“Do Fish Think, Really?” And Will Cuppy’s Other Musings

Will Cuppy, accessed Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2014).

Humorist Will Cuppy’s witticisms tended toward, as his biographer Wes Gehring put it, “dark comedy that flirts with nihilism.” Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, published posthumously in 1950, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list and enjoyed eighteen reprints in hardback. Decline and Fall typified Cuppy’s life’s work, which satirized human nature and utilized footnotes to great comedic effect. He spent sixteen years researching the historic figures featured in Decline and Fall, but, after years of battling depression, passed away before its publication.

Young Cuppy, 1902, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, accessed Gale Academic OneFile.

The Auburn, Indiana native spent a lot of time on his grandmother’s South Whitley farm. There, he developed a love of animals and a curiosity about life. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Cuppy found himself wondering if fish think—and no one he knew was curious enough to similarly wonder or care if indeed fish do think. In search of more inquisitive conversationalists, Cuppy moved out of Indiana as soon as he could. Upon graduation from Auburn High School, Cuppy departed for the University of Chicago where he would spend the next twelve years taking a wide array of courses. He completed his B.A. in philosophy and planned to get his Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature.

While at university, Cuppy worked for the school paper. As a result, the University of Chicago Press hired Cuppy to “create some old fraternity traditions for what was then a relatively new college” to give the school more of an old east coast university feel. This assignment evolved into Cuppy’s first book, Maroon Tales, published in 1910. Eventually, Cuppy’s college friend Burton Rascoe invited him out to New York City, where Rascoe was an editor and literary critic for the New York Tribune. After agreeing to move to New York City, Cuppy decided to get his M.A. in literature and leave the University of Chicago rather than complete his Ph.D. He was ready to move on.

Illustration from How to Become Extinct (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), 31.

In 1921, Cuppy moved into a tarpaper and tin shack on Jones’ Island in New York. Suffering from hypersensitivity to sound, Cuppy wished to escape the noise of the city. He lived on the island year-round for eight years, with occasional visits to the city for supplies. The men of the Coast Guard station a few hundred feet down the beach befriended him and shared food, as well as fixed his typewriter. Cuppy called his beach home Tottering-on-the-Brink, giving insight into his mental health. But despite his seclusion, Cuppy’s career progressed. By 1922, he was writing occasionally for the New York Tribune, and in 1926 he joined the staff there as a book reviewer (by which time the Tribune had become the New York Herald Tribune).

End paper art from How to be a Hermit, courtesy of Simanitis Says.

Then, in 1929, Cuppy had to leave his shack because New York designated the area to become a state park, although he received permission to visit his hermitage for irregular vacations. Cuppy moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, but even after he left his residence at Jones’ Island he would sometimes be referred to—and refer to himself—as a hermit because he continued to maintain an isolated lifestyle. Predictably, Cuppy found it difficult to stand the noise of the humming city. He tended to sleep during the day and work during the night to minimize his exposure to the cacophonous sounds. When it all got to be too much, Cuppy would blow on noisemaker as hard as he could out an open window.

Cuppy published a book about his experience living on Jones’ Island in 1929, How to Be a Hermit (Or A Bachelor Keeps House). The book was a best-seller—reprinted six times in six months—and put Cuppy on the map as a humorist and author. In traditional Cuppy fashion, he quipped “I hear there’s a movement among them [architects] to use my bungalow as a textbook example of what’s wrong with their business. The sooner the better—that will give the dome of St. Paul’s a rest.” And then there was this telling jest:

Coffee! With the first nip of the godlike brew I decide not to jump off the roof until things get worse—I’ll give them another week or so.

Cuppy followed up Hermit with How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931.

Cuppy at a broadcast for CBS Radio, circa 1942, courtesy of Gale Academic OneFile, accessed Simanaitis Says.

The 1930s were a busy time for Cuppy. In 1930, he tried to establish himself as a comic lecturer; however, after a brief stint of talks, it appeared the venture did not work out. A few years later Cuppy hosted a short-lived radio program on NBC called “Just Relax.” It proved too difficult to sustain a radio program with Cuppy’s singular brand of comedy and socially anxious tendencies—radio executives simply told him he wasn’t funny. Though his program didn’t last, Cuppy continued to appear in radio broadcasts sporadically through the years. He went on the radio to promote his next book, How to Become Extinct (1941).

Numerous reviews of mystery and crime novels had garnered Cuppy the distinction of being “America’s mystery story expert” as early as 1935. It was earned—in the course of his career Cuppy published around 4,000 book reviews. He secretly admitted that his heart wasn’t in it and he’d never particularly enjoyed the mystery and detective genre, but reviewing these books in his New York Herald Tribune column “Mystery and Adventure” was Cuppy’s steadiest income stream over the years. Nevertheless, in the 1940s Cuppy used his genre expertise to edit three anthologies of mystery and crime fiction. His freelance writing also picked up in this decade.  National publications like McCall’s Magazine, The New Yorker, College Humor, For Men, and The Saturday Evening Post printed Cuppy’s essays that would later be compiled in his books, like How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

In a reflection that brings to mind Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cuppy was fond of saying:

I’m billed as a humorist, but of course I’m a tragedian at heart.

