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.”

 

Reading in the decor

Decor 1

In the dining room in the background, the curtain is lace and there’s a decorative candle on the sideboard. The basic architecture of the living room is decorated likewise with consoling little flourishes of beauty. The brickwork of the fireplace is set off by the walls’ rusticated plaster, the overstuffed chair displays three crocheted antimacassars, and on the mantel with the portrait and the two little china things there’s also a clock that reads 3:55.

Perhaps the photograph was taken on a weekend, or perhaps the man who is tuning the radio is retired. At any rate, he is home at that hour, and wearing bedroom slippers. At that hour, a time scheme of slippers and daytime radio communicates leisure, and the man’s smile communicates satisfaction with the scheme for the present and optimism for its future.

But the Library’s record somberly adds that this home was in Royal Oak, Michigan, during the 1930s. History knows now what that means: this is a picture of a family suffering. Royal Oak in the 1930s was the home parish of Charles E. Coughlin, a Jew-baiting priest whose nationally popular radio broadcasts grew steadily more Fascist in their sympathies until they were silenced by the Bishop of Detroit after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in this photomemoir of the Royal Oak moment the nice grandmother in her comfortable chair is holding a copy of Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice. Its headline is to be read only as a scream of distress.

It cries, WORLD REVOLUTION ORDERED BY STALIN! Furthermore, its sans-serif font on folded newsprint assures the old woman, as she lets its fall into her lap from an unsteady hand, that it speaks the truth. Especially, too, when it’s read in a house full of things, it reminds the old woman that she has much to lose if what it says is true — and it adds that what it says is true because it’s on newsprint, in sans-serif. Because she has bound up her life with sans-serif in a roomful of things, she must now remain in the room forever after, with all her unhappy valuables of polished wooden radio and sans-serif on newsprint. She can’t afford to leave. Having turned on the room’s radio and subscribed to the room’s newspaper, she has been deprived of the power to imagine being happy. In this room, ever after, there will be no more fiction.

Decor 2

The man has been reduced. When he lay down on a cot to read, everything was taken from him except a suit of underwear, for decency’s grudging sake, and the glasses that someone once bought for him, taught him to read through, and then forgot to take back.

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But I’d guess that the fragment of title readable on the cover of the man’s magazine is “The Western,” and its Old West typeface tells a story different from the sans-serif of Royal Oak. This story says: in Sioux City, Iowa, in an institution called the homeless men’s bureau, imagination lives and brings not happiness, surely, but at least oblivion. Held close to the underwear like an amulet, words spelled out in an Old West font fill their reader with the power to forget.

Sources:

The Royal Oak photograph is one of thirteen that Arthur S. Siegel took in December 1939 for a Life magazine photoessay which wound up not being published. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/2004677780/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001018668/PP/. Photoshopped.

The other photograph, by Russell Lee, is one of a group taken for the United States Resettlement Administration in December 1936. Its Library of Congress title is “Man lying on bed reading magazine, homeless men’s bureau, Sioux City, Iowa.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997021496/PP/. Photoshopped.