History Lost, and History Created?

Considered the first modern natural disaster, the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, is well studied. If you are specifically interested in the scientific, philosophical, religious, economic, literary or political consequences of this event, an internet search will show you a treasure trove of information.

These are the basic facts about what happened. On the morning of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, there was an earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Lisbon. It is speculated that the earthquake would have measured between 8.5 and 9.2 on the Richter scale, had that resource been available at the time.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.Painting by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas (1707–1783). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not long after the earth stopped shaking, the earthquake also brought a series of tsunamis. And then there were fires, lasting almost a week. I’ve read estimates of the number of deaths being anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, although most estimates are in the 50,000 range.

Scholars in all disciplines can study the effects of this series of events on the Portuguese Empire and on what was one of the wealthiest and most populous cities in Europe. Aiding in this research about the destruction are historical resources that are only available because of the devastation.

Lisbon, Portugal, during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755. This copper engraving, made that year, shows the city in ruins and in flames. Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic. Original in: Museu da Cidade, Lisbon. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There are first person accounts from survivors in Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Visual artists depicted the events and the aftermath. Others wrote not only of what happened, but opined about the how and the why. The case has been made that this is the beginning of seismology. Learning the reasons why they chose to rebuild an entire ruined city in this particular way is fascinating.

We have available this entire array of primary resources to help explain not only what people did, but how they felt and what they believed after the earthquake, the tsunamis and the fires. If you read my posts regularly, you know how I feel about primary sources. This is an amazing window into mid-eighteenth century European life and their reaction to adversity.

But don’t forget what we lost. I first heard about 1755 Lisbon when I was researching primary source material about the great navigators and explorers from the Age of Exploration. Much of that is just…gone. Original records, logs, journals, maps and charts that were in the royal archives are no longer available to study.

The royal library in Lisbon contained 70,000 volumes. Remember, we’re not talking about mass market paperbacks readily available. As far as I know, there is no inventory, no way to completely know what we’re missing. Another palace library held 18,000 volumes. That palace also had art by Titian, Ruben and Correggio.

It looks like my message changed along the way. Originally I was lamenting what was lost. But people did what people do. They learned. They rebuilt. They moved on. Much better message.

Thank the Finns for the Molotov Cocktail

I don’t think there has ever been any question that fire can be used as a weapon. The main change throughout the millennia is the delivery system.

One modern delivery system is the Molotov cocktail. Cheap and easy to make using accessible ingredients, these little bombs are easy to carry and can do some big damage.

As demonstrated in many, many movies, the Molotov cocktail is a bottle filled with gasoline, using a gas soaked rag stuffed in the opening as a wick that is lit to start the fire. You throw the bottle and when it breaks, gasoline and fire spread everywhere. Easy peasy.

Finnish Molotov cocktail with fixed storm match to ignite instead of rags. Photo: Ohto Kokko via Wikimedia Commons

But Hollywood doesn’t always tell the whole story. Molotov cocktails generally have a few extra ingredients to increase their effectiveness. The most damaging Molotov cocktails add a little something extra to the gasoline or ethanol. If you add some tar or motor oil, you get a more sticky mixture. Sticky is good in this case. When the bottle breaks, you want the fire to stick where you’ve thrown it. These add-ins also provide extra thick smoke, which is good to disorient your enemies.

I would guess that people have used variations of Molotov cocktails since there was glass and accelerants. Tossing a lit kerosene lantern to purposely start a fire is, in my view, a precursor to the more standardized modern version. And yes, I’ve watched a lot of Westerns in my life.

It’s turns out we can thank the people of Finland for naming a weapon they standardized and used extensively against the Soviets. In 1939 the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986), signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. Billed as a non-aggression pact between the two countries, it also secretly divided territory between them, giving the Soviet Union control of Finland. Again.

Vyacheslav Molotov. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Then the Soviets invaded Finland and started dropping bombs. When the news reported on the bombs, Molotov declared that they were dropping food and supplies. The Finns started called the bombs “Molotov bread baskets”. It only made sense to call their weapon of choice the drinks portion of the meal, hence the Molotov cocktail.

