Saturday 31 December 2011: Tarzan In The Basement
I was down in the basement of this old house, where my chores included sorting through a few decades' worth of the forgotten posessions of forgotten tenants and odd doors and window screens from these many rooms. I wrapped the water heater in insulation and covered a drafty window with the same. This won't turn into a proper and useful basement (barring a miracle), but I always take pleasure from examining such a time-bearing space. The house was built in or about 1902.
After I had won back most of the basement back and set aside a heap of junk for the next trash day, I noticed a round lesion in the rear wall. There had been a pipe once, and it had been removed and the hole covered over with a sort of putty. Under that, the center was blocked by a plug of wadded newspaper. It was time to learn something about the early life of this house.
I think that there was a wood or coal stove in that corner of the basement and this was where the chimney passed through the wall. Also, it may have been a chute into which coal was delivered to the house. In either case, the materials used to plug up the hole were typical a lifetime ago but would not be even be thought of today for such a purpose. The newsprint is brittle and filthy with soot, but I was able to glean some delicious gossip from its wrinkles.
These are sheets from a middle or rear section of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which ran from 1847 to 1982. I remember that, when I was a newcomer here, people were still talking about its closure with wonder, and saying how much they missed reading it. For my historical research, the Bulletin is notable for two reasons: often its news articles carried the very first information available for events happening during the day, and today, the paper's enormous clipping file is preserved at Temple University. I've gained a lot of information from that clipping file and plenty more from the (microfilmed) newspaper itself. The clipping file was the way the Bulletin kept an index of its news stories and photographs, and it's still important because none of Philadelphia's historical dailies have yet been digitalized, as have three from New York and one each from Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Boston, and --get this --Hartford, Connecticut! I have done word searches and instantly traced activities in Hartford in the 1880s, but for Philadelphia, which has always eclipsed Hartford in size and importance, I have to grab a shovel and spend years in the mine shafts.
Here's what I learned from this cruddy old wad of newspaper:
* The date for this issue is Tuesday, October 21, 1930. My mother's fifth birthday came 18 days later.
* Two-bedroom apartments in this neighborhood costed $35-$40 per month, early in the Great Depression.
* Buick and Chevrolet cars were advertised for sale, the model years given between 1925 and 1930, the sellers being dealerships. Auburns, which are now legendary, revered cars, were advertised as well, but without the prices stated.
* Grandmother's Bread was advertising a 20-oz. wrapped loaf.
* Upstate New York had been blanketed with snow.
* I found the name of "T. Fox," whose signature appeares on a mother-and-son cartoon in an ad for overcoats.
* There is an illustrated Tarzan story that includes a scene where a lion cub is present when its mother is killed by a hunter. The artist is Rex Hayden Maxon (1892-1973), who drew the widely syndicated Tarzan strip from 1929 to 1947. Maxon's drawings were the standard images for this very famous adventure series
* On another scrap I could barely read Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I don't know if that correponds directly to the illustrated text. It may be advertsing the 1923 book or the 1927 silent film.
This has been fun. I spent hours exploring the past, learning of this house, this neighborhood, this city, and Tarzan, whose sweety Jane, by the way, was originally depicted in full nudity and later made to wear a skimpy outfit by the censors.