Friday, April 30, 2010

Thornton Burgess, propagandist

In the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a folder marked "propaganda." We've already touched upon Burgess's association with the "Vigilantes" and his work for Hoover's wartime Food Administration. The folder includes a few more examples, primarily from the same era.

In one piece, for example, Peter Rabbit is pressed into service to advocate "early shopping" for Christmas. (This was apparently an effort by the government to get much needed revenue from sale taxes for war aims, though "Peter" explains it is based on concerns that there wouldn't be enough labor to deal with the holiday rush). [Here's an image from another branch of the same campaign].

Burgess also wrote at least one piece advocating the purchase of Liberty Loans. This time he didn't employ bedtime story characters--his rhetorical tactic was to stress that "You, the individual, are at war." [Here's an image from another branch of the same campaign]

Finally, Burgess wrote on behalf of the Victory Boys and Victory Girls, asking school children to sign a pledge card to volunteer and raise money for United War Work. This would help supply soldiers with "recreation and amusements" (and keep them away from the licentious behavior that would otherwise dominate). [Here's an image from another branch of the same campaign]

Thus Burgess participated in some of the more significant homeland propaganda efforts during World War I. His most famous contribution, however, involved one of his bedtime characters, Happy Jack Squirrel.

Next: Happy Jack's Thrift Club

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thornton Burgess, Civic Poet

On September 21, 1901, this curious poem appeared prominently in the pages of the Springfield Homestead, credited to T.W. Burgess. Readers at the time would have known immediately what it was about, but readers today may have more difficulty...
"It is God's way. His will be done."
Even as when
From templed hill from plain and from the homes of men
The shuddering forces of the night withdraw at dawn
Before the advancing splendor of the perfect morn
So in this hour of gloom, grief weighted and profane
Our cloistered hearts, sore stricken and sorrow bound,
Refusing to be comforted and making mourn
For him who we so loved, whose death naught can atone
He speaks and lo! A ray divine of purest light
Pierces the curtains of the enveloping night
"It is God's way. His will be done."

"It is God's way" We cannot question it when he,
Before the gates ajar with simple faith could see
The fullness of the Master's plan, and mindful still
Of his great charge, make clear to us the higher will
So would he comfort us and bravely presents the way.
Seeing beyond the crushing gloom the break of day
And we above our noble and illustrious dead,
Mourning the great spirit that was so foully sped
And fearful of the future affairs of state
In growing faith shall hear his voice without the gate
"It is God's way. His will be done."
What is Burgess talking about? The assassination of William McKinley, whose last words title the poem. The death of McKinley was a shock to the nation leading to a period of what seems to have been sincere mourning. Burgess's poem, which appeared the week following McKinley's death, appears to be an attempt at a kind of public consolation for the Springfield readership.

Poetry, of course, served more of a public function one hundred years ago than it does today. It is interesting to see Burgess, the patriotic good citizen, using his pen for ceremonial verse. He had long done occasional verse, providing holiday filler for the New England Homestead with countless poems about Santa Claus, Thanksgiving turkeys, and Valentine flowers. By 1903, however, these poems were appearing on the cover of the Springfield Homestead, no longer filler but rather something akin to the ritual voice of the community.

Here for example, is his 1903 Fourth of July commemoration.
Hark! With tumult that shakes the earth
A nation remembers her day of birth!
From hill and valley--from sea to sea,
Wherever on earth her sons may be,
Above the shout and the cannon's roar,
O'er plain and mountain from shore to shore,
There sounds the note of an ancient bell
Cracked and marred, yet who shall tell
How ineffably sweet is the message rung
From its brazen throat by its iron tongue!
Or, more appropriately, a 1903 cover poem, titled "Voices of the spring:"
From flower strewn mead and templed hills
A mighty anthem rising, thrills
The heart of Nature, and its theme
In grandeur rolls till it would seem
No spirit crushed or over-borne
No heart so buffeted and torn
But still must needs, uplifted, find
Surcease from sorrow, hope to bind
The bleeding wounds and faith to voice
All Nature's song--"Rejoice, rejoice!"
This is not Burgess the romantic, writing reveries about communion with nature based on his own experiences. This is Burgess employing the highly symbolic and formal language of public poetry. (He repeats the "templed hills" of the McKinley poem--you may be reminded of his neo-classical parody advertising the "Origin of Shredded Wheat.")

Next: Thornton Burgess, propagandist

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thornton Burgess and the Springfield Homestead

The Springfield Homestead shared some content with the New England Homestead but overall they were very different publications. The New England Homestead was an agricultural paper, covering commodity prices and new farming technologies. The Springfield Homestead was an urban weekly, with local news (including sports and arts) coverage. What they shared was some material in the "home" section, the section Thornton Burgess came to edit.

Burgess reportedly contributed to many sections of the Springfield Homestead, including stories on bicycle races and baseball games, as well as photography. As most of the stories in the paper lack bylines, it is difficult to say which ones we should credit to Burgess. Most of Burgess's credited contributions were in the form of verse. By 1900 he was a highly visible writer with the occasional short story or essay to his credit as well. In 1903, for example, he wrote a long three-part series on outdoor recreation.

I've pulled a few pieces of particular significance.

The first is an early effort from May 23, 1896, titled "A Sorrowful Tale." I think it is intended to be comic but its callous tone is very different from what one expects from Burgess.
Three little mice one day at play
Away from the hole in the wall did stay
Away from the hole and the home inside
Where safe from danger they all could hide.

Three little kittens espied the mice,
And together they purred, "Oh aren't they nice!"
And wrong though it be, for it couldn't be right,
Each little mouse disappeared from sight.

Three little dogs, they call the hounds
Saw three little cats out of bounds
Then each little dog caught a miniature cat
And shook her to death as she would a rat.

Three little boys on mischief bent
Caught three little dogs with sly intent
To each little dog tail they tied a can
And laughed at the way the little dogs ran.

Three big papas down the street
Met three little boys in full retreat
And soon three sticks in a [st...dly] way (I can't read my notes)
Beat rat a tat tat that pleasant day.

Three little mice are now no more.
Three little cats have gone before.
Three little dogs each nurse a tail.
And three little boys in sorrow wail.
While ultimately a poem about the sorrowfulness of a cycle of cruelty, its light nursery-rhyme form seems ill-chosen for scenes of kittens shaken to death and the like, unless Burgess is intentionally using the form ironically....

Here's one from later on (1900) that's somewhat more ambitious, using Burgess's experience as an angler to draw a metaphor for the con-games of contemporary life. It is useful for our purposes because it provides a connection between his favorite outdoor activity and the world of advertising and promotion. It is titled, "The Point of the Hook."
At a bend in the stream where the willows grew tall
And the waters ran slow and were deep
Where there came to our ears the sound of a fall
And we heard through the pines the soft sweep
Of the sweet summer wind; there we fished for the trout
My young nephew Jack Sully and I.
I did not catch a fish, but the lad pulled them out
Till I envious, said with a sigh:

I am tired, Jackie dear, the monotony's great;
Here I sit without ever a bite
I have not caught a fish, while you have six or eight,
Now please cast on this subject a light.
From the bed of the stream Nephew Jack drew back his bait
Just a glance and twas back in the brook.
"My dear uncle," he said, "you'll e'er sit here and wait
If you don't hide the point of your hook."

