NPF: HOME OF THE FUTURE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The buildings we live in have changed remarkably little over the past few centuries. Sure, they're better constructed today and take advantage of a slew of technological advances. Fundamentally they haven't changed much – some combination of wood, stone, and metal on a concrete or stone-like foundation. Build some load-bearing walls and top it off with some kind of roof that hopefully won't catch fire or let the rain in. Put a few windows in the walls for light and ventilation. Add some doors. Voila.

I've always been fascinated by efforts to depart from this basic formula, none of which ever manage to catch on. That suggests that people are resistant to change, but also that, well, the basic design works pretty damn well. Sometimes we stick with things because they don't need much improvement.

Two specific examples from the United States of efforts to improve upon the basic design are, to me, especially interesting. One is the Lustron home that emerged after World War II in response to the nationwide shortage of cheap housing for returning GI Bill home buyers. Lustron was a marketing name for steel baked with a porcelain enamel. The sales pitch was that such homes eliminated the maintenance and deterioration issues of wood and drywall. It never needed to be painted, it wouldn't absorb moisture, and it would not fade or crumble with time. And believe it or not, to look at the surviving Lustron homes today you'd never guess their age from the condition of the exterior. The homes were very small by current standards (about the size of an average 1 or 2 bedroom apartment today) but the manufacturers were not kidding about the durability of the enameled steel construction. They did not rust or wear.

lustron

Despite the advantages (and some disadvantages, as temperature control was an issue with the steel walls) the heavily marketed homes were not backed by a robust system of manufacturing and distribution. In other words, they were great at selling them but not great at building them as quickly as competing vendors of traditional wood-and-vinyl siding houses could slap them together. People wanted houses and they wanted them now. Lustron could promise a nice house, but with subdivisions exploding around major cities with cheap ranch houses the buyer could step into tomorrow, the company eventually failed. They had the last laugh, though. Compare these homes today to any houses flung together in haste between 1945 and 1950 and see which one you'd want to occupy.

The other scheme – one remarkable in its failure given the man behind it – was Thomas Edison's all-concrete home. Though better known for other things Edison and his associates made great advances in the mass production of concrete ("Portland cement") in the United States, and his company came to be a major player in that industry. Edison and some other wealthy backers believed that a cheap poured concrete home was the solution to America's housing needs, arguing that such homes could be built rapidly and at low cost due to the simplicity of materials. And when Edison said "concrete home" he meant the whole damn thing. They had concrete furniture. Concrete appliances. Concrete walls, floors, and roof. You were getting a house that you could move into immediately with almost no possessions.

Unfortunately, while the material used to build the homes was simple, the process of building one was extremely impractical. Builders refused even to consider buying a quarter-million dollars worth of molds, forms, and pouring equipment necessary to begin constructing them. Those who tried found that construction was near impossible, since they could not figure a way to keep the concrete poured at floor level from hardening before the rest of the home had been poured on top of it. Concrete that dries at different rates ends up brittle, and test homes ended up leaking. And it turns out concrete furniture and appliances are kind of a terrible idea.

To his credit, the small number of concrete houses built have aged beautifully. Visitors have described them as claustrophobic on the inside, with the unusual temperature and acoustics of a concrete bunker (not surprisingly). While they are rather cool in summer, they're freezing in the winter. They were just too hard to build and too "different" from traditional wood-framed housing to catch on. Home builders didn't want to make them and home buyers weren't interested in buying them. The handful that were built are footnote curiosities today.

Don't even get me started on missile silo homes or we could be here all day.

NPF: HANGING ON

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 17th, 2016 by Ed

As you read this I am driving an unreasonable distance to see 90s grunge rock has-beens Candlebox play an embarrassing venue in an embarrassing location. I am doing this purely for lolz, as the kids probably no longer say, as I didn't even like this band when they were "popular" in 1994. It started out as a joke, then one of my friends I don't see often enough offered to come, and now it's happening. I suppose I've spent $20 on dumber things.

