Posts filed under “History”


On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first and last president to resign from office. “There is one cause above all to which I have been devoted and to which I shall always be devoted for as long as I live,” he told the nation. “When I first took the oath of office as President 5½ years ago, I made this sacred commitment, to ‘consecrate my office, my energies, and all the wisdom I can summon to the cause of peace among nations.’ I have done my very best in all the days since to be true to that pledge.” Thus, for old times’ sake, President Nixon managed to get in one more lie before he left office.


The earliest appearance of Cuba-You-Quit Alley on a map, in 1882.

On the subject of Cuba You Quit Way, von Hindenberg asks, “What is the large building thrown diagonally across Cuba’s line of retreat?”

Dr. Boli and Father Pitt have not been able to find out. The question is complicated. The alley was on a steep hill (it ran along the border between Uptown and the Hill District), and the map shows small frame houses (yellow) and two brick houses (red) that no longer exist. In the 1910 map by the same company, the same building is shown as red, indicating that it was made of brick or stone. Possibly the change of color indicates that it was demolished or dilapidated. It appears to belong to “V. Brusco et ux.” on the 1923 map, but it is adjacent to the Booth & Flinn brickyard, and might be one of their buildings. Since there was no zoning in the neighborhood, the whole area was a cluttered mix of modest rowhouses, businesses, small factories, and institutions. The western half of Cuba You Quit Way may not have been cut through: many streets appear on these maps that are only paper streets, or pathways through the weeds. We should add that the automobile or wagon was not welcome here: Wyandotte Street (the diagonal street at lower right) is a stairway. Probably the only way to get to those little houses on Cuba You Quit Way was on foot (which is still true of a surprising number of houses in Pittsburgh). It is easier for a pedestrian than for a car to step around the projecting corners of a building.

Of course the name of the alley is the most surprising thing about it, and it tended to attract remark when it was current. During the First World War, the Pittsburgh correspondent for The Union Postal Employee took inspiration from the name to suggest some improvements in the city’s street-naming system, which still frustrates mail carriers.

Our city scheme is not simple. The “namers” of the streets appear to favor words of topographical significance, and as a result one-half of the names refer to some degree of elevation peculiar to the section in which the street happens to be. There are dozens of “Hill Top,” “Highview,” “Hillside,“ ”Hilldales,” etc., to say nothing of a few pages of “Maples,” “Elms,” and “Ferns.” One street, however, stands forth prominently as the only one of its name in the world. I refer, of course, to “Cuba-You-Quit Alley.” At the present time, with a war in progress that makes the Spanish-American War look like a backyard scrap, the only move to commemorate the event was the changing of the name of “Kaiser Wilhelm Street” to “Marne Way.” Surely the “namer” of “Cuba-You-Quit Alley” would not hesitate to accept the suggestion that we rename some of the “Maples,“ ”Elms” and “Hills,” etc., with more appropriate titles. I suggest a few, but the inventor of the name of “Cuba-You-Quit Way” will undoubtedly be able to improve on my list: “Berlin-or-Bust Alley,” “Buy-a-Bond Terrace,” “War-Savings-Stamp Street,” “Food-Will-Win-the-War,” “Don’t-Waste-It Alley,” “Over-the-Top Avenue,” or “Carry-On Boulevard.” (The Union Postal Employee, January, 1918.)

In at least one way the postal employee’s suggestion was implemented. Shortly after the Great War, a new automobile highway was opened clinging to the cliff above the Monongahela, and it was given one of the most audaciously grandiose names ever applied to an American street: “The Boulevard of the Allies.” Unlike New York’s Avenue of the Americas, the Boulevard of the Allies is so called by ordinary Pittsburghers; and furthermore Second Avenue downtown was renamed as an extension of it, so that to navigate the avenues downtown you have to learn to count in Picksburgh dialect: one, Allies, three, four, Forbes, five, Oliver, six, seven.

