A Mother’s Touch: the Edison Collier Pen

Some pens are easy to name — a Montegrappa pen with ‘1912’ embossed on it screams my father’s name ‘Leonard’ as he was born that year. An oversized Pelikan pen can easily be tagged as the ‘Big Mac’ to honor a McCrie great-grandfather.

The pen I’m naming after my mother, though, doesn’t visually bring her to mind. The Edison Collier in my collection is brown, whereas my mother was fair skinned with blue eyes. It is a large pen, and my mom was short. It has a blunt stub nib, not at all reflective of my mother’s well-rounded, easy-flowing friendliness.

But in the hand the pen’s resin is silky soft and the pen’s shape is exceptionally comfortable, and that tactile feel is what reminds me of my mom, a presence so warm and natural that it whispers her name. And so my Edison Collier pen has been named ‘Jean.’

Jean McCrie (later Schutze) ca. 1940

Admittedly I wanted a better hook to tie her to the pen. And there is one, though it’s a bit of a stretch. The Collier is made in Milan, Ohio, the birthplace of Thomas Edison. The Edison Pen Company was named after the town’s legendary inventor, who was born on February 11, 1847. My mom’s birthday was also February 11th. Not exactly a slam dunk match, but a strong enough link to validate the connection between Jean and this pen.

The pen feels so good in the hand I use it every day, often to fill in a crossword puzzle or make the day’s to-do list over breakfast. But like my mom, the baby of her family, it can be temperamental. First, a stub nib is not quite as easy to write with as a rounded point nib, though it is by no means difficult. Offsetting the stub nib’s impishness, though, is the sass and personality it gives to one’s handwriting, which assets my mom had in abundance and would have appreciated.

However, an annoying trait was the pen’s ink flow problems, which caused difficulties in starting after uncapping and in running dry while writing. I tried wetter inks to no avail. I initially had a medium point nib and I replaced it with a stub, again to no avail. I flushed it several times with water and a cleansing solution and it still ran dry. Finally, I pulled out the converter and inked the barrel with an eyedropper, and that did the trick. It writes marvelously now, and with the barrel’s large capacity, it shouldn’t have to be re-inked any time soon. Admittedly, the ink flows so well now it tends to leak a bit into the cap, giving me ink-stained fingers when writing with the pen.

As a nod to my mother, I typically use blue ink in the pen to mirror the color of her eyes. I’m currently using Pelikan’s Edelstein Topaz which is a nicely saturated light blue.

The Collier boasts a classic design in a light-weight, reasonably priced (around $150) steel nib pen. The brown swirl in the resin is eye-catching, and the light bulb etched on the nib is a nice nod to its place of origin. More impressive than looks, though, is how its resin feels so smooth, how its considerable girth rests nicely in the crook of the hand, and how its perfectly shaped grip section combine to make this instrument a pleasure to hold. The best pens are the ones you pick up often, and this pen will tempt you to do just that.

Finding Michigan: “If You Seek …”

If you’re searching for information on ancestors who lived in Michigan, as did mine, there are a few free web sites that should prove helpful.

Seeking Michigan: Death certificates or registrations from 1897 through 1952 are searchable by name, location, and/or date. Digital images of death certificates are available in many cases. State censuses from 1827-1874 and from 1884-1894 are also available.

Michigan County Histories and Atlases, a project of the University of Michigan Library: Useful for finding family farms from the last quarter of the 1800s into the early 1900s via the county township maps annotated with landowner names.

Michigan Online Historical Newspapers, a Google resource: Some newspaper archives are available for searching and reading. The selection is limited, but was a rich resource for the Owosso area, where many of my wife’s family members lived.

Obtaining Street Name Changes: A reference guide for finding current house numbers and street names for addresses which changed over the years. Though the resource is for various locations around the nation, there are links to Michigan-specific towns such as Grand Rapids and Detroit. The latter was particularly useful for finding current locations of addresses prior to 1921, when Detroit changed it’s house numbering system.

FamilySearch.org: The web’s best free resource for finding information on ancestors in Michigan, or anywhere else.

