100 Years Ago: September 1923
This is the 104th entry in my ongoing series of abridgements of National Geographic Magazines as they reach the 100th anniversary of their publication.
The first item listed in the contents on the cover is a “Special Supplement – Peasant Home in Corsica.” It is a pictorial supplement “(Size, 19 x 13 inches).” This supplement is directly related to the first article in this issue.
Pictorial courtesy of Philip Riviere
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Coasts of Corsica” and was written by Maynard Owen Williams, Staff Correspondent of the National Geographic Magazine, and author of “At the Tomb of Tutankhamen,” “Through the Heart of Hindustan,” “Russia’s Orphan Races,” “The Descendants of Confucius,” etc. in the National Geographic Magazine. It has the internal subtitle: “Impressions of a Winter’s Stay in the Island Birthplace of Napoleon.” The article contains eighty-seven black-and-white photographs, of which forty-five are full-page in size. Of those full-page photos, sixteen are actually a set of duotones (to be discussed later). The article also contains two sketch maps – a small one on page 223 of Corsica’s surroundings, and a full-page map of Corsica on page 224. Note: the smaller map was missed by Philip Riviere.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
Corsica was a land of contrasts, but it was also a land of paradox. Behind the striking beauty of the island, concealed beneath the commonplace exteriors of the people, there was a mystery, a contrary quality which first escaped observation and later intruded everywhere. One went to Corsica expecting to find every bandit a menace. He remained to find the man with the gun the most unromantic of mortals. The most Tartarinesque [sic] of Corsicans, loaded to the belt, attempted banditry rarely, yet personal encounters between natives were still commonplace. Women went safely alone by night, yet gendarmes travelled in pairs by day. There were hundreds of bridges in Corsica but no rivers. Banditry was still a byword, and thievery was abhorred. The innkeepers boasted of what grand things they would do if there were more tourists, and neglected the few they had. The sun gave the land its charm; and the snow, its beauty and health. The roads were blocked by horses, mules, and donkeys, few of them laden, and the automobile, even for the single traveler, offered the cheapest means of transportation. The perfumes of the marquis and the smells of the streets were alike indescribable. Animals, made roommates, were treated cruelly, and children, seldom at home, were generally allowed to do as they pleased. Life was somber and death was still the supreme event to those whose monotonous days were as tenaciously clung to as in happier and less lovely lands. The mountainsides were terraced with infinite labor and the most fertile plains were left untilled. The sea was all around but mariners were few. Bad sailors that they were, the Corsicans claimed kinship with Columbus, and, indomitable fighters, they ignore Napoleon. Sacred personages, pictured on many walls, were profaned on most male lips. The donkeys and pigs fed on chestnuts of such quality that few in rich lands could afford, yet every third child seemed underfed. But, while in Nice, the author longed for the simple, unspoiled, paradoxical paradise to the south. In Nice, life is acted; in Corsica it was lived – and lost.
The author’s group sailed at twilight from Marseille. The propeller took hold, and they edged their way out of the Bassin de la Joliette, Corsica-bound. They began to dip to the waves, whose sound rose and died away beneath their prow. The steamer was built for freight, with passengers, mere impedimenta to be tolerated. Their cabin, a bare, cheerless dungeon shared by three, was below the waterline. The food was fair, and the bedding clean. What more could they ask of a vessel which would bring them at sunrise to the Gulf of Ajaccio, with the Bloody Islands standing guard on the left [north] and a great line of mountains to the south and east? The Gulf of Ajaccio laid its spell upon the travelers. The comfortable hotel stood in a huge garden, nicely tamed in the front, but savage behind. Oranges hung heavy on the trees beneath the author’s window. The roses had begun to drop their petals before the rigors of December. In postwar Europe the interest in Corsica was almost unique. Life had undergone comparatively little change. No new boundaries touched the people, nor any change of government control or nationality. Corsican fought splendidly in the fields of France and 40,000 of them, out of a population of 300,000, gave their lives; but not treaty resulting from the war affected their inner life. The movement toward the cities, so striking elsewhere, had affected Corsica little. The largest of its industries hired but a handful of men. Beyond the coasts there were only three towns of more than 3,000, and the thousand credited by the census to a single village were really divided among several hamlets scattered about the hillside. By following the coast, the author’s party saw most of the larger villages of the island, but lost sight of the true Corsican, who looked down, literally and figuratively, on those who lived in what to him were crowded cities.
The people added nothing to the scene. Their plain homes and somber costumes were counterpoint to the beauty of Nature. Costumes never flared forth with color as they did in Sardinia, in India, or on the Dalmatian coast. [See: “The Island of Sardinia and Its People,” January 1923, National Geographic Magazine.] But the Corsicans were humble folk. They gladly subordinated themselves to the scenery, saying that the land was so beautiful that it needed no colorful costumes to make it attractive. The Corsican was to France what the Georgian was to Russia. He was not lazy; but the idea punching a clock was abhorrent to him. He would rather be a shabby gentleman than a rich servant. Terraces for crops, as found in the Philippines and China, testified to the fact that he was not slovenly. The Greeks called Corsica “Kalliste” – Most Beautiful – Referring to the rugged coasts where blood-red rocks plunged deep into the sea. Such unspoiled spots were so few in the modern world that one could tolerate petty inconveniences for the sake of knowing a people who had been little affected by modernism. Ajaccio was a chameleon city whose soft tints changed with every sweep of the clouds and angle of the sun. Ajaccio was founded by the Genoese the same year that their countryman discovered America. In 1811, Napoleon, having been born there 42 years earlier, made it the capital of Corsica. Ajaccio was Napoleon’s home town. One was never allowed to forget that. But he did Corsica the great dishonor of leaving her shores, and few Corsicans seemed to care much about him. In 1923, Napoleon was to Ajaccio what Washington was to the Capitol – a sort of trademark of the place, with souvenirs and postcards picturing his home on Rue St. and his battles across half the world. Many roads, buildings, and sites were named for her renowned son. Napoleon’s house was a barrack-like structure, four stories high, the upper three marked by eighteen windows, as well as the family arms and a tablet reading “Napoleon I est ne dans cette maison le XV aout 1769.”
