Sign and Punishment: The Birth of American Football Penalty Signals

American football is a physically taxing, oftentimes brutal game.  Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on protecting players at all levels from the blunt force trauma associated with long-term injuries. Increased precautions written into the rules of the game in recent years have introduced additional infractions to the game.  Much the same thing happened during the early 20th Century.  After the particularly brutal season of 1905, in which at least 18 players were killed and more than 150 severely injured,  President Theodore Roosevelt called on his alma mater Harvard and other leading universities to curtail the violence.  This led to the formation of an intercollegiate conference that became the forerunner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  It was over the next four years that football began to shed any resemblance to its European ancestors soccer and rugby.  The forward pass was legalized, the first down distance was set at 10 yards, additional referees were added to enforce rules, and hurdling was penalized.

Then, as now, experts bemoaned the transition towards a safer game as a death knell for true football.  More damaging to the games long-term popularity, however, was the inability of coaches, players, and fans to keep up with the myriad changes.  As this editorial cartoon from 1910 shows, football rules were becoming increasingly harder to understand.

1910 was a confusing time for football players and fans.

1910 was a confusing time for football players and fans.

The 1910 season was significant due to several rules put in place to increase forward passing.  While meant to make the game more exciting, there were several complicated limitations to the new passing rules.  Ends, the only eligible receivers, could not catch a pass more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The quarterback could not throw a pass unless he was at least five yards behind the line of the scrimmage.  The remaining linemen and backs had to be at least one-yard behind the line of scrimmage.  Additionally, the ballcarrier could no longer be pushed or pulled by his teammates in an effort to gain ground.  Tacklers could no longer thrown themselves at the ballcarrier in what was known as a ‘flying’ tackle.  One foot had to be on the ground at all times when making a tackle.  The Pittsburgh Press summed up the thoughts of many fans during the 1910 season:

“This season more than ever before, the football spectators are at a loss as to why the various penalties are imposed and why now and then, for no apparent reason, the attacking eleven is forced to relinquish possession of the ball.”

The Wichita Eagle suggested that officials use megaphones to inform fans as to the nature of infractions:

“Penalties to which teams are liable in football are manifold, and nine times out of ten the spectators don’t know what particular breach of the rules has incurred a penalty.  Generally they put it down to holding or offside and let it go at that.  It might be one of several dozen offenses.  An announcement of the offense and the nature of of the penalty would clear up doubt and educate the spectators, and that the big majority of football patrons need education in the fine points of the game, and lots of it, nobody can deny.  better understanding of a game won’t hurt its popularity.”

Famed University of Chicago coach Alonzo Stagg wanted the game to be more fan friendly, and in November 1913 he and other officials from the Western Conference, aka the Big Nine, precursor to the Big Ten Conference, set out to do just that.  The members schools agreed to begin numbering player uniforms to help fans and referees identify players during the 1914 season.  They also appointed Stagg to devise a code to help officials inform fans of the reasons for various penalties.  It would take three more seasons before a system was devised to make sense of penalties.

On October 27, 1917, Stagg’s University of Chicago team faced in-state rival Northwestern University in Chicago.  Chicago entered the early-season contest undefeated and Northwestern had lost just once to Big Nine power Ohio State.  The matchup was assured widespread coverage by Chicago newspapers.  Like the fans in the bleachers, however, writers in the press box were left deciphering just what penalties occured during the game.  This made accurate write-ups of games problematic at best.  Luckily for the sportswriters that day, the Chicago-Northwestern game was being officiated by Frank Birch.  Birch, a graduate of Earlham College, had developed a system of hand signals to inform members of the press what penalty had been assessed.  Each sportswriter was given a slip of paper as to the meaning of each signal.  Great for the press, but no help to fans.  The Chicago Herald described these initial signals in detail:

“No one without the code slip new that when the referee grasped his wrist there had been holding on one side or the other.  They were equally at loss to know the meaning when he shook a couple of business like fists.  That conveyed the information that there had been unnecessary roughness.  Referee Birch did not pose for the multitude when he crossed his legs.  The initiated were aware that there had been attempt at tripping.  A sifting motion of the hands indicated illegal motion and hands on the hips was the signal for an offside play.  One arm aloft denoted that one or the other side had refused a penalty, something which has always been Greek to the rooters.

The majority of the spectators could usually tell when a forward pass was incomplete, but in order that the reporters might avoid guessing he held his arms extended sidewise.  Should there be any interlocked interference both arms would be folded over the breast.  An arm raised in military salute meant that a loose ball foul had been committed, while the glad tidings of a touchdown or a goal kicked were conveyed by both arms held aloft.”

