Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age? Part 1

“Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age?” is an ongoing examination of the parallels between the first Gilded Age (1870-1900) and what many contend is a Second Gilded Age (1980-present). A key source of these musings is my forthcoming book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the First Gilded Age (Columbia University Press, June 2015).

bicentennialAmericans have long loved to celebrate centennials and sesquicentennials of major events in national history such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the start of the Civil War, and the March on Washington in 1963. Of course, no such commemoration occurred in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gilded Age (1870-1900). But it’s useful to imagine for a moment what such an event might have looked like. Given the context of 1970, it’s not hard to imagine the primary theme that would have dominated speeches, museum exhibitions, and documentary films: The Gilded Age was a period of extraordinary growth and innovation, but also dangerous levels of poverty and inequality that threatened the integrity of America’s cherished republican values; this threat was eventually checked by the efforts of social reformers who empowered the state to place limits on corporate power and adopt policies aimed at promoting the common good over raw individualism. Americans in 1970 were riding the greatest period of economic growth and prosperity in the nation’s history (from 1946 to 1973 the U.S. economy grew by an average rate of 3.8%). And they were living at a time of the greatest level of economic equality in the nation’s history. It seems likely that the average American in 1970 would have viewed the Gilded Age as a dark and ugly chapter in American history that few would want to repeat.

And yet, since 1970, a rising chorus of scholars, activists, and social critics has emerged to warn Americans about rising corporate power, wealth inequality, and poverty and the threats they posed to the nation’s republican values. By the 1990s some began to invoke the phrase, “Second Gilded Age,” to describe this era in an attempt to conger up images of an age of unrestrained robber baron industrialists and financiers, roiling social conflict, and a widening chasm between rich and poor.

NewGildedAgeBookThis pessimistic view of the direction in which the United States was heading really took off in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 that triggered massive job losses and home foreclosures and a bitter debate over how the federal government should respond. Since that moment, references to the Gilded Age and invocations of a “Second Gilded Age” have become increasingly popular in public discourse. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the term Gilded Age shows 11 articles employing it in the 1970s, 76 in the 1980s, 184 in the 1990s, and 541 in the 2000s. And the trend shows no sign of abating as the period 2010-2012 already has generated 450 articles. Many books since 2008 now bear the phrase Gilded Age in their titles, such as Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), David Grusky and Tamar Kricheli-Katz, eds., The New Gilded Age: The Critical Inequality Debates of Our Time (Stanford, 2012); Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), Susan P. Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale, 2013); and Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi, eds., Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age (NYU Press, 2011).

one percentThis sudden return of Gilded Age to common American parlance reflects a keen awareness of the eerie similarities between the United States of today and that of the last third of the nineteenth century. The nation then and now was consumed with intense debates over wealth inequality, labor unions, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, family values, money in politics, voter eligibility, Wall Street recklessness, political polarization and paralysis, religion vs. secularism, individualism vs. the common good, free market capitalism vs. regulation, wars of choice vs. diplomacy. If we take a closer look at just one of these issues, we learn that in 1890 the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, while the lower 44% owned just 1.2%. Income taxes, inheritance taxes, and other measures adopted since the early 20th century reduced wealth disparity significantly by 1979 to 20.5%. But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1% owned 35.4% of all wealth, leading to the sudden popularization of the pejorative phrase “the 1%” among progressive protesters like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Twain history rhymes copyThose who claim that the United States has entered a Second Gilded Age are not invoking the tired and thoroughly misleading notion that “history repeats itself.” Instead, they are guided (knowingly or unknowingly) by a maxim offered by Mark Twain, the man who coined the phrase, Gilded Age back in 1873: “The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It is the ways in which our times rhyme with the late nineteenth century that many Americans who possess a sense of history find so disturbing.

In this series of articles I will explore this rhyming between the First Gilded Age and the Second Gilded Age. History does not offer a specific map, formula, or blue print for dealing effectively with contemporary social, economic, and political challenges. Yet we study history in part because we believe it allows us to understand where we as a society have come from and why things—institutions, ideas, practices, customs, and power arrangements—are as they are. We believe these insights have the capacity to guide individuals and societies as they make the choices that will shape the future. “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past,” Daniel Boorstin once quipped, “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” In the late nineteenth century the United States faced a host of vexing challenges regarding policies related to economic opportunity, democracy, citizenship, freedom, and human rights. Likewise, the United States in the early 21st century also faces a great many problems that remind us of that past Gilded Age. What choices the American people and their political leaders make in the coming years will, as they did in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have a profound impact on the future vitality of their nation and its cherished values.