Ajaccio had two statues of her hero, neither very good. In the Place des Palmiers the statue showed him as an emaciated river god standing among four lions. The statue on the Place du Diamant was much better. Napoleon sat on horseback in the grab of a Roman emperor, holding a globe on which Victory was poised. On the four corners of the pedestal were Napoleon’s brothers, garbed as lictors. Bastia had the only other statue of Napoleon the author had seen in Corsica, and there too he was pictured in flowing robes. But, Napoleon aside, Ajaccio was well worth knowing. It was a place to soak up the warm sun and pass idle hours in the contemplation of mountain and plain and sea. Its climate was such as one associated with oranges and roses at Christmas. People from the outside world would tell you that the Ajaccien was lazy. As long as there was sun, there were crowds to enjoy it. Boys played marbles, pitched pennies, or kick anything resembling a football. Little girls, with arms full of rubber balls, kept three of them bounding at once against wall and sidewalk and threw a few slaps of the hands behind their backs. Young Corsica vibrated with energy; animal spirits abounded. It was evident that it took training and age to steady down to slow-speed pastimes. Young men and women promenaded back and forth – an attractive lot – with school books on their arms. Amid much wasting of time, Ajaccio had many crowded schools and eager pupils. The gravel square of the Place du Diamant was always dotted with people talking accompanied by much wrist movement. Down to the left, near the sea wall, there was the sunning place of the old men. Just around the corner a dozen women and girls were washing linen at set tubs, for which they paid four sous a day. The Allaccien was lazy, but so were the tourists who came to sat in the sun and drank in the beauty of the place, passing pleasant hours amid pleasant scenes. The sunshine warmed the cockles of his heart, and he gladly welcomed it.
Ajaccio sat astride Monte Salario, from which the stone for many of its well-built homes was obtained, and looked off to a crown of mountains stretching from the east to the south. The bright jewel of the circlet was Monte d’Oro, 7,845 feet high and snow-clad for a good part of the year. The green hill which was background for pink and cream Ajaccio split the city into the form of a “Y” with long widespread arms and a short, thick base where the old citadel stood. The right arm of the “Y” was the Cours Napoleon, which ran almost due north and changed from a city street into a Route Nationale near the railway station. The other arm was the Boulevard Grandval. It ran southwest and terminated at the Place du Casone, a bare drill ground, beyond which two tip-tilted rocks formed the Napoleon Grotto, in which he was said to have studied in his youth. The grotto was being enclosed in a formal garden, and, in 1921, the first stone for Ajaccio’s third monument to her most distinguished son was laid. Below the Cours Napoleon, which was Ajaccio’s Broadway, there were two sections of the port. There the fishermen spread out their nets to mend, boil their tanning solutions in caldrons into which the nets were periodically dipped to preserve them. They dropped molten lead onto slabs of marble. When cool, the lead was bent by hand to form sinkers for the nets. Small octopuses were cut up to bait the trolling lines, neatly coiled in low baskets. At midnight the fishermen went out into the Gulf of Ajaccio. At 2 or 3 o’clock the next afternoon they returned empty-handed or well loaded, according to their luck. There, the island steamers docked, scattering their cargoes about the open quay, for rain was infrequent and a few tarps amply protected the valuables, which were left outdoors in that land of vendetta, where the shipper had more to fear from the customs officials than from thievery. The fish and vegetable markets were there, with women doing the buying and selling for the most part. On two sides of little park small stands were erected each morning. Those were the butcher shops. Lamb and goat were the chief commodities.
Between the Cours Napoleon and the quays there were dirty back alleys, where washing hung and stables were concealed from the eyes but not the nose. Even the street where the Maison de Napoleon stood was a foul alley. The Boulevard Grandval was the Fifth Avenue of that town of 22,000, and below it was the Boulevard Lantivy, the sea drive and promenade of society. An extension led to the Genoese tower behind the Iles Sanguinaires, (the Bloody Islands). The loveliness of the verdure-clad hills contrasted with the dusty, muted little town. In Ajaccio, cleanliness was not only next to godliness, but next to impossible. From a distance, Ajaccio was a fairyland. The kindly sun bathed the scene in the magic light of a stage spectacle. The sky, the sea, and the balmy air were the kindliest elements in the life of the people. Of all the Saints beloved by the Ajacciens, St. Antoine was the favorite. For every football team named for Napoleon, there was one named for the Saint. On the 17th of January hundreds of people leave Ajaccio to climb to the tiny chapel between green Salario and the rocky Pointe de Lisa, where the principal fete of St. Antoine was held. Flocks of sheep and goats, as well as swine were blessed. The feast of St, Anthony was the occasion when the town-dwellers escaped for a day to live in the marquis. Absinthe was being surreptitiously being consumed. Out along the hills men hunted wild boar. The hurdy-gurdy and an accordion rivalled each other in providing music for those who cared to dance. The accordion won most of the crowd away from the hurdy-gurdy, the absinthe had been drunk, and the food had been eaten before the author left. In the afternoon he rode out to Mezzavia, where, in the shadows of an aqueduct, there was another small chapel to St. Antoine. Despite the games of chance, that gathering had a more religious tone than the merrymaking in Ajaccio.
