Category Archives: Articles

Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
  • Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flip = to board a moving train
  • Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

5 Comments

Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Images, Links to External Articles, Military History, Snapshots in History, Virtual Tours

Rabbit Holes

Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?

I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.

The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!

I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).

That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.

Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.

Nis & Maren “Mary” Aaroe, my great-great-grandparents, who immigrated with 2 small children to Kansas from Vonsild, Denmark in the 1880s. Here, in the late 1910’s.

There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:

www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!

The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.

Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉

For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:

Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.

This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.

Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!

6 Comments

Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Mistranslations, Research, Snapshots in History

Virtual Tour 5: Switzerland

View from Lihn, Switzerland. Taken by Stefan Huesler in March 2005

Today’s tour brings you to my neck of the woods, so to speak: Switzerland. How many mountains we have here depends on who you ask; whatever the exact number, I can say that it’s hundreds. Even the Swiss Plateau, while technically lying between the Jura Mountains and the Alps, is mostly hilly. But perhaps what Swiss would consider a hill, others would view as a mountain. So what’s the actual difference between the two? That’s a grey area, at best: A hill is a landform that rises above the surrounding terrain and does not usually have a defined summit (peak); a mountain has a limited or defined summit area, and rises 300 metres or more above the surrounding landscape. While hills may be a result of glacial flow, erosion of surrounding regions, or faulting, mountains are formed through volcanic activity or faulting. But notice – both hills and mountains can be formed by faulting (the shifting of tectonic plates).

Whatever you call them, Switzerland is full of the beauties. They influence weather, sometimes dramatically, from one side to the other; while Lugano usually has Mediterranean weather, the northern side of the mountains has a cooler climate. Once, as we came over the Gotthard mountain pass from Lugano toward home on a warm, sunny day, we saw a wall of white cloud ahead, clearly defined on the road; when we drove into it, it was absolutely white, and we were unable to see much ahead. Not fog. A cloud. Where we live, our wet weather usually comes from the local mountain range; if the wind shifts from that direction during a grill dinner on our balcony, grab your plates and get inside before it hits.

Did you know that the term homesickness comes from the Swiss German word Heimweh (= home + ache)? It was exported in the 17th century by Swiss merchants and mercenaries working abroad, and refers not to family or house, but to the mountains and their longing for the sights of the Alps.

Below are a few links:

With the first, you can choose various panoramic starting points, exploring visually and/or with information about each point of interest.

Switzerland Virtual Tours

The second link takes you to live webcams in Switzerland, where you can see what’s going on. Keep in mind that if you’re looking at these webcams at the time of my uploading this blog (February 2021), we are currently in lockdown due to the second wave of COVID-19, so activity is far less than when shops are open (if you’re looking at town centres or skiing zones), though in town centres you’ll see kids riding bikes home from school in the afternoons, around 16:00 Swiss time (e.g. the town centre Appenzell webcam). Come back in a few weeks, and activity will have picked up once again. Hopefully!

Swiss Webcams

The third link takes you to a YouTube live webcam feed that switches locations occasionally, giving you an overview of several sites. The music they play over this live feed is a bit monotonous, so I’d suggest turning on your favourite musical alternative and muting the actual video.

24/7LIVEWebcams,Switzerland- YouTube

However you choose to enjoy this tour, welcome to Switzerland! Let me know what you viewed, and what you experienced, in the comments below!

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Etymology, Links to External Articles, Nature, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tour 4: Arboform, aka Liquid Wood

Our fourth outing together isn’t a museum, but a topical tour: Yesterday, I bought a hair comb when I went shopping; it looks like plastic, and it feels like plastic, but it is 100% biodegradable liquid wood. Having a curious mind, I came home and did a bit of research into the topic, so I thought I’d take you along on my discoveries.

Liquid wood, trademarked as Arboform, is a bioplastic made of natural ingredients, including lignin, which is the structural material found in plants and some algae, and cellulose, which is also a key structural component for green plants and algae as well as smaller organisms. The exact formula is a trade secret, of course, but the German inventors, Helmut Nägele and Jürgen Pfitzer, developed this thermoplastic in 1996, founded a company 2 years later, and in 2010 they won the European Inventor Award for their work.