Then I fell in a muse and neglected to fish
As an angler I failed of success
But to be angled for I was all one could wish
And to having been caught I confess
Quite a number of times; there was once, young and green,
I contracted a ten dollar book,
For the agent who caught me did up his work clean--
He had hidden the point of his hook.

On another occasion the most charming girl
I had, up to that period known
Set my pulse a flutter, my brain in a whirl,
And my heart being down at her throne;
She accepted my homage and helped spend my cash
She repaid with a smile or a look,
Then she married another--my heart went to smash--
She had well hid the point of her hook.

There's been real estate men, each a promise of wealth,
Patentees having each a sure thing
Who have angled for me with precision and stealth
And who at the right moment would fly
Their bait to this gudgeon, seemed they knew I would bite,
So their bait cast they down in my nook
And they caught me and so did some brokers all right.
For each man hid the point of his hook.

There's for me consolation, I'm not all alone
Than the fishers, the fished-for are more,
It's a fact--when before them a fine bait is thrown
There are always keen bites galore
Among men and women, and the reason they do
Like the foolish young trout in the brook
Is the fact that they cannot, from their point of view,
'Neath the bait see the point of the hook.
In 1900 Burgess also wrote a three-part series of "interviews" with "MacDougal" the Scotsman. This character, written entirely in Scottish brogue, was a shrewd and frank talker on such issues as fashion and cruelty towards animals. The latter occasioned a poem, excerpted below
Wha shows no mercy tae his beast;
Wha hae for such no thocht,
Wha ill na see the misery
Wi' which their lives are fraught,
Iss no the man a care taken
He dinna love his fellow men
For he wah gies the beastie pain
Though thochtless it may be,
Hae no a heart that's great enough
His neighbor's want tae see.
If you can make it through the dialect, you'll see MacDougal voicing an opinion that Burgess held strongly (and which also helped fuel the Nature Study movement of this era). That is, the ability to sympathize with members of the animal kingdom was a sign of one's ability to sympathize with other humans.

Next: Burgess, civic poet

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On the fence

In the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a folder with dozens of letters from Radio Nature League correspondents. Each correspondent claims to have seen or to know someone who has seen a snake take its young into its mouth for the purpose of protection. Burgess usually had no tolerance for folk-lore when it came to animal facts; claim to have seen a "hoop snake" and he would reject it as imbecility. But Burgess remained fascinated about this particular young-snakes-in-mouth claim. In fact, it receives a whole chapter in his autobiography.

The young-snakes-in-mouth topic came up repeatedly in Radio Nature League programs. Burgess would invite visiting herpetologists to assess the claim and they would reject it as folk-lore (and still do today). At the same time, his correspondents were adamant about their experiences, and Burgess did not want to alienate them. What he would do was try to coax his listeners into a scientific stance towards their apparently honest observations. What counted as real evidence? If a correspondent only saw a large snake take smaller snakes into its mouth, perhaps the larger snake was simply eating the smaller ones. If a correspondent only saw smaller snakes emerging from the larger snake, that could simply be a species of snake that gives live birth. The only good evidence would be a snake taking smaller snakes in and then releasing them. During the later years of the first run of the Radio Nature League, you can see Burgess really hoping that a correspondent would come through with real evidence (this would have been a significant scientific contribution). But none apparently did.

In his autobiography, Burgess describes his position as "sitting on the fence." While he trusted scientific authority to a point, he also trusted the observations of his listeners. So he finally refused to make a decision. Like other Radio Nature League themes, this would also make its way into the Bedtime Stories. In August, 1934, he has Peter Rabbit's son, "Wigglenose," as well as Farmer Brown's Boy, see young snakes enter a larger garter snake's mouth (without managing to see if they emerge). Like Burgess, Farmer Brown's Boy remained "on the fence."


Next: Back to the early days again--Thornton Burgess and the Springfield Homestead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tommy and his chums

In a folder of various spec scripts and proposals in the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a proposal dated 1936 and titled "Tommy and his chums program." I initially thought that this was a proposal by someone other than Thornton Burgess sent for his approval, but now I think it was developed by Burgess himself.

The program was to feature "Tommy" (AKA Farmer Brown's Boy) and his cousins from the city, Sue and Sammy. "Little Buster" the bear cub would be a supporting player and the "Old Hermit" would be on hand to teach real natural history. Burgess describes it as an action-packed hybrid of mystery & suspense with plenty of funny situations, targeted at "clean-minded" boys and girls. Adults were not excluded as potential audience members.

According to LaFollette (2008), in the latter days of the first run of the Radio Nature League, Burgess pitched the program to NBC but was rejected because he was perceived to appeal to children exclusively. It appears that Burgess had similar ambitions during the second run of the Radio Nature League, but crafted something much more closely tied to his child-oriented literary properties. Note: all I've read is the document. I have no idea whether Burgess ever proceeded to the actual pitch level or what the network reaction might have been if he did.

Burgess would recycle elements of the proposed scenario in his Bedtime Story newspaper feature. In the summer of 1938 he introduced "the Old Naturalist," who had arranged to live in Farmer Brown's sugar shack and was in a position to help Tommy and his cousins with their natural history questions. Is it a coincidence that the Old Naturalist, as rendered by Harrison Cady, just happens to look a little like Thornton Burgess himself?


Next: On the fence

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Neighbors Club (1939)

Note: This was a fifteen minute show aired on Tuesdays at 6:15 on WSPR from February 7, 1939 until May 9, 1939 when it moved to 7:45. The last show was July 4, 1939. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University has the full run of scripts.

On February 7, 1939, Thornton Burgess was back on the air with a show sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Springfield Branch of the SPCA. This time the show aired on a local station, WSPR, and while it returned to a member-oriented format, it did not use the "Radio Nature League" name. Instead Burgess called the club "Good Neighbors." (You may remember that "Good Evening, Neighbors" was part of Burgess's Radio Nature League sign-on and "Neighbor Burgess" was known throughout the Springfield/Hampden area as a man to whom you could bring an injured wild animal.)

Burgess immediately began collecting names of club members, this time by using the old tactic of asking listeners to write in if they were being "good neighbors" of the birds by feeding them. He warned from the beginning that he could not "afford" the time if he wasn't sure that the talks would accomplish "some good." The numbers would be much smaller (in the hundreds instead of the thousands he could expect with the Radio Nature League).

As part of his duty to his sponsor, Burgess would offer regular reports about the Springfield SPCA hospital and occasionally push specific SPCA causes, for example, a March 28 message warning about the dangers of overfeeding dogs. Old Radio Nature League topics made reappearances (tent caterpillars, singing mice, indiscriminate shooting of "varmints") and activity at Aunt Sally's "Woodhouse Night Club" was frequently reported. (During the Radio Nature League era this activity had been mentioned but not by name; films from the Woodhouse Night Club were a staple of Burgess's lecture appearances). While Burgess retained a focus on wildlife, correspondent discussion about pet dogs and cats was now also included in program content.

