On The Problems Of Credit In The 19th Century New England Economy


I don’t expect a letter of gratitude from Josh Lauer, author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, for being the first person to take his new book of that identity out from the library, but I wouldn’t turn it down either. Anyway, what’s got me is this mention about early credit reports:

The Merchants’ Protective Union in Norwich, Connecticut employed an even more baroque scheme. In addition to eleven uppercase alphabetical ratings, from A (“considered honest but unable to pay”) to K (“is paying on bills formerly reported”), another eighteen lowercase letters were used to indicate the type of retailer to whom debts were owed, from bakers and butchers to furniture dealers and undertakers.

So, first thought. There were enough people burying folks on credit in 19th century Norwich, Connecticut, that undertakers needed to check on who was behind on their debts to other area undertakers? I suppose that’s fair. This was an era when childhood mortality was something like 1.8 children for every child born, with the average New England wife having something like 12 pregnancies every ten years and the family only propagating by kidnapping Canadians who stood a little too close to the edge of Maine. And that’s before you factor in lives lost to cholera, malaria, more cholera, yellow fever, malnutrition, extra-cholera, train derailments, factory accidents, more yellow fever, and striking factory workers being shot by Federal troops before being run over by a cholera-bearing yellow-fever train. There was a lot of undertaking to, uh, undertake.

Second. There were eighteen kinds of retailers back then? I’ve done some reading on 19th Century American commerce. Not enough to get my Masters or anything, you know, but enough to not panic if I wandered into an academic conference about the thing. But if you asked me to list what retail establishments existed in that era I would have come up with this:

  1. General store selling loose, stale crackers and/or soap or possibly grain scooped out of the same wooden barrels.
  2. Department store where women point out lengths of ribbons they wanted to buy, which were then wrapped up and delivered to their homes, without the customer ever being allowed within ten feet of an actual product.
  3. Dentist who does “painless” extractions by letting the patient suckle a while on a chilled glass pacifier soaked in whiskey and arsenic.
  4. Yes, undertaker.
  5. Shoe cobbler who’s angry at all these shenanigans.
  6. Other, less successful, general store selling tinned items, with the clerk played by Harold Lloyd.

Yes, I know Harold Lloyd is too young to have clerked at a 19th Century general store. I am talking about how the store was portrayed in the movie about how he went from humble general store clerk to becoming the love of Mildred Davis’s life. Anyway that still leaves me short of twelve different kinds of establishment that could be owed money by creditors. I know what you’re thinking: what about the drayage industry? Won’t do. Why would the Merchants’ Protective Union have anything of interest to say to them? They’re not merchants, they’re people who have the ability to haul things from one location to another. Something is clearly missing. Oh, I guess there’s “sweets vendor who sells a lick on a ring of `ice cream’ that’s a wad of cotton glued to a metal post kept in ice water so people think they tasted something for their three cents”, but that’s still eleven more kinds of merchant to go.

Anyway the book’s interesting and I hope to read it sometime.

Harold Lloyd: Could He Save Your Life?


I’m still in an amusement park mood. But I haven’t got a good cartoon amusement park on hand. I can give a couple examples of 1960s cartoons but they’re, you know, episodes of Atom Ant or things like that. I’d thought about silent movies, although the one I most want to point out — Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1917 Coney Island I already wrote up last year. Onward I dig.

By The Sad Sea Waves, here, is a Harold Lloyd film originally released the 30th of September, 1917. It’s one of the first pictures Lloyd did in the “Glasses” character. You know, The Default Harold Lloyd character. He had been in dozens of shorts before, and even developed the Lonesome Luke character in a series of shorts. With “Glasses”, or “The Boy” as he’s often credited, he got his big hit. Here he’s still getting his character sorted out; he looks to me kind of like he’s trying to play Bill Gates. This is what happens when you’re ahead of your time.

The storyline’s a straightforward one. Glasses dons a lifeguard suit to better his chances with some of the women on the beach, and has to keep up the scam. Venice Beach and its amusement pier linger in the far background, just visible but secondary to being on the beach. I suppose if we start from the premise he’s pretending to be a lifeguard there’s not a way to get onto the pier for very long. But I was excited when things got onto the trolley and I wondered if they’d get a few stunts in before the end of the short. No luck; it’s just a little too short.

Yes, I noticed that appearance of cabana number 23. Supposedly the early 20th century saw 23 as the most inherently funny number, per Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide To The Formerly Funny. Our more mature audiences of today give that role to 17 and, for more nerdy audiences, 42.

Harold Lloyd in “Among Those Present”


For today I’d like to point to the 1921 Harold Lloyd comedy Among Those Present. It’s a piece about 35 minutes long and has what I think of as a distinctly 1920s setting: people ill-fit to uppertendom. It’s easy to imagine the Marx Brothers going crashing through things, but Harold Lloyd — who’s introduced here as the bellhop and gets woven into their lives for reasons that make sense within the genre. I doubt I could pass this off as naturalistic, although I like the idea of a world where Lloyd’s bellhop might say (as in one of the title cards) something like “Gee! If I only had the glad rags — I could act like any of those swells” without it being at least a bit of an affectation. Anyway, it’s Harold Lloyd; it’s outstanding comic acting and the occasional brilliant stroke of directing (as note when Lloyd’s character gets his first look at Mildred Davis’s, or the shadow on the stable door as shown about 31 minutes in), a bunch of animal stunts, and some pantslessness.

