New in the collection: Polk tobacco silk

Image of James K. Polk on fabric

“It was between 1905 and 1910 that tobacco companies in America began inserting textile items into their cigarette and tobacco products. The fad for these textiles was between 1910 and 1916. At the beginning of World War I the practice was more or less abandoned….

“The tobacco or cigarette ‘silk’ was made from a variety of fabrics such as silk or silk satin, a cloth combination of silk and cotton, a cotton sateen or even a plain woven cotton. The silks were often beautifully poly-chrome printed with varied subjects, and were usually printed with the tobacco company name.”

— From “Tobacco Silks” at the Princetonian Museum

This tobacco silk of North Carolina native James K. Polk — from a series of presidents — was included with Mogul cigarettes, although the brand name is missing on this example.

Though likely made of a Turkish blend, Moguls were advertised with an Egyptian theme when introduced by a Greek importer in 1892. In 1900 the company was purchased by American Tobacco, then parceled out to P. Lorillard in the 1911 dissolution of the tobacco trust. 


Buncombe, bunkum, bunk…. debunk!

” ‘Bunk’ already had a fascinating history in American usage before [William E. Woodward‘s 1923 novel by that name] appeared. In its nonsensical meaning, ‘bunk’ is a shortened form of ‘bunkum.’ That word goes back to 1820, when Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina, gave a long, irrelevant speech on the floor. He admitted to his colleagues, ‘I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe,’ a county in his home district.

” ‘Speaking to Buncombe’ then entered political parlance to refer to pointless oratory. In the late 1830s, that expression got shortened to ‘speaking (or talking) Bunkum,’ using a playful alternative spelling for ‘Buncombe.’ Only in the 1840s did ‘bunkum’ begin to stand on its own to mean ‘claptrap,’ especially of the political kind.

” ‘Bunkum’ then got clipped to ‘bunk’ by the late 19th century. The humorist Finley Peter Dunne used it in 1893, when a character assesses two replicas of Irish villages at the Chicago World’s Fair. One of them, he says, ‘is th’ real Irish village,’ while ‘th’ other one from Donegal is a sort of bunk.’

“Thomas Edison was widely quoted as saying ‘Religion is all bunk,’ causing such an uproar in 1910 that he was forced to clarify that his quarrel wasn’t with the existence of God. Henry Ford, arguing against U.S. involvement in World War I in 1916, notoriously told an interviewer, ‘History is more or less bunk.’

“By the time Woodward wrote ‘Bunk,’ the slang term was well entrenched. But Woodward didn’t coin ‘debunk.’ Newspaper databases now reveal earlier uses, such as a 1915 article in the New York Sun profiling Arthur S. Hoffman, a founder of the American Legion: ‘And yet in his quiet, emphatic way he kept boring and boring in a convincing manner, debunked and denuded of all that was not fact.’

“Still, Woodward’s novel undoubtedly introduced ‘debunking’ into mainstream use, and that’s no bunk.”

— From “What ‘Debunking’ Owes to a 1923 Novel and Buncombe County, N.C.” by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 4, 2019)

“Bunkum” as a superlative? Nicholas Graham checks it out. And William Safire notes its contribution to “hokum.”

New in the collection: Price’s Chicken Coop menu

Menu listing offerings at Price's Chicken Coop

“There will always be more fried chicken. There will always be debates over the best fried chicken. But the announcement that Price’s Chicken Coop was closing in June after 59 years is about more than dark meat vs. white or whether you’ll sneak in an order of gizzards on the side. The loss burns a deep-fryer-sized hole in Charlotte’s soul.

“No more standing in line with a cross section of humanity—Black, white, business people, nurses in scrubs, street people. No more obsessively reciting your order to yourself so you don’t get a black mark for holding up the lines. No more parading into your office with that grease-stained white takeout box with the unmistakable red writing….”

— From “What We Lost When Price’s Chicken Coop Closed” by Kathleen Purvis in Charlotte magazine (June 17, 2017)

Price’s straightforward menus changed little over the decades. This one from 2019 does note the on-premises ATM (no credit cards!) but not the hand-lettered wall sign banning cellphones.

‘GWTW’: unifier of the nation?

“For any young person ‘growing up Southern’ in the ’30s, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the massive novel itself, had an impact far beyond its literary merits.

“My classmates at the then small women’s college of the University of North Carolina read it and talked to grandmothers and great-grandmothers who had lived through ‘Mr. Sherman’s visits’ and as youngsters saw his ‘calling cards,’ the blackened chimneys still standing along the 600 miles of Sherman’s track.

“And over at tiny Atlantic Christian College in eastern North Carolina, ‘Gone with the Wind’ was the only novel Ava Gardner ever read until she went to Hollywood and got ‘educated.’

” ‘Gone with the Wind’ meant that ‘we’ had won. We could begin to rejoin the Union, a process that took 30 years, and that we could even enter the 20th century….

“The universality of the book, as the country took first the novel, then the film to its heart, was attested to by a New England friend who said that even in school she had never really learned of the invasion and occupation of the South and its devastation until she had read and then reread ‘Gone with the Wind.’

