When is it too late to learn something new?

This Woman Learned To Drive At The Age Of 99 Back In 1901

Mrs Eva De Voe turned 99 on June 7, 1901, and shocked her very large family by telling them she wanted to learn bicycling. Present at her birthday celebration were five generations of descendants who argued with her not to try something so risky. A compromise was struck. Mrs De Voe would learn riding, not a bicycle but something “comfortable and easy-running, with a top” — something that was “safer and better for a woman of her age.”

Mrs De Voe became the owner and driver of a Century steam car, manufactured not far from her house, which was “at the corner of Kinne and West Manlius streets in East Syracuse, New York.”

Driving was a tonic for Mrs De Voe. She said it made her feel young again. It was also the culmination of her wish of 60 years. “Back in the 1840s,” she said, a hugely popular travelling preacher named Lorenzo Dow would sometimes call her children together and tell them: “You mustn’t make fun of me, but I say that the time will come in less than 100 years when people will be going around in carriages without horses, and will be able to talk with their friends hundreds of miles away.”

Dow was proved perfectly right, but Mrs De Voe had mixed up the years somewhat. The preacher had passed away in 1834, when her first husband was still living. This is not an article about Dow, but he was such a magnetic man — advertised as Presidential material by some — that these three clippings might interest you:

Mrs De Voe’s first husband died in 1839, leaving her with a brood of six; she married again in 1841, and lost her second husband in 1863. She grew older but Dow’s prophesies stayed with her, and she was fortunate to realize the one about horseless carriages herself.

Some would call cars “emancipating”, but Mrs De Voe’s reason for liking them was very practical: “there is no danger of their running away (unlike a horse)”. She also expected that “in a short time people will be sailing through the air with the same readiness that they now go around in automobiles.”

There, like Dow, she was also proved right.

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Stories behind the cast of Kipling’s film

Part 4: Ameera Was A Teenage Beauty Queen, Tota A War Orphan

We have come to the end of this series on Rudyard Kipling’s brief screenwriting career. When Without Benefit of Clergy released in 1921, there was talk of more Kipling scripts in the works, but those films were not made. Kipling praised Without Benefit of Clergy, and from the cast he appreciated the heroine, Virginia Brown Faire, the most.

Mr Kipling is especially pleased with the remarkable work of Virginia Faire,” said The Washington Herald of August 14, 1921.

For Virginia, a 17-year-old American beauty queen, to play Ameera, a Lahore girl sold as the wife of an English engineer, was not easy. She had to learn Indian mannerisms and facial expressions laid out in Kipling’s copious notes, for example:

All Ameera’s movements, except when she is running toward or actually embracing Holden, are slow and supple. When she feels it in herself to move, she is as quick as a flash, but without any sort of fuss, as conveying the idea of rapid, flurried movement to the eye. Most of the time, while in her man’s presence, she keeps her eyes down; but when she lifts them or looks directly at him they burn slowly.

The American press lavished praise on her:

Miss Faire, the youthful star, who is still in her teens, is pretty and pathetic as the Oriental maiden and has winsome love scenes with her British engineer that ought to win a vote of confidence for her from all the June brides,” said The New York Herald.

The Evening Public Ledger’s correspondent seemed besotted with her: “She has dark hair and large, languorous eyes, with a girlishly rounded face.”

Or, he might have been paid to eulogise her beauty: “She is of an extraordinary beauty, sculptural, classic. Artists pronounce her close to perfection. She has the exquisiteness of youth. She has a super-delicate sensitiveness, easily — and rarely — lent to dramatic art. She is finely different, because of her sense of innocence and touch of the young Madonna in poise and feature.

Virginia’s success has become the template for many film heroines — vivacious girl wins beauty contest, then bags a role in a top-banner movie. At 15 she won the ‘Fame and Fortune’ contest conducted by a magazine, ahead of 50,000 entrants. Then came the screen test at Brunton Studios, where she was picked for Ameera’s role from a lot of 50 candidates.

Each of these in turn was costumed and made up for the pathetic figure of the little dark-skinned Hindu (Muslim, actually) maiden and required to act several scenes of varying emotional intensity in sets ready for the actual ‘shooting’ of the picture.”

Thomas Holding, who played British engineer John Holden, was already a veteran of “blighted romances,” so his “long-suffering countenance” was an easy fit for the tragic role.

