The Vanity of Human Attainments

Memorial (front, left) to "commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson's factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818."

Memorial (front, right) to “commemorate the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr Atkinson’s factory, Colne Bridge, Feb. 14th. 1818.”

Having relocated (to West Yorkshire) and switching job (to the University of Huddersfield) in the last month or so, I am beginning to settle in to my new pastures.  And mine are literal pastures.  The windows in my new study look out onto the sweeping rural landscape of the Colne Valley and I have six ponies as my direct neighbours (including two adorable young foals).  I’m slowly exploring my new environs and the recent summer warmth has allowed me to make the most of the local bridalways and footpaths.  This morning, I was delighted to discover a new laneway, which took me across fields (the home of two more horses) and deposited me at the lychgate of the local village church.  From my reading of the gravestones, a surprising number of which dated from the 1700s, the local bigwigs appear to have been the Beaumont family.  The most imposing tombstone in the churchyard (pictured here) has a textile industry-related – and utterly tragic – story related to it: Huddersfield and its surrounds being one of the engines of the Industrial Revolution and famed for its cloth manufacturing and wool worsted.  I have moved to what once was mill country.

The memorial commemorates the “dreadful fate” of 17 girls, who were killed in a raging fire at “Mr Atkinson’s factory”, a cotton mill, on 14th February 1818.  Controversially, and presumably for productivity purposes, the mill machinery was operated on a constant basis throughout the day and night.  The night shift included child labour and, in the early hours of the morning in question, a ten year-old boy, James Thornton: “had been sent down for rovings from the card room with a naked candle, instead of the glass lamp provided expressly for the purpose.”  The cotton provided a perfect tinder box, with the fire instantly taking hold and ravaging the building in what was reported as just half an hour.  Nine workers escaped, 17 children aged between 9 and 18 years died, and the mill was razed to the ground.  A facsimile of the burial register may be viewed here.

The incident was a national tragedy and was cited in parliament by Sir Robert Peel in order to lend weight to his Bill for the reformation of factory working.  The fire was descibed in the contemporary press as a “holocaust” and a transcript of the original news report from the Leeds Mercury, 21st February 1818 gives further, chilling, details of the event here.  The overarching suggestion is that the fire was a dreadful accident.  What the Mercury account fails to mention is that is was common practice at the time to lock workers in to a factory for the duration of a shift and, further, that some suggested the overlooker in charge on that particular, fateful, night at Atkinson’s factory had locked up the girls and left them to go for “his evening meal or home to bed”.  An official inquest concluded that no individual was culpable.

The legend on the gravestone memorial reads thus:

Near this place lie what remained of the bodies of seventeen children.  A striking and awful instance of the uncertainty of life and the vanity of human attainments



Rodeo, Drive

The Levi's '100% Electric Rodeo' puppet show as it toured the West, performing here at the Southwest Exposition & Fat Stock Show, 8th March, 1940.  Source: Fort Worth Public Library Archives.

The Levi’s ‘100% Electric Rodeo’ puppet show as it toured the West, performing here at the Southwest Exposition & Fat Stock Show, 8th March, 1940. Source: Fort Worth Public Library Archives.

At first glance, certain archive objects, such as a postcard, may appear mundane.  Yet, with just a little bit of investigation, that same mundane postcard can become mesmeric, opening up avenues into history unfathomable. Telling the stories behind ordinary artefacts (such as a mass-produced souvenir) is what makes research about material, and popular, culture so compelling.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary with a bit of digging and insight.

I had one such encounter in the Autry archive last week as I went diligently about my labours up in the reading room on the first floor.  A search of the archive catalogue had thrown up this reference to a postcard from 1939 featuring an image of the ‘Levi’s Electric Rodeo’.  Almost dismissing it outright, since rodeos aren’t my research focus, I did a quick Google search (yes, the last refuge of the research scoundrel) with surprising results.

1939 was not only the year of the World’s Fair in New York but also the year of the, now lesser known, West coast counterpart, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.  The theme of the GGIE was ‘Pageant of the Pacific’ and land was acquired to build the campus of ‘Treasure Island’, which promoted San Francisco as a hub for arts, culture and business in the Pacific Rim.  Home town company, Levi Strauss, the famous denim jeans manufacturer created an ‘Electric Rodeo’ for the Expo, which was pioneering in its technology as an automated sideshow and proved to be exceptionally popular with visitors in the ‘Vacationland’ entertainment area.  The reverse of the postcard held in the Autry collection (which was distributed at the GGIE along with a booklet, apparently, that described the making of the attraction) lauded Levi’s innovation thus: “A 100% electric rodeo.  It moves.  It talks.  Its figures are all hand-carved  likenesses of famous rodeo people.  And they’re all dressed in authentic Western togs…miniature replicas of garments made in California since 1853 by Levi Strauss & Company”.  31 wooden puppets performed to a vinyl soundtrack of western music in a 20-minute show that featured a bucking horse, a clown and mule, announcers and judges.

Although the Expo itself had wavering success (it was open only between February and October 1939, reopening in May through to September of 1940), the Electric Rodeo was a hit. After its stint at Treasure Island, the Electric Rodeo was adapted to take to the roads on the back of a streamliner truck (this splendid 1938 international Harvester D-300 truck and trailer, to be precise) and made a 25,000 mile tour of small towns and livestock shows throughout the West.  The designer and builder of the show, Leonard W. Mitchell, was accompanied by his wife on the tour, which The Hemphill County News (Fri May 23rd 1941) reported as figuring to the sum of $50, 000.  That same report gives a lyrical account of the ingenuity of engineering:

“The rodeo carries its own power plant to operate the twelve electric motors and scores of electric magnets that actuate its tens of thousands of moving parts.  From behind the scenes, it has the complexity of Rube Goldberg’s mechanical nightmares.  Yet, so perfectly has the mechanism been designed that it works automatically throughout, without the necessity of any attendant to pull a wire or so much as throw a switch.  The entire action and sound of the rodeo are directed by the electric brain of a concealed robophone.  So exact is the coordination of sound and movement that when any performer speaks, his mouth moves in time with the words he is uttering.”

