party system had reached maturity:

...Whigs and Tories were no longer opprobrious labels (after Scottish and Irish brigands, respectively): they were organizations whose opposition dominated the political life of the nation...local officials were purged and repurged...electoral contests for borough offices gradually replaced rotational systems, and party affiliation infected every aspect of social life from patronage to friendship and distorted every market from commodities to conflict politicized England....the parties were divided over matters of outlook, principle and instinct. There was remarkably little overlap.

This blend of policy debate, red-faced rage, and team sport is incredibly familiar. For late Stuart England, party politics was like a new disease, against which the people had no antibodies. And like such a disease, it ran through the population, and then became endemic, flaring up periodically, like the Plague.

Flare ups are still inevitable. The idea the people will settle down to push forward consistent policy agendas without conspiracy theories, claims that their opponents are secretly aliens or perverts, or attempts to politicize mundane daily activities like eating dinner and going to musicals, has always been a pipe dream of people who (like me) seem to lack the gene for team spirit.

This party system survived the end of the Stuarts and the advent of the Hanoverians. Given the civil conflict and outbreaks of violence it replaced, it's hard to wish it had not appeared. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they believed they had created a system immune to such shenanigans. They were so wrong so fast, you have to wonder why we think they were so smart.

Are you a team player?

It doesn't really matter which team you support, as long as you support it fervently.

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 3, The Glorious Revolution

This is a continuation of my series on the Stuart century, responding to A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky

 Best rebranding of a high-level takeover  ever

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover ever

After Charles II died, in 1685, his Catholic brother took the throne as James II. Charles had had numerous children by various mistresses, but his own wife, Catherine of Braganza, had proved incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term. Charles had himself promised his paymaster, Louis XIV, that he would convert to Catholicism at some point, but there is no sign he ever did so. James, on the other hand, was an ardent Catholic. This irritated Charles, who knew better than to take religion too seriously, and he insisted that James raise his two daughters, Mary and Anne, as Protestants, and it is as Protestants that each would become Queen.

But it isn't just that James II was a Catholic, though that aroused the most passionate popular opposition. He was also an absolutist, who wanted to recentralize power and push back against Parliament.

A slight detour to New England

Here in New England, where I live, this led to the creation of the Dominion of New England, on the model of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (when an English King copies the administrative structures of Spain, you know you've got trouble), unifying the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies under the notorious Governor Edmund Andros.

For years there was a diner on Trapelo Rd. in Belmont, MA, called the Andros Diner. I presume it was named after the Cycladic island by its Greek proprietors, not the Governor, but it always seemed a bit tone deaf. I'm pretty sure children are no longer taught to execrate the tyrannical Andros (my children certainly seem pretty indifferent), but this attempt to revoke the colonial charters and centralize the administration of the colonies was part of the long history that led to the Revolution.

But Kishlansky, despite teaching at Harvard, spent no time at all on New England in his book. But what Andros, at James's orders, attempted in New England, James tried himself in old England. Stuarts could never stand alternative centers of power, but were never effectual in manipulating and co-opting them. Instead, they just tried to squash them, which led to one execution and one deposition among the six Stuart monarchs, along with a lot of political chaos for the rest, not a sterling record.

None dare call it treason

Angry at James, and worried that he would have a male heir with his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, a substantial group of wealthy and powerful men, already being called Whigs (we'll see a lot more of them when I get to the reign of Anne), conspired to replace him with a foreign but Protestant monarch, William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, with which England had fought three wars between 1654 and 1672. It definitely helped that he was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, and that she would become Queen.

One reason the politics of ancient Greek city states were so volatile was that the wealthy of a city felt more connected to the wealthy of another than they did with the politically violent rabble in their own home town. And while the Greek poleis all shared a common culture, language, and contempt for all those losers in the world who who would never have the right to compete in the Olympic games, going to other cities to get help in internal political conflicts didn't seem like that big a deal, and it happened fairly frequently. For example, before Athens was a democracy, Sparta intervened to help depose the tyrant Hippias and (unsuccessfully) try to install someone they liked better. Later Persian intervention in the Peloponnesian War and in other conflicts always made those conflicts both worse and longer-lived. But internal conflict among the Greeks suited the Persians just fine. They couldn't defeat the Greeks militarily, but fortunately volatile and fratricidal Greek politics gave them a cheap way to keep the Greeks busy, at least until Alexander showed up.

Getting back to England, prior to the nobles who conspired to bring William over, a similar group of English nobles had conspired with the Scots against James's father, Charles I in the 1630s. In The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas wrote “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates," quoted, I see, in Die Harder. The apposite quote is from the Elizabethan writer John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In both cases, the wealthy and powerful conspired against their own government with a foreign power, because they felt that this was made necessary by powerful forces within their own country that were taking it to its doom. And both times, they succeeded. Arguably, the result of their actions is the democratic form of government we now enjoy and whose fragility we fret over.

"The culmination of decades of manipulation of English public opinion"

In late 1688 William issued a declaration that his invasion was necessary to "preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties, and customs" of England. According to Kishlansky "the declaration was a masterpiece of propaganda, the culmination of decades of Dutch manipulation of English public opinion".

