Monday, November 19, 2018

The Edsel—Ford’s Fiasco Gave ‘em What they Didn’t Want

A magazine ad from the much ballyhooed launch of Ford's new Edsel for the 1958 model year.

It was a mercy killing, of sorts.  On November 19, 1960 the Ford Motor Company announced it was killing its Edsel brand in just its third model year.  Named to honor Henry Ford’s only son and a former company president who had died in 1943 at the age of 59, the car was launched amid considerable fanfare in 1957 for the ’58 model year.

It was a large car aimed at the mid-range market and had a number of break-through features and unique styling.  It was the styling the public noticed first, dominated by the shield shaped center grill that was a radical departure from the standard horizontal grills that had become standard on post-war on cars.  The public thought that instead of being ultra-modern—the pre-launch hype—that it was ugly. 

The Edsel did feature a number of innovations.  Some, like dashboard warning lights for low oil levels and an over-heated engine, self-adjusting breaks, seat belts, and “childproofautomatic locks on rear seats, eventually became standard in most cars.  Others like the rolling dome speedometer mounted on top of the dashboard, simply puzzled buyers. 

The highly touted Teletouch push button transmission in the center of the steering wheel was clumsy and unpopular with drivers.
The biggest flop was the highly touted Teletouch push button transmission located on the recessed hub of the steering wheel.  Not only was it clumsy to use, because divers were used to having the horn mounted on the steering wheel hub and there reports of some reflexively hitting the buttons while trying to beep the horn resulting in damage to the transmission and accidents.

The car was also essentially in competition with Ford’s already established Mercury brand in the mid-priced range.  Launched during a recession with mid-priced cars slumping in sales, both brands suffered.  In ’58 Edsel offered five styles, the two largest built on Mercury platforms, the rest on Fords.

The first year 63,110 Edsels were sold in the United States; and 4,935 in Canada—a solid launch but well below expectations.  But production problems—the cars were assembled on Ford and Mercury assembly lines after they completed daily quotas of the other cars—caused quality problems.  Sometimes cars were delivered with some of the parts not yet assembled but packed in the trunk for dealer mechanics to assemble.  Parts did not fit well.  The top-of-the-line V-8 engine although powerful was detested by mechanics unfamiliar with its flat head design.

Many customers who had enthusiastically bought a new Edsel felt they had purchased a lemon.  Word of mouth on the car went from bad to worse during the model year and automotive magazines and newspaper columns pummeled it.  Pretty soon TV comics were doing Edsel jokes.

In its second year, Ford ended Edsel as a standalone division and merged it into its Lincoln- Mercury division.  It scrapped the two largest models and built cars only on the Ford platform. That year sales plummeted to 44,891 in the U.S. and 2,505 in Canada. 

In its last production year Ford's Lincoln-Mercury Division scrapped the Edsel's distinctive features and peddled basically a Ford with different trim.
In its final year, the Edsel dropped most of its distinctive features and became essentially a Ford with different trim.  Dealers could hardly give them away.  When Ford executives finally pulled the plug only 2,846 were built for the 1960 model year.  After the announcement that the brand was being killed, the many remaining cars on dealer lots precipitously lost value.  Many could not be sold—or sold up to two or three years later at essentially used car prices.
Among the big losers were the local businessmen who opened Edsel dealerships.   This one was in for a double whammy--it also sold the soon doomed Studebaker.
In total 118,287 Edsels were built and the company lost $350 million—over $2.5 billion in today’s Dollars.  The company was dealt a severe blow from which it did not recover until the compact Falcon exploded on the market selling 400,000 in its first year.

One Edsel platform did survive.  The Comet was planned for the ’61 model year and shared attributes with the Falcon.  It was assigned to Mercury instead and went on to be a solid success. 

58 years after its demise, Edsel remains the byword for corporate failure in America.   

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Mickey Mouse Turns 90

Disney is promoting the hell out of Mickey Mouses's 90th birthday.

It would be hard to have missed all of the hoopla over Mickey Mouse’s 90th Birthday.  Not only was he honored with a star-studded special last Saturday night on ABC, but he was everywhere on the Disney owned network with shout-outs and tie-ins on everything from Dancing With the Stars to Good Morning America and gushing spots on network affiliate news broadcasts.  Special events and parades have been on-going at Disney theme park around the world.  Last night Mickey and long-time companion Minnie Mouse were the grand marshals and stars of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Parade. Company flacks have worked overtime feeding pieces to newspapers, magazines, and even scholarly journals.  Special edition toys and other merchandise are only, you should pardon the expression, a mouse click away for any eager consumer.
Conspicuously absent, however is any new Mickey Mouse cartoon short or animated feature.  The only new Mouse product has been promotional material for Disney parks and some cheaply and crudely animated programing on the Disney Channel and especially on Disney Junior, a channel aimed at the pre-school crowd.  The fact is that the sanitized and relentlessly wholesome spokes mouse of today is too dull and boring for today’s audiences. 

