A Trip Into The Past: Part 5

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

  Part 1 : Part 2 : Part 3 : Part 4



In this part, I wish to focus on The American Magazine of Natural Science and the publisher/entrepreneur Fred R. Stearns and his company of Sac City, Iowa and Des Moines, Iowa. The first copy of The American Magazine of Natural Science (hereafter, AMNS) is Vol. 2, October 1893, No. 4. The first 3 pages are devoted to advertisements, mostly small ones of which nineteen and one substantial one are by Fred R. Stearns & Company and in the advertising in the last 4 pages, he has 5 additional ads–a lot of advertising for an issue of only 12 pages counting both cover pages. One of them is a full page on the back cover and is for high grade bicycles–which we’ll get to in a bit. Mr. Stearns has ads for what he is selling, ads for items he wants, and ads for exchanges or a mixture as in his notice for a specimen of petrified moss which he is willing to sell for 10 cents or exchange for 2 good arrow heads. Some of the exchange offers were open-ended; for example another small notice offered a guitar and a shot gun to exchange with a request to make offers. Mr. Stearns was a man of many offers, but I think my favorite is the following:

FOR SALE CHEAP–A clean stock of groceries, invoice about $2000; horse delivery wagon and fixtures in one of the best business centers in Des Moines. Meat market on one side and drug store on the other. No competition, good CASH trade of three years standing is already worked up. A splendid opportunity for some enterprising man.

I’m glad to know that it was a clean stock of groceries; after all, who wants dirty groceries? Mr. Stearns certainly represents that early American entrepreneurial spirit that has made America both famous and infamous. Were he operating today, I suspect he would be a stockbroker hawking stocks for companies claiming great breakthroughs in cold fusion, global warming reversal, and missile defense systems. Consider the offer he makes in the notice directly below the one cited above. He offers a new double-barrel 12 gauge shot gun to the first subscriber who can secure 4 yearly subscriptions to the AMNS; to the second, a book on North American birds; to the third, a book on butterflies; to the fourth, a book on nests and eggs, to the fifth Gray’s Botany, and to the sixth a $1.00 credit. What was the price of a subscription? Answer: 25 cents per year. Now, I realize that $1.00 was worth a lot more in 1893 than it is in 2007, but even so, I’m not sure that I’d want to trust a shot gun that Fred Stearns valued at just $1.00. What did it cost to manufacture?–35 cents?–50 cents? The whole thing smells a bit fishy and if I were of a cynical nature, God forbid!, I might be inclined to think that one of Fred’s sons might have been the very first to get 4 new subscriptions to the AMNS, thus keeping the shot gun in the family. Some things, like incest, have to be kept in the family.

We’ll come back to Mr. Stearns a bit later.

Have you ever encountered a 12 year old female ornithologist? Consider the following notice:

WANTED—A young lady, 12 to 20 years, to do writing for me at her home. Light work and good pay. Best of references given and required. Ornithologist preferred. Address STEPHEN J. ADAMS, Corinth, Maine.

I would love to see the credentials of a 12 year old ornithologist from the area of Corinth, Maine; however, I’m sure that it was all completely innocent and perfectly aboveboard. One would hope that Mr. Stearns’ publication was not the 1893 equivalent of misuses of MYSPACE in 2007.

This issue only has 2 articles; one on “Ancient Rock Inscriptions In Hartford Co., Maryland” by J.A. Swingley and the other “An Ancient Water Way” by Mr. Fred Stearns. So much for the contents; we can get back to the notes and ads. Mr. Stearns informs us that as of January 1, 1894 the annual subscription will double to 50 cents, but if you renew before that, you can still get another year for 25 cents.

A very curious notice appears along with the information about the price increase. The AMNS is going to have the plates of Audubon’s book of birds “reproduced exactly like the original, and present the plates to our subscribers as supplements.” Stearns admits that he doesn’t have a copy, but the state library does. It would be fascinating to know how he planned to make those copies, since that book is an enormous 4 feet by 6 feet when closed! He asserts that “if you can buy one for $5,000 you are getting a rare bargain.” Was the state library going to let him check it out so that he could copy it? How was he going to make the copies? No color xerox machines in those days. Color photo enlargements? Photo lithography? Expensive processes requiring rather good equipment. And then there is the mind-boggling issue of the size of these prints! These are the kind of things that can wake me up at night. There is also an ambiguity about how one obtains these plates. What is clear is that you have to be a subscriber to the AMNS. At one point in the notice, he states; “Every plate will be worth $10 to subscribers.” However, a bit further along, he says; “Send 25 cents for one year’s subscription ...and get the set complete. A bit murky at best.

Interestingly, in the 5 issues of the magazine which I have, this matter of the Audubon prints never comes up again. I suspect he discovered that his grand scheme was simply not feasible with the resources he had available.