The Mighty Casey Turns 125

This statue of the Mighty Casey stands outside a ballpark in Williamsport, PA, home of the Little League World Series.

With this year’s pennant races nearing the home stretch, what better time to look into the origins of the most famous baseball poem ever written—especially since it this year mark’s the 125th anniversary of its debut?

One-hundred twenty five years ago this week, on August 14, 1888, a young actor named DeWoIf Hopper stepped on stage in New York City and recited a humorous poem about a fictional slugger named Casey who, despite the hopes of the Mudville faithful, strikes out to end a big game. No one at the time, including Hopper and the man who penned the poem a few months earlier, knew just how famous the poem was to become – so much so that statues of Mighty Casey are found all across the country, including one at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

A young Ernest L. Thayer penned “Casey at the Bat” while living in California in 1888.

“Casey at the Bat” was written by Ernest L. Thayer, a Harvard graduate of solid elite New England pedigree.  He’d graduated from Harvard in 1885 and headed west to San Francisco at the urging of his fellow classmate, a young man named William Randolph Hearst who was about to take over a newspaper owned by his father.  Thayer jumped at the chance to delay his inevitable return to his father’s textile mills in Worcester, MA and soon found himself writing humor and satire pieces for Hearst’s paper, the San Francisco Examiner.  Three years later, with only weeks to go before he joined the family business back east, Thayer penned “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic, sung in the year 1888.” He submitted it under the pen name “Phin” and received a mere $5 for his effort.

Actor DeWolf Hopper performed “Casey at the Bat” more than 10,000 times in his long career.

The poem was published in the Examiner on June 3, 1888. It became a hit in the Bay area and soon found its way into papers all across the country.  But what really set it on its way to becoming one of the most well-known poems in American history its discovery by the manager of DeWoIf Hopper, a brilliant young actor who was then starring in “Prince Methusalem” at New York’s Walleck Theater.  Knowing Hopper was scheduled to speak at an upcoming dinner honoring the New York Giants, his manager suggested he recite the poem.  Hopper loved the poem and committed the 52 lines to memory.  It proved such a hit at the Giants dinner, he soon began reciting it on stage (beginning on August 14, 1888), adding gestures and inflections that thrilled his listeners.  “Casey” became Hopper’s signature act and he would recite it an incredible 10,000 times before his death.

The sign in Holliston, Massachusetts, one of several towns that claim to be the inspiration for the “Mudville” in Casey at the Bat.

Because Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” many imposters arose in the years to come claiming authorship – and royalties, of course.   Some of the claims even went to court, prompting Thayer to admit his authorship.  And, being wealthy and somewhat tired of the whole Casey business, eventually signed over the rights to Hopper.  Many towns also laid claim to being the “real” Mudville, including Stockton, California and Holliston, Massachusetts. Stockton was once called Mudville and in 1888 (when Thayer was living in the state) was home to a professional ball club. Holliston had a neighborhood called Mudville and Thayer grew up only a few miles away in Worcester, MA. And is family owned a textile mill in the town very close to the Mudville baseball field.

Not surprisingly, several players including Boston shortstop Tim Casey and Philadelphia pitcher Daniel Michael Casey, claimed they were Thayer’s inspiration (the latter Casey even hit the vaudeville circuit as the “real” Casey).  Many others, not necessarily named Casey also claimed the honor, including famed slugger Mike “King” Kelly.

Finally in 1935, almost a half century after the poem’s publication, Thayer revealed that his inspiration for the fictional Casey had come from a high school classmate, a “big Irishman” named Daniel H. Casey who once threatened to beat him up for making fun of him in the pages of the school newspaper of which he was editor.

Apart from this reference, wrote Thayer, “the poem has absolutely no basis in fact. The verses owe their existence to my enthusiasm for college baseball.”  As for the subsequent fame of the poem, he remained at a loss to explain it.  “Its persistent vogue is simply unaccountable and it would be hard to say if it has given me more pleasure than annoyance.”

Mike “King” Kelly was one of the many Irish American stars in the early days of professional baseball.

