utopian trivia roundup

As we approach football season, the roundup is giving 110% during training camp. Working on fundamentals, taking it one play at a time, in the best shape of its life. But still, the roundup is on the roster bubble, so let’s hurry up before final cuts are made.

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1. Welsh rarebit is a dish of melted cheese served on toast and was pivotal in the development of modern animation. It all goes back to Winsor McCay, prolific cartoonist and animator of the early 20th century. He’d started his career as an editorial cartoonist, but by the late 1800s had begun work on a then-new form: comic strips. His strips included A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle, Mr. Goodenough (the tale of a portly millionaire whose attempts at exercise and activity ended in disaster), Little Sammy Sneeze (a child whose sneeze builds in each panel, before being explosively expended to exaggerated and humorous consequences in the last), and Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe’s Phunny Phrolics (winner of the National Alliteration Award in 1902). His most enduring work was probably Little Nemo in Slumberland, a kid’s strip which depicted the dreams of a child named Nemo.

The basic idea for Nemo came from McCay’s second most famous and long-lasting effort: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Fiend was a multi-panel strip with no recurring characters or plots. Each comic depicts the hallucinatory dreams visited on an individual who’d eaten a bad Welsh rarebit, with the last panel showing the afflicted waking up in a cold sweat and swearing off cheesy toast forever.

Welsh rarebit

The capsule summary does not adequately capture the stark raving derangement of the comics. “Plots” include:

• A priest is killed in a car accident and sent to hell, where he is thrown in a pit of melted Limburger

• A man’s wife somehow borrows the entire life savings of J.P. Morgan, Russel Sage, and J.D. Rockefeller and gives it to her husband, who loses it all in the stock market. Morgan, Sage, and Rockefeller kill themselves.

• In an apparent prequel to Mannequin, a cigar store indian comes to life and seduces a married man. The man’s mother-in-law spots the amorous couple, and his wife is subsequently granted a divorce and $5000 per minute in alimony.

• A car is equipped with “rarebit tires” which vaporize at speed and presumably asphyxiate the passengers in a fog of bread mist and cheese fumes

• A man drinks wood alcohol and is visited by hallucinations, including a rabbit riding a tiny alligator, a frog walking upright with a pipe and paint bucket, a tiny hippo chasing two tiny camels, an ox driving a carriage, and a giant lobster with a human head. Totally normal.

See the full collection here.

Hallucinatory visions aside, McCay’s artwork—in particular his understanding of perspective and tendency to vary the size and shape of panels in his strip—was ahead of its time. Fellini was said to be inspired by his visual style, Walt Disney said that McCay’s techniques were the aesthetic basis for Disney animated films. Take a look, for example, at McCay’s 1921 animated film The Centaurs:

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jh_noyes2. According to Wikipedia, John Humphrey Noyes’s (1811-1886) occupation was “utopian socialist.” That was not presented to me as an option at career day. Noyes is principally known as the founder of the Oneida Community, a mid-to-late 1800s utopian socialist commune. Initially a priest and theological scholar, Noyes had been kicked out of seminary for his controversial interpretation of scripture. A Perfectionist, he held that upon converting to Christianity, man may achieve sinless perfection of acts and thought—in contrast to, say, the “total depravity” of man espoused by John Calvin and the general guilt-mongering practiced by most Christian leaders. Indeed, Noyes came to this conclusion because of his own lack of guilt, which, he reckoned, meant he hadn’t sinned. In modern times, such an absence of guilt would just be another box to check in a psychopathy diagnosis, but in fairness to his point of view, he does seem to have identified a loophole in christian dogma. The other half of the Noyes theology/eschatology was Millennialism, which holds that prior to the end of days, the kingdom of heaven will be realized on earth—that is, paradise could be achieved right now, if only through proper living.