The only real major national environment initiative pushed during the brief lifespan of the Good Neighbors Club was protection of the Bald Eagle. To Burgess it was a patriotic issue and on the very last Good Neighbors broadcast he castigated members of Congress (calling out A. Willis Robertson of Virginia in particular) who were blocking the protection bill. (The Eagle Protection Act would eventually pass and go into effect the following year).

This effectively marked the end of Thornton Burgess's career in radio. It is interesting to consider what might have been if he had been able to convince a network to produce a fully national program.

Next: Tommy and His Chums

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Radio Nature League News


Ad for Sun Glow from Radio Nature League News, May 1935 (my sketch)
Starting May 1935, Thornton Burgess edited a four-page newsletter that was distributed through druggists nationwide titled "Radio Nature League News." It is similar to the "Mother Nature's News" newsletters that Burgess produced for school-children twenty years earlier. This newsletter was apparently produced until mid-1936 (LaFollette cites an August 1936 issue). Burgess made frequent appeals during (Brewer era) Radio Nature League programs asking listeners to ask their druggists for it (or only patronize druggists who carried it).

The newsletter had a fairly consistent format. It appears that Burgess did all the writing and the layout himself. Here is the content of the June 1935 (#2) issue:
  • Page 1. Top Story. "A Feathered Hero." (A pet bird that alerted its owner that the house was on fire--also dramatized on the Radio Nature League program).
  • Page 1. Story Two. "Duck in the chimney." (A common goldeneye, it turns out).
  • Page 1. Photo. Giant Panama Grasshopper.
  • Page 1. Ad. See sketch above.
  • Page 2. Photo. Toad.
  • Page 2. Story Three. "No depression here: When he needs a new suit he gets one" (i.e., Toad)
  • Page 2. Photo. Nest and eggs of ruffed grouse.
  • Page 2. Story Four. "Giant Grasshoppers"
  • Page 2. Story Five. "A pretty story" (from correspondent).
  • Page 2. Personal Letter from Thornton W. Burgess (on boys and guns).
  • Page 2. Ad for Euphoral (pain reliever)
  • Page 3. Notice asking for readers to send in photos and nature stories ($5 if accepted)
  • Page 3. Photo. This week's prize winner. Robin feeding young.
  • Page 3. Story Six. "Do moles come out in the daytime?" (A Q&A feature)
  • Page 3. Story Seven. "Heroic Mother Love" (from correspondent).
  • Page 3. Photo of a "trusting woodcock."
  • Page 3. Ad for Brewer's Compound Bile Salts
  • Page 4. "What you want to know" (8 questions from correspondents with answers by Burgess).
  • Page 4. Photo. White woodchuck.
  • Page 4. Ad for Brewer's Quality Products: Sun Glow Tablets; Citroton; Bromo-Sal


As you can see, the newsletter functioned as an advertising medium for Brewer products (the specific products advertised would rotate on a monthly basis) but Burgess maintained editorial control. He would use the "personal letter" slot to advocate such things as nature study and conservation, and continued the old Radio Nature League practice of asking listeners/readers to send in samples (in this case to the government agency monitoring Dutch Elm disease). On October 1935 he used his personal letter to explain why he needed a sponsor (to maintain a regular slot on the air and to compensate him personally for his time) and stressed that he had the "utmost faith" in Brewer products. Indeed, he would make occasional note of the "happiness from health" that he and his family experienced through using Sun Glow cod liver oil.

The Brewer sponsorship experience would last just a little more than a year (according to LaFollette he was on a series of 13-week contracts). But Burgess was not completely done with radio.

Next: Good Neighbors Club (1939)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Radio Nature League on the Sun Glow Program (1935-1936)

Note: Starting February 6, 1935 the Radio Nature League met on Wednesday and Saturday nights. This arrangement would change several times (despite TWB's hope that sponsorship would ensure greater scheduling stability). The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University does not have a complete set of scripts from this era, so it is difficult to say exactly how many times the schedule changed. From what is available it is apparent that by May 1935, the show was meeting on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, and then on Thursdays starting September 19. The show ceased broadcasting on Saturdays starting in June, 1935. Copies of Radio Nature League News from this period list the following times (be aware, though, that these were prepared weeks ahead of time and did not necessarily reflect the actual airing dates):
  • July and August 1935: Tuesdays at 7:30 on WBZ and WBZA
  • September 1935: Tuesdays at 7:30 on WBZ and WBZA; Wednesdays at 6:30 on Yankee Network Stations WNAC (Boston), WEAN (Providence), WDRC (Hartford), WICC (Bridgeport and New Haven), WORC (Worcester).
  • October 1935: Tuesdays at 6:30 on the Yankee Network; Thursdays at 6:15 on WBZ and WBZA.
Judging from available scripts, it appears that starting in September, the same show was broadcast on two different nights. It is unclear whether the rebroadcast show was a recording or reproduced live in full. The last script in the HGARC collection is dated January 7, 1936. It is unclear whether the episode, which represented yet another time shift (back to Tuesdays on WBZ), actually aired.

On February 6, 1935 Thornton Burgess reconvened the Radio Nature League, sending out a renewed call for members. (This time members would receive certificates). The League would meet twice a week on WBZ and other affiliated New England radio stations, a situation made possible by the program's new sponsor, Brewer & Company. Based in Worcester, MA, Brewer marketed a wide variety of pharmaceuticals, but would use the Radio Nature League to promote its popular brand of cod liver oil--"Sun Glow."

Unlike the previous incarnation of the Radio Nature League, the Brewer-sponsored program had a set format and featured dramatizations of stories or exchanges between characters. Here is a typical show:
  • The show would begin with the song of the American Robin as performed by Edward Avis.
  • WBZ announcer, Mr. White, would handle the introduction (these are not in the scripts but it appears these introductions included a pitch for Sun Glow).
  • A dramatization would follow.
  • As time allowed, League member experiences and questions.
  • The show would finish with a segment titled "Truth Stranger than Fiction" in which Burgess would pose a question about a curious animal behavior, to be answered the following program.
  • Mr. White would do the credits (not in the scripts).
  • Burgess would end the show with "And happiness from health to you all." (Occasionally, this message was explicitly linked to the use of Sun Glow).
  • Outro: the song of a hermit thrush as performed by Edward Avis.
While some programs in the previous incarnation of the Radio Nature League had featured dramatizations (bird walks, humorous exchanges between Mr. and Mrs. B) the Brewer-sponsored version drew more fully from the dramatic conventions of contemporary radio. In addition to acting out stories (e.g., the very first show acted out Burgess's experiences on the fishing schooner), the program introduced several recurring characters to act as comic foils to Mr. Burgess (even Mr. White would be occasionally drawn into the act). As was typical of radio at the time, these characters sometimes embodied ethnic and regional stereotypes: "Tim O'Hara," (who mistakes a hermit crab for a spider with a shell, among other things); "The (intrusive) German,"; "The (Southern) Colonel." Farmer Brown's Boy made particularly frequent appearances.

