An Inconvenient Truth

The New Yorker offices at 25 West 45th Street were a long walk from Wall Street, but the panic that gripped the city beginning on Oct. 24 spread quickly through the borough. What the panic was about, however, wasn’t exactly clear.

Nov. 2, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

There was fear in the air, and a hint of doom, when E.B. White submitted his “Notes and Comment” section for the Nov. 2 issue. Having filed his column sometime between October 24 (“Black Thursday”) and October 29, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”), he weighed the mood of his city against the reassurances offered by politicians, bankers and pundits…

TELLERS OF TALES…As the New York Stock Exchange headed toward collapse, President Herbert Hoover, Thomas Lamont (head of the Morgan Bank) and prominent journalist Arthur Brisbane offered assurances that all was well. (Wikipedia/bhg.com)

…and expressed schadenfreude over “a fat land quivering in paunchy fright” and some satisfaction in confirming his suspicions that “our wise and talky friends” on Wall Street really didn’t know what they were talking about:

THEY MADE A MESS OF THE ECONOMY, TOO…Sweeping the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after the Wall Street crash of 1929. (Wikipedia)

It seems White might have believed the worst was over, and that Wall Street would get back to its gambling spirit…

TALES OF TWO CITIES…The Brooklyn Daily Eagle proclaimed panic in its late edition on “Black Thursday,” Oct. 24; however, a day after the “Black Tuesday” crash of Oct. 29, The New York Times offered a more optimistic outlook for the days ahead.

In “The Talk of Town” we find the first use of the word “Depression” in the New Yorker as it is related to the economic collapse…

BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF A BUST…Crowds gather on Wall Street following news of the stock market crash. (mrclark.aretesys.com)

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Mr. Blue Sky

On the subject of stocks, “Talk” also featured this mini profile (written by Robert Coates) of Roland Mulville Smythe (1855-1930), who specialized in buying and selling old and obsolete stocks.  Nicknamed “No Telephone” Smythe for his dislike of the device, he began his trade in obsolete securities and banknotes sometime around 1880…

MARKET GLEANER…Title page of Roland Smythe’s 1929 book, Valuable Extinct Securities. The notation beneath his portrait reads “No Telephone.” (worthpoint.com)

Coates told the story of a Yonkers doctor who used what he thought were worthless stock certificates (from an abandoned coal mine) to paper the walls of his study. Thanks to Smythe’s meticulous record-keeping, when a new lode was discovered at the mine, the doctor learned his wallpaper was worth $14,000 (equivalent to about $200,000 today)…

WALL STREET JUNKER…Share bought by Roland M. Smythe in 1899 and signed by him on the reverse side. At right, unusual obituary headline for an unusual man. (scripophily.org)

…Coates concluded by describing Smythe’s aversion to the telephone, and his talent for bowling…

 *  *  *

Rise of the Machine

Ironically, the National Business Show was staging a big exhibition in Midtown while the economy was collapsing Downtown. James Thurber was on hand at the Grand Central Palace to take in the wonders of the machine age…

NOT MY TYPE…Manufacturers of the Underwood typewriter staged a typing competition at the 1929 National Business Show at the Grand Central Palace. From left are George Hossfield, Stella Willins (with her typewriter “Timmy”), Irma Wright and Albert Tangora. Hossfield, the men’s champion, could type 157 words a minute. The women’s champion — and the world’s champion typist of the 1930s — Willins once typed 128 words a minute for an entire hour without a mistake. She could type 240 words per minute from memorized lines. (oztypewriter.blogspot.com)

…Thurber seemed as impressed by the machines as by the “very prettiest girls” who were on hand to demonstrate them…

LOOKS COMPLICATED…At left, National Cash Register touted its business machines in this ca. 1930 ad; at right, a woman demonstrates a mimeograph machine in the 1920s. (Pinterest)
SHOCK OF THE NEW…At left, these young operators contemplate the operation of an IBM Type 80 horizontal Hollerith card sorter. The woman appears less than thrilled by the mechanical beast; at right, a woman operates a IBM 405 Alphabetic Accounting Machine, ca. 1934. It could process 150 cards a minute and keep track of multiple sums while printing data on continuous-sheet forms. (officemuseum.com/computerhistory.org)

 *  *  *

What a Strange Trip It’s Been

This brief “Talk” entry by Alfred Richman related a story from a traveling salesman just returned from Moscow. Among the highlights of his visit was a Soviet movie that “featured” America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, in the title role…

In the 1920s, silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were perhaps the most famous couple in the world. That included in the Soviet Union, where moviegoers preferred American films over their own avant-garde fare (while on the other hand, the New Yorker found Soviet films to be far more advanced than Hollywood’s). While vacationing in Moscow in 1926, Pickford and Fairbanks visited a Russian film studio with director Sergei Komarov, who cleverly captured enough footage of the two to weave them into a silent comedy titled A Kiss from Mary Pickford (Potseluy Meri Pikford). The film was a spoof on Hollywood fame, finding humor in a loveless man’s chance meeting (and kiss) with Mary Pickford, and his sudden and unexpected attractiveness to the opposite sex.

