Tourism for taxes or good jobs?

Tourism is widely valued by cities across the United States. Public officials and their economic advisers champion the cause of tourism by using a variety of economic models to show how tourist spending gets converted to restaurant tabs and then to employee wages. In turn, these wages are used to buy groceries and consumables that bolster the economy. Driven by this logic, the multiplying tourist dollar has inspired public-private partnerships to develop hotels, attract visitors and build comfortable meeting spaces and entertainment venues for their enjoyment. A significant body of literature, primarily from neo-liberal economists, supports public investment in all aspects of tourism.

The enthusiasm for the tourist dollar within city halls and chambers of commerce is not without detractors. Such important urban theorists, as Susan Fainstein and David Harvey have raised concerns about the distribution of benefits within the tourism industry (subsectors that comprise the tourism industry are generally the lowest paid segment of any local economy). In The Just City (2010), Fainstein reflects on two decades of research on urban tourism and, given little movement toward a just end, suggests – somewhat in passing — that significant public subsidies given to private businesses within the tourism sector should empower residents and city planners to pursue policy options which achieve a fair distribution of economic benefits (Fainstein, 2010, p. 183). In the Rebel Cities (2012), Harvey observes the array of private rent-seekers trading on tourist attractions built and maintained with public investment. He considers this an appropriation of capital which belongs to the community (Harvey, 2012, pp. 105–106).

Urban interest in tourism, from a local economic development perspective, gained traction in the early 1990’s as cities struggled to retain traditional employers in central business districts. Fainstein joined with Dennis Judd and Lily Hoffman to compile two edited volumes on the topic; The Tourist City (1990) and Cities and Visitors (2003). The editors included low wages among a number of issues that planners should consider when developing a regulatory framework to guide the sector (Hoffman, Fainstein, & Judd, 2003, p. 9), although much of the burden for increasing wages was left to labor organizations and community organizers (Judd & Fainstein, 1999, p. 24). Twenty years removed from this spike in interest, Fainstein touched on tourism in The Just City (2010), again placing the burden of equitable wages on community organizers, while offering a new justification for action based on two decades of pubic investment in the sector, suggesting, “With the involvement of the state …comes the interests of nonowners of capital in limiting the discretion of investors and injecting concerns of justice into policy making (Fainstein, 2010, p. 183).”

Fainstein’s perspective is shared by heterodox economists, sociologists and urban theorists, but it remains a minority viewpoint across the full spectrum of academicians and practitioners (Ren, Pritchard, & Morgan, 2010, p. 887). The perspectives of neo-liberal economists dominate the field. Economists. like Larry Dwyer, focus on business profits with little or no priority given to the externalities associated with low wages within the industry. Dwyer et al’s voluminous text, Tourism Economics and Policy illustrates this point. With twenty-one chapters encompassing 855 pages, the authors declare there was not enough room to treat labor economics, or synthesize the fragments within the book that touched on economic sustainability (Dwyer, Forsyth, & Dwyer, 2010, p. 5,33). Others bypass labor to promote economic benefits to the community at large. Boley et al focus on promoting this point, suggesting governments consider “strategies to increase their residents’ attitudes toward tourism development,” and, “promote the indirect personal economic benefits of tourism, including tax burden relief and the services subsidized by tourism dollars” (Boley, McGehee, Perdue, & Long, 2014, pp. 46–47).

Most public officials have joined with neo-liberal economists in sidelining any policy discussions regarding the wage structure in the tourism industry. As an example, three of the largest states for tourism, California, Florida and Virginia, while actively promoting business interests within the industry, are silent on the wage structure of those working in the industry.

 

In Florida’s strategic plan for tourism, the stated goal is to maximize the economic impact of travel and tourism, with an objective to achieve $100 billion in tourism related spend by 2020 (Visit Florida, n.d.).

