Blog Feed

Shure Inc. Archives

In 1925, Sidney N. Shure founded a company in Chicago that supplied radio parts.  Eventually, the Shure Radio Company evolved into a company known for its high-quality microphones.  In 1939, the company created a microphone known as the Unidyne, which eventually became its most iconic one.  Not only did famous rock stars, such as Elvis Presley, use it, but so did John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. during some of their famous speeches.

This is a 1993 U.S. postage stamp of Elvis Presley singing into a Shure Unydine microphone.

With several international offices and thousands of staff, Shure Inc. has a library that provides resources for its many employees.  Therefore, Shure Inc. has a librarian who manages all of these resources, many of which are databases and ebooks.  The librarian is also the company’s archivist.  I was privileged to have the opportunity of visiting the (usually inaccessible) Shure archives with an archivist group.  The archivist/librarian led the tour.  However, it was also led by another Shure employee who is currently creating a digital collection of their archival materials, since having that information handy is beneficial to their staff. 

Shure’s headquarters were originally located in Chicago, and then in suburban Evanston, Illinois from 1956 to 2003.  They then moved to their current location in another Chicago suburb, Niles.  The public area on the current building’s main floor has a mini display about the history of Shure, which the archivist created.  She walked us through this display before taking us to the actual archives.  In addition to collecting their many models of microphones, the archivist collects microphones that survived unusual situations unharmed.  People often send these microphones to them.  For example, one microphone survived being run over by a truck, and although slightly bent, still worked.

In addition to seeing the actual archives, our tour also included Shure Inc.’s top-notch recording studio, where staff test the quality of their newly-created microphones.  However, the best part of the tour included a stop in one of their many anechoic chambers.  Anechoic means “no echo.”  Basically, this is a heavily padded room, where Shure staff can test the quality of their microphones and headphones.  The room was extremely quiet, so once we exited the anechoic chamber, the surrounding noise in the room outside was dramatically noticeable. 

Anechoic Chamber

Although microphones may not seem important enough to have their own archivist, the fact that NASA, the United States army during World War II, and famous musicians have all used Shure microphones, means that the company’s impact on history has been significant enough to document it.

Sources and Further Reading

Holmes, Allison Schein. “Wrap Up for Shure Inc. Archives Tour and Photography Demonstration.” Shure. November 18, 2019. (accessed March 27, 2020).

“Mysteries and Treasures in the Shure Archives.” Shure. January 27, 2016. (accessed March 27, 2020).

Rochman, Davida. “Shure History.” Shure. (accessed March 27, 2020).

5 Historically Noteworthy Homes in the Chicago Area

Even though museums, libraries, archives, etc. are currently closed throughout the majority of the world because of the Coronavirus, there are other ways to still visit historic places.  Here are 5 historically noteworthy homes that are never open to the public anyway, but that you can drive and see from the outside if you are in the Chicago area. By no means is this a comprehensive list.

1. Michael Jordan’s Home

2700 Point Dr., Highland Park, IL 60035

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, lived in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago, when he played basketball for the Chicago Bulls.  He lived there from 1995 to 2006.  Since 2012, his house has been on the market.  It was originally on the market for $29 million.  However, the price has been reduced, so if you have $14,855,000, you can try purchasing it.  The home includes an indoor basketball court, gym, and swimming pool.  If not, you can at least drive past the home and admire the gate, which still has the number 23 on it (Michael Jordan’s jersey number).  Unfortunately, you will not have much success catching a glimpse of the house, because it is hidden behind evergreen trees. As of March, 2020, the home is currently listed on Zillow:

2. Home Alone House

671 Lincoln Ave., Winnetka, IL 60093

The 1990 film Home Alone has now become a Christmas classic.  Except for the upstairs scenes, which were recreated in a gymnasium, a home in Winnetka, Illinois (another northern suburb of Chicago), was the set for a large portion of the film.  It is now a private home, and the only one in the neighborhood with a “No Trespassing” sign.  You can see other parts of Winnetka in the film, as well as buildings from the neighboring suburbs of Wilmette and Highland Park.  This is because the film’s writer and producer, John Hughes, grew up in Northbrook, Illinois, which is nearby, making him familiar with Chicago’s suburbs.  Hughes used the northern Chicago suburbs as settings for several of his other films as well, such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).  Hughes is buried in the northern suburb of Lake Forest.

