Two Classic(al) Stories

In his day, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a respected and popular composer of “Southern German” baroque music. He left a large body of secular and sacred work, such as this pretty Chaconne in F Minor:

Sadly, though, Pachelbel’s work was almost completely forgotten. Oh sure, some of his music would be played from time to time, especially his organ works. But for a couple hundred years, his name was lost in the sea of Bachs, Händels, Telemanns and Scarlattis. Few classical music scholars knew much about him or his work, to say nothing of the general public.

All that changed in 1970, when French conductor Jean-François Paillard recorded a slow, majestic version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D:

Just for fun, contrast Paillard’s overwrought, saccharine version with what many music scholars think the piece actually sounded like in Pachelbel’s day:

In any case, the piece became popular with classical music fans almost overnight, and went mainstream when it was prominently featured in the 1980 film Ordinary People. Since then, the work has become a staple of weddings and 100 Most Beautiful Pieces of Music box sets you see at stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Pachelbel married twice. His first marriage ended when his wife and first son died in a plague outbreak in 1683. Pachelbel remarried a year later, and had two daughters and five sons with his new wife. Two of those sons – Wilhelm Hieronymus and Karl Theodor – became composers like their dad. But history remembers the second son as “Charles Theodore Pachelbel”, not Karl Theodor. And that’s because Charles became one of the first European composers – certainly the first European composer with name recognition – to move to the American colonies.

Exactly why Charles made the move is a complete mystery. We know for sure that he moved to Gotha when he was two, and Nuremberg when he was five. After his father died in 1706, the historical record falls almost silent, except that Charles probably lived in England for a time: his name appears on a list of subscribers to a volume of harpsichord music published in London. And how weird is it that customs or parish records from the time have been lost, but a list of magazine subscribers has survived?

We know that Charles Pachelbel was living in Boston by 1733 because he was asked to consult on the installation of a new pipe organ at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island (the oldest Episcopal church in the state, by the way). Pachelbel lived there for approximately two years, having been hired as church organist. In 1736, he performed two concerts in New York City.

He moved to Charleston some time after March 9, 1736 (the second New York City concert) and February 16, 1737, when he married a woman named Hanna Poitevin at St. Philip’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in South Carolina. This was probably Pachelbel’s second marriage, as there are records which indicate that he already had a daughter. But what happened to her (or a possible wife) is unknown.

Charles Pachelbel lived in “Charles Towne”, as it was known, for the rest of his life. He held what is thought to be the very first public concert in the city on November 22, 1737. He became organist at St. Philip’s in 1740, and opened a singing school, probably the first music school in South Carolina, a year before his death. In 1750 he contracted a disease – recorded as a “lameness of the hands” – and died shortly thereafter. His wife lived on for 19 years, dying on September 6, 1769. He had at least one son – Charles, born on September 10, 1739 – but absolutely nothing is known about him or any of his descendants.

Very little of Charles Pachelbel’s music survives. One of the few pieces is this beautiful Magnificat:

Still, it’s amazing to think that Pachelbel’s son lived just a few hours away from me. I know full well that Johann Pachelbel existed at the same time the American colonies existed… but I’ve just never put 2 and 2 together on this one.

I sent an email to the good people at St. Philip’s in Charleston asking for any additional information they may have about Pachelbel, and will update this article if they reply with anything interesting. I specifically asked if they knew where he was buried, because the current St. Phillip’s isn’t the one Pachelbel knew. The first building was built in 1680 but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1710. A new building – the one Pachelbel knew – was built by 1723, but burned to the ground in 1835. The current building was completed in 1836.

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There is (or was) a music group from New York City called “Anonymous 4”. I always assumed that the group got its name because they specialized in medieval and early Renaissance music written by unknown authors… and there were four of them, Hence, Anonymous 4:

By the way, that chant is in 15th century ENGLISH:

Edi beo thu, hevene quene,
Folkes froure and engles blis,
Moder unwemmed and maiden clene,
Swich in world non other nis.
On thee hit is wel eth sene,
Of all wimmen thu havest thet pris;
Mi swete levedi, her mi bene
And reu of me yif thi wille is.

Come to find out, however, Anonymous IV was a real person, and a very important one, too.

