Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell
Created by Robert Ervin Coker, 1921, courtesy of University of Washington, accessed Wikipedia.

leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood. Image courtesy of Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910. The man on the far left, second row, in the black apron is Andrew Jackson Wigner, the great-grandfather of Trisha Johns who submitted the photo, accessed https://www.wvgenweb.org/pleasants/workmen.htm)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that. there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks‘ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister
Image courtesy of Google Books.

Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.


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Santa Claus, Indiana: “A Land of Fantasy”

Handpainted sign in for Santa Claus, Spencer County, Indiana, circa 1945, courtesy of the Tara L. Uebelhor Bayse Collection of the Indiana Album.

“Nestled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, lies a land of fantasy. . . where it’s Christmas every day.”

Indiana has its fair share of uniquely named towns – Gnaw Bone, Popcorn, Pinhook, Needmore, and Pumpkin Center to name a few. But perhaps the most well-known idiosyncratic place name is Santa Claus in Spencer County, Indiana.

So, how did we get this intriguing sobriquet? Before we get there, we should cover some of the history of the area. The Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes first stewarded the land that later became Spencer County. At the turn of the 19th century, many of these tribes joined Tecumseh’s confederation to oppose white encroachment. However, both U.S. policy and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803 and the Treaty of Vincennes in 1804 opened the land to white settlement. Crossing over from Kentucky, white settlers established permanent homes by 1810 in the Indiana territory near Rockport on the Ohio River, 17 miles southwest of modern-day Santa Claus. But by the mid-nineteenth century when settlers decided to incorporate their new town, they did not originally pay such homage to the Christmas holiday.

As with many place names, the origin of the name Santa Claus is mostly the stuff of legend. The Indiana State University Folklore Archive has preserved three versions of the story behind the name Santa Claus. Below is one example:

Several families settled in the area and decided that they should have a name for their community. They decided on Santa Fe. They applied for a post office to make it official. On Christmas of 1855, everyone was greatly excited at the thought of going to their own brand new post office for their Christmas cards and gifts instead of having to ride to Dale. Unfortunately, a large white envelope with important seals arrived the day before Christmas to reveal that a town in Indiana already was named Santa Fe. Determined to get their post office just as quickly as possible, the citizens of Santa Fe decided to discuss the matter that very night, Christmas Eve. While they were signing, the whole world outdoors became filled with an intense, blinding light, and a little boy came rushing in. ‘The Star, the Christmas star is falling! Everyone rushed out just in time to see a flaming mass shooting down from the heavens and crash into a low distant hill. They considered it an omen of good fortune. Returning to the meeting, it seemed to most natural thing for all the folk to agree that the name Santa Fe should be changed to Santa Claus.

This account is certainly embellished to some extent, seeing as the “Christmas Star” (which appears in the sky every twenty years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the winter sky) made its last appearance in 2020 and did not, in fact, fall from the sky in 1855. However, it gives us an idea of why Santa Claus citizens themselves believe to be their origin story.

However it happened, the townsfolk eventually decided on Santa Claus as a replacement name, and the Santa Claus post office was officially established on May 21, 1856.

James Martin, courtesy of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.

For years, however, the strangely named town was just that – a town with a strange name. It wasn’t until Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin began answering letters written to Saint Nick in the early 20th century that the town began truly embracing its merry moniker. It’s unclear when or why letters to the man at the North Pole began arriving at the Santa Claus, Indiana post office, but in 1914 Martin began writing back, and the tradition only grew from there.

Mail clerks around the country began rerouting letters simply addressed “Santa Claus” to the Indiana town for Martin to handle. Parents began writing notes with enclosed letters or packages to be stamped with the Santa Claus postmark and sent back, making the letters and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning that much more authentic.

Santa Claus, Indiana post office, courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

By 1928, Martin and his clerks were, not unlike Santa and his elves, handling thousands of letters every holiday season and were garnering enough attention to catch the eye of Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Before Ripley’s was an after school tv show and before it was a coffee table book you bought at your school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair, it was a syndicated newspaper panel that shared interesting tidbits and oddities from around the world. And on January 7, 1930, the oddity in question was none other than Santa Claus, Indiana.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not Newspaper Panel, (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, January 7, 1930, 15.

It was a brief mention, but it was enough. The next Christmas, Martin reported that the number of parcels and letters coming through his post office had grown exponentially, adding:

I guess my name ought to be Santa Claus, because I have to pay out of my own pocket for handling all this mail. I’ve hired six clerks to help out and I recon it’s going to cost $200. But it advertises the town and besides lots of folks from all around come out to the store to see us sending out the mail.

With great fame comes great scrutiny, or at least it did in this case. By 1931, the Associated Press reported that officials in Washington were considering changing the name of the town as the stress put on the postal system during the holiday season was becoming too much to handle. Christmas lovers across the country bemoaned the potential loss, but none so loudly as the citizens of Santa Claus, who contacted their U.S. Senator James Watson and U.S. Representative John Boehne, of Indiana.

Watson and Boehne got to work for their constituents. Representative Boehne notified the USPS that the entire Indiana delegation would oppose the name change if it were to go forward. Senator Watson took a more direct route and went straight to Postmaster General Walter Brown to assure him that, “The people won’t want it changed. “ “The name must not be changed nor the office abolished.”

In the end, of course, the citizens were able to preserve their beloved town’s name, and the tradition continued to grow.

Entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the Christmas spirit, began to take notice of the small town. In 1935, Vincennes speculator Milt Harris founded the business called Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated. Harris erected Santa’s Candy Castle, the first tourist attraction in town. Built to look like a fairy castle and filled with candy from project sponsor Curtiss Candy Company, the Candy Castle was the centerpiece of what Harris dubbed Santa Claus Town, a little holiday village of sorts made up of his business ventures. The castle would eventually be joined by Santa’s Workshop and a toy village.

Candy Castle postcard, 1937, courtesy of the Evan Finch Collection of the Indiana Album.

Across town, a different, similarly named business, Santa Claus, Incorporated, brainchild of Chicago businessman Carl Barrett, built another Yuletide monument, a 22-foot tall statue of Santa Claus purportedly made of solid granite. This colossal Kris Kringle was the start of a second Christmas themed landmark, this one called Santa Claus Park. All of this in a town of fewer than 100 people.

Both attractions were dedicated during the Christmas season of 1935, but all the holiday spirit in the world wasn’t enough to keep the peace between Harris and Barrett.

By 1935, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was home to two organizations – Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Carl Barrett, and Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Milt Harris. Barrett and Santa Claus, Incorporated were developing Santa Claus Park, which featured the 22-foot Santa Claus statue.  Harris and his company were developing Santa Claus Town, featuring Santa’s Candy Castle. Barrett filed suit against Harris, alleging that the latter had no right to use a name so similar to its own. Meanwhile, Harris filed suit against Barrett because Barrett had bought and was building Santa Claus Park on land that had been leased to Harris by the previous owner.