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald-Inspired Home

210 South Ridge Rd., Lake Forest, IL 60045

Speaking of Lake Forest, there is an interesting home located there.  In 1915 and 1916, the future American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald visited Lake Forest.  He had a love interested who lived there, Ginerva King, the daughter of a wealthy family.  Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, Ginerva married someone else.  However, many speculate that she helped inspire parts of the plot for his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920), as well as for his most famous book, The Great Gatsby (1925).  After being abandoned for years, new owners are currently attempting to restore this mansion to its former glory.

4. Marx Brothers Home

4512 S. King Dr. (Grand Blvd. when they lived there), Chicago, IL 60653

Many may not know it, but the early twentieth century comedians, the Marx Brothers, lived in Chicago for a time.  However, it was in the 1910s, before they became famous through their movies.  The entire family lived there, not just the three most famous brothers, known as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  This Jewish family lived in what was then a Jewish neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, as can be attested by the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church near their home, which used to be a synagogue.

5. Barack Obama’s Home

5046 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60615

Former President Barack Obama taught law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.  Then, in 2005, he purchased a home not far from the University.  That was also when he began to become more involved in politics.  The Obamas still own their Chicago home, although they are not there often.  A blockade still keeps cars away from his street, and a sign is posted in the front warning people that the Secret Service has the home under surveillance.

Sources and Further Reading

Holst, Amber. “A Presidential Neighborhood: The Obama Family Home in Hyde Park.” Enjoy Illinois, June 8, 2018. (accessed October 30, 2019).

“The ‘Home Alone’ House for Sale in Winnetka, Illinois.” Hooked on Houses. (accessed October 30, 2019).

Klocksin, Scott. “Airball: Why is Michael Jordan’s Estate in Highland Park not Selling?” The Real Deal, May 3, 2018. (accessed October 30, 2019).

Rodkin, Dennis. “Buyers Plan to Make ‘Gatsby’ House Great Again.” Crain’s Chicago Business, September 18, 2018. (accessed October 30, 2019).

Coronavirus = Historical Moment

As I was thinking about which historical place to write about this week, I realized that I should pause and write about a historically significant moment that is happening right now instead: the Coronavirus.  Since this historic event is also causing a lot of museums and libraries to shut down, it is appropriate for me to put a pause on discussing them.

On Monday, March 9th, I went to the grocery store.  It was uneventful.  On Friday, March 13, I went to the grocery store.  Everything was chaotic.  As I was purchasing flowers for a friend’s birthday, everyone else around me was stuffing their shopping carts with bottled water, toilet paper, and canned food.  Friday, March 13 was also the last day my public library would be open until another two weeks.  Similar to the grocery store, people there were stuffing their bags with DVDs and books. 

What caused all the panic shopping and library closures, in addition to the closures of many U.S. schools, universities, museums, stage theaters, and opera houses this week?  On Wednesday, March 11, the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus a pandemic.  On Friday, March 13, President Trump declared that the United States is in a National Emergency.  Although most of the panic shopping began this week, after the declarations mentioned above, for the past two weeks, I have been hearing people tell me that hand sanitizer is sold out.

On Tuesday, March 10, the library portal,, added a Coronavirus popup to its website, which provides a link to e-resources about the virus.

I somehow make a lot of international friends, and also have relatives living in different countries.  From them, I learned that this is far from being solely a U.S. phenomenon.  Below is a summary of what friends and relatives have told me about other countries.  However, Coronavirus news changes quickly, so what they told me below will probably be inaccurate very soon, if it is not so already.  Additionally, the information is based on individuals, so is not necessarily representative of the entire country.

China – Obviously, this is where the most Coronavirus cases have occurred, since it is also where it was first discovered.  A month ago, four people I know with connections to China told me how their relatives were okay, but that the country was basically quarantined, and that the people were sad that they were unable to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  A friend recently told me that her son has been quarantined for two months now, and will continue to be quarantined until April 30th.

