Lynd Ward’s Graphic Novels of the Depression Decade

•January 23, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this week I was invited by Professor Gretchen Scharnagl to share some material from The Wolfsonian Library relating to sequential art storytelling and the origins of the graphic novel in the United States. My presentation focused on the work of the American artist, Lynd Ward (1905–1985), his mentors and influences in Europe in the interwar era, and the “wordless novels” he published during the Depression decade. Today’s post will share some of Ward’s woodcut and wood-engravings with my readers.

Lynd Ward self portrait (1930)

Lynd Ward was born in Chicago in 1905, the same year that two hundred socialist, anarchist, and labor organizers converged on the city at a convention that led to the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His father, Harry F. Ward, was a Methodist minister of the Social Gospel tradition, and at the time of Lynd’s birth was serving as a social worker at a settlement house in a working-class barrio. Reverend Ward ministered to the immigrant laborers living in squalid tenements and working for poor wages in the filthy and dangerous stockyards and meat-packing industries and was likely radicalized by that experience. Young Lynd Ward imbibed and adopted his father’s socialist political views and penchant for social justice activism. As an adult he would integrate social criticism into the graphic novels he published throughout the 1930s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

From an early age, Lynd Ward gravitated to the arts and book illustration, learning linoleum-block printing in high school. After graduating from the Columbia Teacher’s College in New York with a degree in fine arts in 1926, Ward married and spent his honeymoon in Europe. The young couple set up house in Leipzig, Germany where Lynd spent a year studying printmaking and book design at the prestigious Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Ward learned the intricacies of woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography from the German masters: Hans Alexander Mueller, Alois Kolb, and Georg A. Mathéy.

From Woodcuts of New York / by Hans Alexander Mueller (1938)
[Beethoven’s Head and Pair of Lovers] print by Alois Kolb

From Georg A. Mathéy, Junge Kunst, (1929)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Though he learned the techniques of book illustration inside the classroom, Ward’s artistic sensibilities and interest in the “wordless novel” were inspired by his extra-curricular activities. Ward appears to have been greatly influenced by German expressionism and the moving images he saw in such popular silent films as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.

While browsing the book stalls, he also encountered a series of graphic novels by a Belgian engraver. Frans Masereel was a socialist who had opposed the war and fled to neutral Switzerland rather than participate in the mass slaughter. The dark graphic novels Masereel published during and after the First World War reflected the general disillusionment and cynicism of the era; they also encouraged Ward to produce his own wordless novels upon his return to the United States in September 1927.

From My Book of Hours / Frans Masereel

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder’s Fund

After providing illustrations for several other authors, Ward published his first wordless novel, God’s Man the same week that the Stock Market crashed in October 1929. Considered to be the first American graphic novel, the book includes nearly 150 woodcut images to tell the story of a young man who unwittingly strikes a Faustian bargain with Death to achieve success as an artist.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The protagonist of God’s Man learns that money, urban life, and bourgeois values are anathema to art, truth, and beauty. Fleeing to the countryside, he finds true love and artistic freedom before his deathly patron collects on his debt.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The black and white images and dark theme of the corrupting influence of money struck a chord with many ordinary Americans still reeling from the repercussions of the economic crisis. Over the next four years, God’s Man sold more than 20,000 copies.

During the decade-long Depression, Ward published five more graphic novels. All of these wordless novels provided biting pictorial commentary about such burning social issues as capitalist greed, starvation wages, chronic unemployment, homelessness, lynching and racial injustice, the repression of labor, and the violent suppression of protesters by police and national guardsmen.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Lynd Ward’s next novel, Madman’s Drum (1930) told the story of a man who amassed a fortune by participating in the trafficking of African slaves. Returning with a stolen drum, the slave-trader finds his personal relationships poisoned and his heirs cursed by his valuing of profit over human life. In focusing on slavery and the enduring legacy of racism, Ward was also providing an implicit critique of segregation and prejudice in “Jim Crow” America.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Ward’s next wordless novel, Wild Pilgrimage (1932) was set in depression-era America and included illustrations that used many of his typical tropes, (human-beings dwarfed by skyscrapers and industrial smokestacks), and touched on a wide variety of social problems.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The ironic title and images referenced the wanderings of millions made homeless by the economic crisis. More than half a million youth dropped out of school, hitchhiking across the highways or hopping freight cars and riding the rails in a desperate search for work. Word’s protagonist, a rootless wanderer searching for love and meaning in his life, instead encounters only violence, indifference, and injustice on his own “pilgrimage.” In this gritty graphic novel, Ward alternated between orange and black inks to contrast the heroic dreams and fantasies of the protagonist with the bleak and harsh reality he experiences.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In one instance, the would-be hero of the story witnesses, but only dares to dream of stopping the lynching of a Black man in the woods.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At the climax of the novel, the young man enters a company town populated by unemployed or striking workers who resemble the walking dead.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Finally impelled to action by an attack of baton-wielding police on a group of picketers, the wanderer imagines himself David slaying Goliath, but is killed in the melee.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Published at the nadir of the Great Depression, Ward’s Prelude to a Million Years (1933) is a dystopian tale of the fate of art and civilization.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The protagonist of this illustrated tale is an artist obsessed with beauty, who, against his will and inclination, is forced to recognize the ugliness and brutality of modern urban life. The disillusioned sculptor is robbed at gunpoint, witnesses the violent repression of striking workers by the police, is forced to kiss the flag by chauvinistic American legionnaires, and sees his idealized vision of female beauty reduced to drunken prostitution in this profoundly pessimistic tale.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Composed of twenty-one wood engravings, Song Without Words (1936) was the fifth and briefest of the six wordless novels Ward published during his lifetime. The novel centers on the anxieties of an expectant mother terrified by the prospect of bringing a child into the nightmarish world dominated by starvation, rising fascism, and the looming threat of war.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The most intimate and personal of his graphic novels, Ward’s engravings were made while his wife, May, was pregnant with their second child, Robin.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Vertigo (1937) was Ward’s longest and most ambitious wordless novel, deploying 230 wood-engravings to relate the intertwined stories of three central characters: a young woman, a young man, and a dying captain of industry.

The story follows the fate of a young couple whose musical talents, career ambitions, and matrimonial aspirations are thwarted by the Crash and subsequent Depression. Even as the novel focuses on the personal plight of the protagonists, it includes images of: demoralized people standing in relief lines; vigilante thugs beating union organizers; and National Guardsmen in gas masks bayoneting striking workers.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Lamenting the squandering of youthful talent and potential, Vertigo symbolically ends with the dying capitalist being kept alive by a vampire-like infusion of the young man’s blood, followed by the terrified couple clinging tightly to one another while riding the rollercoaster that was the Great Depression.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Despite his contributions to the development of the graphic novel in the United States during the Great Depression, Lynd Ward has not become a household name. But given the social unrest and police and vigilante violence against contemporary Black Lives Matter protesters and demonstrations, Ward’s social conscience-driven graphic illustrations may yet again be rediscovered for their enduring emotive power and relevance.

Conrado Massaguer Exhibition on Google Arts and Culture

•December 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Just in time for the holidays, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University has added another virtual exhibition to the Google Arts and Culture website, this one celebrating the artwork and caricatures of Conrado Walter Massaguer, Cuba’s most celebrated publisher and art director in the era of the Republic.

