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On the pleasure of reading old magazines

By Samuel L. Blumenfeld
web posted October 6, 2003

As a senior citizen -- actually a septuagenarian -- I find greater pleasure in sedentary pursuits than in physical exertion. That's only natural when you reach that phase of the life cycle in which you are forced to modify your usual ways of doing things.

Despite all of that, I have found a delightful way of entertaining myself, which is also really quite educational: collecting and reading old magazines -- generally from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Each magazine is like a time-capsule, with its articles and advertisements taking one back to a long lost era and long lost writers whose opinions can now be evaluated in the light of what has transpired since then.

For example, in a 1926 issue of The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken wrote:

The American State has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a state religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But the state still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious, and decent men.

We wonder what he would say today about our bloated Washington government, with its IRS invading every aspect of our private lives, or the idea of a government paying for the prescription drugs of the elderly. What would he say about judges who cancel elections because of their dislike of a punch-card mode of voting, even though it's been used for years. (Luckily that decision was overturned.) What would he say about government schools that don't know how to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic yet collect billions in tax money for pretending to do so. And there is no end to it, for bureaucrats are forever finding new ways to prove their indispensability to the American public.

Advertising also tells us much about the economy of the past. During the 1920s, well-heeled magazines like The Sportsman and Vanity Fair were filled with glamorous ads for cars like the Marmon, Franklin, Stutz, Hupmobile, Dupont, and Pierce-Arrow, none of which exist today. What happened was the Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash in October 1929, that not only put these automobiles out of business but the magazines themselves. You can tell the state of the economy by the ads or lack of them in the magazines.

By the way, the Depression, which wiped out so many great magazines, did not stop Henry Luce from launching Time, Life, and Fortune. The secret of his success was in having belonged to Yale's ultra-secret Skull and Bones Society, which gave him access to friends of wealth willing to underwrite his enterprise.

But it was the Roosevelt government, filled with communist agents and fellow travelers, that prolonged the Depression much longer than it had to be. They were determined to take advantage of the pains and disillusionments of the Depression to lead America into Socialism. Thus, they even provided subsidies to liberal writers to write state guidebooks under the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, which, like Depression glass, have now become collectibles.

The old magazines also reveal much about changing morals in America. For example, the American beauty, the morally upstanding Gibson girl, of the 1890s, fully clothed from head to toe, became the flapper of the 1920s, wearing short skirts, cloche hats, dancing the Charleston, and getting drunk on bootleg booze. What produced such radical changes in so short a time? The automobile, the movies, telephones, radios, Prohibition, and Sigmund Freud.

Prohibition, that great experiment in moral engineering, demonstrated the American's persistent determination to use government to change human behavior. It didn't work. Nevertheless, liberals still cling to the idea that bigger, more intrusive government is the only means of salvation for the country.

One thing the old magazines tell us is that conservatives have generally been right about everything. They fought big government, they fought communism and fascism, they tried to keep us out of World War II until we were attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. They tried to get rid of the communists in our government and partially succeeded. They have favored a strong national defense with nuclear deterrents. However, articulating conservative arguments became increasingly difficult as liberals gained virtual monopoly control over the national media.

But four wars later and the coming of the Internet have changed all of that. The conservative message is now stronger and more relevant than ever, and its purveyors have found a new and powerful way of reaching millions of Americans. Which makes us wonder what Google will be like fifty years from now when the present dot-com generation is tottering on senility. Some things are simply unpredictable.

Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of eight books on education, including, "Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers," "The Whole Language/OBE Fraud," and "Homeschooling: A Parents Guide to Teaching Children." These books are available on Amazon.com.

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