The past is like a foreign country; they do things differently there.
So goes the saying.
And of course that’s true. We aren’t the Romans.
But what about our local past?
I’ve tried to answer that question for myself over many years by studying newsy bits culled from old newspapers, among them one of South King County’s earliest publications, the White River Journal, as published in the city of Kent between 1893 and 1899.
Over four pages plastered with ads hawking bogus medical remedies, our instructor offers a sometimes confused pastiche of hard and soft news, infused with common prejudices of the day toward Black Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and women.
There are occasional flarings of temperance movement passions, meeting times and dates for organizations like The Odd Fellows and the Grand Army of the Republic — Union veterans of the Civil War — and a heavy emphasis on the growing of hops and other crops.
Nationally we get headlines marking the “Progress of the World’s Fair work at Chicago,” accounts that report, “Everything is quiet at the Pine Ridge Indian Agency,” but, “Serious trouble with the Cheyenne at Fort Keogh, Mont. over the attempted arrest of an Indian.”
One headline reports “rumors of the uprising of the Negroes near Richmond, Texas,” and how on July 6,1893, “Wong Dip Ken, a Chinaman at Los Angeles, has been ordered deported under the Geary Act.”
(The Geary Act placed the burden on Asian immigrants to prove they had the right to live and work in the United States by carrying identification papers on their persons at all times — or face deportation.)
The too-easy availability of old demon liquor in the eyes of temperance advocates framed a common lament.
“A generation of children are growing up with an hereditary taste for strong drink,” wrote a minister named Talmadge. “Many a man sits down to write his will and says, ‘In the name of God, amen. I will bequeath to my children my property share and share alike. Signed and sealed in the presence of witnesses.’
“What he does not know,” Talmadge continued, “is that at the same time he is making a double will, and that he might say ‘In the name of disease and sorrow and death, amen. I will bequeath to my children my appetite for drink and my prospect of a drunkard’s grave. Signed and sealed in the presence of the astonished hosts of heaven and the jubilant harpies of hell.’”
A columnist identifying himself as “Uncle Mose” mingled anti-drink sentiments and anti-Black prejudice, writing in the old plantation speech as imagined by author Joel Chandler Harris in his then-recently-released book, “Uncle Remus.”
“Deh is a good temperance sermon in a freight train,” says “Uncle Mose.” “No matter how much de cars gits loaded, deh injine w’at does deh work gits along strictly on water.”
And we get surprising glimpses into personal lives.
For instance, on page 3 of the Feb. 9, 1893, paper we learn that a Mrs. Frank Leslie Wilde is about to separate from her husband.
“Willis is lazy and don’t try to make a living,” the aggrieved woman complained about the man of the house.
Elsewhere, we learn about a “Mrs. L Wheeler Wilcox who wears a thumb ring and uses five quarts of milk in a complexion bath,” and elsewhere about a “woman who brought suit for $1,000 against a man for saying that she had false teeth,” and a man who adopted “a diet of bread and milk in hopes of improving his health.”
It was a day when papers were dominated by ads hawking miracle cures, each making the claim that unlike all the others, it was the real thing.
“Bile beans guaranteed to cure bilious attacks, sick headache and constipation, 40 in each bottle price 25 cents for sale by druggists,” one ad trumpeted.
Another ad insisted that catarrh, a blood disorder, “could not be cured except by Hall’s Catarrh Cure,” which, “taken internally [it] acts directly on the blood and mucus surfaces. Hall’s Catarrh Cure is no quack medicine.”
And we got numbers to “represent the number of bottles of Dr. King’s new discovery for consumption, coughs and colds,” which was sold in the United States from March 1891 to March 1892. “
The past, it turns out, is not only different, it makes for interesting reading, too.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.