 

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the responsibility for promoting tourism falls to the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC), a department under direction of the Governor. The corporation still operates under a vision plan adopted in 2002. The goal of the plan is to increase tourism market-share and annual visitor spending in Virginia, and the objectives are to 1) increase visitor volume, length-of-stay and spending in Virginia, and 2) increase tourism funding annually, including identification of new sources, to advance tourism marketing and development (Virginia Tourism Corporation, Commonwealth of Virginia, 2002).

 

In California, tourism officials set three goals in their 2012 strategic plan: 1) Garner 91% or better approval of a 2013 state-wide referendum on rental car assessments (they achieved 93%), 2) elevate legislators’ perceptions of the importance of the industry, and 3) raise consumer perceptions of California and increase media chatter with positive press articles that mention California and the economic benefits travel (Visit California, n.d.).

 

Strikingly, the missions, goals and objectives of all three states mention nothing of community benefits or employee wages, even though the accommodation sector is nested within the lowest paying industry sector in all three states (Table 1).
Table 1 Median wages by NAICS Sector in 2014 by Sector for Key States

Table 1

 

At the local level, the exclusion of wages from tourism development and promotion policies is also prevalent. A 2014 survey on local economic development conducted by the International City Managers Association (ICMA) found that among five potential priorities (tax base, jobs, quality of life, environmental sustainability and social equity) city officials placed increasing the local tax base first and addressing social equity (i.e., distribution of economic benefits) last. Of the 32 activities identified to address these economic development priorities, tourism promotion was ranked second, only behind quality of life investments (arts, culture, education and recreation) (International City Managers Association, 2014). The proximity of increasing revenues (tax base) as a priority, and tourism promotion as the means to this end is no coincidence.

 

Next week: Hotels: Local Government’s Golden Goose

 

Citations:

Boley, B. B., McGehee, N. G., Perdue, R. R., & Long, P. (2014). Empowerment and resident attitudes toward tourism: Strengthening the theoretical foundation through a Weberian lens. Annals of Tourism Research, 49, 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2014.08.005

Dwyer, L., Forsyth, P., & Dwyer, W. (2010). Tourism Economics and Policy. Channel View Publications.

Fainstein, S. S. (2010). The Just City. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution. Verso.

Hoffman, L. M., Fainstein, S. S., & Judd, D. R. (Eds.). (2003). CIties and Visitors; Regulating People, Markets and City Space. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
International City Managers Association. (2014). Economic Development 2014 Survey Results.

Judd, D. R., & Fainstein, S. S. (Eds.). (1999). The Tourist City. Yale University Press.

Ren, C., Pritchard, A., & Morgan, N. (2010). Constructing tourism research; A critical inquiry. Annals of Tourism Research, 37(4), 885–904.

Virginia Tourism Corporation, Commonwealth of Virginia. (2002). Vision Plan for Virginia’s Tourism Industry. Retrieved from https://www.vatc.org/uploadedFiles/Administration/About/Administration_and_Finance/documents/VisionPlan.pdf

Visit California. (n.d.). Visit California’s Strategic Business Plan; 2001-2016.

Visit Florida. (n.d.). 2020 Strategic Plan. Retrieved from http://www.visitflorida.org/media/24818/2020-strategic-plan.pdf

Making a case for the Just Host

Blog ArticleMy current research looks at high tax, low-wage sectors from a local economic development perspective. First up is the hospitality sub-sector. I’ve presented some of this research at an academic conference and to fellow researchers during my PhD studies. In the months ahead, I will write about this ongoing research project, introducing elements that will eventually find their way into future conference presentations, journal articles, and eventually, my second book. I will also present data from some detours along the way.
I will be presenting an eclectic group of topics relating to tourism and wages. My research synthesizes literature from six distinct disciplines; urban studies, tourism studies, public administration, public choice theory, real estate economics, and wage theory. With my unique set of experiences and biases (see below) I will be building on the work of Susan Fainstein (The Just City) and David Harvey (Rebel Cities), and testing the theories of public choice economists.
As for my data, I have the benefit of a national survey of economic development professionals, living wage data from MIT, hotel performance data from HVS, and wage and local government revenue data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Initially, I will start with simple cross tabulations of this data to reveal intriguing patterns and relationships. Some of the comparisons will include living wages, hotel revenues, and local government taxes. Others will look at the accuracy of performance claims made by local economic development officials. Some comparisons will focus on Virginia, others the nation, and some on large tourism market. The data will define the scope.

