March 15, 1900: Life magazine calls Duluth the “meanest city in the United States”

The cover of the March 15, 1900, edition of Life magazine. (Image: Public Domain)

On this day in 1900, Life magazine ran a brief story calling Duluth the “meanest city in the United States.” Someone called “Frozen-Face Ike” was credited for the following story: “The meanest city in the United States? That’s easy, for there is but one city in this country, or on this globe for that matter, where the people are as learned, courteous, and well-to-do, as in the city of Duluth, while the city itself is meanness par excellence, the honorable Proctor Knott concurring. The location and climate are the essentials, we are told by the ‘boomers.’ In the first place, there’s the climate: Nine months winter and three months late fall covers that. And such winters—rain and sleet this week, and forty below next. And such falls——in lawns dressed with a sealskin-coat accompaniment in the morning, a straw hat and pair of white ducks for the afternoon, and coal fire, with hot toddy on the side, in the evening. And the location—built on a side hill so steep that the property owners are compelled to build retaining walls on the lower side of their lands or be prepared to defend a suit of damages on account of their lawn sliding into the next lot and ruining their neighbor’s mountain pine shrubbery. And the zephyrs which rub themselves into your marrow, the gentle zephyrs at about sixty miles per hour, sometimes with and sometimes without snow or rain, or both. Talk about mean cities, why a man of Swedish extraction, who had lived in Chicago and thought he knew more about the Inferno than Dante, or of the North Pole than Perry, went to Duluth recently and stayed a few months, but simply because he was without funds and it was too far to walk in the next town, has struck it about right. After returning to Chicago, he was asked about his winter up north, and replied thusly: ‘Da vorst vinter a effe spen en may life bean von sommor vat a leve en Dulute, Manasouta,” [The worst winter I ever spent in my life was one summer that I lived in Duluth, Minnesota] and he was right at that. If more arguments as to it being the meanest city on earth are wanted, apply to any one of the weather bureau men who were formerly stationed in Duluth, but now sojourning at Minnesota’s Home for ‘daffy’ weather guessers.” The Duluth Herald reran the piece in its entirety on March 21, charging the magazine with five separate instances of “libel” and called the joke by the alleged Swedish gentleman “unworthy of comment, for it is stale and decayed. Every new [Duluth] resident has heard that joke before he learned the streets.” The joke has long been attributed to Mark Twain, but he never said it. Honest. You can read about that here.

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