Monday, January 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs Escape Their Generation (and an occasional French brig-o’-war)

Nathaniel Silsbee
In William Strauss and Neil Howe’s entertaining book, Generations, the authors characterize Americans born around the time of the Revolution as the “Compromise Generation."

“The lived an awkward lifecyle,” the authors wrote.  “Compromisers were coddled in childhood, suffered little in war, came of age with quiet obedience, enjoyed a lifetime of rising prosperity, and managed to defer national crisis until most of them had died.”  I chuckled when I read this summary; imagine, a lifetime of peace and prosperity, sandwiched between the Revolution and Civil War.  Such awkwardness for this coddled cohort!

In 1792, the trading ship Benjamin departed Salem, Massachusetts, loaded with hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco and Madeira wine.  The ship and crew would be gone for 19 months, traveling to the Cape of Good Hope and Il de France.   All the while they bargained hard from port to port, flipping their freight several times “amid embargoes and revolutions,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “slipping their cables at Capetown after dark in a gale of wind to escape a British frigate; drifting out of Bourbon with ebb tide to elude a French brig-o’-war.”  In 1794, the Benjamin returned to Salem with a cargo that brought 500% profit to its owners. 

The ship just happened to be captained by Nathaniel Silsbee, 19 years old when he took command.  His first mate was 20 and his clerk 18. 

Of course, these three daring (and soon-to-be wealthy) entrepreneurs were members of that awkward and coddled “Compromise Generation.”

Just in case you are wondering how to feel
Does it feel sometimes that we place too much emphasis on a generational view of Americans?  We seem extraordinarily concerned, for example, that we now have four generations coming together in the workplace—Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials.  There is a huge amount of ink and pixels expended on defining the expectations of each cohort, and recommendations for how we can all live together.  (See here, here, and here for typical examples.  A Millennial reflects here.  A group of Gen Ys reflect here.  Gen X traits defined here. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Four Young Women: Wondering How Much We've Changed in a Century

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, with young ladies Europe and
America flanking the entrance.
In 1907 the "World's Greatest Custom House" opened on Bowling Green at the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the center of Dutch Manhattan.  As the New York Times reported, it was the place "where all the world comes to be taxed"--perhaps not happily, but at least now splendidly.  Indeed, in a land before Federal income tax, the collection of tariffs was the single greatest revenue generator in America.  Now the country had the best of all worlds, an architectural wonder that also churned out nearly $200 million annually.

Today, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House hosts the National Museum of the American Indian (very cool and worth visiting), the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York (not cool, don't go there), and the National Archives in New York City.  But when I visited over the holidays, I was particularly interested in the four Daniel Chester French statues that look uptown from the front of the Custom House, my interest piqued after watching David Hartman and Barry Lewis take a fantastic "Walk up Broadway"--see here.)

French, born in New Hampshire and European-trained, is perhaps best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, but for New Englanders he's also famous for the Minute Man at Concord and The John Harvard Monument at Harvard Yard.  (His works are spread around America, however, including the Marshall Field Memorial in Chicago, Alma Mater at Columbia University, James Oglethorpe in Savanah, and Thomas Starr King in San Francisco--see here for more.)

In 1902 French won the competition to design four prominent statues intended to be allegorical representations of the four trading continents, Asia, Europe, America and Africa.  The young ladies that the sculptor envisioned, each to be carved of Tennessee marble, would serve as greeters to the many nations entering the building.  The ideas and forms would be his, but approved by the Federal government.

I think it's fair to say that no sane sculptor would take on such a task today.  How could it possibly come out well?  What allegorical tale could an artist tell about an entire continent that wouldn't get dragged across the comments section of the online Post, crucified by Rush Limbaugh or pilloried in The Economist?  (See my post on memorials, donuts and statues here.)  Yet, 1902 was a different place in America, and Daniel Chester French was happy to characterize the continents in a way (one presumes) that reflected the general sentiments of upscale, commercial America and its government.