Living in Central Illinois has provided more opportunities to say "Holy shit, I can't believe they're still touring" than my first three decades on the planet combined. We've been visited by Dokken. Ratt. Survivor. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Molly Hatchet. Every butt-rock hair band from the 80s that had one hit and that you haven't thought about in 20 years. For The Youths, we also get all the late 90s-early 00s nu metal hacks. Papa Roach came. Sevendust. Uncle Kracker. Staind. Kid Rock. All that stuff. Basically, Peoria and Springfield are the next step down on the waterslide from major stadiums to concert halls to clubs in big cities to clubs in smaller cities to…well, the bottom of the touring barrel. County Fairs. Hillbilly bars. VFW halls. Bowling alleys. It's not hard to look at a band playing the Dew Drop Inn in Dothan, Alabama and wondering if they're on stage thinking about that time they played the Meadowlands or Wembley. It must be depressing. And it's certainly easy to mock for us ironic hipster types.

Whenever this comes up in conversation – "OMG can you believe Everclear is still touring and they're in Peoria?? God give it up already losers!" – my first reaction is to laugh, then to feel sorry for them, and finally to think, "Well it beats working in an office or at Burger King." If you can get paid to do something that for 99% of the population would be a hobby or recreational activity, why wouldn't you do it? I'm sure the folks in Candlebox or Foreigner know that some people are laughing at them, but so what? They probably no longer earn huge paydays, but they have to be making as much or more than the average stiff in the labor market. Doing forty per week in a cubicle or at Jiffy Lube feels bleak a lot of the time, so if similar or better money is to be made by standing on a stage for an hour playing songs while drunks scream the words…hell, I'd take that option ten times out of ten.

At some point I stopped looking at it as hanging on to faded dreams of stardom (although certainly that might be the mindset of some people who can't let it go) and began to see it for what it is: a way to make a living. And comparatively speaking, a fun way. I knew a guy who played minor league baseball for about fifteen years. People often snickered that he was delusional about making the major leagues and couldn't walk away. His perspective was totally different. He knew he wasn't going anywhere; he also knew he got paid about $30,000 to play a kids' game outside during the summer for six months per year. The other six months he worked odd jobs for additional cash. Annually I'm quite certain he made more when all was said and done than a lot of the manual labor and office bodies that thought he was crazy.

Yes, it's easy to laugh, and today I will probably laugh a few times. But you know what? Good for you, Candlebox. Millions of people have to wake up on this Friday and go to a lousy job. You get a check for a couple thousand bucks to play songs you wrote 25 years ago for an hour. I don't think there's any doubt about who wins this day. I'd get on stage and sing "Far Behind" too if anyone would pay to see me do it.

NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH GAVE AN ENTIRE ISLAND ANTHRAX

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 9th, 2016 by Ed

World War II brought out the insanity lurking beneath that famous British reserve. Not only did they try to blow up an entire island, but they rendered another one uninhabitable for decades – after they killed a bunch of sheep, of course.

We tend to forget how poorly WWII was going for the Western Allies before 1943. Preparing for the worst or perhaps eager to inflict the worst on Nazi Germany, the British began secretly developing an offensive biological weapons capability in early 1942. Military scientists made an aerosol out of anthrax and managed to rig a munition to disperse it. To see if the setup would work and produce lethal results, they needed somewhere very remote and very empty to test it.

Enter Gruinard Island. In Scotland, of course. Because they flipped a coin and it was either that or Ireland. Because Britain.

The island's small handful of residents was displaced by the government. More accurately they were replaced. Replaced with sheep. Eighty sheep were imported to see how they would react to being blasted with weaponized, extra-virulent anthrax. Ooh, the suspense! Are you ready for a shock? They died. Autopsies revealed that they died of anthrax. Watch some highly strange footage of the "experiments" here.