Conrado with his eight-year-old daughter, Conchita, Havana, 1935

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

The original exhibition titled, Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer, had been organized to celebrate the gift of a large number of works by Massaguer by long-time library supporter, Vicki Gold Levi. The installation was on view in our fifth floor galleries from June 7, 2019 through March 10, 2020, and included far more materials than the new virtual exhibition could accommodate. Consequently, I thought that I would use this post to present some photographs, illustrations, and caricatures that were culled due to limitations of space.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

Conrado Walter Massaguer was born in Cárdenas, Cuba in 1889, although his family fled to Mexico during the tumultuous period of the War of Independence and remained there during the subsequent U.S. military occupation until the creation of the Cuban Republic in 1902. Believing that Conrado would benefit from an American education, his parents sent him to upstate New York where he attended the Military Academy of New York, from where he wrote home letters illustrated with original doodles.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Conrado returned a few years later, moving freely between Cuba and Merida, where he became enchanted with the publishing industry that would become his life-long obsession and all-consuming career as an internationally recognized caricaturist, illustrator, art director, editor, and publisher. Together with his brother, Oscar, Conrado co-founded the short-lived Grafico (1913–1918) and two of Cuba’s most influential magazines. Social, published from 1916 to 1933 and from 1935 to 1937, was his vehicle for introducing modern and avant-garde art to and shaping the cultural tastes of the island nation’s elites; the longer-lived Carteles published from 1919 through 1960 was directed towards a more popular audience.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

On and between the illustrated covers of his flagship publication, Social, Massaguer promoted a modernist aesthetic with his own artwork and with that of the other artists he mentored and promoted as art director and publisher. During his early stays in the United States, he had come to appreciate the work of Charles Dana Gibson, who won notoriety and name recognition with his illustrations of late Victorian socialites and debutantes.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Conrado sought to emulate his success by introducing the new modern woman. The bobbed-haired, liberated flappers of the 1920s featured prominently on the covers of Carteles and Social, but also in a section of the later magazine, wryly titled, “Massa-Girls.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Massaguer also assumed a leading role in the Cuban Tourist Commission’s promotion of the island as the premier tourist destination for American vacationers from the 1920s through the late 1950s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

As Cuba’s semi-official cultural ambassador, he was regularly on hand to greet and mingle with a host of visiting Hollywood movie stars and celebrities.

Actors Erol Flynn and Lili Damita (seated) with Massaguer (standing, to the right)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Massaguer become especially renowned for his caricatures of movie stars, international celebrities, and world leaders. Unsurprisingly, he adopted a modernist approach to caricature, believing that a simple, fine line and a spontaneous, secretive hand better captured the essence of a subject than a studied and highly edited portrait made of a posed or posturing subject. Many of his more fleshed out caricatures were printed in the “cine” and “ellos” sections of Social, but tens of thousands were also published in syndicated newspapers and magazines distributed across the globe.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

Conrado’s caricatures of local politicians, however, ruffled the feathers of many thin-skinned Cuban politicos. Like so many of his contemporary political caricaturists and cartoonists on the island, he endured arrest, harassment, and exile after he incurred the wrath of President Machado with cartoons like this one.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

During his exile in the early 1930s, the Cuban publishing magnate struggled to maintain his social standing as the Great Depression and political repression at home caused the suspension of his beloved Social. Not one to be easily discouraged, Massaguer contributed artwork to American magazines and advertising campaigns, including this cover illustration for Collier’s and this ad celebrating the end of U.S. Prohibition.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

It was during this exile period that Massaguer had his first and only exhibition of work in the United States in his lifetime, held at the Delphic Studios in New York City.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

When Massaguer returned to his homeland in the late 1930s, he continued to promote the tourist industry, even providing the cover art for the brochure distributed at the Cuban pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

Once the outbreak of the Second World War cut off the flow of all but American military personnel to the island, Massaguer did his part for the war effort by producing biting anti-Axis caricatures of the enemy and lighthearted images of the Allies.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

Soon after the end of the global conflict, Cuba reprized its role as a vacation destination, with Massaguer once again contributing his artwork for the cause.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Vicki Gold Levi

When the Castro-led guerrillas seized control of Cuba in 1959, Massaguer tried to curry favor with the new regime by publishing a lighthearted book of caricatures of the triumphant bearded revolutionaries. Advertisements promoting Coca Cola and other American products, however, guaranteed the publication a short shelf life as relations between the Castro regime and the United States strained to the breaking point.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

By 1960, the last of Massaguer’s popular magazines, Carteles, had ceased distribution, and the publisher finished out his days quietly working in the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.

Giving Thanks and Debunking Myths

•November 24, 2020 • 3 Comments

As we prepare as a nation to celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ve been reflecting on how much this holiday draws upon the historical myths associated with the meal shared between fifty-three Pilgrim colonists and ninety Wampanoag Indian allies. According to two relations and memorials penned by Pilgrim leaders who traveled to “the new world” aboard the Mayflower, the original feasting and festivities associated with their harvest celebration in 1621 lasted three days.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The menu included turkey and wildfowl; cod, bass, and other fish; maize and possibly barley; walnuts, chestnuts, plums, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and other nuts and berries. Wampanoag hunters provided several deer for the feast and participants likely also dined on eels and lobsters, mussels and oysters, and other local delicacies. Illustrated children’s books in The Wolfsonian Library published in the 1930s perpetuated the idealized myth of the Pilgrims and Indians harmoniously breaking bread.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

One illustrated children’s book even correctly credits the Indian, Squanto, (patronizingly referred to as a “friendly redskin” in the accompanying text), with helping the newcomers stave off starvation by showing them how to plant maize and find sustenance in a foreign environment. The text ignores the fact that Squanto also served as their interpreter, having learned English after having been kidnapped by an English sea captain some years earlier.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Although often rosily depicted as an example of native and newcomer reciprocity, the decision of the governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony and the Massasoit of the Wampanoag to establish a treaty of peace and mutual protection had been borne of necessity more than altruism on the part of either people. The original band of Pilgrims had barely survived starvation during their first winter, while the Wampanoag had recently been devastated by an outbreak of the plague and feared subjugation by their Narragansett neighbors to the south.

Alas, this first interracial harvest celebration was not a ritual repeated with any regularity in the colonial era, especially as relations between the natives and newcomers worsened as more English settlers began to crowd, covet, and encroach upon their Indian neighbors’ lands. While the Pequots of the Connecticut River valley were the first to be humbled militarily, the Massasoit’s sons and heirs did not fare much better. After the conflict known as Metacom’s or King Philip’s War in 1676, the Wampanoag and allied tribes were killed, enslaved, or forced to abandon their homelands.

The remainder of this post will focus on the representation of Native Americans at various world’s fairs and international exhibitions held in the United States from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. These expositions, much like the Thanksgiving holiday, reinforced myths about Indians, promoted stereotypes, and perpetuated a false dichotomy between supposed “savage” and “civilized” peoples. Although Native peoples occasionally protested and/or participated in these expositions, their voices were too often ignored and their presence relegated to the Midways or entertainment sections of the fairs.

The Centennial International Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Opening on May 10th, 1876, the fair was attended by 10 million spectators and witnessed the participation of 37 nations before closing six months later. Native Americans appeared in the imagery used to promote the fair as kneeling Indian and Africans demonstrate their subservient position vis-à-vis Miss Columbia, a white female figure representing the nation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Ideal Gladstone, in memory of her husband, John.

