“POLIO IS CONQUERED,” The Pittsburgh Press, April 12, 1955


Front Page of The Pittsburgh Press, April 12, 1955

As a Pitt student, you’re expected to know a few things about your school: it’s really old, the Cathedral of Learning is really tall, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood filmed here, and Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine here. I can’t speak for the rest of what I might have learned over the past three and a half years, but I will leave my undergraduate career knowing that Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine at Pitt in 1955.

The front page of The Pittsburgh Press for April 12th, 1955 is dedicated, in large part, to just that discovery: “POLIO IS CONQUERED” proclaims the headline, dominating the whole top section of the front page. On that day, the announcement was made that the vaccine developed by Salk was effective and safe—with an efficacy rate of 80 to 90 percent. A statement from Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., who oversaw the final testing of the vaccine, is quoted: “There can be no doubt now that children can be inoculated successfully against polio…The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”


The Press does everything to portray the massive import of the news they are reporting. One article notes that, “The impact of Dr. Francis’ announcement was terrific. Some of the scientists actually wept at the news.” Another reports on the congratulations that the mayor and governor have offered Salk and his team. Another calls for Salk to receive awards, which will come in due time.

More than anything else, examining the newspaper from the day of the announcement of the efficacy of the polio vaccine drives home the devastating impact that polio had had on the country. A full-page ad deeper in the issue from “Parke, Davis, and Company,” a major pharmaceutical company that was one of the companies charged with manufacturing the vaccine, asks, “What does the Polio Vaccine Report mean to you?” There are questions and answers about who will be the first to get the vaccine, how to get it for your family, the way that it will be distributed. There was clearly concern about the vaccine for the average family.


Advertisement from Parke, Davis, and Company

There are few medical stories I could imagine that would dominate a newspaper today the way the polio vaccine story dominates the paper. Nearly every story for the first several pages focuses on a different aspect of the, as the newspaper can already see, coming medical revolution. There is clear understanding of the massive difference that this news stands to make.

Arguably, this is one of the most important stories to come out of Pittsburgh over the last century—the one with the most impact on the history and health of the country and the world or decades to come. But to find this story, this newspaper cover from a day that changed the world, you have to dig through archives, know the date, know the story you’re looking for ahead of time. It’s hidden, preserved among the covers of many, many relatively unimportant days and unimportant stories.

That is the strangeness of archives and of historical preservation: sometimes the things preserved are important, but much of it merely testifies to the mundane daily life. Sometimes, though, you do get to find the articles that record the greatest moments in medical history.

View the full front cover here


Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Posters

As I’ve admitted before, I’m a bit of a nerd, about any number of things. I would argue that very few people would endeavor to catalog “interesting” things from Pittsburgh archives without being a bit of a nerd. In any case, one place this extends to is classical music and the orchestra: I played violin through elementary, middle, and high school (though I was never very good) and I attend what is probably more than the usual number of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts for a college student. And as it turns out, there is a collection of digitally available Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra posters.

There is a wide variety: some seem to be tour posters, advertising for concerts overseas, while others simply advertise the coming season at home in Pittsburgh. One advertises for a 1964 concert in Tehran, an event that seems unlikely now. It’s written double, in both English and (what I assume is) Persian. Tickets, at 200 rials, are available at the American Embassy and the Hilton Hotel. There is no indication of what they will play on the evenings in Tehran, only the time and place. Another poster, according to its caption, details a concert in Leningrad, USSR in 1989—there is no double writing on this one, only Russian.

An interesting one, pictured above, is the season poster for 1944-45. The imposing face of Fritz Reiner, musical director, stares you down as he peers out over the orchestra. The planned soloists for the season are pictured around the poster, a pianist seated at his piano, several of the violinists holding their instruments. I’m particularly fond of the serious looking man in the bottom image, his violin tucked under his chin, clearly feeling emotion into whatever he’s playing. Again, it doesn’t make any mention of what they will be playing, something I’m used to seeing on any PSO advertisement around town. I am generally interested in what will be played, rather than any soloist—though I will admit to being excited by a note on a poster over the summer that a concert would feature the departed concertmaster of the PSO that my friends and I had fallen in love during my freshman year—so maybe it still is a little bit about who plays. There are only two women soloists featured, both seemingly vocalists.

There is some question here of why. Why preserve these posters? Why digitize them and make them available to the public? Anything that we preserve, one could argue, is significant only insofar as it can tell us something we wouldn’t otherwise know. Without the posters, we wouldn’t know…what? The soloists from the 1944 season? Maybe, but arguably the more interesting thing isn’t what they uniquely tell us, but the thing that they can tell us in a different way. A different relationship with the Middle East and Iran in particular means orchestra concerts in Tehran. A reminder that Leningrad and the USSR really existed as places to visit and perform music.

Maybe that’s enough to make something worth preserving, perhaps. Maybe we keep and find the things that tell us something in a new way, in a more concrete way, than we otherwise would. Maybe these sorts of documents and images can keep culture alive.

