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.
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.
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.
At midday on August 21, 1945, under partly cloudy skies at an airport in Chongqing, China, a recently arrived Japanese transport airplane awaited permission to redepart. Out of camera view, the airplane’s primary passenger, Major General Takeo Imai, was being briefed by Allied officers about procedures for his army’s impending surrender. When he reboarded the craft and its Kuomintang guards cleared it for takeoff, a final change had begun. On September 9, the commander of Japan’s occupying force in China signed a document of surrender and Japan’s colonial empire in Asia came to an end. It had lasted fifty years, from the end of the First Sino-Japanese War to the end of World War II.
It left a photographic record filled abundantly with the kind of images that get called “historical”: the field full of Korean nationalists executed in one of the traditional Japanese ways, by crucifixion; the Chinese mother and her baby being beheaded with a single swing of a Japanese soldier’s sword. But on the tarmac at the moment just before all this was about to end, all that the record shows us in the way of what’s called history is clouds and mountains and an earth indifferently bearing its burden. The unoccupied little Mitsubishi Ki-57 Type 1 takes up only a portion of its history’s didactic illustration, and none of the Chinese and American spectators who surround it seem to be in a heightened state of awareness. Off-camera, the idea of history would insist that this image must be interesting enough to make a moral demand on our attention, but on-camera it isn’t.
Of course time has never taken a break from destroying whatever traces of emotion there may remain in this still-fading, still-blurring photograph. Entropy has claimed some of the image’s significance. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care as much as history tells me I should about the traces that remain.
But at least some of those entropic changes are, for now, reversible. Some of the obliterated traces can be made made to reappear. I have removed what remains of the image from decaying paper to an idea in computer memory, and now . . .
. . . and now, at least, the airplane’s camouflage stands out from the sky. That, however, couldn’t have been the camouflage’s original intent. Camouflage is an art form explicitly designed not to be seen. Dragged into visibility by photographic manipulation, the changed image creates an impression almost of confused, blinking self-consciousness. “Something has happened to me,” it seems almost to say. “I may no longer be what I was wanted to be. I have turned out differently.”
Also, the newly restored cloud-images above the imaged airplane are pushing forward in newly urgent detail, and unlike the camouflage pattern, their collective form has begun proliferating beyond the image frame. To judge from the continuity between this little image-cosmos and the larger cosmos I see through my window when I lift my eyes from the computer, it appears that the image’s cloud shapes remain permanently in persistent vision. They never will change, and so they never will cross mortality’s frontier and enter history. Subsisting forever in the present tense, the unworded object of thought cloud will always just be. It will never become translatable into chronology, because chronology is a text formed by its included intervals of dead time (say, the instants of silence that follow every period) into something always just becoming. Within the wordless image of aircraft and clouded air at which I’m now looking, the only part that is historical is the tableau depicted beneath the clouds, where unnamed and now unnameable soldiers stand with with their backs turned to us. What that turning away says wordlessly is: “From this moment, I am going to be unreadable ever after. Having once emerged for a fraction of a second from the not-yet and shown a photosensitive surface within a camera what I then was, I will never show myself again.”
One American war earlier, a patriotic milkman in Richmond, Indiana, took out a notice in the RichmondPalladium-Item to defend his virtue with respect to petroleum. We milkmen stand FALSELY ACCUSED, he cried. “We are,” he cried, “FEEDING THE BABIES OF AMERICA.”
The date was September 21, 1918, and as a wartime conservation measure the Federal government had decreed what it called Gasless Sunday: a ban on Sunday pleasure driving everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi. Just below the plea from the operator of a fleet of gasoline-powered trucks, the dealer for a battery-powered automobile was letting himself go smug accordingly. “The Seven Day Car,” gloated his self-promoting prose. And it rubbed in the gloat with a moralizing slogan: “The Conservation Car.”
The application-text beneath the front wheel expanded that phrase into a sermonette by drawing attention to the electric car’s now significantly absent gas tank. Then, working back in time to the now inconceivable era of peace, it generalized from automotive economics to the sexual economy that underlies every changing human action. “A few years ago the Milburn Electric was considered an exclusive car of ladies — ” said the analysis, lingering in suspense at the dash in order to let a not yet conceived thought gather itself unseen and then pounce and penetrate, “but today — business and professional men use the Milburn constantly — and in preference to their gasoline car.”
As of September 21, 1918, readers would have assented without argument to the first of those propositions: the undaring, unadulterous one. They would all have known that before the electric starter came into wide use in the middle to late nineteen-teens, electric cars were indeed marketed to women. Electric cars had to be little and they couldn’t go far or fast, but they were also clean and quiet and easy to drive. On the other hand, hand-cranking a gasoline motor was a dirty, sweaty job, and beyond many women’s strength. So, for a while, the electric car did participate in a gendered competition. The Milburn, one of the more successful marques, was in production for a respectable fourteen years, 1910 to 1923, and during the Wilson administration the Secret Service patrolled the White House grounds in a fleet of Milburns. But less than two months after this issue of the Palladium-Item landed on the front porches of Richmond, the Great War ended and Gasless Sunday vanished from the calendar. Soon enough, the electric car followed. When electrics were remembered in later years, they were indeed remembered as ladies’ cars — for instance, by the protagonist of Jean Stafford’s 1948 short story “The Bleeding Heart,” who gets a surprise when she learns that the driver of an antique electric car she has seen is not an old woman but an old man. Inside an electric’s softly upholstered internal space, a male body was anomalous.
So Milburn’s 1918 claim on the love of men was only a fantasy. It was specifically a fantasy in words, born out of resistance to reality and unsustained by any evidence available to sight or memory or male desire. In its favor it had only the fickle military time-term “For the duration.” But in 1917, when Milburn had thoughts only of women, she had at her call a different sort of fantasy: a fantasy self-created not from words but from images and expressing itself through shapes, colors, and the visible traces furrowed by desire along its transit through the body.
Shaded, then, by a delicate openwork typeface through which the breeze whispers her name, Milburn 1917 comes gliding on white wheels into a grove of tall trees planted by Fragonard. There, barefoot on pastoral herbage, dance a troupe of Isadora Duncan nymphs. At their distance from Milburn it will be impossible to hear a shepherd sing his lying song, “Come live with me and be my love,” and the space sheltered just behind Milburn is filled only with mother love: quiet as an electric car, with a little girl in little-girl primary colors restrained safely by her mother’s hand while she wiggles her own fingers in virginal greeting. Like the soldiers in the other image, she has turned her face inscrutably away from us. She must be about her Milburn’s business. As Keats might have caroled from his own darkling grove, she was not born for death.
I photoshop time’s blemishes from Milburn’s pearl-gray sides, then step back as she continues her transit across unchanging beauty.
Sources: Both the image of the airplane and the color image of Milburn are found in several locations on the Web, and I haven’t located bibliographical citations for either original. The Tumblr page where I found the Milburn image gives it a date of May 1917, but no source for that attribution is given. My information about the history of the Milburn comes from http://www.milburn.us/history.htm.