I was just helping a student do some research for a history essay. The mission: find 3 primary documents from the 19th Century that reveal something about the spirit of the age. Her topic: Christmas shopping.

We did a database search of all the articles from the New York Times published before the year 1880, using the terms “Christmas” and “Shopping,” and got a measly 40 hits on 2 pages, a good number of them tiny classified ads. The first article, written in 1870, was titled, The Enemy of the Family, and was a complaint about “middle men” running up the prices of goods at Christmas time. Other titles included:

PERU.: How Christmas was celebrated in Lima—Peruvian Ladies—Their Lack of Refinement—Political Matters.

COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS.: Sales at the Stock Exchange Dec. 16.


And, lumbering in at #24:


This last one very nearly crushed her spirit. We were stymied.

Then I remembered that I’d recently read Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, by the historian William R. Leach. According to Leach:

Before 1880 business like department stores did not exist…In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishmentsmultifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power.

These huge department stores were the result of a deliberate, concentrated culture of shopping,

unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and its moral sensibility.

In the case of Christmas,

when the large department stores first began to overshadow retail districts, Santa Claus’s status also started to metamorphose. The big merchants laid claim to him and to the imagery of the Christmas holidays. Urban merchandising began to give substance and form to the Christmas rituals.

So, on a hunch, I suggested to the student that we change the search criteria to articles published between 1880 and 1900. A few clicks of the mouse later, and we had 406 citations on 21 pages. The title of the 1st article was:

MUCH CHRISTMAS SHOPPING: The Season of 1898 Has Been the Best in Many Years. THE FINAL RUSH LAST NIGHT Belated Buyers Crowded the Stores—A Great Year for Mistletoe and Other Greens.

Some others were:


FOR THE COMING HOLIDAY: Suggestions to the Christmas Shopper and Home Worker. THE SEASON’S RARELY LAVISH DISPLAY What a Round of the Shops Offers — Prices and Quality Most Satisfactory — Designs for Home Work. (1895)

STORE THIEVES AND DETECTIVE: Both Have Already Appeared in the Mass of Holiday Shoppers That Crowd the Big Shops. (1899)

And, of course:

Killed After Christmas Shopping Trip. (1900)

Thank you, Santa! The student left happy, if a little over-burdened, and now I’m looking forward to reading a fine essay.

And to Bill O’Reilly and all the other commentators who complain yearly about the government and the forces of political correctness storming the Christmas gates, I offer this line from The Odyssey:

But come now, change thy theme, and sing of the building of the horse of wood, which Epeius made with Athena’s help, the horse which once Odysseus led up into the citadel as a thing of guile, when he had filled it with the men who sacked Ilion.

Christmas lost the war a long time ago, taken from within before it even knew it was vulnerable.



Here’s the poem The Unknown Citizen, by W.H. Auden, which he wrote in the late 1930’s.

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The main difference between then and now, of course, is that JS/07M378 most likely does not work in a car factory, he tends to get fired, and, once he does, owning that frigidaire suddenly makes him a Communist. Just ask Fox News. So today he is certainly making himself heard, and, before long, he might make himself felt. After all,

When there was war, he went.

And he’s going.


I’ve heard of ad hominem attacks, but this is getting just plain weird.

Ever since Occupy Wall Street began, conservative commentators have been obsessed with the protesters’ bodies, particularly their smell. The most recent such prissy attack is by Ted Nugent, of all people, who, in a Washington Times column, called them “stinky hippies.”

Whence comes this obsession by Nugent, Bill O’Reilly, P.J. O’Rourke, and so many others? Well, I think I found the source.

In 1787, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

 The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. – Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.

This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep…

Etc., etc., etc.

Now, as Jefferson is one of the main freedom fighters of the the Conservatives, and as he is generally believed to have enjoyed some, for lack of a better phrase, Liaisons dangereuses with one (at least) of his many slaves, this obsession with body odor by Nugent et al. takes on a whole new angle, one which I’d really rather not pursue any further.

Or, as Shakespeare said, “Methinks they doth protest too much,” if you kow what I mean.


