What Did The August 18, 1901, Sunday Bridgeport Herald "Flying" Article Tell Readers ?

Clues We Moderns Don't See
© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray
Posted: July 10, 2013

      In the past few years, print newspapers have struggled to maintain ad revenues and circulation. As printing costs have escalated and revenues have dropped many newspapers have ceased printing and now concentrate on digital online editions. Others have simply stopped publishing.

      Therefore, it might be difficult to understand how important and even critical newspapers were to the life of a city and to rural residents during the last half of the 19th and the earlier part of the 20th centuries. Newspapers, beyond doing the obvious and reporting local, regional, national, and international events and financial matters, provided part of the adhesive that held the civic life of a community together. They documented births and deaths, court cases, arrests and convictions and all the myriad events in the life of a city or the lives of farmers.

      Newspapers also had practical uses, as insulation and kindling, bottoms of bird cages and wrapping for fish. They could be turned into pulp to make pieces of art or small practical things, such as pin holders or ornaments. But also, and most importantly in this situation, they provided entertainment. In the time before widespread mass entertainment, television or radio, newspapers were read for their entertainment value. Humorous features, gags and jokes straight from vaudville, serious multi-part domestic dramas which stretched for weeks over many editions, how-to articles, patterns for clothing, sheet music, cartoons, and the whole gamut of printed entertainment could be found in newspapers.

Sunday Herald front page August 18, 1901       To make money, a newspaper's editor had to understand its readers, and cater to their likes and dislikes. Crusading newspaper editors often crusaded on behalf of - not in opposition, usually - movements already established in a community, whether against a racial group or for civic improvements. During the summer months of 1901, the Sunday Herald was pursuing the police for not closing saloons and "dives" at midnight, as the law required, and several stories in an exposé tone, with photos - of one notorious alley in particular - were published. The front page of the August 18, 1901, Sunday Herald didn't headline a story about Gustave Whitehead making a "flight" four days earlier in view of a Sunday Herald reporter… no, the stories that Sunday were about labor problems and vicitimization of the poor, a trolley tragedy, a yacht race, and other such stories.

      Bridgeport, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was an industrial city, with large metalworks, foundaries, at least one steam automobile company, boat building, steam boiler manufacturing and a range of other Industrial Age activities. One benefit of this was that unemployment was lower than in surrounding areas, and the Panic of 1893 had caused widespread unemployment, in some areas reaching nearly 15% of all adult workers. By 1897 the national and regional economies had begun to recover. Bridgeport was in better financial shape than many other areas of the country. So, naturally, people seeking employment flocked to Bridgeport in the last few years of the 19th century.

      One such person was, of course, Gustav Weisskopf. Soon after arriving in Bridgeport, he began, once again, to use the anglicized version of his name, Gustave Whitehead - to most people he was simply "Gus." He'd been using both versions of his name since at least 1897-98. One of the most prosperous real estate developers in Bridgeport, who developed much of the West End, where the Whitehead family settled, was also named "Whitehead."

      "Gus" Whitehead possessed a certain degree of fame or notoriety, depending on one's opinion, when he arrived in Bridgeport, having been mentioned and written of in New York and Boston newspapers, as someone associated with flying machines, kites and other such aerial contrivances. At the time, it should be appreciated, that such activities were not embraced by everyone and a number of people believed there was something improper or even unholy about being involved with human flight, even if that involvement was strewn with failure.

      Whitehead was possessed of some considerable mechanical ability, for he did construct several different types of engines, although the designs were, in large part, derivative, as were the designs of his aerial machines.

      A year after his arrival in Bridgeport, "Gus" Whitehead appeared in a full-page story, quoting him extensively, about his "flight" in a machine he had constructed in his basement and workshop shed at 241-½ Pine St., and - more importantly to those seeking work in Bridgeport - the article mentioned the possibility of a new industry, building Whitehead "generators" - motors - for airships, and in particular for what was promised would be a fleet of Custead Air Ships. W. D. Custead of Texas planned to offer Trans-Atlantic passenger service to Paris from New York, in his curiously designed airship.

      One of the aspects of this full-page story, beyond the Whitehead "flight" story, is that it is the combination of two stories - it is not simply a report of a supposed flight by a flying machine. Indeed, the "lead" of the story states that "Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, and W. D. Custead, of Waco, Texas, have co-operated and are now working on a flying machine which is expected to revolutionize the world of aeronautics." Editors, especially someone as skilled and respected as the Sunday Herald's editor, Dick Howell, would have not let a story go to print with a bad "lead." Part of an editor's job was to ensure that the opening paragraphs, the "lead," stated the important matters first. (See Article # 1 "Who Might Have Written…" for a discussion of possible writers of the August 18, 1901, Sunday Herald article)

Sunday Herald page 5, August 18, 1901       A substantial amount of the text (some 31%) in the article is devoted to the partnership between Whitehead and Custead (was the Whitehead/Custead partnership ever truly formed ? no subsequent mention of it can be found), and the possibility of building Whitehead's "generators" in Bridgeport, meaning employment and a boost to the local economy. About 56% of the text is devoted to the "flight" with another 9% to quoting Whitehead about the "flight." The remaining 4% consists of a description of the Whitehead No. 21 flying machine.

The reproduction of the "Flying" article show here is of the actual page, the reproductions found in "Before The Wrights Flew" and "History by Contract" are of a 1937 reprint (cropped to remove the identification that it was the 1937 reprint). The reprint had slight changes to the original, notably in the photograph of Whitehead.

      When newspapers were in their prime, readers commonly were fiercely loyal, and so were well versed in what their newspaper was telling them. They could - as the phrase went - read between the lines, and knew whether a subtle mention of someone was meant to be mocking or complimentary. What might a Sunday Herald reader on August 18, 1901, have made of this article ? They would certainly have taken notice that a new industry and therefore employment might be on its way, and something as out-of-the-ordinary as manufacturing explosive gas "generators" which used a "'queer mixture'" of chemicals ("dynamite is nothing compared with this new power") for "airships" would have been discussed and chatted about - and likely joked about, as well.

      Most people reading that 1901 Sunday Herald would have been familiar with the Great Airship Scare or "Flap" of 1896/97, when numerous newspaper hoaxes and humorous pieces were published about this or that airship and its mysterious occupants being spotted here and there. As they focused on the Sunday Herald "Flying" story on page 5, with its bevy of cone-hatted witches on broomsticks speeding past a nearly dark moon, they might well have laughed aloud, knowing that the moonless night of August 14th had a New Moon, and reading that a local flying machine had floated along at walking speed. This was a time when almost everyone knew what the phase of the moon was on a given night. Almost everyone also knew about horse racing, and a "flying machine" making a 10 minute half-mile would have at least caused a wide smile, bringing forth images of an old nag making its way around a horse track at a slow walk.

      Then there is the last line of the August 18, 1901, article, a spot where newspaper humor writers of that time would often let readers know for certain that the article they had just read was meant as fiction. The Sunday Herald "Flying" article ends with what could be read as a straight sentence or as a revealing pun… "It is probable that the generators will be manufactured in Bridgeport where every facility is at hand for the manufacture of such articles."