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The choice of Ameera and Holden’s infant child, Tota, fell upon Philippe de Lacy, who had lost his mother and siblings at birth during a German air raid at Nancy, France, in 1917. The newborn was rescued and adopted by an American nurse, Edith de Lacy, and went on to have a long career in films, of which Without Benefit of Clergy was the second.

As for the ‘extras’ who populated the city of Lahore created in Brunton Studios, they were all hired from the “the Hindu (read Indian) colony of Los Angeles”.

Pathe report

Lastly, Without Benefit of Clergy also changed the course of its production company, Pathe Exchange. On the day it was released — June 19, 1921 — “the American stockholders and American management of Pathe Exchange, Inc., independent distributor of films… acquired control of the company from Pathe Cinema, Ltd., of Paris.” Its French founder, Charles Pathe, however, retained “a large share of the stock in the American concern.”

Almost a century has passed since then, and Kipling’s movie, its actors, and the production house are all forgotten now.

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Read the full series:

Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling

Part 2: How Rudyard Kipling recreated Lahore in Hollywood

Part 3: Kipling called cinema his greatest adventure, but it didn’t last long

Part 4: Stories behind the cast of Kipling’s film

Kipling called cinema his greatest adventure, but it didn’t last long

Part 3: Of the three screenplays he wrote, two were not put to use despite the success of the first : ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’

(Read parts 1 & 2)

In 1921, soon after Without Benefit of Clergy released in America, there was talk of more Rudyard Kipling screenplays in the works. The author who would not allow his books to be turned into movies for anything had reluctantly become a screenwriter only a year earlier, but at age 56 he seemed enthusiastic about penning more screenplays.

It was reported that Kipling and Randolph Cooper Lewis, the professional screenwriter sent to assist him on Without Benefit of Clergy, had worked on two other scripts from the start — The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows, and Soldiers Three. When Lewis sailed for London with a print of Without Benefit of Clergy for Kipling, on June 25, 1921, it was expected that they would go over the plans for filming the other scripts.

Lewis returned three months later and the news went around: “Another Kipling Plot Brought From England Ready for Filming”. It was the turn of The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows, and the Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia wrote: “The story is ready for the photographer, because before the author turned it over to the eager hands of Mr Lewis he had not only personally completed the scenario, the continuity and the working script, but had designed the costumes, the sets, interior and exterior, also compiling directions to the players as to the business.”

Although it was named after one of Kipling’s famous stories, another novel — To be Filed for Reference — and a poem — The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House — were ‘welded’ in it. To show just how pleased Kipling was with his new ‘ventures’, Lewis said he had “designed a striking poster for The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows.”

Neither of those movies was made. Another producer independently shot a film based on The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House a year later; Soldiers Three was made in 1951 as a talkie, obviously to a different script, and The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows became a Kickstarter project three years ago, but Kipling’s own scripts disappeared.

Greatest Adventure

While it lasted, Kipling’s dalliance with cinema seemed to him his ‘greatest adventure’. A writer of his stature with some two dozen publishers in his pocket — in America, Canada, England, Germany, Spain, Norway and Denmark, and France — was certainly risking his reputation by trying a new medium.

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“He is compelled to sacrifice the finest, most compelling attributes of his art,” said The Bridgeport Times of September 22, 1921. “All he can do, to be efficient, is to make it perfectly clear to the director of his picture, the builder of the sets and other technicians of production, just what visual effects are to be made by the series of scenes tersely described in his scenario. Except for an occasional short title which may take the form of an epigram, or contain some literary grace, his picture manuscript is necessarily as dry and unilluminating as any properly arranged descriptive catalogue.”

The risk paid off. Without Benefit of Clergy was well-received. It premiered at the Capitol Theatre, New York, and “those familiar with Kipling’s published writings were heard enthusiastically to declare that the picture not only was faithful to the course and the atmosphere of the published story, but breathed throughout the Kipling spirit. No extraneous material was added for the sake of movie thrills… It was Kipling and that means a worthy and most astonishing novelty in motion pictures.

