Robert Ingersoll The Illustrious Infidel

He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans

Whatever town he was lecturing in—Chicago or Cheyenne, New York or Denver—Robert Green Ingersoll packed the house. When the seats were full, people would stand in the aisles, on the stage, in the wings. When the box office ran out of tickets, eager crowds would still find a way in, usually by paying scalpers three or four times the regular admission rate. Read more »

A Rational Geographic Quiz

ANY CHILD KNOWS that the amount of fun in a game is likely to be inversely proportional to its educational value. Parker Brothers didn’t press its luck in the 1899 “Ports and Commerce”: it was nothing more than a conventional card game. Still, it was good for a nascent capitalist to learn where yams are sold and so forth, and the game did give a child the opportunity, by matching the pictures of cities with their chief exports. Can you identify the towns shown here? Answers at far right.

R. G. Fiege, Circus Painter

Using the same bold colors that drew the rubes in to see the Giant Rat of Sumatra and the Three-Headed Calf, he painted a fanciful record of his world

T HE GREAT DEPRESSION was as hard on circuses as it was on every other enterprise, but during those years, R. G. Fiege managed to keep a circus job and to find enough spare time to produce a series of paintings documenting the life around him. Little is known of Fiege—his name does not appear in the vast files of Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin—but he was born in Ohio in 1887, died there eighty years later, and during part of that time earned his living as a sign and poster painter.Read more »

Ouija

In 1913 the Ouija board dictated a novel. Twenty years later it commanded a murder. It is most popular in times of national catastrophe, and it’s selling pretty briskly just now.

PARKER BROTHERS , who bought the rights to the Ouija in 1966, denies that it is more than a game. But over the past century millions of Americans have used it to speak with the dead, to answer life’s questions, and to make their decisions. Common sense says it merely reveals the user’s unconscious thoughts and is subject to overt manipulation as well, but some believers in the occult dread it as the devil’s oracle.Read more »

Fair Comment

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

The year 1896 found Oscar Hammerstein in trouble. He was in debt, and the acts he had brought to Broadway weren’t doing well. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he is reported to have said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters. Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ella Cherry clearly were the worst act of the day. They couldn’t dance, and they couldn’t sing. In fact, they couldn’t do anything at all. Except draw crowds. Read more »

Xanadu By The Salt Flats

Saltair, the stately pleasure dome that used to rise out of the waters of Great Salt Lake, was the Coney Island of the West.

 

Now and again, on a picnic hill, when the incense of hamburgers and hot dogs grows thick and stupefying, I am moved to rise on my hind legs with a spatula in one hand and a bun in the other and give voice to an atavistic howl, a nasal, high, drawn-out ululation like that of a muezzin from a minaret or a coyote from a river bluff. Read more »

Yankee Tarzan

WHEN JOSEPH KNOWLES STRIPPED TO THE BUFF AND SLIPPED INTO THE MAINE WOODS IN 1913, HE HOPED TO LEAD THE NATION BACK TO NATURE.

It was raining. A forty-four-year-old man named Joseph Knowles gingerly entered an old logging road in the Dead River country of Maine. He was nearly naked and carried no tools, weapons, or equipment of any sort, not even a bottle of mosquito repellent. Read more »

Four!

It was fifty years ago that Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam, making him the only man who ever has—or probably ever will—conquer the “Impregnable Quadrilateral” of golf

Francis Albertanti, assistant sports editor of the New York Evening Mail, considered baseball, boxing, and horse racing the meat and potatoes of the sports section. College football received respectful attention during its season, and Albertanti kept a headline standing in type to take care of tennis. It read: TILDEN DEFEATS RICHARDS AGAIN. Read more »

Behind The Blackface

Minstrel Men and Minstrel Myths

It is on our supermarket shelves, in our advertising, and in our literature. But most of all, it is in our entertainment. From Aunt Jemima to Mammy in Gone With the Wind , from Uncle Remus to Uncle Ben, from Amos ‘n’ Andy to Good Times , the inexplicably grinning black face is a pervasive part of American culture.Read more »

Selling The Swedish Nightingale

Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum

When it comes to the performing arts, Americans have often suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority. Foreign artists are considered somehow better—more glamorous, more gifted, more refined—than our own. We have lavished our applause on the likes of Bernhardt, Burton, and Garbo, reserved our stormiest bravos for Paderewski, Chaliapin, and Nureyev, and lost our national composure over Lola Montez, Anna Held, and the Beatles.Read more »