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Dynamite, Manhattan, 1939
David Gelernter
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In the summer of 1939, Life magazine ran a "Portrait of America": a cheerful, stylized map in red and gray, spread across two pages. As we contemplate late-thirties America, it comes to resemble our own country less and less. The differences that count most are not the ones we notice first. They are not the ones on which most history books dwell. Those obvious differences are real and worth knowing about, but there is more to this story. 

Let's flip briefly to the "Portrait." We see the 48 states festooned with cities and factories, roadways and farms, and forests and fields. The country depicted is obviously not ours. It's easy to make out New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but there is no city of any size in Texas or anywhere else in the South. Smoke-belching factories are rendered exuberantly. Long-distance passenger trains ply the heartlands; ocean liners converge on New York City; New England is represented by a textile mill, a church, a farm, and a lighthouse.

Other differences are more subtle but right there for the reading. The city of Washington, rendered iconically as a slice of the Capitol building, is dwarfed by Detroit. Hollywood is a high-kicking chorus line, plus spotlights, camera, and director's chair. The movie business was important but not to be taken too seriously; the idea of a screen actress trailing issues advisors and making political pronouncements would have seemed absurd. The totem poles in the Northwest, "darkies" in the cotton fields, and cowboys whooping it up on the range all hint at 1939's patronizing, anthropologizing interest in what we would call "diversity."

Our workforce is integrated to a degree that 1939 could barely have imagined. We have made huge gains in putting the talents of our population to use. On the other hand, progressive 1939 opinion would have found our idea of cultural diversity, especially in up-to-date university style—the proposition that there is a black culture that should be taught and studied by blacks, a woman's culture to be taught and studied by women—at least reactionary and more likely demented.

All these differences come clear to varying degrees in the map. They are real differences, but ultimately they are not the point. We are separated from the world of 1939 by a phenomenon far deeper than any of these.

Question: What is wrong with this picture? It appeared in a 1939 survey of New York City—a construction site with pedestrians walking past in front, leafy trees and apartment buildings to the rear. Painted on a fence around part of the work site are the words DYNAMITE STORED HERE—DANGER EXPLOSIVES DANGER. It is a tall, solid board fence. But there is no barbed wire, no policeman. "Women and children trip by fenced-off magazine of high explosives, " the caption reads. What on earth made 1939ers believe—correctly, it seems—that they could trust their fellow citizens to the extent of leaving an unprotected cache of dynamite in the heart of New York City? 

Here is one aspect of the answer to this question and the deeper one about 1939's fundamental differences from today. Nineteen thirty-nine lived in an " ought" culture. We inhabit more of a "want" culture, a desire-not-obligation culture. One of the most obvious and important consequences of the slow death between 1939 and today of American civic religion—the coherent, deeply held set of shared beliefs and ideas that bound Americans into one community—is the sweeping aside of its oughts.

The ought culture made itself felt in many ways. For example: 1939's daily experience was assembled to a far greater extent than ours out of countless small rituals—pieces of formulaic behavior that you enacted not because you feel like it, necessarily, but because it was expected of you. Because it is the proper thing, and you ought to do it. 

A middle-class dinner or even breakfast of the 1930s might involve an entire family seated at table with the males in ties and the maid scurrying about. The ritual of each child's planting a breakfast kiss on seated mamma's cheek was sufficiently well known to have been included in movie scenes not evidently intended to be farcical. Hats have rules: a gentleman of course removes his when speaking to a lady on the street, removes it when a lady enters an elevator (unless the elevator is inside an office building or a store); replaces it when he steps off into the corridor. He lifts his hat as a gesture of politeness to strangers and lifts it more emphatically when he performs an outdoor informal (versus an indoor ceremonial) bow. 

Nineteen thirty-nine's polite conversation is scripted and therefore ritualized to a much greater extent than ours is. "Under all possible circumstances, the reply to an introduction is 'How do you do?'" ("The taboo of taboos is 'Pleased to meet you.'") When the need arises, one says "I beg your pardon"—never, ever, "Pardon me," which is a barbarism. It goes without saying that first names are to be used only under the proper, restricted circumstances (never among strangers), and that "sir," "madam," or "miss" is an appropriate form of address. 

The rituals governing a gentleman's behavior toward ladies are the best developed of all. A gentleman in a private home stands as long as any lady is on her feet. A gentleman is always introduced or presented to a lady, never the other way round, even if "he is an old gentleman of great distinction and the lady a mere slip of a girl." 

I do not want to convey the impression that my principal source for these intelligences, Emily Post's 1937 Etiquette, is a prissy book. Not at all. It is breezy, amusing, and wry (wry being a favorite thirties flavor). Nonetheless, rules are rules.

