This week in Omaha, 1897

A tour of the Omaha Daily Bee

Old-timey newspaper ad of the week!

This one, for a clothier, reads:

Your contribution today should be more liberal than heretofore — that is if you intend to come to our store tomorrow — for the saving we will make you will be so great that you can afford to give part of it to the church.

My god, man. What was the market research that prompted you to write this thing? Is your target “Pious people who enjoy caveats?”

Each letter of type in this ad was individually set, too! You’d think ads would be shorter? But no, might as well invoke church — in as many words as possible — as you try to hock muslin underwear and shirtwaists.

I also don’t care for your financial planning, Thompson, Beldon & Co clothiers. “Give more to the church now, because you’re gonna save money when you shop with us on Monday, if you decide to do that.” No wonder people used to have economic recessions about every five years or so, if this is the kind of financial savvy typical of the day.

There, I just totally owned a long-dead ad writer. I feel great about myself.

News item of note:

Planning for Omaha’s Trans-Mississippi Exposition (an event much like a World’s Fair) was underway, but it hit a snag re: Could Chinese people be allowed in?

Ah yes. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The only official law in American history (so far!) singling out a specific nationality to block from our borders. The thinking was this, paraphrased: “These people are filthy, disease-ridden and immoral — and worst of all, they work for cheap! They took our jerbs, build the wall, etc.”

I am not a historian, so I can’t ably take a stand on the economics of Chinese immigrant labor at that time. But I am qualified to note that this thing was hella racist (I did not make up the “filth, disease and immorality” accusation). The act was in force from 1882 through 1943.

Here’s the quote from the government official, vouching for the Chinese in a way that must have made them be like, “um… thanks?”


“They are merchants and dealers, and among the most Intelligent of their race. They are very anxious to obtain permission for 400 of their countymen to be at the expedition for three months next year. I told them that I would be glad to help them In any legitimate way ; that probably their wish would be accomplished,but that we could only be friends so long as they kept strictly within the law. When they violated It we would henceforth be enemies. Chinese have a wonderfully strong desire to come to this country and chances of this kind are sometimes availed of to get here permanently. You remember that the Chinese colony at the Nashville expedition slipped away in the night , left the grounds and obtained their freedom. If these 400 Celestials reach Omaha the temptation will be very strong for them, too , but I do not believe they will get away from the exposition people. Chinese use all kinds of daredevil devices to obtain admission to this country , risking their lives and liberty , seemingly with no care for the consequences. A case came to my notice a few days ago when some Chinese from British Columbia secreted themselves in the hold of a vessel and had several tons of coal placed over them. They were discovered, however.”

And that’s it! What an odd way to end an interview. Could have just said, “Yep, their visas are approved and we’re all set.”

For the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, the Chinese were allowed to come show off a theatrical version of their culture. And like the man said, they genuinely wanted to do this — according to “Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance,” local Chinese-American communities and Chinese government officials lobbied to participate in these expositions. They saw this as their shot to share their culture and dispel some negative stereotypes.

How’d that work out? For some Americans, hearing Chinese music and seeing Chinese theater only confirmed them as a strange, inferior people, according to Krystyn R. Moon, the book’s author. And that makes sense — when you take your grandma to eat typical Americanized Thai food for the first time, does she have a bite of Pad Thai and suddenly realize that the stuff is great? Nah. She returns gratefully to hamburgers. Some people just reject anything that’s foreign to them, even if that thing is delicious and also fantastic to eat while drunk.

With time, Chinese-Americans lost their status as the “scary” immigrants; in fact, one might argue that this group has made valuable contributions to our country and that we are all richer for their inclusion. Super good thing we learned our lesson and don’t pull this kind of thing anymore, right guys?

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