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Category archive: 1930s

“A Perfect Day”

1939: “A perfect day,” wrote Harold Nicolson from his home in Kent, “and I bathe in the peace of the lake.” The date was 4 September; Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day. It was all very confusing: the tranquillity of the English countryside; the way things seemed to carry on as they had before. “Even as when someone dies, one is amazed that the poplars should still be standing quite unaware of one’s own disaster, so when I walked down to the lake to bathe, I could scarcely believe that the swans were being sincere in their indifference to the Second German War.”

Source: Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939–1945, ed. Nigel Nicolson (1967), p. 30

Cats On A Hot Tin Roof

Hawaiian lava flow, National Park Service/L. Konrad

1938: The eruption of Bilyukai, on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Siberia, produced huge amounts of lava. Rivers of it, which, as it flowed away from the volcano, cooled and formed a crust on its surface.

The volcanologists V.F. Popkov and I.Z. Ivanov, showing scant regard for their personal safety, decided that the only way to properly study the lava was to go out on to it.

They tossed rocks on to the crust to strengthen it, and then Popkov gingerly stepped on to the band of lava that separated the riverbank from the crust. “Without letting go of Ivanov’s hand, I put . . . one asbestos-shod foot on the incandescent lava,” he wrote. “I released Ivanov’s hand and made another step by resting my body on the iron rod which I used as a walking stick and which sank slowly into the plastic mass.”

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Blind Devotion

1937: When the entomologist Oscar Scheibel acquired a specimen of a previously undocumented blind cave beetle, found in only a few caves in northern Yugoslavia, he demonstrated his admiration for Germany’s leader by naming it Anophthalmus hitleri.

Source: http://rosegeorge.com/site/
a-beetle-called-hitler

Hands On The Levers

Boris III of Bulgaria, the royal train driver

1936: Boris III of Bulgaria had his hands on the levers of power in more than one sense. Figuratively, he was absolute monarch of his country; literally, his favourite pastime was driving locomotives. His brother, Kyril, was also a railway enthusiast, and when Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson visited Bulgaria, the two brothers squabbled over who should drive the train.

Source: Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G. (1951), pp. 308–9

No Wobbly Knees

1935: In Germany, special schools were set up as the SS was expanded from a personal bodyguard into a fighting force. Training was rigorous. At the Bad Tölz school, an officer cadet might be ordered to pull the pin out of a grenade, balance it on his helmet and stand to attention while it exploded.

Source: Gerald Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922–1945 (1956), p. 78

“Don’t Speck Nothing”

1934: Charles Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation laid bare the poverty of black people in rural Alabama. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, many still lived in ramshackle cabins (“Do it leak in here? No, it don’t leak in here, it jest rains in here and leak outdoors”), many endured ill-health (“All my chillen is fond of having fevers”) and many despaired of anything better (“Ain’t make nothing, don’t speck nothing no more till I die”).

Source: Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (1934), pp. 99, 126, 194

Voter Intimidation?

1933: When the Nazi Party organised a plebiscite in November to demonstrate nationwide support for Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, 99.5 per cent of the inmates of Dachau concentration camp voted in favour.

Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998), pp. 495, 740

Following His Nose

1932: Ralph Bagnold was a pioneer of motorised desert travel who later, during the Second World War, founded the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group. In Sand, Wind, and War, he recalled an incident from a peacetime expedition in the eastern Sahara.

Bagnold and his companions were driving across the Selima Sand Sheet. Their immediate destination was a small, uninhabited oasis, where they anticipated finding a petrol dump guarded by a policeman and his camel. They had driven hundreds of kilometres on a compass bearing. In the early morning, as they neared the oasis, Bagnold “distinctly smelt camel” on the breeze. He decided to follow his nose. “We drove for eight miles, and there, in a small depression out of sight from any distance, was the little oasis, the petrol, the policeman, and his camel.”

Source: Ralph A. Bagnold, Sand, Wind, and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer (1990), pp. 88–9

Blemished Skin

1931: Like most Western mothers in China, Lucy Soothill hired an amah to care for her baby. The amah was generally reliable, but not always. On one occasion Soothill discovered that her daughter’s skin was “irritable and red”, and when she kissed her, she noticed a “salty sharp taste”. On a hunch, Soothill checked the puff box in the baby’s basket and found that the contents had the same distinctive taste. Instead of powdering the baby’s skin with talcum, the amah had been using “extra strong American baking-powder”.