Neglected Corsica was coming into vogue. One of the French railway systems was arranging for motor services in connection with the stammers from Nice and Marseille, and a half dozen simple but clean hotels were being planned. But to appreciate the Corsican one must know him, and driving by at 30 miles per hour did not gave a chance to know them. They were hospitable, but one could not show hospitality to a cloud of dust and carbon monoxide. The contemplated linking of Corsica with the mainland was merely a marriage of convenience. Corsica and the Continent had different tastes and characters. The author hope that that planned subordination would not succeed. Before circling Corsica’s coast, it was well to have some idea what the trip offered. From the west, Corsica seamed a huge tortoise. The long head was Cap Corse, with Bastia, the island’s largest city, at the nape of its neck and the port of St. Florent tucked closely to its chin. On the west coast four large gulfs separated the feet of that legless sea monster. Northernmost and loveliest of all was the Gulf of Porto. Next to the south was the wide Gulf of Sagone. Then the Gulf of Ajaccio, whose quite beauty matched the savage charm of Gulf of Porto, with its rugged lips. The Gulf of Valinco, though less widely known, had its champions. Where the back broke into a sort of tail was Porto Vecchio, at the only considerable interruption in the low-lying coast between Cap Corse and Bonifacio. As to the interior structure, the main line of mountains was slightly bowed from northwest to southwest. It coasts did not constitute the true Corsica. They formed the twilight zone between the outer world and that land whose resistance to change and passion for independence made more remarkable the hospitality of its people.
The author’s party could not have wished for nothing lovelier than their ride across the plain behind Ajaccio. Near at hand, the dark green of olive groves; beyond, the rose-red shoulder of the Rocher Gozzi, of hardened granite, its color subdued by a darkening sky. Then a dull blue approach to the skirts of Monte d’Orto, whose snowy head was lost in the clouds. They passed under the aqueduct which supplied Ajaccio with water when the gendarmes did their duty. Those armed guards were sometimes stationed along its course to keep farmers from diverting the water to their fields. Then they climbed to their first col, or pass. Travel in Corsica was just one seesaw of ups and downs, ins and outs. But the mountain passes justified their existence, each was more beautiful than the previous one. The first tiny pass, less than 1,000 feet altitude, was a foretaste of many that were to come. To the south was the rich plain at the head of the Gulf of Ajaccio. Across the blue-black bay were the mountains which faced Ajaccio. Ahead, their yellow road wound deeper into the hills; but on the left, high on the side of the hill of the Pozzo di Borgo, was the Chateau de la Punta, from which there was an incomparable panorama of the entire backbone of Corsica from Capo Tafonato to the Incudine. Farther north laid the Gulf of Lava, near which the most prominent of the bandits was said to have his retreat. Every climb, which opened up scenes ever more majestic, brought one to a curving descent leading to intimate relations with a softer beauty. Down they swept to the gulf, rounding the tower of Capigliolo on its promontory, and out of Sagone before they knew they had reached it. From the turnings above the hamlet, they had glimpsed the port at the far end of the yellow beach and had expected that the town would be there. But what there was of Sagone was close to the hill over which they had come.
Sagone was once the seat of an epicurean bishop whose feast became a scandal and called forth the censure of Gregory the Great. The Barbary pirates came. Wrecked the cathedral, and left Sagone in ruin; so that in 1923 its tiny campanile even lacked a church. In Corsica, as in Panama, the mosquito had done more than its share to rob France of glory and wealth. The practically unimproved port was served by infrequent sailing vessels, which touched there to carry off the accumulations of charcoal from the hills. The Sagone, which was a river on the map and less than a creek in reality, emptied into the sea through narrow backwaters lined with high rushes. After crossing it on a new cement bridge, they struck west once more, rounded one hill after another, and beyond well-kept olive groves saw, seated on a low saddle between two hills, the little town of Cargese. Its most interesting feature was that a Greek and Roman Catholic church faced each other across a narrow valley full of gardens. The author had been led to believe that he would find visible traces of the Greeks who settled Cargese. They asked Genoa if they could settle in Corsica. The first settlement, made up of about 700 people, was on the hills between Cargese and Sagone. They remained loyal to Genoa throughout the Corsican struggle for freedom. In 1731 their villages were burned and they fled to Ajaccio. When Corsica was ceded to France, the present church and village of Cargese was built for them. At the time the 110 families still spoke Greek, wore Greek costumes, and worshiped according to Greek form. In 1923, the author could not find any trace of Greek culture. The Greek customs, costumes, and features were gone. The shutters on the pink and yellow houses were painted with, what the author described as, the most offensive green. One could not tell how sleepy the town of Cargese was; he could only say that the Ajacciens found it slow. Most of the burdens were carried by women.
Piana, an attractive little town backed by the Calanche and overlooking the Gulf of Porto, came as a distinct relief. There were probable as many men sunning themselves in front of the church in Piana as there were in front of the twin churches of Cargese. Piana was not known for its classic ancestry, but for the grotesque forms of red granite and for its view across the bluest of gulfs to the reddest of peninsulas. Hence it had no reputation for cleanliness or industry to uphold. It was a Corsican town, much like many another, except that its clocks kept tolerable time. The best hotel was a tall, narrow structure at the extreme edge of town. The furniture was excellent and not overheavy. Cleanliness was almost tangible, the food was fine, and the outlook unsurpassed. One could eat a lamb’s head there, split in half. It was gruesome but very tasty. Piana, like Ajaccio, was a place in which to tramp and climb and enjoy the view and the tonic air. The light on the red rocks was never twice the same and the fantastic forms in the Calanche continually intrigued one’s interest. The Calanche formed one of the most unusual sights in the world. Sharp tongues of red granite serrated into a thousand fantasies descended from the peaks of La Pianetta and the Capo d’Orto to the blue waters of the Gulf of Porto. About half way down to the water they were cut by a serpentine road which now overlooked seemingly bottomless ravines and now was overhung by great masses of granite. Everywhere that plants could find foothold there were maquis or pine trees whose green added verdancy to the already colorful scene. The grotesque forms into which titanic forces had carved the stone made them more intriguing. Gargoyles glared from a hundred jutting rocks – the heads of puppy dogs, two lovers, a giant lion, a huge tortoise, and a witch with a hatchet chin. There were forms which one almost expected to hear the deep thunder of an organ. The Calanche formed a true test of such imagination as seen in clouds, interesting pictures, and dreams.
