Snapshots of History

“This Scale Will Give Your Accurate Weight — Free!”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos

Why does this woman look so happy to be weighing herself in public? Those of us accustomed to taking our weight within the privacy of our own homes would probably avoid a public weighing scale like this one, sponsored by the Philadelphia’s City Commissioners Office during the 1959 Municipal Services Fair.

But, as historian David Lowenthal reminds us, the past is a foreign country. For people in the first half of the 20th century, public weighing scales were not only commonplace, they were a major draw–and a lucrative business venture!

Weighing scales were a novelty in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Like moving picture machines, personal weighing scales were a major technological innovation–a development so exciting, and so profitable, that manufacturers quickly marketed them as a kind of coin-operated vending machine. Drop in a penny, and you got to see your weight.

The earliest such machine arrived in the U.S. from Germany in 1885. Four years later, the National Scale Company manufactured the first coin-operated scale in the U.S., a device that weighed in at 200 pounds. By the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of these scales dotted street corners, department store vestibules, movie theaters, public restrooms, and other locations throughout the United States. These machines proved a lucrative investment, even in the depths of the Depression. Costing as little as $50 a unit, these coin-drop scales could provide owners with dividends in the thousands. As Kerry Segrave records in his book Vending Machines: An American Social History, “With 40,000 weighing machines distributed across America, [one scale operating company] said they took in 450 million pennies, or $4.5 million, in a year. That averaged out to $112 a year per machine, $9 to $10 a month, 31 cents a day.”

Beginning in the 1940s, improvements in mechanical scale technology enabled companies to produce smaller, more affordable personal weighing scales for private home use. The increasing affluence, upward mobility, and suburbanization of the postwar years increased average Americans’ access to these machines, and the popularity of the penny scale began to decline. Operators and manufacturers, in last-ditch efforts to revive the popularity of these vending machines, tried new gimmicks, including a two-cent machine that provided a print-out of the user’s weight (rather than just a reading). Nevertheless, their popularity continued to decline.

With the domestication of the personal weighing scale came the idea that one’s weight should be taken in the most private of all private places: the bathroom.

Even though bathroom scales gradually became the norm across the U.S., early iterations were far from perfect. Accuracy was a major issue–and one that companies used to market their products. A 1954 ad for the Detecto bathroom scale proudly proclaimed that this machine was “the most TRUTHFUL bath scale ever!” Because of their larger size, public scales–vending and non-vending alike–contained more precise mechanisms, and could advertise a more accurate reading. Thus, even as late as 1959, patrons could be wooed to a public scale like the one at the Municipal Services Fair simply because of its more exact results.

Rohde, Jane. “History of Bathroom Scales.”

Segrave, Kerry. Vending Machines: An American Social History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2002. (The quoted material comes from page 24.)

Snapshots of History

Lawson Sanderson: Early Aviation Pioneer

The end of the calendar year offers many opportunities to remember and appreciate the American servicemen and -women who protect our country in the armed forces.  There’s Veteran’s Day, followed closely by the anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps, along with Pearl Harbor Day.  Today, when we take these opportunities to think of our military, we think of one of the most technologically advanced bodies in the world.  While this has been true for a long time, there was an era not so far in the past when pioneers were still experimenting with what we’d now consider basic combat maneuvers as well as creating new forms of machinery and weaponry.  One of those pioneers was Lawson H. “Sandy” Sanderson.  PhillyHistory features a photo (below) of Sanderson in the Sesquicentennial Collection.  While we cannot be sure, Sanderson may have participated in Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial celebrations as one of the many pilots who put on aviation demonstrations as part of the festivities.

Purchase Photo

Sanderson rose to the rank of Major General, a two-star post, in the Marine Corps and was a skilled, daring aviator.  He was a trailblazer in perfecting a combat technique that would become crucial to modern warfare:  dive-bombing.  In 1919, the United States was involved in a skirmish in Haiti when some Marines were trapped by the rebels they were fighting.  Then-Lieutenant Sanderson was the commander of the 4th Squadron there.  He realized the US forces in Haiti were in need of assistance from the air.