Anonymous IV wrote a treatise about the Notre Dame School of Polyphony, at the time the epicenter of European music:

As the name suggests, no one knows who Anonymous IV was. He was almost certainly male, and almost certainly a student at Notre Dame in Paris. He was very likely English, because his works were discovered at Bury St Edmunds in England. Because of historical references in his work, they can be dated to the 1270s or 1280s.

It’s through Anonymous IV that we know Léonin and Pérotin, the two earliest European composers known by name. Anonymous even helpfully named specific works by them, greatly helping music scholars assign authorship to previously anonymous works. Although Léonin and Pérotin had both been dead for decades by the time Anonymous IV wrote about them, his description seems to indicate that they were still popular at the time, not unlike Elvis is today.

But there’s more than that. Anonymous IV mentions early music theorist Franco of Cologne, and describes several types of chants in detail, like organum and discant. He talks about the rules of music – why things were written they way they were – as well as how notation worked, and various genres that were popular in his day.

It’s all breathtakingly interesting stuff, and you can read a copy of his work (or download it in PDF, EPUB, Kindle and other formats) for free here.

The Strangest Riot

When I was a small boy, I was in awe of my mother and grandmothers, particularly because they seemed to know every detail of those Old School social rules. For instance, every Mother’s Day our church offered carnations to the ladies of the congregation, and my mom knew to take a pink one (because her mother was alive), while my grandma knew to take a white one (because her mother had passed on). Both instinctively knew to wear them on their left side, just as they instinctively knew when to send thank you cards, how long they had to send them, and how much writing to actually put on the card itself… just a quick thanks? A long paragraph or two of sincere gratitude for a gift or thoughtful action? They always just… knew, somehow.

Many of these rules have fallen by the wayside, but there’s one rule they absolutely, positively keep: no white after Labor Day. I can imagine my grandmother now: “Son, I’m 94 years old. I’ve come to accept women preachers and gay marriages… but I’ll be damned if I’m going to wear white shoes in October. There are some rules you just don’t break.”

Society doesn’t seem to take the “no white after Labor Day” rule very seriously any more. I bet millennials don’t even know it is a rule: that’s the beauty of Generation X: we knew about the rules like “no white after Labor Day”, but we broke ’em anyway. But some people used to take the rule seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it caused a riot.

*     *     *

Straw hats were popular with men in the early 20th century. In Europe and Asia, the tradition of wearing hats made of straw or reeds – but only in summer! – dates back to the Middle Ages. And why not? They keep the sun out of your face, and unlike felt or wool hats, they’re breathable, keeping you cool in the summer. Although hilariously unfashionable now, they were kind of dapper:

Straw Hat
(Image via Wikipedia)

In New York City, the custom was to wear straw hats until September 1st, but no later. At some point in the early 1900s, for reasons unknown, the cut-off date shifted to September 15th. It also became something of a popular prank – not just in New York, but throughout the country – for teen boys to sneak up on people wearing such hats after the cut-off date and knock the hats to the ground and stomp on them. Don’t ask me why: these things just happen.

In 1922, some teens decided to jump the cut-off date by two days. On September 13, a pack of teen boys in the Mulberry Bend area – one of the worst parts of Five Points, arguably the worst neighborhood in Manhattan – went around knocking off people’s hats and stomping on them, as was the custom. That is, until they tried knocking the hats off a bunch of dock workers. These guys fought back, and soon a full-scale brawl was underway between the two groups. The fight was so big that it shut down traffic on the Manhattan Bridge until police could come and break it up.

But police couldn’t arrest everyone involved. Groups of teen boys would scatter from police and start the hat stomping anew in other neighborhoods. The next day, the riots intensified. Some teens even roamed the streets carrying big sticks with nails sticking out the business end. Up to 1,000 teens caused trouble on Amsterdam Avenue, beating up some so badly that they needed medical attention. Cops didn’t take the matter seriously, partly because of “boys will be boys”, but also because if they broke up the rioters in one area, they would just splinter off into other areas. Rioters, emboldened. even snatched the hat off a police sergeant, who hilariously fell face-first into a mud puddle while chasing the lawbreakers.

The riots kind of died down by themselves by September 16th. Although “hat violence” continued for several years – one man was murdered in a hat stomping incident in 1924, and several “hat hooligans”  were arrested in 1925 – the full-scale riot of 1922 was unique: never again did groups of youthful social enforcers take to the streets. Within a few years, straw hats themselves went out of fashion altogether, taking with them the odd custom of teens knocking them off people’s heads.