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Even before he saw the film, Kipling had liked the photographs of the actors, sets and costumes that Lewis sent him:

“I am just back from Algeria and France, to find the photographs of the film waiting for me. They are superb and more correct in impression of detail than I could have imagined. The street courtyard scenes are specially good, and I was very much amused to see how you had managed to get the native cart — the ekka — in the foreground…

“As to the characters, I find them extremely good. Pir Khan is, as far as make-up and pose goes, quite perfect. I am glad to see the baby wears the little gold cap. The study ot Ameera against the night that is to cover her, is a really splendid one.”

Kipling finally saw the print Lewis had brought for him at a private screening in London’s Alhambra Theatre. He was extremely pleased with the result. In a cable sent to the producers, Pathe, he called it a “great artistic achievement.” He was quoted in the October 24, 1921 edition of The Arizona Republican: “I have no experience in such matters, as you know, but it seems to me to be the most carefully-worked film that has ever been portrayed.” And to Lewis he remarked:“It will be termed pictorial literature some day.”

Time proved him wrong there.

This article is the second in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.

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Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling

Part 2: How Rudyard Kipling recreated Lahore in Hollywood

How Rudyard Kipling recreated Lahore in Hollywood

Part 2: The Nobel laureate showed himself capable of meticulous screenwriting in his very first attempt

(Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling)

Rudyard Kipling’s story Without Benefit of Clergy was already 30 years old when Hollywood became interested in it. India had changed a lot in that time. Gandhi was a student in London when the story first appeared in 1890; he was leading the Non-Cooperation Movement at the time Kipling was writing his first screenplay based on the romance.

Yet, Without Benefit of Clergy was a good choice for the silent cinema of the 1920s. Almost everything in the story happens within the walls of a native house where an English engineer lives with his teenage Muslim ‘wife’. There are only a few characters and locations. The story is heavy with emotion that a capable cast might convey through expressions and gestures in the absence of words.

To make it work, what the producers needed was a meticulous screenplay. They asked Kipling himself to write it, and although he was 55 at the time, and a complete novice in the art of screenwriting, he wrote a screenplay so detailed the film’s cast and crew 5,500 miles away from him in Los Angeles did not have to guess at anything.

Raising Lahore from memory

So accurately were the life and environment of India reproduced in Kipling’s Without Benefit of Clergy that the Hindus and Mohammedans from the Oriental quarter of Los Angeles, who played as natives in the picture, asked permission to send photographs of the settings to their friends in India,” reported The Arizona Republican of October 25, 1921.

Kipling noted every detail of the ‘movie’ Lahore, down to the way a native cot maker ought to hold his chisel:

In the bazaar street, beneath the light of modern gas lamps is seen the native charpoy-maker carving bed logs with a chisel held between his toes, and turning the wood with the type of bow and string that has been in use for hundreds of years,” says the paper. Even the turbans of the natives in the bazaar were varied realistically to create the feel of an Indian metropolis. “One who knows his Lahore can easily distinguish the Bengali or Sikh from the Afghan or Punjabi. At the same time the turbans affected by the Madrasi, Rajput, or hill men, are not shown because these types do not enter into the action of the story.”

Attention to detail

Altogether, Kipling wrote 340 scenes, and his instructions and descriptive comments added up to “72 closely typed pages”. There were also five pages of “final suggestions” to director James Young.

Attention to detail and an understanding of native ways is evident in the original story as well. Here’s a description of the heroine Ameera’s dress from the book:

She was dressed in jade-green muslin, as befitted a daughter of the Faith, and from shoulder to elbow and elbow to wrist ran bracelets of silver tied with floss silk, frail glass bangles slipped over the wrist in proof of the slenderness of the hand, and certain heavy gold bracelets that had no part in her country’s ornaments but, since they were Holden’s gift and fastened with a cunning European snap, delighted her immensely.”

When he thought words alone would not do, Kipling sketched out an idea in ink. For instance, the scene in which the hero’s butler Ahmed Khan delivers Ameera’s dowry to her greedy mother is explained thus:

Scene 43: At a price that bought heaven. Note here that, if possible, do away with the whole business of counting single coins into the mother’s hand. A. K. (the hero’s native servant) should bring a heavy white linen belt of coined rupees and swish them out on the ground before the woman. She to appraise, count, and now and then bite, the coins.”

