Category Archives: History

Before the Avon Lady, There Were a Bunch of Monks With a Bottle of Vinegar

santa maria novella church in florence, italy, at sunset

Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writing in Collectors Weekly, introduces us to the lifestyle and wellness hawkers of 13th century Italy: the Monks of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence.

One of the company’s most fabled products is Aceto Aromatico (or Aromatic Vinegar), which was known as Vinegar of the Seven Thieves in the early 15th century. “The story says that one part of the recipe was known by each of seven thieves, so they could only make the product when they were all together,” Foà says. “They used the recipe to protect themselves so they could rob people affected by the plague, but only when they were all together could they create it. Later, it was used as a cure for fainting. Back when our grandparents were young, it was very common. We called it the salts, as in, ‘Give me the salts!’” Today, the pungent liquid is sold as a stimulant and air freshener.

Other traditional recipes include pastilles called Pasticche di Santa Maria Novella, an antispasmodic sedative called Acqua di Melissa (or Lemon-Balm Water), and the pharmacy’s signature calming tonic called Acqua de Santa Maria Novella, originally known as Anti-Hysterical Water.

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Godwin’s Law, Trump’s Era

Game Over, Bilbao 2014 by Denis Bocquet

There’s an internet adage — Godwin’s Law — stating that once you’ve made a Nazi analogy you’ve lost the argument. This short post on The Nib gathers the work of five Jewish cartoonists who address the validity of Nazi analogies in our current political climate.

Godwin's Law by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky

Godwin’s Law by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky

I’d argue that when we invoke Godwin’s Law, we all lose.

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‘Wir Schaffen Das’: Angela Merkel, the Refugee Crisis, and the Complexity Behind a Simple Statement Like ‘We Will Do It’

pro-refugee street art in berlin, germany

For the Winter 2017 “Home” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, Renata Adler — whose parents fled Germany in the early 1930s — returns to her familial homeland to explore Germany’s present-day reaction to the refugee crisis, and the millions of people now trying to get in rather than out.

The “land” in question was of course Germany, which had—in living, though dwindling, memory—launched by far the worst, most immense, cruel, specific persecution in the history of mankind. One from which there were relatively few refugees fortunate enough to escape. The millions now seeking asylum were not in the old sense “refugees.” Most had fled (in German, they are called Flüchtlinge, people fleeing) from civil wars or in search of a better life. (The Yazidis, in Iraq, and the Tutsi, in Rwanda, would be refugees in the old sense. Their persecutors, eager to exterminate them, would not permit them to escape.) Historically, there has existed no genuine “right” to asylum from war, poverty, oppression, intolerable living conditions in the land from which you came. Even asylum from specific persecutions, extermination, genocide had been denied throughout the world to people trying to escape the Holocaust. Merkel’s invitation was, in part, an attempt—by welcoming all who could assert a claim for asylum—to expiate, atone for, above all to avoid repetition of this vast, unprecedented crime. Throughout human history, there had been migrations, voluntary and involuntary, of all kinds. But the current problem, whatever its moral claims, was vastly different from the Holocaust. It was different as well from every earlier migration. There seemed to exist no way for the more fortunate peoples of the earth to absorb all those less fortunate, even if their cultures were highly compatible. Which, in this case, they were not.

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The Slave Who Outwitted George Washington

Erica Armstrong Dunbar | Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge | Atria / 37 Ink | March 2017 | 19 minutes (5,244 words)

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MOUNT VERNON

Two years after the death of her owner, Betty learned her mistress was to remarry. She most likely received the news of her mistress’s impending second marriage with great wariness as word spread that Martha Custis’s intended was Colonel George Washington. The colonel was a fairly prominent landowner with a respectable career as a military officer and an elected member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His marriage to the widowed Martha Custis would offer him instant wealth and the stability of a wife and family that had eluded him.

A huge yet necessary transition awaited Martha Custis as she prepared to marry and move to the Mount Vernon estate, nearly one hundred miles away. For Betty, as well as the hundreds of other slaves that belonged to the Custis estate, the death of their previous owner and Martha’s marriage to George Washington was a reminder of their vulnerability. It was often after the death of an owner that slaves were sold to remedy the debts held by an estate. Read more…

Of the Parade, But Not In the Parade: The Mardi Gras Flambeaux

Louisiana Rien Fertel explores the complex history of New Orleans’ flambeaux — the men who carry the torches that light the way for Mardi Gras parades — in Oxford American. Perhaps unsurprisingly, race issues were intertwined with Mardi Gras from the festival’s earliest days.

That inaugural spectacle proved so popular that a second flambeaux procession, now doubled in size, marched about two months later, on April 6, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, a day “generally celebrated as a holiday,” according to the Picayune, and the unveiling of the city’s newest Confederate statue, that of General Albert Sidney Johnston astride a marble likeness of his famed steed, the aptly named Fire Eater. Just as it had weeks earlier, this “carnival of fire,” as an unidentified reporter called it, paraded down St. Charles Avenue to Lee Circle, the centrally located traffic crossroads and commercial district that had been rechristened three years prior, at the height of Carnival season, to honor the dearly departed Confederate general. Though Robert E. Lee never crossed into Louisiana as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia—he likely visited New Orleans for a brief stay while soldiering during the Mexican-American War, decades earlier—the city honored him with a bronze statue, standing and facing north, a traitorous Golem ready to spring to life and defend the South from Yankee advances, atop a sixty-foot Doric marble column. Today, despite the skyscrapers that eventually mushroomed around him, Lee’s statue still manages, from certain vantage points, to dominate the city’s skyline, at no time more so than from the Mardi Gras parades, which all circle beneath his stony gaze.