Thayer’s decision to make his hero an Irishman may also have been influenced by the simple fact that many of the most famous players in the early days of professional baseball were Irishmen.  The aforementioned Mike “King” Kelly, for example, helped the Chicago Nationals win five championships in the 1880s.  He led the league in batting in 1884 and 1886 and was a legendary base stealer, giving rise to the expression, “slide, Kelly, slide.” “Big” Ed Delahanty (one of five brothers who made the big leagues) posted a whopping career batting average of .346 and even hit four home runs in a single game.  Roger Connor was the home run king of the so-called “deadball era,” with 192 round trippers over his career to go with twelve seasons with a batting average over .300.   Joe Kelley was a standout left fielder for Baltimore in the 1890s, hitting over .300 in twelve consecutive seasons, including .391 in 1894.  Pitcher Tim Keefe won 342 games in fourteen seasons, twice winning more than 40 games in a single season.  Bud Galvin became baseball’s first 300-game winner and pitched more innings (5,959) and complete games (641) than anyone but Cy Young.

Ernest L. Thayer died in 1940, followed by Dewolf Hopper five years later.  “Casey at the Bat,” however, just kept going.  Actors such as Chuck Connors, Vincent Price, and Jackie Gleason recited it, Disney transformed it into a cartoon, the Post Office issued a “Mighty Casey” stamp (1996), Saturday Night Live parodied it, and magicians Penn and Teller used it in one of their acts – to name just a few of its latter-day incarnations.  Today, a quick search at shows no less than 18 versions of the poem in print.

One reading (aloud, of course) leaves no doubt why.

Casey at the Bat
By Ernest L. Thayer (a.k.a. Phin)
San Francisco Examiner – June 3, 1888

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that -
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat;
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt.
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped -
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted some one on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer has fled from Casey’s lip, the teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

The Declaration of Independence was Originally No Big Deal?

No document in U.S. history, except perhaps the Constitution, is more revered than the Declaration of Independence.  Indeed, most Americans can recite (if not word for word) its prosaic lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence was not originally considered a sacred founding document

But today’s reverence for the Declaration obscures two important and fascinating details regarding the document’s early history:

1. Few, if any, Americans in 1776 cared about the beautiful and uplifting words from the Declaration quoted above. They understood the document for what it was: a practical DECLARATION OF WAR and not a lofty proclamation universal equality and human rights

2. It took years—decades, actually—for the Declaration of Independence to be considered a sacred text of the Founding era.

So let’s examine these two points in some detail. Why didn’t most Americans in 1776 care about the beautiful opening section to the Declaration of Independence that modern Americans hold so dear? The answer is simple. They saw it as a flowery introduction and were far more concerned with what followed: the list of grievances against King George III that justified independence. This section took up about two-thirds of the Declaration and included more than two dozen complaints directed specifically against George III.

The Declaration of Independence targeted George III and his violation of American liberties as the cause of the American Revolution.

Here are a few representative examples:

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

So, to Americans in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was inspirational only in so far as it made the case to the world for breaking with the Mother Country and defending that decision with arms. Later generations of Americans, long after the Revolutionary War’s successful conclusion, would care far less about this indictment of George III and far more about the Declaration’s vivid articulation of the ideals of universal equality and human rights.

So when did this happen? Certainly not right away. Indeed, for the first few decades after July 4, 1776 few Americans considered the Declaration a great document.  When they celebrate the Fourth of July, they celebrated the act of declaring, not the document itself

Originally, few people knew that Thomas Jefferson had penned the Declaration. Only when its significance grew did Jefferson and his supporters proclaim this fact.

So when did Americans come to revere the Declaration as one of the nations most sacred texts? It began in the 1790s. That decade was dominated by Federalists (Adams, Hamilton, etc) who downplayed the significance of the Declaration because they disliked its anti-British tone and found alarming the similarity of its language with Revolutionary France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” In contrast, their emerging political opposition, the Jeffersonian Republicans, came to see themselves as defending the “Spirit of 1776” and the Revolution against Federalists whom they viewed as not only pro-British but also pro-monarchy.  As a result, Republicans in the 1790s began reading Declaration of Independence at July 4th celebrations and quoting it in speeches. They also took to celebrating the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson. In so doing, they emphasized the Declaration as a Founding document that condemned monarchy and privilege, and celebrated liberty and equality.  So when the Jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1801, they saw to it that the Declaration of Independence became firmly enshrined as the nation’s great founding document. With each passing year, the reputation of and reverence for the Declaration grew.

