Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Vulgar Fractions

A friend has lent me something of incredible value, and I'd like to honor his kindness by sharing a little bit of it with you. I only wish I could share the whole thing, but that's not possible, curse the luck.

In 1840 a 15-year-old boy, Benjamin by name, of northern Loudoun County, Virginia, toiled at his lessons. His penmanship was superb, far better than any modern hand, and his figuring was done in supremely confident pen and ink.

Young Benjamin could not possibly know, on May the 7th, 1840, that his notebook, which would survive against enormous odds through flood and fire and mildew and war, to be found some 165 years later, could cause a 44-year-old man to go weak in the knees.

Vulgar Fractions.

Of course he means "common" fractions, but it's funny how words gain and lose meanings. We would never think to describe something as "vulgar" -- that adjective is reserved strictly for naughty language, now. Certainly that's how I first read it: the schoolboy's resentment toward a difficult subject -- "Oh, no, it's time for those filthy, vulgar fractions again!"

Quite a few days of Benjamin's April and May studies were spent learning to convert foreign currencies. There are pages and pages of calculations turning pounds, shillings and pence into guilders, francs, reales, thalers. Many transactions in the 19th century in the newly constituted United States were still done in foreign currency, and old coins found in archaeological sites are just as likely to be British as American. Even this late.

Remember those posters in the Seventies: "Plan Ahead"? Looks like Ben could have used the advice:

Several times throughout his notebook, young Benjamin carefully writes the name "Philadelphia," in different styles -- all capitals, cursive, block letters. Don't know why. Maybe he was practicing. But what's particularly wonderful about the above is the at-first confounding phrase, "Locofoco or Demicrat."

Turns out this was a Burning Issue in Benjamin's Current Events class. Ripped straight from the headlines. From the Wikipedia:
The Locofocos were a radical faction of the Democratic Party that existed from 1835 until the mid-1840s.

The faction was created in New York City as a protest against that city's regular Democratic organization (Tammany Hall), and contained a mixture of anti-Tammany Democrats and labor union veterans of the Working Men's Party. In the 1840 election, the term "Locofoco" was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory.

In general, Locofocos supported Andrew Jackson and Van Buren, and were for free trade and greater circulation of specie and against paper money, financial speculation, and union-busting.
Wow. Thirty years later, they'd be Communists.

The name "Locofoco" comes from a brand of friction matches. Here's a corking good political cartoon from the time illustrating the issue. Boy, they don't make satire like that any more. Thank God. I speculate Ben's "Locofoco or Demicrat" is a punch line, a pun he heard -- "Demicrat" being only half a Democrat, you see.

OK, here's the History High moment for me. This one really blows my tiny little mind:

Just a doodle, a little squib in the margin, doesn't mean anything, no connection to the surrounding schoolwork.

But here's the thing: Young Benjamin thought to himself in an idle moment, "I think I'll draw a picture of a man." Maybe a caricature of his teacher, who knows. But the man he draws is wearing a stovepipe hat and a clawhammer coat.

That's the part that destroys me. To Ben, that wasn't a-picture-of-a-man-in-a-stylized-hat-and-coat -- that's just a picture of a man. In other words, that's what men looked like to Ben. That's not a theatrical costume. You're looking right at 1840, through the eyes of this boy.

I have a hard time not misting up at the immediacy of it, the feeling of awe that wells up. A hundred and sixty-five years ago.

I believe I've found Benjamin in the 1850 Loudoun County Census. Boy, I hope the Civil War was kind to him.


blue girl said...

Very cool, Neddie! Thank you for sharing! And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the word -- Locofoco! :)

Bobby Lightfoot said...

How a child from the 1840's could draw such an uncannily accurate picture of Marc Bolan is Nostradamian. Your awe is well-placed.

Kevin Wolf said...

Thanks for sharing - same to your source of this notebook as well. Between the political cartoon and the boy's sketch I think we see some of the reasons many of us love cartooning, and why we keep going back to earlier examples. They say so much, with so little and with such immediacy.

PS: Loved your Pogo post back when, the first Neddie post I ever read.

Vache Folle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Neddie said...

GlueBirl: You'd think that I'd have heard of the Locofocos (Oooh! fun to type, too!) by now, wouldn't you? I mean, Mugwump, Mugwump, Mugwump, knowhumsayin'? Nineteenth-century American politics must have been quite a blast -- except for that little Unpleasantness somewhere in the middle...

Kev: I was actually being a little po-faced about that political cartoon -- All those stilted speech-bubbles... When did Thomas Nast get started? Bit later, right? (Gott in Himmel, look at this: http://www.thomasnast.com/default.htm )

Vache: I'll contact you offline about why I deleted your comment. Nothing at all personal, I just have to be super-careful about some stuff.

blue girl said...

Yeah, Neddie -- I was actually bummed when I read they were the *radical Democrats* of the day --

We definitely have some Locofocos on our hands right now -- and they ain't on the left!

If Rove's not locofoco -- I'm not sure what is!

Kevin Wolf said...

Ned, understand you were having a laugh and the cartoon itself hardly comes from the Golden Age of Cartooning; it's more the idea that these are out there to be found and lay bare the attitudes of the day. Though, Jeebus Crisis, hadn't a single American of the time seen anything by Daumier?

Bob Dwire said...

Re the cartoon, is Blair Galvanized in the sense of brought back to life by electric therapy? I reckon it is, possibly made timely by the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

morrish said...

We still call them vulgar fractions here in the UK. But then we are very vulgar people, as anyone who values British humour will have noticed.

Also, our teeth are bad.

rameau's nephew said...

Neddie, I am heartened to see such a passion for the nation's heritage - makes my hobbies seem much less dorky...

thanks for the link to Harpweek, an amazing resource...

check out the image I found under
"Implements of torture, and their dangerous effects. Illustrated"


and the quote drawn from the description of the print:

"In Open Defiance of all the known maxims of Law, and Contrary to Legislative enactments, a convict was compelled to endure the appalling tortures of this infernal contrivance, for merely speaking to a fellow prisoner. In a Land too, where Tyranny and Oppression, is held in utter abhorrence, and Liberty, Equality, and just enjoyment of rights, are the constant boasting of the people!!! The Spanish inquisitions, cannot exhibit a more fearful and barbarous mode, beyond all human endurance! It ought to be forever abolished!!!"

Heh... locofoco, indeed.

Neddie said...

Dwire: Googled the "galvanized corpse" comment attributed to Francis Pickens, found only this: http://loc.harpweek.com/LCPoliticalCartoons/DisplayCartoonLarge.asp?MaxID=77&UniqueID=16&Year=1840&YearMark=1840

Boy, that's some forced humor.

See http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/frankenstein/IIC28.jpg

It seems awfully likely that Pickens was alluding to ol' Fronkenschtein.

RN: Thanks for providing me with today's American Street Post!

Morrish: Brush up and down, with the grain of the teeth, not across. That should help. And go boil some mutton or something.

Bob Dwire said...

See, I used to have connections with Fyne Court, where Andrew Crosse, the "Thunder and Lightning Man" used to do his stuff. See http://www.somersetwildlife.org/news_150.php

Crosse "has even been touted as an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, despite his most notorious experiments coming almost 20 years after the novel’s publication."

tomcoffin@earthlink.net said...

Now don't hold out on us...what was his full name?