Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin

by Joseph P. Eckhardt
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998. (286 pages, cloth, $55.00)

That immigrant Jews exerted a profound impact on the growth of American cinema is well known and has been the subject of considerable scholarship. However, the country’s first Jewish movie mogul, Siegmund “Pop” Lubin (1851-1923) of Philadelphia has never been closely studied – until now. A visionary entrepreneur with a gambler’s instincts, Lubin attempted to mass-market “Life Motion Pictures” as early as 1897. Despite constant litigation with Thomas Edison, Lubin’s business became one of the most profitable of the early film enterprises. By 1899 he had vertically integrated his business and was advertising both his films and machines overseas, and less than ten years later had owned a flourishing chain of theaters spread across six states. When Edison formed the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908, Lubin joined the organization. He was torn between his loyalty to Edison and his desire to help young Jewish independents break into the industry and so he adopted a complex strategy for working both sides. Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Mark Dintenfass, Charles Baumann, and Adam Kessel all benefited from his discreet assistance. He also became the first American film pioneer to utilize the motion picture to combat anti-Semitism. He was fascinated by the fact that moving pictures could revolutionize education, medicine, and the study of science and invested much time and money on these interests, often at the expense of his source of profit – narrative fiction films. Although notoriously pragmatic in his business practices, he cultivated a sterling reputation in the press and in the industry’s trade journals, successfully styling himself “The King of the Movies.” His East Coast studios were located in Philadelphia and at Betzwood, a former country estate near Valley Forge. In his effort to exploit every opportunity, Lubin ultimately spread his resources too thin. Coupled with unfortunate circumstances – among them a disastrous fire, the outbreak of World War I, and a federal antitrust suit against the patents company – his declining holdings forced him into bankruptcy and retirement in 1916. He died in 1923, just as Hollywood – and the talkies – were coming of age. The King of the Movies draws upon contemporary accounts, as well as interviews with Lubin’s surviving family, friends, and employees, to explore the complex personality of this early film pioneer and his influence on the initial development of the motion picture industry. The King of the Movies features many vintage images of the early days of filmmaking, period advertisements, and movie stills.

 

American Shad in the Susquehanna River Basin

by Richard Gerstell
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998 (217 pages, paper, $17.95)

Subtitled A Three-Hundred-Year History, American Shad in the Susquehanna River Basin is part cultural history, part environmental study, part recreational journal. Once the center of a major commercial industry along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, the American shad population in the river was nearly destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century by the construction of dams. Concerned citizens began rebuilding the shad population in 1950, and the continuing conservation efforts are proving successful in returning the American shad to the Susquehanna. This account of the rise, the fall, and the restoration of the Susquehanna River’s shad is a fascinating story of history, politics, technology, economics, sports, and environmentalism. It is also an inspiring tale of how human beings, once cognizant of the damage they have caused to the natural environment, can work to overcome the despoliation they have wreaked. Called by some “the poor man’s salmon,” shad was fished by the Native Americans early on in the Susquehanna, documented by archaeologists who uncovered bones and scales at the sites of long-abandoned villages in the lower river valley. Drawing on public archives, government land records, private property deeds, early newspaper reports, business papers, and related primary documents, the author shows the integral part played by shad in the cultural and economic history of the people living in the Susquehanna River basin through three centuries. Early descriptions of the once-thriving shad-fishing industry include eyewitness accounts of the scores of wagons regularly seen waiting for shad at fisheries along the river; fishermen occasionally killed in scuffles over fishing places; sanitary problems at city and riverbank fisheries; and shore and island hotels built especially for fishermen and fish purchasers. Ameri­can Shad in the Susquehanna River Basin: A Three-Hundred-Year History contains vintage photographs and drawings, extensive notes, and a reader-friendly index.