Source: Lucy Soothill, A Passport to China: Being the Tale of Her Long and Friendly Sojourning amongst a Strangely Interesting People (1931), p. 55

“Southern Trees Bear A Strange Fruit”

1930: Photographer Lawrence Beitler was in Marion, Indiana, on the night of 7 August, when a mob of whites lynched two black men, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. Beitler made a tidy sum from selling souvenir photos of the spectacle at 50 cents each. It was probably one of these keepsakes that provoked Lewis Allan’s searing condemnation:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Source: Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (2007), pp. 11–25; David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2000), pp. 15, 33–7

Orwell Makes A Point

1939: George Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air didn’t contain a single semi-colon, though three sneaked into the postwar edition.

Source: George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell, VII: Coming Up For Air, ed. Peter Davison (1997), pp. 249–50

Hitler’s Cosmetics

1938: In his diary entry for 8 May, Italy’s foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, noted: “Mussolini believes that Hitler puts rouge on his cheeks in order to hide his pallor.”

Source: Galeazzo Ciano, Ciano’s Diary 1937–1938 (1952), p. 113

British Innovation

1937: When Britain’s ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, reproached Hermann Göring for the brutality of Germany’s concentration camps, Göring took down a volume of a German encyclopaedia from his bookcase, opened it at Konzentrationslager, and triumphantly read out, “First used by the British, in the South African War.”

Source: Sir Nevile Henderson, Failure of a Mission: Berlin 1937–1939 (1940), p. 29

Icelandic Delicacies

1936: Letters from Iceland introduced tourists to some of the more curious items of the island’s cuisine. Hákarl, “half-dry, half-rotten shark”, had a flavour, W.H. Auden reported, “more like boot-polish than anything else I can think of.” Dried fish, Iceland’s staple food, came in varying degrees of toughness, he wrote. The tougher kind tasted like toenails, the softer kind like “the skin off the soles of one’s feet”. Sheep’s udders pickled in sour milk, however, were “surprisingly very nice”.

Source: W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (1937), pp. 42, 44

Controlled Exit

1935: Instead of allowing incurable breast cancer run its deadly course, the American writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman inhaled chloroform to bring her life to a close.

“When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one,” she wrote in her suicide note. “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”

Source: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935), pp. 333, 334

“What A Dandy Car You Make”

1934: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make.” The compliment, in a letter delivered to the Detroit office of Henry Ford on 13 April, came from Clyde Barrow of the Barrow gang. “I have drove Fords exclusivly when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned, and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt any thing to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.”

There were doubts about the authenticity of the letter, but no doubts about Barrow’s enthusiasm for Fords. It was in a V8, just over a month later, that he and Bonnie Parker were ambushed and killed near the Louisiana town of Gibsland.

Source: Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (2009), pp. 298–9, 418

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s Ford V8 after their fatal ambush near Gibsland, Louisiana, on 23 May 1934

Pasta Under Attack

Filippo Marinetti, the man who wanted to abolish pasta

1932: Filippo Marinetti provoked uproar in Italy by proposing, in The Futurist Cookbook, the abolition of pasta, which he condemned for inducing “lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism” (“fiacchezza, pessimismo, inattività nostalgica e neutralismo”).

Source: F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook (1989), p. 37

No Love Lost Between “Boom” And “Bendor”

1931:  There was much aristocratic tittle-tattle about William “Boom” Lygon, the 7th Earl Beauchamp: his weakness for handsome young menservants; the affection he displayed towards his butler; the parties he organised at Walmer Castle for local lads and fishermen.

When Beauchamp’s brother-in-law heard the rumours, he was determined to ruin the earl. Hugh “Bendor” Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, was a vindictive and homophobic individual. He was instrumental in the separation of Beauchamp from his wife, the instigation of divorce proceedings and Beauchamp’s hasty departure for the Continent.