But did Cuba-You-Quit Way get its name from the Spanish-American War? No; it first appears on maps in 1882. The name appears to be a folk etymology: that is, a popular but incorrect explanation of the derivation of a term. The Post-Gazette told the story of Cuba-You-Quit Way a few years ago. It seems the alley was named for a Chippewa woman named Cub-bayou-quit (there was no settled spelling of her name), who married a well-to-do Pittsburgher. She married him in a Chippewa ceremony; but when, as a widow, she tried to claim property worth millions of dollars in 1874 money, the current owners claimed that Chippewa marriage did not count in Pennsylvania law. Apparently the case was such a sensation that it was in everyone’s minds for months, and some city planner attached her name to a new alley, which does not appear on an 1872 map but does on an 1882 map as “Cuba-You-Quit Alley.” The rule that there are no “alleys” in Pittsburgh was not in force until the early twentieth century; we still find some ancient street signs marking alleys that are “ways” on modern maps.

Street sign for Larkins Alley (now Larkins Way) on the back of St. Casimir’s Church, South Side.

The Post-Gazette says that the name of Cuba-You-Quit Way was changed to Cuba Way in 1926, and adds that “it no longer exists.” That is not quite correct. The eastern section of Diaz Way, a narrow and nearly but not quite abandoned alley, is the old Cuba-You-Quit Alley.

Diaz Way probably has an interesting history, too. It appears as “Davis Alley” in 1872, the earliest map on which we have been able to find it (it does not appear in 1862 or before). It is still Davis Alley in 1882, but the name has changed to Diana Alley in 1890. It still appears as Diana Alley in 1910, but as Diaz Way in 1923.

Dr. Boli often wanders into back alleys of history, but seldom so literally as he has done today.


Buzz Aldrin

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon, and Michael Collins did not. For about thirty years after that momentous event, it was common for Americans to say, “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t…” Eventually, however, we came to the rather sheepish realization that we did not in fact have the political will to put a man on the moon anymore, so we stopped saying it.


On this day in 1789, a commission of nearly a thousand French republicans enacted the most successful prison-reform program in history.


When Samuel Huntington used the word “democracy” in a debate, Thomas Heyward, Jr., held him down and washed his mouth out with soap.

Robert Morris bankrolled the Revolution in exchange for exclusive toy marketing rights, but his investment came to nothing when his workshop failed to come up with a practical injection-molding process.

John Hancock earned Fs in penmanship for most of his grammar-school career.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in hudibrastics.

Samuel Adams refused to supply the Continental Congress with beer unless the phrase “the pursuit of porter” was added to the Declaration. They drank madeira instead.


Sometimes Dr. Boli worries that Google does not quite understand us. Other times he worries that Google understands us far too well.


Everyone knows that YouTube is where Americans go to have their brains sucked out through their eyeballs. Today we’ll examine one YouTube informational video in detail, and show you why it will inevitably leave you stupider unless you counter it with actual information. It’s called “Why Do Americans In Old Movies Sound British?” and it comes from a channel with 2.2 million subscribers, which goes to show how far stock footage and a nodding acquaintance with Wikipedia will get you.

(You have to make the explicit decision to activate that video because Dr. Boli believes you might not want Google following you everywhere just because you landed on his front page.)

The video is a feast of stock footage, and it is sponsored by a supplier of stock footage. The research was done mostly in the Wikipedia article on “Mid-Atlantic Accent,” also called the “Transatlantic Accent.”

Our narrator (after some preliminary self-congratulation) starts off proposing to answer the question, Why does Cary Grant speak with what sounds to us like an English accent? One satisfying answer would be, “Because he was born and raised in England.” That this answer is not suggested, and that the fact is not even mentioned, may give us our first hint that the hours of research that went into this video have been misplaced. Sometimes truly in-depth research requires more than one Wikipedia article.

