Posts filed under ‘History’

I’m in heaven

How good is this!! The World Digital Library has just been launched by UNESCO and 32 partner institutions. It’s a free access digital library of primary, cultural materials from around the world – maps, manuscripts, rare books, films, sound recordings, architectural drawings, prints, musical scores and…..photographs! The library is available in 7 languages: English, Portuguese, French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. This is such a great collection for serendipity; for students; for scholars. I got lost in it for hours (the photographs of course).

The objectives of the WDL are “to promote international and inter-cultural understanding and awareness, provide resources to educators, expand non-English and non-Western content on the Internet, and to contribute to scholarly research”. Apparently, this wonderful project was sparked off by Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who proposed the establishment of a World Digital Library in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. Even Google gave some money towards the project (that’s a brownie point to Google from me).

Go here to browse the WDL by item type. But just let me show you some amazing stuff. Here’s a photograph of a Chola woman (from Bolivia) taken in 1911 by Max T. Vargas.

This is a map of Australia from 1826 created by Adrien Hubert Brué, who accompanied the French explorer, Nicolas Baudin, on his 1803 voyage to Australia.

Of the books available, wow, is all I can say. There’s a fabulous book called Curious Designs – a 1624 book by Giovanni Battista Braccelli, which depicts a suite of 50 etchings that celebrate the human figure in geometric forms. A pamphlet that is Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which he originally drafted in July 1774 as a set of instructions for the Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress. And something I can’t wait to read: Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, with photographs by Kermit Roosevelt.

And OMG: you can browse by time or topic – under Philosophy & Psychology, I found a fabulous photograph, taken in 1865-1872, of Tajik women engaged in fortune telling.

And under Literature & Rhetoric, I found London Town (1883) by Felix Leigh – a late Victorian book of children’s poetry, which presents a bright and cheery view of London at the height of its imperial glory.

You can browse by place and I leave you with a WWI promotional poster to mobilise the war effort. The poster says “Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men: will you help us keep that promise”.


April 28, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The story of American women

Photos and history – can’t get any better for me (well, possibly the perfect lipgloss would do it).  And now I can read all about the fabulous history of American women online. Discovering American Women’s History Online is a digital collection of primary sources (photos, letters, diaries, artifacts, etc.) that document the history of women in the United States. You can search by subject, time periods, States and primary source type.

I checked out some of the oral history collections. Fascinating to read oral history transcripts of disaster victims from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, particularly this one. Showing the creativity of librarians and what they can do, check out the online exhibit, which is arranged into five rooms containing digitized copies of original historical artifacts.

And there’s a great collection of photographs. Loved the Alaska Digital Archive and the first-person accounts of slavery along with black and white photos of former slaves. Really you can get lost for hours browsing through the digital collections, reading oral histories and looking at photos.

I have shamelessly ganked the image from the website.

February 20, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

State Library of NSW on Flickr

Great to see the State Library of NSW is making available some of its archival images on Flickr. The collections satisfy two things for me – they construct a visual history of Australia and they provide some marvellous old photographic images. History and photography wrapped up together – can’t get better than this for me!

There are a number of collections you can quite easily get lost in – Australian Aviation Firsts; Australian Political Firsts; Australians in WWI; First Australian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914); Sydney Harbour Bridge First Shots; First Australian commercial photographer; Australian Women’s Firsts – to name a few.

Have a look, you’ll find some truly stunning images. My interest was piqued by the More Australian Firsts  collection. There’s just something so dramatic and haunting about old film images. Here’s a few to whet your appetite:

Ushers and one nurse line up in the foyer, Capitol Theatre. Silver gelatin photoprint. 1928. Ah, the glamour days of theatre when people dressed up in finery. Now, we slouch in movie theatres dressed in jeans and T-shirts, sitting amongst popcorn debris and usually with some idiot answering a mobile phone call.

From the Sydney Harbour Bridge Firsts set. First cars & trains across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Glass photonegative. You can see the old “red rattler” trains Sydney used to have up until (I think) the 1970s or early 1980s.

From the Australian Women’s First set. This is a photo of Australia’s first Hollywood star of the silent era – Louise Carbasse who was also known as Louise Lovely. Silver gelatin photoprint c.1913. How incredibly gorgeous is this photo!

