Rose Selfridge as portrayed by Frances O'Connor in "Mr. Selfridge"
The TV show Mr. Selfridge, discussed in my most recent Bloomberg View column, is very loosely based on the biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead. One thing that becomes clear when you read the book is that, aside from its eponymous protagonist and his family, the show's characters are fictional--composites in a few cases like Lady Mae, completely made-up in most. The show is drama, not history. That's fine, except when the fictional version is more boring than the real one.
One of the show's most tedious plot lines is the flirtation Rose Selfridge, Harry's long-suffering wife, has with a bohemian painter she meets at the National Gallery. Rose, we're led to believe, used to paint before she got married and gave up art for domesticity. Her artist beau paints her portrait, showing her at the easel, with her hair flowing down her bare shoulders. It's a cliched bit of art-versus-commerce, bohemianism-versus-domesticity--far less original than Rose's real story.
Before she married Selfridge, Rose wasn't a dilettante painter. She was a successful real estate developer.
His bride-to-be has been described as a "Chicago debutante." She was indeed a debutante when a teenager, but by the time she met Harry she was nearly thirty and had spent several years working as a successful property developer. Rosalie had learned her craft from her father, the property investor Frank Buckingham, who was also a member of the exclusive Chicago Club. Mr Buckingham had died in the early 1880s, leaving his twenty-three-year-old daughter enough money to venture into development herself. In partnership with her brother-in-law, Frank Chandler, Rosalie bought land on Harper Avenue in Hyde Park, then a rural outpost of the city. This was no small venture. Rosalie planned and oversaw the building of forty-two villas and "artists' cottages," the villas each with a forty-five- or fifty-foot frontage and a driveway to reach the stabling at the rear. It was an enlightened development, including a business block with a drugstore, a family grocery store, a café, a reading room and even a public hall for lectures and concerts. The houses looked out on the park lagoons and lake, with the east side of the development being built sixty feet away from the railroad tracks, which the railroad company was expected to landscape in harmony with the general plan. The architect for the development was Solon S. Beman, the designer of the famous "Pullman model town," where George Pullman corraled his employees. But Rosalie's villas were not intended for factory workers. They were elegant, spacious, middle-class homes in what was the area's first planned community. Miss Buckingham was no giddy debutante.
The real Harry Selfridge married a visionary businesswoman with an executive temperament, not a self-effacing frustrated artist. Now that has potential for drama.
In my latest Bloomberg View column, I use the new PBS show Mr. Selfridge (preview video above) as an excuse to delve into the history of department stores--which, like the history of consumption in general, gets short shrift in both scholarship and popular culture. Here's an excerpt:
like railroads and telegraphs, the department stores of the late 19th and early 20th century were socially and economically transformative institutions. They pioneered innovations ranging from inventory control and installment credit to ventilation systems, electric lighting and steel construction, along with new merchandising and advertising techniques. They brought together goods from all over the world and lit up city streets with their window displays. They significantly changed the role of women, giving them new career opportunities and respectable places to meet in public. They popularized bicycles, cosmetics, ready-to-wear clothing and electrical appliances. They even invented the ladies' room.
In their day, the stores were also the settings for popular theater. "In the 19th and early 20th century, there were dozens of plays and movies that were set in department stores and explored them," says Erika Rappaport, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies consumer culture in 19th-century Britain. "Society was thinking about them."
When department stores were new, people understood that they were significant institutions -- liberating in the eyes of some, threatening or corrupting to others, but obviously important. Nowadays, we treat shopping as silly stuff. "When I tell people I've written on shopping, I still get giggles," says Rappaport, whose 2000 book Shopping for Pleasure describes the development of retailing in London's West End, focusing particularly on women shoppers. "People are uncomfortable: 'that's not real history.'"
But ignoring consumer culture produces a bizarre mental picture of the Industrial Revolution that features textile factories but includes no one buying or selling clothes. By downplaying the pleasures of newly inexpensive goods and the shops that sold them, the production-only version of history also misses the everyday meaning of a rising standard of living -- the satisfaction, for instance, of having multiple outfits, or even a variety of hat trimmings, that allow you to express your mood or personality.
