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Whales, Franklin and Daylight Savings Time

March 6, 2014

The small tea-pot shaped lamp (pictured) is one of several coal miner’s lamps in the collection of the Birmingham History Center.  It is different than all the rest, however.  It uses a different type of fuel – whale oil, to be specific, spermaceti.  It is found in the head of sperm whales (a large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons).  Marine biologists don’t really know why the liquid is found there but speculate that it has something to do with either buoyancy or the whale’s motion-sensing sonar.OldSmokey

The lamp, known as “Old Smokey” because when lit the oil does give off a great deal of smoke, has a hook in the back which attached it to a miner’s helmet or cap.  Young boys were employed to carry buckets of whale oil in the coal mines to refill the miner’s lamps.  Whale oil production reached its peak in the 1850s, at about the same time as Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, was published.  Then it was replaced in lamps by petroleum products.

Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous American scientist, philosopher and statesman of the 18th century, was very much concerned with the whale oil industry.  As the American ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin headed the American delegation during the talks which led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the winning of American independence.  One particular item on the agenda was to determine the fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the area off the coast of Newfoundland known as the Grand Banks, an area rich in cod fish and whales.  Franklin wanted the U.S. fishing fleet (including whalers) to have the right to fish in this area, a concession which was granted in the treaty.


Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France

However, reports from home indicated that the whale population was declining off the Grand Banks, due to over-harvesting.  Franklin, a native of New England, knew how much the economy of the region depended on this trade.  But the problem was how to reduce the number of whales harvested in order to replenish to supply.  The answer seemed obvious to Franklin . . . use less whale oil.  But how?

The story goes that one day Franklin was out on a balcony overlooked the rooftops of Paris as the sun was going down.  He noticed that as it got darker, people in homes began lighting their whale oil lamps.  If only there was some way to delay the beginning of night – to save time.  That’s right, Benjamin Franklin invented Daylight Savings Time.  Well, sort of, the idea actually goes back to Roman times but it makes for a good story (Franklin did publish a short pamphlet telling the Parisians that they should be getting up earlier each day to take advantage of the sun light, an proposal that did not go over very well).


World War I Poster

In the early 20th century the idea finally began to gather momentum.  An English sportsman named William Willett, upset that the sun was going down during his round of golf, was able to get a bill to the British Parliament in 1908, but it was tabled.  Finally, it was the Germans in 1916 who went to Daylight Savings Time to save coal use during World War I.

In the United States, the Standard Time Act of 1918 put DST into effect for the first time, and it was an on again, off again affair through most of the 20th century.  The energy crisis of the 1970s brought the idea back.  The Uniform Time Act in 1986 began DST on the first Sunday in April to run until the last Sunday in October. This was modified by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, under President George W. Bush, to our present state of affairs, starting DST on the second Sunday of March through the first Sunday in November.

So when you change your clocks ahead one hour at 2 AM on March 9th this year, think of Benjamin Franklin and his attempt to save the whales back in 1783.  Then, of course, go back to sleep.



Moretti or forgetti it? An unidentified artwork wants to know

December 12, 2013
Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

There exist only a few remaining landmarks that precede the establishment of the Magic City. One often neglected one is the Elyton Cemetery. Being the oldest cemetery in Birmingham, it holds much history. But, for some, the question lingers, did it also hold a priceless work from the most famous artist to work in Birmingham?

Late this summer a visitor arrived at the History Center, carrying something heavy in a flannel bag with a drawstring. He said he had a story to tell, and wasn’t sure if he was in the right place. It all happened 35 years ago, when he was riding his bike with friends in the Elyton community in West Birmingham, not far from the Arlington House. He ran across an overgrown cemetery, later identified as Elyton Cemetery, which was in ruins at the time and still is, he said. With that, the visitor pulled open the drawstring and carefully lifted out a marble head. As he explained, the head was all that remained of a statue of a young girl he had found broken and scattered in that cemetery all those years ago. He had decided to “rescue” it and, given the further decline of the cemetery, had no misgivings about that decision. Now, late in his 50s, he wanted to know what he had always suspected, Was this head possibly the work of Guiseppe Moretti, sculptor of Vulcan who worked in marble and fashioned the prized “Head of Christ?”

The History Center turned that question over to intern Michelle Mandarino, a Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school student assigned here fall semester.  And here is what she found out.       