It’s Greek to Me: ICARUS and DAEDALUS

Two new features on our family history website — ICARUS and DAEDALUS, the Image Catalog And Retrieval User System and the Document And Evidential Data Archive and Look Up System — allow searching and retrieval of pictures and documents related to our ancestors. Typing a name in a search box retrieves a list of related images sorted in chronological order. Clicking on one of the image names retrieves the selected image along with notes on its source.

Some of the pics and docs are not available elsewhere on the internet.

Screenshot of the ICARUS Photo Search page

You’re invited to try ICARUS and DAEDALUS on our family history site. We still have a ways to go to fully populate the databases but will be working on them over the coming months. If you have any suggestions or observations please let me know what you think in the comments below.

Programming Notes: Making the Switch from Ipswitch

I’ve used the free version of Ipswitch WS_FTP LE for several years to transfer files from my home computer to my web site. It easily and quickly uploaded html pages, images, and videos, providing a side-by-side view of the files at home and on the web server and making the transfer between them simple.

But the company has “retired” the free version and requires users to purchase their professional version for $49.95. That’s a reasonable investment for businesses. For personal use, less so. So I looked around for a free FTP file transfer program and decided on FileZilla. I downloaded, installed, and began using it today.

The verdict: I like it. It has all the features I used in FTP LE, including
• Side by side file views by directory
• Status window to show the current and past transfers
• Easy navigation among directories on home computer and web server
• Bookmarks to instantly jump to frequently used directories

The program gets a 4-½ star editor review on CNET and a four star average user rating. So far I would rate it a five.

Caveat: Some reviewers complain of malware being installed along with the program. I downloaded my version from the FileZilla site and had no malware problem. However, I don’t recommend downloading from a third-party site, which could bundle malware along with the program.

The Life and Death of Thomas Hutchings

The eldest sons of four generations — from my dad to my grandchild — have Thomas as a middle name.

I suspect my grandmother Bessie (nee Estall) Schutze gave my dad his middle name in honor of her brother Thomas. Since there were no other Thomases on either side of the family, that appears to be a safe bet. Somehow the name stuck, and we continue to use it as a middle name in the family.

It seems like a good idea to know a bit about the man whose name survived despite never having had children of his own.

Thomas was the third illegitimate child of Sarah Hutchings, a ‘fur sewer’ living in Bethnal Green in London’s notoriously poor, overcrowded, and crime-ridden East End. An Estall family historian believes Thomas’s mother Sarah — in light of her frequent visits to the workhouse to deliver children without a father — was a prostitute. If so, she wasn’t alone: up to one in eight women of the East End turned to the trade to make a living or supplement their meager wages.

Thomas Hutchings’s birth certificate (click on image to enlarge)

Thomas was born in the Bethnal Green Workhouse in July of 1889. He had a brother (or more likely a half-brother) Alfred, who was five years older; and a sister (or half-sister) Harriett who was three years older.

A couple of years after Thomas’s birth his mother married a laborer, William Estall, who was working the shipping docks. And a month after that his mother delivered Thomas’s half-sister Bessie, my grandmother.

[As an aside, with Sarah Hutchings’s possible occupation as a prostitute and Bessie being born only a month after Sarah’s marriage to William Estall, one may wonder whether Bessie was really his daughter. However William was living with Sarah at least ten months prior to Bessie’s birth, and Bessie passed away from the same condition that killed her father (an aortic aneurysm), so her claim on the Estall name appears solid.]

Museum House, one of the tenements the Estall family lived in (from Google Street View)

The Estall family lived in multi-story brick tenements around Bethnal Green. At first they lived behind a lunatic asylum on Cornwell Road. Their next home, where Bessie was born, was across the street from the other side of the asylum on Green Street. (The building, Museum House, still stands at the present-day corner of Roman Road and Burnham Street.) Within a couple of years they were living at a place on Russia Lane a police inspector described as among those where ‘there are no worse places to be found.’

