Two Hundred Ladies Appeal

I

ONE’S desk is piled high nowadays with letters from folk who want things stopped. Everybody seems to want something stopped. Those who are timid want street noises of all kinds stopped; they want church bells stopped from ringing, or automobile-horns from honking; they want pedestrians stopped from crossing the street except at corners, or children stopped from playing on the streets. Those who are more venturesome want all exposed foods stopped, the litter in the public parks stopped, all questionable plays or ‘movies’ stopped. Then there are the really courageous souls who step right out and want all crime stopped, the sale of all firearms stopped, bootlegging stopped, war stopped, Sunday amusements stopped. And the hardy one, who would have you take your courage well in hand, wants Congress stopped from wasting time! We are told that even birth must be, if not altogether stopped, at least controlled. And now Mr. Henry Ford walks right into the midst of the stop clamor, and says the cow must be stopped from giving milk!

All very worthy. All most commendable— except the cow! All possible, too, provided there were twentyfour hundred hours in a day instead of the contracted twenty-four. But one fact cannot escape the mind, as we read of all these stoppages that must be effected in our modern life — the willingness of some folk that someone else should stop all these ‘evils’ in our scheme of living. Mark you, too, that each one of these evils is ‘the most crying evil ‘ we have to-day. The church bells seem to cry as loudly to one as something that must be stopped as war does to another.

There is another obstinately apparent fact about all these crying evils — that before one is stopped another movement is started, or must be gotten under way, to stop something else. Everywhere are efforts begun; rarely is an effort carried through — except in the newspapers!

II

Now the matter is becoming even more serious. Having petitioned and memorialized to our hearts’ content that all these evils in our American life shall be stopped, our restless eyes are beginning to snap across the ocean, and we are beginning to catalogue the evils in other nations that must be stopped. The fact that we have not stopped a single evil in our land deters us not. We must begin our works in other lands. The world is ours in which to stop things. It matters not where or what or when, so long as evils are stopped — by someone else!

So it has come about that the Netherlands is the latest nation to fall within this American zeal to stop things.

‘We, the undersigned representative American women of our different communities, appeal to you,’ and so forth.

So begins a document signed by some two hundred women, supposedly themselves of artistic perceptions or of an artistic appreciation borrowed from others.

Just what is meant by the designation‘representative’ is not stated; one can only hope it is not intended as reflecting the intelligence of the communities indicated, since the percipiency displayed in the substance of the appeal is hardly of a high order.

Be that as it may, these dear, delightful ladies opine as ‘a burning shame’ the fact that the millers of the Netherlands are dismantling the windmills so picturesquely characteristic of the Land of the Dykes, and substituting machinery for the operation of their mills. Forthwith, there should be started in the United States ‘a movement to stop this outrageous despoliation of the Dutch landscape,’ and so forth, and so forth.

As in the case of many another memorial of similar sort, its signers had, so far as could be learned, contented themselves with the emotional side of the question. When I spoke to one of the signers nearest my home, she confessed that she had never been in the Netherlands: a windmill was an unknown sight to her eyes, but she could easily imagine from Dutch pictures how the picturesque landscape might be marred by the elimination of the windmill!

I approached next the enthusiastic instigator of this appeal, asking in which particular district in the Netherlands she had noticed the dismantling of the windmills that so sorely troubled her soul. Her reply was devastating: ‘All over Holland it is the same.’ Of course, the fact that windmills have never existed ‘ all over Holland ‘ — and that, incidentally, there is no such country as ' Holland ‘ — did not trouble the lady.

In other words, it seemed that the memorial was what is classified by those who receive such appeals as ‘general’—which, in more direct language, really means ‘without facts.’

III

Now, what are the facts? That the Dutch windmill is disappearing admits of no argument. It is. But why? The answer is, of course, simple enough: the new is displacing the old. Electricity is more dependable for the work of the Dutch miller than is the wind to turn the blades of his windmill. He is thrifty, is your Dutch miller: he must produce his ware with the smallest overhead charge, and he can secure this reduction through the installation of machinery that he starts at will, whereas the mighty arms of his windmill respond only when there is a wind to propel them. The suggestion that the miller can retain his wind-blades and propel them by machinery at his will hardly holds, because these mighty blades, exposed to all conditions of weather, have a maintenance expense that naturally is lost upon the ardent soul who looks upon them on the landscape and sighs contentedly at their picturesqueness. The miller, unfortunately, cannot be a poet: his mill is there for business, and he must operate it in the most economical manner. He must also get his water for his family and cattle when he wants it and not when the wind will let him have it.

