From the era before the airfoil and the plural number

The noun air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED) originally referred to the shortest distance between two points: a straight line, as might be drawn on a map. During the nineteenth century the term became a selling point that American railroads incorporated into their names.

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This railroad’s name dates from 1900.

In 1910 Ferdinand Graf Zeppelin began operating his airships on scheduled routes between cities in Germany, and that was the beginning of the airline industry as we know it now. Count Zeppelin tagged his business DELAG, but that word was only an acronym, not yet a name ready to escape into breathed air as an independent noun. Still flat on its ground, it stood in humble compound form only for Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft (“German Airship Travel, Inc.”). Nor in the English that Americans understood in 1910 was the name air line yet ready to slip the surly bonds of earth and fly.

But by 1910 life was playing around with the mooring ropes. The more famous of the two twentieth-century American magazines named Life was a mid-century weekly that specialized in photojournalism, but the earlier Life was less an illustrated history of its time than a word game played for eternal stakes. It was a humor magazine, and on January 6, 1910, it put the words air line into play and began doodling some thoughts on paper about what they were actually saying, not what they were merely meaning.

And so:

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On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers had made their first powered takeoff, and six years and a few days later it’s obvious that the cartoonist still hasn’t actually seen a wing. But he always has known the language of air. He came to crying life on the day it began filling his lungs, and now the play with the mooring ropes has spun off a name. There it is, written across what in 1910 is still probably called a pier: United Air Line. It has no plural ending because it actually is united. It is a single line segment with a beginning and an end: an air line, extending (say the other words on the pier) all the way to London.

But the London at the other end of the line isn’t a city in England. It’s a word, it’s in you, and it’s on schedule to be reached happily ever after.

Source: New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d121-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Post-processed in Photoshop. The original cartoon is captioned “Bon voyage.”

 

Album leaf with obligate name

The images archived at

https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/contributions_683.html

come from an album of Great War photographs compiled by Fritz Martin, a reserve officer serving in an observation balloon unit of the Nineteenth Uhlan Regiment. The album is at least partly a memoir in pictures, including several of tall, handsome Oberleutnant Martin in the field. It is not a war diary but a finished picture book, formatted with generous margins and captions neatly inscribed in a French script. The captions are separate from the pictures, but the pictures are affected by the script’s insistent readability. They are non-verbal, but we readers are pushed to see them verbally, as history and as history’s words.

Here, for instance, are two of them, paired on a single page. The photographs were probably taken in locations separate from each other, but authorial control has unified them under a single theme: the theme of imprisonment. All of the men here are caged within image frames, but within those frames some of the men are doubly confined. Their defining trait there is the one that’s spelled out below each picture in a caption: the difference between some soldiers in uniform and their prisoners, also in uniform.

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In Europeana.eu’s rephotographed archive, a few of the images pasted onto pages like these cast shadows where they have curled up from their browned backing. Most of them don’t, however. They’re so well preserved that some of the words referring to them by means of the twentieth-century technology of blue-black ink still show fresh traces of the blue. Close to the album’s gutter, shut away for a century from light and air, those words are still capable of asking us to read them as Oberleutnant Martin’s family and friends were meant to: instructions directing us to see the photographs as windows through the page into a history on the other side. Even this late in the day, the prisoners on view through those windows need no visual aid beyond a little spiffing in Photoshop. Photoshopped, with the decay of their paper backing compensated for, they become once again immer schon a verisimilar illusion of an event with a name, a date, a place, and a history.

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The lights have come back up again there, and we find ourselves staring through the paper into the imaged men’s playspace. There, perspective recedes not to a vanishing point but to a flat plane like a theatrical backdrop, and the actors downstage are elements in another, parallel plane. In that plane, the one closest to the audience, the director has taken extra trouble to individualize the actors through costuming and makeup. One prisoner in the center, for instance, is depicted wearing a conspicuously ragged tunic apparently backward. At stage right another prisoner backs away from the group with a John Wilkes Booth glower, and next to him, for contrast, stands a dead ringer for Ben Turpin, crosseyed star of American silent comedy. Directors of silents didn’t have to worry about language barriers, of course, so in this silent the prisoners and their guards have all been choreographed to count and lunge on the same beat. The planes continue all the way upstage. Then grow some tall, graceful art nouveau trees, and the picture reaches its end.

And we have been freed to turn the page. Through what we thought was a hole in the page we saw a performance featuring men and trees and light, but it was a performance never not under the control of a script written on the page itself. Having been written on the page, it became part of the page’s history, and the subject of that history is to write itself not through our lives but through the prisoners’. In translation, the script reads, “December 1915.” Translation transports it to us across the language barrier, but in the process it communicates the news that an impenetrable fourth wall has erected itself between the action in the playspace and us spectators in the space of reading. It is a wall made of history.

But history builds itself serially, week by week or epoch by epoch. Except in the kiddie matinee’s playspace, it is impossible to anticipate when or whether the “The End” will come.

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Consider, for instance, this episode in the historical record for September 11, 1915. It comes to us under a title: “A Free-Balloon Flight.”