And finally, a photo that is simply breathtaking.

First Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914. Silver gelatin photoprint.

I think modern digital photography sometimes pales when compared to the sweeping drama of images from the early era of photography. Just in case you don’t know, the National Library of Australia also has a pretty extensive photographic collection (more than 130,000 images). I often go there to get inspiration for my own photography. The NLA collection features rare historical maps and artwork as well. My personal favourite is the 1960s collection from photographer John Mulligan. I can’t show you any photos from the NLA collection as I’d need special permission – but go to their fabulous picture collection site and browse. Wish they’d put their stuff on Flickr.

October 19, 2008 at 12:34 am 4 comments

The original redhead

I have had reddish hair all my life. It is (shall we say) somewhat colour-enhanced now but back when I was a teenager, I had reddish blonde hair. More on the auburn hued side than blonde. I’ve always loved red hair, particularly titian coloured. I can’t imagine having black hair – although I like it. And blonde hair, well sorry girls (and guys) I find it vapid, dull, lacklustre. At least people can’t say to me that I’m having a “blonde moment”.

I’ve had comments hurled at me from time to time like “carrot top” or people assume that I have a fiery temper because of the reddish tinge (actually, I don’t have much of a temper at all). Fabulous red hair is caused by recessive genes and apparently, only 1-2% of the human population has this colour hair. Well, I’m awfully glad to be in that minority as I like to be different! So it’s the rarest natural hair colour. Red heads usually have pale skin (yep, tick I have that), freckles (nope, not really) and a sensitivity to ultra-violet light (yep, tick). In Wales, where my dad was from, up to 10% of the population are ginger heads.  When I visited the Samburu in Kenya years ago on a safari trip, they wanted to touch my hair. They braid their hair and colour it with red ochre so guess they thought I was doing the same. A popular myth is that redheads will become extinct, kaput – possibly by 2060 –  because of global intermingling, which broadens the base of potential partners.  No more gingers, no more carrot tops. Redheads on the endangered species list!

It only takes one parent with the recessive genes to produce a ginger-haired baby. If two parents have the recessive genes, then it’s double red trouble. So yes, global intermingling could reduce the gene pool as two redheads are less likely to meet each other. Red hair might become less common. The prediction is that redheads will fall from the current 1 in 8 in Scotland to 1 in 640,000.

Perhaps I have another thing to worry about. Blue eyes are on the way out. Apparently, around half of the US population born at the beginning of the 20th Century had blue eyes. By the middle of the 20th Century, only a third of the population had blue eyes. And now? Only 1 in 6 Americans have blue eyes. Again, it’s all to do with intermingling. Blue eyed immigrants to the US (mainly from Western Europe) married each other but by mid-20th Century, and with the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, there was a wider genetic pool from which to select a potential partner.

But don’t despair! The ginger-headed blue-eyed person can be rescued from the brink of extinction!  The original redhead has been found through ancient DNA. I must digress at this point and tell you that I can literally spend hours contemplating ancient people. Okay, my undergrad degree is in History, so I have a natural inclination to contemplete old stuff. But I often ponder things like:

  • before the arrival of knock-out drugs, how on earth did people put up with the pain of the nerve/root  dying off in teeth?
  • what kind of games did kids play in say 900 AD?
  • what were the Sumerian fashions like?
  • what kind of make-up did women wear in say Carthage? did they know about lip gloss?!!

And the grand question: how odd-looking did Neanderthals look? Neanderthals co-existed with humans until they went kaput around 45,000 years ago. I’ve always felt sorry for our ancient cousin, Homo neanderthalensis. When we use the word “Neanderthal” to describe someone it usually carries with it connotations of stupidity, brutishness and sloping foreheads (mind you, I reckon I’ve worked with a few Neanderthals!)  But Neanderthal man was surprisingly innovative and whatever snuffed them out in the Middle Palaeolithic period is unknown. Wonder what it would have been like for a Neanderthal to come face to face with a homo sapien?  Did they intermingle or keep to themselves because they were largely outnumbered by humans?