To this was attached an illustration of the scene Kipling had in mind:

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The description of Ameera’s movements — vital to build her character in a silent movie — is most interesting:

All Ameera’s movements, except when she is running toward or actually embracing Holden, are slow and supple. When she feels it in herself to move, she is as quick as a flash, but without any sort of fuss, as conveying the idea of rapid, flurried movement to the eye. Most of the time, while in her man’s presence, she keeps her eyes down; but when she lifts them or looks directly at him they burn slowly.”

It is so minutely detailed that even the turn of the palm while beckoning is described:

In caressing Holden, take special note that she never uses the left hand but keeps it, as a rule, behind her man’s neck or around his waist. It should never fall upon his face. When she has occasion to beckon, she does so with the palm of her hand downwards, not upwards as is the western habit. The fingers then double back into the palm, all four together. This appeal — if done in slow time, suppose she is beckoning to Tota (the child) — is very touching.”

You get an idea of a writer who is living every moment, every breath, of his characters, as he writes the movie script.

Without_Benefit_of_Clergy_(1921)

When his own memory failed him, Kipling turned to his father John Lockwood Kipling’s collection at the Kensington Museum in London, to write exact scenes and situations. The elder Kipling had been “principal of Mayo School of Arts, Lahore, British India (present day National College of Arts, Pakistan) and also became curator of the old original Lahore Museum which figured as the Wonder House or Ajaib Ghar in Kim (from Wikipedia).”

Far removed from the shoot though he was, Kipling remained involved in it to ensure the movie did not turn into a caricature of his story. No, Navajo blankets and paisley shawls would not do for Ameera, so he sent Indian shawls for her from his own collection. The water wheel in the courtyard of the ‘love house’ had to be of the Lahore pattern, so carpenters made one based on his detailed drawings. And the bullock to turn it could not be an English longhorn either. Phew, they got a befitting specimen of Bos indicus too!

This article is the second in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.

(Read Part 1: How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling)

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How Hollywood signed on Rudyard Kipling

Part 1: Getting The ‘Pig-Headed’ Master To Write A Script

Around this time last year The Jungle Book was showing in cinemas worldwide. It was a delightful movie that deserved its millions, but purists know it took too many liberties with Rudyard Kipling’s original story.

Kipling dreaded seeing his works mutilated by studios and so, for years, he refused to have anything to do with them. The Jungle Book (1894) and Edison’s first studio were born a year apart, yet Kipling did not allow anyone to adapt any of his stories for the screen until 26 years later, when he himself wrote the screenplay of Without Benefit of Clergy.

It was the era of silent movies and to Kipling, perhaps, adapting a story without “the verbal graces, the happy phrase, the glowing description, the animated dialogue with its unrivalled power of establishing character” was sacrilege.

He was unbending, immovable, “pig-headed” on the subject. There is a story about an American production house that tried to soften him with a stupendous offer of dollars. They chose a famous lawyer “noted for his impressive speech and manner to go to England and ‘bring back a Kipling contract’.” The lawyer managed to get an appointment, but the meeting ended abruptly when he offered Kipling a million dollars:

“As to what my proposition means to you, Mr Kipling,” the visitor is believed to have said, “I have full authority to state that seven figures — not less than one million dollars…” But he could not complete the sentence. “On the word ‘million’ the novelist had seized his hat. On ‘dollars’ the door slammed with Mr Kipling outside.”

Million dollars was an astronomical sum in the early 1900s. Today, the Nobel prize money comes to about that much, but in 1907, when Kipling became the youngest Nobel laureate for literature, he got only $40,000 (about a million in today’s money). The incident became a legend, and after that everybody in Hollywood knew “the surest and speediest way of bringing out that uncompromising negative was to ‘talk money’ to Mr Kipling.”

Nobel amount

Getting him to agree

When Paul Brunet, president of the film production company Pathe Exchange, approached Kipling around 1920, he made a subtler pitch. He tried to convince the writer that cinematic techniques had advanced greatly to aid literary storytelling, and many people across the world now consumed literature through cinema rather than the printed word. Cinema, he said (in the words of a contemporary American newspaper), “was capable of presenting human life and character with realism and with art.”

Instead of asking Kipling to sell Pathe the rights to adapt a book, Brunet requested him to write the script himself, and promised “the screen would faithfully and brilliantly interpret his creations.” It was something new that the 55-year-old author could not refuse outright. But he hesitated. He had no experience of writing for a silent medium without narration and dialogue, he told Brunet.