Because of the properties that allow it to be melted and moulded like conventional plastic, its uses are limitless; but because it is made of natural ingredients, it is biodegradable – it can be disposed of in the ways wood could be, e.g. by burning or sawing, and will break down over time, as wood does. It may well transform the world of mass production and material sciences. What this product also does is use as a main ingredient a waste product from the paper-making industry – lignin.

The plastics industry created a huge problem that they never found a solution for, and they know it. But now, anything plastic can do, Arboform can do better. Literally. With more and more people trying to cut plastic out of their purchasing choices, this is the only logical solution to those who claim that plastic is the only alternative. Look around you right where you’re sitting: What plastic objects do you see? Speakers? Keyboard? A disinfectant bottle? Imagine every piece of plastic around you made from biodegradable products that, when you’re done with it, won’t harm the environment for hundreds of years afterward.

Below are a few examples of how it’s being used:

For a short tour of the factory, click the image below:

While Arboform can take care of the future, there is still the massive problem of the legacy of plastics that takes 10 minutes to drink a bottle of water out of, and 500 years to break down. There are other initiatives and efforts to clean up the environmental catastrophe; below are a few links if you’d like to learn more about the issue and how you can have an impact for the good.

No Plastic Waste

TED Talk: A radical plan to end plastic waste | Andrew Forrest

The Ocean Clean Up Project

Himalayan Life: Mountain Plastic Projects

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Nature, Science & Technology, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tours 3: Vigeland Museum and Park, Oslo, Norway

Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.

The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.

Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.

I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.

The fountain, as the water was shut off
The Monolith: 45 feet tall, with over 400 individual figures

So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.

The Nobel Peace Prize, as designed by Gustav Vigeland

In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.

The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.

Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:

The Vigeland Museum

The Vigeland Park

Vigeland from the perspective of a modern stone sculptor

A quick walkthrough tour

1 Comment

Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Images, Links to External Articles, Military History, Nature, Virtual Tours

Virtual Tours 1: The Titanic

Happy New Year, everyone!

With everything that hit the fan last year worldwide, I know that many of us have been missing the opportunities to go out and get some stimulation: Restaurants in many places are closed or reduced to take-away; concerts and theatre productions are cancelled until further notice; museums are closed; if shops are open, they may be closing earlier. For many of us, our “third place” has had to close its doors to us.

So I thought I’d take you along on virtual tours: Tours of factories to see how things are made, of museums, of beautiful places around the globe, of interesting architecture, of historical moments, or of quirky bits and bobs that make this world a colourful and interesting place.

To start off our tours, let’s take a walk-through on the Titanic, as it was before it let in the passengers for its maiden voyage. It embarked on that voyage on 10 April 1912, hit an iceberg on 14 April at 23:40, and 2 hours and 40 minutes later, on 15 April, finally sank forever. The final survivor of the sinking, Millvina Dean, aged two months at the time, died in 2009 at the age of 97. What I find interesting about her story is that her parents, from Branscombe, England, were planning to settle in Wichita, Kansas – where I was born and raised. Her father had relatives there, whom they were planning to join. They weren’t supposed to be aboard the Titanic, but due to a coal strike, they were transferred to the ill-fated ship. To read more of her story, please follow her link.

If Covid’s limitations were lifted right now, and if you had a spare £86,000 ($ 105, 030) burning a hole in your pocket, you could take a real tour of the Titanic and take part in diving expeditions. But barring those two factors, I’ve found a few simpler (and FREE!) alternatives (Just click on the images below each description):

This first link is a 22-minute tour; if you are easily seasick, I’d recommend pausing it occasionally.

This second link is for a slower and smoother version, at 116 minutes (1:56).

This third link is a fascinating documentary following the lives of some of the passengers aboard the Titanic, focusing on 14 from the same Irish village. Three survived to tell the tale.

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did; I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word in such a situation, but I hope it was at least a satisfying, intriguing glimpse into history. I’ve got slews more tours on the agenda, so buckle up!