Iran – Some parts of Iran are more affected than others, but it is currently hit the third worst after China and Italy.  Most people are staying home from work, bored, and sad that they cannot celebrate their new year, Nowruz, on March 21st.  I cannot confirm if this is true everywhere in Iran, but I was told that there is not a lot of panic shopping there.

Israel – The airport essentially shut down, and all schools, restaurants, museums, and non-essential businesses have closed.  The U.S. has not closed its restaurants and non-essential businesses yet, even though it has more Coronavirus cases than Israel.  Like Iran, the panic shopping is allegedly not as bad in Israel.

Korea – Everything has shut down there for at least a month.  People are working from home.

Nigeria – Nigeria had a Coronavirus patient, but he was an Italian who entered the country.  Fortunately, the Coronavirus has not made a large presence in Africa so far.

Poland – Everything has shut down, and there are travel bans there.  Like the United States, people were panic shopping and emptied shelves at the stores.  Most of the people walking around in the city of Krakow this week were tourists, not native Poles.

Romania – Everything is shutting down there.

Slovakia – Slovakia took cautious measures earlier than other countries.  They even started shutting down schools before the U.S. did.  Last week, someone I know there had to be quarantined in the infectious diseases section of the hospital for a week, because he had fluid in his lungs.  Whenever the doctors and nurses went to check on him, they wore masks.  Fortunately, he did not end up having the Coronavirus.  It was just bad timing for him to have fluid in his lungs.

Spain – Like the United States, everything has shut down in Spain during the middle of this past week.  However, unlike the United States, even non-essential businesses and public parks are closed.

Syria – We do not know what the status of the Coronavirus is in Syria.  Someone I know who used to live there said that if the country does have it, it will not release that information publicly.

This is a rare moment when completely different countries, some of which are even enemies with each other, are behaving exactly the same and fighting the same viral “enemy.”  Perhaps the last great pandemic of this scope was in 1918 with the Spanish Flu, when the flu took a more deadly strain, and people were traveling a lot, because WWI was ending.  At that time, 500 million people were infected, and 20 to 50 million died.  My great-grandfather’s brother was one of them.  Even if the Coronavirus never reaches those numbers, the historical significance of this event is in the fact that an unprecedented number of countries have quarantined themselves.

So, what I encourage you to do during this time is try to remember and record what is happening.  You are a primary source for a historical event.

I am on an archives email group.  In this week’s discussion, someone asked how the national and international responses to the Coronavirus are being preserved, since this “will surely be a history fair subject in the future!”  From that list, I learned that the Internet Archive’s Archive-It site has created a Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) digital collection:

If you have websites that should be added to the collection, here is the form to do so:

Additionally, someone from Stanford University has been collecting Twitter threads about archives conference cancellations due to the Coronavirus:

In case you are interested, here is a map created by the World Health Organization, which regularly documents the number of Coronavirus cases in the world:

Finally, here is a link to museums that you can visit virtually during this unusual time:

Graceland Cemetery in Chicago

If you suddenly find yourself laid off from a job that you enjoyed, and are given more free time than you have had in a long time, what do you do?  When this situation happened to me, I tried to look for inexpensive ways to keep myself busy and de-stress.  As morbid as this may sound, I found myself exploring cemeteries.  My favorite was, undoubtedly, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

This creepy but amazing tombstone was built for Dexter Graves, one of the earliest non-Native American inhabitants in Chicago.

Founded in 1860, Graceland is in the northwest part of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field, where the baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, plays.  This area used to be just outside of the city’s limits, when cemeteries were prohibited from being built within the city’s borders.  However, as Chicago grew, so did its borders. 

A few blocks away from Graceland Cemetery is the even older Jewish cemetery, the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery, founded in 1851. Unfortunately, unlike Graceland, its plots are overgrown and neglected.

