Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Origins of camouflage | a chat about the Trojan Horse

US Patent 2743104
John Kendrick Bangs, AT THE HOUSEBOAT ON THE STYX: The Matter of Camouflage in The Sunday Star (Washington DC), March 24, 1918, Part Four, p. 6—

“The most interesting thing to me about this row [World War I] that is going on on the other side of the river,“ said Michelangelo, as he sculpted the Kaiser’s head out of his camembert and tossed it to Dick Whittington’s cat, “is the business of camouflage, and, proud as I am of my own achievement along the lines of art, I take off my hat to these French and American artists who can kalsomine a fleet of forty-six battleships so that it looks like a strawberry shortcake floating on the surface of the ocean a mile away, and can titivate a battlefront with colored chalk and gewgaws that to the eye of a German spy it appears to be nothing more than a row of peace-loving Charlotte roosters greeting the dawn with a song.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Mike,” said Savonarola, who happened to be lunching at the club that day, having wearied of his third consecutive eat-less week. “I wouldn’t wear out the brim of my hat taking it off to those chaps if I were you. They didn’t invent camouflage. It is as old as the everlasting hills, and I don’t know that your modern camouflage had anything on some of our first families of Italy when it came to flagging an enemy in the good old days of long ago. You were no piker in the camouflage line yourself, Mickey, dear.”

“What, I?” said Michelangelo, apparently very much surprised.


George Morrow (Punch), reprinted in Cartoons Magazine (1919)

“Si, signor—sure, pop," said Savonarola. “I have known you to take a piece of plain, common garden, kiln-dried brick that was so poor in quality that it couldn’t even be used on a government contract in Russia, and as raucously red as a New Jersey mud-bank, and with a few deft strokes of your brush turn it into a baby-blue masterpiece that an American squillionaire would pay $945,429.20 for at an auction sale. You know that as well as I do, and then look at Lucretia Borgia—“

“Lucretia Borgia?” echoed Michelangelo. “Oh, come now, Savvy, what in all chimera had Lucretia Borgia to do with camouflage?”

“She was a pippin at it, that’s what,” returned Savonarola. “Camouflage was the lady’s long suit.”

“Well, I never knew that before,” laughed Michelangelo. “As I recall Lucretia’s record she ran a sort of deluxe delicatessen shop for people who were tired of life.”

“Ask Leonardo da Vinci if I am not right,” persisted Savonarola. “How about it, Len?”

“You can search me, Savvy,” smiled da Vinci. “Now you’ve got it you’d better keep the floor yourself.”

US Patent 4989856

“O tut!” retorted Savonarola. “I thought you chaps had some brains. Why, my dearly beloved Bambini, if Lucretia Borgia wasn’t Queen of the May in the line of pure camouflage, I’m blest if I know what else you’d call her. Did you ever see one of her Welsh rabbits?”

“I’ve heard of them,” said da Vinci, “but I never ate one. Fact is, I made it a rule never to eat anything at any of the Borgia chafing dish parties.”

“Sure,” said Savonarola, “ and that’s just my point. These Welsh rabbits of Lucretia’s were pure camouflage—“ Michelangelo laughed.

“Oh, I see,” said he, “you’re thinking of camembert, Savvy. We were talking of camouflage. Camouflage isn’t a cheese, you know.”

"I know what camouflage is just as well as you do,” retorted Savonarola, reddening angrily. “And when I say that Lucretia’s Welsh rabbits were pure camouflage, I mean it. They appeared to be one thing when in reality they were another. On the surface they were the most innocent-looking little bits of golden sunshine that ever gloried a piece of toast. To look at ‘em you’d say that as symbols of peaceful innocence they had the doe lashed to the everlasting mast—but underneath! Largo di Garda, Mike, they were seething maelstroms of destruction, and the man or woman Lucretia wanted permanently removed from the social register after they had eaten a half-portion of a Borgia-made golden buck had about as much chance of getting home alive as they’d have if they’d swallowed a drug store. Socrates’ hemlock cocktail was as buttermilk alongside one of the fair Lucretia’s loganberry flips.”


“I hadn’t thought of it in that light, but I see your point,” said Michelangelo, “and while I deprecate Lucretia’s fondness for getting her guests fed up on cyanide of potassium and other indelicacies, I am glad if Italy may lay claim to the paternity of the wonderful art we are discussing.”

US Patent D461331

“Italy nothing,” interjected Shakespeare. “I guess you never read my play of Macbeth, Mike?”

“Ah?” laughed Michelangelo. “Another bit of dramatic camouflage I suspect, my beloved bard—ostensibly Shakespeare, but underneath a mere side of bacon. That it, Bilious?”

