Tag Archives: History Undusted

History Undusted: Rabbit Holes & Licorice Candy

This week, I did a major shopping at a couple Asian food stores; I stocked up on the ingredients I know, and some I didn’t; I like to get things I’ve never heard of, and do a bit of research on how to use it in cooking; things I picked up in that category are Iranian Kashk, which is a tangy fermented, yoghurt used as a condiment; canned palm hearts, which make a nice topping on desserts; and fermented black beans, which can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, including in a black bean sauce. I also bought several fresh vegetables and herbs to dehydrate and turn into a greens powder for adding flavours to dishes (I have a more usual greens powder with standard greens, like cauliflower leaves, spinach, etc. that I use daily).

One of the herbs I used was acacia leaf: When I opened the package, a pungent, sulphur-like smell hit me, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it. But when I began de-leafing it (much like you would thyme, though carefully as it’s got some vicious thorns!), it began to smell like mint! As I added lemongrass, Thai water spinach and other herbs, you can imagine the cacophony of fragrances in my kitchen – which filled the house as they dehydrated.

So what does this have to do with licorice? Well, one of the fresh herbs I also processed was Thai basil; I’d never used it before, and when I opened the packaging, a wave of anise- or licorice aroma hit me. And as usual, that set my mind off, thinking about the history of licorice!

Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Asia and Europe; its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means “sweet root” (the linguistic roots are related to words like glycerine and rhizome); it is the ingredient that gives the signature flavour to black licorice, though today anise oil is often used as a substitute because the Glycyrrhiza can have toxic effects if ingested too much.

In looking into the history of this flavour, I came across a fascinating documentary: Ostensibly, it covers the history of the Switzer Licorice candy company. But in truth, it’s a fascinating historical insight into the history of Irish immigration, social unrest, the Irish famine, Irish revolution and exile, union labour foundations, World War 1 through the eyes of a family, the economic upheavals of war, rations and the company’s creative solutions, the history of sugar, post-war recovery, the Great Depression, the American Dream, candy-making, the rise of a family from Kerry Patch (the Irish ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri) to the suburbs, the history and development of St. Louis, and the demise of a family company resurrected by later generations. All in a 55-minute video!

 To watch this fascinating slice of history, click here. To check out the company’s website, click here.

I hope you enjoy this short history, and while you’re at it, enjoy a piece of licorice!

Image Credit: Switzer website (see link above)

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History Undusted: The History of Money in the American Colonies

Today we’ve got a variety of ways to make financial transactions: Online payment, cheques (checks), cash (coins or bills), debit cards, giros (UK), credit cards, bitcoins, Twint, and probably a dozen other ways. But when did it all get started? Why are there ridges or texts on the edges of coins? What did people use before coins were widely spread enough to be a viable means of transaction? I’ve written about the history of shillings before, and ancient payments using hack silver, but the complications that arose across the Atlantic between the British crown and the colonies of America, before they won their independence, is as fascinating as any thriller. It’s a tale of laws passed to stranglehold the colonies into submission or to stop an artery bleed of silver across the ocean, and loopholes and nooks and crannies found to carry on with business anyway.

For a fascinating video on the topic by Jon Townsend, an 18th-century reenactor and specialist with a great YouTube channel, just click on the image below. Enjoy travelling back in time!

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Virtual Tour: Museum of Play

Playing keeps us young. Everyone who’s got a healthy sense of balance has a little kid inside of them that likes to come out to play once in a while. And because it’s something all of us can relate to in one way or another, some clever folks have put together a museum dedicated to having fun! From toys, electronic games, television programmes like Sesame Street, board games, ball games, dolls, card games – you name it, they’ve probably got an exhibit about it! The Strong National Museum of Play also has a large number of online exhibits, so if you don’t live near Rochester, New York, you can still enjoy their collections. So come along on a tour of playing – just click on the image below and enjoy playing around!

Question: What was your favourite game as a child? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Strong National Museum of Play website

“It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

Fred Rogers, American television personality, 1928–2003

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History Undusted: Forgotten Battles of the Aleutian Islands

I might be odd for a woman, but I love history; in particular the history of World War 2. But as much as I’ve read about it, and as many documentaries and films as I’ve watched on the topic, I had never heard about this episode until I read a comment from a YouTube video which told about how that person’s grandfather had served in the only US territory to be occupied by the Japanese during the war: The Aleutian Islands.