Everyone will concede that with the going of the windmill a lack will be felt in the Dutch landscape. But the quaint and the picturesque are disappearing everywhere in the march of modern invention. Nor must we forget that we are directly responsible for this change. We pride ourselves on this modern progress. We boast of it. We make a point, when traveling abroad, of telling the natives of the old European countries how much more efficiently we do by modern invention what they do by manual labor. Then why shall we call aloud to stop them when they follow where we lead? Very few of the inventions of to-day have the charm and poetry of their predecessors. The modern department-store has certainly not the quality of the old guild shops. The modern electric locomotive has not the romance of the steam locomotive. The mechanical loom lacks all the poetry of the old spinning wheel. Yet we proclaim all these changed tools as marks of progress; we shout aloud their greater efficiency. Why ask the Dutch miller to put cotton in his ears so that he may not hear our boastful cries? Is the demolition of his windmill a greater sacrilege than the demolition of beautiful old landmarks in our American cities? Suppose a cry came from the Netherlands to halt our tearing-down of the fine old Dutch houses to make room for skyscrapers or warehouses. We should be the first to ask: ‘ What business is it of theirs?’ Well, what business is it of ours if the Dutch miller wants to live in the present and operate his mill by electricity instead of holding on to his windmill of the past, watching his business fall behind, while his competitor pushes a button at his will and grinds his cereals?

IV

There is a distinctly humorous angle to this memorial that did not seem apparent to the dear, delightful ladies who signed it. This is that the request is made that ‘the Government of the Netherlands shall be petitioned to prohibit a miller from discarding his windmill’ — the very brand of Federal interference with private business which in the United States we are so strenuously decrying, and which is so often and so vociferously argued in women’s clubs. Small wonder, then, that a prominent man of affairs in the Netherlands puts his tongue in his cheek and writes: ‘Can you blame us if this suggested prohibition, coming from the United States, makes us smile? It sounds a little queer coming from a country whose President recently pleaded so eloquently for “ less Government in business, and more business in Government. ” ‘

The most distinctly humorous phase of the memorial was also overlooked by this group of ‘representative American women.’ It is signed by the wives of the three largest makers of American machinery who sold their engines to the Dutch millers who have dismantled their windmills! Thus we have the picture of three women having their artistic perceptions outraged while traveling on the very money made by their husbands in the objectionable transition!

The memorial goes further and likewise deplores the abolishment of the horseor man-towed canal-boat in the Dutch canals, and the substitution of a ‘kicker’ in the bowels of the scow. ‘A perfect shame!’ declare these ladies. This, too, must be stopped. But how about the kicker that the American canal-boat owner is putting into his vessel? Is it any less of ‘a shame’? The wide use of the kicker as a motive power is not European — it is American. We have shown the way. Only temporarily has the day been put off when a kicker will take the place of the picturesque gondoliers in the gondolas on the Grand Canal at Venice. ‘Now that is a sacrilege!’ cries Mrs. America, her voice full of emotion. Is it any more sacrilegious than for us to wipe out the most gloriously beautiful thing ever seen on the water, a sailing vessel in full sail, and substitute the hideous barge or mercantile carrier ? Are we to have a monopoly of wiping out the picturesqueness of the past, and insist that European peoples shall preserve it, to their material disadvantage?

If we so madly clamor for this modern progress, we must pay its price. If we want to live in a world of pushbuttons instead of the picturesque to the eye and the poetical to the soul, we must accept what goes with it.

V

What really will go out with this ‘mark of progress’ touching the Dutch windmill is not understood by these memorialists. Few Americans realize the poetry and romance that are associated with the Dutch windmill; the intimate relation that existed between the Dutch miller and his windmill. To him it was by no means only a material object put to work, when the wind favored it, to bring water to his cattle or to supply food for his family. It was far more than that — it was a living thing, with understanding and a soul. To others his mill might seem simply a dumb, mechanical creature; to the miller it was fraught with human feeling — a living creature that sobbed in his sorrow and laughed in his joy. He gave to his mill a name, just as he did to his son or daughter. He called it by that name — never a mill. When a daughter was married, the mill was decked out in all its gayest finery; when a member of the family passed away, the mill mourned in its appearance. Professor A. J. Barnouw, of Columbia University, tells that when the mill-owner passed away all the twenty boards in the arms of the mill were taken out, and the mill stood motionless for a given time in grief over the loss of its owner. When the church bells tolled, marking the procession of the funeral from church or home to the cemetery, the boardless blades were turned in unison with the bells. When the wife of the miller passed away, nineteen boards of the blades of the mill were removed; for a child of the family, thirteen boards; for parents of the miller, eleven boards; and so on down the line of near and remote relatives, till it reached the children of cousins, for whom only one board was removed. As Professor Barnouw well says, a man’s handicraft is ennobled when the tool that he plies is thus capable of expressing, not only his skill as a craftsman, but also his feelings as a man. We, of the twentieth century, close the mill or the shop and put away our tools, as if the sight of them interfered with our sorrow. Our ancestors knew better. They ceased not working, in order to mourn — they made the work partake of their mourning. It is from that conception of work as an expression and accompaniment of the inner life that all great art has sprung.

We lose something very precious and real in all these modern inventions, this march which we call progress, and of which we are so boastful — something which, as the years go on, we shall find it increasingly difficult to replace. But, judging from the way we talk and the zest with which we go at the destruction of the old, we are apparently willing that this shall go out of our lives. Or is it, perhaps, that we are not quite conscious of what we are doing? A world all materialistic is, to some minds, an uncomfortable sphere to contemplate.

VI

I wonder that it has not occurred to someone to suggest that we stop certain brands of progress for a while!

The ladies of the Dutch windmill appeal might, for example, memorialize the husbands of their three coöperating sisters to stop selling engines to the Dutch millers !