We probably have an image of a Neanderthal as being squat and “ape-like” like this picture:

But scientists, using DNA from 43,000 year old bones, have discovered that some Neanderthals had red hair, pale skin and freckles! The first model of a Neanderthal has been created based on DNA evidence and shows the very human face of a woman, christened Wilma (after the Flintstones character). Here she is:

Wilma appears on the cover of the October 2008 issue of National Geographic (hey, the original red-headed covergirl!).

Assuming someday scientists can extract ancient DNA and recreate Neanderthals – maybe we could save homo sapiens from extinction (given the utter stupidity of modern humans, we’ll probably snuff it); or repopulate the Earth with Neanderthals (who toughed out an Ice Age so they might be hardy enough to tough out global warming); and twig the recessive red-hair genes so all Neanderthals have glorious titian coloured hair!

So redheads of the world unite! Neanderthals may yet save us.

Image credits: National Geographic; Wikipedia

September 25, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

1952, 2008: what’s the difference?

Some of you might have been around in 1952 (no, I wasn’t!). Seems like it was a pretty interesting year. In 1952, these things happened:

  • King George VI of England snuffed it and the present Queen Elizabeth stepped up to the throne
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower became US Prez
  • Stalin ruled the former USSR with an iron fist
  • the hydrogen bomb was detonated for the first time
  • and…in Washington….the sniffer out of “reds under beds” – Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin – whipped up a frenzy by exposing communists in government and even in the entertainment industry. A wave of anti-communism, known as McCarthyism, swept the US and even Australia. I seem to remember my father carrying on about Dr Jim Cairns and whether he had “connections” with Russia and the KGB (I never bothered to check out if he did or not!).

And what I believe is happening is that there is a new wave of McCarthyism threatening to engulf us. Consider this very famous quote by Adlai Stevenson from 1952 (US politician):

The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak, of anti-communism.”

Now, just strike out “anti-communism” and replace with “war on terror”. I was reading a book about US history that covered the McCarthy era and it struck me that there’s not much difference between 1952 and 2008: fear of Communists has simply been replaced by fear of terrorists.

April 27, 2008 at 3:14 am 4 comments

The curious case of the Mexican suitcase

As ThinkingShift readers know by now, I love a gripping mystery; anything curious or bizarre. And today’s post really intrigues me as it also involves my current obsession – photography – as well as history, drama and plot twists.

You’ve probably heard that Hemingway’s early manuscripts vanished mysteriously from a train station in 1922 (damn fine mystery that is!). His first wife, Hadley, somehow lost his Paris manuscripts (guess that might have led to the divorce). I seem to recall from my American literature classes at Uni that Hemingway called her “feather cat” and I suspect that nickname was changed to something less cute following the missing manuscripts incident.

Anyway, I digress. Because there’s another curious mystery that has a Hemingway connection- the case of the “Mexican Suitcase”. Picture this: rumours have been swirling since the early 1990s that thousands of negatives of pictures taken by Robert Capa and thought to have been lost still exist. But who has them and where are they?

Robert Capa was a dashing globe-trotting war photographer, who hung out with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Capa died in 1954. He took dramatic and poignant pictures of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the first Indo-China war and other conflicts. He was Jewish and had to leave Berlin for Paris in 1933 because of the rise of Nazism. Ultimately, as the Nazi stain spread across Europe, he fled for America leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom.

And from this point the mystery deepens. Naturally, Capa thought that his negatives would go up in smoke along with Europe during the conflagration that was WWII and he died never knowing that in fact 3500 negatives had survived. The story goes that the negatives came into the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat who served under Pancho Villa. The precious negatives travelled from Paris to Marseille, eventually arriving with the general in Mexico City where they remained hidden until January 2008. A final trip to Manhattan took place when ownership of the negatives was transferred to the Capa estate from descendants of the Mexican general. Although Wikipedia refers to an anonymous Mexican film-maker but I think this film-maker might be a descendant of the general.

Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell, is also a photographer and still alive. Cornell founded the International Center of Photography in Manhattan and this is the final resting place for Capa’s lost photos. A real coup was that amongst the lost Capa negatives were Spanish Civil War images taken by photo-journalist, Gerdo Taro, Capa’s business partner and real-life lover. Also found in the suitcase (which consisted of three pretty fragile cardboard valises) were photos by David Seymour who, along with Capa, founded the Magnum photo agency.

And then there’s the REAL mystery. Was one of Capa’s famous photographs, known as The Falling Soldier, staged? Here’s the photo taken in 1936.

Allegations of fakery swirled for years. The photo shows a Spanish Republican (or Loyalist) militiaman collapsing in the final moments of life. After a bit of sleuth work on my part, I found that the reason for the allegations would appear to be that when the photo was published in September 1936 in French magazine, Vu, another very similar picture by Capa also appeared. Here they are:

The so-called falling solider is the photo on the left. I suppose at first glance they do appear to be one and the same person, which was the allegation levelled at Capa. Were they two different men who fell in death on exactly the same spot (in Cordoba) or was it one and the same man posing? The allegation of a staged photo cropped up in a 1975 book by Phillip Knightley called “The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker”. A South-African journalist, O.D.Gallagher, had once shared a hotel room with Capa and he recounted to Knightly that “there had been little action for several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally … a Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres for them to photograph.” So the finding of the negatives could solve the mystery if the sequence of shots before and after the Falling Soldier show war scenes rather than a staged manoeuvre.

Conservation experts are now trawling through the 70-year old nitrate stock that is said to be in remarkably good condition. And experts are wondering whether some of the images were actually taken by Taro, who met her end in Spain in 1937 in a tank accident whilst she busy snapping away. Her real name incidentally was Gerta Pohorylle and Capa’s was Endre Friedmann.

If you have a look at Capa’s D-Day photographs, you almost feel a part of the war scene. An amazing photographer indeed.

Image credits: Wikipedia. Sources: The New York Times and American Masters.

February 3, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Flickr and Library of Congress

Kim photoI’ve only recently started putting my photos on Flickr as I’ve been using another photo sharing site. Seems the Library of Congress is the same as me: a late starter on Flickr. Whilst rummaging around on Flickr, I found the Library of Congress is making copyright-free images and photos of historical and cultural interest available so that the public can tag content. It’s a pilot project but there’s already some amazing stuff:

  • the 1930s and 1940s in colour collection
  • 1500 photos from 1900-1920 New York depicting disasters, sports events, strikes and celebrities (yep, even way back then, we were celebrity-obsessed apparently)

And what is really exciting is that a trio of photos had been incorrectly labelled by the Library of Congress as images from the administration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. A user was browsing through the online collection of photos and alerted the Library to the high probability that the photos were from 1865 and therefore from the Lincoln administration. The Library checked the negatives and confirmed that the podium shown in the photos was that of Lincoln and not Grant.

According to the Library of Congress blog, there are more than 14 million photos and other visual materials but the project is starting off modestly with the two collections mentioned above. The Library is hoping that key information sometimes missing from photos, such as who took the photo or where the photo was taken, will be provided by the public tagging items.

Flickr has created a new publication model for publicly held photographic collections called “The Commons”. If you want to participate, here’s the FAQ site.

I spent hours on the Library of Congress Flickr site. Here are just some of the images that caught my eye and I’m tempted to answer the question “How would you tag this photo?”:

There’s something about the power and drama of an old black and white photo that (IMHO) modern DSLRs can’t quite match. Have a browse through the collection – you’ll wonder what people’s lives were like and you’ll become caught up in the history and stories.

Source: Los Angeles Times

January 29, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

A picture conveys….

I was toying around with whether to blog on this or not. But an incoming article from my RSS feeds made up my mind. Nazi Germany. We’ve all learnt about the horrors of the concentration camps at school or university. (Let me say at this point, if you don’t believe that the Holocaust happened, buzz off to another blog). We’ve all seen the photos of skeletal camp inmates or gassed bodies piled high on top of each other.

