Tips From A Century Ago: Write Clearly and Don’t Plagiarize

Planning on starting an email newsletter? Here are some tips on how—from 100 years ago.

That’s when the House Organ Association held a convention in 1918. It was co-sponsored by the Direct Mail Advertising Association, now known as the Data & Marketing Association.

Old-timers remember house organs–they were the magazines companies published to keep their customers informed. They served the same purpose as email newsletters. Here are some lessons from that October 1918 event, held in the closing weeks of World War I:

Don’t lift content from other publications. The prevailing attitude in 1918 was: “Why waste time rewriting or pay for stuff when there was plenty of it going the rounds for the mere trouble of taking it?”

Don’t steal artwork, another widespread practice. “It doesn’t make a tinker’s darn difference how much gray matter, sweat, time, ink, experience, execution and money was involved if a certain design or illustrated ‘looks good’ or is “just the thing” to illustrate some new fangled clock whose alarm tickles your toes—Use It! Trace it or photography it direct—but use it!” the speaker said.

Make sure that articles are relevant and engaging—they weren’t in most house organs. “Most are over-weighted with ponderous lectures by men who know their own departments, but unfortunately do not know how to WRITE,” a speaker complained.

The conference was organized into tracks like House Organs for Salesmen, House Organs for Dealers, and House Organs for Customers. The most crowded session was the one titled, “Why House Organs are essential in War time.” (It was because editors “have steadily made use of articles designed to aid in the organization of the country for war”).

Wisdom from the ancients.


We Work At The Jollity Building

By Ray Schultz

Work recently took me to a WeWork facility in midtown Manhattan, where an upstart with no standing can rent a few feet of space and establish a New York presence. I waited in the shared space or Hot Desk area, where prices start at $450 a month; the coffee and wi-fi are thrown in. People lounged around with their laptops and smartphones, as they would in a Starbucks. Then there are the offices in back, which start at $450 but probably average out at around $2,500—my interview subject, from a foreign company, was located there. It made me wonder if the founders of this outfit ever read The Telephone Booth Indian, A.J. Liebling’s masterpiece on the Jollity Building, circa 1942. It seems to be built on the same business model.

Mostly occupied by hustlers who tried to make a buck or two by “promoting” people (i.e., swindling them), the Jollity Building had a similar sliding fee structure to We Work’s (in 1942 dollars). At the bottom rung were the Telephone Booth Indians, who simply hung out in in the lobby for free and used the telephone booths; often they could not afford the price of coffee and a pastrami sandwich, but they lived in perpetual hope of making a score.

Upstairs, there were spaces for rent on a monthly basis. But you had to see Morty, the rental agent, who refers to the renters as “heels.” Liebling writes:

Morty usually reserves the appellation heel for the people who rent the forty-eight cubicles, each furnished with a desk and two chairs, on the third floor of the Jollity Building. These cubicles are formed by partitions of wood and frosted glass which do not quite reach the ceiling. Sufficient air to maintain human life is supposed to circulate over the partitions. The offices rent for $10.00 and $12.00 a month, payable in advance. “Twelve and a half dollars with air, ten dollars without air,” Morty says facetiously. “Very often the heels who rent them take the air without telling me.” Sometimes a Telephone Booth Indian acquires enough capital to rent a cubicle. He thus rises in the social scale and becomes a heel. A cubicle has three advantages over a telephone booth. One is that you cannot get a desk into a telephone booth. Another is that you can play pinochle in a cubicle. Another is that a heel gets his name on the directory in the lobby, and the white letters have a bold, legitimate look.

The vertical social structure of the Jollity Building is subject to continual shifts. Not only do Indians become heels, but a heel occasionally accumulates forty or fifty dollars with which to pay a month’s rent on one of the larger offices, all of them unfurnished on the fourth, fifth, or sixth floor. He then becomes a tenant. Morty always views such progress with suspicion, because it involves signing a lease, and once a heel has signed a lease, you cannot put him out without serving a dispossess notice and waiting ten days. A tenant, in Morty’s opinion, is just a heel who is planning to get ten days’ free rent. “Any time a heel acts prosperous enough to rent an office,” Morty says, “you know he’s getting ready to take you.” A dispossessed tenant often reappears in the Jollity Building as an Indian. It is a life cycle.