Thomas lost his older brother Alfred in early 1894 to diphtheria (though Bessie, then 3 years old, thought he’d been killed on the street by a horse). Thomas, at four years of age, became the eldest son in the family. The streets were the playgrounds of the families in the East End. Thomas and his friend William Morris got lost on the streets when Thomas was just shy of five years old, and a police constable delivered the two boys to the Mile End Workhouse . The children were later returned to their parents.

Thomas and his younger sister Bessie were enrolled in the Globe Road primary school when he was six. He likely was protective of his four-year-old sister, as older siblings tend to be. Bessie would have looked to her half-brother as both a playmate and role model.

More children followed in the Estall family: Lily came after Bessie, then Rosie, then James, and Robert. Seven children and two parents would have strained the tiny living space available in tenement quarters.

Things went from bad to worse. Their mother Sarah took ill after delivering Robert, and she died of acute meningitis on Christmas Eve of 1899 at the age of 39. The family was now motherless. Thomas’s step-father William, who had a history of physical ailments, reported to the Bethnal Green Workhouse infirmary with his family, and the children — less Bessie who was also kept in the infirmary; Robert, who died in his first year; and James, who was adopted out — were sent to the Leytonstone Workhouse School a few miles away. Thomas was ten years old.

The Bethnal Green Workhouse

Thomas, as the oldest of the siblings at the Leytonstone School, likely would have felt responsible for watching over his sisters Lily and Rosie and keeping the family together, such as it was.

After a year and a half at the school Thomas’s step-father William was released from the workhouse infirmary and the family was reunited. With no mother to watch the children, however, William was incapable of making a living while raising the family alone.

William’s solution seems questionable. He had ten siblings, at least one of which was living in Bethnal Green. But rather than turning to them — the children’s aunts and uncles — William decided to drop off the children with a former “wife’s” family in Lewisham in southeast London.

The term ‘wife’ is used loosely. William had moved in with a married woman, Sarah French, a decade before marrying Sarah Hutchings. He had two children by her but moved on when her husband returned.

Perhaps William wanted all of his children to be together under one roof. But nobody in Lewisham was buying it, and when William abandoned them there, they were promptly dropped off at the Lewisham Workhouse.

Thomas was motherless, abandoned, and the head of the remaining Estall family. He was twelve years old.

His sisters were admitted to the Workhouse school, and Thomas was sent off for boarding and instruction on the London Asylum Board’s training ship Exmouth moored in the Thames. He spent 2-1/2 years learning seaman’s duties, then was hired as a deck boy on the coal cargo ship S.S. Turkistan at age 14.

Exmouth Training Ship

After a couple of years at sea he seems to have become a photographer for a short stint before joining the British army in southwest England in 1907 at age 18. His enlistment papers showed him to be 5’8,” 125 pounds, blue-eyed, and brown-haired.

He was assigned to a rifle company and spent his first two years training and on duty in England. In October of 1909 he was assigned to the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Alexandria, Egypt.

While there, he was admitted three times to the Army hospital in Cairo. An accident on duty resulted in contusion of his right foot that exacerbated an old injury and left him hospitalized for three months and caused him pain thereafter. In August of 1910 he spent two weeks in the hospital for dysphoria — a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction, which can accompany depression, anxiety, or agitation.

His physical and mental pain seem to have overwhelmed him, and in September, at age 21, while sitting on his barracks bed, he propped a rifle between his legs and committed suicide. He was buried in the English cemetery in Cairo the next day.

At the inquest into his death his acting corporal said “he was very quiet, very careful about money mattters. He did not drink at all. I had not noticed anything unusual about him lately. [Did his corporal not know about his recent hospitalization for dysphoria?] He used to complain about his foot especially after marching. He said he was expecting to purchase his discharge and go to Canada. He was on good terms with the others but was quiet and did not mix much with others.”

The Citadel, Cairo, where the death inquest was held.

So ended the hard and short life of Thomas Hutchings. Though a Hutchings, he went by the Estall surname of his step-father. He apparently had dreams of emigrating to Canada, probably to be with his sisters Bessie and Lily who’d emigrated there in 1906 under the aegis of an orphanage.

