Marcus French Licks His Algebra Anxiety

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, January 9, 1927. Marcus as projectionist. He’s chosen a film of a boxing match to show.

Marcus is back, with more letters to his big sister Eleanor this week.  Most days were school days, not holidays, and buried in some of the bulletins from Amsterdam, New York (aka his “Pathe newsreels”), were hints that all was not well in algebra.

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A page of equations from an algebra text in use during the 1920s.

The first sign is in his letter of November 22, 1925, when he was eleven.  The pet stories always came before any other news.  His dog Jock had started raiding trashcans for food, while Dixie the cat disgraced himself by leaping on the dining room table at dinner to steal a piece of rabbit off a plate.  After an anecdote about the Sunday school teacher, Marcus announced, “I’m getting on in school pretty good here’s my marks.”  He received a gentleman’s C in English, writing, arithmetic, junior business training, printing, and textiles.   No absences, no tardies, but not exactly a stellar academic record that marking period  (the symbol scrawled down for his grades in spelling, history, science, and music is undecipherable and highly suspicious).

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor dated November 22, 1925.

Nothing much about algebra until January 9th, 1927.  It was a pretty good day, all things considered.  Dixie had been given a dose of catnip after he was caught eating the house plants.  “For an hour and a half,” reports Marcus delightedly, “he was an insane cat.”   catnip-banned-uk

Another hot tidbit was that Father had brought home three new films–two two-reelers “Castor Oil” and “Big Business” starring Our Gang and a one-reeler “Suds” featuring Stan Laurel, making Marcus the proud possessor of ten reels of film.

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Lobby card for the Little Rascals’ short “Big Business.”

Then he drops the bombshell: “Miss Bartley is giving me 3 extra hours every week in algebra.  No more news.”

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, January 9, 1927. Surely Miss Bartley did not actually whack him over the head to make him do his homework…

By the 30th of January, the increased homework was paying dividends.   After telling Eleanor that Dixie had discovered the catnip’s hiding place in the pantry and sat in front of the cupboard yowling until given a dose, Marcus crowed, “I passed another algebra test 85%.”

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, January 30, 1927.

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, March 13, 1927.

Things had really improved by midi-March.  There was a long account of Jock’s returning home covered in blood with a crushed paw (he had probably gotten run over again) before Marcus gleefully announced, “I passed an Algebra test!!” (That made three for the academic year.)

On the next page, he drew himself fainting when Miss Bartley handed back another exam marked 85% with the encouraging words, “Good work.”  What is going on in the paper he drew in the upper right hand corner???  It looks as if he got all five questions right…

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, March 13, 1927. He appears to be wearing sunglasses, which surely can’t be right, and knickerbockers.

We may never know the answer to that question, because the ice floes rushing down the creek behind the barn was a lot more interesting, when it came right down to it.

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Marcus French, letter to Eleanor, March 13, 1927. Marcus has drawn himself on an ice berg saying “Haw, haw, what fun.”

“Nothing Except A Battle Lost Can Be Half so Melancholy as a Battle Won:” Glimpses of Disabled Veterans

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James Gillray, “The Plumb Pudding in Danger” (1805). The British Prime Minister William Pitt the younger and Napoleon carve up the world, represented as an enormous plum pudding, between them.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the picture book came into its own in England, a period of extraordinary fertility in children’s book publishing dubbed “the dawn of levity” by F. J. Harvey Darton, even though it coincided with the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).   The protracted war with the French cast its shadow over English children’s books nevertheless, although detecting its   presence can be as subtle an exercise as in Jane Austen’s novels.

Of course there were overtly militaristic children’s books such as the school book New Geographical Grammar (1811), in which its author John Evans described preparations supposedly being made in French port towns for the invasion of England. Stirring accounts of martial valor designed to instill the seeds of patriotism and to inspire the desire for military service could be found in The Naval Heroes of Great Britain: or, Accounts of the Lives and Actions of the Distinguished Admirals and Commanders who have Contributed to Confer on Great Britain the Empire of the Ocean (1806).

But there are other books published then which bear out the truth of the Duke of Wellington’s sorrowful observation that the only thing as sad as a battle lost is a battle won.  I can’t remember when I began to notice pictures of disabled veterans  in Regency children’s books, but I only started to jot down all the references.  They drive home the realization that the sight of an old soldier with a cork or wooden leg must have been in England must have been a common one after Waterloo.  Only  an high-born officer like Henry Paget, second earl of Uxbridge could afford a sophisticated prosthetic device to replace a limb shattered on the battlefield.

Some disabled veterans scraped together a living performing on the streets of London.   Billy Waters, an American-born freed slave, who fought in the British forces during the American War of Independence, became something of a local celebrity.  This is one of three pictures of Billy Waters I have found in Cotsen–the other two are in The Cries of London Drawn from Life (1823) and a book of London cries lacking a title page published ca.1821 by J. Bysh.

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Hodgson’s The Cries of London (London: Hodgson & Co., ca. 1824).

Pictures of amputees may be more common in children’s books issued by the Quaker firm of the Dartons and they may be an indication of  pacifist tendencies.  This one from My Real Friend is unusual for showing quite graphically the daily accidental humiliations to which an amputee had to endure.  The passage the picture accompanies follows.

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The title vignette for My Real Friend: or Incidents in Life, Founded on Truth. 2nd ed. corrected (London: W. Darton, 1812). The old soldier’s peg leg has gotten caught in the style.

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Perhaps the most unusual sighting of a disabled veteran I’ve found so far is the frontispiece by R. Stennett for Parlour Amusements; or A New Book of Games and Forfeits (ca. 1820).  It shows a group of children playing the game of “Old Soldier” which is described inside.   One person is supposed to impersonate the impoverished veteran and notice how the boy has improvised a wooden leg from a pair of bellows.   The verse rules are followed with a model dialog between jmaginary players to show how the process of questions and answers ought to play out.  4907frontis

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The game of “Old Soldier,” which also goes by the name of “Here Comes an Old Soldier from Botany Bay,” was played for almost a century in the English-speaking world.  Halliwell-Phillipps included it in Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (1849) under the title “The Poor Soldier.”   The second edition of Cassell’s Book of In-door Amusements, Card Games, and Fireside Fun described it as old in 1882, but didn’t speculate as to its probable age.  The 1901 volume of the Pennsylvania School Journal recommended “The Game of the Poor, Old Soldier” as an amusing one for small children in 1901, as did Grace Lee Davidson’s 1916 Games and Parties for Children.

This appearance in Parlour Amusements seems to be the earliest recorded and perhaps it is a relic of the Napoleonic Wars. The larger question is to consider what exactly such a game tells us about attitudes towards the disabled veteran during the nineteenth century. Here he seems to be treated simply as a character type that offers a good opportunity for dress up, rather than as a brave soul whose broken body  deserves respect as a symbol of patriotic service to his country.   Whatever its  meaning, the frontispiece of Parlour Amusements, along with the other illustrations shown here, offers a surprising glimpse into the impact of war on civilians.