These small weapons were extremely effective against tanks. If you have enough Molotov cocktails and they are sticky enough, you can keep a tank aflame and completely surrounded by thick, black smoke. And the Finns did have plenty of Molotov cocktails because, surprising, they mass-produced them in a distillery during the war. Way to go, Finland!

Fireworks!

Today is Independence Day in the United States, generally a busy day of fun for Americans, so I’ll keep this short.

I love fireworks with all the color and the booming noise that you can feel in your chest. Growing up in a military family, we saw town celebrations and fireworks shows all over the United States. But unlike those days, Independence Day is no longer the only time you can see a good fireworks show.

The beach by my house this morning. It’s not usually this busy. Photo: Cathy Hanson

So here are some fireworks memories from my personal history, although not all happened on the Fourth of July.

  • In Spokane we had a semi-pro soccer team that sometimes had a fireworks show after the game. We were able to lie out on the field and it felt like the colors were falling right down onto us. Of course, the pitch was artificial turf and 22 players had spent 90 minutes spitting all over it. Still totally worth it.
  • When I was about 11 or 12 years old (I know that because it happened in Michigan), I was standing behind a friend who was crouched down lighting a bottle rocket or something. He hopped back and then stood up. He had some type of utility knife in his back pocket. Over 40 years later and I still have a scar on my thigh. Yes, I’m sure my mother told me that if I refused to get stitched up that I would have a scar for the rest of my life. Listen to your mommies, kids.
  • When my niece was about 4 years old, we had a family night at a semi-pro baseball game and they had fireworks at the end. She loved the pretty colors, but screamed bloody murder at the noise. I may have told her that she was making more noise than the fireworks.
  • When I first moved to California, we realized that we could stand on a jetty down at the beach and see 7 different fireworks shows. We had the roar of the surf, but unfortunately we didn’t get that booming noise. So a couple of years ago we went to the Legoland parking lot to watch their display. And we could hear all the booms! And those booms set off every car alarm in the parking lot.

Feel free to share any fireworks memories you have!

The Search for the Missing

Last week I wrote about bracelets worn for the the Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) during the Vietnam War. Some of the included links told of American remains identified long after the end of the war, which reminded me of a thriller I read in the 1990s. I can’t remember the title or the author, but the use of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) as a major plot point has stayed with me all these years.

Today part of the  Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), CILHI is the world’s largest forensic anthropology laboratory. It is one piece of this organization of dedicated military and civilian personnel whose mission it is to provide an accounting of all our missing service members. Click here to see their latest news about recent identifications.

Cpl. Rory Richardson, Australian Army, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, assists the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency with recovery operations in Numoiken, Papua New Guinea, March 5, 2016. The DPAA members are deployed as part of a recovery team in the search of two crew members of an A-20 Havoc aircraft lost during World War II. The DPAA deploys teams from its operation office based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD Photo by Staff Sgt. Erik Cardenas, USAF/Released) Unit: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

DPAA actively searches for tens of thousands of missing Americans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Finding American remains are the job of search and recovery teams made up of anthropologists, medics, photographers, linguists, explosive ordnance disposal technicians and any other experts required for a particular situation. They use known data about battle sites and crash sites, stories told by locals, new discoveries of airplane parts and personal effects to prioritize their missions.

The search and recovery teams generally work in places where there are hardships. Dangers include unexploded ordnance, extreme weather, poisonous reptiles and insects, disease, extreme terrain, local culture and national politics.

The current numbers of missing from the DPAA website:

  • There are more than 73,000 unaccounted Americans from World War II. The majority of those are presumed lost at sea and unrecoverable at the moment.
  • There are almost 8,000 still unaccounted from the Korean War. As you can imagine, we don’t get much help from North Korea and the U.S. stopped sending recovery teams there in 2005 due to security concerns.
  • More than 1,600 are still unaccounted from the Vietnam War. Search and recovery teams frequently work in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
  • The Cold War has126 unaccounted. Most of those were air crews and many are presumed lost at sea.