All this etiquette hardly made late-thirties New York a flawlessly civilized place. During his thirties building campaign, Robert Moses installed playgrounds around the edges of Central Park. At first they were charming, with the standard swings and slides, but also sandboxes, crawling tunnels, and striped, turreted "guardhouses." They were fenced only with hedges. But dogs spoiled the sandboxes, drunks slept in the tunnels, perverts spied from the guardhouses, and in the end the playgrounds lost all their special toys and were barricaded with lockable chain-link fences. It is a story worth remembering when nostalgia threatens to get out of hand. In preparation for the World’s Fair and the mass of tourists it would draw, New York City’s police, cabdrivers, and subway workers got special courses in politeness—suggesting that proper behavior was valued but hardly to be taken for granted.

Manners didn't matter only to the rich, though. Visiting New York from London in 1938, Cecil Beaton notes that "the general rules of behavior are rigidly adhered to, and Mrs. Post's book on etiquette is as strictly interpreted in Gotham as the Koran in Mecca. Competitions are held whereat children from all parts of New York vie with each other to become the politest child in Manhattan, and demonstrate their courtesy before judges." On one occasion, the winner was a 13-year-old girl from the Lower East Side.

Courtesy wasn't only decorative, either. It was a terse and pregnant form of communication. A small gesture might speak volumes. At a Lower East Side relief station, Mayor La Guardia dropped in unannounced. He was enraged by the lackadaisical bureaucrats he found. A supervisor wandered over to see what the fuss was, and mistook the visitor for another out-of-work troublemaker. The mayor knocked the hat off his head: "Take off your hat when you speak to a citizen." After supervising an on-the-spot reorganization, the mayor stomped off; on his way out, he pointed to the man with the knocked-off hat, declaring: “There’s another S. of a B. who has no job.”

Many of the official rules would have been of utterly no concern to the typical member of an industrial union (let's say). But the general concepts would indeed have been, from hat (or cap) management through a certain sort of courtesy—now largely though not wholly obsolete—to ladies and older people. Once again the movies are helpful. When Charlie Chaplin's factory worker in Modern Times (1936) leaps to his feet in a paddy wagon to offer his place to Paulette Goddard, when Danny Kaye's milkman in The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) pops off the sofa like a jack-in-the-box when he notices that Eve Arden is standing, they aim to seem innocent and lovable and even childlike, but not ridiculous. A factory worker or milkman with impeccable manners—a working-class gentleman—is a premise that this era was willing to live with. Even a low-life gambler like Fred Astaire's companion Victor Moore in Swing Time (1936) can't help himself: he rises from his seat at a nightclub, admittedly for only the merest fraction of a second, when Ginger Rogers joins the party. 

A. J. Liebling visited a block in Harlem. Birthrates in this "greatest Negro metropolis of the world" (as a newsreel calls it) are among the city's lowest, but the census lists this particular block as the most densely populated in the country. In some cases, half a dozen married couples share a single apartment and its one bathroom. And yet, says Liebling, "people maintain the forms of politeness." Standards are high. 

At Robert Moses's wildly popular Jones Beach State Park, uniformed staff lower the flag to the strains of the National Anthem every evening, while " every bather, picnicker, stroller, game player, and onlooker within hearing," according to American Home magazine, "stands at attention facing toward the flag as it slowly descends into the arms of the color guard." No monopoly of the upper class, manners affected the character of everyday life everywhere.

The ought culture expressed itself also in clothing, which was more complicated and rule-bound than it is today. Ladies wear hats and gloves (and girdles). Men still wear detachable starched collars, though attached soft ones are becoming more acceptable. They wear hats, of course, waistcoats (not "vests"—standing with your fingers in the armholes is a standard part of the gesture vocabulary, conveying that you are down-home and folksy), and a broad spectrum of formal clothing. There are tails and white tie ("your stick should be of plain malacca . . ."), worn to formal events in the evening. Spats are still part of this outfit, although admittedly they are on the way out. For restaurants, informal dinners, informal parties, and the theater there is the dinner coat. ("Tuxedo" is a nickname that stylish people do not use.) You wear a cutaway and striped trousers to church (but only in the city) and to formal or ceremonial daytime events. And then there are variants like the frock coat, black sack coat, double-breasted dinner coat (the waistcoat may be omitted), white dinner coat, and silk house suit, each with its own special rules and occasions.

Virtually everyone in 1930s society is familiar with the different styles of formal dress. After all, the plot of Swing Time, the greatest of all Rogers-and-Astaire movies, hinges on the distinction between a cutaway and a dinner coat. Astaire would appear to the untrained eye to be dressed to the nines when he sweeps Ginger off her feet in the film's first dance scene. He is wearing spats, a waistcoat, and an outer coat that executes a deep tails- like swoop in the rear. But, of course, it is only a cutaway. He is sent off to fetch "dinner clothing" in preparation for a dance contest and gets in deep trouble with Ginger when he can't come up with a tuxedo. The rules of the ought culture are recognizable at once to any 1930s moviegoer.