By the1820s Jefferson himself came to realize that the Declaration was the centerpiece of his legacy.  So when he arranged for the inscription on his tombstone, he decided it would read: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Then, just in case anyone doubted the importance of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on its 50th anniversary: July 4, 1826. And for good measure, Pres. James Monroe died five years later on July 4, 1831. You can’t make this stuff up!

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and presented it to the first women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls in 1848.

But, the evolution of the Declaration’s meaning and significance continued long after Jefferson’s death. Women’s Rights activists at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, for example, created the “Declaration of Sentiments” which said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

Similarly, abolitionists, labor activists, and other reformers invoked the Declaration to justify their demands.

President Abraham Lincoln played a key role in the transformation of the Declaration into a sacred document.  In his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 he invoked the Declaration: “Four score and seven years ago [1776] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Rev. Martin Luther Kin invoked the Declaration of Independence in making his claim for equality for all Americans regardless of race.

A century later, in his stirring call for civil rights in his “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ … And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…”

Although it was not his primary intention back in July 1776, Jefferson gave voice to the radical idea that we all have rights.  Since that time it’s been left it to succeeding generations, and the democratic process, to define, secure, and protect them.

Happy Independence Day!

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (1995)

Philip S. Foner, ed., We, the Other People: Alternative Declarations of Independence by Labor Groups, Farmers, Woman’s Rights Advocates, Socialists, and Blacks, 1829-1975

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997)

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992)

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991).

America’s Last Ice Age (more recent than you think)

InThePastLane                     January 13, 2013                        Edward T. O’Donnell

Headlines warning of an impending “ice famine” were common in the 19th and early 20th century during warm winters (NYT Feb 2, 1906)

What on earth is an “ice famine”? Well, if you were alive in the nineteenth century and the U.S. was experiencing winter as mild as this one in 2012-2013, the newspapers would be full of stories about a potential “ice famine.” The problem was not a shortage of ice in January and February, but rather in the coming summer because Americans, especially city dwellers, had come to depend on massive winter harvests of natural ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers to cope with summer heat and preserve their food. The creation of this ice industry is one of the more fascinating stories of American entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of a remarkable transformation of the American diet.

In an age of ubiquitous air-conditioning and refrigeration, it’s hard to comprehend just how much 19th-century Americanss depended on ice. By the 18th century, icehouses were standard features on most estates in Europe and even Colonial America, but for the common man and woman, especially in cities, ice in warm weather was as rare and expensive a commodity as caviar.

Frederic Tudor, the man known as the “Ice King” for his role in creating the American commercial ice industry.

That began to change a little over 200 years ago when, on Aug. 5, 1805, an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s first commercial ice industry. A charismatic scion of a wealthy family, a tall, balding man with a gaze of hawklike intensity, Tudor possessed an almost evangelical commitment to the enterprise. “People believe me not when I tell them I am going to carry ice to the West Indies,” he confided in his diary the following winter. “Let those laugh who win.” Seven months later, a ship filled with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond arrived in the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Plagued by what he called “a villainous train of events,” Tudor struggled for nearly three decades, but his perseverance finally paid off. Along with his workers, the man who became known as the Ice King developed equipment and techniques that would allow ice to be harvested, transported and stored for commercial sale; by the 1830’s, Tudor was shipping his product to the West Indies, India and even Australia. Indeed, if you ever want to win a history trivia contest, here’s a question no one will guess correctly: What was the #2 (after cotton) U.S. export by weight in the 1850s? Yup, it was ice.

Tudor and his competitors soon discovered, however, that the greatest demand for ice came from American cities, especially New York. “I do not imagine,” the English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope observed in her 1832 treatise, “Domestic Manners of the Americas,” referring to a recent stay in Manhattan, “there is a home without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water and harden the butter.” Demand for ice grew so rapidly that by 1855 New Yorkers of all classes were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.

As demand for ice in the U.S. surged, many companies formed that developed ice harvesting operations in rural areas throughout the Northeast and Midwest. During the winter months it employed thousands of men, many of them workers in the lumber industry who normally lacked work in winter months. Using special equipment pulled by horses they cut huge blocks of ice and hauled them to large ice warehouses. When the warm weather set in, barges then carried the product to urban markets where it was then distributed to customers via ice wagons.

