Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mr. Shakespeare Goes to Washington

This article was published in the last volume of The NFLCC Gazette, but I know a lot of readers do not get this fine periodical. I wrote this piece in honor of my friend Harvey Garrison, who passed away a year ago last December. He is very much missed.

Mr. Shakespeare Goes to Washington

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

When your name is William Shakespeare, you are definitely in for a lot of grief. Certainly this was true for William Shakespeare Jr. of Kalamazoo, Michigan—if he had a nickel for every time someone made a pun using his name, it is certain he would have been a wealthy man. That he was a wealthy man anyway has everything to do with his expertise as a reelsmith and businessman and nothing to do with his famous surname.

Still, the opportunity to be witty was too much to pass up for most people, even the illustrious Washington Post newspaper, as it turns out. On 29 June 1933, the venerable voice of the nation’s capital ran an article entitled “William Shakespeare Lives, Temporarily, at the Mayflower.” It was an article about William Shakespeare the reelsmith and not William Shakespeare the bard, as things turn out.

Shakespeare was in town on serious business—the Great Depression which had plunged the nation in an ever-increasing spiral of unemployment and hopelessness. As the article noted, “Unlike the immortal Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s chief concern in life is the depression and how it has affected his fishing tackle factory in Kalamazoo, Mich. He has come to Washington with a score of other representatives of the tackle-making industry to help them formulate a code of presentation before the President’s national recovery administration.” The N.R.A. was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original plan for combating the depression by creating industrial codes governing trade, prices, and labor practices, and the administration sought advice from all corners of the business world when planning the code for each sector of the economy. Fishing tackle was one of the 541 businesses regulated by the N.R.A.

After the short notice of Shakespeare’s official business, the remainder of the article was strictly fluff. “There was a time,” the Post noted, “when William Shakespeare became annoyed with people who made funny remarks about his name, but he has grown used to it. As he says, ‘people seem to enjoy it.’ He sees nothing unusual in the fact that his name and poet’s are identical. As did the poet, he sometimes spells his name without the final ‘e,’ sometimes with it, careless like.” The article noted that the reelmaker once met another William Shakespeare—a watchmaker from New England—and they became close friends.

Interestingly, although Shakespeare (the poet) left no heirs, William Shakespeare believed “it altogether likely that he has descended from one of his namesake’s brothers. His forefathers came to this country from England…” Thus the question of whether the reelmaker was related to the bard may be based more in fact rather than fancy, as has commonly been believed.

The article continued with some personal remarks about Shakespeare’s career, noting that he had invented the first successful automatic level wind fishing reel, and had prospered greatly ever since. It declared, “He joined the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce. Regularly he attends the weekly luncheon of the Rotary Club. He golfs, occasionally, at two of Kalamazoo’s country clubs.” Clearly the writer found Shakespeare an interesting and important subject as well as an opportunity to be witty.

The Washington Post concluded that “William Shakespeare does not write, even poetry, although he has a plan for curing the depression all worked out.” It was definitely a nice piece of positive press for Shakespeare and his company, although the same cannot be said about Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act. The N.R.A. was struck down as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court on 27 May 1935 in the landmark case Schecter v. United States. Occasionally one will find a fishing reel or lure box with an N.R.A. logo sticker on it; while this helps to positively identify the product as coming from the period July 1933 to May 1935, remember also that the N.R.A. itself was in part crafted by the very tackle makers who branded their products with its logo.

William Shakespeare eventually became good natured about his connection to the bard; after all, he was being compared to the greatest writer in the history of the English language. And besides, as I constantly counsel collectors about trade reels, what’s in a name anyway? A Shakespeare by any other name would run as sweet.

© 2008 Dr. Todd Larson

-- Dr. Todd

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