‘The noteworthy things I have done receive scant notice’

“If the South had 40 editors like W. O. Saunders, ” H. L. Mencken wrote, “it could be rid of most of its problems in five years.”

Saunders put out the weekly Elizabeth City Independent from 1908 until 1937. He exposed corruption and bigotry with great courage, but he attracted more attention with his rambunctious humor. A typical editorial page filler reported deadplan that a local political boss had been spotted “in the courthouse with his hands in his own pockets.”

The Independent’s fame and circulation extended nationwide, thanks to such pranks as a full-page satire on a New Deal privy project and Saunders’ pajama-clad stroll down Fifth Avenue in advocacy of more sensible hot-weather clothing. (When a New York reporter asked him how he felt, he admitted, “Like a damn fool.”)

“The truly noteworthy things I have done receive scant notice….” Saunders once lamented. “But when I walk out on the streets in pajamas on a sweltering summer day or print a satire on new-fangled backhouses, the whole country gives me a big hand.”


How dry he was: Daniels banned alcohol on ships

On this day in 1914: As Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the navy, former Raleigh newspaper editor Josephus Daniels bans alcohol at officers’ mess aboard United States ships. The ban will go unbroken until 1980, when crew members of the aircraft carrier Nimitz are issued two beers apiece in recognition of their having been at sea for more than 100 days.

Daniels’ other innovations meet more resistance. To facilitate the training of recruits, he orders the terms port and starboard replaced with left and right. He has to abandon that effort, as well as one to make sailors wear pajamas.

In 1915, he halts the navy’s issuance of condoms, saying, “The use of this packet I believe to be immoral.” One result is that the navy suffers the highest incidence of venereal disease among the services. The onset of World War I causes Daniels to reluctantly give in; he leaves on an inspection trip, allowing his assistant — the young Franklin D. Roosevelt — to reverse the order.

The war gives Daniels leverage to clean up red-light districts that have fed off sailors. The most famous of these is Storyville in New Orleans, where the mayor argues strenuously, though futilely, for the “God-given right of men to be men.” By making Storyville’s brothels off-limits, Daniels removes the economic base of early jazz musicians, scattering them to Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis – and earning himself the wry title, “the Johnny Appleseed of Jazz.”


Homefront fashion: pajamas suitable for flying

“I hope when I wear them that I do not start counting ten and jump!”

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, writing on Feb. 2, 1943, to thank N.C. Gov. O. Max Gardner for his Christmas present — pajamas custom-made from nylon parachute cloth manufactured at Gardner’s textile mill in Shelby.

Gardner devised the gift to tout the value of synthetics research, which had invented nylon for parachutes just in time to offset the Japanese monopoly on silk.