The Nazi symbol was of course the swastika and you probably know that it has been widely used in Hinduism and Buddhism for example and so it has religious connotations. But the Nazis appropriated it and 60 years after WWII is remains a powerful, controversial symbol. So I was a bit taken aback when I read that some dude in India has come up with a line of bedspreads he’s calling the Nazi Collection, complete with the swastika symbol. He says Nazi is an acronym for “New Arrival Zone of India” and is not meant to be offensive or anti-Semitic. What the? Is this okay or do you find this extraordinarily insensitive and offensive?

And this news coupled with newly released, rare photos provided by the US Holocaust Museum showing SS officers and Auschwitz camp staff living it up as the gas chambers and crematoriums were operating. The 116 images were taken by Karl Hoecker, the adjutant to the camp commandant, between May and December 1944. They show SS officers having a ripping sing-a-long with an accordion player (including Josef Mengele), hunting trips, the camp’s Christmas tree being lit up, and female SS auxiliaries eating blueberries and then mockingly crying and posing with empty bowls. Here are some of the images, but you go here and see more. Take time to explore the album. I found it quite disturbing.

Even though I’ve studied Nazi Germany extensively at Uni in my undergrad history degree, I find it hard to come to grips with the concentration camps. I guess the SS officers and camp staff were ordinary, everyday Germans and when you look at the photos you have to ask yourself : were they oblivious to what was going on? They were simultaneously carrying on social lives and celebrating Christmas while mass murder was being committed. How did they see themselves? It’s a juxtaposition of luxury and celebration versus unimaginable suffering.

Historically, it’s very valuable to have these artifacts released as a counterpoint to the photos of Jews being dragged off to their fate. It puts faces on the people who carried out unspeakable horrors. It reminds us that history can indeed repeat itself and the images should act as a warning for future generations, which is why I chose to blog about it.

Source: BBC News

October 15, 2007 at 3:00 am 3 comments

Sputnik was just a rocket booster!

I saw that Google changed its logo last week as a hat tip to the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik in 1957. I just finished reading a lot of articles on the historical and cultural significance of Sputnik, so with all the celebration and reflecting going on, how could I not do a post on Sputnik!

Now, let me start off by saying I wasn’t around when Sputnik was flung into space but I did grow up during the time when the Cold War was still cold. When the Russians were still a suspicious bunch of people (despite my Russian ancestry) and when the United States was all mom and apple pie and hadn’t tainted itself yet with Iraq. I vaguely remember being a bit worried that one of my relatives spoke Russian – despite living in Australia I imagined the CIA popping out of unmarked vehicles and spiriting her away. Or worse: maybe she was really a Russian spy. After all, Australia went through that whole 1954 Petrov Affair business – our very own Cold War spy drama. My parents told me they watched the drama unfolding at Sydney airport on some grainy black and white TV of the 1950s. Poor Evdokia Petrov was hauled onto the aircraft going back to the USSR by Soviet agents, then hauled off again in Darwin by police. High drama: full of Soviet agents rough-handling a woman; Petrov with his secret documents about Soviet espionage in Australia (were we that interesting to the USSR?); Prime Minister Menzies imploring us to look for “reds under beds”.

Sounds like 1950s and 1960s Sydney might have been a pretty exciting place: lots of talk about Soviet spy rings; schools running drills on how to evacuate in the event of a nuclear attack; people building bomb shelters (my father once showed me abandoned plans he had for building one in our suburban backyard – shame, would have been a great play area for me!). And of course there were the great spy movies of the era pitting Soviet evil against Western freedom.

I remember thinking of the USSR as probably quite an exciting place too – full of whizz bang secret technology; Soviet agents who had been trained meticulously since birth to speak “American” and insinuate themselves into American society as sleeper agents. I had images of Soviet agents lurking in shadows with fedora hats spying on diplomats and politicians. No doubt that happened, but when I eventually went to the USSR before it collapsed and met a relative, I saw that the excitement I had imagined was the stuff of TV. What they really faced was food shortages, Soviets spying on Soviets, people disappearing, drab, depressing Stalinist apartments with foyers that smelled of urine; suspicious glances at anyone who spoke Russian with a foreign accent.

But the launch of Sputnik in 1957 left the USA in the dust. Anyone who’s read Deborah Cadbury’s great book, The Space Race, would be well aware that during the 1950s the USSR and USA vied for supremacy in conquering space and that the Soviets won the battle and demonstrated the superiority of Communism over over-indulgent, hamburger-eating, democracy-loving Americans.