Phil Hansling Jr. would appear (though his tree Q&As with Burgess would be spiced up with Avis bird calls). When zoo curator Clyde Gordon came on the show to give listeners a live sample of actual rattlesnake rattle, Burgess scripted in dramatic (but pretend) lunges by the snake. Edward Avis, in addition to his regular work supplying the intro and sound effects, was occasionally given space to spread out, as in an August 6, 1935 full-fledged "Birds Evening Concert." What is lacking, however, at least in the available scripts, is Burgess's often impassioned advocacy of environmental issues. While there is at least one script (May 7) where he rails against boys with slingshots and air rifles, it is unclear exactly what collective conservation efforts the League membership were supposed to take.

Burgess later expressed regret about the Brewer sponsorship (it seemed they interfered too much in the content of the program.) [It is worth noting, given Burgess's role in the Pure Food and Drug movement, that Brewer & Company was later cited by the FDA for false advertising around the benefits of Sun Glow] While Burgess himself was sometimes put in the role of a Sun Glow pitchman, that job was usually left to Mr. White. Where the Brewer connection was made the strongest, however, was in a series of newsletters distributed in drugstores.

Next: Radio Nature League News

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Burgess returns to radio (1933-1934)

Note: Thornton Burgess returned to the WBZ airwaves on November 20, 1933. The show was now on Monday nights for 15 minutes. On July 30, 1934 the show was temporarily reduced to 10 minutes. On August 7, the show was moved to Tuesday at 7:15. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University lacks the November 20 script, as well as scripts for January 22, March 12, July 9, October 13, and November 10, 1934. There were no programs on the following dates: December 11, 1933; May 7 and 14, 1934; August 14, 21, 28, 1934; September 8, 1934; November 24, 1934. Mrs. Burgess substituted on February 5, April 9, and October 27, 1934.

The year or so of programs I have labeled "Burgess Radio Talks" were a return to Burgess's roots in children's programing. Instead of actively avoiding reference to his work for children, as he had during the years of the Radio Nature League, Burgess now thoroughly incorporated his bedtime stories. Many shows now began, like his newspaper feature, with a short poem attributed to a bedtime story character. While he continued to draw upon correspondence with listeners for program content there was no explicit use of the "Radio Nature League" concept. When Mrs. Burgess substituted, she would read an old story rather than serving as a program host. Finally, Burgess would use the program to promote his new field guide, Birds You Should Know--offering autographed copies directly for sale. In short, the Burgess Radio Talks of this period served to promote Thornton Burgess. (LaFollette (2008) has him admit as much in correspondence with Austin Clark).

That said, the program maintained a strong environmental focus and Burgess continued his advocacy of particular concerns (don't buy fringed gentians, help reform deer hunting laws, rid the trees of tent caterpillar nests etc.) Most remarkable is an episode that ran on November 3, 1934 devoted entirely to an anti-steel trap referendum on the Massachusetts ballot. (A "yes" vote would overturn the current "humane" law that Burgess himself had helped establish) Burgess presents several stories painting scenes of actual animals (e.g., a three-legged skunk) that had been caught in such traps, told from their point of view.

Burgess had greater ambitions for the program, however, actively seeking a sponsor that could take the show to the next level and ensure its continuation. On December 22, the show suddenly had a formal introduction and a "theme song" (actually a robin's song performed by Edward Avis) and on December 29, Burgess posed a question to his audience: would two fifteen-minute episodes a week be too much?

Next: The Radio Nature League on the Sunglow Program (1935-1936).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Radio Nature League (1930)

Note: The Radio Nature League moved from 8 to 8:15 Saturday night on February 15. On August 2, Burgess concluded the first run of the program.

In 1930 there was increasing pressure on the Radio Nature League from national programming and decreasing support from WBZ. According to LaFollette (2008), Burgess had auditioned with NBC for a network program in late 1929 but was rejected because he was thought to appeal to children only. Burgess had also lost much of his fortune (he had been one of the wealthiest men authors in Massachusetts) in the stock market crash, making time-consuming, non-remunerative work problematic. On August 2, citing a need to return to his "means of livelihood" full time and praising the work of the League as a whole, he announced the last meeting of the Radio Nature League for the foreseeable future. The "disbanding" of the Radio Nature League had been widely circulated in the press, so many listeners were prepared for the announcement; in fact, Burgess did not "disband" the League, instead he hoped that members would carry on their work on behalf of the natural environment without the program.

On January 25, Burgess announced the results of the Ruffed Grouse research project: the destructive parasite, "dispharynx," found in grouse intestines came from infected pill bugs. On the same program Burgess exhorted League members to write their congressmen in support of a Norbeck-sponsored bill to protect Bald Eagles (the bill would pass in the Senate but ultimately fail in the House).

Speakers included:
  • February 15: Philip Hansling Jr. on "The winter care of trees."
  • May 10: Dr. Philip Garman of the Connecticut Experimental Station at New Haven, on the oriental peach moth.
  • June 28: Philip Hansling Jr. Scripted Q&A with Burgess about the care of trees.
During 1930, Burgess would increasingly devote long slices of program time to the work of single correspondents. For example: On March 15, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, Burgess read a long story submitted by "Old Bill Blizzard" about the end of toads and snakes in Ireland. On the same program, Burgess discovered that J. Alden Loring (an ornithologist a naturalist and old associate of Teddy Roosevelt) was a listener and invited him to contribute extended notes about birds (which he did on subsequent weeks). On May 3 Burgess read a long essay by Clarence Hawkes ("Blind Poet of Hadley") about the loss of his dog to "killers."

Next: Burgess returns to radio (1933)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

One-week hiatus

Taking a vacation break. Gatorland here we come!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Radio Nature League (1929)

Note: On November 9, the program would move from its long-standing Wednesday evening slot to Saturday night, initially at 7:00, but then at 8:00 starting November 30. Several scripts in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center collection are missing pages (Jan 30, Feb 6). These were apparently sent to William Hornaday, in connection with his work promoting the Norbeck Refuge bill. There was no meeting on February 13. Mrs B guest hosted March 20. TWB took a 6 week vacation beginning June 5. Several meetings were held, with guest hosts: J.H. Taylor On June 5; Phillip Hansling Jr. on June 19 and July 10. The November 23 script is missing. The HGARC Collection also includes a special Arctic/Antarctic broadcast TWB did on Feb 16 for Commander Byrd and his "gallant associates" in the south, and others "representing civilization" in the far north.

January to December 1929

This would be the last full year of the Radio Nature League. WBZ was now an affiliate in the NBC Blue/WJZ network, a retransmitter of programming originating in New York. It was increasingly difficult to find a place on the air for a "sustaining" (i.e., non-sponsored) program, regardless of its popularity. Initially Saturday at 7:00 seemed like a safe haven but then along came "Amos and Andy"... Thornton Burgess would voice his doubts about the future of the program on the air (and would be met with a flurry of correspondence urging him on).