From my point of view, this issue’s advertisements are a treasure trove of quirky fads, odd collectibles, interesting specimens, and peculiar publications. Consider this gem from Mr. E.M. Parker of Newell, Iowa.

Your Collection is Not Complete

Without a relic of the great Spirit Lake

Massacre and Battle of Gettysburg

I have just purchased from Mrs. Gardner Sharp a log from the only log cabin not destroyed at the awful massacre of Spirit Lake, of which she is the only survivor. I have cut this log into pieces suitable for collectors and am selling at 10, 20, 25, or 35 cents, according to size.

He guarantees that they are genuine as he does the bullets he was “lucky enough to secure...from the battlefield of Gettysburg” which you could buy for 15 cents each or 2 for 25 cents. In case those didn’t whet your appetite, he also had geodes for 25 cents each. Now, who wouldn’t want in his or her collection a piece of a log from the only cabin not destroyed in a massacre?

The entire back cover page is a Stearns & Co. advertisement for the Pacemaker Light Roadster (30 pounds) bicycle–$150. As you can see from the image, this was a no-frills vehicle.

No hand brakes, no fenders, no basket. To my mind that was a very pricey unit for 1893. Today, one can buy one quite acceptable with more features for less money and, yes, I know that bicycle fanatics will spend thousands of dollars on a high-tech super-light racing bike, which is a shame when you think what a fine microscope they could get for the same money.

As I mentioned before, Mr. Stearns was nothing if not versatile in his offerings. Rather than rambling on about ad after ad–which I would find delightful and you would find tedious–let me just give you a brief catalog of the range of his offering in his many advertisements. Where to begin? Well, he provides taxidermy service, including the mounting of pet birds and animals “in lifelike manner” so that you can always have Fluffy or Fido with you in your drawing room. He has 23,000 bird skins for sale and 48 pairs of rare long-tailed monkey skins. He will provide 3½ x 8 inch engraved data blanks for 25 cent per 100.

However, when it comes to his specimen and relic offerings, one is truly overwhelmed:

Leopard Shark’s eggs
Coffee Beans
Star Fish
Sea Urchins
Iron Pyrites
Periwinke [sic] Egg cases
Locust Skins (Seven-year)
Indian Moccasins (beaded)
Sea Fans, large
Large swordfish swords
Mounted Albino Quail
Mounted Alligator (3 ft. long)
Japanese bronze trays
Sandalwood fans
Insect pins
Four varieties of Chinese coins
Pair mounted China pheasants
Insect collection (200 specimens)
Indian Tobacco Pouch (beaded)
Fine, large Selemite [sic] crystals
Confederate Coupon Bonds
Fossil ferns and rushes
Fossil trilobites, spirifers, bivalves
Indian net sinkers
Five perfect arrow heads
War clubs
Wampum beads
Horned toad
Buffalo horns
Mounted Screech Owl
Mounted Wood Duck
Daggers in scabbard
Amber with insects
Birds’ eggs
Garnett [sic] sand (vial)


Clearly Stearns was an eclectic dealer who was also something of a packrat and what people used to describe as “an interesting character.”

There are 2 other eccentric ads in this issue which I want to discuss. The first is the Denison Carpet Stretcher and Tacker.

The woman appears to be wearing a rather formal, full-length gown, although I suppose it could be a domestic’s long apron with a bib; in any case, she looks rather soulful. As you can see, the ad asks if you want to make $200 a month for the next three months. My question would be; Why only 3 months? I found a site on the internet that provides 5 ways of calculating the relative value of the U.S. dollar from 1790 to 2005. Using the only one that I vaguely understand, the Consumer Price Index, $200 was the equivalent of $4,480 in 2005 or $53,760 on an annual basis–not bad for deploying a carpet stretcher and tacker.

I think my favorite advertisement in this issue is by a printing and publishing firm:


Thoughts on Institutions of Higher Education”

A new edition greatly enlarged with an exhaustive chapter on classical studies. Price, Paper Bound–50 c. Cloth Bound–$1.00. By the same author: Constitution Making 25c.; Legislative Science (a lecture), 25c.; Scientific Legislation Practical 25c.; War Clouds and How to Disperse Them, paper 30c., cloth 75c. Volapük or English.

First off, “legislative science’ is surely an oxymoron and secondly, in this day and age, I think we would all be most grateful to know how to disperse war clouds, so if you find a copy of this ambitious publication, please let me know.