I remember my father telling me that there was a bit of hysteria when the news broke of Sputnik’s launch. People rushed out to view the night sky, waiting to see a winking Sputnik fly over, no doubt with spy technology zooming down on innocent Westerners. Culturally, Sputnik had an enormous influence on the 1950s and 1960s. It was a great time for space age movies and TV series: Star Trek, The Jetsons, Lost in Space, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Invaders, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Architecture, interior design and furniture proudly showed off sleek futuristic lines or UFO shapes:

And then you had visions of future transport as seen in this 1958 clip entitled Magic Highway USA from Daily Motion – what a classic!

Science suddenly mattered but in the context of politics. The Americans swung into action heeding President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. But would it have all been different if the truth had been known…..that Sputnik wasn’t a high-tech artificial satellite and the product of a cunning Soviet strategy to outwit the Americans? Sputnik was…

….the second stage of its booster rocket (Quelle Horreur!) that had been flung into space by the efforts of one man, Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space programme. Chertok is 95 years old now and has been reflecting on the Sputnik era. He tells us that Sputnik wasn’t part of a strategy to conquer space. Nope: it was the product of a frantic effort to develop a rocket capable of striking the USA with a hydrogen bomb (this would really have been Quelle Horreur!). The humongous R-7 thruster rocket programme was delayed, so Chertok seized the opportunity to launch Sputnik as the Americans were planning to launch a satellite in 1958 as part of the International Geophysical Year. He was nearly thwarted as the military wanted to keep the R-7 to wipe out the Yanks with a bomb. But Chertok and his team sketched a plan for a primitive orbiter and called it “Prosteishiy Sputnik” or the Simplest Satellite (not very exotic!).

The satellite was built in less than 3 months, weighed 184 pounds and was basically a polished aluminium alloy basketball-sized sphere with a couple of pathetic radio transmitters and four whisker-like antennas. It was launched on October 4, 1957. Pravda failed to mention that the light circling the Earth was actually the spent booster rocket’s second stage, which was in roughly the same orbit as Sputnik. Sputnik itself was invisible to the naked eye, so all those people rushing outside gazing in awe as the space age was ushered in were really looking at a tired old booster rocket. You can read about Chertok and the true story of Sputnik here on

I don’t know: sort of takes the glamour and thrill out of the whole space race when you know the truth! We don’t blink an eye now when NASA talks about a mission to Mars – space exploration is perhaps seen as a frivolous activity (not to me though) when we live in a society more obsessed with Self than What’s Out There. I have memories of living in a world shared with the Soviet Union, the KGB and cosmonauts. I guess anyone born after 1985, when Gorbechev started uttering the words glasnost and perestroika and the USSR finally teetered off the edge in 1991, will never know what it’s like to live through a Cold War with the subliminal fear of nuclear annihilation or whether Soviet spies are running amok. Now the Russians are just like the rest of the world – obsessed with wealth and material goods. And instead of space-age inspired toys, furniture, cars and architecture, we have designer labels that all tend to look the same. Mmmmm….maybe the 50s and 60s weren’t THAT bad!

And for those of us interested in Sputnik and the space race, The Library of Congress, Science Reference Section has a fab resource list for further reading.  Check it out here.

October 9, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Would you like fries with your mouse pie?

Bus in Grenada Nicaragua by KimI have received a few emails from ThinkingShift readers asking me what I am currently reading – so I’m thinking about a regular post on the stuff I read. But to answer the question: I am currently reading a fabulous book by Eric Burns – Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. Part of my ongoing love fest with history really. Burns is actually a journalist but has done a great job of writing an historical account about what can only be described as the wild, unruly west of nascent American journalism in the 1700s and 1800s.

