When I was a Boy, I Walked Seven Miles Through The Snow

Yesterday was Thanksgiving (in the USA, for my faithful international readers, all 4 of them). It’s gotten to the point that you worry about celebrating any commemorative occasion that has to do with Native Americans. You know, since homicidal beginnings are almost inevitably built into the origins of all them, you figure it’s some kind of political gesture–and not a good one. And this is not a subject of humor. This year, I made a few cracks about Columbus Day (hey, I’m Italian-American. Columbus WAS first) and I ended up almost losing a friend and deeply regretting that I said anything. And I’m, at heart, a historian. Maybe that’s why I get into trouble so easily: I tend to worry about details or anachronisms or petty stuff like that, and I end up sounding like Eammon Duffy on burning Protestants during the English Counter Reformation. Well, I wish I could sound like Eammon Duffy on anything, but let it pass. Suffice it to say, these ethnobonfires are not my style. I’m sorry Squanto lies buried under a golf course somewhere. We weren’t around, or we would have told him that you don’t trust medeganz.

In any event, Thanksgiving is one of what I would call an “anchor holiday.” Now, in behavioral economics, “anchoring” has a precise meaning. Basically, it suggests that the first value you select or pay or see or something has an outsized effect on subsequent decisions you make, rational, correct, or not. The effect has been widely observed in all sorts of fields; some of us may just regard anchoring as “stubborn insistence” in the face of changing information. The first sci-fi movie I saw had slimy ET’s. I expect ET to be slimy. Even seeing a non-slimy ET (or any ET) will not change my feeling that I saw a slimy ET. Anchoring.

I think, not to put to fine a point on it, that for a lot of us, a day like Thanksgiving is an anchor holiday. You celebrate it each year–or I do, at least–but my first memories of Thanksgivings, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, have an outside effect on shaping my expectations as to what an appropriate Thanksgiving Day will be. Anything else feels weird, whether it is objectively weird or not. So I grew up in Philadelphia before climate change was a thing. I grew up at a time when you could and did burn fallen leaves from trees whose aroma spiced the chilly Fall air. I expect Thanksgiving to be chilly, and maybe burning-leaf scented, turkey apart. I just do. Even moving to another part of the country always evinced the sensation that “it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving or Christmas” even though I had no reason to think Christmas in California was going to feel like Christmas in Philadelphia. The anchor of my early years, formative experiences, or at least what I remember or THINK I remember as formative experiences is too powerful. My narrative is set by an anchor created at least 60 years ago. Another time.

I was forcefully reminded of this phenomenon by watching a rather extraordinary film of the Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia from 1934. With sound. I am going to put that up first so you can look at it too, or you can simply skip over it. I was transfixed.

Gimbel’s 1934 Thanksgiving Day Parade, Philadelphia PA

Impressive, huh. A soundie from “back in the day” documenting the way Philly’s parade used to work. A buff Santa climbing the window into Gimbel’s toy department at Eighth and Market. Santa looks like a refugee from Dickens, and the crowd, as befitting a city that was around 90 percent white, evinces no diversity. Well, those are faithful reflections of the times–when FDR and Hitler were on a collision course, a first class letter cost 3 cents to mail (still true in my childhood if you didn’t seal it), and Lou Larkins (my Dad, God rest his soul) was maybe in his junior year at West Catholic High School for Boys (he had a medical problem that delayed his graduation, and nearly killed him, not to say made him a genuine 4F, but I’m not sure what year it was). And look at the togs. Little kids turned out sweetly in little fleece trimmed coats. Dudes in box coats with Fedora hats. Wow. Must have been a chilly one. You know. Philly in late November. My Dad was forever lecturing my adolescent self about how I didn’t really know what it was to endure a walk to school in the snow, because the winters were awfully cold and snowy, And it was the Depression. Cold is colder in a depression, right. I took a comfy school bus out to Devon and lived in luxury. Tom Brokaw was right. They were the Greatest Generation.