That problem was solved easily. Before leaving with his contract, Brunet promised that he would lend Kipling a very capable assistant who would not only help him write the script but also supervise the movie’s production in Los Angeles on his behalf. This assistant was Randolph Cooper Lewis, a scriptwriter and Kipling fanatic who “knew his Kipling backwards”. He too had his doubts about showing a Kipling story on the screen without ‘atmosphere’, but agreed to do the job.

When they worked together in England, Lewis found Kipling had read up on cinematic techniques and screenwriting. He also did not have any objections to reproducing scenes from the Lahore of Without Benefit of Clergy in the grounds of Brunton Studios. Thus began Rudyard Kipling’s second career as a Hollywood screenwriter for his own books.

This article is the first in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.

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View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

When syphilis tests and ears decided whether man is father of child

Proving Paternity In The Age Before DNA Testing

Everybody loves a paternity suit. Everybody but the man it is brought against and the child who is at the centre of it. With DNA testing, public interest has shrunk to who is accusing whom, and whether the charge is proved true.

A century ago, things were more complicated and interesting. There was more drama between the charge and the judgment. Deciding paternity was a dark art in which an artist’s expert eye played an important role. The blood tests of the time were scary, and dangerous.

How about declaring a man someone’s father based on the shape of their ears? That’s one way paternity suits were decided. You would have wished for a wrestler’s cauliflower ears in that predicament.

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The Teddy Slingsby case became a sensation in the mid-1910s. Englishman Charles Raymond Slingsby, who was heir to a large fortune, settled in San Francisco, married and became the father of Teddy Slingsby. Charles’s younger brothers were not pleased. One of them conspired with a nurse to spread the rumour that Teddy was a changeling. The couple’s own son had died at birth and Teddy had been planted in his place, she said.

Slingsby
Teddy Slingsby

An annual income of $50,000 was at stake.

So strong seemed the proof that the California court declared Teddy to be a changeling,” says a newspaper report from 1921. But in England, Judge Deane of the probate court of London declared him legitimate. “The verdict was reached on account of the child’s jaw and ear, which last feature had a marked family peculiarity.

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Eugene Sorine’s case was even stranger. The nine-year-old’s mother wanted him declared illegitimate only to deny his biological father, her ex-husband, visiting rights. Mamie Sorine del Secco, resident of San Francisco, must have hated her former husband Julius B Sorine immeasurably to claim in court she had been unfaithful. Law turned to art for counsel, and noted sculptor Haig Patigan was called in to help establish Eugene’s right to a name.

Patigan’s opinion: “from a comparison of features the child bore a striking resemblance to Sorine.

A second opinion, based on blood tests done by Dr Albert Abrams, “left no doubt of (Julius) Sorine’s right to call the child his.”

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What were these blood tests like? One was a test for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. “If I were doing it I should give a Wassermann test, too, for blood diseases on all three (man, woman, child). If the father and the child have a positive reaction it would strongly indicate that the man was the child’s parent, since the baby would be too young to gain an infection of this sort,” said Dr Thomas W. Edgar, an “expert in blood tests and specialist on gland study”.

But the more commonly done test was dangerous—potentially fatal—and relied on triggering a severe reaction through a small transfusion of blood.

“I would separate the corpuscles from the serum (of the child’s blood). Then I would take a hypodermic syringe and inject the child’s serum into the bodies of father and mother, carefully noting the reaction. This reaction and this process is what we call anaphylaxis. Symptoms of reaction, which would indicate that the blood is the same, would be a general feeling of malaise, a fatigue, a high temperature and swelling of the glands. If two adults are the real parents they both will reveal these symptoms, showing that from these two beings the third creaturethe childhas come into the world.

Luckily, these experts did not place too much faith in their tests. “Blood tests are unsatisfactory. One cannot say definite things after the test is made, but only what one feels about a certain case at hand,” said Edgar, adding, “To define, absolutely, legitimacy or illegitimacy of a child is impossible at present. We can find no definite proof of parenthood so far.”

Although physical comparisons—shape of ears, look in the eye, peculiarity of hairline, shape of hand or instep—were used to decide suits, their testimony was known to be doubtful: “A child might resemble one man in these respectsa husband who denied the childand yet be the offspring of another.

