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.

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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“.

 

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100 Years Ago This Month – SHARKS!

If not for the events of July 1916, one hundred years ago, we may not have Jaws, Shark Week, or even Sharknado so ingrained in our culture. Imagine an America without that multi-purpose phrase, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

There has been much written and filmed about those two weeks in July  1916 along the New Jersey shore. Shark attacks killed four and injured a fifth, leading to panic and uncertainty, as well as the killing of unknown numbers of sharks. The first two fatal attacks were at separate resort towns along the coast. The final three attacks were at Matawan Creek, killing two.

Map of the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks. Author: Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks. Author: Kmusser via Wikimedia Commons

There is still controversy over the type of shark and the number involved. Was one rogue shark responsible for all five attacks? Was it a Great White or a bull shark?

In the past 100 years, there has been a lot of research and speculation about the attacks, but I wanted to see what they knew (or reported) at the time. Original reporting reveals so much about the culture and language. I went into The New York Times archives to see what was reported about these attacks.

DIES AFTER ATTACK BY FISH

C. E. Vansant Had Been Bitten While Swimming at Beach Haven

Special to The New York Times.

BEACH HAVEN, N. J., July 2 – Charles Epting Vansant of Philadelphia, who was badly bitten in the surf here on Saturday afternoon by a fish, presumably a shark, died late last night.

He was less than fifty feet from the beach and was swimming in when those on the shore saw the fin of a fish coming rapidly toward him. They called to him to hurry and yelled warning at him but before he swam many feet the fish closed with him. Vansant shouted for help and then went under. Alexander Ott, an expert swimmer and a member of the American Olympic swimming team, dashed to his assistance, but arrived too late to prevent his being bitten. After a struggle, Ott brought him ashore.

Mr. Vansant was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene L. Vansant of 4,038 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, and was in his twenty-fifth year. He was a graduate of the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Pennsylvania and was connected with the firm of Nathan Folwell & Co., of Philadelphia.

It is said that large sharks have been seen recently a few miles out.

The next attack was 5 days later, 45 miles north.

SHARK KILLS BATHER OFF JERSEY BEACH

Bites Off Both Legs of a Youth Swimming Beyond Spring Lake Life Lines

GUARDS FIND HIM DYING

Women Are Panic-Stricken as Mutilated Body of Hotel Employe (sic) is Brought Ashore

Special to The New York Times.

SPRING LAKE, N. J., July 6. – Hundreds of men and women and many children were on the beach this afternoon when a swimmer, far out beyond the outer life lines, raised a cry for help. George White and Chris Anderson, life guards, who had been watching the swimmer closely because of his distance from shore, launched a lifeboat and started for him while the crowd on the beach watched in suspense and fear.

As the life guards drew near him the water about the man was suddenly tinged with red and he shrieked loudly. A woman onshore cried that the man in the red canoe had upset, but others realized it was blood that colored the water and women fainted at the sight. As the life guards reached for the swimmer he cried out that a shark had bitten him and then fainted.

They dragged him into the boat and discovered that his left leg had been bitten off above the knee and the right leg just below the knee. The shark also had nipped his left side, for there were marks of teeth beneath the arm. Women fled when the man was placed on the beach, but the life guards and other men tried to bandage his wounds while a doctor was called. Before one arrived however the man was dead. He was recognized as Charles Bruder, a bell boy in a local hotel, who had the reputation of being a strong swimmer who often went out beyond the life lines.

The news that the man had been killed by a shark spread rapidly through the resort, and many persons were so overcome by the horror of Bruder’s death that they had to be assisted to their rooms. Swimmers hurried out of the water and couldn’t be induced to return.

So far as the life guards and old residents could recall, Bruder’s was the first death due to a shark at this resort. Sharks have been caught occasionally in fish pounds, but none was ever seen near shore before.

A few days ago a boy had one leg bitten off while swimming off Beach Haven, and a movement was started here tonight by Colonel W. G. Schauffler of Governor Fielder’s staff to have the waters patrolled in an effort to kill off the big fish.

Colonel Schauffler purposes to organize a squad of motor boatmen to patrol up and down the coast. Experienced shark fishermen will be in command of the boats, and it is hoped that the commotion will drive away such fish as the fishermen do not catch.

Matawan Creek near the mouth. Photo: Mr. Matté via Wikimedia Commons

Matawan Creek near the mouth. Photo: Mr. Matté via Wikimedia Commons

And then the final attacks six days later, 30 miles up the coast in Matawan Creek. I’m not going to post the entire article because it’s so long, but you can read it here (click to download PDF).