The story of the Elyton Cemetery begins in 1821, 50 years before the city of Birmingham was officially established. This was the year the federal government granted a tract of land in Alabama to the American Asylum for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, located in Connecticut. This tract–located in what is now west Birmingham but known then as “Frog Level”–, was to be sold off and the profits used for the asylum to expand the education of the deaf at its Connecticut campus.  William H. Ely, a federal land agent and attorney for the asylum,  negotiated the land sale to Alabama speculator Col. John Dupuy and donated a separate parcel to Frog Level’s citizens for a courthouse, with the requirement that the new community be named after himself. Thus, 1821 was the year that the city of Elyton was founded. Col. Dupuy, who purchased 40 acres of the tract, later established the Elyton Cemetery on one of those acres,  most likely in 1834. And, though most of the gravestones are indecipherable with age, the oldest marked grave, that of Mrs. Nancy E. Scott, is from that same year.  

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today.

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today. (Click for larger image of postcard.)

However, even in its early years the cemetery quickly fell into disrepair, and in 1891 a group raised $450 for a cleanup effort. From then to 1965, there would be three more major cleanup efforts, which were never effective in the long term. Perhaps the one bright spot in the overgrown plot was the Laughing Girl – an elegant marble figure of a young girl, mouth open in perpetual laughter, delicate curls tucked behind her ear. In 1974 the figure was still whole, according to newspaper articles. But by the late 1970s, she was falling apart and being used as a base for a neighborhood baseball lot. While her smile remained wide, the rest of the figure bore signs of abuse – a piece of gum stuck to her forehead, both arms now missing, dress crumbling apart. The Laughing Girl didn’t have much of a reason to laugh anymore.

The Moretti connection

The story of Giuseppe Moretti begins in 1857, the year of his birth, in Siena, Italy, more than five thousand miles away from the one-acre

Guiseppe Moretti Birmingham Public Library archives

Guiseppe Moretti
Birmingham Public Library archives

Birmingham cemetery. From a young age, Moretti knew that he wanted to be a sculptor, and that Florence was the art capital of Italy. At age 15, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence under the tutelage of Giovanni Dupre. He was schooled in the style of Beaux-Arts, a style inspired by the elegance and symmetry of French and Italian Renaissance art. Moretti went on to work in Carrara, Italy, and in Budapest, where he was given several distinguished commissions before he moved to New York City. There, he opened a studio with artist, Carl Bitter. He spent a few years in the city, working on some notable commissions, including a few for members of the prestigious Vanderbilt family. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1895, which he described as a “the fine home for the artist–strong, mighty, rugged-so!”

In 1903, Moretti caught the attention of James A. MacKnight, the secretary of Birmingham’s Commercial Club (the city’s first “chamber of commerce”). MacKnight had been tasked to hire a sculptor to design an iron rendering of mythological Vulcan for the St. Louis Exposition. Moretti was competing against three other sculptors for the commission and beat them by offering to do it for $6,000–half the amount the others were quoting, and for agreeing to complete it within the 40-day time frame the Commercial Club desired.  

Upon completing the sculpture, he discovered a marble quarry in Sylacauga–just thirty miles from Birmingham–and became fascinated with it. He was amazed by its quality, so much like that of his native Carrara, and sought to develop a quarry company there. It was this marble that would lead to the creation of his most cherished work, “The Head of Christ.”

In 1905, Moretti would marry Dorothea Long, a young Boston socialite 12 years his junior. Two years later, he would take on a young, gifted Alabama sculptress, Geneva Mercer, as his apprentice and the three of them would travel and live together for nearly three decades until Giuseppe’s death in 1935 in San Remo, Italy.

Laughing Girl in the ruins

These two historic subjects meet in the form of a now-crumbling and dismembered statue – the Laughing Girl. Today, the cemetery lies barren and unkept. The Laughing Girl no longer exists – at least, not in one piece. The last burial took place in 1919, and the cemetery is surrounded by abandoned buildings and a variety of “gentlemen’s clubs.” Although still in one piece as late as 1974, the statue would be broken apart and its parts scattered just a few years later; the cemetery itself would be found in worse shape than it is today, having become essentially a playground for the neighborhood children. This was the scene in 1978, around the time Demedicis rode his bike past the cemetery and decided to rescue the head while it was still in one piece. In her prime, the Laughing Girl stood in a brick courtyard in the center of the Elyton Cemetery, arms stretched out, mouth slightly opened in a smile, eyes focused on the scenery. Still pristine in the 1950s, she was featured on a postcard from an Arlington Antebellum Tour series, which included a stop at the Elyton Cemetery when it was still a meticulously maintained historic resting place for the city’s first residents.

