Found in the classified column of The New Masses for May 1927 is this advert for The Open Road, a monthly magazine described by its founding editor, Bruce Calvert, as ‘A Zinelet of High Voltage for People Not Afraid to Think’ and a cure for ‘ Mental Obstipation and Brain Fag ‘.
Calvert, who ran the operation from his home in Pequannock , New Jersey, delightfully dubbed by him ‘Pigeon-Roost-in-the Woods’, had been a hard-bitten magazine editor in Chicago and Pennsylvania before moving to the backwoods of Griffiths, near Gary, in his home state of Indiana, to take up the life of an anarchist-freethinker inspired by, among others, Walt Whitman and Thoreau. In 1908 he had brought out the first issue of The Open Road, which appeared regularly until 1915. Espousing a philosophy of ‘right thinking and right living ‘, Calvert made his magazine a fount of various heterodoxies which delighted in offending straight-laced home-loving and family-orientated Americans. In April 1911 one of the most controversial issues challenged the hijacking of Christmas by commerce—a point of view which earned him the soubriquet of ‘Indiana’s Prize Crank ‘.
By November 1911 ‘The World League for a Sane Christmas’ had established its HQ in Room 431 of the State Life Building in downtown Indianapolis. Members who paid their $10 subscription could expect their money to go towards various planned publications as well as a booklet entitled The Christmas Insanity. Moreover, each new member was obliged to sign the following agreement:
‘I will from this time forward neither give nor accept Christmas presents outside my own immediate household, and I will do all I can by distributing literature and other propaganda work to discourage the senseless practice of indiscriminate Christmas giving, to the end that true human love and brotherhood may reign in the hearts of men instead of the maudlin insanity which now disgraces the day ‘
Before long Calvert had found an enthusiastic local supporter in the editor William Marion Reedy who in his Mirror newspaper declared that:
‘Everybody knows the Christmas present has become a burden, so much so that the custom has lost much of its spirit of love. People give presents they cannot afford to people they do not care about.’
To arguments that local trade might be damaged by such anti-commercial sentiments, Reedy had an answer. Tat would be replaced by better quality goods.
‘It should do away with the vile bastard ‘art‘ that is dumped upon a helpless people at Christmas time in an avalanche of gimcrackery and flimsy’
By late 1912 the movement had spread to Chicago, where a group led by the social reformer Jane Addams took up the fight. In a newspaper article Addams asked readers to consider the following question:
‘Does Christmas cheer mean these to you ?
* Loss of appetite from overwork to supply money for the purchase of presents.
* Shattered nerves from worry because of inability to buy expensive gifts.
* Ruined credit on account of postponed bills, made necessary by extravagant holiday buying.’
In fact, argued Addams, all these extra impositions constituted ‘a serious menace to health.’
It is not known for exactly how long Calvert, Reedy and Addams carried on their campaign against the commercialisation of Christmas, but they were not the first to argue against it, and they will not be the last. After a while, as we have seen, Calvert moved to New Jersey and eventually resurrected The Open Road . By this time he had moved on to other issues, the most notable being the rightness of naturism. Eventually, he seems to have left his rural idyll for New York City. It was here in 1941, that the ‘Prize Crank ‘was found dead in a public washroom. He was 74.
Thanks to Stephen J Taylor of ‘Historic Indianapolis’ for information. [R.M.Healey]