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Posted on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 : 10:07 a.m.

Glimpses of Ann Arbor life in 1889

By Laura Bien

“It is said that a large number of the $161.50 worth of woodchuck scalps Ann Arbor township has just paid for,” said the July 12, 1889 Ann Arbor Argus, “were brought in from surrounding townships which pay 10 or 15 cents bounty, instead of 25 cents. Some of the boys seem to think it is easier to buy scalps in the outside towns and swear that they killed them than to hunt down the woodchucks themselves. It is evident that there ought to be a uniformity of bounty and that a determined raid ought to be made on the ‘pesky varmints.’”

Local color was a distinguishing feature of publisher John Bailey’s newspaper, which ran from 1879 to 1898 and then merged with the Ann Arbor Democrat to form the Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat, which continued until 1906. The Argus featured local, state, and national news, but its charm lies in its chatty offbeat mini-stories offering a glimpse of life in 1889 Ann Arbor.

“Sometime since a great excitement was caused in the Fifth ward by the rapping of spirits,” said a July 5 story. “A Miss Charters, a clairvoyant, who has been living some months in that ward, is satisfied that the balmy breezes of that romantic locality are filled with spiritual beings. To have the matter tested she engaged our photographer Kelley [probably Obadiah Kelley, whose studio and residence was on 6 E. Huron], to go with her and a friend onto one of the most romantic parts of the boulevard and take their pictures.” The boulevard was Cedar Bend Drive, which had recently been constructed in this year and was a popular spot for walks or rides to admire the view of the river and downtown.

A strange surprise was in store. “When the negative came out of the camera—to the surprise and utter astonishment of Kelley, he found twelve figures instead of two; the unknown faces and forms were in the background. Among the trees eight females and two males--one is a child which Mr. Pulcipher thinks resembles one he lost years ago.”

The paper continued, “It is very doubtful whether Mr. Kelley could ever be induced to take any more pictures on the boulevard especially if any clairvoyant should be around there. Any sceptical person can see this spiritual picture at the store of W. F. Ludholz in Fifth ward.”

This item appeared to be of sufficient public interest that the Argus ran a follow-up on July 19. “Kelley, the photographer, who took the photograph of the spirits. . . maintains that the negative was taken from a regular package and received no treatment before being put in the camera.”

More down-to-earth stories dominated the paper. “The fire department boys are training the horse they are now using for drawing the hose cart,” said the March 15 Argus. “They have now got him trained so that they can have him harnessed and the cart out of the door in just fourteen seconds from the time an alarm is received.”

It was likely this firehorse raced to the fire that occurred on September 20. “An explosion of gasoline from a gasoline stove at the residence of William Clancy, on North Fourth Street, at half past seven Tuesday morning burned the paper on the wall but the fire was extinguished without much damage. The fire department was called out.”

The detail of the dangerous gasoline stove was one of many small asides that obliquely illustrate the hardships of life in 1889. A hint at medical conditions of the day appeared in a March 22 story reporting on Saginaw. “Mollie Sandow, aged 6 years, was standing on a high chair yesterday, holding a lead pencil in her hand. She fell backward, her hand behind her, and the pencil penetrated her back an inch from her spine, going in three inches. She will die.”

In addition to reporting on other cities around the state, the Argus also occasionally quoted pungent bits sifted from other local papers. One of its favorites was the Adrian Press. On May 10, the Argus ran a Press story headlined “Capt. Manly’s Hog.” The event it described occurred while several Ann Arbor men were campaigning for the position of postmaster. “The Adrian Press in its own inimitable way thus summarizes an item which appeared in these columns two weeks ago,” said the Argus. “'Cap. C. H. Manly, of Ann Arbor, lately advertised a hog he owned, by having his hired man load him—the hog—into the wagon and then allowing the team to run away, with the hog as driver. The whole show charged down the principal streets with his hogship on board, mouth wide open, squealing for all there was in him. The more he squealed, the faster the team ran and the faster they ran the more he squealed. Team and hog finally tired out and no harm was done. From the clatter and ‘chin music’ made by the show, it was first thought that a republican candidate for the postoffice was on a Jehu drive to capture the concern. The squealing was of the hungry kind'.”

The Argus also reprinted the Adrian Press’s less than glowing estimation of Ann Arbor manners. “Ann Arbor has a kind of unclassified zoo, which always manages to get into the opera house and annoy people with the loud cracking of peanut shells during performances. If some philanthropist would crack the shells of such creatures, natural history might suffer a blow, but the audience would cry ‘amen' and feel rested.”

Etiquette was also a topic covered in the March 29 Argus, which interspersed handy etiquette tips throughout its local news stories that day.

“In taking leave of your hostess after a party where refreshments have been served it is considered a delicate mark of courtesy to turn your pockets inside out to show her that you are not carrying away any of the silver. Besides, you are more likely to get another invitation.”

“It is very impolite to ask a lady her age; but if you can get hold of the family Bible, custom sanctions the practice of looking the matter up.”

“Do not eat more than one toothpick at table. People abhor a greedy person, and, besides, too free indulgence in such food has been known to produce indigestion.”

“Ladies should not whisper in company. Gentlemen may, if they can, as the pleasure afforded the company of overhearing atones for the rudeness of the act.”

“Don’t ask your hostess how she cooks her celery. A lady who has the art of preparing an especial delicacy does not always like to give her secret away.”

“Girls should not whistle, but custom sanctions their puckering their lips occasionally when alone with their beaux.”

“It is not considered good form to gnaw popped corn off the cob. It is better to cut it off with a knife before eating.”

And last, this helpful tip:

“A gentleman should remove his hat on entering the hall, but not necessarily his false teeth.”

Laura Bien is the author of "Stud Bunnies and the Underwear Club: Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives," to be published this winter. She also writes the historical blog "Dusty Diary" and may be contacted at