Moretti’s work or someone else’s?

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.]

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.] Click image for larger version.

During the time Moretti was in Birmingham — roughly 1904 to 1916–the cemetery would be recovering from its latest big cleanup effort in 1891. Could the statue possibly be his? He was, after all, varied in his sculptures, and completed at least 14 documented cemetery memorials. Moretti was also known for his fascination with Alabama marble, and the Laughing Girl was sculpted from some sort of marble, although the source isn’t obvious. Also, she is sculpted in the same Beaux-Arts style that Moretti used.

However, while it is tempting to think it is an undiscovered Moretti, there remain questions to be answered. The cemetery was likely in poor condition during Moretti’s tenure in Birmingham. There are style questions, too.  The Laughing Girl’s mouth, for example–which is open in a laugh with the teeth and tongue clearly visible–doesn’t match the mouths of other busts and sculptures of Moretti, which have always been closed, showing only lips. In addition to this, Moretti’s apprentice, Geneva Mercer, kept a scrapbook throughout her life with the sculptor. It is with this scrapbook that historians are able to identify Moretti’s works, and while it shows most of his works either in progress or completed, there is no sign of the Laughing Girl, or anything that might resemble her. Neither is there any entry that seems to fit her n all the records kept of his works. Finally, most of the burials date back long before Moretti came to Alabama in about 1904. Would he have been commissioned to sculpt a piece for a cemetery that, although historic, was small and relatively obscure?

Regardless of whether the Laughing Girl was really the work of the esteemed Moretti, there remains the bigger issue that has been cause for concern for over a hundred years, the same that troubled the concerned citizens of 1965. The Elyton Cemetery is one of the last remaining relics in Birmingham that predates its 1871 founding. While the Laughing Girl was ultimately broken apart, its body pieces scattered, it is not too late for the cemetery itself to be restored. As one citizen was quoted in the 1956, “we have so little of the past generation left in Birmingham, we ought to do what we can to preserve it.”

Postscript: The starting point for Michelle Mandarino’s work began after BHC consulted with Birmingham Museum of Art professionals, who said the statue was done in the Italianate style, but was unlikely the work of Moretti himself. Ms. Mandarino found dozens of newspaper references in her research on the piece. She also relied on the scrapbook of Geneva Mercer. The physical scrapbook documenting all of Moretti’s works is at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, but a digital copy was available at the Birmingham Public Library.  If anyone reading this knows information about the Laughing Girl, please contact us in a reply, by email, or by calling 205-202-4146.

The head remains in the possession of the finder, David Demedicis.

Stormy weather

October 4, 2013
Storms are part of Birmingham's history. This photo looks down on I-65 traffic on March 14, 1993, the year of Birmingham's last great winter storm. Photo by Birmingham News photographer Joe Songer.

Storms are part of Birmingham’s history. This photo looks down on I-65 traffic on March 14, 1993, the year of Birmingham’s last great winter storm. Photo by Birmingham News photographer Joe Songer.

The Great Blizzard or “Superstorm” of March 1993 buried Birmingham in 17 inches of snow and left indelible memories for Birmingham the state and entire region. But guest blogger Art Black gives us the following accounts of two equally historic winter storms — both hitting in Februarys. In 1923, news organizations found work-arounds for downed presses, essential workers walked to work, and most kids had a snow day off from school. The immense span of the 1899 blizzard–known as The Snow King–completely iced over the Port of New Orleans and sent Tallahassee’s temperature to minus 2 degrees–“the only recorded instance of a sub-zero Fahrenheit temperature in Florida to this day.”* One notable fatality of the 1899 storm in Birmingham was the city’s now-forgotten Mardi Gras celebration, which at one time drew some 50,000 revelers to the streets of the Magic City.

