Tag Archives: History Undusted

History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015

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Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!

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Scandinavian ‘magic sticks’ – yeast logs & yeast rings

Here’s a great little piece of history “undusted”: Have you ever wondered what came before sourdough bread, or why it works? Yeast. And the history behind the symbiotic relationship between humans and that little single-celled microorganism is fascinating.

Medieval Mead and Beer

Likely one of the first organisms domesticated by man, yeast was kept at the ready using many different storage techniques throughout history. One of the oldest such known practices are the Ancient Egyptian yeast breads: delicately baked little loaves of yeasty goodness which, when crumbled into sweet liquid, would create a new yeast starter – for beer, or to leaven bread. For most of man & yeast’s history, bread yeast and beer yeast were the same. The user often had a clear preference, either for keeping the top yeast (barm) or the bottom yeast (lees). But this preference seems more random than geographic, as one farmer would prefer the top, his neighbor the bottom and some would save both – and the yeast would be used for anything that needed fermentation.

two unusual yeast wreaths

A yeast ring made out of sheep vertebrae, Gjærkrans HF-00244 (left photo: Hadeland Folkemuseum) and a teethy straw…

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How About a Virtual Visit? NYC 1911

I just came across a fascinating glimpse into the past, through film footage of New York City’s hustle and bustle, 1911-speed. To take the virtual visit, just click on the image below. Enjoy!

nyc-1911

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History Undusted: Bubble Wrap

I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.

Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.

Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.

IBM 1401 unit - History of Computer Museum archive photo

IBM’s 1410 computer promotional photo, 1959. Credit, Computer History Museum archives

 

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History Undusted: Human Alarm Clocks

If you were living in the 19th century, before the age of reliable and affordable mechanical alarm clocks, how could you be ensured of getting up on time to get to work? Hire a knocker-up, of course. That’s if you lived in Britain or Ireland. Knockers-up were employed from the time of the Industrial Revolution; the last one retired in Bolton (a former mill town in Greater Manchester) in 1973. Also known as “human alarm clocks” they would use sticks, clubs, pebbles or pea shooters to knock on clients’ door and windows; some would move on after a few taps, while others wouldn’t move on until they were sure the client was up. I wonder who woke them up?

According to the Lancashire Mining Museum, there was a conundrum from the times that went like this:

We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up

And our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker up, up

So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up ‘Cos he’s not up.

The original problem employed knockers-up faced was how not to wake up their paying clients and several of their neighbours on either side for free; they hit upon (no pun intended) the idea of long poles or pea shooters to tap on the upper windows; clients obviously couldn’t sleep in a back room, or they’d never hear the knock. The fees charged depended on how far the knocker had to travel to reach the house and how early said knock needed to be.

In 1878, a Canadian reporter was told by Mrs Waters, of northern England, that she charged eighteenpence a week for those who needed waking before 4 a.m., and for those after 4 a.m., it was a shilling (twelvepence) a week. Those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence.

The miners of County Durham, Ireland, refined the requirements a bit: Built into the outer wall of their houses was a slate board, on which they would write their shift times in the mine; the company-hired knockers-up would then know when and when not to wake them up. These boards were known as wake-up slates or (far better, in my opinion), knocky-up boards.

Here are a few rare photographs of knockers-up knocking up:

HUMANA~3

Human Alarm Clock 2Human Alarm Clock

Knocker-up - old-leigh-marshs-row-twist-lane

And just so we’re clear, the American English phrase “to be knocked up” (pregnant) has nothing to do etymologically with the British occupation or the sundry adjectives that derived from it. The knockers-up were usually elderly men or women, or even policemen who supplemented their incomes by taking on the task of waking their clients. In fact, one policeman (as told during the inquest) saw no reason to abandon his post as a knocker-up when a man found him on his route and told him that he’d found a dead woman; she turned out to be Mary Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper.

Original post, September 2015

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History Undusted: Santa & the Traditions of Christmas

Known as Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick / Nicholas, Père Noel, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann, Christkind, and many other names, Santa has been around in various versions and various cultures for roughly 1,300 years, as a character associated with Christmas and gift-giving. As such, it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where the original basis for the legends began. Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He became the patron saint of sailors, and so it is quite possible that his kindness to the poor inspired sea-faring men to spread the ideals of his charitable acts to other places. As time passed, facts gave way to tall tales and legends, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Christmas stockings have been around for centuries as well; the story goes that a widower with three daughters was worried about them being unable to marry as he had no money for their dowries. Nicholas heard of their plight and, knowing that the father would never accept charity, tossed three bags of gold in through an open window one night; the girls had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry, and one of the bags landed in a stocking. How much of that is based on historical facts and how much is legend is a balance lost to time.

