Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who in the World was Ida May Fuller?


I think I would be stating the obvious if I said that the American economy is struggling right now. Many Americans are bearing tough financial burdens, especially retired men and women. One of the revenue streams that retired people, and others rely on is social security. Social security was enacted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of his New Deal policies in 1935. The hardship faced by Americans today still doesn’t compare to the absolute devastation of the Great Depression, which inspired many New Deal programs.

On January 31, 1940 the first social security check was issued to Ida May Fuller. Ida May Fuller was born in 1874 in Vermont where she spent the majority of her life.   She filed a claim for monthly social security support on November 4, 1939. Most social security is funded by payroll taxes, and Ida May worked for three years contributing to social security. After retiring, Ida May visited her local social security office to see about possible benefits. As Ida May recalled, “It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you, but I knew that I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it.”

Her information was forwarded to Washington with the first batch of monthly check recipients to be issued a social security payment. She received a check for $22.54, which in today’s money would be about $342.46. Social Security continues to be a hot button issue in American politics. How will we pay for it? Will it still exist in a hundred years? Only time can tell.

[Image via Wikimedia]


The Say Hey Kid Plans to Say Hey (In Print)


The NY Times is reporting that baseball legend Willie Mays has decided to cooperate with a biographer for the first time in telling the story of his hall of fame career. Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch will allow Mays to tell the story of his childhood and baseball career (which will include references to other baseball greats according to the publisher’s webpage.) 

The NY Times piece expresses hesitation about Mays’ cooperation with the writing of his own history in terms of Mays’ skittishness at tackling controversial topics. For example, Mays does not view the segregation he faced in major league baseball as a hindrance, and in fact, attempts to spin it for its advantages (?) Mays also claims ignorance when asked to comment on the controversy of steroids in baseball today (His godson is Barry Bonds). Perhaps, and maybe because of, his idiosyncrasies I can imagine that Mays’ biography will certainly spark further discussion among baseball fans when it appears.

Here is one of the most famous moments of Willie Mays’ career, known simply as “The Catch.” Mays and the New York Giants were taking on the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. (The Giants went on to win the series)


[Image via achievement]


Friday, January 29, 2010

Why Can't We Be Friends?….or President Obama visits the Republican Caucus

Today, the political shows are abuzz with the live question and answer session that took place today between President Obama and the Republican caucus. All the shows have reflected on the public’s general distaste with the partisan vitriol in Washington in both parties. To combat this image, President Obama made overtures for greater bipartisan work in his State of the Union on Wednesday and today visited the Republican caucus to participate in a “free exchange of ideas.”

What’s interesting is that the public and media seem to believe that this Republican vs. Democrat political culture is the most viscious its ever been in American politics. That may be, but I don’t believe that to be necessarily true. For example, I wish we could see a similar exchange of ideas from the 1790s era of American politics when Federalists so hated Democratic-Republicans (and vice-versa) that they would cross the street rather than share the sidewalk with someone of an opposing party. I won't even get into the antebellum and civil war years. That said, I found today’s events to be quite an anomaly. Certainly, previous presidents have spoken at meetings of their opposition in attempts to increase feelings (or the appearance of) bipartisanship. However, today’s meeting was the first such event to be taped and aired live.

Here is the full question and answer session:


[Image via mentalfloss]

There Was Nothing Phony About This Man – J.D. Salinger Dies at 91


As most of the world already knows, J.D. Salinger, the mysterious author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” died at the age of 91 on Wednesday. Here is the NY Times obituary of one of the greatest American writers to emerge from the World War II era. 

I’m pretty sure “The Catcher in The Rye” is now required reading at most high schools. I know I had to read it during my freshman year. That said, its hard to imagine that this now standard text was one of the most banned books in schools for over 20 years. In honor of J.D. Salinger, here is one of my favorite passage from “The Catcher in the Rye.”

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me.  And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That's all I do all day.  I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 22, spoken by the character Holden Caulfield

[Images via cas and notablebiographies]


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn passed away today from a heart attack at the age of 87. The offer of the populist and best selling A People’s History of the United States was known for his passion and his left wing view of history. As an educator he encouraged his students to question the version of history they thought they knew, and to appreciate dissent as an essential part of American democracy. No matter your view of his politics, it would be hard to deny his influence and impact on American culture. To read more about Howard Zinn, click here.


[Image via identitytheory]

He Shall From Time to Time…..A Brief History of the State of the Union


Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his first State of the Union address as president. The need for a president to address Congress about the state of the union is laid out in our Constitution in Article II, Section 3, which mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Like much of the Constitution, this requirement is written in somewhat ambiguous language that the early presidents interpreted in different ways. For example, what kind of requirement is “from time to time?” President George Washington interpreted that to mean once a year, and so the State of the Union is delivered once a year, usually at the start of a new legislative session.