The Great Blizzard of 1899, the Snow King or Valentine’s Blizzard
During the early evening of Saturday, Feb. 11, 1899, it was 21 degrees outside as snow began falling. The night grew steadily colder and snow continued to fall until daylight Sunday, when the temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

All day Sunday it was “fearfully cold” as The Birmingham News put it. Coal dealers broke Sunday rules and worked their wagons and teams of horses. In outlying areas, such as Woodlawn, the coal supply gave out entirely.

On Sunday night it grew colder, and the mercury fell to 10 degrees below zero. By 8 a.m. Monday, the temperature had risen only slightly–to minus 5 degrees. Anniston reported 15 below zero.

Monday’s Birmingham News carried the following headline:

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map showing the weather conditions on Feb. 13, 1899. Taken with thanks from ABC 33/40 weather blog. For more information on the map and storm, visit

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map showing the weather conditions on Feb. 13, 1899. Taken with thanks from ABC 33/40 weather blog. For more information on the map and storm, visit

Birmingham in the Blizzard’s Grasp

Ground Wrapped in Mantle of Snow; Sleighing and Skating Possible; White Plumbers and Coal Dealers Reap a Harvest; Street Cars Ran All Night to Keep Tracks Clear; East Lake Frozen Over.

Associated Press dispatches told of “the entire country shivering and great suffering in many places.” The Birmingham Post office would not receive mail from the East for an entire week.

Perhaps the most lasting– but least memorable– damage done to the city was the end of a wildly popular Mardi Gras celebration. The famous French Bachanal on the eve of Ash Wednesday was started in Birmingham by the German Society in which 30 organizations hosted floats and pretzels were thrown instead of coins. Snowfall dampened two of the city’s six parades but the 1899 blizzard canceled the February event, despite fully occupied hotel space. The city would hold only one more Mardi Gras, in 1900.

Henry Key Milner and his sister, Mary Clare Milner, as King and Queen of the foiled 1899 Birmingham Mardi Gras. Weather would do away with the annual celebration in Birmingham the next year.

Henry Key Milner and his sister, Mary Clare Milner, as King and Queen of the foiled 1899 Birmingham Mardi Gras. Weather would do away with the annual celebration in Birmingham the next year.

The News said that “water pipes froze and burst with the regularity and sound of July 4 firecrackers, and it is no improbable that the telephones of plumbers will need new bells when the freeze is over.”
The denouement began Tuesday morning.  It was 16 degrees at 7 a.m., but the sun shone warmly all day, melting most of the snow. Still, there was a large crowd of skaters at East Lake. Wednesday morning’s temperature was 34 degrees, and the emergency was over.


“Birmingham, Isolated, Center of Sleet Storm” was the headline in The Birmingham News of Monday afternoon, Feb. 5, 1923.

The most disastrous sleet storm in 50 years, according to the day’s news, had visited north Alabama the day before and Birmingham awoke Monday in a straitjacket of ice.  Western Union, the Postal Telegraphy Company, and Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. all lost service into or out of Birmingham.
Newspaper press wires stopped sending news. For the first time in the history of the Birmingham bureau of the Associated Press every wire was silent. Early Monday morning The Birmingham News finally attempted to reach the outside world through the new medium of “radiophone” or radio for short. Alabama Power Co. had erected the state’s first radio station, WSY, primarily to communicate with workers in the field, and would later donate the equipment to new station WAPI. But for now, it used the radiophone to relay this message on behalf of The News:

“To All Radiophone Stations Everywhere: Birmingham, Ala. is isolated.  Owing to the storm of the past 48 hours, all press wire communication with the outside world is paralyzed. Radiophone transmitting stations are requested to send to WSY any news of importance in their territory.”

Footing it to work

With streetcars not working, cars not operable and streets impassable, people everywhere walked to work Monday morning. Every teacher in the public school system was at his or her post, but due to crippled heating systems, only three high schools and five elementary schools were in session the entire day.

Even the meteorologist performed under hardship. Marooned in his observatory in Fountain Heights, E. C. Horton of the U.S. Weather Bureau was without telephone communication and made his readings by candle light.

In all, the city’s isolation lasted 20 hours. But as The News put it, “Above the ice and slippery sidewalks, however, there was one thing especially noticeable.  In the way of real Birminghammers there was a general prevalence of smiles Monday morning despite many cold toes and red noes. Everybody was taking the inconveniences with the best of good humor.”

