Category Archives: History

History Undusted: The Shilling

1 Shilling front

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and I kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

1 Shillings reverseThe word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

 

Duke of Milan's Testone

Duke of Milan’s Testone

 

 

Henry VII Testoon

Henry VII Testoon

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 15
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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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Wordless Wednesday #50: Parking

King Richard, Parking, Grave, Archeaology

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July 4, 2018 · 12:23 AM

Wordless Wednesday #49: Vintage Lugano

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June 27, 2018 · 5:18 PM

Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

DSCN9991DSCN9994DSCN9996DSCN0004

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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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