What makes Graceland such a pleasant place to visit is the fact that it is a rural cemetery.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, most people in the United States and Europe buried their dead in the churchyard.  However, as the population increased, so did the need to find more land to bury the dead.  Architects soon developed rural cemeteries, which also functioned as public parks, since parks were not commonplace yet.  Therefore, people would actually picnic and spend their leisure in these rural cemeteries.  Characteristics of these rural cemeteries included huge mausoleums and ponds.  Nowadays, cemeteries tend to be simpler, and certainly not places that people visit for fun.

As you walk through Graceland Cemetery, the huge monuments make it clear that the people buried there were once the wealthiest individuals in Chicago society.  Because of this, there were many other visitors touring the cemetery for fun when I was there.  In fact, the Chicago Architecture Center actually offers formal tours of this historic graveyard.  When I arrived at Graceland, I first entered the visitor center, where I watched a brief video summarizing the history of the cemetery, and also picked up a free map that points out where all of the famous Chicagoans are buried. If you ever visit Graceland Cemetery, make sure to pick up a map at the visitor center, or print one from their website. Looking for famous people can be a fun type of scavenger hunt.

Louis Sullivan, a famous architect buried in Graceland, designed this impressive mausoleum, which is also found at Graceland.

Graceland Cemetery is best known for being the burial ground of famous Chicago architects such as Daniel Burnham (who helped design Chicago) and William Le Baron Jenney (who built the first skyscraper ever).  Additionally, if you live in Chicago, you will notice that many of the tombs match the names of famous Chicago streets (e.g. Wacker, Kimball). Another famous person buried at Graceland includes Allan Pinkerton, a pioneer detective in the United States, and someone who helped stop an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, Marshall Field, the founder of Chicago’s Field Museum and the Marshall Field’s Department Store, is buried there.

Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper, is buried at Graceland Cemetery.

Since I enjoy Charles Dickens’ books, my favorite tomb at Graceland was of his younger brother, Augustus.  In the 1850s, Augustus abandoned his wife after she became blind, and ran off with another woman to Chicago. It sounds like something a Charles Dickens character might do!  After that, Charles Dickens broke ties with his brother. According to a June 24, 2004 article in The Chicago Reader called “The Dirty Dickens,” Augustus’ tomb in Graceland Cemetery did not receive a monument until his great-great-great-great grandson decided to put one up in 2004.

Being the third largest city in the United States, most of Chicago can be a loud and busy place. However, once you enter the brick walls of Graceland Cemetery, you completely forget that you are still in Chicago. The peaceful surroundings make you feel as if you walked into a different world, full of interesting stories now mostly forgotten underground.

Sources and Further Reading

Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries.” The Atlantic, March 16, 2011. (accessed March 7, 2020).

Rodkin, Dennis. “The Dirty Dickens.” The Chicago Reader, June 24, 2004. (accessed March 7, 2020).

Sclair, Helen. “Cemeteries.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. (accessed March 7, 2020).

“The Story of Graceland.” Graceland Cemetery. (accessed March 7, 2020).

Windsong, Juniper. “Eternal Silence.” Atlas Obscura. (accessed March 7, 2020).

The British Museum

The British Museum in London is undoubtedly ranked as one the best museums in the world, containing approximately 8 million artifacts.  It was founded in 1753 as the first free, national museum.  Its enormous collection contains items from every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  This is largely in part to the fact that the “sun never set on the British Empire” during the 19th century, meaning that Britain controlled so much of the world then, that the sun was always shining on one part of its Empire.  Because of this, the British were easily able to acquire artifacts from most of the world. Additionally, the Brits were pioneers in archaeology, so a large portion of the British Museum’s collection comes from them.

I had the privilege of spending a few hours at the British Museum in 2009.  Unfortunately, I probably saw less than ¼ of the collection because it is so large.  Entrance into the Museum is free, as are the different tours that they offer, including a tour of the Museum’s highlights.  Additionally, there are audio tour headsets available in 10 different languages that people can pay to use.  Perhaps this is no longer the case, but when I was at the Museum 11 years ago, they offered free tours of specific sections of the Museum.  I did tours of the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian collections.