One gets the sense from reading Cuppy’s material that he used humor as a coping mechanism. Quoting Cuppy, Gehring wrote that the dark humorist “believed humor sprang from ‘rage, hay fever, overdue rent, and miscellaneous hell.’” You could say that, like his humor, Cuppy’s life was tragic. Though he had long suffered from depression, multiple sources noted Cuppy’s declining health in mid-1949. Then, threatened with eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment and reeling from the end of a decades-long friendship, Cuppy followed through on decades of casual talk about self-harm. He died on September 19, 1949, due to suicide. He was buried in Auburn, Indiana’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Illustration from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 38.

After Cuppy died, his editor, Fred Feldkamp, took on the task of assembling Cuppy’s numerous notes into The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy took his research seriously, and this is where Cuppy’s extensive education shined through. He would spend months researching a single short essay, reading everything he could find on the topic and amassing sometimes hundreds of notecards on each subject. Having worked on Decline and Fall for a whopping sixteen years before his death, Cuppy had collected many boxes of notecards filled with research. Decline and Fall was an immediate success when it was published in 1950. Locally, the Indianapolis News named it one of the best humor books of the year, and listed it as the top best-seller in Indianapolis in non-fiction for the year. In 1951, Feldkamp used more of Cuppy’s notes to edit and publish How to Get from January to December; it was the final publication in Cuppy’s name.

Footnote from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 154.

Cuppy’s style was characterized by a satirical take on nature and historical figures. Footnotes were his comedic specialty—they were such a successful trademark that he was sometimes hired to add his touch of footnote flair to the works of fellow humorists. In Decline and Fall there is one footnote in particular which is emblematic of Cuppy’s unique dark humor: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” Before the publication of Decline and Fall, Cuppy was frequently asked why he always wrote about animals—when would he write about people? But, of course, he had been lampooning humanity all along.

Courtesy of Amazon.com.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in the last decade of his life, Cuppy befriended William Stieg, the man who would go on to create the character Shrek in his 1990 children’s book by the same name. A young cartoonist, Stieg was hired to illustrate How to Become Extinct and Decline and Fall. Cuppy and Stieg struck up an extensive correspondence, and Cuppy influenced Stieg’s style. The notion of a humorous curmudgeon living in isolation and drawn out into the world by both necessity and outgoing friends strikes a familiar chord that echoes in Shrek.

Cuppy was a famous humorist in his time, and the acclaim of his better-known comedy contemporaries, like P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, certainly helped to heighten his renown. When Decline and Fall came out, a reviewer for the New York Times insisted that “certain people, at least, thought [Cuppy] among the funniest men writing in English.” Beyond his work as a humorist, Cuppy’s career as a literary critic had been impactful; the managing editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he had “given up reading whodunits” after Cuppy’s death because he didn’t trust any other critic to guide his mystery selections. The sadly serious humorist is less widely known today, but his quips seem more relevant than ever.

Be sure to see Will Cuppy’s state historical marker at the site of his childhood home in Auburn after it is unveiled in August.

 

Further reading:

Wes D. Gehring, Will Cuppy, American Satirist: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013).

Norris W. Yates, “Will Cuppy: The Wise Fool as Pedant,” in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964).

Al Castle, “Naturalist Humor in Will Cuppy’s How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” Studies in American Humor, 2, 3 (1984): 330-336.

City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary

City Church, 1929, courtesy of Sometimes Interesting.

On the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street stands a complex forged out of Indiana limestone. Plants creep through shattered windows, “UR MOM” is spray-painted across a balcony, and the scorched roof opens up into the heavens. The remains of Gary’s City Church represent very different things to onlookers. For some, they symbolize the unfulfilled promise of industrial utopia. For others like Olon Dotson, professor of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University and a Ph.D. candidate in Purdue University’s American Studies Program, “The remains of the structure serve as a monument to racism and segregation.” For most, it is simply the backdrop for a scene in Transformers 3. Few would disagree, however, that City Church embodies the rise and fall of Steel City.

The church’s history is as nuanced as the feelings its remains inspire. The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Gary, was established in 1906, the same year the United States Steel Corporation gave birth to the city. The company converted acres of swampland and sand dunes, and soon Gary—named after U.S. Steel founding chairman Elbert Henry Gary—found itself dominated by steel mills. The expanding market for steel shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth there. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Bulkhead end Main West sewer coke ovens at channel openings, Gary, Indiana, November 13, 1909, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Historian James B. Lane contended that “Because of U.S. Steel’s limited concept of town planning, two strikingly different Gary’s emerged: one neat and scenic, the other chaotic and squalid.” Businessmen, as well as skilled plant operators and managers, settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks. They resided in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions among paved streets, quaint homes, and lush rows of trees. Northsiders relaxed in limestone restaurants and club rooms after a long day of work. The cost to live in this area precluded many newcomers, primarily African Americans and immigrants, from settling there. They instead lived on the Southside, often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. Lane noted that because the Gary Land Company largely neglected this area, landlords “took advantage of the housing shortage and absence of health regulations or building codes by charging inflated rents and selling property under fraudulent liens.” This marshy region, deemed the “Patch,” attracted “mosquitos, and the pestilential outhouses, unpaved alleys, damp cellars, and overcrowded dwellings were breeding grounds for typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis.”

Polish children by settlement houses, Gary, Indiana, ca. 1915, Joan Hostetler Collection, accessed The Indiana Album.

Lane noted that immigrant families on the Southside organized into “shanty” communities, where they “stuck together but adjusted their old-world lifestyles to new circumstances.” Sometimes various ethnic and racial groups socialized, and even learned from one another, as Black residents taught immigrants English and vice versa. Lacking access to the opportunities and amenities of the Northside, rampant crime and vice arose as “laborers entered the omnipresent bars armed and ready to squeeze a few hours of action into their grim lives.” Segregated from its inception, Gary’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion.

