The ranking game: a matter of perception Mencken got business of rankings started nearly 60 years ago

November 04, 1990|By David Conn

Some say it was H. L. Mencken who started it all, this business of ranking cities and states.

In a series of 1931 articles in his magazine, American Mercury, Mencken and writer Charles Angoff examined the factors that contribute to the quality of life in America. Clearly not trying to curry favor with chambers of commerce or state tourism officials, the Evening Sun columnist called the report "The Worst American State."

"Statistics, to be sure, are not always reliable," Mencken and Angoff wrote, "but we have nothing better and we must make as much of them as we can."

That they did. Starting with the broad category of wealth, the two compiled data on everything from tangible and taxable property per capita, bank resources, per capita savings, taxes and disposable income to gasoline consumption, telephone use and life insurance.

After combining the rankings, Connecticut topped the list of wealthiest states, followed by California and New York. Maryland was 19th out of the 48 states (and the District of Columbia), and Mississippi was the poorest state.

Mencken and Angoff turned next to education and culture, looking at illiteracy, school populations, teacher salaries, libraries, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, passport applications and the number of natives appearing in "Who's Who in America."

This time Massachusetts was deemed most educated and cultural, with the District of Columbia and California close behind. Maryland came in 25th, and Mississippi again brought up the rear.

Finally, Mencken and Angoff looked at three more broad categories: public health, public order and general habitability.

They included death rates, infant mortality, the supply of physicians and hospitals and other data in the health category. Public order comprised the number of lynchings, homicides and suicides, the racial and religious composition of a state, robberies, prison sentences and the number of stills seized by the federal government. Under general habitability were climate, population, roads and railways.

The winner was Massachusetts, which, "save for its fisheries, has little natural wealth, but it has been settled for more than three centuries," Mencken and Angoff wrote. "It early accumulated a great deal of capital in trade, and it has led the Union in most cultural matters . . ."

Mississippi, at the other extreme, "has few natural resources, and suffers from a bad climate and a backward population," they wrote. "It has no efficient police, as its lynching record shows, and its government is in the hands of office-seekers of low character.

"It is also deficient in decent hospitals, colleges, newspapers and libraries . . . Altogether, it seems to be without a serious rival to the lamentable pre-eminence of the Worst American State."

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