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) excavate a wet unit in the Xiangkhoang Province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, March 30, 2016. Members of DPAA deployed to the area in hopes of recovering the remains of a pilot unaccounted for during the Vietnam War era. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn Ford, USAF/RELEASED)

When remains are recovered and repatriated, the lab goes to work. The methods used for identification have changed over the years as technology has changed. One of their most powerful tools is the forensic odontologist. Teeth are one of the hardest surfaces in the human body and therefore the most likely to survive intact. Also, not everyone has the same dental work done the same way, meaning that teeth can be almost as individual as finger prints. And with teeth, dental records are often available, so the researchers are not simply relying on memories and stories from family and friends.

Another tool more recently available is DNA. The way I understand it, the only DNA you can get from bone is mitochondrial DNA, which goes through the mother’s line. This means it is sometimes difficult to find descendants for DNA to confirm identification.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Samantha Brenneman, a recovery noncommissioned officer augmented by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), left, works with local workers at an excavation site Tay Ninh province, Vietnam, Mar. 16, 2016. Brenneman is a mortuary affairs specialist assigned to the 2nd Brigade Support Brigade Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. She is part of a specialized team deployed by DPAA in search of two Service members lost in an L-19 aircraft crash in 1967. The DPAA mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Kathrine Dodd, USAF/RELEASED) Unit: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

Once an identification has been confirmed, the parent military service informs the next of kin. The family has the choice of having their loved one buried at Arlington National Cemetery or a cemetery closer to home. No matter which the family chooses, the no-longer-missing service member is buried with full military honors.

Although many have been found and identified, the work is not done. Bringing them home is a promise our country makes to our service members and their families. With dedication, and possibly some technology we can’t yet even imagine, more families can finally know the fate of their love ones.

The POW / MIA Bracelet

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I had a bracelet. It was a metal band engraved with the name, rank and date of loss for an American military member who was either a Prisoner of War (POW) or was Missing in Action (MIA) in Vietnam.

POW/MIA bracelets. Photo: From the Smithsonian The National Museum of American History. http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1273063

Approximately 5 million POW/MIA bracelets were sold from 1970 to 1976. Each bracelet represents a story and were a reminder that these men were more than just a statistic.

A student organization, Voices in Vital America (VIVA), produced and distributed the bracelets to draw attention to the prisoners and the missing in Vietnam. It was also a way to support our military even if you didn’t support the politics of the war. The idea was that you would wear your bracelet until “your” serviceman came home. The program ended in 1976 as it appeared the public had lost interest in Vietnam.

I don’t know what happened to my bracelet, and sadly, don’t remember the name of the service member. I don’t know what happened to “my” POW/MIA. This can be attributed to my generally short attention span, but it’s more likely the fact that my father served in Vietnam meant I didn’t need a reminder that there was a war going on.

Here is a sampling of the many stories I found of people who wore their bracelets for decades.

  • This woman had worn her bracelet for 38 years when the remains of her Green Beret were found, identified and returned home for burial in 2011.
  • This LA Times article tells several stories, but focuses on a couple of men who made it home and the bracelets they have received over the years that bore their names. Make sure you read the second page, and be prepared for a few tears.
  • This woman found the family of her POW and in 2015 gave her bracelet to his grandson.
  • This woman wore her bracelet for 44 years before discovering that her MIA’s remains had been recovered between 1993 and 2000, and identified in 2006. She removed the bracelet and left it at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 2016.
  • And one final example, with thoughts from both the woman who wore the bracelet and the POW whose name she couldn’t forget.

You can purchase bracelets from The National League of POW/MIA Families. You can also find them on eBay.

How about my readers? Did you have, or do you still have, a bracelet? Do you know what happened to “your” POW/MIA?

Museum Pieces Help Us Understand History

For those of us who are visual learners, one of the easiest ways to retain information about history is through images. Whether those images are sepia-toned photos or medieval paintings, they are vital to many of us, enabling us to better viscerally understand history.

