When I saw the cover of Clifford A. Richmond’s The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing (1946) making the rounds on Tumblr, I knew at once I had to have it. I don’t know why, in retrospect. I paid seventeen dollars for a used copy. I have made a mistake.
I imagined—based solely on the presence of Romance in the title, and that handsome gilt typeface—that Richmond would be a lively historian, an eccentric, an obsessive, dedicated to teasing out the poesy in elastic webs. This thing will practically excerpt itself, I thought. Imagine the untapped, Internet-breaking power of this man’s elastic rhapsodies! Imagine the hilarity trapped beneath his industrious self-seriousness!
But The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing is only an arid, methodical look at midcentury elastic webbing firms, large and small, up and down the East Coast. To call it “inside baseball” is doing it a favor, because baseball is a sport, and some people are entertained by sports. No one will be entertained by this book. Truth be told, I’m not even altogether sure, having read thoroughly skimmed it, what elastic webbing is—I’m pretty sure it’s that rubbery anti-slip material you sometimes find under welcome mats at, say, IHOP, but Richmond’s book alludes to wide uses in the garment business, so I’m mistaken, unless the early twentieth century was dominated by rubber-fishnet fetishists.
“In memory of four promising young men of the United Elastic Corporation,” the dedication reads. And the introduction offers these promising, antic lines:
Then and there Samuel Williston got the smell of rubber in his nostrils, and it will be seen as this story unravels that once that happens to a man he either stays with rubber or is thereafter ever homesick to get back into the rubber industry.
Yeah! If the whole book comprised scenes of lonely, straitlaced men in three-piece suits huffing rubber straight from the assembly line, it was going to be awesome.
But there is no story to unravel. That’s the first and last appearance of the word nostrils. I held out hope, nonetheless, for a colorful cast of characters: after all, “there are few animals in captivity,” Richmond writes, “who enjoy blowing their own trumpets more than do elastic web makers. No offense—the writer included himself in this judgment.”
Richmond hardly writes another word about himself. His only moments of hubris come when he reaches for metaphors. “The atomic bomb of oblivion seems to have blown them off history’s pages,” he writes of some forgotten elastic-webbing manufacturers. And, of a more successful gent: “Every last ounce of his brain is going places—one of which most decidedly is not the poorhouse.” And boy, can the guy riff on mergers and acquisitions!
With birth, labor pangs, and a raft of things to be “ironed out,” the United Elastic Corporation was born October 27, 1927. When anyone tells you that it is a pleasure party to put together, as one, two or more corporations that have been in lively competition, just open your mouth for air, and say nothing.
To be sure, in the early stages that child had colic, mumps, measles, whooping cough, growing pains, pimples during adolescence and a change of nurses. All of these were lived through without once missing the payment of dividends to the shareholders.
If that seems needlessly extended, remember that in Richmond’s opinion, it’s the only way to capture, with any truth, the complexity of this business. “Relating the history of elastics,” he writes, “is not unlike twisting in threads and cutting the cards for a jacquard pattern.” And he seems ennobled by his calling:
It is indeed unfortunate that no scribe has bestirred himself to write the record of an industry producing an essential product of far-flung usefulness, an honorable industry … One who has given his life to the manufacture of elastic web describes the lot of the elastic web manufacturer as “dancing on a hot griddle.”
Would that these pages had absorbed some of that heat.
Who is Cliff Richmond, anyhow? Google hardly knows him. A notice in the September 1916 issue of Notions and Fancy Goods describes him as “a thoroughly practical man”; records indicate that he held stock in the American Pneumatic Service Company. Other than that, the atomic bomb of oblivion, you might say, seems to have blown him off history’s pages. He does have, I should say, one brief mention in a book from 2013. It’s called Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.