Still, landing with Dutch troops in Torbay was a daring move for William, and if James had used his larger army effectively, he could well have crushed the invasion force. But several of his key commanders went over to the invader, and James eventually fled, to create an alternate court that political romantics could daydream about for nearly a century to come.

This crisis and its resonance

No one ever seemed to find the behavior of the oppositions of Charles I and James II treasonous or even outrageous. A large number of people were willing to put up with even the military intervention of a foreign power if it supported the right side. Of course, nationalism wasn't anything like the powerful organizing force it became in the nineteenth century.

I won't spend a lot of time belaboring the modern parallels, but it's worth thinking about.

Whose intervention would you accept if it enabled you to defeat the people you know are going to destroy your country?

And after you succeeded, would you be proud of this, or would you let it gently evaporate from the pages of the official history textbooks?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 2, Plots and Conspiracies

This is the second in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Charles II's reign is usually remembered for licentiousness, disease, and corruption, as well as for the Great Fire. But it was torn by two major conspiracy scares, the Popish Plot (1678-1681) and the Rye House Plot (1683), where many people were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, exiled, or executed.

The Popish Plot

 They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

Exactly what actually planned by anyone and who was actually guilty of anything is completely unclear. The Popish Plot was started by a genuinely odious mountebank and opportunist named Titus Oates, 29 and newly returned from abroad, where he had been rejected by several Jesuit schools. Oates seems to have been a brilliant confabulator. He had an almost supernatural talent for discerning what someone wanted to hear, a seemingly total recall of the details of every lie he told, and an ability to rapidly incorporate new events into his growing story. He was helped out by the fact that, if you accuse enough people, one of them will have done something suspicious that can be worked into the story.

Everyone was terrified of Catholics, the enemy within, and the knowledge that the childless King's heir was his younger brother James, who had become Catholic, put everyone on edge. Charles was not theologically reliable himself—and both brothers were in the pay of Louis XIV (though seldom providing value for money, pretty much the story of the Stuart dynasty as a whole). When the man to whom Oates had gone twice to swear evidence, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was found face down in a ditch on Primrose Hill, seemingly murdered, a crime that has excited a lot of speculation from that day to this, it seemed to be evidence that Oates was telling the truth.

At least 15 people were executed, accompanied by mass demonstrations. Other informers, seeing a good opportunity, jumped aboard the conspiracy, informing on their neighbors, who were arrested in their turn. It became a crime to even deny the existence of the plot. Informers, mobs rampaging through the streets, the terror of arbitrary arrest: various people used the panic for their own purposes, but this was not any kind of top-down state terror. In fact, King Charles was really in part the target, and his attempt to have Oates arrested was unsuccessful. This was a genuine mass movement started by one failed seminary student, who struck a match amid a huge stack of dried kindling.

The frenzy went on for nearly three years. Oates was eventually disgraced, rejected by many of his former allies, who now found him inconvenient.

The Rye House Plot

In 1683 Charles found a pretext to strike back at his enemies. There was a plot to murder both him and James simultaneously, as they were returning from a horse race in Newmarket. Though there were definitely several groups who were plotting rebellion against the Stuart monarchy, no one has ever known how well-organized this particular operation was. It served as an excellent opportunity for Charles to get his own back, harking back to the grandaddy of all anti-Stuart plots, The Gunpowder Plot, and use the fear of conspiracies to move against his enemies, which included much of the population of London. This frenzy was directed at Dissenters, those Protestants who were not part of the state Anglican church, including many Quakers. Again, many arrests and executions. This time the operations really were top down, directed by Charles himself.

It doesn't take social media to get rumors, fake news, mobs, violence, and intergroup strife. But it's definitely worth taking a look at the reign of Charles II to get a good sense of how various forces can try to take advantage of inchoate rage and panic to achieve their own ends. I'd like to think we were beyond mass arrests, perjured evidence, and panicky magistrates trying to calm down the mob before it turns on them, but sometimes I am not so sure.

What kind of Plot do you think would be most suitable for our own touchy era?

And will the first one be against our monarch, or be run by him?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 1, The Civil War

I recently read A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky. It's part of The Penguin History of Britain series. The book is from 1996, and it looks like the series is getting a refresh. I don't know if there will be a new edition of this book, however, since Prof. Kishlansky died a few years ago.

I quite enjoyed it. It's almost entirely a political history of the Stuart century, from the accession of James I (and VI of Scotland) to the death of Anne. Don't read it for insights into the literature, architecture, or science of the time, interesting though all of those were. Kishlansky barely mentions any of them. Religion does get covered, mostly because of its strong influence on politics.

 That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

But I was actually reading it for the politics. I'm interested in the nature of political legitimacy, when people accept it, and when they reject it--and the Stuart period has multiple collapses of legitimacy. I'm apprehensive of our own time, and want to see how other eras handled it and what the consequences were.

