Category Archives: History Undusted

What a Buttload!

Now, now… if you thought I was going to be rude, you don’t know me very well.  While I am certain that the term “butt” has led to countless jibes and jokes down through the centuries, it is (among other things) in fact an English measuring unit for wine.  A Buttload of wine is a unit for liquids which contains 126 gallons (~476 litres) which is one-half tun (252 gallons / 953 litres), and equivalent to the pipe (the latter also referred to the large container used for storing liquids or foodstuffs; now we rather use the terms cask or vat).  That they needed a term for a unit of wine that massive may seem odd at first; but when you consider that the water they had to drink was the same water that flowed downhill from the landlord’s latrine, the cows in the pasture, and the washerwoman upstream, wine, beer and ale (depending on which harvest climate you lived in) was by far the safest thing to drink.  If wine was available in your area, it was stored in barrels and thus was drunk relatively young; also, to counter the effects of drinking it at every meal, wine was often diluted 4 or 5-to-1 with water; that took all of the buzz out of it (and added who knows how many bugs that they were drinking wine to avoid in the first place…).  Now you know.  What a buttload off my mind… I think it’s time for a glass of (undiluted) wine.

Treading Grapes.jpg

 

Originally Posted on History Undusted, August 2015
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History Undusted: Earrings in the 18th Century

I recently watched the film “Emma”, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; as the proposal scene was playing, I noticed her earring and wondered if that was historically accurate – did they have pierced earrings in England at that time (the early 1800s)? I’m not into fashion (that’s an understatement – I’m very pragmatic when it comes to clothes!), but the historical aspect fascinated me enough to look into the matter.

While we have probably all heard of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, painted ~1665 by Johannes Vermeer (doubts have been raised as to whether it is actually pearl or rather polished tin or coque de perle, given the reflective qualities and size, but that’s another issue), it is a Dutch painting from the 17th century and thus doesn’t answer my question. My interest lies more in the 1700s (18th Century) of Britain, and so I began researching 18th C. English portraits.

I discovered that, while there are many portraits with earrings displayed, there are far more without. So it would have been possible, but was by no means as common as it is today. Also, sometimes the current hairstyle hid the ears, such as that of the 1770s and 1780s, or perhaps their ears were hidden by the custom of married women wearing mob caps, even beneath other “public” hats.

 

Mid-to-late 1780s

Typical 1780s hairstyle; such a style would have either hidden earrings or made them obsolete.

 

Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

A married woman wearing a mob cap under her bonnet (though from the black cape and hat combined with a white dress, she may be at the end of a period of mourning, wearing “half weeds”). Mrs Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789

 

 

The portraits do not reveal whether or not they were merely clip-on earrings or studs, though ear piercing has been around for centuries, varying in intensity and use from culture to culture (some for religious purposes, some for ownership such as slave earrings, and others were status symbols for royalty or nobility). I’ve found many portraits from Europe as a whole, between the 16th and 19th centuries which portray women wearing earrings; here are a few, with their details:

1761 Joshua Reynolds. Lady Elizabeth Keppel

1761, by Joshua Reynolds: Lady Elizabeth Keppel. Note that the Indian woman is also wearing an earring(s), and a rope of pearls; I don’t know whether she is portrayed as a servant or merely inferior in rank, due to her placement in the portrait…

 

 

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun

Genevieve-Sophie le Coulteux du Molay, 1788 by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. Though this is a French portrait by subject & painter, it is from the period in question and displays a hoop earring, as well as the hairstyle common in this period in England as well.

 

 

Turkish Dress c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

Turkish Dress, c1776 Portrait of a Woman, possibly Miss Hill

 

Young Woman in Powder Blue, ca. 1777

A young woman in powder blue, ca. 1777

 

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly - born 1738

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 London, Portrait of Lady Anne Furye, née Greenly

 

Based on History Undusted Original Post, June 2015

 

 

 

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History Undusted: Look, Ma – No Ropes!