My grandmother once mentioned to me that she had a brother who’d died while serving with the British Army and there was a great deal of pride in her voice when she said it. When she had her first son in April, 1912, she gave him the middle name of Thomas, and I’m quite sure it was to honor the recently deceased lad who had accompanied her to primary school, shared the family’s shabby lodgings, and was the closest thing she had to a father figure after her dad abandoned the family.

I consider it an honor to have his name too.

The Big Mac

The Pelikan M1000 fountain pen is large, the largest in Pelikan’s Souverän line. In my tradition of naming pens for my ancestors, this pen is being dubbed the Big Mac.

Photo from The Pen Habit web site

It’s named after James Miller McCrie, my great-grandfather. With a name like McCrie, someone must have called him Mac at some point in life.

James McCrie worked as a foreman at grain elevators in Grand Haven and Detroit, Michigan. These elevators were large, like the pen, looming over their surrounding landscapes and visible for miles around. The Grand Haven elevator’s sharply angled roof line reminds one a bit of the shoulders of a fountain pen nib. And the elevators were filled with the product of waving rows of grain from farms throughout the mid-west, echoed in the green stripes of the pen.

The typical shape of a grain elevator looks a bit like a fountain pen nib

James McCrie was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1839, the son of a farmer/teacher. He emigrated with his parent’s and siblings to Canada when he was starting his teenage years in 1852. Under the aegis of his oldest brother he learned carpentry and worked for the railroad in western Michigan. Upon marriage to Anna Anthony in 1872 he began raising a family in Grand Haven on Lake Michigan and started a career as a grain elevator operator for the railroad.

When his children were young the family moved to Detroit where James worked as a weigh master and foreman at the railroad’s grain elevators on the Detroit River. The grain dust eventually affected his lungs, forcing him into retirement in his 60s.

James M. McCrie ca. 1880

According to his granddaughter, “although James worked twelve or more hours a day on the job, he spent his time at home building cabinets, window seats, shirt boxes, etc. He enjoyed woodworking and used his carpentry skills to add conveniences to the household. He often read aloud to the family. His favorite physical activity was walking.” In short, he seemed to lead a pretty quiet life. He passed away at age 72 in Detroit.

This summer I plan on visiting Grand Haven and following James’s footsteps from his home on Lake Avenue to the nearby dunes and Lake Michigan shoreline. If he loved to walk, I’m sure he went this way on many an evening and weekend. There’s also an ice cream shop on the Grand River where the elevator once stood a hundred or so years ago; I’ll pay a cooling visit there too.

The Pelikan I’ve named in his honor is not as quiet as was James, and that’s a shame. The nib has an annoying habit of “singing” when I write in cursive. Beyond the screech, however, the pen is a joy to hold and pleasurably springy to write with, given the nib’s gold content and its massive size — the nib is the size of the last joint on my pinky finger.

I generally ink up the pen with a dark green ink to mirror its green barrel; currently I’m using Diamine’s Sherwood Forest ink. They work well together, but the pen also worked well with an antique Scrip Washable Blue ink so it appears the pen is easy to get along with.

I’m guessing James McCrie was the same way.

L. P. Schutze: Equanimity in the Face of Tragedy

Leonard Paul Schutze was my father’s uncle and the man my dad was named after.

That got me to wondering who Leonard — I’ll call him LP for short — was.

His is a rather sad story, it turns out.

L.P.’s mother Friederike

LP was conceived in Hamburg, Germany, and born in Detroit, Michigan. His mother Friederike (nee Schrotzberger) was four months pregnant when she emigrated to America to join her husband in Detroit; she delivered LP on a winter’s day early in 1881.

LP would be the oldest of four children in the Hermann and Frederika home. He had two younger sisters who died in youth, and a brother (my grandfather Herman) who was ten years his junior. His mom died when LP was eleven; his father married Frederike’s sister Hannah and had another pair of children by her.

L.P.’s father Hermann

LP hewed closely to his father’s example. His dad was a butcher; LP became one too. His dad joined the Masons and was insured by the International Order of Foresters; LP became a Mason as well, and spent his last twenty years in a hospital run by the IOF.