Birch’s next two games that season no doubt helped spread his system to colleges throughout the nation.  On November 10, he officiated the Nebraska-Missouri matchup in the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Conference, precursor to the Big Eight, whose teams would one day form the Big 12 Conference.  On Thanksgiving he officiated University of Nebraska’s game against eastern power Syracuse University.

“Birch’s system of wig-wagging from the field is likely to be adopted by other officials, and it would be a good idea to print the code on the slips which the line-up and the numbers of players are printed,” wrote the Herald.  “The code is simple enough so it would not take the rooters long to memorize it, and it could hardly prove exhausting to the official doing the signaling”

The system certainly did not take long to catch on.  Birch’s system gained widespread credence when it was published in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Sign Talk of the Indians.

Birch’s system was so influential that his signs for holding, unnecessary roughness, an incomplete pass, and a touchdown remain virtually unchanged to this day.  Many of his other signs, like the military salute for a loose ball foul, lasted for several decades, as seen in this 1932 chart.

1932 Penalty Signals

1932 Penalty Signals

Over time, signals evolved and multiplied.  Here’s a similar chart from 1949, notice the necessary roughness sign is still indicated by a military salute.

1949 Penalty Signals

From there, the number of penalties written into the game continued to grow.  As this 1963 chart illustrates, there were 25 hand signals less than fifty years after their development.

1963 Penalty Signals

1963 Penalty Signals

According to the National Football League, there are currently 36 official penalty signals–a useful valuable tool for an increasingly complex game–and it all started with the wigwagging of Frank Birch.

Portsmouth, Ironton, and the Making of Thanksgiving Football


Advertisement for the 1929 Thanksgiving game between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Cincinnati National Guards. Portsmouth won 25-0 and claimed the independent professional championship of the United States.

It’s Thanksgiving time again in the United States, and for millions of Americans Thanksgiving is synonymous with American football. Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the holiday itself Princeton and Yale began an annual Thanksgiving Day game in New York City in the 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday.

America’s top professional league, the National Football League, will feature an entire day of games on Thanksgiving. The afternoon game will feature the Detroit Lions playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit has hosted Thanksgiving Day games since their first year in the league in 1934. The seeds of Detroit’s Thanksgiving tradition, however, sprouted in a little field in Portsmouth, Ohio six years earlier. 
In the late 1920’s, Portsmouth was a bustling industrial city. The town, which had just over 33,000 residents in 1920, would swell to over 42,000 by the end of the decade. Like many blue-collar towns in Appalachia during that time, Portsmouth fielded a semi-pro football team. Portsmouth had a problem, though—their teams weren’t all that great. Portsmouth’s industrial base dominated the Scioto Valley, but each autumn the teams representing the city failed to defeat the best team from the region—the Ironton Tanks. Ironton, 30 miles down the Ohio River from Portsmouth, was a town of just over 14,000 people in 1920. The Tanks were a powerhouse football team during the 20’s, though, racking up wins against NFL teams and laying claim to the mythical Ohio Valley Championship numerous times. There were few professional teams during that time, and many semi-pro outfits hired the talents of top-notch players—sometimes fresh out of college and sometimes playing under assumed names while still undergrads. The Tanks began hiring enough talent to compete on a national level. In the early years, the Tanks scheduled games against regional rivals on Thanksgiving Day. By mid-decaade, though, the Tanks were competing with NFL teams like the Kansas City Cowboys and Canton Bulldogs on Thanksgiving. 

Their most bitter rivalry, however, was with Portsmouth. For years during the 1920’s, Portsmouth found no answer for the powerful Tanks. That all changed in 1927, when a team from Portsmouth calling themselves the Shoe-Steels, and led by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe, defeated the Tanks. The Spartans were formed the following year and, taking a cue from the Tanks, scheduled the rival Ashland Armco Yellowjackets for an afternoon contest at Labold Field in Portsmouth. Ashland, like Ironton, was a big draw in Portsmouth featuring nationally-known talent. 

“The demand for tickets is unprecedented in the history of football for this city,” wrote the Portsmouth Times. Portsmouth fans were rewarded with a 19-0 win over Ashland. Portsmouth finished the 1928 campaign with a record of 9-3-2, there only setbacks coming against Ashland early in the season, the Cincinnati National Guards, and Ironton. 

