Thursday, December 3, 2009
Discovering the Past in Cyberspace
William Gibson, the well-known science fiction writer and the man who first coined the term “cyberspace,” is fascinated with eBay. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Gibson said: “EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which no one ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It is like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement.”
The author goes on to say that eBay plus Google can allow an individual in some backwoods town “become the world premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff.” Gibson is dead right. While the archeologists unearth the past shovel by shovel, others of us drag it off the Internet.
For example, take the glass paperweight shown here. It is solid glass with raised letters that say “Remember Ungar’s Hungarian Hunyadi Arpad, Natural Aperient.” It looks as if it might have been made yesterday. A few years ago, coming on this paperweight, its provenance would have almost impossible to decipher. With the help of the Internet, however, today it is possible chart the history of the object with some precision and do it in a relatively short time.
First, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “aparient” as a laxative. Good to know. Second, the Web tells us Hunyadi was the last name of a Hungarian hero known variously as John or Jonas or Jean, and sometimes as Johan Hunniad. A great warrior, in 1441 Hunyadi delivered Serbia from the Ottoman Turks and recovered for his native Hungary the region of Wallachia. In 1450 he vanquished another Turkish army and became renowned throughout Christendom. Returning to Hungary he was made governor of the kingdom. In 1456 a flotilla assembled by Hunyadi destroyed the Ottoman fleet. He died in the same year, a national hero. His tomb, shown defaced, is a place of pilgrimage even today.
Now the story jumps ahead four centuries when a Hungarian named Andreas Saxlehner about 1863 began bottling the waters of a well he owned within the city limits of Budapest. He adopted the name “Hunyadi Janos” for his product and trademarked it in Europe. Business was brisk for this bitter-tasting laxative water and Saxlehner eventually owned 112 wells. He soon was exporting it worldwide, including to the United States. His bottles bore a highly elaborate paper label for bearing Hunyadi’s likeness.
The success of this aperient, however, drew competition. A number of Hungarian springs were tapped and bottled -- and many of them used Hunyadi in their brand name, to the dismay of Saxlehner. Chief among his competitors was Hunyadi Arpad. This laxative water was bottled beginning in 1880 from a Budapest area spring owned by Ignatz Ungar. In his ads Ungar claimed that his product had been legally conceded by the Prime Minister of Hungary to be the best and strongest natural aperient. Saxlehner, asserting the Hunyadi name was proprietary, sued his rival in European courts -- to mixed results. He also financed ads claiming that his was the only genuine Hunyadi water.
Almost inevitably the watery conflict spilled over into the New World. Saxlehner had a partner firm that merchandised his aparient in the U.S. Ignatz Ungar had a brother, Joseph, living in New York who served as his agent. Between 1886 and 1893, according to import figures, 1,395,050 bottles of Hunyadi Arpad were shipped into the U.S. By this time eight other mineral waters with Hunyadi in their name also were being imported from Hungary.
The Saxlehners had had enough. In 1893 they bought out the Ungars and shut their water off. Then they went after their other competition. With their America partners they sued for the exclusive right to use the name Hunyadi in the United States. The case went through the Federal court system and all the way to the Supreme Court where the case was heard in 1898. The Supremes in a lengthy decision upheld a lower court verdict that Hunyadi was a name in general use for aperient water and that it could not be held exclusively. The Saxlehners were charged court costs.
Please recall that we began our quest with just a single glass paperweight. By investigating its origins through Internet sources we 1) learned the meaning of aparient, 2) discovered the exploits of the 15th Century hero John Hunyadi, 3) traced the origins and growth of Hungarian laxative water, and 4) ended with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This array of information and images could be assembled only because of the riches available through Google, eBay, and other web sources.
There also is a practical result. Because Hunyadi Arpad was imported here during only the eight years 1886-1894, we can estimate safely that my glass paperweight, despite its utterly pristine and contemporary appearance, is between 106 and 114 years old and a true antique. That also is something important to know.