Reverend William Seaman, accessed Flikr. This image also appears in The Gary Post-Tribune, October 1, 1926, 9.

In the burgeoning metropolis, the aforementioned First Methodist congregation met in local schools, businesses, and an abandoned factory before constructing a church on the corner of Adams Street and Seventh Avenue in 1912. With rapid socioeconomic and demographic change taking place in Gary, the church, under the vision of white pastor William Grant Seaman, initiated plans in 1917 to move into the heart of the city. A native of Wakarusa, Indiana, Seaman earned his B.A. from DePauw University and his Ph.D. from Boston University. After ministering and teaching in various states, the pragmatic pastor relocated to Steel City in 1916 at the request of Chicago Bishop Thomas Nicholson.

Seaman, nicknamed “Sunny Jim” for his disposition, contended that Gary’s Methodist church had an obligation to ease the challenges faced by the:

industrial worker . . . often suffering injustice;

the foreigners within our boundaries . . . They represent some fifty different race and language groups;

our brothers in black, coming from the Southland in a continuous stream;

our own white Americans, who come in large numbers from the village and the farm.

He noted that this ministry was especially important, given that many urban churches had relocated to Gary’s outskirts as the city grew more congested. According to historian James W. Lewis, Reverend Seaman felt “the modern city was plagued by a breakdown of traditional community and social control, resulting in an anonymous, mobile, materialistic, hedonistic population.” He therefore believed that it was the church’s responsibility “to develop programs which would provide some of the support, guidance, and satisfaction characteristic of traditional communities.”

Worker at Tin Mill, American Sheet and Tin Plate Co., January 28, 1921, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Compassionate and industrious, Seaman felt called to meet the “religious and creature-comfort need[s]” of the laborers and their families who poured “in great human streams through the gates of these mills.” However, his beliefs about the city’s newcomers, particularly the African American population, are problematic by today’s standards. He felt that white church leaders were best qualified to uplift the growing Black population, writing in 1920 that “colored people are very ignorant, and to a surprising degree morally undeveloped, and this fact is true of a very large number of their preachers.” Seaman justified the need for white leadership by citing rumors that Black-led denominations “are cultivating in their people a sense of being wronged.” Like Gary’s Stewart Settlement House (on which he served as a board member), Seaman’s intentions seem two-fold: to implement social control in a diversifying city and to provide humanitarian aid.

Lewis noted of Seaman and other white leaders:

Although their perception of the cause was often flawed and their service of it often mixed with other motives, their actions revealed their conviction that the church should be a prominent force for good, even in the modern city.

While Seaman held a paternalistic view of the Black community, his efforts to combat racism drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Seaman opposed showing the film Birth of a Nation, which reinforced stereotypes about the supposed inherent savagery of African Americans. He also tried unsuccessfully to convince the Methodist Hospital to admit Black patients.

Top: Construction of City Methodist Church; (L) ceremony to lay the church cornerstone (R) Bishop Frederick D. Leete speaking at ceremony (Rev. Seaman sits in light hat), 1925, accessed DePauw University Archives.

The ambitious pastor quickly got to work, meeting with leaders of the Centenary of Methodist Missions and the U.S. Steel Corporation to drum up support for a downtown church. His lobbying paid off and both groups donated approximately $350,000 to build an “oasis” that would be open seven days a week. In October 1926, Seaman’s vision was realized when City Church—as the First Methodist Episcopal’s downtown church came to be called—opened to much fanfare. Reporters marveled at the ornate cathedral, which boasted of a social-educational unit, gymnasium, rooftop garden, tennis court, and community hall equipped with a “moving picture outfit” and modern stage. It also contained retail stores and a commercial cafeteria, which generated income for church expenses. This was necessary, Seaman said, because the downtown church ministered to groups having fewer resources with which to support the sanctuary.

Although Sunny Jim sought inclusivity, records indicate that the congregation remained white until the church’s closing. Conspicuously absent from photographs of pews lined with worshippers—hair bobbed and suits pressed—were members of color. While Black residents did not bow their heads in prayer beside white congregants (who likely did not welcome their presence), they did utilize City Church’s amenities. According to Lewis, Seaman was fairly successful in promoting the community hall “‘as a religiously neutral ground for artistic and civic events,’” although “there was little mixing of cultures.”

Gary, City Church
Basketball game at City Church, no date, accessed DePauw University Libraries, Digital Library.

City Church tried to navigate race relations in a polarized city, to some degree, opening its doors to civic, social, and spiritual gatherings. In 1927, the church hosted a race relations service, in which members and pastors of African American churches Trinity M. E. and First Baptist shared in services. Reverend Seaman delivered the principle address, stating “We shall make no progress toward race union . . . until we view each other as God views us, children of the same Father and brothers all.” After toiling in factories, Swedes, Mexicans, and Croatians gathered at City Church to study, worship, and play. Romanian children, “Americanized” at schools like Froebel, congregated in the church gym to socialize and shoot hoops.

Production at City Church, courtesy of DePauw University Archives, accessed Opacity.

