Before There Was Donald J. Trump, There Was John L. Young

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By Ken Zurski

John L. Young was the Donald J.Trump of the early 20th century. That’s no indictment of the man – or Trump for that matter.  Like Trump, the Atlantic City, New Jersey entrepreneur made lots of money, doled out lots of money, and lived quite comfortably off those who spent their hard earned dollars on his wheeling and dealing.  Call it gumption, not greed. Young was a dreamer and had the fortitude to dream big and be rewarded. It also helped build a truly unique american city and in retrospect the beginning of a uniquely american institution, too.

John L. Young

Born in Absecon, New Jersey in 1853, Young came to Atlantic City as a youthful apprentice looking for work. Adept at carpentry, he helped build things at first including the infamous Lucy the Elephant statue that still greets visitors today.

The labor jobs were steady and the money reasonable, but Young was looking for something more challenging – and prosperous. Soon enough, he befriended a retired baker in town who offered Young a chance to make some real dough. The two men pooled their resources and began operating amusements and carnival games along the boardwalk.  Eventually they were using profits, not savings, to expand their business.

The Applegate Pier was a good start.  They purchased the 600-plus long, two-tiered wooden structure, rehabbed it, and gave it a new name, Ocean Pier, for its proximity to the shoreline and lovely view. Young built a nine-room Elizabethan- style mansion on the property and fished from the home’s massive open-aired windows.  His daily casts became a de facto hit on the Pier. Young would wave to the curious in delight as the huge net was pulled from the depths of the Atlantic and tales of “strange sea creatures below” were told. The crowds dutifully lined up every day to see it. They even gave it a name, “Young’s Big New Haul.”

But Young had even bigger aspirations. He promised to build another pier that would cost “a million dollars,” similar in price back then to a Trump casino today. In 1907, the appropriately titled “Million Dollar Pier,” along with a cavernous building, like a large convention hall, opened its opulent doors. It was everything Young had said it would be and more, elegantly designed like a castle and reeking of cash.  Young spared no expense right down to the elaborately designed oriental rugs and velvety ceiling to floor drapery. It was the perfect place to host parties, special events and distinguished guests, including President William Howard Taft who typical of his reputation – and size – spent most of the time in the Million’s extended dining hall. “The pier itself was a glorious profusion of pennants, towers, and elongated galleries, wrote Jim, Waltzer of the Atlantic City Weekly. “It attracted stars, statesmen, and, of course, paying customers.”

Morton 3

Hotel owners along the boardwalk were pleased. Pricey rooms were always filled to capacity and revenues went up each year. Young had built a showcase of a pier and thousands came every summer to enjoy it.  But every year near the end of August there was a foreboding sense that old man winter would soon shut down the piers – and profits.

There was nothing business leaders could do about the seasonal weather. In fact, the beginning of fall is typically a lovely time of year on the Jersey Shore. But the start of the school year and Labor Day is traditionally the end of vacation season.  In the early 1920’s, by mid-September, the boardwalk and its establishments would become in essence, a ghost town. Something was needed to keep tourists beyond the busy summer season.

1aaaA man named Conrad Eckholm, the owner of the local Monticello Hotel, came up with a plan. He convinced other business owners to invest in a Fall Frolic, a pageant of sorts filled with silly audience participation events like a wheeled wicker chair parade down the street, called the Rolling Chair. It was so popular, someone suggested they go a step further and put a bevy of beautiful young girls in the chairs. Then an even more ingenious proposal came up. Why not make it a beauty or bathing contest?

Immediately the call went out.  Girls were wanted, mostly teenagers and unmarried.  They were to submit pictures and if chosen receive an all-expense paid trip to Atlantic City for a week of lighthearted comporting and display. The winner would get a “brand new wardrobe,” among other things. The entries poured in and by September of 1921, the inaugural pageant was set.

Typical of his showmanship and style, John Young offered to host the event at the only place which could do the beautiful young ladies justice – The Million Dollar Pier.

The term “Miss America” came shortly thereafter.



A Telegraph Operator’s Night to Remember

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By Ken Zurski

Late in the evening, April 14, 1912, on a passenger liner in the Atlantic Ocean, telegraph operator Harold Cottam was getting ready for bed. Cottam was the only wirelessman on board the ship bound for Gibraltar by way of New York. The day had been busy as usual and Cottam was looking forward to shutting it down for the night. The radio, however, remained open.