Ain’t that a thing?  It appears that the touring Electric Rodeo had a reasonably long and illustrious career, thrilling spectators throughout the 1940s (as this wonderful, and decidedly fifties-style, image testifies). For example, The Lodi-News Sentinel from Thursday August 14th 1947 announced that “rodeo-minded youngsters will be preparing for a treat when the big Levi Strauss puppet rodeo” rolls into town for the annual nine-day long Lodi Horse Show.  A similar announcement was made in The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light from September 22, 1950.

The tale of the Electric Rodeo, once so sparky and sizzling, ends here with mixed fortunes.  The shell of the streamliner truck now languishes in a parking lot in Newcastle, CA, bereft of its interior treasures.  Rather poignantly, too, only a couple of the miniature jeans (bereft of their puppet-y owners) are said to be stored in the official company archives of Levi-Strauss, along with some promotional papers from the original 1939 Expo in San Francisco.  But Levi’s have not restricted their voltaic moment in history to a pair of pint-sized pants.  For, in 2014, the company took inspiration from its highly-charged past and commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Electric Rodeo by reproducing some of the puppet outfits in their aptly-named 2014 ‘Treasure Island’ collection, which you may marvel at here and here. And all power to them!

A View From The Grandstand


Serendipity at the thrift store came in the form of a grandstand badge from the 1936 Epsom race meeting

Chance, fate, coincidence.  Give it whatever name you care, sometimes the uncanny can offer a message that is not easy to ignore.  I have just experienced one of these strangely curious moments of fortune.  Whilst rummaging around the sinewy and intoxicating corners of my favourite local thrift store, Vintage Thrift, which is operated by the United Jewish Council of the East Side, I chanced upon a small, old, pin badge, in near mint condition.  I handed over my $5 immediately, knowing exactly what I had ‘discovered’.  This is (I refer you to the image, left, of said object) an entry tag to the spectator grandstand at the Epsom racecourse, on the day prior (I think, with the help of Google) to Derby Day itself in 1936.  I’m amazed by my find for several reasons.  Firstly, who would have thought that such an artefact would find its way to a charity shop in Manhattan?  Presumably, the badge was kept as a souvenir by an American visitor to Epsom almost eighty years ago (although we’ll probably never know for sure)?  Who would have thought that the object would have survived all of this time, too?  Made of stiffened card, the object is the essence of horse racing ephemera and was not intended to be durable beyond the few days of a race meet.  And, finally, what were the chances of finding a date so pitch perfect for my 1930s ‘Style Stakes’ project (Wed., 27th May 1936)?  The Derby has a history dating back to 1780, so there is any number of decades to go at.

The badge itself offers a fair deal of information about the event at which it was worn.  The date (wed, 27th May 1936), the price of admission to the grand stand area (£2.2.0), and, on the back, the issue number, 3736 (while contemporary news reports state that half a million people attended the headliner event, the Derby itself, in 1936).  Printed text on the back of the cardboard badge also gives some fascinating insight on the rules and regulations that surrounded conditions of entry to Epsom: “Issued subject to the Rules of Racing.  C. F. Oughton, Sec., Epsom GrandStand Association.  This badge is issued on condition that it is worn so as to be distinctly seen by the officials.  No money returned for lost or mislaid badges.” 

As well as some of the practical and logistical details to do with race attendance, the badge also acts as a departure point for the ‘unpacking’ of the role of material culture and dress at horseraces.  The foundations of much of the discipline of fashion theory are based around the idea of dress as a visual emblem or marker of identity.  This badge is a marker of identity in its most literal, and also sociological, sense.  Worn prominently (to be visible to the course stewards and personnel) on, say, a lapel, the badge becomes part of the recognised attire for a day at the races, and a symbol of the status and access that one either has bestowed or bought (for £2-and-something).  Entry to the exclusive space of the grandstand was allowed and demarcated via a small, cardboard, marker.  Clothing, the definition of which extends to accessories (as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog), was a key signifier of social and sporting belonging at the races.  Sociologist, Erving Goffman would, then, suggest that these badges served as symbolic ‘tie-signs’ beyond the practical ‘you’ve paid your money’ purpose.  Additionally, it’s apparent that this particular badge was invested with a mystical-type of meaning outside of its actual purpose.  After the event at which it was distributed it had a further ‘life’ as a keepsake and trinket, holding immaterial memories of a European vacation (perhaps?), re-valued by its owner as having a ‘worth’ beyond its cheap material construction: a disposable artefact that was worth keeping.

Rather than all of this posturing, I should take the ‘hint’ supplied by my latest piece of cast-off treasure: that is, stop procrastinating and put pen to paper on my next writing project, an article on racing fashion for the Sport In History special edition on ‘kit’.  But before so doing, I need to do the service here of supplying  the winners and riders of the 1936 Derby.  With 22 runners, the winner was the Aga Khan’s 100-8 outsider, a grey, named ‘Mahmoud’, that romped home with a three-length victory.  For further delight and delectation, two evocative film snippets of Derby Day, 1936 can be viewed on the fabulous British Pathe archive website (5min film clip) and the British Paramount Newsreel site (3min film clip).  And they’re off!