Perhaps the most famous object at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone.  French soldiers in Egypt found this stele fragment and took it in 1799, but soon surrendered it to the British after experiencing a defeat under Napoleon.  The stone is important because it helped scholars discover how to decipher the long-forgotten Egyptian hieroglyphs, ultimately allowing us to learn more about Ancient Egypt.  Since the Rosetta Stone was created during the Ptolemaic period, when Greece oversaw Egypt, three scripts were written on it (all saying the same thing): Ancient Greek, Demotic (a form of Egyptian script), and hieroglyphic.  Scholars already knew how to read Ancient Greek, so that helped them with deciphering the other two scripts.  Over the years, Egypt has requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its native land.

This is the Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately, my Kodak film camera did not work well inside the British Museum.

Since many famous objects at the British Museum came there through war or theft, many countries frequently ask for the return of their artifacts.  For example, many of the statues at the Parthenon in Athens are replicas of the originals at the British Museum, so Greece would like them returned.  Similarly, the British army essentially stole the Benin Bronzes from Benin City, Nigeria in 1897, so Nigeria would like them back.  Although I do not believe that countries should be robbed of their artifacts, I do see two positive results of what the British did.  First, the British Museum allows you to view the history of many different cultures all in one place, which is an experience that is not easy to replicate elsewhere.  Second, the British may have helped preserve artifacts that would have otherwise been destroyed later.  For example, in 2015, the group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed many ancient artifacts in Iraq.  This included using a sledgehammer to destroy a lamassu (Assyrian winged bull).  Fortunately, the British Museum has several lamassu that used to be located in the same area as the destroyed one.  A very disturbing video of the 2015 destruction of Iraqi artifacts can be found Here.

These lamassu (Assyrian winged bulls) were taken from Nimrud, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq (ancient Nineveh), and brought to the British Museum. They were believed to protect entrances. Here is a painting of the archaeologists trying to transport it.

In addition to world-class exhibits, the British Museum also has study rooms (where you can request to study a specific object from the collection), an archive, and a library complementing the collection.  Britain’s national library used to be a part of the Museum, but it became so large that it had to move into its own space.  While the British Library was still a part of the British Museum, famous people used to study there, including Sherlock Holmes’ author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the exiled Karl Marx.

The British Museum has a nice gift shop full of items reflecting the Museum’s collections.  Although it is more fun to browse in person, it is also viewable online.  Unfortunately, my time in the gift shop was cut short due to a situation that I hope is not common at the Museum.  As I was looking at some tiny knick knacks of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, an Eastern European man twice my age came up to me.  He said, “I can buy those for you.”  I think I looked at him confused and said that I did not want them.  He then said, “Yeah. What would you do with those?  They’re garbage.  Throw them down the toilet.  I can get you something else.”  By then, I was too creeped out, so I nervously smiled and escaped from the gift shop.  Perhaps my American flag bag made me a target, but I am not sure.

Thankfully, if you are never able to make a physical trip to the British Museum, you can still view an enormous portion of the collection online.  Amazingly, some objects can even be viewed at 360 degrees, and then downloaded to be printed on a 3D printer:  You can also learn more about the Museum’s objects from a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was done by former Museum director, Neil MacGregor.  In 2010, he recorded 100 lectures on 100 different objects from the Museum that best represent the history of the world.  This project is available as a podcast and also on the BBC’s website.

This panel is one of the many Lachish Reliefs, which depict the Assyrian siege of the Judean city of Lachish by King Sennacherib. This scene shows the Judean prisoners prostrating themselves to the Assyrian King.
These are Assyrian siege weapons found at Lachish, Israel, which corroborates with the Assyrian Lachish Reliefs as well as the Biblical account about the siege found in 2 Chronicles 32:9. This photo is from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

“The British Museum.” Sketchfab. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collecting Histories.” The British Museum. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Collection Online.” The British Museum. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum.  (accessed February 27, 2020).

“A History of the World in 100 Objects.” BBC. (accessed February 27, 2020).

“Video: ISIS Destroys Centuries Old Iraqi Artifacts.” Al Arabiya. (accessed February 27, 2020).