As one passed through that gigantic joke played by some long since extinguished fire, he found the north slopes of those red rock masses shrouded in maquis. A turn in the road carried him out of that phantasmagoria of porphyry as suddenly as the pass above Piana introduced it. The Gulf of Porto, which till then had been a distant sea of blue separating the brown-red rocks of the Calanche from the purple peaks of Cap Senino and Point Scandola, now lied below in all its fascination, with a Genoese tower, long since ruined, sheltering the tiny harbor at its eastern end. At the tiny port, a pile of logs awaited shipment. A hog rooted contently in the brown earth. A homely girl in a gay dress was washing behind a hut. From its chimney wafted a curl of smoke. To the right, toward the sea, was the almost barren slope above the Calvi road, with the pyramid of Senino beyond; to the left, the maquis toward Piana. The Genoese watchtower, on its rock pedestal, was a picture that no artist could paint. Beauty ran riot with wanton waste. Beside the three-arched bridge there was a little water mill, in whose shade donkeys stood with their loads of chestnuts to be ground to flour. The nuts grew wild but each family had their favorite nutting grounds. There were heavy clouds during their ride to Calvi along the rough and rugged coast. They passed along the lofty road, then they turned and faced Calvi. The old citadel rose like a casket of old ivory into the cloudy sky. The high town look down from its battlements upon the newer city beyond the quay. Near the entrance to the town was a fine monument which the citizens had erected to their recent dead. On the northern slopes there were some ruined walls which could not resist the forces of time. The memorial stone had fallen and been removed to a small chapel. Its inscription read: “Here in 1441 was born Christopher Columbus, who though the discovery of the New World gained immortality while Calvi was under Genoese control. He died in Valladolid the 20th of May, 1500.”
No one knew where Columbus was born, just that he was Genoese. Calvi was as jealous of its honor in giving birth to Columbus as Ajaccio was heedless of the honor of Napoleon’s nativity. Careless Ajaccio would soon have a third statue to the soldier who had its loyalty, but not its love. Jealous Calvi had allowed the alleged house of the great discoverer to fall into utter ruin while it had pushed its verbal claim. If Calvi ever proved its case, it would have an elaborate bit of reconstruction work to do. Calvi was linked to America not only by Columbus but by the Boulevard President Wilson, the city’s main street. It was linked to England due to the fact that there, Nelson lost an eye during a siege in 1794. Between Calvi and Ile Rousse, by the sea road, there was the interesting little town of Algajola, proud of its quarries. Streams of taxis entered and left the Rue de la Paix, between the Place de la Concorde and the Opera. Ile Rousse was the scaffold erected by Paoli, on which he hoped to hang Calvi, whose loyalty to Genoa was no great merit in Corsican eyes. In 1923, it owed much of its importance to the olive trees that the Genoese forced the Corsicans of the Balagna to plant. Ile Rousse shared with Calvi the responsibility of being the market port of Corsica’s richest garden. The author’s first trip to Ile Rousse was by motor from Piana. Sunrise found him fleeing the nightmare of the Calanche. Sunset found him dreaming in the lotus land of La Balagne. The olive gave richness to the widespread valley north of Belgodere. Many continental olive-oil firms used the fruits of those groves. But the citron was the most distinctive export of Lie Rousse. The pier just before Christmas was almost entirely occupied by huge casks full of citrons in seawater, all labeled for New York. Out to sea there were the small islands of reddish stone which gave the port its name. They had been bound to the mainland by a causeway forming a peninsula of a fashion.
Ile Rousse’s market, with its roof supported by classic columns, was small compared to the town laundry, where women buffeted their wet fabrics into the night. The colonnaded market was also the town forum. The town was one of the ports nearest to the mainland of France. Between Ile Rousse and St. Florent, one passed through a corner of paradise and a touch of hell. The Balagna was the cornucopia of Corsica, with citrons, oranges, figs, and olives pouring forth to feed the world; the desert of Agriates did not contain a single village, and the few shepherds who traversed its barren slopes and rocky hollows were Bedouins without a home. But in all of Corsica, even on the eastern plain, there was no region so rich in game as in that desert. There the wild animals and birds lived to turn an arid waste into a sportsman’s paradise. At Casta there was a fertile oasis. In winter, during a rainy time, enough transient verdure tinted the ugly slopes to link them to the greener countryside; but in summer the desert of Agriates doffed its diaphanous veil and showed its ugly face. One coasted down the barren eastern slope to the picturesque gulf beside which stood the town of St. Florent. That seaside fishing village had 896 inhabitants. Before circling Cap Corse to Bastia, it was well to understand that that appendage was quite different from the land to which it was attached. The mountain range had drive the Cap Corsans to the sea, so that they ranked second only to the Bretons in the navy and marine of France. The same thrust of mountains that had sent the people of Lebanon to North America had driven the people of Cap Corse to Central and South America. The people were more industrious than most Corsicans, and in Cap Corse, the vendetta had never been known.
On the west the mountains overhung the sea. The Corniche Road there was far more impressive than the more famous one on the Riviera. It climbed far above the sea and walked a tightrope which was stretched against a towering wall. It rushed down to tiny triangular valleys at the mouths of mountain streams. It wound and turned in torment and fear of overhanging cliffs, which from time to time dropped material to the roadbed. From Nonza to Centuri the towns were anchored to the mountain wall by ancient towers whose bases rested on rock. Of all those pleasant villages, Nonza was the most picturesque. On its south side the base of the town was a steep hill rather than a precipice. Not so on the north. There was a sheer drop of 500 feet to the waves churning angrily below. It was an unbelievable town in an impossible setting. Friends had told the author to visit Canari, and he watched the kilometer stones along the way for the name. After passing through Sagone without knowing it, he was determined to stop there. The hillsides were strewn with villages, some above and some below the road. He passed one charming village after another with the intent of letting Canari do for the lot. At a small group of houses beside the road the Mr. Williams chauffer stopped for lunch. He told the author that they were in Marinca. Mr. Williams complained that they missed Canari. The chauffer assured him that Marinca was Canari. In Corsica a group of villages takes its name from its principal hamlet. In all Corsica, there was no place where one could eat as well as in Pino. For weeks afterward, from hotel and inn, the author looked back on that lunch in Pino with longing – soft-boiled egg, bouillabaisse, two delicious fish, a crisp pork chop, a nice little steak, French-fried potatoes, a woodcock, some white beans; then some cheese and fruit, mandarins, figs, walnuts, and raisins. His chauffer had the same meal, but with coffee and wine in addition. Together, both meals cost $1.25. On his return to Pino, weeks later, the author tried another hotel and was not disappointed. The lunch was equally good.
