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story.lead_photo.caption Front page headlines from the Jan. 30, 1920, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Ladies! Gentlemen! Kindly step forward with me into the past. Enter this space to see the marvelous world of 1920 and its peculiarities — the most peculiar marvels ever pressed between the pages of a dictionary and shoved to the back of the bookcase.

Behold: a world with too much fruitcake.

Can you even imagine? How unlike the world we know, where fruitcakes are so precious that many have been handed down from one generation to the next, faithfully uneaten for months on end. Many remain uneaten when they are reverently interred, still within the protective canisters adorned with such propitious scenes as lovers sharing muffs as they ice skate toward eternity on overly blueish frozen ponds.

In the second decade of the 20th century, ads for fruitcake showed up in the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat by early November -- and not just because Christmas was coming. These ads suggest the rich concoctions of nuts and dried fruit were a Thanksgiving staple, too.

If, like me, you had a first-generation Irish American mom who "aged" her fruitcake hygienically by drenching it with spirits throughout the month before she sliced it, you might wonder what good any of those cakes sold in 1920 could possibly have been: Prohibition prohibited alcohol. And indeed, the last mention I see of brandy in a retail fruitcake was a Little Rock bakery ad from November 1919.

Still, scanning the archives from Thanksgiving 1919 through Christmas 1920, one sees "fruit cake" offered by Errett Hamilton's bakery at 218 Main St. in Little Rock, American Bakery at Seventh and Pulaski streets, Franke's Hot Shop at 119 W. Fifth St., Austin's Bakery at 613 E. Second St., Bott at 114 W. Fourth St., Vowell's at 207 W. Fifth St. ... In the classifieds, readers could order fruitcake from "Mrs. Muller" by telephoning Main 6327. Fruitcakes also were for sale for Thanksgiving at The Gus Blass Co. department store downtown, Piggly Wiggly and Armstead-Britton Drug Co.

One food blogger suggests that we might blame Prohibition for destroying America's once common love of fruitcake. Food historian Joyce White writes, "So, why did American fruitcake degenerate into a cake that's as heavy as a brick and as tasteless as sandpaper? There is no definitive answer to this question. However, there are two possible explanations: 1) the era of Prohibition may have curtailed the use of spirits to flavor and cure the cakes to make them moist and delicious, and 2) commercial bakers during the days of Prohibition offered ready-made alcohol-free fruitcakes for sale and set a pattern for the next generations." (Read her blog at

In January 1920, with Prohibition in charge, the Errett Hamilton bakery found itself in a sticky situation. (The bakery address is today a parking lot for eStem Charter Schools.) According to an ad published Jan. 20 in the Gazette, the bakery had placed its usual pre-holiday order for fruitcake ingredients. But the fruits from Europe hadn't arrived until after Christmas. The bakery baked its fruitcakes late.

Errett Hamilton's bakery advertized a sticky problem in the Jan. 20, 1920, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Errett Hamilton's bakery advertized a sticky problem in the Jan. 20, 1920, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

By Jan. 20 they had several hundred pounds of unsold fruitcake on hand and hoped to break even at 44 cents a pound. The regular price for Errett Hamilton's Royal fruitcake was 90 cents per pound.


It was not unusual in 1920 to believe in life on other planets.

Early in 1919 a respected engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, shared some thoughts about the possibility that the wonderful wireless communications method he perfected — radio — could reach the residents of nearby planets. And, maybe, they already were trying to reach us. He had picked up sounds in his lab similar to those described in 1901 by the brilliant inventor Nikolai Tesla. Tesla had been widely mocked for believing electrical disturbances in his lab were evidence of interplanetary communication. What if he was the first human to hear from Mars?

In early 1920, Marconi endorsed that possibility. His instruments were definitely picking up signals that might correspond to Morse code and did not appear to originate upon the Earth, he said. Perhaps they were Martian.

The Jan. 29, 1920, Arkansas Democrat reported that the chief of the French army wireless service, General Ferrie, pooh-poohed the very idea:

I can assure you that nothing abnormal has been received at the Eiffel tower.

Solar and atmospheric interference were the culprits, he said.

But Professor Eduard Brauly, "inventor of the coherer," was skeptical of solar interference, because "solar disturbances might cause strokes at more or less long intervals — but no letters." The coherer was a device that detected radio signals and was used in the earliest wireless receivers.

The controversy occupied the middle of the front page of the Arkansas Gazette Jan. 30. Dr. C.B. Abbot had weighed in against Mars. Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he said scientific observations strongly suggested that Mars simply was not habitable.

Near absence of water vapor crossed out the possibility of vegetation or other food for living creatures. And polar ice caps observed on Mars were no doubt frozen carbolic acid, he said.

Against the argument that Martians might be strange enough not to need water, vegetation or heat, he held up carbon. All living things were mostly carbon, he said, and carbon bonds could not form at temperatures so low as those likely to be found on Mars.

It is probably nearly 100 percent colder on the average there than on the earth.

Also, he sniffed, the so-called canals of Mars did not exist.

But then — consider the planet Venus, Abbot said. Nearly the same size as Earth. Even closer to the sun and thus likely to be hotter, but protected by clouds. Clouds moderate temperatures. Clouds also suggested that Venus held water vapor. And Venus was 10 times closer to Earth than was Mars, so its wireless signals had less distance to conquer.

From these considerations, it may be concluded that if any planet is trying to signal our earth it is Venus and not Mars.

That day's Democrat had a news service interview with Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, inventor and leading authority on electrical waves. Wireless communication with Mars was "not at all improbable" he said.

He said it could be managed by the consolidation of all the electric power in the country into one great sending station at the cost of about $1,000,000,000. Lofty towers at least 1,000 feet tall would need to be built, he said.

An editorial in the Jan. 30 Democrat opined that of the two, it was preferable to hear from Venus rather than Mars because the god of war had worn out his welcome beginning in 1914. Let the goddess of love have a chance for a change.

An editorial in the Feb. 3 Gazette — 100 years ago today — said simply this:

"To Mars — Louder!"

Editorial paragraph from the Feb. 3, 1920, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Editorial paragraph from the Feb. 3, 1920, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

This debate was just getting started.

If, like me, you notice that the end of our space is at hand, fear not. Like a well-seasoned fruitcake, there is plenty of interplanetary nuttiness yet to come in the archives from 1920. And like that fruitcake, Friendly Reader, it will last for months.


Style on 02/03/2020

Print Headline: Hello, Mars? Want a fruitcake?


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