The modern-day image of Santa, with his rotund belly and his red coat, was  popularized by Thomas Nast, an American illustrator for the Harper Weekly, in the 1860s. Nast, being a German immigrant, based his images on the German Weihnachtsmann and Sankt Nicholaus. Before his illustration, Father Christmas was portrayed as wearing any colour coat, from tan and fur-lined, to pink or purple, brown, grey, white, green or blue, and sometimes even red. [It is a myth that a 1933 Coca-Cola advertising campaign is to thank for a red-cloaked Santa.]

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I could go on and on about the traditions associated with Christmas – the tree, the ornaments, the yule log, Santa’s helpers, reindeer (or was it a motorcycle, blimp or plane?) and other practices that are spread wherever Christmas is celebrated. It’s a holiday that’s been adopted in countries that have no Christian roots, such as Asian countries; there, it could be seen as an excuse for a holiday, or as a marketing ploy. And maybe that’s what it’s become for many people even in the West; but all of these traditions put people in a contemplative, forgiving, generous spirit, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the holiday.

Just as the nativity scene [please click on the link to read about Christmas from a Christian aspect] was a simplified version of the Gospel, created by St. Francis of Assissi to explain events to a largely illiterate population and to counter what he felt was a growing commercialism associated with the holiday (and that, back in 1223!), so it is that many traditions arise over the centuries, often a grain of truth with things then tacked on over the years and through cultural adaptations.  Santa’s legend has grown into what we know today, likely not by leaps and bounds, but by a progressive adaptation to cultural times.

However you celebrate Christmas, whether you’re alone or with too many people for your liking, remember that all of us have the capacity to bless others; as the adage goes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. If you don’t have anyone in your life presently to give gifts to, remember, like Saint Nicholas, the poor and the needy. We can all make a difference, and who knows – maybe in a thousand years, your name will be mentioned alongside his.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas GIF 2

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History Undusted: If World War I were a Bar Fight

History can be confusing sometimes, especially if it’s distant – beyond our own experience. Who’s who, who did what, and what the consequences were can all seem a bit vague. The analogy below, put into a relatable context, may help you visualize an important bit of world history; I don’t know who came up with the original piece, but it’s brilliant! I’ve made several additions here and there, but otherwise, it’s someone else’s work – if anyone knows who originally came up with this analogy, please let me know so that I can give credit where credit is due!

If World War I were a Bar Fight

Bar Fight, World War 1

Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a whole new suit because of the new beer stains on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support of Austria’s point of view.

Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.

Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole new suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who they’re looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will help Russia make them do so.

Germany appeals to Britain that France has been eyeing Britain, and that it’s unwise for Britain not to intervene. Britain replies that France can look at whoever it wants to, and that Britain has been watching Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it? Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action anymore. Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.

Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper.  When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.

Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium and Luxembourg, who had been minding their own business at the end of the bar. France and Britain punch Germany; Austria punches Bosnia and Herzegovina (which Russia and Serbia took personally); Germany punches Britain and France with one fist and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over.

Japan calls from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there.

Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria. Australia punches Turkey and gets punched back.  There are no hard feelings, however,  because Britain made Australia do it.

France gets thrown through a plate-glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting.  Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.

Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway.  Italy raises both fists in the air and runs around the room chanting. America waits until Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool and pretends it won the fight all by itself.

By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered.  Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault.  While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.

Everyone went home, leaving Germany to pout on the floor planning on how to get even.

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, September 2015

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How It’s Made: Rubber Bands

Rubber bands are ubiquitous; everyone has them and occasionally uses them. They come in nearly every shape and size; they’ve even become a craft accessory out of which creative shapes can be formed (just google “rainbow loom designs”).

But have you ever stopped to think about how they’re made? Are they made from natural or synthetic materials? You might be tempted to think that they’re some kind of plastic or silicone, but most rubber bands are made out of the sap of rubber tree plants; that sap, specifically, is latex. Trees are “tapped” – a slice of bark removed – every two days, and the latex gathers in bowls attached below the cut. It will flow for an hour or two and then heals over.

The actual process to turn rubber latex into uniform rubberbands is a complex one; it’s a process that evolved over time, trial, and error into a well-oiled machine – literally. To learn more, click on the following links:

Alliance Rubber Company – The birthplace of the modern rubber band

YouTube: How It’s Made

As with anything, we should take care to use what we buy, and buy what we’ll use. Rubber bands are produced by the millions each day (the factory featured in the YouTube video produces 40 million per day), so use the ones you have wisely!Rubber band ball If you’re curious as to how to make a rubber band ball like this image, just click here. I have several of these around the house, and they’re practical and easy to make. Enjoy!

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History Undusted / Flashback: The Rack

The rack has been used as a torture device since at least AD 65; it is still in use today, except that now it’s a piece of equipment found in a chiropractor’s office, with padded joints and supposedly-comfortable straps…  I called this a flashback as I personally experienced the rack for six years, three times a week, twenty minutes at a time, as a child (followed by electric shock, all in the name of medicine).  Just looking at this image makes my back hurt!  To read more about the history, just click on the image.

Torture - Middle Ages, the Rack

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 31

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