Taken primarily from The Birmingham News and Age-Herald Newspapers, Bhamwiki, and Mental Floss* trivia magazine.

[This article is second in a series of relevant but dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]

He said what?

August 28, 2013

Fifty years from its founding, Birmingham inspired a presidential visit. But Warren Harding’s speech surprised a Roaring Twenties audience ignorant of the city’s future in matters of race.   

President Warren G. Harding, just right of the flag, on the Tutwiler Hotel balcony during the city's first 50 year anniversary festivities, 1921. Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives [collection i.d. OVH119]

President Warren G. Harding, just right of the flag, looks out from the Tutwiler Hotel balcony during the city’s first 50 year anniversary festivities, 1921. Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives [collection i.d. OVH119]


In October of 1921 Birmingham was 50 years old–old enough to be sensible, young enough to be carefree.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 26, Birmingham was all dressed up and awaiting the crowning event of her Golden Anniversary – the visit of President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding.  The skies were as blue as a day in June, with not a cloud in sight. Though it was autumn, the day was hot – plenty of bright sunshine.

The presidential party arrived on a special train over the Southern Railway at 8:45 a.m. As it turned into the Terminal Station, the President was accorded a 21-gun salute by gunners of the Alabama National Guard. At that moment, all industrial plants, shops, fire engines and train engines – anything that could make noise – sounded their whistles and engines through all quarters of the city.

There were 32 people in the presidential entourage, including Secretary of War John Weeks, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, Alabama Sen. Oscar Underwood, reporters from New York and Washington, D.C., the Associated Press, United Press and International News services. They proceeded down Fifth Avenue North to the Tutwiler Hotel with thousands of people lining the streets. At 10 o’clock a grand civic parade of 10 marching bands looped the entire downtown business district for more than an hour.

Around noon, Mr. Harding began an address from a rostrum at Woodrow Wilson Park [now Linn Park], in front of one of the largest gatherings in Birmingham up to that time, as many as 40,000 people. A large section of the park, bounded by a wooden railing, was set aside for black people.

Outside the park, the voices of newsboys called out the noon editions of the newspapers: The News! The News! All About President Harding!

The crowd listened to the president with great interest. At the beginning of his speech, he praised Birmingham: “Mr. Mayor, Citizens of Birmingham, and People of the South: . …We have come here to pay tribute to the marvelous achievement of a brief half-century to which this city and its industries stand as a monument. They testify to us how far the South has progressed in a single generation; the generation since slavery was abolished and the role of free labor and unfettered industrial opportunity became the rule of all our great republic.”

Then the president spoke frankly, turning to his left to address many of his remarks to the “Negro” section. He appealed to the nation to “lay aside old prejudices and old antagonisms” and to support a constructive policy of racial relationship. In his soothing voice of “velvet” as the newspapers called it, he spoke of the right of the American Negro to broad political, economic, and educational advantages. When he called for economic equality, a thunder of applause came up from the segregated section.

Then Mr. Harding turned to the white section. Above the din of the crowd, he departed from his prepared remarks to say: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.” There was another roar from the black section when Mr. Harding looked to them again, laid down his manuscript, and said: “I want to be looking in their direction when I say these things because I am speaking to North and South alike, white and blacks alike. I am never going to say anything that I can’t say in every direction and to all people exactly alike.”

At the close of the President’s address, more cheers broke out, and a band played “Dixie.” Mr. Harding shook hands all around and walked to his automobile. His day was filled with more activities and he didn’t depart Birmingham until after midnight.

The city was startled by the president’s remarks. Most thought he would deliver the usual gushing speech, mixing in just enough substance to give it national scope.  No one expected such affirmative support of black and white racial equality.

 When news of the speech reached Washington the next day, it was the talk of that town as well. Many politicians believed that Harding, in mentioning the issue of race, had tarnished the most enthusiastic reception he had received since his inauguration. Southern Democrats privately criticized the speech. Republicans commended it as “Lincolnesque,” a courageous address delivered in the heart of the South.

Sources: The Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald newspapers.

[This article is first in a series of relevant, dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]


Mines, Mills And Moonshine: Silent Filmmaking in the Birmingham Area, Part III

May 8, 2013

This interesting guest column was written by A. J. Wright, who has worked in the UAB Department of Anesthesiology for many years. He has published on various topics related to both medical and Alabama history. He can be reached at  Parts I and II appeared on this blog on November 13, 2012 and February 14, 2013.

