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


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.

Eurovision Song Contest

When Donald Trump alluded on Saturday to some horrible event that had happened in Sweden the previous day, you can imagine the tweets in response. One response came from @sweden, the official Twitter account for the country. They stated that the only thing that happened on Friday was the competition to choose the Swedish entrant for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest.

This is not a big deal in the United States, but I remember when we lived in England in the late 1970s, this was must-watch television. So here’s some stuff you may or may not know about this competition.

  • This annual competition began in 1956, partly because Europeans felt the need for something fun that would pull them together after the devastation of World War II.
  • The winner that was most successful after their win was ABBA, from Sweden. They won in 1974 for “Waterloo”. You can see their winning Eurovision performance here. That’s some happy music!
  • The competition is not open to all European countries, but to all members of the European Broadcasting Union. This has changed over the last 60 years as some countries are created or are swallowed up by larger countries.
  • The first Eurovision Song Contest included only seven countries. In 2016, 42 countries competed.
  • For all my Lakenheath friends from England, you probably already know that Katrina and the Waves won for the United Kingdom in 1997, singing “Love Shine a Light“. For those of you not from Lakenheath, you probably know this band, who attended Lakenheath American High School, for the song “Walking on Sunshine“.
  • The first Eurovision was held in Lugano, Switzerland, and after that, the country that wins the competition becomes the host for the contest the next year. This can be used as an opportunity to promote their country as a tourist destination, but there have been times when the host country has declined due to the expense. In those cases, another host (usually the BBC in the United Kingdom) steps up to take over. In May of this year the competition will be held in Kyiv, Ukraine.
  • There are lots of rules about everything from the number of artists allowed onstage to language requirements. But many of the rules change through the years, so you have to give them credit for flexibility due to growth and change.
  • Voting for the winners has also changed. At the moment, the voting is split 50/50 between juries and voting by the public, either by phone or online. The problem with the public aspect is one of scale. Like our electoral college, where my California vote counts less than the vote of someone from Wyoming, the public vote from small countries outweighs the vote from much larger countries.
  • Women have dominated, being a part of 50 of the 64 winning acts through 2016.
  • Sometimes politics rears its ugly head. Certain blocs of countries may vote together and some countries may vote for or against another country based on whatever is happening at the time. Annoyed with your neighbor? Hurt them with music.
  • Ireland has won the most contests, with seven.

Have you ever watched this contest? Can you listen to “Walking on Sunshine” without dancing even a little bit?

Protesting the Salt Tax

I’ve been thinking lately about protests, for obvious reasons. There are many types of protests and demonstrations. The concept is not specific to any culture or desired result, but exists globally. It’s also not specific to a particular era and you can find examples throughout history.

During the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, India was under British rule from 1858 until 1947. But India wanted self-rule and they found a leader for this nationalist movement in Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).

Gandhi and other Indians took a strategic and long-term route to breaking from the British. This wasn’t about one demonstration or protest, but there is just one that I want to share.

The British controlled, among other things, the production and distribution of salt. It was illegal for the Indian population to produce or manufacture their own salt. They were required to purchase more expensive and heavily taxed salt from the British government. This salt tax affected Indians of all classes, but was especially a burden on the poor.

Because the salt tax affected everyone, it was the perfect protest to gather support among Indians. In 1930, Gandhi began a march to the Indian Ocean to commit an act of non-violent civil disobedience. In less than a month, he and his followers walked about 240 miles. Each night when they stopped, they drew crowds and spoke about what they were doing, and why it was important.

Gandhi at Dandi, South Gujarat, picking salt on the beach at the end of the Salt March, 5 April 1930. Behind him is his second son Manilal Gandhi and Mithuben Petit. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Finally they reached the coast and picked up some salt, which was an illegal act. Although no one was arrested that day, the illegal acts continued. Eventually, Gandhi and others were arrested, but that wasn’t enough to stop this protest. In time, as the protests continued, about 60,000 Indians were arrested and jailed for illegally producing salt.

As you can imagine, taking care of 60,000 new prisoners was a bit of a hassle for the British jailers. It also didn’t help the British that the march and subsequent acts of civil disobedience drew international press attention. It was clear that, just as the Boston Tea Party was not about tea, this was not just about salt.

Gandhi meets with Charlie Chaplin at the home of Dr. Kaitial in Canning Town, London, September 22, 1931. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about protests is that there are two sides and the actions of both sides are often illuminating about deeper issues. Both the protesters and those being protested against want something, and how they each act determines the results of the protest.

In this case, the result was the 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Gandhi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, agreed that Gandhi would stop his salt protests and the British authorities would release all who had been imprisoned for salt offenses and would also allow Indians to produce their own salt for domestic use.

Depending upon your personality, you could call this either a win-win or lose-lose situation. The British lost some tax revenue and the protesters didn’t get their ultimate goal of self-rule, at least not that day. That didn’t happen for another sixteen years. But this protest, the sense of unity shared by the Indian people working toward a common goal, was one of the building blocks that led to that final result.

