Friday, July 31, 2009

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Presented to the Club by Michael A. Shirley in April, 2001. (Readers should note that this paper was written and presented prior to the events of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.)

After our last “fun” musical evening I thought long about continuing in the same vein. I entertained the idea of presenting this paper in mime. But I thought you might have a problem with my “broken English.” Perhaps I should present it in song. I would not sully the rarified air of High Street, Pittsfield.

Seriously however, one of the pluses of our Monday Club meetings is the sheer “fun-ness” of them. I got to thinking about a remark Jack [Spencer] made to me about my having a different perspective from the other members. I certainly get much enjoyment from hearing your points of view on all sorts of matters. Further I detect marked differences in approach between Americans and the British and Europeans. This is a generalisation but it is always clear to me personally that my English friends tend to see serious difficulties, unpleasant consequences and pessimistic outcomes in many of the world’s affairs. Americans generally see the bright side of things and search for solutions. So there is the basis for my title, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” Of course there must be many reasons for this ranging from the age of the societies to their respective philosophies, pioneering or not, and to their differing economic circumstances among others.

I don’t intend to pursue these reasons but I do intend to have a little fun giving you my optimistic (thanks to America!) views and hopefully provoke some new thoughts. Bear with me.

As we took stock of the 20th century just over a year ago we realized that the past decade had been a very surprisingly positive one. Liberty — political, economic and personal — has become a widespread fact for the first time. FDR’s four freedoms — from fear and from want, of belief and of expression — are possessed by more people. more securely, than ever before. There is no challenge to the one world superpower, the United States, leading since 1945.

In business and trade this relatively peaceful world finds itself in the middle of two technological revolutions that promise on the whole beneficial changes to life, work and the intimate side of our affairs driven by computers and various forms of genetic engineering.

Too optimistic a view? A privileged, pampered, immigrant intentionally ignorant of the poverty and privations of millions of people on this earth?

Not really. I believe there is a good chance that a significant dent will be made in these depressing aspects of the modern world as I hope to explain.

Two impressive things stand out from the first 90 years of the last century, terror is no longer rife in large parts of the world, large-scale war is not ongoing or imminent, democracy is increasing and above all more and more people are interacting with each other across borders both economically and culturally. The second thing is how few people in the prosperous part of the world are as optimistic. Perhaps they are unable to step aside and recognize the good things amongst the daily worries and competition of their lives. Or they know that it has been a hard fight, no gift from heaven and liable to be reversed by purveyors of dogma, ideology and certainty.

The major issue today that threatens to overwhelm us is our population. The world’s people numbered 1 billion in 1900, today 6 billion. One-third of all people who have lived on this earth are alive today. The increase has been staggering in no small part to our very successful public health measures and to a lesser degree medical, lowering infant and maternal mortality to very low levels and raising life expectancy to an unimagined extent. Predictions in the1980s put the likely total in 2010 to be 12 billion. However since then fertility rates in many populations not only of prosperous nations have been dropping so much so that a total population of 10 billion in 2010 predicted in 1994 had been decreased to 9 in 1998. There is likelihood that fertility rates will drop further. That’s still a hell of a lot of people! (Note: This was written in 2001. As of mid-2009, the estimated world population for mid-2010 was 6.8 billion. — Editor)

There is no question that it is difficult to avoid a “half empty” (no pun intended) view of these statistics. And yet let us consider the enormous numbers of people who are living substantially better today than 50 years ago. I refer not only to Europeans and Japanese but to all those millions in East Asia, for example in Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia. And let us not forget China and India. China with 1.3 billions has enjoyed 7-10 percent growth for over 10 years. Their economy will be the same size as that of the U. S. by 2015-20. Admittedly each individual’s share will be much less than an American’s but the catching up will be well underway. Who would have imagined 40 years ago when Mao Tse Tung was dispersing millions into the countryside onto inefficient communes that today China would have a robust and growing capitalist economy (a $60 billion trade surplus with the U. S.) and some companies like Kodak and Coca Cola are the largest players in their respective markets? It is true that the government is run by the Communist party but its involvement in the economy is diminishing quite rapidly. It genuinely sees this as a priority with its imminent admission into the WTO and its agreements on human rights. And most importantly a middle class is emerging which will demand political, economic and human rights. The environment will be one of its main concerns too. I will return to this later.

Now India, a country I love and find fascinating: I grew up in a post-war Great Britain dying to throw off its class structure and pursue a socialist utopia. It took 30 years for the country to realise you cannot keep cutting the cake into smaller and smaller equal parts if it cannot grow. Well, you can, but the nation becomes impoverished. India embraced socialism with a passion. For good reasons in the social field but disastrous in the economic one. Only in the last 10 years has India lowered its protective trade barriers, welcomed foreign investment and begun to take its proper place in the world. Frankly, when I mix with my affluent Indian friends I realise that if I lived there I would not want things to change. Cheap labour, family firms serving large protected markets, friends who invest your money with a 25 percent return and oodles of obsequious, respectful servants who truly know their place. India is beginning to stir. Witness its IT and programming wizards who live in Bangalore and send their work nightly to Silicon Valley companies and the enormous success of the its community here. The population is now over 1 billion. 225 million Indians enjoy an annual income of twice the American average of $40,000, an enormous absolute amount of money. The other 775 million are the problem but change is under away.

I mentioned earlier the increasing interaction of people across borders both economically and culturally. Globalisation informs almost anyone in the world where he or she can earn more than in their village, town or city. Significant numbers are no longer deterred by distance, border police, discrimination or any other barrier you can think of. We are used to illegal immigrants here but increasingly “fortress” Europe is being invaded by East Europeans, North Africans, people from the Middle East and even further afield. Note the recent suffocation of over 50 Chinese in a truck which crossed the English Channel. Such poor immigrants will work for less than the minimum wage, do work that the locals won’t and send valuable money home. I believe that as fertility rates drop in the developed world and there are not enough young workers to fund the elderly’s pensions immigrants will be more welcomed. I further believe that if we allowed much freer movement of workers we would see them acquire and develop their skills, return to their countries with money to invest and set up businesses there. So, many immigrants wish to return but are deterred by a fear of not being able to move back to the developed country when they want.

Globalisation culturally is having an important effect in reducing prejudice. With rather more sensitive antennae than most I can detect quantum changes in racial attitudes most hearteningly amongst the young. White Aryan resistance is testimony to that. There are, I believe, 25,000 Chinese (from China) students in this country. During my trip to India last year invariably on meeting an educated Indian speaking English of course I would discover he or she had a relative in the States most often working in ‘high tech.”

Let me return to our exploding population. It is certainly challenging our resources. And yet all of us elderly gentlemen have lived long enough to see dire predictions proved wrong. Ages ago a Rome club predicted we would run out of energy sources, acid rain would destroy all of our forests, etc., etc. The side of the equation we tend to ignore is technology. Challenge has allowed more sophisticated geological methods to find oil, more efficient ways to extract it and now no longer extravagant promising new ways to obtain non-fossil energy.

Water is extremely scarce in many areas. ”Half empty” practitioners see wars being fought over it. Certainly it is potentially a serious problem but conservation measures like “drip” irrigation techniques in Israel and toilets using a 1 1/2 gallon water flush instead of a 5 gallon one (this has transformed New York City’s water situation) have hardly been used in most thirsty areas of the world. There is a realization that local communities have to be involved in the solutions to the problems.

So seeing that whether we like it or not the billions of poor people are with us and aspiring to the same standard of living that the rich enjoy already where do we go from here? I believe the great majority of poor people are going to reach that goal. We are beginning to identify those conditions that seem to be necessary for the economic advancement of poor nations. So often in analysis of why they have not lowered the gap with the rich countries economists come up with answers such as they don’t have skills, history stands in the way, they have too little capital, their culture is not entrepreneurial. In fact these are just detailed ways of saying that poor countries are poor. More helpful studies such as “Economic Freedom of the World” first published in 1996 by 11 economic think tanks around the world are suggesting that most of the explanations lie in the way poor countries are governed rather than in their natural disadvantages or in the unfair treatment by the rich although I think the last factor is a significant one.

Economic freedom means the ability to do what you want with whatever property you have legally acquired, as long as your actions do not violate other people’s rights to do the same. Goods and services arrive because of property rights and the incentives to create and use them. The conclusion is abundantly clear: the freer the economy, the higher the growth and the richer the people. Countries that have maintained a fairly free economy for many years did especially well.

This is not to say that a laissez-faire approach is advocated. Rather, the study indicates that economic freedom is a broad concept which requires a great deal from government. It must set a clear and predictable regulatory economic climate. That means protecting property rights, enforcing the law, avoiding inflation and, very importantly, not grabbing all the money for itself or nationalising enterprises. Other important attributes are an independent judiciary, the absence of protective tariffs and the presence of an investment climate which encourages the education of children and training of workers besides building factories and clearing land for farms.

As I contemplate what I have written and delivered I realise that I am sounding rather earnest. But then I should. We have to use our accumulated knowledge to help reduce the misery in the developing world. The billions of poor people have to be given the opportunity to enjoy the things that we do. Ah, you’ll say “that will destroy the world’s environment.” But when you consider that since 1900 the world’s population has more than trebled the world ought to be a pretty disgusting, smelly polluted place. And yet the air over Manchester, London and Pittsburgh is cleaner now than 100 years ago. The same goes for water. Why? The reasons have to do with prices, technological innovation, social change and, in democracies, government regulation in response to popular pressure. That is why today’s environmental problems in the poor countries ought, in principle, to be solvable. The worst pollution does occur in poor countries. But it reflects a lack of democracy more than an excess of economic growth. That said it has been heartening to see recent exposures of corruption in the Philippines, Indonesia and India. The emerging middle classes will demand higher standards of behaviour.

