Scarcity and historical significance

Archives History

I recently finished reading Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Joseph Mitchell’s short stories from the 1940s. Mitchell was a New York City-based writer who worked for The New Yorker for a number of years, and is well-known as a chronicler of the eccentrics and social outcasts who abounded then (and still abound) in the city. While the whole book is fantastic (I’d highly recommend you find yourself a copy), I was taken by a story titled “The Don’t-Swear Man,” which chronicles the activities of A. S. Colborne, the self-proclaimed President of the Anti-Profanity League. Mr. Colborne’s mission in life was to eradicate swearing of all kinds (he and the author meet after he takes umbrage to Mitchell referring to a rainy NYC day as “one hell of a day”), which he does in large part by handing out small pink cards which say:

NEW HOPE FOR THE WORLD. GOD BLESS AMERICA AND OUR HOMES. HAVE NO SWEARING, BOYCOTT PROFANITY! PLEASE DO NOT SWEAR, NOR USE OBSCENE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE. THESE CARDS ARE FOR DISTRIBUTION. SEND FOR SOME - THEY ARE FREE. ANTI-PROFANITY LEAGUE. A. S. COLBORNE, PRES. 185 EAST SEVENTY-SIX STREET.

I did a bit of research, and it turns out that Mr. Colborne was a pretty well-known presence in NYC for a number of years. I found a number of articles from the New York Times between 1908 and 1940 which mention the Anti-Profanity League, the pink cards, and of course A. S. Colborne. His cards made their way to the hands of City Comptroller Herman A. Metz, a number of New York City Aldermen, the leadership of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters and Park Commisioner Francis D. Gallatin.

Colborne claims that he and his followers have passed out six million of these cards over the course of forty years, which is a lot of cards. Even if Mr. Colborne’s math is questionable (as he admits, “I don’t burden myself with a lot of records.”) and only a fraction of that number was actually distributed, it’s still pretty amazing considering the population of New York City in 1940 was around 7.5 million.

The reason this tweaked my interest was that, after extensive searching, I couldn’t find a single one of these millions of cards in an archive anywhere in the world. Nor could I find any archival material from the Anti-Profanity League (there’s a Boston-based group of the same name, but as far as I can tell, the two groups aren’t connected), which is absolutely shocking given the extraordinary number of cards handed out and the visibility of the organization.

So, as I’m wont to do, I started thinking about this. And it occurred to me that maybe, counter-intuitively, the reason there are no more of these around now is that there were so many of them around before. After all, we hardly consider the commonplace and disposable things that surround us every day - Metro cards, take-out menus, business cards - to be worth saving, let alone worth putting in an acid-free box and folder and storing for future generations in a environmentally controlled environment. In the world of economics, we’re used to the idea that something rare (gold, strawberries in winter, moon rocks) is more valuable than something readily available (paper, bread, dirt). It’s hardly a novel thought, but I’d argue that this same system of valuation is at play in archives. Things that are harder to find seem more valuable, more historically significant by virtue of their rarity.

The last story in the book is “Joe Gould’s Secret,” the story of yet another NYC character who, along with executing an elaborate extortion plan to support himself, writing bad poetry and speaking in “seagull,” is writing what he claims to be the longest book in the world, an “Oral History” that is a record of conversations Gould has had with all manner of people. Nobody has seen the complete book, even though Gould claims he has chapters stashed all over the city inf various undisclosed locations. As you can probably guess, the book doesn’t exist, but what’s astounding is the degree of attention this book garners, precisely because nobody has seen it. Because it doesn’t exist, everyone can conjure up whatever book their imagination pleases, which means that the prospect of the book satisfies everyone. In other words, its extreme scarcity (it’s hard to imagine anything being rarer than nonexistent) is precisely the thing that makes it so valuable, that gives rich benefactors the incentive to provide Gould with financial support year after year and allows him to keep hitting up his acquaintances for cash.

I know not many of these ideas or novel (or perhaps even all that interesting), but it’s always good to remember that the most commonplace, ordinary and disposable things in our lives are often the things that give shape to who we are and what we do, and they’re probably more essential to our existence than the objects we consider important, and consequently rarely use.