 

I approach this research informed by experiences from my career as a practitioner, my recent stint writing about U.S. history, and my age, gender, class and ethnicity.  As a practitioner, I served as a local economic development professional and corporate real estate executive,  and ran my own real estate advisory company. In this last role I helped develop several business–class hotels.  My research project in American history introduced me to labor relations in the industrial age, policies and tactics of FDR, and the battle for full employment legislation between 1945 and 1946.  Finally, I’m a white male, raised in an upper-income family during the 60’s and 70’s. I faced no economic hardships in my youth.  I remember when community colleges were free and catalogs for four-year colleges had one or two paragraphs devoted to college financing. Later,  as I raised a family in mixed-income areas, I observed the dramatic increases in college tuition combined with a deterioration of wages for entry-level employment. I developed an appreciation, albeit second hand, for economic challenges I never faced. Given my personal experiences, my research focuses on the power structures where I was employed for many years. I will leverage my understanding of hotel economics, real estate, local government administration, and public finance to provide a unique perspective on how the economic benefits derived from tourism can be can be distributed in a manner that contributes to a sustainable local economy.

 

I look forward to any constructive criticisms that you may offer. I consider any critique a gift.

James A. Murray Biography Now Available to Order

coverJim Murray’s rise to great wealth began high in the Rocky Mountains in the small town of Pioneer, Montana. There he hit his first big strike, hired others to work his claims, and earned a reputation as someone who “couldn’t be bluffed, wouldn’t be cheated, and didn’t scare at anything.” He parlayed his mining wealth into banks, theatres, resorts, waterworks and commercial properties from Seattle to San Diego. In western business circles, it was believed his ready cash was second only to W.A. Clark. Where Murray shared no peers, however, was in his decidedly radical politics. From the Irish Land League protests of the 1880s through the Easter Rising of 1916, he supported the violent overthrow of Britain’s rule in his homeland. Hoping for the Crown’s defeat in World War I, Murray’s extremism reached its peak when future World War II General Omar Bradley was dispatched to Butte, Montana to stop Murray’s network of “Sinn Féiners” from impeding the supply of copper to Britain’s war machine.

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Told for the first time, this is the unvarnished story of Murray’s rise to great wealth and power, and the flamboyant cast of friends and family that endured his violent mood swings and his eccentric generosities. Farley relates the entirety of Murray’s audacious life: ruling over mining camps in Montana, dining with Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell in New York, showering the Monterey art colony with patronage, and propelling a loyal nephew to the top of a radical Irish-American organization with 60,000 members. His story concludes with the bitter fight over his massive estate, involving twenty-six relatives, nine years of court battles, and headline coverage by newspapers throughout the West. This is the tale of a western iconoclast, a pioneering and dominating spirit, more comfortable in saloons than board rooms, who fought for wealth and mother country to his last breath.

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What others are saying…
“Jim Murray deserved a biography. I think he would have loved this one. It’s honest and it’s thorough, just as—in his own strange way—Jim Murray was. I’ve been at this business for more than fifty years. I have never met a more enterprising and a more tireless researcher than Bill Farley. This is historical detective work of the first order… And it tells a fascinating story about Butte and about the characters who made it: Jim Murray and his friends, Fat Jack Jones, John Maguire, and hundreds more.”