Pino was only one of a half dozen charming west coast villages. From Pino to Centuri the campanile was the thing. There were towers of refuge and defense, round and square, some fallen into ruin, some glistening with new plaster; but always, above the small houses and above the Genoese towers themselves, rose the steeples of the churches or their campaniles. In Corsica, as in Russia, the church was the most conspicuous feature in the urban view of country landscape. The church was a mere appendage to its spire, and where the campanile was detached, it was the bell tower rather than the house of worship which dominated the scene. Morsiglia had its staircase of old towers and its tiny terraced vineyards, each sheltered by a hedge of heather. Centuri was an opulent group of hamlets and isolated homes. Turning the end of Cap Corse to come down the home stretch from Macinaggio to Bastia, the road paralleled the sea, climbing now and then to cut corners or retreating from the wave on a shelving beach. It made no attempt to reach the villages on the heights. In the old days, before the coast-circling road was finished, a Cap Corsan did not shinny around precipices to call on a friend in a neighboring commune. He made the sea his highway. It was easier to travel by land on the east coast than the savage west, but it was easier to use a boat than a wheeled vehicle. Even in 1923, there was no highway on the east coast. To go from one highland village to another, one had to descend to the sea. The autobus which circled the cape might as well have been a motorboat, as far as the people were concerned. The road, which passed through no village but Erbalunga, had side spurs of from two to five miles which climbed to the towns. One of those spurs crossed the cape from Santa Severa to Luri, and then past the legendary Tower of Seneca to Pino. The author never visited any of the villages on the east coast; his chauffeur would not attempt the bad routes which joined them to the seaside highway.
Bastia was the hustling metropolis of Corsica. The conscience of progress had gotten under the skin of Bastia. Bastia had almost become provincial. Long since it had surged ahead of the rest of Corsica. Its women dressed better than elsewhere on the island. Its opera was crowded; its stores had something to sell and they sold it. Like Hong Kong, Bastia was once a tiny fishing village, but in 1380, a Genoese governor constructed a fort there from which to wage war on the Corsicans of the interior. The seat of government was moved there from beside the pool of Biguglia, where it remained until it was moved to Ajaccio by Napoleon. Genoa gave Bastia its skyscraping slums. The older parts of Bastia were made up of houses so many stories that one dared not mention the number; and the streets were so narrow that in places one could touch both sides of them. There were steep stairway streets that led down to the harbor. Those towering buildings and narrow streets gave the older parts of Bastia what seemed rare charm. The changing lights of day and night bathed those smelly structures in a glow that was mystic in its effect. The author’s friend took him up into the park, where they could look down between the umbrella pines on all that disordered splendor. He took the author through the narrow market squares until, framed in the arch of two ancient buildings, Mr. Williams could look out upon the blue of the sea. Bastia was no doubt a little conscious of its importance to Corsica, and it was jealous of the attention that Ajaccio had received from the outside world. The author was asked repeatedly: “Why did tourist ships stop at Ajaccio and not Bastia?” Bastia was half again as large and three times as busy. It was deplorable that tourist parties should stop at only one of Corsica’s ports, for the railway trip between the capital and the metropolis was one of rare beauty and extreme variety, offering a taste of almost every feature of Corsican life and scenery.
The author’s party rode second class instead of first, because only six first-class passengers could be accommodated. The ride down the east coast was monotonous compared with the abounding variety which one expected in Corsica. Yet in winter the ride was not without its pleasant surprises, since from there one got a good view of the entire range of snow-clad hills. At Casamozza, the railway and road dipped into the hills to follow the Golo up to Ponte Leccia. There and at Barchetta and Folelli were gallic acid factories for the production of tanning solutions from chestnut wood. At Barchetta there was a new factory where, for the first time, paper was to be made from wood pulp from the chestnut tree. From Casamozza south to Prunete and Cervione their road passed to the east of the chestnut country, the Castagniccia. They did not turn into the heart of the land but paralleled the low-lying coast until they passed the lighthouse of Alistro. Passing the ancient site of Aleria, near the mouth of the Tavignano, the spent the night at the estate of Casabianda, one of the few expanses on the east coast that was mosquito free. As in Lebanon, the hills were terraced by hard toil with a sometimes-inadequate return, but the fertile plains were almost destitute. The narrow plains were depopulated in summer due to fever and heat. There were really two Corsicas – the coastal plain, which was the product of Genoese, Pisan, and Roman enterprise, and the island’s necessity for contacts with the outside world, and the self-contained Corsica of the highlands. The east coast was Corsica’s Camargue. But the Corsican made less use of the rich region than the herder of the Camargue made of his less fertile plain. [See: “The Camargue, Cowboy Country of Southern France,” July 1922, The Geographic.] The planting of eucalyptus trees had beautified the monotonous landscape, but the silted-up swamp had not been dried up by those thirsty trees, and the shoreline of the real Corsica stretched along an imaginary level seven hundred feet above sea level.