I see four periods during the Stuart century that can provide us with some ways to view our own time: The English Civil War, the two great conspiracy panics of Charles II's reign (the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot), the Glorious Revolution where some rich people used the panic of the population to dethrone their legitimate monarch and invite the ruler of a frequently hostile foreign power to take over the position instead, and the savage beginnings of recognizably modern party conflict during the reign of Anne. The Stuarts were frequently annoying and usually infuriating, but they were never dull.

The biggest one comes first: the English Civil War.

Pulling out the guns

I've always been interested in the English Civil War, the most violent of these collapses of legitimacy, but I've never really understood it. I read A Monarchy Transformed to read about it in the context of its entire era. I do understand it a bit better, but I now know it's going to be a long road.

James I took over a kingdom where the incumbent, Elizabeth I, had been kicking the can down the road for decades.It was like inheriting a vehicle whose frugal previous owner had not done any maintenance, never changed the oil, and bribes the inspector at emissions testing time as cheaper than doing the necessary work. So James had trouble with financing, as did his son Charles I after him.

Not that their notoriously expensive art-collecting lifestyles didn't contribute. It isn't hard to imagine a monarch who did a better job managing Parliament, wars, the Scots, the Irish, and religious strife better than Charles I. But it is hard to imagine one who comes through the crisis unscathed.

Eventually, everyone pulled out their guns, got into their gangs, and fought it out. Not satisfied with one bout of civil war, they took a break and had another. It's important to remember how brutal and bloody this all was. According to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis, his global history of the 17th century,

[The English Civil War]...killed about 250,000 men and women in England, Scotland and Wales, or 7 percent of the total population...Between 1640 and 1660, several hundred thousand men and women were maimed or rendered homeless; and tens of thousands more were taken prisoner and enslaved by the conquerors....

Civil wars are the most brutal of wars.

Then the victors killed the King, because he really was just so damn annoying there really wasn't much else they could do. I'm sure most of them knew it was a bad idea, but Jesus, what a pompous jerk. Even the fact that both he and his sidekick Archbishop Laud were both really short, around my height, doesn't make me sympathize with either of them.

OK, he's dead. Now what?

But then what? Between various Parliamentary factions, religious groups, and the Army, there was constant mistrust, hostility, and conflict. Eventually a charismatic leader, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator and turned England into a successful bully that punched way above its weight in European affairs.

But neither he nor Parliament ever created a functioning political system to replace the previous one, so when he died, there was nothing to do but ask Charles's son, Charles II, to come back and pretend nothing much had happened. Successful Truth and Reconciliation efforts require a small bit of Truth and a whole lot of Reconciliation, ignoring a lot of past bad behavior until everyone involved is dead, and this one was surprisingly successful.

But why did everyone start killing each other in the first place?

But it's hard to really see the hostility that led to the death of seven percent of the population in a few short years (something like 22.5 million dead in a proportional conflict in the United States in 2018, if you want a cheery number). Oh, you read about squabbles about altar rails and ship money and Catholicism, but that seems like the usual incomprehensible issues people in the past seemed to get so exercised about. But under all that was clearly a lot of rage.

Of course, it might be that the islanders were just getting competitive with the Continent, where the Thirty Years War had become the bloodiest European conflict before the Twentieth Century. Keeping up with the Hapsburgs, and all that.

After an earlier squabble with Parliament, Charles I dismissed it and ruled on his own for the next eleven years, the period of Personal Rule (or the Eleven Years' Tyranny, if you want to be a sorehead about it). Things actually looked OK. Harvests were good and there were no big disasters, so it seemed to be working. But underneath the surface the finances were just not adding up. And there was no way to raise taxes without Parliament. Afterward, people probably looked back at this period with longing, thinking about how good life had been, even as the foundations had slowly collapsed.

So a halcyon period can conceal the rot that causes its structure to collapse. And this particular collapse was horrendous. I think it was worse than our own Civil War...but maybe more like any future civil war we might have. No one in the future will really understand what we were fighting about either. I'm not sure I do, and I live right here.

Will we feel lucky if we get our own Cromwell?

Why does everyone think that if we get rid of our clunky, old-school political system, we can agree on a shiny, efficient new one?

Next time: Conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theories. OK, Plots.

One man, one proxy

Often when people, at least some leftish people of my acquaintance, get a political result they don't like, they start talking about flaws in how votes are counted. Proportional representation! Elimination of the Electoral College! Epistocracy! There has to be something to straighten things out.

But, of course, both sides were aiming at a target in a known location. To try to redraw the target around where you arrow hit and saying that location makes more sense ignores the fact that, if you do, your opponents will also be aiming at that target next time, and there is no guarantee at all that you will still get closer to it than they will.

Still, there have been interesting oddball ways of counting votes and assigning representation in history, and while they will not change our politics, our fiction can certainly still use them. Colonial Maryland had, at least for awhile, a particularly interesting system.

You can exercise your vote, or assign it to someone else

 The Founding of Maryland

The Founding of Maryland

According to Edmund Morgan, in his book on the rise of the necessary myth that representative government actually represents us all, Inventing the People, The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, colonial Maryland in the 1630s experimented with an interesting proxy system for voting.

If you were an adult male, you could go to the assembly yourself. Or you could assign your vote to someone else, who would go to the assembly, and vote his vote and yours and those of anyone else who had given him their proxy.

