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July 8, 1865

Answers to Correspondents

INQUIRER, Sacramento. - At your request I have been down and walked under and around and about the grand, gaudy and peculiar


which rears its awful form at the conjunction of Montgomery and California streets, and have taken such notes as may enable me to describe it to you and tell you what I think of it. [N. B. I am writing this on Monday, the day preceding the Glorious Fourth.] My friend, I have seen arch-traitors and arch-deacons and architects, and archeologists, and archetypes, and arch-bishops, and, in fact, nearly all kinds of arches, but I give you the word of an honest man that I never saw an arch like this before. I desire to see one more like it and then die. I am the more anxious in this respect because it is not likely that I shall ever get a chance to see one like it in the next world, for something tells me that there is not such an arch as this in any of the seven heavens, and there certainly cannot be anything half as gay in the other place.

I am calling this one arch all the time, but in reality it is a cluster of four arches; when you pass up Montgomery street you pass under two of them, and when you pass up California street you pass under the other two. These arches spring from the tops of four huge square wooden pillars which are about fifteen or twenty feet high and painted with dull, dead, blue mud or blue-mass, or something of that kind. Projecting from each face of these sombre columns are bunches of cheap flags adorned with tin spear-heads. The contrast between the dark melancholy blue of the pillars and the gorgeous dyes of the flags is striking and picturesque. The arches reach as high as the eaves of an ordinary three-story house, and they are wide in proportion, the pillars standing nearly the width of the street apart. A flagstaff surmounts each of the pillars. The Montgomery street arches are faced with white canvas, upon which is inscribed the names of the several States in strong black paint; as there is a "slather" of gory red and a "slather" of ghostly white on each side of these black names, a cheerful barber-pole contrast is here presented. The broad tops of the arches are covered (in the barber-pole style, also, which seems to have been the groundwork of this fine conception,) with alternate patches of white and sickly pink cotton, and these patches having a wrinkled and disorderly appearance, remind me unpleasantly of a shirt I "done up" once in the Humboldt country, beyond the Sierras. The general effect of this open, airy, summer-house combination of arches, with its splashes and dashes of blue and red and pink and white, is intensely streaky and stripy; and altogether, if the colossal bird-cage were only "weatherboarded" it would just come up to one's notion of what a grand metropolitan barber-shop ought to be. Or if it were glazed it would be a neat thing in the way of a show-lamp to set up before a Brobdignag theatre. Surmounting the centres of two of the arches - those facing up and down Montgomery street - are large medallion portraits of Lincoln and Washington - daubs - apparently executed in whitewash, mud and brick-dust, with a mop. in these, also, the barber-shop ground-plan is still adhered to with a discriminating and sensitive regard to consistency; Washington is clean-shaved, but he is not done getting shampooed yet; his white hair is foamy with lather, and his countenance bears the expectant aspect of a man who knows that the cleansing shower-bath is about to fall. Good old Father Abe, whose pictured face, heretofore, was always serious, but never unhappy, looks positively worn and dejected and tired out, in the medallion - has exactly the expression of one who has been waiting a long time to get shaved and there are thirteen ahead of him yet. I cannot help admiring how the eternal fitness of things has been preserved in the execution of these portraits. To one who delights in "the unities" of art, could anything be more ravishing than the appropriate appearance and expression of the two countenances, overtopped as they are by sheaves of striped flags and surrounded on all sides by the glaring, tinted bars that symbol the barber's profession? I believe I have nothing left to describe in connection with the two arches which span Montgomery street. However, upon second thought, I forgot to mention that over each of the two sets of portraits stoops a monstrous painted eagle, with wings uplifted over his back, neck stretched forward, beak parted, and eager eye, as if he were on the very point of grabbing a savory morsel of some kind - an imaginary customer of the barber-shop, maybe.

