Monday, January 26, 2015
The Blizzard of 1899 in New York
The Great Blizzard of 1899 in New York. It's amazing that we're looking at a film of it. The oldest film I've ever found in the Library of Congress was 1898, so this must be among the first things ever filmed in New York. The Blizzard of 1899 was a big deal. Back before weather forecasts, people got caught unawares fairly often by cataclysmic weather events. The Hurricane of '38 killed a lot of people, and I have personally been in a house in Rhode Island that was blown across a salt water pond to the opposite shore. The owners just decided to leave it there, and built a foundation under it where it landed. Tornadoes killed people in the mid sixties, I think it was, in western Massachusetts. [Update: I looked it up. It was 1953. The toll was 94 dead, 1200+ injured in Worcester] The Blizzard of 1899 went into folklore because it killed a bunch of people, and it destroyed a lot of things. It was 39 below zero Fahrenheit in Ohio, still the record low. They had a snowball fight on the steps of the Florida State Capitol Building. Cape May, New Jersey, got 34 inches of snow, back when Sesame Street Scientists™ weren't abroad in the land, exaggerating for grant money, and they used an honest ruler. It was reported that there was a hard frost in Cuba, of all places. It was reported by the US Weather Service, because we owned Cuba then.
Some people in New York City won't have cable TV for twelve straight hours tomorrow, and they'll start eating each other soon after if history is any example. The feds will ladle money over corrupt city administrations to fund snowplow contracts that are paid to cronies while the snow waits for the spring to do the work. In short, if we weren't an incompetent society in all things practical, today's storm would be handled easily. But it won't, and Cuba won't freeze, I imagine. For years we'll have to listen to the same people claim today's storm was an arctic cataclysm while simultaneously saying it never happened because the computer model they cooked up ran out of ones and zeroes or something.
Back to the video. When moving pictures first became popular, it was common to simply take pictures of mundane life in and around a city or town, and then display it for the locals while charging a little money for admission. People liked seeing themselves on film, and liked seeing familiar things in a new way.
Movies like this one are more valuable to us because they show mundane life as it was. Entertainment on film from early in the 20th century isn't nearly as much fun to look at. I've noticed the same phenomenon in newspapers. A brand new newspaper is useless twaddle. An old newspaper is full of all sorts of interesting things, most of them not the news stories. When I had to fix a dormer atop the back of my house, I stripped off the shingles and found the whole thing was sheathed in newspaper. It served as a sort of primitive house wrap to keep out drafts. It was all from 1910, so I figure the dormer was an addition; the house was supposedly built in 1901. It's technically a Victorian, because the old girl was still alive, if only for a few more months. The newspaper was perfectly readable. The advertisements were the best part, and the paper on the whole served as a mute tombstone to the bustling city where it was published a century ago, which is now a disreputable place with a ghostly population that favors plywood curtains for their windows.
All in all, I prefer the real ghosts.