A judge put an injunction on Santa Claus Park, meaning Barrett could not move forward with development. Eventually, this tongue twister of a case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 1940 that both companies could keep using their names and overturned the injunction, meaning that the plans for Santa Claus Park could move forward, regardless of Harris’s lease.

However, the protracted legal battle, combined with wartime rationing, which impacted tourism due to gasoline and tire shortages, took a toll on both attractions. By 1943, cracks ran through the base of the giant Santa Statue and the Candy Castle had closed its doors.

Entrance to Santa Claus Land, 1951, courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah.

With the end of the war came new opportunities. In 1946, retired Evansville industrialist and father of nine, Louis Koch, opened Santa Claus Land after being disappointed that the town had little to offer visiting children hoping to catch a glimpse of the jolly man in the red suit. This theme park, reportedly the first amusement park in the world with a specific theme, included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed rides and, of course, Saint Nicholas.

This was no run of the mill Santa Claus, though. Jim Yellig would become, according to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, “one of the most beloved and legendary Santas of all time.” Yellig had donned the red and white suit at the Candy Castle and volunteered to answer letters to Santa for years before becoming the resident Santa at the new park, a position which he held for 38 years. During his tenure as Saint Nick, Yellig heard the Christmas wishes of over one million children.

Jim Yellig, Santa Claus at Santa Claus Land, courtesy of the Allen County Public Library Digital Collections.
Santa Claus Land advertisement, Princeton Daily Clarion, September 25, 1957, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

Throughout “Santa Jim’s” tenure, Santa Claus Land continued to grow, thanks in large part to Louis Koch’s son, Bill Koch, who took over operation of the park soon after its founding. By 1957, the park offered a “miniature circus,” a wax museum, Santa’s Deer Farm, and an outdoor  amphitheater. Live entertainment shows, such as a water ski show, started and in the early 1970s rides such as Dasher’s Seahorses, Comet’s Rockets, Blitzen’s Airplanes, and Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round were added. And in 1984, the Koch family expanded from a strictly Christmas-themed park to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections and changed its name to Holiday World. Still in operation today as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the theme park, which features what are considered some of the best wooden roller coasters in the world, welcomes over 1 million people per year.

Current Santa Claus, Indiana welcome sign, courtesy of Santa Claus, Indiana.

Today, the town of Santa Claus is more “Christmas-y” than ever. Many of its 2,400 residents live in Christmas Lake Village or Holiday Village on streets with names like Poinsettia Drive, Candy Cane Lane, or Evergreen Plaza. The Candy Castle was renovated and reopened in 2006 and is known for its wide selection of cocoas and its Frozen Hot Chocolate. Carl Barrett’s 22-foot Santa Statue was restored by Holiday World in 2011 and now welcomes tourists from all over the world. Visitors to Holiday World can stay at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Park or Santa’s Lodge. Every Christmas season, the small town comes alive with festivals, parades, and even Christmas fireworks. And, of course, dedicated volunteers still answer children’s letters to Santa, even if they sound a little different than they used to.

The Crusader: J. Frank Hanly and the Election of 1916

Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916?  The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson.  The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes.  You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916?  If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong.  After being the  Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.

The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement.  As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors.  The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections.  For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.

The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.
The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Source: Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1904.

According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.

He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.

Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894, from Hoosier State Chronicles.
Governor J. Frank Hanly and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Governor J. Frank Hanly (Center) and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:

Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.

Jasper Weekly Courier, April 10, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

The type of “strong and effective laws” that Hanly wanted came in the form of a “county local option bill,” which Hanly foisted upon the Indiana General Assembly via a special session. This law strengthened the intent of the Nicholson Law, which required extended waiting periods for liquor licenses. Hanly saw this as the first step towards state-wide prohibition, but his opposition saw it as an opportunity. Due to his heavy-handed use of executive power during 1908, the Republican gubernatorial candidate James E. Watson was easily defeated by the Democratic challenger, Thomas Marshall.

Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:

I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.

To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).

Over the next eight years, Hanly dedicated himself to his cause with a near-religious fervor. He wrote and published pamphlets calling for stricter laws for state liquor trafficking and for nation-wide prohibition. He also formed an organization called the Flying Squadron Foundation that routinely gave speeches throughout the country in defense of outlawing alcohol.  He also founded a prohibitionist newspaper, the National Enquirer (not to be confused with the supermarket tabloid).

Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.

Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in the Jasper Weekly Courier.  On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.

Dr. Ira Landrith (Left) and J. Frank Hanly (Right) shaking hands at their nomination ceremony for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential nominations for the Prohibition Party, respectively. Source: Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1916.

His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.

Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.

Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis News covered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.

Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Of the returns, Hanly was delighted despite his small showing at the polls.  He stated, “I believe that of all the presidential candidates at the last election, I am the happiest. The returns were no disappointment to me.” Despite the Prohibition Party’s electoral loss, the prohibition movement made great strides after the election. The News wrote“More than one-third of the people of the whole nation now live in territory where prohibition will be effective.” After the election Hanly remained an active prohibition proponent.  He played a key role in lobbying for the state-wide prohibition of alcohol by 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandated prohibition across the United States. Hanly celebrated its implementation by introducing National Dry Federation President William Jennings Bryan at a meeting in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”

Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.

Death Through the (P)ages: Funeral Homes in Indiana

Muncie Funeral Parlor, 1910s. Indiana Memory.

During the month of Halloween, it seemed fitting to do a blog about the history of funeral parlors and funeral homes in Indiana. The funeral parlor, or funeral home, became a mainstay of American life in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Before that, most American families held a wake (now called a “viewing”) in their home, in a room often named the parlor. Then, they were either buried on the family homestead or in the cemetery by their church. The Civil War changed that; massive numbers of dead soldiers from across the country prompted new funerary practices, such as embalming and preserving for long trips. After the war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class facilitated further modernization of funerals. It was here that the funeral parlor, or funeral home, became the norm. In this blog, we will share with you how the funeral homes of Indiana’s past often advertised themselves in newspapers and how they developed into the modern, standardized industry that they are today.

Isaac Ball, the co-founder and first president of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association. Find a Grave.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 21, 1881. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The modern Indiana funeral industry began in the 1880s, with the establishment of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association (IFDA). It was founded in 1880-81 by a group of undertakers led by funeral pioneer Isaac Ball. Ball and company wanted to modernize and standardize their practices, making it less macabre and more inviting to the public. One of the first steps that they took was a name change. No longer would leaders within the industry refer to themselves as “undertakers;” the preferred term under the IFDA was “funeral director,” hence the organization’s name. In fact, the Bloomington Progress even published as much in their June 1, 1881 issue: “An undertaker will hereafter be known as a ‘funeral director,’ at least that is the name the State organization has assumed.” Ball served as the IFDA’s first president at their first annual convention in Indianapolis. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail published a short mention of the conference in their May 21 1881 issue, ironically noting that “It was an odd coincidence that the State Medical Association was in session at the capital at the same time.”