Portsmouth’s fortunes changed in 1929. Portsmouth signed Indiana University halfback Chuck Bennett and first-year fullback Roy “Father” Lumpkin of Georgia Tech. Flush with top-notch talent, the Spartans finished the 1929 campaign with a 12-2-1 record. Ironton edged the Spartans 3-0 in October and the 1929 NFL Champion Green Bay Packers defeated them 14-0 in September Portsmouth faced Ironton again the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drubbing the Tanks 38-0. Portsmouth defeated Cincinnati 25-0 on Thanksgiving to claim the mythical Tri-State Championship. Spartan leadership began using stationary calling themselves “Independent Pro Champions of the United States.” 

In 1930 Portsmouth made the jump to the professional ranks—they joined the NFL. More powerful competition meant a larger stadium. In August, the $150,000 Unicversal Stadium was completed just in time for the Spartans home opener with the NFL’s Newark, New Jersey Tornadoes. The Spartans won 13-6 on their way to a 5-6-3 record and an 8th place finished in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants all played at Universal Stadium that year. The Spartans slate was filled with League contests, but the team still found room to play the hated semi-pro Ironton Tanks in a Thanksgiving grudge match at Universal Stadium. Playing on a snow-covered field, the aptly named Frosty Peters dropkicked two field goals and Bennett plunged for a late touchdown to lead the Spartans over the Tanks 12-0. It would be the last time the purple clad Spartans would clash against the red of the Tanks. It was the last game the Ironton squad would ever play. 

Portsmouth didn’t play on Thanksgiving again. The Tanks were gone and the Spartans had no real rival after their first lackluster year in the NFL. The Chicago Bears were always a big draw, but the Bears had their own Thanksgiving series with the crosstown rival Cardinals. Still, games were schedule against the Bears for the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1931 and 32. Those were years when the Portsmouth-Chicago rivalry began heating up. The Bears and Spartans—along with the Packers, would compete for the league championship. The Bears and Spartans finished in a tie atop the league standings. At that time, ties did not count in league standings, so the Bears (6-1-6) and the Spartans (6-1-4) finished in a dead heat, and neither team had managed to defeat the other during the season, playing to ties on November 13th and 27th. Counting ties as half a win and half a tie, as the NFL would in later years, would have given Green Bay the championship at 10-3-1. Nevertheless, a ‘playoff’ in Chicago was scheduled to determine a champion. In a game dominated by defense, Chicago pulled away thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The Bears won 9-0. The Spartans had a new rival. 

Games were scheduled against the Bears on the Sundays before and after Thanksgiving. The Bears defeated the Spartans 17-14 on November 26 and 17-7 on December 3. The December contest would be the final game played in Portsmouth. The team, struggling as the league’s second smallest market next to Green Bay, was facing financial hardship as the Great Depression dragged on. Offseason rumors began to circulate that the Spartans would be leaving town. Unfortunately for Portsmouth’s fans, the rumors proved true. Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased the Spartans for just under $8,000. 

The core elements of the old Spartans remained intact in the Motor City, however, and the lions started their inaugural season on a 10-0 tear. Despite that fact, the largest attendance for a game in Detroit had been 15,000. That changed on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions met the Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium in a game televised on 94 radio stations coast-to-coast. A crowd of 26,000 showed up to watch the game, which would determine the champion of the Western Conference. 

It was a hard-fought contest. Some Lion players, such as Glenn Presnell, had long histories with the Bears. Presnell, a former All-American for the University of Nebraska, had faced the Bears with Ironton, Portsmouth, and Detroit. In 1930, he scored two touchdowns to lead Ironton to victory over the Bears. Presnell and the Lions would come up short on their first Thanksgiving in Detroit, however, as Nagurski and the Bears won 19-16 nailbiter. When the Bears returned the following Thanksgiving, Detroit handily defeated them 14-2 on their way to the first NFL Championship for the Lions. The Lions would play the Bears every Thanksgiving until the series was interrupted by World War II. When the war was over, there was only one NFL Thanksgiving Day each year—a tradition synonymous with Detroit football, but born in southern Ohio. 

The Typography of Slavery

Runaway Slave Images, Clockwise from Upper left: Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) 1845; Long Island Star (Brooklyn, New York) 1828; Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) 1789; Boon’s Lick Times (Fayetteville, Missouri) 1845; Tarboro Press (Tarboro, North Carolina) 1845; Edgeville Advertiser (Edgeville, South Carolina) 1845; The North Carolinian (Fayetteville, North Carolina) 1845; Western Carolinian (Salisbury, North Carolina) 1824; The Times Picayune (New Orleans) 1852.

Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text.

Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The quality of these ads ran the gamut from crudely made to intricately carved works of art. On the crude end of the spectrum were the common images papers used for small advertisements and announcements made by everyday folks. Most papers had small type that looked like houses for property listings, cows for livestock sales, and dogs for missing pets. These small impressions on 200-year-old papers in digital form are easy to look past with modern eyes. One category of metal type that is hard to overlook, however, is the metal type used to announce the runaway slave. 

As a historian, I always try to remember that the people whose stories I tell were indeed real living breathing individuals. They had hopes and fears and desires and struggles. That’s why these advertisements, with their small black figures pressed into ink centuries ago, are so jarring. These figures not only represent human beings taking the drastic step to flee chattel slavery, they represent how easily this evil was tolerated in everyday life. These newspapers were prepared for the inevitability of masters advertising runaways—masters ready to pay to have their role as master protected. Someone at each of these papers had to physically see that the images depicting runaways were fixed into place, covered in ink, and pressed onto the paper. These papers were accomplices in a worldwide commercial establishment built on slavery. These images show the horrors of slavery reduced to just another small news items among the hundreds of the day. 

One of the greatest horrors of the slave system was the systematic destruction of not only the family unit, but of the enslaved person’s very own identity. The enslaved were often not only taken away from family members, they were removed from any sense of community they might have had on the plantation. They were named by masters and had little control of their own bodies under this system. Ironically, these ads written by masters provide brief glimpses into the lives of these faceless African-Americans. The master’s own words often tell us that these former slaves were intelligent, well-spoken, and strong. The ads describe ways runaways dressed and the physical scars they carried with them.

The moveable type images from these newspapers themselves are intriguing. Obviously, these images were white constructs—a white artisan’s depiction of a runaway. These images were seen by white Americans nearly every day. Some of the type was used so often over so long a period of time that it began to wear, blurring the figures like the image from the Times Picayune featured above. The Times Picayune, based in the nation’s largest slave market in New Orleans, is littered with runaway ads covering every several decades of the antebellum United States. For whites experiencing these images of African-Americans, the message was clear: African-Americans were deception, capable of subterfuge, and often on the wrong side of the law. These runaway ads are more than meets the eye, though. In these images I see determination, self-reliance, and an attempt to strip the bonds of slavery and forge a new identity—their own identity. 

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers and Delta Music

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music

By Ben Wynne

Biography, 312 pages, LSU Press

If American music is a vast river of influence, one genre flowing into another, then the Mississippi Delta is the region where much of 20th Century music flows back to. It’s a region that has been marketed and mythologized by artists and corporations throughout the history of recorded music in an effort to claim some sort of legitimate musical heritage, a kind of preternatural connection to the ‘roots’ of American music. What are the roots of American recorded music and why do we mythologized the Mississippi Delta? Ben Wynne’s book Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers, and the Roots of American Music from LSU Press examines the Delta’s place in the American music like no other book I’ve read.

The men whose lives make up the twin narratives of the book are, even now, shadowy figures in the American musical pantheon. Charley Patton was a seminal African-American blues musician born in Hinds County, Mississippi sometime between 1881 and 1891. Rogers was a white country singer from Meridian, Mississippi known for his yodeling, was one of country music’s earliest superstars. The two men embarked on vastly different career paths during the 1920’s and 30’s. Patton played juke joints and house parties throughout Mississippi, composing such seminal blues pieces as “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere.” He died in 1934 and was nearly forgotten until being rediscovered by the mainstream blues revival of the 1960’s. Rodgers was a national celebrity when he doied in 1933 at the age of 35 after years of struggling with tuberculosis.

Wynne gives us a blow-by-blow account of the hard living ways of both men and the Delta culture that shaped each of them. He chronicles two restless, rootless men at-large in an agrarian world where, to live, one usually had to be tied to the land. More often than not, the land a person was tied to was not their own. Through music, both Patton and Rodgers sought to overcome those ties. Wynne details the multiple romantic relationships of both men, their afflictions, and their musical greatness, but surprisingly the real focus of the book is the Mississippi Delta itself. This is not the romantic Mississippi Delta of American popular culture, however, this is the delta as it truly was. Wynne spends significant time early on outlining the economic and social climate of Mississippi following the Civil War. We see the reascendance of the planter class as they tightened their grip on the economic lives of Both African-Americans and poor whites.

Patton and Rodgers were, in many ways, musical ambassadors of the Delta, and Wynne meticulously shows readers just how far their influence stretched. A continuously revolving cast populates the book, as Patton and Rodgers cross paths with some of the most influential musicians of the last century. We see a young Louis Armstrong backing up Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” We see Rodgers in Louisville recording with the Farter Family, and making a pass at Maybelle in the process. We glimpse the environment surrounding Patton’s infamous alcohol-fueled 1930 trip from Lula, Mississippi to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records with musicians Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson.