"The appeal just of the stuff is a really major part of all of this, and that of course is only made possible by manufacturing," says Linda M. Scott, a professor at Oxford's Said Business School and the author of Fresh Lipstick, a history of the relationship between feminism and the American beauty and fashion economy. In researching the book, Scott says she was surprised to discover just how important the desire for cash to spend on consumer goods was in drawing young women out of domestic service and into factories. "Even middle-class girls who weren't supposed to work would talk, in interviews and letters, about envying the working-class girls," she says. "Because if you couldn't work you could only get the stuff you wanted by manipulating a man."
It looks like suburbia, but it still represents escape.
In my new Bloomberg View column, I criticize the trendy denigration of technological progress that doesn't solve "big problems" like going to Mars. Here's an excerpt:
In speeches, interviews and articles, [Peter] Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of nonacceleration: We are no longer moving faster."
Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."
But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.
The column draws directly on ideas I developed in The Future and Its Enemies. But, as I was writing it, I also thought about what my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour might suggestwhy some old visions of the future are more compelling than others: Why do we miss space travel and flying cars but not robot maids (or robot dogs), "telesense," meals-in-a-pill, or all those jumpsuits? Why don't we appreciate the microwave ovens, synthetic fibers, or artificial hips?
I think it has to do with the promise of escape and transformation, which is essential to all forms of glamour. Glamour always allows the audience to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.
A robot maid might improve your life but it wouldn't fundamentally change it. You'd still be yourself and the world around you would seem more-or-less the same. Except in a harried housewife, the idea of a robot maid does not excite longing. Transportation, by contrast, always implies movement and transcendence, all the more when it's fast and high. That's why space travel—like cars and trains and planes and ships and horses before it—has such potential for glamour.
I've always been fascinated by the images NASA and others used to sell the idea of space colonies in the 1970s. They always remind me of the San Fernando Valley as you come over the Sepulveda Pass from West L.A. (or, to be more accurate, the first time I saw that view it reminded me of the space colony pictures). They're selling real estate, with the same promise that every house stager uses: This could be your new, better life. ("I could be happy here.") All you have to do is move...in this case, to outer space.
with wonder and admiration from a Vermont statesrighter
March 9 1951
Frost's most famous political association may have been his appearance at John Kennedy's inauguration, but apparently he harbored some sympathies for Thurmond's Dixiecrat stance. (For a more thorough examination of Frost's conservative leanings, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher seems to be the go-to source, at least judging from this Heritage Foundation description, which cites the poet's criticism of the New Deal but says nothing about Thurmond's segregationist politics.)
The Frost anthology is further inscribed "From Oscar and Dorothy Lever with esteem and affection." Oscar Lever was an administrator at Columbia College, a women's school in South Carolina, and presumably got the book signed to the Thurmonds when Frost spoke there and then gave it to them.
Since Frost poems were mentioned in the article, I wanted to mention an interesting use of copyright to prevent someone from using specifically "Stopping by Woods..." A well known composer, Eric Whitacre, wrote a piece for chorus which now goes by the title "Sleep" but was originally written to set "Stopping By Woods" to music. I am not sure if the poem had briefly passed out of copyright in between congressional extensions, or if he believed that he had permission, but in any case after a couple of performances, he was stopped from using the poem by the estate of Robert Frost, and had to have a friend write another poem especially for the music. You can actually find the original work with the Frost words on You Tube...it is much better in my opinion than the final version with the new words.
The story was not only news to me, but actually contradicts a claim, which Tom Bell pointed me to at the last minute, that the copyright on the poem, as opposed to the book in which it appeared, was never properly renewed. Since the Poetry Foundation and others behave as though the poem is under copyright, I decided not to raise the issue in the column and only modified the language slightly--a good call, since the Frost estate does, as Joanne pointed out, go around enforcing the copyright against people making commercial use of the poem.