When Reverend Seaman left in 1929 under unclear circumstances, the church turned inward and ministered less frequently to Gary’s immigrant and Black populations, especially during the demanding years of the Great Depression and World War II. Unfortunately, Gary’s Negro YMCA closed and African Americans were the first to be let go at the mills, making churches and relief organizations more crucial than ever. Resentment built among Gary residents as they competed for government support, resulting in the voluntary and forced repatriation of Mexican workers on relief rolls. The church did offer programs where weary (likely white) residents could momentarily forget their troubles, hosting Gary Civic Theater plays and an opera by a renowned singer.

Church records from the early Atomic Era denote renewed interest in ministering to the church’s diverse neighbors. The degree to which the church took action is unclear, although advertisements for Race Relations Sunday indicate some walking of the talk.* City Church photographs document an immunization clinic, which served both African American and white children, as well as cooking classes for Spanish girls. It is clear, however, that, despite the efforts of some City Church pastors, members of the white congregation largely did not support, and sometimes opposed, integrated Sunday mornings. With Steel City’s influx of African Americans and immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, Gary’s white population fled to the suburbs, depleting the urban core of tax revenue. City Church members belonged to this exodus. Tellingly, on a 1964 survey, Rev. Allen D. Byrne appears to have checked, only to erase, a box noting that the church ministered to racial groups. 

Immunization Clinic hosted by City Church, no date, courtesy of Calumet Regional Archives.

This changed temporarily with the leadership of Reverend S. Walton Cole, who perhaps came closest to fulfilling Reverend Seaman’s mission, with his 1964 appointment. Cole wrote frequently in City Church’s newsletter, Tower Talk, about confronting one’s personal prejudices and the role of the church in integrating minority groups. Unafraid to confront social issues, Cole argued at a Methodist Federation meeting, “We are not socialists and communists when we talk about moral problems in our nation. Wouldn’t Jesus talk about poverty if he walked among us today?” Under Cole’s pastorship, the church hired Aurora Del Pozo to work with Gary’s Spanish-speaking population. Such efforts, Tower Talk reported, went a long way in understanding their Hispanic neighbors, noting “we were introduced to the viewpoints and attitudes held by these Spanish speaking people that were a surprise to most of us.”

Cole, addressing the trend of church members to “shut their ears and eyes” and move out of the city, noted in 1966:

Hate is the strongest of all. We hate the Negroes, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, the Irish, the English, the Germans, the French. We hate the Jews, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Socialists. We hate everybody, including ourselves. This is the way of the world, the secular world.

Reverend S. Elbert Cole, accessed DePauw University Archives.

He countered that the Christian way centered around demonstrating love and hope for all. The NAACP awarded Reverend Cole with the first Roy Wilkins award for his work in civil rights. During his pastorship, the church worked to redevelop the downtown area, striving to “maintain a peaceful and developing community by improving race relations.” But this same year, fugitive James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, setting off a string of riots across the country. Riots in Gary’s Midtown section, formerly the Patch, that summer resulted in gunfire, looting, and burning. Gary’s first African American mayor, Richard Hatcher, contended “‘slum conditions in the city and inequalities in education and employment have fostered the tenseness'” that led to the riots.

Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher (arms crossed) and Reverend Jesse Jackson (at the podium) at a press conference for the National Black Political Convention, March 11, 1972, AP/Charles Knoblock, accessed Belt Magazine.

Some of Gary’s African American residents got involved in the Black Power Movement, which arose after decades of educational, political, and housing discrimination. The movement espoused racial pride, social equality, and political representation through artistic expression and social (and sometimes violent) protest. In 1972, Gary hosted the National Black Political Convention, which drew over 10,000 Americans of color. State delegates and attendees—comprised of Black Panthers, Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, and Nationalists—hoped to craft a cohesive political strategy to advance Black civil rights. This event highlighted Gary’s polarization along racial lines, which became so profound that City Church reported in the 1970s: “Evening sessions are difficult without police protection. Most folks are afraid to come downtown.” This schism was perhaps inevitable, given that city planners constructed Gary around the color of residents’ skin. As City Church membership sharply declined, church leaders realized they needed to build meaningful relationships with the local community.

It became apparent they had waited too long. The 1973 Pastor’s Report to the Administrative Board noted:

Most residents in the immediate area will already have found a convenient church where they are welcome . . .  Furthermore Blacks are not likely to come to a church which they ‘feel’ has excluded them for several years. The neighborhood may have continued to change from one social class group to another, so that there is an almost unbridgeable gap between the white congregation and the persons living in the community.

A survey of urban church leaders cautioned in 1966 that, regardless of resources or mission, a white church in a Black neighborhood could only carry on for so long, that the “ultimate end is the same. THE CHURCH DIES!” City Church leaders considered merging with a local Black church, but when community interviews revealed that minority groups did not trust the church, leaders decided to close in 1975. Die it DID.

City Methodist Church, April 26, 2017, accessed City Savvy Imaging.

After decades of decomposition, philanthropic organizations and city leaders have turned their attention to redeveloping the building. After all, as Professor Dotson warns, Gary is in jeopardy of the “eminent collapse under the weight of its own history.” As of now, the most likely outcome involves stabilizing the building and converting it into a ruins garden. A supporter of the ruins concept, Knight Foundation’s Lilly Weinberg, seemingly invokes Reverend Seaman with her statement that “Creating spaces for Gary’s residents to meet and connect across backgrounds and income levels is essential to community building.” Some in Gary oppose this plan, arguing that if the city receives funding it should be allocated to existing African American churches that need structural support, rather than one that ultimately abandoned the Black community.