“Why?” he was asked later in an inquiry.

“I was receiving news from Cape Cod.” he replied. “I was looking out for the Parisian, to confirm a previous communication with the Parisian. I had just called the Parisian and was waiting for a reply, if there was one.”

At this point, Cottam might have been asked about allegations, based on the late hour, that he was listening to Cape Race in Newfoundland for English football scores, clearly against regulations. But under oath, he said it was only the Marconi base at Cape Cod he was monitoring. Cottam says he kept the telephone on his head with the hope that before he got into bed, a message would be confirmed.

“So, you were waiting for an acknowledgement [from the Parisian]?”

“Yes, sir,” Cottam conferred

Cottam says he received no word from the Parisian, but did get a late transmission from Cape Cod to relay a message to another ship steaming to New York from England’s Southampton shore.  The large ocean liner had been sailing for several days and the messages – mostly personal correspondence for passengers – did not go through. Perhaps Cottam, who was closer, would have better luck. “I was taking the messages down with the hope of re-transmitting them the following morning,” Cottam said. But Cottam didn’t wait until morning. He immediately tried to reach the ship.

“And you did it of your own accord?”

“I did it of my own free will,” he replied

Cottam said he sat down at the telegraph desk and tapped out these words: “From the Carpathia to the Titanic are you aware of a batch of messages for you” The reply came quickly.  It wasn’t what Cottam was expecting: CD followed by Q, a general distress call.

“And what did it mean?” he was asked.

“Come at once,” Cottam explained,

“Come at once.”


The Roots of the Mechanical Pencil and the Birth of a Tech Giant

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By Ken Zurski

In 1822 the first patent for a lead pencil that needed no sharpening was granted to two British men, Sampson Mordan and Isaac Hawkins. A silversmith by trade, Mordan eventually bought out his partner and manufactured the new pencils which were made of silver and used a mechanism that continuously propelled the lead forward with each use. When the lead ran out, it was easily replaced.

While Mordan may have marketed and sold the product as his own, the idea for a mechanical pencil was not a new one. In fact, its roots date back to the late 18th century when a refillable-type pencil was used by sailors on the HMS Pandora, a Royal Navy ship that sank on the outer Great Barrier Reef and whose artifacts, including the predated writing utensil, was found in the wreckage.

Mordan’s design notwithstanding, between 1822 and 1874, nearly 160 patents for mechanical pencils were submitted that included the first spring and twist feeds.

Then in 1915, a 21-year old factory worker from Japan named Hayakawa Tokuji designed a more practical housing made of metal and called it the “Ever-Ready Sharp.” Simultaneously in America, Charles Keeran, an Illinois businessman and inventor, created his own ratcheted-based pencil he similarly called “Eversharp.”

Charles Keeran

Keeran claimed individuality and test marketed his product in department stores before submitting a patent.  The pencil was so popular that Keeran had trouble keeping up with orders. So to help with production, he partnered with the Wahl Machine company out of Chicago. It was not a good fit. Keeran lost most of his stock holdings in a bad deal and was eventually forced out even though his pencils were making millions annually in sales.

Hayawaka Tokuji

Around the same time, in Japan, Tokuji’s factory was leveled by an earthquake. Tokuji lost nearly everything in the disaster including some members of his family. So to start anew and settle debts he sold the business, began making radios instead, and founded a company that turned into one of the largest manufactures of electronic equipment in the world.

He named it Sharp, after the pencils.

A man using his mobile phone walks past a logo of Sharp Corp outside an electronics shop in Tokyo

When Roosevelt Tried to ‘Pack’ the High Court

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By Ken Zurski

On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices. His intentions were blatantly political. Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court, Republicans argued, and in turn make the nation’s highest court a completely liberal entity.

Roosevelt embraced the criticism and mostly ignored it. Although politically it was still a hot button issue, his New Deal policies had earned public acceptance, even praise. As president, he reached for the stars.

Here’s why it mattered to Roosevelt. The high court had previously struck down several key pieces of his New Deal legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority in government, specifically the executive branch, but especially the office of the president.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Roosevelt won the 1936 election in a landslide and was feeling a bit emboldened. If he could pack the court, he could win a majority every time. The president proposed legislation which in essence asked current Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 with full pay or be appointed an “assistant” with full voting rights, effectively adding a new justice each time.