One small problem with this story. It was rainy in Philly that day. Streets look wet and the cops are in old fashioned slickers. The high in Philly that day was 64F and the low was 56F. The average high in Philly in November is 55F and the low is 40F. It might have been rainy (it was), but it wasn’t chilly. Depression or no. Old days or not. It was, well, mild. Well, if it was mild, how come all those people are overdressed? Oh, oh.

I don’t do the history of fashion, let alone the history of American fashion.

However, I can look stuff up, and I know the men dressed much more formally then than they do now, where we go out onto the streets looking like we should be collecting FROM UNICEF. Lord, even I get embarassed. I don’t think I own a fedora–nor have I ever. And if I went out in one, people would probably think I’d lost it.

Look at this lovely photo. Now, the guy may be dressed for a night on the town, but I assure you, he didn’t go shopping in a hoodie and sweats. This was the way men dressed, modified slightly for warmer weather, but, by and large, put together the same way. No,

1930s dude. Normal togs

it wasn’t chilly in Philly that day in 1934. It was Thanksgiving. Maybe slightly dressy for the holiday, but not by much. Men dressed, and not just to keep warm. So it wasn’t chilly. It was a day in the life. It’s hard to be a good historian.

My curiosity was piqued, of course. I know that since the 1960s, the average temperature in the city of Philadelphia has risen an astounding 5F. Some of this is urban heat island effect, where buildings, roads, and infrastructure absorb and emit much more of the sun’s heat than natural areas, and the city has been built up considerably since the 1930s. So there is that. But there is an irreducible residual that is climate change, and if you have an open mind, you’re not going argue much with the idea that the average temperature was lower 60 years ago. It’s about more than temperature, of course, but this isn’t a science blog.

So I started to wonder, what was the weather on Thanksgiving in Philly in the past? If you were to ask me, I’d instantly respond, “colder, much colder.” “Are you sure?” “Oh absolutely; I remember one Thanksgiving when Dad and I went for a walk and there were snow flurries. Probably 1966 or so. Hmm. So when I was a boy, yeah, I did trudge through all that snow.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because we have daily records of temperature and precipitation back to 1888, I decided to do some checking. This was not intensive research, and I have a lot of questions about measurement errors and biases and technical stuff that I won’t bore you with. They are important in scientific work, but no one should sweat that for purposes of a casual discussion.

Let’s take the long view. This is a graph of the maximum (red dot) and minimum (blue dot) average temperature in Philadelphia from 1888 through 2020. They are displayed in 5 year moving average form. This way, you don’t smooth out the fluctuations too much, as with a 10 year moving average. But you also don’t get the eye-watering chop of annual observations. These days, the time-series people are always telling us not to just look because appearances might be deceptive. Problem is, when I went to school, my econ teachers said before you start getting fancy, just look at the thing you’re analyzing. Old habits die hard, so we’re gonna look at the lines. Bear in mind that a degree or two in the long run is a lot, but on a year-to-year basis, well, so what. And bear in mind this is one day a year, which, strictly speaking, proves nothing at all. Still, play along.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably say “I don’t see much of a trend at all.” Both extremes look more or less flat, no? Now, please, don’t jump to conclusions about climate change. You can’t on this basis. But what you can say, if you want to is, more or less

From 1888 to 2020, the temperature, max and minimum on Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia, was more or less the same. Oh, sure, there were annual variations. If you wanted, you could see some brief periods when the temperatures seemed to be higher, mid 1930s and 1940s, or late 1960s, when temperatures were a little higher. But nothing really eye-popping. The 1960s really surprised me, because, like my Father, I remember things a lot colder. You know, we had real weather then.

