Uncle Sam and… Chef Boyardee?

by Barbara Whitener

Old and moldy. Boring. Just some of the descriptions of federal and state government publications. But look a little deeper and you will find some that are odd, quirky, surprising, and very interesting.

Capone draft card

Draft registration card for Al Capone.

Want to see the World War I draft registration cards for Groucho Marx, Chef Boyardee, Moe of the Three Stooges, Al Capone, T.S. Eliot, J.C. Penny, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Chaplin? The National Archives has them all and more on a web page. Oh yes and for George McWhorter, the draft registration card for Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The final score was the Roaring Gimlets 62 the Pig-Stickers 49. The Alaska State Library writes about a baseball game in Alaska in 1893 when it was 38 degrees below zero. Not your average game. Read the link to see who won.

Remember the “Mean Joe Greene” coke commercial? You can see this and more on the site Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements from the American Memory, Library of Congress collection. Presented are advertisements, outtakes and experimental footage. Also included is a timeline and brief history of television advertising.

What are Perseid Fireballs? That hot candy? No, Wikipedia tells us that the Perseids are a “prolific meteor shower” that people have noted for about 2000 years. Perseids will be active July 17 – August 24, 2013 with peak activity August 11-12 (thanks Wikipedia). NASA has a video at

Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller

Have you heard the one about….? The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a website that has the Phyllis Diller Gag File and information on Phyllis Diller. How did the housewife become a comedienne and work with Bob Hope and many other stars? She put it this way: “I became a stand-up comedienne because I had a sit-down husband.”

Have you heard of a Robonaut? NASA explains that a Robonaut is a “dexterous humanoid” robot built to help “humans work and explore in space.” There are four Robonauts that can assist astronauts with tasks using their versatility and quickness. They also do those mundane tasks over and over without complaining.

“You get attacked by army ants, bullet ants. You get bitten by wasps. There are snakes and diseases. You sleep on hammocks for days” is how Jeff Chambers of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory describes working in the Amazon “counting trees.” His specialty is tree mortality and the carbon cycle. He jokes that these five years in the Amazon is “probably one of the craziest things they’ve ever done.”


The Ever-changing Census

Let me start out by saying that the United States Census is THE go-to source for historical statistics on the U.S. population. Now let me enumerate the ways in which it drives me crazy.

  1. The Murphy’s Law of Statistics: Statistics will never be compiled exactly the way you want them. I learned this one early on as a reference librarian. If you want the data broken out by sex, you’ll only find it broken out by race.
  2. Census data is rarely comparable from one decade to another.
    • Boundaries change over time so that if you look at statistics from 1790 Louisville, Ky. and 1970 Louisville, Ky. you are looking at two very different cities in terms of what areas are counted. And then there’s Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs), Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas (CMSAs), and Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas (PMSAs). The short version of this is that the Bureau of the Budget created a list in 1949 of standard metropolitan areas that constituted the core areas of population, economic activity and social interaction which are generally centered around a city. And like everything else about the census, these areas have changed over time (in 1958, 1971, 1975, 1980, 1990, and 2000).
    • Methods changed over time as to how the data was collected. A notable change for those of us studying people’s occupations is the change from counting “gainful workers” and members of the “labor force”. Until 1930 anyone who said they had an occupation was listed as being a “gainful worker” in that occupation. Starting with the 1940 census the rule changed. Only people who were employed or seeking work during the week the census was taken were counted as being in the labor force.
    • And if that weren’t enough to make you go cross-eyed, social standards changed over time as well. So tables from the 1920s give occupational data from 10 years of age and up, 1940s give it for 14 year olds and up, and 1970 gives it for 16 years and up.

All that being said, the Census is still the go-to source. Why? It’s a really rich source of information. So if you have a need for historical population or economic data, you’re probably going to need to deal with the census one way or another.

Some tips

  • While a lot of the census info is available online, Ekstrom Library also carries print versions in the Reference Collection under HA 201. While the online is great if you can’t get to the library, the print collection is sometimes easier to use because of the sheer size of each census and the number of tables it includes.
  • Write it down! Make sure you get all the info from the title indicating what the table includes (ex. “Detailed occupation of employed persons by sex, for the state, and for cities of 100,000 or more: 1940”) as well as the table and page numbers and citation info for that book or webpage.Try to be as clear as possible about exactly what the statistics represent so you don’t mis-state the facts later.
  • Give yourself plenty of time and don’t be afraid to browse. Sometimes you’ll discover some great information you never knew existed.

Works Progress Administration Maps

I have a great fondness for the products of the Works Progress Administration. I think it’s fascinating that the U.S. government found a way to hire unemployed workers during the Great Depression to protect land and build infrastructure, create art, and document society (and I love that, as a product of the U.S. Government, these materials are in the public domain!).

Some of the documentation, such as the collecting of slave narratives, reached back into the past but occurred just in time, before all those who remembered living in slavery were gone. Other projects documented then-contemporary society, providing a very detailed view of life in the United States during the 1930s. One such project was the “Real property survey and low income housing area survey of Louisville, Kentucky,” which is now available online via the University of Louisville Libraries Digital Collections. This set of 15 maps, created in March 1939, depicts information about Louisville housing and its owners/renters, including housing in poor condition and lacking private bathrooms; average monthly rental values; and race of household.

Urban studies enthusiasts and those following the Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s Hope VI initiatives may be among those interested in these historical maps.


Fictional Excerpts from Government Documents #2

The following is NOT an excerpt from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report on “State-of-the-Art Dummy Selection” (1984):

“The first rule of thumb is to find a dummy that isn’t evil or likely to become evil. This phenomenon has been documented by government officials numerous times, with Willie and Talky Tina being worst-case scenarios from the 1960s. How do you know if the dummy you’ve selected has a proclivity for malevolent behavior? First, be wary of unlicensed suppliers. If a mysterious person in a foggy street sold you the dummy, then cackled when you walked away, that’s a red flag. Second, if the dummy talks to you in a snide, menacing voice (often accompanied by grinning or winking), you may want to reconsider working with the dummy on a long-term basis, especially if the voice sounds even remotely like an angry Brad Dourif. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends using only non-evil Grade A or B dummies for crash tests. Grade C or D dummies are not recommended, even if you kind of like that dude’s impossibly deep voice.”

Want to read the real thing? This government document and thousands more are available from University Libraries.


Fictional Excerpts from Government Documents #1

The following is NOT an excerpt from the Congressional hearing Review of the State Department’s Silverware Replacement Program (1987):

“After an audible but unidentified snicker from the panel, Secretary of State Shultz once again blamed Alexander Haig for the failed policy that led to the so-called Cutlery Crisis of 1986. However, with tears in his eyes, Shultz took full responsibility for the introduction of plastic sporks during the infamous 1987 State Department Pit Barbecue and Sack Race Luncheon, where Walter Mondale was so offended by the quality of the eating utensils that he dropped out of the competition. Shultz asked Congress to provide funding for replacement silverware, proposing that it be paid for through the sale of ‘Diplo-Mats,’ a limited series of government-produced placemats featuring images of Henry Kissinger sunbathing in exotic locations.”

Want to read the real thing? This government document and thousands more are available from University Libraries.