The problem was that doctors and courts did not have much else to go ahead on while deciding a paternity suit. They shrugged and judged anyway with the understanding that “all the proof has been taken into consideration and that it looks as if the child were legitimate and it is probably so in most of these cases.

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Did 1870 loss to Germany make France a racing powerhouse?

Some American automobile journalists thought so a century ago

In 1870 the French went to war with Prussia, and lost. Fifteen years later, a German engineer created the first gasoline automobile, but the cars that took the honours in races afterwards were mostly French. Mors and Panhard-Levassor were the Ferrari and McLaren of their day. Could the French automobile engineers and drivers have been trying to assuage the national hurt through racing?

It seems a far-fetched idea but some American journalists thought so in 1902. The French regarded racing as a matter of national glory, a journal said. After 1870, France had “feverishly sought opportunities for demonstrating that her people are not a decadent nation.”

The feeling seemed to run through French manufacturers and buyers alike. Leaders of the French automobile industry, said the journal, “feel it to be their principal duty to impress the public outside of France with the superiority of their products. The French public is already won over, and will not easily buy automobiles made elsewhere.”

The Germans were not too keen on racing; American Automobile Association and Automobile Club of America opposed racing on public roads, but the French were always raring for an international race, such as the 749-mile Paris-Berlin in 1901 that was won by a Frenchman in a French car, of course.

When plans were being drawn up for the 1902 Paris-Vienna race, 106 of the 111 French municipalities on the route promptly “replied favourably to the requests for permission made by the Automobile Club of France.”

Even the French road cars were made for speed, with silencers that did little to muffle their exhaust. When the organisers of the Staten Island speed trials of May 31, 1902, made it mandatory for all cars to run with their mufflers on, a journalist observed: “This ruling will be somewhat in favour of the machines whose mufflers are least efficient to deaden noise and therefore most economical of power…” Some of the American cars were “almost noiseless” and were estimated to sacrifice 30% of their power to their exhausts. “These vehicles would naturally gain most in speed by opening the mufflers, while in French machines the gain would be comparatively slight.”

The attitude of the leading French manufacturers to racing is also telling. Adolphe Clement of Panhard-Levassor company: “It seems to me that to ask a manufacturer, whether he is in favour of the Paris-Vienna race, is the same as to ask whether he wishes to enlarge his business volume or not.”

Georges Huillier, of Mors: “The race has always been our school of progress and the basis of our success.” After its success in the Paris-Berlin race, Mors had doubled production capacity.

Darracq: “At the present moment it is especially the foreign field which must be cultivated. My opinion on Paris-Vienna is simply that this is the race which must be won, and to be won it must be run.”

Serpollet: “We were accused of being good for speed only. We triumphed in endurance and reliability. Paris-Vienna seems to offer an opportunity for receiving further confirmation in regard to this quality, which I consider the most important in automobiles, viz, their reliability and durability.”

The chief exception to this aggressive competitive spirit was French automobile journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier who called racing cars “useless monstrosities”, and racing, “the curse of factories.”

When we have seen, as in the Paris-Nice race, scarcely one-half the vehicles started reaching the goal, it goes without saying that manufacturing firms of high standing should have something better to occupy their designers than moonbeam chasing. They should build vehicles and drop all nonsense,” Saunier wrote.

Few in France heeded his advice.

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How to spot a need and fulfill it with a product

The story of Maytag’s gasoline-powered washing machine for an America without electricity

Who wants to do the laundry on Sunday — there will be no machines? Nobody will take up that offer, but clothes have to be washed, and for hundreds of years women did this tedious and tiring chore. Washing machines made life easy for some in the early-20th century, but they ran on electricity, and electricity was not available everywhere.

While US cities were being wired in the 1910s, life on farms continued the old way. One appliance maker, however, thought of a way to sell washing machines to ‘powerless’ rural America, and made a success of it.

That company was Maytag (@TheMaytagMan‏). Founded by an Iowa senator, it briefly tried making cars before focusing on the home appliances business. The brand is still around as part of Whirlpool Corporation (@WhirlpoolCorp). Maytag’s idea was simple — you need electricity not to wash clothes but to run a washing machine’s motor; what if the electric motor were replaced with a small gasoline engine?