What truly spread the Delta sound throughout the country, however, was recorded sound. Both men would be unknown today if not for the tremendous recordings they left behind, recording that constitute the bedrock for both blues and country. Wynne takes readers inside early recording studies where men like Ralph, director of recording for Okeh Records and Jay Mayo Williams of Paramount Records successfully exploited a growing market for African-American music in the 1920’s. Peer would also record some of the earliest country musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers. This ‘cross-pollination’ of music, as Wynne defines it is, in the end, the real story in the pages of In Tune. There really is no black and white American music, just a flow of ideas and influences, creativity and commercialism, that opens up into the wide world of American music, a legacy that is as wide and deep as the Mississippi itself.

Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone 2nd Edition

Crystal & Stone

There are many back roads and crossroads in American music.  One road leads to another, branches off, and before you know it, the beginning of the trail is left somewhere in the dust.  These musical crossroads have taken many shapes over the years.  In the 19th Century pop and folk merged together, in the early 20th Century it was ragtime giving away to jazz, and later blues led to rock and roll.  One of the most interesting crossroads of the last 50 years was the convergence of rock, country, blues, and folk in the 1960’s and 70’s.  These styles incubated in the emerging American counterculture and led to the emergence of some of the best-known singer-songwriters of the last century.  Artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson all became cultural icons.  Among the most unheralded, at least by the general public, is singer-songwriters of that period is Mickey Newbury.  I say unheralded among the general public, because Newbury’s influence on music is profound.

The man documenting that influence is Joe Ziemer, and the second edition of his biography on Newbury, Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone, is out now from AuthorHouse.  You can order it here.  I met Ziemer while working on my documentary film Dixie, where he discussed Newbury’s most famous contribution to popular music, “An American Trilogy,” a piece that deftly combines “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.”  Newbury spontaneously combined the tunes, which are respectively, the song of the Confederate Army in the U.S. civil war, the song of the U.S. Army during that same war, and a folk song based on a Bahamian lullaby.  Newbury de-anthemized the songs, creating a haunting soundscape of the American experience.  The song was a mainstay in Elvis Presley’s concerts in the 1970’s, popularizing gun the tune overseas. “An American Trilogy” has become emblematic of the United States in some circles and is perhaps more popular in Great Britain than it is anywhere else.  It was chosen as the number one American song of the millennium in a 1999 UK poll.

The irony is that Newbury was a tremendously talented songwriter, whose compositons have been recorded 1,543 times in the last 50 years, by artists like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings–the list goes on and on.  A Texas native, Newbury was at the forefront of the outlaw country movement.  Ziemer has called him ‘the original outlaw.’  As the title of Ziemer’s book implies, Newbury was a complex artist, full of equal parts strength and sensitivity.  Ziemer, who befriended the musician later in life, paints a portrait of Newbury with the exhaustive research of the historian and the fondness of a close friend.  He first encountered the music of Newbury while listening to a friend play him in concert in the 70’s.  Ziemer had no idea who wrote the piece his friend played.  For 50 years, music lovers have been discovering Newbury in much the same way.

I first heard Newbury named-dropped in Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”: “Between Hank Williams pain songs/And Newbury’s train songs/and Blue eyes cryin’  the rain/Out in Luckenbach, Texas/Ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”  I was intrigued.  Who was this man wedged between two Hank Williams references in a Waylon Jennings song?  It turns out, like many people, I encountered Newbury’s music without knowing it.  Many of Newbury songs reached charged for other artists.  Andy Williams reached #4 On the Adult Contemporary chart in 1968 with “Sweet Memories,” Jerry Lee Lewis reached #2 on the Country chart with “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  Younger generations perhaps best know Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s cover of Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” featured in the dream sequence of the Coen brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.

Ziemer’s book is a robust 500 pages and was 15 years in the making, and will help round out the library of any American music aficionado.  Zeimer put it best in his preface to this second edition:

“Mickey was fragile and tough… like crystal and stone… transparent and rock-solid. The man was obliging and stubborn, open-minded and opinionated. He was a brilliant Bohemian and an unpretentious country boy. Loyal and fearless to a fault, Mickey was a tender-hearted, spiritually perceptive Christian, a family man, a rambler at heart, and perhaps bipolar.”

One thing Newbury most definitely was: an American original.  Ziemer’s volume captures the charisma and complexity of Newbury as a person and underscores the impact of Newbury as an artist.

