Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book fairs in Nassau County, Long Island, on the critical list

Evidence of this was seen recently at two such book fairs. The first was the Long Island Antiquarian Book and Paper Fair, which was held in the multi-purpose room at Hofstra University’s Student Center on the last weekend of March. This show was sparsely attended and about two-thirds of the area that had displayed shelves of books at similar shows held at the same venue in prior years, was empty.
The second book fair, the Spring Long Island Vintage Paper, Book and Advertising Show, was held two weeks later in the St. Paul’s School Field House in Garden City. The show held itself out as “one of the premier events in America” for dealers, collectors, scholars and students, and promised event goers “amazing finds.” As it turned out, the cavernous field house, which in past years had been filled with dealers selling books, was practically empty! There was only a handful of sellers displaying a pitifully small number of books for sale. The event had more of the feel of a funeral than a book fair.

Where have the dealers gone? Where have the books gone? What has happened?
Economic answers jump to the fore. For many people, printed books have become a luxury item and former buyers have chosen not to purchase them as often any more. In addition, the contents of many collectible books, including illustrations, is available free, online. And if the book is not online, the digital version of it can be purchased for considerably less money than the printed version. For example, let's say a buyer wanted to purchase a used copy of the four-volume religious text, the Philokalia, for reference purposes. In paperback, it can be purchased for $53.99 to $80.95 per volume, or in hardcover for $142.86 to $261.51 per volume. However, all four volumes can be purchased for $1.99 in the Kindle version and for $2.99 in the Nook version!
Another economic fact of life that may be a reason for the lack of book dealers and poor attendance at these antiquarian book shows is the decline in U.S. home ownership. The rate of ownership has fallen for nine consecutive years according to reports based on U.S. Census information. As the number of renters grows, more and more people may be deciding not to fill up their living spaces with paper books. After all, books are heavy and expensive to pack up and move when their owners relocate.
Also, tastes are changing. Anecdotal reports indicate that more and more modern households, especially those occupied by people who are under 35 years of age, no longer display printed books—or CDs or DVDs, for that matter. In addition, attention spans of people of all ages have diminished and long-format books are losing ground to short-format Kindle Singles or Apple Quick Reads (aka short stories and novellas, from the paper era).
Herbert Putman, Librarian of Congress (1899-1939)
John Huckans of Cazenovia, NY, the editor of the now all-digital Book Source Monthly, has suggested in a recent column that in years to come, physical books may become scarce which in turn will result in more demand for the remaining books. Huckans added that he had heard “reports that younger booksellers are quietly buying up collections and stocks of retiring booksellers at distress-sale prices, with an eye to the future.”
Is the suggestion that antiquarian book shows are on death’s doorstep greatly exaggerated? Or has our culture posted a “do not resuscitate” order on them? Perhaps the next Long Island Vintage Paper and Book Show which will be held this coming November 1 and 2 will provide some answers.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ball’s-eye view of a 1913 home run

            Artist Will Crawford, 1869-1944, drew this illustration for Puck, a humor magazine published in New York City from 1877 to 1918. The cartoon shows a bird’s-eye view of a baseball game being played in 1913 where a home run has just been hit.

            Frank “Home Run” Baker was the home run king of Major League Baseball’s American League in 1913. While playing for the Philadelphia Athletics that year, Baker hit a league-leading 12 home runs.

            Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies won the National League’s 1913 home run crown by hitting 19 home runs. He is pictured below on the left next to Tris Speaker, the legendary centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox.

            Baker and Cravath both played during Major League Baseball’s “dead ball” era when the difficult-to-hit, and sometimes dangerous, spitball was legal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Early history of the New York State personal income tax

            New Yorkers who feel the pain when they have to prepare and pay their state income tax this time of year have every right to blame Prohibition for it. Faced with a multi-million dollar deficit because of the loss of revenue from the state liquor tax, lawmakers instituted a state personal income tax in 1919 to fill the anticipated hole in the state’s coffers.

            The New York State Legislative Committee on Taxation and Retrenchment which had been created by the legislature to figure out what to do to replace the anticipated loss of liquor taxes in 1920 when Prohibition was scheduled to go into effect, hired two nationally-known experts on public finance to advise it and prepare legislation. Professors E.R.A. Seligman of Columbia and Charles J. Bullock of Harvard recommended that New York State adopt a graduated personal income tax.
            Republican State Senator Frederick M. Davenport of Clinton, Oneida County, was chairman of the committee. He had run unsuccessfully as the Progressive Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy for president led to a split in the GOP, and unsuccessfully again in 1914 for governor.