Ironically, in the midst of the fair celebrations, word came in late June of the humiliating defeat of General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry regiment by a combined band of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians unhappy at their forced confinement on reservations. The “rebellious” northern Plains Indians were subsequently subjugated or driven from their lands into Canadian exile.

Celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, the city of Chicago organized the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. British artist and bookmaker, Walter Crane (18451915) designed and published Columbia’s Courtship, a history in verse and pictures of the United States in time for the fair. Crane represented the young republic in a series of twelve plates in which “Miss America” was symbolically transformed from “la belle sauvage”—a “wild,” “brown and fearless Indian maid”—into a fair-skinned, civilized Miss Columbia.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Some of the admittance tickets printed for the fair used the likeness of Plains Indians, only recently subjugated and herded onto reservations.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, anonymous gift

Sculpture displayed on the actual fair grounds also included romanticized images of Native peoples, including a set of monumental equestrian plasters by Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860/21950), in which “The Indian” faced off against “The Cowboy” outside the Transportation Building.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Such stereotypes of Native Americans did not go unchallenged. Simon Pokagon, a chief of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians of the Great Lakes region, chastised the fair organizers for ignoring his people’s contributions “as if nothing that we had done—or given or given up—had contributed to America.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Pokagon even published a scathing pamphlet titled Red Man’s Rebuke, which reminded fair-goers that his own people had “no spirit to celebrate…our own funeral, the discovery of America” with the “pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes.” Pokagon’s fiery rebuke was afterwards reprinted on the bark of a white birch tree and distributed as Red Man’s Greeting. It included the author’s poetic lament to his people and their traditions, which, he noted, were “vanishing from our forests” like this tree.

To deflect possible negative publicity, Chief Pokagon was invited to speak at the fair on October 9, 1893. Although dressed in a modern suit, he wore a feather headdress in tribute to his native heritage as he addressed a crowd of 75,000. After handing the mayor of Chicago a copy of the deed to the city wrapped in birch bark, Pokagon spoke of the devastating effect of alcohol on his brethren and encouraged them to pursue U.S. citizenship even at the expense of clinging to tribal identities. After serving as the umpire for a game of lacrosse played by Iroquois and Potawatomi athletes, he was carried off on a History of Chicago float alongside a replica of a statue of another Potawatomi chief, Black Partridge. This chief had shielded settlers from harm after the fall of Fort Dearborn in the War of 1812. The original outdoor sculpture by Carl Rohl-Smith (18481900) had been cast in bronze in 1893 and portrayed the rescue of the wife of an army officer by Black Partridge.

Alas for us our day is o’erdearbornstat1

Ironically, when Chief Black Partridge returned to his own village, he found it had been burned and his own daughter and grandchild massacred by a company of Illinois Rangers.

An “ethnological congress” of aboriginal peoples was organized for the Midway Plaisance (or entertainment venue) of the World’s Columbian Exposition.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

So many Indian tribes were ultimately brought to the fair that some of their recreated villages spilled over into other sections of the fair grounds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Just outside of the fair grounds, four million spectators also flocked to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show to see “authentic” entertainment featuring “real” (unassimilated) Indians.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition held in Omaha, Nebraska, continued the tradition of displaying Native American peoples much in the way that European fair organizers included human “specimens” from their overseas empires and colonies. Alongside images of the buildings, pavilions, and Midway entertainment, a souvenir viewbook included photographs of Santa Clara, Apache, Ute, and Sioux tribesmen brought to the fair as “exotics” to be gawked at and photographed by curious spectators.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Mounted Plains Indians also made an appearance at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 both as statuary making a mute protest, and as live action entertainers, whooping war cries to delight the crowds.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

The Jamestown Exposition of 1907 was organized to memorialize the three-hundredth anniversary of the first permanent English settlement established in North America. Far from authentic, much of the memorabilia produced for the fair made use of images of Indians wearing the feather headdresses worn by the native peoples of the Great Plains.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Other souvenirs and keepsakes eulogized and perpetuated the myth of Pocahontas’ rescue of John Smith, with her idealized image appearing in statues on the fair grounds and even on the seal designed to promote the fair.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts of Francis Xavier Luca

While the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy did, in fact, entreat her father to spare the English captive’s life, it is doubtful Smith was ever in any real danger. What Smith, most early historians, and Disney animators perpetuating the myth all failed to recognize was that the nine- or ten-year-old Indian maiden was not motivated by romantic love for the twenty-seven-year old mercenary. Rather, she was likely playing her part in a native “death and rebirth” ceremony—a ritual intended to foster his adoption and assimilation, and to transform the English colonists from foreign adversaries into tributary tribesmen.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Ironically, Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by the English colonists, baptized into the Anglican faith, and married off to another colonist, John Rolfe, to force her father to sue for peace. She was afterwards carried to England for a royal audience as a publicity stunt by the Virginia Company to counter the bad reports about conditions in the colony and to raise the profile of (and funds for) the fledgling colony.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle, Washington in 1909 also integrated Indian peoples into the fair, exhibiting romanticized paintings of Custer’s last stand and depictions of native life by Western artist, Charles Marion Russell (18641926).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

But the organizers of the A-Y-P Expo also imported living Indians from local reservations to the fair. Treated like specimens in a “human zoo,” they were expected to show off their traditional costumes even as the Anglo-Americans congratulated themselves on their assimilation programs aimed at eliminating their cultural heritage.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A less-than-tactful photo board allowed guests at the fair in Seattle to add their faces to a cartoonish depiction of an “Indian outbreak.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, native peoples again made an appearance in the statuary erected for the fair. Although the last of the “wild” Indians had long since been “tamed” and herded onto reservations, a statue by Edward Henry Berge (1876–1924) depicted a Native American giving a triumphant shout after taking an enemy’s scalp.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A popular attraction at the fair was a large statue depicting an Indian on horseback. The sculptor, James Earle Fraser (1876–1900), had grown up in the Dakota Territory where he had absorbed the popular “Manifest Destiny” view that the Indian, pressed ever Westward by the inevitable forces of “civilization,” was doomed to extinction and would “someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.” Fraser’s “End of the Trail” statue depicts a despondent Indian warrior slumped over a weary horse standing “at the edge of the Pacific.”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Such pessimistic predictions seemed borne out by U.S. census bureau reports which recorded the decline to a mere 250,000 Indians remaining on reservations between 1910 and 1920.

Chicago’s “A Century of Progress” Exposition, which opened to the public in 1933, marked the one hundredth year anniversary of the forced removal of native peoples from the region. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act was a form of “ethnic cleansing” that required the native inhabitants to move west of the Mississippi River. The exposition included a replica of Fort Dearborn, established by the Americans in 1803 and implied that progress from Indian village to thriving city would not have been possible without the removal of the native peoples.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Little had changed in attitudes towards the Indian from the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to the Century of Progress fair of 1933. Promotional literature from the later fair also used stereotypical images of Native Americans, with their visages pushed into the background by a triumphal Miss Columbia.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Charles L. Marshall, Jr.

Ironically, few if any of the attendees of the fair ever learned that Native Americans played a major role in the construction of some of the most iconic skyscrapers ever erected in America’s greatest cities. Iroquois recruited from reservations in New York and Canada made up a large percentage of the iron-worker and riveter construction crews that helped erect the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and the Time Warner Building.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Edward E. Post

This post is dedicated to those very real Indians who, in spite of being reduced and relegated to reserves and subjected to assimilation programs, nevertheless actively and significantly contributed to the development of American society.

