Monturiol’s Submarines

In 1844, Narcis Monturiol was walking on the beach at Cadaques when he saw a near-drowned coral fisherman being dragged from the sea. He rushed to help, holding the man’s legs up so that he could cough up water. During the entire process, the fisherman never lost his grip on the precious lump of coral in his hand.

Ictineo I replica (Barcelona Maritime Museum)

Monturiol was a follower of the utopian socialist, Etienne Cabet. He had taken refuge in Cadaques from political persecution in Barcelona, his home. Now Monturiol pondered the plight of this poor working man who daily risked drowning and shark attack for a few cents worth of coral. Suppose, he thought, that a machine could be manufactured that would allow these men to travel the sea bottom in safety.

Monturiol was an inventor. Largely self-taught, he had an enormous aptitude for engineering and technical problem-solving. Further, he was able to communicate his ideas to technicians and fabricators. Funded largely by his socialist comrades, Monturiol set out to build a submarine.

Crew of the Ictineo's first voyage. Monturiol is in the center. (Barcelona Maritime Museum)

The vessel’s shape had to be rounded, to withstand pressure, and fish-shaped, to minimize drag. This sounds simple enough today, but in 1844 these were new design principles:

Before the 20th century, people didn’t think in terms of either hydrodynamics or aerodynamics. Things moved so slowly in the first place that you just didn’t think a flat surface would make enough of a difference to slow you down. Another crucial innovation was the double-hull—one inside the other—which would withstand the pressure of the deep.

It would be expensive to fabricate this ship from metal, so Monturiol used wood as his main structural material, though he did sheathe the hull with copper. The submarine was small — meant for a crew of five — and propelled by a hand-cranked propellor. It had four ballast tanks between the double hulls and a set of weights on a track inside the vessel that allowed pitch control. An air-exchange system used a filter of lime to absorb carbon dioxide. Monturiol called his ship the Ictineo , a word combining the Greek words for fish (icthys) and boat (nau-), although Monturiol pointed out that “neo” is also the Latin for new.

Monturiol’s socialist comrades donated money to manufacture the Ictineo and, in 1859, the submarine was launched in Barcelona’s harbor. The crew was made up of the boat-builder, a business partner of Monturiol, and the inventor himself. Certain problems were detected in the first dive, having to do with the iron nails used to attach the copper sheathing. This was soon remedied and, over the next three years, the Ictineo made fifty successful dives. But, in 1862, it was crushed by another ship in Barcelona harbor.

Now Monturiol designed a second submarine, the Ictineo II, that was larger and capable of reef exploration and other difficult underwater tasks. The large ship was too slow when propelled by a hand crank, so Monturiol designed to install a steam engine. He devised an ingenious method of combining zinc, manganese dioxide, and potassium chlorate for  a reaction that gave off enough heat to fire the boiler and produced oxygen as a by-product. This was the first modern submarine. The Ictineo II was tested successfully and demonstrated to be a capable vessel.

Ictineo II ready for launch (Barcelona Maritime Museum)

But Monturiol had exhausted the cash that he could raise from his friends and sought major investment. He tried to float a stock issue and to interest the Spanish government in a warship, the Ictineo III, which would have a crew of 250 and was armed with a huge ram. This ship never got off the drawing board. In 1869, the Ictineo II was seized by Monturiol’s creditors. The only part of the ship they thought of value was its steam engine, so they tore the vessel apart to get at the engine. One creditor hung the Ictineo‘s portholes in his bathroom

Monturiol built no more submarines but he invented a great many other items. The only one that brought any money to his family was a cigarette-rolling machine and even the proceeds from that device were largely stolen from him. Like many creative geniuses, he was unable to translate his work into money. “I don’t know how to do business, nor do I know how to win men over so that they will come to my aid,” he said. One Monturiol invention that was never funded was a sewing machine, a device that might have made him a fortune.

Monturiol Memorial in Barcelona (via

Even so, Monturiol was a man much admired in Catalonia. Songs and poems were written about him and his work and people were proud that he was Catalan. In 1873, during a brief republican period, Monturiol was elected as the Catalan deputy to the national assembly. On arriving in Madrid, Monturiol discovered that the new government was facing problems turning out stamps. There was no way to dry the glue on the back and drying machines would take months to procure. Monturiol sat down with the press workers and quickly they devised a device to dry the sheets of gummed stamp paper. The First Republic soon fell, however, and the monarchy was restored. 