Coots and Willey’s Funeral Parlor, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1897. Indiana Memory.

While “funeral director” became the accepted industry term, it took a few years for funeral homes around the state to use the term. Some of the earliest uses of “funeral director” found in Hoosier State Chronicles are in the Indianapolis News. Its April 21, 1899 issue printed a funeral director section on its classified page; similar funeral director sections from the classified pages can be found in 1916 and 1918, respectively. Individual funeral directors, such as Indianapolis’s Frank W. Flanner & Charles J. Buchanan, adopted the term as early as 1888.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal , June 14 1901. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These examples are the general listings for funeral homes and funeral directors; there are also many newspaper advertisements that document the change in funeral homes over time. One of the earliest paid ads found in Hoosier State Chronicles was for the Athens Funeral Parlor, run by William D. McClelland in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1901. McClelland fully purchased the business in June of 1901 and published a formal announcement in the June 7 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal:

Having purchased the Interest of my partner, W. W. McCann, in the undertaking business, situated on south Water street, (Thomas block) I submit my services to the public of this city and county, competent in the business and profession which each and every family have to support sooner or later. My equipments [sic] are of the best, and stock first class, and at reasonable prices, and each one will be treated with only kindness and respect. Death comes to all and the great responsibility of the care is taken from the family in this sad and distressful hour. Hoping that you may feel when you place your confidence in me that it will be for carried out to the letter,

I Remain Your Friend

W. D. MCCLELLAND.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, May 2, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another ad ran in a 1902 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal. The later ad provided more details on the staff of the funeral parlor. Alongside McClelland’s title as “proprietor” and “licensed embalmer.” He also employed a “lady assistant” (to prepare the bodies of deceased women and girls) and a business assistant named James H. Robbins.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 12, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 9, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 11, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One demographic well documented in Hoosier State Chronicles, in regards to funeral homes and directors, is the African American community. George W. Frierson, originally from Nashville, Tennessee and then Louisville, Kentucky, established a funeral parlor at 632 Indiana Avenue (near the Walker Theatre) in 1907. The first published ad for Frierson’s funeral parlor ran in the January 12, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. About a month later, a new ad ran in the Recorder confirming that Frierson partnered with James B. Garner, an embalmer. Frierson served as the “proprietor” and Garner as the “manager.” Like McClelland back in Crawfordsville, they also had a “lady attendant.” Frierson maintained his funeral parlor until at least 1914, at which point it was located at 642 Indiana Avenue.

W. A. Gaines Funeral Home, Evansville, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Portrait of W. A. Gaines, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Evansville Argus, September 26, 1942. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another key African American funeral parlor owner was Wallace A. Gaines of Evansville. Gaines founded the W. A. Gaines Company in 1918 with wife Tillie Y. Gaines and Rudolph D. O’Hara and $5,000 in initial capital, according to the Indianapolis News. It ran ads in Evansville newspapers for decades, with the particular ad in the September 10, 1938 issue of the Argus being an example. Gaines died in 1940, but his funeral home operated until at least 1989, when the last mention of its operation was made in the Indianapolis Recorder. It was then run by Michael J. Bluitt, who owned the funeral home and served as one of IFDA’s presidents.

Richmond Palladium, October 26, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While funeral parlor ads generally represented newspaper coverage, pithy anecdotes also made the cut. An interesting story out of Chicago and published in the Richmond Palladium noted that “Eighty women, playing cards for a prize, adjourned their game to an undertaking room and continued playing . . . with several coffins . . . .” The ladies moved to the funeral parlor “after the police had broken up their game at the home of Mrs. Clara Dermot.” It is unclear whether or not the coffins were occupied.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Up in the north, the city of South Bend maintained a few funeral parlors in the early 20th century. Harry L. Yerrick ran a funeral business in the 1910s in South Bend, as sort of a jack-of-all-trades with funerals. In a 1915 ad in the South Bend News-Times, Yerrick declared that “I am as near to you as your telephone” and cited multiple services, including a chapel, an ambulance, and a carriage. Yerrick died in 1920 and Clem C. Whiteman and Forest G. Hay took over the business. Whiteman owned a wholesale grocery company and Hay was the partner given “active charge of the business for the present.” In September of 1920, James H. McGann joined the business as their “licensed embalmer”, holding “one of the highest grades in the state” for his profession. Over the decades, McGann eventually created his own funeral home business while Hay’s also flourished. In 2005, after multiple generations of their respective businesses, they merged to form the McGann-Hay Company. The funeral home is now based in Granger, Indiana. What started as one guy’s profession became a decades-long, family-run business that still operates today.

Casket With the Body of a Young Woman named Clara, Spiceland, Indiana, 1900s. Indiana Memory.

By the late 1920s, newspapers published more elaborate, detailed funeral home ads to share the services they offered. John A. Patton’s Funeral Home on Boulevard Place ran an ad describing its “thoughtful service” in the February 12, 1927 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. The ad declared:

After the last rites are said over a departed relative, and the family recalls with comforting satisfaction the smooth attentive manner in which everything was executed, then comes a realization of the assuaging helpfulness of the thoughtful funeral director.

It is this faithful service that endears the funeral director in the hearts [of] families and in such manner we have built up our business. Our desire always is to serve in a thoughtful dignified way.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 12, 1927. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The texts reads like a service itself, with keen attention paid to the grieving families and an emphasis on dignity and thoughtfulness. This wasn’t the only ad from the period like this. When Nannie Harrison reopened her late husband’s funeral parlor in 1929, she published a nearly half-page ad in the Recorder. Pitching it as the “most modern funeral parlor,” Harrison’s ad proclaimed that families “will be satisfied at so complete a service for the benefit of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . .”