The Great Cheese War of 1935

Kids are funny: they do stupid stuff over and over again until they’re hurt or humiliated, and it’s only then that they learn not to do it again. All of us probably remember being repeatedly told “not to play on the railing, ‘cos you’ll fall off and get hurt” or “don’t run with scissors in your hand” and totally ignoring that advice… until you fell off the railing and broke your arm, or fell with the scissors and cut yourself.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but I had a similar thing with Limburger cheese.

Originally from Duchy of Limburg, an interesting corner of the Holy Roman Empire where modern day Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet, Limburger cheese is one of the foulest-smelling foods ever invented. When fresh, it’s a harmless hard cheese, not unlike feta. But then a bacteria is added which actually decomposes it into a creamy cheese… that positively reeks of ammonia. It smells… well, I can’t even describe it. Imagine if a soldier or homeless person wore the same boots for 6 months without taking them off once. Now, imagine the soldier or homeless person taking the boots off and sticking them into a giant pile of monkey diarrhea… while getting a perm… in a slaughterhouse. It’s about that bad, really.

German and Belgian immigrants brought Limburger with them to the US in the early 1880s… and Americans started making fun of it immediately, Seriously: it’s possible that the very first Limburger cheese joke was made on Ellis Island. It was called “the cheese you can find in the dark”. Vaudeville acts of German or Yiddish immigrants – even young Groucho Marx – were said to speak “Limburger English”. Mark Twain used Limburger in a short piece called “The Invalid’s Story”, in which a man wants to take a dead friend home by train, but is mistakenly given a box full of guns. The box is placed next to a shipment of Limburger, which begins to stink… so the protagonist thinks it’s his dead friend stinking up the rail car.

In real life, an Irish woman in New York City tried to commit suicide in 1895 because her German husband ate Limburger all the time and tried to “get amorous” with her with it on his breath. That same year, a strike broke out at a dairy in Newark when a Swedish worker smeared Limburger all over some equipment as a prank, causing anti-Swedish sentiment to boil over, which caused the Swedes to walk off the job.

Speaking of pranks, for decades comedies and cartoons had Limburger whenever something foul-smelling was needed, especially in Warner Brothers cartoons. Penelope Pussycat tried to escape from Pepé Le Pew by hiding in a Limburger factory to throw off her scent. A cartoon dog had Limburger dumped on him while reading the “a rose by any other name” line from Shakespeare in 1949’s A Ham in a Role, the “last cartoon of the Golden Age of American Animation”. And, of course, Tom and Jerry had Limburger in damn near every episode.

Kraft Limburger
Kraft Limburger makes an appearance in “Our Gang”.

For some reason, this cheese was available everywhere when I was a kid. No joke: you could go to a Piggly Wiggly on Route 207 in East Bumble, Alabama, and they’d have it by the lunch meat (next to the Oscar Mayer braunschweiger, which I actually like, but never see anyone buy, either). And every single time I saw it, I just had to smell it.

“It can’t be as bad as I remember it,” I’d think. But it always was. Worse even.

Continue reading “The Great Cheese War of 1935”

The Atlanta Pen

I used to drive past the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta – known as “USP, Atlanta”, ‘the Federal Pen” or just “the Pen” – on a fairly regular basis. But I never gave it much thought. Oh sure… I’d sometimes wonder what the prisoners were doing at that exact moment and sometimes I’d think about how nasty the 1987 riots were.

USP, Atlanta
(photo via Atlanta Time Machine)

I was surfing around a few nights ago and found some interesting stuff about USP, Atlanta.

The prison was authorized by the “Three Prisons Act” of 1891, which also created prisons in McNeil Island, Washington and a rather famous one in Leavenworth, Kansas. Construction was approved by President William McKinley in 1899, and the facility was completed in 1902. At the time, it was the largest federal prison in the United States, with a capacity for 3,000 prisoners.

And what prisoners they were!

