Notable Women


Women in History

Willis J. Abbot’s 1913 book reveals some interesting things regarding captioning practice at the turn of the century. As was common practice, the book was illustrated with inserted plates on glossy stock to increase its salability. Given its subject, each of the illustrations is relatively free of interpretive captioning. Illustrations were instead captioned with a proper name, unless a scene rather than a head and shoulders portrait was employed, as was the case with the frontispiece:

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Watching the World Go By (3)

A Kansas City News Bureau c. 1900 Photograph from the Fred Harvey Collection

Watching the World Go By (3)

The timeline of Willis J. Abbot’s autobiography seems a bit strange. He claims that he was a cub reporter on the New York Tribune from 1886-1887 in chapter two, but in chapter three he also claims that he, along with a group of Detroit newspapermen, purchased an evening newspaper in Kansas City in 1886. He called this experience “an expensive school of journalism” (40). He claims to have moved to Kansas city in this failed attempt; the dates are confusing.

Abbot claims that the population of Kansas City was 132,000—amazingly close to the US census figure for 1890 of 132,716. The figure for 1880 was around 55,000. According to Abbot, the population promised to be half-a-million by “the next census.” However, even in 1940 the population in Kansas City hadn’t crossed the 400,000 mark. At the time, Kansas City had four newspapers, the Times and the Journal in the morning, and the Star and the News in the afternoon. Abbot “contributed his expertise” to the News.

Doing a little sideways research, the Kansas City Star is still kicking. Abbot called it the primary newspaper he competed with, and obviously it won the competition. According to their history page, the last competitor for the Star, the Journal, folded in 1942. Abbot remarks that at the time he was writing (1933) there were only one morning and two evening papers.

Reviewing several bits of information, it seems that though Abbot was one of the group that bought the paper, he did not actually move there until 1867. He calls his time in Kansas City his “three-years struggle” and he moved to Chicago in 1890, so he had to be an absentee owner for at least the first year. The actual biographical details of Abbot’s autobiography are difficult to figure out.

Rethinking Abbot’s book as I review it once again for the synopsis, it seems that the early organizing tropes for the book are moral—it hardly follows a strict chronology in its reminisces. In chapter one, the moral core is violent behavior; in chapter two, it is drinking; in chapter three, it is false advertising.

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Watching the World Go By (2)

Watching the World Go By (2)

In Chapter two of his autobiography, Willis J. Abbot gives an overview of New York newspapers in 1886-7. He started as a cub reporter on the New York Tribune in 1886, though he begins by enumerating the “real literary standing” of the newspapermen writing on other papers of this time. His initial focus is on Charles Dana’s New York Sun, and on the drinking habits of all newspapermen of the time. Though Abbot was a later advocate of prohibition, he does not appear to be too judgmental regarding the excesses of the time.

Newspaper hours in New York at that time were such as to permit the nightly holding of what I am convinced was the most instructive class in journalism the profession has ever known. In this applauding the midnight symposium at Doctor Perry’s Pharmacy I am not forgetful of the fact that the discussions were punctuated with draughts of fluids long since under ban by the Volstead Act. Times change, and manners and customs with them. At the proper place I shall discuss the effect of prohibition on the journalistic life—an effect which I am convinced has been wholly good. But in 1887, in New York, prohibition was not talked of, not even dreamed of, and any account of the journalistic habits and events of that era must perforce include a good deal of alcoholic conviviality. (21-22)

Abbot describes the outlook of newspapers as valuing well-written stories, and it was normal for a writer at that time to compose and rewrite their own stories, a practice apparently on the wane in the 1930s, when he composed his autobiography. The “journalism class” of which he speaks was a late night session where writers analyzed all their stories in relationship to the reporting of Charles Dana’s Sun:

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Abbot on Bierce

Abbot on Ambrose Bierce

I’ve been reading Watching the World Go By, Willis J. Abbot’s 1933 autobiography. There are anecdotes a plenty, but I had to make a quick note of this one. I’ll be writing more detailed notes pretty soon. But for now, fans of the Devil’s Dictionary might enjoy this bit:

Bierce, who was by way of being what is called to-day a columnist, was of a mordant wit, but utterly without discretion. Hearst valued his column, but dreaded its dangers. Trying to “pass the buck,” he told me to edit it and eliminate everything I thought was offensive. The very next day Bierce wrote of an actress who had been much been beloved in life, but whose funeral had been a few days before, that “always famous for her composed manner, she was now quite decomposed.” Naturally, I cut it out. Bierce instantly resigned and was lured back by Hearst—probably at an increased salary. Thereafter I left his copy alone. In the end he brought down upon Hearst the savage and unjustifiable charge of having suggested the assassination of President McKinley. William Goebel, Democratic politician who had been elected Governor of Kentucky, had been shot down from ambush and some imp of the perverse put into Bierce’s head this quatrain:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Cannot be found in all the West.
Good reason! It is speeding here
To lay McKinley on his bier.

Utter doggerel, of course, without any particular reason for its writing or publishing. But malign fate caused McKinley to be shot three or four days after its publication, and, perhaps stimulated by Hearst’s rivals, public sentiment raged over this “incitement to assassination.” Distinguished clergymen preached about it, societies passed acrid resolutions, and businessmen boycotted the paper. Hearst smiled. If at all troubled he never showed it, nor do I believe he ever reproached Bierce for the blunder. (139)

Panama (2)

Dazzling colors combined with its colossal proportions make this man-made gash in nature’s eternal hills a magnificent spectacle.
Its fullest glory will soon be dimmed, for the tropic jungle will cover its brilliant hues with a robe of green.

There is a distinct difference in tone to the captioning of the color plates in Panama. The black and white photograph on the adjacent page is a bit more prosaic.

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