Posts Tagged ‘American history’
‘Tis the season: best-of lists, and some leisure time in which to put them to use…
Here’s NPR’s Best Books of 2015— 260 volumes that one can filter by type or interest.
* Mark Twain
As we settle in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment abolished slavery with the declaration: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
A man whose wit was matched only by the looseness of his tongue, the combative John Adams quickly acquired a hefty reputation for articulate jabs and razor-sharp put-downs at the expense of his allies and (numerous) rivals alike, including some of the most celebrated figures in American history (Bob Dole once described him as “an eighteenth-century Don Rickles”)…
American history comes alive: “7 of John Adams’ Greatest Insults.”
* John Adams, on Benjamin Franklin
As we hail the heckler, we might recall, in fairness to the heckled, that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm. Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read. The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar; one one their experiments electrocuted the investigator. Franklin– who may have been a wastrel, but was no fool– used used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution. (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)
In fact, the French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before; but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.
From the practical and concrete (“How does WiFi work?”) to the philosophical (“How am I able to ask this question?”), explanations for humans… For example,
“What does math not explain?”
Math doesn’t explain why math works. And it never, ever will.
In the late 1800s, mathematicians were doing some soul-searching. They’d been solving problems and proving theorems since forever, but none of them really knew why these methods worked. And this was getting kind of awkward.
See, math is just a bunch of rules for turning true statements into other true statements. Assume some stuff, follow the rules, prove other stuff. And the crazy thing is: the stuff you prove is always, always true. Or at least, it’s never once been wrong.
Proving that the rules of math work was, for a while, one of the biggest unsolved questions in math. In 1900, David Hilbert made a list of the problems he wanted everyone to focus on for the next century. He had 23 problems, and this was one…
Read more of this answer, and others– “complicated stuff explained at a 12 year-old level”– at Romy Asks.
* Francis Bacon
As we satisfy our curiosity, we might send gleeful birthday greetings to Joseph Lee; he was born on this date in 1862. The scion of a wealthy Boston family, Lee introduced the first contemporary neighborhood playground in the U.S., then supported the spread of the playground movement across the country. He is, thus, known as the “Father of the American playground movement.”
Years of running drugs and boosting cars left Frank Bourassa thinking: There’s got to be an easier way to earn a dishonest living. That’s when he nerved up the idea to make his fortune. (Literally.) Which is how Frank became the most prolific counterfeiter in American history—a guy with more than $200 million in nearly flawless fake twenties stuffed in a garage. How he got away with it all, well, that’s even crazier…
Read the extraordinary ballad of the banknotes at “The Paper Caper: the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.”
* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As we hold our bills up to the light, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that a gang of counterfeiters attempted (and failed) to steal Lincoln’s body from his tomb.
When the tomb was completed in 1874, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a white marble sarcophagus in a burial room behind only a steel gate locked with a padlock, where he remained undisturbed for two years. In November 1876, Irish crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally, who ran a counterfeiting ring in Chicago, decided on a plan for the release of their engraver, Benjamin Boyd, who’d been arrested and sentenced to ten years at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet. The plan was to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb, bury it in the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan to cover their tracks, and hold it for ransom, in exchange for a full pardon for Boyd and $200,000 ($4,255,319 in 2012 dollars) in cash.
To that end, Kennally recruited two members of his gang, Terrence Mullen and Jack Hughes, to carry out the plot. As they discussed their plans at “the Hub”, a saloon on Madison Street in Chicago, they realized that neither had any experience with bodysnatching, and so they recruited a third man, Lewis Swegles, to assist them; Swegles brought in a man named Billy Brown as the getaway driver. Their plan was to journey to Springfield on the overnight train on November 6, scout out the tomb on the day of November 7, and take the body that evening, while the people’s attention was on the presidential elections. None of them had any experience with lock-picking, so they had to cut through the padlock with a file. They then opened up the sarcophagus, but were unable to move the 500-pound, lead-lined cedar coffin more than a few inches. Mullen and Hughes sent Swegles to retrieve the wagon, but instead Swegles tipped off the waiting law enforcement officials in the vestibule of the tomb; Swegles and Brown were in fact paid informants of the United States Secret Service (at the time intended to stop counterfeiting, not protect the President). Swegles had gone to Patrick D. Tyrrell, the Secret Service chief in Chicago, when he received word of the plot. As the lawmen moved in, one of the Pinkerton detectives present accidentally discharged his pistol, causing Mullen and Hughes to flee back to the Hub in Chicago. They were arrested by Tyrrell and his agents the following evening.
“A dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets”*…
On the heels of the Scottish Referendum, a meditation on the scope of the U.K…
Mitch Fraas, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, recently sent me this image and GIF of a moveable toy distributed by the Children’s Encyclopedia in Britain in the early twentieth century. The toy, which doubles as an ad for the encyclopedia, takes the old saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” and represents it physically, through the medium of a spinning wheel.
The Children’s Encyclopedia, one of the first such projects directed exclusively at young people, was first sold in Britain as a serial in 1908. The illustrated Encyclopedia addressed a grab-bag of subjects, structured not alphabetically but thematically, with each volume holding information on nineteen different topics (animals, history, literature, geography, the Bible). Like the text on this movable map, the overwhelming tone of the Encyclopedia was optimistic and patriotic, with the United Kingdom’s achievements in science, literature, and war always emphasized.
The Encyclopedia was republished in the United States as The Book of Knowledge,where (its publisher claimed) it sold three and half million sets between 1910 and 1945. Here’s a poem by Howard Nemerov about his childhood experience reading the project’s American edition, which he describes as “The vast pudding of knowledge,/With poetry rare as raisins scattered through/The twelve gold-lettered volumes black and green”…
More at the invaluable Rebecca Onion’s “‘The Sun Never Sets Upon the British Empire,’ Explained in GIF by an Old Children’s Toy.”