Historical Horrors for Halloween

•October 30, 2020 • Leave a Comment

As cases of Covid-19 spike in numerous states, it seems likely that more Americans will (or should) be wearing facial masks that will likely trump the disguises and makeup traditionally donned during the Halloween holiday.

In fact, in the wake of concerns over the spread of the pandemic, many parents have decided not to take their children “trick or treating” around the neighborhood and will instead host Halloween Zoom parties. To set the right mood, some companies have generously provided Zoom backgrounds that can be downloaded free of charge.

I have been working at The Wolfsonian for a good many decades, and remember some of the costumes worn by those attending the museum’s first Halloween party gala held just a little more than a week before our official opening to the public on November 11, 1995.

I had been assigned elevator duty at that time, and had been provided with a Bellboy uniform similar to that worn by Jerry Lewis in the 1960 film, The Bellboy. I can only hope that there was not too great a resemblance.

As the raging pandemic has precluded any such institutional party plans for the coming holiday, I thought that I might play Dr. Frankenstein myself and use this blog post to revivify some frightful specters and beasts from the past. Traditionally, Halloween costumes have more often been inspired by imaginary monsters created by the masters of horror literature. The Wolfsonian collection, does, in fact, include a few illustrated books and even a commercial poster that included Frankenstein, vampires, and others ghoulish figures.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

This post, however, will focus on some haunting images from the collection that were created by propaganda artists as critiques of all-too-real evil and despotic leaders. In the twentieth-century clash of nations, ideologies, and armies, war propaganda artists frequently associated enemy leaders with images of skeletons, skulls, grim reapers, devils, and demons. During the First World War, American propagandist Barron Collier created a series of broadsides in red, black and white. All of them depict Kaiser Wilhelm II as being in league with or even more ruthless than Satan.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gifts

French propagandists were slightly more subtle, accusing the Kaiser of being a sacrilegious and satanic monster, but transforming him visually into a brooding stone-faced gargoyle staring down from atop the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Of course, German artists were just as intent on associating their enemies with demonic figures. Adolf Hengeler, for example, illustrated a seven volume portfolio of plates that included an illustration of an Englishman signing a pact with the Devil and another showing the Grim Reaper as the prime beneficiary.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even though The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, outraged by the German invasion and occupation of Belgium the Dutch illustrator Louis Raemaeker became one of the most prolific and celebrated anti-war cartoonists. Many of his biting satires were widely distributed as editorial cartoons and helped shift sentiment against the Germans. Forced to flee his native land with a price on his head, Raemaeker was not deterred from continuing to vilify the German Emperor, as does this original illustration in our collection depicting the Kaiser as a creepy spider.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

As recollections of the horrors of the Great War had just begun to fade in the mid-1930s, Spain became the new battleground between the forces of Fascism and Nazism and Communism. The combatants on both sides waged a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds by deploying images of the enemy and their ideologies as deadly monsters.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even as the Spanish Civil War came to an end in 1939, the National Socialists in Germany and the Soviet Socialists in Russia signed peace pacts that left many anti-fascists wondering whether there was much of a difference between the “CommuNazis.” In a plate titled, “Fellow Travelers,” Paul Frederick Berdanier, Sr. showed his disgust for the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists by picturing them as identical King Kong beasts taking their directions from Death.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

By the time the Second World War began in late 1939, war artists had become proficient at recycling tropes of giants, ogres, monsters, and skulls with the aim of picturing the enemy in the worst possible light. The Fascists and Nazis lampooned the British Empire by depicting John Bull as an ogre intent on crushing innocents underfoot and swallowing up the entire world.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After breaking the peace pact with Stalin, Hitler’s propagandists and their Fascist allies in Italy resumed depicting the Communist enemy as beasts. One poster depicts Communism as a giant grasping hand intent on destroying Western civilization.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After the United States entered the Second World War, the Russian-born American artist, Boris Artzybasheff also depicted the enemy as grotesque and frightful creatures . His illustrations lampooned Japanese militarists and made monsters of the Nazi aggressors.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Annella Brown

But perhaps the most powerful image projecting the evils of the Nazi leader and his impact comes from a poster titled “Guilty!.” Designed by Jürgen Freese and printed during the Nuremberg trials of the war criminals, the poster depicts a ghostly image of Adolf Hitler, revealed in an x-ray-like image to be a grinning skull.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

It is difficult, for me at least, to conjure a more frightening and ghoulish image for the Halloween holiday.

When Funding Art Was the Federal Response to Economic Crisis

•October 7, 2020 • 1 Comment

It seems only fitting that one of the first installations that will open to the public at The Wolfsonian–FIU in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the resultant economic distress will be an exhibition celebrating President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal One program. The germ of the exhibition grew out of a history course I taught at the university last spring in which five undergraduate students explored how FDR created the largest federally funded arts program in U.S. history. Not only did the Federal Arts, Writers’, Music, and Theatre Projects keep the nation’s cultural producers employed during the hardest of hard times; the programs also provoked a renaissance of American art and culture that helped to entertain and maintain the morale of depression-weary citizens.

This exhibition will come to fruition ten years after The Wolfsonian Library received a major gift of New Deal era books and ephemera amassed by Christopher Denoon.

Mr Denoon authored one of the most important books on posters produced under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project, Posters of the WPA (1987) and wrote the foreword to Posters for the People: Art of the WPA (2008), published on the occasion of the 75 anniversary of the New Deal.

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I flew out to meet with Mr. Denoon in late September 2010 and made arrangements there and then to help him pack up and ship his collection to our institution. Not only did his generous donation substantially augment our own vast collection of New Deal materials; it also inspired further gifts and acquisitions that make our holdings of New Deal art and propaganda among the finest in the nation.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The FIU undergraduate student curators putting together our latest exhibition made selections from the rare book and special collections library. Our own curators have supplemented these works with pieces from the objects collection, including ceramics and posters.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

One of the student curators, Claudia Mendoza, examined how Federal One made art accessible for children growing up during those lean and hungry days. Of the four arts-related projects, the Federal Art Project was the most ambitious and well-funded. Not only did the FAP provide financial support for mural and easel artists, ceramicists and sculptors, poster- and printmakers; the project also created hundreds of community art centers across the nation and funded art teachers and art education curricula in public schools.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

As budgets were tight and the Administration desirous of demonstrating their frugality, many of the projects utilized inexpensive materials and techniques. As scrap wood and surplus linoleum tiles were almost universally accessible even in the poorest communities, woodblock and linocut books and prints were encouraged and mimeographed reproduction over expensive printing presses and processes.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

While some schoolteachers utilized new plastic binders, or created simple decorated board portfolios to house student work, others made use of wood and wire to fashion cheap and creative bindings.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In Pennsylvania, Federal Arts Project workers teamed up with Federal Writers’ Project workers to create an entire series of illustrated children’s books to educate the state’s schoolchildren. In this instance, the publication and printing of this series was farmed out to professional presses, as the federal government wanted to generate work for private industry.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Christopher Denoon