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The result was Maytag Multi-Motor, a washing machine with a two-stroke engine mounted under the wash tub that could also power other appliances about the house — “the sewing machine, churn, ice cream freezer, food chopper, or anything else that requires power” — with its belt wheel.

Making a machine for farmhouses was easy, convincing farmers to buy it was a different matter. Washing machines were still a newfangled thing while petrol engines were disliked for their noise and smoke. They were also unreliable. Above all, there was the question of cost. Maytag’s popular electric washers cost $65 and could be run for “less than 2 cents per hour — your whole washing can be done for 6 cents.” The Multi-Motor machine cost 30% more at $80-$85. As for fuel, Maytag’s own optimistic claim was that “5 cents’ worth is enough for a family wash”.

Multi-Motor.jpg

The engine itself would be an ecologist’s nightmare today, but it was engineered for dependability. Using an air-cooled two-stroke engine cut down on parts, costs, faults and weight. It also allowed the Multi-Motor to run on “gas, gasoline, kerosene or alcohol”. Knowing how much women dreaded hand-cranking an engine, Maytag fitted the washing machine with a simple kick-starter.

You will see how easily the Maytag is started by your foot. There is no dangerous cranking to do. You will be surprised at the ease with which it is operated and at the results it accomplishes,” says an ad for the machine.

In Maytag’s words, women could use it anywhere they liked, maybe under a tree outside home. “You can set it any place. In cellar or kitchen in winter, out on cool porch or under a tree in summer. Positively no danger. All moving parts enclosed. Any woman can operate it.”

Seriously, in the cellar? With a two-stroke engine pumping clouds of carbon monoxide!

Sweet talk alone would not have convinced farmers and their wives, so Maytag focused on demonstrations and even allowed people to use the machines at home for a month, for free. To convince buyers that they wouldn’t be stuck with a breakdown-prone machine, Maytag also gave a three-year guarantee on the Multi-Motor.

There were ads, of course: “Are your wash days without the rub, rub, rub? Why be burdened with wash days? Think of, and have your washing done by a machine — a machine that does all the hard work.”

Women were told: “Don’t waste your energy, your health, your strength — working like a slave on wash day, but get an easy-running, efficient, economical power-driven machine.”

copy ad

A Multi-Motor would “do a bigger, better washing in a few moments than you could do in a day’s time with the old-fashioned washboard and tub or a hand-powered washer.” And it did not require watching: “It never gets sick or ‘out of sorts’. It never falls down on the job. Never tears the clothes. Never fails to wash clean. Leaves no sloppy floors to be wiped up.”

Some ads talked to women in the tone of an endorsement: “Monday (washday) used to put dread into the Sunday before and drag into the days following. But now the ease of the work and the interest in the operation of this wonderful Multi-Motor Washer gives to Monday pleasant anticipations and to the whole week a better spirit of family life.”

Maytag gift ad.jpg

Other ads addressed the chivalrous side of men: “A Maytag washer in your home on Christmas Day will prove a gift of lasting satisfaction. This sensible gift will prove its worth to you as it has done to thousands, 52 times a year for many years to come.”

Sometimes, freebies were thrown in too, like a $3 clothes basket that would have pleased the missus very much.

Free basket.jpg

The Multi-Motor washing machine was sold for decades, and died out only when all of America got electrified. Check out this delightful Facebook page devoted to Multi-Motor engines.

And here’s a video of a Maytag Multi-Motor washing machine in action.

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Back when petrol was a much-feared fuel

Petrol fires were very common a century ago, and the fuel was ‘subjected to almost as many precautions as nitroglycerin’

Queues at petrol stations have been getting longer in India, so it is interesting that the government is considering home-delivery. We have come a long way from the time when petrol was considered dangerous, and the British government restricted its possession and use. In a way, this attitude was responsible for the slow adoption of internal combustion engine vehicles in the country.

Take a look at this comment in a London journal from December 1902. European and American manufacturers wanted to sell their cars in India, but the country had “very strict regulations” even though cars were becoming popular in warmer countries like Egypt. Petrol was “practically classified as an explosive and subjected to almost as many precautions as nitro-glycerine”.

December 6, 1902

Even the steam cars sent to India were modified to run on kerosene rather than petrol. This clipping from an American journal of the same era says, “The use of gasoline is surrounded with strict precautions in the tropics, and most steam vehicles which have been sent to British India or Java have been equipped with kerosene burners for this reason.”

