Category Archives: Inventions and Technology


Episode 008 – How America Got Cool

This week In The Past Lane looks into the little know and yet hugely significant development of the ice and refrigeration industries in US history. 1) first we tell the story of the Frederick Tudor, The “Ice King,” who single-handedly invented the ice industry way back in 1806. This development radically redefined the American life, especially the American diet. 2) Then we check in with historian Jonathan Rees, the subscribe-buttonnation’s leading authority on all things related refrigeration, to learn how mechanical refrigeration and machine-made ice accelerated this transformation of everyday life. 3) Finally, we take just a few minutes to visit a unique bar in New York City. It’s called Minus 5 and with the exception of the floor and ceiling, it’s made entirely of ice and kept at a temperature of Minus 5 centigrade (minus 19 F). Yeah, I know …

Episode 008 notes and credits

Further Reading about the history of ice and refrigerationRees - RefrigerationNation copy

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, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rees, Refrigerator (Bloomsbury, 2015)

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)


Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, “Jenny’s Theme (Free Music Archive)

N. Calyo's painting, "Ice Wagon," depicts an ice man in the 1840s.

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

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

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)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 Americans 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 in 1806, when an ambitious Massachusetts man named Frederick Tudor set out to single-handedly create the world’s commercial ice industry. After a trip to the tropics he became convinced that people in warm climates, whether Charleston, SC or the Caribbean, would pay good money for New England ice. And New England had a lot of ice. And it was free. The only costs – and the biggest challenges for this would-be business – was harvesting, transporting, and storing it.

Tudor was the charismatic son of a wealthy family. He was 23 years old and 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.

Actually, people greeted the idea not only with incredulity, but also laughter. As Tudor wrote, his plan “excited the derision of the whole town as a mad project.” Even his father called the scheme “wild and ruinous.”

But Tudor remained undaunted. He bought a ship, filled its hold with 130 tons of ice cut from a Massachusetts pond, set sail for the Caribbean island of Martinique.  The snickering now spread from his home town to Boston. The Boston Gazette reported with glee: “No joke. A vessel with a cargo of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

Tudor’s first foray into the ice industry brought mixed results.  The good news was that most of the ice survived the voyage. The bad news was that there were no ice houses in Martinique. So Tudor lost more than $4000 – a huge sum at the time.

But the next year he was back at it, sending in 240 tons of ice to Havana, Cuba in 1807. He managed to break even on this venture, but he would have to find a way to earn a profit – and soon.

The next few years saw more voyages and some success. But then bad luck and a theft by a corrupt business partner plunged Tudor into poverty and two stints in debtor’s prison in 1812 and 1813.

As soon as Tudor was released, however, he was back at his ice venture. He convinced partners in southern US cities and the tropics to build icehouses. This ensured that his cargo would not melt upon arrival.  Tudor also experimented with different forms of insulation to reduce melting in icehouses and on board ships. He eventually discovered sawdust from saw mills. Sawdust was plentiful and practically free – and it was a terrific insulator for ice.

By the early 1820s, Tudor was enjoying modest success. But the market for ice remained small.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Ice cutting devices like this allowed for the harvesting of uniform blocks of ice. It was much easier than the earlier method of cutting blocks with saws.

Then in 1825 he teamed up with Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his ice suppliers, who had invented dual blade ice cutter pulled by horses across ponds, lakes, and rivers. This device – a kind of mechanical reaper for the ice industry — cut a grid of uniform grooves in the ice. Then workers using iron bars pried loose identical blocks of ice. This method proved far more efficient than the traditional method of cutting irregular ice blocks with saws. And the harvested blocks could be stacked neatly for more efficient transportation and far less melting. Soon Tudor had tripled his production and profits rose accordingly.

In 1833 Tudor sent 180 tons of ice 16,000 miles from Boston to Calcutta, India. Very little ice melted en route and the ship’s arrival touched off a frenzy for ice. Soon a group of investors constructed an icehouse to receive future shipments of Tudor’s ice. In the coming years Tudor – now known as “The Ice King” – sold ice harvested in Massachusetts all over the world. By 1856 ships leaving Boston carried 150,000 tons of ice to US ports and 43 nations around the world.

