Woodcuts and Wit from Marion, Ohio (1873)

Some years ago I picked up a quirky little newspaper at a Wisconsin antique store—or at least it looks something like a newspaper at first glance.  Its title is Ferguson, its motto is “Ferguson,” and its place and date of publication are given as “Ferguson, July 22, 1873.”  What I have is apparently Volume One, Number Three, but I’ve found no trace of any other issues, or of any other copies of this issue, for that matter.  You can browse a complete facsimile here.

Ferguson contains a fair amount of typeset text, but a large chunk of each of its four pages is also taken up by one or more woodcuts which—depending on your perspective—might come off either as very crude or as superb specimens of vernacular art.

Some of the content seems entirely in earnest, including the above advertisement for “Arctic Soda at H. True’s” on page two, which is complemented by some text at the bottom of the next page: “HENRY TRUE, Dealer in Drugs, Medicines, Chemicals.  Masonic Block, Centre Street, Marion, Ohio.”  Arctic Soda would have referred to drinks dispensed from one of the pioneering “Arctic” soda water fountains patented by James W. Tufts in 1863, but more importantly, there really was a pharmacist named Henry Ayer True, Jr. in Marion, Ohio, at the time (b. 1848, d. 1906; see an account of his family here and a picture of his gravestone here).  This detail gives us a pretty good idea of where Ferguson must actually have been distributed.  So does a “Revised Map of Marion” on page three, with a stylized street grid for Marion itself at center and Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New York, and Pittsburgh shown around the periphery, together with roads, railroads, rivers, lakes, and select natural resources (coal and lumber).  The map isn’t to scale, obviously, but it does offer a viable Marion-centered perspective on regional geography.

Meanwhile, some of Ferguson‘s other content is clearly meant as pure humor, including tongue-in-cheek terms of subscription and advertising that imply it wasn’t a real money-making proposition, or at least not one following the usual financial model for newspapers.  It seems instead to have been some kind of amateur comic publication, maybe given away free (at True’s drugstore?) or circulated informally among its creator’s friends.

Ferguson, we read, came out not every day or every week, like ordinary newspapers, but “every time.”  It claims a global reach, noting: “Vienna correspondent sick from over-work.”  And it could find little to compliment in its journalistic peers, offering only: “Our exchange, the London Times, presents a neat appearance this week.”

The most elaborate cartoon is a four-panel sequence on the back page.

I make out the story as follows:

  1. The Board of Health finds that widespread ownership of pigs in town creates unsanitary conditions.
  2. In an effort to fix the problem, they arrange for a “ring” to buy up and remove all the pigs.
  3. But the buildup of the swill formerly eaten by the pigs leads to even worse conditions than before.
  4. So the Board of Health reverses course and proclaims that everyone now needs to buy a pig.

Whether this cartoon is targeting any specific pig ownership policy in Marion, Ohio, I don’t know, but a caption at the bottom states that its purpose is to bring the public “to a complete misunderstanding of the Hog Question.”

There’s no explicit statement in Ferguson as to who printed, published, wrote, or edited it, but circumstantial evidence points pretty conclusively to it being the work of Preston Willis Search (1853-1932), later a prominent educational reformer and advocate of individualized instruction in public schools, who grew up in Marion and would then have been twenty years old.  The first clue is that it contains an advertisement on page two for a school of penmanship Search was then apparently trying to set up, which might have been his very first foray into the field of education.

Another clue is that the woodcut on the front page is signed by someone whose last name looks like “Search,” albeit with backwards “S” and “a.”

The top part of the signature is harder to make out, and looks something like “All,” but I believe it can be read most plausibly as a bungled “P. W.”: thus, “P. W. Search.”  (The woodcut map on page three is signed “S,” likely also for “Search.”  The four-panel cartoon about the Hog Question on page four seems to be signed “Nast,” but I assume that’s a joking reference to the well-known cartoonist Thomas Nast, who obviously didn’t draw it.)

