What Gives

Generosity in America

’Tis the season for giving. And on this episode, we’re going to give you the history of that. The stories we’re working on explore gifts in the American past and consider how ideas about charity, philanthropy and generosity have changed over the centuries.

Sometimes, it paid to be poor — but not too poor. In earlier days, philanthropy had humble aims: to foster community and put the idea of charity out of business. Along the way, we’ll also look the questionable notion of the “free gift,” the idea of reciprocity in Native cultures, and the back story to the Salvation Army Santas.

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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. That’s a sound you hear a lot this time of year, Salvation Army bell ringers imploring shoppers to give to the needy. Today on the show, we’ll give you a gift, the low-down on American generosity. From an old idea that giving directly to the poor is bad for them and for society–

ALICE O’CONNOR: By simply giving them money, all we’re doing is inviting them to be lazy, independent, and not go to work.

ED: To the memories of a teenage performer and a 1950s telethon who gave her all to get viewers to pony up for a good cause.

CYNTHIA BELL: Evidently, musicians had left and camera kept rolling and rolling. And we were out there by ourselves. And we kept looking at each other like how much more can we do? And it was panic.

ED: Today on BackStory, the changing means and meanings of generosity in America. Don’t go away.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: That’s me. In 1886, a young anthropologist named Franz Boas showed up in a village on America’s Northwest Coast. And he witnessed an extravagant feast. It was held in a cedar house with 50 foot ceilings and carved columns depicting the figures of ancestors.

ISAIAH WILNER: They’re wearing huge masks of birds and supernatural beings and singing songs. He’d never been exposed to this kind of music before with these very complex, syncopated rhythms.

PETER: This is Isaiah Wilner, a historian who is writing a new biography of Boas. He explains that the ritual Boas saw among the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians was known as a potlatch. And it could get a little out of hand.

ISAIAH WILNER: They would throw so much oil on the fire that the flames would actually lick the beams. And then the tenants would have to scurry up to douse the beams with water so that the house wouldn’t burn down.

PETER: But Boas was especially struck by one particular aspect of this ritual. The chiefs of all tribes present would make a grand spectacle of giving their stuff away, a lot of stuff– prized blankets, huge amounts of salmon, meat, and fish oil, and treasured copper shields that bore their chiefly titles. And just about everybody there went home with a share of the loot.

ISAIAH WILNER: The hereditary chiefs are competing for a reputation of greatness. And the reputation is based upon their ability to distribute goods to the people.

PETER: These competitions of giving were held at weddings, funerals, and holidays. When a chief couldn’t give enough away to sufficiently shame a rival, he might make a show of destroying his precious items to show how little he regarded them.

ISAIAH WILNER: So a great chief would burn canoes. He would rip blankets. But at the end of his life, after he had given all of these potlatches, after he had been through as many as four marriages, after he had given away his names and titles, he finally would potlatch the roof of his house.

And he’d just be sitting there exposed to the stars. And he would die a poor but happy man. And this impressed Boas greatly.

PETER: Boas would go on to become a towering figure in American anthropology. But at the time, he hardly spoke the native language. And so he didn’t realize that what he was seeing with fire licking the rafters and destroying canoes was a totally amped up version of the potlatch.

In the couple of decades before he arrived, life for the Pacific Northwest Indians had become increasingly desperate. The latest smallpox outbreak had wiped out half the population. Christian missionaries were trying to root out native traditions. The canning industry was moving in and taking control of Indian waterways. And, as a response to these pressures, the centuries old tradition of reciprocal gift giving had gone into overdrive.

PETER: Here’s why. For one thing, it created a way for vacant offices to be filled by commoners who were able to potlatch their way through the ranks. And in this time of crisis, it also served as a means by which the community could take care of its own.

ISAIAH WILNER: You know, the level of poverty that we have in our society, the level of inequality that we accept as normal, that would have been a great source of shame to a chief of the Northwest coast. And, in fact, if a chief of the Northwest Coast couldn’t provide for his people, there was someone else who was willing to take his place and would be able to do it through the potlatch.

PETER: But there was something else, something more profound. In a society where everything would ultimately be shared, there was little incentive for people to strip all they could for themselves from the natural world. And so the potlatch was, in many ways, a celebration of restraint, of saying we are greater than our material desires.

ISAIAH WILNER: So the Kwakwaka’wakw, their most fearsome spirit was Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’. And he was a spirit covered with mouths, and he was always hungry. And so the potlatch was a way of acting out the human struggle with hunger and saying that the only way we can really be civilized is if we say, enough. We don’t have to take everything.

PETER: If we say let’s celebrate what we do have by giving it away.