Before finishing I would like to put in a plea that this country and the other rich ones exercise enlightened self interest with the accent on enlightened. For instance the two areas in which poor countries should be allowed to trade freely with the rich ones are agriculture and textiles. In the last round of trade negotiations they were given implicit promises that that would occur in return for recognition of intellectual property rights. The rich countries have never delivered. Certainly there are powerful lobbies to resist this but we have to find the political will. Just as the U. S. practiced enlightened self-interest by the implementation of the Marshall Plan after World War II to the eventual enrichment of all parties the same principles must be applied in trade between rich and poor nations.

Finally I, like you, naturally wonder whether all this anticipated prosperity will deliver happiness. Now, there’s a hot potato! It seems to me that one of the inherent necessities of capitalism is to induce envy. Keeping up with the Joneses stimulates growth! However, successful capitalism does give us choices, even the choice to choose unhappiness.

And with that please pass me my half full glass of wine. I thank you for your attention.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The American Centinel: The first newspaper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Presented to the Monday Evening Club, April 14, 2003 by Martin C. Langeveld

Every day, the editorial page of The Berkshire Eagle carries a line proclaiming that the paper’s origins date back to the founding of The Western Star, a newspaper launched in Stockbridge on December 1, 1789. In an age when newspapers were generally both short-lived and strongly partisan, The Star was a mouthpiece for the county’s Federalists, then led by the venerable Stockbridgian judge, later U.S. Senator, founder of the Sedgwick clan and hub of the Sedgwick circle at the Stockbridge cemetery, Theodore Sedgwick.

One might assume that with this ancient origin The Western Star must have been the first newspaper in Berkshire County, but it was not. That honor belongs to a Pittsfield sheet, The American Centinel, launched about two years earlier in 1787. At the time, there were only two other newspapers in Massachusetts west of Worcester – the Hampshire Herald, which started in Springfield in 1782 as the Massachusetts Gazette; and the Hampshire Gazette, progenitor of the present Daily Hampshire Gazette, begun in Northampton in 1786.

Everything we know today about The Centinel is based on three copies, two of which were last seen in the 19th century. Those two we know only from mid-19th century published descriptions. The third issue was in the collection of Robert C. Rockwell of Pittsfield, who died in 1928. At his death, that copy, too, went missing and was unavailable to scholars for the rest of the 20th century. Rockwell’s copy, Vol. I, No. 4, dated October 19, 1787, was apparently examined during the 1920s by Clarence S. Brigham, a bibliographer who compiled the History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690-1820, which is the definitive bibliography of early American newspapers. Brigham provided little further detail about The Centinel, however, and the whereabouts of the Rockwell copy were unknown for three-quarters of a century following Rockwell’s death. But based on this copy, Brigham deduced The Centinel’s starting date of September 28, 1787.

In March 2000, however, the Rockwell copy resurfaced, when it was donated to the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester by Peter R. Haack, a West Newbury antiquarian book dealer. The Antiquarian Society boasts the country’s largest selection of early American imprints of all kinds, especially newspapers. Haack had acquired this copy, along with other newspapers and books, from a relative of Rockwell who lived in Andover. So today, for the first time in over 200 years, a copy of The Centinel is available for public perusal, and I recently visited the Antiquarian Society’s library and examined it and other early Berkshire newspapers.

The Centinel, a 4-page paper with pages 11 by 17 inches, was published by the partnership of Elijah Russell and Roger Storrs, “at their office, only a few rods west of the meeting house.” This would place them on the site of the present Berkshire Bank headquarters.

As I mentioned recently during a club discussion, newspapers in this era before copyrights reprinted somewhat random bits of news (much of it inaccurate and incomplete), anecdotes, opinions, reviews, poems and the like, all lifted without compensation from whatever other newspapers, books or pamphlets happened to reach the office of the publisher, whose principal occupation was generally that of printer. Local news was virtually absent from these newspapers because it circulated faster and more reliably via the grapevine, so there was no point in wasting valuable paper by printing it. The papers we will examine here follow that style.

Vol. I, No. 4 of The Centinel is a well-preserved copy that leads off with the concluding portion of a letter by George Washington, as president of the Constitutional Convention, transmitting the proposed Constitution to the president of the Continental Congress. Washington wrote “in our deliberations on this subject, we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consideration of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence.”

Under its flag, or title, The Centinel carried the motto, “Here you may range the WORLD from POLE to POLE – increase your KNOWLEDGE, and delight your SOUL.” The publishers had lifted this quotation, without attribution, from the introductory poem in the “The World in Miniature,” an anonymously written account of travels around the then-known world published in 1752. (Incidentally, in 1800, when the Pittsfield Sun was launched in the same location, its first two numbers bore what appears to be a parody of The Centinel’s motto: “Here all may scribble with unbound sway, If they will do it in a DECENT way.”)

Immediately following Washington’s message, the paper presented a remedy for cancer, cribbed from the Maryland Gazette, followed by an item called Miscellany, submitted by “A CUSTOMER” and signed “Observator,” who offers “Reflections suited to the Times.” These appear to be for the most part swiped without attribution from Jonathan Swift, including: “Law in a free country, is, or ought to be, the determination of the majority of those who have property in lands.” And: “When a true GENIOUS [sic] appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

The Centinel had its readership’s moral needs strongly in mind and continued with an extract from Matthew Hale’s Sum of Religion, a 17th century tract reprinted by Benjamin Franklin in 1740, and “A Portrait of Pleasure” – “Pleasure is a beautiful harlot sitting in her chariot, whose four wheels are Pride, Gluttony, Lust and Idleness.” It then lightened things up with an “Anecdote of Antisthenes:” “Anthistenes, being asked what he got by learning, answered, that he could talk with himself, could live alone, and that he needed not to go abroad and be beholden to others for delight.”

The Centinel offered its readers a collection of brief news items on European affairs as well as domestic dispatches, all of them gleaned from and attributed to a variety of other newspapers that had made their way to Pittsfield.

From Europe, there was news of a European peace conference being held at Versailles, with a July date (remember, this issue is from October, 1787), as well as items from Madrid, Utrecht, London, the Hague and the East Indies (the latter dispatch was fully a year old).

The domestic news led with this from Philadelphia, dated September 26 (and note the tenuousness of the source): “A report was circulated Monday (said to be upon the authority of a gentleman who came in the British packet which arrived at New York on Saturday last), that war had been declared between England and France before the packet sailed from Falmouth.” This roundabout intelligence obviously superceded the July item in the same issue on a Versailles peace conference. In any case it appears that both items were wrong. The Versailles conference most likely refers to the Assembly of Notables held at Versailles, a domestic gathering. A precursor to the French Revolution, the Notables first established the idea of representation in French politics, and no new war on Britain was declared that year.

Shays’ rebellion being fresh in the minds of Berkshire readers, the editor included a dispatch from Petersburgh, New York, dated September 6, in turn quoting “a gentleman from Great Brier county [meaning Greenbrier, now West Virginia] that a number of the inhabitants of that county, headed by one Matthews, have lately attempted to stop the court from proceeding to business . . . and had nearly effected their purpose … but in consequence of the interference of civil authority, Matthews thought proper to retire, and the rest dispersed. It is said Matthews has since been apprehended, and is now in close confinement.”

Closer to home, there is news from New Haven that the town meeting, on October 1, voted to request the legislature to hold a convention as soon as possible to ratify the proposed Constitution.

Finally, there is a Pittsfield item, an extract from a letter from a gentleman in Ridgefield, Connecticut to his brother in this town, dated the 29th of September, recommending “that this Constitution, once established, will do immortal honor to the patriots who formed it, establish the fame of America, and suit the greatest part of its inhabitants.”

To this the editor of The Centinel could not resist adding the following, full of typographical flourish: “This Constitution will not only raise Columbia (DIRECT) from a lingering despair, which (if nothing can rouse her therefrom) will justly entitle her to the animadvertion of him who once extracted her from the iron bounds of tyrannical power, and saved her from impending ruin, but directs a way to the FUTURE prosperity and national honor.” Getting more excited and carried away with punctuation and capitalization, he continues: “The only question to be determined now is, Where shall we find a PRESIDENT? --- Surely we need not apply to the king of Great Britain for one! --- Will the immortal WASHINGTON take on him the task, the laborious task, to navigate us through the second gulph, and land Columbia on a peaceful shore? --- If WE will be United, He doubtless will; but there’s the FEAR!” It seems very likely that Russell and Storrs founded The Centinel precisely in order to help drum up support for the not-universally-approved-of Constitution as well as for Washington himself as president. Interestingly, their landlord at the corner next to the meetinghouse, the redoubtable Parson Thomas Allen, was, at least in later years, a well-known anti-Federalist, who helped his nephew Phinehas start the staunchly Democratic Pittsfield Sun in 1800. But Allen named his fourth son George Washington Allen, so these may in fact be his own words.

Next we turn to a 1787 lawyer joke headed “Recent Anecdote:” A ‘countryman’ assured his friend the Judgment Day was near at hand. Asked how he knew, he told of a client of a lawyer of his acquaintance, who sent the lawyer 15 dollars and the promise of more if he won his case, and the lawyer “very honestly returned all but FIVE, which in my opinion forebodes some dreadful event.”

Rounding out the issue is an advertisement from J. Danforth’s general store, and a message from the publisher stating that “a few copies of the New Federal Constitution may be had of the printers.” There are also some poems, an essay on happiness, a list of axioms in Trade, and a set of Maxims, prepared for The Centinel by one Maximus.

Even in this age before telemarketing, circulation sales were on the mind of the publishers and their distributors. Bela Smith, Post Rider, offered in an announcement to deliver The Centinel in Lanesborough, New Ashford, Williamstown, Adams, Windsor, Partridgefield (later known as Peru), Dalton, Washington and Becket each Friday, at 2 Shillings per quarter, but “To obviate a great difficulty (viz. the want of cash) he will take grane of those who will advance a half year’s pay,” quoting rates per bushel for wheat, rye, oats and flaxseed.