The tests proved, in case anyone was skeptical, that bombing German cities with anthrax would have lethal consequences that could linger for decades (note: anthrax is a rugged, hard to kill spore, which explains its popularity as a bioweapon). This proved remarkably prescient, as the British soon discovered that poor Gruinard Island was thoroughly, perhaps permanently, infected with literal tons of anthrax bacteria. Eventually the displaced owners and the general public started clamoring to clean up the problem in the late 1970s. A legitimate cleanup effort began in 1986, and it turned out that after an entire island gets drenched with liquid anthrax it's really hard to decontaminate it. For the next four years the tiny (0.75 square mile) island was bathed repeatedly in 300 tons of formaldehyde mixed with seawater. Some very nervous sheep were introduced in 1990 and their health was monitored closely.

They lived. The sheep lived.

The original owners were sold their island by the UK government for the 1942 purchase price of 500 pounds, and 26 years later there have been no cases of human, sheep, or any other mammal contracting anthrax on Gruinard. Hard to imagine what could grow in formaldehyde-soaked soil, but I guess nature is resilient.

The punchline? The secret project was called Operation Vegetarian. That famous British wit.

NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH TRIED TO BLOW UP AN ENTIRE ISLAND

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 26th, 2016 by Ed

Perhaps it is just the American ignorance of the minutiae of European geography talking, but Germany is not a country I think of as having islands. I'm aware that it is not landlocked (The Hanseatic League, a powerful economic and political entity of associated guilds during much of the Middle Ages, was based in what is now Germany along the North Sea. It also serves as the root word of the national airline Lufthansa, literally "Air Guild," which is almost too awesome to be true. Almost.) but no islands along its coasts are large enough for a non-German and non-resident of the area to notice. "Europe" and "Islands" make one think of Greece, Sicily, the UK and Ireland, Malta…but apparently Germany does possess a handful of small islands. I know this only because in 1947, in the wake of World War II, the British tried to blow one of them up. Literally. They tried to remove an island from the map and rid themselves of surplus war ordnance in one swoop. Two birds, one stone.

The German island of Heligoland is and always has been lightly populated. Today it is home to fewer than 1500 souls – some of whom, as long as we're on a roll with tangential Fun Facts today, speak Frisian, which is obscure but notable for being more similar linguistically to English than any other tongue. During WWII the Germans used its strategic location in the North Sea and its composition of hard sedimentary rock (another oddity, as the only such island in the North Sea) to build it up as a mini-fortress. Of particular importance were hardened submarine pens. These German U-boat fortifications were and remain some of the most singularly massive concrete structures ever built and they proved all but impossible to destroy (extant French pens are now a tourist attraction, and the British developed the ludicrous Grand Slam bomb specifically to destroy them).

German soldiers on Heligoland were among the last holdouts to surrender after the war, and the submarine pens represented a part of the Nazi war machine that the Allies, Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition in particular, wanted to see destroyed. At the same time the UK had to do something with thousands upon thousands of tons of explosives that were manufactured but went unused during the war. So they piled nearly seven thousand tons – tons! – of explosives onto, around, and under tiny Heligoland with the intention of destroying the submarine pens but with the destruction of the island considered both likely and, to the British command, acceptable. The fact that the island was laced with underground tunnels that were packed with explosives led many engineers to believe that the entire island would collapse and sink into the sea.

The resulting blast, dubbed the "British Bang", is considered by some sources the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Heligoland survived, although with a new geographical feature; unterland and oberland, the high and low opposite ends of the island, were joined by mittleland, the lowland blasted between in 1947. Both the population and the island itself have returned slowly over time. Today, a wealthy German developer is pursuing a plan to use landfill to replace parts of the island blown away by the Brits and to expand the island by filling in the space between Heligoland and several nearby small bits of land. What value this reclaimed land could have is not clear to me, but certainly rich developers have their reasons.

Lot of tangents here, but you know how I get when the topics are as enthralling as geography, the mid-20th Century, and blowin' shit up.

NPF: BLINDED

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ever wonder why outward visibility is so terrible in modern cars? It's not your imagination. It also is not a coincidence that features like "blind spot warning system" and "rear view backup camera" have become standard even on compact cars near the bottom of the new car price ladder. They're putting those things on everything from the Mercedes S-Class to the Kia Soul because visibility, especially behind and to the side (the classic "blind spot") is almost nonexistent in some modern vehicles.