BRIAN: Today on BackStory, generosity is the theme of the hour. With those Salvation Army bells ringing and rich and poor alike making contributions to causes dearest to them, we’re considering the history of giving in America. We’ll look at the Gilded Age origins of today’s big foundations and why some have seen those foundation as, well, anti-American. We’ll hear what charitable organizations learned from the advertising industry during World War I and how a generation later, television became a potent weapon in the battle for donors’ hearts and wallets.

But first, let’s spend a few minutes reflecting on that tradition of the potlatch we just heard about, a tradition that would seem to stand in pretty stark contrast to the more familiar capitalistic tradition of accumulating wealth. You know, this episode of the potlatch, of reciprocity has a strange echo for me in a place where we might not expect it, which is in American slavery and the season of Christmas, in which the big deal every year was the master giving out in a huge party a share of the bounty that people had worked themselves to death all year long to create. And the enslaved people would come to the master’s house– you hear this over and over again– sort of chanting “Christmas gift, Christmas gift.” And it was a kind of this carnival.

It was sort of turning things upside-down in some ways. But also, it struck me something like this kind of gathering of collective resources that are then redistributed in some way that is supposed to relieve tension, supposed to signal solidarity that’s probably not there, and so forth. So, Peter, there’s obviously a very great difference between the people on a plantation and the native people of the Northwest coast. And yet, I do see some kind of patterns of reciprocity there that same kind of gone in a capitalist society. So what happens?

PETER: Well, I think the reciprocity among the Northwest Coast Indians is pervasive. It defines the way the order is sustained. In slavery, we see a theater or a symbolic representation of this thing.

BRIAN: A 24-hour reprieve.

PETER: In fact, as modern students of slavery in the antebellum South would suggest, this is actually capitalism on steroids. And so the idea of a gesture, we would say, toward the humanity of slaves seems utterly cynical. It’s bread and circuses. It’s sustaining the illusion that this is a human institution.

ED: And who’s it for? The illusion is to sustain the illusion among the masters and mistresses themselves. Because you read their letters and diaries, they are so freaking touched with themselves.

PETER: They’re overcome with their human kindness.

BRIAN: No, really, they are.

BRIAN: So is that that different from the Rockefellers, and the Carnegie’s, the robber barons who amassed gigantic fortunes at the end of your century, the 19th century gave it away and were so touched with themselves for doing so?

BRIAN: Well, I think that there’s a lot of parallels there. And that’s the reason, I’m curious, about– Peter, is there something about capitalism that loves these theaters of reciprocity and generosity? Or is it just something about people that need such things to kind of paste over the tensions that are created by any form of social organization?

PETER: Well, I think what we’re talking about as we look back on the history of the rise of capitalism is that we have this abstract idea of what a market is and what the kinds of transactions that take place in a market that they eliminate the human dimension of it. The early market theorists were also moral philosophers who thought that people had a moral sense and instinct that coming together in the market was actually to enable human flourishing. But what we see in looking back on market transactions through history is the destruction of cultures, everything being reduced to what we call the bottom line dollars and cents.

BRIAN: Adam Smith was thinking about it as being embedded in a larger culture of religion–

PETER: And of reciprocity.

BRIAN: And reciprocity, moral obligation.

PETER: And sociability. And the idea of justifying it, as the Carnegies would do in saying it’s a kind of potlatch, but it’s a trans-generational potlatch. And that is that the great wealth will enable a future generation, in effect, to start the race toward prosperity and achievement in the marketplace from a, more or less, equal starting point. I think that’s the investment in education, libraries, and all those things that Carnegie’s famous for.

BRIAN: And I would contend that a major turning point in this whole conception of giving happens by a re-definition of whose wealth is this. Right? By the beginning of the 20th century, progressives are arguing, wait a second.

Where does this wealth come from? It’s not just the individual genius of a Carnegie. It’s the hard work and contributions of workers and American citizens. And those citizens do not need to wait for the masters or the billionaires to gift them something.

PETER: They are entitled to it.

BRIAN: They are entitled to a share of that. And they deserve something in return. They’re not waiting for that Christmas day handout or bonus, for that matter. And that happens increasingly over the course of the 20th century through programs like Social Security, through welfare, and ultimately, through health insurance.

PETER: Well, I think you’re– kind of where we are right now– is maybe a bit on the bright side because I think there’s been a push-back against–

ED: That’s me, Peter.

PETER: There’s a push-back against entitlement. And, in fact, that’s become somewhat of a pejorative term.

ED: So, Peter, what I hear you saying is that the idea of humans sort of evolving through these stages from where we used to be all about reciprocity, and hierarchy, and connection to a kind of abstract, cold, market-related society is exaggerated.