When LP was 21 the family moved to Stratford, Ontario, but he sensed it was time to spread his wings, and three years later moved to California, joining his uncle Fred Schrotzberger in Pomona, 25 miles east of Los Angeles, working as a butcher. The slim, gray-eyed, brown-haired young man married an 18-year-old girl in 1908, when he was 27. The free-spirited Mildred “Pearl” Lloyd lost her mother at age 9 and was farmed out to be raised by various older half-siblings. “It seems Pearl was pretty much left on her own throughout the years and probably more so once she reached age 18; maybe that’s why she married so young, apparently not ready or able to settle down,” according to a Lloyd family historian.

When LP’s father died in Stratford in 1909, his step-mother moved the family back to Detroit, where LP and Pearl joined them from California. In a year or two the entire family, including my grandfather, moved to Los Angeles, which explains why my dad was born there.

Leonard P. Schutze
Mildred “Pearl” Lloyd

LP and Pearl seemed to have a rocky relationship. City directories and censuses show there were years when they lived together, but there were just as many when they didn’t. She rarely lived long in one place. She worked as a dressmaker and filled in her idle hours as a movie extra in the fledgling years of the industry. She enjoyed riding motorcycles. And she had an affair with a married man — a police detective with a wife and two daughters — that ended in 1924 on the corner of Pasadena and 35th avenues in Los Angeles where she shot him dead and then took her own life in the back bedroom of LP’s home a couple of blocks away. She died painfully of strychnine poisoning, leaving a note that read Daddy and I decided to end everything. Life without each other was unbearable.” The story made it into the Los Angeles Times and on the front page of the Madera Tribune.

According to the Lloyd historian, “Leonard loved her very much and buried her as if nothing happened.” Whether that’s a sign of great love and forgiveness or a character flaw is open to speculation.

After losing his wife, LP moved in with his step-mother Hannah and half siblings Hattie and Hugo who were living in a house on Halldale Avenue in Los Angeles. He stayed there for six years, working as a store butcher, but in 1931, at the age of 50, contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the IOF sanatorium north of L.A. and remained there the rest of his life, dying in 1951 at the age of 70. He never remarried and never had children.

His remains were buried in the San Gabriel foothills in a cemetery close to the sanatorium.

Though my father was named after him, LP apparently wasn’t a presence in my dad’s life. My dad grew up and lived in Detroit; LP was on the west coast. My grandfather Herman probably looked up to his older brother LP as a role model when growing up, but after Herman started a family of his own he moved back to Detroit from L.A. and I don’t know if they stayed in touch.

Though LP didn’t have descendants, his name lived on through my father, and because of that he hasn’t been forgotten by his great-nieces and nephew. Visiting his grave this year, I was struck by how peaceful and scenic his final resting place is in the steeply rolling hills. It’s a fitting end to a man who seemed imperturbable in the face of a harsh life.

Leonard’s grave at Glen Haven Memorial Park

What’s in a Name?

An earlier post mentioned that I’m naming my best pens — the ones I’ll pass down to my children and grandchildren — after people important in my life.

First pen up is the “Leonard,” named for my father. It’s a Montegrappa Copper Mule fountain pen, and with it’s cap embossed with 1912 — the year of the Italian company’s founding — it seems only natural that it be named after my father, who was also born in 1912.

(Pen images are from the Clicky Post web site)

My father, Leonard Thomas Paul Schutze (let’s call him LT), was named after his uncle Leonard Paul Schutze (let’s call him LP so we don’t get them confused). LP was LT’s father’s older brother. (Okay, so I’m confused already.)

Leonard Thomas Schutze at work circa 1959

LP, in turn, was probably named for his grandfather, Johann Leonhard Schrotzberger, picking up his middle name. LP had a rather tragic life that merits a story all its own, but that’s for another post.

My dad’s birth certificate only shows one middle name, Thomas. I’m not sure when he was given the second middle name or if it was even official. But my speculation on the name Thomas is that it came from LT’s uncle Thomas Hutchings. Thomas was LT’s mother’s older half-brother, and he, too, merits a story of his own. He died about a year-and-a-half before my dad’s birth, and was a hero to LT’s mom, so I’m quite sure that’s where the middle name came from.

