This newsletter is an unnatural byproduct of the hours I’ve wiled away in the Library of Congress’s online archives searching for potential lecture slides—what amounts to productive procrastination in my job as a history instructor. I have always prided myself on finding interesting slides for my students, providing something for them to look at besides the particular plaid shirt I’m wearing that day. In recent years, this has evolved into a commitment to find stupid slides—or, to be more specific, stupid photos of important historical figures.
Much of the job of teaching history involves challenging myths or assumptions. Often, this involves challenging cherished narratives of the past. But, of course, the images that we choose to project on the screens behind us can be just as layered with myth and assumption as anything. And I think that one of the under-examined assumptions that can be easily and accidentally baked into the imagery used in a history course or textbook is that the people that we’re discussing are Historical Figures, rather than human beings, and consequently that The Past and History are hermetically sealed off from the present, rather than being—as James Baldwin put it—“literally present in all that we do.”
What I mean here is that it is easy to throw into the Powerpoint images of historical figures that were designed to convey seriousness and dignity—in no small part because that is what’s been most easily accessible—and so to suggest a past that is serious and dignified and, ultimately, distinct from our messy, stupid present. If you’re looking for a high-resolution image of a president, for example, it’s going to be easiest to find their presidential portraits—images designed to convey the seriousness and dignity of the presidency and replicated thousands of times over by institutions themselves invested in conveying their own seriousness and dignity:
So dignified, that Herbert Hoover. So historical. Now, even if I’m taking pot-shots at Hoov during my lecture on the Great Depression, no student could avoid feeling that, for all of his foibles, Mr. Hoover was a Very Serious and Important Historical Person that was very much there and doing things in The Past, when Things of Import happened. I mean, look at him!
And so it’s partly for this reason—and largely for my own entertainment—that I began deliberately seeking the stupid, the unflattering, the weird. And I found it, much of it in the wondrous online holdings of the Library of Congress. I love it there. Just look at this!
I put together Stupid History to share with you the stupid photos I’ve found. Not willing to leave it there, I’ll also be offering my best insights as a real-life professional historian with access to Google into whatever stupid thing happens to be going on in them. Already interested?
And so this brings me back to Herbert Hoover. The diligent Hoover-searcher finds rich reward in the holdings of the LOC. Namely, multiple photos of Hoover with bizarrely large foods. I present to you “Herbert Hoover cutting large melon, with group”:
So, what the hell is going on here?
The LOC’s records are light on specifics. All we know is that this is, indeed, a “large melon,” and that the men standing behind Hoover are a “group.” Oh, and it’s from 1928. An AP news blurb from September 15 fills in some of the gaps. It describes the group as made up of “prominent former service men,” and the melon as a 130-pound watermelon gifted from “a Texas admirer” of the Republican nominee for president. Delightfully and deliciously stupid.
Only adding to the flavor—like a hint of salt on gift Texas melon—is that the above cucumis melo was not even the largest political melon sliced in the District of Columbia that week. Within days, the Women’s National Democratic Club had mobilized its own giant campaign melon at the opening of its new D.C. headquarters. The Democratic melon was reportedly 150 pounds—to be sliced by Mrs. A.G. McClintock, “who recently renounced her withdrawal from the Republican ranks.”
Even stupider than the melon photo is this 1927 gem:
Hoover owed his political career in no small part to convincing Americans not to eat certain foods in his capacity as head of the Food Administration during World War I. In 1918, Life magazine had even printed an unforeseeably-relevant and poorly-rhythmed riff on Little Jack Horner: “Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating a Hoover pie, He stuck in his thumb to pull out a plum, But he was a disappointed guy.” If Little Jack Horner had only waited a decade…
While Hoover’s legacy would come to be defined by the Great Depression, at the time of the 1927 photo he was very much the All-American success story—an Iowa-born Quaker and talented engineer who had built a successful career in international mining before committing himself to public service. However, this did not prevent John Willy, editor of the Hotel Monthly, from issuing a resounding verdict on Hoover’s giant pie—it was un-American. “The deep-dish pie is an English institution; not an American,” Willy wrote, “The typical American pie is baked in a shallow dish with both top and bottom crust.” Hoover’s pie lacked the quintessentially-American upper crust. It was deep dish—very deep. “In reality this is a huge dish of baked prunes,” Willy inveighed. “There are in America some kinds of pie without top crust, as pumpkin, lemon cream, and the like. But the ideal pie, the hearty eating kind that is typically American, is baked in a shallow pan and has both top and bottom crusts…Ask any enthusiastic pie eater!”
Despite his giant un-American pie, Hoover easily won the presidency the following year. Of course, his time in office would not be defined by culinary frivolities, but rather by presiding over an astonishing economic collapse. Fitting, then, that by 1932 or 1933 (the LOC’s archivists are not certain as to which), with thousands of banks having failed, with unemployment nearing 25%, and with industry grinding to a halt, Hoover’s next pie photo-op was decidedly more modest.
The LOC has titled this one “Herbert Hoover and woman with large pie outside White House.”
Sad, what was passing for a “large” pie in 1932.
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