But They Were “Men of Their Times”…

I try not to get into current political stuff here because that is not the purpose of this blog. But there is one thing I’ve heard over and over this past week that had me yelling at the television and my phone.

I was bothered by comments that George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were slaveholders, BUT they were just “men of their times”. Like they didn’t have any choice. Like everyone else was doing it, so they had to do it. Yeah, did that argument ever work with your parents? Because it didn’t work with mine.

And the thing is, not everyone was doing it.

This is, of course, not a complete history of slavery in the United States. I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts as a reminder to myself and others that historical and current issues are not as simple and one-dimensional as we like to portray them.

During the time of these “men of their times”, there were a variety of abolitionist, anti-slavery and emancipation organizations. Some were black, some were white and some were mixed. They had varying ideas about how quickly the enslaved people should be freed and what should happen to them once they were free. But there was a definite movement in the United States and internationally to abolish slavery.

Reads: “On this 30th day of April 1828 personally appear George Rice before the ?abricut a justice of the peace in and for said County, and made Oath on the Holy Evangely of Almighty God that James Tooley the Negro man now in my presence is the same that manumitted and let free by Phillip Winebrenner. Sworn before George Rohm”. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

During the time of these “men of their times”, the reasons given for being ant-slavery were often religious, but often just basic human morality not tied to religion. It was the belief that humans were humans, not property. One of the ideas of our Revolution was that all men are created equal. (No feminist rant. Must stay focused.)

Although the Civil War happened after Washington and Jefferson were both gone, at the peak of the slaveholding years in the southern states, approximately 32% of white families owned slaves. Most of those families did not own huge plantations, but smaller farms with 2-4 slaves. Again, not everyone was doing it, although many who couldn’t afford to be slaveholders did aspire to it as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

And during the time of these “men of their times”, there’s my favorite story of a man who was a contemporary of Washington and Jefferson. An actual man of their time. His name was Robert Carter and he at one time owned more slaves than Washington and Jefferson combined. And then he freed them. I wrote a blog post about him last year and would love for you to check it out.

Historical figures are people, so are as flawed as the rest of us. We are also marvelously complex, and this type of simplistic argument is a disservice to all. Rant over.

History and Heritage

If you travel to the United Kingdom and tour a historic house, park or garden, there is a good chance that attraction is part of the National Trust. To preserve and protect history and heritage, the United Kingdom has a charity called National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, more widely known as the National Trust.

Dover cliffs, South Foreland Lighthouse. Photo by Archangel12 via Wikimedia Commons

You can learn a lot about history by visiting a country home, especially one that has been preserved from a specific point in time. Besides what you can learn from the basic layout and architecture, these homes usually include furniture, art and books. And you can learn about the history of the family that once lived there, possibly for many generations. This experience gives you a well-rounded knowledge about this one house, family and area.

Eastbury Manor House, Barking, UK. Photo by Gordon Joly via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s some information (and photos) about the group that allows so many tourists, families and schoolchildren to enjoy those experiences.

  • This charity was founded in 1895 to preserve the nation’s heritage and open spaces.
  • The National Trust is a registered charity and not part of the government.
  • Their motto is “for ever, for everyone”.
  • Anyone can become a member of the National Trust as long as they pay the membership fees.
  • The National Trust includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has their own National Trust of Scotland, although there are reciprocal benefits.

Old Harry rocks peak, in Dorset, England. Photo by Graffity via Wikimedia Commons

  • Members receive free entry to all properties.
  • Private land and houses that have been donated or bequeathed to the National Trust can never be sold. Well, except by an Act of Parliament. So never say “never”.
  • There are more than 4.5 million members.
  • How do they take care of all these properties and visitors? Besides a staff of almost 6,000, approximately 60,000 volunteers donate more than three million hours of time each year.

Mow Cop Castle. Photo by Martyn Wright from Stoke on Trent, England via Wikimedia Commons

  • According to the National Trust website, they “look after coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages, historic houses, gardens, mills and pubs.” Yes, you can do your part to support the National Trust by buying a pint.
  • Funds for preservation efforts derive from membership fees, entrance fees, donations, legacies and income from gift shops and restaurants.
  • Their most visited site is the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
  • They are one of the largest private landowners in the United Kingdom.

Anglesey Abbey. Photo by Wehha via Wikimedia Commons

  • The childhood homes of both Paul McCartney and John Lennon are National Trust properties.
  • Many of their country houses and gardens were acquired during the middle of the twentieth century when private owners were no longer able to afford to maintain these large properties or to pay the death duties.

Ashdown House, Oxfordshire. Photo by Des Blenkinsopp via Wikimedia Commons

  • English writer Beatrix Potter was a supporter and donor.
  • Their Facebook page and Twitter feed, @nationaltrust, include great photos, but also notifications of specials and events. And recipes, yum.

You want history and heritage? Tour a National Trust site. It’s one of the easiest ways to learn some history.

Moving Sand

Most days I drive past the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and the Encina Power Station, with its 400-foot smokestack, on my way to and from work. Doing research about something else, I learned that the power plant, which is owned by NRG Energy (say the company name out loud to see how clever they are), was commissioned in 1954.