The Rise and Fall of Confederate Memorials

Copyright Adam Fagen

Copyright Adam Fagen

It’s been a momentous month in the long, sad history of race relations in the United States.  In the aftermath of the tragic killings of nine black parishoners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol on Monday.

“For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way,” Haley said. “But the Statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.”

On Thursday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags be taken down from a Confederate memorial at his state’s capitol.  Throughout the U.S. South, protests to Confederate memorials seem to be growing louder by the day.  Students at the University of Texas at Austin continue to protest the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on that school’s campus.  Yesterday in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson and 28 Confederate generals were laid to rest, Davis’ monument was vandalized.

As many of you who follow my blog regularly already know, I’ve spent the past few years working on the documentary Dixie, which chronicles the history of protest surrounding the South’s anthem.  One of the most glaring realizations I came to during filming was that the specter of the Confederacy is still very much alive in modern America–and these battles have been fought generation after generation.  The Lost Cause, the name given to the religion-like devotion displayed by proceeding generations of southerners towards their Confederate ancestors, is still alive and well.

One of the most visible symbols of the Confederate legacy stands in the heart of the United States.  In Washington D.C.’s statuary hall stands a1931 Henry Augustus Lukeman sculpture of Jefferson Davis, donated by Mississippi.  Each state in the Union is allowed two statues in the hall.  In all, 11 of the 100 people featured in the hall have ties to the Confederacy.  Just the idea of a Davis statue in Washington D.C. was enough to cause protest in the early 20th Century.  In 1910, after hearing that such a statue was being discussed, Union veterans protested the move.  Members of the Grand Army of the Republic post in Tiffin, Ohio, petitioned congress to stop the move.  Protesting Confederate symbols goes back even earlier.

The June 18, 1902 issue of The New York Times features a lengthy response to an addresse given by Charles Francis Adams to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at the University of Chicago.  Adams, who commanded the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War, said that someday Americans would have a calm, academic approach to Civil War history.  He told the Phi Beta Kappa Society that someday Confederate General Robert E.  Lee might even have a monument in Washington D.C. overlooking the Potomac.  The Times gave a definitive response:

“The treason of the Southern rebels in which Lee became a reluctant accomplice was entered into to defend and establish the right of succession and slavery, twin curses to the country which could never be safe from destruction until they were destroyed.”

The article continued:

“The success of their cause would have yielded at the very best two nations doomed to be forever second-rate and endangered by mutual hate and jealousy.”

Thes battles have happened before and they will, no doubt, happen again.  As Americans, we live with the ghosts of the Civil War in a myriad of ways every day.  As new battles over Confederate imagery are waged, how we fight those battles becomes as important as why we fight those battles.  If we are a noble people, if we are the sons and daughters of strong, resilient slaves, of gallant southerners, and idealistic northerners–if we are the nation of Lincoln offering ‘malice towards none,’ then the solutions to these divisive symbols can be found through reason and understanding.  Maybe reasoned debate outlasting violence isn’t a lost cause.

Four of Jean Ritchie’s Most Haunting Songs

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Covers Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX_Shutterstock (1213237a) Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s.

Library of Congress

American folk singer Jean Ritchie died last week at the age of 92.  Her name might not be as well known today as other folk musicians, but perhaps no living person epitomized the link between modern music and the American folk tradition quite like Ritchie.  She was born in Perry County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, in 1922.  she was the youngest of 14 children in the Ritchie family.  Her family’s place in American folk music history is nothing less than monumental.  In the 1920’s, folk scholar Josiah Combs used, in part, the Ritchie family’s repertoire for a 1925 doctoral thesis that was the first scholarly work on the British ballad tradition in America.  British folklorist Cecil Sharp did extensive field work late in his life on English folk songs that had survived in the backwoods of America.  In 1917, sharp collected songs, in part from Ritchie’s older sister Una and May.

Ritchie’s break would come while teaching at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Famed folklorist Alan Lomax began recording her for the Library of Congress.  New York was a catalyst for the folk revival movement in the late 1940’s, and Ritchie took an active part in reconnecting audiences with the music of America.  She was a regular guest on the Folksong Festival radio show and recorded hours of songs and oral history with Lomax.  In 1952 she was signed by Elektra records, where her releases through the 50’s and early 60’s influenced younger artists in the folk revival scene, which by that point had become a highly profitable business.