(Well, and in this particular season, the posters can tell us that there were actually concerts—the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra walked out in September, and there have been no concerts since).


Check out the full digital catalog of PSO poster

Here’s an interesting discussion of the crazy data and preservation of the New York Philharmonic

“Caliguiri Favored As New Council Head,” David Warner, The Pittsburgh Press, February 17, 1977

I suppose, before I start this particular entry, I should mention that I am, wholeheartedly, a nerd. And furthermore, I am a nerd with a tendency to fall down the rabbit-hole of the Internet, often following my curiosity, instead of completing whatever task it was that I went online to deal with in the first place. That is how I found myself reading a 1977 Pittsburgh Press article on Richard Caliguiri and his likely new role as City Council President, rather than signing up for the Richard S. Caliguiri Great Race 10K—it was a quick enough jump from the race website, to a Google search on the man (whose statue I’ve passed many times entering the City-County Building), to his Wikipedia page, to the sources from his Wikipedia, where this article was referenced. In any case.

In 1977, Pittsburgh City Council President Louis Mason resigned, after months of illness, with Warner’s Press article noting that he had only attended one council meeting since May of the previous year. His resignation would leave his seat open, for a term running until the end of 1979, as well as his position as City Council President, which would run through the end of the year.

Though the headline focuses on Caliguiri, the focus of the article is what will happen next for the soon-to-be open Council seat. There is an almost oddly detailed outline of procedure here, describing the process for the choice of the new Councilmember. Committees for each party will select nominees, who will then be voted upon in a special election on the ballot in May. Given the dominance of the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh, both then and now, whoever the Democrats select will likely (and, in retrospect, did) be the new Councilmember.

Again, this article is interesting in retrospect. It is more significant than the author realizes that Caliguiri will be City Council President beginning March 14th, 1977, because it means that when then-Mayor Pete Flaherty is tapped to be U. S. Deputy Attorney General under President Jimmy Carter less than a month later, it is Caliguiri who takes over the mayorship. Caliguiri, of course, was mayor until his death in 1988—while he would win a special election later in 1977 to confirm his new role, his election to the Council President seat and subsequent appointment would begin his lengthy career as Pitstburgh mayor. In an offhand remark, Warner mentions that Sophie Masloff was elected they year before in the same type of special election that will select Mason’s replacement: Masloff would, upon Caliguiri’s death in office in 1988, become the first (and at this point only) woman to be Pittsburgh mayor.

There are, too, the quaint and offensive archaisms that are a part of reading anything more than about ten years old. Mason, as it turns out, was the only black member of Council at the time. This is a fair enough thing to mentioned. However, Mayor Pete Flaherty “said that he thought the seat should be filled by a black.” Which, I’ll be honest, is a phrase I don’t quite know how to talk about. At most I have this to say: of course, that is not a phrase that would be either printed in a newspaper or said by a politician (except, of course, Donald Trump, an exception I anticipate making many, many times over the next several years).

There is an aphorism, of somewhat debated origins, that “journalism is the first draft of history.” Perhaps that is true; newspapers record history as it’s happening. Except that it doesn’t quite: it records everything with the idea that some of it, eventually, will be important enough to be called history. It is the source of history, if nothing else.


Read the original Pittsburgh Press article

Department of City Planning, “A Community Profile of Bedford Dwellings,” 1974

In 1974, the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning published community profiles of the City’s neighborhoods, working mostly from 1960 and 1970 census data. As a preface attached to each profiles notes, “One thing that citizens need if they are to take part in planning for their neighborhoods is up-to-date information about their neighborhoods. This booklet is an attempt by the Pittsburgh Department of City Planning to present information, primarily from the United States Census of Population and Housing, for use by citizens and community groups.” To plan a neighborhood, to diagnose a problem, to form a community, you’ll need accurate information. True enough at the time, but some information and some presentations of information seem more interesting or useful or clear in retrospect.

The Community Profile of Bedford Dwellings, when you read it in a scanned digital format, looks a bit like any old document. There are three lines on the cover page, presumably staples. There is the occasional oddness of spacing or alignment or an off angle of a word, all the typical typewriter issues. A star on a sketchy map of Pittsburgh marks the neighborhood for this community profile, Bedford Dwelllings, which the report places in the broader area of the Hill District, Pittsburgh’s historically (and currently) most African-American neighborhood.

The neighborhood was once a thriving and lively cultural and community center in Pittsburgh, but by the 1950s, was beginning to fray and decay a bit at the edges—at which point the City slated it for “urban renewal,” which amounted to the wholesale demolition of the Lower Hill, displacing more than 8,000 residents and 400 businesses. The City erected a new arena. In 1968, riots between April 5th and 12th, sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., caused fires, destroyed yet more property, and brought about many arrests.