Another interesting aspect of the constitutional requirement of a state of the union is that it does not explicitly state that the president must deliver it before Congress in person. George Washington and John Adams both chose to deliver the address in person. John Adams’ State of the Union only took about 5 minutes to deliver. Imagine if that was the case today. While the first two presidents delivered the address in person, Thomas Jefferson believed the sight of a president addressing Congress was too similar to the practice of the King of England addressing parliament. He rankled at any display of monarchial power. Therefore, he sent a written copy of his state of the union to be read to Congress. This became the standard practice for presidents until Woodrow Wilson. He resurrected the practice of delivering the address in person, a practice that was later adopted by FDR. While presidents still have the constitutional right to mail their address to Congress, it has become an unwritten requirement of the modern presidency to deliver it in person.

There have been some tense moments surrounding previous addresses, check out a NY Times article that describes some of these addresses in greater detail.

To read more about the State of the Union address and the American presidency, check this out.

Delivering the State of the Union address live on primetime television was a practice started by President Lyndon Johnson. Will you be watching tonight?

[Image via knowledgerush]


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” – On the walls of the Library of Congress

On January 26, 1802, Congress passed an act calling for the establishment of a library within the U.S. Capital. The primary purpose of the library was to field research requests from Congress. Only members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices and other high-ranking government officials are allowed to take books out of the library. The rest of us have to obtain a library card to use research materials within the library.


The Library itself has a rich history full of intrigue, drama and fires. Much of the library’s original collection was destroyed by fire during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson sold 6487 books to the library, which made up his entire personal library. This act shows how seriously Jefferson believed in the mission and importance of the Library of Congress, and how much he needed money to keep his ever tenuous personal finances in the black (which they rarely were).


The Library of Congress remained in the Capital building for much of the 19th century. After the Civil War, the library began to grow in scope and in prominence and was eventually moved into its own building. It has come to serve as our de facto national library and now encompasses programs to promote literacy and greater historical appreciation nationwide. It is the largest library in the world in terms of shelf space (530 miles of bookshelves) and the 2nd largest in terms of number of books held in its collections (29 million books). Visit the library’s website to do some research or just to check out the cool services the library offers online.

For more of the history of the Library of Congress, check this out.

[Images via Zanegrant, bbg-aura and about]



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Never say Nevermore


Today would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 201st birthday. The NY Times is reporting that an anonymous man known for visiting Poe’s grave dressed entirely in black on Poe’s birthday did not make his usual pilgrimage this year. For years, spectators have turned out to Poe’s grave in Baltimore on January 19th to watch as this unidentified man drank a toast to Poe before pouring the rest of the cognac out over Poe’s grave. This same man also brought three roses to place on the grave every year. I never knew this tradition existed, but somehow, it doesn’t surprise me. I wonder if he’ll return next year? If not, who will take his place?

I Love Lucy (more than Eisenhower)…and so does the rest of America


On January 19, 1953, Lucy Ricardo had her baby on the I Love Lucy show. This was one of the first pregnancies shown on television, and it captured national interest. Interestingly, Lucille Ball was pregnant in real life at the time and had her baby on the same day that the episode showing her character’s labor was aired.
The I Love Lucy Show was an incredibly popular show which has been shown on television continuously since its end in 1957 through reruns. An incredible percentage of the population tuned in each week to see how Lucy might try to break into her husband’s nightclub act or attempt to get rich quick through some crazy scheme. Lucy’s pregnancy on the show only heightened public interest in an era in which the word “pregnant” could not be used on the air and Ricky and Lucy’s bedroom featured twin beds.
To show the level of interest in the I Love Lucy show and the birth of Lucy and Ricky’s television baby, more people tuned in to watch Lucy’s labor than watched President Eisenhower’s inauguration the next day. In many city newspapers, news of Lucy and Ricky’s baby pushed articles about Eisenhower’s inauguration off the front page.

Here is a clip from the infamous “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” episode which originally aired on January 19, 1953.




[Image via forbes]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Happy Martin Luther King Day!


In remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights he advocated for, here is his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety.

[Image via writespirit]


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sometimes We Destroy Our History

Here is a great article from the NY Times about the ongoing movement to preserve segregated black schoolhouses in the south. Many schools were constructed from funds raised by the president of Sears, Julius Rosenwald, at the urging of Booker T. Washington. The schools were in keeping with the “separate but equal” standards of the day, which relegated black education to primitive standards at best.

Many of these buildings were saved from demolition at the urging of historians and other preservationists who recognize the historical importance of the structures in telling the history of civil rights. There have been countless books written about pre-civil rights education in the south, but not everyone will read a book. As a former attendee of one of the schools so aptly stated, “Sometimes we destroy our history…You can tell kids about it, but they appreciate it better when they see it.”

[Image via MarkFoxjr]

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Great American Smoke-Out – The First Government Report Warning Against the Dangers of Smoking Issued


On January 11, 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a report entitled Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General. This report was the first official government report that warned against the dangers of smoking. This was not the first time a government agency hinted at the dangers of smoking. In 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney stated that the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service was that scientific evidence pointed to a link between smoking and lung cancer. However, the scale of the report issued in 1964 was a major leap forward in making the public aware of the serious medical risks of tobacco. Surgeon General Terry decided to issue the report on a Saturday so as not to affect the stock market, but to also make the Sunday papers. The report was front-page news across the country and helped to educate the public about the medical risks of smoking.