Ritchie leaves behind a tremendous legacy of music, and her haunting, brooding voice seems more powerful than ever–like the plaintive wail of a past that alludes us–a past the modern world seems ever more ready to discard.  When I listen to Jean Ritchie, though, that past seems to comes back, like a memory I’ve forgotten somewhere along the line.  Here are four of Ritchie’s best.  Two traditional (Hangman and Barbry Allen) and two of her own compositions (West Virginia Mine Disaster and The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore)


New Coke and the Battle for the South: 30 years Later

Copyright Molly Block

Copyright Molly Block

For every commercial product that becomes an essential part of American life, there are thousands of others that get relegated to the dustbin of history.  Sometimes, as today’s image of the Dulitz Building in Galveston, Texas by Molly Block shows, some products simply fade with time.   But what happens when an established product tries to reinvent itself into something new?  That happened 30 years ago today, when Coca-Cola reformulated its classic soft drink into what was colloquially known as “New Coke.”

By the 1980’s, Coca-Cola had been steadily losing market share for decades, decreasing from a high of 60 percent just after World War II to less than 24 percent by 1983.  One major factor in the decline was Pepsi-Cola’s successful marketing campaigns towards a younger demographic.  Coca-Cola launched a secret taste testing project with a new, sweeter, more Pepsi-like version of Coke.  The new formula overwhelmingly beat Pepsi and the existing Coke formula, however, about 10-12 percent of taste testers experienced anger and alienation over the new formula, saying they might stop drinking Coke altogether if it was reformulated.  The change continued, however, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Coke in 1985.

Pepsi executives managed to smuggle a six-pack of the new beverage and saw the new formulation as a real threat.  Pepsi quickly took out a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring victory in the “Cola Wars.”  The Coke PR machine moved into overdrive.  Workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were the first Americans given cans to take home and thousands of free cans were given out in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park.  The results were promising, Coke sales were up 8 percent over the previous year.  There was still one area of the country Coke needed to win over: the South.

Coke had always been a southern drink.  It was developed in 1885 by John S. Pemberton, a confederate Civil War veteran.  His brother, General John C. Pemberton, famously surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant in 1863.  John S. Pemberton invented Coke in Columbus, Georgia as a patent medicine to combat alcoholism in civil war veterans, as well as an epidemic of “nervous prostration” in high-strung southern ladies.  Coca-Cola had been headquartered in Atlanta since the 19th century, and it was southerners who fired the first shots against the reformulated drink.  According to Oliver Thomas’ 1986 book, The Real Coke, The Real Story, many southerners viewed the change through the prism of the civil war.  In Houston, ads for New Coke were booed when they appeared on the scoreboard.

New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country, but protests continued into the summer in the south, with bottles being emptied in the streets.  Coke had a bigger problem, though–it’s bottlers.  On June 23, several bottlers took their concerns to Coke executives in a private meeting.  On July 11, Coke executives announced the return of the original formula.  Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), announced on the the floor of the U.S. Senate that it was “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.”

Old Coke was rechristened ‘Coca-Cola Classic.’  The ‘classic’ label was kept until 2009.  New Coke kept the name Coca-Cola until 1992, when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.  It was discontinued in 2002.  Coca-Cola Classic was outselling both New Coke and Pepsi by the end of 1985.  Old Coke had been gone for only 77 days.


150 Years Later: William Seward’s Very Bad Week

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is coming to a close.  Much as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln came to symbolize the end of the Civil War, so too does the remembrance of Lincoln’s death provide a capstone to the anniversary observances of America’s bloodiest war.  The impact of Lincoln’s death has been discussed by various media outlets, including this month’s National Geographic.  Lincoln’s assassination was just one cog of a wider plan to kill the president, vice-president, and secretary of state in one night.  When his would-be assasin cam knocking on his door, Secretary of State William Seward had already had a rough week.  Seward, a native New Yorker, is immortalized in this prominent statue in New York City’s Madison Square Park.  Seward, a staunch abolitionist who came close to receiving the Republican nomination for president instead of Lincoln in 1860, is said to be the first New Yorker honored with a statue in the city.

Seward’s bad week started during a carriage ride on April 5 on Vermont Avenue in Washington D.C. with his daughters. The carriage door was not tightly closed and kept flying open.  The coachman dismounted to shut the door and the horses began to run away with carriage.  Seward attempted to jump from the carriage and rein in the horses, but the heel of his shoe caught the carriage and threw him face-first onto the ground.  By the time the carriage was stopped, with the girls safe and sound, Seward was being carried home with a broken arm and a broken jaw.  The broken jaw required a metal splint and bed rest for a number of weeks.