* George Orwell’s harsh judgement of British imperialism, in Burmese Days
As we break for a cup of tea, we might recall that it was on this date in 1779 that John Paul Jones, a Scottish sailor who’d immigrated to America and was fighting for the Colonies in the Revolutionary War, became the first American naval hero when he won a hard-fought engagement against the British ships-of-war Serapis and Countess of Scarborough off the east coast of England. Though Jones went on to serve in the Imperial Russian Navy, he is often called the “Father of the United States Navy” (an honorific he shares with John Barry).
In 1898, the American government allowed private postcards to be sent with one cent stamps. Cheaper than the prevailing letter rate, this began the widespread use of postcards by the public– and the equally widespread use of postcards as an advertising tool by civic boosters.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, tourists taking their first road trips in their newfangled automobiles would frequently stop along the way to pick up a few colorful postcards to mail to the folks back home. The most popular form of eat-your-heart-out greeting was the large-letter postcard, which had been around since the first part of the 20th century but whose heyday was during what we know today as the linen-postcard era. Made of textured paper rather than actual cloth, linen postcards were printed by companies such as Curt Teich & Company of Chicago, Tichnor Brothers and Colourpicture of Boston, E.C. Kropp of Milwaukee, Beals Litho & Printing of Des Moines, and Dexter Press of Pearl River, New York, among many others. Their souvenir postcards for states, cities, military bases, and tourist attractions were usually heralded at the top by the words “Greetings From,” below which were large, blocky, dimensional letters filled in with illustrations or photographs of the destination’s most scenic or noteworthy sights.
Since 2009, the primary resource for fans of this popular postcard genre has been “Large Letter Postcards: The Definitive Guide, 1930s to 1950s,” written by Fred Tenney and Kevin Hilbert. Published by Schiffer, “Large Letter Postcards” features more than 2,200 examples, from several dozen versions of Atlantic City cards (Curt Teich’s first linen large-letter) to cards for Coney Island, Niagara Falls, and Death Valley. Also included are several examples of how large-letter postcards were created, from the card’s initial sketch to its final design, courtesy of materials loaned to the authors by the Curt Teich Postcard Archives…
Read more, find more wonderful examples and links to still more at “When Postcards Made Every Town Seem Glamorous, From Asbury Park to Zanesville.”
As we pack our bags, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that the first American-born female police officer was sworn in, as Alice Stebbins Wells became a full member of the Los Angeles Police Department. (Marie Owens, born in Canada, was the first female police officer in the United States, hired in 1891 in Chicago.) Prior to this time, women were employed as non-commissioned personnel to oversee the care of female prisoners. Two years after Wells joined the force, two other female officers were sworn in; sixteen other cities and several foreign countries hired female police officers as a direct result of Wells’ activities by 1915, when Wells created the International Policewomen’s Association. The University of California created the first course dedicated to the work of female police officers in 1918, and Wells was made the first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California in 1928.
In the midst of the intense partisanship we experience today– with Americans polarized into red and blue camps and no convergence in sight– it’s easy to forget that much of the nation’s history was characterized by similarly-intense political rivalry, especially the late nineteenth century.
The map above, created in 1883, was created by Census Superintendent Henry Gannett, and published the massive Scribner’s Statistical Atlas, which included maps of each presidential election. The series ended with this unprecedented attempt to map the returns of the 1880 presidential election not just at the state but the county level.
Such data maps are routine today. But this one stunned nineteenth-century Americans by showing them a nation organized not according to railroads and towns, or mountains and rivers, but Democrats and Republicans. The parties, of course, represented entirely different agendas then, and even their color associations were reversed. On the Scribner map, red denotes Democrats, while blue marks Republicans. Yet the overall portrait is strangely familiar, with red blanketing much of the south while blue spreads across the north. (As to the color scheme reversal, it’s a bit of a mystery. Republicans are now generally represented with red and Democrats with blue, a change that seems to have taken hold sometime after the 2000 election. But other colors were used as well through the twentieth century, as in Paullin and Wright’s Atlas of 1932.)
The 1880 campaign itself was rather routine, with little of substance to differentiate the two parties aside from their positions on tariff policy. Yet the election itself was as much of a nail biter as 1876 had been: nine million Americans turned out, and when it was over Republican James Garfield had outpolled the Democrat by a margin of just 7,000 votes nationwide.
Focus on the outcome by states—the only measure that matters in the Electoral College—and the map shows a nation that seems hopelessly divided along a north-south axis, still fighting the Civil War by other means. Democrats control the former slave states, while Republicans hold an edge in the northeast and Midwest… the map revealed spatial patterns and relationships that might otherwise remain hidden, or only known anecdotally. Perhaps its no coincidence that at the same time the two parties began to launch more coordinated, disciplined, nationwide campaigns, creating a system of two-party rule that we have lived with ever since.
More all-too-familiar-seeming charts and graphs– and an account of the social and political temper of those times– at “The Story Behind the Ancient Map That Invented Red and Blue States.”
* John Adams
As we party on, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that the Lincoln-Douglas debates began. It was the first of a series of public encounters on the issue of slavery between Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky-born lawyer and one-time U.S. representative from Illinois. The two politicians, the former a Northern Democrat and the latter a Republican, were competing for Douglas’ U.S. Senate seat. In the seven debates–each lasting about three hours–Lincoln argued against the spread of slavery while Douglas maintained that each territory should have the right to decide whether it would become free or slave. Lincoln lost the Senate race, but his campaign brought national attention to the young Republican Party– whose Presidential candidate he became two years later.