The Royal Acquaintances Memi and Sabu, ca. 2575-2465 BCE, made of limestone and paint. Dated using her hairstyle and their embrace. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

The objects found in museums vary depending upon the type of museum and the funding available. What you find at a local historical museum will differ from what is available at the Louvre. If the purpose of your visit is to learn something, then each experience will be valuable in its own way.

Lyre Guitar ca. 1805 France, possibly made by Joseph Pons. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.Some of the things you can find at museums are paintings, sketches, clothing, sculpture, shoes, furniture and jewelry. These items can all tell you something about the era in which it featured. The composition of a piece can tell us what tools and natural resources were available at that time. What the artist chooses to depict can teach us about their culture.

British Suit ca. 1760, made of wool and gilt metal. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Certain norms haven’t changed much over time. The rich had more stuff, and stuff that lasted longer, than did poor people. Therefore, many of the pieces that have survived are not indicative of all parts of society. We can’t change that, but we do need to be aware of existing biases.

The Faience Restorer by Paul-Narcisse Salieres (1818-1908) in 1848. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

One of the things I’ve always found interesting is the number of painted portraits available throughout history. This certainly makes sense in the time before cameras. These portraits were the selfies of their time, although they took a lot longer to complete and you had to sit or stand really still for a long time. Also, unlike selfies, the portrait artist may be required to use a little flattery in their portrayal of their subject.

French shoes ca. 1690-1700, made of silk and leather. These shoes are for men, which kind of makes me giggle. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

Along with cameras for selfies, we can use new technologies to access museum inventories. Most museums have at least a portion of their inventory digitized and available online. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in February that they would not only digitize many of their works of art, but that they would also make about 375,000 of those images freely available to the public.

Cabinet created by Jean Brandely of France in 1867. Notice the war scene in the center. To each his own. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.

For these images in the public domain, anyone can use them for any purpose (like I am using them in this blog post). This is a huge deal for teachers, writers and bloggers. You may spend hours to find just the right image you need, but those hours are time so well-spent.

Pectoral and necklace of Sithathoryunet with the name Senwosret II, from Egypt ca. 1887-1878 BCE. Made with gold, carnelia, lapis lazuli, turquoise, garnet and green feldspar. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

For someone like me, who uses art to understand history, I simply appreciate that these images are digitized and available to me. After all, not all of us have daily physical access to the Louvre. If you want to know about clothing, food, housing or transportation during a particular period in history, check out a museum online.

Burgonet with Falling Buffe, French helmet made of steel and gold ca. 1550, probably made for Henry II of France (reigned 1547-1559). Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art included in this post.

A Goldsmith in His Shop by Petrus Christus of Bruges in 1449, oil on oak panel. I think cool hats like these should become the new fashion. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection.

The Inquisition As A Primary Source: The Fournier Register

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know what a big deal it is for historians to have primary sources. These sources are important because they are created in the time that events happened. It’s reading the Gettysburg Address rather than reading a 21st century book analyzing what President Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address.

One primary source from the Inquisition is the Fournier Register, published in 1965. Composed of interrogations conducted from 1318-1325, this resource was just sitting in the Vatican Library waiting to be discovered. For anyone interested in history, imagine how happy we are to have interviews of 14th century residents of a village in France at the foothills of the Pyrenees. Interviews where the people of Montaillou discussed their thoughts, ideas and details of their daily lives.

Montaillou. Photo by Yann Gwilhoù via Wikimedia Commons

Why were the 200-250 residents of this village interviewed? During this time the Catholic Church was investigating what they believed was a heretical cult known as Catharism. I’m not going to go into how this differed from Catholicism because that information is widely available in books, articles and on the internet. For the purpose of this post, just know the Catholic Church was determined to stamp out this heresy.

Many Cathars ended up in the Languedoc region of France, which included the village of Montaillou. In these early years of the infamous Inquisition, the Bishop of Pamiers was sent to find and deal with the Cathars in the area. He hunted Cathars by talking with all the area inhabitants.

