Chapter 10 U.S. CUSTOMS—WASHINGTON

8911 Flower Ave. where the author lived 1936-1956

The Office of Chief, Division of Laboratories was set by T.D. (Treasury Decision) 48228 dated March 28, 1936. Morris Kaplan, a young chemist, became my assistant. I came directly under the Commissioner. The chief chemists were called to Washington for a conference. Many changes had to be made: enlargement of responsibilities, uniform methods of analysis, sampling, containers, labels, and a host of other subjects. Task forces were named and assigned to some laboratory chiefs. Job descriptions had to be written for the 120 persons in the division. Later some other changes were made. One laboratory was abolished. Transfers of some chemists were made. The best chemists were promoted; weak characters were assigned to positions of less responsibility. These grumbled and complained. Others saw a bright future and a chance for advancement--not possible under the old unorganized set-up.

There were over 1800 kinds of merchandise imported into the U.S.A. subject to duty under the Tariff Act of 1930. To get the proper tariff classification and rate of duty required a representative sample taken by an inspector or examiner and sent to the laboratories for identification and analysis. Samples had to be drawn from ores, drugs, chemicals, foods, wines, spirits, coal-tars, petroleum, pigments, textiles, rubber products, plastics, and many other types of merchandise. A few examples:

A. Millions of tons of raw sugar were imported each year. The amount of sucrose was critical and samples had to go to the laboratory for a percentage sucrose report. .

B. Ores. Samples had to be assayed to determine the percent of those metals in the ores subject to duty or import tax.

C. Chemicals. Their identity was needed.

D. Textiles and Fabrics. Wool, cotton, synthetics. A mixture required of a laboratory report on the percent of each fiber present.

E. Drugs. Did these contain any prohibited narcotic drugs?

My first superior was James H. Moyle, Commissioner of Customs, an honest and forthright man. I admired him. He was a Mormon from Utah, was a leader in his religion and had been a state judge. He was appointed for political reasons as were other high ranking officials in Washington. We addressed him as “Judge”. Of course he knew nothing whatever about customs operation and how duties were collected. He was an elderly man. He knew everything about the origin of his religion and loved to tell about it. When representatives of importers had an appointment in his office, on some subject, he would call in a member of his large staff to solve the problem or answer the questions. The man most frequently called to his office, if there was a legal question, was W. R. Johnson, his chief counsel. Johnson was a brilliant attorney. He knew the Tariff Act from A to Z. Treasury officials had the highest regard for this career lawyer. When Judge Moyle resigned to return to Utah, 'W.R.' as he was affectionately called, was nominated and confirmed Commissioner. He did have some minor personal problems which caused him to go back to his former job. Years later it was my privilege to serve under Commissioner Frank Dow who had advanced up from a customs examiner. He would not make a decision, however, unless he knew (and liked) the person who had recommended it. Next was Ralph Kelly, a man from industry, an engineer. He and I became close friends. It was customary at times for a bureau official to go out to lunch with an importer's attorney who came to Washington on various tariff matters. Importers' attorneys usually would pick up the tab, which often included a cocktail or two. Kelly put a stop to this. Although harmless, it might result in unfavorable gossip. The word was passed along. Pay for your own lunch.

One of the first tasks of the Laboratory Division was to publish the Sampling Guide, June 25, 1938, for use by inspectors and examiners. First of its kind, 142 pages. Two years later, December 19, 1940, we published the Gauging Manual, 357 pages. Customs gaugers could not use the Internal Revenue Gauging Manual because the procedures and conditions of casks on the docks were quite different from those in a domestic distillery and warehouse. Later a supplement to the manual was issued July 26, 1949, 137 pages.

Work was next begun on writing laboratory methods of analysis. This was a continuing project because new kinds of products were being made abroad and imported into the U.S.A. It was also important that laboratory tests be uniform at whatever port the merchandise was imported. It was necessary to inspect the nine laboratories every few months. Appraisers of merchandise, who receive laboratory reports, would inform me how well these reports met requirements. I also got to know collectors of customs who were political appointees.

One day I called on the Collector in Los Angeles and was surprised. I had heard his father, the great orator, William Jennings Bryan, speak in 1916. He was a teetotaler. Not his son. W. J. Bryan, Jr. took me to lunch several times. We both had scotch and soda! His side interests included the chemicals used in color photography for the movie industry. My knowledge in this field was limited. It was a great joy for me to visit the principal cities of the U.S.A. and meet so many (hundreds) of customs officials. We related to each other quite well.

In September 1936, Virginia and I bought a five room house at 8911 Flower Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland, seven miles north of downtown Washington. All of our neighbors became our friends--some are so even now, 40 years later. We were lucky to purchase it from the builder for only $8,000. We had to take out a 1st and also a short term 2nd mortgage.

On April 30, 1938, Virginia gave birth to our second child, Robert Bruce.

Twitty (Tim) Whaley was transferred from the recently closed Kansas City laboratory and eventually became chief chemist of the one at Chicago. He was a graduate of Oklahoma State and was an expert in the assay of ores and metals. During a visit to Chicago, about 1946, I found he needed extra help. Thinking someone may be transferred from one of our other laboratories he asked me not to send a black, a Jew, or a woman chemist. I told him no one was available for transfer. He would have to select a chemist listed on the U.S. Civil Service register. The Civil Service Commission would mail him a list of five names, He had to take the top ranking name or explain his rejection of that person. Within a year he had to fill three vacancies. What happened? You guessed it. Now for the first time he had on his staff--all well qualified--a Negro, a Jew, and a woman chemist! Some weeks later my office in Washington got a personal telephone call from Chicago. A newly employed chemist wanted to know if I would transfer him to another laboratory. He was told there were no vacancies. Julius Axelrod then resigned. In 1949 he was a biochemist with the U.S. Public Health Service, Bethesda, Maryland. Years later he received the Nobel Prize. We lost a prize winner. Foster Ballard did excellent work at the bench in Chicago, but he was the only man I've ever known who could fall asleep while standing on his feet. No matter how important the subject matter, at a standing conference during my inspection of the laboratory, he would pass out. His brain seemed to function only if he was making an analysis of a sample.

Virginia in front of 8911 Flower Ave. in 1949

Henry L. Alves, Chief Chemist at San Francisco, was one of the best men in the service. Before he passed away, August 24, 1952, he sent me a 31 page "History of Customs Laboratory Activities." This was reproduced by the Bureau of Customs July 1953. It is a valuable historical document. It was never copyrighted. My own cherished copy is available should the reader want a reproduction; or there may be a copy in anyone of the nine customs laboratories. write to the "Laboratory Director."