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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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Fall wind in the middle of spring tugged at our jackets as my fiancée and I walked across the gravel lot adjacent the restored white storefront. “Blue Moon Antiques” read a dark stylized banner draped below the building’s second floor window. Immediately inside we were greeted with a healthy collection of dolls, knives, tin toys, cameras, glassware, and rugs. Carefully labeled and displayed with clean precision, every trinket enjoyed its own space locked behind glass windows under bright fluorescent lights. They were all stars on the painted white stage but one in particular caught my eye.

 

A silver plated mechanical pencil with an embossed twisting flourish at the cap rested in the corner of the second display case. I’d never seen a vintage mechanical pencil and until that moment hadn’t thought much of their existence. Like anyone else I enjoyed using modern lead holders but also accepted their plastic impermanence. Eventually they’d be lost on a bus ride, fall between the sofa cushions, snapped at the bottom of a bookbag, or generally forgotten in some bin at the edge of the kitchen countertop. This one was different.

 

The shining pencil before me reflected a time when a writing utensil was built to last. And last it did because after purchasing the three-inch Wahl Company Eversharp mechanical pencil I learned about its origins in 1913. An Illinois inventor and business man, Charles Keeran created the now ubiquitous two-piece vacuum seal for Mason jars, a standard for home canning. Ever restless, Keeran sold his jar company and followed his true passion, the mechanical pencil. Tinkering in his shop he perfected the spinning mechanism that propelled the graphite through the nib and immediately trademarked his “Eversharp” name. The pencil was immediately popular and Keeran had difficulty keeping up with demand. In 1915 Wahl Adding Machine Company invested in Keeran’s idea and mass produced the product. The pencil’s popularity exploded and the Wahl Company eventually forced Keeran out of the picture. Wahl continued its lead in the industry for many years until several missteps in implementing the ballpoint pen damaged the company’s image beyond repair.


More interesting to me, though, is the unknowable history of this exact pencil. Did it belong to a flapper in the 20’s, an accountant in the 30’s, a soldier in the 40’s? Or did it sit in a desk waiting to be used for eighty years before being sold to an antique store? This pencil has survived the Great Depression and two world wars. It outlasted both the man who patented it and the company who bought the man’s ideas. We’ll never know the details of its long and winding story but one thing is for sure, this pencil has many years left to live, as long as I don’t lose it in the couch.