Kerosene

Indian rules severely restricted the use of petrol, but even elsewhere authorities regarded the fuel with distrust. In New York, for instance, fleet operators were not allowed to fuel their petrol vehicles within depots or garages. The ‘Bureau of Combustibles’ even ruled that vehicles’ tanks should be emptied at the time of parking.

New York

In England, you could store only three gallons of petrol without a licence, no matter how large your fleet of cars and trucks. In April 1903, G E Brown of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, was fined £10 for keeping 10 gallons of the fuel on his premises. When the prosecutor, one Mr Kendrick, was asked “if he desired the petrol to be forfeited,” he declined saying, “We have no provision to keep petrol ourselves.”

London1

Petrol’s notoriety arose from frequent accidents caused by poor engineering and stupidity in equal measure. Before fuel pumps became widespread, it was transferred from barrels to car tanks using cans, so spillage was common. The French, who made the best race cars, were still filling their auto tanks “by pouring the gasoline from large galvanized containers” all through the 1910s. The Americans, however, had been using dispensers for a while, as the 1903 ad on the left shows.

Besides spillage and careless storage, leaky fuel tanks and lines also caused fires, especially when their handlers behaved stupidly. There was, for instance, this ‘curious accident’ in the courtyard of Hotel Continental in Nice, France, in March 1899:

Nice car fire

A dog had hidden itself in a car, and a waiter tried to find it in the middle of the night by lighting his way with a candle. “Quite suddenly, at one o’clock in the early morning, a terrible explosion woke up the whole of the inmates of the hotel… The explanation of the accident is that either the petrol tank or one of the pipes connecting it to the carburettor was leaking, with the result that the gaseous fumes became ignited from contact with the naked light.” The dog was killed.

Even experienced hands were involved in accidents. In April 1900, C Goodridge was in charge of the night shift at a Bournemouth Garage when “a lighted paraffin lamp he was using exploded…The blazing oil spreading over the floor set the place in flames.” Two cars were badly damaged.

London

Goodridge didn’t do anything silly, but car racer F D Maumbler was totally at fault at the Empire City racetrack in Yonkers, New York, on May 30, 1903.

His new Victor car’s fuel pipe was leaking, and Maumbler “was looking for the leak with a lighted match when the gasolene tank, containing four gallons of fluid, caught fire, and instantly the flames shot into the air,” reported the New York Daily Tribune the next day.

There was chaos on the track. “For a few minutes it seemed as though an explosion was bound to occur, and there was a panic among the rich people, who struggled to get their fine machines out of the way.

Maumbler, described as “a young society man,” showed courage afterwards and salvaged his reputation. He remained “beside the burning machine until he could turn the valve and cut off the gasolene supply. This act not only saved his automobile, but prevented a lot of women who could not have escaped from the neighboring vehicles from having their handsome gowns spattered with burning gasolene.

Accidents in India

At 3 am on June 12, 1908, there was an explosion on a barge carrying 3,600 drums of petrol that had anchored off Jackeria Bunder in Sewri, Mumbai. “It is presumed that the explosion was due to the tindal lighting a match,” said the report of the chief inspector of explosives in India, dated June 1909. The tindal was charred on the barge, and two other crew died of their injuries.

Bombay harbour

Here are some more reports of petrol fires in India from 1908:

Calcutta, March 12: A cleaner started a fire while trying to fill up a car’s fuel tank “in close proximity to a lighted motor lamp… The body of the car and canopy were destroyed, the steering wheel reduced to charcoal and the two front tyres melted by the heat of the flames.”

Narkeldanga, April 21: The building of Indian Oil Products, Limited, was engulfed in flames around 8.30 pm when the petrol vats were being drained. “Petrol vapour which was issuing must have come in contact with an oil lamp placed outside the roof of the building.”

8f4d00

Bombay, September 6: A chauffeur was sent out around 9 pm with petrol for a car that had run out of fuel on Hornby Road (now DN Road). When he returned with the car, he found two other cars in the garage burning. “The woodwork of the building also caught fire.” Apparently, the lamps of one car had been left on, and the watchman, whose duty it was to turn them off, had come inside the garage with a lantern. “When putting out the lamps he may have placed the lantern near the carburettor, igniting the gas that may have been about.”

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