The third clue is that several sheet music imprints dated between 1875 and 1878, and often linked to Phi Delta Theta fraternity, are explicitly credited to a publisher “P. W. Search” in Marion, Ohio, several of which may be viewed in full here, with an advertisement here at page 44.  This shows that Search sometimes went by “P. W.” and was indeed active in Marion as a publisher.

Finally, some evidence of earlier printing efforts by Search during 1874 favors a connection between them and the mysterious Ferguson even more persuasively.  The Phi Delta Theta magazine The Scroll 23:2 (December 1898) features some correspondence collected by Walter B. Palmer about the fraternity’s first-ever song book, starting with a letter from Search, who recalled having had a hand in printing it:

I have been trying to find for you what I think was the first ΦΔΘ song book.  In 1874 I took a small printing press to college, the University of Wooster, to help eke out a maintenance, and Brother C. T. Jamieson and I printed on this a little pamphlet of songs, perhaps ten or twelve in number.  This was a very crude edition, but it perhaps led to my appointment to the editorship of the first official song book.—Preston W. Search, Holyoke, Mass., to Walter B. Palmer, Nashville, Tenn., May 5, 1897. (154)

A subsequent letter from C. T. Jamieson agrees with most of Search’s account, but not all of it.  “Brother Search is a trifle in error about having taken the printing press to Wooster,” Jamieson writes.  “The Fraternity bought the press, at his suggestion, and when it was brought to Wooster it was placed in my room, where all the work was done by me in leisure moments” (154).  In support of this claim, the chapter minutes for February 3, 1874, do in fact state: “The Society tendered thanks to Brother Search for his kindness in purchasing the printing press.”  So apparently Search arranged for the fraternity to purchase a printing press of its own at that time.  But Search continued to search—with a name like his, one assumes he’d be good at that—and eventually he found a fragment of the pamphlet itself, which he sent to Palmer together with another letter:

For several weeks I have been trying to find some trace of the little print of songs to which you refer.  Your letter of the 5th inst. stirred me to a renewed attempt, and this morning I find among the debris of years the enclosed cover and sheet or two, which is all I now have to tell the story.  This little effort, which gives me much amusement now, was the work of many an hour between exercises at college.  Our chapter owned a small novelty printing press: Brother Jamieson and I turned printers, and the little book appeared.  You will recognize the high art embellishments. […]—Preston W. Search, Holyoke, Mass., to Walter B. Palmer, Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 9, 1897.  (155)

A facsimile of the cover Search had found reveals its use of several distinctive fonts, all of which also appear in Ferguson.

This doesn’t appear to be a particularly common assortment of fonts for the period, so the fact that it turns up in a publication definitely linked to Search provides further evidence that he was also responsible for Ferguson.  Maybe he’d taken the press he’d used for Ferguson with him to college and later sold it to the fraternity, or maybe he’d arranged for them to buy another press and fonts just like the one he had himself, or maybe the press belonged to the fraternity but the fonts belonged to Search, or maybe the fraternity initially took advantage of Search’s press and subsequently switched to using a different press of their own (with Jamieson later forgetting that detail).

Based on all the foregoing, I’m satisfied that Preston W. Search can be identified pretty safely as the creative genius behind Ferguson.  That said, a couple other residents of Marion besides the ones I’ve mentioned so far also turn up by name in it, and they deserve mention too.

The illustration on the front page depicts “Sargent, the Artist, Building the New Custom-House” (see above), and the map of Marion on page three highlights the location of “Sargent’s Carpenter Shop.”  Both are probably references to James B. Sargent, who was listed in the 1870 federal census as a carpenter in Marion.  Maybe he supplied Search with the wood for his woodcuts in return for the publicity.

But the most striking reference of all might be the one found on page two which promotes a candidate for president of the United States in 1896.

George Busby Christian, Junior, had been born on March 25, 1873, and so was just under four months old on June 22, Ferguson‘s nominal date of publication.  At that point, the presidential election of 1896 lay twenty-three years in the future.  Little George Junior wouldn’t have reached the minimum qualifying age of thirty-five years even by then, and of course we know in hindsight that he never did become president.  However, he did come quite close to the presidency, as we’ll see.