David M. Emmons, author of The Butte Irish (excerpt from foreword)

“From scratching for a living in the California gold rush to multi-millionaire status. This is the remarkable story—deftly handled—of a sometimes inspiring but often roguish Irishman who managed not to forget who, and what, he came from. By introducing us to James Murray, his puckish, resourceful and courageous ancestor, Bill Farley has faithfully and skillfully added to the canon of Irish contributions to the history of the American West.”

Myles Dungan, author of How the Irish Won the West

Colorful New Scenes from San Diego’s Water History

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“Considered to be one of the most influential people in San Diego, Ed Fletcher (1872-1955) spun many tales that still dominate the City’s land development and water historiography. His embellished accounts of his own role in the Cuyamaca Water Company obscure a number of colorful episodes in San Diego’s history. This article revisits Fletcher’s life and times, highlighting stories about the “Bonanza King” James A. Murray (1840-1921); the accidental naming of Lake Murray; and a yacht club at Pebble Beach paid for, albeit indirectly, by San Diego county ratepayers.”

 

A Wright favorite lives only on paper

 

Location and Site Plan

Location of “The Wave”

Deep in the Carmel Point neighborhood, where Scenic Drive bends at a right angle around the rocky shore, a home sits on legendary plot of land.  Stuart Haldorn and his wife Enid had grand plans for this parcel. In 1945, after selling their ocean front mansion on Cannery Row, the couple retained Frank Lloyd Wright to design their next home in Carmel, California. The couple was flush with cash, receiving a huge bequest when Stuart’s mother, Mary Murray, passed away in 1940. This windfall was on top of the millions they received when Mary’s wealthy husband, James A. Murray died in 1921.

Wright, who steadfastly refused to pick his favorite project, admitted that the Haldorn’s prospective home “was one of the best houses I ever designed.” Unfortunately, the home was never built, probably due to the unique and costly design. Wright commented that “the public road along the sea was a drawback hard to overcome.” His design reached under Scenic Road with a tunnel to connect the rocky shoreline with subterranean elements of the house. Windows in the home were designed to keep out the ocean spray, and the concrete roof was designed to accommodate landscape plantings. Wright didn’t let his work go to waste however, using some of the Haldorn design elements in future works – notably the window design for the Mrs. Clinton Walker House in Carmel.

scan0018Haldorn’s home design was called “The Wave,” and it is featured prominently in the preeminent compendium of Wright’s work, Frank Lloyd Wright Designs, The Sketches, Plans and Drawings by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, and published by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  A sketch of the home (above) is the cover image for the book’s Introduction and four pages provide narrative on the project and various site plans.

Murray’s Monterey

Footprint and Postcard

Murray’s mansion and the property he held across the street (labeled a private park in property records).

Last month I travelled to Monterey, California to tie up loose ends on research for my biography of James A. Murray. I knew several things about Murray’s life in Monterey prior to my trip. He moved there in 1904, at age 64, eight years into his second marriage. He purchased the Tevis Estate from David Jacks, and was likely the home’s first permanent occupant. The home remained in the Murray family until it was demolished in the 1940’s to make way for the expansion of Cannery Row. Murray died in the home in 1921 and the battle for his estate played out in the Monterey Superior Court. Today, a portion of the residence (the horse stables and corral) is the site of the Monterey Bay Plaza & Spa. Five other buildings occupy the site as well. The Monterey Bay Inn sits on the location of his main residence. During the seventeen-year period that Murray called Monterey his home, he commissioned a monument to mark the location of Junipero Serra’s first mass, purchased a Leon Trousset painting of the same event, found work for a dear friend at the Monterey Cypress newspaper, buried that friend at the San Carlos cemetery, commissioned a monument to mark his friend’s grave, and loaned money to several Monterey residents, including artist Charles Rollo Peters. Murray’s wife remained in Monterey after his death, as did her son by another marriage, Stuart Haldorn, and his wife Enid Gregg.

Serra Trousett

Murray’s Trousset painting now hangs in the Carmel Mission.

