The Stotham hoax, 1920
By no stretch of the imagination could the White Pine monograph series be called a mass-circulation affair. Paid for by Weyerhauser mills and edited by Russell Whitehead, its audience was architects and its mission was to encourage them to use white pine as a building material. The brochures, exquisitely produced affairs boasting pictures, plans and descriptions of early American white pine buildings, came out every other month but whilst cherished by many of the recipients it was, frankly, as dry as – well white pine.
The April 1920 edition featured an article penned by one Hubert G Ripley, featuring a well-illustrated account of a Massachusetts Village of Stotham. For good measure, the article gave a rather high-flown potted history of the origins of the place. “When Zabdiel Podbury fled from Stoke-on-Tritham in the Spring of 1689 with Drusilla Ives, taking passage on the bark Promise, sailing for Massachusetts Bay, it was not realised at the time that, from this union, and the joint labours of this Penthesilean pair, the village of Stotham would in later days come to be regarded as a typical example, although, perhaps, not so well known, of unspoiled New England Village.”
All the buildings illustrated, gushed Ripley, were the work of the pair’s descendants; “Generations of blushing maidens have swung on the old Billings gate, opening on the path leading to the meadows, in the pale light of the harvest moon, lending shy ear to the rustic swains of the village, as in whispered and halting phrases they spoke of their hopes and aspirations; and as a result of these meetings, old traditions were kept alive.” Stotham was a bucolic paradise, unblighted by the ugliness of contemporary buildings. There was even a haunted house.
In short, Ripley concluded, Stotham was a village “where the quintessence of naturalness finds its ultimate expression.”
Remarkably, this sort of fulsome guff was so in keeping with the normal output of the White Pine series that no one gave any undue attention to Ripley’s paean to Massachusettsan pastoralism until around twenty years later. The head of the Fine Arts Department of the Library of Congress, Leicester B Holland, set his staff the task of cataloguing all the articles in the White Pine Series.
The job was successfully completed with one exception. Try as they might, the staff couldn’t find Stotham on any map, couldn’t trace the founder, Zabdiel Podbury, nor, when it came to it, Stoke-on- Tritham in any gazetteer of Blighty. There was much scratching of heads and whirring of grey cells.
The mystery was only resolved when Holland met by chance the White Pine Series’ editor, Russell Whitehead. When challenged, Whitehead looked sheepish and admitted that they had far too many photographs left over from their regular articles. He and Ripley decided that it was a shame to waste them and so cooked up a ruse to invent a village and a pair of fictitious founders as the hook upon which to hang some rather fine photographs of early American architecture which otherwise might not have seen the light of day.
As they say, no one was hurt by this rather charming jape. It is just astonishing that it took over two decades to unmask the hoax for what it was.
This post first appeared on Windowthroughtime | A Wry View Of Life For The World-weary, please read the originial post: here