As Morgan describes someone going to the assembly with these proxy votes:

He did not represent anyone who had not specifically and individually empowered him; and a man could even change his mind, revoke the assignment of his vote, and attend in person...One could also transfer one's proxy, as it was called, from one man to another after the session began.

So the assembly did not have a specified number of attendees, but was attended in spirit by everyone who had entrusted his proxy to someone else.

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. On one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

The personal connection

Inventing the People really digs into how weird the idea of representative government really is--and how conceptually fragile. It is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. If we cease to agree, the fiction disappears. The book, while written in 1988, has a lot to say to our current era, where a lot of people are questioning the fictions essential to the survival of our system of government.

Remember how that snotty kid pointing out that the Emperor wore no clothes caused the government's collapse, and his country's conquest by brutal and oppressive neighbors? I bet he's sorry now.

What makes you feel genuinely represented?

Do you expect your elected representative to do exactly what you want, or are you hiring a skilled expert to make decisions that you recognize you are too lazy or ignorant to make yourself?

The passions of Chalcedonians and Monophysites

Every commentator notes how partisan the American public has become. Positions seem continually more extreme, blue is bluer, red is redder, and no one is interested in what the other side has to say.

This may well be true. I live in a genteel blue area, and do know a lot of people with predictable doctrines (and many women I encounter specify adherence to these doctrines as a prerequisite for dating them), but no one seems particularly enraged at their opponents or uncomprehending of their positions.

So that leads to the natural question: what would the period after the Council of Chalcedon have been like if someone in Late Antiquity had invented Twitter?

Chalcedon, in 451, established the Orthodox definition of the nature of Christ, the same definition used by modern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. But some found this an unwelcome compromise. Their position was known (I gather pejoratively) as Monophysitism. Their descendants are Coptic and Oriental Orthodox churches, including the Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syriac churches.

Christological wrangling seems to have fallen out of fashion (I gather it really requires Greek to be clear enough to fight about), and I won't go into the details they were squabbling about here. But they really did take it seriously, and the more heavily Monophysite areas of Egypt and Syria were always in conflict with Chacedonian Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Balkans. They would denounce each other, riot against each other, depose each other's bishops, and write endless screeds against each other.

Periodically, an Emperor would try to do something about it. Zeno came up with the Henoticon, which tried, unsuccessfully to paper over the differences by being unclear about what they were. Anastasius, a pious Monophysite, had no patience with extremists and exiled both overzealous Monophysites and Chalcedonians, finding them both tiresome. Justinian, who knew everything, tried to persuade everyone to an elaborate compromise position involving the Three Chapters (something else probably not worth the effort to understand), but even this late antique Woodrow Wilson was unable to achieve his goal. Justinian's Empress, Theodora, was a fervent Monophysite, and never compromised either.

Anastasius, by the way is one of my favorite Emperors. He took office at age 60, ruled for over a quarter of a century (491-518), and left the Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire by this point) prosperous and with a huge cash surplus, which unfortunately enabled his overactive successor Justinian to finance his endless wars. History tends to overvalue the flashy Justinians and undervalue the "how about we focus on reestablishing coinage with consistent value and stay away from overheated rhetoric" Anastasiuses.

When the Arabs invaded in the early 7th century, they conquered the Monophysite areas, which has been atributed to the inhabitants' hatred of Orthodoxy, but I think this is mostly a matter of geographical chance. It's just that they failed to conquer the Orthodox heartland.

The conflict between Chalcedonian and Monophysite wasn't all in good fun, but it wasn't a civilizational fissure either. Both inhabited a unified empire, honored the same Emperor. and got on with things. If they had spent their days tweeting about consubstantiality, they might have ended up hating each other enough to break up the Empire long before it finally fell to overwhelming force.

So, yeah. I'm with Anastasius. Sure, think those people are clueless idiots, and their doctrines are abhorrent. But we have a nation to run, jobs to do, food to cook, and beaches to lie on with our dates or our families.  Dammit, did that seagull just steal my sandwich? That's what I really need to worry about.


The kind of sentence I like

From Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown:

They brought home bright-colored cloaks and tunics and hose in the brilliant scarlets and leaf-greens of the alum-fixed dyes that were all the rage in twelfth-century Europe; an ell of scarlet wook sold for six times the equivalent length of undyed gray.

Alum is what is called a mordant (a lovely word that, according the Griffin Dyeworks, comes from the French "to bite"): something that gets dye to actually stick to the fabric. I love the detail because it relates to culture, fashion, and technology, and, of course, status, which depends on all of those.

The "home" here is Iceland. The subtitle of the books is "Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths". It is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century literary and political genius who seems to have given form to a lot of what we now accept as the standard Norse myths, even as his political machinations contributed to chaos in Iceland, his murder, and the eventual loss of Iceland's independence and its rule by the King of Norway.

His era, called the "Sturlung Era" after his family, is when family and regional sagas were written down in the form we now know--13th century views of events and personalities in the 10th and 11th. Snorri seems to have written Egil's Saga, one of the longest and best known. A story does not tell itself. It says something about both the teller and the listener. The people of the contentious and threatened Sturlung Era looked back to the Saga Era and tried to understand how they had ended up where they were.

