Tag Archives: History Undusted

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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History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.

Carrots - Carrot-Museum-co-uk

Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.

They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).

These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.

One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.

Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).

For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).

The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.

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History Undusted: Bells

Recently, my husband was catching up with the articles on my blog, and he made the cheeky comment that I’d written about everything except the history of bells. Now, I know that’s not true – there are other things out there I still have yet to discover – but I took up the challenge; hence, this post. The history of bells, or of anything, for that matter, is an audacious title; as Mark Twain once said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” At best, such an online article can skim the surface of any historical topic; my purpose is not to give an extensive report – it’s to whet your appetites to search out history for yourself. I “undust” it for you – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns and hang on.

Every country has their favourite bells: Americans have the Liberty Bell (“At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.” – Allen Johnson); the Brits have Big Ben (it’s the actual name of the bell, not the clock tower) and other, regional celebrities; the Russians have the Tsar Bell, in Moscow; the Polish have the Sigismund, located in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. but where did they come from originally? What was their original purpose?

The oldest known bell is from around 2000 BC, from Neolithic China, and it was made of pottery tiles. As far as historians can deduce, the bell has always been associated with two social functions: As a signal for messages, such as when a work day would begin or end, and for calls to religious ceremonies or as reminders for specific times of day for various rituals. The sound of bells have always been associated with divinity, likely because it was a sound unlike any natural sound known to the people who heard them ringing out over a great distance – they could hear them, but not see the source of the sound. In ancient times, when most people were both uneducated and superstitious, it’s not hard to follow such reasoning.

Bells can range from tiny jingle bells to several tonnes; the Great Bell of Dhammazedi was the largest bell ever made, in 1484, for King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu (Lower Burma), and weighed 327 tonnes. It was placed in the temple of Shwedagon Pagoda and stolen by the Portuguese – whose ship promptly sunk under the weight of the bell.

Today, church bells still ring out across Europe, calling parishioners to church services, as well as ringing out on the hour to mark the passing of time. They ring out in special ways for various celebrations, whether weddings or holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.

16th century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell - Wikipedia

16th-century Islamic painting of Alexander the Great lowered in a glass diving bell – Wikipedia

Certain kinds of bells hold special value: Ship’s bells are like catnip to divers – they’re the primary method of identifying ships, as their names are engraved on the bells even long after the painted names on the hulls have succumbed to the sea; they are a wreck-diver’s trophy of desire, and always hold special place in their collections. An interesting link between diving and bells is that the first actual diving bells – the rigid chambers designed to transport divers from the surface to the depths and back – were shaped like ringing bells; the air would be trapped in the upside-down chamber, allowing a person to be underwater and still breathe. The first description of its use is recorded by Aristotle in the 4th century BC; the most famous diver from that period is Alexander the Great.

 

English has many idioms associated with bells: Alarm bells ringing (or set off alarm bells, or warning bells going off – i.e. your mind is warning you about a danger or deception in a particular situation); to be as sound as a bell (to be healthy or in good condition); when something has (all the) bells and whistles (extra or entertaining features or functions that aren’t necessary, but nice-to-haves); Hell’s bells! (an expression when one is surprised or annoyed); something rings a bell (i.e. sounds familiar); saved by the bell (i.e. a difficult situation is ended suddenly by an unforeseen interruption); with bells on (i.e. if you go somewhere or do something with bells on, you do it with great enthusiasm or energy); to bell the cat (i.e. undertake a difficult or dangerous task); something to be as clear as a bell (i.e. clearly understood); pull the other leg/one – it has bells on it (i.e. you don’t fool me); one can’t unring a bell (once something has been said or done, you can’t unsay or undo it); the final bell (the end of an event or, euphemistically, a life). I’m sure there are more – if you know of one, please leave it in the comments below!

There is also a powerful experience written by Corrie Ten Boom, a Holocaust survivor, about the Bells of Forgiveness – you can read her story here.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, BBC has an hour-long “History of Bell Ringing” video on YouTube.

So there you have it: Bells, undusted, to pull your rope cord and get those bells ringing in your head, to find out more for yourself!

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