By 1880, Monturial was reduced to earning a pittance as a clerk. He continued to be involved in large projects, though, such as a scheme to divert water from the Ter River to Barcelona. He died in 1885. Monturial’s friends and political allies announced an event to pay homage to Catalonia’s greatest inventor. The monarchy tried to ban the public event but it was held anyway, a week later. Four years after Monturiol’s death, Spanish naval officials came to understand the value of his submarines and, guided by his designs, built a new vessel that was propelled by electricity. Now the government decided to rehabilitate Monturiol’s memory and he was named a national hero, and is so thought of today. A film about Monturiol was made in 1993 that used replicas of Ictineo I and II. These now are displayed near Barcelona’s harbor.

Matthew Stewart’s Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World is hard to find. (A Spanish version may be easier to locate). Two important sources for this article are: an interview with Matthew Stewart about his book and a long article produced by the Technical Institue of Barcelona in 2009, named by the Spanish government as The Year of Monturiol.

Logo for Year of Monturiol 2009 (via

Poets and Hockey Players

“Morenz, Joliat, Gagnon, Jackson, Smith — the whole lot of them are about the best artists this country ever turned out.”            

Hugh MacLennan, Two Solitudes

“Phil Esposito is Canada’s greatest poet.”               

Yevgeny Yetushenko

 I saw  Phil Esposito play against the Soviet team in 1972 in Vancouver. He set up a beautiful goal, drawing Tretiak out of the net and dropping a soft pass back to Dennis Hull. It was one of the best goals I’ve ever witnessed. There was virtually no applause. I saw Esposito looking up at the stands in astonishment. I knew what he was thinking: “Why are people sitting on their hands?” The goal was scored in the final minute of play. Canada was down by three. Espo’s great play couldn’t save the game. We were all numb with horror as the Soviet team racked up another victory. There had been so many bad moments; at one point Frank Mahovlich sat on Tretiak to try to hold him out of the net. “Mister Class,” muttered the guy next to me. If sport can be a source of national pride, it can also be a source of national shame. But, that was a beautiful goal. Phil Esposito was a great poet at that moment.

from Jeff Lemire's "Essex County"

 Of course there are poets who write about hockey, too. And painters, and novelists, and comics artists, and romance novel authors. Probably there is hockey porn, too, but I refuse to google it.

Deirdre Martin, "Breakaway"

There are many Canadian poems about hockey.  The Hockey Player Sonnets by John B. Lee (the poet-laureate of Brantford) stands out, not only because it works John Lennon, Gordie Howe, and Yoko Ono into a hockey poem, but because there is a poem about one of the more disgusting elements of the game: the hockey team owner. “When Gretzky went to L.A./ my whole nation trembled/ like hot water in a tea cup when a train goes by.” Pocklington! Right up there with Harold Ballard and Tom Scallen who ran their teams from a jail cell. But that’s the way of the world, the greatest things draw the most parasites and scavengers. (Eagleton!)

The best hockey poem ever is by Al Purdy, “Hockey Players”: “And how do the players feel about it/this combination of ballet and murder?” What is the essence of this game, Purdy asks, and comes up with the image of flight, flight across the entire breadth of the country and finally beyond: “roaring out the endboards out the city/streets and high up where laconic winds/whisper litanies…” This is an old metaphor. In 1915, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts wrote that, skating, he was “the god of the winged heel” and wrote of flying along the ice deep into the wilderness, “the white, inviolate solitude”. Perhaps the rink itself is a bounded version of our great geography that can only be realized by skaters who, for a little while, achieve something like flight. 

John B. Lee’s Hockey Player Sonnets and Al Purdy’s The Cariboo Horses, are out of print. But some of the poems in these books, including Purdy’s “Hockey Players” are reprinted in:
Going Top Shelf: An Anthology of Canadian Hockey Poetry

Jeff Lemire,The Complete Essex County

Deirdre Martin,Breakaway

The Human Microphone

New York authorities demand a permit for amplified sound, such as megaphones. Perhaps they thought this would hamper the Wall Street Occupation but the occupiers have come up with The Human Microphone. From The Nation:

“Mic check?” someone implores.

“MIC CHECK!” the crowd shouts back, more or less in unison.