As I mentioned, we only have 19th century descriptions by previous historians, but no physical copies, of a few other issues of The Centinel, so we have no idea how long Smith actually delivered The Centinel. Based on those descriptions, we do know that by December, after only about half a dozen issues, the publishing partnership was dissolved and only Elijah Russell was listed as publisher.

One of those issues, most likely the first published by Russell alone, on December 11, 1787, was described in the Pittsfield Sun, 91 years later, as having contained a continuation of a story of shipwreck and adventure, two or three contributions on abstract subjects addressed to “Mr. Printer,” a poem, a ponderous article on the study of history, the obituary of John Lippit of Adams, “a man of unblemished character who had lived above 60 years with his surviving widow,” and news from Lanesborough that Capt. Daniel Brown had slaughtered a heifer two years and seven months old, which weighed 782 pounds. “It is experienced that by good keeping and proper care we may make our cattle weigh near double to what they do with ordinary treatment.” The no-local-news rule could, apparently, be broken with something extraordinary. (By the way, a typical heifer today should weigh 600-700 pounds, depending on breed, at puberty or age 12 to 14 months, and fully 1200 pounds as an adult cow by age two and a half years.)

In another issue, (described in Josiah Gilbert Russell’s 1855 History of Western Massachusetts), Russell wrote that he “returns his thanks to those gentlemen who expressed their anxiety to have the printing office at Pittsfield . . . print a certain number of papers, and begs leave to inform them that he has a large number of papers on hand for which he has, as yet, received nothing, and which he wishes those gentlemen to call for, according to agreement. If agreements are not fulfilled, the Centinel must stop.”

Ultimately The Centinel did stop, but we don’t know quite when. However, the following springtime, Roger Storrs, the other partner, appears solo as publisher on the masthead of a successor publication, The Berkshire Chronicle, established May 8, 1788. On December 19 that year its name was changed to the ponderous title of Berkshire Chronicle and Massachusetts Intelligencer, which was published at least until September 30, 1790, and of which a fairly complete run is extant.

In No. 5 of The Chronicle, June 5, 1788, the publisher ran the first known “carrier wanted” ad in Berkshire County, apparently to replace Bela Smith, stating that “diligent, faithful post-rider is wanted to ride from this office.” Apparently he hired Alvin Woolcott, who announces in the September 4 issue that he will take his pay in linen rags at the store of Moses Woolcott in Lanesborough. Via the barter system, the publisher could get these rags converted to printing paper.

Cash was obviously still in short supply, and the paper did a brisk trade publishing notices from tradesmen and storekeepers requesting customers to settle accounts, including this creative gem published August 26, 1790: “The subscriber begs leave to inform the Public, that he has a small Book, and in that book there are some small Accounts, – and likewise, that he has a small Drawer, and in the Drawer are some small Notes – which must be immediately settled, in order to save some small cost, in a very small time. This from yours to serve, Nathaniel B. Torrey, Lanesborough.”

An early member of our Monday Evening Club, Thaddeus Clapp, collected early newspapers and contributed information on them to Russell’s 1855 history. Besides The Centinel, The Chronicle and The Western Star, only two other pre-1800 Berkshire newspapers are believed to have existed. Clapp described these other two as follows: “We have a traditionary account of a paper started by Mr. Spooner, about 1790, and soon afterward removed to Windsor, Vermont, and another by Merrill and Smith, between 1790 and 1800.” There are no surviving issues of either of these papers, and even the names have been lost. But the vigorous political thinking in our young nation, and the guarantees of the First Amendment, ensured that these early papers would have many successors during the 19th century. (It seems quite possible, by the way, that members of our club perused now-lost copies of the Centinel at an early meeting of our club, at his home on Wendell Avenue, recently converted to a bed-and-breakfast.)

The available issues of The Chronicle mention various mileposts in the adoption of the Constitution, and the seating of the first Congress. It did not take long for some signs of dissatisfaction to crop up in contrast to the earlier cheerleading by Russell and Storrs. A letter signed "Junius" appears in the issue of July 29, 1790, expressing impatience at the lack of substantive action by Congress after being in session four or five months. (Junius apparently was a popular pen name for anonymous political critics during this era – in this instance it is again possibly the voice of Parson Allen.) The most important decision made by Congress in five months, writes Junius, had been to decide on the location of a temporary capital. “It is hoped,” he continues, “that another election will introduce such characters, as will attend the great business of government, to the exclusion of local interest and detestable party combinations.”

The great business of government did get started, but neither local interest nor detestable party combinations have been eliminated to this day.

Illustration: Pittsfield in 1807, from Bay State Monthly, 1885.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Monday Evening Club: A history

Presented to the Club by Rabbi Harold I. Salzmann on May 10, 1999

Note: This paper was presented just prior to the Club’s 130th anniversary in 1999. In the fall of 2009, the Club plans a celebration of its 140th anniversary. Throughout the following text, bracketed information updates the 1999 facts and figures to their 2009 status.

As some of you may recall from a program I gave here a number of years back, Francis Joseph (Franz Josef) I, some 130 [140] years ago, was the first reigning monarch of Europe to visit the Holy Land since the Crusades of the 13th century. That very special visit allowed the Hapsburg ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to participate in another momentous happening that same year — the opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, and the premier performance of “Aida,” composed by Verdi, who had been commissioned by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, to write an opera in honor of this historic occasion. Here in America, those 13 [14] decades back, Ulysses Simpson Grant had been inaugurated President of the United States and two months later the nation’s first transcontinental railroad had been completed with the driving in of the golden spike that united the railroad ties connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah. [Rev. John Todd, a member of the Club, delivered the prayer of invocation at that event.]

Indeed, 1869 was a year of signal happenings, not the least of which were, with all due modesty, two transpiring right here in the Berkshires, of which the first we are noting here in this paper — the founding of the Monday Evening Club on November 11, and the second, three days later: the founding of the first Jewish religious congregation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts west of Boston, Society Anshe Amunim. [The author of this paper, Rabbi Salzmann, served this congregation for many years.] In the latter case, 17 heads of households were invited to the home of Charles Wolff on Jubilee Hill on Sunday, November 14, and in the former instance, on Thursday evening, November 11, 16 men were in attendance at the Plunkett home to discuss the formation of what is now the Monday Evening Club. The initial invitation for this last was dated November 1, 1869 and was sent by Thomas F. Plunkett to a select group of the leading men of the central Berkshire community for an evening meeting on November 3. For some reason the meeting had to be postponed until Thursday, November 11.

Those present for that original meeting, 130 [140] years ago come this November, were, of course, Thomas F. Plunkett, great-grandfather of our current member by the same name, as well as Edward Strong, John M. Taylor, William G. Harding, Thomas Colt, J. F. A. Adams, William B. Rice, Charles V. Spear, John Tatlock, Jacob L. Greene, William F. Bartlett, William C. Richards, John Todd, Frank K. Paddock, Henry L. Dawes and Henry S. Briggs. Shortly afterwards, five others agreed to join the new organization — Ensign H. Kellogg, William R. Plunkett, Thomas P. Pingree, Benjamin Chickering and George P. Briggs — and they, too, should be considered among the founders. All in all, the 1869 founding group totaled 21 members.

It is difficult for us to really imagine just what life was like during the winters here in the Berkshires 130 [140] years ago. The winters unquestionably were far more severe than they have been during our own lifetimes. Undoubtedly, in recent decades we’ve experienced climatic changes which have had a moderating effect upon our Berkshire winters. But 130 [140] years ago the winters must have been far more debilitating than they are now. There was very little in the way of entertainment diversions — no theaters, no movies, no radio, no television — the long nights allowed very little in the way of pleasurable enjoyments. These conditions, of course, prevailed almost everywhere in the northern climes. Elsewhere, perhaps because of similar seasonal conditions, social innovations of an intellectual kind were becoming more and more popular, particularly in the larger metropolitan areas. These big city happenings, plus the dreary winter conditions here in the Berkshires, possibly were the stimuli that may have provided the motivation for Thomas Plunkett’s original invitation of November 1, 1869. Boston already had a number of such social-cultural groups which were meeting on a regular weekly or fortnightly basis. From the Club’s own minutes, we read that Haverhill, Massachusetts had formed, ten years earlier in 1859, a “Monday Evening Club.” The plan originally adopted by the original founding members of our Club was quite simple. The goal was to assemble not more than 30 men (remember, homes of the better-off were generally much larger than they are today) — 30 men of the kind who would appreciate intellectual stimulation, who would like writing an original essay, who would enjoy listening to it and then, adding by way of comment, criticism, information or ideas, further enhancement to the subject or theme of the program presentation.

This form of cerebral entertainment was to be preceded by a dinner provided by the host who also determined the venue for the dinner gathering. For the overwhelming majority of members that venue was their homes. Over the years, however, having such large numbers at one’s home for a dinner meeting proved difficult for even those many who may have had the space and support facilities required to host the membership and before too long alternate sites for showing one’s hospitality became more and more common. The early minutes begin to make mention of such places as the American House, the White Tree Inn, the Maplewood Music School, the Pittsfield Country Club, the Park Club, the Board Room of the Berkshire Life Insurance Co., the South Street Inn, and one of the most frequently mentioned, the Wendell Hotel, which was still quite popular in my early years of membership in the Club. And, from what is stated in the initial set of by-laws, the dinner meetings were to be scheduled every other Monday evening, November through March. With some 20 to 30 members, in the 19th century the Club featured some 10 to 15 dinner meetings a year in contrast to our present schedule of approximately seven or eight. Incidentally, the by-laws, since the original 1869 version, have been revised four subsequent times. Whatever the case, it is of interest to note that the Club has never been too strict about making its members abide by its rules; flexibility and sympathetic understanding having always been an unwritten aspect of the by-laws. As James Rosenthal, himself an outstanding lawyer of a generation back and a longtime member of the Club, more than a half century ago observed, “whatever may be said about the government which governs best when it governs least, it is certainly true of our Club….its by-laws, like certain necessary household appliances, have always been kept in decent obscurity, and referred to, if at all, with something less than reverential respect.”