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How the Burning Brigade Broke Free

In the village of Ponar, in present-day Lithuania, occupying Nazis shot nearly 100,000 people, then exhumed and burned the bodies in an effort to remove all traces of the atrocity. The prisoners forced to dig up and burn the bodies of their countrymen knew there was only one way to get out alive: escape. Matthew Shaer, in Smithsonian magazine, explores the creation and recent re-discovery of their tunnel to freedom.

The men worked in shifts throughout the night, with saws, files and spoons stolen from the burial pits. Under the cover of darkness, they smuggled wood planks into the lengthening tunnel to serve as struts; as they dug, they brought sandy earth back out and spread it across the bunker floor. Any noise was concealed by the singing of the other prisoners, who were frequently forced to perform for the Sturmbannführer—arias from The Gypsy Baron, by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, were a favorite.

After a day of disinterring and burning corpses, “we returned [to the bunker] on all fours,” Zeidel recalled years later, in a series of interviews with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, today held at an archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We really fell like the dead. But,” Zeidel continued, “the spirit of initiative, the energy, the will that we had” helped sustain them. Once oxygen in the tunnel became too scarce to burn candles, a prisoner named Isaac Dogim, who had worked in Vilnius as an electrician, managed to wire the interior with lights, powered by a generator the Nazis had placed in the bunker. Behind the fake wall, the tunnel was expanding: 10 feet in length, 15. Gradually, the entire Burning Brigade was alerted to the escape plan. Dogim and Farber promised that no one would be left behind.

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An Emotional Tour of History: Naming Lakes After the Fallen

At the Winnipeg Free Press, Bill Redekop profiles Des Kappel, the toponymist in charge of naming the 90,000 remaining land features and lakes in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Currently tasked with matching land features to casualties of the First World War, Kappel’s work is often an emotional tour through history as he collects letters and photos of the fallen for inclusion in his database.

The commemorative project was about more than just naming. The province also asked for photographs, biographical information and any other documentation from families who suffered war casualties. These are included in a database. Kappel communicated with many of the families during the process.

“For some people, (the commemorative naming) is closure because the person died overseas, or right in the sea, and are buried overseas, if formally buried at all. We have families go up to the commemorative lakes and build cairns or put down plaques.” And some family members request that their ashes be spread on the lake that bears the name of their loved one.

The compilation of people’s stories brings home the insanity of war. It includes names, photos, biographies, the geographical features commemorated in their name, and very personal information, such as their letters home.

Take the example of Pte. Ralph Aandal of St. Vital. “I had a nice trip out here. We rode on the train for quite a ways. Then we got off and rode on camel for miles and miles.” He was joking. He had arrived in the Carberry desert to train at the nearby Shilo military base.

His last letter was postmarked the day he died: “We are still on the German border,” he wrote. “I haven’t been sick at all out here. It’s funny we all haven’t gone to the hospital. We are laying in water day and night… Love Ralph (14 December, 1944).”

That’s just the first name in the commemorative edition. Aandel Lake, northeast of Reindeer Lake in northern Manitoba, is named after him.

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Greetings from Alabama

Alabama State Capitol

Overwhelmed by pieces that tell you how little you understand voters from “the other side”? Yeah me, too.

Here’s a different perspective. “The Alabamafication of America” compares that state government’s history of populism, corruption, and Evangelical roots with the attributes of 45’s administration.

On the populist scandal side:

Back in the 1940s and 50s, Governor “Big Jim” Folsom was one of the most popular men ever to hold the position. To this day, many Alabamians say that if another Folsom ever runs for office, they’ll vote for him, because Big Jim famously paved rural roads to underserved places (including my grandparents’ childhood homes). Big Jim was also famous for his vices—in a televised debate with George Wallace, Folsom showed up drunk and failed to remember the names of his many children. His apocryphal line—“if they bait a hook with whiskey and women, they’ll catch Big Jim every time”—remains prominent in Alabama lore.

The lesson is simple: populism rises above all other concerns in Alabama. Demagoguery has a long track record of success in the South, and a politician who sufficiently channels that energy can say and do most anything—“grab them by the pussy,” for example—and still win by a landslide. George Wallace’s racism cost Alabama millions in economic development and outside investment, yet his populist appeal won elections. He served several nonconsecutive terms as governor, including one as late as the 1980s.

Trump won the election with the same flair as Folsom. With his cabinet picks and his agenda, it looks like Trump will govern like an Alabamian as well, with the classic strategies of a Montgomery politician.

And on how to keep your own safe when they might be up to no good:

Newt Gingrich has suggested that Trump pardon his family members in advance for any violation while he is in office.

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It’s Wednesday, So This Must Be the Vice President’s House

Historian Merry Ellen Scofield, writing in Common-Placedives deep into the intricacies of 19th century social etiquette: calling cards, the hierarchies and politics of who visits who and when, and the details of the cards themselves. Focused on Washington, D.C., It’s a fascinating look at both historical ideas of social networking and how women wielded political power through etiquette.

It was sometimes the fashion to fold one’s card in order to indicate the purpose of a visit, particular folds indicating particular types of visits. A crease in the upper left indicated a social call; one in the upper right, a visit of congratulations; in the lower right, a visit of sympathy. If one were leaving town, he or she folded the lower left of the card. Mark Twain poked fun at the practice in The Gilded Age, warning his Washington protagonist that she had better take care “to get the corners right,” otherwise, she might “unintentionally condole with a friend on a wedding or congratulate her upon a funeral.”

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The Early Principles That Guided the Makers of LEGO

Legos in space

In his 2013 book, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines the early successes and failures of the Denmark-based LEGO Group — from their early experiments with plastic, to their decision in the late 1990s to finally strike licensing deals with movies and characters, starting with Star Wars.

Robertson describes a pivotal moment in the company’s history, when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, met up with a toy buyer: Read more…