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.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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