ED: That some of these impulses seem to reappear in things as different as the native peoples of the Northwest coast, a slave plantation, Andrew Carnegie, and the welfare state. And so maybe giving is something the humans need to do in some ways, no matter what the social organization of which they live. And the form that that giving takes is actually a remarkable indicator of what kind of society they live in.

BRIAN: Later in the show, we’re going to look at a few of the other forms that giving has taken in American. But, first, we’re going to take a quick break.

PETER: When we get back, we’ll consider whether we should fear the power of today’s big foundations. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about generosity in American history and the way people have thought about charitable giving.

ED: Before the break, we were talking a little about the motives of the Gilded Age philanthropist, people like Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller. Now, as it turns out, when they started giving away chunks of their vast fortunes around the turn of the century, these men were picking up on a tradition of reform that had been swirling around even before the Civil War. Those reformers were concerned that the traditional system for taking care of the poor through direct handouts from churches, and tax coffers, and local families with means that this system of charity encouraged dependency, at best, and laziness, at worst.

So in the 1870s, reformers came up with a new approach that would do away with direct handouts. And while they were at it, they would also streamline all of the various local charity efforts into centralized top-down systems for distributing funds. They called it scientific charity.

Alice O’Connor is a historian at UC Santa Barbara. She told me that this new approach to giving appealed to men, like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

ALICE O’CONNOR: Rockefeller, like Carnegie and a lot of the what we would think of as billionaires today, you know, the millionaires of the time, the top 1% of their day, saw themselves as actually leading society in a beneficent direction through their superior wisdom are in a position to administer in ways that would be quote/unquote more scientific, better informed, more efficient, and in the long run, better for poor people than simply giving them a dull and letting them do with it what they would. If you think about it, the major investments made by a Rockefeller Foundation are in things like universities, are in things like museums, but also are in things like research that was done in order to change the systems of agriculture, the whole idea of preventive medicine. So this whole idea of investing in more wise ways migrates from the idea of scientific charity for the poor to a broader idea of kind of organized giving as a way of shaping society in its future direction.

ED: Yeah, social engineering, in many ways. And what I hear you not saying that they give money to is directly to the people who need it the most. It sounds as if they give money to intermediate institutions. Now, I’m all for giving money to universities. And anyone listening out there should continue to do so.

But it’s a part of the same strategy is that giving money directly to the people who need it is charity. It’s old fashioned. It’s old school. And it breeds dependency.

Instead, you should breed more efficient cities. You should create universities that can help solve some of these problems. But what I hear you saying, Alice, is all this is very distinctly top-down and very intentionally so?

ALICE O’CONNOR: It’s top-down. It’s intentionally so. And let me also say, it is very complicated because, on the one hand, you can see how that impulse can be really problematic. It can come from a place of wanting to control poor people, wanting to make sure that people don’t get poor relief, and thereby, they’re going to be thrown out into a very unforgiving labor market that, in fact, is not paying anything close to what we would call today a living wage.

On the other hand, you can also see the shift towards more systematic ways of giving and organizing the way we give as an understanding that the underlying problems that manifest themselves in the rise of mass poverty, an overcrowded city, and terrible housing conditions are themselves systemic. So rather than just give out a whole bunch of charity, let’s do make some systemic reforms. So there’s a real, at least, a double-edge to all of this because many people who were pushing away from mere charity were themselves pushing for what we’re seeing at the time as radical reform, socialist reforms.

They were saying we need a more robust public sector. We need to regulate industry. Even as people claiming organize charity, certainly people like Andrew Carnegie were also saying we’re going to do this in the name of keeping regulation out. We’re going to do this in the name of keeping the prerogative of giving in the hands of the wealthy, the people who have already proven themselves to be the wise ones in society.

ED: So if the wise ones are giving way all this money, it would seem to me they’re pretty much in control of the situation. Is there something they’re worried about?

ALICE O’CONNOR: Well, there’s a very big worry. And, in fact, one of the important figures in the move towards more scientific or more organized charity is a man named Charles Loring Brace. Now, Charles Loring Brace himself, again, coming from one of the threads of social reform, charitable reform, Christian reform of the mid to late 19th century writes this book called, “The Dangerous Classes of New York,” published in 1872 at a time when fear of poor people, of immigrants, but also of the potentially organized and organizing working classes is really at its height. I mean, this is the era, if you think about it, not just massive financial panics that are causing chaos in the economy and huge amounts of poverty and displacement, but this is also an era of strikes of the Great Railroad Strikes that are threatening to cripple the entire economy.