SHARK KILLS 2 BATHERS, MAIMS 1, NEAR NEW YORK

Swims Ten Miles from Sea Through Raritan Bay, and Into Small Creek for It’s Prey

BOY TORN FROM HIP TO KNEE

Another Dragged Down to Death by Monster Fish – Leg of Third Twice Bitten

TOWN SCORNS 2 WARNINGS

Man Eater Seen in Matawan Creek on Sunday – One Boy Seized in Three Feet of Water

Special to The New York Times.

MATAWAN, N. J., July 12 –

Tonight the whole town is stirred by a personal feeling, a feeling which makes men and women regard the fish as they might a human being who had taken the lives of a boy and a youth and badly, perhaps mortally, injured another youngster. The one purpose in which everybody shares is to get the shark, to kill it, and to see its body drawn up on the shore, where all may look and be assured it will destroy no more.

The death of the boy and youth and the injury to the other youngster were due to the refusal of almost every one to believe that sharks would ever enter the shoal waters where clamdiggers work at low tide. As long ago as Sunday, Frank Slater saw the shark and told it everywhere. He stopped repeating the tale when every one laughed him to scorn.

News of the tragedies here spread rapidly through neighboring towns, and from Morgan’s Beach, a few miles away, came a report that two sharks had been killed there in the morning by lifeguards. One was said to be twelve feet long.

Persons who saw the shark when it grabbed Fisher said they thought the fish was about nine feet long.

Stories about sharks attacking humans are news because it doesn’t happen that often. On this Fourth of July, remember that you’re more likely to be killed by fireworks than by a shark. Be careful out there.

 

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Titanic in the News…In 1912

One of the reasons that I love reading old newspaper articles is because they are a potent reminder that we don’t always know all the important stuff at the beginning of a story. I discussed this in a previous post when I included parts of the original newspaper reporting of the murders that may or may not have been committed by Lizzie Borden.

For old articles, I like to use The New York Times Archives because 1) they are a big city newspaper with a long history, 2) they are available online and 3) non-subscribers are allowed to access a certain number of articles. In this particular case, they were reporting in 1912.

Besides Lizzie Borden, an event that gets a lot of current research and discussion, even though it happened more than one hundred years ago, is the sinking of the RMS Titanic. What we know now comes from many different sources, including the original survivor testimony and the more recent discovery of the actual sunken liner. And although it was not completely historically accurate, and didn’t pretend to be, anyone who has seen James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic, has a sense of what life and the class system was like at the time of the disaster.

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Author: F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) via Wikimedia Commons

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Author: F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) via Wikimedia Commons

The original article on April 15, 1912, in a “Special to The New York Times” reported:

HALIFAX, N.S., April 14 – A wireless dispatch received to-night by the Allan line officials here from Capt. Gambell of the steamer Virginian, states that the White Star liner Titanic struck an iceberg off the Newfoundland Coast and flashed out wireless calls for immediate assistance.

The Virgnian put on full speed and headed for the Titanic.

No particulars have been received as to the extent of the damage sustained by Titanic.

The Virginian sailed from Halifax at midnight on Saturday night, and would probably be 300 miles off this coast when she picked up the calls from the Titanic for assistance.

The Allan liner has only about 200 passengers on board and would have ample accommodations for a large number of persons in case a transfer from the Titanic was necessary. The Virginian is a mail steamer, and so she is not likely to take the Titanic in tow.

Photo of the iceberg which was probably rammed by the RMS Titanic. Photo was made by Stephan Rehorek via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of the iceberg which was probably rammed by the RMS Titanic. Photo was made by Stephan Rehorek and presented via Wikimedia Commons

So they actually knew very little about the accident itself at this point. They added in some information about the prominent persons who were aboard the ship. They mentioned other ships that were in the area and should be able to lend assistance. Most of the column inches were used to explain and describe the ice field.

The Titanic undoubtedly ran into the same ice field off the Grand Banks that was reported by the Cunarder Carmania on her arrival yesterday. The ice was so thickly jammed that crevices between the pieces could not be seen, and great icebergs, to the number of at least twenty-five, were drifting about in the field. The French liner Niagara, which is due here to-day, encountered the ice, and in making her way through it had two holes stove below the water line. The steamers Kura and Lord Cromer, both of which have arrived in New York in the last few days, were damaged in making their way through the ice packs.

