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James Trager, 86; historian brought facts to the masses

chie nishio/new york times

JAMES TRAGER

NEW YORK - In 1898, as history students learn, the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, but that was also the year Bayer Co. offered a new opiate cough medicine called Heroin, and the year the Kellogg brothers introduced corn flakes, which were so unpopular at first they grew stale on grocers’ shelves.

Thank James Trager for making these historical nuggets readily available to the reading public. They’re part of his 1,206-page book “The People’s Chronology: A Year-by-Year Record of Human Events from Prehistory to the Present,’’ published in 1979. For each year he discussed, he divided events into categories like literature, crime, and everyday life.

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Mr. Trager, an advertising writer turned encyclopedist, repeated the method in “The Women’s Chronology’’ (1994), “The Food Chronology (1995), and “The New York Chronology’’ (2004).

The women’s book pointed out that in 1920, not only did women get the right to vote in the United States; they also, for the first time, were hired as bus conductors in Tokyo. The food book noted that 1633 was important as the year that physician James Hart’s volume “Klinike’’ was published, alerting the world to the risks of sugar.

The New York compilation began in 1524 with Giovanni da Verrazano sailing into what became New York Harbor and continued to the closing in 2002 of Ratner’s, on Delancey Street, “after 97 years of serving blintzes, kasha, latkes, and matzo brei.’’

Obscure, intriguing facts seemed irresistible to Mr. Trager, who died Feb. 29 in Manhattan at 86. He had ailments that culminated in pneumonia in his last days, his son Oliver said.

Mr. Trager aspired to more than simple lists. He wrote that knowledge grows incrementally, that one advance leads to another, and that the impact of an event is often not recognized until many years later.

Little attention was paid in 1930, for example, when a young Aristotle Onassis bought six freighters for a knockdown price of $20,000 each, seeding what would become a shipping empire. When the teddy bear and brassiere were introduced to the United States in 1902 - by Mr. Trager’s dating - no one could have foreseen what lay in store.

The Trager reference books sold solidly and found homes in libraries and newsrooms. Robert Kirsch, writing in The Los Angeles Times, said he plowed through the “People’s’’ encyclopedia to the end. Cindy Adams, the New York Post columnist, called the New York book “as smart and know-it-all as New York itself.’’ (A revised edition of “The People’s Chronology’’ came out in 1993.)

Mr. Trager had honed his skill at ferreting out historical details in two earlier books on food. In “The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-Fresh, Lip-Smacking, Finger-Licking International, Unexpurgated FOODBOOK,’’ published in 1970, he wrote that Genghis Khan introduced sauerkraut to Europe

Two years later, “The Big, Fertile, Rumbling, Cast-Iron, Growling, Aching, Unbuttoned Bellybook’’ addressed nutrition issues with some skepticism, questioning, for example, the health advantages of organic food, which he dismissed as a fad of the rich.

James Garfield Trager was born in White Plains and grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. He attended Harvard, where he was an editor for The Crimson, majored in history, and graduated in 1946. He worked in marketing research, then advertising.

For his chronologies, Mr. Trager bought an early-generation computer in 1975 - paying $10,000 - to organize his material. Microsoft later purchased the rights to “The People’s Chronology.’’

He wrote 10 books, including “Letters From Sachiko: A Japanese Woman’s View of Life in the Land of the Economic Miracle’’ (1982), which was critically praised for its portrayal of contemporary Japanese life. The book was partly inspired by the experience of Mr. Trager’s wife, Chie Nishio, who is Japanese.

Mr. Trager’s first marriage, to Olivia A. Hirsch, ended in divorce in 1967. In addition to his son Oliver, he leaves his wife; his daughter, Amanda; another son, James; and three grandchildren.

For all his attention to dates in “The People’s Chronology,’’ Mr. Trager could not, of course, tell readers when everything started. He did report, however, what others have established as the year of creation: the Eastern Orthodox Church, 5508 BC; the early Syrian Christians, 5490 BC; the 17th-century theologian James Ussher, 4004 BC; the Hebrew calendar, 3760 BC, and the Mayan calendar, 3641 BC.

But the book’s starting point takes the reader back even further, to 3 million BC, when, Mr. Trager wrote, drawing on fossil evidence, an upright, tool-using human ancestor was around and about.

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