 

The Knox Mine Disaster

by Robert P. Wolensky, Kenneth C. Wolensky, and Nicole H. Wolensky
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999 (164 pages, paper, $12.95)

The Knox Mine Disaster, January 22, 1959: The Final Years of the Northern Anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Regional Economy opens with a seemingly simple premise: the mine cave-in at Port Griffith, Luzerne County, which took the lives of twelve men, did not suddenly and by itself cause the death of the coal industry, which powered America’s industrial revolution. Instead, the authors argue that the “catastrophe could more accurately be called the penultimate or nearly fatal blow to a business that still constituted a large share of the area’s economy despite four decades of steady decline.” The Knox Mine Disaster terminated mining in the middle portion of the coal field surrounding nearby Pittston, but it did not affect the mines to the north in the Scranton area; deep mining continued through the early 1970s in parts of the region. The Knox Mine Disaster is a perfect place – in both time and location – from which to launch a discussion of what did spell the end of the coal trade. Although scholars and historians have identified causes of anthracite’s decline, citing competition from natural gas and oil, as well as the expense of mine drainage, they have paid less attention to significant factors such as inadequate capital investments by the large mining companies, corporate and union deceit, illegal mining, organized crime, and – perhaps most important of all – the industry’s contract-leasing system which is examined for the very first time by this book. The demise of the coal trade is a sordid tale involving greedy individuals, lax mine inspectors, irresponsible corporations, and a corrupt United Mine Workers Union. The tragedy at Port Griffith resulted from a level of corruption that can still shock the public conscience. The Knox Mine Disaster first offers a discussion of the events leading to and surrounding the break-in of the Susquehanna River at the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine (see “Disas­ter – Or Murder? – in the Mines” by Robert P. Wolensky and Kenneth C. Wolensky, Spring 1998). The book continues with an examination of blame and responsibility and the issues of individual negligence and greed and the contract-leasing system developed over the years by large coal companies. The authors also investigate the efforts by both the public and private sectors to recast the post-anthracite economy (see “Life After the Mines Closed” by Thomas Dublin with photographs by George Har­van in the spring 1999 issue). The Knox Mine Disaster is much more than a history of an accident – or an industry for that matter. Because the book draws on the recollections of miners and their families, industry officials, and individuals involved in the legal aftermath, it is an epic drama that is as spellbinding as it is sensational. Candid photographs of members of this cast of characters lend a human element that overshadows the gaping hole in the riverbed, the billions of gallons of water that crashed through it, and the tons of twisted equipment and machinery. This is the story of a calamity, much of which is brought directly to the reader by the participants themselves. The Knox Mine Dis­aster contains extensive chapter notes, tables, a list of interviewees, and, for those not familiar with coal region terminology, a handy glossary of anthracite mining terms.

 

Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Por­trait

by Martha Frick Symington Sanger
Abbeville Press, 1998 (600 pages, cloth, $50.00)

In this exhaustive biography of her great-grandfather, the author delves deeply into the persona of one of the country’s wealthiest and powerful individuals to expose a man of great complexity and contradiction. Abhorred as an enemy of the working class, respected as an industrial genius, Pittsburgh coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) was also an astute connoisseur who assembled and left to the public one of the world’s finest art collections. A philanthropist whose largesse often helped the children of immigrants, he was a ruthless strikebreaker. A man who acquired wealth, power, and social status, he nevertheless remained unhappy and tormented throughout his life. Many Levels of Frick’s life are interwoven in this unique and honest portrayal. Unlike previous chroniclers, the author looks not only at Frick’s business career, but his fam­ily life, his personal makeup, his character, his development as a collector of art, and the psychological legacy he left his children, particularly Helen Clay Frick (see “‘The Public is Entitled to Know’: Fighting for the Public Memory of Henry Clay Frick” by Brent D. Glass, Winter 1992). The author shows how his life, and that of his family, was permanently darkened by the deaths of an infant son and, more importantly, that of his young daughter Martha, who swallowed a pin and for several years suffered a slow, painful decline and finally death from peritonitis. Many of the paintings he collected, the author contends, were haunting, luminous links to his past – windows into his psychic landscape. The juxtaposition of the paintings with archival and family photographs offers startling visual confirmation of the highly autobiographical nature of Frick’s acquisitions. The book examines Frick’s emotionally charged and exceptionally close relationship with daughter Helen, who, never marrying, became her father’s confidante, surrogate spouse and, finally, his caretaker. The more familiar life of Henry Clay Frick is crammed with intimate details and stories, among them his rise from rags to riches and an assassination attempt by anarchist Alexander Berkman in 1892. Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait is the first book to offer such a full and rounded account of the life and times of one of the key figures in America’s industrial history. The sumptuously illustrated volume – it contains nearly four hundred images, half of which are in color! – includes an extensive genealogy of the family, nearly one thousand footnotes, a chronological listing of the Frick Collection’s art acquisitions, and an extensive index.