Here’s an amazing statistic that you can use to win a bar bet:  What product (by weight) was the #2 US export in the 1850s? Cotton was #1 and ice was #2!

But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.  The tonnage of ice sold by Tudor and a growing number of competitors soared in the 1840s and 1850s. The greatest demand came from American cities. English novelist and travel writer Fanny Trollope toured the US in the early 1830s and later wrote in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americas, “I do not imagine 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 residents of New York City were consuming 285,000 tons annually.

Where did this ice come from? By the 1850s the ice industry in New England and New York employed thousands of men – many of them farm hands and

Ice harvesting in the mid-19th century required new technology and lots of horse-power and human labor.But no people in the world fell in love with ice more than Tudor’s fellow Americans.

lumberjacks looking for work in the winter months – to harvest vast quantities of ice from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Some ice was floated on barges to big icehouses in cities, but by the 1850s more and more ice was moved in railroad cars.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

Frederick Tudor, “The Ice King,” died a very wealthy man in 1864. By this time it was clear that his efforts to make ice cheap and plentiful meant more than simply providing Americans with cool drinks in the summer. Ice had begun to change Americans’ basic diet. Whereas before 1830 much of the typical Americans’ diet consisted mainly of bread and dried or salted meat, after 1830 it included increasing amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy products. This improvement in the variety and quality of food benefited public health and extended life expectancy. Ice also led to the popularity of products like ice cream. Once the rarest of treats, ice cream became so popular that in 1850 a leading women’s magazine declared it a basic necessity of life.

No body of water was off limits to the icemen, not even Henry David Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond. In 1846 Thoreau noted in his journal that a team of burly Irish immigrants had descended on the pond to harvest as much as 1000 tons of ice per day. Thoreau was irked by the noise, but he was also impressed by its implications: “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

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)




The Erie Canal — The Original Economic Stimulous Plan

InThePastLane                                                                Edward T. O’Donnell

Given the raging debate in contemporary American politics over what role if any the government should play in the economy, it’s always instructive to look to history for some insight. One of the oldest and most influential myths in American history goes as follows: Before the 20th century the nation’s state and federal governments adhered to a laissez-faire creed and played no role in the economy other than to enforce the law and keep the peace. While it certainly is true that the government played less of a role in earlier eras compared to now, the notion of some past golden age of libertarian rugged individualism is, simply put, a fantasy.

We need only look to the story of the Erie Canal, which celebrates its 187th anniversary this week. This monumental feat of political will, engineering genius, and backbreaking labor was made possible only by the actions of the state government of New York.  As such, it provided a model of public-private partnerships that endure to this day (consider the government’s recent role in not only creating the Internet, but also taking measures to provide nearly universal access to it). The ethos behind such ventures has remained unchanged: government investment in certain large-scale enterprises (postal service, public schools, railroads, electricity, highways, etc.) will benefit society at large.

Governor DeWitt Clinton was the visionary behind the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal, which opened on October 26, 1825, was the brainchild of Governor DeWitt Clinton.  He was in every respect the “father” of the Erie Canal.  The descendant of Irish immigrants, Clinton was born in 1769 in Little Britain, NY.   Educated at Columbia College, he followed the example of his uncle, then governor of New York, and entered politics.  He served in the state legislature and one term in the U. S. Senate before winning his first term as Mayor of New York City in 1803.  He served in that office until 1815 and won election as Governor in 1817.

Clinton was no mere politician.  He was a brilliant visionary who foresaw New York’s greatness as the Empire State long before most of his contemporaries.  He was also a progressive who believed – to the horror of his conservative counterparts – that the proper role of government was not merely to administer the laws and keep the peace.  Rather, it was also obligated to support bold initiatives that would benefit the public, everything from public schools to a massive canal across upstate New York.

The proposed Erie Canal would run 363 miles across upstate New York, from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie.