The availability of cheap and plentiful ice meant more than cool drinks in the summer; it changed Americans’ basic diet. Butchers, fishmongers and dairymen began to use ice to preserve their stocks, leading to significant improvement in food quality and public health. Ice also greatly increased the diversity of culinary offerings available to Americans as importers found ways to preserve previously exotic delights like freshwater fish. Ice cream, once the rarest of treats, became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity. Ice likewise made possible cold beer and other alcoholic drinks. Temperance advocates, however, countered with “Moderation Fountains” during heat waves that provided free ice water as an alternative to the offerings of a city’s countless saloons.

Ice also delivered an impressive array of medical benefits. Doctors at hospitals soon discovered that ice could save lives and began prescribing it as a means of lowering the body temperature of fever victims, especially the young. During the summer, city hospitals issued free ice tickets to the poor, and crowds often grew so anxious outside free ice depots during heat waves that free-for-alls known as ice riots erupted. According to an account in The New York Times of one incident in July 1906, “a woman pulled a man’s mustache and another woman hit a man with a dishpan,” and within minutes, “the ice was scattered on the sidewalk and hundreds were engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight.”

N. Calyo’s painting, “Ice Wagon,” depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

By the 1880’s, about 1,500 ice wagons plied the streets of New York City every day. The burly, typically Italian iceman, a huge block of ice slung over his back and gripped with a pair of tongs, became as familiar a fixture on the urban landscape as the Irish beat cop.

During a typical week in the 1880’s, an iceman might deliver as much as 80 tons of ice, much of it carted up multiple flights of narrow and rickety stairs. The iceman’s daily interactions with housewives gave rise to countless bawdy jokes, an occurrence immortalized in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “The Iceman Cometh,” set in 1912.

While urban Americans clearly loved their ice—Manhattan and Brooklyn consumed 1.3 million tons in 1879 (more than a quarter of the national market)—they often loathed the companies that provided it, and in the 1880’s and 1890’s, a rising chorus of critics charged firms with price gouging and monopolistic practices. Ice companies tried to blamed summer price increases on mild winters that produced insufficient stocks–the aforementioned “ice famines.”

That claim didn’t work in 1896 when in New York City the city’s ice firms were absorbed into a massive national ice trust called the Consolidated Ice Company. Prices jumped 33 percent that spring, and more than doubled by midsummer. Hardest hit were the poor, who could afford to buy their ice, like their winter coal, only in small quantities.

Anger against ice companies persisted after 1901. Here an ice baron sits in an ice house wearing a hat labeled “Ice Trust” and writing, “Owing to the mild winter, we regret to say that ice next summer will be dearer than ever.”

Popular outrage reached new heights four years later in 1901 when investigative journalists revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and other city officials had conspired to create a virtual monopoly for Consolidated. As the price of ice doubled, new revelations showed that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in Consolidated stock. The investigations produced no convictions, but the mayor, hounded by catcalls of “Ice! Ice! Ice!” whenever he appeared in public, was soundly defeated by a reform ticket in the election of 1901.

America’s ice age, however, was brought to a close not by reformers but by inventors who developed refrigeration and ice-making machinery. As early as the 1870s large brewers had begun to rely on mechanical refrigeration. Soon the meatpacking industry joined them. By 1900 refrigeration machinery was widely available. So, too, was ice making machinery. The final step came with the introduction of electric home refrigerators. By 1950 the iceman had been become as much a relic of a long-ago age as the blacksmith and the lamplighter.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, The Cold Chain: A History of Ice and Refrigeration in America and the World, forthcoming, John Hopkins University Press.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)




Why Notre Dame Originally Opposed the Name “Fighting Irish”

InThePastLane              January 1, 2013             by Edward T. O’Donnell

As sports fans across the nation await the big NCAA college football national championship on January 7, 2013, it’s worth exploring the origins of the teams’ names.  The University of Alabama’s team name—The Crimson Tide—originated by chance in the wake of an epic 1907 game against arch rival Auburn. But Notre Dame? How on earth did a college with a French name in the rural Midwest, far from the big cities with large Irish populations, come to be known as “The Fighting Irish”?  The answer reveals a great deal about the struggle for ethnic and religious acceptance in United States history, for Notre Dame originally opposed the name due to its potentially negative connotations and only embraced it in 1927, long after it had emerged a national powerhouse in football.

Notre Dame’s humble origins in 1842 are captured in its original Log Chapel. The University maintains a replica on its campus.

