Category Archives: History Undusted

The Renaissance Value of Crafts

When you hear the word “crafts”, what comes to mind?  Is it a positive or a negative connotation?  Is it a waste of time, or something only people do who have too much time to kill? Or is it thought of in terms of hourly wage, selling at craft fairs or online at sites like Etsy or Ebay, and otherwise it’s just a hobby? Are crafts merely frivolous decorations, or can they also be practical?

The dictionary actually has a lot to say about the word; here are some of the terms used to describe it: Skill; art; ability; skilfulness – especially in making plans and carrying them into execution; ingenuity in constructing; dexterity; work or product of art; a branch of skilled work or trade, especially one requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

In the past decades, there have been many schools that have cut crafts from their curriculum due to budget constraints; such an act reflects society’s general opinion of the activity. But what educators fail to realize is that when they cut out teaching crafts, they cut out a few life skills that cannot be learned in mathematics class or history class or English class: Crafts teach decision-making skills, planning and execution skills, hand-eye coordination, the ability to see or detect possible alternative solutions to a challenge, and above all, the self-confidence that such skills can be learned. Creativity begets creativity – not just for crafts, but those skills translate into life on many levels. With this generation spending an unhealthy amount of time staring at their phone screens (as of 2017, the average was over 4 hours every day), these skills are necessary to be taught during school hours now more than ever.

I also see a vital historical aspect that is quickly disappearing from society: Skills passed from one generation to the next – the wisdom of experience that’s being lost in the mists of time, with even some skills being lost altogether.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a global internet crash happens; with it goes online connection, but also online commerce – many businesses rely on the internet for advertisements, sales and networking with suppliers, or buying and selling their component parts from here to Timbuktu. If there were a breakdown of the global market, how many of us know how to plant, tend and harvest a crop to feed our families? How to preserve foods over the winter? How to make something needed out of something on hand, like a basket, or altering clothes, or a meal out of random ingredients that are seasonal? Crafts cover a wide range of both practical and decorative areas that touch every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

The good news is that we still have the internet (woo-hoo!), and because of it, we live in a global village. If you want to learn a skill, a few clicks on YouTube can find you teachers from Spain to Russia to India to Hawaii to Maine to Timbuktu.  Whether or not you speak their language, chances are they can show you how to do something; they can teach you how to sew, weave, crochet, knit, turn bramble vines into baskets, which wild plants are edible and how to use them, how to make an earthen flooring (whether for a house, or a summer shack) and what advantages that kind of floor has over carpet or wood. You can learn survival skills, cooking skills, life hacks for just about anything, and so much more.

If creativity begets creativity, curiosity begets knowledge, which begets curiosity, which begets skills. That is also known as a renaissance man/woman – someone with an extraordinary broad and comprehensive knowledge.  The fundamental flaw of our modern society is that people have become specialists; they get a degree in law but can’t cook; they become a chef but can’t keep a houseplant alive… you get the idea. But the more we expand our personal knowledge base, the more we will benefit personally, become a benefit to society and eventually the next generation, by passing on our skills – whether we have children or not. And if, God forbid, there ever is a global market crash, such craft skills can be used to barter for the crops you haven’t grown, or the butter, or bread, or whatever it is you’ll need. The more renaissance people, the better off we’ll all be!

“To know how much there is to know is the beginning of learning to live.”

Dorothy West

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

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Snapshots in History: The Bulletproof Vest

Bulletproof Vests

Talk about trust!

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History Undusted: The Origins of Basketball’s Jump Shot

Everyone who’s seen basketball has seen a jump shot; but at some point in the past, someone came up with the idea of becoming airborne over the basketball court when no one else had ever done it before. And that someone was Kenny Sailors. An unassuming elderly man now, if you passed him on the street, you’d never know that his way of thinking changed a sport forever. Click on the image below to hear his story.

Kenny Sailors

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 February 2014

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The Art of Diatom Microscopy

 

John Quekett.jpg

John Quekett

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history:  During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology.  Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.

 

Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.

The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature.  Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today.  These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic.  Enjoy!

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On Leaving Footprints

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“Lives of great men remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints in the sands of time.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Wordless Wednesday #49: Vintage Lugano

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June 27, 2018 · 5:18 PM

History Undusted: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

Mississippi and Chinese are not two terms one usually expects to see in the same sentence; yet it’s a slice of history worth undusting (though, for those who grew up in this subculture of the South, it’s not history, but reality): An industrious, well-educated but small population of Chinese immigrants made a significant impact on the economy and social environment of their communities along the Mississippi Delta.

The first influx of Chinese to America came in the pioneering days, when they worked in gold mines, along railroads, and provided laundry services in the Old West.  More came to work in the cotton fields of the South when the plantation owners could no longer count on free slave labour.  Most of these Chinese came from Guangdong province in China, which has a similar climate to the Delta.  The opportunity for work in America afforded them the chance to help support their family members who remained behind in China.  They quickly established themselves in a niche market between the whites and the blacks, serving both communities with segregated grocery stores.

During the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), they were unable to own property, so the families lived behind their stores in the same building; their children all attended one-room schoolhouses, some of which were built by the Southern Baptist church (which remains a big part of their lives). [The fact that there was such a law implemented to restrict a specific ethnic group is the greatest remaining witness to the number of Chinese immigrants of the initial wave (during the California Gold Rush, 1848-1855), as records or censuses of that time period have all but vanished.]  The parents worked 365 days a year to send their children to college; many of those children went on to be pharmacists, NASA scientists, veterans (the Delta was represented by 182 Chinese men who served in World War 2), doctors, and many other professions.

For a fascinating look at an almost unknown community in the heart of America’s South, click on the photo below and the links provided below that.

Mississippi Delta Chinese

 

E. Samantha Cheng: Discovering the Mississippi Delta Chinese Legacy

Heritage Series: Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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Stinging Nettles: A Weed with a Bad Rap and a Great Sap!

stinging nettleStinging nettles have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion.  True, they’ve not done much to endear themselves to hikers who get stung as they walk through undergrowth; but if you can get beyond first impressions, you’ll discover one of the power-packs of nature!  Stinging nettles have been around for thousands of years, and recipes for their use have been around for probably just as long. A fast-growing herb related to the mulberry, they grow everywhere (especially well in northern climates), and the list of their benefits reads more like a “Who’s Who” of remedies, from prostate, arthritis, blood pressure (it balances both high and low!), to iron and mineral deficiencies.  The younger the leaves, the more power and goodness they still have in them, so pick the top 4 to 6 new leaves for the best results.

It can be eaten raw straight off the plant:  “Taco”-fold the leaf by gripping it on the underside near the base of a young leaf and nipping it off with a pinch of the fingers, pop it in the mouth and chew; the juices from the leaf itself will neutralize any brief sting.  Also, if you’re out on a hike and get stung by the leaves inadvertently, take a leaf as described, chew it up or smash it up in your hand and rub the juices onto the sting area; it will neutralize itself.  It can also be boiled for teas, soups (it boils down like spinach, so you’ll need a lot more than you think you will), or blended into a pesto, or pizza sauce; the variety of ways to eat it are endless.  Once the stingers have been neutralized (their own juices will do the trick once released through blending, boiling, or processing in any way needed), its health benefits are unprecedented as a common plant, free to be had!  Just a word to the wise:  If you let it grow in your own garden, eat it as-is or with a light rinse if you’d like; but if you harvest from a public pathway, park or forest, washing it thoroughly is a good idea; where there are humans, there could be traces of herbicides or dogs… need I say more?

Click on the image above for a delicious, quick recipe.  When spring arrives, I’ll be looking for a fresh patch!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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