One of the few legitimate tenants is Hy Sky, a sign painter who serves the heels in setting up their usually unsuccessful scams. He laughs when painting the signs because he knows he “will receive the only dollar that is likely to change hands in the transaction—the dollar he gets for painting the sign,” Liebling wrote. Often, Hy Sky would call Morty to say, ““Morty, pop up here and see the character I got here! He is the most phoniest character I seen in several years.”

The name Jollity Building was fictional, but it was based on a real place, or a composite of such places. Of course, two big differences between Jollity and We Work (beyond the clientele) is that you had to buy your own coffee at a counter in the old building’s basement, and We Work doesn’t have a dance palace on the bottom floor.


Trump’s Brand of Content

By Ray Schultz

Content is king, and Donald Trump is the king of content. So said The New York Times in an article two weeks ago.

“Mr. Trump is not running a campaign in the modern sense…Rather, he oversees a prolific content production studio that has accomplished what every major media conglomerate is trying to pull off with mixed success,” Jim Rutenberg wrote in the Times.

That was, of course, before the Orlando massacre, and Trump’s emotional meltdown, in which he seemed to blame Barack Obama for the attack. But it still stands.

Trump isn’t big on position papers. Instead, he gives us is stream-of-consciousness spewing–every bleat and gurgle that come out of his mouth. Who cares if they add up to incandescent BS?

Well, there must be a buck in it. Two Rubio retainers, Alex Conant and Will Holley, have opened an agency devoted to Trumpspeak: Firehouse Strategies, Rutenberg reports. Blowing hot air will soon be a mainstream marketing tactic.

But Trump isn’t the first “hypnotic, post-literacy” verbal artist. There was one before him.

Adolf Hitler.

Mind you, I’m not comparing Trump, a common bigot, to Hitler, whose crimes were the most monstrous in human history. What we’re talking about here is communications.

“Together with his actual ability to manipulate an audience, Hitler also showed an intuitive sense which amounted to genius that the spoken word was going to be of core significance than the written word in the coming years, “wrote in A.N. Wilson in “Hitler,” a sincere but slight bio of the monster.

Just as Trump eschews paper documents, so did Hitler.

“From the beginnings of Communism in the early nineteenth century to its crisis or unraveling in the 1970s, Communism remained, among other things, a doctrine whose texts, like the Koran or the Talmud, could be endlessly re-perused by the Doctors of the Church, and interpreted in a literary way,” writes Wilson, who coined the “post literacy” phrase. “They belonged to the vanishing world of the text; Hitler belonged to the oral future, the future which contained Walt Disney, television and cinema.”

According to Wilson, Hitler said that “the greatest revolutions in this world have never been directed by a pen! [The irony appears heavier in German, because the word for pen is feather.] No, the only thing the pen has been able to do is provide theoretical foundations. But the power which has always set rolling the greatest religious and political avalanches in history from time immemorial has been the magic power (die Zauberkraft] of the spoken word.'”

Wilson continues: “Zauberkraft. From the beginning he saw himself as a magician. In fact, his sense of the power of the spoken word, the word blared through a loud-hailer, the word broadcast on radio and in film, was very far form being some ancient truth which had rolled down the ages from time immemorial.”

And Hitler didn’t have to know much to do it.

“He made clever use of his reading, but that reading was extremely limited,” Wilson wrote. “Indeed, it was the very fact of his limitations which gave him such strength. He had few abilities and it was these which carried him along.”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?


Body Armor

By Ray Schultz

This week’s historical piece addresses a delicate subject: corsets. Or, rather, corsets and content.

In 1929, Charis of St. Paul sent a brochure for its “superior foundation garment.” The fold-out piece featured spot color, and photos of women wearing the patented corset (although it never used that term).