A Wall Street assembly. from Julia La Roche,

After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:

with every few words / WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!

repeated and amplified out loud / REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!

by what has been dubbed / BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED! 

the human microphone / THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way). Likewise, the human mic is not so good for getting across complex points about, say, how the Federal Reserve’s practice of quantitative easing is inadequate to address the current shortage of global aggregate demand (although Joe Stiglitz valiantly tried on Sunday), so speakers tend to express their ideas in straightforward narrative or moral language.

There’s something inherently pluralistic about the human mic too; it’s almost impossible to demagogue, to interrupt and shout someone down or to hijack the General Assembly for your own sectarian purposes. That’s clearly been a saving grace of this occupation, as the internecine fights over identity and ideology that usually characterize left formations haven’t corrosively bubbled over into blood feuds there—yet. The human mic is also, of course, an egalitarian instrument, and it exudes solidarity over ego. No doubt, a great frenzy erupts when left gods like Michael Moore or Cornel West descend to speak, but many people only hear their words through the human mic, in the horizontal acoustics of the crowd instead of the electrified intimacy of “amplified sound.” Celebrity, charisma, status, even public-speaking ability—they all just matter less over the human microphone.

But the greatest hidden virtue of the human mic has been the quality that almost every observer has reflexively lamented: it is slow. I mean incredibly, agonizingly, astonishingly slow; it can take over an hour for the General Assembly just to get through a nightly refresher course on group protocols before starting in on announcements, which precede debate about anything new, like whether or not the occupation should make a list of demands and if so, what those demands should be. Imagine collectively debating and writing the Port Huron Statement, by consensus, three to five words at a time.

But really, what is the goddamn rush? As my colleague Betsy Reed points out, it’s Occupy Wall Streets’ raw anger and simple resistance to being beat down (sentiments well suited for the human mic) that have captured the public’s imagination, not the elaborate policy proposals of other efforts.

There’s something else. The Human Mic makes me smile. The good humor and playfullness of the Occupants has been an outstanding feature of this event. The Human Mic (THE HUMAN MIC) is a good (IS A GOOD) example (EXAMPLE).

Thoughts on the Wall Street Occupation

A few days ago I posted a link that suggested police violence in New York was the result of powers-that-be pressing for results because they are concerned about the police budget. Then I learned that JP Morgan Chase has gifted the NYPD with $4.6 million. You get what you pay for, I suppose. Anyway, here are some other disjointed thoughts about the Occupation of Wall Street. (many of these links are via zunguzungu).

1. The Failure of Mainstream Media

Everything you want to know about why the media are distrusted can be seen in this item from the once-proud New York Times, now just another rag:

The NY Times changes its story.

 2. What are They After?

A lot of wordage has been expounded on the fact that Occupy Wall Street has made no demands, but that, it seems, is part of the process. The original Adbusters call-out suggested that people could get together and decide on the one big demand to be made. Now it appears that people are making their own lists of demands and discussing them in various meetings. There may never be any formal demand or demands. But there is We Are the 99 Percent if anyone genuinely doesn’t understand why these people are demonstrating.

 Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions — is destroying financial security for everyone else?


…there does not have to be a set of demands at the outset. This is not The Further Adventures Of Action Item. Organizers are at the “building support” phase, where they get their message out. It seems straightforward to me that by being there day after day they are saying: We object to what has gone on here; we do not agree with it and do not support it; we want it to change. For now, that is message enough. What they need is to get the word out – which, given the informal media blackout, is no small feat. Not everyone is jacked into the Internet, and there is a huge amount of WOMP (word of mouth publicity) required. That is slower, so it will take longer to build up a head of steam. Concrete demands can wait.

3. Criticism of Tactics, Methodology, Theory, and so forth.

“But these kids are so disorganized!” is a chant from those who control organizations and wonder why they have no sway over these demonstrators. Well, it’s because you’ve done fuck-all in the past and no one expects more from you in the future. There is some theory, mostly ex post facto, about what people are up to; this has to do with occupying space and being free there and thus demonstrating that people can be a useful community without coercion. That has value, at least for a time, and what-you-see-is-what-you-get is not a bad way to view polities. Check this out:

¶Create territories. Multiply zones of opacity.
¶Travel. Open our own lines of communication.
¶Flee visibility. Turn anonymity into an offensive position (“No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition — from whom do we seek recognition? — but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action.”)