Art Institute of Chicago

Along with the Science and Industry Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago is probably among Chicago’s top 3 museums.  Additionally, it probably ranks among the best art museums in the United States.  Fortunately, for Illinois residents, the Museum is participating in Illinois’ free museum days.  That means that admission for Illinois residents will be free there until March 4th.  However, throughout the entire year, the Museum also has a free evening each week for Illinois residents.  Although the free evening has not always been the same day of the week, currently, it is on Wednesdays from 5:00 to 8:00 P.M.

The Art Institute of Chicago originally began as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879, which provided both art education and art displays.  When Chicago won the bid to host the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, it decided to build the current structure of the Art Institute of Chicago, in order to impress visitors.  Ever since then, the Museum’s collection and reputation has continued to grow, as has its affiliated university, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

The Art Institute of Chicago’s strongest collections are from Europe and the United States.  For example, the Art Institute of Chicago probably has the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (such as Monet and Van Gogh) outside of France.  Despite the majority of the art being from Europe or the United States (including some Native American art), there are some sections specifically focused on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.  Additionally, there is an even smaller section with archaeology.  These are all on the main floor.

If you visit the Art Institute of Chicago, you must visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms.  They are made up of 68 dollhouse-like rooms, each with extensive details of homes from different time periods.  A wealthy woman named Narcissa Thorne designed them between 1937-1940, and donated them to the Museum.  This collection is located in the basement of the Museum, so is often overlooked by visitors.  It is also worth visiting the Arms and Armor room on the second floor. 

Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic” can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago on the second floor.  You can also visit the painting used in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is based on the 1891 novel of the same name, by the Irish author Oscar Wilde.  I will not provide further information about it, because it is worth reading and watching. 

In 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago added a Modern Wing, which houses most of the contemporary art.  My favorite art piece there is “White Crucifixion,” which was painted by the French-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, in 1938.  What I especially find fascinating about it is that it was painted in 1938, right before the outbreak of WWII and the Holocaust.  The painting depicts Jesus in the center, with a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) as a loincloth, thus emphasizing his Jewishness.  Surrounding him are difference scenes of Jewish persecution in Europe.  One way to interpret this painting is that Chagall was reminding people that, if they are persecuting Jews, it is like persecuting Jesus, who was himself Jewish. 

If you like art, and are in Chicago, then the Art Institute of Chicago is worth the visit.

Sources and Further Reading

“American Gothic.” Art Institute of Chicago. (accessed January 25, 2020).

Dillon, Diane. “Art Institute of Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. (accessed February 23, 2020).

Kogan, Rick. “Thorne Rooms Full of Small Wonders.” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 2012. (accessed February 23, 2020).

“Mission and History.” Art Institute of Chicago. (accessed January 25, 2020).

“Picture of Dorian Gray.” Art Institute of Chicago. (accessed February 23, 2020).

“Thorne Miniature Rooms.” Art Institute of Chicago. (accessed January 25, 2020).

“White Crucifixion.” Art Institute of Chicago. (accessed February 23, 2020).

William Saroyan, Assyrians, and the Joys of Research

Prior to a few decades ago, researching beyond the public library to learn about a random topic of interest would have been too much of an effort to be worthwhile.  Thankfully, technology continues to make it easier and easier to research almost anything.  As an example, I will demonstrate how I was able to satisfy my curiosity about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, William Saroyan, by using tools that were not available until recently.

I first became interested in William Saroyan when I read the introduction to Sargon Donabed’s book, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century, which quotes a section of Saroyan’s short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.”  Most people do not know about modern Assyrians, so the fact that someone wrote a short story about them in 1934 piqued my interest.  I had never heard of Saroyan before, so I went to:

Research Tool #1: Wikipedia

Although Wikipedia is not viewed as an authoritative source, it is a great place to start learning about a topic.  In many ways, it is better than a print encyclopedia, because it gets updated more frequently.  Its bibliography also provides links to other resources on a topic.