Parenthetically, my middle name is Thomas, as is my oldest son’s and my grandson’s. I’m definitely going to have to do a post on Thomas Hutchings in the future.

So, what about the pen? I bought it in 2016 and use it every day for journaling. It’s a metal pen, copper obviously, and has more weight than most fountain pens, but it’s well balanced in the hand and extremely comfortable to write with.

Being copper, the pen develops a patina over time, turning a dull brown. It can be polished to bring back the original brilliance, but that’s a bit more work than I’m willing to do, and it has a nice rustic look when left to age naturally.

The nib is steel, with an attractive crosshatch design. It writes with a good deal of scratchiness, rather like writing with a pencil. The brushed steel grip doesn’t slip in the fingers, and the nib’s fine tip delivers a clean line, something Leonard, a draftsman and engineer, would have appreciated.

The ink delivery system is either an ink cartridge or converter. I use the converter because I prefer bottled inks. The pen is currently filled with Pelikan’s 4001 Brilliant Brown whose color compliments that of the pen. I originally tried Diamine Ancient Copper ink, but the pen writes rather dryly, and the Diamine didn’t flow well enough.

Naming the pen Leonard provides a reminder of my dad every time I pick it up. If he were still alive, I would give him the pen as a gift, and I think he would have enjoyed using it. The next best thing will be passing it down to my son. My hope, of course, is that every time he picks it up he’ll be reminded of his grandfather Leonard Thomas.

Fathers, Don’t Lie to Your Children

If you can’t believe your father, who can you believe?

Bessie Estelle (my grandmother) and her younger sister Lily were orphans from the poverty-plagued east end of London. Their mother died when Bessie was eight, their father abandoned them when she was ten. The sisters were left adrift in a world where even their identities were illusionary, as it turned out. As a result, probing Bessie’s history was a challenge.

I had a note from my father showing that Bessie’s mother was Sarah Billingshurst, who’d had children by her first husband Mr. Hutchins as well as with her second, William Estelle. The Billingshurst name was confirmed by Lily’s marriage license which showed her mother’s maiden name.

A note on Bessie Estelle’s mother and family written by my father

I found Bessie and Lily’s arrival cards to the U.S., dated 1911, in which Bessie and Lily identified the orphanage they came from in Canada. That too was useful information. The cards also identified their “race” as French. I remembered that Bessie, many years later, told me that her family was from France.

So that was a start:

✔ Merry orphanage in Canada

✔ Father an Estelle

✔ Mother a Billingshurst

✔ Family from France.

However, like a driver in winter, I couldn’t find traction with the information and was spinning my wheels trying to research the family on line. Finally, out of desperation I wrote the Barnardo’s organization, who’d inherited the Merry orphanage records, to ask if they had any information on Bessie Estelle. Their answer was yes, they have a record of Bessie Estall. And that was when the wheels finally hit pavement.

Apparently some time after arriving in Canada, Bessie’s surname evolved from Estall to Estelle. That’s not unusual, as many European names were changed when they landed on North American ears. Estall (‘es-til) and Estelle (es-‘tell) are quite similar.

But I was still stuck on the Billingshurst and the French heritage angles until my sister found an Estall family tree on line and suggested I look into it. That proved to be a turning point, thanks to the amazing work of Mark and Kim Baldacchino.

So where did Bessie’s mistaken ideas about her origins come from? The only way I can account for them is that Bessie’s father likely lied to her.

Kim Baldacchino told me she thinks Bessie’s mother was a prostitute. Given that Bessie’s mom had three children out of wedlock before marrying William Estall and that she frequently changed residences around the east end of London — making stops in the poor house to have her children — is pretty convincing evidence for the argument. Bessie’s mother turned out to be Sarah Hutchings, and she had her first three children under her maiden name, which was Hutchings, not Billingshurst.

I can only guess Bessie’s dad suggested the Billingshurst maiden name to the kids to hide the fact that Bessie’s half-siblings were illegitimate. Or maybe he said it jokingly, giving his down-on-her-luck wife a name that had a ring of class to it. Whatever the reason, the naïve children took it as truth and believed throughout their lives that their mother was a Billingshurst.