The arch which fronts up California street is faced with white canvas, prominently sewed together in squares, and upon this broad white streak is inscribed in large, plain, black, "horse-type," this inscription:


For some unexplained reason, the "Founders" of the Republic are aggrandized with a capital "F," and the equally meritorious Saviors of it snubbed with a small "S." True, they gave the Saviors a "u" - a letter more than is recommended by Webster's dictionary - but I consider that a lame apology and an illiberal and inadequate compensation for "nipping" their capital S. The centre-piece of this arch consists of an exceedingly happy caricature of the coat-of-arms of California, done in rude imitation of fresco. The female figure is a placid, portly, straight-haired squaw in complete armor, sitting on a recumbent hog, and so absorbed in contemplation of the cobble-stones that she does not observe that she has got her sack of turnips by the wrong end, and that dozens of them are rolling out at the other; neither does she observe that the hog has seized the largest turnip and has got it in his mouth; neither does she observe that her great weight is making it mighty uncomfortable for the hog; she does not notice that she is mashing the breath out of him and making his eyes bulge out with a most agonized expression - nor that it is as much as he can do to hold on to his turnip. There is nothing magnanimous in this picture. Any true-hearted American woman, with the kindly charity and the tenderness that are inseparable from the character, would get up for a minute and give the hog a chance to eat his turnip in peace.

The centre-piece of the opposite arch is a copy of the one just described, except that the woman is a trifle heavier, and of course the distress of the hog is aggravated in a corresponding degree. The motto is -


This is an entirely abstract proposition, and does not refer to the surrounding splendors of the situation.

I have now described the arch of which you have heard such glowing accounts (set afloat in the first place by incendiary daily prints, no doubt,) and have thus satisfied your first request. Your second - that I would tell you what I think of it, can be done in a few words. It cost $3,000, and I think it cost a great deal too much, considering the unhappy result attained. I think the taste displayed was very bad - I might even say barbarous, only the tone of some of my preceding paragraphs might lead people to think I was making a pun. If you will notice me you will observe that I never make a pun intentionally - I never do anything like that in cold blood. To proceed - I think the same money expended with better judgment would have procured a set of handsome, graceful arches which could be re-trimmed and used again, perhaps; but I think these can't, as we have no ferry slips now that require gateways resplendent with cheap magnificence; I think the whole affair was gotten up in too great a hurry to be done well - the committee was appointed too late in the day; I suppose the appointing power did not know sooner that the Fourth of July was coming this year; I think the committee did as well as they could under the circumstances, because a member of it told me so, and he could have no object in deceiving me; I think many people considered the cluster of arches, with their Sunday-school-picnic style of ornamentation, pretty, and took a good deal of pride in the same, and therefore I am glad that this article will not be published until the Fourth has come and gone, for I would be sorry that any remarks of mine should mar the pleasure any individual might otherwise take in that truly extraordinary work of art.

Now you have the arches as they looked before the Fourth - the time when the above paragraphs were written. But I must confess - and I don't do it very reluctantly - that on the morning of the Fourth they were greatly improved in appearance. One cause was that innumerable small flags had been mounted on the arches, and hid the broad red and pink patchwork covering of the latter from sight, and another that the fiery colors so prevalent about the structure had been pleasantly relieved by the addition of garlands and festoons of evergreens to the embellishments, and the suspension of a champagne basket of other greens and flowers from the centre of it, chandelier fashion. Also, as by this time all Montgomery street was a quivering rainbow of flags, one could not help seeing that the decorations of the arches had to be pretty strong in coloring to keep up any sort of competition with the brilliant surroundings.

As I have disparaged this work of art before it had a chance to put on its best looks, and as I still don't think a great deal of it, I will act fairly by it, and print the other side of the question, so that you can form a just estimate of its merits and demerits by comparing the arguments of the prosecution and defence together. I will republish here the opinion entertained of it by the reporter of the Alta, one of its most fanatical, and I may even say, rabid admirers. I will go further and endorse a portion of what he says, but not all, by a good deal. I don't endorse the painting "in the highest style of the decorative art," (although it sounds fine - I may say eloquent,) nor the "magnificent basket," either:

"The most noticeable feature of the display on this street was the


at the intersection of California and Montgomery streets, designed by M. F. Butler, Esq., the architect; erected by A. Snyder; painted, in the highest style of the decorative art, by Hopps & Son; and draped and adorned with flags and flowers by Chas. M. Plum, upholsterer, and A. Barbier, under the management and supervision of a Committee, consisting of John Sime, W. W. Dodge and M. E. Hughes. This arch was one of the chief attractions throughout the day and evening. On Montgomery street, distributed on both north and south sides, were the names of the thirty-six sovereign States of the Union, to each one a separate shield, and the names of the leading Generals of the Revolution, side by side with those of the War for the Union, and on the California street side the names of officers of the Army and Navy, past and present, the face of the arch on the east side bearing the words:

'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,'

And on the west side -

'Honor to the Founders and Saviors of our Republic.'

The centre of both the arches on Montgomery street were ornamented with portraits of Washington and Lincoln, and surmounted with flags beautifully and tastefully grouped. The flags of various nations were also grouped under the base of the arches at the four corners, and the whole structure was hung with evergreen wreaths and flowers, while a magnificent floral basket hung suspended under the centre of the structure by wreaths depending from the arches. As the procession passed under this arch, the petals of the roses and other flowers were constantly falling upon it in showers as the wreaths swung to and fro in the summer breeze."

Now for my side again. The following blast is from the Morning Call. The general felicity of the thing is to be ascribed to the fact that the reporter listened to some remarks of mine used in the course of a private conversation with another man, and turned them to account as a "local item." He is excusable for taking things from me, though, because I used to take little things from him occasionally when I reported with him on the Call:

STRAIGHTENING UP. - The likenesses of "Pater Patriae," and "Salvator Patriae," on the ornamental (!) barber-shop at the corner of Montgomery and California streets, have been straightened up, and now wear a closer similarity to what might be supposed to represent men of steady habits. While we hold in the most profound veneration the memory of those illustrious men, as well as the day we propose to celebrate, yet we defy any person to look at that triumphal structure, its blue pillars and tawdry arches, utterly ignoring architecture and taste - and not laugh.

Now for the other side. The following highly-flavored compliment is also from the Morning Call, (same issue as the above extract,) but was written by the chief editor - and editors and reporters will differ in opinion occasionally:

A FINE DISPLAY. - All things promise a fine display to-day, the finest probably that has ever been witnessed in this city. The splendid triumphal arches at the intersection of Montgomery and California streets, will be especial objects of admiration. They were designed by M. F. Butler, Esq., the architect, have been erected under his supervision, and are at once splendid specimens of his artistic skill as well as of the taste of the Committee who chose his designs over all others presented for the occasion. Mr. B. is the pioneer, as well as among the best architects of this State, and this last work, though of a somewhat ephemeral nature, is worthy of the artist who designed and superintended it, and was properly entrusted to one of our oldest citizens as well as one of the most loyal men of the State.

Now for my side. The following is also from the Call, (same issue as both the above extracts:)

THAT ARCH. - The following bit of satire, from a correspondent, is pretty severe on the anomalous structure our Committee have dignified with the name of triumphal arch:

"The grand Patriotic or Union Arch erected at the corner of Montgomery and California streets, is a magnificent affair. I presume it will be retained there for a number of weeks. But is n't there a very important omission about the structure? Erected in commemoration of the Nation's birthday and all its subsequent glories, should not the portrait of the author of the Declaration of Independence crown one of its beautiful arches?

Now for the other side once more. The following is from the Bulletin. The concluding portion of the first sentence is time-worn and stereotyped, though, and I don't consider that it ought to count against me. It is always used on such occasions and is never intended to mean anything:

"The triumphal arch which is now being completed under the direction of M. F. Butler, architect, at the junction of Montgomery and California streets, is the most imposing structure of its kind that has ever been erected on this coast. [Here follows a description of it in dry detail.] The arches are beautifully trimmed with evergreen, and the whole structure is to be adorned with a profusion of flags representing all nations, with appropriate mottoes and names of popular Generals scattered here and there among the Stars and Stripes."