Mickey in Steamboat Willie.
On November 18, 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film was released to theaters. According to the carefully constructed myth created by Walt Disney publicists, the film was the first appearance of Mickey Mouse.  It was not.  But the film does have an important place in cinema history as the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound for its entire length.  It was also the real launching pad for an empire.
A silent film titled Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy was previewed in Hollywood in May.  Another film, The Gallopin’ Gaucho was in the can but unreleased.  Neither was very successful upon their first release, but taking advantage of the success of Steamboat Willie, sound was added to both shorts and they were re-released in 1929 and 1930.  The first film was released as Plane Crazy in the sound version.
Willie was distributed by Columbia Pictures, then a third rate studio, and was put on the bill with Gang War, a pot-boiler that opened to poor reviews despite having a synchronized sound prologue slapped on the silent movie to take advantage of the sudden craze for sound.  Reaction to the cartoon, however, was so strong that Columbia sent it out again with other films.
In 1928 sound was the coming thing.  Various technologies had been adding some elements of sound to films for a few years.  Warner Brothers/First National put its money on the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system and had made a sensation with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with some dialogue and music in sound.  But other systems were also being used, some far earlier.
Lee DeForest, the inventor of the vacuum tube which made electronic sound amplification possible, had patented a sound-on-film system in 1919.  After struggling with poor quality, DeForest used inventions by Theodore Case of the Case Research Lab to make his Phonofilm system practical.  By the early 1920’s DeForest was making and releasing short films of popular vaudeville acts like Webber and Fields, English Music Hall stars, orchestras, and political speeches to demonstrate the marketability of his system. Pioneering animators Max and Dave Fleischer began to produce Song Car-Tunes featuring follow-the-bouncing-ball singalongs using the system starting in 1924.
But DeForest had a falling out with Case for not crediting him with the significant improvements to the process that made the system practical.  After an expensive law suit which drained DeForest’s capital, he suspended development of Phonofilm in the United States, although he continued to work in Britain. The Fleishers also abandoned Phonofilm in light of the litigation.  Case sold his patents to William Fox whose studio engineers eventually used them to develop Fox Movietone.
In 1927 producer Pat Powers made an unsuccessful bid to buy out DeForest.  Rebuffed, he simply hired a former DeForest technician to clone Phonofilm and christened his version Powers Cinephone.  Betting correctly that DeForest was too broke from his fight with Case to contend the patent infringement, Powers convinced Walt Disney to adopt it.  Steamboat Willie became the first animated short to employ synchronized sound from beginning to end and included music, sound effects and limited dialoged. 

Walt Disney and his lead animator Ub Iwerks first created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit only to have the popular character highjacked by Universal Pictures.  Remind you of anyone?
 Disney was having his own problems in the 1920’s.  After relocating from Kansas City he had success with the Alice Comedies, live action/animation films based on Alice in Wonderland in which a real girl interacted with cartoon characters.  Then he signed a deal with Universal Pictures for a new all animation series of films starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  The character was created and drawn by Disney’s closest friend and associate, Ub Iwerks.  After the character and film proved popular, however, Disney discovered that Universal owned the copyright on the character and they hired most of his staff out from under him to produce new films in the series without him. 
Iwerks, however, remained loyal to Disney and after tries with several other animals, created a mouse character to star in a new film series.  Disney wanted to name the mouse Mortimer, which would have surely doomed the character, but was talked out of it by his wife.  He settled on Mickey instead.

