Only in America

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So, I was driving down the road the other day. I was southbound on North 12th Street, between Plainwell and Kalamazoo, on my way to work, listening to the radio.

By “other day” I mean 1979. I hate to admit it, but I’ve reached the age that I can’t give you an accurate accounting of what happened yesterday, so I rely on these vivid flashbacks to keep life interesting.

I heard something on the radio that morning that I thought was pretty cool. It was a news story about a writer for Playboy magazine who had been driving down I-94 near Kalamazoo, listening to the radio when he heard something pretty cool.

He had been listening to WKZO on the afternoon of a developing winter blizzard and KZO was announcing meeting cancellations in Kalamazoo for that evening. When he got back to Chicago, the Playboy writer called KZO and asked them to send him that list of cancellations. They did and he printed the list verbatim, and, yes, it was pure Americana. The church potluck; the meeting of the Elks, Eagles and Masons; the Boy Scout troop; the sewing circle; the PTA meeting; the basketball games; the support group; the knitting guild; the horse lovers’ club — well, you get the idea.

I just had to buy a copy of that Playboy magazine, which I regret to say I didn’t save, in that I’m not a collector of anything. Well, I shouldn’t say I don’t collect anything, because I’ve been assigned by a high school friend from Denver to help her daughter get 10 of the new Michigan quarters minted in Philadelphia. We have some tennis friends who also collect quarters, and they struggle to get coins minted in Denver.

Anyway, I tucked away these reflections on Americana and the next thing I know I’m going down the road again. This time I’m traveling through downtown Buenos Aires, and driving is Carlos Salvagni. Carlos was the head of Upjohn’s Argentina manufacturing operations, and like most of the people I met during my two weeks of travel in South America, he seemed to have more and better insights into life in the United States than I typically heard, well, in the United States.

Carlos offered an observation that ultimately got me to think about this“ Only In America” topic. I hasten to add that the word “only” is not offered argumentatively and I hope not jingoistically. I’m no world traveler, no scholar and no observer of international cultures. I’m just a guy driving down the road listening to things and thinking about things.

Out of the blue, Carlos Salvagni says, “You know the one thing that distinguishes the United States from all other countries. . .”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Magazines.”

“Magazines,” I repeat.

“Americans have a magazine for everything,” Carlos said, “ whether it’s for people who drive ‘57 Chevy’s or people who collect spoons. You name the interest, an American has a magazine for it.”

When I got back to Kalamazoo — this was still 1979 — I took a walk through the Michigan News Agency and looked at the magazines with a new appreciation for wide range of interests of people around me.

That appreciation for Americans’ love of hobbies, collectibles and other special interests grew fairly steadily over the years until I was driving down the road one day, listening to the radio, and I thought, “Man, what is the internet, but magazines on steroids?”

Was the internet tailor made for Americans or what? Just think what a person with special interests can discover with a few quick strokes on a computer keyboard. For instance, to make my point, I gained instant access to InternetWorldStats, which has data current as of April 30, 2004, measuring internet usage in 233 countries. As you might imagine, English dominates the World Wide Web. The internet “penetration rate” in North America is 70 percent, compared to 28 percent in Europe and as little as just a few percent on other continents.

And, according to NetNames Ltd. the United States has 11 million of the 15.7 million internet domains that exist worldwide.

That’s a lot of pretty specific interests.

I’ve considered exhausting myself with a search for the most arcane and obscure interests in American life, but I’m afraid that to do so would be like trying to anticipate the next baseball statistic to be announced. Most left handers in an American League lineup after the All Star Break, west of the Mississippi in a Wednesday night game.

Modern era of course.

One simply doesn’t possess the intellectual reach to organize even the categories of interest that keep Americans awake at night. Somewhere out there, an individual takes pride that he wrote the software to identify the 7,000 guitar chords in existence and that he has made a game out of it.

Your grandson may be willing to pay $24.95 for the Secrets of the Unicorn, a sourcebook cataloging the customs, history and heroes of his favorite Dungeons and Dragons clan.

Only in America do we find The Institute for Naming Children Humanely, a non-profit organization dedicated to achieving a better society through better names for children.

The Number One category of collectibles on ebay? Pinball machines.

Followed by Disney pins, neon signs, Vegas poker chips, restaurant ware, dog art, vintage posters and Coca Cola memorabilia. Of course, people still collect rocks, stamps, pens, baseball cards, clocks, comic books, knives and Beanie Babies.

Kalamazoo’s largest convention every year is the gathering of hot rod collectors. Men and women re-create Civil War battles. They square dance. They fish, hike, sky dive and kayak. We all know people who collect barbed wire, key chains, Pez dispensers and shot glasses. And, yes, we know a person who is a fairy tale aficionado.

Our friends and neighbors study the rules of golf, follow NASCAR results, photograph butterflies, collect World War I cavalry mule saddles, trace genealogy, race sailboats, make candles, play chess, fly airplanes, quilt, crochet, watch birds, make puppets, cook, perform magic, launch rockets and write poetry. They belong to rugby clubs, historical societies, tavern-based dart groups, softball leagues and knitting guilds.

