The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole of its day, The Diary Of A Nobody is perhaps less hilarious than it was back in 1892, but it’s no less readable and seems to evoke its age better than any of the supposedly naturalist contemporary fiction. By reading it I have learned that:
Dull, respectable men in the late Victorian era could grow ZZ-Top style beards and wear hats “the shape of the helmet worn in India, only made of straw” and be though of as embarrassingly pedestrian in their tastes.
Pub licensing laws meant that on Sundays you could only get a drink from 1pm or 2pm or 6pm to 9pm unless you were a “traveler” – i.e. someone claiming to be from at least a few miles away. I mean, we have laws as silly as this now, but it’s interesting to find out that our instinct for arbitrary, nonsensical rules is not a new thing.
Middle-class people still act in fundamentally the same way they did 125 years ago, only with a few signifiers swapped around.
If you tell a librarian in Cambridge Central Library that you can’t find The Diary Of A Nobody and he points out you’ve been looking under W for Weedon instead of G for Grossmith you will get the most contemptuous eye-roll you have ever received.
Cinema was even more a sideshow attraction than recorded sound in 1892. In pre-Lumiere France, cinematic pioneer Émile Reynaud was projecting slides with moving images in front of painted backgrounds at his Théâtre Optique in Paris. In a sense this had been done for hundreds of years with magic lantern shows, but Reynaud’s innovation was that foreground figures could be pre-painted frame by frame and set on film in order to produce the illusion of movement; in magic lantern shows figures would have hand-operated puppet-like fixed movements.
Reynaud’s figures are full of life and character, and while ‘lifelike’ might be a bit of a stretch, it’s a bold leap forward, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t get more recognition.
Can’t remember when I first hear that yellow wallpaper sent you round the bend, but I would have been very young – then later, hearing that it was a famous short story, I imagined it was one of the anthologised horror stories I liked when I was 13 or so. But it’s not. It’s a sort of midpoint between Madame Bovary and Mrs Dalloway, a feminist critique of a suffocating marriage to a condescending paternalistic man, only with a Twilight Zone twist. I enjoyed it a great deal.
Ellis Island opens. Rudolf Diesel applies for a patent for the Diesel engine. The Carnegie Steel Company, Liverpool Football Club and Newcastle United F.C. are founded. Abercrombie & Fitch is established. The “Pledge of Allegiance” is first recited by students in U.S. public schools. The Nutcracker ballet with music by Tchaikovsky is premiered. Viruses are discovered by the Russian–Ukrainian biologist Dimitri Ivanovski
In the USA, Grover Cleveland beats incumbent Benjamin Harrison to win the second of his non-consecutive terms. In the UK, William Ewart Gladstone assumes British premiership as head of the Liberal government. John Thompson becomes Canada’s fourth prime minister.
Homer Plessy is arrested for sitting on the whites-only car in Louisiana, leading to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson court case. In the Homestead Strike, the arrival of a force of 300 Pinkerton detectives from New York and Chicago results in a fight in which about 10 men are killed. The Dalton Gang, attempting to rob 2 banks in Coffeyville, Kansas, is shot by the townspeople; only Emmett Dalton, with 23 wounds, survives, to spend 14 years in prison.
