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December 8, 2003

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  Of Radio Cars, Elevator Operators and Other Things That Were

Last editorial I asked whether a "pulp" story needs to be set in the Pulp era to work.  One of the reasons I like reading vintage Pulp era stories is because of the little details which crop up from time to time which betray the passage of time.

All in all, society has changed surprisingly little in the last seventy-some years.  It is partly for this reason a modern reader has little trouble understanding and enjoying stories which originally saw print long before he/she was born.  In fact, in the early seventies, a publishing house which reprinted the Spider novels determined in its "wisdom" that readers would prefer those stories rewritten and brought up-to-date.  And yet, even so, the changes were almost unnoticable, unless you looked very hard.  The Spider no longer wore his trademark slouch hat and cape; his Sikh manservant, Ram Singh, no longer called him "master"; a pre-War aircraft became a modern 747.  But, other than these slight emendations, everything else was pretty much business as usual.  Of course, that was thirty years ago, but I don't think it would be much different today. Times haven't changed nearly so much as we might think.

That is why, when I do run across something unusual, some aspect of society which has changed, I file it away in my little grey cells.  And then, maybe someday, I will find some use for all those little filed away when I can't think of anything else to write about in my editorials.  Say, wait a minute...

Obviously, one thing which has changed since the Pulp era is clothes.  Although, even here, the changes aren't all that great.  Any time someone wants to set a modern adventure story in the Pulp era, what article of clothing do they think of first?  The ever familiar jodhpurs, of course.  This would be followed by the ever popular spats.  Although, to be honest, I'm not sure how often I have actually seen either jodhpurs or spats refered to in real vintage pulp stories.  They seem more to be something which has come to represent that era only long after the fact.

Readers of the Doc Savage novels will be familiar with the fact that, once upon a time, elevators required elevator operators to work the controls.  Frequently in the Doc Savage stories, a (usually youthful)  elevator operator would play a small but significant part, sometimes just adding some interesting atmosphere or, in some cases, having been replaced by one of the villains in disguise!  If, as occasionally happened, our heroes were forced to operator the elevator controls on their own, a big to-do was made about the procedure, as if they were taking over the controls of a space shuttle.  Hard to imagine in this modern age where any idiot knows how to operate an elevator (jab the button once to summon the car -- jab repeatedly to make it come faster).

An interesting detail I ran across in a Spider novel was a reference to police cars.  Today, of course, we commonly identify a police car either by its black and white colouring, or by the flashing red light on top -- this in spite of the fact that, in the real world, many police cars are not actually black and white.  In the Spider's day, it seems, police cars were neither black and white, nor did they sport roof lights.  Instead they were identified by red lights on the front.  (Although they did sometimes have a visible siren on top.)  In fact, after a little checking I discovered that the first use of the top-mounted red flashing light familiar to us all came about in 1948 when the Federal Signal Corp. invented the "Beacon Ray" revolving emergency light.

Remember, you read it here first!

And while we're talking about police cars, the Spider novels often made references to "radio cars", as something distinct from the usual police car.  This was of course because radio was still fairly new and radios were only just beginning to be installed in police cars in the 1930s.  Today, we make no such distinction because all police cars have radios.  Not so back then.  A radio car was something special, identified by a visible antenna.

Another detail found in the Spider stories was the absense of telephone booths.  Whenever the Spider needed a public telephone he had to duck into a local cigar shop where they would have banks of public phones in the back.  Given that the Spider was supposed to be decked out in a slouch hat, black cape and vampire fangs, it was a wonder he didn't elicit more attention doing this than he did.  Still, somehow he made it work.  I have no idea when the first phone booth was erected, but it must have been some time after the 1930s.  Presumably just in time for a certain mild mannered reporter to make use of them.

An obvious sign of the changing times is our attitude toward radioactivity.  In our post-Hiroshima, post-Three Mile Island, post-Chernobyl world, we are very much aware of the damage which exposure to radioactivity can do to the human body.  Words like "rems" and "whole body radiation" are common currency.  For that reason, we read with considerable alarm how Doc Savage and his side-kicks carried radium in the soles of their shoes!  The radium was contained in lead-lined heels which might have offered a modicum of protection, but, when either Doc or his men were kidnapped, they would blithely break open their heels exposing the radium, which apparently gave off enough radiation to allow them to be tracked down from halfway across the city.  No wonder none of them fathered any children!