The Captain of the Carmania talked to reporters:

Capt. Dow after the Carmania docked met the reporters with a smile. “Really,” he said. “I never saw so much ice and so little whisky and lime juice in al (sic) my life before. Had the ingredients been handy, there would have been a highball for every man in the world.”

And then spoke more seriously about the ice:

“In three hours,” continued Capt. Dow, “on Thursday afternoon we passed twenty-five bergs. The passengers never saw anything like it before. On the bridge I am seventy feet above the water line, yet there were times when I could not see a thing but ice, and at no time did I see a piece of ice that was smaller than a lifeboat. We passed a full-rigged ship in the field. She was nodding in the swell, bobbing up and down, but apparently was in no danger.”

More information was available the next day in the headlines of the April 16, 1912 “Special to The New York Times”:

Biggest Liner Plunges to the Bottom at 2:20 A.M.

RESCUERS THERE TOO LATE

Except to Pick Up the Few Hundreds Who Took to the Lifeboats

There is boxed information below the headline that is a correction to information in the article:

LATER REPORT SAVES 866

Boston, April 15 – A wireless message picked up late to-night, relayed from the Olympic, says that the Carpathia is on her way to New York with 866 passengers from the steamer Titanic aboard. They are mostly women and children, the message said, and it concluded: “Grave fears are felt for the safety of the balance of the passengers and crew.”

Last lifeboat arrived, filled with Titanic survivors. This photograph was taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic's distress signal and came to rescue the survivors. It shows the last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic. Photo: passenger on the Carpathia via Wikimedia Commons

Last lifeboat arrived, filled with Titanic survivors. This photograph was taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic’s distress signal and came to rescue the survivors. It shows the last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic. Photo: passenger on the Carpathia via Wikimedia Commons

And finally a few more details in that article:

All her boats were accounted for and about 655 souls have been saved of the crew and passengers, most of the latter presumably women and children.

There were about 2,100 persons aboard the Titanic.

The Leyland liner California is remaining and searching the position of the disaster, while the Carpathia is returning to New York with the survivors.

It can be positively stated that up to 11 o’clock to-night nothing whatever had been received at or heard by the Marconi station here to the effect that the Parisian, Virginian or any other ships had picked up any survivors, other than those picked up by the Carpathia.

The story still hasn’t ended. As long as there are unanswered questions, there will be research. Think about that next time you read breaking news.

 

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A New North American Slavery Research Collection

About six months ago I wrote a blog post about former American slaves trying desperately to locate family members who had been lost to them through sales to other owners. Take a moment to think about that, about never again seeing a parent, child or other loved one because, as a piece of property, they had been sold. After the Civil War, these former slaves began posting notices in newspapers requesting information about those they had lost. These advertisements have been collected, creating a great source for research.

And now another type of newspaper advertisement connected to American slavery is being collected. They are also a great source for research, although the cause is not as sympathetic. Cornell University is developing an interactive and collaborative database to combine all of the runaway slave ads. These are newspaper ads or flyers giving information about fugitive slaves, often offering a reward for their return. The descriptions of the runaway slaves often tell you everything you need to know about how owners viewed their property.

Runaway slave advertisement, Maryland Gazette for May 2, 1765. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Runaway slave advertisement, Maryland Gazette for May 2, 1765. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Freedom On The Move project estimates that there are more than 100,000 ads that have survived. These ads will be entered into a database so that the information included can be used not only for general research, but for detailed analyses of all aspects of these ads, including geography, rewards and gender.

1858 poster advertising $100 reward for runaway slave, Washington D.C. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

1858 poster advertising $100 reward for runaway slave, Washington D.C. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This project will use crowdsourcing, so it is an opportunity for history classes and the general public to get involved in generating a database that will be a valuable research tool. If you would like to get involved, their website suggests you contact Ed Baptist at eeb36@cornell.edu.

Advertisement in a newspaper for a runaway slave named Bill, who had been captured and turned over to the Jefferson County Jail. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement in a newspaper for a runaway slave named Bill, who had been captured and turned over to the Jefferson County Jail. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

***The Freedom on the Move website shows an ad for a runaway slave, placed by Thomas Jefferson. Yes, I know the argument that he was a man of his time, but there were also abolitionists in his time.

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A Nineteenth-Century Viking Invasion

This post is a special request from my dad and my sister. They watched Finding Your Roots together and started asking questions. Historians love when people start asking questions!