The proposed Erie Canal was a mind-boggling 363 miles in length across upstate New York, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie. It also carried a staggering price tag of $7 million. Not surprisingly, given its unprecedented size and cost, the canal generated vehement political opposition.  Opponents sneered that “Clinton’s ditch” would bankrupt that state treasury and never succeed.  Undaunted, Clinton waged a ceaseless campaign to garner support and in 1817 the state legislature passed a bill approving of the project.

Construction began that same year. Two aspects of the project merit special attention. First, nearly all the power to dig the 363-mile canal came from human beings wielding shovels and picks (the rest came from mules and oxen). Second, since no canal of this type and size existed in the world, the project’s engineers had to invent and innovate as they went along.

Workers excavate a deep cut near Lockport, NY

Most of the canal workers were Irish immigrants and by 1818 some 3,000 Irishmen were swinging picks and lifting shovels in the big ditch by 1818. They lived a rough existence to say the least, working long hours in exceedingly dangerous conditions for paltry wages.  Scores died in construction accidents or from disease contracted in the grim canal camps.  Despite these conditions, contractors never lacked for laborers and the monumental project reached completion in the fall of 1825.  It took just eight short years using to dig a canal 40 feet wide and 363 miles long with 77 locks and 18 aqueducts.  No project would rival it in scale, cost, and engineering challenge until the Interstate Highway program of the 1950s.

Governor DeWitt Clinton pours water from Lake Erie into New York harbor during the “Wedding of the Waters” celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal.

To mark its opening, New York officials staged a massive statewide “Festival of Connection” that began with Gov. Clinton and a host of dignitaries boarding a canal boat in Buffalo, NY on October 26, 1825.  Ten days later, after traveling the length of the canal and then down the Hudson River, they arrived in New York City to one of the most spectacular civic celebrations in the city’s history.  Clinton marked the “wedding of the waters” by emptying two barrels of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic ocean.

New Yorkers were justifiably proud of their new canal, but one vital question hung in the air: was it worth it?  Clinton, of course, had no doubts.  On the evening of the great celebration he boasted of New York that “the city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations.  And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants, will construe one vast city.”

The five locks of the Erie Canal at Lockport, NY

Proof of Clinton’s prescience was not long in coming.  Within a year canal boats transported some 221,000 barrels of flour and 435,000 gallons of whiskey, to name but a few of the leading products floating on the waterway. More astonishing than volume were the speed of transit and reduction in cost.  The cost of moving Midwestern grain from Lake Erie to New York harbor dropped from $100 per ton to $9 per ton.  The time of transit was similarly slashed from 20 days to 7.  So much commerce moved along the canal in its first nine years that toll receipts paid off the entire debt and began to finance thirteen more canals in the state.

The stunning success of the Erie Canal touched off a frenetic era of canal building that saw nearly every state in the Union launch canal projects from Massachusetts to Louisiana. Unfortunately for these states, few of these canals proved a worthwhile investment because even as they constructed them a new technology—the railroad—was rapidly taking hold. Unlike canals, the railroad could be built quickly and almost anywhere. And railroads never froze in the winter. As a result, the canal played a role in the transportation revolution that was very similar to the ill-fated 8-track tape in the 1970s. For all their limitations, 8-tracks represented the first major break from LP records, allowing people to play music of their choosing in their cars and at the beach. They were soon replaced by the far superior cassette tape (the railroad) which in turn was replaced by the compact disk (the automobile).

A painting of goods moving along the Erie Canal by John Hill, 1829

The Erie Canal remained a key commercial highway into the late 19th century.  But competition from railroads and later trucks (neither of which froze in the winter) doomed it to sharply reduced capacity by 1900 and obsolescence by the late 1940s.  Today the canal is a National Heritage Corridor with many of its adjacent towns investing in museums, historic sites, and heritage tourism designed to lure visitors and boost local economies hit hard by the canal’s demise and the loss of manufacturing.

The story of the Erie Canal reminds us that, contemporary political rhetoric aside, government investment in projects intended to benefit most Americans has a long and storied history. It’s an imperfect history, to be sure, with its share of failures, but also with its many triumphs.