The title cards are a treat, at least to my tastes. They’re written by H M Walker, who’s got a slightly rococo style that I enjoy. If you aren’t amused a bit by, for example, “Evening — Twelve hours and a thousand yawns before the fox hunt. A wonderful and worthless gathering of 14-carat lounge lizards and re-painted wallflowers”, maybe the occasional illustration (on this card, of lizards) will spruce things up for you. And maybe imagining the text as read by the narrator from Rocky and Bullwinkle will sell you on it.

And I’m using this chance to reblog from the journal of Trav S D, an expert on vaudeville and comedy history. His book No Applause — Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, is outstanding in explaining vaudeville not just as a set of performances but also as an industry, a way of organizing performances which made compelling sense for its era and which doesn’t quite anymore, even if many of the acts would probably stand a good chance of going viral today. It’s very easy in reviews of older performers to focus on the performances; Trav S D’s book made me pay attention to how important the network of theaters and of booking agents and management were to making vaudeville.

Charley Chase: Love, Loot and Crash


I’d like to put up another silent comedy for you today. From April 1915 here’s Love, Loot and Crash, starring Charley Chase as Harold, the suitor, and Josef Swickard as Peter Cushing’s Alternate Doctor Who. The short was one of Mack Sennett’s last Keystone pictures before he switched from Mutual to Triangle pictures for distribution, which is valuable information for you fans of motion picture distributors of the mid-1910s. It’s also got a lot of the essential elements of a Mack Sennett comedy: befuddled homeowners, appealing if slightly bland suitors, bumbling cops getting locked in the basement, ditch diggers having motorcycles jump over them, fruit vendors getting their wagons smashed, burglars dressing as servants, elopement, driverless cars running in loops on a pier, all that. The easily embedded YouTube version starts with a commercial, I’m afraid, but the archive.org one I can’t make easy to just show on WordPress.

A pre-fame Harold Lloyd has a small part in the picture. If you don’t look up what character he plays, you can use this as a test of the principle of Clark Kent’s disguise: his character isn’t wearing the glasses that Lloyd would become famous for.

Harold Lloyd: A Sammy In Siberia


I realized I’ve got a shocking lack of Harold Lloyd video in my little humor blog here, so let me correct that by referring you loyal readers to the 1919 Hal Roach-directed short A Sammy In Siberia, which is surely one of the few American comedies set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Siberia in 1918. Archive.org has the video in reasonably archival form, though YouTube again has the form easier to embed in a WordPress site. Don’t read the comments [*].

I admit it’s the setting that’s making me choose this one. The short doesn’t really show Lloyd (or Roach) at his best, despite a couple nicely done stunts and fast action. But when do you see any kind of pop cultural representation of the Siberian Intervention? And I wonder also where Hal Roach filmed this, since there’s a good bit of what looks like stuff filmed outdoors in the snow. (On the other hand, the establishing shot of the cabin with the mountains in the background looks like a set to me.) Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database don’t seem to have much about this film. That’s often a danger with silents, though, to get distracted by looking at the stuff that isn’t the actors.

[*] It’s funny because back then you could stereotype Russians as big fat guys in silly hats the way you can’t anymore since political correctness destroyed humor? Seriously, guy, you want to put that thought out on the Internet where people can read it?

Harold Lloyd’s _Number, Please_?


I like silent movies. They’re interesting on many grounds, not least that it’s an art form which appeared in a rough, primitive form, grew to astounding sophistication within a generation, and then vanished, apart from a few novelty acts, in a half-decade, even though the legacy of this genre is still perfectly with us. I particularly like silent comedies, but I’ll try nearly anything.

Number, Please? is a 1920 Harold Lloyd picture, with Lloyd racing Roy Brooks (Lloyd’s personal assistant) to the mother of Mildred Davis’s character, looking for parental consent to a hot air balloon ride. It’s all quite funny, not least because any stunts you see are really done, with a shocking minimum of tricks done by camera or editing.

As often happens with silent comedies, especially short ones like this, the characters don’t have actual names — just “The Boy” for Lloyd, “The Girl” for Davis, and “The Rival” for Brooks — although it wouldn’t do much besides slow down the intertitles a bit if they were given particular names.

Much of the action is at the amusement piers in Venice Beach, California, or as people looking at the early scenes of Lloyd riding the back of a roller coaster call it, “Coney Island”.

I wanted to have the video embedded, since that’s so much more sensible than not, but there seems to be some problem with embedding stuff from archive.org at WordPress blogs that doesn’t actually work if I follow the directions to make it work. I’m sorry about that.