Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Starr: Anthropologist Lost from the History Books

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

You probably haven’t heard of Frederick Starr. Like his contemporary Franz Boas, Starr was an anthropologist coming to fame while the discipline of anthropology was still being formed. Throughout his career, Starr studied people and cultures on three different continents, and still found time to make a name for himself as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. But unlike Boas—who is considered the father of American Anthropology—you won’t find Starr’s name in many textbooks. The tale of how Frederick Starr was nearly forgotten is one full of controversy and ideology.

Starr’s Early Life and Career

Frederick Starr was born in 1858 in Auburn, New York, to the Reverend Frederick Starr Jr. and Helen Mills Starr. As a child, Starr was a strong student and an avid collector of fossils and minerals. He explored that interest further at the University of Rochester, where he studied geology; two years later, he transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1882. He received a doctorate in geology from Lafayette College in 1885.

In the late 1800s, anthropology was still a new and growing discipline, so Starr didn't study it formally. It wasn’t until after his schooling, while teaching at Coe College, that Starr discovered his interest in the subject. He conducted both ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork among the local Sauk and Fox Indian tribes and reputedly taught the first anthropology course in Iowa while at Coe. It's not clear who or what specifically spurred Starr’s interest in anthropology, but he pursued it avidly, leaving his studies of geology behind. Following his work at Coe College, Starr held several short-term positions, including working with the ethnological collection at the American Museum of Natural History, before finally accepting a long-term faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1892.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Starr became a very influential public speaker, frequently giving lectures on anthropological subjects that were open to the public through the University’s extension program. After attending an extension course about prehistoric and primitive art, W.R. French, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, wrote that Starr’s lectures were “both authoritative and agreeable,” and that “Professor Starr has eminently the art of making scientific truth interesting to intelligent but unprofessional academics.”

An Anthropologist is Born

According to Donald McVicker, author of Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric, Starr engaged in an incredibly varied anthropological career at the turn of the 20th century. He conducted notable research in Mexico, among many Native American tribes in the United States, with the Ainu people of Japan, and in several regions of Africa.

The World’s Fairs that took place in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to provide Starr with the perfect opportunities to put his work on display. Much to his dismay, however, Starr was not allowed an influential position at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was excluded by better known anthropologists like Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Starr was commissioned to collect data about and artifacts from the Eastern Cherokee people in North Carolina for Putnam and Boas, but contributed little else to this fair.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, however, Starr’s work made a much bigger splash. The anthropologist brought nine Ainu people and a translator back with him from Japan to be part of an exhibit at the fair. These Ainu, members of a Japanese indigenous group from Hokkaido in the northern part of the country, were to be displayed as part of a literal representation of the evolutionary stages of humanity towards civilization; along with several other indigenous groups assembled by other anthropologists, they were on display as “barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples.” While this is unquestionably offensive to today's sensibilities, the visitor response to the exhibit at the time was overwhelmingly positive, as most people had never before heard of the Ainu and were intrigued by their appearance and practices. In a 1993 article about the Ainu exhibit, anthropologist James W. Vanstone reports the reactions from writers and visitors to the exhibit:

One enthusiastic writer referred to the Ainu as "mysterious little Japanese primitives" and noted that visitors were impressed by their cleanliness and polite manners, but somewhat disappointed that they were no "man-eaters, dog-eaters or wild men."

In addition to contributing to these World’s Fairs, Starr produced several publications in conjunction with his fieldwork. These publications included many scholarly and other articles, as well as books like The Truth about the Congo, about his studies in that region; Indians of Southern Mexico: An Ethnographic Album; and In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, about the performance and findings of his extensive work with Indian tribes in Mexico.

Starr’s Methods and Misconduct in Mexico

His appearance in St. Louis with the Ainu may have been Starr’s most publicly recognized work, but if he is remembered at all today, it's for his fieldwork in Mexico. Starr recalls his purpose there in In Indian Mexico:

The work I planned to do among these indian towns was threefold: 1. The measurement of one hundred men and twenty-five women in each population, fourteen measurements being taken upon each subject; 2. The making of pictures,—portraits, dress, occupations, customs, buildings, and landscapes; 3. The making of plaster busts of five individuals in each tribe.

The primary goals in making such recordings were to observe the differences between various Mexican tribes and to establish the placement of such people, and their race and culture, on the same scale that he had placed the Ainu, from barbarous to civilized. It was assumed at the time that there were physical characteristics, such as cranial shape and size, that could mark such distinctions between races (a theory that has long since been disproved).

In his book, Starr refers to the Mexican people he is studying as “ignorant, timid, and suspicious.” He also makes regular references to them being too drunk to allow their measurements to be taken. All of these characteristics assigned to these Mexican Indians by Starr explained, in his point of view, the difficulty he often had in securing subjects for measurement, and justified the forceful methods he felt compelled to use. Starr took advantage of the fact that prisoners could not refuse his requests to measure them, and regularly photographed and measured imprisoned subjects for his work. What’s more, if there were individuals he wished to measure who did not acquiesce, he would threaten them with arrest and jail time so that they could no longer refuse. The authorities did not object to these methods, instead providing support for Starr by collecting subjects and keeping order. Starr even recounts a specific incident where policemen stopped a bullfight in progress in order to obtain a young man taking part in the fight for Starr’s research.

Starr Fading from View

Over time, Starr’s brutish, unethical methods and offensive ideas became questionable in the eyes of the anthropological community. The theories of his contemporary Boas, however, began to amass a great deal of support from other anthropologists and academics.

Boas, born and educated in Germany, moved to the United States in 1887 and proceeded to make substantial contributions to the methodology of American anthropology. By incorporating the methods of natural science into the discipline of anthropology, Boas emphasized the importance of conducting research before developing theories, as well as approaching studies in the most ethical and unbiased ways possible. What’s more, he developed the modern interpretation of culture, viewing it as learned behavior and a product of a people's history, rather than a hierarchical measurement of civilization that would place the western world on top.

While most anthropologists, inspired by Boas, began to recognize the people they studied as part of the larger, equal human race, Starr continued to regard them as primitive and inferior, demonstrated by his attitude towards his subjects in Mexico. Soon, Starr’s methods of fieldwork were widely considered unethical and his ideas about culture outdated.

Starr’s charisma and ability as a speaker managed to keep him relevant in public education spheres toward the end of his career. In this capacity, Starr overshadowed Boas, who preferred not to address the general themes of anthropology necessary in public lecturing and was nervous about his skill in speaking English, which was not his first language. The academic discipline of anthropology, though, became dominated by Boas’ methods and, over the years, Frederick Starr and his methods were phased out. Today, his work is rarely read, or even mentioned, in discussions or classes on anthropological history.

After 31 years at the University of Chicago, Starr retired from his post in 1923. True to form, he continued to travel the globe and engage in public speaking events until his death; he died unexpectedly of pneumonia while in Japan in 1933.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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