Naturally, for a certain segment of the population, getting all dolled up in fancy, formal clothing would have been a pleasure and not a duty. But that segment can’t have been too awfully large or we would never have abandoned the practice. We are more apt to shed duties than pleasures. And white tie, according to the 1992 Emily Post, “is almost never required today.” Why bother? “For maybe ten years I have been devoted to the soft collar or sport model, the polo shirt, and other informal modes in collarings,” Robert Benchley writes in 1927. “They have not been particularly adapted to playing up my good points in personal appearance, but they are easy to slip into in the morning.” For Benchley and many others, formal styles were a pain. When you wore them, you wore them because you ought.

Once again, the formal range of the spectrum is of practical significance only to the upper and middle classes. Out at the World's Fair, on the other hand, almost every man on the grounds wears a tie. Nearly every woman wears a dress or a skirt. In 1940, as the New York Times reported, the World's Fair Corporation concocted a character to exemplify the "jolly, average, everyday American" in a nationwide advertising campaign. The idea was to boost attendance by making the fair's image homier. The character they settled on was a fiftyish man in a gray hat and suit, brown shoes, blue socks, white shirt, blue bow tie, and a small American flag in his lapel. The antithesis of top-hat clothing wasn't a sweat-shirt. It was a bow tie and a gray suit. In 1939, after all, just under two-thirds of the population hold it to be indecent for a woman to appear on the street in shorts. A third hold that "topless bathing suits"—on men, of course—are indecent.

Etiquette is perennially attacked as an upper-class toy, not merely irrelevant to the rest of society but actively bad. During the class- and ideology-infatuated 1930s, it was bound to be vulnerable, particularly in Europe. ("Take off that collar and tie," a Frenchman tells George Orwell en route to Loyalist Spain during the civil war. "They'll tear them off you in Barcelona.") But, at least in the United States, etiquette was as likely to equalize classes as separate them. If the bank president had any manners, he removed his hat when the security guard's wife stepped into the elevator. And if the ranking bureaucrat had any manners, he removed his hat when addressing the unemployed laborer.

Thirties America is a country in which service is rendered and expected. You could stop at a tailor's and wait behind a curtain while your suit was pressed. On a train you maintained an ongoing relationship with the porter: he carried your luggage but also served you in transit—making up your bed and waking you in the morning, alerting you to interesting views up ahead, brushing off your clothes. Filling-station attendants washed your windows and checked the "oil, water, and battery." Perhaps workers were simply more servile than they are today. But it is also possible that they were, rather, more obliging. Doctors were not servile, but they made house calls. In a 1941 survey of people who happened to have colds, a quarter had consulted a doctor, and fully a third of those consultations entailed house calls. The filling- station man waited attentively on the busy doctor, but the doctor wasn't above visiting the sick filling-station man. Doing as you ought was not the only virtue and does not, all by itself, explain all those house calls or train porters. But it offers one clue to the logic of a society that seems, in certain ways, to have functioned more humanely than ours. 

One last aspect of the ought society has to do with the power of those oughts to rally to your side if you were pressed against your wishes to do what society said you ought not to. 

Sex between unmarried people was not exactly a novelty in the 1930s. When the unmarried hero of a 1940 novel takes the unmarried heroine for a Sunday outing, the heroine's thoughtful summing-up of the day's romantic activities is, "I think I was a bit sex-starved." It is easy to pile up similar examples.  And yet there was obviously much less of it going around than there is today; as Philip Larkin declares in a famous poem (albeit an English, not American, one), “Sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three.” The ought culture made sex more momentous when it happened, and, for the girl who didn’t want to sleep with her boyfriend, the oughts stood ready to fly to her defense.

In late-thirties America, a contested divorce was hard to obtain almost everywhere. It had to be established that one spouse—not both, or the deal was off—was guilty of at least one official moral outrage, such as desertion, cruelty, or adultery. Yet an uncontested divorce was easy. You simply caught a train for Reno. (The divorce-bound, train-traveling narrator of a 1930s novel tries to decide how to answer her male fellow-passengers when they ask where she is going. "To say 'Reno' straight out would be vulgar; it would smack of confidences too cheaply given. . . . “) If you were willing to grant your unhappy husband or wife an uncontested divorce, fine, but if you chose not to—the oughts would rally to your side.

Contraceptives were widely available, in pharmacies, gas-station rest rooms, and the Sears, Roebuck catalog, among other places. But the distribution of information about contraceptives was closely regulated by law, and guidance was not always easy to come by. Yes, you can get contraceptives, but no (1930s society seems to reason), we are under no obligation to make the process easy for young, unmarried people. 