Charles Atlas, Italian-American strongman and sideshow performer (d. 1972)
Stefan Banach, Polish mathematician (d. 1945)
Pearl S. Buck, American writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1973)
Eddie Cantor, American actor, singer (d. 1964)
Pinto Colvig, American vaudeville actor, radio actor, newspaper cartoonist, prolific movie voice actor, and circus performer (original voice of Goofy) (d. 1967)
Robert Ritter von Greim, German field marshal (d. 1945)
Oliver Hardy, American comedian and actor (d. 1957)
Mississippi John Hurt, American country blues singer and guitarist (d. 1966)
Robert H. Jackson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (d. 1954)
Gummo Marx, American actor and comedian (d. 1977)
Mary Pickford, Canadian actress and studio founder (d. 1979)
Basil Rathbone, British actor (d. 1967)
Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), German World War I fighter pilot (d. 1918)
Hal Roach, American film and television producer (d. 1992)
Margaret Rutherford, English actress (d. 1972)
Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian emperor (d. 1975)
Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia (d. 1980)
J. R. R. Tolkien, professor and author of The Lord of the Rings (d. 1973)
César Vallejo, Peruvian poet (d. 1938)
Wendell Willkie, U.S. Republican presidential candidate (d. 1944)
Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, second in line for the throne of the United Kingdom (b. 1864)
Bahá’u’lláh, Persian founder of the Bahá’í Faith (b. 1817)
Robert Ford, assassin of Jesse James (b. 1862)
Jay Gould, American financier (b. 1836)
Édouard Lalo, French composer (b. 1823)
Werner von Siemens, German inventor and industrialist (b. 1816)
Charles Spurgeon, English preacher (b. 1834)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, British poet (b. 1809)
Louis Vuitton, world-renowned French fashion designer (b. 1821)
Walt Whitman, American poet (b. 1819)
What was recorded sound for; historical record? dictation of memos? the arts? At this point nobody is really making the case for any one purpose. The phonograph is out there in the homes of the wealthy trend-setters, recording studios are being set up in major cities, and popular entertainers are being sought out to make recordings, but still, there is no sign of anything approaching a recording industry. Cylinders are recorded in spare moments in back rooms, and duplication is still impossible. The line between professional and amateur simply does not exist.
What does this mean? Well firstly that quality control is poor at best (but hopefully my job is to deal with that issue) and secondly that the moderating influence of standards and rules is out of the window. Everything is to some extent strange and experimental, unfiltered by clear ideas of what will sell, and as the medium is as yet uncensored, crude and openly sexual cylinders exist alongside the anodine and sentimental.
Our first selection is of neither type, but another military marching band (Holding’s Military Band, of whom I can find no information at all). Then we have Russell Hunting in his comic Irishman persona ‘Casey’ performing a vaudeville routine about conducting a door to door survey. This is underscored with a Julius Block recording of a young Jules Conus, a violinist and composer who survived as long as the second world war.
Next a trio of recordings about Grover Cleveland, who won the election of 1892 to become the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms. A burly, mustachioed fiscal conservative, he presided over the great crash of 1893 which put his party out of government for a generation. The first recording is of the man himself, reciting a campaign speech convincingly in front of a handful of people in a studio. Then we have the Grover Cleveland march, performed by Patrick Gilmore’s band. Finally, a shockingly rude set of jokes about Grover and his wife Frances Folsom, who had married in the White House during his previous term, Folsom being 21 and Cleveland being 49 at the time.
A clarinet piece by William Tuson is followed by a couple of novelty songs – Take Your Time Gentlemen, about a parrot, and Saving Them All For Mary, an otherwise undistinguished ballad with a fairly interesting bit of proto-country banjo playing. The something more familiar – “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow” – generally taken as a childrens’ song these days, but full of smut and innuendo when presented on the vaudeville stage.
After another piece from a vocal group (the sort of thing later called “barbershop”) and a marching band’s attempt at a waltz, we have some more Julius Block cylinders, piano workouts from Arensky, Taneyev and Pabst, and a short excerpt of a Tchaikovsky operatic work. Finally there is another sentimental ballad, presented largely for the odd timbre of the singer’s voice and the melancholy of the accompaniment, and Walt Whitman finishes off the mix with a few lines from “America”, recorded shortly before his death this year.
Holding’s Military Band – The Night Alarm
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey Taking The Census
Jules Conus – Sarasate – Zigeunerweisen, op. 20, no. 1
Grover Cleveland – The Cleveland-Harrison Campaign Speech
Gilmore’s Band – Grover Cleveland March
Unknown – Boarding The Folsom
William Tuson – Esquimeau Dance
Press Eldridge – Take Your Time Gentlemen
Al Reeves – Saving Them All For Mary
Silas Leachman – Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow Wow
Manhansett Quartette – Sally In Our Alley
Issler’s Orchestra – Cannon Waltz
Anton Arensky – Improvisation in E-flat
Sergei Taneyev and Paul Pabst – Suite no. 2 For Two Pianos, op. 23 no. 1 – ‘Le Savant’
Eugenia Jurjevna Werdan – Tchaikovsky – Legend, no. 5 from 16 Songs For Children, op. 54
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey At The Telephone
Richard Jose – The Blind Boy
Walt Whitman – America