Originally, it was deemed by the founders to be prudent to caution members against treating with subjects which might be politically or religiously controversial. Thomas Plunkett observed in a paper he wrote for the Club’s 30th anniversary, 100 [110] years ago, that one of its most rancorous meetings once took place at the home of Judge Thomas Colt in 1880. It seems that at this particular meeting, George P. Briggs read a paper on Marcus Aurelius during the course of which he ascribed to that Roman emperor such “Christian” virtues and attributes as would assure him eternal life, i.e. a place in heaven. Plunkett observes in his paper that “subsequently the heavy pastoral guns of the church” (there were three clergymen in the Club at the time) “were brought into action greatly to the irritation of the reader, Briggs, who defended himself with ability and considerable heat.” And Plunkett (our own T. F. Plunkett Jr.’s ancestor) goes on to state, “those of us who were wise, kept out of the conflict, or attempted to be peacemakers. It was abundantly proven that the founders of the Club were wise in excluding partisan and sectarian subjects from papers to be read.” Whatever the case, since 1916 the Club’s by-laws have made no provisions against papers dealing with controversial subjects. In clerical terms, readers have what the clergy would call a “free pulpit.” The only requirements pertaining to papers to be read by members is that they be no more than 40 minutes long and the reading or program together with the discussion to follow ought not extend beyond two hours. As for the subject, it can be based on any scientific, literary or general interest matter so chosen by the person who is scheduled to prepare the program for the meeting.

Good attendance was a by-law mandate. However, early in the Club’s history, rathe than exercise the by-law provision for dropping members for frequent absences, fines of 25 cents per absence (and tardiness, too) were levied at the end of the year and collected. The minutes record the names of those penalized and in view of the totals collected the Club’s treasury must have been considerably enhanced because it was not unusual for anywhere between four to thirteen absences to be recorded for a meeting.

As for the governance of the Club, that has always been quite simple. From the start there was the need for one member to arrange the schedule of meetings and designate the readers and hosts, and therefore, a Club secretary was a necessity from the start and the by-laws so indicate this need. At first there were two secretaries chosen by lot every year. But this obviously proved unsatisfactory and before the first year had ended it was decided to elect a permanent secretary. From 1879 to 1909 George H. Tucker served in that capacity — a period of some 30 years. My own tenure as Club secretary began in 1972 and I, obviously, am in the midst of my 27th [37th] year of service in this capacity. The Club also has an interim chairman — whoever may be the host for the dinner meeting — and an executive committee of three members, who are, according to the by-laws, supposed to be elected at the start of each year but in current practice are now the seniors in terms of length of Club membership. Our current [1999] executive committee consists of Robert G. Newman, Roger B. Linscott, and Thomas F. Plunkett Jr. [Currently in 2009: Kelton M. Burbank, William A. Selke, and Albert E. Eastman]

Some 181 [188] men have been elected to membership in the Club in the past 130 [140] years. I would estimate that approximately 2100 [1300*] papers or programs have been presented for the membership’s edification and enjoyment over the now almost 13 [14] decades of the Club’s existence. At some future anniversary occasion we might read a selective list of titles of some of the programs and papers give in the earlier history of the Club — titles which we clergy would call “transparent” appellations. The custom during the last half-century, however, has been otherwise, rather to make the titles conundrums — guessing games — with the obvious purpose of keeping hidden the content or the subject of the presentation. Not so was the practice for the first half century or more of the Club’s history. Papers with titles such “The history of the Gypsy race” by John Todd, one of Rick Floyd’s predecessors; “Bible in the schools” by Edward Strong; “The Sabbath: What is the proper observance of it?” by H. S. Briggs; “Fur seals of Alaska” by Henry L. Dawes [1816-1903; U.S. representative from Massachusetts 1857-1875; U.S. Senator from Massachusetts 1875-1893]; and Walter Kellogg’s “Beginnings of Pittsfield” and his “Goethe and the religious philosophy of Faust” left it very clear, very “transparent” as to what the subject was to be. Not so, however, in my almost 45 [55] years of Club membership. With such titles as “Opus 20,” “Replication is the test,” “Top shelf,” “Sugar and spice and everything nice,” and “Towery city and branchy between towers” it is nigh impossible to anticipate or guess the night’s topic and prepare in advance some commentary for it. I could go on and on — but I best leave off at this point and promise, as mentioned earlier, that I shall try to compile a more extensive listing of past titles of delivered Monday Evening Club papers and programs for some future meeting or — God willing — some future anniversary occasion.

But before concluding this particular presentation, let me make mention of some past practices of the Club which have long since been abandoned but are surely worthy of possible revival. The first is the custom, at one time in our Club’s history, of reading short biographies and/or memoirs about deceased members. These were accustomed to be given, in addition to the regular paper, by another member of the Club or else at a special memorial meeting of the Club scheduled for that specific purpose. The minutes record, in this last connection, that on February 20, 1882 written eulogies were delivered for eight deceased members of the Club. I understand that these were kept with the Club records at one time but I have not seen them.

A more happy custom was that of holding an annual summer meeting of some kind. Some of these happenings were illustrated by material I distributed at our 125th anniversary celebration at the Rockwell Museum, some of you may recall. The old records indicate, for example, that the first such happening took place on June 10, 1876 at the Stockbridge House, now known as the Red Lion Inn. Two years after that, the Club on June 26, 1878 took the train to Adams and then journeyed up Mount Greylock for a summer picnic. In July 1879, the following year, the Club hired carriages to Lee and stopped at the Lenox Club on its way home to Pittsfield. Evidently there was a similar kind of Club to ours in Lee at the time, for in June, 1880 the records state the Club met on the lawn of George P. Briggs with the Lee Club and then were driven by carriage after lunch to Potter Mountain. In June, 1881 the Club took the train to Great Barrington and then, by horse-drawn carriages, visited [the town of] Mount Washington. Again in 1882 another summer excursion to Great Barrington and from there on to Bash Bish Falls (a site, incidentally, I have yet to visit despite my own 45 [55] years of residency here in the Berkshires). In 1883 the Club drove by carriage to Pontoosuc Lake where the members enjoyed a summer picnic lunch in what was then called Hodecker’s Grove (anyone know exactly where this was?). In the summers of 1884, 1885, 1886, 1887, 1888 and 1889 the Club was entertained by its member Byron Weston [Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts 1880-1883] at his “Great Hearth Lodge” on Windsor Mountain.

Without question, one of the most ambitious summer trips was the arduous excursion the Club took to journey to Cummington in August, 1894 in order to participate in the centennial birthday celebration of William Cullen Bryant, who was a native of that Berkshire town. Another long-distance summer adventure took place on Saturday, August 6, 1898 when 20 members of the Club and guests took the train to Springfield to visit Mount Tom for dinner and sightseeing. The all-inclusive cost per member for that summer excursion was four dollars per person, according to the minutes. Such summer get-togethers during the Club’s, as it were, “off-season” continued on into the early 1900s. A number of them took place at Mount Pleasant, the Windsor summer residence of Winthrop Murray Crane [1853-1920; Lt. Gov. of Massachusetts, 1897-1900; Governor 1900-1903; U. S. Senator from Massachusetts 1904-1913] , who had become a member of the Club in 1914. Even before he became an official member of the Club, Crane had been in the habit of inviting the Club to his summer home for an August or early September outing. And frequently these invitations were combined with an invitation also to the wives of the Club members from his father, Zenas Crane, for a late afternoon tea at the senior Crane’s residence back in Dalton. These summer outings apparently were abandoned sometime during the 1920s. Many years ago I remember talking to our late friend and member, Bob Bardwell, about reviving the custom and he thought the Lenox Club might be an ideal site for such an event. However, he was unable to get agreement on such an arrangement and the two of us abandoned the proposed project. A more successful attempt to bring off a summer happening, some of you will recall, took place when we arranged an outing at the summer home of our member, Dr. Harry Judson, in Canaan, N. Y. in 1981. That venture of 18 [28] years ago was the last summer meeting the Club has experienced. From the records and recollections of these long-ago summer ventures, they were most enjoyable experiences. Hopefully, the Club may choose some time in the future to re-institute these annual summer get-togethers. [At Rabbi Salzmann’s prodding, the Club has had several such outings in the last few years, including a return to the William Cullen Bryant homestead 110 years after the our visit.]

As we meet together here tonight for the last session of our 129th year, let me conclude this brief history of our Club by quoting the words of William R. Plunkett (the brother of Thomas F. Plunkett) at the 30th anniversary of our venerable association in November 1899. Observed this charter member of the Monday Evening Club on that occasion now almost 100 [110] years ago:

Under a simple organization, this Club has maintained its existence for 30 years. None of us is certainly any the worse in mind or heart on account of it. How many of us have been lifted up to higher planes or thought by the associations with this Club, none of us can tell. It is a success to have kept up the Club and interest in it for nearly a generation. Part of this is due to the fact we have not tried to do too much, but have been content in being, in the language of Dr. Johnson in defining a club, “an assembly of good fellows under certain conditions.” The conditions have been a limited intellectual entertainment and an unlimited supper.
As we bring our 129th [139th] year to a close this evening, and look forward later this year to the official celebration of our 130th [140th] anniversary, let us express the hope that this Monday Evening Club of ours will continue to go from strength to strength to ever increasing strength as, and again in Dr. Johnson’s words, “an assembly of good fellows under certain conditions” — yes those very special and wonderful conditions, whatever they may be and have been — that have nurtured and sustain our club all these now almost 130 [140] years.