ED: So this is a kind of threat Americans had never seen before. And what it suggests is that capitalism, the great engine of American progress, might actually blow up. I mean, people were seeing these dangerous classes as being dangerous in so many dimensions, not merely unable to keep up, and therefore poppers, but actually organizing and revolting against the very system itself.

ALICE O’CONNOR: And taking control. And so the question is do you stave that off by paying them better wages, allowing them to unionize? Well, not if you’re John D Rockefeller. Not if you’re an Andrew Carnegie.

But the important point here is that the fear, on the one hand, of the forces that are being unleashed by capitalism. On the other hand, the fear that those forces might be undermined by the very people who we need to make capitalism grow is playing into this whole movement towards first, scientific charity and then organized big corporate philanthropy.

ED: Alice O’Connor is a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

PETER: Our next story picks up where the last one left off, with the big foundations whose names we’re familiar with today– Ford, Carnegie, Gates, names that you probably hear at the ends of shows on this public radio station. But here’s a radical idea. These foundations are anti-democratic. That is probably safe to say is what Thomas Jefferson would have said.

JOHANN NEEM: So Jefferson wrote in 1789 that z”the earth belongs to the living.”

PETER: This is historian Johann Neem.

JOHANN NEEM: And he continued on, he said, “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it,” meaning over the earth. And his fear was that if you are really committed to democracy, to political equality, you need to have some sort of economic equality, as well. You need to have power widely distributed.

And his fear is that the state will be captured by powerful interests. What happened or what he saw happening was that a few groups of people had special privileges, including immortality. If you think about what a nobility or an aristocracy is, it’s a group of people who have special privileges from the state. They have titles. They inherit their titles. And so their families effectively never die, just like we still have Carnegies, and Rockefellers, and Gates.

PETER: And so, to Jefferson, these family foundations would have smacked of aristocracy and the kinds of large scale public projects that those foundations fund. Well, Jefferson most likely would have said they’re the responsibility of the public to fund. But in the 1830s, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville took a look around the new American republic and argued just the opposite. And “his famous democracy in America,” Neem says, “Tocqueville said decisions about public welfare shouldn’t be only in the hands of the people.”

JOHANN NEEM: What about when the majority is wrong, or impassioned, or misguided? He basically argued that if you get rid of the aristocracy, you rid yourself of a mediating set of institutions that could have challenged the tyrannical potential of the state. And what can do it now? His answer was private associations.

PETER: Johann, these private associations Tocqueville endorses– well, they’re really the same thing, ultimately, as foundations. That is concentrations of wealth and power with a commitment to the public good of source. This is what we call civil society. Though foundations that we know today didn’t exist in Tocqueville’s time– he anticipated them. And, in effect, he’s endorsing them.

JOHANN NEEM: That’s right. That’s right.

PETER: So how does the tension that we see between Tocqueville and Jefferson, how does it play out in the history of philanthropic giving in America with the big foundations?

JOHANN NEEM: Well, one great example is the Civil Rights Movement. In the ’50s and ’60s, foundations invested a lot in civil rights and civil rights of African Americans. And that led many southern members of Congress and the Senate to question the powerful privileges of foundations to reach into the southern way of life and effectively, from their perspective, challenge it. Now, those of us who support civil rights would say good. I’m glad the foundations were there to promote civil rights at a time when the majority was not willing to go there.

PETER: The example of the Civil Rights era, notwithstanding, Neem says, “he understands and identifies with the Jeffersonian critique of concentrated wealth.” And he cited a much more contemporary example to make the point.

JOHANN NEEM: One question that’s on people’s minds today is the common core in education. And there’s all these new stories coming out that show how powerful Gates Foundation money was in designing it, building it, selling it, lobbying for it. And if you support the common core, that’s a great thing.

If you think that schools had other kinds of missions and that part of those decisions should have been made more locally or more democratically, you would ask yourself is this education reform done by the will of the Gates Foundation, or is this education reform that’s done by the will of the people? And that kind of depends on where you come out on the question. So we tend to like it when it’s on our side, and we tend to fear it when it’s not. And that may be part of their virtue, but it’s also part of the vice of big foundations.

PETER: Johann Neem is a historian at Western Washington University. He’s the author of “Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.”

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the history of charitable giving in America. Now, if you’ve been near a TV or radio in the last 20 years, you’ve heard commercials and PSAs asking for charitable donations. After major disasters, celebrities like Billy Bob Thornton make appeals for Red Cross donations.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Devastation, confusion, hopelessness, misery. These are some of the emotions people go through after being affected by a natural disaster.

BRIAN: Alyssa Milano and UNICEF plead for aid on behalf of children worldwide.

ALYSSA MILANO: What would you do if there was a child right in front of you crying in pain from hunger, near death from sickness?