And the idea that the family was French? Well, there’s a story that may or may not explain the notion.

Before William Estall married Sarah Hutchings he lived with a married woman named Sarah (nee Whitmarsh) French. French had two young children by her husband, to which William Estall added a pair for good measure. William, however, didn’t stay around, leaving his two children for Sarah French to raise when she reunited with her husband.

William Estall and Sarah Hutchings had eight children to raise and were eking out a living in the slums of the East End until Sarah was killed by meningitis at age 39, and William turned to the poor house for help. When he and the children got out a couple of years later, it appears William took his kids to live with their half-siblings in the Sarah French household. I can almost hear him now, “C’mon, kids, I’m takin’ ya to live with yer French family.” How was a ten-year-old Bessie to know that this referred to their name and not their nationality? But that wasn’t the worst part. William apparently abandoned the children there as they ended up at the neighborhood poor house. Bessie lived eight of her formative years in London workhouse schools and infirmaries.

The moral of this story is that fathers harm their children when they lie to them, whether intentionally or out of sarcastic humor. When parents lie they steal their children’s innocence, and in this case, their identities as well.

Generational History

A few years ago I ran across an idea espoused by William Strauss and Neil Howe that history repeatedly runs in a four-season pattern spanning about eighty years. Every winter of that cycle is marked by a crisis. Recent winters have included the American Revolution (1770s-80s), the Civil War (1860s), and the Great Depression/WWII (1930s-40s), all about eighty years apart.

It’s an interesting interpretation of events that believes that the cycling of four generational types (heroes, artists, prophets, and nomads) through their stages of life (childhood, early adulthood, maturity, elder years) creates a recurring pattern of crises and awakenings in history. In effect, the theory says that history isn’t linear, like we may have been taught. It’s cyclical, moving forward in time like the turning of a screw.

According to the theory, the 20-year generational seasons show a pattern of growing trust in collective governmental institutions (such as we saw in the last crisis of the Depression and World War II),  followed by conformity to the institutions (as exemplified by the Organization Man of the late 1940’s-early 60’s), then a rebellion against institutions (seen in the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s-80’s), and eventually distrust and unraveling of institutions (as seen in the individualism, bitter partisanship, and distrust of government of recent years). Stauss and Howe point out in their book The Fourth Turning, that we have gone through the first three seasons and are now poised to head into the next major crisis.

They argue the case pretty convincingly, citing instances of this recurring pattern in America since it’s inception, and in the West since the Renaissance. The idea has a certain innate attraction in that it mirrors the natural order of seasons and the cyclical nature of economics and politics we observe throughout life.

If their theory is correct, the recent political partisanship and dysfunctional government was inevitable. We needn’t wonder about the widespread distrust and disdain of our institutions, they are all symptoms of an inexorable season of unraveling. Unfortunately, what we have to look forward to is even worse:  an economic, environmental, political, and/or military crisis that will result in a rebirth or in destruction. We’ve been fortunate in previous crises to have wise and temperate leadership. I’m not  sure we’re as well positioned for the next.

Do I buy into this concept of generational history? Some of it makes sense. One only has to look at our inability to learn from the past and our tendency to repeat its mistakes to see that history isn’t linear. Time is not a long march of progress, but a meandering journey through wars, renaissance, repression, and rebirth. Whether this is a random walk or the cyclical path proposed by Strauss and Howe is hard to say. History, unlike physics or chemistry, doesn’t appear to be a science governed by immutable laws.

And yet, this is great food for thought. The study of history is man’s attempt to make sense of man: figure out how we got here, what we’re doing now, and where we’re headed. I recommend a reading of the book or a perusal of articles on the theory.

The concept of generational history could also open an avenue of exploration into family history that looks at our ancestors through the lens of generational types (heroes, artists, etc.) to see if our forefathers and mothers really do display the predicted generational traits. That analysis is for another time, though.

More information on the concept of generational history can be found on Wikipedia, the book’s website, or a recent Forbes magazine article, among other sources.