Follow me on Twitter         @InThePastLane

Sources and Further Reading

Peter L. Bernstein, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (Norton, 2006)

Evan Cornog, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828 (Oxford, 2000)

L. Ray Gunn, The Decline of Authority: Public Economic Policy and Political Development in New York (Cornell University Press, 1988)

Gerard Koeppel, Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire (Da Capo Press, 2009)

Ronald E. Shaw, Canals For A Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860 ((University Press of Kentucky, 1993)

Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 (Hill and Wang, 1997)

Margaret Sanger and the Struggle for Women’s Rights

InThePastLane                                                                         by Edward T. O’Donnell

Sanger spoke often in favor of birth control. Occasionally her opponents managed to have her lectures cancelled. In this photo, Sanger put on a gag to protest her being banned in Boston in 1929.

Americans have spent a lot of time and energy in recent years arguing about birth control. The debate has centered not on the morality of contraception, but rather, in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers’ health insurance must cover contraception, who should pay for it. While we wait for the matter to be settled in the courts, it’s instructive to look back on the history of birth control in the United States.

For it was a mere 96 years ago this week in 1916 that Margaret Sanger and several other women were arrested and thrown in jail for opening the nation’s first family planning clinic.  Sanger was undaunted and thanks to her efforts, American women eventually gained full access to birth control. Indeed, Sanger lived long enough to play a key role in the development of The Pill.

Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Higgins in 1879 in Corning, NY, the sixth of an eventual eleven children. Her parents provided two very different inspirations for the radicalism that would one day make her famous. Her father, an atheist, set her on the path to rejecting all religious authority.  Her mother, a devout Catholic, died at age 48—a direct result, Sanger always believed, from the physical toll of bearing and raising eleven children. This tragedy compelled her to find a way to empower women to control how many children they chose to bear.

More than a million New Yorkers lived in squalid tenements in the early 20th century when Margaret Sanger began working among the poor as a nurse. This photo was taken by Jesse Tarbox Beals.

Sanger attended college for two years (1894-1896) and then studied nursing at White Plains Hospital in New York.  In 1902 she married William Sanger, an architect, and started a family (they eventually had three children).  As a nurse Sanger worked in the slums of New York, ministering to the immigrant poor who lived desperate lives in unhealthy tenements.  This work brought her into contact with reformers and settlement house workers and eventually, with a community of radicals living in Greenwich Village. This group included legendary radicals like Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Eugene Debs.  Sanger soon joined the Socialist Party and worked on behalf of women’s rights and other radical causes, all the while continuing to work as a nurse among the poor.

It was in the course of her daily visits to the impoverished families of the Lower East Side that Sanger began to focus on what would become her life’s work.  Increasingly she came to believe that women’s emancipation from inequality, poverty, and poor health would only occur when women learned how to prevent pregnancy and limit the size of their families

Anthony Comstock, the nation’s leading purity crusader in the late 19th century, successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation barring the use of the US mail to send “immoral” and “indecent” materials, including information about contraception.

There was, of course, one problem.  Most Americans in the early twentieth century, regardless of religious denomination, opposed contraception.  They believed it would undermine the family and promote immorality.  The Comstock Law, passed back in 1873, prohibited the distribution of information about contraception through the mail.  By 1914 some twenty-two states had laws that similarly curbed the distribution of such information.

Undaunted, Sanger plunged into the study of contraception and in 1914 started a radical newspaper aptly named, The Rebel Woman, with a masthead that included the slogan “No Gods, No Masters.”  From its pages Sanger urged women to stand up for their rights and to “act in defiance of convention.”  At the same time she published a pamphlet on contraception entitled “Family Limitation” in which she coined the phrase “birth control.”  But when the police shut down her paper and seized copies of her pamphlet, Sanger fled the country for Europe to avoid arrest.

Sanger established The Woman Rebel in 1914 to advocate for women’s rights, including the right to contraception.