Even so, this is where I show my age and prejudice, I suppose. “Direct democracy” calls up visions of referendum-ruined California with citizens demanding services and refusing to pay taxes for them. And “consensus politics” brings to mind the Tyranny of Structurelessness and the manner in which groups are often controlled by the glib and charismatic. Of course, that also translates to electoral politics. Meanwhile, the occupiers have made friends with organized labor: postal workers and locked-out Teamsters. Transit workers have refused to move arrestees for the NYPD and, Steel Workers, the Pilots’ Association, and Verizon workers are joining the Occupation. Or at least are “in solidarity” with the occupation. Still, this says something about the value of tactics so far: Occupy Wall Street has attracted attention and allies.

4. What Can They Accomplish?

This is the $64 question. Can all this sound and fury actually result in any meaningful change? Maybe the story is how much has been accomplished so far:

Generating attention to an issue that the Beltway wants to go away, building support among disparate groups the old-fashioned way, supporting local workers who might otherwise feel isolated, and breathing oxygen into alternative outlets. The OWS movement has been racking up some really important successes. What’s not to like?

5. A Final Thought

I can’t say this any better:

 …for those who believe that protests are only worthwhile if they translate into quantifiable impact: the lack of organizational sophistication or messaging efficacy on the part of the Wall Street protest is a reason to support it and get involved in it, not turn one’s nose up at it and join in the media demonization.  That’s what one actually sympathetic to its messaging (rather than pretending to be in order more effectively to discredit it) would do.  Anyone who looks at mostly young citizens marching in the street protesting the corruption of Wall Street and the harm it spawns, and decides that what is warranted is mockery and scorn rather than support, is either not seeing things clearly or is motivated by objectives other than the ones being presented.

The First Crime Noir Novel

In 1867, the struggling young writer Emile Zola was trying desperately to write a successful novel. He aimed to publish a serial roman-feuilleton, a popular form that was the French version of the English penny-dreadful or the American dime novel. These ancestors of pulp fiction were widely read and enormous sellers, which appealed to Zola. He was chipping away at an imitation of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, which had appeared more than twenty years earlier. Zola called his book, Mysteries of Marseilles. Some critical sense made him set it aside and begin a new piece about people impelled by desire to commit murder. This was the novel Therese Raquin.

Later, Zola was to claim that his characters in Therese Raquin were no more than brutes controlled by their own instincts, machines that lacked free will. He cooked up a scientific rationale for this and critics have declared that Zola’s work inaugurates the new school of Naturalism. In fact, Therese Raquin is an extension of Gothic fiction and an exemplary pulp novel.

Zola as a pulp novel. It works!

Therese lives with her aunt and is married to her cousin, Camille, a sickly youth. Their marriage is passionless and childless. The three live above a dim shop in a sunless gallerie or arcade and Zola emphasizes the lightless character of Therese’s life. One day, Camille brings home a friend, Laurent, who recognizes immediately Therese’s dormant desire. Soon enough they begin an affair. Aflame with sexual energy, they decide to murder Camille so that they can live together. They plot a picnic and boating excursion on the Seine for the three of them. There, Laurent pitches Camille overboard, then capsizes the boat and pretends to rescue Therese. Camille drowns but his body is not found right away and Laurent daily goes to the morgue where unidentified corpses are kept. He looks into the faces of the dead every single day. What begins as a somewhat amusing diversion for a man who thinks himself above the common lot soon becomes a horror that gives him nightmares. He resolves to go only once or twice more. On his next visit he sees Camille’s body “looking at him through half-closed eyes”.

No one suspects Laurent and Therese, but they gradually become seized by fear of what they have done and then by guilt.  Everything, including Camille’s mother Mme.Raquin, reminds them of the deed they have committed. Even so, they marry but they find sex impossible, for Camille’s corpse lies between them. Mme. Raquin has a stroke and is both paralyzed and speechless. The couple become careless around her and she comes to realize what her niece and her husband have done and to hate them. Now the couple must live in the same cramped space with someone whose every glance pierces them.

detail from Fritz Eichenberg's illustration for "The Black Cat"

 One element is a direct homage to Edgar Allen Poe. Camille had a cat that Laurent now believes hates him. The cat stares at him and Laurent thinks that Camille has somehow transferred into the animal. He despises the cat that reminds him constantly of his crime and finally hurls it from a window against the wall of the next building. The cat’s back is broken; it falls onto the glass roof of the gallerie and moans and howls throughout the night. This is very much like what Poe did with “The Black Cat” where the murderer accidentally walls up the cat with his victim and then must hear its cries, cries that he associates with the dead woman behind the wall.

