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Hans Casparius/Stringer/Getty Images
Hans Casparius/Stringer/Getty Images

How Freud’s Only Visit to America Made Him Hate the U.S. for the Rest of His Life

Hans Casparius/Stringer/Getty Images
Hans Casparius/Stringer/Getty Images

As a young man, Sigmund Freud loved the United States. His fervor began at age 17, when he came across a copy of the Gettysburg Address displayed at the 1873 International Exhibition in Vienna. Freud was so taken with Lincoln’s expressions of liberty and equality that he memorized the speech, then recited it to his sisters. A few years later, he even considered moving to America, particularly as anti-Semitism grew in his native Austria. But instead he chose to stay put, contenting himself with hanging a copy of the Declaration of Independence above his bed.

In the years that followed, Freud developed many of the same prejudices against America held by many cultured Viennese (mostly that Americans were backward and uneducated). But his youthful passion for the country was reawakened in December 1908, when he received a letter from G. Stanley Hall. Hall, the president of the small but prestigious Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the first president of the American Psychological Association, invited Freud to deliver a series of lectures to mark the university's 20th anniversary, in September 1909. After some negotiation, Hall also offered an honorary doctorate—Freud’s first and only—as well as a stipend of $750 (about $20,000 in today’s money). The founding father of psychoanalysis was delighted, writing to his disciple Carl Jung, “This has thrilled me more than anything else that has happened in the last few years."

At the time, Freud had achieved only modest success with books like 1899's Interpretation of Dreams. But in America, things were different. The first clue came during the steamer trip to New York, when Freud found the cabin steward reading his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; the psychoanalyst passed time on the journey analyzing fellow passengers' dreams. Once in Massachusetts, Freud was shocked to find out that the faculty at Clark University was not only acquainted with his work, but had been lecturing the students about it as well. He was also delightfully surprised that in “prudish America one could, at least in academic circles, freely discuss and scientifically treat everything that is regarded as improper in everyday life.”

All the attention given to his work gave Freud a renewed belief in himself and fresh enthusiasm for his subject matter. In his autobiography, he would recall his American lectures as “the realization of some incredible daydream: psychoanalysis was no longer a product of delusion, it had become a valuable part of reality.”

But despite the glow of his success, not everything went smoothly on the three-week trip. Soon, Freud found much to complain about—and began nursing a resentment against America that would last the rest of his life.

Photo of Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, Carl Gustav Jung, Abraham Arden Brill, Ernest Jones and Sándor Ferenczi at Clark University in 1909
Sigmund Freud (far left), G. Stanley Hall, Carl Gustav Jung, and other luminaries at Clark University in 1909.

The psychoanalyst's chief problem: stomach trouble, which he blamed on American cooking. There was one meal in particular that inflamed his stomach and his ire, a steak prepared by culinary “savages” at a campfire during an excursion in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. For the rest of his life, he would refer to this trip as the beginning of his “American colitis.” (Some scholars, though, say his digestive problems long predated the cookout.)

Freud's ego was also bruised on a side visit to Niagara Falls, where a guide at the Cave of the Winds called him “the old fellow." (His mood improved when he saw a wild porcupine, one of the main objectives of his trip.) But a bigger problem was his own personal Niagara Falls, courtesy of prostate trouble and exacerbated by the lack of public bathrooms, even in New York City. Of the bathrooms that did exist, he complained, “They escort you along miles of corridors and ultimately you are taken to the very basement where a marble palace awaits you, only just in time.”

Perhaps worst of all was his insomnia: American women were giving him erotic dreams and affecting his ability to get a good night’s sleep. While in Worcester, he confided in Carl Jung, who had also been invited to speak, that he hadn’t “been able to sleep since [he] came to America” and that he “continue[d] to dream of prostitutes.” When Jung pointed out a rather obvious solution to this problem, Freud indignantly reminded him that he was married.

Freud also found Americans far too informal. As radical as his ideas seemed for the time, Freud was a highly proper man, and he could barely conceal his distaste when an amiable Yankee dared to address him by his first name.

Beyond lack of formality, Freud (or “Sigmund,” as his improper American buddies called him) took issue with the coeducational system then more prevalent in the U.S. In his view, explained a few decades later, “The girls develop more rapidly than the boys, feel superior to them in everything and lose their respect for the male sex.” The consequence was that American women “lead the men around by the nose, make fools of them, and the result is a matriarchy ... In Europe, things are different. Men take the lead. That is as it should be.”

When it came time to speak at Clark, the patriarchal thinker presented five lectures on "The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis," each of which was “prepared only a half-hour before it was given,” as B. R. Hergenhahn and Tracy Henley relate in An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Since Freud’s English was less than stellar, these lectures, which were open to the public, were delivered in his native German. The media gave the lectures limited attention, but the exposure to others in the U.S. scholarly community led to an increase in the circulation of Freud’s ideas, as well as their translation into English.

The Freudian influence was underway, and as the Roaring Twenties arrived, his notoriety skyrocketed in America. But he never returned to bask in the glory.

Instead, he harbored a grudge against America, and continued to blame the U.S. for a number of personal issues (including, somehow, the degeneration of his penmanship). On a grander scale, he contended that the nation’s “present cultural state” was a “damage to civilization.” He said to a friend: “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.”

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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