The only response mechanism is a St. Paul address and phone number, so this was obviously a local effort. The garment couldn’t be bought in a store, or ordered by mail—instead, it was delivered in person by a Charis representative.

Here’s how content was done 87 years ago. The cover asks the question, “What has become of the middle-aged woman?” And the copy on the flip page answers the question:

What has become of the Middle-aged” Woman?

The pathetic, “middle-aged” woman of yesterday is the mature, young woman of today. Instead of a drab, monotonous existence, she leads a useful, interesting life.

For the active, smartly dressed, modern woman, whose figure has matured with her years, CHARIS is a superior foundation garment from every point of view.

To begin with , CHARIS is adjustable, so that the wearer as she puts it on, can improve her figure wherever desired. Ungraceful development of waist, hips or thighs can be corrected, the abdomen flattened—creating smart youthful lines from bust to knees. This re-proportioning of the figure is accomplished without any restriction of movement. The garment can be worn continuously with perfect comfort.

CHARIS is light in weight and contains a minimum of boning, yet it provides exactly the physical support most mature women need. An important feature is the Inner Belt, which supports the abdomen in correct position, affording protection against strain and depleted vitality.

CHARIS is a patented garment. The advantages of its adjustable feature cannot be secured elsewhere.

You can examine CHARIS in the private of your home whenever convenient. This superior garment is not sold in stores but will be brought directly to you by a representative of this company. To secure further information, including free demonstration if desired, please communicate with the address on the back of this leaflet.

The following pages contain full-page photos of variations, with descriptions:

Observe how CHARIS controls and reproportions the well developed figure, without restriction of movement. In addition to producing attractive, youthful lines CHARIS permits perfect physical relaxation with comfort in any position. Continued use of CHARIS will usually effect a permanent reduction in bust and hip measurements.

For the women of average figure, the garment illustrated below is a particularly desirable model. It is made with the convenient Midway Opening (midway between center front and underarm). Notice the smooth, youthful contour and this garment creates. This and other models can be had with cool net or rayon top for summer.

The unique adjustability and complete superior of CHARIS make it a desirable garment for every woman—slender or stout. There are odd and even sizes, 32 to 56 bust. Detachable shoulder straps are a great convenience. The garment launders beautifully and gives long services. A wide selection of models and materials is provided.

The rear cover shows a fully dressed woman (presumably Mrs. Charis, if there was one), and asks the question: “Will you let her help YOU, too?”

At the risk of seeming lurid, there was one curious historical detail: The garments featured clips for holding up stockings, which were worn in each of the photos.


Enough Storytelling–Let’s Tell the Truth

By Ray Schultz

Abraham Lincoln was in a good mood as he got ready to go to the theater. The war was over, he’d shown the Rebels. He threw back a shot of bourbon. Now it was time for some fun.

Now, what’s wrong with that paragraph, besides the fact that it’s a total fabrication? Two things. First, it trivializes a tragic historical event. Second, there’s no way to know what Abraham Lincoln was thinking.

Still, I expect some writer to concoct a scene like this because that’s what the market demands (or so we’re told). We’ve entered the era of storytelling. And there’s no room for anything that slows down the narrative–like truth or attributions.

Maybe they’re right. But since most narrative I see moves slowly anyway (some of it is interminable, in fact) I’d just as soon we return to the journalistic basics. There are worse things than being dull and honest.

An Inexact Science

H.L. Mencken of Baltimore was 19 or so when he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.” A rival reporter named de Bekker, rather than leave his barstool to report on a stevedore’s death, made up the facts on the spot, starting with the deceased’s name.

“Who gives a damn what it was?” de Bekker asked the two young competitors who were drinking with him. “The fact that another poor man has given his life to engorge the Interests is not news: it happens every ten minutes. The important thing here, the one thing that brings us vultures of the press down into this godforsaken wilderness is that the manner of his death was unusual–that men are not kicked overboard by mules every day. I move you, my esteemed contemporaries, that the name of the deceased be Ignaz Karpinski, that the name of his widow be Marie, that his age was thirty-six, that he lived at 1777 Fort avenue, and that he leaves eleven minor children.”