The speaker series was now greatly curtailed, featuring mostly Philip Hansling Jr and a new associate, J.H. Taylor, Highway Landscape Supervisor for the State of Massachusetts. Here are the dates and topics:
  • January 16: Philip Hansling Jr., on "A few of our historical and famous trees."
  • April 3: Philip Hansling Jr., "How to maintain trees in health and beauty."
  • April 10: Burgess read extended remarks on the passenger pigeon by Clarence Hawkes, "blind poet and naturalist from Hadley, MA." (Hawkes was a friend of the show).
  • June 5: J.H. Taylor on beautifying roadsides.
  • April 17: Burgess read "Waiting for the Chief Buzzard," a story in dialect by Uncle Dove Reynolds (as transcribed by Captain Inman F. Eldridge.)
  • July 10: Roger B. Friend, entomlogist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station.
  • August 14: J.H. Taylor
  • August 28: J.H. Taylor on "Use of highways and prevention of abuse of them"
  • September 18: Phil Hansling Jr. on "What we can do for trees."
The fourth and final annual caterpillar crusade was held in March, offering prizes from many different local organizations. (By this point some groups were complaining that they could no longer find enough tent caterpillar eggs.) The top school prize was $25, the top scout prize was $20, and the top individual prize was $10. There were separate prizes for the top collectors in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

Several new themes emerged this year:
  • Burgess joined with William Hornaday to promote the "Norbeck game refuge bill" (The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929). There were appeals to listeners in January and February. Burgess announced its passage on February 20.
  • Maine had recently declared the black-capped chickadee to be the State Bird. Burgess asked his listeners to vote for official birds for other New England states. This topic continued for several months.
  • There was a new scientific request from Harold Babcock for the stomach contents of owls, particularly snakes.
In March, Burgess was the victim of a hoax. A correspondent had written reporting the birth of a white-tailed deer fawn in January. While Burgess was cautious in his response, he treated it as truthful, calling it the earliest record in Massachusetts. The following week, he led the program with an apology--he was "humiliated"--the correspondent had falsely used the identity of another correspondent. Burgess emphasized how much he relied on the "good will" of his correspondents.

Next: Radio Nature League (1930)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Radio Nature League (1928)

Note: There were apparently no shows on: May 16 and May 23; July 4 and July 11 (TWB was fishing in New Brunswick); and August 22 and October 17 (TWB blamed politics). TWB was absent for June 27 show (it is unclear who filled in).

January to December 1928

In 1928, the Radio Nature League continued to grow. By the end of the year, Thornton Burgess would claim a membership of 50,000. The Boston Society of Natural History speakers series would end (it moved to WEEI) but Burgess still shared papers with Austin Clark of the Smithsonian.

Guest speakers, papers , and special programs:
  • January 18: Harold L. Babcock on "New England Salamanders."
  • February 1: James H. Emerton on spiders.
  • February 22 & 29: Both shows were devoted to a retelling of TWB's salmon fishing trip to Nova Scotia the previous June. Mrs. B participated in the storytelling (she also loved fishing).
  • April 11: Charles Crawford Gorst performed birdsongs
  • April 25: Phil Hansling Jr. had a scripted Q&A with TWB about trees
  • August 8: Austin Clark paper on "Giants of the Animal World" (TWB was the reader).
  • August 29: Phil Hansling Jr. on "Trees with Personalities."
  • October 3: Doris M. Cochran paper on "Lizards and their kin" (TWB was the reader).
  • October 31: Frederick C. Lincoln paper on "Migration and facts discovered through banding." (TWB was the reader).
In order to provide an idea of what a typical "members" or "experience" program (nights when there was no guest speaker) was like I've chosen an episode at random (February 8). It provides a sense of the type and range of topics as well as the geographical spread of League membership. I've listed the location of the correspondent first and the topic second. All items are paraphrased.
  • Springfield, MA. Chickens killed by feeding them overly salted cookies.
  • Springfield, MA. Q: Are the ducks in Forest Park the same as the summer ones? A: A mix.
  • Boston, MA. Q: ID of flock of robin-sized birds. A: Starlings.
  • Connecticut. Q: Do you agree with the bounty on goshawks? A: No. Too many innocent hawks will be killed.
  • Springfield, MA. A very intelligent pet oriole.
  • Quincy, MA. A swimming rattlesnake.
  • New London, CT. A suggestion for a home-made bird bath.
  • Warren, MA. A water snake that caught a trout.
  • Canton Center, CT. Litter of squirrels discovered in winter.
  • Colerain, MA. Q: How often do deer shed their antlers? A: Once a year.
  • Indian Orchard, MA. Q: Why won't my canary sing? A: Try changing its seed.
  • Bartlett, NH. Squirrels ingenious at stealing bird food.
  • Woburn, MA. Q: Do mourning doves overwinter? A: Some do.
  • East Templeton, MA. Copperheads born alive.
  • TWB asks listeners to provide information about Great Horned Owls for Dr. Gross.
  • Gardiner, ME. Leominster, MA, Springfield, MA. Reports of evening grosbeaks and wintering robins.
  • TWB thanks listeners for donations to Radio Nature Fund and Bird Hospital.
  • Sunderland, MA. Ram's head lady's slipper.
  • Thomaston, CT. Heard phoebe's song (TWB: No. A chickadee)
  • Thomaston, CT. Q: What to feed tadpole. A: Stuff from bottom of pond. Plus hard-boiled egg bits.
  • TWB welcomes new scout members from East Grandby, CT.
  • TWB announces special episode for following week (imaginary radio tour of Nova Scotia). [This would actually air two weeks later]
  • Ends with signature sign-off. "Good evening, Neighbors. Goodnight, kiddies."


Finally, on November 28, Burgess paid tribute to the memory of W.S. Quinby, a local coffee importer, who had provided the Radio Nature League with money for clerical support and tent caterpillar prizes since the previous spring (and also was the chief financial support behind broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

Next: Radio Nature League 1929

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Radio Nature League (1927 May to December)

Note: On June 9, TWB was invited to talk as part of the opening ceremonies for WBZA studios at the Hotel Statler in Boston. In a speech, Burgess highlighted the role of radio as an educational force and a medium which allows "intimate contact" with the home. TWB was absent on June 15, June 22 and June 29 (he was in Nova Scotia; A.E. Bach substituted ). On August 31, the show would break for six weeks while TWB and his family visited Panama. It resumed on November 2. There doesn't appear to have been a meeting on December 14.