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…At left, Soviet film poster for Sergei Komarov’s A Kiss From Mary Pickford, featuring Russian actors Anel Sudakevich and Igor Ilyinsky (in the center photos) with various cameos by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; at top, Soviet movie posters featuring Fairbanks and Pickford; bottom right, the couple feted by Russian fans, who presented Pickford with the headdress. The year 1929 would mark the end of such films in the Soviet Union — as Stalin began forced collectivization, he declared that Soviet cinema should only satisfy “the basic demands of the proletarian collective farm mass viewer.” Remarkably, Komarov and the actors Sudakevich and Ilyinsky would survive the years of Stalinist terror that would follow, even living to old age. (IMDB/transmediale.de/Facebook fan site)

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Fire and Ice

Back stateside, New Yorker film critic John Mosher took in the talking film debut of the hugely popular stage actress Lenore Ulric (1892-1970). Known on Broadway for her portrayals of fiery women, she tried, it seems unsuccessfully, to bring some of that heat to Frozen Justice, which was set in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush…

FEMME FATALE…Lenora Ulric, who made less than 20 films, was known for her work on the stage. At left, Ulric taking a break from her Broadway work in the early 1930s; center, magazine ad for Frozen Justice; at right, Ulric as the half-Eskimo Talu in Frozen Justice. (Pinterest/IMDB)

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Right Ho, Plummie (CORRECTION: Not So, Plummie)

I incorrectly attributed this poem in the Nov. 2 issue to British humorist P.G. Wodehouse

…thankfully, an alert reader kindly pointed out that “Ode to Peter Stuyvesant” isn’t by Wodehouse, but by another person with the initials PGW — Philip G. Wylie.

HE COULD BE FUNNY, TOO…Short story writer, screenwriter and satirist Philip G. Wylie in an undated photo. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with the back pages, where toaster wars were being waged by the makers of the “Toastmaster” and Thomas Edison’s “Automaticrat”…

…for some in the posh set, the days of fine dining at places like Maillard’s (with this all-French ad) would be coming to an end thanks to the market crash…actually, Maillard’s itself would come to an end in the 1930s, thanks to the Depression…

…stage, film (and later television) actress and dancer Queenie Smith was the latest celeb to tout the wonders of Lux Toilet Soap…

Queenie Smith circa 1930. (IMDB)

…here’s an unusual way to sell shock absorbers…I’m wondering if this is supposed to be a sugar daddy and a chorus girl trying to make hay in the back seat of a car without Houdaille shocks…

…a couple more ads from the back pages, the ones on the left appeal to women’s fitness, while the ad on the right tries its best to push a product that was fast going the way of the horse and buggy. Spats — devised in the late 19th century to protect one’s shoes and socks — went out of fashion in the 1930s, no doubt because most streets were now paved and you didn’t have to worry about a passing wagon splashing mud and horseshit all over your shoes and ankles…

…and indeed, now you could have Goodrich Zippers, in smart new colors…

…and speaking of colors, a couple of richly toned ads for Arrow Shirts…

…and Camel cigarettes…

…on to our illustrators and cartoonists…spot drawings — sprinkled throughout the magazine — were often a foot in the door for aspiring contributors (Peter Arno and Charles Addams are just two examples). Below is a collection of spot drawings from the Nov. 2 issue, mostly from established artists including Barbara Shermund, Alice Harvey, Julian De Miskey, Gardner Rea, Johan Bull and I. Klein. The New Yorker also recycled old cartoons for spots, including the illustration below (third row, second one down) by Shermund of the young woman on telephone, which originally appeared in the July 16, 1927 issue with the caption, “Hold the line a minute, dear—I’m trying to think what I have on my mind.”

Arno continued to provide illustrations for Elmer Rice’s serialized novel, A Voyage to Purilia

…and Julian De Miskey illustrated G. Marston’s entry for the ongoing “That Was New York” column…

…our cartoons come from Barbara Shermund

Gardner Rea, having a political moment…

…for reference, a photo of Mayor Jimmy Walker

/brookstonbeerbulletin.com

Shermund again, on the joys of parenthood…

Peter Arno’s take on Jazz Age chivalry…

…and perhaps the timeliest entry of all, from Leonard Dove

Next Time: Not Much to Cheer About…

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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