The next hint comes right afterward, when our narrator says that “nearly all actors in old movies talk like that.” We’ll refute that statement later. Meanwhile, the video breezes along, telling us that the Transatlantic Accent is “not real, fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony.” The multiplication of adjectives, though played as a joke, seems to betray some considerable anger, as if the “Transatlantic Accent” had beaten our narrator and stolen his lunch money every day in the eighth grade. This is not likely, because the accent was already extinct by the time our narrator was in the eighth grade. But there is some lingering resentment here: perhaps a memory of some pedantic English teacher who forced the children to pronounce the T in often. There are English teachers who do that, and an entire wing of purgatory is set aside for them.

Or perhaps it is because the idea that any pronunciation could be correct is “racist,” which comes up in a little burst of sarcasm (“super-not-racist idea”) seconds later. This is an interestingly American point of view. In America, it is commonly (though not universally) possible to distinguish Black speakers by their accents. This is a curious fact of American culture; if you turn on a British television show and close your eyes, you cannot distinguish the races of the speakers. But Americans are so used to the distinction that many of us seem to believe that African ancestry causes the accent. (Dr. Boli remembers one very painful conversation in which a gentleman who was certainly not a racist explained in detail how the shape of the African head caused the Black American accent.) So, oddly, it would be racist to propose that everyone should speak a “proper” English that, according to the video, neither White nor Black Americans naturally speak. It would be racist to suggest that there should not be a linguistic distinction by race. —But Dr. Boli is bored with this particular absurdity, so we’ll move on to another.

The videomakers’ Wikipedia research seems to have failed them when they trace the Transatlantic Accent to the 1920s. If they had read the Wikipedia article more carefully, they would have seen that it was already the American prestige accent in the 1800s, as evidenced by the earliest recordings. Dr. Boli will now add to the sum of human knowledge by connecting the accent with Worcester’s Dictionary, the most popular American dictionary of the middle 1800s. Worcester was preferred by educated Americans over Webster, and it was Worcester’s belief that there was and should be no essential difference between educated American and English speech. Many editions of Worcester’s Dictionary incorporated the pronunciations from Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, the famous English guide to pronunciation, so Americans who turned to Worcester would get the same pronunciation guidance that English readers relied on.

So the elite boarding schools of the 1920s were simply doing what the elite boarding schools of the 1860s or any other arbitrary period in American history were doing. They were teaching their pupils to speak properly, and “properly” was defined with an English bias.

But “why did nearly everyone in old movies use a Transatlantic Accent regardless of whether or not their character would have attended an elite Northern boarding school?”

Oddly, these words are spoken over a clip of Jimmy Stewart. If you know who Jimmy Stewart is, you are already astonished. If you do not know who Jimmy Stewart is, search on YouTube, listen to him talking for fifteen seconds, and then come back here.

So clearly Jimmy Stewart was the wrong example to pick. But most Hollywood actors of the time would have been the wrong example to pick. Some certainly were known for the “Transatlantic Accent.” Cary Grant’s Wikipedia article notes specifically (in the second sentence) that he was “known for his transatlantic accent.” But he would not have been “known” for it if every other movie star in Hollywood spoke that way—it would be like saying Tom Cruise was known for speaking English in his film roles. Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Judy Garland, Joseph Cotton, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Van Johnson, Joan Blondell—these were some of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and they are not Transatlanticists. None of them regularly spoke with that fake, synthetic, artificial, contrived, false, phony accent. Some could code-switch, as the linguists say today: Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel get a lot of comic mileage out of switching between Park Avenue and street-smart chorus girl in 42nd Street. But the idea that almost all movie stars spoke like products of a Northeastern prep school could be held only by someone who knows old movies from four-second clips on YouTube.

There is more misinformation to come. Dr. Boli will only note in passing, for example, that Carnegie Mellon did not exist when Edith Skinner was teaching (doubtless our narrator meant to say “Carnegie Tech”), and anyway Edith Skinner was certainly not responsible for all the actors who adopted the Transatlantic Accent—some of them, in fact, came from elite Northern boarding schools.

