Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President, Over and Over Again

Labor organizer Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. He left home when he was fourteen to work for the railroad—not unusual for the time. In 1875, he helped organize a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, a fraternal benefit society which gradually took on the role of a trade union. He rose rapidly in the organization, becoming its national secretary and treasurer in 1880.

In 1893, Debs took labor organization one step further, when he successfully united railway workers from different crafts into the first industrial union in the United States, the American Railway Union. As the union’s first president, he successfully led its members in a strike for higher wages from the Great Northern Railway in April 1894. The national press gave him the nickname “King” Debs.

In June, “King” Debs and the union were in the news again in the great Pullman Strike. As a result of financial reverses in the panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut its wages by 25 percent, but did not cut rents for company-owned workers’ housing in Pullman, Illinois, the company town near (now in) Chicago. Many workers and their families faced starvation. Local members of the union sent a delegation to Pullman’s president, George M. Pullman, to present their grievances about low wages, poor working conditions and sixteen-hour work days. Pullman refused to meet with them.

The Pullman workers voted to strike and walked off the job on May 11, 1894. At its June meeting, the American Railway Union’s national council called for a nationwide boycott of trains carrying Pullman cars until the company submitted the dispute to arbitration by June 26. The company was unwilling to play.

Within four days, union locals in twenty-seven states went out on sympathy strikes, affecting twenty-nine railroads. Illinois governor John P. Altgeld sympathized with the strikers and initially refused call out the militia, so the railroads’ management called on the deferral government for help. On July 2, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney got an injunction against the strike from local judges on the grounds that the union was impeding mail service and interstate commerce. (1) Union leaders ignored the injunction. On July 4, President Grover Cleveland ordered 2,500 federal troops to Chicago. The strike ended within a week and troops were recalled on July 20.(2)

The Pullman Strike was a critical event in American labor history. It was also a turning point for Debs. He was arrested at the height of the violence and ultimately sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court and conspiring to interfere with the U.S. mail. During his prison terms at Woodstock, Illinois, Debs read broadly. Introduced for the first time to the works of Karl Marx,(4) he came to see the labor movement as a struggle between classes.

After announcing his conversion to socialism in 1897, Debs helped found the Social Democratic party, which was renamed the Socialist Party in 1901. Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate for President five times between 1900 and 1920.His highest populist vote came in 1920, when he received about 915,000 popular votes. (But no votes in the electoral college.) (5) He was in prison at the time, serving a sentence for criticizing the federal government’s use of the 1917 Sabotage and Espionage Act against labor activists.

He was released from prison in 1921 by presidential order. His citizenship, which he lost in 1918 when he was convicted of sedition (for labor activism) , was posthumously restored in 1976.

(1) Unfortunately for the strikers, they derailed a locomotive attached to a U.S. mail train. And as you know, neither snow, nor sleet nor striking railway workers can stop the U.S. Postal service from its appointed rounds.
(2) A lot happened in between the arrival of the troops and the end of the strike. Altgeld and Cleveland sent piss-y telegrams back and forth. Strikers rioted and destroyed lots of property. More federal troops arrived. State militia arrived. National guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing several strikers.(3) It was a busy week.
(3)When will people learn that is a bad idea? It never turns out well.
(4) Obviously a well-stocked prison library.
(5) Just to put this in context: the winner, Warren G. Harding, received 16,513,200 popular votes.

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words: World War II in Infographics

I have said it here before, and I will doubtless say it again: I hoard collect reference books. There is something about the words “atlas,” “dictionary,” or “encyclopedia” in a title that causes me to stop and take a second look at a remainder table, second hand bookstore or library sale.* I own dictionaries for languages I don’t know, historical atlases for many times and places, an encyclopedia of gods from different cultures, a dictionary of twentieth century culture that I’ve never opened, a book on the principles of statistics that has come in handy more than once, and an odd little volume by Barbara Ann Kipfer titled The Order of Things: How Everything in the World is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures and Pecking Orders that I have turned to more often than I would have thought possible. If pushed to explain, I’ll claim that they are part of my working library. Sometimes it’s even true .

All of which is a long way of saying I was thrilled when a review copy of World War II Infographics landed on my desk several months ago.

Created by a team of historians and data designers, led by Jean Lopez, the managing editor of Guerres & Histoire (War & History) magazine, World War II Infographics tells the history of that war entirely through well-designed graphics.

World War II Infographics is visually stunning, but this is not a picture book. Its 357 maps and infographs provide a data-rich examination of 53 topics, beginning with the fall of democracies across Europe in the period between the two world wars and ending with unrest and independence in Europe’s colonial empires after the war.

Whether considering aircraft production statistics, Soviet military losses, or desert campaigns in the Sahara, World War II Infographics uses geopolitical, economic, demographic and military data, organizing each topic in ways that ask new questions about familiar information and often provide new answers to familiar questions.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to see what I can learn about the RAF bombing of Berlin in 194o. After all, World War II Infographics is part of my working library.

*I have a special fondness for the weird and quirky reference books that don’t survive on standard bookstore shelves

Part of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

A Brief History of the Pencil

A giant pencil that I received as a Christmas present in Nuremberg. Thanks, Christopher!

One of the unexpected things I learned during our visit to Nuremberg over the holidays is that the city was the home to the first mass-produced graphite lead pencils, beginning in 1662.

Before we visited Nuremberg, I hadn’t given the history of pencils much thought.* In fact, the only piece of pencil history that I knew was that Thoreau invented a better pencil, and then got bored with the whole thing and went off to do something else. But I would have been hard pressed to tell you what made Thoreau’s pencil better. (We’ll get there in a moment.)

As those of you who have hung around here on the Margins for a while know, I can’t resist tracking down the story behind a bit of history trivia. Here’s some of what I found:

  • The roman stylus is the immediate ancestor of the modern pencil: a thin metal rod that was used to make a light mark on papyrus. Some styluses were made of lead, which why we still call pencil cores leads even though they have been made of graphite ever since the stylus became a pencil.
  • In fact, graphite is the reason styluses became pencils. In 1564, someone discovered a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England. Graphite makes a darker mark than lead, but it is too soft and brittle to use without something to hold it. At first, people wrapped graphite sticks in string, but eventually someone inserted a graphic stick into a hollow piece of wood. Poof! A pencil.
  • The new industry/craft of pencil making was transformed in Nuremberg. As I’ve mentioned before, the Nuremberg council kept tight control over craft processes in the city. Pencil-making was seen as a two-step process, requiring craftsmen from two different trades to create a single pencil: a lead cutter to shape the graphite and a carpenter or knife handle maker to put the graphite in a wooden case. A storekeeper named Friedrich Staedtler, who was not a member of either skilled trade, figured out how to make a better pencil from start to finish. Pencil makers became a recognized craft category by the 1730s.
  • I was astonished to learn that Thoreau didn’t just invent a better pencil; he revolutionized the American pencil industry. American graphite was less pure than British graphite and pencils made from it smudged. Thoreau worked for a time in his father’s pencil factory and was determined to create a better product. After hitting the books at the Harvard Library, he came up with a method of blending graphite and clay that solved the problem. The Thoreau pencil factory took off. Shortly thereafter, Thoreau also took off for Walden Pond. (FYI: He went back into the pencil business occasionally when he needed cash.)

That’s all I’ve got. If you’re interested in learning more about pencil history, everyone seems to agree that the book to read is The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski. I must admit, I’m tempted. **

*On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the history of paper, which was invented in China and then spread to Europe via the Islamic world—making it exactly the kind of thing I’m fascinated by.
**In fact, I’m tempted by several of Petroski’s books.