Regardless of City Church’s fate, Ball State Professor Olon Dotson argues it is crucial that Gary’s legacy of segregation is incorporated into its story “for the sake of the young children, attending 21st Century Charter School at Gary, who look out their classroom windows, or wait for their parents every day, in front of the abandoned ruins of a church, in the midst of abandoned Fourth World space.” If the ruins embody Gary’s past, what is done with them now could signify Steel City’s future.

For a list of sources used and historical marker text for City Church, click here.

* Without the digitization of Gary newspapers, and given the lack of documentation of Gary’s Black residents during the period, it is difficult to give voice to those City Church attempted to reach. Pastor Floyd Blake noted in 1973 that the church conducted over 100 interviews with Black, white, and Spanish-speaking residents regarding their perception of City Church. Although we have been unable to uncover them, they could provide great insight. Please contact npoletika@library.in.gov if you are aware of their location.

Blue Skies, Pink Slips: The Cold War in Indiana

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Transcript for Blue Skies, Pink Slips

Newsreel: Let us face without panic the reality of our times. The fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival by understanding the weapon that threatens us.

[Bomb exploding]

Beckley: During the Cold War, Hoosiers dealt with the stress of living under the constant threat of impending nuclear war in a variety of ways. Some joined their local civilian defense board. Others planned and participated in extensive evacuation drills. Still others allowed their children to have their blood type tattooed on their body to facilitate blood transfusion. And still others simply looked for someone to blame. On this episode, we’ll be sharing two stories illustrating how different Indiana communities reacted to the fear and misunderstanding of the Cold War era in America.

[Duck and cover music playing]

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Near the end of, and directly after, World War II, American views of the Soviet Union began to shift dramatically. During the war, Americans pointed to similarities between themselves and one of their strongest allies. After the war, they drew comparisons between Soviet ideology and that of Nazi Germany. During the war, we were working collaboratively. After the war, the U.S. refused to share atomic research, leading to an arms race.

At the onset of the arms race, Americans retained a sense of security in the knowledge that the U.S. held an ace in the hole – the Atomic Bomb. It was thought that the Soviet Union was years away from developing atomic technology. But in September 1949, this illusion of security was shattered when President Truman announced to a stunned nation,

Voice actor reading quote from Truman:  I believe the American people, to the fullest extent consistent with national security, are entitled to be informed of all developments in the field of atomic energy. This is my reason for making public the following information. We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.

Historic news audio: President Truman’s dramatic announcement that Russia has the atomic secret caused state departments all over the world to stir uneasily.

Beckley: With that revelation, and fearing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki arriving on our shores, the United States Air Force decided to re-launch a program first established before the American entry into World War II. Then, it was known as the Aircraft Warning Service but for its Cold War operations, it was renamed the Ground Observer Corps, or GOC. The objective of the GOC was to work in conjunction with the existing radar system to guard the United States from a Soviet air attack.

[Sound of bomb dropping]

Beckley: Essentially, the GOC was a network of civilian volunteers strategically placed across the northern 2/3 of the country to identify incoming enemy aircraft in the event of an aerial attack Volunteers observed from rooftops or watch towers constructed in any location with an unobstructed view of the sky. And participants came from all backgrounds. There were monks and prisoners, school children and centenarians, oil executives and housewives – all doing their part to keep their neighbors and loved ones safe.

Historic Newsreel: Just as important as all of these is the vast army of civilian observers. People from all walks of life – thousands of them – watching, vigilant, 24 hours a day.

Beckley: From atop their towers, volunteers would scan the sky for suspicious air craft. When a potential threat was spotted, they telephoned a filter station, where volunteers worked alongside Air Force personnel to review each report. If the station confirmed that threat, the Air Defense Direction Center was immediately contacted and interceptor jets would be deployed to shoot down the enemy plane.

Newsreel fades in: …accordingly sending them up at the strategic moment to intercept the oncoming bombers.

Beckley: In early 1950, Indiana emerged as a leader in organizing their GOC. It was thought that the heavily industrialized northern region of the state made us particularly vulnerable as a target, an assumption which spurred government officials and citizens to act. Governor Henry Schricker led the organizational efforts and advised officers from nearby states in forming their own programs.

The need for such a system as the GOC was highlighted on March 16, 1950 when multiple B-26 Bombers conducted a mock air raid over Indiana. They went “completely undetected” by the states only warning facility, located at Fort Harrison in Indianapolis. The radar of the time was unable to detect low flying aircraft – and that is where the GOC would step in. In the wake of the mock attack, Civil Defense directors were named in 51 of Indiana’s 92 counties, Ground Observer Corps towers began to spring up across the northern 2/3 of the state, and filter centers were established in Terre Haute and South Bend.

Newsreel: In each of these, a skeleton crew remains on crew 24 hours a day.

Beckley: The exact number of GOC volunteers throughout the duration of the program is unknown but it can be estimated to have been in the thousands.

At first, volunteers were essentially on stand-by to be called to their posts in the event of an attack. But after Soviet backed North Korea invaded US supported South Korea on June 25, 1950, fear of Soviet aggression rose, prompting the United States Air Force to implement “Operation Skywatch.” Skywatch moved GOC operations from an as-needed bases to a 24 hour per day enterprise. These volunteers were doing more than just scanning the skies for enemy aircraft – in fact, the United States Air Force itself admitted that, at best, GOC activity and Air Force intercepts could destroy only 30% of enemy aircraft. So, why was the United States Government supporting a program that it knew would only work a third of the time? In large part, it was the promotion of American Values.