His first stab at communal living ended with being chased out of Vermont in the wake of adultery charges. He ended up in Oneida, New York in 1848, where his next attempt was more successful: at its peak the Oneidas had a population of nearly 300, and the community lasted until 1881. How did they achieve this moderate success? Rules and committees. Some of those rules were essentially socialist boilerplate: for example, unskilled laborers rotated jobs, which is actually a pretty good idea. Many, many more of the Oneida’s rules dealt with sexuality. They practiced complex marriage, in which monogamy was verboten and all members were “married” to one another, such that sexual congress could occur between any consenting parties without moral or legal consequence (they found that emotional consequences are harder to legislate). For birth control, they preached male continence. And they also practiced a proto-eugenics called stirpiculture, in which prospective parents were paired off based on committee recommendations in order to produce the best offspring. Children were to be raised communally; if parents got too attached, they would separated. In the non-sexual realm, they practiced mutual criticism, a community-wide public shit-talking. The whole thing was very Brave New World.

In one of the great historical non-sequiturs of all time, Wikipedia describes the end of the utopian Oneida Community thusly: “The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.” Yes, precisely, because when your quasi-judeo-christian-socialist utopia collapses, the obvious next step is to develop a large silverware concern. Every time you eat a forkful of mac and cheese, you’re contributing to the SILVER MENACE.

johnny’s silver emporium

Actually, it’s not that much of a non sequitur. The community was a thriving business: the Oneidans sold silk, canned goods, hats made from palm fronds, handmade bags, and animal traps. The traps were the real money maker until the first part of the 20th century, when the fur trade dissipated and they transitioned to silverware. Of course, this was nigh-on 20 years after the community itself had disbanded. In 1881, Noyes fled to Canada to escape statutory rape charges.

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3. The 19th century was a golden era for utopian communes in the US. Oneida might be the most well-known, but among the hundreds of others was New Harmony (Indiana), a town purchased by a Welsh textile baron who hoped to implement his personal vision of a “New Moral World.” New Harmony failed in just two years, in part due to overpopulation, and in part because it was “a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” But it had drawn intellectuals, academics, and educators, and New Harmony became a prominent scientific center in subsequent decades.

New Harmony

Other notable communal groups were: (a) the Icarians, a French community that started in New Orleans before uprooting and moving to several different states. A debate over gender equality let to their disbanding. (2) Brook Farm, an egalitarian farming community in 1840s Boston that might have worked, but was financially devastated their main building was destroyed by fire. (d) The Amana communities of eastern Iowa. Originally called the Community of True Inspiration, they settled in Iowa in 1856 and led a largely self-sufficient communal life until 1932. They also started the Amana appliance company during the depression. Many of the people who still live there speak both High German and their own dialect, called Amana German.

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4. For one day in 1896, the temporary and aptly-named town of Crush was the second-largest city in Texas. Back in the mid-1890s, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad replaced their 30-ton steam engines with 60-ton locomotives. But they had to figure out what to do with the leftovers. One employee, William Crush, hit on a solution: smash them into each other, at speed, in front of an audience. Any good idea should make you wonder “why didn’t I think of that,” and the suits agreed that, yes, intentionally smashing obsolete train cars into each other at top speed was the most efficient method of disposal. And so on September 15, 1896, the town of Crush—in an otherwise barren field north of Waco—came into being. Wells were sunk for water and concession stands sold food; the show was free except the train ride there. Forty thousand people came to watch a determinedly low-tech and destructive exhibition of Newton’s second law of motion: engineers simply pointed the six-car trains at one another, started them, then jumped off and ran to safety. Several miles later, the cars collided at between 45 and 60 miles an hour:

collision-based train-tertainment

The collision was violent, and one imagines intensely satisfying to witness. Then the boilers exploded. Shrapnel sliced through the crowd, killing three and injuring six. The person who took the picture above lost his eye.

less-fun aftermath

Crush was fired in the aftermath of the debacle. However, in a demonstration of both the maxim that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and the tragic impotence of Gilded Age tort law, he was rehired the next day. And in spite of the calamitous outcome, staged train collisions became a minor fad over the ensuing years (truly, god bless the usa). Here’s video of one from the 1913 California State Fair:

It’s sort of a letdown, but I do think all obsolete vehicles, train and otherwise, should be retired this way. Crush side note: actual flavors of Crush soda include Crush Apple, Crush Nectar (???), Crush Peach Sour, Crush Birch Beer, and Crush Red Licorice (!!!).

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5. According to at least one source, hammocks may have been invented by the famed Athenian military strategist Alcibiades. Here is a picture of a bear in a hammock:

lazing hammock bear

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