Glenn Uminowicz: January 2006
On the face of it, the “vault” at the Historical Society of Talbot County is the least likely place to find a vision of our future. Behind a huge metal door with its combination lock, historical artifacts rest under climate-controlled conditions. Portraits of notable Talbot Countians from earlier times line the walls and textiles and period clothing lay cradled in acid-free boxes neatly arranged on steel shelves.
Down a hallway, past a room housing over 100,000 photographic negatives is the storage space for paper materials. On the shelves are family bibles, business records, assorted ephemera and 19th-century periodicals. The latter were the “Journals of Civilization” found in almost every Victorian parlor. Even in rural places like the Eastern Shore, readers enjoyed the work of Charles Dickens, learned about the life of George Washington and traveled to the gold fields of Central America.
In January 1856, readers of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine also saw into the future. The author of the magazine’s lead article did not predict what life would be like in the year 1900 or even 2000. The title of the piece was “JANUARY FIRST, A.D. 3000.”
Like Rip Van Winkle, the narrator in the article wakes in a future time. He asks the first person he meets, “Where am I?” He is in Peerless City, the Capital of the World located in what used to be known as the Island of Borneo. Private residences ring its central plaza that features a courthouse and other public buildings. In the future, city planning apparently would be left to developers of tract housing. The narrator observed, “The houses are precisely alike; each had the same number of windows, doors and chimneys.”
As to the narrator’s guide himself, he wore nothing but a short pair of trousers and a pair of shoes. On one leg of his drawers was printed an interest table and, on the other leg, a timetable for the flying express coaches connecting the various parts of the world. The guide noted, “We declared our independence of tailors long ago.” A perpetual casual Friday had been instituted worldwide.
In fact, everyone was now a global citizen, as the idea of nationhood had been abandoned. The guide explained that the global thinking leading to the creation of a “Republic of United Interests” began in the United States in the year 2207. It grew out of American efforts to control the economic progress of China. By the year 3000, the worldwide economy operated according to one gigantic free trade agreement. The earth had been divided into districts, each specializing in a single economic endeavor. The French, for example, “are all glove-makers and are forbidden by law to make anything else.
As for the territory formerly called the United States of America, it became completely occupied by “stock-jobbers.” The guide explained, “They do nothing all day but buy and sell script.” In short, all manufacturing jobs had been out-sourced to other parts of the world and the North American economy now focused exclusively on a single financial service industry.
His head swimming after taking in these new realities, the narrator requests a respite from his tour and his guide takes him to a hotel restaurant. The narrator requests a glass of champagne but is informed that the whole world has gone alcohol free. He apologizes for his ignorance and asks for a glass of water. The waiter hands him a menu listing “Spring water, Rain water, Well water, Water filtered through charcoal, Water filtered through stone, Water filtered through gravel” and sixty-one other types of water. When the narrator asks for his check, the total for his water comes to $7.27. He is flabbergasted. Amazing as it seems, in the future people will willingly pay an exorbitant amount for a glass or bottle of their preferred water. Can you imagine supermarket aisles lined with an endless variety of such drinks?
In January 1856, the Harper’s Monthly writer’s musings represent an emerging New Year’s tradition. The turning of the calendar is a time to look back over the year just past and speculate about the future. Looking at New Year’s editions of Talbot County newspapers from the first half of the 20th century, however, there was a lot more looking back than gazing forward on the Eastern Shore.
From the 1910s through the early 1930s, for example, the Easton Star-Democrat regularly ran a “Review of the Year” editorial cartoon on its front page illustrating events of national significance. In 1926, for example, the cartoon referenced the “Monkey Trial” that pitted fundamentalist belief against the theory of evolution. In 1930, the subject matter included the stock market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression.
On the editorial page, opinions about the short-term future reflected the spirit of the times. In the “Roaring Twenties,” editorial writers argued that pessimists were not especially good prognosticators. Times were good and there was no reason to conclude that they would not continue to be so. By contrast, after World War II, the future appeared “chaotic.” There was just too much uncertainty about what would happen next in the world and the nation. Talbot County farmers, for example, worried about prices for their crops and a shortage of farm labor.
The one event that turned Eastern Shore people into futurists occurred in July 1952 when the first span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened. In January, an editorial writer for the Star-Democrat observed, “For Talbot County and the entire peninsula, 1952 will be a year to be remembered. The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge will mark the end of an era of relative isolation which has lasted for several centuries. Population is likely to increase. Our pattern of commerce will be altered. Tourist trade will flourish. Factories will seek branch locations on the peninsula. And, as the area grows, local stores will face direct competition from branches of big city stores.”
The Eastern Shore had never been entirely isolated from the outside world. Its agricultural economy was predicated on the ability to ship product to distant locations. In 1911, a newspaper columnist wrote a tribute to the “Talbot Tomato” which was shipped in “artistic cans” around the world “from the back streets of Budapest to the pampas of Patagonia.” It was one thing to ship tomatoes out, however, and quite another to let the world come in.
To their credit, political, business and civic leaders recognized the challenges of protecting the traditions and the environment of the Shore. At the dedication of the Bay Bridge, Governor McKeldin called for resistance to “the onslaught of hot dog vendors and billboard raisers expected to beset the new highways leading to the bridge.” Officials in communities closest to the span fretted over the possible development of “Bridgetowns” that might bring a “Honky-Tonk” atmosphere to the Shore.
The challenge faced on the Eastern Shore over the half century since the opening of the Bay Bridge is as old as America. In New England, it has been called the “Puritan Dilemma.” Led by John Winthrop, a small group of colonists sought to perfect their faith in isolation. But the world could not be kept at bay and they eventually needed to answer the question, How can we live in the world and not be corrupted by it?
Especially since the opening of the Bridge, citizens have sought to protect the natural environment and preserve the heritage of the Eastern Shore while at the same time adjusting to a rising population, increased tourism and pressures associated with economic development. Balancing preservation and growth is the Eastern Shore’s dilemma. Our continuing response to it will truly determine the future.