Here's why.

Around 1990 when the SUV boom began in the U.S., auto manufacturers generally tried to economize by building big SUVs on existing platforms from cars and (pickup) trucks. In broad strokes, 1990s SUVs are some of the most unsafe vehicles you can drive today. They were almost uniformly top-heavy, poorly proportioned, and practically designed to flip and roll over during sharp handling. Something darts in front and you need to swerve to avoid it? Well your 1994 Ford Explorer is going to go full Michael Bay. Then of course there was the infamous Ford/Firestone rollover fiasco that was all over the news for the better part of three years and practically brought both companies to their knees. Firestone was making (and still makes) shitty tires that were exploding and causing Ford's tall, heavy, poorly balanced SUVs to do cartwheels. The public became sufficiently exercised for Congress to act.

In the early 2000s Congress and the NTSB mandated new measures to make vehicles either better at avoiding accidents or able to make accidents more survivable. Making cars better at avoiding accidents involves complicated and generally quite pricey technology like electronic stability control, torque distribution / all-wheel drive, and a whole lot of other electric nannies to bail out poor drivers doing dumb things like braking while cornering fast. The other option was to increase your odds of living through an accident, even a rollover. And that's much cheaper.

Your car's pillars (A, B, C, and in some vehicles like station wagons, D) have exploded since then. Some of them are so wide now that outward visibility is near zero. Why? Two reasons. One is that they are now stuffed full of airbags. The other is that they have been thickened to strengthen them so that the roof (per NTSB rules) can support the entire weight of the vehicle during a rollover. Here's the C-pillar in America's most popular family car, the Camry. Twenty years ago that would have been three or four inches wide, tops, to maximize driver visibility and exterior aesthetics. Now it has enough steel in it to support a 4000-pound load during a high speed impact.

Anyone knowledgeable about the industry over the years can confirm that the single biggest change in cars since, say, the 1960s and 1970s is weight. Cars today weigh twice as much or more as comparable vehicles did Back in the Day. The curb weight of a 1967 Ford Mustang was 2970 pounds. The curb weight of this year's model is over 3800…and the Mustang is a sports car with great pains taken to keep weight down. All that weight is about safety, period. "Classic" cars were and are death traps. If you got in an accident at highway speed you were probably dead. Today cars are full of airbags, safety cages, crush zones, reinforced everything, load-bearing A-B-C pillars – you name it. All that weight increases occupants' odds of surviving an accident.

If you happen to have a pre-2000 car as well as, say, a post-2010 car to compare it to, grab a ruler and measure the three main pillars. Or just sit inside and admire how much better your visibility is from behind the wheel of the older vehicle. Modern cars are engineering marvels for the most part, but unfortunately we are now relying on gadgets to allow us to see what's going on around us. Anyone who has survived a serious accident will no doubt argue that the tradeoff is worth it.

NPF: TRIAL AND ERROR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 13th, 2016 by Ed

In 1909 a vacationing paleontologist named Charles Wolcott happened upon some very interesting looking plant and animal fossils in the Canadian Rockies, near the border of Alberta and British Columbia. The fossils were exciting (to a paleontologist) in that they preserved soft features extremely well, which is a rarity – usually features like bones and hard shells are distinct in a fossil but not much else. Over the next 30 years Wolcott returned often to locate, study, and categorize the species he found. Eventually he determined (correctly) that they dated from the Middle Cambrian. Thus they excited a handful of paleontologists with a niche interest in that time period, and the fossils from the site, which became known as the Burgess Shale, held the oh-so-thrilling distinction of being the oldest soft tissue fossils ever discovered.

Wolcott and his fossils remained in that strange limbo of academic fame-obscurity, his work well known to a small handful of people but otherwise wholly ignored. Then in the 1960s some enterprising graduate students re-examined the thousands and thousands of Burgess Shale fossils and found something curious. In keeping with scientific orthodoxy of his era, Wolcott had carefully, meticulously – obsessively, even – categorized every one of his finds into an existing family of plants or animals. The students noted that much of what he found was so utterly bizarre and unlike anything alive today that Wolcott had actually found a lot of species the likes of which have never been seen before or since.