My primary research objective on this trip was to define the relationship between Murray and Charles Rollo Peters. My secondary objective was very broad. I wanted to find any other information that would further define Murray’s role in Monterey’s early history. My advance work for the trip was aided by James Perry at the Monterey County Historical Society and Dennis Copeland at the City Library. Perry pulled the case numbers I needed to look up court records involving Murray – two of which involved Peters. Copeland pulled a glass negative of the Trousset painting that I could examine to determine if Murray’s version was the same one that now hangs in the Carmel Mission. My plan was to review the cases at the Superior Court, see if the negative matched the Trousset painting at the Carmel Mission and then spend time looking though reels of local newspapers at the City Library. My time flipping through the newspapers was just a hunt for random stories.

My time at the court went very quickly. The lawsuits between Murray and Peters were very revealing. Murray lent Peters a total of $15,000 in two loans between 1906 and 1907. This was a significant amount of money in that time period. It would take a blue collar worker 30 years to earn that amount, and a white collar worker ten. Both loans were secured against his estate (Peters’ Gate). This was at a time of lavish spending for Peters. He took in artists after the 1906 earthquake and opened a gallery at the Del Monte hotel. Both notes were due within one year, but as with many of his charitable loans, Murray did not make any effort to collect. When Murray died, he held over 50 uncollected private loans to individuals totaling over $1.25 million. Many were worthless and of a similar age to Peters’ notes. It seems he only moved to collect on these private loans if he felt slighted.

It appears Murray’s lawsuits were prompted because Peters sold his estate (Murray’s collateral) between 1909 and 1910, and did not use the any of the proceeds to repay Murray. This likely irritated Murray, so he foreclosed on the new property owner to assert his right to title. It appears he won his effort to gain title to the property, as new owner entered into a mortgage with Murray. Whether any money exchanged hands for the clouded title is unclear. Murray probably did not receive much, but the foreclosure process allowed him to go after Peters for some compensation. The court records indicate Peters was forced to sell two paintings hanging at the St. Francis hotel in San Francisco to make at least a symbolic payment to Murray. Paintings by established California artists at that time sold for $50 to $500.

The lawsuit with Hugh Porter revealed that Murray started the Monterey Cypress newspaper in 1907 and lent Porter, the paper’s editor,  half of the start-up money to be a partner in the business. Murray did this with a lot of people to avoid paying them a salary – instead, his partners worked for free and had to make sufficient profit to pay off Murray’s loan. In this case, Porter also had to make sure he could pay John Maguire’s salary as associate editor. Murray also owned newspapers in Pocatello, Idaho and Livingston, Montana where he had business interests. He also invested heavily in the radical Butte Bulletin.

Carmel Mission Basilica

When I visited the City Library I discovered that in the week prior, the library has just transitioned all of their microfilm roles to an on-line platform. I searched the database very quickly and found a great article on (new-to-me) renovations at the Carmel Mission funded by Murray in 1908. This work was completed shortly before the installation of his Serra Monument. I then spent some time in the California Room browsing through file cabinets and shelves. I found some good articles on Charles Rollo Peters to provide context for Murray’s loans and the disposition of Peters’ Gate. The image of Murray’s Trousset was out for scanning, so Dennis arranged to send me a copy via email later in the week.

Steps to Little Pulpit

Steps to small pulpit in Carmel Mission. Repaired by Murray.

I accomplished all of the goals I set for the trip, so I shortened my stay in Monterey and booked a room near U.C. Berkeley. I wanted to check out the Douglas Tilden papers to see if there were any mention of the base reliefs he prepared for the Serra Monument Murray commissioned at the Lower Presidio Historic Park. As I left town the next day for Berkeley, I stopped by the Carmel Mission to see if any of the work Murray commissioned still existed. The curator, Jewel Gentry, was kind enough to give me a tour of the mission. It appeared to me that only the work Murray did with the stairways remained. My last stops before leaving the area were the Monterey County Historical Society and the County Recorder. At the society office I had a chance to brief Perry on what I had found, and at the Recorder’s Office I found several new-to-me property documents that enlarged the footprint of Murray’s ocean front mansion.