May to December, 1927
Items of note:
  • In May Thornton Burgess solicited from listeners over $1000 in donations to the Red Cross for flood victims in Arkansas and Louisiana. This wouldn't be the last time he'd use the Radio Nature League for the "conservation of human life."
  • The program on June 1 featured another "Bird Hike" with Edward Avis. Avis was given some time to talk about and demonstrate British birds. (Avis's British bird work can be heard here).
  • On November 2, the entire program was devoted to Burgess's experiences during his Panama trip. He narrated a typical tour (sans sound effects) through the jungle.
  • Philip Hansling Jr spoke on trees (November 23). He was the only guest speaker this period.
Open hunting season on white-tailed deer in Massachusetts began on the first week in December. Burgess deplored the way the state conducted the season and would use the Radio Nature League as a forum to express his discontent (in future years he would call it "The Annual Slaughter of Innocents" and the "Orgy of Killers."). It also provided him with the opportunity to draw a line between mere hunters and true "sportsmen." On December 7 (his comments were also published in the Burgess Radio Nature League column on January 8) he offered a definition. A sportsmen, he argued, is a man who
respects the laws governing hunting and fishing and lives up to the spirit of them as well as the letter of them. But more than this, he is a man who finds his pleasure in the pursuit rather than the kill, to whom a kill is in reality incidental--the reward for his skill. He is the man who refuses to take unfair advantage of his quarry. He is the man who, when a species is becoming scarce, refuses to go out and hunt just because the law says that he may....Of true sportsmen we have but a few. Of killers--why the woods are full of them.
As one might expect, Burgess was inundated with correspondence for and against this position and this sportsman vs. killer rhetoric would continue every December when the deer season began. Some of Burgess's modest suggestions for reform (only bucks should be taken; there should be a ban on automatic weapons) were eventually adopted, though not during the tenure of the Radio Nature League.

Next: Radio Nature League 1928

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Radio Nature League (1927 January to April)

Note: Burgess was absent on April 6, presumably because of lecture obligations. (He was scheduled to give a talk in Lewiston, ME on April 7 and at Bowdoin College--sponsored by Alfred Gross--on April 8.)

January-April 1927

The winter of 1927 featured a full slate of speakers:
  • January 12: Charles W. Johnson on "Some Common Insects of the Household."
  • January 26: Francis Harper on chipmunks (talk is included in script)
  • February 9: J.A. Cushman on "Fossils, how they are formed and their value to man." (talk is included)
  • February 23: William H. Weston Jr. on "Beliefs of certain peoples in connection with plants and plant life."
  • March 9: Glover M. Allen on "Whales and Whaling in New England." (talk is included)
  • March 23: James L. Peters on hawks and owls. (talk is included)
  • March 30: A.F. Burgess of the U.S. Bureau of Entomology on moths. (talk is included)
  • April 6: Austin H. Clark paper on "Living Lamps." Burgess was absent this day. The paper--included--was read, presumably by A.E. Bach, the announcer in the studio.
  • April 13: Edward Wigglesworth of the Boston Society of Natural History on "Household Aquaria." (talk included)
  • April 20: Philip Hansling Jr. on "The Care and Preservation of Trees." (talk included, with TWB edits)
The relationship between Burgess and the final speaker (not associated with the Boston Society of Natural History) would be an enduring one. Hansling, a Hartford tree surgeon, would be invited back to speak and answer questions repeatedly over the next few years and even substitute host at least one show.

There was a special program on February 2 broadcast live from the New England Sportsmen Show in Boston. The show, part of "Conservation Week" (Jan 29-Feb 5) in Massachusetts, was reportedly the first one in New England in more than two decades. (Burgess praised Governor Alvin Fuller on January 12 for this week set aside "to emphasize the need of guarding forests, streams and game."). The show attracted exhibitions, some featuring live animals, from many states and Canadian provinces. (TWB argued that the show, was more of a "conservation exposition" than a celebration of hunting). Burgess had promoted the show beginning on January 19, announcing a special invitation to children and their teachers to attend the opening ceremonies. On the February 2 show, he dramatized his experiences in Northern Canada, using the talents of animal callers George and Jim McLeod to create the scene.

On February 16, Burgess commenced the second annual crusade against tent caterpillars. This time he would promise cash prizes. By the end of the crusade in mid-March, the procession of caterpillars-laid end to end--would reach the middle of the Pacific starting at the Boston State House.

Finally, April 20 brought a new enduring conservation concern: The automobile. Cars kill animals on the road and provide hunters with more access to remote locations. Over the next few years the charges against the automobile would grow to include the increase in forest fires (from cigarette flipped from car windows) and the increase in bird-killing feral house cats (driven far from home and abandoned).

Next: Radio Nature League (1927 May through December)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Radio Nature League (1926 September to December)

Note: The Radio Nature League resumed on September 1 at 8:30. The Boston Daily Globe has it at 7:30 on September 8 and 15, 8:30 on September 22, and then at 7:30 for the remainder of the year. There was no show on December 8 (TWB was in New York and apologized the next week that he had forgotten to mail the script for someone else to read). On November 3, the Globe's "What's on the air?" column promoted the RNL and called it "a real force in the conservation of desirable wild life in America."

September to December 1926

By fall 1926, the Radio Nature League was firmly established as a cultural phenomenon (at least in the New England area). Now when Burgess would quote from a Boston Daily Globe story, for example, the Globe would report on the citation (as in an October 7 story, "Says skunk will exterminate the lawn-destroying white grubs; Thornton W. Burgess, Naturalist, praises misunderstood animal, in radio address from Springfield.") The Globe would also draw on Burgess for expert knowledge: a November 25 article on woodchucks and winter prophecies includes a long letter from TWB "deprecating" the notion.

Burgess announced a schedule of ten guest speakers for the upcoming winter. This would begin with:
  • December 15: James H. Emerton on spiders.
  • December 29: Harold L. Babcock on "Snakes and their attributes."
The Ruffed Grouse intestine campaign resumed (it was now a contest, with a copy of Forbush's Birds of Massachusetts going to the winner).

There were also two new concerns of note, which would both continue for the length of the RNL's run.

First, following Burgess's spring request that league members refrain from picking the trailing arbutus, Burgess announced the fall equivalent, asking members not to pick (or buy) fringed gentians, another threatened New England wildflower.

Second, Burgess told members to watch out for "foreigners" who were using net traps to catch protected song birds. He would later stake out a netting spot in Springfield and aid in the arrest of the perpetrators. These particular "foreigners" were apparently immigrants from southern Italy. Note: the demonization of Italians as song bird killers had been a standard part of the bird protection arsenal for at least twenty years before this (joining house cats, sharp-shinned hawks, and boys with guns as chief enemies of useful birds). While it is true that the capture and consumption of song birds as delicacies is a southern Italian cultural practice (this remains a notorious problem in Malta), the rhetoric against the practice would come perilously close to out-and-out xenophobia.

Finally, one of the most memorable episodes in the history of the Radio Nature League would happen during this period. "Houdini" the milk snake made his debut (he had been mailed to the Radio Nature League as a living specimen but managed to defeat every attempt to contain him). On December 1, Burgess would need to leave the microphone during a broadcast because no one else was able (or willing) to recapture him.

Next: Radio Nature League (1927 January to April)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Radio Nature League (1926 April to June)

Note: On April 28 the meeting time moved to 8:00 Daylight Savings Time. On May 12, it moved to 8:30. There were no meetings in July or August. The Boston Daily Globe throughout this period lists the program as "Radio Nature League, direction of Thornton W. Burgess."

April to June 1926

Speakers:
  • April 14: S.N.F. Sanford of the Boston Museum of Natural History on "Crabs, Lobsters, and Cannibals of the Seashore" (Sanford did not appear; TWB read the paper)
  • April 28: Glover M. Allen of the Boston Society of Natural History on "Bats and their habits."
  • May 12: Thomas Barbour, President of the Boston Society of Natural History on "The largest reptiles."
On April 14, Burgess announced that the Boston Society of Natural History was preparing a special radio bulletin containing four of the talks (Weston, Daly, Babcock, and Sanford.) It would be available on May 1 and cost fifteen cents.