This is all research for the book I'm working on. It is not set in Iceland, but is definitely inspired by it. Brown does mention, among things, that Iceland's climate does not allow honeybees to survive. I definitely have bees in my book (growing out of my story "The Forgotten Taste of Honey"), so there you go: not Iceland.



Getting into political theory

I've never been taken any classes in political theory. Or political practice, for that matter. How polities are best structured, what institutions help make you rich, what other ones lead to stagnation or eternal conflict, how even originally good institutions decay over time, what makes people accept a government as legitimate, how people can take the stability of their society for granted until it all dissoves around them....

Well, for some reason, I am thinking about those things now. My current reading is Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, the first of two volumes, this one covering the history of state building up to the French Revolution.

Thick, dense, and tremendous fun, so far. He spends a great deal of time on China, and a lot on India as well, and lets the Roman Empire kind of take care of itself.

One big theme is the negative effects what he calls patrimonialism has on state building and strength. Loyalty to your relatives is natural. Successful states are, by that token, deeply unnatural. They break the link between family and political authority. He posits that feudalism in the West, essentially a contractual relationship, formed a stable base on which more complex polities could be built. There is certainly a lot of the personal in feudalism, as there is in any relationship between people. But it started the West down a road where the important thing was office and not person.

I don't want to oversimplify. Fukuyama gives a good deal of attention to what characterized each type of government, how it grew out of its circumstances and history, what expectations people had of the systems under which they lived, and how, inevitably, changing expectations weren't met by the existing system.

How the Mamelukes and Ottomans built successful systems based on giving political power to high-status slaves (to eliminate the risk of patrimonialism), only to have these systems eventually fracture as these successful slaves found ways to pass their wealth and power on to their descendants, may seem to have little to do with our current troubles, but seeing how many different ways there are to deal with a recurrent problem is definitely enlightening. It's easy to be distracted by the immediate details. What are people really after? How different is that, really, from one age to another? What mechanisms slow people down from destroying the system that benefits them so much? I won't say prevents--nothing has ever prevented societal collapse.

I'm not done yet, and need to think it through once I am, but there is a lot to like about this book.

Greetings from 1933

In my reading on the 1933 Union Station Massacre in Kansas City, I also learned some things about the country at that time.

First, it was a desperately corrupt place. Entire cities were run by the mob, or other criminal enterprises, and everywhere else seemed strongly affected by organized crime of various kinds.  We tend to underestimate the parasitic load of corruption through most of the twentieth centurey, from concrete contracts to uneven enforcement of the law, a load that, despite a lot of rhetoric, is way lower now than it used to be.

For example, the two federal agents who grabbed Frank Nash in Hot Springs faced a gantlet of corrupt police forces on their way out of town. All of their movements were known, though they threw off pursuit by telling one bunch of corrupt cops they were heading to Joplin, when they actually went to Fort Smith, to catch the train to KC. Of course, they didn't do themselves any favors by then answering the questions of a curious reporter, revealing who they were and where they were going. They proved that not all publicity is good publicity by walking into the ambush when they got there the next morning.

KC, or course, was run by the Prendergast machine. The local mob boss, Johnny Lazia, held court at the Fred Harvey restaurant at the train station. Though the Fred Harvey company (famous for its Harvey Girls) is long gone, the restaurant at Union Station is still a going concern, though I suspect it doesn't resemble Lazia's late-night hangout much, and I don't know who actually runs it. I had lunch there with some old friends from college.

Lazia supposedly gave sanction to the Massacre, and helped clean up afterward. Like many of these guys, he was killed by his fellows, rather than by the cops or the feds, the next year.

Another thing was how dangerous driving was. Now, most of the driving in the various books I read is being done by desperate and low-attention-span thrill killers and bank robbers. Still, they keep spinning out, going off the road, crashing into things, and ending up in ditches. Just as one example among many, Clyde Barrow missed a sign warning of a missing bridge and drove off into a dry river bed--on June 10, a week before the Massacre, to show how everything was happening at once. Bonnie's leg was severely burned by spilled battery acid, and she was never really able to walk again. She was carried, or hopped around on one leg.

Roads were poorly marked, curves sharp, lights rare, and car tires exploded or shredded unexpectedly. No seat belts. And, yeah, people were insane drivers. As with homicides, the 1930s were a peak in automobile vehicle fatalities. The rate for most of that decade was near three per thousand population. The current rate is a third that, and there are vastly more cars per population than there were then. The death rate per million vehicle miles was around 15 in the 1930s. Now it is one.

And people, lacking other distractions, really got into things. If a bank robbery got at all delayed, the street outside would fill with curious onlookers. Posses were a real thing, and bandits were pursued by huge numbers of armed citizens, as the Clyde gang was in Dexter, Iowa, where they had camped out to recuperate. And as I mentioned before, people weren't shy about taking souvenirs, whether it was blood, bullets, or clothing.

It was a wild time, and weirder than we usually think.