The Bishop of Pamiers was Jacques Fournier (c.1280s-1342). In 1334 he became Pope Benedict XII during the period when popes resided in Avignon, France. Being a historian and not a Catholic, in my view his greatest accomplishment is the Fournier Register, the result of 578 interrogations.

Portait of Pope Benedict XII in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. Via Wikimedia Commons

The value of the Fournier Register to historians and other social scientists is immense. It represents the best available resource for the study of early 14th-century rural life. Because the majority of people were illiterate, we don’t have a lot of diaries detailing daily life. During these interrogations, these ordinary people not only discussed their religious beliefs, but talked about their relationships, what they ate, how their families were structured, their attitudes about sex and death, what they thought about their neighbors and what they did in their day-to-day lives.

An amazing resource for anyone interested in history, but there are some things you want to keep in mind. Basically, everything they said was not necessarily true. The good and bad thing about primary sources in history is that people aren’t always completely self-aware or completely honest with themselves and others. Also, these interrogations were about identifying heretics. I would bet the villagers were not always completely honest with their interviewers. They could be burned at the stake for being heretics, and that is a mighty powerful reason to lie.

The book that brought the most attention to the data available in the Register was “Montaillou” by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie, published in French in 1975. The English translation by Barbara Bray, which I read a couple of times for various university courses, was published in 1978. This book is a good example of the issue of translation. The villagers spoke Occitan, a regional dialect, but the scribes translated that into Latin, the language of the Register. Le Roy Ladurie translated that into French and then Bray translated the French into English. So it’s not the same as speaking directly to a medieval villager, but it’s what we’ve got.

Church of Montaillou, Ariège, France. Photo by Xfigpower via Wikimedia Commons

No matter the reservations we may have about the Fournier Register as a primary research source, it is still amazing that it exists at all. Although there may always be disagreements among historians about translations or interpretations of the interrogations, seven hundred years later, this is truly remarkable data about medieval life in the 14th century. And did I mention, there’s lots of talk about sex? These are interesting, ordinary people. Check out some English translations.

Macrame Is About Much More Than 1970s Plant Hangers

My nephew was visiting last week, and because he is a big fan of Captain Jack Sparrow and all things tall ship, we visited the Maritime Museum of San Diego. You can walk through a variety of ships and submarines, all of which are listed on their website.

Besides being able to walk through all the ships at your own pace, the museum offers educational programs with instructors dressed in historically appropriate clothing, teaching various lessons about history and sailing. There are also exhibits about everything from emigration to tattoos to salmon fishing.

One display that caught my eye was about fancy knot work. I immediately flashed back to my tween years in the 1970s when I believed all homes should be decorated with macramé. Although since most of the macramé I remember were plant hangers, maybe I just liked the thought of all those plants.

Fancy Knot Work display at Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

I’ve always known that ships are full of ropes, but I never thought about sailors through the centuries having free time. Combine free time, expert knowledge of knots and lots of rope, and it makes sense that they spent time knotting ropes to makes items both practical and decorative. Historically, they created a lot of floor mats to prevent slipping, covers for bottles to prevent breaking, covers for knife handles for a safer grip, and hammocks for sleeping.

Ropes and knots everywhere! HMS Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo: Cathy Hanson

On boats, different functions are served by different knots. If a sailor went to a new boat, or a boat from another region, they may need to either learn knots that are new to them, or teach others to create the knots from their repertoire. Some knotters, then and now, kept knot boards, which display their skills and knowledge. After all, the safety of the ship and the crew depended upon the sailors’ skills with ropes and knots.

Various types of knots, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, Author: Andrey Belenko of Moscow, Russia

The first manual for seamen written in English was A Sea Grammar written by Captain John Smith and published in 1627. (Yes, that’s the same John Smith from the Pocahontas stories.) This book was mostly about sailing and living a life at sea, but included a section about splicing rope and tying knots.