Many men risked their lives, back in the days before safety finally became standard, to construct the world’s skyscrapers. The first image below is one of those daredevils who captured such moments on film for posterity. His name was Charles C. Ebbets, and he was himself an adventurer, stuntman, actor, wing-walker and photographer. If you’d like to know more about him, his daughter has set up a website to document his life and pictures; click here. Meanwhile, enjoy the images below – even if it’s just with morbid curiosity (if you’re afraid of heights, take a deep breath first).

 

Charles C Ebbets, Photographer of Skyscraper images in the 1930s

Charles C. Ebbets

Charles C Ebbets, waldorf-astoria, Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Charles C. Ebbets’ “Waldorf, Astoria”, © Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Charles-Ebbets-Laurel-and-hardy-Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Charles C. Ebbets’ Laurel and Hardy, © Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Construction - Charles C Ebbets, Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper

Charles C. Ebbets’ famous “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper”

Construction - Charles C Ebbets, Tee Time, copyright Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Charles C. Ebbets’ “Tee Time”, © Bettmann Archives, Corbis

Construction - Photographer, 1907, sitting at the top of a column of a new building

Unidentified photographer, 1907

Construction worker painting the Eifel Tower - March 28, 1953, CSU Archives, Everett Collection

Worker painting the Eifel Tower, 1953

Construction workers building the Golden Gate Bridge

Construction workers on the Gold Gate Bridge

Construction workers on lunch break on the edges of the building they're working on, London, 1929

London, 1929

 

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History Undusted: Gibraltar

Back in 2015, my husband and I spent a few days in Gibraltar; it was the starting point for the first leg of his “south to north” European bike trips and a research trip for me; the book that resulted from such inspiration was “Asunder“.

Gibraltar is a tiny outpost of Britain at the gateway to the Mediterranean, spitting distance from Spain (as a matter of fact, I walked across the border and it took all of 2 minutes).  Its history is disproportionately immense, spanning thousands of years, as it has always been a strategic nautical or military location.  You can’t walk down a single street or lane without being reminded in some way of its military history:  There are cannons everywhere, street names and square names reflect either military leaders or garrison locations, and even the town’s parks are walled in by fortress walls.  The first known name of Gibraltar was “Calpe”, likely the Phoenician verb “kalph”, to hollow out, perhaps in reference to what is now known as St. Michael’s Cave.  There was a Roman occupation, and in 400 AD, eastern barbarians invaded; Vandals, then the Goths, and then Berber Muslims followed.  In 711 AD Tarik ibn Zeyad landed, leaving behind his name:  The Arabic phrase “Jebel Tarik” (Tarik’s Mountain) has been corrupted into the modern name of Gibraltar.  For over six centuries, with the exception of 1309 to 1333, the Rock was under Moorish occupation, though no town existed until 1160 (there were only fortifications).

In 1462 Gibraltar was retaken from the Moors by the Spanish; from there it was quibbled over between Spanish dukes, kings and queens until the Treaty of Utrecht in which Gibraltar was yielded to the Crown of Great Britain “forever”.  The Great Siege, 1779 to 1783, was Spain’s last great attempt to reclaim the Rock, and it led to the vast destruction of the town and fortifications. Spain has never forgotten the sting of losing Gibraltar, and Brexit is likely a daily topic of discussion; Gibraltar is not part of the UK but is a British Overseas Territory, and voted strongly to remain in the EU; what they will be after Brexit finally comes about is uncertain. Chances are, it will become Spanish once again, or come under co-sovereignty with Spain and Britain.

In the 19th century the phrase “As safe as the Rock of Gibraltar” entered the English language, as Gibraltar became renowned for its impregnability.  A civilian community began to grow up within the safety of the fortified walls, earning their living from commercial trade.  Today, there is still a British and American military presence, and the local language is a mixture of Spanish and English.