According to a report from the NYS Department of Correctional Services, there were 58,387 people under custody in New York as of January, 2010. Of that number, 49.2% were from NYC, and 23% from upstate urban areas. Over 75% were African-American or Hispanic.

These inmates, and the prisons where they live, provide economic benefits to many upstate towns and villages. Even though the incarceration rate is falling, and the state is trying to save money by closing some of these facilities, they are not going down without a fight. History, and specifically the 19th Century, might be able to tell us why…

Why urban minorities make up over 75% of the prison population


“Rockefeller demonstrated his newfound commitment to law and order in 1971, when he crushed the Attica prison uprising. By proposing the harshest drug laws in the United States, he took the lead on an issue that would soon dominate the nation’s political agenda. In his State of the State address Rockefeller argued not only that all drug dealers should be imprisoned for life but also that plea-bargaining should be forbidden in such cases and that even juvenile offenders should receive life sentences…The Rockefeller drug laws, enacted a few months later by the state legislature, were somewhat less draconian: the penalty for possessing four ounces of an illegal drug, or for selling two ounces, was a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life.” —Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic Monthly

The 19th Century:

“On the local level, most southern towns and municipalities passed strict vagrancy laws to control the influx of black migrants and homeless people who poured into these urban communities in the years after the Civil War. In Mississippi, for example, whites passed the notorious ‘Pig Law’ of 1876, designed to control vagrant blacks at loose in the community. This law made stealing a pig an act of grand larceny subject to punishment of up to five years in prison. Within two years, the number of convicts in the state penitentiary increased from under three hundred people to over one thousand.” —Ronald L. F. Davis, California State University

The crime rate may be falling, but…


“My colleagues and I have worked diligently to keep these critical facilities open. They provide employment for hundreds of people and are vital to the economic health of these upstate communities. As I have said all along, this Senate Majority cares deeply about the needs of upstate New York, and will continue to work with its residents to ensure that their education and skills are properly utilized.” —Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mt. Vernon)

“Ogdensburg and Moriah Shock are economic engines for the North Country, not only meeting our public protection needs, but also sustaining hundreds of local jobs…From the start our priority was to save these two facilities and keep these jobs in the community.” —Senate Democratic Leader John L. Sampson

The 19th Century:

“While most believe that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, a loophole was opened that resulted in the widespread continuation of slavery in the Southern states of America–slavery as punishment for a crime…The Southern states were generally broke and could not afford either the cost of building or maintaining prisons. The economic but morally weak and incorrect solution was to use convicts as a source of revenue, at least, to prevent them from draining the fragile financial positions of the states.” —Digital History

“It was (the Pig Law) that turned the convict lease system into a profitable business, whereby convicts were leased to contractors who sub-leased them to planters, railroads, levee contractors, and timber jobbers. Almost all of the convicts in this situation were blacks, including women, and the conditions in the camps were horrible in the extreme.” —Ronald L. F. Davis, California State University

The Compensation Option


“We understand your situation and your problem: a community that is going to deal with the loss of a prison will receive a $10 million economic transformation program grant.” —Gov. Andrew Cuomo

The 19th Century:

“I recommend the adoption of a joint resolution by your honorable bodies, which shall be substantially as follows: Resolved, That the United States ought to cooperate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” —Abraham Lincoln

The real issue…?


“Those people don’t deserve college. Three-hots-and-a-cot is too good for them. Education never reformed anybody. Why should my tax dollars be wasted on educating prisoners? They’re just trying to get something for free.” —miscellaneous comments from people when I tell them I’m teaching a class in prison

The 19th Century:

“The movement to end convict leasing in Mississippi resulted in the creation of Parchman Farm, and the man behind it was the ‘White Chief,’ Governor James K. Vardaman. Using race-baiting and fears of black lawlessness and criminality to gain power, Vardaman was convinced that a prison farm, ‘like an efficient slave plantation,’ was necessary to provide young African-Americans with the ‘proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority’ that the end of slavery had eliminated.” —Robert M. Goldman, reviewing David Oshinsky’s book, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice



A few days ago, the National Review‘s Kate O’Beirne took part in a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute, a “nonpartisan policy research organization” out of Washington, DC. During the discussion—entitled, “Less from Washington, More of Ourselves”—O’Beirne apparently said:

The federal school lunch program and now breakfast program and, I guess in Washington DC, dinner program are pretty close to being sacred cows…I just don’t get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect.