Eventually the murderous couple grow to hate and distrust one another. Each plots to murder the other but when they realize this, both commit suicide via the weapon they planned for the other. Mme. Raquin is left to feast her eyes on their bodies, “eyes that crushed them with brooding hate”.

"Double Indemnity" linocut by Warren Criswell:

Therese Raquin was a huge commercial success. Critics despised it, calling it “putrid” and saying it should be banned. This, of course, only added to the novel’s sales. Zola recognized this and openly laughed at his critics even as he defended the scientific basis of his work. He turned the book into a play that was also successful. Banned in England for years, the play was bound to be a sell-out when it finally escaped censorship there. But Therese Raquin‘s notoriety does not explain why the work has endured and been adapted to at least five movies, a half dozen television series, an opera, a musical (with music by Harry Connick, Jr.), and many stage versions. Continue reading

Wayland Flying

Earlier this year, archaeologists in Sweden discovered a fine bronze piece depicting Wayland the Smith wearing his cloak of feathers and flying. The archaeologists believe that the piece was a mounting on a small box, though there are any number of ways it might have been used in the 7th to 10th Centuries (to take the extremes of when it may have been made).

The bronze piece from Uppakra, Sweden. (via Aardvarchaeology)

Wayland, was also known as Wieland or Volland or any number of similar names which may ultimately derive from Vulcan. Like Vulcan, Wayland was a smith and inventor who fabricated fine objects and magical things, such as the sword Gram, that Sigurd used to kill Fafnir the dragon. Wayland was apprenticed to Mimir, the evil dwarf that Sigurd outwits. Wayland himself is supposed to be of elvish descent. Or the child of a sea nymph, such as the one who raised Hephaestus (aka Vulcan).

Wayland and his two brothers spend time with swan maidens but these women fly away. Wayland’s brothers leave but Wayland stays on. After all, how easy is it to move a smithy? King Nidud, a Swede perhaps, captures Wayland and, to prevent his escape, hamstrings him. The notion of a lame smith is another Wayland motif that recalls Vulcan.

Ardre stone VIII. Wayland is in the middle (detail below) Picture via Wikipedia.

But Wayland is a Germanic mythic figure and his tale will be one of vengeance. Wayland invites the King’s sons to his smithy and cuts off their heads. He fashions their skulls into drinking cups and their eyes into jewels. He gives the cups to King Nidud and the jewels to the queen, mother of the murdered boys. Then, when Bodvild, the king’s daughter asks him to repair her ring, he gives her drugged beer and, when she passes out, ravishes her. Wayland’s brother, a great archer, gives him feathers from birds that he has brought down and Wayland fashions a cloak, a flying suit, that will allow him to escape. He flies over the head of King Nidud and obtains a pledge that the King will never harm Wayland’s offspring. Then he reveals that the King has been drinking from his children’s skulls and the Queen wears their eyes around her neck. The final vengeance is that the King’s daughter now is pregnant with Wayland’s child — he has extinguished Nidud’s line and substituted his own!


Detail from Ardre stone VIII. The smithy is in the center, headless bodies to the right, the princess leaves at left, Wayland flies behind her.

Wayland’s story is found all through Northern European myth. He is said to have forged Beowulf’s chain mail; his story is included in the Prose Edda; Mimir and Gram are part of the Sigurd legend (though Sigurd later gives up Gram for another magic sword); and he is depicted on numerous relics of the heroic age. One of the Ardre rune stones shows Bodvild leaving Wayland’s smithy, he is flying right behind her, leaving the headless corpses of Nidud’s sons near the forge. A similar scene is on the Franks casket (below): Wayland holds a skull in his tongs on the anvil with one hand, a cup of beer in the other. Bodvild reaches for the cup, the elf-woman who supplied the drugged beer behind her. On the right, Wayland’s brother gathers feathers from birds he has brought down.

Franks casket. See article for explanation.

Wayland is mentioned in the early English poems, Waldere and Deor, which cites Wayland’s captivity as one of many difficulties that heroes and heroines overcome, moral fables about vanquishing misfortune.

Some say that Wayland forged Excalibur at his forge near Uffington. If you leave an unshod horse there overnight, in the morning he will be found shoed! Actually the site is much older than the myth and probably once a chambered tomb.

Wayland's Smithy near Uffington

The Uppakra find illustrates one of Europe’s great mythic motifs, whether Wayland or Vulcan, and is a fascinating object.

