Friday, July 01, 2005

January 1936: Tailpipe suckin' days of yore

I often beat the heat in the cool confines of a local college library, cruising through microfilmed back issues of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat until watching the pages scroll by gives me a touch of motion sickness. And you know what? They used to put a lot of news in the newspapers. If there was an inch left at the bottom of a column, they’d find something to put in it. If a kid got shot in the leg in a hunting accident 150 miles away, they’d mention it. If an 80-year-old woman took her first plane ride with her grandchildren, well, that was news back in 1936. News enough to fill out the column, anyway.

One curious thing about papers from the first half of the last century is the amount of detail that went into each item; a standard piece might mention that "James Phillips, Negro, was wounded by a pistol-wielding burglar last night in his home at 2463 Elm Street..." The now-startling racial designation was a sign of the times, to be sure, but everyone got their address in the paper, whether they died, got robbed, or had their living room invaded by an out-of-control Hupmobile. I remember seeing a photo of a house that had just been built for a star player on the St. Louis Cardinals, and the caption gave the address! That’s unimaginable today.

I’m presently plowing through the papers of January 1936, and I’ve noticed something interesting: Practically every day, at least one person succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage. Some of the news items implied that the death was a suicide, while in other cases it was suggested that an amateur mechanic simply didn’t realize you couldn’t run your engine with the garage door closed (very tempting during the colder months, if you’re an idiot) and live to tell. It’ll be interesting to see if the number of CO-related deaths tapers off as the weather gets warmer. Meanwhile, I’m taking note of the addresses that are mentioned in these old articles. My house was built in 1927, and I’d be interested to know if it was the scene of a death or a crime. (The closest I’ve gotten? A 31-year-old housewife told her family she was going to a New Year’s Eve party in 1935, but gassed herself in the garage instead...three blocks from where I live.)

These were also the days when you didn’t have to do a hell of a lot to get a photo printed in papers all over the continent, either: When the Associated Press sent out a photo of a canary who’d been taught to ride a miniature bicycle, the Post wouldn’t hesitate to print it. Then the Globe would counter with something like this:

Ah, those were cute times. Nowadays, if you want to dress your squirrel up in a sailor suit, you gotta have your own website to share it with the world.

Another interesting feature of the Globe-Democrat at this time was the RaceScope, reproduced above. The tiny type printed around the border of the octagon is just gibberish, but if you could crack the code, you’d be looking at a hot tip for one of the day’s horse races.

One more item from the first week of 1936: A panel from the Sunday edition of a comic strip called Ben Webster. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the legendary tenor saxophonist of that name, and–despite appearances–nothing to do with Felipe Rose’s sexual fantasies. It was, more or less, an illustrated adaptation of the "rags to riches" (or, in this case, loincloths to riches) themes prevalent in the popular novels of Horatio Alger. The comic’s author even called himself Edwin Alger, just so we wouldn’t miss what he was aiming for.

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