They wanted to know if there was a reason for the large influx of immigrants into the United States from Norway in the 19th century, maybe something equivalent to the Irish potato famine that drove people out of Ireland. They were interested in general information, as our family was not the only one leaving Norway at that time.

My grandparents, Ernest and Hilda Hanson, possibly in 1988. Photo courtesy of the Hanson family.

My grandparents, Ernest and Hilda Hanson, possibly in 1988. Photo courtesy of the Hanson family.

Norway

On my dad’s side of the family, my grandfather, Ernest Hanson (1910-2000), was a first-generation American. He was born in 1910, so our family must have come to the United States in the late 19th century. Although I don’t know specifically why my great-grandparents made the trip from Norway to the United States, there are reasons that apply broadly.

Norway experienced great population growth during the 19th century. This was a drain on all resources, including jobs. The amount of land available did not increase with the population, so even farm labor jobs became scarce. But there was farm land available in America that was practically free.

The huge amounts of land available in America also supported mining and other industries. There were simply not enough people in the U.S. for all the work required to make the most of this new land. We needed lots of farmers and laborers.

Many Norwegians were also searching for religious freedom. Per the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, Norwegians were not only required to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but were also required to attend services. These requirements were loosened over the course of the 19th century, but it was still a reason for many to desire a home with more religious freedom.

(Fun Fact: The Constitution was amended in 1964 to allow religious freedom for all except the royal family, who are required by the Constitution to be Lutheran.)

My grandparents, Ernest and Hilda Hanson, in 1996, the week before their 64th wedding anniversary. Photo courtesy of the Hanson family.

My grandparents, Ernest and Hilda Hanson, in 1996, the week before their 64th wedding anniversary. Photo courtesy of the Hanson family.

Finland

My Finnish paternal grandmother, Hilda Hanson (nee Fredrickson) (1914-2004), was also a first-generation American. Since Finland is another Scandinavian country, you would think that the same reasons for emigrating would apply. However, Finland had been a part of the Russian Empire since 1809 and had a whole different set of issues.

Mass emigration from Finland happened very late in the 19th century, later than the Norwegians. Many were fleeing the anti-Finnish policies of the Russian Empire. In the late 19th century, the Russian Empire began a policy of Russification, by which they tried to change the politics, culture, language, religion and military of Finland to become Russian. The policy was meant to terminate any Finnish autonomy and, as you can imagine, led to a great deal of instability as people feared the loss of their culture.

In both Norway and Finland, agents from mining and other companies recruited workers from the Scandinavian countries. But a lot of families and individuals were persuaded to make their own moves by family and friends who had already made the trip. Some immigrants even went back to their home countries to convince others of the opportunities available to them in this new land.

So no potato famine, just the chance for more freedom and opportunities than were available at home. At some point I’ll write a blog post (or several) with more specific information about some of the branches of my family. I’m sure there are some fascinating stories waiting to be shared.

And as a special treat if you have Finnish ancestors, I found a site that has records of Finnish immigrants from 1834-1897. Actually, it’s easy to use and fun even if you don’t have Finnish ancestors. I wasn’t able to find my great-grandfather Eleck Frederickson, even though I checked different spellings for the last name. I’ll need to find out if anyone in the family knows exactly when he arrived. Have fun!

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Take A Course, Become An Autodidact

I am a great believer in the value of education, but I don’t think that has to be a formal education. For a variety of reasons, a college degree is not for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a lifelong learner. This type of learning is based not on the need or desire for a degree or certification, but on endless curiosity.

Anonymous portrait (once claimed to be a self-portrait) of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1600. Uffizi, Florence. Photo by Nico Barbatelli via Wikimedia Commons

Anonymous portrait (once claimed to be a self-portrait) of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1600. Uffizi, Florence. Photo by Nico Barbatelli via Wikimedia Commons

An autodidact is someone who is self-taught in a subject for which they have had no formal education. One of the most famous autodidacts in history is Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). Painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, etc. One look at his centuries old notebooks inspires awe. Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), also known as Mark Twain, left school at 13 and self-educated with both books and a wide variety of life experiences. Quentin Tarantino (1963- ) is a high school dropout.

There are many avenues available if you are interested in learning something new. One that has been around for 25 years, but has been getting a lot of attention lately, is The Great Courses. These are courses featuring “the world’s greatest professors”. Well, they have Neil deGrasse Tyson, so who am I to argue.