Dive-bombing was just the thing, invented by British forces during World War I, but plagued with problems of inaccuracy.  Pilots were limited by an inability to clearly see their targets and properly aim their munitions.  Aviators had to release their bombs while flying horizontally, using only their rear observers’ directions and best guesses as to where the explosives would land, which Sanderson realized wouldn’t work in the close confines American troops were dealing with in Haiti.

Clearly, new technology needed to be perfected.  Sanderson was just the man for the job.  He undertook several trial-and-error experiments before figuring out a technique that worked.  He improvised a sight by mounting a carbine barrel, lined up with the plane’s long axis, to the windshield of his aircraft, an unarmed training craft, called a Curtiss JN-4 or “Jenny.”  Through his experiments, Sanderson found that dropping his plane’s nose and flying in at a 45° angle, then considered steep, was the most effective course of action.  He understood that the aircraft needed to dive toward the target in order to reduce the amount of time the bomb fell through the air.  The distance a bomb had to fall was highly influential in the accuracy of the hit.  The shorter the distance of the descent, the more precisely the bomb would hit the intended target.  Once Sanderson figured out the ideal angle, he then strapped a bomb in a canvas bag to the belly of his plane and flew into combat to rescue the stranded American forces.  He dropped the ordnance himself from approximately 250 feet and accurately hit his Haitian target, thus single-handedly liberating the trapped US troops.  However, the nearly vertical ascent necessary for recovery from the dive almost caused his aircraft to disintegrate.  Sanderson managed to avert crisis on this occasion, but it would not be the last time he experienced such dangerous flying conditions.

Sanderson’s improvised dive-bombing technique was so effective that other pilots began utilizing his system.  He was then tapped to teach it to other combat forces.  The innovation in dive-bombing that Sanderson came up with greatly enhanced the ability of the US military to stage raids from the air.  Sanderson’s improvement would be pivotal when the US later intervened in Nicaragua.

Undoubtedly, Sanderson was an aviation pioneer.  He was one of a group of several other crack fliers of his time.  This was an era when Americans were fascinated with airplanes and flying, which gave rise to many exciting aviation demonstrations.  One such event was the Pulitzer races, which took place from 1920-1925.  Sanderson was one of the participants in the Pulitzer races.  During this time, he experienced several more near-misses similar to the one he averted in Haiti.

These races were sponsored by Ralph Pulitzer, journalist and the son of Joseph Pulitzer, who established the Pulitzer Prizes.  The contests were a chance for pilots to show off their maneuvering skills and their planes.  Many of the aircraft were cutting-edge or even experimental.  Aviators could exhibit their daring and demonstrate just how fast their planes could fly.  Often, these fliers pushed the limits of their vessels’ abilities, setting new speed records and, occasionally, crashing their aircraft or making emergency landings after pushing them to their limits.  The pilots flew at such high, unheard-of speeds that many reported losing consciousness on turns because their planes weren’t equipped to combat the extreme gravitational forces they were experiencing.  Naturally, passing out in the cockpit led to a few mishaps.  Sanderson was not immune.  He won the prize for best air speed in a 1922 race, but lost another race he nearly won when he ran out of gas.  The race required each pilot to make several laps of a course and then taxi on the water during certain passes.  Sanderson had to drop out a mile from the finish due to his empty fuel tank.  In the next race, in which Sanderson flew what was known as the “Navy Mystery Plane,” his engine failed and Sanderson was forced to drop out in the penultimate lap.  He executed a somewhat controlled crash in a lake and then had to swim back to shore.  In 1923, Sanderson flew in a race in which he crossed the finish line just as his fuel gauge read empty and landed in a haystack.  His top speed during that event was just over 230 miles per hour.  Participating in the races was only a small piece of Sanderson’s remarkable life.

Sanderson spent his career in the Marine Corps and went on to serve in World War II.  He became a part of history when the Japanese government surrendered Wake Island.  Japan used Wake in part to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Some American forces were stationed there, but the Japanese took the island in late December of 1941.  Later, Japan would use Wake Island as a command post and to launch further offenses on Hawaii.  Throughout the war, the US repeatedly attempted to take back Wake Island.  The Japanese finally relinquished Wake to the US on September 7, 1945.  By that time, Sanderson was a Brigadier General, and the official to whom the Japanese surrendered the island.