First, a little background. Given Notre Dame’s early history, few would have predicted the eventual nickname Fighting Irish.  Notre Dame, as its name suggests, was founded in 1842 by a group of French-speaking priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.  Situated in South Bend, Indiana, it drew Catholic students of all ethnicities from throughout the Midwest.  As Catholic colleges went, Notre Dame soon became one of the best, establishing the first Catholic law school in 1869 and first Catholic school of engineering in 1873.

It is important to note that in this late-19th century period Catholic colleges like Notre Dame, Fordham, Boston College, Georgetown, and College of the Holy Cross represented Catholic—in particular Irish Catholic—upward mobility and yearning for acceptance. Mass immigration since the 1830s had only recently created a sizable Catholic population in the United States, a development most native-born American Protestants viewed with alarm and anger. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish sentiment soared and remained a prominent feature of public life until the early 20th century [click here for many examples].

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast routinely depicted the Irish as savage brutes in the pages of the nation’s most popular journal, Harper’s Weekly. This image, published April 6, 1867, portrays St. Patrick’s Day as a bloody melee.

Take, for example, the assessment of a young Theodore Roosevelt in the 1880s that, “The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in the [New York State] Assembly [is a] low, venal, corrupt, and unintelligent brute.” Or Harper’s Weekly a few years earlier: “Irishmen…have so behaved themselves that nearly seventy-five per cent of our criminals and paupers are Irish; that fully seventy-five per cent of the crimes of violence committed among us are the work of Irishmen; that the system of universal suffrage in large cities has fallen into discredit through the incapacity of the Irish for self-government.” In short, most Americans viewed Irish Catholics as people prone to violence, crime, corruption, drunkenness, and ignorance. They also viewed them as members of a church that was both wrong theologically and scheming to overthrow the American republic. One of the primary goals behind the founding of so many Catholic colleges in this period, therefore, was to improve the reputation of Catholics in the U.S. by minting generations of respectable, educated, and successful Catholic men.

A scorecard from the Harvard-Yale football game of 1890. Rivalry games such as this drew enormous crowds at the turn of the century.

Notre Dame went about this work in relative obscurity until the emergence of college football in the 1880s and 1890s as America’s second most popular sport (after professional baseball).  In an era before radio and television (not to mention fire codes), it was not uncommon for 30,000 fans to turn out for games between Harvard and Yale, or Army and Navy.  They were the powerhouse teams that Notre Dame eyed as it began its rise.  In the eyes of ethnic Catholics, these schools stood as bastions not only of football prowess, but also of elite Protestant privilege.  As such they became irresistible opponents for Notre Dame.

Knute Rockne first earned fame as a player for Notre Dame, He later took over as coach and led the team to four national championships.

Notre Dame’s football program started in 1887 and gained national recognition by the early 20th century.  A stunning victory over Michigan in 1909 paved the way for contests against other top-level teams.  Notre Dame’s breakthrough moment came in 1913 when, led by captain Knute Rockne, it upset Army 35-13.  The game is considered one of the most important in college football history because it was the first time a team made extensive (17 attempts) and successful (14 completions and two TD’s) use of the little-used forward pass.  Rockne took over as coach in 1918 and guided the team to a succession of winning seasons, including national championships in 1919, 1924, 1929, and 1930.

In 1924 famed sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed the four members of Notre Dame’s extraordinarily successful backfield The Four Horsemen.

By the mid-1920s, Notre Dame was by far the best-known Catholic university in the nation.  As a consequence, it was the first college football team with a truly national following as Catholics from Baltimore to Boise to Berkeley adopted the team as their own even if they never attended Notre Dame.  These fans, known as “subway alumni,” might root for Georgetown or Holy Cross as their local favorites, but they avidly read the details of Notre Dame’s exploits in the Sunday sports sections.  Irish Catholics especially identified with the David and Goliath quality of Notre Dame’s rise.  As a group, Irish Catholics had begun by the 1910s and 1920s to earn a measure of success and acceptance in a nation long hostile to Catholics.  As they did so, they took enormous pride in the ability of Notre Dame to knock off teams like Princeton and Army.  Keenly aware of this phenomenon, Rockne and his successors made it a policy (which stood until 1975) never to play the other top Catholic college teams.

