Spectrum: Ken’s Corner for April 1, 2014 [unpublished]
Let’s start with a little look back in history, shall we?
We probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Middle Ages. Well, our own middle age, maybe, but not the period of history between the last days of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Those were not easy times, considering diseases, limited transportation, difficult communications, primitive state of medicine, and the struggles to put enough food on the table.
You might remember hearing about Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign promise of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. We take chickens, and for that matter cars, pretty much for granted now, but back then, chicken was relatively expensive, so it was a big promise. (It was a promise that did not work out well under President Hoover, but that is another story.)
Chicken dinners were at least as scarce for a typical European peasant of, say, the year 1300, deep in the Middle Ages. Yet, farmers did what they could to provide a supply, and this time of year typically saw the start of bringing frying and roasting chickens to local markets. After a long and often harsh winter, as spring was showing itself and brightening spirits, the arrival of the new season’s chickens, scarce and expensive as they might be, was a time for celebration.
Chicken, like turkeys, geese, and ducks, are all considered “fowl.” You’ve heard the phrase “neither fish nor fowl,” Meaning something that does not fit neatly into a regular category. I don’t know much about the fish situation in those years, but peasants might have had the choice of fish, fowl, or something that was neither (whether beef or grains and vegetables). Chickens, and their cousins geese and ducks, were eagerly purchased when they came to market (essential for folks who could not go out and bag their own game to feed the family).
The opening of the spring market season typically was right at the start of April, and the opening day itself, marking the newly arrived fowl for the dining table, was called “April Fowls Day.” Much like the term “flutter by,” referring to an insect we now know as the “butterfly,” as the words were reversed over time, April Fowls Day got crossed up with the fun spirit launched by longer days and warmer temperatures. Eventually it lost the original connection to the arriving chickens and other fowl, and it became known as April Fools’ Day, a time for celebrating jokes, not chickens.
So, let me wish you a happy April Fools’ Day. And if you believe that story, I have a George Washington Bridge traffic study I want to sell you.
Of course we are all familiar with the phonograph (“record player”), and with its earlier version, the gramophone. When I was young, they were sometimes still called “phonographs,” a term that has largely faded into history, as has “gramophone.” These days we play our music on MP3 players, or maybe still on CD players. I still have seldom-used cassette tapes and players, and even some 8-track tapes and a device or two that might still play those. I got a laugh and a surprised look from a car salesman the other day when I mentioned my old (long since sold) 1970 Plymouth Fury III with an aftermarket 8-track player.
What sets me off on this tangent is an advertisement on page 5 of the New York Times, April 1, 1914. The display advertisement, placed by Gimbels department store, featured the Keen-O-Phone “talking machine,” on sale at half price. The top model was selling for $100, half of the $200 regular retail price, and the cheapest was selling for only $25, with several models priced in between.
According to the advertisement, “The Keen-O-Phone will play any disc record.” A video posted on YouTube shows a Keen-O-Phone in operation, playing a lively jazz record. What is surprising is that it is the turntable that moves, not the tone arm and needle. The tone arm stays still as the turntable rotates AND slides slowly across the base so that the needle stays in the groove. I don’t even know how that could work, but sure enough, there is a slender channel in the base that allows the turntable itself to slide across. I can’t say much for the sound quality, but what the heck, the device was made a century ago.
For perspective, according to an online inflation calculator, that $100 sale price in 1914 is equivalent to about $2,300 today, and the low-end $25 sale price is equivalent to about $573 today, not a casual expenditure.
Newspaper readers not in the market for a Keen-O-Phone could turn the page and find an advertisement for another nice option for music in the home: player pianos. The player piano uses rolls of paper with holes punched to indicate notes. As the roll moves through a mechanism, keys are automatically pressed and strings struck, perfectly reproducing a piano performance. Sometimes those punched-hole recordings were made by famous pianists. The result might not have been the same as a live performance, but it would have been pretty good.
When I was young, a friend’s family (they lived a block away from my house) had a player piano. It was a highlight of many visits to see and hear it in action. That was more than 50 years ago, and for all I know that piano was the very same model advertised 50 years earlier than that, at $345 (nearly $8,000 at today’s prices). For folks who wanted just to play their own music, the same advertisement featured regular pianos “of Reliable Make” for $165, at $5 down and $5 per month.
What music might you have played on your piano or listened to on your Keen-O-Phone in 1914? Here are a few songs that were new that year: “The Aba Daba Honeymoon,” “After The Roses Have Faded Away,” “Along Came Ruth,” “Always Treat Her Like A Baby” (the last two were by Irving Berlin), “Back To The Carolina You Love,” “Burlington Bertie From Bow,” “By Heck,” “By The Beautiful Sea,” “By The Waters Of Minnetonka,” “California And You,” and (from a much longer list), “I Was A Good Little Girl Till I Met You.” Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter performed the first song in that abbreviated list, “The Aba Daba Honeymoon,” in the 1951 film “Two Weeks with Love.”