What is particularly interesting, presuming one understands evolution, is how wacky some of the body plans nature "experimented" with during that era appear today. The Smithsonian keeps a nice gallery of what some of the Burgess Shale creatures looked like; suffice it to say that the whole four legs, two eyes, one mouth thing hadn't quite caught on yet. One – an arthropod called Opibinia – had five eyes on stalks and a long elephant-like trunk with a clawed mouth on the tip.

There is an active debate among people who understand such things better than I do just how unique the specimens of the Burgess Shale truly are. Some scientists believe that they are far less bizarre than some early interpretations have suggested, while others maintain that it indeed represents a snapshot of the "Cambrian explosion" which saw the phenomenally rapid expansion of forms of complex life on Earth. I think the understanding of what happened 600 million years ago will always involve a healthy amount of conjecture, but it stands to reason that any sudden proliferation of kinds of life forms would involve a great deal of trial and error. Especially at such an early stage in the evolution of life, there had to have been a lot of false starts before a general blueprint of animal life – adapted to breathing oxygen, resistant to the deleterious effects of solar radiation, and with the basic senses necessary to sustain life long enough for reproduction – was settled upon.

NPF: PLACEHOLDER

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 5th, 2016 by Ed

My commute to and from work is very long, but so far I've had a great deal of luck avoiding the kind of unforeseen events that make it even longer. If I can do the drive in three hours or a little less that counts as Normal. On Thursday, in a series of events that would be considered comical had I not known for a fact that people died, the drive took ten minutes short of six. Six hours sitting in a car, mostly riding the brake, is enough to ruin anyone's day. Five hours into that you will find yourself quietly envying the dead.

First a major interstate was shut down and everyone forced off it (to continue an agonizing northbound crawl along the tiny rural roads of central Illinois). This easily set me back 90 minutes. Another major accident that necessitated landing a helicopter on the highway to remove victims (presumably) cost another hour. When yet another accident promised to add time to my stint on I-90, I exited to navigate my way home on Chicago side streets…only to find the major non-highway east-west road closed for maintenance. We were re-routed through, among much else, a cemetery.

At this point I began to wonder if it might not be best to stop, give the car keys to the first pedestrian in sight, and start a brand new life wherever I found myself.

Accordingly the vigor to write a proper NPF is missing. If you're in the mood for some environmental realism, check out these sad-funny pieces on Norilsk, Russia and Baotou, China, two cities dependent on the smelting of extremely toxic heavy metals for their economic existence. If anyone lives to 50 in those places, he or she should be whisked away and studied to learn their secret to immortality. Baotou is the source of 90% of rare earth elements upon which modern electronics rely, although interestingly they are not called "rare earth elements" because they are scarce. Most aren't.

It's not your typical NPF, but do you notice in the pics from those two cities there isn't a single living member of the plant kingdom? Not a tree, shrub, or blade of grass. Yeah. That's kind of jarring.

NPF: ROW YOUR OWN

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 15th, 2016 by Ed

I really like cars. Sorry if this makes me Dumb and destroys your perception of me. As a regular consumer of things related to car types of which I am especially fond and more general Car Guy Stuff like Regular Car Reviews, Autoblog, and Jalopnik, I am well aware that no one is allowed to be a Car Bro without having a borderline obsession with manual transmissions. Shift gate tattooed on your forearm or GTFO, brah! Three pedals or it doesn't even count as a car, brah! Automatics are so gay, brah! Despite the cogency and persuasiveness of such arguments, stick shifts are fast disappearing in the United States. They now account for almost no new truck sales and something like 1% of new car sales. More tellingly, they are no longer available on many performance models aimed explicitly at Car Enthusiasts.