IMG_0745My trip to Berkeley the next day only provided a couple bits of new information, but reading Tilden’s papers was a very moving experience. With a few extra hours I had, I made another unplanned trip to Mission Delores to see a bronze casting of the Tilden base relief that was part of Murray’s Serra monument.

HuntersHotSprings Tri-fold Post Card (2)

Murray’s Hunter’s Hot Springs Resort with Mission Style Architecture (Montana).

With my new research I have a fuller picture of Murray’s role in Monterey’s historic preservation, the lengths he went for his good friend John Maguire, and the secret role he played in funding the area’s artist colony. It also came clear to me just how much influence the mission architecture influenced his other projects. Two resorts that he developed in Montana reflected this influence. Monterey was fortunate that they were able to experience the best of Murray’s personality. Most places where he did business were not so fortunate.

Now back to writing the biography of my complicated relative……

Presenting at the Glucksman Ireland House in October

GIHFrontHouse

The Glucksman Ireland House

I learned yesterday that my most recent paper has been accepted for the Mid-Atlantic regional meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies. The conference is being held at the Glucksman Ireland House on the campus of New York University. NYU has an outstanding Irish Studies program and it is exciting to be on their campus for this conference. Below is a description of my paper:

The Butte Bulletin: Ireland’s Voice in the Western Labor Camps

The Butte Bulletin held the largest circulation and reach of any paper in Montana between 1918 and 1921 – a period rife with labor unrest and a time when entire communities were shackled by martial law. At the center of the conflict was the State’s rich deposits of copper and the corporations that mined, processed and transported the precious metals to munition companies arming America’s allies. The Butte Bulletin was labor’s organ during this tumultuous time, reaching mining and timber camps throughout the West – but it also held an equally radical pro-Irish agenda, a focus that has been given little attention by historians. Past research into the paper’s origins and operations has focused on ties to the IWW and Communist Party, and the intense focus of the Military Intelligence Division on the paper’s seditious editors. In this paper I look specifically at the Irish roots of the paper’s start-up. Two of the principal promoters of the paper were James A. Murray and his nephew, NYU alum James E. Murray. My recent article in Montana: The Magazine of Western History, titled “Rocky Mountain Radicals; Copper King James A. Murray and U.S Senator James E. Murray, and Seventy-Eight Years of Montana Politics, 1883-1961” provides a political biography of the pair, and reveals their role with the Butte Bulletin. Here, I delve further into other Irish connections to the paper, and consider the influence the paper had in promoting Ireland’s cause during the final push for freedom.

Murray’s 1908 restoration of the Carmel Mission

Monterey-Big-Sur-013-Edit-Edit-9.jpgEfforts to restore the badly deteriorated Carmel Mission started in the 1880’s with the construction of a new roof. Murray’s work was the next significant improvement to the mission and coincided with his dedication of a monument to mark the location of Father Serra’s first mass. Here is an article, published in Murray’s newspaper, detailing the scope of his contribution to the church:

Restoring of Church Floor

Carmel Mission Is Like When Indians Attended There

Monterey Daily Cypress, March 29, 1908

The work of restoring the floor of Carmel Mission, undertaken by James A. Murray of this city has been completed. As it is now the lower part of the church is almost the same as when thousands of Indians went there to attend services.

A cement floor has been laid all over the church, which is 49×125 feet. The floor is laid in diagonal blocks and is colored red to represent the old mission tiling. A new floor has also been placed in the chapel and sachristy (sic).

Inside the chancel the floor was laid with old tile which remained unbroken on a bed of cement.

The tombs of Junipero Serra and the several of his fellow priests were raised and the old stones that covered them replaced. Leading to the altar massive cement steps have been built.