State Senator Frederick M. Davenport

            On March 28, 1919, Davenport introduced a personal income tax bill in the state senate. Republican Assemblyman Franklin W. Judson, a farmer from Gates in Monroe County, introduced a similar measure in the assembly.
            Davenport said the new income tax “meets the demands of justice and fairness.” Other legislators would not go that far in support of the bill but given the loss of liquor tax revenue due to Prohibition, they said the new tax was “the only way out.”
            Many political figures adamantly disagreed. State Comptroller Eugene M. Travis, a Republican from Brooklyn and president of the Travis Fruit Company of New York City, led the opposition. He characterized the bill as dishonest and unnecessary and challenged the income tax supporters to submit the proposal to a vote of the people. Travis said, “The people of New York State do not want this bill.” He argued that it would be resented, evaded and avoided, and would result in people moving out of state because of “this unjust scheme.”

Comptroller Eugene M. Travis

            Travis proposed that instead of adopting a personal income tax to make up the anticipated deficit, lawmakers should amend the inheritance tax, stock transfer tax, and corporate income tax, and impose new taxes on motor vehicles and soft drinks.
            Other opposition to the new income tax came from upstate legislators. They objected to the way the proceeds from the income tax were going to be distributed. The bill called for them to be divided equally between the local and state governments. However, the division would be “in proportion that the assessed valuation of the real property in each county bears to the aggregate assessed valuation of the real property of the state.” In other words, cities would get more than rural districts because city property had a higher valuation.
            Proponents of the new income tax eventually won the day in the Republican-controlled state senate and assembly and the bill passed both houses. Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Democrat from New York City and a strong opponent of Prohibition, signed the bill on May 15, 1919. The deadline for filing the first New York State personal income tax returns was March 15, 1920.
            The state income tax law called for a 1% tax on personal incomes up to $10,000, 2% on incomes from $10,000 to $50,000, and 3% on incomes above $50,000. Not surprisingly, even after inflation is taken into account, the tax bills for 1919 income were lower when compared to today’s bills. For example, a married couple in 1919 who had a taxable income of $4,000, or about $52,000 in today’s money, would have to pay a $40 state income tax bill, or about $470 in today’s money. According to current state income tax rates, the tax on $52,000 for a married couple filing jointly is $2,703.

            The personal exemptions in the state’s first personal income tax law were also much more generous than they are today. A married couple in 1919 was allowed to exempt $2,000 from their income, or about $26,000 in today’s money. A married couple under current state income tax provisions is not allowed to take any exemptions for themselves!
            The exemptions for children on state income tax returns for 1919 were also more generous than they are for today’s returns. State taxpayers were allowed to exempt $200 for each dependent child 18 or under in 1919, or about $2,600 in today’s money. The exemption for each dependent in 2014 state returns is only $1,000.
            Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment and calls for repeal of the state income tax were immediately sounded. They fell on deaf ears. New York lawmakers were busy passing a new tax on alcoholic beverages.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Dealing with those sense of place blues

            For some people, a community’s sense of place, those indefinable things that make it distinctive and give it character and authenticity, do not become important until that person moves. The American novelist and poet, Wendell Berry, explained why when he said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
Colonial home in Windsor, Connecticut in 1938

            When I moved to New York State from Connecticut 25 years ago, I had to jump two centuries to identify my new community’s sense of place. I had grown up and spent the early years of my adult life in Windsor, Connecticut, a town whose roots go back to 1633. That’s where I had bonded with the history of special places that the historian David Glassberg reminds us, serve as a crucial anchor for our personal identity in adulthood. When I moved to Malone, NY, I found myself in Franklin County, a county that had been formed in 1808. In order to identify Malone’s sense of place, I had to trade in Windsor’s colonial homes and town greens, for Malone’s Victorian painted ladies and business blocks. Windsor’s role in the Pequot War, King George’s War and the Revolutionary War, were exchanged for Franklin County’s role in the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Fenian Raids. The accomplishments of Windsor’s Oliver Ellsworth and Oliver Wolcott were swapped for the accomplishments of Franklin County’s Luther Bradish and William Almon Wheeler.
Main Street in Malone, NY in 1870