The volunteer-style of civil defense used by the Ground Observer Corps was seen as the antithesis of communist principles. In America, hundreds of thousands of civilians were volunteering to watch the skies for enemy aircraft, while the Soviet Union had to force their citizens into observation roles- or at least that’s how the US government framed the mandatory observation in the Soviet Union. American communities were coming together to build and man watchtowers and the very act of willingly working together towards a common goal was thought to be a deterrent to the Soviets.

Historic audio clip: I found out that a bunch of guys can do anything if they work together. That’s the way democracy works and that’s why democracy works.

Beckley: As the Korean War ended, this alternate utility of the GOC began to move from being a secondary motive to the primary – historian Nicole Poletika sums it up saying,

Voice actor reading from article: “Officials increasingly realized the program’s utility as a vehicle to impress upon citizens the objectives of the Cold War, the Soviet communist threat, and traditional American values of volunteerism and individualism.”

Beckley: As that quote eludes to, volunteers were encouraged to educate themselves and their fellow citizens about the “Soviet threat.” One United State Air Force officer overseeing the GOC argued for the continuation of the program even after advances in ground radar had made the GOC all but obsolete, saying:

Voice actor reading: “No other group is better equipped and positioned at the community level to take an active hand in the enlightening of all citizens on the dangers confronting this nation in the atomic age.”

Beckley: A last significant component of the importance of the Ground Observer Corps in the Cold War period is the simple fact that it was something for people to do to feel as though they were doing something – anything – to protect their homes and their families.

Newsreel: …that the preparation that we are making new will be the very thing that will prevent our being harmed at all and that, I say, is worth the time and energy of every man, woman, and child.

Beckley: Families like the Haans, of Cairo in Tippecanoe County, worked long days in the fields and yet still volunteered to man the tower throughout the night, almost as an act of defiance in the face of a seemingly overwhelming enemy. The simple act of sitting in a tower, scanning the night sky, knowing that other Hoosiers were doing the same, must have provided them with some sense of security during a time of widespread fear and anxiety.

In direct contrast to the democratic, collaborative effort of the Ground Observer Corps of Cold War America stood the aggressive and at times combative tactics employed by various levels of leadership throughout the Red Scare.

Historic audio: [gavel] Order please. This committee, under its mandate from the House of Representatives, has the responsibility of exposing and spotlighting subversive elements wherever they may exist.

Beckley: Often, when we think of McCarthysim and blacklisting, our minds leap to the Hollywood 10 and perhaps loyalty oaths. But another group widely targeted during this time were academics at universities across the nation. One early instance of this occurred in southern Indiana at Evansville College, now the University of Evansville.

Yale University graduate George Parker was brought onto the college staff in 1946 to teach religion and philosophy. When Parker arrived at the campus, he would have found a recently expanded student body made up largely of World War II veterans and a city dominated by conservative beliefs. As the Cold War heated up in the 2 years after his arrival, the students grew ever more anxious and ever less willing to trust alternative viewpoints. Parker, who espoused no specific political affiliation but generally supported “liberal” positions, may have felt out of place in the increasingly conservative landscape of Evansville College. If so, he wasn’t the only one. One student wrote to the editor of the school’s newspaper, saying:

Voice actor reading from letter: “There are two dangers inherent to a student body from such a present hysteria – the first and greatest lies in the overwhelming readiness of students to condemn as ‘Communistic’ any statement or practice which does not agree with their own thoughts; without regard to truth or facts, the average student will unfailingly dismiss such thoughts by applying the current most devastating censure – ‘Communistic.’”

Beckley: It was in this atmosphere that the presidential election of 1948 began revving up and the field included former vice-president Henry A. Wallace, running on the Progressive Party ticket.

Wallace audio: I announce that I will run as an independent candidate in 1948 for President of the United States.

Beckley: Wallace’s platform consisted of a string of progressive policies such as school desegregation, gender equality, a national health insurance program, and, most importantly to this story, he supported improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, something he believed would benefit both countries.

His willingness to work with the Soviet Union earned the ire of conservatives and moderates across the country but he remained popular in liberal circles – 15 percent of poll respondents approved of his platform just after he announced his candidacy. Not too bad for a 3rd party candidate. One of those who approved of his message was Professor Parker who soon took on the post of chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace organization.

Evansville College President Lincoln Hale was unenthused. He later stated that:

Voice actor reading quote: “within a week I called Mr. Parker in for a conference. I made it quite clear to him that further participation in such an official political capacity would prove embarrassing to me and would be certain to seriously harm Evansville College.”

Beckley: Hale was acting in what he thought was the best interest of the college. In order for the school to thrive, it needed the support of the community. And having a staff member acting in an official capacity for a figure that was so unpopular in conservative circles didn’t bode well for community support. Parker, on the other hand, knew that he was well within his rights to continue in the position. And the position was only temporary – Parker was planning to leave during the summer to work on his doctorate, and he told Hale as much.

Parker wasn’t breaking any rules. In fact, it was his right to be politically active in his free time, regardless of who he was supporting. Therefore, Parker had no plans to set aside his political activism and no rules or regulations barred him from such activities. In fact, as chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace, Parker coordinated a campaign event in Evansville, scheduled for April 6, where Henry Wallace himself would deliver a speech promoting the conversion of wartime industry to peacetime uses.