There are practical reasons for the decline. Most drivers see cars simply as appliances and they want whatever is most convenient and whatever makes driving easiest. Americans also sit in a lot of stop-and-go traffic, which is the environment in which driving stick is most annoying. But I think that the biggest problem – Unpopular Message Board Car Bro Opinion warning – is that modern no-clutch-pedal transmissions are just so goddamn good.

Automatic transmissions suffered until the last 10-15 yearrs from two drawbacks. One was poorer fuel economy; prior to 2000 most cars gave up two or three mpg on their automatic version when compared to the manual one. Most automatics were 4 speeds, which made it difficult to gear for fuel economy without sacrificing performance. And on that note, the second drawback was performance. They were slower and the rudimentary transmissions basically had three gears plus an overdrive, and most cars aimed at the mass car buying public didn't have the horsepower to pull them effectively. They didn't shift particularly crisply either. GM's ubiquitous 4L60-E, which I experienced in numerous vehicles, shifted as though it was filled with pudding. I remain unconvinced that it wasn't.

So, for years manual transmissions had two big bragging points: better mpg, better acceleration. Combine those with lower price – automatics tend to be a $1000 option even today – and you had an airtight argument. The problem is that now 6-plus speed automatics and dual clutch (DCT) boxes have better fuel economy, provide quicker acceleration, and shift more quickly. The only remaining practical argument is based on style.

I had a BMW that I truly loved driving, and it had a DCT/automatic. Like most DCTs, it had "paddle shifters" on the steering wheel for manual shifting. When I sold the car, the young man who bought it asked about the paddle functions. I told him that they worked just fine but that I determined fairly quickly that I could not shift better than the software controlling it. And that's the thing: nobody can. It might make you feel better to shift your own gears, but the days of manual shifting outperforming sluggish 80s style automatics (the true "slushbox" automatics that are no longer used) are gone. Long gone. Performance cars like Corvettes, Porsches, BMWs, and Italian exotics now have dual-clutch automatic or robotic manual (BMW's SMG or the Porsche PDK) boxes that can execute shifts in milliseconds. Literally milliseconds. They are designed and programmed to outperform the human clutch foot and right arm (left in the UK and Japan, I guess) and they do exactly that.

Getting a manual transmission on a new 2016 vehicle strikes me more as a badge one wears to establish Car Guy cred than something that makes sense. Manuals no longer outperform their self-shifting counterparts in any area. The historical advantage they had in fuel economy is gone along with any performance advantages. If you think manual transmissions are more fun, by all means go for it. Do what you enjoy. But they are in no way empirically "better," and in fact by any performance or economy measure they are now worse than modern self-shifting units. Manual gearboxes are now to cars what Amtrak is to long distance travel. You can take Amtrak from Chicago to LA if you like being on trains, but in practical terms it makes no sense at all. Flights are cheaper and infinitely faster. Your choice, then, is one based solely on personal preference at the expense of logic, which is your prerogative. The attitude of superiority is pretty tiresome, though, especially when attached to a technology that is demonstrably inferior now.

NPF: ZAHA HADID, 1950-2016

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 2nd, 2016 by Ed

Architects are not household names, especially not living ones. The average reader of Sunday newspapers can probably name Frank Gehry or recognize his derivative blobitechture by sight, but otherwise it's difficult to think of a living architect who might be recognizable to a non-enthusiast or professional in the field. The most important, decorated, and accomplished living one died on Thursday, and her death was no more than a Page 3 level headline.

Zaha Hadid was born in Iraq in 1950 to a wealthy family, which allowed her in 1972 to move to London to study architecture under, among others, Dutch giant Rem Koolhaas (who, like her, would win the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture). Today both are recognized as founders of the first identifiable successor to postmodern and modernist architecture, a heavily geometric yet smooth style that defies its mathematical origins by blending in place with its surroundings. It is a shame that neither figure is better known, but it is not uncommon in architecture for time to be a crucial ingredient in the growth of one's reputation.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center - Baku, Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center – Baku, Azerbaijan

In a professional world in which few women become prominent, Hadid won the Pritzker in 2010 (the only solo female recipient to date), two Stirling Prizes for individual works (Rome's MAXXI art museum – get it? XXI? – and London's Evelyn Grace Academy), and the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, of which she is also the only solo female recipient.