She returned eighteen months later (after the indictment against her had been dropped) committed to a new strategy.  Recognizing the broad cultural and political conservatism that suffused much of American society, Sanger decided it was unwise to present birth control as a revolutionary feminist demand.  Rather, she would promote it as a basic medical necessity.  Physicians, she argued, should be allowed to provide information on contraception just as they did other forms of medical advice.

But Sanger was not content to wait for the anti-contraception laws to change.  On October 16, 1916 she joined with her sister Ethyl Byrne, and a third woman named Fannie Mindell, to open a family planning clinic in Brownsville, a largely immigrant and working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn.  In reality, it was little more than a storefront operation that offered free counseling, medical consultations, and literature on contraception techniques.  No contraceptive devices (such as they existed) were distributed.  Nonetheless, the police soon raided the facility and threw the women in jail for thirty days.

Despite this setback, the winds of change began to blow in Sanger’s favor.  The judge who upheld her 30-day sentence sided with her contention that physicians be granted greater freedom to disseminate information on contraception to their patients.  Inspired by this development, Sanger soon published a book on contraception, What Every Mother Should Know (1917). She also founded the Birth Control League to lobby for legal reforms regarding doctors and contraception.  In 1921 she took this effort nationwide with the founding of the American Birth Control League.  With remarkable speed, Sanger’s crusade to legalize birth control gained popular support.

Sanger spoke often in favor of birth control. Occasionally her opponents managed to have her lectures cancelled. In this photo, Sanger put on a gag to protest her being banned in Boston in 1929.

Sanger’s greatest opposition came from the Catholic Church which stood by its traditional teaching against contraception.  Sanger’s chief antagonist was Monsignor John A. Ryan, a priest many considered quite radical for his writings in defense of labor unions and a living wage.  Despite his progressive positions on most social issues, on the matter of birth control Ryan stood firmly on conservative ground, defending Church teachings and denouncing Sanger’s crusade as a distraction from real social reform causes.  “To advocate contraception,” Ryan told a congressional committee, “as a method of bettering the condition of the poor and unemployed, is to divert the attention of the influential classes from the pursuit of social justice.”

Others would find different reasons to criticize Sanger.  Initially, she supported birth control as a means of liberating women and raising the health and living standards of the poor.  But she soon grew increasingly infatuated, as did many Americans in this era (and later Hitler and the Nazis), with eugenics, a movement that championed “race improvement” by reducing (via forced sterilization) the population of groups deemed genetically inferior.  Birth control, Sanger declared, would reduce the population of undesirable immigrants and racial groups.  “More children from the fit,” Sanger wrote in 1919, “less from the unfit — that is the issue.” Sanger eventually rejected these views.

Despite unbending opposition from many quarters, Sanger and her crusade continued to gain public support.  In 1942 the Birth Control League took on the more familiar name Planned Parenthood Foundation and continued the drive to eliminate laws restricting the distribution of information regarding contraception. It also raised money for scientific research into contraceptives. In the 1950s Sanger played a central role in raising the necessary funds and bringing together the key scientists who ultimately developed The Pill.

The developments of The Pill is widely viewed as one of the most important developments in the history of women’s rights in the U.S.

News of The Pill’s approval by the FDA on May 9, 1960 came to eighty-year old Margaret Sanger as she was having a quiet breakfast in her Tucson, AZ home. As son and granddaughter remembered the event, Sanger just sighed and said, “It’s certainly about time.” Then suddenly smiling, she said, “Perhaps this calls for champagne.”

Sanger remained active in the cause until her death in 1966 at the age of 87.  By then the debate over women and reproductive rights had shifted to the more contentious ground of abortion rights.

Sources and Further Reading:

Jean H. Baker, Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (Hill & Wang, 2011)

Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America (University of Illinois Press, 2007).

