Friday, December 5, 2008

Business Bards: The Serial Shillers

"Poetry & Popular Culture" continues to showcase the small-business poets of yesteryear—such as Dr. C.B. Weagley Veterinary Surgeon and C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium—who hawked their services, wares, and varying levels of expertise via poetry. Relying on their bardness to take care of their bidness, these inglorious Miltons participated in the project of America's free enterprise if not the freeing of its verse.

Today's first card (pictured here) comes to us from The Palace Saloon and Restaurant of 16 Public Square, Hagerstown, MD. Perhaps printed up around the turn of the century to advertise a change of ownership (the card notes "Formerly Bruce's" and lists David A. Wilson as the new man in charge), the pocket-sized ad also goes out of its way to appeal to the finer sex by noting the saloon includes a "Private Dining Room For Ladies."

Turn the card over, however, and the guise of family respect- ability disappears with "The Woodpecker," a bit of verse that hearkens back to the days of bawdy street ballads to not only pitch The Saloon but to inform local elbow-benders that they would find "Theo R. Helb's Celebrated Lager always on draught." If the front of the card secures a space for the ladies, then this Number 3 in a series of bawdy rhymes one could collect is used to announce The Saloon as the #1 choice for the guy's night out. Here's "The Woodpecker" in its entirety:

A wood-pecker flew in a School-house yard,
And pecked and pecked till his pecker got hard,
So he lit on the sill, just about the door,
And he pecked and pecked till his pecker got sore,
And when he looked at his pecker his countenance fell.
For no more could he peck till his pecker got well,
And now when he thinks of the School-house yard,
His head gets red and his pecker gets hard.

Admittedly, "The Wood- pecker" appeals to my adolescent sense of humor, but it also interests me because both poetry and popular poetry have long been gendered as spaces for female literacy and female supervision. Women were often charged with taking care of education, were responsible for selecting family reading matter (even though pops might have then taken it upon himself to read it aloud), and engaged in the practice of poetry scrapbooking more often than men did. Ezra Pound no doubt had a hand in the characterization of poetry as female when he derided popular and nineteenth-century verse alike as the kind of "emotional slither" that "Aunt Hepsy liked." A poem like "The Woodpecker," however, suggests a parallel tradition of guy poetry as well—less your angel in the household and more your lug in the pub.

"The Woodpecker" is made even more suggestive for me when I compare it to the second business card featured in this posting, pictured to the left, which advertised the Schenk Publishing Company of Keokuk Iowa, just down the road from where I write. Far from appealing to the street tradition of ballad slinging and bawdy broadsides, much less to a shot or two of rye, F.J. Schenk ties the fortunes of his business to the turn-of-the- century temperance movement that would eventually result in U.S. prohibition. Like all the social movements of Progressive-Era America—women's suffrage, the cleanliness movement, Muscular Christianity, etc.—the temperance cause inspired and was accompanied by lots of poetry like "The Booze Fighter Poem" on Schenk's card.

Like the ad for The Palace, "The Booze Fighter" is part of a series of cards that potential customers could collect, except that Schenk's card doesn't offer a poem in its entirety but just the last two stanzas which are introduced as the "Continuation and End" of the poem. Readers hoping to obtain access to the complete narrative would have had to keep a special eye peeled for more of The Hawkeye Poet's work and even swap with friends to assemble a complete set. Unfortunately, I can't give you the start of the poem—if you find it, please send it in!—but "The Booze Fighter Poem" concludes:

Then he had the tremens,
And he tackled the rats and snakes,
First he had the fever,
Then he had the shakes;
At last he had a funeral,
And the mourners had the blues;
And the epitaph carved for him was—
He blamed it on the weather,
But he never blamed the booze.

An odd couple of business bards, Wilson and Schenk not only attest to the regular presence of poetry in the turn-of-the-century's business world but to the diversity of causes that that poetry served. Whether you were pouring a tall one or hoping to ban it, poetry would have been a go-to genre, not just for Aunt Hepsy, but for the entire—and extended—family.


Unknown said...

These are great. Who are the primary collectors of these? Antiquers? History of the Book people? I imagine the "poetry and popular culture blogger" community alone may not be enough to sustain the industry. :)

One note: I think there's a minor error in the transcription. The first line of the last stanza of "Booze Fighter" should read "Then he had the tremens,". Jokes about alcoholics always seem to come back to the DTs - delirium tremens.

Enjoyed the previous "commercial poetry" entries as well.

javier said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for leaving a comment over on my blog. I thought I would respond in kind by leaving a comment on your blog. Poetry & Culture looks great; I'm going to have to go back and read some of the earlier posts. Thanks for the invitation to write a guest post. Maybe after the end of the semester (the final papers, the exams, the grading, all that good stuff) we can talk more.