London Aquatic Centre for 2012 Olympics

London Aquatic Centre for 2012 Olympics

The word "visionary" should not be tossed around lightly. Hadid was one. Her architecture of multiple perspectives – buildings that present dramatically different impressions depending on the point at which one views them – is now a commonly imitated aspect of contemporary architecture and even interior design. The BMW Building and the aforementioned Evelyn Grace Academy are probably the most representative examples of this, as well as excellent examples of how geometric designs can be made to blend naturally with the landscape. Any architect can make a geometric design that stands out like a jagged shard from a flat landscape. It takes restraint and an eye for aesthetics that few have or ever will have to make it look natural.

Broad Art Museum - East Lansing, MI

Broad Art Museum – East Lansing, MI

It's sad to think someone so important could depart without attracting more attention. Maybe it is the lack of major projects in the United States. Maybe it is the absence of a loud, garish "Hey look at me" style to her work. While the name might not be familiar to you, she did as much as or more than anyone to shape the way the world around you looks today and the aesthetics of urbanism in the foreseeable future. Her influence will outlive her.

NPF: NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 24th, 2016 by Ed

An anecdote of such great interest from Vincent Cannato's American Passage that I don't think my words can do it justice:

Frank Woodhull’s experience at Ellis Island began in 1908 when he returned from a vacation to England. The Canadian-born Woodhull, who was not a naturalized American citizen, was heading back to New Orleans where he lived. As he walked single file with his fellow passengers past Ellis Island doctors, he was pulled aside for further inspection. The fifty-year-old was of slight build with a sallow complexion. He wore a black suit and vest, with a black hat pulled down low over his eyes and covering his short-cropped hair. His appearance convinced the doctors to test Woodhull for tuberculosis.

Woodhull was taken to a detention ward for further examination. When a doctor asked him to take his clothes off, Woodhull begged off and asked not to be examined. “I might as well tell you all,” he said. “I am a woman and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” Her real name was Mary Johnson. She told her life story to officials, about how a young woman alone in the world tried to make a living, but her manly appearance, deep voice, and slight mustache over her thinly pursed lips made life difficult for her. It had been a hard life, so at age thirty-five Johnson bought men’s clothing and started a new life as Frank Woodhull, working various jobs throughout the country, earning a decent living, and living an independent life. Mary Johnson’s true sexual identity was a secret for fifteen years until Frank Woodhull arrived at Ellis Island.

Johnson requested to be examined by a female matron, who soon found nothing physically wrong with the patient. She had enough money to avoid being classified as likely to become a public charge, was intelligent and in good health, and was considered by officials, in the words of one newspaper, “a thoroughly moral person.” Ellis Island seemed impressed with Johnson, despite her unusual life story. Nevertheless, the case was odd enough to warrant keeping Johnson overnight while officials decided what to do. Not knowing whether to put Johnson with male detainees or female detainees, officials eventually placed her in a private room in one of the island’s hospital buildings.

“Mustached, She Plays Man,” said the headline in the New York Sun. Despite her situation, officials deemed Johnson a desirable immigrant and allowed her to enter the country and, in the words of the Times, “go out in the world and earn her living in trousers.” There was nothing in the immigration law that excluded a female immigrant for wearing men’s clothing, although one can imagine that if the situation had been reversed and a man entered wearing women’s clothing, the outcome might have been different.

Before she left for New Orleans, Johnson spoke to reporters. “Women have a hard time in this world,” she said, complaining that women cared too much about clothes and were merely “walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods shops, the jewelers, and other shops.” Women, Johnson said, were “slaves to whim and fashion.” Rather than being hemmed in by these constraints, she preferred “to live a life of independence and freedom.” And with that Frank Woodhull left Ellis Island to resume life as a man.

That's a pretty powerful statement of how limited the prospects in life were for women in the 19th Century. Not much has been written about Frank Woodhull, but you can find the archived original news stories with a simple Google search.