As the day of Wallace’s appearance neared, tensions mounted. Local newspapers, businesses, and veterans organizations voiced their displeasure about the event. Two hours before the event was to begin, protesters began gathering for a parade to the coliseum in which the politician would appear. By the time Wallace supporters began arriving, they were met with a crowd of over 2000 protesters, many of whom were shouting accusations of communist affiliation.

The leader of the protest, Arthur Robinson, intoned,

Voice actor: “That group in Memorial Coliseum tonight and their candidate, Henry Wallace, are enemies to the American way of life.”

Beckley: As the meeting started, the crowd outside the building grew more and more restless. Windows were shattered. Doors were pounded in. And before Wallace even arrived at the venue, the protestors pushed their way into the coliseum lobby, forcing attendees of the event to barricade the doors with metal chairs. Several Wallace supporters entered the lobby in an attempt to calm the crowd, but soon returned after being struck by the protestors. After some time, local police arrived and were able to clear the protestors from the lobby and Wallace was finally able to make his speech without much further disturbance.

Wallace audio: We can turn towards darkness, destruction and death. Or towards light, peace, and abundance.

Beckley: Four days later, Evansville College announced the dismissal of George Parker. In the aftermath, students protested on the basis of free speech. Later, there was a report by the American Association of University Professors stating that Parker had not violated any guidelines. Despite this, Parker would never work at Evansville College again, making him among the first of a long list of Americans striped of their livelihoods due to accusations of un-American-ness.

Americans – and Hoosiers – reacted to the perceived threat of war in thousands of ways. We continue to feel the echoes of this tenuous time in American history. We can look to the past and see Americans who met peril with volunteerism. Others met the same peril with fear that overrode their democratic principles. Today, we are faced once again with mounting tensions between the United States and Russia. We’re confronting a similar question: how do we preserve democratic ideals and liberties while fighting infiltration. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the not-so-distant past.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Today’s episode was based largely on two articles. For the Ground Observer Corps portion, I relied on Nicole Poletika’s graduate thesis “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!’ Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense through the Ground Observer Corps.” And for the second segment I turned to Oakland City University’s Dr. Randy Mills’ article “The Real Violence at Evansville,” The Firing of Professor George F. Parker.” Both articles are linked in the show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration. Visit blog.histori.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and Facebook as Indiana Historical Bureau. And please take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Blue Skies, Pink Slips.

Articles

Poletika, Nicole, “Wake Up! Sign up! Look up!:” Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense Through the Ground Observer Corps, 1949-1959, Indiana University Graduate Thesis, 2013.

Mills, Randy, “The Real Violence at Evansville”: The Firing of Professor George F. Parker, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 2. 

Walter Dorwin Teague’s “World of Tomorrow”

Walter Dorwin Teague, courtesy of North Carolina State University.

Visit the ultra-sleek website of the industrial design firm TEAGUE and you will see the echoes of company founder and namesake Walter Dorwin Teague. TEAGUE touts “we design experiences for people and things in motion.” This could easily have been declared in 1939 when Teague applied his experience as an industrial designer to the New York World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow.”

Walter Dorwin Teague’s story starts in the house of a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in Decatur, Indiana. Here, Walter was born on December 18, 1883, the youngest of six children to Reverend M.A. Teague and Hettie Teague. By late 1889, the family had settled in Pendleton, where Teague graduated high school in 1902. Teague credits his time in Pendleton, and particularly a book on the history of architecture from the Pendleton High School library, with setting him on the path that would eventually lead him to become a dominant force in American industrial design.

Walter Dorwin Teague designed the Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and its packaging, seen here. The Baby Brownie, sold for just $1, is credited with helping popularize amateur photography. Image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Soon after his graduation, Teague moved to New York City to study at The Art Students League of New York. However, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Teague discovered his life’s passion: industrial design. He was early to the game – in the decade after Teague scored his first major contract with Eastman Kodak in 1928, mentions of the phrase “industrial designer” in printed material increased 40 fold. Many sources consider Walter Dorwin Teague to be one of the five founders of industrial design in the United States, along with Henry Dreyfuss, Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes.

In the decade after his first contract with Kodak, Teague designed for the likes of Boeing, Texaco, the Marmon Motor Company, and Ford Motor Company. He built lasting business relationships with many of these companies, and in some cases those relationships went beyond the designing of products. In the early 1930s, Henry Ford turned to Walter Dorwin Teague to design a cutting-edge exhibit hall for the 1934 re-opening of the Chicago World’s Fair, themed “Century of Progress.” The exhibition featured a wide array of elements, including a museum, industrial barn, and gardens tied together by–what else–design.

Interior of the Ford Pavilion at the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress. This diorama shows the extraction of different materials used in automobile production. Image courtesy of Hemmings Daily.

According to historian Roland Marchand, the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress:

ushered in a period of striking convergence between an increasing corporate sensitivity to public relations and the applications of designers’ expertise to display strategies. More than ever before, the great fairs became arenas for the public dramatization of corporate identities.

Gone were the sales-driven exhibits of the past, in which company representatives pitched the latest and greatest Ford products. With Teague at the helm, salesmen were replaced by young, affable college students. Product demonstrations were replaced by art, dioramas, and museums. Pressure to buy was replaced with entertainment, as well as information about the concepts behind and benefits of featured products. These innovations made the exhibit a hit of the fair and Walter Dorwin Teague a highly sought after exhibition hall designer.

