Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online


September 4, 2011

Thought-provoking fillers can be fascinating

Before modular layout, newspaper pages were designed with a shotgun, not by page designers.

Stories were spotted all over the place by the person in the slot. We put big headlines on top tried not to bump other headlines. That way, the headlines wouldn’t run into each other. If they did, we used italic type to supplement the Roman.

Now newspapers are better organized and better looking, but lack a little something called “fillers.”

Fillers could show up anywhere on almost any topic. Perhaps the most famous filler was “How Old is Ann?” that appeared Oct. 9, 1903. New York City readers got hooked on this one:  “Mary is 24 years old. Mary is twice as old as Ann was when Mary was as old as Ann is now. How old is Ann?”

People in Brooklyn challenged people in Manhattan to solve the puzzle. New Englanders got involved. The riddle intrigued the United States.

I asked the “How Old is Ann?” question 70 years  after it appeared and got an algebra answer from a Niagara University professor. I arrived at the answer by osmosis, following the dictate of Father Elmer at Bishop Timon who said, “If you can’t do it by algebra, do it my arithmetic.”

The professor used X to the power of two, something I never could untangle. Now, I understand from a first grade teacher, arithmetic is no longer on the curriculum in schools. I wonder if they use algebra yet.

Four years before Ann came along, there was another filler that found it’s way around the world. Elbert Hubbard, who started the Roycroft Crafters in East Aurora, published the Philistine, a magazine for smart people. He needed a story to fill up the monthly issue in 1899 and wrote, “The Message to Garcia.”

To Hubbard’s surprise, his readers asked for extra copies of the magazine, more and more. The Russians, visiting U.S. Railroads, picked up some copies and handed thousands out to their troops who were fighting the Japanese. The Japanese found the pamphlet on the Russians and decided it was useful.

The Message sold over 40 million copies and was translated to 40 languages. It was made into two movies. It became slang.

In short, the message is “Take the Initiative.”

My mother had to read “The Message to Garcia” in high school. When she told me to “Take the Message to Garcia,” I was moved. I used to assign it to college students, with cryptic directions. Students with initiative found it and won. Others gave up, and lost.

Now, a student just has to fill in the Google or Yahoo box on a computer. In seconds, they can learn the age of Ann and the  message Hubbard used to inspire up-and-comers — and some of the rest of us.

Contact reporter Bill Wolcott

at 439-9222, ext. 6246.


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