*Note: while Rabbi Salzmann estimated 2100 papers had been presented as of 1999, closer review of the frequency of meetings over the years suggests that the actual count is between 1400 and 1500. In the first season, 1869-1870, 18 of the 21 original members presented papers. But the following season, with three more members added for a total of 25, there were 12 papers. So after what was probably deemed too strenuous a regimen (hosting and presenting in the same season), the Club appears to have settled very quickly on the pattern of having about half the members read papers each season. An 1899 account states that in the first 30 years, there were 342 papers presented, or about 11 per year. We estimate that this rate continued during the next 70 years, while in the past 40 years the pace dropped to between 8 and 9 papers annually, for a cumulative total of about 1450 papers. Research continues. — Editor

Photo by designwallah, used under Creative Commons License.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy birthday, Bach: A broadcaster’s finest war story

Presented to the Club by Brad Spear on May 11, 2009

The Roman poet Horace once wrote that poetry should be dulce et utile…”sweet and useful.” My first Monday Evening Club paper…the one dealing with my stroke just over three years ago…was meant to be useful. Tonight’s paper will be sweet…mit Schlag…”with whipped cream”…as the Austrians are inclined to say.

No tough issues tonight, no wrestling with the future of the economy or the give- and-take of politics. Tonight is meant to be an entertainment…a diversion…a divertissement…nothing more.

Gentlemen, for your consideration: Happy Birthday, Bach: A broadcaster’s finest "war story.”

Ah, yes, “war story.” Where did that term ever come from? My mostly male sixth-grade classmates and I were able to avoid the rigors of long division by asking Sergeant Jack Bannon (that’s “Mr. Bannon” to you, young man) to tell us war stories about having spent time in a Nazi POW camp after D-Day.

Nope, this is a different kind of war story…though it’s tangentially involved in the Cold War. And like any profession’s war stories, the best ones are clear illustrations of good fortune….of having been in the right place at the right time, and this tale is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st 1685 in Eisenach, Germany…a time when Germany was a loosely affiliated collection of electorates or principalities, a vestige of the Holy Roman Empire. Bach was born approximately 50 years after the founding of Harvard College, to put it into an American context.

He died on July 28th 1750, and when he passed away, he was considered by his peers to be a pretty good keyboard player…a passable ensemble player…and, certainly, a prolific father. After all, he squired no fewer than 20 children…though only 10 lived to adulthood.

But a composer? No. His friend and competitor Georg Philippe Telemann, the godfather of his son Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach…now there was a composer. But Johann Sebastian Bach? No. The poor guy lost out on most of the court composer positions that he applied for.

Ironic, isn’t it? The fella who today is considered to be one of the pillars of classical music…along with the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms…was considered to be a so-so composer in his own day. Ask the average person if he recognizes the name of Telemann, the greatest composer of Bach’s day…and the response will be “Tele-who?”

It wasn’t until over 75 years after Bach passed away that a group of scholars and enthusiasts approached a 20-year-old name Felix Mendelssohn, and encouraged him to conduct an edited version of Bach’s oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, that the world finally began to appreciate the huge body of work that Bach had compiled in his 65-year lifetime.

An aside: 2009 is the bicentennial of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, the scion of a wealthy Jewish German banking family, whose parents, for whatever reason, had elected to convert to Christianity before his birth. He was raised a Lutheran. Before he was ten, his grandmother, for a Christmas present, had given him one of three original manuscript copies of the score to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Today, a handwritten score from almost 100 years ago would be a priceless treasure destined for a rare manuscripts department of a university library. But in 1818, it was simply a Christmas present.

Mendelssohn noodled with the music for some ten years, finally creating a much condensed version of the work. And by the time he was 20, he’d already spent seven years studying with the most famous composition professor in Germany… he’d toured Europe, spending weeks and sometimes months in each of the Continent’s cultural capitals….and he had been appointed the music director of the Berlin Singspiel, a chorus and orchestra of some renown.

For some months, while rehearsing other works for performance, Mendelssohn had put the chorus and orchestra through its paces with his own condensed version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion…purely as an academic exercise. Word of the rehearsals reached a group of Bach enthusiasts, who, in turn, encouraged Mendelssohn to present his edition of the work to the public.

Mendelssohn, a modest man of profound intellect, and someone, who at the age of 20 had a stellar reputation throughout Europe, obliged. On March 11th 1829, he presented the work in Berlin…and it was no less than a huge hit. Who was this fellow Bach?

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward now to Boston, Massachusetts in the year 1983…some 298 years after the birth of Bach.

In late 1980, I’d been hired as the new radio manager for the WGBH Educational Foundation…the operator of Channel 2 in Boston…and 89.7 FM, WGBH Radio in Boston. I was 30 at the time…which was hardly unusual. My predecessor had been 34 when he’d left…and his predecessor had been 32 when he’d started as the WGBH Radio manager.

It was a plum assignment…but it was an institution that was in serious financial trouble. In the previous year, my predecessor had run up a $750,000 deficit on a $1.25 million dollar budget…and by the time I’d arrived…some five months into the organization’s fiscal year…we were headed toward additional deficits.

In my first months there I slashed, burned, and set the place a-right. Whatever my predecessor had put into place had to be dismantled…as the core business, serving as a public radio station in service to Boston and environs, had to be re-invigorated.

By the time 1983 rolled around, the team I’d installed had reinvigorated the core business admirably. Costs were down; revenues were up; and the fundamentals of running a radio station, which had been neglected for some years, were being respected.

Over the years WGBH through its television operations had developed a reputation for innovation. But the radio station had dabbled with new technology and new programming approaches, too…particularly with the creation of a program in the early 1970s called Morning Pro Musica…with a curious character as its host by the name of Robert J. Lurtsema. You may remember him…as his daily, seven day-a-week program was carried locally by stations throughout New England…including WAMC.

As the manager of WGBH, I’d wander around the station from time to time…what is it called? “management by wandering around?” My office was on the second floor, and the radio broadcast facilities and the staff offices were on the first.

In late 1983 (or maybe early 1984) I wandered through the air studio while Lurtsema was presenting his daily program. Much to my surprise, in a chair next to Robert J, sat a bearded fellow of approximately the same age. Lurtsema piped up in his basso best:

“Brad, this is Kurt Masur. He’s got a program idea that might be of interest to you.”

Kurt Masur? The East German conductor and music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra? Yes, I’d heard of him…but had never met him before. The previous spring I’d attended a meeting of the “serious music experts” committee of the European Broadcasting Union in Geneva and had heard a couple of Scandinavian broadcasters joke about how Masur was more of a politician than a musician.

Regardless, Masur had come to Boston several times in recent years as a guest conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’d had a personal reason for wanting to do so…his Japanese wife had a sister who lived in Carlisle, Massachusetts…a western suburb of Boston adjacent to Concord.

“Yes,” said Masur in a thick German accent,” in March of 1985 we will be presenting a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in celebration of the composer’s 300th birthday.”

During a brief discussion, he offered to arrange with East German Radio…Rundfunk der DDR…a live relay to America. Masur certainly had the political clout to make it happen…after all, the Scandinavians had said so. He advised me to contact a man by the name of Horst Fliegel….who was the head of classical music programming for East German Radio.

Keep in mind that these were the days before e-mail…before faxes…and it was during the day when countries of the Eastern Bloc of Europe were said to be

“behind the Iron Curtain.” I’d spent the previous autumn visiting the capitals of two Eastern Bloc countries…Czechoslovakia and Hungary…hoping to develop program exchange relationships with their state broadcasters. In essence, I was trying to develop an import-export business at WGBH…and both my counterparts at Radio Praha (Prague) and Magyar Radio (Budapest) were eager to participate. On my return to the West, I’d passed through East Berlin, but I’d elected not to approach Rundfunk der DDR. Too close to the Soviets, I’d thought.

To contact Herr Horst Fliegel, I had to use a Telex…a text machine in Boston, connected to another text machine at a telephone number in East Berlin. I crafted a message in simple, straight-forward English and shipped it off.

Several days later, I received a reply in German which basically said, “Sounds interesting. Come to Berlin and we can discuss it.”

Come to East Berlin? Hmm. That would take some work. First I’d need a visa…and then I’d need a plan.

In those days I used to travel to Washington, DC with some regularity. I had business with National Public Radio in DC, and flew down every other month or so. I used my next trip to visit the East German embassy in search of a business visa.

With my telexed invitation in hand, I took a taxi to the East German embassy well into the northwest section of DC. It was a large white structure in the midst of a large wooded lot. After being dropped off by the cab, I entered the front door and followed the signs to the reception room. In a stark white room, half of which was filled with hard plastic chairs, an attendant, behind three-inch-thick bullet-proof Plexiglas, sat behind a counter. I spoke through an opening in the Plexiglas.

“I’m here to apply for a business visa to see Horst Fliegel at Rundfunk der DDR.” I tucked Fliegel’s telexed message through the hole in the Plexiglas.

The attendant reviewed the telex, and told me to have a seat.

An hour later, I had a business visa in hand. I was on my way to East Berlin.

Fast forward three months. I was in West Berlin in a hotel room along the Kurfuertstendamm, West Berlin’s Fifth Avenue. In those days, West Berlin, buried deep within East Germany, was a showcase of materialism…all things glittery and bright…a capitalist irritant beneath the communist skin of East Germany. The wall was over 20 years old…and it was a great cultural callus…at a point where two cultures…the materialism of the capitalist West and the deprivation of the communist East…had rubbed each other incessantly.

With my business visa in hand, I took a cab from the hotel to a famous crossing in the wall, “Checkpoint Charlie.” Leaving what was the American Zone in West Berlin was simple; entering East Berlin was somewhat more complicated. I had to produce papers and have my briefcase searched. But after several inspections by members of the Vopos, the People’s Police, I was waved in.

It was a gray day, and the streetscape before me was grim. The buildings within 100 feet of the east side of the wall had been torn down, and the grounds where they’d stood were covered in rubble. I walked two blocks through what looked like utter devastation to the eastern side’s main boulevard, Unten den Linden…which before World War II had been a famous thoroughfare. I was in search of a cab.