The old stone stairway leading up to the little pulpit has been repaired with the identical stone that the builders of the Mission used. Stone for the purpose was quarried on the Gregg Ranch a couple miles away and brought to the the church and cut. It would take an expert to determine whether the steps had been repaired.

The stairway leading up to the old belfry tower, which was built of chalk rock, has been repaired with the same material.

For about four months this work of restoration has been going on under the direction of Charles W. Meader. Instructions from Mr. Murray were to replace the work as nearly as possible to the original, and this has been carefully done. Over 5000 square feet of cement work has benn (sic) laid.

The diagram below shows the likely location of the restoration work. Meader, the project manager, was the son of another well known Montana pioneer, Charles T. Meader. After Murray’s work, the next significant renovations were conducted by Harry Downie after 1920 – much of which replaced Murray’s work.  The stairwork completed to the small pulpit and the outside stair to the belfry are likely remains of Murray’s contribution at the mission. His monument marking the location of Serra’s first mass still stands in the Lower Presidio Historic Park.

Murrays Mission Renovations

 

Letters of heartbreak and hardship worth the visit

After two days researching documents in Monterey, I moved north and spent a day at the Bancroft Library on the U.C. Berkeley campus. There I reviewed the papers of famed sculptor Douglas Tilden. My subject, James A. Murray, commissioned two base reliefs from

Base Relief

Created by Tilden for Serra’s Cross

Tilden in 1904. Both adorn the monument Murray placed at the spot of Father Serra’s first mass in Monterey, California. One is a profile of Serra and the other a likeness of Mission Carmel. I quickly realized that I would not find anything of significance relating to Murray’s monument, but left with several hours of spare time on my hands, I started reading through random letters in the collection. I’m glad I did.

After reviewing several folders, I was struck by the heartbreak and hardship in Tilden’s life. Before Tilden garnered great success in his late thirties, his collection of papers includes terse correspondence from bill collectors, associates in desperate straits pleading for payment from Tilden, and even Alexander Graham Bell’s handwritten note expressing regret he could not afford to buy any of Tilden’s wares. I approximate that half of Tilden’s professional arc was a flat line of despair and agony. Adding to his hardship was a hearing impairment that rendered his world silent.

I wondered why Tilden held on to these reminders of suffering, and then it occurred to meDouglas-Tilden-WPA-by-Peter-Van-Valkenburgh I had seen this before. I’ve reviewed the papers of two other individuals at University archives and both of them, despite having a public perception of great success, also left a trail of papers documenting the darkest days of their careers. In the biographies that treat their lives you might read that they experienced early hardships, but in their papers – in their own hand and those of others – you feel excruciating pain. Willis Polk, who went on to become a noted architect, wrote Tilden a note on a small piece paper in the late 1890’s pleading for a payment of a few dollars. Family members had taken ill and he desperately needed payment to take care of their medical needs.  Tilden saved none of his responses, but three additional notes from Polk over six months, each escalating in desperation, indicate that Tilden could not make ends meet.  In the other papers I reviewed, those of Ed Fletcher and Frank Brown, I also read desperate pleas from men, all whom showed a strong public face, needing money to take care of their wives, children and parents.

So despite coming away empty in new facts, I did gain additional perspective on the wreckage caused by subject’s like mine, when they leverage desperation to meet their business goals. Perhaps this is the reason, in part or in whole, that my three left their papers for others to see.

If you have a historical figure of interest I strongly encourage you to see if they, or their partners, donated papers to archives. If they did, they left a trail for you to follow to gain additional perspective on their lives, and their interactions with others. Seeing for yourself, the steadiness of their hand, their choice of stationary, and most importantly their own words, will give you valuable insights that even the best biographer is want to capture.  It will be worth the trip.

Picture in banner: Tilden’s Mechanic sculpture amidst the ruins of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.