From Wikipedia, I learned that Saroyan was an Armenian-American writer, which explained why he knew about Assyrians.  Armenians and Assyrians are both Christian minorities found in the Middle East, so they often befriend, or even marry, each other.  It also explained why his surname ended in “yan.”  Most Armenian surnames end in “ian” or “yan,” because it essentially means “son of.”

A 1991 U.S. stamp of William Saroyan.

After getting an idea of who Saroyan was, I tried to look for his short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.”  Luckily for me, an Assyrian magazine called Zinda had posted it online:

The gist of the story is that the anonymous, Armenian narrator goes to get a haircut in San Francisco.  While getting a haircut, the narrator asks his Middle Eastern-looking barber, Theodore Badal, if he is Armenian.  The barber says no, he is Assyrian.  The story then proceeds with the narrator and Badal comparing their cultures.  What specifically captured my attention was Badal’s gloomy monologue:

“We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They’re still admiring it. Now I am in America learning how to cut hair. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it. The news comes over to us through the Associated Press, anyway.” — [This story appeared in Saroyan’s first book of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, published by Random House in 1934.]

What is significant about Badal’s statements is:

  • Everything that he said could easily be said by an Assyrian today. 
  • Assyrians still lament the dying of their culture.
  • Many Assyrian refugees in the United States are still barbers.
  • Assyrians still do not have well-known writers.
  • Assyrians are still facing persecution (e.g. ISIS). 
  • In 1933, a large percentage of Assyrians were massacred during the Simele massacre in Iraq, which is perhaps what this 1934 short story is alluding to.

Because the story felt so authentic, like the retelling of an actual event, I decided to search for Theodore Badal.

Research Tool #2: Family Search

Family Search is a free genealogy website, which is specifically useful for researching public U.S. records.  To use it, all you have to do is create an account.  It is similar to, but the latter is not free and provides you with access to more records.  The Mormons, or Church of Latter-Day Saints, founded both of these genealogy resources, because, according to their theology, a person can be posthumously baptized.  For example, if you have a deceased ancestor who was never baptized, he or she cannot enter heaven, so if you posthumously baptize that ancestor, then when the resurrection comes, he or she can accept this baptism and be saved.  Therefore, thanks to Mormon theology, the U.S. has wonderful genealogy resources.

On Family Search, I found a 1930 U.S. census record from San Francisco of a man named Theodore Badal, who was born in New York and whose father was born in Persia (present-day Iran) and spoke Assyrian (neo-Aramaic).  The Theodore Badal in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” said that he was living in New York prior to San Francisco, although he also said that he was born in “the old country,” not New York.  However, the parallels were still too similar to ignore.  In the story, the narrator calls both himself and Badal young men.  In 1934, Saroyan would have been around 26 years-old.  The Badal that I found on Family Search would have been 22, according to the birthdate on his WWII draft registration card from 1940.  Badal’s draft card also said that he was 5 feet 10 inches.  According to Saroyan’s story, the barber was tall.  Although 5 feet 10 inches is not necessarily that tall, it would have been tall for Saroyan, who was 5 feet 8 inches (according to his 1981 obituary in The Washington Post).

My obsession with this topic grew, so I proceeded to try another research tool.

Research Tool #3: Request Vital Records from the County Clerk

Vital records are birth, marriage, and death records.  If you know the date and location of a person’s birth, marriage, or death, you can contact the County Clerk’s office where the event occurred and request the vital record.  Nowadays, you can just go to the county clerk’s website, print and fill out a request form, and then mail it, as well as a check, to the County Clerk’s office.  If you are not related to the person, you can request a genealogy copy, as long as the event occurred a long enough time ago.

I do not know why I felt compelled to request a genealogy copy of Theodore Badal’s 1946 death record, but I did.  From it, I learned the following:

  • Badal’s parents were born in Iran
  • Badal married and divorced a non-Assyrian woman 4 years his senior.
  • Badal did not serve in WWII.
  • Badal’s occupation was “musician.”
  • Badal died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.

Perhaps this Theodore Badal was not the same as Saroyan’s Badal, but they definitely had lot of similarities.