All three journalists present reported those sad facts, “along with various lively details that occurred to de Bekker after he had got down another beer,” Mencken recalled. And since their accounts were identical, they were applauded by their editors the next day for their unusual accuracy.

Making up facts is the cardinal sin of journalism. And while it was charming in Mencken’s telling, it’s now a surefire career destroyer (except in the blogosphere).

Another form of journalistic distortion is found in posed news photos, and in Time Inc.’s old March of Time documentaries. Case in point: Time’s 1938 feature on life inside Nazi Germany. In one scene, storm troopers collect money from ordinary Germans. Another shows nuns in a prison cell. But both scenes were shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, as I learned during a panel discussion at MOMA featuring Time archivist Bill Hooper.

The New Journalism

Does that mean that March of Time’s stepchildren, TV shows like 60 Minutes, fake their coverage? Uh, I didn’t say that… But the more daring the storytelling, the more careful one has to be about adhering to the journalistic rules.

This issue was hotly debated during the era of the so-called “New Journalism.” Not that it was a new idea, but reporters like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin showed that non-fiction could be written in narrative form like fiction. To do it, they had to find what Wolfe called the “objective correlative”—the telling detail.

One seminal example of the genre is Breslin’s 1963 article,  A Death in Emergency Room One. The beginning:

The call bothered Malcolm Perry. ‘Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,’ the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctor’s cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The ‘STAT’ meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“‘This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,’ he said.

“‘President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,’ the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the President of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

To read that piece even now is to feel the enormity of the event. But Breslin wasn’t in the emergency room as it unfolded (nor in the cafeteria)—that scene is, to the best of my knowledge, based on interviews with participants. Yet it was published within 48 hours of the assassination.

In another powerful story, Breslin profiled an unemployed Vietnam vet, a Congressional Medal of Honor holder, who had crawled through enemy fire to save wounded fellow solders. The hero’s life unravels as older men at the VFW ply him with drinks.

Were these accurate depictions? They apparently were, but they couldn’t have been easy to do, given that facts don’t always lend themselves to narrative. Even time sequences have to be exact, as writer Janet Malcolm found out—she was criticized for a scene in which the subject says in person things he actually said later on the phone.

Then  there’s the ever-present threat of libel. No wonder Breslin and Wolfe sought a larger canvas—in fiction.

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote moved in the opposite direction. His book, “In Cold Blood,” on the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, was the world’s first nonfiction novel, he claimed.

It doesn’t matter what it was called.  This was narrative the way it should be done, as you can tell from the very first paragraph:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Capote, one of our finest prose writers, finished  the book with a scene that brought closure to the story: The detective who worked on the case encounters a friend of one of the victims in the cemetery. “The message is clear: life continues even amidst death,” wrote Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke.

The only problem is that it never happened. Unethical? Most journalists would say so. But, as Norman Mailer observed at the time, “Truman must have his tone.”

Sorry, Kid, You’re No Truman Capote

Some might wink at Capote’s transgression—he wrote an American classic. But consider what has followed. These days, everything has to be written like fiction, even history, yet few writers have Capote’s gift for narrative or Breslin’s flair or reportorial doggedness.

Writers must now entertain above all else. Serious topics take on a storybook quality—it’s almost as if readers lack the attention spans to handle more complex forms of information. But not everything can be dramatic or entertaining.

At least a few journalistic malefactors—those caught making up stories—were driven by this need to startle and/or amuse, I believe. Not that this makes it forgivable—or even sensible. Few writers can invent anything better than what happens in reality.

Egregious factual liberties are also taken, I suspect, with that staple of self-help magazine articles: The composite character. They are simply not believable. How can you check?

Then there’s plagiarism. Some well-known historians have been caught using almost identical language to that of other writers. I wonder if they left out attributions that should have gone in because they got in the way of the story.

In narrative, as in all other forms of nonfiction writing, there are no substitutes for precision and clarity.