Breaking News: The Georgian Papers Programme

Currently our news cycles are stuffed full of BREAKING NEWS. I love that there can be breaking news in history, even if it isn’t urgent enough to require ALL CAPS. This particular news will probably have a wide-ranging and long-lasting effect on historical research and will fill historians and enthusiasts with anticipation about what they might find.

In April of 2015, Queen Elizabeth II launched the Georgian Papers Programme, releasing more than 350,000 pieces of paper from the years 1714-1837, which will be digitized for availability to anyone interested. This time period includes the reigns of several monarchs, but because George III was king for almost 60 years, much of the material is directly from him.

The digitized papers will be searchable, making them an incredible primary research resource in many different subject areas. George III (1738-1820) was king during the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, so you can imagine the information just on those issues. The papers include letters between the king and queen, an assortment of other letters, essays, bills, notes, menus and even a draft letter of abdication which was never completed.

King George III (in coronation robes), painted by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you ask many Americans about George III, they will mention that he was crazy or that he was a tyrant. After all, he had to be bad enough that the American Colonies would fight to leave and become our own country.

King George III at Windsor Castle, painted by Peter Edward Stroehling. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

But labels are easy and negate the fact that we are all human beings with varying opinions and flaws. The harder truth is that George III did have some form of mental illness, although historians and others are still debating the exact parameters of that illness, and that one man’s tyrant is another man’s protector.

George III was greatly interested in science in all forms and was generally intellectually curious. He was a husband who reportedly never took a mistress despite the norms for men of his status during his time. He was father to 15 children. Probably mad, possibly a tyrant, but like most of us, he was also much more than that.

George III and Queen Charlotte with their thirteen children, painted by John Murphy. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So why is this release of papers important? Why are historians so excited by this?

  • Primary resources allow us to learn about people in their own words. If we want to know why George III did one thing rather than another, we may find that information in one of these letters.
  • Because these resources will be searchable, information about any subject relating to the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century may be found here. Interested in gardening, medicine, astronomy or spies? Any of those may be found in these papers.
  • Opinions about George III have varied over the years depending on the writer and the time when they were writing. This collection of papers allows today’s writers to get past speculation and to interpret a primary resource.
  • Ultimately, more data usually leads to better analysis. This is a lot of data about a lot of subjects. I imagine this incredible resource will lead to many new journal articles.

The digitization is expected to be completed in 2020. If you want a sneak preview, check out this special from BBC Two “George III – The Genius of the Mad King“.


Signs For The Future

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts the difficulty in studying history when original sources do not exist. Documents and art that were destroyed in war or by natural disaster cannot be recreated. But how will the resources we are now creating hold up for future historians?

Years ago I read a time-travel novel about a character from a couple of hundred years in the future. In that fictional future, digital sources did not survive, but instead degraded and became useless within a couple of decades. Paper survived, but there was a big cultural blank spot in regards to music, radio, movies and television.

Social media wasn’t addressed because that book was written before it became such a big thing. Even if the sheer volume of social media posts remain, will future historians be able to correctly understand our cultural shorthand? I wouldn’t even venture a guess as to how much of my Twitter feed could be understood without a day-to-day immersion in these events.

Will future historians be able to access all the digital noise that exists right now? Will they feel it’s worth the effort to wade through the billions (trillions? kazillions?) of words and images available? If we considered the needs of future historians, what would we save?

I saw an article today in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “In Discarded Women’s March Signs, Professors Saw a Chance to Save History” by Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez. After the Women’s March for America in Boston on Saturday, January 21, 2017, a variety of signs were left by a fence for disposal. A design professor at Northeastern University, Nathan Felde, saw them and was struck by the idea that they needed to be saved.

Women’s March for America, Boston, MA, January 21, 2017. Photo: Brad Fagan via Wikimedia Commons

Felde rented a van and a 40-square-foot storage unit and filled the unit with more than 1,000 handmade, heartfelt signs that capture a variety of ideas important to those who created those signs and marched that day. With the help of Northeastern University’s library, these signs, representing a moment in our history, will be archived physically and digitally. Some of those signs will probably need some explanation in the future.

Women’s March for America, Boston, MA, January 21, 2017. Photo: Brad Fagan via Wikimedia Commons

We live in interesting times. Not only do I want to see how this project looks at completion, but I also would love to know what historians one hundred or two hundred years from now will think about these archived bits of our culture.

My Ideal Dinner Party: Alexander von Humboldt

” The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” -Alexander von Humboldt

Have you ever considered your answer to the classic question about who you would invite, alive or dead, to your ideal dinner party? I made my decision about one of my guests this week after researching Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). I decided to research this scientist after I learned from the academic journal “Hispanic American Historical Review” that Humboldt’s American travel journals have been fully digitized.