In regions to poor to attract big operations, deforestation was stripping the rocks of their blanket of soil, rivers were silting up and making swamps where fever bred and famine threatened. Such a region was the east coast of Corsica. The domain of Casabianda, a great estate of about 5,000 acres, was operated by the Department of Roads and Bridges. Back in the hills there were posters in every restaurant asking people, as a patriotic duty, to eat chestnuts and other local foods, so that France need not to import grain from abroad. As they passed the salt marshes of Lake Diane and Lake Sale, two shallow lakes, the author wanted to see the island of oyster shells, which was said to date to Roman times. In 1923, oysters were still exported from there, as were eels, especially before the Christmas holidays. They were sent alive to Nice and Naples. South of Casabianda the east coast railway emerged from the masquis to come to a stop at Ghisonaccia, where the motor bus took up the work of taking passengers and mail to Bonifacio. The Road drove straight at La Solenzara, with a wonderful panorama of snow mountains on the west, but at that little village it began to curve and wind. The plain had come to an end. The mountains of Corsica pushed their way to the sea. From there they turned inland and invaded the cork-oak country, which furnished most of the trade for Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. Porto Vecchio was picturesque enough, especially from the sea, but life there was a dreary thing. After a wild night’s ride they reached Bonifacio. Bonofacio was deservedly called “unique.” It was as unusual as any place one was likely to meet on world tour. The narrow peninsula and the even narrower harbor fit together like two hands tightly gripped. The restless waters were ever eating away at the land and the overhanging cliffs were suspended like a Damoclean sword above the water. The sea had sunk its double-barbed hook of harbor deep into the land.
One rolled down to Bonifacio from Ajaccio or Bastia to the harbor of Bonifacio through a winding fissure in the limestone plateau, from which it was impossible to see the city until it bursts upon the view above the prosaic roofs of the naval quay. Up from the harbor climbed a steep road. Down on the other side a narrow ladder of stone descended to the sea. Up to the east gate of the ancient fortress zigzagged a steep road. A church in Bonifacio had a piece of the true cross confined in a niche in the wall. The stratified nature of the rock on which Bonifacio rested made it at the same time a city built upon a rock and upon the sand. Little by little the softer portions of the cliff were carried away from between the more durable strata. Over in the corner of the citadel was the well of St. Bartholomew, down whose somber depths they descended by a circular staircase of 300 steps, cut in the limestone, to a narrow door which gave on the sea. That shadowy stairway was entirely shut out from the light of day, but outside, slanting at a daring angle down the cliff, was the stairway of the King of Aragon. Which was built in a single night. From the quay, if the wind was not too high, one took a boat and rowed out around the lighthouse od La Madonetta and into the grotto of Sdragonata, paved beneath blue waters with stones of Tyrian purple and lapis lazuli. But more interesting than the grotto itself was the peculiar opening in the roof through which light poured, making it less of a cavern and more of a museum of submarine colorings. The author stayed in the cavern until late afternoon had added a rosy ceiling. He passed between the towering cliffs to the harbor; then along the road to an isolated hotel. By moonlight he went back along that white road into town. It was quiet, with hardly a footfall. And here his story ended.
As stated above, the first article contains a set of sixteen, full-page duotones. These are images created by transferring a special ink to a special paper using an acid-etched metal plate. The deeper the etch, the darker the transfer. The ink used had a slight brownish tinge, and the paper is coarser and less glossy than the other pages in the issue. The set runs from page 245 to 260. Note: There is another batch of sixteen full-page black-and white photographs running consecutively from page 277 to 292. The ink and paper used for them is the same as the rest of the issue and they are not duotones.
Here is a list of the caption titles for the sixteen duotones:
The second article in this month’s issue is entitled “A Northern Crusoe’s Island” and was written by Margery Pritchard Parker. It had the internal subtitle: “Life on a Fox Farm Off the Coast of Alaska, Far from Contact with the World Eleven Months a Year.” The article contains fifteen black-and-white photographs, none of which are full-page in size. The article also contains a sketch map of Alaska showing the location of Middleton Island on page 315.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
Middleton Island lied 160 miles off the southern coast of Alaska, almost due south of Cordova, a town of 1,000 inhabitants. At no point in its area of less than eight square miles was there anything to be seen except limitless sea and sky. The Indians named the island Achaka, which meant “The Harborless.” It was a descriptive title, for all along its coast there was no safe anchorage for boats of any sort. Steamers had to stay offshore and risk sending a small boat into the crashing surf. More than once a schooner had departed after a week without having accomplished her errand. Callers to the island were few and far between, an occasional fishing boat. No postman, no telephone, no wireless, no contact with the outside world. Since 1890, Middleton had been leased by the Government to various private concerns as a breeding farm for blue foxes, and in consequence there had been a succession of Crusoes in charge of the place. The one at present [in 1923] was from Boston who emigrated to the Yukon during the Klondike, and then to Alaska. Like many another in those days, he made and lost fortunes traveling and prospecting. He acquired the ability to turn his hand to any occupation which came along and make a go of it. Unlike DeFoe’s famous hero, this modern Crusoe brought an excellent partner to share his solitude. Mrs. Crusoe was a Boston school-teacher until her exodus to the far Northwest ten years prior. She was a wee slip of a woman, whose indomitable spirit triumphed over a frail physique. In 1918 those two sold a prosperous restaurant business in Cordova, Alaska, and left that thriving little town to begin their experience in fox farming on Middleton, out in the ocean. The “Friday” of that island was a patient old black horse, who was abandoned by former owners when they left the place. Friday saw no human beings for three years. In summer he could easily fed himself upon the abundant growths, but the poor fellow must have endured the winter. When the Crusoes came, it took some time to reclaim Friday from the wild, but now he was a member of the firm.