Two FIU students, Benjamin Messier and Kathleen Dowling worked together to select materials further documenting the work of the Federal Writers’ Project. In addition to publishing educational books for children, the FWP employed authors in a variety of publishing projects, the most ambitious being the American Guide series that covered every state in the union.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Intended to encourage domestic tourism, stimulate local pride, and document local lore and legends, the state and city guides also detailed the often complicated and controversial histories of immigrants, minorities, and social strife in those localities.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Another of the students, Giovanni Bombace focused on the Federal Music Project, designed to provide employment to musicians unable to support themselves during the Great Depression. FMP Director Nikolai Sokoloff, a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, also aspired to share his own passion for classical and other musical forms with the entire nation. The FMP supported orchestras, a capella and choral groups, jazz bands; encouraged public schools to incorporate music in their curricula; and employed many scores of musicians as music teachers. In addition to creating live music in public performances and concerts, the project also aimed to preserve the myriad music traditions of the nation, celebrating the diversity of folk and regional musical heritage.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

In addition to sponsoring free or subsidized musical concerts, the Federal Music Project also recorded and provided sound recordings of the same for free distribution to radio stations to help spread a love for classical music.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The student curator noted that there was always a tension within the FMP between advocates of classical and “uplifting” musical experiences and those who championed more popular music appreciation.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Live theatre, vaudeville, and Broadway musicals experienced a catastrophic drop in audiences and revenue during the Great Depression with many theatre companies going bankrupt and laying off staff. Another FIU student curator, William Sam, researched and selected materials to reflect the fact that the Federal Theatre Project rehired thousands of unemployed theatre workers and reopened venues, offering free or at-cost productions.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Between 1935 and 1939, the FTP was responsible for employing 13,000 professional theatre workers, producing 64,000 performances, and reaching an audience of 15,000,000 people.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

The economic depression combined with racist hiring practices of the Jim Crow era ensured that half of the 350,000 African Americans living in New York City were thrust into the ranks of the unemployed. FTP Director Hallie Flanagan established a Negro unit within the Federal Theatre Project, becoming within a few weeks the largest single employer in Harlem. Harnessing the talents of producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles, the Negro Theatre of New York staged an innovative and highly acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in Haiti during its tumultuous revolution.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Voodoo Macbeth played to sold out audiences for ten weeks before touring the country. It also launched the career of Canada Lee, who also played the lead in another FTP production, Haiti, where he starred as the slave-turned-emperor, Henri Christophe.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher Denoon

In staging “Living Newspaper” productions modeled on revolutionary Soviet theatre, and by not shying away from controversial subject matter, the FTP incurred the wrath of conservative congressional opponents. While socially-conscious and left-leaning artists rallied to its cause, the FTP was the first of the art project defunded by Congress in 1939.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Be sure to visit this installation at The Wolfsonian museum once we welcome the public back in new spaces designed for physical distancing.

It Must Not Happen Here

•August 28, 2020 • 4 Comments

While being confined to my condominium by COVID-19 has felt a bit like being placed under house arrest—not that I personally have had any experience along those lines—it has had some unanticipated benefits. Having no outside distractions or entertainment these past months has allowed me to focus in my off hours on completing a novel begun in the wake of the November 2016 presidential election. Inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a novel about a fascist take-over of America,I wrote my own satirical alternative history of depression-era America with some obvious parallels to present day events. Having completed my final revisions, I am currently shopping it out to some publishing houses.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, public domain, photoshopped by the author

The plot of It Did Happen Here turns on a true event—a failed assassination attempt against President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt here in Miami. By changing the trajectory of the bullet to find its intended target, I tried to re-imagine Depression-era America in the absence of FDR’ New Deal, when there were plenty of proto-fascist cockroaches on the scene.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In this age of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and rampant internet conspiracies, I wanted to challenge my readers to play detective and to wrestle with who and what were real, and where they should draw the line between fact, interpretation, and just plain fabrication. While I decided to focus primarily on actual historical individuals, I chose to follow Lewis’ lead and to alter their names and superficially mask their true identities behind satirical pseudonyms. This was done not so much to protect the innocent (or guilty), or even to protect myself from defamation suits from potentially litigious heirs—the dead rarely coming back from the grave to complain about historians’ interpretations and mischaracterizations. Some names came to me courtesy of the hilarious misnomers that arrived on actual student papers I graded over the years. Most, however, were deliberately contrived to suggest some parallels between historical actors of the past, and present-day personages behaving (or misbehaving) in a similar manner.  

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Years spent working at The Wolfsonian was another important impetus to this project, as the collection introduced me to several historical personages included in my book, particularly the artists Hugo Gellert and Lynd Ward.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The museum’s collection provided me with the visual language so critical for this project. With the encouragement of the founder and kind permission of the last two directors of the institution, I will be including a generous sprinkling of images from the collection to reanimate and revivify and help bring the distant world of the 1930s back to life, if in a distorted and Dr. Frankenstein style.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Like Lewis’ popular novel and its dramatic adaptation for the Federal Theatre Project stage, I hope that my own satire will remind Americans to be vigilant in the defense of our Constitution, democratic institutions, free and fair elections, and ensuring that it does not happen here.

Charles Lindbergh: From Distinguished Flying Cross to the Dog House

•May 20, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

In the early morning hours of May 20, 1927, a twenty-five year-old American air mail carrier piloted his single-engine airplane on a solo flight across the Atlantic that would catapult his name (and that of his plane) into history. Some 33½ hours and 3,600 miles later, an exhausted Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis on an airstrip outside of Paris, where he was pulled from the cockpit and carried aloft on the shoulders of a crowd of 150,000 spectators. The French President awarded Lindbergh the Légion d’honneur, and upon his return to the United States (via a naval cruiser), U.S. President Calvin Coolidge bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross on the world’s most famous airman. Flying back to New York City from the nation’s capital, Lindbergh was greeted by the mayor and governor and treated to a ticker-tape parade and ceremonies attended by 200,000 well-wishers, with crowds of as many as four million straining to catch a glimpse of the flier.

In the aftermath of the flight, the Post Office issued a special stamp and printed special airmail envelopes commemorating his historic flights.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight so fired the imagination of the public that it was memorialized in everything from crystal tableware to tapestries to sheet music.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

An autobiographical book deal and lucrative contracts followed, so that the shy aviator soon became wealthy as well as an internationally recognized celebrity.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Finlay Matheson

But fame and fortune can sometimes bring unforeseen consequences. In March 1932, Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s firstborn infant son was abducted from their mansion in the dead of night, the kidnapper leaving a note demanding $50,000 in Charles, Jr.’s crib. The event captured the attention of the nation as the sensationalist press led with headlines calling it the “Crime of the Century” and even pulp magazines exploited the notorious crime.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Though the Lindberghs paid the ransom, the lifeless body of their child was discovered in the woods not far from their home. The arrest and trial of the presumed kidnapper and killer a couple of years later created a circus-like atmosphere, so that once again the shy aviator and his wife found themselves dogged by reporters, newshounds, and paparazzi, and the recipients of a barrage of letters from sympathetic and psychotic strangers. Seeking refuge from media-mad America, the Lindberghs moved to Europe for a few years in the late 1930s. In 1936, Charles and his wife visited Nazi Germany at the invitation of an American attaché stationed in Berlin who was eager for Lindbergh’s assessment of the strength of Germany’s Luftwaffe. The couple attended the Berlin Summer Olympic games as the special guests of Adolf Hitler’s Air Marshall, Hermann Göring.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Nicholas Blaga