After the earl’s fall from grace, Bendor sent him a nasty little letter:
Dear Bugger-in-law,
You got what you deserved.
Yours,
Westminster

Source: Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: One Home, One Family, One Thousand Years (2008), pp. 277–307

Political Asylum

David Lloyd George – much imitated

1930: Another extract from Bruce Lockhart’s diary. Lord Beaverbrook told him a tale of Lloyd George coming back late at night from Criccieth. “L.G.’s car broke down outside Horton Asylum. Knocked up porter. ‘Who are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m the Prime Minister.’ ‘Come inside. We’ve seven here already.’ ”

Source: Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, I: 1915–1938, ed. Kenneth Young (1973), p. 133

Toilet Training

1939: As war loomed, the British government evacuated more than a million children and mothers from the cities to the countryside. Host families were appalled to find that some of the children lacked proper toilet training. It wasn’t the children’s fault; their parents hadn’t taught them. One Glasgow mother admonished her 6-year-old child: “You dirty thing, messing the lady’s carpet. Go and do it in the corner.”

Source: Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (1950), p. 122

Turbulence Over Europe

1938: I felt “some slight sinking when I found myself flying over London”, turbulence “rocked and bumped” the aeroplane “like a ship in a sea”, and there were “more nervous moments when we circled down over the aerodrome” at the end of the flight. The apprehensive air passenger was Neville Chamberlain, heading to Munich in September for crisis talks with Adolf Hitler.

Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936–1945: Nemesis (2000), pp. 110, 876

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain back in Britain after his shuttle diplomacy secured

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressing a crowd at Heston Aerodrome on 30 September 1938, after his shuttle diplomacy secured “peace for our time”

Cocaine For The King

George V in his coronation robes

George V in his coronation robes, painted by Luke Fildes

1936: From the middle of January, King George V’s health deteriorated rapidly. By the evening of 20 January, he was clearly dying and not expected to survive the night. His personal physician, Lord Dawson, prepared the text of a final bulletin: “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”

The Prince of Wales had earlier told Dawson that neither he nor Queen Mary wished to see life prolonged unnecessarily. When the doctor judged that the time had come, he injected morphia and cocaine into the king’s jugular vein. “Intervals between respirations lengthened,” and just before midnight, “life passed so quietly and gently that it was difficult to determine the actual moment.”

Source: History Today, December 1986

Breathless

Liane de Pougy, photographed by Nadar

Liane de Pougy strikes a pose for photographer Nadar

1935: In her notebook entry for 15 July, Princess Ghika – the former demi-mondaine Liane de Pougy – recounted: “Anniversary of the day on which I got married and on which, with one thrust which quite deprived me of breath, I lost my virginity.”

Source: Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks (1979), p. 262

Latecomers Miss Out On Lynching

1934: On 27 October, a racist crowd in the rural northwestern corner of Florida lynched Claude Neal, a black farmhand, for the rape and murder of a white neighbour, Lola Cannidy. Neal was snatched from a small-town jail, and after the niceties of mob justice and family revenge had been observed, his corpse was hanged from a tree outside Jackson County courthouse. Late arrivals for the lynching, disappointed to find that the body had been taken down, demanded that the sheriff replace it.

Source: James R. McGovern, Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal (1982), chaps. 3 and 4

Who? Me? Bossy?

1933: What words can properly describe Hitler? I remember watching a television documentary with footage of him speaking to a crowd. He raged and bellowed and waved his hands about. Sonya – she was eight – said, “I don’t like Hitler. He’s bossy.”

Source: Personal recollection

Getting To Know Each Other

1932: Howard Hawks, the film director, invited screenwriter and author William Faulkner and actor Clark Gable to go dove hunting. As they drove east from Los Angeles, Hawks and Faulkner began to talk about books. Gable joined in, asking Faulkner to name the best modern writers.

“Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos,” Faulkner replied, “and myself.”

“Oh,” said Gable. “Do you write?”

“Yes, Mr. Gable,” said Faulkner. “What do you do?”

Source: Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1984), pp. 309–10

Young At Heart

Oliver Wendell Holmes honoured on a 1968 U.S. postage stamp

Oliver Wendell Holmes honoured on a 1968 U.S. postage stamp

1931: Catching sight of a pretty young woman, the 90-year-old American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have exclaimed, “Oh, to be 70 again!”

Source: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck (1980), p. 645

Casual Acquaintance

1930: In August, Noël Coward and T.E. Lawrence met for the first time. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was shyly and unsuccessfully masquerading as Aircraftman Shaw (service number 338171) of the Royal Air Force. After they met, the two men exchanged letters. Coward began: “Dear 338171, (May I call you 338?)”

Source: Noël Coward, The Letters of Noël Coward, ed. Barry Day (2007), p. 211