Sanderson was born on July 22, 1895 in Shelton, WA.  He died on June 11, 1976 in San Diego, CA.  He was 80.  Sanderson Field, an airport in Shelton, WA, formerly called Mason County Airport, was renamed for him in August of 1966.

“Lawson Sanderson: Early Aviation Pioneer” is part of the “Snapshots of History” series that provides background info on select images from the database.


1. “Airpower and Restraint in Small Wars,” Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 2001

2. “Army Flier Speeds 220 Miles an Hour,” New York Times, October 9, 1922,

3. “Dive bomber,” Wikipedia article,

4. “Lawson H. Sanderson,” on Early Birds of Aviation, Inc., Ralph Cooper,

5. “The Pulitzer Races,” Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Rankin, USMC, Proceedings Magazine, the US Naval Institute, September 1959, Vol. 85/9/679,

6. “Ralph Pulitzer,” Wikipedia article,

7. “Sanderson Field,” Wikipedia article,

8. “To Hell and Back:  Wake during and after World War II,” Dirk H.R. Spenneman, from Marshalls: Digital Micronesia,

Events and People Snapshots of History

Schuykill River Floods, March 1902

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station During Flood – Flooded Train Shed.

With the recent record levels of rainfall in Philadelphia, images such as these two photos have unfortunately become a familiar sight in our area. Though most Philadelphians do not remember another time when there seemed to be so much water everywhere, the city is actually no stranger to disastrous flooding.

The combination of a particular harsh winter that led to above-average amounts of melting snow plus the occurrence of a severe rainstorm on the night of February 28, 1902 led to so much water flowing into the Schuylkill River that it “broadened to twice its normal width.” As the sun rose on the morning of March 1, people were able to see just how bad the overnight devastation was. The sight of the swollen river full of debris set against a perfect blue-sky morning was one of such “ruinous grandeur” that it brought “thousands of spectators to bridges and points of vantage.”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station During Flood – Flooded Waiting Room.

The two photos here show the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station located on the east bank of the Schuylkill at 24th and Chestnut Streets. Designed by Frank Furness and opened in 1888, the station was constructed so that the main entrance was level with the Chestnut Street Bridge with passenger waiting areas and tracks 30 feet below. While this design allowed for better flow of passengers by providing for both upper and lower waiting areas, it also meant that the lower areas were particularly vulnerable to flooding. On the morning of March 1, it was reported that the lower levels of the station had taken in five feet of water. By the afternoon, the level was reported to have lowered to a foot and a half, which would appear to be when the photos were taken. B&O had suspended service the night before as water slowly crept into the station, but by the next day the flooding had wreaked havoc on other rail lines as well. Both the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia & Reading Railroads also suspended service.

It took many months and millions of dollars for Philadelphia to recover from the flood. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reopened the 24th Street Station and used it continuously until April 1956 when B&O suspended all passenger service north of Baltimore. The station was demolished in 1963 and the site is now home to a luxury high-rise apartment building


“Schuylkill is a Raging Torrent.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1, 1902.

“Swollen Schuylkill Bursts Its Bounds, Throttling Traffic, Damaging Property.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1902.

Snapshots of History

Food Will Win the War

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Supply trucks gathered at City Hall.

World War I is often referred to as the first “modern war.” Weapons such as airplanes, tanks, machine guns, and chemicals were used for the first time with deadly consequences. However, one of the oldest weapons in human history was also employed during the War – food. Starving a city or fortress to surrender is a tactic that dates back to ancient times. History has shown that in matters of war the victor is not always the one with the largest army or most advanced weapons. Often, it is the one who can continue to feed its army and citizens. World War I was no different. As Europe sent its most able-bodied young men into the trenches, food production began to decrease. The United States, being a neutral country at this point and possessing a surplus of food, became critical in supplying food to its (unofficial at the time) allies in Europe.

By the time America entered the war in April 1917, however, European demand had depleted food reserves and driven up prices. Since farmers could not increase production until the following year’s harvest, it became clear that America would have to conserve food if it was to continue to feed itself, its growing and mobilizing army, and its allies. Federal legislation was introduced to control food supplies, but a frustrated President Woodrow Wilson felt that something needed to be done faster. Wilson urged the passing of the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act in 1917 as an emergency wartime measure. With its passing, the Lever Act created the United States Food Administration to control the growing supply problem. President Wilson appointed as head of the administration a man who would later become president himself – Herbert Hoover. Hoover had previously been in London organizing, sometimes surreptitiously, relief efforts for the people of Europe, especially in Belgium.