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Snapshots in History, Virtual Tours

History Undusted: Makeup

This device from 1930, invented by Max Factor (pictured), helps correct the application of makeup. Note: It’s only this complicated when a MAN does it…

Limbo-life goes on, but I thought I’d do a bit of dusting… of history, that is. I love historical images – they have a story that may have gotten lost over the years, or may document a significant achievement, such as the moon landings. Then there are those lovely photographs of bygone inventions: Some have succeeded into the modern era, while others were dumped somewhere along the wayside (and rightly so). Fortunately, the photo above falls into the latter category! As far as this topic goes, this is just a light dusting; there have been entire books and documentaries addressing this vast issue; if you’re interested in viewing a few documentaries on the topic, click here.

Makeup, as a topic of history, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt is famous for their eyeliners and other cosmetic enhancements; lipstick may have been invented as far back as 5,000 years ago, by ancient Sumerians. The word “cosmetic” comes from Greek, and originally meant “technique of dress and ornament” or “skilled in ordering or arranging”. Natural ingredients used included charcoal, beeswax, crushed gemstones, castor oil, olive oil, milk (Cleopatra’s famous milk bath), rosewater, seaweed, fish scales (still used today), and seashells. In past ages, there were dubious forays into using tinctures of white lead, mercury, arsenic, quicklime, Belladonna, and even mouse fur eyebrows (for when the woman’s hair fell out due to using any of the above in combination…). A common insect still used in blushes and lipsticks is the cochineal, the Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect.

Probably as far back as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has been a fascination with mechanics, even in the beauty industry (as illustrated by the image above). Though I have yet to find images that document the attempts at enhancing a man’s handsomeness, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such inventions for women’s beauty. I think that fact simply reveals something about a deep-set, double-standard mindset that women need cosmetic improvement while men don’t *; that notion has been inescapably engrained into women for thousands of years (with the exception of the Egyptian culture, in which men used eyeliner just as much as the women). [*The two exceptions that I can find to this general trend is that men were berated in the mid-war years for being too scrawny, and they were encouraged to develop their physique; they were also ridiculed for baldness and were offered hair growth concoctions to counter the natural process.] While many of these gadgets and products have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, some are still lurking around – and to them, I say, Shame on them for shaming natural features!

Here are a few other bygone mechanical attempts at enhancing the beauty of women:

1928 – A woman uses a vibrating weight loss tool. Credit: Getty Images
1940s: Slenderising salons devised all sorts of weight-loss treatments; this chair massaged clients’ legs with metal rollers. Credit: Getty Images
1958 – Invented by a South African doctor, this machine was supposed to massage away any unwanted bits using electric currents. Credit: Getty Images
Stillman’s Freckle Cream, originally from Illinois, has been sold for over 120 years, and is still touted in cultures desiring paler skin, such as in Asian countries.
1960s – ice masks were used by Hollywood actresses to freshen their faces between takes without spoiling their makeup. Credit: Getty Images
1875 – A flexible mask intended to bleach the skin, removing blemishes.

10 Comments

Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Images, Links to External Articles, Obscurities, Science & Technology, Snapshots in History

The Limbo of 2020

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been more or less in a state of limbo for several months: COVID-19* has thrown a spanner in most people’s schedules. Events postponed. Then cancelled. Then re-scheduled. Then cancelled again. And again. Or maybe in a few weeks? Not likely, but things still need to be decided, planned as-if, and prepared for. But it’s challenging to work toward a goal that’s too fluid to pin down; is it happening or not? Will it be worth all the effort to prepare, or will that all come to nothing? [*Shouldn’t we now be calling it COVID-20? I think 2020 deserves to be known as the year of COVID more than 2019 when most of us had never even heard about it last year.]

One event I am planning for (maybe) is our semi-annual Christmas craft fair at our church. I usually provide a variety of options, and this year is no different; but now that I’ve found out it’s actually happening (as far as we can tell at the moment), I’ve been scrambling to make various-sized face masks and mask mates (button/ cloth extensions to relieve pressure from the ears) in time for the last November weekend. Part of my mind – that part a bit gun-shy from on/off plans – has wondered what I’ll do with so many masks if we don’t end up having the fair! But I can’t let that stop me from preparing for it, anyway.

My husband and I are both active in the leadership of our church; he is an elder, while I am in the team that organises / produces the church services. By “producing” in this context, in normal times it would simply mean coordinating the various teams beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly on the Sunday; but with Corona, it now also means that – at least for now (as in March/April for a while) – it is once again restricted to livestream. But for how long? Or will we soon be back at full capacity? And how long will that last? Our quarterly planning sessions have become an exercise in limbo… in how many ways we can say “maybe”. The production side of such an event has taken on another quality: We are responsible for ensuring that the security measures are followed; we have also shifted from service leaders to producers of a video. It’s a learning curve, as there are a lot of considerations to plan for that were not necessary in a live service.