The changing meaning of words is another sign of changing times.  In a Robert E. Howard weird menace story, "Moon of Zambebwei", the hero comes upon a dead man staked spread-eagled in a pathway.  The hero comments that it is as if the corpse marks a "deadline" which it would mean death to cross.  Today, of course, the word "deadline" refers to a moment in time when some task is due for completion.  A far more innocuous definition, it neither refers to a real line nor to a real death.  But I have read elsewhere that "deadline" originally meant something quite different.  The story goes that, during the American Civil War, there was a prison in the southern US where the ruthless warden decided that (presumably to save money) instead of putting up barbed wire fencing around the place he would simply mark a line where the fence should be.  Any convict who crossed that line would instantly be shot.  The line was known as the "deadline" for obvious reasons, from which the word arose.  Now, I have no idea if this story is true, but Howard's use of the term would seem to back it up.  Apparently, once upon a time, a "deadline" really was a line that meant death to cross it.  Think of that the next time you miss one!

Cars drive a lot faster today than they did in the Pulp era.  My brother and co-editor, "Drooling" D.K., tells me he read a story about the Pulp era gentleman do-gooder, The Saint, which described a car racing through the city streets, hurtling to its destination, barely taking the curves -- doing a reckless... thirty-five miles an hour!?!  Today, you might get ticketed for holding up traffic at that speed.

And yet, for all that I can find a few details which betray the passage of time in Pulp era stories (and, BTW, if you, Faithful Fiends, have any examples, email them my way and maybe I can put them in a later editorial), what is more surprising to me is how little things have really changed in the last seventy-some years.  When you read a Robert E. Howard yarn, the milieu doesn't seem all that much different from the world we know today.  Jodhpurs and spats not with-standing, the fashions haven't changed drastically.  If a man from 1930 were to walk down a city street today, no one would give him a second glance.  The same goes for a woman.  Their fashions would be a little outdated, but not bizarrely so.  Their cars would of course attract attention, but at least they still drove cars, just like we do.  They made use of paved roadways and traffic lights.  They needed elevator operators, but at least they had elevators.  They didn't have computers or televisions, but they did have radio and telephones.  There were airplanes.  Not only were there movies, but they had sound (and even colour by the late '30s -- remember The Wizard of Oz?) and the biggest special effects movie of them all was made in 1933 -- King Kong.  Even business offices were equipped with what we would call "intercoms" for calling in the secretary to take a memo -- what they used to call "annunciators".  (Correction: I have subsequently learned that "annunciator" wasn't a term for an intercom but rather refered to a microphone.~The Supreme Plasmate)

Now, we might be inclined to say that things just don't change all that quickly.  We shouldn't expect them to.  Except...

Now think about a mere thirty or so years before the Pulp era.  Now we are talking about the world of Charles Dickens, of Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  A world of horse-drawn carriages and top hats.  A world where you communicated by telegram rather than telephone (and where a letter could be posted in the morning and have a response back by the same afternoon -- it took the invention of the email before we got that little trick working again!).  Authors described houses which had recently had the "gas laid in", meaning they were equipped with the latest in home lighting -- gaslights!  Electric lighting was still in the future.  (And for those who didn't have gas, there were the ever-present wax stains from carrying candles around -- which served as helpful clues for the fellow from 221-B Baker Street.) 

The streets were paved with cobblestones.  Man-powered flight was still the stuff of fantasy.  There were no such things as telephone poles and traffic lights.  Forget King Kong -- if you wanted an evening of entertainment, you went to the local courthouse.  The movies hadn't been invented yet.  And the fashions?  If a man from Dickensian London were to walk down a street today, I think he might attract a few glances.  We might think he was dressed for a performance of Oliver at the local theatre, but we would certainly notice him. 

Now, obviously, there is a certain subjectivity involved here.  But to me, I would say that if I was transported back to 1930, I wouldn't have much trouble adjusting, even though that is more than seventy years in the past.  But if I transported back a mere thirty or so years before that, I would find myself in another world.  Why this was so, I have no idea.  But it raises an interesting possibility.  When we ask ourselves "What will the world be like a hundred years from now?", we assume that change will come about at a pretty steady pace.  But, when we look at the last century, we find most change took place in the first thirty years between, say, 1900 and 1930.  In spite of the computer and the television, the remaining seventy years were mere variation on a theme.  So, maybe we don't have to ask "What will the world be like a hundred years from now?"

All we need to do is see what the next thirty years will bring.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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