However, what fascinates me most is that Dr. Leverson’s works were published in Volapük as well as English. When I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine had a volume on Volapük and I think he may have even tried to learn a bit of it. In case you’re not a Volapük afficionado, I should tell you that it is an artificial “universal” language concocted in the late 1880s by a German priest named Schleyer, who claimed that God had give him a directive to create this language. In the 19th Century, there was a strong internationalist movement and a number of groups felt there was a great need for a universal language that would get around the problems of translation, ambiguities, and difficulties which arose as consequence of linguistic mistakes. Just think what the United Nations, not to mention international businesses, could save if there were no need for translators. The success of these artificial languages–and there were a number of them, the most prominent being Esperanto, Volapük, and Interlingua–was sporadic and limited, although there are still adherents today and you can even find websites in Volapük and Esperanto. By the way, Volapük means World Language. These idealists often had some noble, if highly impractical, ideals. The new idealists in the 21st Century are the technocrats who are passionate about translation computers (or breeding babelfish). In the last decade, significant advances have been made in this area, but the abilities of such machines and software are still primitive. The initial push to develop such machines was politically driven by the Cold War. We didn’t have enough translators fluent in Russian to keep up with all of the Soviet publications on military, technological, and scientific issues. So, there were some who thought that getting computers to translate these documents could speed things up enormously.

There are certain persistent myths regarding early computer translations that endure and have gained wide acceptance even though they are false. Two of my favorites are: 1) a computer is given the sentence “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” and it’s task was to translate it into Russian and then back into English to test its accuracy. The ostensible result was “The meat’s good, but the wine’s rotten.” Other versions state vodka or whiskey. 2) The second case involved Chinese. The computer was fed the sentence “Out of sight, out of mind.” The ostensible result this time was “Invisible idiot.” There are other variants, but this is the one I like best.

Even though these are fabrications, they do make a certain point. Translation computers are possibilities residing a considerable distance in the future. The problems of translating from one natural language to another are enormous. If one is dealing with documents involving strategic nuclear policy, this is not very encouraging. Computers are mostly literalists and something is either 0 or 1. So far, the utility of “fuzzy logic” systems and the possibilities of developing quantum computers remain largely unproven.

One of the delights of human languages is their richness and subtlety which often depends upon ambiguities, minute shading of meanings, associations, connotations, metaphor, irony, and contrary assertion. The strongest argument of the technocratic neo-idealists is heuristics. However, natural languages are not only incredibly rich, but they are constantly growing and evolving. It would require some incredible leap to achieve truly accurate machine translations from Chinese to English, in large part, because of the problems of context. For me at least, such a leap is almost unimaginable, but then 150 years ago, so was air travel and rockets to the moon and Mars. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 natural languages in use and over 30,00 dialects and variants. Most of you are familiar with Alta Vista’s Babelfish, named after Douglas Adams’ marvelously inventive creation and you have probably made use of Google’s translation system. I found an article on Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence in German on Google and asked it to translate it. Let me give you 2 sentences.

“If it is not to be subject after Nietz desire the verdict to be subversion of the life it must have to say more, everything is good, if one stands high enough over it. Its drive and its authentication from itself must win the thought, correct life (will, sense), defeated and winners is accomplices, although they face each other not dialectically (grace, right), are not yet more than a request for philosophical support.”

Pure gibberish! Imagine trusting this system to translate top secret documents. (On the other hand, perhaps that’s what happened with the Arabic documents that led up to the “intelligence” for the Iraq war). And who will ever be able to decipher Bureaucratese which described the aerial invasion of Grenada as “a pre-dawn vertical insertion”–this suggests that there are people in the Pentagon suffering from some serious psycho-sexual deprivation.

But back to Volapük, et. al. I found one site that listed 312 artificial languages. As incredible as it seems, there are still groups scattered about that strive to preserve and extend these languages. Although, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since there is still a Flat Earth Society first based in England and now–where else?–in California with adherents in a number of other countries.

It is estimated that at one time there were 100,000 Volapük speakers. However, in 1887, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof introduced Esperanto which became much more popular and largely supplanted Volapük. The reasons for this are readily discerned. Although the vocabulary of Volapük was largely drawn from English, German, French, and Latin, Schleyer attempted to minimize those sounds that were difficult for languages with a significantly different pronunciation system. Furthermore, he tried to make as many words as possible have just one syllable which made most of the words unrecognizable to speakers of European languages or English. However, the clincher was a plethora of rules governing grammar, such that, a verb could have over 500,000 forms! Put that in your computer and smoke it!

In addition to the universal languages constructed to promote peace, cultural understanding, and international economic trade, there are the languages that arose out fiction, such as, Tolkien’s Sidarin and Klingon. Furthermore, there have been attempts to create languages that are more logical than natural languages, examples of which are Ithkuil and Lojban, neither of which I would venture to pronounce.

So here buried in a small advertisement in an 1893 natural history magazine is an opportunity to buy some books and lectures in Volapük. The more I learn about the human condition, the more amazed I become and the less I understand. What a bizarre and magnificent planet we live on!

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


  Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the May 2007 edition of Micscape Magazine.

Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor .

Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK website at Microscopy-UK .  

© Onview.net Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved. Main site is at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk with full mirror at www.microscopy-uk.net .