In the late thirties (as in many other periods), the practical possibilities were supposed to be tinted by oughts—in the sense that the tinting of a black-and-white photo can change the impression it makes without altering the bare facts. Certain colleges have been jeered for their silly attempts to impose official rules on the making of passes, to ensure that the woman is not taken advantage of. (As a logical next step, perhaps all attempted seductions should be refereed? And take place on regulation courts in the gym?) The proposed solution is absurd, yet the problem is not. Having spent decades methodically abolishing oughts because they constrain us, we are just noticing that we no longer have oughts to defend us, either.

Those oughts that covered big social issues like sex and divorce are important, but I myself am most interested in the little oughts that cropped up constantly in late-thirties daily life. I claim that the continual practice of proper behavior on an endless succession of trivial, meaningless occasions makes a person at least a bit more apt to act properly when the chips are down. I claim that all the little oughts late thirties society treasured are one cause of the huge divide in social character between that era and this. That tipping your hat, rising under the right circumstances (ladies rise too, for older ladies), not abusing first names, saying "How do you do?" when you are introduced—that all of this penny-ante stuff helps build a society in which dynamite can be cached unprotected in the middle of big cities. Obviously those little oughts cannot be the whole story, and obviously, too, we all know people who are slovenly of etiquette yet morally impeccable. Nonetheless, the ought culture as an integrated whole has a significance we tend to miss. 

How can I prove my claim? It's true that "family values" and civility and other desirable social properties thrived in the thirties ought culture, and that they are on the rocks today, but perhaps that is a coincidence and there is no causal relation. My claim is a mere unprovable guess. But here are two far-afield pieces of information that help make it plausible.

Teddy Roosevelt makes a fascinating claim in his autobiography: he says that courage can be acquired "by sheer dint of practicing fearlessness." We often think of courage as a quality you are born with. But in T.R.'s view (and it is a view that commands respect: he was a brave man), it is more of a skill, like wok cookery. In this particular case, proper behavior is held to require not merely thorough and correct instruction but dogged practice.

My other datum comes from Judaism. Traditional Judaism is the ought culture par excellence, full of rigorously detailed injunctions to be carried out scrupulously despite their lack of any inherent moral significance. Don't eat pork; do spend a week having your meals in a jerry-built hut outdoors. (The attempt to assign rational bases to the rules diminishes them: if you observe them because they are sensible, you cannot do so because they are sacred.) Proper behavior is held, again, to depend not only on knowledge but on constant practice. "Studying is not the essential thing, rather practice," according to a much-loved book of the Talmud. Acquiring the habit of doing as you ought is the main thing.

Across the political spectrum we hear nowadays about family values and civility. But civility in the lost, late-thirties sense was one effect of the ought culture: it didn't exist in a vacuum. People were motivated to observe the oughts not by the desire to be nice but to avoid making fools of themselves. It was entirely selfish. Human nature being what it is, the exhortation “If you do this, people will think you’re polite” is just not as effective as “If you do this, people won’t think you are a low-life boor.”

We have newly minted oughts of our own, of course. But we have destroyed more oughts than we have created, and today's oughts are mainly negative. Don't smoke; don't drink too much. (Thirties sophisticates were constantly getting tight, which for some reason did not count as acting like a low-life boor.) Don't flirt or say anything that might be construed as offensive by a theoretical construct representing the most sanctimonious, ignorant, and litigious member of any officially protected group. Because our own vestigial ought culture is built on a sort of second half of the Ten Commandments without the first, we aren't left with many occasions for doing what is proper as opposed to avoiding what is not. 

Today's approach to the whole issue is captured perfectly in a recent New York Times front-page story. "They sweat into their summer suits," a reporter writes of New Yorkers at business in the summer, "and walk inside unbending shoes, ignoring comfort and common sense because convention, and their employers, expect them to dress up at work." The fools. In our modern view, a series of 1939 tableaux on (let us say) a fine spring day—the gentleman buttoning his waistcoat and choosing a hat, the lady pulling on gloves, the day-laborer who tips his cap to a priest or removes it after stopping still when the flag happens to pass by, the businessman arriving home hot and tired who nonetheless presides over the family dinner with his tie still lashed to his neck—these are so many petty, pointless crimes against common sense.

If you were a 1930s man, woman, or child, Henry Ford or a resident of the tightest-packed block in Harlem, society's ought was an all-day, everyday hand on your shoulder. It checked your freedom and cramped your style. You would have been more comfortable without it. But in the end, like the man's stiff collar and tie or the woman's girdle, it was something you got used to; it was tolerable; it was even, maybe, not as bad as it looked. We rebel in our very souls nowadays against the idea that conventional behavior, dress, and manners could possibly matter. We abolished all those rules with the best of intentions. But there is no getting around the fact that in the 1930s, people simply got more practice in acting as they ought than we do. I can't say what all that dogged practice was worth when push came to shove. I do know that in 1939 you could leave a pile of dynamite unguarded in the middle of New York City.  

 

 


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