In the late 1800s, the Metropolitan Bronze Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., had a steady business making statues of Civil War soldiers. As Marc Fisher writes in the Washington Post, many of the statues featured the same moustachioed Northern soldier wearing a greatcoats and holding a rifle to his chest. Towns throughout the north and midwest bought copies of this soldier to plant in front of the post office, or on the village green.
Then someone at the company saw another market opportunity. They could sell the very same statue as a Confederate soldier in the south. All they had to do was change the insignia on his belt from US to CS, for Confederate States. Pretty soon, they were shipping scores of the same statue to towns across the Mason-Dixon line.
It wasn’t too long before Confederate veterans in a Georgia town noticed that the soldier was wearing a Northern greatcoat and a union cap, not the shorter southern jacket and “slouch” hat of the south. They angrily buried the Yankee statue face down. (photo from Washington Post, above)
This forced Metropolitan Bronze to add a bit of customization for their Southern customers. But the bare minimum. It was the same guy, but with a different hat and jacket.
This got me thinking about how all of us re-use content in our lives and our jobs. If the subject of hitchhiking comes up at a dinner party, for example, I immediately look around the table and try to remember if anyone seated there has heard my story about hitching in Argentina during the Dirty War in 1978. If the answer is no, I’m liable to recycle my old story, replaying some of the sentences almost verbatim. Like most people, I have hundreds of my “greatest hits” cued up and ready to roll. Just like Metropolitan Bronze, I’ll edit a few of the details for each audience. (If my wife is there, I’m more likely to keep it short, since these re-runs test her patience.)
It’s so much easier to re-use content, whether it’s statues or stories, than to come up with something fresh. When President Trump heads out to Arizona this week for one of his mass rallies, you can bet he’ll replay about 100 of his favorite lines, adding just the thinnest veneer of Southwest customization (and maybe a pardon for Joe Arpaio). Trump is a replay machine.
When my parents died, I inherited a portrait of a 19th century ancestor of mine named Matthias Ludwig. When we looked at the back of the canvas, we saw a name scrawled in pen: Thomas Sully. This was a famous painter! He wasn’t on the level of his American contemporaries, like Gilbert Stuart, the portraitist of George Washington. But still, I’d seen paintings by Sully in the leading museums. And we had one.
Then I did some research. Like most artists, Sully had high artistic ambitions, and he also had to make money. So while he labored for months on his artistic projects, including the paintings I’d seen at the Metropolitan Art Museum, he made money by painting Philadelphia’s bourgeoisie, including Matthias Ludwig, for $50 a pop.
Here’s one of Sully’s ambitious paintings, A Mother and Her Son:
See the detail in the sky and the fabric, the relationship between the mother and the boy? That took some work. Every detail was fresh, or at least most of them were.
Now look at Matthias Ludwig.
I’m guessing that this came from a template. Sully probably used the same coat and shirt, and the same dark background, and he would plop a face into it. He recycled content. Everyone does.