Forgotten History: the Union Station Massacre

Before I went out to Kansas City for Worldcon this year, I read up on the city and its history, and became fascinated by an event known as the Union Station Massacre. This shootout, on June 17, 1933, was the high-publicity rollout of the bank robbing, kidnapping, and mayhem that roiled the Midwest until the end of 1934. The marquee stars included John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barkers, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

In fact, almost all the mythic actions of these celebrity criminals fall into these couple of years. Dillinger's first bank robbery was four days after the Massacre, on June 21, 1933, and he was dead by July 22, 1934. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met in 1930, but Clyde didn't start killing people until 1932. They were killed on May 23, 1934. Romantic hero Floyd was killed on October 22, 1934, the twitchy killer Nelson on November 27 of that year, and poor clueless Ma Barker and her son Fred on January 16, 1935. The only high-profile freelance Public Enemy left was the sinister sociopath Alvin Karpis (aka "Old Creepy"), the last member of the Barker gang, and he was arrested on May 1, 1936, after a long period on the run.

But, aside from Pretty Boy Floyd (and this is debated, part of what makes the story interesting), none of these were involved at Union Station. So what happened? What made the morning end with four dead cops in the parking lot in front of Union Station, Kansas City?

A cop and a couple of federal agents (not yet called FBI) went to Hot Springs, Arkasas and kidnapped a known escaped bank robber named Frank Nash. They had to "kidnap" him because enforcing laws across state lines was incredibly difficult at that time, and Hot Springs was a completely criminal enterprise, a kind of gangster Riviera, and they knew they would be prevented if they went through channels. They got on a train the Union Station and called some locals to help them transfer their prisoner from the train to a car and thence to Leavenworth.

But the word got out, and three criminal associates of Nash decided to rescue him, with tommy guns. The result was a shootout that left four cops, both local and federal, dead, along with Nash, and two wounded. The shooters fled.

To show how different things were back then, locals picked up and pocketed the bullets and other detritus of the shootout as souvenirs, while newspaper reporters rearranged the dead bodies to make better photos, getting blood on their pants cuffs. Crime scenes seem to have been complete free-for-alls at this time. Remember, when the airship Shenandoah crashed in southern Ohio in 1925, thousands of locals came and looted the wreckage (though that they also looted the dead bodies of the crew seems to be untrue).

Coming only two days after the high-profile kidnapping of William Hamm, president of the brewery, by the Barkers and Karpis, in St. Paul, Minn,  this really made people see the country as in the grip of a wave of crime--and they weren't wrong. The homicide rate peaked at nearly 10 per 100,000 population in the early 1930s, a rate it would not reach again until the high-crime 1970s and 80s.

This is when J. Edgar Hoover professionalized what would become the FBI--and brilliantly managed its PR, turning it from a bunch of bureaucrats to a professional national police force, and the heroic agency of movies and TV. The Massacre not only kicked off the crime wave, it kicked off Hoover's career.

One of the shooters was a former sheriff named Vern Miller. After he escaped from an ambush at a Chicago apartment building, he vanished, to turn up dead in a ditch near Detroit, presumably the victim of competing criminals. But the other two? Oddly, their identification was never completely clear, even though the shootout took place in a crowded train station in mid-morning of a business day. Pretty Boy Floyd was strongly implicated, but refused to admit culpability as he lay dying of a belly wound in an Ohio cornfield. A man named Adam Richetti was eventually executed for his participation, but whether he was even there that day is hotly disputed.

I had never heard of this event before deciding to go to Kansas City, but am now a big fan. I visited the station a couple of times to see where it happened, and examined what is claimed to be a bullet chip in the front of the station (well, maybe....though it's probably just a random chip).

All the photos of the aftermath show the station parking lot with the bullet-riddled vehicle. I thought they faced city streets and buildings. Instead, turning in the other direction shows you the impressive World War One Memorial, with its Art Deco tower and veiled sphinxes, opened in 1926. It's a dramatic setting for a dramatic crime.



Trouble in the Eighteenth Dynasty

There has recently been serious trouble between two public figures with exaggerated facial features.

Are you really sure this is the last time?Of course, this picture is from 2013, the last time Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin had some technology-enabled marital trouble, not this most recent (and seemingly final) time.

But what's really interesting is discovering who they are the reincarnations of:

Instead of playing with monotheism, why don't you run for mayor?That's right, back in the fourteenth century BCE, Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled Egypt, causing all sorts of trouble. And, odd bit of headgear aside, it looks like they have been reborn roughly 3,450 years later. The resemblance is actually startling.

Makes you wonder what life really was like back in old Amarna. Maybe more exciting than we have been permitted to remember. Finding that Akhenaten had been uncontrollably sending obelisk pics incised on slabs of basalt to some Hittite princess would really make that era more relatable.

The difficulty of writing scripture

A few weeks ago there was a story in the NYT about historical controversies about Temple Mount, in Jerusalem: Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place. One of the issues is what various holy scriptures say about the place, given that they seem completely unaware of the specifics of the current conflict.

Because that's where the real challenge for a diety comes. You want to inspire your most loyal prophet with the words that will become the holy books of the religion dedicated to worshipping you. You want these confused and somewhat dimwitted humans to get this right. So you tell them all sorts of things relevant to their historical moment so that they get it.