There were no intellectual property or defamation laws back then so journalists could swipe slabs of text from incoming British newspapers and reprint. Or journalists (maybe more accurately described as muckrakers) could sling accusations and mud at such legendary figures at George Washington (first Prez of the US) and Alexander Hamilton (Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury). In fact, it’s suggested that Washington, after eight years as Prez, left office because his sanity was being worn down by the constant allegations that he had monarchical pretensions. From what I’ve read before about Washington, he was fairly tall and imposing but here’s what the Aurora had to say about this famous historical figure:

You seem to have entered life with a mind unadorned by extraordinary features or uncommon capacity. Equal to the common duties of private life, it emitted none of those sparks of genius, however irregular and inconstant, which mark the dawn of future eminence….Fortuitous circumstances yielded you in early life a small measure of military éclat, which arose chiefly from the barren talents of your predecessors in the Indian warfare. For some time after this you reposed in unambitious ease till the chances of a Revolution called you to the supreme command of the American army. An inoffensive neutrality had heretofore characterised your actions, and it was probably because you were in principle neither a Briton nor an American, a whig nor a tory, that you slid into this important station.

Phew…what a mauling! The Aurora was a Philadelphia newspaper (this city being the then-capital of the newly formed United States) and was printed by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson – Benjamin Franklin Bache. It was Republican in tone and was described as “filth” by contemporary critics. Washington (who I once read never uttered an expletive) commented on the Aurora and other newspapers of the time as a “malignant industry…persevering falsehoods” with which “I am assailed in order to weaken, if not destroy, the confidence of the Public”.

I’d love to go back in a time machine and check out the fur flying – Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton apparently hated each other’s guts. If you were for Jefferson you were a Republican; for Hamilton, you were a Federalist. And then there were the newspaper dudes who physically attacked each other on the street: Bache and Fenno (who published the Gazette of the United States) slugged it out for an hour or so before an audience of several thousand people in Philadelphia’s State House Yard. Apparently, everyone was at each other’s throats in those days. Can you imagine what the Aurora might say if it was around today and commenting on John Howard? Mmmm…..okay won’t go there!

People weren’t flush with money during the Revolutionary period, so papers were often handed on to family and friends, which was the only way information could really flow. They didn’t exactly have the Internet, radio or TV way back then, so the newspapers were the only information channel for political information or news about your city or town.

But you might wonder what on earth mouse pie has to do with all this? Well, what was also fascinating about this book was the contextual stuff: fashions of the time, physical descriptions of major historical figures and….a footnote that really piqued my interest. I’ve always wondered how people in that time period dealt with such regular horrors like smallpox and yellow fever. Of course, we live in a world where smallpox has been eradicated and a vaccine was found for yellow fever in the 1930s. But back then, a smallpox outbreak could wipe out a whole district or large slice of the population. So what remedies did they use to try and ward off infection? Well here’s a selection and let’s all take a moment to say thanks that we are not living in the 1700s or 1800s.

  • if you were suffering from a toothache, your local dentist (well, actually doctor as modern dentistry wasn’t around then) would have rushed around helpfully locating a centipede for you. Said centipede would have a needle stuck into it and that needle would then be inserted into your gum.
  • if you had a tumor, well basically I think you constantly prayed that you didn’t really have one, because here’s the cure – you or your doctor would dig up a corpse, cut off a hand and apply it to the tumor or area. The severed hand would remain in place “till the Patient feel the Damp sensibly strike into him”. I have no idea what “the Damp” is, but I would think the patient felt a whole lot of things – violent nausea from knowing you had the hand of a corpse strapped to you; socially ostricised because there’s no way anyone would want to come near you; probably in the divorce courts as your partner would be a little put off by sharing a bed with a corpse’s hand.
  • should you have the misfortune to contract typhoid, your doctor would prescribe several cups of chimney soot mixed with water, sugar and cream – ditch your late night cocoa because I’m sure this concoction tasted good!
  • and now to the mouse pie – and any mice reading this blog should run for their lives. If you suffered from bed-wetting, no problem. Your doctor would hunt down some mice, bake them up into a delicious mouse pie and serve up for dinner. The sight of a mouse tail sticking out from a pie would bring on bed-wetting if you ask me. And was the pie served with fries?

Regular ThinkingShift readers would know how I can suffer a touch of hysteria about privacy issues (wonder if a mouse pie is a cure for this?), so you won’t be surprised to find out I’m also reading:

Expect posts soon on what I discover from these books.

August 25, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

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