(Note: several links above have been Google-lated into English. But if you have German or Swedish, as the case may be, then you can easilly de-Google.)

via Aardvarchaeology

Wall Street Protest: Why the Violence?

American mainstream news was studiously ignoring the protests on Wall Street until people started getting hurt. Video of a police officer pepper spraying people already being held behind plastic netting really upset some viewers and brought the protests into the headlines.

from 32 Pictures of Police Brutality

Now it isn’t unusual for protestors, guerrillas, or other asymmetric warriors to try to provoke violence as a means to rouse the masses. But the Wall Street protestors hardly seemed provocative — these were not black-hooded call-myself-an-anarchist-so-I-can-trash-things types. The police had a peaceful situation that the media could ignore. So why did the cops turn ugly?

from 32 Pictures of Police Brutality

It is noteworthy that the violent cops are either wearing civvies or white shirts (instead of blue). This means they are upper echelon career police, not the standard beat patrolman who gets maybe half their salary. A thread on SomethingAwful points this up and one person writes:

the white shirts are the ones under pressure to get this shut down. Instead of having slap fights with low level cops, the protests are hitting the department where it hurts, the budget, where the ones who suffer will be higher up the food chain. This constant police presence, not funded out of an anti-terror budget, has to be wreaking havok on their shift schedules and OT budgeting. The fact is, because of the sensitive nature of the location, the department HAS to respond disproportionately by expending massive resources and, yes, perpetrating violent reprisals. They have to have a constant extra detail of cops watching the protesters, at least a one to one ratio, 24/7. A long grind like this has to be a big, weeping hole in the department’s budget.

The fact that the protesters are breaking out and randomly walking around the city – poo poo, what a loving mess to have to deal with from a police staffing perspective.

The rank and file aren’t the ones macing the protesters because the rank and file are scoring sweet, sweet limitless overtime, which they desperately need to supplement their $24,000 entry level wages. Babysitting nonviolent hippies in a safe location with plenty of decent restaurants around is a really sweet OT gig if you can get it.

Spit in a patrolman’s face and the big blue machine doesn’t sweat it – that’s what it’s there for. Hit it in the pocketbook and you’ll get white shirted high ranking types under pressure to shut it down. That’s why the white shirts are the ones with the mace.

from 32 Pictures of Police Brutality

That seems to me to have the ring of Truth. I’ve read a great deal of handwringing editorials doing some kind of good apple/bad apple analysis and a lot of salami-slicing about the State monopoly on violence and how it should be utilized, but the mechanics of these situations deserve analysis.

A Comic Strip, Crime, and Peanut Butter

Percy Crosby was worth more than three million dollars in 1932. He had the very successful comic strip, Skippy, that had been turned into a best-selling book and a movie that launched Jackie Cooper’s career.

Song sheet cover with Skippy and Jackie Cooper

Skippy, Inc. was created to license Crosby’s creation. Licensees included Standard Oil, General Mills, Paramount, and Milton Bradley. Percy Crosby owned a gold mine comparable to that of, say, Charles Schultz. But somehow Crosby’s creation was stolen by a peanut butter company and he died penniless in an asylum in 1964. His daughter has waged a decades-long battle for justice but so far, has been unable to prevail.

Newspaper comic strips were hugely important in the 1920s and Crosby’s Skippy was one of the most widely read. The news corporations used their contracted comics to sell advertising. Want Skippy to promote your local car dealership? Send us a cheque.

from 1933, Skippy results in profits

In 1933, the Rosefeld peanut butter company began bringing out s Skippy brand without sending a cheque to the Hearst Syndicate. When Rosefeld attempted to register Skippy as a trademark, Crosby sued them and won. But Rosefeld ignored the court’s decision and continued to produce Skippy peanut butter.

The lettering is taken from the Skippy strip. The fence being painted was a constant motif in the comic strip.

Why didn’t Crosby take further action? Perhaps he thought that his legal victory was enough, since he had blocked the trademark. Perhaps he was unaware of Rosefeld’s continuing the product. Rosefeld was small potatoes, after all.  Or perhaps Percy Crosby was unable to deal with his great success and began to fall apart.

1934 was a big year for Crosby. He signed a seven year contract with Hearst, called the “longest and largest” at the time. His licensing fees and payments for the Skippy radio show were bringing in huge sums of money. The comics publisher M.C.Gaines (William’s father) put together a Skippy comic book. Half a million comic books were given away by Phillips Toothpaste to those who wrote into the radio show and requested a copy. But, also in 1934, Crosby became “jittery” according to FBI reports. He believed that he was being followed and that his life was in danger.