Afterwards Charles was provided with a tour of Germany’s civil and military airplane production lines and even allowed to pilot one of their bombers. Lindbergh was duped into believing the greatly inflated factory production statistics he was fed and believed that Nazi Germany had or would soon achieve air supremacy sufficient to defeat the combined air forces of the rest of Europe. Given his own white supremacist and anti-Semitic views, Charles Lindbergh seriously contemplated taking up residence in the German capital of this revived and orderly Reich. He was dissuaded from doing so by the horrors of Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs shattered the windows of 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses and burned 267 synagogues, and afterwards deported Jews to concentration camps.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Convinced that another European war was imminent, Lindbergh moved back to the United States in 1939 and, uncharacteristically, actively sought out the press and used his celebrity status to advocate for military aviation production and war readiness at home. It was imperative, he told the press, that America “build a wall of race and arms” to defend itself against her enemies. When the European war erupted, Lindbergh opposed any entangling alliances with the “doomed” nations of Europe, including Great Britain, and even publicly resigned his commission in the U.S. Army Air Forces after President Roosevelt rebuked him. In September 1941, Lindbergh was making public speeches for the America First Committee, claiming that Britain, the Jews, and the Roosevelt Administration were determined to draw the nation into a war for which it was woefully unprepared. The Wolfsonian Library holds a copy of a children’s propaganda book from the period, The Ordeal of Oliver Airedale, or To the Dogs and Back, which imagines a civilization of dogs threatened by the rise of a mustachioed hound named Der Pootsch (Hitler).

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The book’s hero, an airedale loosely modeled on President Franklin Roosevelt, recognizes the threat posed by the hound and his henchmen, but is hampered by isolationists and pacifists and most especially by the speeches made by a Skye Terrier (Lindbergh) who sympathized with the cause of Der Pootsch.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Much like the Skye Terrier in the children’s story, Lindbergh’s anti-interventionist and anti-Semitic statements in the press transformed him from the darling of the press and landed him in the doghouse.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lindbergh quickly shifted gears and requested to be recommissioned. Under White House orders, that request was denied, and so Lindbergh served instead as a consultant for Ford and United Aircraft where he helped resolve early bomber production line issues. In 1944, Lindbergh spent six months in the Pacific Theater and, though technically a civilian, flew in 50 combat bombing missions against the Japanese. While his war service helped remove some of the tarnish from his name, he continues to be a controversial figure.
In an extremely well-written alternative history written by Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, the author imagines a very different fate for the United States had Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940. HBO has recently aired a dramatic limited series version of the novel.

Love to Hear Percussion

•May 8, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Alexandra O’Neale, Membership + Events Manager at The Wolfsonian–FIU in collaboration with Chief Librarian Francis Luca.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

The COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it has imposed on all of us, has also provided us with time to listen to music as we work remotely by computer. Alexandra O’Neale has spent some of that time listening to and reflecting on the history and influence of Afro-Cuban jazz. Here is her report:

Lana Del Rey. Rihanna. John Legend.
If you love music—you’re human, aren’t you?!—right now you might be spending more time than normal with these familiar voices. I’ve been thinking a lot about music’s role in our lives as artists like Thundercat, Fiona Apple, and Adele provide the soundtrack to my work-from-home experience. We talk about music as a comfort, an escape, a means of release, or a source of energy, phraseology that is near-spiritual and ascribes a sort of magical power to music. Songs can resonate in deeply personal ways (i.e. mixtapes), but they can also connect people across cultures, generations, classes, and time (Beyoncé is close to a religion, after all).
But even when I’m lost in the moment, jamming out to my favorite singers or bands, I’m struck by contemporary music’s historical roots. I’m sure that part of that comes from my work at The Wolf, a museum that focuses in on the many hidden ways the past influences the present, a theme we’ve teased out specifically through the lens of music in several recent programs like The Wolf on Wax. Through those events, I became more acquainted with the institution’s intriguing music holdings, which include substantial collections of sheet music, phonographs, and even vintage records. The artwork shown throughout this post represents one of our strengths, modernist album covers, which have been popping into my mind lately as a sort of visual backdrop for my latest auditory obsession: Afro-Cuban jazz.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Clues about the genre’s lasting power have been bubbling up in my listening sessions. Certain rhythms arise again and again in today’s Top 40, but it took me a while to recognize them as echoes of old-school hits. The synergies weren’t necessarily hidden, but they were steadily beating just below my perception level, like a bassline you at first don’t notice but then can’t unhear. Armed with earworms and melodies, I decided to tease out how it all relates—cue my evidence board and red thread!

One of the earliest and most popular forms of Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz is a unique blend of clave-based rhythms and harmonies that reflect Cuba’s diverse and vibrant history. Before this genre was banging on the walls of famous clubs during the height of New York’s jazz scene (the 1920s–40s), its origins trace back to the Atlantic slave trade and sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Brazil.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) produced 40% of the world’s sugar before the slaves rose up in the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Maria T. Temkin

In the wake of the Haitian Revolution, thousands of French colonists, slaves, and free people of color fled the bloodshed and chaos, seeking refuge and opportunity especially in eastern Cuba and Louisiana, where sugarcane production would eventually rise and eclipse that of Haiti.

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Farm Security Administration photo from Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1943)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The slave trade continued to bring slaves to Cuban shores long after it ceased adding slaves to the North American mainland, creating a surge of people of African heritage on the island. Slave masters in the United States and Cuba generally held different views about the wisdom of permitting slaves to play and create music; in most U.S. territories, drumming was prohibited for fear that slaves might use drumbeats to transmit plans and messages of uprisings.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Cuban slaves, on the other hand, were permitted to play drums and the clave, a hardwood percussion instrument which was used to produce a five-beat pattern that later became the structural foundation of Afro-Cuban jazz. Drawing from the slaves’ strong connection to African drumming traditions and polyrhythmic roots, Cuban musicians layered in this influence with Spanish music to create this entirely new musical genre.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In the 20th century, musicians from the ports of Havana and New Orleans ferried back and forth between the two cities to perform, resulting in the sharing and blending of musical influences. Jelly Roll Morton, an American jazz pianist from New Orleans, acknowledged the contributions Cuban musicians had made to the city’s sound when he referred to habanera rhythms as “Spanish Tinge,” a component vital to “real good jazz.” He would later incorporate it into some of his own songs, for example “New Orleans Blues” and “The Crave.”

But most music historians trace the true birth of Afro-Cuban jazz to trumpeter Mario Bauzá. Bauzá would play an influential role in bringing Cuban music to the New York jazz scene, and he was the first to blend jazz with clave in his 1943 hit “Tanga,” largely considered the first Afro-Cuban jazz song.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

While he was a musical director for drummer and band leader Chick Webb, Bauzá met bepop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie and introduced him to Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, creating a chain of relationships and stylistic influence that forever changed the landscape of Latin jazz.

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Pozo and Gillespie co-wrote several famous Latin jazz numbers, such as “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Bauzá’s brother-in-law, Machito, would also help lay down the groundwork for the genre through his Latin jazz band, the Afro-Cubans, who often collaborated with jazz greats (Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich) and were known for their blend of Cuban melodies with American swing influence. The band’s popularity increased dramatically in the 1950s, when there was a frenzy for mambo in the U.S.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Machito continued to perform with the band which would be known for their blend of Cuban melodies with American swing influence.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The band’s popularity increased dramatically in the 1950s as mambo became the most popular dance craze in the U.S.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

The genre took off from there. From New York to Miami, Americans danced to Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo at clubs and flocked to record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment.

