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Psychiana: Idaho's Mail Order Religion

"Oh I had to write you telling you that before I started reading these lessons, I was deaf in one ear. I could not hear at all, and after reading the lesson you sent to me, to my surprise on the 17th of December (one week later) my hearing came back to me."

Letter from a Psychiana Devotee, 1944

Frank Robinson was no one’s idea of a prophet. A recovering alcoholic, he had twice been discharged from military service for refusing to dry out. The son of a fire-breathing reverend, his views on organized religion were dispirited. It seemed like all the devout people in his life were hypocrites who lied and cheated.

Robinson rejected concepts of heaven, hell, and salvation that required a person to leave the earth to receive a spiritual reward. He believed everyone, no matter their circumstances, could use the power of affirmation to enjoy life in the moment.

In 1929, he decided to start his own religion from his home in Moscow, Idaho. He called it Psychiana. His initial $2500 investment in advertising and printing would yield hundreds of thousands in profit, close to a million followers, and enough enemies to warrant carrying a gun.

Robinson claimed he was born in New York City in 1886, although his brother insisted England was his birth place—an important distinction that would eventually land him in federal trouble. His early years were spent in and around Ontario and the U.S., alternating odd jobs with stints in the Royal Mounted Police and the Navy before his alcohol issues would force a change of plans.

In 1919, he married a woman named Pearl and settled into what seemed to be a steady career as a druggist. Robinson had been to Bible Training College but found it unsatisfying. He was a persuasive, bombastic man, but Christian doctrine didn’t sit with him. By the time he was living in Portland in 1925, he had begun to write down thoughts about a religion that preached internal power—what he called the “Now-God.”

In 1928, Robinson convinced his employer at a pharmacy chain to relocate him to a job where his shift ended at 6 p.m. so he could have more time to write and develop his ideas. That request landed him in the tiny city of Moscow, Idaho, with 5000 residents. It very quickly became the headquarters for Psychiana, a name that had come to him in a dream.

Robinson hosted local lectures proselytizing his belief in a spiritually bankrupt world that could be cured by affirmative thinking. Eager to reach a wider audience, he raised $2500 from a co-worker at the pharmacy and local businessmen to start a mail-order operation. He used the funds to print 10,000 form letter responses, 1000 lesson plans, and an advertisement in the nationally-distributed Psychology magazine. The ad claimed he could teach people how to “literally and actually” speak to God.

According to Robinson’s autobiography, that single ad netted $23,000. With the stock market crash of 1929 devastating the nation’s confidence and the Great Depression settling in, Robinson could have found no better time to promise—with a money-back guarantee—that he held the answers for increased wealth and happiness.

It was certainly working for him. By the end of its first year, Psychiana had sent correspondence to 67 different countries and earned over 36,000 subscribers. By the early 1930s, so much mail was coming in—by some accounts, 60,000 pieces a day—that the Moscow post office was forced to move to a larger facility after being granted first-class status by the postal service. Letters addressed to “Psychiana, USA” still made their way there.

Robinson offered a “course” of 20 lessons that totaled between $20 and $40. Each lesson could be as long as 10 single-spaced pages of Robinson’s self-actualized advice. Letters poured in from people who testified to recovering from health issues or financial loss based on his teachings. Bruno Hauptmann, who had kidnapped Charles Lindbergh’s baby, wrote to say he was a convert not long before going to the electric chair; Italian dictator Benito Mussolini praised Robinson’s movement.

Quitting the pharmacy business, Robinson soon found himself in a lavish fur coat, a custom Duesenberg car, and massive office space that held over 100 employees, making him the largest private employer in Idaho’s Latah County. One devotee, an Alexandria, Egypt-based cotton exporter named Geoffrey Birley, wrote Robinson congratulating him on a breakthrough in self-help. When Robinson looked at Birley’s photo—he requested all correspondence come with one—he told Birley he was the man he had seen in his dream who had urged him to label his movement "Psychiana." An honored Birley sent him $40,000 for the cause.

By 1933, Robinson was so deluged with business that his printing costs totaled $2000 a month. To save money, he decided to buy his own printing press and have it shipped to Moscow. This didn’t sit well with George Lamphere, a local printer and newspaperman who was printing Robinson's mailings and sending him the bill. Lamphere felt threatened by the arrival of a competing printer and warned Robinson that there would be retaliation if his business was affected. In response, Robinson decided to print the city’s second daily newspaper, which only enraged Lamphere further.

Lamphere wasn’t his only rival. Local church groups disavowed Psychiana, calling it a bunk religion and Robinson a “mail-order prophet” in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. Modestly aggressive adversaries would pull flowers out of his front lawn. Robinson began carrying a gun in case anyone felt he should become a martyr. He donated land, built a park, and gave to charities, but response in Moscow was so mixed that he refused to send any of his teachings to correspondents with a local postmark.

Owing to pressure from Lamphere and other groups, the postal service conducted inspections to make sure Robinson’s mail-order business was legitimate. While no red flags were raised, they did make note of Robinson’s passport, which stated he was born in New York. When it came to light he was from England, enemies seized on the chance to proclaim he was an illegal alien who had come into the U.S. from Canada without proper paperwork.

In 1937, Robinson was deported. But just as Lamphere had threatened the power of his political allies, Robinson wasn’t without friends. Senator William Borah intervened on his behalf, allowing Robinson to go to Cuba, get proper immigration papers, and re-enter the country through Florida.

Psychiana had barely missed a beat. As World War II grew heated, Robinson began advertising about the “atomic power” present in both our nuclear weapons and our own spirits. The power of God that resided in all citizens could, he said, defeat the threat of Adolf Hitler.

With few financial records having survived, it’s difficult to know exactly how much Robinson made from Psychiana. One 1933 balance sheet listed revenue after costs of about $52,000 for the first nine months of 1932, and business seemed steady for roughly two decades. In addition to lessons, Robinson sold his autobiography, individual self-help booklets, and other papers. People believed so fervently in Psychiana that Robinson once declared it the eighth most-popular religion in the world.

It would not, however, outlive him. Following a heart attack, Robinson died in 1948 at the age of 62. Though his son, Alfred, tried to keep the presses going, postage rates and declining interest contributed to Psychiana closing its doors in 1952.

Though Robinson always professed altruistic motives for his work, many believed he was nothing more than an opportunist who used economic strife to feed his own bottom line. While no one will know whether Robinson truly believed his own rhetoric, in 1944 he offered to “train” ordained ministers in Psychiana to help spread the word of his selfless gift. The price: $250 per minister.

Additional Sources: The Strange Autobiography of Frank B. Robinson.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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