            I basked in Malone’s sense of place for over ten years before I moved to South Farmingdale, a hamlet in Nassau County on Long Island. Once again, I began to search for my new community’s sense of place. This was easier said than done because Nassau County had been formed in 1899, a few years shy of the 20th century! Everything seemed too modern to me. Most of the housing and business buildings in South Farmingdale had been constructed after World War II. Strip malls seemed to be everywhere. I wondered how I would be able to find my community’s sense of place in such a new county. Its history was very short. Everything seemed wrong. Where was I? Who was I?
            Investigation of local governmental authority yielded promising results. The hamlet of South Farmingdale was located within the town of Oyster Bay which had received its charter from the colony of New York in 1667. Despite this, the newness of Nassau County with its 1899 starting point continued to muddy my sense of place waters.
Business block in Nassau County, NY in 1957

            The answer to this perplexing situation became obvious once I focused on the specifics surrounding the birth of Nassau County. In 1898, the western portion of Queens County became a borough of Greater New York City. The eastern portion of Queens County not included in the city consolidation plan included the towns of Oyster Bay, North Hempstead, and most of the town of Hempstead. In 1899, the state legislature separated those three towns from Queens County and formed the new Nassau County. The hamlet of South Farmingdale, within the town of Oyster Bay, at one time had been part of Queens County which was one of the original twelve counties formed in 1683 in the colony of New York. If I thought about my community in those terms, I would be back in the 17th century where I started as a child. My new community’s sense of place could not be hard to find. I had been there before.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jackson Haines: the New Yorker who revolutionized the sport of figure skating

            Sports fans who thrill to the daring athleticism and dazzling artistry of the Olympic ice skaters competing in Sochi, Russia this month, owe a debt of gratitude to Jackson Haines, the New Yorker who became the father of modern figure skating during the 1860’s and 1870’s.

            Born to a well-to-do New York family in 1840, he studied dancing in Europe as a youth before returning to New York City to work as an actor and ballet master. According to newspaper accounts, he was living in Troy when he won the first “national” skating championship in 1863 under rules formulated by the New York Skating Club. In 1864, he won the championship again but his skating style was not well received by the American skating establishment.
            Competitive skating at that time called for skaters to draw complex patterns, or figures, on the ice with their skate blades. A stiff, formal style of skating was expected. Sometimes, skaters were not allowed to move their hands above their elbows. Compulsory figures were a required part of skating competition in the U.S. until they were eliminated in 1991.

            The ballet dancer inside the 24-year old Jackson Haines rebelled against this rigid skating norm. He added leaps and spins to his routines and used his arms expressively to the dismay of the American skating authorities. Spectators in the U.S. dismissed Haines as too flamboyant, too theatrical, and too effeminate.
            In search of more appreciative audiences, Haines left America in the winter of 1864-1865 and took his skating style to Europe. He also brought with him a new kind of skate that he had designed. Instead of being attached to the boot by means of straps or clamps, the steel blade of the skate was screwed on to the heel and toe of the boot by means of plates. In addition, the blade had a rounded toe rather than a sharp point and two supports rather than three.

            Skating to music and adding more turns, jumps and spins to his routine, Haines toured all the capitals of northern and central Europe to wild applause. Billed as the “celebrated American ice dancer,” he astonished and surprised audiences with his jumps and pirouettes which were described as “poetry in motion.” One observer described Haines as “now gracefully swinging, now carried away like a whirlwind, now leaping from the ice, all with inimitable charm and grace,”
            In 1868, the blue-eyed, curly-haired 28 year-old electrified skating fans in Vienna when he gave an exhibition for the Vienna Skating Club to music—a march, a waltz, a mazurka, and a quadrille. Haines’s style soon became known as the Vienna Style, and in later years, the International Style.
            For his performances, Haines invented a new spin which the skating community initially called the “Jackson Haines spin.” To do this spin, the skater bends the skating knee while spinning and sits down during the spin, keeping the free leg pointing straight out. Today, a “Jackson Haines spin” is commonly referred to as a “sit spin.”
            Haines wore various costumes including those of a Russian count, a prince of fairyland, a lady, and sometimes even a bear. When he finished performances, he usually skated backwards with his cap touching the ice as he bowed to spectators. After the applause died down, he would cross his arms and skate in a large curve or spiral, standing at the finish, motionless as a statue.

            Haines was a European superstar for eleven years. Ice skating rinks and babies were named after him. In either 1876 or 1879, the records are unclear, Haines died after catching pneumonia while traveling by sleigh from St. Petersburg to Stockholm. He was buried in Kokkola, Finland. The inscription on his gravestone reads, “In remembrance of the American Skating King.”
            Jackson Haines’s style of skating did not become popular in the U.S. until many, many years after his death. The first U.S. figure skating competition that included the International Style was not held until 1914. Haines eventually received the honors due him from the national and international skating establishment in 1976 when he was inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame and the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.