Cars and pedestrians share Fort Street in a scene from early-1930s Honolulu. Trolley cars also were a common sight.
Trashing the Truth
We have accumulated a lot of knowledge during the past 70 years, but so what?
Near home after an evening out, with a hint of rain in the air, we found the books by the garbage bins, next to discarded furniture, appliances and cardboard boxes. The bound hardbacks fit snugly on two shelves of a worn wooden bookcase.
Twenty-four volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
As my son and my wife's daughter, both teens, flipped through the pages, I reflected on how quickly the computer age has rendered such former family treasures obsolete. At one time this costly collection surely occupied an honored place in some household. Now it was rubbish, replaced by Google searches and easily updated CD-ROMs.
"Copyright 1929," said Laura, a high-school senior. "And again in 1936."
With that my interest perked. I had expected the set to be 15 or 20 years old. Now the books intrigued me in a way that more recent ones would not have.
As the first drops of rain fell, we hauled them inside.
Pearl Harbor minus five
During the next few weeks, I explored the musty pages, only slightly yellowed after seven decades. What I found was a window on a simpler yet spellbinding time. It was as if the collection had drilled an express tunnel to a world without jets, nukes, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, urban sprawl, freeways or TVs.
Five years before the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States remained comfortably at peace. In the throes of the Great Depression, the nation nevertheless found cause for celebration in its industrial might and inventiveness.
Radio was the modern medium, and trains and ocean steamers the accepted modes of long-distance travel. The Empire State Building ranked as the world's loftiest, its spire fashioned as a mooring for the next exciting wave of transportation: passenger blimps.
The heroes of aviation included Charles Lindbergh (the ordeal of his son's fatal kidnapping still fresh) and Amelia Earhart, soon to attempt a circumnavigation of the planet.
Movie audiences were flocking to "Swing Time" and "Top Hat," with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, "Mutiny on the Bounty," with Clark Gable, and Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps."
The top new cars included the Lincoln-Zephyr V-12 and Pontiac Cabriolet with rumble seat. Under the hood of these sleek beasts purred an engineering marvel:
"An explosion," says the text, "is an event of so sudden and violent a character that it might well seem impossible for man effectively to bring under his complete control so destructive and apparently unruly an agent. Yet many billions of perfectly regulated gaseous explosions now minister daily to our needs in internal combustion engines of all kinds throughout the world."
Hilo Bay's tiny Coconut Island, shown circa 1930, was and still is connected to Hilo by a footbridge.
Einstein on time
With earnest and often lively entries, elaborate drawings and sharp photography, the books convey a command of facts but also somehow an aura of control, of well-being and promise.
The mysteries of the atom, as yet unsplit, are detailed in an entry by Nobel physicist Niels Bohr. Albert Einstein weighs in on space-time, George Eastman on photography, George Bernard Shaw on socialism, Sigmund Freud on psychoanalysis and J. Edgar Hoover on fingerprints. Arthur Murray leads us through the latest dance steps.
There is no hint of future wars, militant fanaticism, traffic jams, spam, shrinking ice caps or an ocean choking on abandoned nets and plastic. In fact, what's absent from the pages shows just how fast conditions and commanders can change.
No Pluto or plutonium
Dedicated to King Edward VIII and President Franklin Roosevelt, the edition makes no mention of a Missouri senator named Truman or a freshly minted lieutenant colonel named Eisenhower. Edward, whose titles include "Emperor of India," in late 1936 would abdicate to marry an American.
Polio, "infantile paralysis," then a devastating childhood disease, gets plenty of ink, penicillin none. Missing also are the planet Pluto and element plutonium.
In depth, the book discusses tuberculosis and cancers of the breast, bones, colon, liver, ovaries, prostate and stomach -- but not lung cancer, then a relatively rare disease. Because large numbers of Americans smoked only after World War I, when tobacco companies gave away cigarettes to soldiers, the associated cancers had not yet appeared.
Women sell leis in Honolulu in this early 1930s photo. The leis were most often sold on "steamer days" for travelers who came and went from the island of Oahu.
Then and now
Hawaii, then a territory, welcomed 20,000 tourists. The Royal Hawaiian, which opened in 1927, and the Moana were Waikiki's only hotels. Now visitors top 6.9 million every year.
Back then the islands devoted 245,000 acres to sugar cane, producing nearly 1 million tons annually. Now cane occupies about a tenth of that land, cultivated by two plantations, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar on Maui and Gay & Robinson on Kauai.
Eating habits and economic realities have changed as radically as the landscape. Today, popular American foods and soft drinks are sweetened not by sugar but by far cheaper high-fructose corn syrup. Many standard pre-World War II expectations -- housing affordable for single-income families, a mom who stays home -- have gone the way of the Hindenburg and Earhart's Electra.
At this end of the time tunnel, we create and control much bigger explosions, but feel less secure.
We know that our conventional engines, addicted to oil, pump heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, possibly spawning more frequent, violent storms: Katrina, Rita, Wilma.
As obesity increases, fat-promoting corn syrup continues to benefit from massive federal subsidies. Fresh fruits and healthy greens do not.
We know smoking causes lung cancer. But 48 million Americans still smoke.
So what's the value of knowledge?
As with beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder. We prefer to pick and choose our truths, screening facts like phone calls.
But while ignoring some knowledge is merely a shame -- like old reference books dumped in the rubbish -- there are truths that we trash at our peril.
Jim Borg is a Star-Bulletin copy editor.
Excerpts from the 1936 Encyclopedia Britannica
"Among those who have gone over the evidence, that is to say among competent biologists and geologists, there is not a single one who is not convinced that evolution has occurred and is occurring. The evidence by now is overwhelming."
British biologist and brother of Aldous Huxley
"In the face of a new situation the American shows a far greater linguistic resourcefulness and daring than the Englishman. Movie is obviously better than cinema, just as cow-catcher is better than plough. ... The English seldom devise anything as pungent as rubber-neck, ticket-scalper, lame-duck, pork-barrel, boot-legger or steam-roller (in its political sense.)"
"A tunnel under the English channel would be one of the engineering wonders of the world."
The Channel Tunnel was completed in 1994.