Margaret Sanger, The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger (Norton, 1938)

Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (Hill & Wang, 2002)

The Battle of Antietam, Photography, and the Visualization of Modern War                             by Edward T. O’Donnell

Historians like to describe the American Civil War as the first “modern” war, in large measure

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

because of the central role played by new industrial technology. The telegraph, for example, allowed for instant communication across vast territory. Railroads made it possible to shift thousands of reinforcements hundreds of miles in less than a day. Ironclad ships revolutionized naval strategy, while hot air balloons held out the possibility of high altitude reconnaissance. Above all, what made this war different from all previous ones was the level of carnage made possible by advances in weaponry. Artillery became more accurate and deadly, while antipersonnel landmines appeared for the first time. Both armies used improved rifled muskets capable of killing a man 400-500 yards away (vs. 100 yards for traditional muskets). Little wonder then, that the four year conflict claimed the lives of more than 700,000 men.

But not all technological innovations that shaped the Civil War were military in nature. Great advances in photography allowed Americans to see what traditionally had been left to the imagination or an artist’s pen or brush: actual images of war’s carnage and destruction. Photography was first invented in the late 1830s in France and gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. At first, owing to the long time needed for exposure, most photographs were indoor studio portraits.

Mathew Brady was America's foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

Mathew Brady was America’s foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

America’s leading studio photographer at the time of the Civil War was Mathew Brady. Born in upstate New York in 1823, he first studied painting before turning in the early 1840s to a form of photography called the daguerreotype. In 1844 Brady opened a lavish Daguerrean Miniature Gallery on lower Broadway in New York. Business boomed, and within five years Brady became a highly regarded portraitist. In 1849 he opened a studio in Washington, D.C., and the next year published Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a book featuring the portraits of 24 prominent individuals, including U.S. presidents, inventors, and writers. By 1860 he owned large galleries in Washington and New York.

When the war came, Brady assembled his team of more than thirty assistants and sent them to photograph the conflict. Initially, they mainly photographed Union officers or scenes of camp life. That changed with the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, an epic clash between Union and Confederate forces that saw nearly 25,000 men fall dead or wounded. The next day Brady sent two of his assistant photographers, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, to the battlefield. There they took hundreds of photographs of the battle’s aftermath. Most focused on the bleak landscape littered with thousands of fallen soldiers.

Alexander Gardner's photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Gardner’s and Gibson’s photographs shocked the American public.  The grim scenes of carnage and destruction challenged the romanticized visions of war shared by many citizens when the conflict started.  They delivered a blunt unambiguous message to their viewers: the men pictured here may have died gallantly, but they also died in a brutal manner, shredded by cannon fire and pierced by bullets, and then splayed in irregular and undignified poses in the cold dirt.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Note the contrast between the Gardner and Gibson photographs and this popular Currier & Ives illustration of the First Battle of Bull Run published one year earlier when most Americans still held to the belief that the war would be short, glorious, and victorious. Unlike the brutal scenes of death captured by the camera, the artist’s depiction of war shows several men who have fallen, but their uniforms remain spotless, with no trace of blood. The print’s caption describes the scene as a “Gallant charge,” reflected the popular notion that war romantic and heroic.

A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam, Brady put the grim collection of photographs on

Dead soldiers lie about the "sunken road."

Dead soldiers lie about the “sunken road.”

display in his New York gallery under the title “The Dead of Antietam.”  Tens of thousands paraded by the exhibit in astonishment.  For generations people on the home front had relied upon writers and artists like the one employed by Currier & Ives to convey the scenes of conflict and carnage. Now photographers could capture such images in unprecedented detail and realism. “The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” commented the New York Times, “We see the list [of casualties] in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee … Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

The world would never “see” war in quite the same way again.

Gardner captioned this photo, "A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam."

Gardner captioned this photo, “A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam.”

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Sources and Further Reading:

William C. Davis, The Civil War in Photographs (Seven Oaks, 2008)

Alexander Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (Dover, 1959)

Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History (Smithsonian Books, 2004)

Theodore P. Savas, Brady’s Civil War Journal: Photographing the War 1861-1865 (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)

Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (Ticknor & Fields, 1983)

Wayne Youngblood, Mathew B. Brady: America’s First Great Photographer  (Chartwell Books, 2008)