On his website, Eric Whitacre tells the story of his clash with the estate. He had written a choral work, setting the poem to music, at the request of Julia Armstrong, an Austin, Texas, lawyer and professional mezzo-soprano who sings with the Austin ProChorus. He writes:
The poem is perfect, truly a gem, and my general approach was to try to get out of the way of the words and let them work their magic. We premiered the piece in Austin, October 2000, and the piece was well received. Rene Clausen gave it a glorious performance at the ACDA National Convention in the spring of 2001, and soon after I began receiving letters, emails, and phone calls from conductors trying to get a hold of the work.
And here was my tragic mistake: I never secured permission to use the poem. Robert Frost's poetry has been under tight control from his estate since his death, and until a few years ago only Randall Thompson (Frostiana) had been given permission to set his poetry [to music]. In 1997, out of the blue, the estate released a number of titles, and at least twenty composers set and published Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for chorus. When I looked online and saw all of these new and different settings, I naturally (and naively) assumed that it was open to anyone. Little did I know that the Robert Frost Estate had shut down ANY use of the poem just months before, ostensibly because of this plethora of new settings.
After a LONG legal battle (many letters, many representatives), the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher, Henry Holt Inc., sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance until the poem became public domain in 2038.
I was crushed. The piece was dead, and would sit under my bed for the next 37 years because of some ridiculous ruling by heirs and lawyers.
He salvaged the work by getting a poet friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write new words for the music. In another blog post, he writes that he prefers the new version and that Silvestri "not only replaced the poem, he saved the piece. He actually made my music much, much better, on every level."
Here's the original. (Apparently the Frost estate hasn't discovered YouTube.)
Here's a video with the new version (and, as the commenters note, a rather anomalous Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj promotion around it:
Writing in Forbes, Rich Karlgaard explains the dynamist-stasist dichotomy I developed in The Future and Its Enemies and argues that it offers the best way for Republicans to think about how to work with the second term of the Obama administration. "How should Republicans work with Obama 2.0? The most useful role would be to do everything they can to make sure the dynamists prevail over the stasists in Obama's second Administration."
Among the topics he lists for potential cooperation is copyright reform, which, as I discuss in my new Bloomberg View column, unites dynamists across party lines. Indeed, the dynamist-stasis division (plus self-interest, of course) is the best way to think about the coalitions on that issue. If I ever do another edition of TFAIE, I'll have to have discuss intellectual property. It's funny how in 1998, everybody was worried about Microsoft's monopoly power, fearing it would crush innovation, when the far greater concern should have been the copyright bill working its way through Congress. (See my NYT op-ed and I-told-you-so video on the Microsoft case.)
Rich's discussion of how dynamists and stasists see themselves in Obama also echoes some of my work on his glamour: "Like all larger-than-life politicians, Obama is a Rorschach test: His fans see what they want to see in the man." (I would differentiate between politicians who are larger-than-life by virtue of their charisma and those rarer ones, like the early Obama, who are glamorous.)
UPDATE: Writing from a Democratic perspective, Michael Mandel (whose blog I recommend) struck a similar theme right after the election: "the biggest decision facing the next president—and Americans in general—goes far beyond the 'fiscal cliff', or any of the machinations which fascinate Washingtonians. Should the United States follow its current path of long-term stagnation, or should we choose a road that likely leads to rapid—but disruptive—growth?...
As you might guess, I favor the high-growth economy and the optimism about the future that comes along with it. But we can't fool ourselves–innovation is fundamentally disruptive and risky. We're not just talking smartphones and tablets. The list of potential breakthroughs is long and growing—3D printing to reinvigorate manufacturing, biotech to transform healthcare, nanotech to create new materials. Each of these potential breakthrough technologies can destroy existing businesses and jobs even as they juice up growth.
In my latest Bloomberg View column, I use Robert Frost's 1923 poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to illustrate the excesses of the current copyright system. YouTube is full of videos of people performing the poem in various ways, with and without copyright permission. Many of the most amusing should fall under fair use, as Eugene Volokh notes in my column, but if the copyright holder claimed otherwise YouTube would probably pull them. Until that day, here's a collection.
Sage, the pigtailed generic cute suburban kid:
Creepily solemn Quinn, who breaks character at the end:
Sadfar, giving Frost's New England South Asian lilt