Tag Archives: History Undusted

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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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…

View original post 2,487 more words

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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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