Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cute kitty pix were pretty much the first thing Americans came up with at the dawn of mass media

Posted By on Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 6:00 AM

​Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

The New England Home Magazine

Date: April 2, 1898, and September 4, 1898

Publisher: Boston Sunday Journal

Discovered at: Whately Antiquarian Book Center, Whately, MA

The Cover Promises: The face of a young beauty is just the finishing touch for your potpourri bowl.

Representative Quotes:

"[A Hawaiian] native cannot be persuaded to argue with a white man. He seems to have an instinctive belief that foreigner is shrewder than himself. ... They have no business capacity, lacking the power to direct and control, but are trusty, faithful and apt clerks."

Look, we'll get to the kitties and the Hawaiians and a parade of 1898's greatest beauties in a moment. First, though, enjoy a long look at that Muppet monster or whatever bursting from Miss Minnie Murray's head like Athena from Zeus':

​Is this the secret origin of Swamp Thing?

Anyway, throughout the 1890s halftone printing techniques fundamentally altered journalism, publishing, and the way Americans looked at themselves. One side-effect: Readers flooded The New England Home Magazine and likeminded publications with photos of kids and pets, exemplifying what Walter Benjamin labeled the age of adorable reproduction.

Here's what proud Yankees sent to The New England Home Magazine:


New technology meant new breakthroughs for kitty enjoyment. Traditionally, only family and neighbors would have been able to relish that cat's yowls of terror.

These shots come from a feature titled "Just Little Folks." The editors had asked simply for photos of children, but, just as with YouTube, the readers better understand what people wanted to see.

In these last two, the number of cats is inconstant, but the per-photo weight of cat remains steady.



The cute-kid crowdsourcing offers another surprise:


I have my qualms about that caption, but I'm pleased to see everyday black life presented right alongside everyday white life, something rare in our media even 113 years later.

A Sunday newspaper supplement for well-to-do ladies, The New England Home Magazine offered more than just photos of kids being dainty. There's ample evidence of an America waking up to the world: that impressively racist article about Hawaii, the newest state, a photo-tour of "Porto Rico," and the story of a boy who caught President McKinley's attention with a plan to raise money for "a battleship built by school children."

I especially enjoyed a bizarre feature wherein society women described their favorite military figures. From "As Our Generals Look To a Woman." Here, an unnamed woman takes on the unfortunate Gen. "Joe" Wheeler:

"Old and sick and ailing, with a body that is insignificant, the man's soul is so great as to overawe all who come within his influence. In command and action the puny and aged frame vanishes. ... Nothing could be more pathetic than to see him half carried about, fitter apparently for the hospital than the field, and yet with mind alert and full powered."

Still, the specialty of The New England Home Magazine was photos of the finest flowers of the urbane elite, usually accompanied by amusingly fulsome compliments. From a feature titled "Beautiful Women of Washington," here is Landon Rives, the sister of Amelie Rives, who wrote a novel titled "The Quick and the Dead" under the pseudonym Princess Amelie Chanler Troubetzkoy.


The editors' appraisal: "Her complexion is creamy, her hair a real golden, her eyes large and of a beautiful brown. Her figure is petite and exquisitely molded."

Here's another:


"Her beauty came from perfection of feature and form, and yet it was of the kind that painters, even more than sculptors, prize, for it depended in no small measure on clearness and delicacy of complexion, harmonious blending of color, abounding vivacity and grace of bearing and that subtle something which the artist's brush finds all too often just tantalizingly beyond its reach."

Why the past tense? Perhaps it's because she's the only featured Washington beauty to have taken a husband, in this case the son of Maine Senator Chandler Hale.

No such over-the-top language accompanies these shots of concert singer Rosa Masso, a Cuban plantation owner's daughter who, after the Spaniards killed her family, purportedly disguised herself and rode through 100 miles of occupied Cuba to deliver a message to the Cuban military.



​As if to emphasize the tensions of this country's headlong rush into modernity, the beauties and foreign news all sit just pages away from an ad for the kind of cure-all tonic that's likely to get someone run out of town on a rail.


Doc Slocum's only promises to heal scrofula, rheumatism, all throat and nose troubles, la grippe, loss of flesh, all wasting conditions, and consumption itself, which is described as "a spectre" and a "demon invisible" that "haunts the human race" "clothed in miasma" and striking "right and left with a poisoned dagger."

Shocking Detail:

The level of literary criticism was quite low.



Upon seeing the ragged survivors of the Maine attack, Georgia belle Elizabeth Venable felt "all the womanliness and patritrism in her being cry out." She volunteered her services as a nurse and crafted some flower arrangements which were duly lugged to the military hospital by 'Uncle Dave' Johnson, "an old wartime negro who had been with the family for many years."

The article "A Southern Girl's Noble Work" describes her like this:

"The chief beauty of her face is its gentle, soulful expression. This is so noticeable that several years ago when she was in Paris, where her education was completed, she seldom went upon the streets that some one in the language of that city did not cry out in an audible whisper as she passed 'The Madonna!'"

Here she is shedding a layer of skin for summer.


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