BRIAN: And, of course, there are the ads for the SPCA.

SARAH MCLACHLAN: Hi. I’m Sarah McLachlan. Please say you’ll be the answer for an innocent animal who’s suffering right now, an animal who needs your help. Please call the number on your screen.

BRIAN: These ads typically include striking images– dogs who’ve nearly been beaten to death, kids with flies in their eyes and protruding ribs. It’s hard to watch without feeling a pull at your heart strings and on your purse strings. Scholar Kevin Rozario says that appeals to compassion have deep roots in America, roots that stretch at least as far back as 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “That novel,” says Rozario, “depicted the harsh conditions of slavery in the hope that reasonable Americans would abolish it.”

KEVIN ROZARIO: She’s going to tell them what’s going on, and she hopes that they’ll be horrified by slavery and act to bring an end to it. And so she’s got a strong sense that what she’s really catering to is the compassion and the enlightened reason of her readers.

BRIAN: Charity organizations during Stowe’s time figured the same. All you had to do was tell people how bad something was, and their natural sense of right and wrong would require that they help. But in the early 1900s, Rozario says, “charities started thinking about their donors in a new way, no longer as naturally compassionate, but as people who had to be convinced to care.”

KEVIN ROZARIO: As if they are consumers who have to be manipulated in some ways by appealing to their desires. And one of the ways in which you appeal to people’s desires, it is considered at this time in the 1910s, especially, is that you present them with lots of very vivid, exciting, thrilling images to get their attention.

BRIAN: It was a technique taken straight from the playbook of advertisers who were also discovering new ways of capturing people’s attention about this time. Here is a snippet from a 1917 issue of “Red Cross Magazine,” published by the organization’s brand new publicity department.

KEVIN ROSARIO: “Do you like stories? Real stories? True stories? Stories of heroism? Stories of self-sacrifice? Stories of human effort? And do you like pictures, plenty of them, and good ones? There are many intensely interesting, even thrilling and entertaining articles scheduled to appear in the “Red Cross Magazine” during the year.

BRIAN: Who wouldn’t rush out to buy that copy?

KEVIN ROZARIO: I know. And this is exactly the kinds of advertising appeal that you’ll see in pulp magazines at that time. “Do you like stories? Real stories? True stories? Stories of heroism?”

And as you read it through 1917, 1918, and so forth, there’s a sense that we have to keep making this more thrilling, more exciting, more vivid because readers are going to be bored. And they’ve seen these images before.

BRIAN: I asked Rozario for an example of one of these thrilling, exciting, and vivid fund-raising appeals.

KEVIN ROZARIO: Here’s a passage from the “American Red Cross” magazine describing a battlefield from the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. “There is a hollow way, quite filled with corpses trodden into the mire. The poor creatures had taken refuge there, no doubt to get cover. But a battery had driven over them. And they had been crushed by the horse’s hoofs and wheels. Many of them are still alive– a pulpy, bleeding mess but still alive.”

BRIAN: Not everybody was comfortable with the Red Cross’ embrace of sensationalism. In 1917, one of the groups field representatives, a guy named Robert Scott, was working to establish a new chapter in Alaska. The stakes were high. Americans were fighting, starving, and dying in the Great War. And the Red Cross was desperate for support on the home front.

So Scott went to where the crowds were, keeping warm in the local movie theater. But the audience wasn’t moved by his descriptions on the front lines. Really, it was nothing compared to the movie they’d just seen. Scott wrote that the movie had–

KEVIN ROZARIO: “two murders and so much bloodshed that my humble attempt to depict the horrors of the European war did not meet with the response it had in other places.” So, in a sense, what he was concerned about here was that he was trying to rile up an audience, get them to care about these horrifying events in Europe to feed their compassion. But this audience had already been satiated by the time he came on.

BRIAN: It wasn’t simply that the movie was distracting people from the more important matter at hand. Scott was disturbed because the audience clearly found atrocity entertaining when they should have found it horrifying.

KEVIN ROZARIO: And so his beef, I guess, with these new sensationalistic movies is that they seemed to be training people, conditioning audiences to respond to these images as forms of entertainment, rather than as something that should put them in touch with their compassionate instincts.

BRIAN: But sensationalism paid off for the Red Cross, at least. Between 1915 and 1919, the number of chapters in America grew from 145 to more than 3,700. By the end of World War I, the Red Cross was the nation’s leading charity.

Like Scott, you might find it unsettling to think that people have to be convinced to care about each other. It betrays the idea that we’re inherently compassionate beings and that there’s a danger that will get so caught up in manufactured images, that we’ll miss the suffering of real people. But for Rozario, the perils of sensationalism don’t outweigh the potential good.

