Did you think “New Age Thinking” was new? Books and seminars proposing the power of attitude and holistic practices surround us so you might not realize that these ideas were around in the early 1900s, when my great-grandfather Harris Stilson was driving streetcars and photographing Richmond. In his journal, he embraced radical philosophies and his book collection, which survived, is illuminating. Books like the seven volume collection “The Secret of the Ages” by Robert Collier printed in 1926 which describes how a person can have dominion over his body, environment, and health by realizing his God-power within. Collier dedicated his efforts to educating a portion of the American population whose plight is as relevant today as in the 1920s. The first volume’s foreward could have been taken from President Obama’s State of the Union speech as Collier describes a young couple not getting help that “would spell H-E-A-V-E-N to that tiny family. But do they get it? Not often! And the reason? Because they are not poor enough for charity. They are not rich enough to afford it themselves. They belong to that great “Middle Class” which has to bear the burdens of both the poor and the rich-and take what is left for itself.” Sound like the “Middle Class Economics” debates of today? Sure does.

The Secret of the Ages” sounds  like pop culture but it wasn’t only self-empowerment that intrigued Harry Stilson. He also studied hypnosis. Popular around the turn of the century, the idea of mind control was the subject of everything from scientific studies to drawing room performances. This booklet, also in Harry’s collection, is an example of his interest in the subject.


On Martin Luther King Day, I gave a presentation at the Maggie Walker National Historic Site and quoted from Harris Stilson’s 1907 speech entitled “Our Tinted Population” which I found. He gave that speech to a Women’s Literary Club in Michigan and his ideas were radical. Harry promoted what we call integration, a term probably not even invented back then, and I’m proud of his conviction. What is also interesting is his description of the population of America.

Quoting from Harry’s speech: “We are black, brown, red, yellow, and white. We are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, spiritualist, atheist, or whatnot. If they be of different types, at variance in color, religion or nationality, or all three, I am constrained to believe, being optimistic, it is so much better for the world. I believe that the true test is one of or moral worth, and that the best education is the one that develops that character without regard to color of skin or condition of society. I also think that the best way to remove that “pride of tint” is by honorable familiarity with the adverse color, religion or nationality.

In no place can this honorable familiarity be better brought about than in our common schools and public churches. I would abolish all private schools…(so) that they should become more familiar with and less suspicious of those of different tint, and thus become better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other.”

074e Tinted Population

Did you catch spiritualist in his list? Right up there with recognized religions so I am assuming that these philosophies were in the news and part of the culture of the early 1900s.

Harry Stilson must have been fascinated with the notion that we could recreate or improve ourselves because I found his photograph of this class. He hand-wrote “Self Improvement Class” on the building window. We can’t identify the building or any of the members of the group so help in locating this building would be appreciated. I also found other books and pamphlets about spiritual growth and mind-control, not exactly normal reading material for a white middle-aged Christian living in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1920s.

self improvement class

Basically, what I’m saying is that the old adages “Nothing is new under the sun” or “What goes around comes around” are true. Decades from now, another President may dedicate himself to those “too poor for charity” and “not rich enough” to afford for themselves, “the Great Middle Class.” A century from now, hypnosis, spirituralism, “self-improvement classes”, or other holistic doctrines or ideologies might just be selling books like the ones I found in my aunt’s basement. I do hope, however, that Harry’s desire for “respect” between races and religions, has been achieved and that we will be “better citizens of this great nation.”