The breeding of blue foxes in captivity was not an easy undertaking, owing to the extreme shyness of the fox family. They did not readily grow accustom to man. Mother foxes, when alarmed, had been know to kill their cubs, and constant nervousness affected the quality of the fur. On the island the foxes were unaware of being prisoners, as they roamed freely; so, they reared their young in a natural way, doubled their numbers annually, and produced skins of great beauty. The blue fox had a long-haired fur, of a soft gray tone at the ends, shading to a dull blue close to the pelt. An average price in the London market was $175, while exceptionally fine skins brought $375. The chief duty of the farmer was to provide, and distribute daily, fresh food for his charges, at stations scattered about the island, especially during the winter months. In summer the foxes left the food in the feeding boxes and went foraging for themselves. The animals were seen closeup only in December, when they were lured into box traps. The breeders were sorted out and liberated, while those whose skins were marketable were humanely dispatched. Climatic conditions on Middleton were agreeable, except for strong and almost constant winds which swept in. Temperatures ranged from -20 to 110 degrees F. There was an annual rainfall of 96 inches and from 2 to 4 inches of snow in the winter. Spring began with the reappearance of plant life, about the middle of February. From that time on, the sun shined warmer and longer each day until the summer solstice. Between May 1 and August 15 there were from 15 to 20 hours of sunlight daily. But the islanders paid for that luxury in the long nights of winter, when conditions were reversed. One of the natural beauties of the island was a chain of lakes, clear as crystal. Scattered along the shores of the lakes were the island’s only trees – 12 small spruces, battered by the wind but refusing to give up the fight. Grass of 12 varieties flourished everywhere, sometimes growing 6 to 8 feet high.
The object which first caught the visitor’s eye was the imposing sign which served as the gateway to the island. It was 14 feet long and 3 feet wide, standing 12 feet above the ground. It was painted yellow, with the words “Middleton Island Blue Fox Farm” in red. In one corner was the figure of a blue fox howling at the moon. Some distance beyond stood the brave little house, neatly painted and, in summer, half covered with vines and flowers. Years ago, the lumber for it was brought from the states. The wood used to build everything else – for rabbit houses, root cellar, tool house, Friday’s shelter, fences, trellises, signboard, and furniture – was salvaged from the sea. All their fuel was driftwood dragged from the beach a mile away and cut up with a hacksaw. To vary the monotony of a tin-can diet, they grew several large gardens of potatoes, rutabagas, lettuce, radishes, parsley, green onion, carrots, and peas. The only wild vegetable they used was the dandelion. There were no enemies of plant life on the island – no aphids, cutworms, or potato bug. The mosquito was also absent. However, for three weeks in August life was made miserable by the tiny gnats called by the Indians as “No-see-ums.” Unlike the original Crusoe’s Island, theirs was not provided by Nature with fruit trees. But during the last week in June great quantities of wild strawberries ripened all over the island. In August, the salmonberry bushes were heavily ladened with ripe berries. Mrs. Crusoe made strawberry preserves and salmonberry jelly for the winter menu. Their staples, in large quantities, were brought in from Cordova yearly. When they needed eggs, they went to the great chalk cliffs at the north end of the island where the sea pigeons nested. Unfortunately, the birds left before the weather got cold enough to freeze the meat. They enjoyed the meat of young hair seals, comparing it to venison, and the liver was more delicate than calves’ liver.
One of their duties was to make a daily log of weather conditions – mainly temperature and wind. They also kept track of the birds’ migration and breeding – Sandpiper, Grebe, Duck, Merganser, Curlew, Goose, Teal, Widgeon, and Gull. Among land birds were the Robin. Jay, Owl, Magpie, Sparrow, Grosbeak, Hummingbird, Phoebe, and Arctic Three-toed Woodpecker. Occasionally a pair of Trumpeter Swans was seen, or a majestic Golden Eagle soaring high overhead. Mid-April the Sea Pigeons returned, along with the Puffins, Guillemots, Cormorants, and Terns which bred on the island. Despite little astronomical knowledge, they enjoyed studying the northern sky at night. Throughout the winter months, on every clear night, the weird aurora borealis streamed across the sky. As for flowers, they had the Anemone, Spring Beauty, Lily of the Valley, Solomon’s Seal, white and purple Hyacinths, Harebell, August Aster, Yarrow, Larkspur, Columbine, Monkshood, Wild Geranium, Blue-eyed Grass, Lupine, and Sweet Pea. Long after the autumn frost had taken all other flowers, the Alaska Cotton were still scattered over the low places, like small banks of snow. In the garden around the house were imported Pansies, Nasturtiums, and English Poppies. Three gifts from friends were sources of pleasure to them – a good little camera, a pair of excellent binoculars, and a four-by-six American flag. They celebrated holidays and birthdays, with picnics, dancing, or feast. The beach had many curious things – lovely shells, petrified woods, and minerals of many sorts. After the gardens were harvested and the days got short, they turned to their two bookcases. Besides their small library, they had files of magazines. They were not lonely, and they had no wild adventures. But every January they took their lives in their hand when they left the island risking the terrible surf. The first year they did not bring adequate supplies and ran short of food. Since then, they always made sure to bring enough.
They had a hard time when Mrs. Crusoe’s brother and his wife came to visit. Being unaccustomed to the needs of frontier life, they brought no supplies, and the commissariat was pretty well depleted before the Cordova boat came. Worse, the two smokers were tobaccoless for a fortnight, to the detriment of their tempers. The first pleasant weather in January saw them on board a schooner on their way to Cordova for a month’s stay. After seeing their furs off to London, they bought supplies for the next year – food, clothing, tools, ammunition, reading material, and a hundred and one sundries, all essential. They spent days engaged in reading and answering the letters which came to their Cordova address for a year. Sometimes, when the Seattle boats ran on schedule, they could send a letter to the States and get a reply before their departure. They enjoyed the social life of the town which was their home for several years. They found entertainment in stores, restaurants, and movies; they missed none of the weekly dances; and, most of all, they enjoyed visiting their friends. As their holiday drew to a close, they began to think about the island, and the cozy little house, and the wonderful sunsets, and good old Friday. And when the schooner steamed out of Cordova Bay, on the return trip, she bore two cheerful and content passengers back to the fox farm on Middleton Island.
The third article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Hairnet Industry in Northern China” and was written by H. W. Robinson. The article contains ten black-and-white photographs. Only one of these photos is full-page in size.