Then we come to why the Transatlantic Accent vanished. Why did World War II make Americans want to be more differentiated from the British, the allies we fought with (not against, it may be necessary to explain to younger folks)? It’s just obvious, apparently. So, “having learned from our mistakes”—

What was the mistake? What did we learn? Was it that pronunciation is not a skill that can be taught? That sounds so absurd when we hear it stated that we would wonder whether anyone could be fool enough to believe it, but it seems to be current educational dogma anyway. If pronunciation is not a learned skill, then where does it come from? Dr. Boli is reminded of the old story of the young couple who were taking a crash course in Russian so they could understand their newly adopted baby when she started to talk.

Oh, yes, you say to Dr. Boli, but do you have a better explanation?

We could, in an optimistic moment, say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because fashions have changed. If we were feeling more pessimistic, we could say that educated Americans no longer speak this way because there are no more educated Americans.

But we have already pushed this article past the limits of our readers’ patience. Let us therefore press toward the conclusion and compile a list of hidden assumptions in this video, so deeply hidden that the makers are certainly not aware of them.

  1. Educated is fake. Real means uneducated.
  2. Pronunciation cannot be taught. It grows naturally, like warts.
  3. Midwesterners are real Americans. East-coasters from New England or New Jersey or South Carolina who speak with a non-rhotic accent are not really American at all.
  4. If people spoke differently from us eighty or ninety years ago, it was because they put on a fake accent for show; at home they talked like us.

But the real point of this long essay (we explain to the two or three readers who made it this far down) is not to mock a random video into which its creators put a lot of research (by reading an exceptionally long Wikipedia article) and a lot of work. The real point is to show that the new Dark Age has already begun. There has been a complete and irreparable break in cultural tradition.

Now cultural archaeologists are forced to comb through the ruins for clues to what civilization was like eighty or ninety years ago, before the darkness descended. Naturally their conclusions are mostly wrong. Archaeologists are usually wrong in their first attempts at reconstructing an ancient civilization. But they are making those first attempts. They deserve praise and encouragement. This is how science works: by proposing a hypothesis, working it up into a theory, and then finding that the facts don’t fit and the theory is rubbish. We call that progress. Our videomakers have completed the first two steps, and Dr. Boli has kindly filled in the third for them. Now they can get back to work on a new and better hypothesis.


General Order No. 3

On this day in 1865, General Order No. 3 was proclaimed in Texas, informing the population that “all slaves are free.” Thus on this one day of the year we have one piece of good news to balance the hundreds of battles, massacres, earthquakes, murders, assassinations, executions, and crimes we might otherwise commemorate on this date.


My father built this brewery with his own hands. That is to say, he hired a bunch of non-union Slovenians to do it, but it was his idea all the way. And then he started brewing Canabeer from his own secret recipe. He himself came up with our famous slogan, “The Taste of Pure Adequacy.”

All the time he was alive, my father kept his recipe a closely guarded secret. He wouldn’t even tell it to me, his own son. “The time will come,” he would always say. “Now run along and do your homework.” He kept saying that till I was 54.

But finally the sad time came when my father knew he didn’t have long to live. On that memorable day, he called me to his bedside and told me, “Son, my time has come at last, and I’m leaving the brewery in your hands. You’re going to have to be the guardian of our sacred brewing tradition. So get a piece of paper and a pen, because I’m going to tell you the secret recipe. No, that’s a thermometer. I said a pen, you moron. Got it? Okay. Here it goes. There are only three ingredients. It’s barley, hops, and wa——”

And then he died.

What could I do? I had two of the secret ingredients, but they were useless without the third. So I found the top brewing experts in the world, and we set to work to find that missing ingredient. Was it barley, hops, and watermelon? That tasted a little odd, and the seeds were offputting. Barley, hops, and wasabi? The survivors considered that experiment a failure. Barley, hops, and wart of toad? I’ve been trying to forget that one for years. Barley, hops, and walrus? That one wasn’t very successful either, and who knew those animal-rights people cared that much about walrusseses?

And then, one day, purely by accident, we hit on the third secret ingredient. Man, were we slapping our foreheads! It was so simple! I won’t tell you what it was, because it’s still a secret. But it goes into every last can of Canabeer, the purely adequate macrobrewed beverage with only three ingredients, the last one of which is a secret.