Skippy with fence. Compare lettering with the peanut butter.

Whether or not Rosefeld was following Crosby, they do seem to have suggested to the IRS that Skippy, Inc. was a tax dodge. By 1936 tax auditors were “swarming like hornets” over the offices of Skippy, Inc. Although Crosby proclaimed his innocence, the IRS slapped him with a $47,000 lien and he had to sell property to pay the bill. One of these properties was a publishing business, Freedom Press, that Crosby had set up to promote his political ideas.

Crosby's cartoon attacking FDR's court-packing.

Thought of as a progressive, or even socialist, Crosby’s cartoons supported building up  American armed forces and attacked Franklin Roosevelt. The strain of being a progressive who drew a salary from William Randolph Hearst must have created more than a little cognitive dissonance. Crosby believed that the IRS judgment was punishment for his anti-administration stance, and especially a 1937 cartoon he had done attacking Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.

Crosby’s relationship with his wife became rancorous. He had married Agnes Locke in 1929, shortly after a divorce from his first wife, Dale who contined as an executive at Skippy, Inc. In 1931 the couple moved into an 18-room mansion near Maclean, Virginia. By 1936 they were constantly fighting. After one battle in 1939, Crosby stormed out of the house and drove off in his yellow Packard 8. When he returned, two weeks later, the house was deserted. Agnes filed a restraining order against Percy and he never saw his four children again.

Agnes, Percy, and their children

Percy Crosby moved to New York. He was drinking heavilly by 1940 when he married Carolyn Soper. Dale Crosby was dismayed by the failure of her ex-husband’s legal firm to protect him and, in 1942, brought an action against them. At some point Percy decided to go after Rosefeld again. In 1944 he served Rosefeld with a Cease and Desist order. Rosefeld’s attorney contacted the IRS again and Crosby was hit with a $43,000 lien for back taxes. In 1946, all of Crosby, Inc.’s assets were frozen by the IRS. Continue reading

Frederic Back

Frederic Back’s animated films have been nominated for four Oscars — and won two. At the age of 87 he is still working, both at his art and for causes he supports. His website is called Caring Together and reflects his view that individuals can make a difference.

Frederic Back

Back was born in the Saar region of Alsace and his family had to deal with political upheaval in the 1930s. Back’s father was a professional concert musician who struggled to make ends meet in Strasbourg but, in 1937, found a post with the Radio Paris Orchestra. Three years later, France was occupied.

From 1938 – 43, Back studied art in Brittany. He drew what he saw about him: the everyday life of the Breton peasant. “Draw everything,” said Back’s teacher, “It will all disappear.” Later, Back said, “He was right.” In 1943 he was called up to the Army but a priest hid Back in exchange for him working on paintings in the church at Ste-Melaine. During this time he discovered the work of Quebec artist Clarence Gagnon whose work reflected rural themes similar to those of Back’s Breton work.

Painting by Clarence Gagnon

Gagnon’s painting and the works of Jack London inspired a romantic love of the North in Back. Not long after the War’s end, he began corresponding with a Quebec school teacher. In 1948, Back sailed to Quebec to meet his penpal, Ghylaine Paquin. A year later, he married her.

Back’s honeymoon was spent on a camping trip that took the young couple across the continent to Prince Rupert. Along the way he remarked on the vast landscape and, at Lake Louise: “All these mountains were magnificent, the forests amazing and the silence, infinite.”

For a few years Back supported his family by teaching, occasionally taking off for long periods of drawing and painting in the Gaspe, the United States (where he was disgusted by racial segregation), and Mexico. But in 1952 he took a job at the fledgling Radio Canada television network and soon was swamped in work.

Through the 1950s Back did drawings, designs, finished advertising, storyboards, and even a stint as an animator for the program Le nez de Cleopatre which required him to illustrate questions for a panel, live on-air. By the 1960s Back had enough of a reputation that he was commissioned to do a stained glass mural for the Montreal Metro, he illustrated children’s books, and began doing animation. During this same period, Back became involved in the environmental movement. He drew posters and designed booths for environmental organizations, the SPCA, and Native groups opposing the James Bay development. When Back’s father died, he enlisted family members and planted more than a thousand trees in his father’s memory, the first of some 30,000 trees he has planted so far.

Back's mural for the Montreal Metro: "Music in Quebec"

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