But now you have a problem. You're not just the god of this generation, or even this century. The religion you are establishing is will last for thousands of years. People on continents not yet discovered, speaking languages not yet evolved will also take knowledge and inspiration from these holy books. How do you write something that is credible to a goat-herding, bronze-weapon-wielding audience that also covers all sorts of complex issues that will only be important in two thousand years?

When I had this thought, I realized that this, really, is the origin of all esoteric interpretation of scripture. How many differen ways did the diety encode information in these simple words? The actual text can only carry a limited number of messages. Too many, and it is incomprehensible to its intended original audience.

So how to communicate to future generations? Since you are a god and can do anything, you can write text transparent to its readers that also, simultaneously, encodes messages comprehensible to all those future generations. So it makes sense that each generation would interpret the text using a different method.

But what method for which generation? It can't just be up to us, can it?

So the book of the Bible that's missing is not any Gospel or other specific piece of content. It's the Users Guide. It is the "When it gets to be 2015 translate all the words into Urdu and take every fifth letter. This will be a set of instructions on how to build a small device that will scribe the interpretation you should use into a giant slab of granite. Do not use this interpretation after July 2016".

If we had that, it would be so much easier.

Learning the wrong lesson: the Battle of Lissa and the resurgence of the naval ram

Last week's discussion of how to win WWI got me to thinking about how you draw lessons from history--more specifically, in this case, military history. You won a battle. Or you lost one. Why? What about your approach, your weapons, your generalship, was the decisive factor? Deciding this is much harder than historical fiction makes it sound, because the easiest (and laziest) way to make a historical character seem smart is to have them anticipate the future and be able to easily distinguish between the necessary and the contingent in a way that was completely impossible for any real person living in the confusing flow of actual events.

This, incidentally, is how doctors in historical fiction work. They anticipate the past couple of centuries of data analysis, experiment, and many false paths just by being smart and observant, so they never ruthlessly bleed people, blister their heads, or make them throw up, and then blame them for not getting better, unlike real historical doctors. I've never read a credible doctor in a historical or fantasy novel. Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian books comes closest, I guess, but even he has a too-high success rate.

The entertaining Great Courses class The Decisive Battles of World History, by Professor Gregory Aldrete, starts out with a description of the 1866 Battle of Lissa, in the Third Italian War of Independence. Don't worry if you've never heard of either the battle or the war--I never had either.

Lissa was a sea battle between Italians and Austrians off the coast of Croatia, and involved both ironclads and wooden sailing ships. The Austrians won, but since they lost the significant Battle of Königgrätz (also called Sadowa) to Prussia the next month, this particular victory had little effect (Aldrete uses it to lead off a discussion of what actually makes for a decisive battle). But during the Battle of Lissa itself, several ramming attacks helped decide the issue.

As a result of this, all European navies for the next 40 years put rams on their battleships, as if they were giant, steam-powered triremes (perhaps the example of ancient Greek naval warfare encouraged over-educated procurement officers to make this odd decision), even though they would prove to be utterly useless in an era of long-range gunnery.

Here are a couple of examples.  First, the American ship USS Alarm, 1874:

Then there is the HMS Polyphemus, 1882:

It's not just the name: the Polyphemus really did look like a trireme:


During the US Civil War, in 1862, the USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads, but Europeans tended to neglect the instructive experience of those crude Americans during their internecine squabble. It was Lissa that was influential.

In retrospect this seems completely crazy. But there were real reasons for making this choice. Naval guns were still weak and inaccurate, while armor had already become quite good. So shells tended to be ineffective in sinking opposing vessels. The ram promised a useful form of offense that would even the odds. They never actually ended up being used in battle. And naval guns quickly became more accurate and more powerful.

But these rams were not only useless.  According to this Center for International Maritime Security article, they were actively dangerous, because ships on the same side tended to sink each other on maneuvers, or in bad weather. It was running with scissors, naval style. You ended up poking your eye out.

It is incredibly difficult to figure out what is the important fact from a chaotic, fast-paced, and contingent set of experiences. And don't ignore the influence of trends, conventional wisdom, and fear of being wrong or ridiculous.The people who make influential decisions are always embedded in a complex and interactive social matrix. If they aren't, no matter how smart they are, they have no influence over events.

It would be incredibly hard to write a novel where you show a really smart person being repeatedly and completely wrong--and still smart. But that is what history is all about, how truly hard real lessons are to learn.

None of the many ship models I made in my youth was an ironclad with a ram. But now I'd like to find one.

And maybe I can work one into a story somehow.

The fictional and the real: WWI and narrative

Recently, I've listened to Dan Carlin's fine (if a bit overlong) podcast series on the Great War, Blueprint for Armageddon (in six parts, and currently free on his site, Hardcore History.  Well worth your time), and read the book Carlin acknowledges as a significant source, Peter Hart's The Great War, a Combat History of the First World War, which I also recommend, with this caveat: the maps are terrible. You'll need something like the resource I used, Arthur Banks's A Military Atlas of the First World War to have some idea of what is going on.

