“Grape-Vine” Erudition by Walter Prichard Eaton

Story type: Essay

You may recall that Mr. Ezra Barkley acquired a great reputation for learning by imparting to the spinsters of Old Chester such astonishing facts as the approximate number of roe contained in a shad. His sister-in-law, in her ignorance, supposed there were only two hundred! Ezra also knew who first kept bees, and many other important things, usually of a statistical nature. I cannot recall that Mrs. Deland has told us where Ezra acquired his erudition, and I used at one time to wonder. But now I know. He read the “grape-vine” in the first editions of our daily papers.

Perhaps you don’t know what “grape-vine” is? I rejoice in my ability to tell you. It is the name given by newspaper men to the jokes and squibs and bits of information clipped by the busy exchange reader, and put into type, making short paragraphs of varying lengths, which are dropped in at the bottom of a column to fill up the vacant space when the need arises. This need most often arises in preparing the first edition, the one which catches the early trains for the country. By the time the city edition goes to press sufficient news of battles, carnage, and sudden death, of politics and stock exchanges, has been prepared to fill every inch of available space. The city reader, therefore, sees little of this “grape-vine.” Thus we have a new argument for country life.

I am now a resident of the country, one hundred and fifty miles removed from New York and as far from Boston; and I am by way of becoming nearly as erudite as Ezra Barkley. I am, indeed, almost bewildered with the mass of information I am acquiring. This morning I read a column about the European war, all of which I have now forgotten. But how can I ever forget the two lines of “grape-vine” at the very bottom which filled out an otherwise vacant quarter inch? I am permanently a wiser man.

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“Many Filipino women catch and sell fish for a living.”

Amid a world at war, too, how peaceful and soothing is this tabloid idyl of piscatorial toil!

After the acquisition of this morsel of learning I set diligently to work on the day’s papers, both the morning editions and those “evening” editions which come to us here by a train leaving the city early in the afternoon, to see how much erudition I could accumulate in one sun’s span. I think you of the cities will be astonished. I was myself. In a few weeks I shall read the encyclopaedia advertisements with scorn instead of longing. For instance, I have learned that “A new tooth-brush is cylindrical and is revolved against the teeth by a plunger working through its spirally grooved handle.” Obviously, just the implement for boys interested in motor-cars (as all boys are). They will play they are grinding valves and run joyously to brush their teeth.

I have learned that “In the last five years our national and state lawmaking bodies have passed 62,550 laws.” The surprising thing about this information is that the number is so small!

I have learned that “Russia has ten thousand lepers, taken care of by twenty-one institutions.”

I have acquired these valuable bits of ornithological lore: “The frigate-bird is capable of getting up a speed of ninety-six miles an hour with hardly a movement of its wings. The greater part of its life is spent in the air.” “The swallow has a larger mouth in proportion to its size than any other bird.”

I have, from the bottom of a single column, gleaned these three items of incalculable value: “By harnessing a fly to a tiny wagon an English scientist found it could draw one hundred and seventy times its own weight over smooth surfaces.”

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“Missouri last year produced 195,634 tons of lead, a fairly heavy output.”

“The United States has five hundred and seventeen button-factories.”

The New York Times staggers me with this statistical line: “One Paris motion-picture plant produces an average of three million feet of films weekly.” (This strikes me as a kind of “French frightfulness.”)

The New York Evening Post contributes to my welfare and domestic comfort this item: “Both an electric range and a refrigerator are included in a new kitchen cabinet, but are hidden from view by doors when not in use.”

I am certainly a wiser man for knowing that “The Mexican seacoast on the Pacific and the Gulf of California is 4,575 miles.” And I am at least interested in the fact that “An Englishman has invented a cover for hatchways on vessels that operates on the principle of a roll-top desk.” If this hatchway operates on the principle of the only roll-top desk I ever possessed, God help the poor sailors when the storm breaks!

Such items as these disclose to me the extent of my previous ignorance:–

“Bolivia is producing about one-third of the world’s output of tin.”

“Records disclose that for several centuries an infusion of nutgalls treated with sulphate of iron composed the only known ink.”

“The first job held by William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, was that of a newsboy selling the Macon Morning Telegraph. His next job was that of a farm laborer.”

“There are 2,500,000 freight-cars in the country, and their average life is somewhere about twenty years.”

“Since gold was discovered in the Auckland province, in 1852, there has been exported from that district gold to the value of $116,796,000.”

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I should, to be sure, be more completely educated if I could find somewhere, under the sporting news, or at the base of the obituaries, a statement of where Auckland is. But perhaps that information will come to-morrow.

Well, I have presented here only a tithe of the knowledge I have to-day gleaned from the daily press, that hitherto (by me, at least) underestimated institution. I haven’t stated that I now know who first used anthracite coal as a fuel, and when. You don’t know that, I am sure. Neither do you know how many acres of corn were planted in England and Wales in 1915 and 1916, nor how many government employees there were in France before the war, nor that “A bundle of fine glass threads forms a new ink-eraser.”

However, I must share with you my choicest acquisition. It seems little less than a crime to keep such knowledge from the world at large, to bury it at the bottom of a column on the ninth page of the first edition of the Springfield Republican. So I rewrite it here. For oral delivery, I shall save it till some caller comes whom I particularly desire to impress. Then, with all the Old-World courtesy of Mr. Ezra Barkley, I shall offer this guest a chair, and as I do so I shall remark, with the careless casualness of the truly erudite: “Guatemala has only one furniture factory. It employs a hundred and fifty men.”

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