Many public libraries have purchased courses, allowing you free access. You can also purchase courses in various formats. Although many of the prices seem high, they always have some courses available for 70% off, making them very affordable. The sale courses rotate throughout the year, making it easier for you to try new topics and learn something totally new.

The Great Courses also have a new streaming service. Pay a monthly subscription fee and you can take as many courses as you want. No exams, no final research papers. Just the fun of learning something new.

Although I want to dive into some of the history courses, it should be fun to expand my horizons a little. I’m thinking The Science of Natural Healing, or Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life, or maybe Understanding the Human Body: An Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology. These are from the science section, and I had to work not to be seduced by the history of science courses.

What about you? Are you a lifelong learner? Like me, do you want to know a little bit about everything?

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Even Sports Team Names Have Histories

My family is from Minnesota, and like many others in that part of the country, we have Scandinavian heritage. So it always made perfect sense to me that Minnesota’s NFL team was called the Vikings. Learning about, or at least paying attention to, professional sports team names is a good way to learn a little history.

No, this isn’t a lead-in to discuss the controversial name of a certain football team in Washington D.C.

There are many sports teams whose names represent some aspect of regional pride. A surprising number use animal or bird names to represent strength or speed or guile. Some teams have a long tradition with a name that we would never think to use today, but made perfect sense at the time. And some newer teams have names that just seem silly, probably because they don’t have the long years of tradition to back them up.

When I went searching for information, I was surprised by how many team names are the result of fan contests or polls. Fans are asked to either submit a suggested team name, or are given a list of choices on which they can vote. I had no idea that this was the accepted way of doing things almost from the beginning, over a century ago. And this holds true across all professional sports.

Please keep reading for a few team names that I find interesting for various reasons. You can click on the NFL, MLB or NHL headings to go to the Mental Floss list that includes all the teams.

Georgetown University playing American football against the Quantico Marines at Griffith Stadium (now demolished) in Washington, D.C. The Quantico Marines football program began in 1919 and lasted until 1973. Photo: National Photo Company via Wikimedia Commons

Georgetown University playing American football against the Quantico Marines at Griffith Stadium (now demolished) in Washington, D.C. The Quantico Marines football program began in 1919 and lasted until 1973. Photo: National Photo Company via Wikimedia Commons

National Football League

  • Pittsburgh Steelers – This name was chosen from a contest back in 1940, and honors the history of the steel industry in this city.
  • San Francisco 49ers – Named in honor of the people from all over the world who flocked to the area during the California gold rush of 1849. The spirit of those original dreamers can still be felt in the city today.
Frank Gilhooley, baseball player with the New York Yankees, swings his bat at home plate. Photo: Author Unknown via Wikimedia Commons

Frank Gilhooley, baseball player with the New York Yankees, swings his bat at home plate. Photo: Author Unknown via Wikimedia Commons

Major League Baseball

  • Milwaukee Brewers – In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Milwaukee was famous for their large number of breweries. This is usually attributed to the large population of German immigrants who brought the tradition and processes for brewing beer to their new home. Many of these family breweries have closed or been bought out by other by larger corporations, but the history remains, and the baseball team name is a reminder of that past.
  • San Diego Padres – Padre, the Spanish word for Father, is a reference to the Catholic Missions created to bring Christianity to the natives. San Diego was the first in a string of 21 missions from southern California to San Francisco in the north.
Oxford University vs. Switzerland hockey game. Lester B. Pearson is at right front, ca. 1922 - 1923 / Switzerland. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-119892 via Wikimedia Commons

Oxford University vs. Switzerland hockey game. Lester B. Pearson is at right front, ca. 1922 – 1923 / Switzerland. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-119892 via Wikimedia Commons

National Hockey League

  • Philadelphia Flyers – I love this one. I always thought the name meant that the players were so speedy that they flew across the ice. Silly me. Instead, a family member of someone in the organization suggested Flyers because the name paired well with the city name. So it sounds great, but has no real meaning.
  • Edmonton Oilers – The province of Alberta in Canada, especially the area of Edmonton, experienced an oil boom in the 1940s and 1950s. Responsible for jobs and a lot of money during the boom times, oil has been very, very good to Edmonton.
Roberto Carlos and Miloš Krasić. (Just because I like Roberto Carlos.) Photo: Мельников Александр via Wikimedia Commons

Roberto Carlos and Miloš Krasić. (Just because I like Roberto Carlos.) Photo: Мельников Александр via Wikimedia Commons

Major League Soccer

  • Los Angeles Galaxy – Also the home of Hollywood, Los Angeles has a galaxy of film and television stars.
  • New England Revolution – Not a catchy name for classic soccer chants, but referencing the American Revolution of the eighteenth century is pretty patriotic. How can you not like a team that reminds you of how we achieved freedom from the tyranny of the English king?

