Thursday, 30 April 2009
Welcome to linen postcard country where colours are intense and saturated while form and contours melt and dissolve. A comforting vision of a world from which all imperfection has been banished. Three young and attractive females sit with legs crossed and hands neatly clasped together on a green painted bench. Behind them, two elderly gentlemen, dressed for leisure exchange a few words, their neighbour appears to doze off in the sunshine. Panama hats, pastel colours and lightweight fabrics are the order of the day.
It has often seemed to me that the provision of seating in American outdoor public space is miserly. The Florida city of St. Petersburg (an American equivalent of Sidmouth) was an exception. In American eyes, anyone who sits and watches the world go by is a symbol of economic inactivity and to be deplored by all right thinking enthusiasts for dynamic capitalism. But in St. Petersburg, where the population was predominantly elderly, it made good business sense to provide generous seating for resting ancient limbs. A dealer in real estate by the name of Mitchell is credited with installing the first benches (then painted orange) in 1908 to encourage pedestrian traffic to the areas of downtown where his properties were. The backs of the benches carried advertising for his business and the idea rapidly caught on with his competitors whose benches, in a wide assortment of colours and types, proliferated on the sidewalks of the city. It came to pass that the city administration, after overcoming much local opposition, imposed a standard size and type of bench and specified a universal colour – green. Looking back in 1927, the local paper (Evening Independent) celebrated their success in strongly associating St. Petersburg with the concept of hospitality to visitors.
It was the policy of the proprietors of the Evening Independent to distribute their paper without charge on any day on which the sun failed to shine before 2.00 pm. On average there were only 4 days per year when this happened. This may suggest a certain climatic monotony but it must be conceded it is especially conducive to sitting outdoors. There are at least two decades between the earliest of these images and the latest, which would appear to be from the 1940s and they provide us with a detailed record of prevailing fashions in clothing and personal grooming. Despite their fame, the benches were swept away in the 1960s by redevelopment although anyone interested can have a modern replica shipped flat-pack to their doorstep.
Despite the local pride in hospitality, not everyone was welcome to sit on a green bench of their choice. Jim Crow laws excluded all non-whites and the unpleasant realities of racial segregation undermined the carefully cultivated image of sunshine and friendship. Segregated lunch counters were to be found in St. Petersburg’s landmark drugstore, Webb’s City. The self-styled World’s Most Unusual was the creation of compulsive entrepreneur, “Doc” Webb whose commercial empire expanded from a single store in 1925 into a mega-store of more than 70 retail units occupying more than 7 city blocks. Webb was a master of creative marketing. The line between freak-show and department store became increasingly blurred. Publicity stunts and gimmicks were endlessly employed to attract shoppers including selling dollar-bills for 95 cents. Two days later, having recorded the serial numbers he offered to buy them back for $1.35. The most innovatory stunt was to break down the barriers between store departments and sell bed sheets at the soda fountain or underwear in the produce section. Consumer resistance must have crumbled in the face of this Surrealist assault on retail taxonomy.