Mickey Mouse was a huge success and the foundation of Walt Disney's own studio.  He quickly began using the little rodent to brand his new endevor and was frequently pictured with him in publicity shots.   Seen here with his wife Lillian who talked him out of naming his star Mortimer.
Although Mickey appeared in Steamboat Willie with his trademark two-button shorts and shoes, the character was much more mischievous than the virtuous, if naïve, mouse in later cartoons.  There was something scruffy and working class about him with a defiant tone toward authority—in the form of villain Pegleg Pete—that in many ways resembled Warner Bros. later creation Bug Bunny.  The film also featured an appearance by an unnamed Minnie Mouse as the hero’s love interest and others who became part of the Disney stable like Clarabelle Cow, also unnamed in this picture.
 Although Walt Disney would later promote Steamboat Willie as the origin of Mickey, he would only show clips of the movie on his TV shows Disneyland and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, because the mouse did not reflect the wholesome image he now wanted Mickey to portray.  The Studio also became nervous about images of animal cruelty—swinging a cat by the tail and playing a litter of piglets like an accordion as well as a flatulence joke.  The Studio cut more than 30 seconds of these scenes from the film when it was released in various VCR and DVD formats and on its rare showing on the Disney Channel.  Only recently has the company allowed the complete unexpurgated version to be shown on an in-room cartoon channel at Disney hotels and resorts.

Steamboat Willie has nearly gone into public domain four times.  Each time, just before that was to happen, Congress extended the period covered by copyright protection.  Although these extensions have broadly followed similar extensions of international copyrights, critics have often pointed to Disney lobbying as playing a critical role in the actions, most recently by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 which protects the film and character until 2023.

Super spokes mice for an empire.  Mickey and Minnie in the Chicago Magnificent Mile Festival of Lights Parade.
More recently, however, Disney’s copyright claims have come into question because of technical errors in the original 1928 filing.  Law students at Arizona State University and at Georgetown University independently investigated the claim and concluded that the film was likely in the public domain.  Hyper vigilant and aggressive Disney lawyers threatened legal action for publicizing the claims. 
Who know, maybe they will even take on an obscure blog by a dead broke amateur historian if they read this. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Tree of Life Hosts the Annual FaithBridge Interfaith Thanksgiving Service


The Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry, will host the 12th Annual FaithBridge Interfaith Thanksgiving Service this Sunday, November 19 at 7 p.m.
Local Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, Muslims and UUs will gather together for the service, Living in Unity; Within Diversity All are One. The evening will feature song, drumming, and unifying words, to give thanks, enjoy fellowship, and to make an offering for the benefit of others.
A drum circle will be led by Greg Rajsky and participants are invited to bring their own percussion instruments. The Tree of Life Choir will sing, and a free-will offering will be collected for area food pantries, and for FaithBridge’s future programming.
FaithBridge Interfaith promotes mutual understanding and respectful relationships among diverse religious communities in McHenry County and surrounding areas.
For more information, contact M.E. Tanabe at  m.e.tanabe@comcast.net , or Rabbi Maralee Gordon at maraleegordon@gmail.com .

Religious Liberalism Flowered in Poland but Driven into Exile

Krakow--Cracovia--in the late 16th Century during the rule of Magnate John Saieninius.