I ended up walking to a nearby hotel and asked the concierge in my halting German for a taxi. The man behind the counter waved me toward a taxi stand outside and said to wait. I waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, a wheezy, beat-up old Wartburg…a decrepit example of East Germany’s auto industry…came along with the roof light atop lit. I climbed in an asked for a ride to Rundfunk der DDR, “Nalepastrasse 18-24, bitte.”

Once there, I walked along polished corridors, up several flights of stairs, into a conference room, before a long table. Five executives were seated on one side, five on another, and at the far end was a smiling, handsome senior executive, who, in halting English, asked me to be seated opposite him at the other end of the table. He introduced himself as “Horst Fliegel.”

After introductions, with the aid of a staff translator, a plan was hatched.

It short, it would utilize television circuitry, of all things, to ship a signal from Leipzig…”behind the Iron Curtain”…back to Boston, where it would be sent via domestic satellite to as many public radio stations nationwide as cared to carry it live.

Why television circuitry? Wasn’t this to be a radio broadcast?

That’s a bit a story unto itself. By the time the early 1980s had rolled around, in the USA, it was almost impossible to get FM-quality audio signals from point to point. In Europe, audio circuits were maintained proudly by national post office systems. But here in the United States, the task had fallen to Ma Bell, an entity that saw more prospective revenue in maintaining long-line video circuits than in the relatively paltry demand for high-fidelity audio connections. America’s three commercial television networks needed to send signals all around the country at all hours of the day. There was no equivalent demand for radio.

To compensate, National Public Radio in the late 1970s designed and constructed a domestic satellite system with eight regional uplinks (one of which was located at WGBH in Boston) and a rapidly growing system of downlinks (every NPR member station did then, and to this day still does, have one). As of 1978, when NPR abandoned its 5 kHz bandwidth AM-quality audio long-lines and switched to 15 kHz FM-quality satellite distribution, a local public radio station airing All Things Considered no longer sounded like the program was being sent from Washington by way of a string and tin-can. Instead, the program’s co-hosts sounded like they were in the studios of the local station.

But when it came to country-to-country connections, radio was still at a loss. Yes, with special regulatory permission, an NPR satellite signal could be received and re-broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s own domestic satellite distribution system, as its primary downlink in Toronto was within the NPR satellite system’s “footprint.”

But sending signals from Europe to America or from America to Japan…or vice versa….required the construction of temporary…and very expensive…high-fidelity circuits by both AT&T and Intelsat, the international agency responsible for operating transatlantic and transpacific satellites since the days of Telstar.

The television situation, however, was quite different. Thanks to regular use, there were television circuits that circled the globe. The state broadcasters of Canada, the UK, Japan, and Europe, and the commercial broadcast networks in the United States used them often enough to ensure that these circuits were always available and that they were well maintained both by AT&T and Intelsat.

Enter the Japanese technology giant Sony.

In the early 1980s Sony was a key player in the field of digital audio. Even though digital audio had a brittle, less rounded sound than that of analog audio, it had the advantage of the absence of the background hiss that was a singular shortcoming of analog audio. A digital audio “encoder” created a computerized code which could be laid onto an audiotape and which later could be read by a digital audio “decoder.” What went onto the tape was what was read by the decoder…nothing more and nothing less. An analog recording, on the other hand, contained background hiss, which grew more prominent as the tape was copied, and then copied again, or in the case of long-range transmission, at each leg of a relay as it was received and re-amplified for re-transmission.

Because Sony was hoping to sell thousands of its new $1,500 digital audio encode/decode unit, given the moniker of “the PCM F-1,” Sony rather wisely chose to avoid manufacturing a considerably more expensive digital recording device. Instead, they designed their first digital unit to produce a video bandwidth signal, which, in turn, could be recorded onto video cassettes in then-ubiquitous video cassette recorders (VCRs). Ergo, with a Sony PCM F-1, any recording studio with a $250 VCR could begin making single track digital audio recordings.

Interestingly enough, because the output of the F-1 was a video bandwidth signal, you could actually see the digitally encoded signal by connecting it to a television screen. The resulting image was that of “square snow,” which would dance about the screen as the audio recording changed volume and pitch.

At WGBH, even though we had experimented with the F-1 for recording purposes, we also used it in a novel application to solve a problem that had bedeviled us for over ten years.

Since the early 1970s, WGBH had produced and broadcast the Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon live performances from Tanglewood. We sent the full-fidelity stereo signal back to Boston by modulating the two 15 kHz subcarrier audio frequencies contained within the signal of a two-way, terrestrial, line-of-sight TV microwave system. It had been built in the early 1960s to ship television signals up and down the Eastern Seaboard. However, between Mt. Tom (which overlooks the Connecticut River) and Boston, one leg of the two-way microwave system traversed the Quabbin Reservoir.

During the summer months, water vapor would rise from the reservoir and would degrade the microwave signal. In WGBH-TV’s master control, the main channel television signal from the terrestrial system, which by the early 1980s simply served as a back-up link connecting WNET in New York City to WGBH in Boston, looked fine. But in reality, the vapors degraded the signal to such a degree that it would interfere with the subcarrier audio from Tanglewood.

On more than one occasion during my first summer at WGBH in 1981, soft passages during live performances from the Koussevitzky Music Shed would be overwhelmed and completely obliterated by a rising tide of hiss.

By 1982, the solution was obvious. Use the microwave system’s rarely used main channel television signal to carry the video bandwidth output of a Sony PCM
F-1. When decoded back in Boston, the signal would be as pristine as when it was encoded. No hiss. No degradation. Problem solved.

In the years between 1983 and the Bach broadcast in 1985, WGBH successfully used the Sony technology internationally to ship live transmissions to Boston from the Musikvereinshall in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day broadcast by the Vienna Philharmonic and to provide live coverage of performances by the Boston Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras at the late-summer Salzburg Music Festival. We even collaborated with an American technological competitor to Sony, the late, lamented dbx Corporation, using its rival “delta” digital encoding system to produce broadcasting’s first single-point-to-multi-point digital broadcast, a live radio performance by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from Kresge Auditorium at MIT, sent via the PBS television satellite system to radio stations attached to WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, WXXI-TV, Rochester (NY), WETA-TV, Washington (DC), and KQED-TV, San Francisco.

Fast forward to March 21st 1985. To cover the cost of the video circuits from Leipzig to Boston…the princely sum of $15,000…I’d negotiated a cost-sharing arrangement with several parties. BBC Radio 3 in Britain put $5,000 in the kitty…they’d be able to receive the first leg of the international relay, as they were in the Intelsat “footprint” that covered both London and AT&T’s international downlink in West Virginia. American Public Radio in St. Paul, Minnesota (now known as “Public Radio International”) was willing to put another $5,000 in the pot…and make the broadcast the crown jewel of a day’s worth of programming dedicated to Bach and distributed nationwide. Lastly, I approached the head of classical programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Oops: roadblock.

CBC would be interested in carrying the broadcast on their coast-to-coast classical network, but they had no money to dedicate to the connection costs.

I went back to American Public Radio. “Hmmm,” they said. “We could come up with another $5,000, but only if the broadcast carried an underwriting credit for Northern Telecom, the Canadian communications equipment manufacturer…and only if CBC committed to carrying the underwriting credit, too.”

I swallowed hard and called CBC. They had never carried an American-style public radio underwriting credit before. They were totally non-commercial in those days, and as they were supported directly by tax revenues, they had rather rigorous prohibitions against commercial language. But, so long as they were able to carry the broadcast at no cost…they’d be willing to forego their restrictions and would broadcast the Northern Telecom underwriting credit.


We had our connection costs covered…the only significant out-of-pocket cost the broadcast would require. Yes, we were to send our 24-year-old assistant operations director Anita McFadden to Leipzig with a Sony PCM F-1 encoder tucked beneath her arm…but we had a trade-out relationship with Lufthansa, and we could get her from Boston to Frankfurt and then on to Leipzig without a cash outlay.

On the day before the broadcast, McFadden was at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with our digital encoder; we had scheduled a test of the transmission circuits. The television signal…dancing square snow and all…would travel from Leipzig across the border to Intelsat’s European uplink at Raistang in West Germany. BBC Radio 3, as I mentioned earlier, would take down the Intelsat signal in London for their purposes, and AT&T would receive the signal in West Virginia. They would then place the signal on their video long-lines, first to a relay station in Pittsburgh, then to a station in New York City, and then to the main New England Telephone technical offices on Franklin Street in Boston. Finally, it would travel on a specially ordered local video circuit the final three miles from Franklin Street in downtown Boston to the WGBH radio studios at 125 Western Avenue in Allston. The video signal would then be plugged into the PCM F-1 decoder in one of the WGBH Radio studios, would be converted to analog audio, and then would be transmitted via WGBH’s satellite uplink over the NPR satellite system to the CBC in Toronto and the 180 public radio stations across America electing to carry the live broadcast.

Exactly twenty-four hours before the broadcast, the test commenced. In a matter of moments, we had a clear, crisp audio signal in Boston coming all the way from behind East Germany. The sound decoded at WGBH exactly matched the sound encoded in Leipzig. The technology was going to work quite handily.

Thursday, March 21st, 1985, Bach’s 300th birthday was the second day of spring that year, and it was the new season’s second balmy, glorious day. Somehow spring had arrived early in New England, but no one on the staff at WGBH had a moment to notice.

The Leipzig broadcast was to be the “crown jewel” of a day of live performances of music by Bach, which the station’s program director and promotion department had dubbed “Bach around the Clock.” Robert J. Lurtsema and his staff had left for New Haven, Connecticut the afternoon before. Morning pro musica from 7 am to noon that morning would originate from Batell Chapel at Yale University and would feature around a live performance by Yale’s organist Charles Krigbaum of 33 newly discovered Bach organ preludes.

