Tag Archives: History

Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
  • Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flip = to board a moving train
  • Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

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Virtual Tours 3: Vigeland Museum and Park, Oslo, Norway

Our next virtual tour takes us to the capital of Norway, the city of Oslo. There are many amazing places to visit in the city, from the Armed Forces Museum to the Viking Ship Museum. But by far, the largest is the Vigeland Park and museum.

The park is the life work of sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the result of over 40 years’ work. There are over 200 sculptures in granite, bronze and wrought iron, from the gates, across a bridge, past a large fountain and to the Monolith mound. The museum itself was his studio, and includes many of his sketches, mock-ups, and smaller works.

Vigeland’s motivation for the sculptures was to portray the breadth and depth of universal humanity, from birth to death, in as many stages of emotions and ages as he could capture. He intentionally left the titles of his works vague, allowing viewers to interpret through their own experiences. The reason that most of the statues are naked is for that same reason – he didn’t want a style of clothing to detract from the timelessness of the collective experience of humans, regardless of culture or era, age or gender.

I have been there twice, and it will always be on our list of things to do in Oslo when we are able to go; Oslo is one of my favourite cities, which is saying a lot as my husband and I tend to avoid cities on holidays, preferring nature and out-of-the-way spots instead. But like London, Oslo is packed with history and museums. Below are two of my own pictures, taken in August 2013.

The fountain, as the water was shut off
The Monolith: 45 feet tall, with over 400 individual figures

So, who was Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943)? Born as Adolf Gustav Thorsen, he became one of the most famous Norwegian sculptors, and also has the distinction of being the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His father was a cabinetmaker, and one of his brothers, Emanuel Vigeland, became a noted artist. Gustav learned wood carving at school, but the sudden death of his father forced him to leave school to help support his family. The name Vigeland comes from the area where his grandparents lived, and where he lived with them for a time. He came to the attention of Brynjulf Bergslien, a sculptor, who took Gustav under his wing. His first personal exhibitions in Norway were in 1894 and 1896.

The Nobel Peace Prize, as designed by Gustav Vigeland

In 1902, he was involved in the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which influenced his art by the inclusion of dragons as the symbols of sin and as a force of nature fighting against man. Shortly thereafter, the city of Oslo gave him a studio in which to work, and the location of his growing exhibition became Frogner Park, now known to many as simply Vigeland Park.

The exhibition can sometimes evoke strong feelings; I’ve heard one person call it demonic because it portrays nudity; at the end of World War 2, one critic thought it “reeked of Nazi mentality”. But I have been there, and can honestly say that both of those sentiments are unfounded. If people are uncomfortable with the human form in its simplicity, they will have difficulty understanding the thoughtfulness that went into each sculpture. As to the second critique, some of the characters are posed as wrestling with various symbols – as everyone wrestles with things in various stages of their lives. Coming from the mindset of someone still stinging with the Nazi’s rule during World War 2, it is easy to understand how they could have interpreted any struggle in that light.

Below are a few links to take during your virtual tour:

The Vigeland Museum

The Vigeland Park

Vigeland from the perspective of a modern stone sculptor

A quick walkthrough tour

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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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Bad with Numbers

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses; when one recognizes a strength, it usually has something to do with a favourite topic, and may even become a component in one’s professional life. When one identifies a weakness, they have two options: Work to improve that area, or accept the fact that they will never be more than minimally proficient in it; at that point, they will likely develop strategies to help them cope or navigate through life despite it.

Someone who is poor at math doesn’t become a mathematician unless they really want to; if they do, they’ll push through and turn that weakness into a strength. I’ll be the first to admit that I fall into that category – except I have NO desire to be a mathematician… that’s what calculators are for!

I’m not only bad with math, but bad with numbers, period. I can tell you what happened, how a historical event unfolded and who was involved, but don’t ask me to remember the dates or years of the event! Same goes with Bible verses – I can tell you the event, what led up to it, and who was involved and what resulted, but I can’t remember more of the actual reference than which book and, “it’s on the left-hand side of the pages.” My husband can confirm my weakness: When we’re playing a game that requires counting up points as we’re playing a turn, numbers randomly come out of my mouth as my mind is several steps ahead of my playing piece! It keeps him on his toes.

I recently thought about this topic when going through a few old files: I’m extremely organized, especially when it comes to things that I have tons of – like crafts supplies (anyone who does crafts will tell you it is actually not one but two hobbies: One is buying or collecting crafts supplies; the other is actually using them!). In crafts, I’ve learned to negotiate around too much calculation; measurements are one thing, but don’t ask me to compute an angle; I’m much more accurate when I wing it by sight with such things – that’s one of my coping strategies that pays off.  

I’m also meticulous with organizing “writing” bits & bobs – prompts, tips, lists, glossaries, etc. I’ve learned that I must be particularly organized with information that is reliant on numbers – like historical dates, chronologies, etc.

Having confessed as much, I’ve recognized a strength in all that: I’m someone who relates to things and events relationally – the whos, whats and hows, not the whens. I’m visually- and relationally- oriented. I can tell you what something looked like, or that the weather was cold when the outbreak of war X occurred, or that there were YZ people or nations or factions involved and why, but don’t ask me what years it took place. Add to that fact that in German, numbers are spoken in reverse (e.g. 27 is said as “seven and twenty”), which makes it even more complicated! But I’ve been relieved when I’m in a shop or at a doctor’s office and I see the employee writing down my telephone number in reverse as I dictate it (they’ll write the 7 first then move backwards for that 20)!

What are you good at? What are you bad at? The more we recognize such things about ourselves, the better we’ll be able to improve areas or to accept them with a dose of grace toward ourselves. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; find those people who could use help with your areas of strengths, and learn to accept help in your areas of weaknesses. Everyone wants to be useful and wanted, so our weaknesses give us the opportunity to encourage someone else to put their strengths to good use!

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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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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: 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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The Salt of the Matter

Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it.  Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around.  Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).

The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual:  One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis.  Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).

Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to.  It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat.  Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste.  In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them.  Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong.  How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter.  Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).

Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:

  • To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
  • (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
  • To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
  • Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
  • To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
  • Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)

Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.

Salts

The variety of salts found in my own kitchen

Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.

Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.

Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.

Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.

Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.

Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.

Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.

Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.

Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.

Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.

Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.

Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.

Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.

New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.

In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.

There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.

Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!

The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.

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History Undusted: Lammas Day

Did any of you celebrate Lammas Day this past Thursday, 1 August?  The original Thanksgiving day, Lammas has a centuries-old tradition in some English-speaking countries.  “Lammas” comes from the Old English hlafmæsse, meaning “loaf mass”, and was a celebration to give thanks for the harvest.  Everyone would bring a loaf of bread to the church on that day, made from freshly-harvested wheat; it would then be blessed by the minister as a symbol of giving thanks for the entire harvest.  Perhaps this is the Eucharistic overtone admitted by J.R.R. Tolkien* in a private letter concerning the Lembas Bread of the Elves; this bread might have been based on Hardtack texture-wise, but the name itself is a  clear nod to Lammas. 

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it’s mentioned several times, where it is referred to as the feast of the first fruits. To read more about this celebration, click on the image below.

And before I close, I will also say, “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!”  Thursday was also our Founding Day, the first being in 1291.  It was perfect weather for fireworks, and we enjoyed the displays of towns and villages from our flat!

Breads, Harvest, Lammas Day

*Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7

 

 

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