I mentioned the backbone of Afro-Cuban jazz, the clave. The most favored clave rhythm is the son clave, a 3-2 or 2-3 pattern. While the clave was at the center of mid-century genres like the mambo, rumba, and salsa, its beat would continue to pop up as music evolved. In 1955, blues guitarist and singer Bo Diddley’s self-titled song used the son clave 3-2 rhythm. We also see this crossover in The Beatles’ 1964 hit “And I Love Her,” with Ringo swapping the drums for bongos and claves.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

Another frequent clave rhythm in Cuban music is the tresillo, a Spanish word meaning “triplet,” since three of the same notes are successively played in the timespan normally occupied by two. We also continue to hear clave rhythm in music with island origins, such as dancehall and reggaeton, before it makes its way into the spectrum of contemporary pop, from dance to R&B. Listen to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Drake’s “Passionfruit,” and even Taylor Swift’s “Delicate“—notice the triplet notes? The tresillo is so prominent in music today because it lends itself well for layering in a variety of instruments. Its effective rhythm makes it a strong choice for pop artists (who tend toward simple, consistent, melodic beats) and has led to a new wave of clave-based bops that constantly top the Billboard charts.

Here in Miami, Americans danced to Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo at clubs and flocked to record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment. It’s quite a bit easier to enjoy music at will today, of course—although there are plenty of venues in our backyard that continue to be hotspots for live performances. But while we wait for places like Ball & Chain, Lagniappe, and Le Chat Noir to reopen, finding the legacy of early Afro-Cuban jazz is as easy as turning on the radio or turning up the volume on Spotify.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

My own reflections on thinking about this splendid blend of African American and Afro-Cuban musical traditions was that it was only made possible through the pre-1959 ease of travel between the North American mainland and the island nation. Not only did musicians from the United States and Cuba regularly shuttle back and forth between Havana, New Orleans, Miami, and New York, influencing each other directly, but American tourists visiting the most popular of honeymoon and vacation spots also returned stateside with a new-found love for the exotic musical traditions of Cuban entertainers. While Americans packed the Palladium and a host of other dance hall venues in cities across the nation to listen and dance to live Afro-Cuban jazz and mambo, they also flocked to the record stores to buy up sound recordings for home entertainment.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gift of Vicki Gold Levi

As we are all currently limited to “in-house” musical experiences, I can only hope that some of you might be inspired by the musical selections included in this post to listen to some of the music and artists represented to enjoy in your own home while social distancing. Perhaps the more adventurous of you might even try to organize an Afro-Cuban jazz dance party via Zoom.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collectio

Celebrating Earth Day 2020, COVID-19 Style

•April 16, 2020 • 1 Comment

Contemplating the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day this month, I could not help but be struck by a number of ironies. The first is that the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced the temporarily closure of businesses and factories, which has kept hundreds of millions of cars off the streets and highways, and which has forced much of the human population into isolation indoors has probably done more to reduce pollution and the greenhouse gases posing yet another existential threat to human civilization. But in another ironic twist, though the air quality is unquestionably cleaner and the environment more inviting, most everyone is stuck indoors under a “shelter-in-place” directive designed to flatten the curve of the corona virus pandemic so that we cannot enjoy a stroll on the near empty streets. I do, at least, have the compensating view from the balcony of my Miami Beach condominium which has always offered an enticing scene of natural beauty, though there is nothing, of course, natural about that vista.

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That view is dominated by a man-made canal dredged by John S. Collins, a New Jersey Quaker, planter, and South Florida transplant who transformed the barrier island from a mangrove swamp infested with crocodiles, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes into agriculturally productive farmland.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The canal behind by condominium was not designed to create a beautiful backdrop or to provide recreation for  kayakers, paddle boarders, and boating enthusiasts, but rather to dredge up land for fill and to facilitate moving barges of produce from field to market.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Subsequent land developers, like the automotive-parts millionaire Carl Fisher, saw Miami Beach’s future in terms of real estate rather than farm produce. In the late teens and twenties, he and other developers sought to transform the island into a winter playground, building mansions and grand hotels catering to the well-to-do.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

It was Fisher who came up with the idea of using images of young women in swimsuits to encouraging winter-weary Northerners to spend the season at one of his hotels.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

And that basic formula was worked for more than a century. But today, the beaches are closed, the Spring Breakers told to go home, and the streets of the city virtually deserted but for the occasional bicyclists, stroller-pushers, and dog walkers like my wife and myself. During our daily and nightly walks, I am struck by the clarity of the air and the quiet, broken only by bird song, cricket concerts, and the croaking of frogs as the human population remains shuttered indoors.

It feels odd to be celebrating Earth Day indoors, or, for that matter, at all as a natural pandemic is scything its way across the globe, but this is where we are. The first Earth Day, held on April 22nd, 1970, has been described on an official website as the “birth of the modern environmental movement.” As someone who grew up in that decade, celebrated Earth Day in school, and had my own views shaped by the ecology movement, I recognize the importance of marking the event, and some of the important legislation that followed. But as a historian, I am also wary of focusing so narrowly on a single historical marker. Our own attitudes towards nature have significantly evolved even over the last fifty years with conflicts between the spiritual and scientific, and climate change scientists and deniers. Earlier generations of Americans were also very much shaped by contact with the natural world in battles between pragmatic, “wise-use” conservationists and spiritual-minded preservationists.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

For me, it is the presidencies of the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, that mark the true beginnings of modern environmental consciousness in America. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first brought environmental issues to the forefront, first by promoting the conservation movement to ensure the “efficient” use of natural resources, and then by dramatically expanding the number and size of the country’s national parks and forests.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Teddy Roosevelt convinced Congress to create the U.S. Forest Service and appointed Gifford Pinchot, a “wise use” conservationist, to head the new department in 1905. After graduating from Yale, Gifford Pinchot’s first professional experience in forestry came in 1892, when he was hired to manage the forests of the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. That same year Pinchot met and fell under the spell of naturalist and Sierra Club founder, John Muir, who would become first his mentor and then his bitter adversary in the contest between forestry preservationists and conservationists. After embarking on a National Forest Commission tour of the West in 1896, Pinchot became a forest agent and later head of the Division of Forestry within the Department of Interior. Pinchot advocated a pragmatic management of forest reserves and natural “resources” guided by a “conservation ethic,” in opposition to his former mentor, John Muir, who thought of “wilderness” and nature in more spiritually-affirming terms and insisted on its preservation rather than exploitation.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

During the Great Depression, unemployment hit record heights, only recently surpassed as COVID-19 has forced a temporary shutdown of virtually all non-essential industries. Back then, the nation was still grappling environmentally with the contest between conservationists and preservationists when Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated president in March 1933. Not only was the national economy in a shambles, but the southern states were experiencing drought and significant soil erosion and degradation brought on and made worse by many decades of poor farming practices, strip-mining and clear-cutting by short-sighted mining and logging companies, and catastrophic flooding by the Tennessee River.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift made by Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Within months of taking office, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service with the goal of addressing some of these serious environmental concerns.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

The CCC provided immediate employment for 250,000 young men, many of whom had dropped out of school, left home, hitched and ridden the rails to the big cities, and fallen into delinquency after a fruitless search for work.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