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The balloon was a German warcraft and it bore a dignified German name, Chemnitz. In retrospect, the reverent thought that went into that christening has acquired a tinge of comical pomposity, for the balloon was directed on its course across the sky only by a few shouting men in a wicker basket. The city of Chemnitz, likewise, underwent what looked like an evolutionary step forward when it was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, but after the contemptuous erasure from history of the pompously named German Democratic Republic it quietly reverted. But one pictured part of the story of the balloon has proved resistant to erasure.

There it is, yes: the name Lt. Kohn. The face attached to the name is up in the rigging, and it seems to be illustrative. It looks, as Germans began suggesting on more and more of the days that serially succeeded this voyage, Jewish.

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We might think of that additional information as an erratum slip tipped into the album. The album is a creature of 1915, but because its compiler followed the procedure for registering himself in literary history as an author, his phrase “Lt. Kohn” has become a literary text. Henceforth (or, as they say in the stories, “forever after”) it will immer schon be subject to revised readings, issuing serially. Unlike the image, it will have broken through the fourth wall and floated free in the direction of a never to be reached final meaning.

She goes crinkly with change

“Uprear,” mused a lithographer in about 1898, and then he sat down before his stone and heaved a great black-and-yellow ship out of the water. You can still almost hear the image he pulled up from the rock as it glided through a ninety-degree arc and moved into juxtaposition with four exhibits from the older strata of the New World. As people liked to say at the time, the engineer was the new builder of cathedrals.

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They meant the metaphor as unironic, unmetaphoric praise. To buyers of chromolithographs like this one, if perhaps not to readers of texts like The Education of Henry Adams or Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” it was only natural that a ship should be seen to stand upright like the man representing the outcome of history in a Darwinian tableau.

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For yes: after eighty years of evolution in marine architecture, it was accepted as a matter of course that this ship – Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of the North German Lloyd, the first of the great four-funnel liners – would be the biggest, fastest, and safest vessel afloat when it entered service in 1897. So rapid had been the change that when a New York Times writer tried to explain it he found himself trying to speak a language for which there weren’t yet even words. A very short time earlier, he and his readers had been taught a technical vocabulary of jack-tar monosyllables like “sprit” and “main truck,” but for whatever it was that was up on the truck now the only term at hand was a sixteen-syllable improvisation found in the mud at the shoreline. “The Marconi system of wireless telegraphic signaling,” gasped the improvisation through its brand new lungs.

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Obviously, though, that lungfish periphrasis was soon to make way for something more efficient. So on Good Friday, April 13, 1900, the genius of the ship’s home port, Bremen, was comfortable with the idea of settling with her coat of arms into the potted palms and Art Nouveau curves of an up-to-date salon and raising her torch in Germanic salute to the genius of the ship itself, its eponymic Kaiser. The demigoddess had paired herself with the emperor for adoration, and their coupled icon opened like a tabernacle to reveal a dinner menu featuring turtle soup, sautéed pigeon, apricots, and pistachio and lemon ice cream.

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Of course it isn’t even worth the effort to skip ahead and read what happened next. On August 27, 1914, only days into the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, now an armed commerce raider, was sunk in battle off northwest Africa by the British cruiser Highflyer. You saw that coming. Irony was laid down with the keel of the story. But perhaps it was also made part of the story’s structure by your own post-Highflyer visual education – a visual education that has had the effect of making the two lithographs, the lithograph of the upended ship and the lithograph of its traveling pantheon, look oversimplified now. Hoch! cried Fräulein Bremen in 1900, and up rose Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to overtower Wall Street’s own temple, Trinity Church. For 1900, the ceremony of abdication and succession was impressive. But at about the time Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was being repainted gray and fitted with guns, ceremony was being forced into an evolutionary change of its own. That change worked itself out not on the materials of ape bone or marine iron but on surface and couture, and it when it was ready it strolled into history fetchingly attired as a second girl who was arriving to spell Fräulein Bremen in the bar.

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Pablo Picasso had gotten acquainted with her in 1912. Her nickname that year was “La bouteille de Suze,” but to Pablo and her other friends ever since she’s just Suze. It’s always fun to be with her, too, because she’s the girl that dresses all crinkly in newspaper. She’s one of the first collages ever created, and she’s so excited about what she’s wearing that she doesn’t need Thomas Henry Huxley or Norddeutscher Lloyd. She already has all the admirers anyone could need. With them, with us, she always begins the fun by giggling, “I’ve got glue all over myself!”

And then she asks, “How do I look?”

And she looks fine.

And then she asks, “Is that thing way out there, going away, a boat?”

 

Image sources

Gray Lith. Co., untitled scale lithograph of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, between 1898 and 1900. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016649824/.

Thomas Henry Huxley, illustration from Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, 1863.

The Buttolph Collection of Menus, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-48a3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

“Pablo Picasso’s Bottle of Suze, 1912.” Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, https://mlkemperartmuseum.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/pablo-picassos-bottle-of-suze-1912/.

The images of the ship, the evolutionary diagram and the menu have been adjusted in Photoshop to restore detail and color.