The team’s success and national reputation increased the pressure on the school to adopt an official nickname.  In the early days of intercollegiate sports, college teams had no nicknames; they simply played as Harvard, Northwestern, or USC.  But by the 1920s teams began to take on nicknames, often courtesy of sportswriters who were always eager to apply a catchy appellation. Most colleges were slow to choose an official name, but as time passed it became clear that they risked having sportswriters or students giving a less-than-suitable name to a college.

The Georgetown “Hoyas” in 1927

Georgetown, for example, gained its name “Hoyas” when its students took to chanting “hoya saxa!” at games—a mixed Greek (hoya) and Latin (saxa) phrase that translates as “what rocks!” The phrase might have referred broadly to the stalwart quality of Georgetown’s defensive line, but—students being students—likely referred more crudely to the players’, shall we say (ahem), testicular fortitude.

The legendary George Gipp carries the ball in 1919 for the as yet unnamed Notre Dame football team.

During its rise to national prominence, Notre Dame had been called many names, including simply the “Catholics,” but also the “Horrible Hibernians” and a host of other undignified appellations.  The first known reference to the team as the “Fighting Irish” occurred in the Detroit Free Press in 1909, but the name failed to stick.  Other nicknames like “Gold and Blue” came and went, as did the “Warriors” and “Ramblers.”   But in 1919, perhaps inspired by a visit to Notre Dame by Eamon de Valerra, one of the key revolutionaries working to achieve Ireland’s independence, the name “Fighting Irish” returned as a favorite nickname among the school’s students.  Rockne soon began using the name when talking to the press.

The turning point in the story came in 1925 when Notre Dame graduate Francis Wallace, then a sportswriter for the New York Post, began referring to the team as the “Fighting Irish” in his coverage of college football (his first choice was “Blue Comets” but that had not stuck).  In 1927 Wallace moved to the New York Daily News, one of the largest circulation papers in the nation and before long the name Fighting Irish was known coast to coast.

Rev. Matthew Walsh, CSC, Notre Dame’s 11th President who in 1927 set aside his reservations and gave official sanction to the name, “Fighting Irish” for the university’s sports teams.

But it still lacked official sanction from school officials.  Understandably, Notre Dame President Fr. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C and other school officials were leery of the name.  It conjured up the longstanding stereotype that the Irish were prone to fighting and violence—the very stereotype Catholic colleges were committed to eradicating.

Yet there was something attractive about the name in a society that worshiped competitiveness and a fighting spirit. Perhaps, if properly presented, the name might make the American public think of the great contributions made by the Irish Brigade in recent wars, rather than the many riots of the nineteenth century in which Irish immigrants played a prominent role.

Notre Dame’s President Walsh was inclined toward this more optimistic interpretation and so when a reporter from the New York World wrote him a letter in the fall of 1927 seeking his opinion on the popular name, Walsh responded:

The University authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams… It seems to embody the kind of spirit that we like to see carried into effect by the various organizations that represent us on the athletic field.  I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideals embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.’

The valor displayed by Irish regiments, most famously The Irish Brigade, in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I helped improve the reputation of the Irish in America.

That settled it.  The fact that many of the football team’s players were not Irish (some weren’t even Catholic), generated a few raised eyebrows. But Knute Rockne defended the name: “They’re all Irish to me.  They have the Irish spirit and that’s all that counts.”

The rest is history. The University of Notre Dame went on to win national championships (in addition to earlier ones in 1919 and 1924) in 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1964, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988 for a total of 13 (some say 15, but you’ll have to look up the seasons of 1938 and 1953 to get the details).

The University of Notre Dame’s leprechaun mascot.

In recent years, with teams under pressure from various interest groups to drop names like Redmen and Warriors, one occasionally reads of a movement among some Irish Americans urging Notre Dame to adopt a new name (or at least to get rid of the pugilistic Leprechaun logo and mascot).  But even with a team comprised of only a handful of Irish Americans, don’t expect any change soon.  The faithful wouldn’t hear of it.

You can follow me on Twitter    @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading:

Jay P. Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)

John Heisler and Tim Prister, Always Fighting Irish: Players, Coaches, and Fans Share Their Passion for Notre Dame Football (Triumph Books, 2012)

Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (Oxford, 2000)

Jim Lefebvre, Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions (Great Day Press, 2008)

Charles Morris, American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church (Vintage, 1998)

Ray Robinson, Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend (Oxford, 2002)

Murray A. Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Holt, 1993)