“Because of its widespread appeal, ‘Gone with the Wind’ actually helped make us one country again. For me that is the ultimate importance.”

—Margaret Coit Elwell, author of “John C. Calhoun: American Portrait,” commenting in American Heritage (October 1992) 

New in the collection: People’s Alliance pinback

Pinback with words "People before Profits" and "People's Alliance NC"

“At a retreat last year, members of the People’s Alliance picked as the organization’s crowning achievement one of its earliest battles, a fight that won concessions for residents of Crest Street when the black neighborhood was threatened with destruction by the extension of the Durham Freeway.

“That was the mid-1970s. Two decades later, Durham’s best-known liberal political organization is faced with new fight: how to overcome a deeply entrenched white-bread reputation, acquired because so few of its 750 members are minorities….”

— From “Vanilla People’s Alliance seeking Neapolitan look” by Paul Brown in the Raleigh News & Observer (Sept. 7, 1994)

Despite its name and its longevity, the People’s Alliance has never made much of a dent outside Durham, but it continues to advocate for a wide range of progressive causes such as affordable housing, living wage and mass transit. 


Population center just keeps on relocating

“The cities of Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Fayetteville make a rough rhombus across Central North Carolina. Smack-dab in the middle is the state’s center of population, just east of Interstate 74.

“The closest town is the unincorporated community of Erect, founded in the 18th century by German settlers who made a name for themselves in the pottery business.”

— From “Each state’s population center, visualized” b

Once North Carolinians’ early and rapid east-to-west migration took hold, this demographic distinction has slowly zigzagged southward.

The geographic center of the state? Well, let’s let Jeremy Markovich wrestle with that one….

New in the collection: Fli-Back paddleball

Paddle-shaped board with an image of a cowboy or gaucho on horseback swinging a rope with a ball on the end. The word "Fli-Back" is printed above the image.

“In 1931, James Emory Gibson began manufacturing paddle ball games after being inspired by a promotional toy his daughter brought home. As demand for the games grew, Gibson began producing paddle balls, yo-yos and spinning tops under the name Fli-Back.

“Although Fli-Back was sold to the Ohio Art Company (makers of the popular Etch-A-Sketch) in 1972, the company continued to manufacture Fli-Back paddleball games in High Point until 1983.”

— From “Fli-Back items continue to live on at museum” by Jennifer Burns of the High Point Museum, Oct. 2, 2004, in  the Greensboro News and Record

I visited the Fli-Back plant in 1976, when annual sales still topped 5 million but were speeding downhill. As an early paddleball promoter lamented to me, “There isn’t a kid on earth who can hit the damn thing a second time, because nobody’s taught them how to do it.”

Tobacco ignited growth of Durham, Winston

“Much of the limited urban growth in post-Civil War North Carolina owed to the  increased manufacturing of tobacco, the South’s oldest staple crop. “In the late 19th century the state’s dominance of the expanding tobacco industry resulted from several factors — declining cotton prices that induced farmers in the Piedmont to plant more tobacco, technological developments that initiated the mass production of cigarettes, improved railroads that connected North Carolina with national and international markets, and the bold entrepreneurship of men like James B. Duke and R. J. Reynolds, who formed vast monopolies and drove less ruthless competitors from the field. The success  of Duke and Reynolds brought Durham and Winston, the communities in which they located their enterprises, to the forefront of the state’s emerging urban network.”

— From “Tobacco Towns: Urban Growth and Economic Development in Eastern North Carolina” by Roger Biles in the North Carolina Historical Review (April 2007)

New in the collection: Ronnie Milsap pass

Plastic card with an image of Ronnie Milsap and the words "Suite, January 23, and Ronnie Milsap."

“Born blind into an Appalachian family [in Robbinsville, N.C.] named Millsaps, he went to live with grandparents at age one. According to his 1990 autobiography, Almost Like a Song, his mother regarded his blindness as divine punishment and asked his father to take Ronnie away.

“At age six, having heard gospel music at church and country music via radio, he entered the State School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite harsh treatment, he blossomed musically, learning the school’s classical techniques while absorbing pop styles available on radio….”

— From Ronnie Milsap’s Country Music Hall of Fame bio (2014)

This pass is from Milsap’s 2015 show at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel  in Prior Lake, Minn.

Big-time college football, RIP?

“The cost of assembling, equipping and maintaining a successful [college football] team has become so inflated that some schools are losing money and giving up the game in disgust….

“$275,000… is what it cost the University of North Carolina to stay big time last season. …

“North Carolina’s well-dressed footballer wears out one pair of the finest yellow kangaroo shoes a season at $18 a pair…. The squad wardrobe consists of 146 complete uniforms at $132 apiece; the latest-type plastic headgear costs nearly as much as a whole uniform did back in the 1920s. The team eats at a training table that costs $23,000 a year to set and travels by chartered plane….”

— From “Football is pricing itself out of business” in Life magazine (Oct. 16, 1950)