Together, those sources gave me much better appreciation for the military challenges of winning the war on the Western Front, particularly from the Allied side. In essence: you couldn't. The French and British got better and better at attacking as the war progressed, learning how to use moving barrages, how to concentrate their forces, how do combined operations with aircraft and tanks. All that ever got them was a few miles and a lot of dead men. Even at their best and most organized, each offensive would reach its initial objectives and then, while they regrouped for the next round, the Germans would also reorganize and present another defensive line. Not a single one of these offensives achieved any larger objective.

And many of them were not at all well-organized.  Over and over, Hart tells how either the British or French would be hard-pressed, about to collapse, and desperately request their allies to launch an offensive to take some of the pressure off.  Even though even well-planned and well-resourced offensives failed, the commanders would scramble to comply, essentially slaughtering thousands of men to maintain a feeling of alliance. Nothing ever succeeded.

So that is why the whole four years feels like one endless static nightmare, except in the beginning, at the Battle of the Frontiers, and at the end, when moving armies meant that the casualties were way higher that they were even in brutal assaults on trenches. Carlin refuses to detail much of 1915, because every horrible battle was exactly like every other horrible battle, and no one yet had much of a clue how to manage things.

So no wonder that people with a sense of narrative, like Churchill and Lloyd-George, became what were called Easterners, trying to find some way they could attack without facing the iron wall of the German army in the West. The results were just as terrible: Gallipoli and Salonika (where, after getting all bent out of shape about Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, the British blithely violated Greek neutrality in pursuit of their own goals). Even the successful Middle East campaigns, featuring the charismatic Lawrence of Arabia, were just sideshows that drew resources from the main fight. Not one of those operations were worth the effort.

You could tell bad commanders by the fact that they killed way more of their own troops, but there was no way to be a truly good commander. No genius could come up with some spectacular tactic. New weapons systems, like tanks, would work well at first and then break down. No propaganda could affect the enemy's will to resist.

None of us would ever come up with something like this as the basis of an SF or fantasy novel. There we like people who affect things, make things happen, and can anticipate the actions of the enemy. None of that on the Western Front. The best thing would have been for everyone involved to negotiate some kind of status quo ante treaty after the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914. After all, by the end of 1914, the French alone had already lost something like 300,000 dead, an unbelievable 27,000 on just one day, August 22.

Of course, everyone still believed there was a story to tell, one with some kind of narrative. It's startling to think how long they would have to wait for the end of the story.

Things I didn't know about history: rubberized canvas car tops

Technological change has been a constant since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But what was a difficult technical challenge and what wasn't is sometimes difficult to remember in retrospect.

For example, this Shorpy photograph shows a street in 1935:

 Even an airy open streetcar

The really step into the scene, go to the full size image on Shorpy.

Every car on the street, even that Packard limo in the lower right corner, has a rubberized canvas insert in the roof, pointed out by Dave, the brains behind Shorpy. It turns out that it wasn't until the 1935 model year that GM was able to design and build a giant (and expensive) stamping press that would create one-piece all-steel automobile roofs. Eventually those became standard. I had no idea.

That's why I'm so nervous about writing historical fiction. There are just so many details that are easy to get wrong--though this is a great detail to include.  But my favorite, Shorpy, remains an invaluable resource, both for the photos and the informative comments.  And the mordant Dave.

The nebulous "Midwest"

I grew in in Illinois, in suburban Chicago. I have relatives in Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan. I am a Midwesterner, and will never be anything else. Acute ears here in Boston can instantly peg me to, not only the greater Midwest, but the Great Lakes area.

So I am surprised that there is debate about which states are actually in the Midwest. In this survey from 538, only 80% of respondents thought Illinois was in the Midwest. Who are these people, and why do they bother having opinions about anything?

To me, the Midwestern states are (West to East): Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, MIchigan, and Ohio.  No Southern states, please. No Missouri, no Kentucky (!),  One historical characteristic of Midwest states: they were settled from New England, and they were not slave states. In a sense, you could say that southern Illinois and Indiana are not in the Midwest, by this criterion, being more Southern inflected. It's basically the old Northwest Territory, plus Iowa ("around here, dear, we pronounce that Ohio").

The Old Northwest Territory

So they have townships, deep glacial soil and a lot of other glacial geography, nice folks who like casseroles (or "hot dishes"), and a scattering of French place names, which they grotesquely mispronounce.

Quick rule: if you could imagine anyone in town volunteering to serve in the Confederate Army, it is not the Midwest.  It is somewhere much meaner and more ornery. Maybe more fun, I won't argue about that. But not the Midwest.

And no Great Plains states. Great states, all, but completely different. Less water: not a lot of canoeing.  I'd say Midwest is corn and hogs instead of wheat and cattle, but Minnesota and Wisconsin wouldn't fit then. People from Minnesota are incredibly nice, so they want their friends in North and South Dakota to be in the Midwest. I've lived in Massachusetts long enough to say: screw that. Get your own region.

And, seriously, Wyoming, or Pennsylvania? Once words can mean anything, how do you communicate?

Perhaps with a gesture, I guess, which is not visible in this post.