Perhaps a bit euphemistically, the report describes a section of the Lower Hill called Crawford-Roberts as a place “where extensive residential abandonment has taken place.” I suppose that if you demolish much of an area, people won’t live there anymore. They mix a bit of searching for a silver lining with a dose of understated realism: “However, the Cliff Street area (part of Crawford· Roberts) has had some new housing construction and rehabilitation. The lower Hill redevelopment project (now part of the Golden Triangle) remains incomplete, with the controversial Melody Tent site still a temporary parking lot.” It is nice, at least, to see a nod toward the community

It is with this past that the Department of City Planning must survey the area in 1974. There is a variety of demographic and socioeconomic data in the report, in an attempt to broadly sketch the community. The median age of the neighborhood is 23.9, nearly ten years younger than the citywide average of 33.6. 94.4% of the population of the neighborhood is black in 1970, compared with 20.2% in the city. Nearly 40% of the population has at most an eighth grade education. The median income for the neighborhood was barely more than half the median income of the city in 1970.


(Graph showing income growth, Bedford-Dwellings vs. Pittsburgh at large)

It is an odd experience to read this looking back. Was this the best knowledge we had to offer on this community? Is this the most truthful? I am intrigued by this not just for the numbers themselves, though that is something to see. (Median rent was $75 in 1970.) Why, in a report following a decade of deep unrest, do we not have some mention? The report opens with a qualitative overview of the neighborhood; where is the context for the Hill? But I suppose that’s part of why we keep these: the data is helpful, sure, but so is seeing the history of thought.

Community Profile, via Pitt University Center for Social & Urban Research

Helpful history of the Hill District

The Owl, 1907, Yearbook of the Western University of Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh)

On the first printed page, the book announces itself as “The Owl: Published annually by the Junior Class of the Western University of Pennsylvania.” This is not exactly wrong, but arguably it’s filled with the idealism that college students are supposed to embody. The Owl, renamed Panther Prints in 1981, will be published annually, but in this 1907 edition, it hasn’t yet. This is the first year that the yearbook is printed. They can only plan to publish annually.

It is a basic yearbook. There’s a dedication (to Thomas Mellon, founder of Mellon Bank, “the oldest living alumnus…and one who has ever had its best interest at heart”). There’s a printing of the alma mater (different than the current version, which will be adopted later, after the university changes its name). There are photographs of faculty (some with delightfully outdated specialties: one medical school professor is a professor of “Therapeutics and Diseases of the Sleus,” which I haven’t been able to figure out) and students, with short biographies (the students are a bit mocking, an inside joke here and there: one senior is said to have “the fastest liver of the class”—something may be lost in translation here, but I’m hoping this means he could drink the most). It looks, for the most part, the same as my high school yearbook or my mother’s college yearbooks—just a higher proportion of men.

There were, at this point, women, as indicated by the horrifying-in-retrospect “Co’Eds” section. It opens with a drawing of a woman, bordered by a stack of books and a diploma, but also by a hair brush, hair ribbons, and a half-complete work of embroidery, still on the hoop. Below the drawing is a bit of hand-lettered verse:

“Some Sing of the Daughters of Vassar,

                        And Some of Old Wellesey’s Fair Girls,

            Some Sigh for the Sweet Classic Maidens—

                        Where the Banner of Wilson unfurls;

            But the Best of Them All without Question

                        The Critics United Agree,

            Are the Maidens enrolled ‘neath the Blue and the Gold,

                        The Coeds of W. U. P.”

A list of all the women studying that year follows, with all the names fitting comfortably onto one page, 25 women total. Then there is a longer poem, in which “a sweet co’ed” returns home, full of knowledge and wisdom (“she talked just like a book!”). She is so smart, everyone agrees, but she always acts so haughtily when asked if she had learned to cook. In the end, of course, she marries a young man:

“No more she mends the Universe,

            (She’s busy mending hose),

For her many household duties

            She all things then forsook,

And ‘twas thus, O gentle reader,

            That she HAD to learn to cook”

I try not to be bothered by this. I try not to be bothered by the words of men over a hundred years ago, over women who would, in all likelihood, stop working and start cooking when they were married. And yet, I find myself bothered, both on my behalf and theirs. I am, at best, a sufficient cook, but my older brother had to ask me how to use a can opener last Christmas. And these were brilliant women, on the leading edge, fighting for their right to education, etc., etc. It annoys me to see them belittled. But anger for women long-dead is futile at best.

Yearbooks are, of course, meant to be saved, to be returned to years later. I am meant to flip through my mother’s college yearbooks, to see the year when her name changed from Dunham to Garis and remember the Christmas wedding. I am meant, as a Pitt student, to look through these old Pitt yearbooks and feel some kinship. So, what did they felt needed to be recorded? The names and faces of the faculty and students, the history of the University and of the clubs. It’s odd looking at the names that are, in my present, just buildings. It reminds me, in a way I think the best archives and history and archaeology do, that everything that is history to me had all the present-ness of my world.


Digital Copy of the 1907 Yearbook, and an archive of all Pitt yearbooks 1907-2011