This initiative would directly affect the 75-year-old Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, a Republican from New York and a former nominee for president in 1916 who narrowly lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Hughes resigned his post as a Supreme Court Justice to run for president, then served as Secretary of State under the Harding administration. In 1930, he was nominated by Herbert Hoover to return to the high court as Chief Justice. Hughes had sworn in Roosevelt twice. Now he was being asked by the president to give up his post.

Chief Justice Hughes

In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. Two justices, including Hughes, jumped over to the liberal side of the argument and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, two of the administration’s coveted policies. Roosevelt never brought up the issue of the court size again.

But his power move didn’t sit well with the press.

Newspaper editorials criticized him for it and the public’s favor he had enjoyed after two big electoral victories was waning.  Then Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt’s steady leadership was lauded in a world at war. In 1940, he ran for an unprecedented third term in office and won easily.

The following year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The Men Behind the American Banana War that Spoiled Honduras

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By Ken Zurski

zzz13In Douglas Preston’s new book The Lost City of the Monkey God, the true tale of a modern day exploration to find an ancient city deep in the Honduran rainforest, the author presents a compelling history of the troubled Central American republic right down to its most exotic, and at one time, most corrupt export.


Of course, narcotics and drug smuggling would soon take over as Honduras’ most nefarious trade and it’s why today many foreigners are warned not to travel there. Preston and his team took the risk anyway. There was a mysterious and lost city to find and poisonous snakes, diseased mosquitoes and dangerous drug cartels were all part of the adventure.

Preston’s fast paced and informative book is the reward. It’s a fun read. But as the author points out, there was a precursor to the problems in Honduras which began in the late 19th century and was just as heated, and in retrospect, just as cutthroat as the drug trade today, although not as criminally explosive.

And it starts with two American fruit sellers.

Andrew Preston

In 1885, a man named Andrew Preston (a distant cousin of the author), was a Boston entrepreneur who co-founded the Boston Fruit Company. His plan was simple: revolutionize the banana market by using fast steamships to move the perishable fruit quickly back to the U.S. before they spoiled. Until then bananas were rarely transported to the Eastern seaboard because sailing ships could not move them fast enough. Preston’s speedy steamers did the trick. Bananas soon became one of the most popular delicacies in America.

Preston bought 40 acres of plantation land in Honduras, and the Boston Fruit company became the larger United Fruit Company. “United Fruit and the other fruit companies that soon followed became infamous for their political and tax machinations, engineered crops, bribery and exploitation of workers,” the author Preston writes in his book.

But that’s not all. Another American named Samuel Zemurray would enter the fray. Zemurray was a Russian immigrant who worked as pushcart peddler in Alabama. As a teenager, Zemurray traveled to Boston and watched as Preston’s banana ships arrived. He noticed crews throwing out large batches of bananas that were beginning to ripen. So Zemurray gathered them up at no cost of his own, threw them on a railroad car, and announced to grocers along the line that he had bananas to sell far less than the shipper’s price. He quickly bankrolled over 100,000 dollars, bought five thousand acres of banana groves in Honduras and opened up his own fruit shipping business named the Cuyamel Fruit Company. For a time, everything was going swimmingly for Zemurray in Honduras. Then politics got in the way.

Honduras and its people were struggling economically and the government sought financial help. The British banks loaned the republic millions of dollars that they soon found out could not be paid back. The Brits threatened military action to collect it, but the President of the Untied States at the time, William Howard Taft, would hear none of it. He ordered his Secretary of State, Philander Knox, to recruit financier J.P Morgan and buy up the loan at fifteen cents on the dollar. Morgan struck a deal with the Honduran government to occupy its customs offices and collect all the tax receipts to pay off the debt.

Zemurray was hit hard. The crafty exporter known to locals as “Sam the Banana Man” had worked out a favorable tax-free deal with Honduran officials and Morgan’s “penny a pound” tax would surely put him out of business. But Zemurray would not go without a fight. He went directly to D.C. and straight to Knox’s office to protest. Knox nearly kicked him out the door. Pay up and do what’s right for your country, Knox implied. When an angry Zemurray left, Knox put a secret security tail on him  just in case he tried to do something  foolish.