Knightstown Buggy Company Catalog, 1920s. Indiana Memory.
Indianapolis Recorder, January 19, 1929. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This trend continued into the 1930s. The Willis Mortuary in Indianapolis published an ad in a 1936 issue of the Recorder that called it their “honor to serve you in your hour of bereavement” and “endeavor[ed] to live up to your greatest expectations.” Nearly a decade after the illustrious grand reopening of the Harrison funeral parlor, brothers Plummer and Carey Jacobs opened up their Indianapolis Funeral Home on October 30, 1938. Two days before, they took out a whole-page ad in the Recorder to inform the public of their formal opening, including a full program of events and photographs of their new facilities. A few days later, the Recorder ran an unsolicited article about the Jacobs Brothers Funeral Home grand opening. “Marking another milestone in the increasingly brilliant parade of business activities among colored persons,” the Recorder reported, “thousands of persons swarms the new eastside funeral home of Jacobs Brothers in an unbroken stream Sunday.” They further added that the “general comment is that this is finest funeral home in the city for our people.” The Jacobs brothers had joined a long, historic line of groundbreaking, African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Recorder, October 29, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, November 5, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As the 1940s went along, not only did funeral home ads get more detailed, but the funeral home section did as well. A 1949 issue in the Indianapolis Recorder dedicated an entire newspaper column to fully detailed and illustrated funeral home ads, for such businesses as the Willis Mortuary, King & King Funeral Home, and the aforementioned Jacobs brothers. However, some papers, like the Sullivan Daily Times, stuck to a more simple approach to funeral homes, with one, non-detailed ad for the McHugh funeral home and a smaller ad for M. J. Aikin & Son.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 26, 1949. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Speaking of the King & King funeral home, one of their more unique ads ran in the winter of 1951. King & King released a full-page ad on December 22 wishing the community a Merry Christmas. It came with a holiday message, much akin to a greeting card, and advertised the funeral home at the bottom, emphasizing their “Ambulance Service.” Now, if this strikes the reader as odd, other funeral homes engaged in this practice. As an example, a December 1963 ad in the Wolcott Beacon from the Foster Funeral Home wished readers a happy new year. They didn’t, however, advertise their ambulance service.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 22, 1951. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Wolcott Beacon, December 26, 1963. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The 1960s brought further experimentation to funeral home ads in newspapers. A rather clever ad in the Greencastle Daily Banner displayed the Whitaker Funeral home, who used their ad space to share with readers a short fable. “Experience is a bad teacher,” the story declared in its final line, “she gives the test first; the lesson afterwards.” Using ad space to share an amusing homily while advertising a funeral business appears inappropriate, but it actually elicits from readers a humble, personal connection that personifies the best in advertising.

Greencastle Daily Banner. February 19, 1968. Hoosier State Chronicles.
J. A. DeMoney & Son Funeral Parlor, Columbia City, Indiana, circa 1960. Indiana Memory.

Ads and business articles about funeral homes comprise the majority of coverage in newspapers, but occasional editorials surfaced as well. In the April 21, 1972 issue of the Jewish Post, Rabbi Maurice Davis wrote a heavily critical editorial concerning a funeral practice, not of the directors, but of the visitors. Entitled, “Visiting at Funeral Parlor as Un-Jewish as They Come,” Rabbi Davis lambasted the practice of a “wake” the night before a funeral, arguing that the “pre-funeral chapel visitation” goes against Jewish traditions of shiva (meeting with the family at their home after the funeral) and violates the mourners’ rights to privacy. “I only wish,” Rabbi Davis wrote, “that more of our people would know the origin, and move away from the practice of this distasteful custom.” The wake has continued to be a common practice at funerals since Davis’s time, but his editorial educates readers on traditional Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish Post, April 21, 1972. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Circling back to advertising, funeral homes often used their newspaper space to celebrate their anniversary as a business. The Hopkins Funeral Home put out an ad in the Greencastle Banner Graphic in 1973 celebrating their 20th anniversary. “We are proud of the reputation for dependability that we have in servicing Putnam County for 20 years. Feel confident in turning to us in your hour of need,” the full-page ad lauded.

Greencastle Banner Graphic, December 13, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ads from the 1980s and 90s highlighted the benefits of pre-arranging funerals, an expanding practice during the last 30 years. Summers Funeral Chapels published an ad in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1989 selling the benefits of pre-arranged funerals, noting that “making arrangements ahead of time has become the smart thing to do.” The Meridian Hills Mortuary sent out an ad in a 1994 issue of the Jewish Post that also advocated for pre-arranged funerals. “Arranging a Funeral in advance of need is becoming more and more a choice of those who wish to relieve their family of the burden of making those arrangements at a time of emotional stress,” the ad stressed. This trend continued into the 2000s as well, with the Stuart Mortuary and the Washington Park North Cemetery and Funeral Center urging patrons to consider a pre-arranged funeral plan.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 14, 1989. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, February 9, 1994. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For over 120 years, funeral homes and funeral directors have gone from a small, burgeoning family enterprise to big business. Nevertheless, the focus on dignity, customer service, and the importance of family continued in the pages of newspaper ads. Whether it was Isaac Ball and the IFDA re-configuring an industry or modern funeral homes pitching pre-arranged funeral plans, the emphasis on being a caretaker for the bereaved has never wavered. Death is a sore topic of discussion; people fear it and often ignore it altogether. Yet, it’s as much as a part of life as a birth, a graduation, or a wedding. It also helps us understand how we live, as a culture. Funerals changed as America, and Indiana, changed; they evolved from mostly rural and familial affairs into urban and professionalized practices. In sharing this history, as it unfolds in the pages of newspapers, we understand a crucial part of Hoosier life over the last century.

Wheels of Corruption: Bicycles, Billy Blodgett, and the Allen Manufacturing Company

An "outing bicycle." Indiana Historical Society.
Hay & Willit’s Outing Bicycle, 1896, Indiana Historical Society.

During his long and storied career, Indianapolis-based investigative journalist William H. “Billy” Blodgett exhibited a penchant for exposing local corruption and unlawful business practices. One not entirely aboveboard business in particular caught his attention in the 1890s.

"Bicycling Etiquette," Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Bicycling Etiquette,” Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

During the Gilded Age, bicycles became a national phenomenon. With ever-changing designs and the lowering of costs, bicycles spurred social clubs, faced religious blow back, and even influenced clothing trends. As such, the need for bicycles exploded, with hundreds of different companies competing for their share of the marketplace. There were dozens of companies in Indiana alone.

Of these companies, the Allen Manufacturing Company garnered moderate success but attracted controversy. Founded in 1894 and later incorporated in 1895 by David F. Allen, David A. Coulter, James Murdock, and William B. Hutchinson, Allen Manufacturing maintained a peculiar corporate structure and political affiliation with the Democratic party. In some respects, you could have called the company a “Government-Sponsored Enterprise,” wherein the products made were sold in the marketplace but the labor and capital costs were funneled through government institutions. This is especially true of its labor force, comprised exclusively of prisoners from the State prison north in Michigan City. As reported by the Indianapolis News, “the convicts who work in the factory are to be paid 42 cents a day. Mr. French [the prison’s warden] says that 150 men will be employed in the factory.”

James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.
James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.

Before Blodgett’s investigative reporting on the company, the Indianapolis Journal published a pointed critique of Allen Manufacturing’s labor force. The piece referred to the venture as a “blow to honest labor” and argued that the lack of skilled bicycle makers will “glut the market with cheap wheels.” The article emphasized this point in a further passage:

At the price paid [for labor] the company will have a great advantage over the manufacturers of Indiana, and their employees will, of course, share in the loss by reason, if not through cheapened wages, then of less opportunity for work. The new venture is not likely to decrease their hostility to the prison labor system and the Democratic party of Indiana.

Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another piece in the Indianapolis News, possibly written by Blodgett, also criticized the company’s deep ties to political operatives, and in particular, founder David F. Allen. Allen was serving on the State Board of Tax Commissioners when the company was founded (but not incorporated), and if he didn’t leave the Board, he would be violating section 2,049 of the Indiana legal code. In other words, Allen and his business partners kept the public existence of the company private for nearly a year, incorporating on March 14, 1895, so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Public record of Allen Manufacturing's labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.
Public record of Allen Manufacturing’s labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.

While Allen Manufacturing was still an unincorporated entity, it struck a deal with the Indiana prison north in October 1894 to employ 150 prisoners at forty cents a day (lower than forty-two cents, as mentioned in the papers) for the next five years. The agreement was then amended in 1896 to remove twenty-five workers from the contract for another project. Again, this is a private consortium of well-connected political operatives setting up a business to take advantage of the state’s prison labor system .

At least the prisoners made a quality product. While I couldn’t find photographs of the bicycles, they were apparently made well enough to appear in a state-wide bicycle exhibition on January 28, 1896 at the Indianapolis Y.M.C.A. According to the Indianapolis Journal, the Allen Manufacturing Company displayed its bicycles with 14 other firms and the show also displayed artwork by T.C. Steele, among others. Allen Manufacturing also acquired the Meteor Bicycle Company, a nationally recognized firm located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and began manufacturing bikes under the name from 1896 to 1898. While the public face of their company seemed bright, its internal workings quickly began to unravel.

Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1897, Allen Manufacturing’s financial problems began bubbling to the surface. After the release of twenty-five prisoners from their contract at Indiana state prison north, its labor force wasn’t big enough to keep up with an order for 2,000 bicycles wheels. From there, the company ran up debts that were nearly impossible to reverse, taking out a mortgage to offset their losses. As reported by the Indianapolis News:

Edward Hawkins, of this city [Indianapolis], who has been appointed trustee under the mortgage, returned to-day from a meeting of the officers and directors of the company at Michigan City. The company, he says, found itself unable to pay its paper due, and executed a mortgage on the plant for the benefit of the banks that hold the paper.

Even though it paid off $6,500 owed to the state in October of 1897, Allen’s troubles continued. Hawkins was removed as mortgage trustee, more and more creditors were filing claims, and two court-appointed receivers stepped in to try to clean up the mess.

Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.

This is where Billy Blodgett’s articles began to shed light on the corruption. In January of 1898, Blodgett began a series of hard-hitting exposes in the Indianapolis News against Allen Manufacturing, writing of alleged abuses of state power, graft, and fraud. His first article, published on January 13, 1898, alleged that whole train-cars of bicycles were purchased by individual owners of the company, such as D. F. Allen and D. A. Coulter, and then shuffled around the assets for accounting purposes. Specifically, Allen purchased “$4,000 worth of bicycles,” transferred ownership to his son, and then “applied [the amount] on notes given to the Merchants’ National Bank of Lafayette.” The article also reaffirmed what many had suggested since the company’s founding. Namely, its public incorporation was made after key leaders removed themselves from conflicts of interest yet acted as an incorporated entity when it negotiated its labor contract with the prison.

The headline from Billy Blodgett's first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
The headline from Billy Blodgett’s first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, Blodgett published the next installment, writing of the company’s alleged fraud in connection to its stocks. The Chicago firm Morgan & Wright, who purchased the company’s manufacturing plant during its initial financial woes, alleged that Allen Manufacturing had used backdoor loans from the Merchant’s National Bank of Lafayette in order to inflate its asset value. “In other words,” Blodgett wrote, “Morgan & Wright will try to show [in court] that the total amount of money paid for the stock was $300,” rather than the $4,000 or $5,000 the company claimed.

Judge William Biddle, History of LaPorte County, Google Books.
Judge William Biddle, A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of LaPorte County, Indiana, Google Books.

Blodgett also reported another fascinating case of company misdirection. On October 15, 1897, LaPorte County Judge William B. Biddle ordered the company to stop selling any products and hand the reins over to receiver Alonzo Nichols. This order was ignored by Henry Schwager, another receiver appointed to the company in Michigan City. Biddle retaliated on November 23, issuing an order against the company at large and reaffirmed his previous decision. What came next is shocking:

. . . Sheriff McCormick went to Michigan City to take possession of the property. When he got there, he found the building of the Allen Manufacturing Company locked up, and he could not get in to make the levy, without using force. He was warned not to do this, so the sheriff and his deputies stood around on the outside of the prison, and as the carloads of property came out they seized them. He found the property at different points, and turned it all over to Nichols as receiver.

In other words, Sheriff N. D. McCormick and his deputies had to wait until the company didn’t think the authorities were looking before they could seize the goods. Even in the face of court orders, the Allen Manufacturing Company still tried to do things its own way, to disastrous results.

Headline for Blodgett's third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Headline for Blodgett’s third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billy Blodgett’s final big piece on Allen Manufacturing appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 15, 1898. In it, Blodgett tries to track down and interview company big-wigs David Coulter and David Allen. Blodgett wrote of Coulter that, “He is pleasant and affable, courteous and polite, but I might as well have talked to the Sphynx in Egypt, so far as getting any information from him.” Over the course of a short, frosty conversation between Blodgett and Coulter, the businessman declined to speak about any of the charges leveled against him and maintained his innocence. When Blodgett pressed him on some of the specific charges of defrauding investors, his “demeanor demonstrated that the interview was at an end. . . .”

As for Allen, he was unable to interview the man directly but spoke to one of his colleagues. Blodgett chronicled the exchange:

A few weeks ago Mr. Allen met this friend and said to him:

“You remember the evening you asked me to dinner with you in Chicago?”

“Yes, I remember.it distinctly.”

“Well, that failure to take dinner with you has cost me $5,000, and may cost me more.”

The friend understood from this that if Allen had not gone to the meeting at which the company was formed he would have been money ahead. This friend gives it as his opinion that every member of the Allen Manufacturing Company lost from $3,000 to $5,000 each.

In one corner, you have Coulter trying to hold things together and denying changes against him and Allen in the other allegedly remarking on how he and many others lost money. This inconsistency in the press didn’t help to make the public or the company’s shareholders feel any better about the situation.

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1898, the company was defunct in all but name. Bicycles manufactured under the “Meteor” brand ceased and the company’s remains were being settled in numerous court cases. In 1900, a Louisville, Kentucky court ruled that Allen Manufacturing had in fact defrauded Morgan & Wright out of at least one payment for a shipment of product. Another lawsuit, clearing Sherriff Nathan McCormick of any wrongdoing against court-appointed receivers, was settled in 1901 in U.S. Court and upheld in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1902.

Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blodgett did write a follow up article in 1901, noting that Indiana state prison north Warden Shideler resigned over allegations that he was a stockholder in the company at the time he was serving as Warden. It also indicated that labor contract developed by Allen, Coulter and others in 1894 was binding until 1904, with other companies stepping in to fill the void left by the demise of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Newspaper evidence suggests that Allen, Coulter, and many of the other big players never faced serious charges and that the company’s multiple lawsuits distracted from the other allegations leveled against them. Allen himself would eventually pursue other political offices, including Indiana Secretary of State, as well as serve in the Spanish-American War. He died in 1911, with the failure of his company firmly behind him.

Memorial plaque at David F. Allen's grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.
Memorial plaque at David F. Allen’s grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.

So what do we make of the Allen Manufacturing Company? In some ways, you can look at it as a quasi-private, quasi-public boondoggle, destined to fail. In other ways, you can look at it as a company created to enrich its leadership by taking advantage of sub-contracted labor. However, these may be the symptoms of a larger malady. The major take-away from this episode was that a rapidly changing industrial economy and a national fad in bicycles spurred a slapdash attempt to create a company that benefited from public connections. Furthermore, the episode highlights how determined and detailed journalism helps to keep the public and private sectors of society accountable, both to citizens and shareholders. While some of the key players never faced accountability, Blodgett’s success in investigating Allen Manufacturing’s corruption nevertheless exemplified how an individual citizen, and a free press, can check some of our more abject motivations.

THH Episode 49: Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Mans’s voice: High speed facsimile transmission and reception of both words and pictures…

[Click]

…planned research to anticipate the demands of a growing nation…

[Click]

Here in this modern workshop of science can be found some of the true pioneers of our time…

Beckley: Sitting on a desk in an office in Fort Wayne, Indiana was a small plaque that read, “Men and trees die – Ideas live on for the ages.” The slightly built man with dark hair and a thin mustache in the chair behind the desk, knew this better than most. At the age of 14, he had an idea that would, in time, change the world in innumerable ways. His idea would bring people together and cause divisions. It would influence national and international politics, introduce people around the world to new cultures and viewpoints, change how businesses make money…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

That man? Philo T. Farnsworth. And his idea?

Man’s voice: Television. An unparalleled blending of science and art.

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

Inventors often hold lofty ideals for their inventions. Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin in 1793 with the hope of relieving the poverty in southern states. Instead, the Cotton Gin increased the need for enslaved labor and is considered one contributing factor of the American Civil War. Othmar Zeidler invented DDT in 1873 to rid the world of insect-borne diseases like malaria. But widespread use of the chemical has caused cancer, infertility, and has devastated ecosystems. Tim Berners-Lee had visions of a free information utopia when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Yet, many point to the internet as one of the driving forces of misinformation in modern society.

Similarly, Philo T. Farnsworth believed that the television could prevent wars through global discourse, increase literacy and facilitate the sharing of cultures. And it has.

Fred Rogers: You make each day a special day. You know how? By just being yourself. That’s right…there’s only one person in this…

Beckley: That was, of course, Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Educational programming like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street, as well as documentaries have gone a long way to democratize knowledge. Shows like Modern Family have increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in recent decades. Television also drives socialization, with friends gathering to watch the “big game” or joining forums to discuss their favorite shows. But, as is usually the case, there is another side of the coin.

[clips from the Jerry Springer Show]

Experts have linked watching reality TV with an increase in aggression in real life. And television in general has been shown to cause everything from a rise in childhood obesity to a decline in quality family time.

Of course, when Philo Farnsworth dreamed up electronic television as a teenager, he could hardly have predicted these disparate outcomes.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth was born and spent his early life in Utah. When he and his family moved to a potato farm in Rigby, Idaho in 1918, eleven-year-old Philo was delighted to find that their new home was powered with a Delco system, the first time the budding scientist had ever lived with electricity. In the attic of the farmhouse, he found a stash of scientific magazines and ravenously consumed anything he could find about electricity. One idea contained within the pages of those magazines was “Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air,” a concept that captured young Farnsworth’s imagination and started him on a journey that would last decades and culminate in modern television.

Man’s voice: Here is the ultimate in television…let me do it again, right now, keep rolling…

Beckley: Farnsworth dove into the existing work on the technology, learning all there was to know about experiments in the field, which stretched back to the 1870s. Early experiments in television relied on a mechanical method of producing and disseminating images. This used a spinning disc called a Nipkow disc. After reading everything he could about this technology, Farnsworth deduced that it could never produce a high-quality image. And he was right – even the very highly engineered mechanical televisions that were made in the 1930s were only capable of 60 lines per frame. To put that into perspective – modern televisions have over 1000 lines per frame.

Farnsworth became obsessed with finding a solution to this problem. He began meeting with a high school chemistry teacher named Justin Tolman after school to ask questions and discuss possible answers. In this relentless pursuit of knowledge, he hit on three topics – electrons, magnetic deflection, and cathode ray rubes – that, when put together, he thought would present an answer to what he was looking for. Finally, everything he had been thinking about crystalized into a profound idea in a most unlikely place – on a horse drawn plow in the middle of a potato field.

[Music]

Beckley: As Farnsworth surveyed the work he was doing – turning over the earth row by row – it dawned on him. Farnsworth biographer Paul Schatzkin noted:

Clark from Schatzkin: “He suddenly imagined trapping light in an empty jar and transmitting it one line at a time on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons.”

Beckley: And so the initial conception for modern electronic television came into the world in the middle of an Idaho potato field from the mind of a 14 year old boy.

Man’s voice: Silent. Invisible. Instantly. Human speech, movement, and appearance invade the airways together, to be received in magic boxes for distant reproductions.

Beckley: Philo shared his idea with the only person he thought might be able to understand and confirm his theory – Justin Tolman.

While Tolman couldn’t grasp every facet of the intricate electronic scheme, he knew enough to encourage the young inventor in his work. At the end of their discussion, Philo jotted a simple sketch of his brainchild on a small piece of notebook paper and handed it to Tolman, who tucked it away for safekeeping. Little did he know just how important that scrap of paper would become.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth nurtured his idea through his teen years and as he attended Brigham Young University.  While working for a fundraising organization, the Community Chest Campaign in 1926, he secured financial backing for his idea. With the support of fundraisers George Everson and Leslie Gorell, he moved to California and eventually established a lab on Green Street in San Francisco. It was here that he, his new wife Pem, and his brother-in-law Cliff set about building the first prototype of an electronic television.

Man’s voice: Television. The newest miracle of modern electric engineering.

Beckley: It wasn’t an easy road to travel. While Philo had a clear vision of what needed to be done to make electronic television a reality, actually accomplishing it was a different story altogether. Each step of the way, Farnsworth and the Green Street crew were inventing new techniques and tools, any one of which would have been an impressive accomplishment on its own. When Cliff was told it was impossible to create a glass tube built to the specifications required by Philo, Cliff developed his own technique of glass blowing that allowed him to create exactly what was needed. While working on techniques to amplify their image, Philo developed what he called the Image Analyzer, and laid the groundwork for the electron microscope, one of the most important tools in laboratories to this day.