In the first wave, most people in general were supportive of governments’ restrictions such as lock-downs and closures of events (concerts, exhibitions, weekly food markets) and restaurants, pubs, etc. Many probably thought it would soon be over. But as the second wave hit Switzerland, and we became a “hot spot”, I think people have not only begun to feel tired of it all, but also are beginning to think in terms of long-term preparation and planning that needs to be done. The first wave brought on panic-hoarding of things like loo rolls (toilet paper) and canned foods; at least here, the second wave has been met with calm pragmatism. Facemasks were scoffed at back in spring; now, they’re becoming a fashion accessory and an accepted part of our collective psyche.

If you or someone you know has been affected by COVID, then you’ve learned that “recovery” is also a limbo concept: There are longer term effects that could not have been anticipated, such as heart problems, breathing problems, effects on the brain, exhaustion, hair loss, rashes, smell and taste disruptions, achy joints, brain fog, headaches, and even depression. This isn’t just a flu virus. I myself had a mild case back in March, and I still have achy joints, exhaustion, occasional headaches and brain fog. I have no desire to test the hypothesis of herd immunity; I think that’s been debunked by now, anyway… it’s possible to be re-infected, so that’s enough for me to err on the side of caution.

Eventually, we’ll emerge from the fog of 2020; in the meantime, we can choose how we approach the current events: Some will buck against being told to wear a mask and wash their hands and keep their distance; some will hunker down in a food-stuffed bunker; some may focus on the not-haves and become impatient and depressed; some may choose to find a new hobby or something to positively focus their mind on; and some will do all of the above at various phases along the way. I think it’s similar to the process of grief or loss: Denial, shock, anger, bargaining, mourning, acceptance, peace. Wherever you’re at, I think we’re in this thing for the long haul, so I hope you arrive at the positive phases soon.

With what energy I have (which, admittedly, is a lot less than pre-Corona), I will try to keep a positive outlook, and do what I can with the time given to me. I hope you are well, that you stay healthy, stay safe, and that you can find creative ways to approach the upcoming holiday seasons within the restrictions of our times.

To end this with a smile, take a look at a few fun face masks!

12 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings, Science & Technology

Bad with Numbers

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses; when one recognizes a strength, it usually has something to do with a favourite topic, and may even become a component in one’s professional life. When one identifies a weakness, they have two options: Work to improve that area, or accept the fact that they will never be more than minimally proficient in it; at that point, they will likely develop strategies to help them cope or navigate through life despite it.

Someone who is poor at math doesn’t become a mathematician unless they really want to; if they do, they’ll push through and turn that weakness into a strength. I’ll be the first to admit that I fall into that category – except I have NO desire to be a mathematician… that’s what calculators are for!

I’m not only bad with math, but bad with numbers, period. I can tell you what happened, how a historical event unfolded and who was involved, but don’t ask me to remember the dates or years of the event! Same goes with Bible verses – I can tell you the event, what led up to it, and who was involved and what resulted, but I can’t remember more of the actual reference than which book and, “it’s on the left-hand side of the pages.” My husband can confirm my weakness: When we’re playing a game that requires counting up points as we’re playing a turn, numbers randomly come out of my mouth as my mind is several steps ahead of my playing piece! It keeps him on his toes.

I recently thought about this topic when going through a few old files: I’m extremely organized, especially when it comes to things that I have tons of – like crafts supplies (anyone who does crafts will tell you it is actually not one but two hobbies: One is buying or collecting crafts supplies; the other is actually using them!). In crafts, I’ve learned to negotiate around too much calculation; measurements are one thing, but don’t ask me to compute an angle; I’m much more accurate when I wing it by sight with such things – that’s one of my coping strategies that pays off.  

I’m also meticulous with organizing “writing” bits & bobs – prompts, tips, lists, glossaries, etc. I’ve learned that I must be particularly organized with information that is reliant on numbers – like historical dates, chronologies, etc.