The Rock is dominated by the presence of the only wild monkey population in Europe, of the Barbary macaques breed; they were most likely brought as pets during the Moorish occupation.  Tourists are lower in the pecking order than the monkeys – because, in their social hierarchy, the lower in rank give their food to the higher in rank… just remember that the next time you want to feed monkeys. They usually stay up on the Rock, though we were warned not to leave our hotel window open, just in case. If they get half a chance, they’ll steal your picnic. When we first went up to the Rock, we were dismayed by the amount of rubbish everywhere, assuming it was discarded by careless humans; but it was, in fact, thieving monkies who don’t throw rubbish into the bins! And monkies were everywhere; walking toward St. Michael’s cave, we passed baby monkies playing, completely oblivious to humans; they know they’re celebrities up there, and they use it to their advantage every chance they get!

If you ever get the chance to go to Gibraltar, it’s well worth the experience. A week will give you ample time to enjoy everything it has to offer. If you like history and military history, you’ll love every nook and cranny of Gibraltar!

 

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary macaque; Spain in the distance.

 

Gibraltar - Reminders of Military Past, Russian Cannon

The Promenade, showing the City War Memorial honouring Gibraltarians who gave their lives in World War One. In the foreground is one of four Russian cannons (24-pounders) that arrived in GBZ in 1858 from England, having been captured in the Crimean War.

Gibraltar Rock

The Rock of Gibraltar, with Spain in the distance just beyond the airport’s single runway.

Originally posted on History Undusted 18 May 2015

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History Undusted: The Wild Women of the Old West

Often unsung heroines, the women who trailblazed (alongside their husbands, or on their own through the loss of said man along the trail, or who headed west on their own to forge a new way of living) were the backbone of settlements.  Without the women, there would have been no way for a man to survive for long.  I grew up in Kansas, and my father’s ancestors were immigrants from Denmark who travelled west to Kansas in covered wagons in the 1880s; the farm which my great grandfather built was eventually inherited by my grandfather, and many of my happy childhood memories are associated with that farmstead.  Looking back through family photos, there’s not a photo of a weak woman among them; weak women (and men, for that matter) simply didn’t survive the trail.  They became the strength that built the West.

For a 46-minute documentary on the importance of the pioneer woman, and the legends that grew up around the likes of Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, please click on the image below.  It’s well worth the time to watch, when you have a moment!

 

Annie Oakley

 

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The Icelandic War Bride Mystery

I haven’t posted for a while, and I apologize; sometimes I just need “percolating” time: Those are times when I might not do much writing, but I’m thinking about it, gathering ideas and creative input. One idea or article or film leads to the next, and the next. An article that I came across recently was an amazing story called “The War Bride Mystery”:

A young Icelandic woman named Ragna Esther Sigurdardottir married an American GI just after World War 2; she was only 18 and married against her family’s wishes. Once in America, she found out that the man she married was a “bad apple” – a violent man who beat her through two pregnancies. The daughter would be mentally handicapped until her death at the age of 49. When Ragna was hospitalized from a beating, she finally obtained a divorce; the children were taken from her and placed in state care, and she disappeared. For 60 years.

What makes the story fascinating is that she went on to marry again, and have a second family. That second family knew nothing of her past until her daughter discovered on her own birth certificate that her mother had given birth twice before. Likely out of shame for past mistakes, and not wanting to hurt anyone, she’d kept the secret to herself. But her Icelandic family had never given up hope of finding her, and with the help of a stranger with skills in research, they were finally able to put the puzzle pieces together and connect with Ragna’s American family.

The story was published in the Oregonian newspaper in a series of articles; if you’d like to read the whole story, click here.

World wars opened up the possibilities for many cross-cultural relationships, and brought men and women into positions of both opportunity and vulnerability; being far from home, one could reinvent oneself, for good or bad. Ragna was unfortunate in the choice of her first husband, but her second appears to have given her a happy ending, and the story goes on as her Icelandic and her American families connect the dots, and come to peace about the story of the missing war bride.

 

Ragna Esther Vickers - credit, Lou Ann LeMaster

Ragna Esther Vickers with her second family’s children, in 1957; credit, Lou Ann LeMaster (right)

 

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History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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