This may not seem like a thrilling moment in American history, as it does not include any tales of gunplay, espionage or rock and roll. However, just think about the incredible shift the government has taken in its attitude toward smoking and tobacco companies in such a relatively short span of time. During World War II, the government provided servicemen with cigarettes as part of their rations. By 1957, it publicly linked smoking with lung cancer, and by 1964 it acknowledged the serious medical risks associated with smoking. After 1970, advertising cigarettes on television was against the law. Nancy Reagan eventually launched her war on drugs and we all found ourselves going through the infamous D.A.R.E. program. What an incredible transition in less than fifty years.

Once tobacco advertising on television became illegal in 1970, different advocacy groups used television to get out the anti-smoking message. Here are some early examples of anti-smoking PSA’s. Enjoy and don’t smoke!

Here’s a famous anti-smoking PSA that first aired on September 15, 1967

Here’s another PSA that features a dolphin – the natural choice to hit home an anti- smoking message (?)

Finally, here is John Wayne in western garb talking about his own experience with lung cancer. Its ironic that he is dressed as a cowboy talking about lung cancer, as Marlboro frequently used the image of a cowboy to sell their cigarettes. Tragically, John Wayne succumbed to cancer in 1979.

[Image via PBS]


Sunday, January 10, 2010

All Over America People Were Doing a Dance Called the Funky Grandpa– The 20th Anniversary of The Simpsons


2010 marks the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons. The show has faced controversy from the time of its inception as it has constantly played with viewer’s expectations of what is “acceptable” material for a cartoon show. The show comes off as tame these days in comparison to the other cartoon shows it has undoubtedly inspired in its wake. In honor of one of the longest running shows on television (and one of my favorites), here is a little American history lesson for all the kids out there from one of my favorite characters, Grandpa Simpson.



[Image via cmm61]



Common Sense: Words That Were Anything But Common



On this day in 1776, Thomas Paine published his enormously influential pamphlet
Common Sense. Paine was an Englishman who emigrated to America in 1774 under the sponsorship of Benjamin Franklin. He had served as an excise officer in England before being fired for leading protests for higher wages.

Once in America, he became involved in the increased hostilities between American and Great Britain, and became an advocate for American independence. In Common Sense, Paine used stirring rhetoric to argue that the American colonies had outgrown the need for England’s domination, and attacked the authority of the British monarchy. He strongly believed that the time had come for American independence. Paine pleaded, “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘tis time to part.” Common Sense was read by many patriots and influenced the authors of the Declaration of Independence. The language of the text itself is particularly notable in understanding its effectiveness and widespread popularity. Paine wrote in language that the average reader could understand, which helped his message reach a wide audience. Common Sense is also notable for being the first work to openly call for American independence from Great Britain.



Common Sense and the other writings that formed Thomas Paine’s American Crisis series (1776-1783) were widely distributed and did much to encourage the patriot cause during the American Revolution.

Want to read Common Sense in its entirety? Check it out here.

[Image via Britannica and arktimes]






Friday, January 8, 2010

“…There is only one king.” - Elvis Presley Turns 75


Today would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, and a slew of celebrations are taking place to mark the occasion. Elvis’ ex-wife Priscilla and his daughter Lisa Marie will be on hand at Graceland to cut a birthday cake among a crowd of faithful fans willing to freeze in the chilly winter weather.

Here is a clip of Priscilla talking about Elvis on the Today Show:





Elvis Presley plays a large role in the cultural imagination of American history and culture. That said, its easy to lose sight of his core talents and contributions among the sometimes cheesetastic commercialization of his legacy since his passing and the memory of the idiosyncrasies of his later years. To honor his birthday this year, I’d rather reflect on his legacy. As John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” The ingredients for rock and roll existed before Elvis Presley came along, but Elvis was perhaps unwittingly able to capture the lightning of country, gospel and rhythm and blues in a bottle and break the new genre to a huge new audience. As Rolling Stone’s David Fricke wrote in 1986,

“...At Sun Studio in Memphis Elvis Presley called to life what would soon be known as rock and roll with a voice that bore strains of the Grand Ole Opry and Beale Street, of country and the blues. At that moment, he ensured - instinctively, unknowingly - that pop music would never again be as simple as black and white.”


To get a sense of what Elvis was like when he first burst onto the music scene, here he is performing “Baby, Let’s Play House” on television in 1955.





[Image via fiftiesweb]


Monday, January 4, 2010

FDR and the Case of the Mole

Here is an interesting NY TImes article on a new book that explores a possible cover-up of the real cause of FDR’s death. As the reviewer states, no one questions that FDR died of a stroke, but there has been some dispute among doctors and historians as to what caused the stroke. As evidence, the authors of the reviewed book site a mole above FDR’s left eye that appears in photos of his early terms but disappears from photos of his fourth and final term. Could this mole be a melanoma? The reviewer, a medical doctor, does not appear to be convinced that the book offers enough facts to support it’s claim. Take a look and be the judge, is this history or pure histrionics?

[Image via PoorWilliam]