And, finally, for my side again. Having this thing all my own way I have decided that I am entitled to the closing argument. The following is from the American Flag:

TRIUMPHAL ARCH. - A triumphal arch had been erected at the intersection of California and Montgomery streets, at a cost of $3,000. It consisted of four arches, one fronting and spanning each street, and resting upon four large pillars, thirty feet in height, painted a dingy blue, festooned with flags of various nations, and exhibiting upon each side, painted upon shields, the names, two upon each shield of the heroes of 1776 and 1865, - Grant, Greene; Sheridan, Montgomery; Dahlgren, Decatur; Dupont, Porter, &c. Near the center of each of the arches fronting on Montgomery street, were rather poorly painted portraits, also painted upon a shield, of Washington and Lincoln, surrounded by large spread eagles, and bearing beneath, the initials "W. L;" upon these arches were inscribed upon red and white shields, the names of all the States; the arch facing California street, west, bore the inscription "Honor to the Founders and to the Saviors of the Republic;" and that opposite, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;" and near the center of both was a picture of a female of rather a lugubrious countenance, seated upon a lion couchant, bearing in her left hand a staff, and upon her head something bearing a striking resemblance to the metalic caps worn by the mail-clad warriors of ancient Greece, all of which, we presume, was intended to represent the "Goddess of Liberty victorious over the British Lion," but as we were unable to read the name of the damsel upon the shield which she held in her right hand, we will not be positive on that point. The whole affair was finely decorated with evergreens, flowers, wreaths, flags, etc., and would have been creditably ornamented, had more taste and skill been displayed in the paintings.

The prosecution "rests" here. And the defense will naturally have to "rest" also, because I have given them all the space I intend to. The case may now go to the jury, and while they are out I will give judgment in favor of the plaintiff. I learned that trick from the Washoe judges, long ago. But it stands to reason that when a thing is so frightfully tawdry and devoid of taste that the Flag can't stand it, and when a painting is so diabolical that the Flag can't admire it, they must be wretched indeed. Such evidence as this is absolutely damning.

STUDENT OF ETIQUETTE. - Asks: "If I step upon one end of a narrow bridge just at the moment that a mad bull rushes upon the other, which of us is entitled to precedence - which should give way and yield the road to the other?"

I decline to answer - leave it to the bull to decide. I am shrouded in doubts upon the subject, but the bull's mind will probably be perfectly clear. At a first glance it would seem that this "Student of Etiquette" is asking a foolish and unnecessary question, inasmuch as it is one which naturally answers itself - yet his inquiry is no more absurd than a dozen I can find any day gravely asked and as gravely answered in the "Correspondents' Column" of literary papers throughout the country. John Smith meets a beautiful girl on the street and falls in love with her, but as he don't know her name, nor her position in society, nor where she lives, nor in fact anything whatever about her, he sits down and writes these particulars to the Weekly Literary Bushwhacker, and gravely asks what steps he ought first to take in laying siege to that girl's affections - and is as gravely answered that he must not waylay her when she is out walking alone, nor write her anonymous notes, nor call upon her unendorsed by her friends, but his first move should be to procure an introduction in due form. That editor, with a grand flourish of wisdom, would have said: "Give way to the bull!" I, with greater wisdom, scorn to reply at all. If I were in a sarcastic vein, though, I might decide that it was Smith's privilege to butt the bull off the bridge - if he could. Again - John Jones finds a young lady stuck fast in the mud, but never having been introduced to her, he feels a delicacy about pulling her out, and so he goes off, with many misgivings, and writes to the Diluted Literary Sangaree about it, craving advice: he is seriously informed that it was not only his privilege, but his duty, to pull the young lady out of the mud, without the formality of an introduction. Inspired wisdom! He too, would have said: "Back down, and let the bull cross first." William Brown writes to the Weekly Whangdoodle of Literature and Art that he is madly in love with the divinest of her sex, but unhappily her affections and her hand are already pledged to another - how must he proceed? With supernatural sagacity the editor arrives at the conclusion that it is Brown's duty, as a Christian and gentleman, to go away and let her alone. Marvelous! He, too, would have said: "Waive etiquette, and let the bull have the bridge." However, we will drop the subject for the present if these editors choose to go on answering foolish questions in the grandiloquent, oracular style that seems to afford them so much satisfaction, I suppose it is no business of mine.