The afternoon program, MusicAmerica, at least until the Leipzig broadcast at 2 pm, would consist of an in-studio performance by the Boston-based a capella ensemble, the Wintersauce Chorale. They were to sing a series of Bach-based pieces made famous in the early 1960s by the Swingle Singers. After NPR’s All Things Considered at 5, which most certainly would include a feature story on Bach’s 300th birthday, Boston listeners would hear a rare, live edition of Chamberworks at 6:30 pm, with Boston-based musicians playing an all-Bach program. And the day would end with Eric Jackson, the host of Eric in the Evening, presenting a survey from 8 pm to midnight on how elements of Bach’s approach to music still pop up today in contemporary jazz performances.

The day, as a whole, went swimmingly well, so much so, in fact, that it earned the station a special George Foster Peabody Award that year, recognizing WGBH Radio’s industry leadership in innovative programming and the use of new technology. Yes, all went swimmingly…except for the Leipzig broadcast.

I arrived in the radio control room that would be used to decode the digital signal and to control WGBH’s satellite uplink at 1:30 pm, a half hour before the broadcast. The room was being staffed by our youngest radio engineer, a cocky, red-headed 23-year-old named Ray Fallon. Ray was a member of the family who operated Boston’s major ambulance service, but he had decided somewhere along the line to forego going into the family business, and had decided instead to pursue a career in broadcast engineering. He’d only been with WGBH for a little more than a year, and in recent months he had been responsible for operating WGBH’s satellite unlink, the last stage of getting the live Leipzig broadcast to 180 public radio stations nationwide and to all of the Canadian FM stations in the CBC’s coast-to-coast network. Ray had a quick smile, an even quicker temper, but would prove to be one cool customer under pressure. Only problem: I found him in a cold sweat.

“We don’t have a signal,” said Ray.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Twenty-nine minutes to airtime.

No signal? What on earth were we going to do? We called Anita McFadden at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Yes, they were sending a signal. Maybe we should check the Intelsat uplink at Raisting in West Germany.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Twenty-three minutes to airtime.

Raisting said it had a signal. We elected to check with BBC Radio 3 in London.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Eighteen minutes to airtime.

Yes, the BBC had a signal; it was coming directly off the transatlantic satellite. At least the Brits would be hearing the broadcast.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Ten minutes to airtime.

AT&T’s international downlink in West Virginia had a signal.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Seven minutes to airtime.

The relay station in Pittsburgh had a signal. Better try New York.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Five minutes to airtime.

Yes, New York had a signal and they were sending it to Franklin Street in Boston.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Three minutes to airtime.

Oh, yeah. We’ve got a signal here on Franklin Street. But we don’t have any way of getting it to you.

What about the local circuit we used yesterday in the test?

That was just a test? Sorry, pal, that circuit has been reallocated.

Ray and I just looked at each other.

At that very moment, in walked WGBH Radio’s senior engineer Bill Busiek, the WGBH employee of longest standing, who had served as the audio engineer for the live Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts since 1951.

“There’s a standing circuit between Franklin Street and TV master control,” said Bill. “Tell them to patch into it.”

Ray barked the order over the phone, and the New England Telephone technician complied.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. One minute to airtime…but now we had to get the signal from WGBH-TV’s Master Control to the radio control room…some 75 feet down WGBH’s first floor hallway.

Two TV engineers quickly raided the equipment locker, and came up with a 100 foot length of coaxial cable. They hurriedly patched it into TV Master Control and unspooled the cable down the hall to the radio studio.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Ten seconds to airtime.

Ray Fallon plugged the end of the coaxial cable into the Sony PCM F-1 decoder. We had a signal.

The satellite uplink fired up, the decoder did its job, and the broadcast began. Ray Fallon, Bill Busiek, and I breathed our first deep breath in many, many minutes. We’d done it.

Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Chorus and Orchestra belted out Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the next three hours. It was a magnificent tribute to a musician whose music had only begun to be appreciated seventy-five years after he’d died.

For the remainder of the broadcast, I sat in my office listening to the work as if I were hearing it for the very first time.

The performance was so moving that at its end, seven minutes before 5 pm EST, the audience rose as one to its feet and let out a shout. Then came a cascade of applause, a veritable Niagara that continued and continued and continued. It was clear our East German broadcast colleagues weren’t going to cut short the adulation of the audience. By 4:59 pm, we had had hastily ordered up another quarter hour of domestic satellite time. The 5:00 pm start time for All Things Considered had passed, and the audience was still applauding. Not until 5:05 pm EST did the applause lessen; only then did the Rundfunk der DDR announcer begin his multi-language program close. By 5:07 the broadcast had ended, and stations across America, after complying with FCC regulations by identifying themselves, joined All Things Considered “already in progress.”

By 5:10 pm my office phone rang. It was no less than one of my most powerful peers, the founder and president of Minnesota Public Radio, Bill Kling (who in those days also served as the president of American Public Radio). He proceeded to read me the proverbial riot act.

“Why on earth did you run over into the start of All Things Considered?” screamed Kling. “Couldn’t you have just cut off the broadcast and close it out from your studios?”

I slumped in my chair. I had no good answer.

About ten days later the April 8, 1985 edition of The New Yorker arrived at my house in the mail. As is my usual habit, I turned first to “The Talk of the Town.” A huge grin crossed my face. The opening item, titled “Notes and Comment” in those days, read:

“Last Thursday afternoon, I listened on my local public-radio to Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in a satellite-relay live digital broadcast from the Neue Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, the city where Bach is buried…It was pretty moving. At the conclusion, good old J.S.B. received a ten-minute ovation: It went on and on and on and on. For some reason, I didn’t turn off the radio or change stations. I kept listening to the fuzzy, sustained clapping, which sounded a lot like static, and which mesmerized me the way the minimalist music of today is supposed to. It was quite gratifying to listen to this applause…I think Bach would have been (or maybe even was) pleased by the outpouring of love and appreciation that was heard around the world and across all borders that day.”

Happy birthday, Bach, I thought to myself. Happy birthday.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On ice: a business that has melted away

Presented to the Club by Albert E. Easton on May 3, 2004

I don’t know about you, but I like my scotch poured over a good sized pile of ice. I drink ice water at the table when it’s available, and I like cold beverages all year round. Red wine is about the only thing I drink at room temperature. I’m not sure why we like our beverages cold, but we do. It wasn’t too long ago, though, that cold beverages were much more difficult to obtain during warm weather in our climate, and not available at all in many parts of the world. The production of ice is now a simple matter with artificial refrigerating equipment, but was once much more complicated.

For most of mankind’s history, natural ice from lakes, ponds and glaciers furnished all the available ice at all times of the year. During the summers, in places where the weather was warm and the ice had melted, ice was often brought in from mountain areas where glaciers persisted throughout the year. The Medici in sixteenth century Florence are said to have enjoyed ice from the alps. It has been said that the ice in Ice Glen, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, used to last late into the summer, but I tend to discount this. I have visited Ice Glen on Memorial Day, and saw no sign of any natural ice. It may be that ice lasted there late into May some years, but probably not into the summer. If there were any natural sources of summer ice in the Berkshires, they were more likely to have been on Mount Greylock than in Stockbridge.

As the interest in having summer ice increased, ways of storing winter ice to prevent it from melting began to be explored. The first ice houses were usually built as much as 20 or 30 feet into the ground in as shady a spot as was available in the area where ice was to be saved. A drain at the bottom carried away the melt. Building ice houses into the ground was a result of faulty science. The original theoretical reason for burying ice derived from the belief that ice was a compound of two elements – water and earth, and surrounding the ice with earth was the best way to keep it cold. Practical observation also showed that a freshly dug hole is usually somewhat cooler at the bottom than the surface temperature. As we now know, however, air is a much poorer conductor than earth, so raising the floor of the ice house above ground level will actually preserve the ice longer. This was discovered in the nineteenth century, and the large commercial ice houses built in that time tended to be built on this better plan.

The first ice houses were intended only for the owner. Large estates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often had an ice house as an outbuilding, with the ice harvested from a nearby pond. Even some small farms of the nineteenth and early twentieth century have such an outbuilding. As the taste for ice began to expand to a larger and larger middle class, ice began to be harvested commercially, and large ice houses were built both near ponds where the ice was harvested, and in large cities where the ice could be stored for delivery to customers.

Between New York and Albany, there were 135 ice houses on the Hudson River in the late 1800s, and even this was not enough to supply the needs of the New York City, which also relied on imports from as far away as Maine. The ice houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were quite different, of course from the small estate ice house of earlier years. They were huge wooden affairs, built not into the ground, but above it, to get the benefit a layer of insulating air between the earth and the floor with ice on it. The walls were often insulated with saw dust, which must have made these structures anything but fireproof. They were not built to last, and not the kind of structure that appeals to antiquarians, so it would be difficult to find any trace of one today. I remember on a small pond in Rhode Island that lasted into the 1950s, although it was not in use for its original purpose any time after 1945. A housing development now stands in the spot where it was.

I can even remember living in summer houses (this was in the 1940s) where delivery of ice was a necessity several times a week. Although the houses had electricity, they were rentals with ice boxes instead of refrigerators, and the ice man made his deliveries based on a card in the window, turned one way for 50 pounds, the other for 25. By the 1940s, ice boxes, which were large wooden cabinets with insulated sides, were considered very old fashioned, and even a little quaint, but they did a reasonable job of keeping food fresh, and for ice in your drink, you could chip off a few pieces with an ice pick. Ice picks, and ice tongs, for lifting the ice, were standard equipment in a house with an ice box. There was a difference of opinion over whether to wrap the ice in newspaper. This was said to make the ice last longer, but it left the food not quite as cold. In any case, we never bothered. The 50 pound block usually had a little left over when the next delivery was made, so it didn’t seem necessary. Melt from the ice drained into a small pan that had to be emptied periodically, and that was often my job.

