Through a Glass Darkly

Anticipated in science fiction in the early 20th century, television was one of those signifiers of a better life in the future, and the popular press drove home that message with its breathless reporting on the latest advancements. E.B. White, on the other hand, found the latest experiment in television to be less than thrilling, maintaining prescience of mind to see things as they were, and what they might become.

Oct. 31, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In “The Talk of the Town” White wrote about the unusual demonstration of television to an audience in the B.S. Moss playhouse. They were treated to a broadcast from the Guild Theatre, just one block away.

…now to the popular press, the demonstration — contrary to White’s account — was a wonder to behold:

Modern Mechanics magazine, January 1932.

The actual product, however, had a long way to go…

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?…Top row, left to right, British adventurer Carveth Wells and actresses Theresa Helburn and Margaret Barker did their best to entertain audiences a block away via a television broadcast, but the results were more like the images on the bottom row, especially the one at right. (

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Comeback Kid

Not well known today, but in the early 20th century Maude Adams (1872-1953) was a household name; her touring productions beginning around the turn of the century made her the most popular actress in America, and she sealed that deal in 1905 when she played Peter Pan on Broadway to great acclaim. Her success continued until 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic nearly claimed her life. After recovering from the illness she retired from acting and turned her attention to making improvements in electric lighting, creating an industry standard for both stage and film. When she returned to acting in 1931, it was big news, and “The Talk of the Town” was there to tell us about it. Excerpts:

STAGING A COMEBACK…Maude Adams, left, circa 1897. At right, Adams portrayed Portia in her 1931 production of The Merchant of Venice, with Otis Skinner, who portrayed Shylock. (Pinterest/Bookmice)

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Rags to Rags

The New Yorker departed from its usual profiles of the rich, powerful and/or famous and focused instead on a “Bowery Bum” named John McGoorty. Also unusual was the profile’s author, Russel Crouse, better known then and now and as an American playwright and librettist. Appropriately, Reginald Marsh lent his “Ashcan School” style to the illustration. Here are some excerpts:

NOT MUCH TO SMILE ABOUT…Berenice Abbott photograph of a Bowery restaurant in 1935, when the street was lined with flophouses. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with some lovely color ads…the makers of the gasoline additive Ethyl (active ingredient, lead) continued their series of nature-themed ads…

…while Budweiser, perhaps anticipating the end of Prohibition, reminded readers of the refreshing flavor of its beer, even if it was non-alcoholic…

…R.J. Reynolds reminded women smokers that their Camel cigarettes left no after-taste…

…while Lorillard went a step further and claimed its Old Gold brand made a smoker downright kissable…

…the makers of Pepperell Peeress sheets and pillowcases offered this “Talk of the Town” parody to promote their wares…

…illustrator Frank McIntosh, known for his Art Deco travel drawings, (and who contributed just four drawings to the New Yorker), gave us this stylish illustration for Guillaume Lenthéric’s famed parfums

New Yorker cartoonist/illustrator H.O. Hofman contributed this drawing on behalf of the Artists and Writers Guild, offering their designer bridge cards…

…and speaking of bridge, we have Alan Dunn opening our cartoons…

…and in a less refined setting, we have this from Raymond Thayer, another contributor of just four drawings to the New Yorker…

…and this entry from Carl Rose reminds us of where we are in history, namely the Depression…

James Thurber continued his exploration of the mysterious encounters between the sexes…

…and we end with Alice Harvey, and one unlikely play date…

Next Time: The Tragic Pose…

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.

One thought on “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. Fitting that Reginald Marsh should do the sketch for the Bowery piece,he sure painted a lot of Bowery scenes,even one of the Berenice Abbott photo.Ive seen that exact location in a photo from the city property tax archives but at a different angle and from 1940.I wonder if that is Charlie Wagners old place downstairs,the tattoo artist.I went to high school near the Bowery,a lot of the places from the 30s were still around back then.


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