How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Immigrants Have Made Traditionalists Uneasy, But Controversy Will Soon Pass

A Roy Lichtenstein screen-print, I Love Liberty, 1982, sold for $27,500 at an October 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Immigration is back in the news and it’s easy to forget this is not the first time. Out of the enormous industrial growth in the middle of the 19th century came an almost insatiable appetite for unskilled labor. The result was a tremendous wave of immigration, landing 26 million here between 1870 and 1920. They came from all over the world.

However, this was a new kind of immigrant, fashioned for an industrial society, and it made traditionalists uneasy, just as Thomas Jefferson had once been uncertain about the mixing of the American population. Prominent economists voiced concerns about people wholly incompetent as pioneers mixing with independent proprietors and threatening the democratic theories of the founders.

In 1870, over half of Americans toiled on the farm (close to Jefferson’s vision of yeoman farmers) and yet in the first decade of the 20th century, two-thirds of workers were in factories – semi-intelligent work described by Henry Ford as a job “the most stupid man could learn in two days.” The old immigrants of home-seekers had become new immigrants of job-seekers. A nativist movement was inspired to protect America for people of Anglo-Saxon stock.

This was not the first expression of this sentiment. In the 1850s, a secret society in New York City, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, morphed into the Know-Nothing Party, which inveighed against the arrival of Irish and German Catholics and with them “popish alliances.” Although the Know-Nothings disappeared after 1860, the tendency toward defining Americans according to ethnicity came roaring back after the Civil War.

Today, we hold up the Statue of Liberty as our beacon to the world, but it was originally intended to be a symbolic gift from sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi over admiration for American liberties, not a statement about immigration. It was only after Emma Lazarus’ give-me-your-tired sonnet was added to the statue 17 years later that the image of America as an asylum for the oppressed and poor of the world would emerge.

And even this was followed by the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which allowed the government to prosecute pacifists, socialists and left-wing organizations, all of which had sizable immigrant followers. Then the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 imposed strict quotas to preserve America as an Anglo-Saxon nation. For the next 40 years, immigration slowed to a trickle and in the 1930s there were years when more people left America than came to live here.

It is a complicated story, but we have thrived as a nation due to the many, many contributions of immigrants. I predict this controversy too shall pass … as it has every time in the past.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Military Officers Swooped In and Saved Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford, left, often took trips with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. This photograph, circa 1924, signed by Ford, sold for $1,195 at a June 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1968, General Curtis LeMay was the vice presidential running mate with American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. This unlikely duo snagged 46 electoral votes and five states with almost 10 million popular votes. This was the last time a third-party candidate won a state.

During World War II, LeMay had implemented a controversial bombing campaign in the Pacific. It was during this time that future Ford Motor Company President Robert McNamara was busy analyzing U.S. bomber efficiency and effectiveness, especially the B-29 command of General LeMay, as part of a team headed by Colonel Tex Thornton.

LeMay and McNamara would cross paths again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the war in Vietnam.

During the late war years of the 1940s, the Ford Motor Company was struggling to remain viable. President Edsel Ford, son of founder Henry, died of stomach cancer in 1943 and the board made the mistake of bringing back an ailing Henry Ford in an act of desperation. The company was losing $9-10 million a month and the Roosevelt administration had considered nationalization to keep vital war materials flowing.

In 1945, Edsel’s son Henry Ford II was discharged from the Navy and the board quickly named him president of Ford. However, the company he inherited was still a shell of a corporation badly in need of modernizing its production, establishing financial controls and building an organization.

In a stroke of genius, Tex Thornton decided to market his staff of nine wartime officers to corporations that were reconverting from military to civil production. After all, his colleagues were part of a management science operation within the Army Air Force and, without a doubt, were the most talented managerial team of the century … young men who had gained 25 years of experience in just four years.

Thornton sent a cable to young (28) Henry Ford II and after an impressive interview, Ford hired the group with salaries ranging from $10,000 to $16,000. Bob McNamara was the second-highest paid and he took over finance at Ford. This is the group that became the famous “Whiz Kids” (although internally they were called “Quiz Kids” since they were always asking “Why?”). The Ford Motor Company would never be the same, fortunately, and slowly started catching up with rival General Motors.

One amusing anecdote involves The Edsel Show, a live one-hour television special designed to promote Ford’s cars. It aired on Oct. 13, 1957, and featured Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. The show drew great reviews.

Clooney received one of the new Edsels as a gift and after the show, she and Henry Ford were walking together when she went over to get in. The door handle came off in her hand, so she turned and said, “Henry, about your car…”

Quality control was still en route to Dearborn, Mich., but arrived after the Edsel’s funeral.