Humboldt was a naturalist and explorer, born in Berlin, which was part of the Kingdom of Prussia at that time. Although he traveled in Europe, Siberia and Central Asia, his most famous trip was to the Americas from 1799-1804. There he traveled through rain forests and climbed mountains, all while scientifically studying…everything.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1806, by artist Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758-1828). Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, 1806, by artist Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758-1828). Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists didn’t specialize then as they do now. During his lifetime he studied botany, geology, geography, biology, anatomy, climate, ocean currents and astronomy. I’m sure I’m missing something in that list, but that curiosity about everything is why he would be a great dinner guest.

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, by Alexander von Humboldt, via Wikimedia Commons

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, by Alexander von Humboldt, via Wikimedia Commons

While in the Americas he collected specimens, mapped rivers and mountains, and left drawings of plants and animals he encountered. He even met with President Thomas Jefferson. When he returned to Europe, Humboldt published a 34-volume account of his American travels, including his Personal Narratives.

Anatomie des Axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum by Alexander von Humboldt via Wikimedia Commons

Anatomie des Axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum by Alexander von Humboldt via Wikimedia Commons

During his long career he was an inspiration to other scientists, like Charles Darwin, but also to naturalist writers and poets, like Henry David Thoreau. Humboldt was a celebrity, famous and revered in his own time. You’ve probably been to or heard of something that has been named for him. That list includes rivers, mountain ranges, bays, waterfalls, towns, parks, counties, plants, animals, a glacier, an asteroid, an ocean current, and an area on the moon.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, Verlag von L. Haase & Co. in Berlin, circa 1857, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt,
Verlag von L. Haase & Co. in Berlin, circa 1857, via Wikimedia Commons

What I find interesting now, in light of all that has changed in the past 200 years of scientific study, is an idea that could make him an hero to modern environmentalists. The foundation of Humboldt’s scientific studies was the idea that everything is interconnected. He saw deforestation in Venezuela and realized that there was a cause and effect relationship between humans and nature. He saw that the effects of deforestation impacted plants, animals and people. He believed that human actions would impact climate for future generations. Because all of nature is connected.

I would love to be able to share some dinner conversation with Humboldt. I just have to wait for other scientists to figure out that whole time travel thing.

Let’s Take a Music Break

Lots going on today in American politics, so I thought we could all use a music break. Here are some suggestions from my impressionable youth, but listen to whatever works for you.

Today in 1945, Rod Stewart was born.

Rod Stewart, “Maggie May”

Today in 1953, Pat Benatar was born.

Pat Benatar, “All Fired Up”

And one year ago today, David Bowie died. But his music lives on…

David Bowie, “Space Oddity”

Go sing and dance, folks. You’ll feel so much better.

Resistance By Music and Carnations

For many people, mention of a resistance movement brings to mind the Polish, French and Danish resistance movements against the occupying German forces during World War II. Those events are fairly recent, often heroic, and get a lot of play in movies, so they are in our public consciousness.

As a descriptor, “resistance movement” is vague enough to encompass a variety of actions, although the idea of a movement requires some organization. Resistance can be armed or unarmed, violent or non-violent, against a government or against an occupying force, and can be aimed at objectives ranging from physical freedom to civil rights.

Mural em Grândola contendo a pauta de Grândola Vila Morena by Paulo Juntas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Mural in Grândola to commemorate the Carnation Revolution. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite examples is the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In 1926 there was a military coup overthrowing an unstable parliamentary government. As often happens with coups, the result was an authoritarian government. This one lasted over forty years, longer than any other authoritarian rule in Western Europe.

By 1974, the rulers controlled the press, persecuted religions other than Roman Catholicism, and had a secret police force to take care of any opposition. Women were not allowed to vote and had low literacy rates because they were denied education. Portugal’s NATO partners tolerated the entrenched right-wing dictatorship because they were anti-communist.

Portuguese citizens were being conscripted into military service and a big part of Portugal’s budget was being spent to fight colonial wars against African independence movements. Some of the military officers fighting these wars, which had dragged on for 13 years, finally had enough, both of their government and their wars. Like any military coup, they were aiming for regime change, but in this case they wanted to replace a dictatorship with a democracy and to negotiate with the African independence movements.

The coup turned out to be quick and almost bloodless. Four people were killed by the authoritarian regime’s police forces.

Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons

Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons

This was a military coup joined by civil resistance once the public realized what was happening. Although the coup leaders announced over the radio that they wanted the citizens to remain in their homes, those people wanted to be a part of this and poured into the streets. Carnations were in season and available in the market square, so once the coup was successful, the people started putting carnations into the soldiers’ rifle muzzles and on their uniforms.

My favorite part of this story? The leaders of the coup had two secret signals. When a certain song was played, the soldiers were to begin the coup. The song they used was Portugal’s 1974 entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho. (ABBA’s “Waterloo” won that year.) The second signal, to take over certain strategic positions, was announced with a song by Zeca Afonso, a musician banned from Portuguese radio as part of the government’s media censorship.

Music to take down a dictatorship. Now that’s some good resistance.