She was Phoebe Snow, the white-gowned heroine of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American business history: Earnest Elmo Calkins’s series of streetcar advertising cards (1903-1917) for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. This was the onset of Phoebe’s dream.
Its poems and its history can be read at http://cs.trains.com/ctr/f/3/p/264453/2986868.aspx. For the dream itself, however, no language was required beyond a few alphabetic cells of the meaning into which Phoebe was to awaken .
And because the alphabet was a dream, the awakening from dream to meaning was happy.
I also discuss Phoebe at https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/05/26/as-things-fade-to-white/. The photograph above comes from the story of Earnest Elmo Calkins. I’ve post-processed it for color and detail.
Published eighty years ago, probably on cheap paper in a mass-circulation magazine (online, it’s unattributed), this page has physically deteriorated in the course of nature.
But we can be helped to see it with refreshed regard. Tear out the page, carry it into a dressing room, read it into a computer, and the light reflecting from the mirror will grow bright again. The film of age will seem to have been windexed away.
Brightened, the pictures (of hat, of corsage) have been repaired and restored to what they seem to have been at the time of their conception: cultural emblems, metonyms of the feminine. Look at me, they say; in myself, as such, I am pretty. That is my primary meaning. But the color pictures bracket a page of words in black, and those have their primary meaning only off the page. They are less a text than a musical score — a score for woman’s voice, solo.
In current performance, this score’s fidelity to register is low. Its reception has been made partially obsolete by advances in recording technology. “Slipper,” the voice was intended to whisper in sibilant soprano. “Meekly obeys,” it was meant to murmur with a smilingly knowing evocation of a vow at a wedding. When it sings, “Put your foot down,” the voice is probably intended to perform a messa di voce, swelling and diminishing between masculine loud and feminine gentle. But after eighty years we hear the shellac rasp and see the whiskers showing through the soloist’s makeup. History is beginning to mime from the aisle that it’s time to cut the performance short and leave. “Treadle” is 1939 sewing-machine nomenclature, but not even a feminine exclamation mark formed with a dainty little circle can make an audience believe now that Buick the Beauty had ruffles around her pedals.
No; despite the page’s restoration in historical space, its time has continued being 1939, decay and all. Photoshop has refreshed the colors of the page’s language console, but the console itself is not a live vocabulary but a Victrola running at 78 rpm. Never to rise away from 1939 and go free, its sound from the time of black and white only fills and refills the yellow-filtered Edward Steichen atmosphere of the stage which Buick traverses. There it enters her open windows. And there in her, treadling as he holds back his tears, slippered gay Jill drags through his errands.
* A treadle, under the unmotorized sewing machine. You rock it with your feet.
Incessantly, between 1903 and 1917, a maiden gowned in white traveled the route of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, singing in dimeter. This was Phoebe Snow, the protagonist of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American history.
The quality in Pheobe that made persons’ curiosity run mad had its origin partially in the reassuring rocking rhythm of her words and partially in her body’s permanent insusceptibility to soot or stain. Whatever Phoebe was being at any instant during her transit along the Road of Anthracite, she was being whitely. Even while she was reading her book or sleeping in her sleeper, she was singing everything around her into submission to the white. The scripture of her illuminated poem was a chronicle of conquest by dispelling: dispelling time-bound prose by poetry with its intimations of a permanent meaning awaiting understanding; dispelling soilability and mutability and darkness and death.
Phoebe embodies a world in its passive aspect: that which hasn’t even brought itself into being because it always has been. Phoebe doesn’t write; she reads. She doesn’t drive her train; she grants it its power to transport her. If you give me but a leaf, Krishna says, I will accept it. Phoebe too accepts: green leaves and leaves reduced to their carbon, the quick and the dead. From the fossil era onward, the world traversed by Pheobe’s wheels has existed for the sole purpose of rising out of darkness and becoming realized as a source of light and power.
That is, Phoebe is the icon of a myth: a depiction whose plural significances are centered on a single attribute. The mythic character is an embodiment of nothing but, like the Egyptian gods in the Book of the Dead with their specialized animal heads signifying division of their labor in the vale of soul-making.
The mythic works its magic in popular art too, with its characters who are only what they do in the instant of their having done it. Combining a verb and a noun, a single word for the mythic act is pose.
Pose forestalls death by excerpting a moment and asking us to look at it as if it could hold still forever. Pose is the lovers on the Grecian urn, forever panting and forever young. And in advertising art, myth spells out the lovers’ words and gives them a pretext for seeming to mean.
In this icon, for instance, Phoebe’s mode of acceptance is specifically an acceptance by and of the body. It is an all-contemplating physicality. It articulates itself through a diction that is religiose — with the archaic cleanly substituting for clean not just for metrical reasons but for scriptural ones: cleanliness is next to godliness — but also, simultaneously, folksy: gives . . . quite an appetite. Yet too it keeps its gloves on; the feminine body brought to the brink of grossly acknowledged appetitiveness fills in its blank by naming itself not a specific me but an ideal one. In her dining-car avatar, Phoebe diets not on food but on an idea of the desire for food, and then she speaks her desire in words that declare it and themselves to be good. Like God in one of the Jewish conceptions, Phoebe spends eternity in prayer to herself. She will never finish her prayer; she will never be satisfied yet she will never be hungry
How can we not pray too? The white but dirty miner, the clean but black cooks, the mule who knows not whom he serves but only (but it is enough) that he serves: all are limited by their uncompleted, unconsummated selves. Only Phoebe is nothing but. Only Phoebe lives forever fulfilled in the instant of pose. Only Phoebe will never die.
Sources: the second and third Phoebe Snow images above are streetcar advertising cards available in many sites online. The first is a postcard at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phoebe_Snow_Midnight_Limited.jpg. I have photoshopped all three images to help their colors approach the vividness of prayer realized, and I also used some in an earlier post, https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/05/26/as-things-fade-to-white/.
Says the poetry of Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,”
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Says prose, “Delicate muscles and nerves.” Says prose, “Your employer expects.” The prose words are embellished with a frieze of women’s faces in chiaroscuro. All of the women are what used to be called beauties, with a single descriptive adjective replacing the unmentioned names that their bodies bear outside the office. In the office, the copy spoken on behalf of their beauty says, “They are all enthusiastic,” but the collective expression on their faces seems not to.
Where this language prevails, who can afford to entertain the thought that need may enter into a marriage of equality with love? Only a poet; only a man to whom the thought of lightening the task of words would be experienced with a pang of loss, like a missed dividend.
Source: http://oldadvertising.tumblr.com/post/178962126368/the-red-book-magazine-april-1922. Post-processed to compensate for discoloration.