MARY, Rincon School. - No, you are mistaken - bilk is a good dictionary word. True, the newspapers generally enclose it in quotation marks, (thus: "bilk,") Which is the usual sign made use of to denote an illegitimate or slang phrase, but as I said before, the dictionaries recognize the word as good, pure English, nevertheless. I perfectly agree with you, however, that there is not an uglier or more inelegant word in any language, and I appreciate the good taste that ignores its use in polite conversation. For your accommodation and instruction, I have been looking up authorities in the Mercantile Library, and beg leave to offer the result of my labors, as follows:

From Webster's Dictionary, edition of 1828.

BILK, v. t. [Goth. bilaikan, to mock or deride. This Gothic word appears to be compound, bi and laikan, to leap or exult.]

To frustrate or disappoint; to deceive or defraud, by non-fulfilment of engagement; as, to bilk a creditor. Dryden.

BILKED, pp. Disappointed; deceived; defrauded.

From Walker's Dictionary.

BILK, v. a. To cheat; to deceive.

From Wright's Universal Pronouncing Dictionary.

BILK. To deceive; to defraud.

From Worcester's Dictionary.

BILK, v. a. [Goth. bi-laikan, to scoff, to deride.] To cheat; to defraud; to deceive; to elude.

But be sure, says he, don't you bilk me. Spectator

From Spiers and Surenne's French Pronouncing Dictionary.

BILK, v. a. 1. frustrer; 2. (argot) flouer (escroquer, duper).

From Adler's German and English Dictionary.

To BILK, v. a. schnellen, prellen, betrugen, im Stiche lassen, (besonders um die [mit der] Bezahlung); joc. einen Husaren machen.

From Seoane's Spanish Dictionary.

To BILK. va. Engafiar, defrauder, pegarla, chasquear, no pagar lo que se debe.

From Johnson's Dictionary.

To BILK. v. a. [derived by Mr. Lye from the Gothick bilaican.] To cheat; to defraud, by running in debt, and avoiding payment.

Bilk'd stationers for yeomen stood prepared. Dryd.

What comedy, what farce can more delight,
Than grinning hunger, and the pleasing sight
Of your bilk'd hopes? Dryden.

From Richardson's Dictionary.

BILK. Mr. Gifford says, "Bilk seems to have become a cant word about this (Ben Jonson's) time, for the use of it is ridiculed by others, as well as Jonson. It is thus explained in Cole's English Dictionary, 'Bilk, nothing; also to deceive.'" Lye, from the Goth. Bilaikan, which properly signifies insultando illudere.

To cheat, to defraud, to elude.

Tub. Hee will ha' the last word, though he take bilke for't.

Hugh. Bilke? what's that?

Tub. Why nothing, a word signifying nothing; and borrow'd here to express nothing. B. Jonson. Tale of a Tub, Act i. sc. 1.

[He] was then ordered to get into the coach, or behind it, for that he wanted no instructors; but be sure you dog you, says he, don't you bilk me.- Spectator, No. 498.

Patrons in days of yore, like patrons now,
Expected that the bard should make his bow
At coming in, and ev'ry now and then
Hint to the world that they were more than men;
But, like the patrons of the present day,
They never bilk'd the poet of his pay.
Churchill. Independence.

The tabooed word "bilk," then, is more than two hundred years old, for Jonson wrote the "Tale of a Tub" in his old age - say about the year 1630 - and you observe that Mr. Gifford says it "seems to have become a cant word in Jonson's time." It must have risen above its vulgar position and become a legitimate phrase afterwards, though, else it would not have been uniformly printed in dictionaries without protest or explanation, almost from Jonson's time down to our own - for I find it thus printed in the very latest edition of Webster's Unabridged. Still, two centuries of toleration have not been able to make it popular, and I think you had better reflect awhile before you decide to write to Augustus that he is a bilk.

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