Do you know the history behind the name of your favorite team? Would you change your team’s name if you could?

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Want to Know Where to Find History Research?

I have recently been immersed in academic history journals while working on a project. Scholars from all areas of study publish in academic journals in order to share their research. Generally these journals are read by other scholars, but they are open to everyone, although there is often a cost.

Articles in scholarly journals are peer-reviewed, which means that they are evaluated by someone in the same field to verify methodology, maintain quality and provide credibility. So if you are a writer or student doing research, you can be confident that the information in the article is correct.

There is a tendency to believe that scholars writing for scholars leads to boring articles, but that is not always the case. A couple of weeks ago I used a scholarly article for my post “Dead Man’s Touch“.

All academic fields have journals, including science, math, medicine, philosophy, education, etc. But because all of those fields also have a history, there are also history journals about those topics.

So today I’m going to share some titles and links for recent articles that make me think, “Hmmm, that looks interesting.”

“God save us from psychologists as expert witnesses”: The battle for forensic psychology in early twentieth-century Germany. Author: Heather Wolffram. Published in History of Psychology, volume 18 issue 4, November 2015.

‘Come all you Wild and Wicked Youth’: Representations of Young Male Convicts in Nineteenth-Century English Broadsides. Author:  Cameron Nunn. Published in Journal of Victorian Culture, volume 20, issue 4, 2015.

Erecting Sex: Hermaphrodites and the Medieval Science of Surgery. Author: Leah DeVun. Published in Osiris, volume 30, issue 1, January 2015.
The invention of the basset hound: breed, blood and the late Victorian dog fancy, 1865-1900. Authors: Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys. Published in European Review of History, volume 22, issue 5, 2015.
Variety is the spice of life!
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Would You Live in the Past?

Obviously I love history. I write this blog. I read both fiction and non-fiction books about history. I watch movies and documentaries about history. And if somebody put a time travel device in front of me I’d say, “Let’s go!” But only for a visit. I wouldn’t want to live there because I am way too fond of our modern conveniences.

The Seattle, Washington waterfront during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Photo: The New York Times photo archive via Wikimedia Commons

The Seattle, Washington waterfront during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Photo: The New York Times photo archive via Wikimedia Commons

Lacking a time travel device, there are many people who spend periods of time recreating the past with varying degrees of authenticity. There are living history museums like Colonial Williamsburg. There are groups that reenact events, especially battles. And there are the numerous Renaissance faires and other festivals, such as the Viking Festival I shared with you in this previous post.

All of these can be for educational purposes, just for fun, or both. They all give the general public a more visceral feel for what history was really like. Not just the big events, but what people ate, what kind of clothing they wore and how they spent their time.

But you can choose to take this to a whole new level. There is a couple in Port Townsend, Washington who study the history of the 1880s and 1890s by living as if they actually are in that time. In her essay “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.” Sarah A. Chrisman talks about how she and her husband live this lifestyle, mostly because they love this way of life, but also as an ongoing research project.

Victorian Mansion. Photo: loggedout via Wikimedia Commons

Victorian Mansion. Photo: loggedout via Wikimedia Commons

She admits that this type of research, or lifestyle, is not for everyone, and makes clear that they didn’t jump into it all at once. Being interested in the period, they bought a Victorian home built in 1888, and then started making and wearing period clothing. After that, they started bit by bit to gather the tools they needed for Victorian authenticity. They also spend time reading books and periodicals from those years, the perfect primary source materials, rather than material written about those years.

No need to try to picture her in a modern office environment as Chrisman is a freelance writer, even using the pens and ink that a writer from that period would use. She has written several books about living the Victorian life, including one that details what she learned by wearing a corset. She also has a website and writes a blog, This Victorian Life. No, I didn’t see anything to clarify whether she actually has a computer, or writes longhand and has someone else handle the modern technology issues.

Advertisement for Warner Brothers Coraline Corsets. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement for Warner Brothers Coraline Corsets. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The essay and blog both include great photos, which give visual insight into the way they live. It is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are a writer interested in this time period. Chrisman and her husband are also available for history consulting and presentations.

Could I do it? Just try to take my cell phone away from me. Could you live this type of alternative lifestyle? Better yet, if you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?

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