Finally, on September 7, 1927, countless experiments and twelve-hour workdays paid off. Farnsworth and his staff stood with bated breath in front of a receiver in one room. In another, Cliff inserted a slide with a thick black line painted on it in front of a device Farnsworth called an “Image Dissector.”

Man’s voice: Mr. Philo T. Farnsworth is working on the Image Dissector tube.

Beckley: The image on the receiver flickered and bounced for a moment before a line became visible on the screen. As Cliff rotated the slide, the line on the screen rotated. The first electronic television picture had been transmitted. In his journal, Farnsworth noted this breakthrough with the reserved tone of a scientist;

Clark as Farnsworth: “The received line picture was evident this time.”

Beckley: Financial backer George Everson had no such reserve. He wired fellow backer Leslie Gorrell;

Clark as Gorrell: “The damned thing works!”

Beckley: But transforming this historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of technical, legal, and financial problems.

While Farnsworth had proved that his idea worked and applied for a patent for his design, he struggled to refine it – those first transmissions were plagued with shadowy double images, black smudges, and amplification problems. Farnsworth accepted these complications as simply part of the process, but it was more difficult to convince his financial backers of that, and many withdrew their support. Looking for alternate funding, Farnsworth invited Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin to the Green Street lab to see a demonstration of the Image Dissector. Zworkyin had been working on electronic television just as long as Farnsworth. In fact, he submitted a patent application for an electronic television in 1923, although he was unable to prove that it worked, and the patent was not granted.

As far as Farnsworth knew, Zworykin worked for Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based electronic manufacturing company. The hope was that Zworykin would be impressed by what he saw and convince Westinghouse to provide some much-needed funding.

However, Zworykin was not visiting with the interests of Westinghouse at heart –he had travelled to San Francisco on a circuitous route to his new employer – the Radio Corporation of America, something he had neglected to tell Farnsworth.

The Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, had established a virtual monopoly on radio technology throughout the early 20th century.

Man’s voice: Nowhere did the challenge provoke more unending experiment and research then at RCA.

Beckley: They bought up what patents they could and sued the holders of others out of business and then acquired the patents in settlements. Looking forward, the behemoth of a company was hoping to establish a similar strangle hold on television, and they recognized Farnsworth’s patent as a potentially important step in that direction.

Zworykin was tasked with finding out if the work being done on Green Street was indeed something RCA would need to try to acquire. And apparently he decided it was. Directly after leaving the lab, he dictated a 700-word telegram to his colleagues – instructions for building an Image Dissector of their very own. Weeks later, when he showed up at RCA to report for duty, he brought with him a replica of the piece of equipment Farnsworth had been working on for four years.

Man’s Voice: The turning point came in 1923 when Dr. Zworykin invented the iconiscope.

Beckley: After the pretense of offering to buy out Farnsworth’s lab for the paltry sum of $100,000, RCA began claiming that Zworykin’s 1923 patent filing was for a device similar enough to the Image Dissector to claim priority of invention. When Farnsworth realized that they were maneuvering into position to launch a lawsuit, he went on the offensive and launched his own claim with the U.S. Patent Office. What followed was described by Philo’s wife as a “David and Goliath confrontation.”

The respective lawyers representing Farnsworth and RCA interviewed key players and collected reams of testimony. RCA focused on the claim that Farnsworth had dreamed up electronic television when he was barely even a teenager. It seemed absurd, not to mention impossible to prove. That was, until they tracked down a now retired Justin Tolman.

When Tolman was asked if he remembered a student by the name of Philo Farnsworth he replied,

Clark as Tolman: “I surely do . . . he was the brightest student I ever had.”

He went on to recount in detail the day a fourteen-year-old Philo had described his idea for electronic television. At the end of the interview, in a scene reminiscent of a dramatic TV procedural, Tolman pulled from his pocket Philo’s sketch of an image dissector, drawn one year before Zworykin’s patent claim. The U.S. Patent Office ruled in favor of Philo T. Farnsworth as the inventor of electronic television.

However, that ruling didn’t mean that RCA was thwarted – they still had appeals to make. The appeal process would drag out for years, causing massive amounts of mental stress for Farnsworth, who struggled with bouts of depression and alcoholism as a result. The stress was also financial – each appeal would need to be defended on Farnsworth’s part by costly patent attorneys. Luckily, Farnsworth had secured financial backing by one of RCAs biggest rivals – Philco.

Man’s voice: Just an example of what’s in store for you right now at your Philco dealer. Another example of quality first by Philco!

Beckley: His partnership with the electronic engineering giant necessitated a move to Philadelphia where Farnsworth and his team continued to refine their technology until finally it was ready for public demonstration.

On August 24, 1934, the doors of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia opened, and Farnsworth watched as the public poured in for their first glimpse of the long dreamed of television. As visitors entered the building, they were immediately confronted with what must have been a truly astonishing sight – themselves, caught on camera and broadcast to a screen. In the auditorium, they were treated to a wide variety of programming, which was being filmed and transmitted from the roof of the Institute. Vaudeville acts, political speeches, popular athletes, and other local celebrities were featured in those early television transmissions. Thousands of Philadelphians attended the demonstrations and an exhibition that was supposed to last 10 days stretched into three weeks.

The phenomenal success of that exhibition proved what the Farnsworth team had suspected for years – the public was ready for television.

Man’s voice: Technicians at Farnsworth’s Philadelphia laboratory have helped make television, the dazzling dream of the decade, a practical reality for today . . . you are about to witness the most excitingly different concept in the history of television.

Beckley: Farnsworth himself was sure that a fortune lay in television broadcasting rather than manufacturing. To this end, he established W3XPF, an experimental TV station which blanketed Philadelphia with some of the earliest electronic television signals. As television sets were still not commercially available, very few residents had receivers. Those who did, mostly engineers who were working for Farnsworth, became very popular with their neighbors.

While Farnsworth’s work with W3XPF was promising, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, was slow to allocate air space and create other institutional standards that would need to be in place before commercial broadcasting was feasible. In the meantime, Farnsworth reluctantly turned to manufacturing. Investors looked for a suitable plant to purchase and eventually landed on a building in Fort Wayne, Indiana once occupied by the Capehart Phonograph Company. According to Schatzkin, the location was chosen because,

Clark from Schatzkin: “the company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”

Beckley: The Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation, or FTRC, opened shop on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne in 1939 and launched into production of television, radio, and phonograph equipment.

Man’s voice: …that’s where Hoosier ingenuity took over…

Beckley: FTRC wasn’t the only company producing commercial televisions – companies such as RCA and International Telephone & Telegraph, or ITT, had established licensing agreements with Farnsworth and were also working to bring the new technology into American homes. However, just as the commercialization of the television was starting to take off, yet another obstacle presented itself – World War II.