Zemurray was done dealing with his own government. Instead, he went to the deposed former president of Honduras, Manuel Bonilla, who was flat broke and living in New Orleans. Apparently dodging Knox’s security detail, Zemauury met Bonilla and convinced him to lead a path back to power, led by support from Hondurans who thought Morgan’s tax plan would threaten their sovereignty. It worked. Under pressure from the Honduran people, the current president resigned and Bonilla was reelected president. He immediately awarded Zemurray with a plum 25-year tax free concession, a $500,000 loan and nearly 25,000 prime acres of coastline land. The American got his tax break back and all the credit for the coup. As Preston writes: ” He had outmaneuvered Knox, successfully defied the US government, poked J.P Morgan in the eye, and ended up a much wealthier man.”

According to Preston, this would be that start of a long and contentious relationship involving banana companies in America and the government of Honduras. Soon the country  would earn the nickname “Banana Republic, a term first introduced by writer, O’ Henry in 1904, in his fictional novel Cabbages and Kings, describing an imaginary country, Anchuria, as a “small, maritime banana republic,” meaning a country reliant on one crop, usually in a dominate or corrupt way. Today, the term is cavalierly used and represents countries with more politically shrewd intentions than just selling fruit, but the point is made.

In the book, before author Preston and his team sets out to find the “Lost City of the Monkey God,” (hence the title), he wraps up Andrew Preston and Samuel Zemurray’s story.

“Sam the Banana Man”

Faced with a price war on bananas, Andrew Preston’s United Fruit, eventually bought out Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company paying him $31 million in U.S. dollars. Trouble followed. Preston died in 1924 and the Great Depression hit. The stock declined and the company went into disarray. Zemuarry saw a chance to get back in. He convinced enough United shareholders to vote by proxy and put him in charge. He fired all of Preston’s board members, gained control of the struggling company and brought it back to respectability. Later, he gave up the business, and using his own fortune funded numerous humanitarian causes in Honduras – all for the better.

But as Preston points out, as colorful as the history of Zemurray and others in this saga was, and long before the drug runners came nearly century later, “the fruit companies left a dark colonist legacy that has hung like a miasma over Honduras ever since.”

And its due in part to America’s insatiable appetite for bananas and the men who sold them.


Before There Was The Famous Movie Version Of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ There Was A Movie Version Of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

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By Ken Zurski

In 1924, when Judy Garland was only three years old, a movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” was released that was loosely based on a stage play of the same name which in itself was loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s famous book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

There was no singing of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in this version. In fact, there was no singing at all. “Talkies” as they were known in the movie business, hadn’t been perfected yet. This was a silent movie and compared to the musical film that was released fifteen years later in 1939, this version, as were other early adaptations of Baum’s book, remains somewhat of an enigma.

Here’s why. Baum’s book came out in 1900 and became an instant best seller. Two years later, under Baum’s direction a play based on the book was set to music and opened in Chicago. The title was shortened and the story was altered slightly. The main difference between the book and the stage adaptation, however, was an obvious one. Baum wrote the book specifically for children, while the play was geared for adults. Due to the popularity of the stage version, a 13-minute live action short was released that mostly confused viewers familiar with the book. The first full-length movie version then in 1924 was also based on the play and differed quite a bit from Baum’s original story

In the film, Dorothy and three farmhands arrive in Oz after a tornado sweeps them away. The Wizard proclaims Dorothy is the long lost Princess of Oz, but the Prime Minister, named Kruel, wants nothing to do with her. The prince, however, named Kynd, welcomes the princess’s return and accuses the farmhands of kidnapping her.


To thwart the Prince’s soldiers, the farmhands, who are madly in love with Dorothy, dress up in disguise: one as a scarecrow and one in sheets of tin. The two men are eventually caught but the third farmhand dons a lion’s costume, scares the guards, and helps the others escape. The Tin Man eventually sides with Kruel and the whole tangled mess leads to a showdown in a tower between the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, both of whom lose Dorothy’s affections to the handsome prince. The movie ends as the 1939 version does, when Dorothy wakes up from a dream.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ goes way beyond even our wildest expectations,” proclaimed  I.E. Chadwick, president of Chadwick pictures, upon its release. “A thing of great beauty and fantasy. Marvelously entertaining. A knockout!” The movie was one of a series of films that Chadwick’s studio produced. “Each production an achievement,” Chadwick proudly announced.

Larry Semon

The movie’s top billing went to a popular comedian named Larry Semon, who played the scarecrow and directed the film, while his real life wife, Dorothy Dwan, played Dorothy. The movie was advertised as a comedy and it did well at first.  ‘It’s a Whiz!” was one excited description. But it didn’t last. By the time the Garland version appeared, the silent film had long since been forgotten.