On the evening of April 14, a man arrived at Seward’s home on Lafayette Square.  The man claimed to be from the pharmacy with medicine that needed to be delivered to Seward himself.  The butler let the man into the house, at which point he made his way upstairs and forced his way into Seward’s bedroom.  The stranger was on no errand of mercy, he was Lewis Powell, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg.  Powell was stopped by Seward’s son and Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick, who refused to let the man come any closer.  The would-be assasin carried a 1858 Whitney revolver and fired it at the young Seward.  The revolver misfired, but Powell managed to club Frederick over the head and advance into Seward’s room.  The revolver was damaged beyond repair, however, so Powell drew a silver handled Bowie knife and sprang on the defenseless secretary of state, slashing at his throat and face.  The splint kept the blade from cutting Seward’s jugular, thereby saving his life.

Sergeant George F. Robinson and Seward’s son Augustus, himself an army officer, attempted to pull Powell off of Seward.  Seward by this time was on the floor behind the bed where Powell could not reach him.  Powell stabbed Robinson, Augustus, and Seward’s 20-year-old daughter, Fanny before Augustus managed to draw his pistol.  Powell bounded down the steps and headed for the front door.  A telegraph messenger named Emerick Hansel,, in the wrong place at the wrong time, arrived as Powell was making his escape.  Powell stabbed Hansell in the back, causing him to fall on the floor.  Powell yelled “I’m mad!  I’m mad!” before running outside to his getaway horse.

Having been abandoned by his co-conspirator, David Herold, Powell was left in a Washington D.C. he knew very little about.  He wandered the city for a few days before being captured.  He was executed in July.  Powell had not managed to kill anyone, but the consequences to the people involved were devastating.  Seward carried the scars of the attack on his face for the remainder of his life.  Frederick remained in a coma for two months as a result of the revolver blow to his head.  Seward’s wife, Frances Adeline, believed her son Frederick would die.  Her heightened state of anxiety is believed to have contributed to the heart attack that killed her in July.  Emerick Hansel, the unfortunate telegraph messenger, remainder paralyzed for life after the attack.

Seward continued as secretary of state for Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.  In 1867 he successfully negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million–2 cents per acre.  The decision was known as “Seward’s Folly” at the time, but Seward correctly realized it was his greatest achievement, but that it would “take the people a generation to find out.”  Alaska became a state in 1959.

The Madison Square Park sculpture was made in 1873, the year after Seward’s death, by New York sculptor Randolph Rogers.  More than 250 subscribers, Ulysses S. Grant among them, contributed to the monument’s $25,000 cost.

High Bridge and Civil War Memory

Copyright NG71

Copyright Flickr User NG71

The 150th anniversary remembrances of the American Civil War are winding down this month.  For the last five years, the United States and it’s citizens, in a myriad of ways, have commemorated the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 people and ended the institutionalized enslavement of African-Americans in the United States once and for all.  The 150th anniversary commemorations particularly relevant to myself as I spent a good deal of that time working on the documentary Dixie, which explores the sociological history of the Confederacy’s anthem and the ways in which the Civil War continues to shape the lives of Americans.  People often think of the political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, but the most dramatic change was to the landscape of the South.  Today we look at a bit of that landscape, a bit of the antebellum landscape that remains 150 years later: High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia.

High Bridge was originally part of a Southside Railroad line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  The bridge crosses over the Appomattox River.  The 20 piers of the structure included nearly four million bricks.  The bridge was completed in 1852, just nine years before the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1865, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated westward after abandoning Richmond, Lee knew lines of pursuit needed to be cut if his army was to survive.  High bridge was capture by Union forces on April 6.  Confederate forced managed to take the bridge and capture 800 Union prisoners.  The following day, Union reinforcements launched a counterattack and dislodged Confederate forces from the bridge.  Confederate troops set fire to the bridge as they retreated, but were unable to destroy it.  The intact bridge kept the Union Army in close pursuit of Lee, who turned his forces towards Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender on April 9.

High Bridge’s strategic value to the Union kept it from being destroyed, but much of the South was not so lucky.  Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond were all severely damaged.  The devastation of the landscape remained a physical reality for generations of southerners.  Southern rail lines were heated by Union troops and then twisted into loops resembling bowties.  These so-called “Sherman’s neckties” could still be seen in the south decades later.

The Southside Railroad was rebuilt by former Confederate general William Mahone after the war, part of a what became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad.  The bridge became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.  The Norfolk Southern donated the bridge and rail land to the State of Virginia, which became High Bridge Trail State Park in 2008.  The renovated bridge, with the walking and bike path pictured above, opened on the 147th anniversary of the battle: April 6, 2012.  The state park should ensure that this once lost piece of Civil War history will be preserved for years to come.  A bit of the past shaping the future.