A third silent film shot in the Birmingham area was Men of Steel, filmed in Ensley and released on Sunday, July 11, 1926. An advertising tag line used for the film was a modest one: “One of the Greatest Pictures ever produced.” All the details of international distribution are unknown, but the film did appear in Portugal in December 1927 and Finland in February 1928. Running time for the film is given by various sources as 96 or 100 minutes.

The film premiered in New York City at the Mark Strand Theatre on Broadway. Opened in 1914 with a capacity of 2,989 people, the Strand managed to survive as a cinema in one form or another until it was demolished in early 1987.  In its review the next day, the New York Times noted about the film that “all the stupendous paraphernalia of a steel plant has been used, with the happy result of making that fascinating industry vivid without sacrificing narrative in the picture.”

This picture was a First National production. The company had been founded in 1917 when 26 of the largest cinema chains in the United States merged and created one chain of more than 600 theaters. Thomas L. Tally was the guiding force behind this effort, which was intended to compete with dominate Paramount Pictures. First National would produce, distribute and exhibit its own films.

Quickly the firm signed Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin to the first million-dollar contracts in film history. In 1928 Warner Brothers bought a controlling interest in First National and continued production under its banner until 1936. Among the almost 400 productions the company released were such classics as So Big (1924, based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel), The Lost World (1925, based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel), and Little Caesar (1931, from W.R. Burnett’s novel), one of the early gangster classics with Edward G. Robinson.

Men of Steel was based on a short story, “United States Flavor” written by Ralph G. Kirk and published in the Saturday Evening Post issue of June 14, 1924. Kirk was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1881 and died in 1960 in San Diego, California. Between 1921 and 1953, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, he published numerous short stories, most of them in the Post. In 1923 he published a book, Six Breeds, a collection of five dog stories, including two that had been published in separate editions in 1917 and 1918. A 1922 film, The Scrapper, was based on his story “Malloy Campeador.” Little else is known at the moment about Kirk, and I haven’t seen the story yet and don’t know if it is set in Birmingham. Since Kirk was from another steel producing state, the story may be set there. Why Birmingham was chosen for a filming location is currently unknown.

The Film Daily, a trade newspaper that covered the film and later television industries from 1915 until 1970, ran a front page column-long review of Men of Steel in its issue for Tuesday, July 13, 1926. “The picture has a punch that reaches wallop proportions at several climaxes,” reviewer Kann gushed. “’Men of Steel’ impresses,” he concludes. Unfortunately, the review makes no mention of filming in Birmingham. The same issue of the paper also contains a two-page advertisement for the film, crowing that “N.Y. Strand Busts Town Wide Open with ‘Men of Steel.’” The ad also reproduces a telegram from the Strand’s Joseph Plunkett who wrote breathlessly to executive Richard A. Rowland that “WE HAD TO STOP SELLING TICKETS FOUR TIMES STOP AUDIENCE VERY ENTHUSIASTIC.”

The Men of Steel movie poster in a newspaper advertisement, unfortunately not in full color.

The Men of Steel movie poster in a newspaper advertisement, unfortunately not in full color.

I have not been able to locate a full color image of the movie’s poster for use at theaters, but an article by Mark Caro published in the Chicago Tribune on March 13, 2012, gives us a few hints about its quality. Caro profiles Dwight Cleveland, who has amassed a collection of more than 35,000 such posters. Cleveland mentions “a brilliantly colored poster touting Milton Sills in “Men of Steel” (1926) and depicting one guy punching another in the face.  To Cleveland, ‘Men of Steel’ illustrates a key problem with his hobby. Although Sills and that silent film are long forgotten, the poster is a beautiful stone lithograph that the collector argues should be judged on its artistic merits. ‘That’s a poster that should sell for 10,000 bucks at some point, when people really understand how important the artwork is,’ Cleveland said. ‘Then they’ll realize this is a great example of early lithography, and it will rise. Now if it’s just going to be valued by movie people, they’re not going to think it’s so important.’”