KEVIN ROZARIO: You use the techniques that you have to try to serve the causes that you most believe in. Once you’ve got people’s attention, then you can start to really fill in the background.

Kevin Rozario is a Professor of American Studies at Smith College.

PETER: It’s time for another break but stick around. When we get back, a stage show to raise money for children in need 100 years before Jerry Lewis was even born.

TONY FIELD: Hello, BackStorians. This is Tony Field, BackStory Senior Producer. Long time, no speak.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re celebrating this season of giving with an hour on the history of charity in America.

PETER: hosts, we have a call from Philadelphia. Sam, Sam, welcome to BackStory.

SAM: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

PETER: You’ve got a question to give to us. What is it?

SAM: When I thought of charity, my mind jumped to the Salvation Army and their Santa suits, which I’ve always been kind of curious about. And I was wondering if that fits into a longer tradition and philosophy of charities trying to cash in on the spirit of giving around Christmas time.

PETER: So that’s a 19th century question. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Yeah. So what about the Salvation Army? Since when was salvation a business of armies?

ED: You know, well, since the mid 19th century. And you know how much this pains me to say this. And I’m sorry to have to break it to you, Sam. But the Salvation Army is not an American invention. It’s English.

SAM: Man, that’s just ruining all of my idealism.

ED: But we did invent the Christmas tradition of all the red outfits, and the ringing the bells, and the kettle, and all that. So the Salvation Army, 1865, London, and then it rapidly spread all over the world. But it spread very quickly to the United States. And it grew up in these cities that were kind of a new presence on the American landscape.

And I think we’ve forgotten how fully Christian it really was. I mean, it’s called salvation for a reason. And what’s interesting, what you’re asking about, Sam, is by the time that we’re seeing it today ringing the bell outside the CVS or whatever, it seems just like a civic presence rather than a religious presence.

PETER: So what about the uniforms, Brian and Ed, and this idea of the Army?

ED: The uniforms and the whole army idea are partly for self defense because people really did not like the idea of these Christians coming into the bad neighborhoods, and they were targeting alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes. And you know who opposed them were people who ran saloons and brothels would really come out and throw rocks at them and things. And so they actually imagined themselves as soldiers for Christ. And so the whole idea would be that by organizing ourselves with generals, and officers, and soldiers, we can kind of have a civic strength that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

PETER: So war always works in America. You need enemies. And this is a way of justifying a charitable enterprise by making war against the centers of evil, the legions of the devil.

BRIAN: That’s right, Peter. And the only thing that works better in America than war is work itself. And the Salvation Army really built its reputation by showing that it could take some of society’s needy folks who, perhaps, struggled with alcoholism or other kind of dependencies, “clean them up,” yes, expose them to God, but also give them a steady job, teach them skills, put them to work. Sam, I’m curious. Do you put a dollar in the pot when you walk by?

PETER: Oh, this is getting really personal. We’re not the government. No, we’re not going to report this.

ED: You can deduct 20% of that for your taxes.

SAM: Oh, see, you know, I haven’t done that yet. Mainly change when I’m walking outside the grocery store. They’re very smart about where they put those bells.

ED: Who else do you give to?

SAM: Oh, I’ve given to BackStory, of course.

ED: Oh!

BRIAN: Oh, that is fabulous.

PETER: Come on. We’re dedicating the rest of the show to you.

BRIAN: So should we apply this to BackStory, Sam? Should we send Peter out in a Santa outfit and maybe let Ed ring the bell?

ED: I don’t have the rhythmic capacity to actually ring that bell. It would be a cacophony.

BRIAN: I’ll handle the credit card contributions, guys.

ED: Hey, Sam, we enjoyed talking with you.

SAM: Oh, thanks for having me on, guys.

BRIAN: Thanks for calling, Sam. Bye bye.

ED: Thanks a lot.

SAM: Bye.

BRIAN: In the 1820s and ’30s, a new kind of school began to pop up around New England, schools for the deaf, dumb, and blind. Most were run by religious organizations. And, as such, their main goal was to save their students’ souls by teaching these children to read the Bible. The schools were expensive to run, and their fund-raising efforts were hampered by the fact that most people back then didn’t think it was possible for the deaf, dumb, and blind to learn anything really.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: The ideas about disability at that time, to be blunt, were archaic.

BRIAN: This is author Sheila Moeschen.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: People were afraid of these individuals. They didn’t know anything about their affliction from a medical standpoint. So you maybe saw blind person, and you maybe thought they were cursed.