The lagoon is next to the ocean, but wasn’t always open to it. When they built the power plant, they opened the lagoon to the ocean so that the tidal flow could cool the plant’s gas-fired boilers. And in 1954, to make the most of that tidal flow, they dredged sand from the bottom of the lagoon and moved it over to the beach.

Here’s the break created to let the ocean’s tidal flow into the lagoon. Apparently the jetties keep the entrance from migrating and keeps it flowing under the bridge. Photo by USGS via Wikimedia Commons

I had been here a couple of years when I first noticed a sandbar in the middle of the lagoon during low tide. I assumed I was not terribly observant and had never noticed it before. But the way it was explained to me by a long-time resident of the area, the tide going into the lagoon is strong and carries in lots of sand. The tide is not so strong going back out to sea, leaving much of the sand in the lagoon. (If I received incorrect information, please feel free to correct me.)

After a few years the sand builds up, impeding the flow of the water, and NRG Energy brings someone in to dredge the sand out again. I got to watch this process over the winter of 2014-2015. A big boat (that’s the technical term) sits over the top of the sandbar and vacuums up the sand, sending it through huge tubes that go under the bridge and deposits all the sand and organic matter onto the beach on the other side of Highway 101.

Agua Hedionda Lagoon from the north end, with the Encina Power Station and its smokestack in the background. The sand builds up right in the center where the water looks ripply. The bridge is just out of the photo on the bottom right. Highway 101 separates the lagoon and the beach. Photo by Bovlb via Wikimedia Commons

When the sand pours onto the beach, it is almost black, but eventually dries in the sun to it’s normal sandy color. When it’s freshly poured and full of all sorts of sea creatures, the seagulls and pelicans and other birds that hang out at the beach are all over it like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Since they move about 500,000 cubic yards of sand, that’s a lot of food.

I noticed yesterday at low tide that the sandbar is back. Kids were out there fishing and playing. Looks like it’s about time to dredge again.

Here in Carlsbad, we just move our sand across the road, but there is actually a global sand trade. Sand is used in everything from glass to concrete to computer chips, so this non-renewal resource is in great demand. Desert sand doesn’t work in concrete to make buildings or roads because the grains are round and don’t stick together. So the quest for beach sand is not only affecting our environment as the oceans and rivers are dredged, but also creating criminal enterprises as beach sand is now a hot commodity. Maybe don’t wait to take your beach vacation.

Too Much of a Good Thing

One of the reasons I enjoy learning about history is that human nature doesn’t change much. For example, there will always be a good number of people who believe that if a little bit of something is good, then a lot of that something is even better. As you can imagine, this happens a lot with cures for various ailments.

A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland. Sometimes really, really enlarged. People have suffered from goiters throughout history, but it was hard to cure them when the cause was unknown. Historically marine sponges have been used where they were available, although they didn’t completely solve the problem.

This is a modern photo of a goiter, which means people still suffer from this. Photo by Almazi via Wikimedia Commons

During the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907), goiters were treated with the thyroid glands of various animals, which were dried, crushed into a powder and consumed. I don’t know if they knew why it worked, just that it worked. Then, as now, medical treatment included a whole lot of trial and error.

We now know that goiters are the result of iodine deficiency. Those marine sponges and animal thyroid glands worked because they were rich in iodine.

Iodine is a trace element and an essential nutrient for us humans. It is found naturally in food in some regions, primarily coastal regions. Today iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause not only of goiters, but also intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it still effects approximately two billion people worldwide. Knowing the cause of a problem doesn’t always mean it gets fixed.

Such pretty purple. Evaporating pure iodine. Photo by Jurii via Wikimedia Commons

But back to iodine. Like so many things, iodine was discovered accidentally. In 1811 French chemist Bernard Courtois (1777-1838) was working with seaweed ash to get what he needed to make gunpowder. Don’t worry, I don’t understand the science well enough to tell you more than that. He made a little mistake and suddenly he had iodine. Unfortunately, this was during the Napoleonic Wars, France didn’t have the money to fund any of his experiments, so he went on to other things.

But others were able to work with the newly discovered iodine, including a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean Francois Coindet (1774-1834). In a series of papers published in 1820, only nine years after Courtois’ discovery, he announced that he could reduce goiters. He also mentioned other symptoms and ailments that could be helped with the use of iodine.

Iodine became all the rage. It was the fashionable new drug, easily available and seen as a bit of a global cure. But iodine is a funny thing. Too little, a deficiency, causes problems, but there are also major side effects if you have too much. And back to that human nature thing, some people had too much. Iodine, used incorrectly, was more a poison than a cure and became a semi-controlled substance.

It wasn’t until several decades later that it was discovered why iodine worked on goiters. It took that long to realize that humans need iodine and there are consequences when they don’t have it. Like goiters.

And it wasn’t until 1922 that the Swiss once again led the way and found a way to ensure that more people had enough iodine in their diets. They added it to table salt. The United States followed their example two years later.

late 1935. “Movie theatre on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, 420 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana”. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Table salt has said “iodized” on the carton for so long that we don’t really notice it anymore. Salt was decided on as the vehicle for iodine because it does not spoil and is used by most people. It’s also simple and cost-effective. Unfortunately, iodine deficiency hasn’t been eliminated.

The World Health Organization and other agencies are still working on it.

 

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.