We-e-e-ll, so far, so good, I suppose. In fact, I couldn’t agree more about the “major wide spread problem” part. But then the whole “nonpartisan” label falls off the Hudson Institute faster than a dirty Post-it Note®, as O’Beirne goes on to say:

You know, I mean if that’s how many parents are incapable of pulling together a bowl of cereal and a banana, then we have problems that are way bigger than… that problem can’t be solved with a school breakfast, because we have parents who are just criminally…ah…criminally negligent with respect to raising children. And yet, that’s the kind of program that has huge bipartisan support with very little thought about why we’re now feeding children. Talk about a fundamental parental responsibility. In what sense can we begin asking the “more of ourselves” piece to go with this less government?

That’s an excellent question, and O’Beirne may want to ask the parents of the 43% of Black American children who live in poverty.  Since that’s not really possible, however, and since they might not appreciate being called morally deficient criminals (go figure), she could ask more of herself in a literary way, by turning to the words of Jonathan Swift, who actually wrestled with this same problem almost 300 years ago:

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

This seems silly, I know. After all, Swift was writing about the problems the British gentry class was having with the destitute Irish, while our current version is waging war on its own citizens. But no matter. He quite clearly gave an American the credit for his idea, which leads me to believe that his anonymous gastronomic comrade may well have been one of Kate O’Beirne’s ancestors. Given that, and her comments at the Hudson Institute, she might just have a taste for this sort of thing.

What’s more, another of the O’Beirne clan appears to have been friends with the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote about him in Epitaph On A Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

So O’Beirne’s family seems to have good roots. I just hope she has an appetite to match: economists tell us those children aren’t going away anytime soon.


Oliver Twist is back.

According to an August 22 article in the Rochester, NY, Democrat and Chronicle,

Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino said he would transform some New York prisons into dormitories for welfare recipients, where they would work in state-sponsored jobs, get employment training and take lessons in “personal hygiene.” Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo real estate developer popular with many Tea Party activists, is competing for the Republican nomination with former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio…There, they would do work for the state—”military service, in some cases park service, in other cases public works service,” he said—while prison guards would be retrained to work as counselors.”Instead of handing out the welfare checks, we’ll teach people how to earn their check. We’ll teach them personal hygiene…the personal things they don’t get when they come from dysfunctional homes”…

So, in an effort to be helpful, I’m offering this list of rules from a workhouse in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, which, although from another country, at least predates both the Civil Rights Era and the Civil War, making it a sort of double header for Tea Party activists. It also reveals a level of moral superiority, social stratification and religious indoctrination which such activists seem to hold in high regard, despite their outward show of humility.

The list is from the British web site, The Workhouse, and might serve as a blueprint for the roll-out of the Carl Paladino Workhouse System in the State of New York.

Click for larger image.


“Why show me this, if I am past all hope?—Ebenezer Scrooge

Just as the watcher in the night,
Upon the verge of sea and sand,
Looks up to see a glittering ship,
Set down by chance or holy hand,

So I, at edge of road and lawn,
One humid night in deep July,
Hear, carried over hardened waves of
Darkened parking lots, a cry.

And there, just past the High School, there,
A soccer game in dark unfurls,
Like flock of starlings, sentient smoke,
The light, the cries, and – Ah! – the girls!

A whirlwind of connected souls,
The daughters of Diana run,
Fitful, flitting school of life,
By distance and by dark made One.

Then, from the vastness of the sky,
A single Being fills the night,
And cradles me in hands of love,
And flares up briefly in my sight.

She has come. Reason fails.
Language, context, logic lie
Like glowing ashes, feebly warm,
That shimmer briefly, hiss, and die.

All mundane knowledge comes from this:
Sharp flecks of sense that we can name.
And all that liveth scattered is,
And I a spark, but Thou the flame.

Alone again, I drift through light
from flick’ring screens and passing cars,
Whilst She, ablaze in holy dark,
Ascends, and runs among the stars.