BRIAN: The heads of these schools realize that people needed to be shown that deaf, mute, and blind children could learn. So they launched a new type of fund-raising campaign, a stage show with the children front and center. It was a sort of 19th century version of the telethon. I asked Sheila Moeschen to describe what it would have been like to attend one of these shows.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: So you would go to an actual theater where you might have seen the latest melodrama or something or a Shakespearean play. They might have two boys come out, and they would be doing these things that we would consider normal for any other kind of non-impaired person to be doing. They would bring a map down, or they would have some globe or something like that. And they would ask them questions about where geography was on this map. And they would be able to point them out and to answer these questions almost flawlessly.

BRIAN: And I could see how it would be stupefying for the early 19th century.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: Yeah, absolutely, and completely beautiful. You know, you’re watching these people that you thought had no value at all functioning in a way that you recognize. I know where England is. I can recite this Bible passage or this poem, you know, that kind of thing. And then one of the big things they would do at almost all the performances is they would have the children sing.

And this was especially key for those who were considered death or mute. To be able to sing was– that was sort of the closer. And it was very, very moving. It was very emotional.

BRIAN: Did this approach ever backfire. I mean, it strikes me as rather high risk. I have to say that one of my great nightmares is– and I have a recurring dream about being asked to perform math in public– and it’s not a happy ending. Let me put it that way, Sheila.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: Math is hard.

BRIAN: It is.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: No. Oh, God. It was a slam dunk every time. In a way, it was the best thing they could ever have done to give their work visibility.

BRIAN: So, Sheila, we’re really interested on this show in figuring out this relationship between people who give and people who receive. How did these performances change that relationship?

SHEILA MOESCHEN: Well, it made it a very much more kind of engaging, interactive practice, I think. And it allowed people to fit themselves into these roles so that they could sort of see themselves in this unfolding story of these poor children who needed uplift, and outreach, and assistance. And they could then kind of have a hand in doing that.

BRIAN: It seems that, even going back to the performances you talk about in the 19th century, that they would’ve had to walk a very fine line between let’s feel sorry for these poor, disabled people. I’m sure they called them something else back then. And, oh, look at this wonderful work we’re doing. I mean, it would seem to pull audiences in two emotional directions, really.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: Yeah, and I mean, that was kind of the point. And that seems to be the constant dynamic that charity works where we want you to be completely emotionally invested and sort of raw in a sense. But then we want to sort of pull you out of that because we want you to be thinking critically because when you think critically, then you say, oh, I can do something about that.

I can volunteer my time. I can give my money. I can, et cetera. So that’s the tension.

BRIAN: When my producer told me I’m interviewing somebody who wrote about 19th century performance to raise money for charity, I said is that when the telethon was invented? Now, I know they didn’t have TV in the 19th century. And they didn’t even have Jerry Lewis. Although, I’m less sure about that.

SHEILA MOESCHEN: The jury’s out, yeah.

BRIAN: Is there a line between these kind of performing sympathetic recipients of charity in these institutions and the telethon of the 1950s and ’60s?

SHEILA MOESCHEN: Well, yeah. And the line is the recognized need for performance itself, the presentation of that. So there was this early model in the 19th century that you have players. You have a stage space. You have spectators. You have an agreed amount of time that this is going to take place.

And then, most notably, you have the high, high emotional impact. And that gets translated then into those early years of telethon and then sort of the muscular dystrophy telethon with Jerry Lewis. There was that very big spectacle of the children and their struggles and so forth.

BRIAN: Sheila Moeschen is the author of “Acts of Conspicuous Compassion: Performance Culture and American Charity Practices.” She’s also the Senior Editor at The Media Nonprofit I am That Girl.

Now, we’ve mentioned the media phenomenon known as the telethon, those huge charity events that featured well-known stars raising money for lesser-known diseases. They were broadcast live, and sometimes they went on for days on end. Our next guest performed in some of the very first telethons, all the way back in TV’s early days.

CYNTHIA BELL: My name is Cynthia Bell, and I performed for RCA Victor with my sister Kay in the 1950s. And our hit song was called “Bermuda.”


BING CROSBY: For some time now, over the past five or six, seven, or eight weeks has been a recording of a certain song. The name of the song is “Bermuda.”


BRIAN: This is taped from a 1952 charity event for the US Olympic committee, one of the many the Bell sisters performed in the 1950s. The host, Bring Crosby.


BING CROSBY: Here, now, folks, I want you to meet and greet The Bell Sisters in person.


CYNTHIA BELL: We were Cynthia Sue, Sharon Lou, Edith Kay, Judith Gaye, Paula Jean, Eugene, Rex, and Alice Bell.

BRIAN: And your sister who you performed with, she was a younger sister?

CYNTHIA BELL: Yes, Kay. Yeah.