Anyone who knows a bit about World War 2 probably knows about Midway – a pivotal point in the Pacific arena. But at the same time Japan was targeting that US island base in the middle of the Pacific, they also had their sites set on the Bering Strait; specifically, the six island groups of the Aleutian Islands. In June 1942, they attacked and occupied the US territory islands of Kiska and Attu. Anyone would be excused for thinking that these inhospitable, frozen, volcanic mountains rising out of the sea were insignificant, but they were a strategic launching point for keeping the Japanese at bay in the Pacific, and as a gateway for supplies to the Allied troops. If the Japanese managed to maintain their hold on those islands, it would strengthen the defence of their northern territories, and it was also feared that they would use the islands as springboards from which to attack the US West coast or invade through Alaska and into Canada and the northwestern mainland territory of the US. The battles there are considered the “forgotten battles” because, although there was public outrage in the US at the time, they were soon largely overshadowed in the press by Midway and by the Guadalcanal campaigns. But the number of casualties there was comparable to that of Pearl Harbor, and the Attu battle was better known in Japan than in America: It was a major propaganda coup for the Imperial Army.

To watch a 1943 documentary about the Aleutian Islands and their strategic significance, called “Forgotten Battle of the Aleutian Islands“, just click on the link (~45 min.). It not only gives a glimpse into the geography and military aspect, but the human aspect, showing the soldiers in their daily off-duty activities and their duties; it gives you a sense of what they were like, where they came from, and what they did. For a shorter summary (~12 min), click here.

The Aleutian Islands, showing Russia to the west and Alaska to the east.

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History Undusted: Advent Calendars

This month has flown by! Last weekend was our church’s annual advent market, and I was present with tables full of crafts, as well as marble-iced cookies, Spitzbuben, cheese cookies & apple chips (dehydrated). Before it took off, I was preparing, baking, labelling, and doing all the little bits and bobs to get ready; it went off well, considering the limitations of Covid. I also got our own Advent calendar completed – I talk about that more in a previous post. But the whole topic of the market got me wondering where Advent calendars started, so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve discovered: As you probably know, advent calendars today can take any form you choose; the only common factor is that they usually cover 24 days and begin on 1 December (as opposed to following the 4 Advent Sundays – this year, the first Sunday fell on 28 November). The first calendars weren’t: In the early 1800s, German protestants began marking chalk lines on a wall or lighting a candle each day of the Advent season; they sometimes accompanied the act with a devotional reading or with an image centered around the advent, or coming, of Jesus (traditionally celebrated on 25 December, though that was hardly his birthday – but that’s another topic). The first actual calendars were made of cardboard in Germany, and appeared in the early 1900s; they often had either a poem or a picture behind each door, and were produced until World War 2, when the Nazis banned their use on the excuse that cardboard was scarce – and then, in 1943, they promptly sent out advent booklets to every mother in the land – but they seem to have missed the point: their versions had images of German soldiers blowing up Russian tanks and sinking allied ships!
The Nazi’s idea of Advent celebrations… the less said, the better!
After the war, Richard Sellmer, of Stuttgart, was able to get permission from the allied officials to begin printing cardboard Advent calendars once again, and his company still produces them today – click here to visit their website. After the war was over, the American soldiers took the idea back to the States; their popularity took off in the 1950s after a photo appeared in a newspaper of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren with a Sellmer calendar.
Image from the Sellmer website, showing President Eisenhower’s grandchildren opening a Sellmer calendar
I guess you could say that the rest is history! With Advent beginning, I hope yours is ready for Wednesday! And Christmas is coming soon! If you’re interested in knowing the history behind Santa’s red suit, just click here!

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History Undusted: The Personal History of a Household Apron

Aprons have probably been around since the dawn of clothing; up until the Industrial Revolution, most people only had the clothes on their backs, or at most one additional change of clothing – in which case they were considered either very well off or thieves; a large number of the thefts reported in the 17th and 18th centuries had to do with clothing articles; the clothes made the man or woman, and if they could upgrade their wardrobe through “five-finger discounting,” they might have a better chance at finding a good job with better wages.  The style of aprons has changed through the years, and while sometimes their function was little more than a fashion statement, such as in the painting below, their main purpose has never become obsolete:  To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the home.

Dancing Girl, Levitsky Dmitry, 1735-1822

My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were Kansas pioneer farmers; my grandmother (Mary Mae) headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon with her parents (James Allen and Carrie Christine Higbee nee Aaroe) as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.