After this, I wanted to try and read Saroyan’s 1950 book, The Assyrian and Other Stories, published by Faber and Faber.

Research Tool #4: WorldCat

Most public and academic libraries in the United States pay to have their catalogs available on WorldCat.  This amazing website allows you to search and see which libraries in your area have a certain book, magazine, DVD, etc.  After finding the item that you want, all you have to do is type in your zip code, and the closest libraries with that item will appear first on the list.  Although most of the libraries in WorldCat are located in the United States, many large libraries in other countries also use it.

After finding the book on WorldCat, I requested it through my public library’s inter-library loan system.  It, as well as other stories in it, referenced Assyrians.

Next, I decided to watch the 1943 film, The Human Comedy, for which Saroyan won an Academy Award for Best Story (the predecessor of the Best Screenplay award).

A largely autobiographical story, the film includes a scene in which the protagonist’s classmate has to read about the ancient Assyrians in class.  According to the class’ textbook, the Assyrians were “long of nose, hair and beard.”  When the teacher scolds the protagonist, Homer, for disrupting the class, and asks him to summarize what they had learned, Homer provides a funny monologue about the different uses of the nose, for he says that if the textbook mentioned noses, then it must be important.

The movie’s reference to Assyrians as people with “long” noses could be seen as offensive.  However, since in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” Saroyan specifically mentioned how both Armenians and Assyrians tend to have large noses, I wondered if Saroyan was trying to poke fun at an actual textbook, and point out how out of place the comment was.  After doing some Google searching, I came across another research tool that I want to highlight.

Research Tool #5: Internet Archive

Since 1996, the Internet Archive, headquartered in San Francisco, has been digitizing and uploading millions of books and other resources, especially those that are no longer under copyright.  People can digitize and upload content themselves, or send items to the Internet Archive to do it for them (for a fee).

Included on the Internet Archive is H. G. Wells’ bestselling history textbook, The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), published by Cassell and Company.  According to chapter 16, “Their [the Assyrians’] physiognomy, the long nose and thick lips, was very like that of the commoner type of Polish Jew to-day.”  The rest of the page mentions further information about the Assyrians, which closely parallels what The Human Comedy’s fictional textbook says about them.  I, therefore, believe that Saroyan was basing his classroom’s textbook off of Wells’ textbook. 

After reading this snippet about the Assyrians in Wells’ textbook, I felt thankful that at least Saroyan did not also borrow Wells’ snide about Jews.  However, this, of course led me to further investigating.  Unfortunately, Wells negatively portrayed Jews in his other writings as well (such as in The Invisible Man).  However, Saroyan, did not come off as guiltless of antisemitism.

Research Tool #6: Google Books

Google has attempted to digitize every book that there is.  It did encounter copyright lawsuits, which put the project on a standstill for a while.  Right now, the books that they have already digitized, but are still under copyright, only have a select number of pages visible to read.  Even if you cannot read the entire book, it is a great way to get an idea of what a book is about, and see if it is something you need for your research.

From the pages publicly available in Google Books of Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, I learned that Saroyan’s son, Aram, claimed that one of the reasons why his father divorced his mother was because he learned, 6 years after their marriage, that his wife was Jewish.  However, based on the biography, I doubt that this was the only reason.

For anyone who braved through this entire post, I hope that you not only learned more research tips, but also enjoyed learning more about Assyrians and William Saroyan, who was famous during his lifetime, but has sadly been forgotten. 

Sources and Further Reading

Lee, Lawrence and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row (1984).

Saroyan, William. “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.” Zinda Magazine 13, no. 8 (June 3, 2007). (accessed February 18, 2020).

Saroyan, William. The Human Comedy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company (1943). (accessed February 18, 2020).

Smith, J. Y. “William Saroyan Dies at 72.” The Washington Post, May 19, 1981. (accessed February 18, 2020).

Wells, H. G. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. London: Cassell and Company (1920). (accessed February 18, 2020).

Yonan, Ann-Margret. “William Saroyan’s ‘Seventy Thousand Assyrians.’” Zinda Magazine 13, no. 8 (June 3, 2007). (accessed February 18, 2020).