Other Radio Nature League activities of note:

April 21 was "American Forest Week." TWB called on league members to plant trees. He offered a $5 prize (provided by the Chapin Farm Agency) for the boy or girl planting the most trees. TWB later (5/5) asked members to plant "Mother's Trees" on Mother's Day.

Burgess had begun banding birds. (The US Biological Survey had been managing a national program since 1920.) Throughout this period, TWB would talk about his experiences on Radio Nature League programs, assuring listeners that banding was OK and didn't harm or scare the birds.

May 26 featured a special program: "Birdsong Day." This marked the first appearance of famous birdsong performer Edward Avis. (Avis, who lived in Springfield, would be a regular performer on the Brewer sponsored RNL in 1935.) On this program, Burgess narrated a "bird tour" and Avis provided the sound effects (robin, oriole, blue jay, house wren, eastern bluebird, etc.)

The program took a summer break after the June 23, 1926 program. It would return on September 1.

Next: Radio Nature League (1926 September to December)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter on the Green Meadows 1914

See the meadows green and fair!
Hear the music in the air!
Life and love for all were born
On the blessed Easter morn.


Peter Rabbit brushed his coat with care and combed out his whiskers. Peter was very fussy this morning, very fussy, indeed. It was so unusual for Peter to care how he looked that Jimmy Skunk, who happened to come down the Lone Little Path, paused at the edge of the deal Old Briar Patch and asked Peter what he was fixing up so for.

"Why!" cried Peter in the most surprised way. "Don't you know that this is Easter morning? I'm getting ready to make my Easter calls, of course! How do I look?

Jimmy stepped back and looked Peter all over as he turned around to show himself off, and there wasn't a trace of a smile, though there was a twinkle in his eyes, as he said:

"You look very fine, Peter. Mixed brown and gray are very becoming to you. For myself I prefer black and white stripes, rather broad. I see you still wear a white patch on the seat of your pants."

For just a second Peter's face clouded over. "Y-e-s," he replied slowly. "You see I have to wear that because it has been in the family ever since the days when the world was young. Do-do you think it is so dreadfully unbecoming, Jimmy Skunk?"

Jimmy looked at Peter' s funny little white tail and laughed outright. "Of course it isn't, Peter, he cried. "Why without it it wouldn't be you! No, sir, you wouldn't be you at all."

Peter's face cleared and together he and Jimmy Skunk started on down the Lone Little Patch across the Green Meadows. It seemed as if every one they met had on a new suit, and some of the suits were very handsome. There was Sammy Jay's--such a wonderful blue with the very whitest of white trimmings! And there--Peter suddenly sat up very straight. "Look, Jimmy!" he cried excitedly. "There's Bubbling Bob the Bobolink! He must have just arrived from the South, and see what a wonderful black and white coat he has, with cap to match! When he left last Fall he wore the shabbiest kind of a suit. Just hear him sing! I believe I could sing if I had a suit like that."

"Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! A great singer you'd make, Peter Rabbit! A great singer you'd make."

Peter turned to find Johnny Chuck laughing at him. Johnny had on a new suit, too. It was very plain and sober, but Johnny didn't seem to mind this in the least. In fact he didn't seem to think of it at all. "What are you thinking about clothes for, Peter Rabbit?" continued Johnny.

"Because it's Easter. What else is Easter for?" replied Peter.

Johnny Chuck scratches his head thoughtfully. "It isn't just to think about what we wear; I'm sure of that," said he. "It's-it's-why it's to make you glad that you're alive, and that Summer is coming, and that everything is so beautiful, and--and that no matter how brown and dead things look they will become lovely again, and that

Joy and love are in the air
All about us everywhere


and-and to try to make others feel as happy as we do."

Peter kicked his heels together happily. "I guess you are exactly right, Johnny Chuck," said he, "and I guess our new clothes are to please those who see us and not our own selves, and so I'm going to think how nice others look and not of how I look myself. Now I must hurry and wish everybody a happy Easter. Isn't it good to be alive? I feel as if I just love all the world, even Reddy Fox."

Peter hurried off to make his Easter calls and Johnny Chuck smiled as he watched him. "I guess that Peter has found out what Easter means," said he. And Peter knew that he had.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Radio Nature League (1926 January- March)

Note: Thornton Burgess was absent on January 13--WBZ announcer, A.E. Bach, handled the host duties. According to the January 20 script, that program was temporarily extended to 45 minutes. The scripts of talks by William L. Finley and Henry B. Bigelow are included in the Thornton W. Burgess Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

January to March 1926
In January, the Radio Nature League celebrated its one year anniversary with an annual report. Membership stood at 20,000 and counting. It had become a "real organization," recognized by students and leaders in Nature Study. It was cosmopolitan, democratic, and importantly--not just for children. Although this is not in the script it was also reportedly one of the most popular features on WBZ, showing that scientific subjects could have wide-spread appeal. (See this extended syndicated news story about the Radio Nature League and its scientific work.)

Here is the list (paraphrased) of League accomplishments in Year One.
  1. Encouraged bird feeding and construction of bird houses
  2. Conservation of wildflowers
  3. Wayside beauty (removal of tent caterpillars)
  4. Posting of farms as nature sanctuaries
  5. Ruffed grouse project
  6. White weasel specimen project
Burgess also begins to advocate grassroots versions of the organization. Why not have local chapters of silver and red star clubs?

A heavy schedule of guest speakers continued:
  • January 6. Francis Harper, curator of mammals at the Boston Museum of Natural History, on bears.
  • January 20. James Lee Peters of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, on "Bird life in Northern Patagonia."
  • January 27. William L. Finley, State Game Commissioner of Oregon, on "Lower Klamath Lake."
  • February 3. Reginald A. Daly, geologist at Harvard University, on Earthquakes (there had been a recent earthquake in New England).
  • March 3. Charles W. Johnson of the Boston Museum of Natural History, on "Where insects pass the winter." (Johnson had originally been scheduled for February 17 but had to cancel).
  • March 17. William H. Weston, Jr. of Harvard on "Seaweeds and some of their uses."
  • March 31. Henry B. Bigelow, oceanographer of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, on "The Life of an Eel."
William L. Finley's talk was not part of the Boston Society of Natural History series. Rather, Finley, a friend of Burgess's and a member of the League, had come to the program to deliver an impassioned plea for the preservation of a particularly important natural habitat in the Pacific Northwest--Lower Klamath Lake. The Lake had been drained for dubious agricultural purposes ("greed," according to TWB); Finley wanted the water returned. Burgess tells the League membership to send letters that he can collect and send as a petition to the Secretary of the Interior. He would continue to solicit letters for weeks to come. Finley's campaign was ultimately partially successful, creating the Upper Klamath Wildlife Refuge in 1927. [Note: much of Finley's talk as well as Burgess's own plea against environmental degradation can be found in the February 28, 1926 Burgess Radio Nature League column--Google's News Archive has it but it is mis-dated, positioned sideways, and there is no direct link. Try going to Feb 27 first, then page 46]

Burgess announced the first crusade against tent caterpillar nests on March 10. Envisioned as a aid to roadside beauty, he urged individual boys and girls, scout troops, and schools to remove the nests, count the egg masses destroyed (supervised by a responsible adult) and send in their count by March 21. The prizes for the groups with the highest count would win William T. Hornaday's Natural History set; individual winners would receive National Geographic books of birds and animals. This would become an annual Radio Nature League event, with substantial cash prizes.