“Oh,” said Shakespeare, amiably, “I’m perfectly satisfied to let that matter rest just where it stands. I’m beginning to believe from the way my works are being attributed to everybody but me that even at that I was the most distinguished person of my time, since I seem to be the only guy then living who didn’t write ‘em. But the point I wanted to make was that whoever it was that wrote my play of Macbeth he foresaw this whole business of camouflage when he disguised Macbeth’s enemies as a picnic grove so that when Macbeth saw what he thought was Birnam Wood marching on toward him with a real Sousa swing, it gave him an attack of the Willies that left him as full of pep in the hands of MacDuff as a bolshevik in the presence of a German peace soliloquy. Don’t you remember that line—

As I stand my watch upon the hill
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

“Never heard ‘em before, Bill, but if you say they’re there I’ll take your word for it,” replied Michelangelo. “It only goes to prove my point that after all art is the original knock-out. Whether it was invented by you with your peripatetic picnic park, or Lucretia Borgia with her cunning little rabbits so disengaging in their habits that started it, camouflage was some discovery.”

“If I went further back than you imagine,” put in Priam, sadly, spreading a thick layer of horseradish on his toast, "It may have done a lot for MacDuff, but I went to tell you right now, boys, it ruined me. I had the nicest little kingdom in the world up around Troy. It had Seattle and Oklahoma City and all the rest of your marvels of modern growth backed off the map. We were all happy and prosperous until that fool son of mine, Paris, awarded the blue ribbon for beauty to Venus, and thereby knocked us all galley-west. That decision made certain other ladies of the Olympian Sorosis so immortally mad that they sicked the Greeks on me at a time when preparedness was my short suit. But even at that, they had to use camouflage to put me on the mat. We had ‘em beaten to a frazzle when some wizard on the Greek side got the big idea. He induced Agamemnon to holler for peace, and as a token of Greek sincerity instead of handing me a loving cup, they made me a present of a horse several miles larger than the Statue of Liberty. You know the rest. That old cob looked like a midway stunt at a world’s fair, and while I didn’t want the darned thing any more than London wants Barnard’s statue of Lincoln, I thought it would please the children, and took it.”


US Patent 3138376

“And then what?” said Wat Tyler.

“Then what?” roared Priam. “Do you mean to tell me you never heard of the Trojan horse?”

“No,” said Tyler. “I never studied mathematics.”

“Well, it was a horse on me, all right!” said Priam, moodily. “It was built of wood and stucco, and was about the size of Billy Sunday’s tabernacles. It was mounted on wheels and rolled into our Central Park by the Greek peace delegation, and formally accepted by my royal highness as a token of Agamemnon’s love. We made a great festival of the occasion. All the schools were closed for the day, and the leading Nestors and Chauncey Depewsters of the time delivered addresses on the ‘Era of Good Feeling’ and ‘The End of the War’ and ‘The Overthrow of Mars’ and so on, from every angle of that old rag, and then when, as a grand climacteric, I climbed up the old hack’s neck and planted a Trojan flag in one ear and a Greek flag in the other, while the band played ’There Are No Pals Like the Old Pals,’ the populace yelled themselves to exhaustion with joy. Like a Bolshevik boob on a Potsdam payroll, I ordered the army demobilized, and went to bed happy. And then—“

Priam wept bitter tears.


“And the camouflage got in its fine work,” he resumed, nerving himself up with a long deep draft of Worcestershire sauce. “That old horse wasn’t a horse at all. It was a cantonment! Instead of being a mere bit of equine pleasantry it turned out to be a division of Rough Riders, only they rode inside the horse instead of on his back. The horrible beast held the whole Greek general staff, fifteen brigades of discus throwers, seven regiments of natural gasoliers armed to the teeth the fiercest kind of Greek propaganda, and a highly efficient fire department that for making things burn to ashes beat anything in that line in all history. They started the home fires burning and kept ‘em going to the last flicker of the ultimate ember. In short, Wat, while I slept, dreaming sweet dreams of peace, those Greeks inside shinned down that old jade’s hind legs, and when I waked up in the morning Troy was a flickering reminiscence.…”

US Patent 2448390

“Well,” said Homer, who had been a yawning listener to the discussion, “you’re all off in thinking the Trojan horse was the beginning of camouflage…Savonarola was right when he said camouflage was as old as the hills…

“Noah probably thought Ararat was a sea beach until he found his own scow stranded on top of a mountain. Eve doubtless thought the serpent was a gentleman and discovered later that he was a snake. Life is full of it. That things are seldom what they seem the sages have told us for myriads of years. Art is eternal, and eternity works both ways, fore and aft. We have always had camouflage and we’ll continue to have it to the end.”