In the wake of the successful Ford project, Teague designed exhibits for a number of regional fairs. He designed for Ford in San Diego (1935), Dallas (1936) and Cleveland (1936), and for Du Pont and Texaco in Dallas (1936). These smaller exhibits were a trial of sorts for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which would become Teague’s crowning achievement in the realm of exhibit design.

Cover, New York World’s Fair 1939 Brochure, from the Collections of The Henry Ford.

For the New York World’s Fair, which was themed “The World of Tomorrow,” Teague designed the exhibition halls for heavy-hitters like Ford, U.S. Steel, Du Pont, National Cash Register (NCR), Consolidated Edison Company, Eastman Kodak, A.B. Dick, Bryany Heater Company, and parts of the United States Government Building. In addition, Teague served on the official Design Board, the lone industrial designer among a group of architects.

One might assume that with so much on his plate, Teague would have moved towards a more hands-off approach at the 1939 fair. However, he was deeply involved in the conceptualization process. While on previous projects he had simply put the finishing touches on an already developed idea or perhaps added design elements around an existing exhibit plan, by 1939, Teague was involved in “the fundamental work of determining what [the] exhibit should be.” Employing lessons learned at the 1934 Century of Progress, Teague determined that exhibits should include animation and audience participation whenever possible. He and his team also began using phrases such as “visual dramatization” and “industrial showmanship” to describe their work. The resulting 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibits reflected the evolution of his design approach.

Exterior of Du Pont’s “Wonder World of Chemistry,” designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. Image courtesy of Curbed New York blog; The “Tower of Research,” from the cover of the June 1939 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, accessed with the Hagley Digital Archive.

Du Pont, the company responsible for developments such as Kevlar, Teflon, neoprene, and Freon, had high expectations for their exhibit. In the November 1938 issue of The Du Pont Magazine, the company promised, “a panorama of man’s triumphs over his environment, of the progress he has made in building a new nation and a new civilization, of the hopes and plans he has for creating a better world in the future” and to illustrate “chemistry’s part in making the United States more self-sufficient.”

The resulting exhibition building, featuring a 120-foot “Tower of Research” inspired by test tubes, literally towered over passersby. The essential element of animation was incorporated through lights and bubbles that flowed through the test tubes and brought the structure to life. Inside the building were a variety of displays that highlighted the role of chemistry in the modern world–and painted a picture of what the “World of Tomorrow” could look like with further investments in the sciences. Displays followed the production process from raw materials to laboratory testing, and finally to manufacturing. Still other exhibits featured technicians weaving rayon, making cellophane, and demonstrating various techniques used in producing Du Pont materials. From the Tower of Research to fully functional displays to a plethora of dioramas, every aspect of Teague’s design employed the tenets of visual dramatization, industrial showmanship, and educational entertainment.

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Ford Building Model, courtesy of New York Public Library New York World’s Fair (1939-1940) Collection.

The same tenets were present in Teague’s development of the Ford building. Whereas a tower drew visitor’s eyes towards the Du Pont building, a metallic sculpture of the Roman god Mercury–symbolizing “fleet, effortless travel”–attracted exhibit-goers. Inside the exhibition hall, a 70-foot-high moving mural made of automobile parts, planned by Teague and designed by Henry Billings, welcomed visitors to the Ford building. The theme, “From Earth to Ford V-8,” was depicted in the “Cycle of Production,” a massive revolving wedding cake-like structure with three tiers. On the bottom tier, small animated figures harvested raw materials such as cotton, wool, and wood. On the next tier, figures processed those raw materials into cloth and boards. Finally, on the top tier, those products were incorporated into the final product – the wildly popular 1939 Ford V-8, a finished version of which adorned the top of the turntable. Surrounding the “Cycle of Production” were live demonstrations of the production process depicted in the display.

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Even more so than in the Du Pont exhibition, Teague incorporated a plethora of entertainment elements into the Ford pavilion. The same figures from the Cycle of Production were featured in a Technicolor film, telling the story of Ford production. Visitors watched the history of transportation unfold in the form of a live musical drama and ballet. They also watched race car drivers demonstrating the abilities of Ford cars on an outdoor track. Teague united these seemingly disparate parts through design to tell the story of Ford’s impact on the world–whether that be in job creation, technological advancement, or simply as an amusing diversion.

The features seen in these two exhibition buildings could be found to varying degrees in Teague’s other designs at the fair. The U.S. Steel building consisted of a 66-foot-high stainless steel hemisphere, an early example of a building designed to highlight, rather than mask, its steel structural supports. The National Cash Register exhibit was perhaps the least innovative, yet most striking of Teague’s 1939 World’s Fair designs–it was simply a gigantic, working cash register which displayed the fair attendance numbers. Inside, various models of NCR registers were shown being used in exotic locals around the world. For Consolidated Edison’s “The City of Light” display, Teague recreated New York City by building 4,000 scale buildings. The diorama came to life to depict a day in the city–the printing press of the Brooklyn Eagle whirred, a family lounged on a porch listening to the radio, and a six-car subway sped through the display.  These innovative features developed by the industrious Hoosier and his design firm would be the central design elements in exhibition halls for decades to come.

Walter Dorwin Teague is best remembered as the “Dean of Industrial Design.” His impact on corporate exhibitions has largely been forgotten with the diminishing role of exhibits in modern life. But at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the impact of this industrious Hoosier was impossible to ignore.

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