Before any ice could be stored in ice houses or ice boxes, it had to be harvested. The ice harvest took place late in the winter, after ice had frozen to its maximum thickness, but before any substantial melt had begun. After a week or so of subzero temperatures, soundings would be taken to check the thickness of the ice. If it had frozen to a depth of eighteen inches or more, it was ready – strong enough to support the weight of dozens of men and horses, and thick enough to yield good-sized cubes of ice.

Local farm workers were usually joined by migrant workers to make up teams of ice harvesters. The horses were shod with special spiked shoes for traction. The men wore boots with cork soles and wrapped their lags in layers of cloth to protect them from the cold. The weather was very important. Warm weather could spell disaster as the ice melted, and snow delayed the harvest while it was cleared with a horse drawn scraper. Often they worked at night by torchlight to take advantage of favorable weather. Ice was valuable, and competing companies working on the same pond had to observe boundaries. Ownership was established by buying sections of shoreline, with every owner having a piece of pie to the middle of the pond.

Once a favorable section of ice had been determined, and the snow cleared to reveal the crystal surface of the ice, it could be marked out. This was done by men who drove teams of horses drawing iron cutters in parallel lines across the ice, and then again at right angles to the first cut, so that the whole area was divided up into a series of squares. The size of the cubes varied according to the ultimate market for the ice, but the standard “New York” cut was 22 inches square. I calculate that, depending on thickness, a block of ice that size would weigh around 150 to 200 pounds.

When the surface had been marked out, horse drawn plows with metal teeth sawed the channel between blocks deeper. This enabled men with long handled chisels to pry the blocks free. The giant ice cubes were then floated down the channel of free water to a mechanical conveyor that lifted them into the lakeside ice house. Loading was from the top, with blocks sliding down a chute from which they were hauled into regular stacks, and insulated with sawdust. In a good ice house, blocks stacked like that could last through several summers, re-freezing every winter.

Ice from American ponds was crystal clear, and considered clean enough to put directly into drinks, a custom that was novel to Europeans. Before the civil war, the mint juleps of New Orleans and other southern cities were made with ice shipped down from Boston. The abundance of natural ice that could be delivered daily also made possible another American treat – ice cream. In fact, ice cream has become so identified with America that Mussolini is said to have banned ice cream in Italy for that reason.

Americans cannot lay claim to the origination of ice cream, however. That honor seems to belong to the Chinese who enjoyed the treat as early as the seventh century AD. Eighteenth century Americans, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are known to have enjoyed it. Freezing ice cream requires adding salt to chipped ice so that the temperature of the cream and sugar mixture gets cold enough to freeze the mixture of sugar, cream, and whatever flavor is added. As an asaide, the “Peoples Choice” ice cream store in Schodack offers ice cream without flavor added as one of their choices, but I’ve tried it and don’t recommend it.

As I mentioned, ice was a valuable commodity in the nineteenth century. Here are some quotes from the 1890 price card of the Knickerbocker Ice Company in Philadelphia: 5 pounds daily, 35 cents per week, 12 pounds daily 63 cents per week, 25 pounds daily $1.05 per week - “Pure imported ice delivered daily to all parts of the city. Ice served on Saturday afternoon for Sunday”. We needed about 25 pounds daily in our ice box in 1948, although we got it every other day in 50 pound blocks, so the normal supply for a family would have cost over a dollar a week in 1890 Philadelphia. This was a fair amount at that time, but probably justified by the amount of labor, transportation cost and capital investment needed to make the ice available.

With this much money to be made, you may be sure that there were Yankee entrepreneurs who developed the ice trade. Frederic Tudor of Boston was one of the first and in some ways the most successful. His enterprise began in 1805 when he visited the island of Martinique to arrange for ice sales there. It became necessary for him to purchase his own boat (at a cost of $4,000) to transport the ice, since other captains of the time who normally transported goods for hire considered the enterprise folly. Only 21 days were required to sail from Boston to Martinique, and he arrived in March 1806 and began selling ice for 16 cents a pound, directly from the ship. He was offered $4,000 for the entire cargo of 80 tons, but he had calculated that his cargo was worth $10,000. So he decided not to take the $4,000 offer, and instead to sell ice in small quantities in hopes of building up a trade. Since there were no ice boxes in Martinique, and most of the islanders had never seen ice before, they had little idea of what to do with it, and business was sluggish. His best trade was in making ice cream, and this he did with some success, but overall the loss from this first venture was about $2,000 – a substantial part of his original capital.

In 1807 he had somewhat better luck, selling a 180 ton shipment in Havana for about $6,000. But by the end of 1807, President Jefferson had placed an embargo on shipping from United States ports to help maintain U. S. neutrality in the European conflicts that eventually led to the war of 1812. This put Tudor out of the “frozen water trade” as it was called, until 1815, when he built a new ice house in Havana. This house was built upon the plan that eventually came to be adopted universally, with walls and floor insulated with sawdust and peat. He began offering free ice to bartenders on condition that they offer customers cold drinks, at no extra charge. His theory was: “A man who has drunk his drinks cold for one week can never be presented with them warm again.”

As years went on, he expended his sales to many ports in the southern states, including Savannah, Charlotte, and New Orleans. His business began to expend past the point where he could get a large enough supply at Whenham Lake, where he owned property, and he began to buy ice from other lakes and ponds in the Boston area. His crowning achievement came in 1833 when he loaded a ship called the Tuscany with 180 tons of ice for Calcutta, then the headquarters of the British East India Company.

The Tuscany departed Boston on May 4, and arrived in Calcutta over four months later on September 6. News of its impending arrival had reached Calcutta much earlier, and was eagerly anticipated by the sweltering Brits. Over 120 tons of the ice had survived the journey and found a ready market. It was unloaded from the ship as quickly as possible, and after paying all expenses, Tudor realized a profit of over $3,000 on this first shipment. After some discussion, the British voted to grant Tudor a monopoly, and to erect a substantial ice house for him. He sold ice there by placing a 100 pound block on display behind glass – replacing the block each morning with a fresh one to make up for whatever had melted the previous night.

Nineteenth century America, to a much greater extent than Europe, considered ice more necessity than a luxury. Ice wagons were a familiar sight in the summer, as was the ice man, carrying his cargo up stairs and into doorways with his ice tongs. Water was almost always drunk chilled, and just as Frederic had predicted, once people had tried chilled drinks, they were hooked. I quote briefly from a travelogue written by an English lady in 1840: “of all the luxuries in America, I most enjoyed ice. Its use was then rare and expensive in England. It is customary, when you pay a visit, for the attendant to present you immediately with a glass of iced water or iced lemonade.”

The earliest City Directory of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Athenaeum is for 1868, and I found just two ice dealers listed in that directory, both located in town, one on Depot Street, and one on McKay Street. Both were also dealers in coal and wood, which partly explains the fact that they were located near the railroad depot, where the supply of coal could be conveniently unloaded and stored. The combination of coal with ice was a natural, since both required frequent deliveries in a heavy cart, and they were seasonally complimentary. (Although I’m not sure how they cleaned up the coal cart for delivery of ice.)

While looking at ads for ice, I also kept an eye out for ice cream parlors, of which there were 3 in 1868. The number grew slowly to 6 in 1895 through 1910. I would like to have visited one of those turn-of-the-century parlors. They advertise all kinds of candy and confections as well as ace cream. The number suddenly exploded to 13 in 1920, probably a result of prohibition. Then it slowly began to shrink. Are there any ice cream parlors left? Or just restaurants that serve ice cream?

F. Guilds, one of the ice dealers who advertised in 1868, continued in business at least until 1890, when he advertises “Ice and Sawdust at wholesale”. But at the same address, 21 Depot Street, we also find W F Francis Coal, which advertises: “Established 1848 by G Guilds”. Is this a buy out? Or has a son-in-law taken over the business? Read and Burns, probably the successor to Root and Burns, who advertised in 1868, has moved slightly from McKay Street to 3 West Street, and they advertise: “Silver and Onota Lake Ice”. The advertisement for the same firm in 1895 only mentions Onota Lake ice, so probably even in the 1890’s Silver lake was a little too close to the sources of pollution for its ice to be appealing. Also in 1890 we have an advertisement for ice from Augustus Bruey, who lists his address as “West Street beyond Jason Street”, which I take to mean “further out West Street than people usually go. Probably this represents the first instance of ice being offered from an ice house actually on the lake from which it came. Later on we find ads from The Onota Lake Ice Company, located on Pecks Road. Also, in 1910 we find ads for the Pontoosuc Ice Company, 173 North Street, and “Pure Spring Water Ice” from the Moorewood Lake Ice Company, 24 North Street. So it appears that ice harvesting occurred on all four of Pittsfield’s Lakes at some time.

By 1930, we find The Berkshire Sanitary Ice Company on Curtis Street, The Gaylord Ice company on Pecks Road, George Miller on Circular Avenue, and the Southern New England Ice Company, Frank Smith Manager at the Pecks Road address formerly occupied by the Onota Lake Ice Company. All four are still listed in 1940, and the City Ice and Fuel Company also was added in 1940 – with three addresses – 208 New West street, 219 Elm and 519 Fenn. It is reasonable to suppose that at least the Berkshire Sanitary Ice Company was relying by this time, primarily on artificial ice, although in 1930 the Southern New England Ice Company proudly advertises: “Distributors of Natural Ice.”

The decline in the natural ice trade was caused more by concerns about pollution than by competition from artificial manufacturers. Growth in the cities caused the rivers and lakes from which ice was cut to be less and less clean, and there were health scares. By 1920, the authorities reported that the Hudson River was an open sewer, yet ice from it ended up in drinks served in New York hotels. The realization that diseases such as typhoid were not killed of in frozen water added to the urgency of finding safer forms of refrigeration. Almost all of the ice houses are gone now, many burned, since they were fire traps, others torn down to take better advantage of waterfront property or simply decayed. Every so often, a young diving enthusiast emerges from a lake or river with a strange implement – a plow or chisel or saw, with no real idea of how it came to be at the lake bottom.

Photo from americanartmuseum under Creative Commons License