BING CROSBY: Just step right up there, Kay. You OK?

KAY: Thank you, Mr. Crosby.

BING CROSBY: Well, say it together in unison. Well, I’ll give you a downbeat.

CYNTHIA AND KAY: Thank you, Mr. Crosby.



CYNTHIA BELL: I played piano and sang a lot, songs that I made up. And “Bermuda” was something I just made up. And my father thought it was good enough that we should take it in.


BING CROSBY: Well, I better get out of here and stop this yackety-yacking and let you get into the mic and give us a rundown on “Bermuda.”


CYNTHIA BELL: Down in Bermuda, a pair of dice for two. I lost my lover.


BRIAN: Do you remember the first time that your mom or dad said you’re going to do a telethon? Did that mean anything to you?

CYNTHIA BELL: No, it didn’t. It didn’t mean a thing.

BRIAN: What was the atmosphere like backstage?

CYNTHIA BELL: The first few telephones were fairly, not terribly organized.

BRIAN: Disorganized?

CYNTHIA BELL: Not disorganized. Just kind of by the seat of your pants.

BRIAN: That’s kind of like our show.


BELL SISTERS: Now he is gone. I see his lips–


CYNTHIA BELL: So you get there, and Jerry would pick you up at the airport and take us to wherever they were practicing, if there was a practice. And the if was a big thing. Many times we went there, and they would just put us immediately on. And that’s where our ability to sing things a capella was a strong point for us.


BING CROSBY: Are you girls willing to do something for us? Wonderful.

The Bell Sisters, ladies and gentlemen.


BELL SISTERS: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.


CYNTHIA BELL: One case I do remember, someone came running to us the last two or three minutes that they still had time on TV, and they said we need you. Can you come immediately and do something that you know a capella. Evidently musicians had left. I mean, it was panic.


BELL SISTERS: Now we’d like to do for you a song called “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” without accompaniment from the orchestra.


CYNTHIA BELL: Kay and I sang three songs that know one, I’m sure, had ever heard of. And camera kept rolling and rolling. And we were out there by ourselves. And we kept looking at each other like, how much more can we do?




BRIAN: So you were really ready for your moment?

CYNTHIA BELL: It wasn’t planned, believe me.

BRIAN: No, but that’s terrific. Now, what about the aftermath of these? Did you ever come home, and you’re sitting in biology class, and somebody said, hey, I gave some money to the muscular dystrophy telethon because you were on it?

CYNTHIA BELL: I did get that. I got that a lot at high school.

BRIAN: Really?

CYNTHIA BELL: Yeah, it was generally my parents thought you were terrific, or weren’t terrific. Everybody was a critic.

BRIAN: Everyone was a critic? Even of a telethon?

CYNTHIA BELL: Oh, sure. Sure.

BRIAN: This is a charitable endeavor.

CYNTHIA BELL: But you have to understand, we were performing on the spot. And, in many cases, we were not at our very best, much like you have seen Jerry Lewis at the end of his telethon when he’s just exhausted, trying to do the best he could do and trying to remember what the hell is going on.


The sand in this hourglass is rapidly running down, and while there’s still time, let’s help the unfortunate victims of muscular dystrophy. To volunteer, send your name and address to me. Jerry Lewis, Post Office box 950, Hollywood 28, California. Thank you.

BELL SISTERS: In Bermudan waters are so clear and gold.


BRIAN: Did you find yourself watching telethons that you were not in?

CYNTHIA BELL: Not necessarily. When we did come home, if the telethon was still going on, we would watch to see did we see him backstage? Or is she on-key, or is she off-key, or whatever?

BRIAN: So you would be critics, too?

CYNTHIA BELL: Oh, we would be cri– heck, yes. Never mean or vicious because we knew how hard it was to be there.

BRIAN: Well, listen, I hope you have a wonderful day. I want to thank you very much.

CYNTHIA BELL: My pleasure. Thank you for calling, Brian.

BRIAN: Bye bye.






BRIAN: Cynthia Bell is one half of the Bell sisters, the teenage duo that performed in some of the earliest telethons all the way back in the 1950s.

ED: And that is all we have to give you today. Now it’s time for you to give us a little something in return. You can find us at backstoryradio.org, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about today’s show. While you’re there, please take a moment to share your stories and questions about our upcoming show times.

PETER: We’re also on Facebook, Tumbler, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our Digital Producer is Emily Gadek, and Jamal Millner is our engineer.

We had help from [? Kohle Elhi. ?] A special thanks this week to Harry [? Leiberson ?] and Ben [? Soscus. ?] BackStory’s Executive Producer is Andrew Wyndham.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel. History made every day.

Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.