They still subscribe to magazines, but they also log into chat rooms and create their own home pages to advance and share their interests.

I personally only just dabble in various hobby realms, such as etymology (which is the study of word origins), running, cryptic crossword puzzles and the success of nonprofit organizations. Although my interests are casual in nature, I am fascinated by what might best be called the “racer’s edge” mentality of others, that which drives people with special interests to know more and do more than others with like interests.

It’s important, for instance, for the owner of Bigfoot 14 to have the greatest “height ramped” of all monster trucks — 24 feet. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a feeling a lot of people paid to see it. When I saw a photo of Bigfoot, I wasn’t surprised to see that it was painted in the image of an American flag.

Obviously, the people of Tibet, Australia, Belgium and Morocco have the same or similar quirky and specialized interests as Americans. A dozen Brits, after all, set the world record for the Longest Hand-Pumped Rail Trolley Trip, 125 miles, back and forth 101 times on a short section of track outside of Cambridgeshire. The world’s largest collection of nail clippers belongs to a South African. And the inventor of the world’s smallest motorcycle is a Swede.

These fascinations, oddly enough, must be human nature. Clearly you’d have to be born, not trained, to develop an interest in dumpster diving, lock picking and change ringing, which is a hobby for people who like to ring church bells.
Do change ringers have their own web site? Are you kidding? Go to Google, type in “Change Ringing” and you get 604,000 options. The North American Guild of Change Ringers Web site lets you listen to different church bells.
But what is it that makes Americans the most obsessed with such specialized interests?

I don’t know.

But let’s go back to magazines. Ten of the 13 best-selling special interest magazines in the world are published in the United States. In this day and age, it certainly isn’t hard to find the history of magazines. In fact it takes about 15 seconds to pull up some university’s history of the written word, and while you’re comparing the pictographic Sumerian writing system with Egyptian hieroglyphics, something catches your eye and you’re knee-deep in human communications, watching the world shrink across the American plains, as 20 U.S. companies string 12,000 miles of telegraph lines in a few short years.

The telegraph was not dissimilar to radio, television, the internet and other communications technologies in that its invention was a worldwide phenomenon, with raging disputes over patents, rights and usages. On every communication frontier, it seems, the United States tended to developmentally distinguish itself, as it had with the telegraph. Radio, simultaneously developed in Russia and the United States, may be the best example — used for propaganda in Russia and (you guessed it) put to commercial uses in the United States.

OK, television may be a better example.

What made our communications history different? Was it the industrious nature of Americans that just happened to include the ability to utilize communication technologies? Was, or is, our form of government an enabling factor in communications technology? Was it the compatibility of the English language with communication technology, as Great Britain led or kept pace with the development of some communication vehicles?

The first magazine, The Review — if my nonscholarly pursuit of this information is correct — was published in London in 1704. Then in 1741, America’s first two magazines were published, one by Benjamin Franklin. The Saturday Evening Post hit the news stands in 1821 and had a nice 148-year run. Harper’s appeared in 1850 and later Harper’s Weekly became notable for its illustrations of the Civil War. The other magazine milestone, by the way, was 1953, when we saw both Playboy and TV Guide introduced. Keep in mind that until the 1880s, only the upper classes read magazines. They were small soft cover books, carrying stories that appealed to a classically educated, elite readership that identified with Europe. The poor folk read newspapers and weekly tabloids. Magazines were expensive, partly because printing technology limited even the most popular to a run of 100,000 copies; it simply took too long to push any more paper through a press.

Plus, until Congress created second-class mail in 1879, the American Post Office only carried magazines for short distances, at high cost. In 1883, S.S. McClure dropped the price of his general-interest McClure’s magazine to only 15 cents. It was phenomenally successful. His rival publisher, Frank Munsey, lowered the price of Munsey’s Magazine from 25 cents to 10 cents.

Suddenly every major magazine cut its prices and upped its circulation.

Then came illustration and photography to change the formats and the habits of readers. But the biggest change came from what at the time distinguished American magazines from European magazines: namely that the very purpose of magazines was to sell advertising.

We take it for granted today, but virtually every mass communication medium since has existed for commercial purposes, not content per se. Magazine advertisers discovered that with full pages and the new language of design, there was room for pictures, slogans, headlines and the psychic symbols of soft sell. Graphic design came to mean sophisticated visual means of developing impact. Was it any coincidence, then, that ad agencies started in 1890? They developed research and circulation-boosting sales techniques.

You could certainly argue that the magazine boom was an extension of the popularity of newspapers, whose numbers had more than quadrupled between 1850 and 1880. A broader view, though, would suggest the visual expansion and enhancement of communications from the telegraph through print on its way to radio, television and computers.

I’m guilty of oversimplifying his point, but I’ve been taken by the observation of Bill Richardson, the CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, that America won the Cold War by shrinking the world with communications technology and knowledge. Communication, in many ways, is the enabling factor, if not the common bond among the Elks, Eagles and Masons, the Boy Scout troop, the sewing circle, the PTA , the basketball team, the support groups, the knitting guild and the horse lovers’ club, not to mention the collectors of Vegas poker chips, restaurant ware and dog art.

At least that’s what I was thinking as I was driving down the road the other day.