The people of China were, and had been for centuries, primarily farmers. Their chief essentials of life – food, fuel, and clothing – were mostly of home production. Even in North China, where the winters were cold, clothing came principally from cotton raised by northern farmers, and fuel consisted largely of grain stalks from the fields that provided the food. The people required but little from the outside and produced little that they did not consume themselves. But the old order was changing. Although the northern people were less progressive than their southern brothers, even among them modern industries were gradually springing up. Perhaps none of those infant industries had had more phenomenal growth than that of making hairnets, which gave employment to thousands who were providing those articles for millions of women in America and Europe. Although the industry was introduced only 15 years prior [to 1923], in 1920 more than 140,000,000 were shipped to America from a single Chinese city, and the total annual exports of that product were valued at more than $10,000,000. The nets were made by hand and the workers were paid about one cent per unit. The average person produced about ten a day. Before the World War Italy and Galicia shared production of hairnets with China. During the war the industry gradually drifted to China, and hairnets were now [in 1923] an exclusive product of that country. The province of Shantung had been the largest producer, but during the famine of 1920-21 the industry spread to other provinces, especially to the Chihi cities of Peking, Tientsin, and Paotingfu. While the industry was centered in the cities, the nets were actually made in country villages. Three important factors made the hairnet industry almost exclusive to North China – a large supply of hair was found there, cheep labor was plentiful, and the industry required no machinery and could be carried out in the home.
The peasants in North China had a history of wearing their hair long, and in the 17th century, the Manchus had the men wear it in long braids. Thus began the history of the famous Chinese pigtail. The revolutionists of 1911 tried to do away with the custom and ordered the pigtails cut off. The law was not evenly enforced, with some sporting pigtails and some not. It was claimed that Chinese hair was especially suited for hairnets because it was stronger than the fine hair of European women, and therefore stood bleaching and dyeing much better. Hair was not cut, but gathered by combing. In the cities there were barber shops whose proprietors combed and shaved for a living. In rural districts barbers traveled about carrying on their trade in the street. Barbers spent their odd moments unsnarling their combings and arranging the hair according to length. Chinese women combed their own hair at home. When they had gathered enough hair, they would sell it or exchange it for small household articles. In some places vendors traveled from house to house, trading needles, threads, and matches, for the women’s hair. That raw hair was sold very cheaply, and used for practice in making nets. Enough hair was purchase for 50 cents to last a class of 60 to 75 girls a month, while they learned to make nets. Once they were able to make salable nets, they used prepared hair, which cost several dollars a pound. A pound of hair made over 2,000 nets. A whole gross of hairnets weighed only about one ounce. The processes of bleaching and dyeing the hair were the most difficult parts of the industry. Formerly, the raw hair was shipped to Europe or America where it was bleached and dyed and then sent back to China. By 1923, almost all of that process had been shifted to Chinese firms, under supervision of American chemists. Contrary to common belief, nets were not made of split hair. Only whole hair was used, and sometimes double strands were utilized to make a stronger net.
The second factor in the success of the hairnet industry in North China was the almost unlimited supply of cheap labor. Carpenters earned 15 to 20 cents a day, and other workmen get about the same. A Chinaman was willing to dig the fields for $3 a month. However, it was not men, but young girls who made hairnets, and of course a girl’s wage was much less than that of a man. In fact, there was very little in North China that a girl could do to earn money. Few had a chance to go to school, and except at harvest time, when they help bring in the grain and thresh it, they found it hard to find work. Consequently, when a hairnet company entered a region and called for girls, candidates were numerous. The fine lace and embroidery which they had made so successfully was evidence that those girls were clever and skilled with their fingers. They learned quickly and those who mastered it first began teaching others. Once started in a region, the industry grew of its own accord and spread from village to village. One hairnet company tried to diversify, undertaking the making lace and embroidery, but the demand for hairnets in America and Europe increased so rapidly that the production of other articles was discontinued. When many nets were accumulated, they were taken to Chefoo and sold to exporters. The nets were sold to the highest bidder which meant that the market was somewhat irregular. Consequently, the girls never knew how much they would receive for their work. During the previous few years, the price has stabilized at between two and two and a half copper, or about one cent in U. S. currency. A single net required the tying of a thousand knots or more. If a girl was clever, she could make as high as twenty coopers a day. As she could live on much less, she was helping support her family. No wonder the fathers and mothers were glad to see the hairnet industry enter their village. Their daughters, heretofore a burden, were becoming the breadwinner of the family.
Why were other industries not developed more rapidly in North China, if there was such a supply of cheap labor? Part of the answer was that most industries require considerable capital, expensive machinery, and large factories. With the political situation in the region, capitalists were unwilling to invest. With the hairnet industry, there were no such obstacles. The girls worked in their homes. The only tools needed were a small brass shuttle and a bamboo splint. The industry fit in well with Chinese homelife. It could be done at odd moments by those who had other duties, or it could furnish steady employment to those who would otherwise be idle. The homes were rather cold for that kind of work in winter, and fingers became too numb to be quick. But that only meant a few less coppers, and, fortunately, the cold weather did not last long. The homes were poorly lighted so, when the weather permitted, the nets were often made in the open courts, where there was good light. Home manufacture had its disadvantages as well as its merits. Nets made by the piece, with no supervision, were not as well made as in a factory. Many nets bought by exporters were imperfect. They had to check them one at a time. This was done in the workshops run by the exporting firms in such cities as Chefoo. In some cases, the nets were fumigated in those workshops. The great famine of 1920-21 was a blessing in disguise to many a North China home. Relief workers looked for ways to help the destitute people help themselves. They learned of the hairnet industry spreading in Shantung, and obtained money to train girls from the famine-stricken region. The taught classes of 60 to 75 girls. Hairnet companies provided teaches, free of charge. Classes usually took about a month, and $1.50 covered all expenses for a girl during her instruction. If hairnets continued to be in style for many years, North China would continue to be the center of the hairnet industry.
At the bottom of the last page of the last article in this issue (Page 336) there is a notice regarding change of address. If a member wanted the magazine to be mailed somewhere else, the Society needed a month’s notice in advance, starting on the first of the month. If a member wanted the November issue redirected, the Society needed to know by October first.
Thank you Tom!