According to a five-volume history of Ohio published in 1925, back when such works consisted largely of subscribers’ biographies, George’s father—George Busby Christian, Senior, of Marion, Ohio—was elected county surveyor in 1873 and had been deputy county surveyor before that.  He was also involved in the lumber business around the same time, so maybe he was the source of the wood for those woodcuts.  We don’t know what he thought of Ferguson, or for that matter if he ever even saw it, although it’s hard to imagine the endorsement of his infant son for president wholly escaping his attention.  But he did apparently feel some attraction to newspapers in general, since he went on to become editor of the local Marion Mirror in either 1877 (according to that five-volume history of Ohio) or 1878, retiring from it a few years later in 1882 (according to a county history).

The Marion Mirror, a Democratic weekly founded in 1842, was then the most prominent and prosperous local newspaper, but it hadn’t had the field entirely to itself.  A county history states:

The Star began in 1877, being the second country daily paper attempted in Ohio. Marion had 3,000 people then and little need of a daily paper. Some amateur printers had dabbled with a Daily Pebble, and Willis and Harry Hume had indulged boyish longings by issuing the Star, an alleged paper, from a toy job press. The father, Samuel Hume, caught the idea of making a serious venture in the daily field. With patent insides and a column or two of local gossip and the stories of passing events, the Star began to shine. It reflected the idiosyncrasies of the genius of its head, and bore some impress of the good and talented woman who helped husband and sons in their newspaper venture. The Star became a fixture, but Mr. Hume had to resort to outside earnings to meet the expense account. This he willingly did, with some measure of success, and the career of the paper was unclouded until the boys grew to manhood and became eager to do more than make a mere living. Then Mr. Hume’s publishing career ended, and the paper passed to other hands, and doubtful existence.

Another work describes

a little four-page Independent that was intended to come out daily, and did when the cash drawer permitted.  It had been known as the Daily Pebble when it was published by Sam Hume, a man who ran a knick-knack and peanut stand at the county fairs.  For a time now it had been in the hands of Ben Dempster, who was a carpenter when he was not trying to publish his newspaper.  Its name had been changed to the Star.

Spotty institutional holdings of the Daily Pebble and Star suggest that the change in name must have happened sometime between March and October 1877, while the Humes were still running things.  (However, the Marion Independent actually seems to have been an entirely different semi-weekly paper founded in 1857.)

In 1882, about the time George B. Christian, Sr., gave up his editorship of the Marion Mirror, he got some new next-door neighbors when George T. Harding and family moved to Marion from nearby Caledonia.  The Hardings and Christians became close friends.  Harding, too, had formerly been in the newspaper business, operating the Caledonia Argus; and after moving to Marion, he acquired a partial interest in the Star, the rinky-dink paper that had begun as the product of a “toy job press,” after which his son Warren began working for it—and ended up owning it from 1884 onward.

Yes, that Warren Harding—the one who was elected president of the United States in 1920 and served in that office from 1921 until his death in 1923.  And some time previously to that, when he was still just a senator, he’d appointed his boyhood friend and neighbor George B. Christian, Jr., as his secretary.  Christian continued to fill this role after Harding became president, effectively functioning—we read—as “the precursor of today’s White House Chief of Staff.”  So maybe he didn’t actually become president himself, but Search’s little joke of 1873 turns out to have hit surprisingly close to the mark.

I suppose I could close by arguing that Ferguson foreshadowed Preston W. Search’s later emphasis on individuality, spontaneity, and originality in educational reform.  Or maybe I could even suggest that Warren Harding’s path to the presidency began with a newspaper that had itself originated as the imprint of a “toy job press” following in Ferguson‘s footsteps.  But I don’t think either claim would hold water.  So instead I’ll leave you with one nagging question for which I still don’t have an answer:

What’s the deal with the name “Ferguson”?

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