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
City Hall illuminated at night with Hoover’s famous slogan.

Hoover believed that “food will win the war” but did not want to embark upon a rigid and mandatory rationing program. He believed that in “the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice” Americans would voluntarily modify their eating habits. A national campaign, mostly aimed at women, was introduced to encourage conservation of food and the elimination of waste. Special recipes and cookbooks were disseminated. Victory Bread, bread made with a flour substitute called (appropriately) Victory Flour, became a staple in many homes. Nation-wide weekly events such as “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” were promoted. Children were told to east less sweets in order to “save sugar for a soldier.” Supply-truck motorcades were organized to bring food directly from rural areas into major cities and ports, with Philadelphia being a major hub of this kind of activity. In public spaces throughout the country, cities prominently displayed signs and posters bearing Hoover’s famous statement “Food Will Win the War.” Americans began to informally refer to their modified eating habits as “Hooverizing.”

During the first year of the U.S. Food Administration’s existence, Americans reduced their food consumption by 15 percent. That number may not sound like much, but it doubtless fed many a starving ally or American doughboys across the Atlantic. After the war, Hoover continued the humanitarian efforts of the U.S. Food Administration, which had been reorganized and renamed the American Relief Organization. Hoover expanded relief to include not just America’s allies but also it’s recently defeated former enemies, declaring “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!”

“Hooverizing” recipes are widely available. For the recipes and to see the finished products, please visit


“Wilson Orders Hoover to Start.” The New York Times, June 16, 1917. Accessed June 16, 2011.

Goudiss, Alberta Moorhouse and Charles Houston Goudiss. Foreward to Foods That Will Win the War: And How To Cook Them. New York: The Forecast Publishing Company, 1918. Accessed June 16, 2011.

Hammond, R.J. “Review of The History of the United States Food Administration, 1917-1919 by William C. Mullendore.” The English Historical Review, vol. 58, no. 230 (April 1943). Accessed June 16, 2011.

“Food Will Win the War” is part of “Snapshots of History,” a new series of blog entries that will provide background info on select images from the database.

Snapshots of History

Kill the Rats!

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos

When we hear “bubonic plague” most people tend to think of the “Black Death” that swept across 14th century Europe. Transmitted to humans by bites from infected rat-fleas, the pandemic infamously killed up to a third of the entire population of Europe. What is mostly unknown is that bubonic plague also had deleterious effects on the populations of Asia, South America and North America. Cases of bubonic plague have been reported in nearly every country in the world. And while we also tend to think of bubonic plague as relegated to the history books, stunningly, cases are still being reported into the 21st century.

The United States remained plague-free until 1900 when an outbreak occurred in San Francisco. Though this outbreak was nowhere near the proportions that had affected Europe and Asia (“only” 121 people died), it was enough to thoroughly scare some other states into ending all trade with the entire state of California, fearing that the plague would literally be imported into their populations as well. Since rat infestations were mostly a problem of urban centers, many American cities began to put in place practices to stave off an outbreak of plague.

Philadelphia was no exception. Philadelphians were urged to “rat-proof” their homes and businesses and to turn over any trapped rats to the city for disposal. On September 4, 1914, the Philadelphia Bureau of Health erected a rat receiving station at the Race Street Pier and offered a bounty: two cents for each dead rat and five cents for live ones. By January 1, 1915, the Bureau reported that 5,238 rats had been turned in to the station. The Bureau of Health was also greatly expanded during this time including the hiring of a team of special agents, the “rat patrol”, who inspected all incoming ships and set and monitored traps all along the waterfront.

The measures apparently worked as Philadelphia did not experience a plague outbreak. Fears of bubonic plague would be overshadowed in a few years as Philadelphians, and indeed all Americans, would have to contend with a far more deadly epidemic – the Great Influenza.


Zueblin, Charles. American Municipal Progress. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1916, p. 129.

“Kill the Rats!” is the first article in “Snapshots of History,” a new series of blog entries that will provide background info on select images from the database.