Man’s Voice: New weapons of war add to the increasing thrills captured by intrepid cameramen.

Beckley: During the war, FTRC, along with most of American industry, turned to wartime production. While a blow to commercial TV, this was a boon for FTRC. During the war years, the company expanded greatly. Farnsworth himself spent much of his time at his home in Maine, working in a home laboratory and allowing others to run the day-to-day operations of the plants – that’s plants plural, as FTRC operated seven factories – four in Fort Wayne and one each in Marion, Huntington, and Bluffton – by the end of the war in 1945.

Much of this expansion was achieved with the help of loans that came due a year after the end of the war, just as the company was struggling to shift back to peacetime operations. Farnsworth and his shareholders did everything they could to remain an independent company – even going so far as to offer RCA use of Farnsworth’s patents “in perpetuity” for two and a half million dollars, an offer which RCA declined. In the end, to avoid bankruptcy, FTRC was sold to ITT for the rather meager sum of $1.7 million.

Despite losing independence, the company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth continued to conduct research and experiments, although by this time he had shifted his focus from television to his next obsession, one that was equally forward thinking in the 1950s as television was in the 1920s – Fusion.

Man’s voice: Today atomic scientists produce radioactivity in large amounts . . .

Beckley: Philo’s interest in fusion, which is an experimental form of power that harnesses the energy of nuclear reactions, began to develop while he was working in his home laboratory in Maine during the early 1940s, and he continued to work on it in a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne.

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, interest in fusion went into overdrive. Farnsworth, like many others, including Hoosier physicist and former THH podcast topic Melba Phillips, wanted to see the peaceful application of the science used to power our cities. He dreamed of harnessing fusion to power the nation cheaply and, more importantly, cleanly.

In 1947, a mutual friend set up a phone call between Farnsworth and Albert Einstein. Einstein had worked on Fusion during the war only to vow never again to revisit it after his work contributed to the development of nuclear weapons. Pem, Farnsworth’s wife, later said that he found Einstein to be a

Clark: fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.

Beckley: Einstein asked Farnsworth to send him the math behind his theories once he had worked it out. This conversation bolstered Farnsworth’s inventive energy– after a lifetime of being surrounded by people who just didn’t understand how his mind worked and suffering from loneliness and depression because of it, here was an equal. Much like he did with television back in Rigby, Idaho, he set about learning all he could about the budding field of fusion.

By 1953, the father of television felt on the brink of a new discovery. One summer day, the whole Farnsworth family was piled into a Cadillac on their way to Utah for a banquet. Schatzkin describes the scene as told by Farnsworth’s son and namesake Philo Farnsworth III:

Clark: “Pem was driving, with four-year-old Kent asleep with his head in her lap. Phil was slumped in the front seat, his head down, his fedora pulled down over his eyes. All of a sudden, ‘Dad practically jumped out of his seat in one fluid movement and punched his fist forward, saying ‘I’ve got it.’”

Beckley: The feat had been repeated – just like in that potato field in Idaho all those years ago, in an instant, everything he had been studying suddenly came into focus. And Philo T. Farnsworth was off on yet another years-long quest for scientific invention. One that would eventually produce the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor. This was the first device of its kind in the world, and it continues to be the most widely used type of fusor in experimentation today.

In 1957, Farnsworth made his one and only television appearance on a gameshow called “I’ve Got a Secret.” At the end of his appearance, he talks about where he sees television going in the future;

Man’s Voice: This is the famous Dr. Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television.

[Applause]

Man’s Voice: Let’s go from the past – the not too distant past – to the future. What are you working on now?

Farnsworth: Well, in television, we’re attempting to make better utilization of the bandwidth because we think we can eventually get in excess of 2000 lines instead of 525 and do it on an even narrower cannel, possibly, than we’re doing it today, which would make for a much sharper picture. Then we hope…we believe in the picture frame type of television where the visual display will be just a screen. Then we hope for a memory so that the picture will be just as it was pasted on there, and many different improvements will result in a camera when you use such devices because part of the scene that you can remember, and you practically have a memory card of it, and it will simplify production of it.

Beckley: In that one-minute clip, he outlines HDTV, Flatscreen televisions, and digital video cameras decades before any of those technologies would be developed – the very definition of a visionary.

Man’s voice: Converting the dreams of yesterday into the reality of tomorrow . . . here is a look into the future of communication . . .

Beckley: It would be an understatement to say that the world has embraced Farnworth’s creation. Globally, 79 percent79 percent of households have at least one television set. That’s astounding. People from around the world are able to share experiences in a way that newspapers, radio, and even motion pictures could never rival and those shared experiences have shaped our society in huge ways. The Vietnam War was the first war to be covered on television and coverage of the conflict – the images of the dead and injured contrasted with the lack of progress being made – sparked an antiwar movement in the United States which eventually shifted public opinion.

The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show created a craze in America which would change the music scene forever. It inspired countless young people to start bands and went a long way to unify a generation we now call the Baby Boomers.

Nearly every American of a certain age can clearly remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when we watched the Twin Towers fall. And we continued to watch as that day changed our society – we watched as the United States went to war, as Congress passed the Patriot Act, and as Islamophobia spread like wildfire.

Television has brought us together in good times and in bad. This was the promise Farnsworth saw for the television. True – he would likely have been disappointed seeing his invention used for misinformation and reality television. But he would have reveled in seeing the world sharing in our triumphs and tragedies – in fact, he and Pem watched the 1969 moon landing, after which Philo declared,

Clark at Farnsworth:  That has made it all worthwhile.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from IHB historian Nicole Poletika’s two-part blog post about Farnsworth on the Indiana History Blog. If you want to learn even more about Farnsworth’s life and work, I highly recommend Schatzkin’s biography, “The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion.” Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Blog Posts

Poletika, Nicole, “’The Damned Thing Works!:’ Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television,” Indiana History Blog.

Poletika, Nicole, “Philo T. Farnworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne,” Indiana History Blog.

Books

Schatzkin, Paul, The Boy Who Invented the Television, Tanglewood Books, 2008.

Indiana State Historical Markers

Philo T. Farnsworth Indiana State historical Marker Review

Articles

Butts, Tom, “The State of Television, Worldwide,” TVTechnology.com.

Viewer Beware: Watching Reality TV Can Impact Real-Life Behavior,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio.

Leedy Manufacturing Company and Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”

Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”, made by Indianapolis’ Leedy Manufacturing Company in 1921, has been involved in many rivalries over its size. Learn more about its unique history from our latest video.

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Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Music: “Regimented Instinct” by Teknoaxe, “Jumpin’ Boogie Woogie” by Audionautix, “Anchors Aweigh” by US Marine Corps Band, “National Emblem” by US Naval Academy Band, “Low Tide” by Silent Partner, “Jazz Bar” by Doug Maxwell, Media Right Productions, “Hail, Purdue” by Purdue All-American Marching Band

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