Yet, the movie may best be remembered for the introduction of the larger-than-life figure who played The Tin Man. “Large” in this instance, referring to his outwardly size. The relative newcomer’s portliness would eventually become his trademark, but for this role, it was more a liability. Even a fellow actor questioned why a man of his girth would – or even could – wear a suit made of tin. “What are you going to do about the costume?” he asked.

Oliver Hardy as it turned out would go on to have greater success as the bigger half, literally, of the comedic duo, Laurel and Hardy.


But the most glaring mistake of the early film may be the absence of many of Baum’s most enduring characters, including two that featured prominently in Garland’s version: the Wicked Witch and Dorothy’s little dog, Toto.

In fact, in the stage version, Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogene.


When Soap Was Taxed, Bathing Was Optional, and Dying Was Too Expensive

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By Ken Zurski

Beginning in 1712 and continuing for nearly 150 years, the British monarchy used soap to raise revenue, specifically by taxing the luxury item. See, at the time, using soap to clean up was considered a vain gesture and available only to the very wealthy. The tax, of course, was on the production of soap and not the participation. But because of the high levy’s imposed, most of the soap makers left the country hoping to find more acceptance and less taxes in the new American colonies.

Cleanliness was not the issue, although it never really was. Soap itself had been around for ages and used for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with good hygiene. The Gauls, for example, dating back to the 5th Century B.C., made a variation of soap from goat’s tallow and beech ashes. They used it to shiny up their hair, like a pomade.

Even before soap was introduced, rather ingenious ways of cleaning oneself emerged. The Hittites in the 16th century washed their hands with plant ashes dissolved in water. And the Greeks and Romans, who never used soap, would soak in hot baths then beat their bodies with twigs or use an instrument called a strigil, basically a scrapper with a blade, that would scrape away sweat and dirt of the body, similar to what a razor does with hair stubble.

So when actual soap was introduced in the late Middle Ages it had always been considered exclusively for the privileged. Therefore, later when it was mass produced, the British imposed hefty taxes on it as did many other luxury items, like wallpaper, windows and playing cards.

Thank goodness in centuries to follow some common sense emerged.

Or did it.

William Thomas Sedgwick

In 1902, psychologist and chemist, William Thomas Sedgwick released a book titled Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Heath which was a compilation of lectures he gave as a professor of biological sciences at MIT.

In it, Sedgwick extolled the virtues of good personal hygiene to keep infectious diseases away. “The absence of dirt,” he urged with conviction, “is not merely an aesthetic adornment.”

Basically, he was telling everyone to take a bath.

It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath, but it was a chore. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly. Oftentimes families would use the same water in a pecking order that surely forced the last in line to take a much quicker one than the first. When the baths were over the water had to be lugged outside and dumped.

In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more widespread, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.


Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as something other than just a cleaning vessel. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked.  After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.

Getting people to actually use it, however, that was another matter.

Sedgwick had medical reasons to back up his claims. As an epidemiologist, he studied diseases caused by poor drinking water and inferior sanitation practices. Good scientific research,  he implied, should be all the proof needed. But attitudes and decades old habits needed to be amended too. “It follows as a matter of principle,” Sedgwick wrote, “that personal cleanliness is more important than public cleanliness.” He had a point. Largely populated cities were dirty messes, full of billowing black smoke from factories, coal dust, and discarded garbage and waste. Affixing blame for such conditions was more popular than actually doing something about it. Sedgwick focused on self-awareness to make his point.  “A clean body is more important than a clean street,” he stressed.”Sanitation alone cannot hope to effect these changes. They must come from scientific hygiene carefully applied throughout long generations.”

People, it seemed, had to literally be frightened into washing up.

Something Sedgwick understood, but fought to change.

“Cleanness,” he wrote in his book, ”was an acquired taste.”

By this time, soap was being widely used, relatively inexpensive, and no longer taxed in Great Britain. William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister at the time, finally put an end to the soap tax in 1853, nearly a century and a half after it was imposed. In doing so, however, he faced a substantial revenue loss. So to make up for this financial scourge he introduced death duties, basically a tax on the widow of a dead spouse. “This woman by the death of her husband became absolutely penniless,” announced the Common Cause, citing a recurring example.

With that, Gladstone might have argued that using soap might actually help your cause.


(Sources: How Did It Begin? The Origins of Our Curious Customs and Superstitions by Dr. R. & L. Brasch; various internet sites)