Men of Steel was directed by George Archainbaud, an actor and manager who came to the U.S. from France in 1915. Before his death in 1959, he had worked primarily as a director in silent and sound films and television. He is perhaps best remembered today for several westerns, including some featuring Hopalong Cassidy. In 1932 he directed The Lost Squadron, in which three World War I aviators find jobs as stunt flyers in Hollywood after the war.

The male lead in Men of Steel was Milton Sills, a popular star of the time; the movie was one of four he made in 1926 alone. Sills also wrote the script for the film based on Kirk’s short story. Born in Chicago in 1882, he attended the University of Chicago and worked there after graduation. In 1905 he joined a stock theater company and toured the country before settling in New York and making his Broadway debut in 1908. By 1914 Sills had moved to Hollywood for his film debut in The Pit. By the time he arrived in Birmingham his success put him in films of the largest studios and opposite such stars as Gloria Swanson and such box-office hits as The Sea Hawk in 1924. In 1927 Sills was among the 36 people who founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Milton Sills

Milton Sills

Dorothy Kenyon

Doris Kenyon

Staring opposite Sills was Doris Kenyon, a native of New York who was fifteen years younger. She made her first film in 1915 and by 1924 appeared in Monsieur Beaucaire with Rudolph Valentino. She continued to act in films well into the sound period and had a few television appearances in the late 1950s. She died in 1979.  Sills and Kenyon carried their relationship beyond the set in Birmingham; they were married in October 1926 and had a son before Sills death from a heart attack in 1930. Other individuals acting in the production included Victor McLaglen, May Allison and Frank Currier. Born in England in 1886, McLaglen served in World War I after several years on the boxing circuit. He even fought heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in an exhibition match. McLaglen acted in several silent films in Britain before moving to Hollywood where he quickly became a popular character actor, often playing intoxicated Irishmen. He was still acting in films and television until his death in 1959. His son Andrew McLaglen became a director in both film and television.Georgia native May Allison appeared on Broadway in 1914 but quickly moved to Hollywood. She became very popular in a series of some 25 films with leading man Harold Lockwood. However, his death in 1918 during the influenza pandemic resulted in a decline in the public’s interest in her. Allison made her final film, The Telephone Girl, the year after Men of Steel and then retired. She died in 1989.  Born in Connecticut in 1857, Frank Currier acted in more than 130 films between 1912 and 1928. He also directed a number of films during that period.  He appeared in such silent classics as Ben-Hur and died in 1928.

May Allison

May Allison

Victor McLaglen

Victor McLaglen

A synopsis of the film’s story by Hal Erickson can be found online at the site. “Sills plays Jan Bokak, a self-educated steelworker who finds himself in the middle of a romantic triangle. Two different girls — wealthy socialite Claire Pitt (May Allison) and blue-collar worker Mary Berwick (Doris Kenyon) — simultaneously fall for Bokak. It later develops that Claire and Mary are actually sisters, the first of a series of surprising plot twists leading to Bokak being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. In the gutsy climax, the actual villain attempts to kill Bokak by pouring a vat of molten steel upon him!”   According to, Men of Steel premiered at the Franklin Theatre in Ensley, although no date is given. Located at 1819 Avenue E, the theatre was built in the early 1900s and closed in the early 1930s. The building remains vacant today

All three of these silent films made in the Birmingham area—Moonshiner’s Daughter, Coming Through, and Men of Steel—are among the many “lost” films of the silent era. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has estimated that 90 percent of films made before 1929 are lost. These movies were made on nitrate film, which is highly flammable and chemically unstable. Improperly stored, these films can turn to toxic mush or powder in the canister. Sometimes these films will surface in various unexpected places. In 2010, the Russian state film archive gave the Library of Congress copies of ten U.S. silent films believed lost but discovered in storage.

Little is known about the local details of making these three silent movies. Hopefully some research in Birmingham area newspapers will uncover further details.  If you would like to learn more about silent filmmaking, the print literature and web resources are vast. My own interest was sparked years ago by Kevin Brownlow’s book, The Parade’s Gone By [1976], an excellent place to start.

Visit the historic theater and retail district with us and author Tim Hollis

April 4, 2013

Registration Email ad 8.5 x 11 72 dpiincludes a copy of Hollis’ book, “Birmingham’s Historic Theater and Retail District.”

Sign up for both tour sections and receive a copy of Charles Buchanan’s recent book, “Fading Ads of Birmingham,” retailing at $22.95 locally.

