By Len Barcousky
History Press, 160 pp., $19.99
One nice thing about history: They're always making more of it. It may even be Pittsburgh's strongest manufacturing sector. Consider the Rick Sebak documentaries in constant rotation on WQED's digital channel, or the omnipresent "Images of America" books -- photo-driven glosses on everything from African Americans in Mercer County to the epic past of Upper St. Clair.
And now comes History Press, a national outfit that produces quirky local histories. Its recent Remembering Pittsburgh: An "Eyewitness" History of the Steel City is put together by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Len Barcousky, based on research he's compiled while working on a fortnightly P-G "almanac" feature.
Ranging from the city's founding to the onset of World War II, Barcousky's book details historical anecdotes big and small -- from visits by starlets to addresses by Presidents. (After a local crowd was told Calvin Coolidge would "say a few words," the President rose to the occasion: "I shall not break Colonel Church's promise to you," he said, and left the stage.)
The material is organized into loose themes, like "Wars, Revolutions and Rebellions," and "City with a Conscience" (on struggles over slavery and religious faith). Not surprisingly, Barcousky draws almost exclusively from newspaper accounts of the day. As his preface notes, "I like to think that I am honoring some of the hard work of my long-gone colleagues," and while scanning through the microfilm, "I suspect that many of the pages I've been skimming haven't been read for a century or more."
If you've had that experience, you know it's not as dusty as it sounds. Those of us who would kill for a quote can only sigh at the reported last words of a criminal prior to his 1858 execution: "Remember, gentlemen, I die game." And it's oddly reassuring to see a Depression-era Tea Partier denouncing a Democratic president and a media consisting of "a reportorial staff of morons." I'll take that over "lamestream media" any day.
Or consider the women's-page column by famed actress Lillian Russell, who advised women to place mirrors at floor-level around the house, so they could ensure their feet were properly displayed.
Some of this history has, of course, been thoroughly documented elsewhere: Barcousky has little new to say about events like the Johnstown Flood or the Great Fire of 1845. But at $19.99, Remembering Pittsburgh is a more economical primer than our quasi-official coffee-table book, Stefan Lorant's Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City.
Besides, there's plenty of fresh material. Who can fail to appreciate the advertising campaign which involved driving an automobile up and down one of the city's inclines, to prove it "could handle the region's many mountains and valleys"? Or the poet who needed capital to finance the publication of his paean to the city: "For here in Pittsburgh it shall ne'er be said / No Muse weeps o'er the great, the honor'd dead."
It shall indeed ne'er be said; the honor'd dead are too much fun to read about.