–Salvucci Sez

Oh really? Not on Thanksgiving. Maybe if you go back to the 1880s and 1890s. But even then, they didn’t take the temperature at International Airport for obvious reasons. There wasn’t one. Wherever they measured temperature then might have been colder, but who knows? It don’t look it. And like when my Dad was young, same deal. He might have frozen his rear off trudging to West, but not on Thanksgiving. If anything, it was getting warmer then. Sorry Lou.

So if it wasn’t bitterly cold on Thanksgiving when I was a kid, why do I think it was? Well, for one thing, the Thanksgiving my Dad and I went for a walk in West Philly and it flurried really made an impression on me. How could it not? He didn’t take me for a walk every day, especially as I got older. And every day wasn’t Thanksgiving. I can see that day in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were this past Thrusday. That is “Thanksgiving when I was younger.” It turned out to be a referential anchor around which I constructed an entire narrative. I’m certain Dad had a similar experience. There are only a handful of people in the world (the actress Marilu Henner is one) who rerun their entire lives in memory day-by-day. So the striking first-glimpsed object becomes the whole. Or maybe it’s even simpler. Global warming and climate change are a fact. I know it was different 60 years ago. So why should I expect Thanksgiving to be an exception, if it was? Different anchor?

Well, fine, like so what, as Stanley Stein used to say? Well, I guarantee you, a lot of people looking at that film clip from 1934 will say “What a racist place Philadelphia was. Where are all the people of color? You see, American is built on white privilege.” Hold it, not so fast. Maybe it is, and may Philadelphia was. Somehow I don’t doubt it. But the “evidence” doesn’t “prove” it. There’s no context: it isn’t true to say there were no people of color in Philadelphia, because there were. Yet Philly was around 90 percent “white.” Even a random sample of Philadelphians would have looked pretty white, and there’s plenty of reason to think a crowd of holiday parade attendees wasn’t a random sample. I know people in my family who always worked on holidays, and by 1934, whatever Italians were up North, they weren’t Black. They were working class and a lot less affluent than the attendees at an Epicopalian church supper. Maybe you went to the Parade. Maybe not.

Does it make me a racist to observe this? No. It makes me a historian. Or at least it used to, before a lot of Americans went nuts, call it pc, woke, whatever you want. One of the first things they used to teach aspiring historians was that a generation’s interpretation or narrative probably said as much, if not more about the generation doing the interpreting than about the “event” itself. At least I learned that in 1970, and I saw plenty of evidence to support the point (No one reads Thomas Pressly’s Americans Interpret Their Civil War any more. Maybe they should.) No, now it’s the other way around. If the past doesn’t conform to our expectations, well, the actors in the past were wrong. Like, God help us, Columbus, who wasn’t a Progressive Democrat. Right. Well, he wasn’t, for sure, but before you demonize him (or anyone else), maybe you should, God forbid, read a little “obsolete” history, whatever that is.

How we shape narratives; what works and what doesn’t; why they change; how keep some perspective on the fact that the past, as someone put it, is a foreign country where they do things differently, is a real challenge. How do you not lose your soul, or your ability to judge evil, or even simple inefficiency? You know what? There’s no simple guide. Learning to empathize with an historical actor is by no means the same thing as sympathizing with the actor. It’s why people used to spend a lifetime trying to learn to get into the heads of the people they studied. But that’s hard, and I promise you, you won’t become an influencer anytime soon. Being a good historian is a bad career move. It’s a lot easier to be censorious. Self-serving comment? Yeah, it probably is. Like one British historian said, “A moment’s thought might convince you otherwise. But thinking is hard. And a moment is a long time.”

Back after the Holidays. I know. You can’t wait.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

3 thoughts on “When I was a Boy, I Walked Seven Miles Through The Snow

  1. Richard, you are following the wandering paths of memory and research — and having fun — which is what blogging is all about. Concerning fashion: I am sure someone has documented the turning points where and when the hats and ties and tweed overcoats and pressed trousers got left behind in favor of “casual outerwear.” I don’t mind having comfortable shoes and durable clothing, but something indeed got lost.

    Like

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