Next: 1926 (April to June)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Burgess Radio Nature League


A September 18, 1925 ad for the Milwaukee Journal announces a newly expanded Sunday "Boys' and Girls' Magazine." In addition to "Seckatary Hawkins" and "Through the Gates of Fairyland," the magazine offers "a brand new department by Thornton W. Burgess--'The Burgess Radio Nature League!'"

Google News Archives has it. Dated September 20, it is the first instance of the column I know. It fills nearly a whole magazine page, leading with the mission of the RNL, includes a longish essay on lizards and newts, a shorter piece on birds that fight their own reflection (based on the experience of a correspondent), and a section titled, "Naturalist's Question Box" in which Burgess answers a wide variety of correspondents' questions. There are two illustrations, of robins and kingfishers. The text is taken, with minor editing, almost entirely from Radio Nature League radio scripts.

The Burgess Radio Nature League column ran from September 1925 into 1931. (The last manuscript in the HGARC at BU is dated March 22 and is numbered #289.) Syndicated throughout the country, it functioned both to publicize the radio program (in midwestern cities like Milwaukee or Sioux City, Iowa, where the column ran, it was theoretically possible in 1925 to receive WBZ at night) and to put Burgess's hard work in writing and editing content to remunerative purposes. [This is actually an open question. Burgess claimed repeatedly that he wasn't compensated for his radio work; surely, however, he didn't offer the BRNL column for free].

The "Burgess Radio Nature League" title was not universally used. The Deseret News, for example, used "Burgess Stories of Wild Life" (in Utah, reception of WBZ was probably not even theoretically possible); the Deseret News also ran it on Saturdays, not Sundays. The Winnipeg Free Press called it "Burgess Nature League Talks." Even the Milwaukee Journal preferred a headline based on the column's content to the "Burgess Radio Nature League" heading. Soon, the column would have a distinctive style, enclosing photographs of wildlife subjects (sometimes by Burgess himself) in circles and rectangles. See the 1926 layout below for a taste.

Surprisingly, Burgess didn't seem to use the column as a way of increasing RNL membership across the nation--there is no address to which readers can send membership cards. On the other hand, Burgess did offer to answer readers' questions ("so far as it is possible") care of the newspaper running the column.

For our purposes, the newspaper column provides access to Radio Nature League content that is otherwise only available by slowly perusing deteriorating carbon copies in an archive. To be clear: the column and the program were not identical. Burgess would carefully select material, sometimes from several different programs, to fill the needs of the column. Nevertheless, Burgess's overall attitude about environmental issues as expressed in the program can be found in the columns, as well as details about many conservation-oriented RNL initiatives.

Google News Archives provides access to more Burgess Radio Nature League columns than the first, but some are not indexed because of the orientation of the magazine section (you'll have to read them sideways). Many are indexed under the wrong date. I've provided links below to the columns available from 1925. (The Milwaukee Journal would drop the feature by 1927.)

Sept 27, 1925 (this is a link to a paragraph on the same page--just zoom out to see the BRNL)
Oct 4, 1925
Oct 11, 1925
Oct 18, 1925 (again, a link to a sideways paragraph. Zoom out, and scroll to left)
Oct 25, 1925 (no direct link--link goes to first page. Go to page 54--sideways paragraph. This is an important one--it contains content from the very first Bedtime Story Radio Talk.)
Nov 1, 1925 (sideways paragraph)
Nov 8, 1925 (sideways paragraph--zoom out)
Nov 15, 1925
Nov 22, 1925
Nov 29, 1925
Dec 6, 1925
Dec 13, 1925
Dec 20, 1925

Next: Radio Nature League (1926 January-March)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Radio Nature League (1925 September to December)

Note: According to the dated script, the Radio Nature League met at 6:30 on September 16. This is not reflected in the listing in the Boston Daily Globe, which still has the program ("Radio Nature Story by Thornton W. Burgess") on at 7:32. On October 14, the Globe finally listed the program as "Radio Nature League by Thornton W. Burgess" and on December 16 begins to identify guest speakers. Mrs. Burgess filled in on October 7 (while Mr. B was up in the New Brunswick wilderness) and again on November 18.

September-December 1925

Starting September 2, 1925, the Radio Nature League entered its most productive era. Thornton Burgess announced that the Smithsonian and the Boston Society of Natural History would now serve as experts advisers, helping to answer members' questions and make identifications. (From this point on, Burgess, care of the mailroom of WBZ, would receive hundreds of objects of natural history, some still living.) He also announced the start of a series of guest speakers. These would be:
  • November 11: Arthur Loveridge of the Zoological Society of London on "Spitting Snakes."
  • November 25: John C. Phillips of the Boston Society of Natural History
  • December 16: W. Sprague Brooks, curator of birds at the Boston Society of Natural History, on "Arctic Spring."
  • December 23: Dr. Harold L. Babcock, of the Boston Museum of Natural History, on "New England Turtles."
The speakers would be allotted fifteen minutes at the beginning of the program and would speak from a remote hook-up at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston. The normal question/experience format would resume afterwards. Burgess would now call shows without speakers, "experience meetings."

The Radio Nature League's central scientific project began on October 14. On that program, Burgess spoke at length about research being conducted by Dr. Alfred O. Gross at Bowdoin College on the ruffed grouse. The population of the grouse, a favorite New England game bird, had crashed and Gross and his colleagues were looking for samples of grouse intestines to check for parasites. For the rest of the fall (and repeatedly during the grouse's open season throughout the remaining years of the RNL) Burgess would call for grouse intestines (along with instructions on how to pack them for the mail) and also update listeners on research findings. According to TWB's autobiography, the RNL became the best source of specimens for the Gross project, contributing "some two thousand." (He also notes, a tad resentfully, that "wives often proved to be better sports than their husbands, the latter proving too uninterested to co-operate in preserving their favorite sport." (p. 148)) The grouse project received national attention, evidence of the "possibilities of radio as a direct and practical aid to science." (Hartford Courant, January 6, 1926). On December 2, another (successful) request went out to listeners for white weasel specimens, to aid an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Natural History.

The Radio Nature League had also attracted the attention of public officials. On December 9, the program held a special "Connecticut School Nature Party." This was organized with the help of Russell F. Lund, supervisor of the elementary school agriculture and nature study in Connecticut and featured a special message from Conn Governor, John H. Trumbull.

Finally, September, 1925 marked the beginning of a new Burgess Sunday newspaper feature, the "Burgess Radio Nature League." This feature, syndicated throughout the nation, drew directly from RNL radio scripts and offered a different channel into League participation.

Next: Burgess Radio Nature League