Having confessed as much, I’ve recognized a strength in all that: I’m someone who relates to things and events relationally – the whos, whats and hows, not the whens. I’m visually- and relationally- oriented. I can tell you what something looked like, or that the weather was cold when the outbreak of war X occurred, or that there were YZ people or nations or factions involved and why, but don’t ask me what years it took place. Add to that fact that in German, numbers are spoken in reverse (e.g. 27 is said as “seven and twenty”), which makes it even more complicated! But I’ve been relieved when I’m in a shop or at a doctor’s office and I see the employee writing down my telephone number in reverse as I dictate it (they’ll write the 7 first then move backwards for that 20)!

What are you good at? What are you bad at? The more we recognize such things about ourselves, the better we’ll be able to improve areas or to accept them with a dose of grace toward ourselves. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; find those people who could use help with your areas of strengths, and learn to accept help in your areas of weaknesses. Everyone wants to be useful and wanted, so our weaknesses give us the opportunity to encourage someone else to put their strengths to good use!

4 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings

Life & All that Jazz

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since I wrote, so I thought I’d catch you up on why: At the end of last month, one of our cats, 12 years old, was diagnosed with breast cancer; I didn’t even know that was something cats could have, but the vet was confident that she had some time left – as long as she ate, and felt like living, we’d make her as spoiled and comfortable as possible. She’d lost a lot of weight, so we were given a few cans of “recovery” food to help her gain weight; they were barely touched. That was a Monday; by the following Friday, it had gone into her lungs and she went downhill rapidly. Less than a week after the diagnosis, we had to say goodnight for the last time. So I haven’t really felt like writing much lately. Our other two cats* had sensed that Gandria needed more space than usual (she was always more of a loner than the other two, who always seem to be synchronized and near me – as I write, they’re both asleep in boxes on my desk), so when she finally left our home for the last time, they accepted it smoothly. She was part of our family for 12 years; anyone who’s lost a loved pet knows what that feels like. [* Amendment, 10 January 2021: In the image below, the middle cat, Caprino, passed away yesterday after a 6-week battle with kidney disease, diagnosed end-November…]

From top to bottom: Gandria, Caprino & Allegra

Even though I haven’t written here, when I’ve had the focus, I’ve been working on my current manuscript, a science fiction novel. It’s nearly done as far as the second draft goes; after that it’s the long process of editing, perhaps re-writing scenes, and then the long haul of technical formatting and preparing the manuscript, covers, blurbs, etc. for publication.

Besides all that, I’ve been in the kitchen: I’ve always had a good supply of reserve foods on hand for that surprise visit or for those times when I’m too focused on writing to go to the store (I don’t like shopping). When the lockdown hit earlier this year, we were better off in that respect than many, but I began to notice certain areas that could improve. [I wrote about it a bit in my article “Preparedness”, as well as here.] One thing I want to get away from in our eating habits is the one “convenience” food we allow at lunch times when my husband has home office days: Quick Lunches (those plastic one-meal pots that you just add boiling water to). It turns out that there are a lot of great recipes for in-a-jar meals; they just require a few extra skills like knowing how to dehydrate cooked ground meat safely, or how to dehydrate sour cream or pre-cooked beans. Many of such recipes are coming out of America, where they assume you can just run down to your local Walmart or Costco and pick up dehydrated meat; fortunately, there are others out there who’ve figured out how to save expenses and make their own and shared that knowledge online. What I don’t have, and wish I could find for sale online with delivery to Switzerland, is a Food Saver vacuum packer with an adapter for canning jars. But I’ll just have to figure out a way with what I’ve got, because it is what it is.

I’ve also been canning more – things like tomato stews, jams, etc. These kinds of meals are not just for us; we’ve got families in our church that are struggling through issues, and being relieved of meal planning and prep is a relief for them. I plan to collect the recipes I find most accessible for Swiss cooks, and post them on my recipe blog so that they can access them and we get an organized distribution chain going. In doing so, I’m also aware that I’m probably the only one with dehydrators, so I’ll be providing some of those ingredients for others to pack up – which means that I’ve got some prep ahead.

Whatever you’re up to, I hope you’re well, staying healthy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Taking care of ourselves is vital; it’s the only way we can then also help care for others.

7 Comments

Filed under Articles