On November 17, 1599 the Polish magnate John Saieninius, the ruler of Krakow, after listening carefully to a debate between an orthodox Calvinist and a member of the non-Trinitarian Polish Brethren abandoned his conventional Reformed Church affiliation and converted to proto-unitarianism.  Afterword he, and later his son, extended their protection and financial support to the struggling school and seminary at nearby Rakow and its press, which was soon flooding Europe with elegantly written arguments for unitarianism in Latin, still the universal language of the learned.
Only the most devoted students of the development of the Radical Reformation and the origins of unitarianism are even dimly aware of these developments.  Most of us know the Poland of today as the most intensively Catholic nation in Europe and a bastion of conservatism within the Church.  But Poland in the 16th Century was a very different place.  Heavily forested in the south and marked by sweeping plains and steppes in the north, it was vastly under populated due to a history of being an invasion corridor for armies on the way to someplace else.  It was also on the fringe of the Catholic world, far from the firm grip of Rome.  As the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods wracked much of Western Europe, Poland basked in benign neglect.
The mid-16th Century was a period of rare general peace in Poland.  Never succumbing to the siren call of absolute monarchy that was turning much of Europe into a blood bath, Polish kings, who held little authority, were not even hereditary, they were elected with a rule of unanimity by the nobility.  When the nobles could not agree on a candidate, well there might just not be a king for a while.  The feudal nobles, on the other hand, exerted enormous power over their lands.  Given their relative isolation, it is somewhat surprising that many of them were among the most educated of their class in Europe, eagerly importing both books and personal tutors from the west.  Many of them were very open to new ideas, and were safe to explore them without either a powerful Church or king looking over their shoulders.
 The same magnates were also eager to bring new settlers into their lands to make them productive—and valuable sources of taxation.  Thus Poles welcomed refugees and persecuted minorities from far and wide and were willing to wink at their heresies and heterodoxies.  Which is why Jews, mercilessly persecuted almost everywhere else were given refuge to establish their rich shtetl culture there. 
Also welcomed were members of the Brethren, a pietistic sect growing out of Lutheranism that emphasized personal spiritual life, the “priesthood of all believers,” individual study and interpretation of scripture, living a life reflecting Christ-like simplicity and charity, believers’ baptism, rationality in religious debate, and tolerance of religious differences.  They also tended to be pacifistic and tried to stay out of the religious wars tearing apart Germany and the Netherlands from which many of them came.  The Brethren were equally unpopular with Lutherans and Catholics, and persecuted by both.  Many fled to Poland and were welcomed because of their reputation as thrifty hard workers.  
King Sigsmund II Augustus fostered a perion of religious toleration and freedom in Poland.
 Some of those Brethren were followers of Obbe Phillips and Menno Simons, Dutch preachers who denied the Trinity.  Rudolph Martin was particularly active in spreading this doctrine and as early as 1549 was preaching it in Krakow and finding an appreciative audience not only among the immigrants, but among the local aristocracy.  Soon other Brethren from Switzerland, Germany, Moravia, and the Hapsburg territories made their way to Poland as persecution became ever more severe while King Sigismund II Augustus had a policy of tolerance of a non-Trinitarian view of Christ, believers’ baptism and freedom of Biblical study.  Martin’s teaching spread widely among them, and among receptive nobles.
At the same time more conventional Lutherans and Calvinists were making inroads themselves and the Catholic Church seemed both in disarray and retreat.  Determined to win back Poland, the Jesuits came in 1564, just as the Polish Brethren were beginning to flower as a mature movement, and for fifty years worked surreptitiously to end toleration and re-impose Roman Catholicism.
In 1558 a Synod was held at Princzow that helped organize, however loosely, the Brethren as a distinct religious movement.  That synod was addressed by Blandrata an Italian dissenter from the Piedmont who was at the time one of the leading anti-Trinitarians.  Other prominent western dissenters came either seeking refuge or viewing Poland as fertile ground.

Italian radical theologian Fausto Sozzini--Faustus Socinus--became the spritiual leader of the Polish Bretheren despite never joining the sect because he refused Baptism.
None were more important than Fausto Sozzini, known best by his Latin name Faustus Socinus. Another Italian, he was on the run from the Inquisition when he arrived in Poland via Rumania where he had established warm relations with another group of Brethren. Despite agreeing with the Brethren on almost all major theological points, Socinus refused baptism and was thus never able to either join the sect or wield any official position. But he soon became the trusted advisor to Brethren leaders who appreciated his deep scholarship and integrity. Over the years he became the unofficial chief theologian of the Polish Brethren and moved them from crude anti-Trinitarianism toward positive unitarianism. Later the Jesuits and other enemies would brand the Brethren as Socinians, a label that they rejected as they also objected to being called Anabaptists.
In 1569 Rakow was established as a Brethren community just north east of Krakow.  It quickly became the spiritual and intellectual hub of the spreading community.  Cooperative farms and orchards supported a small school and eventually a print shop.  Within a few years the shop was producing books and tracts on Brethren theology and other topics in Latin.  Intended for instruction locally, the books were of such high quality that they soon began circulating in pietistic and Reform circles throughout Europe. 
When Rakow came under the sponsorship of the Saieninius family at the turn of the century, the school was able to expand into a full college, famous throughout Europe for the quality of its instruction and attracting scholars and students not just from the local Brethren but from many of the “best families in Europe.”  More than 1000 students regularly studied there.  