FDR had been a long-time supporter of the Boy Scouts before being elected president and believed that sending these “street kids” to do forestry work in the natural settings of state and national parks and forests would be good for rebuilding their malnourished bodies and spirits.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gifts

The CCC provided life-saving employment and vocational training and experience to millions of enrollees over the course of its nine-year existence.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The work these young men did in planting billions of trees, fighting forest fires, engaging in pest and flood control activities, blazing scenic trails, and building roads, bridges, and other park infrastructure not only made the nation’s parks and forests more economically and environmentally sustainable, but also more attractive to domestic tourists.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

Although many books have been written about the direct impact that Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” had in restoring, developing, and revitalizing our natural resources, few have considered the long-term potential effects this work experience had on the enrollees. Several million young men had been taken from urban centers, trucked out to, housed, trained, and put to work in our parks and forests; one can only assume that many had gained a working knowledge and new sense of appreciation of nature they would carry home with them and instill in their own children.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

Roosevelt also signed into law the bill that created the Soil Conservation Service (or SCS) in 1935 as severe drought and dust storms rolled across the southern Great Plains. This natural and man-made ecological disaster robbed millions of acres of farmland of its topsoil, sent airborne in black blizzards that suffocated cattle and blanketed farmlands in dust.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Not unlike today, the farming families of the Great Plains were often confined inside their homes for days, weeks, and occasionally even months, without even the benefit of a beautiful vista outside their windows. As the dust seeped in through every crack and crevice of their window sills, the black blizzards forced even those indoors to wear wet cloths and bandanas over their faces to ward off choking on fine dust particles that sickened and killed thousands of young and old with dust pneumonia.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift made by Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote and performed songs memorializing the plight of those suffering through those dark days. One such song, Dust Pneumonia Blues,  remains awfully relevant considering the respiratory COVID-19 threatens its victims with today.

FDR’s CCC and SCS employees aimed to reverse the damage of the dusters and desertification where possible by planting a strain of Sudanese grass and sorghum as ground cover, trees as windbreaks, and introducing farmers to contour plowing.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts made by Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift made by Francis X. Luca in memory of James Findlay (1943-2010), librarian, mentor, and New Deal aficionado

Not unlike the emergency relief package recently passed by Congress to help businesses and individuals hit by the corona pandemic, the Roosevelt Administration did what it could for those farmers living in or forced to leave dust-stricken areas determined to be beyond rehabilitation, like the Joad family of John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. President Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration provided some with direct relief and others with assistance while they migrated to more fruitful areas of the country.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Even as the Roosevelt Administration wrestled with the serious ecological problems of the era, the National Park Service did its part to boost the economy through domestic tourism by encouraging Americans to vacation in the nation’s public parks. Although railroad interests, Progressive politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, and promoters of 100% Americanization also pushed a “See America First” campaign designed to encourage foreigners and immigrants to experience the essence, and citizens to rekindle their sense of patriotism, under the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, artists created posters for the National Park Service aimed at ramping up visitation.

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My final thoughts while being stuck inside on this bright and beautiful day because of corona virus is that Nature appears to be getting the last laugh on humanity during this pandemic. While human-beings have polluted the skies, waters, and soil, and have contributed to the existential threat of climate change and sea level rise, it is somehow reassuring to see none of the usual automobile congestion choking the streets and filling the skies with smog. Perhaps we can enjoy this brief respite from the “rat race” and appreciate the solitude imposed by COVID-19 to take a leisurely walk taking in the natural and cultivated beauty of our surroundings—maintaining, of course, a safe distance from others doing the same.

A Tribute to the Red Cross and Heroic Nurses on the COVID-19 Front Lines

•April 7, 2020 • 3 Comments

Under shelter at home directives and working remotely from my condominium for what feels like months—(though it has only been weeks)—I’ve been obsessing on the COVID-19 virus that has transformed the vibrant tourist mecca of Miami Beach into a virtual ghost town. As a historian, I am always looking for parallels in history that help contextualize our present crises. As yesterday marked the official anniversary of the U.S. House of Representatives vote endorsing President Woodrow Wilson and the Senate’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917, my mind turned to the impact of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 in bringing an end to that bloody conflict.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

American history books frequently assert that U.S. military intervention in the war proved decisive to the defeat and capitulation of Germany, while often completely ignoring another important and consequential factor. Ironically, it was the outbreak of the so-called Spanish influenza pandemic that made the combatants on both sides of the trenches too sick to continue killing each other, and one of the reasons the German High Command was compelled to call for an armistice.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

According to the most conservative tallies of the U.S. War Department, influenza sickened 26% of the Army—(more than one million men)—and killed nearly 30,000 before they even completed the crossing to France.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While 53,402 American troops were reported to have died in combat, nearly 45,000 of the American Expeditionary Forces and 5,027 naval personnel succumbed to influenza and related pneumonia by the end of 1918. Another 106,000 of 600,000 American military personnel required hospitalization and were rendered temporarily unfit for combat duty. Other estimates suggest that influenza and pneumonia may have killed more American soldiers and sailors than died on the field of battle.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

While much is often made—(and rightly so)—of the heroism of our troops, in light of the terrifying invisible enemy of influenza in 1918 and Corona virus in 2020, I thought that I would include some images that pay tribute to the unsung heroines working under the most dangerous of circumstances: the Red Cross nurses who tended the sick and dying.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

These heroines, like their medical professionals today combating COVID-19 under difficult and dangerous circumstances, are deserving of our profound gratitude.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

One of the reasons so few persons are aware of the impact of the horrendous disease in bringing the World War to an end was the fact that military censors of the belligerent nations made sure that newspapers minimized the effects of the epidemic on the battlefield and home front so as not to depress morale and embolden the enemy. The reason the pandemic was most often referred to as the “Spanish flu,” was that Spain, as a neutral country, was free to publish accounts of the sickness and to report the staggeringly high death tolls within her borders. While the First World War was responsible for the deaths of some 20 million combatants and civilians by 1918, the influenza pandemic is estimated to have sickened 500 million persons (or 28% of the population world-wide), and killed between 23 and 50 million victims across the globe.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

In the United States, more than 675,000 Americans died of influenza in 1918. Adjusting for present-day population figures, this would have proportionally been the equivalent of 2.16 million deaths today. Like today, persons going out in public in 1918 were cautioned and in many cities required to wear masks over their faces. But whereas the Corona virus appears to be most dangerous and lethal among the older and more vulnerable population, the influenza epidemic of 1918/19 claimed the lives of the relatively young and healthy.

My own family history may be indicative of that unusual and frightening demographic trend, as I remember my grandmother recalling the death of her sister during the 1918 epidemic. Thanks to the incredible sleuthing abilities of Wolfsonian staffer, Lawrence Wiggins III, I was able to piece together the contours of her life and premature death. Born in Italy on April 5, 1896, Jennie Mazzei was nine when she and her mother and sister Maria arrived in America in 1905; her father, Vincenzo, was already living in Watertown, Massachusetts, and paid for their passage. Just a few months shy of sixteen years, Jennie married James Micela on January 16, 1912, and bore him three children. While living with her husband and children in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the twenty-two-year-old housewife took ill on September 25 and died of influenza on October 3, 1918. She was survived by her husband and three children, Bruno, Teresa, and Angelina.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Henry S. Hacker

I hope that my readers and their families are spared such losses of loved ones during the current COVID-19 crisis. Stay indoors and stay healthy.