More about Robert Strange McNamara, who became Secretary of Defense in 1961, in future posts.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Don’t Curse Traffic; Autos Helped Create Our Thriving Consumer-Based Economy

By 1929, more than half of all American families had a car. This 1929 Ford Model A realized $42,500 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Automobiles have been around for a long time. Henry Ford built his first one in 1893 and his first Model T was completed in 1908. In 1920, there were already 8 million horseless carriages sputtering and rattling around the poorly charted “roads” of the American countryside, most of them Tin Lizzies purchased for the remarkably low price of $300.

But in the succeeding years of that decade, the mass rush to the automobile began to have its impact. By 1929, more than half of all American families had a car; by 1930, there were more cars on the streets of New York City than on the entire European continent.

The change was sudden and dramatic. The automobile was the first significant improvement in self-guided travel since the bicycle was introduced in Scotland in 1839 and had caused a similarly dramatic effect on the 19th century.

The burgeoning automobile age established a new sense of freedom and individuality; people no longer had to make their plans according to train schedules and they traveled by themselves instead of with hundreds of strangers. At the same time, it also established a new, wider sense of community. Small towns that existed miles from anywhere else were now connected to each other by roads, giving large groups of people access to first-rate medical care, higher quality education, and whatever else lay “down the road.”

Thanks to the car, thousands of suburban communities flourished, providing people with the luxury of homes surrounded by real grass, despite having to commute longer distances to their jobs in the city. This even led to tourism helping blend discrete regions and meld society together. Spurred on by demanding auto owners, building roads became a prime activity of government, second only to education.

And with each mile of road came something new.

The first motel in 1925 in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The first set of red lights in NYC (1922). The first shopping center in Kansas City in 1922. The first national road atlas (Rand McNally, 1924). The first public parking garage in 1929 in Detroit.

One out of eight people who owned cars actually worked in the industry, building them or producing the required tires, oil and steel. It led to the eight-hour workday, the five-day workweek and safer working conditions. It even changed how people thought about money and credit. Buying a car was a real debt and by the end of the 1920s, more than 60 percent of all sewing machines, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators were bought on purchase plans, and one-third of all furniture, including radios!

A consumer-based economy would be a powerful force and today represents 70 percent of our total economic output.

So the next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam or cursing about too many potholes, consider the alternative and the rich history that is included.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Chevrolet Brothers Never Benefited from Company’s Enduring Success

Original ad illustrations, like this piece for Chevrolet titled “Car Passing a Buggy,” 1925, by Lawrence L. Wilbur, are popular with collectors.

By Jim O’Neal

One of the most recognizable emblems is owned by Chevrolet. It was quickly called the “bowtie” for its unique design, but the origin of the company, its name and invaluable trademark is a complicated story not well known.

The Chevrolet family had their beginning in Switzerland, where the father was a watchmaker. This is where the highly accomplished mechanic, designer and racing driver, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, was born on Christmas Day 1878. In 1887, the family moved to France, where Louis’ brothers Gaston and Arthur were born.

Chevrolet first used its “bowtie” emblem in 1913.

The brothers became obsessed with bicycle racing, a first-tier sport in France. One story is that American playboy-sportsman Willie Vanderbilt encouraged them to move to America where their skills would be more appreciated ($$). Louis went first and was soon followed by Gaston and Arthur, who joined Louis to work on French cars, fixing flats and eventually becoming factory racecar drivers for Buick.

Enter William C. Durant, who was busy buying car companies to add to the General Motors portfolio. According to one biography, he had an agreement to buy Ford, but only if Henry kept the rights for motorized farm equipment (Henry was spooked by a patent suit claiming invention of the automobile). Fortunately for Ford, the banks would not provide financing – “The industry is too risky” – and he went on to become a giant in the car industry instead of farm equipment.

After a financial panic in 1910, the GM board ousted Durant, at least for a while.

So Durant convinced Louis Chevrolet to found a new car company, the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, but they parted ways when Durant added a cheaper version that Louis thought was demeaning. Louis proceeded to sell his stock and, in an all-time blunder, left his name with the company and decided to focus on racing again.

He managed to finish 7th in the 1919 Indy 500, but it was Gaston who turned out to be a phenomenally good race driver. When Gaston finished first in 1920, he became the first driver in the history of the race to go the full distance without making a tire change. However, his fame was short-lived. Six months later, at age 28, in November 1920, he died in a fiery crash with Eddie O’Donnell at the Beverly Hills speedway in a race for the “Speed King of the Year.”

Gaston’s death resulted in the brothers leaving racing, although Louis continued to design engines for Ford. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum features a memorial dedicated to the many accomplishments of Louis-Joseph Chevrolet. Fittingly, he was inducted into all four major automotive Hall of Fames.

Durant eventually used his stock in Chevrolet to buy General Motors again and the Chevrolet brand is still alive, although none of the Chevrolets benefited from its long enduring success.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].