Visit for ticketing and more information.

Click on flyer for larger image.

April 6, April 20 & April 27.

1963: The Year Everything Changed

March 21, 2013

In my family the current year is 50 A.J., not 2013.   On August 16, 1963 my little sister, Jennifer was born.  We now date everything from that day.  I, for example, was born in 11 B.J. (Before Jennifer), my sister Ronnee was born in 10 B.J. and my brother Jed was born in 8 B.J.  Before that fateful day things had been going along swimmingly for us during the later Eisenhower and early Kennedy administrations.  As the oldest son, I was obviously the most favored.  I got the best presents at Christmas; my birthday was a family holiday.  My sister Ronnee was showered with the latest young girl fashions and had her hair combed every night by my mother.  Jed, as the youngest, was treated like the prodigal son.

Paper Boy, Yankees Fan, 5th Grader in 1963

Paper Boy, Yankees Fan, 5th Grader in 1963

Then the whole dynamic of our family changed.  Everything revolved around the new, cute baby – the golden child.  Suddenly, my brother Jed disappeared from photographs, the next photo taken of him was at his high school graduation in 10 A.J.   Ronnee’s room in our house was taken over by a crib and baby things.  She did not get any new clothes until 5 A.J.  She got no sleep until that date either.   Suddenly, I, at the tender age of eleven, was given responsibilities.  If the golden child cried and my parents were doing something, I had to calm her down.  If the golden child wanted her blanket, I had to find it.  If the golden child wanted to play, I had to play with her.  It was chaos.

To get away from these crushing family obligations, I took an outside job.  I became a paper boy in the first month of 1 A.J.  Except for the fact that I had to get up at 6:00 am to deliver the Bangor Daily News I really enjoyed the job.  My route was fairly simple in the small town of Mapleton, Maine.  I delivered the news to about 45 customers over a small block of the town, at the end of the week I got paid a dime for every customer.  The thing I enjoyed the most, besides the exorbitant wages, was that I got to read the paper before my father.  Dad, at the breakfast table, never shared the paper with anyone until he had read the whole thing, especially the sports section.  At the time I was a secret New York Yankees fan in Boston Red Sox territory (please don’t tell anyone, I have since repented).  I was keen every morning to see how Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Joe Pepitone did on the diamond the night before.  Now I got  the scoop before anyone else.

One crisp Monday morning, September 16th, I opened the stack of newspapers to see a large headline on the front page  – “Church Bombed in Birmingham, Alabama – Four Negro Girls Killed.”  I remember it was hard to make much sense of the story.  Why would anyone want to bomb a church?  Why would anyone want to kill four little girls who were my age?  I asked my 5th grade teacher (who also happened to be my mother) about this and she explained that there were people who hated other people because their skin color was different.  This was a shocking revelation to me.  Then things got worse.  In November, the headlines screamed “President Kennedy Killed in Dallas.”  I have since pondered over those events.

By some cosmic twist of fate, I am now the Director of the History Center of the city in that shocking September  headline.  Birmingham became the Gettysburg of civil rights in 1963, the turning point in a movement that began a hundred years earlier.  After 1963, the city changed.  It changed because brave people on both sides of the issue, tired of the strife, tired of the negative headlines, came together to end segregation.  The events in Birmingham fifty years ago are being celebrated across the city this year, by city and county government, by schools, by local businesses and by cultural institutions.  In September of 2013, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the world will be watching Birmingham for another reason – to learn from its example.

On April 1, as part of the celebration, a new exhibit will open at the Birmingham History Center entitled; “1963, The Year Everything Changed.”  It has as its focus the month by month story of Birmingham, the nation and the world; civil rights stories, sports stories, interesting personalities of 1963, music, art, inventions, and space adventures.  In 1963 the pop tart and lava lamps were invented, along with zip codes, touch tone telephones and easy-bake ovens.  It was the year that the Beach Boys sang about surfing.  It was year that Michael Jordan and Brad Pitt were born.  It was the year that a Russian woman traveled into space and Gordon Cooper slept on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.  It was a year of fire hoses and “I have a Dream.”  It was the year of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  It was the year that John John saluted his father’s passing casket.  It was the year my wonderful, amazing sister was born.  It was the year that everything changed.


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