Almost 400 years later, there have been many manuals written about knot-tying, most including illustrations to show how to tie each of the knots. The definitive reference is The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley, published in 1944. It includes entries for over 3,800 knots. An alternate source of all things knots is the International Guild of Knot Tyers.

If you’re interested in creating your own decorative or practical items, or just learning how to tie various knots, there are many workshops and online tutorials available. If you like the nautical look of these items, but don’t want to make them yourself, there are plenty of places to buy items made by experts in the field.

Now, if we could only get Captain Jack Sparrow to lead a workshop about knot-tying.

How Do You Feel About Zoos?

My sister and nephew are visiting me in SoCal this week from Washington State and one of the items on our agenda is the San Diego Zoo. Although my sister and I visited many zoos in our travels as military brats, the San Diego Zoo is regularly ranked as one of the top zoos in the world.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But before zoos, there were menageries. The history of menageries goes back to the ancient world in Greece and Rome, when royal leaders had menageries of animals that included diplomatic gifts from leaders of other countries. Those menageries were generally not open to the public, but were only available to the rich and powerful. Seeing a variety of exotic animals was just one more status symbol.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

In the late 18th century, the purpose of zoos changed. With the Age of Enlightenment came the idea that these animals should be studied scientifically and medically. And with some of these zoos located in large population areas it seemed an obvious idea to open them to the public for entertainment purposes.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

The San Diego Zoo first opened in 1916, so it has a 100-year history. It is operated by a not-for-profit organization which is the largest zoological membership association in the world. Located on 100 acres in Balboa Park, the zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals of more than 650 species. It is also home to more than 700,000 exotic plants, which was what I noticed when I first visited.

Like many people, I’m ambivalent about zoos. I like to see animals we don’t get to see in the city, and I like to watch the way they interact with each other. Our zoo makes the effort to create areas that are close to the animals’ natural habitats.

There are huge benefits to a well-run zoo, including scientific study, educating the public, breeding programs, protecting endangered species, and yes, entertainment. They also raise awareness and funds for research.

San Diego Zoo. They have a new koala area now that I’m very excited to see. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But.

Not all zoos are well-run. There are way too many stories about cruelty to the animals, whether from management, staff or the public. Most habitats cannot be exactly replicated, leading the animals to experience stress and behavior problems. But some zoos don’t even make the effort and still use cages or small concrete pens. And ultimately, prison is prison no matter how well they treat you.

As with many things in life, we are left to balance to bad with the good. So I’ll go to the zoo this week and trust that there is more good than bad. I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to watch lemurs and koala bears and giraffes and sloths. I love sloths! And I’ll spend some time wishing the world wasn’t such a dangerous place for these amazing animals.

Pals. Photo: Cathy Hanson

What about you? Are you for or against zoos? Do you have a most memorable zoo experience?

Historical Fashion: Amusing or Just Odd?

I’m helping a friend move tonight, so here’s a short piece about historical fashion. To move furniture and boxes, I’m wearing sweats, a far cry from the panniers pictured below.

Robe à la française or open gown with stomacher, 1740s, England (textiles produced in Holland or Germany), Silk, linen, pigment. Photo by Claire H. via Wikimedia Commons

Panniers are associated with the 18th century, and I can’t imagine they were terribly comfortable. But historically, fashion is almost always about image rather than comfort. And I’m pretty sure the women of wealth and status who wore this fashionable clothing were probably not moving their own furniture.

Easier to walk in panniers outside rather than inside. Painting by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure if it was a bug or a feature, but the fact that the panniers at the side of the skirt could extend several feet allowed a large empty canvas across the front of the dress. I remember reading somewhere that the fineness of the embroidery across that expanse was a sign of an individual’s status.

Replica of Catherine II’s wedding dress (1745) by MKhT school-studio 01. Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The thought of maneuvering through a house in one of these dresses is mind-boggling.  Although maybe the focus required to keep from running into everything would be good for me.

Sweats instead of panniers are one more reason to be glad we live in the 21st century.