An early edition of the Racovian Catechism in Latin and Pollish.  Ciruclated throughout Western Europe despite supression, the book spread unitarian ideas widely.
The press got even busier.  Around 1605 the Racovian Catechism was drawn up by three noted Brethren scholars, Smaltzy, Moscorovy, and Volkel.  This famous book went through many editions, it declared that the “Brethren in Poland and Lithuania…confess One God the Father.”  It was the clearest and frankest exposition of biblically based unitarianism yet made.  The work was especially compelling for its calmness of reasoning and its refrain from attacking the theological views of opponents, unlike the openly contemptuous sarcasm that the martyred Michel Servetus had heaped on opponents in his earlier writing.  The quality of the book made it especially dangerous and it was banned in many places by Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike.  Mere position of the book was made an offense subject to burning at the stake for heresy by decree of that Defender of the Faith King Henry VII of England.
Despite the growing storms of opposition abroad, the early 17th Century was the glory days of the Polish Brethren.  Many of the nobles and gentry who converted to the faith made a display of living as did Christ by abolishing serfdom on their estates, establishing farming communes, and renouncing the privileges of rank to be part of the Christian community.  Needless to say, this trend alarmed other nobles, even other Reform members.  They threw their lot in with the on-going Jesuit plan to crush the Brethren.
By the 1620’s the Jesuits were appealing to the still largely Catholic class of serfs to turn against the Brethren, whose cooperative communities and orderly farms were far more prosperous than the tiny plots they were allowed to farm for their own families.   Although Poles of all classes had joined the Brethren, many of them were still either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants and many of their leaders had German, rather than Polish names.  The classic politics of resentment and tribalism worked well.  Peasants began to riot against the Brethren and attack their churches and schools.
Soon where local magnates were Catholic, prosecution of members of the Brethren on various charges minor and major was stepped up.  As early as 1611 John Tyscoviski of Bielsko was charged with refusing to swear by a triune God in court and was tortured and put to death in Warsaw.  He was just the first.  Brethren and other “heretics” isolated in majority Catholic areas were at first the targets while those on lands protected by local magnates and nobles were safer. 

Stannislaw Lubienicki, a philospher, historian, and astronomer widely admired in Western Europe was an example of the high scholarship fostered at the College in Rakow.
 An indiscretion by riotous students at the College in Rakow in 1638 gave Catholic authorities the long sought after excuse to close the school for good, scatter its students, and end it pesky publishing.
The next year 1639 Katherine Weigel (often called Catherine Vogel in the West), an 80 year old Catholic convert to Judaism was burned at the stake after being imprisoned for ten years for denying the Trinity.  Although she was a Judenizer, rather than a member of the Brethren, her death in the capital of the Brethren heartland, was a pointed warning of what was to come.
By the 1650’s Poland reverted to one of its periodic episodes of chaos.  Austrians and Romanians were attacking in the south and Polish nobles battled invading Tartars and Cossacks in the north and east.  Much of the later fighting took place around Krakow.  The peaceful Brethren tried to remain neutral, while Jesuit agents bribed the Cossacks to attack and burn Brethren estates, churches, and communes. 

King John II Casmir was driven out by the Swedes but rallied an army that expelled the northern invaders.  He accused the Brethren of colaborating with the enemy despite their pacifist neutrality and got the Polish Diet exile them.
 When the Swedes conquered Poland driving out King John II Casmir, the Brethren, like the Calvinists and Catholics, were required to swear loyalty to the Swedish King.  When Casmir later rallied his forces and expelled the Swedes, the Brethren never formally renounced their oath of loyalty although they had offered the Swedes no support and as was their custom tried to maintain peaceful neutrality.  The Jesuits whipped up a storm, accusing the Brethren of being agents of a foreign enemy.
 As a result in 1658 the Polish Diet proclaimed:
The toleration granted to dissenters from the church does not legally extend to the unitarians whom they call anabaptists, this being a new heresy. Therefore all who within such a limited time will not embrace the Roman Catholic religion shall be banished out of Poland; allowing, however, two years to sell their estates, whether real or personal.
Even before the two years were up, authorities ignored widespread riots against the community and seizures of their property.
In 1660, right on schedule the expulsion began with ruthless efficiency.  The Brethren were scattered to uncertain fates in Prussia, Silesia, Moravia, and Russia. Some were welcomed into existing, by non-unitarian Brethren groups, others were persecuted by local authorities and driven underground.  A few hundred managed to get to Transylvania to join Unitarians already there. Many migrated to the Netherlands, a few even reached England. In this they were helped by members of the congregations founded through the influence of John Biddle.
The Polish Brethren passed into history.  Their influence did not.  In exile they continued to publish and circulate clandestine copies of the Racovian Catechism into the next century.  Those books were passed hand to hand and treasured.  They came into the hands of the English Dissenters who became Unitarian and who were called Socinians by their enemies.
The triumphant Catholics of Poland soon turned their attention to the Lutherans and Calvinists and they, too, were crushed.  As Poland was repeatedly invaded, divided, and re-divided over the next centuries, Catholicism became the unifying banner of Polish nationalism.  To this day, you will find no monuments or markers commemorating the once vibrant flowering of Polish religious tolerance.