Nis and Maren Kirstine Aaroe-Aagaard, immigrants from Vonsild, Nørre Tyrstrup, Vejle, Denmark, who settled in Kansas; taken ca 1890. My great-great grandmother is in her daily apron at the spinning wheel.

Most of my childhood memories are of my paternal grandparents’ farm; we spent many weekends there helping out, and I spent a week or two every summer with them.  My grandmother was always in an apron, except for Sunday mornings and special events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in an apron.  But I have something much better:  A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the late 1970s.  The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps and other spare cloths; I remember seeing her in several of them.

Apron Quilt, Grandma Herring, sewn between 1920s and late 1970s
Apron – 1950s Vintage Fashionable Aprons

Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns shown above; they were plain, simple and hand-made; they did what they were needed for, and no more, no less.  But as simple as they might have been, those aprons were worth their weight in gold on a farm:  They protected her scanty wardrobe – she didn’t need much, didn’t want much, and was satisfied to take care of what she’d been blessed with.  Those aprons carried baby chicks, kittens, flowers, herbs, chicken eggs, apples, firewood and wood chips, baby birds fallen from nests in a wind storm, and the occasional sugar cube for the horses.  They wiped away tears, cleaned dirty faces, dusted furniture if guests were walking up the path, took delicious things from the oven, cold things from the freezer, and helped open canning jars.  They shaded a cold pie on her lap in the old Chevy truck while we bounced across the fields to bring my grandfather a picnic for lunch break in the summer heat (she could have used an old quilt for the pie, but that was often used to cradle a large mason jar full of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move either from the garden or to the flower bed.  They carried chicken feed and broken eggs shells to feed the chickens to make their eggs stronger; they held potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash.  They were the perfect cradle for a garden watermelon, rolling it into the refrigerator to get it nice and cold on a hot day. They warmed her hands on a cold day as she dug for the last of the potatoes before winter’s freeze, and hid her dirty hands when guests arrived unannounced.  They polished cutlery, fanned her face to cool her down on a sweltering hot day, and were the perfect place to hide for shy children.  One never knew what that apron would do next.

Little could my paternal grandmother have guessed that the quilt she made from so many scraps of memories would eventually accompany her granddaughter back over the ocean her mother had traversed as a newborn baby from Denmark, and end up within 20 km from where my maternal ancestors have been traced: Zofingen, Aargau, Switzerland. I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, practicality, humility, common sense and love.

Adapted from an article originally posted on History Undusted, 5 Oct. 2015

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History Undusted: The Kindred Spirits of the Choctaw & the Irish

I recently heard of an unusual historical connection between a tribe of survivors from the Trail of Tears, and those struggling with survival half a world away during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852.

The Choctaws were one of the Native American nations who were forcibly displaced between 1830 and 1850, along with Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole and the Chickasaw nations. Basically, any land the white insurgents wanted, they took, driving out tribes from their ancestral homes; thousands died of exposure, starvation and disease on the road to their designated reserves.

But in the midst of their own sorrows, the Choctaw people heard about the plight of the Irish famine, and they responded with generosity. They collected $170 (which would be around $5,200 today) and sent it to the Irish in 1847. While gifts flowed to Ireland from various sources, the gift of this native tribe touched the Irish deeply; despite their own tragedies, they reached out and gave the Irish people hope – hope that they weren’t alone and that others cared.

Fast-forward to the Covid-19 challenges facing many Indian reservations: Many people are unemployed and barely scraping by; a lack of running water or electricity is common, so you can imagine how challenging it is for them to keep their hands clean and to be able to meet hygiene requirements – as a result, the Corona Virus has swept through these impoverished communities. A Navajo woman, Ethel Branch, started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise money to help support reservation families; she set the goal at $50,000, thinking it was far too ambitious and expecting only about a thousand dollars to come in. But the Irish heard about it, and they’ve been paying it forward, back to the people they never forgot and who they teach about in their history lessons; so far, over $5 million has been raised.

For a short news report on the story, click here.

One tweet made all the difference in this new chapter of an intercontinental friendship. This story reminds me that when we respond with empathy and generosity, even the smallest acts of kindness can encourage others, and, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep an eye out for those who need an encouraging word or deed – you may change a life.

Alex Pentek’s “Kindred Spirits” sculpture, County Cork, Ireland

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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!

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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.

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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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