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Ignazio Lupo was an organized crime figure who ran Manhattan’s Little Italy in the early 1900s. In 1903, Lupo married Giuseppe Morello’s half-sister (Morello ran similar gangs in East Harlem and the South Bronx). The gangs merged to form the “Morello family”, which became the basis of the Genovese family, considered by many to be the “gold standard of American crime families”. Although suspected of killing no less than 60 people, Lupo was actually convicted of running a counterfeiting ring, and spent a decade in USP, Atlanta from 1910 to 1920. Once freed, he petitioned the US government to travel to Italy, something prohibited by the terms of his parole. President Warren G. Harding approved Lupo’s request, with one amazing clause: Harding, and Harding alone, would judge whether Lupo was “law-abiding” and “not connected with any unlawful undertaking during the period of the sentence”.

Ignazio Lupo
Ignazio Lupo. Photo from lacndb.com

By the 1930s, the National Crime Syndicate (a loose coalition of organized crime families created by Johnny “The Fox” Torrio) decided that Lupo was too wild and attracting too much law-enforcement attention. So Lupo was stripped of all of his criminal enterprises. Lupo then started a protection racket amongst Italian bakers in NYC, and by 1936 he’d grown so violent and over the top that the governor of New York asked FDR to put Lupo back in prison for the remainder of his original term. So Lupo served an additional 10 years in Atlanta, from 1936 to 1946. He died, almost forgotten, in Brooklyn in 1947.

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USP, Atlanta’s most famous resident was Al Capone.

As a young man, Johnny Torrio – the same Johnny Torrio who later created the National Crime Syndicate – worked legitimate jobs as a bouncer and porter in Manhattan. He joined a street gang, became their leader, and managed their money so well that he was soon able to buy them a pool hall as a hang out. It didn’t take long for the hall to become a hotbed of gambling and loan sharking, all of which Torrio managed well. This attracted the attention of Paolo Vaccarelli (a.k.a. Paul Kelly), founder of the Five Points Gang. Kelly invited Torrio to join. Torrio quickly drew the attention (and admiration) of several younger members, including Capone. In time, Torrio would hire Capone to tend bar at The Harvard Inn, a Coney Island dive owned by Francesco Ioele (a.k.a. Frankie Yale).

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Misspelling Your Own Name

Around 19,000 years ago, Native Americans started building villages near the confluence of what we now call the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers in western Pennsylvania. European explorers arrived in the early 1700s, building trading posts as early as 1717. Actual European settlement in the area didn’t happen until the late 1740s, when an English outfit called the Ohio Company won a land grant and sent a large group to survey the area. But the French were there, too, having moved south from Quebec. From June 15 to November 10, 1749, a French expedition headed by Celeron de Bienville warned the English to stay out what they considered French territory.

It seemed inevitable that the French and British would clash over the matter, and that’s exactly what happened. The governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent Major George Washington of the Virginia militia to warn the French that the area was British, not French, thank you very much. Washington delivered the message to French commanders at a couple of forts, and was received with all the courtesy officers gave each other. But his message was ignored. Dinwiddie then sent Captain William Trent to build a fort at the confluence; thus, Fort Prince George became the first permanent European settlement in what we now call Pittsburgh. 500 French soldiers soon arrived, and they ran off the British, tore down the fort and built a new one – Fort Duquesne – in its place.

Of course, the British had to respond to this, so Dinwiddie sent a regiment under Colonel Joshua Fry to take the fort back. Fry ordered his second in command – Washington – to lead an advance column, and on May 28, 1754, that column clashed with French forces in what would become known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen. 13 French soldiers were killed, and 21 taken prisoner. It was all pretty routine stuff, at least until one of Washington’s Indian allies, the Seneca chief Tanacharison, executed the French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, with neither Washington’s knowledge nor permission.

The French were outraged, and sent a whole mess of troops to track down Washington and his men. Desperate, Washington asked Tanacharison to round up as many Indian allies as possible. A motley bunch of Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca Indians joined the group, as did the rest of Fry’s men (but not Fry himself: he’d fallen off his horse, and died of a broken neck two weeks earlier). With a French attack only a matter of time, the ragtag group exhausted itself building Fort Necessity. The French finally arrived, and Washington ordered his troops to attack. But the Virginia militia were terrified, so they fired a single shot then fled into the safety of the fort. Washington, on the battlefield with only a handful of British army regulars and Indian warriors of dubious loyalty, had little choice but to retreat as well. The British, tired, scared, and dreadfully low on supplies, surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. It was George Washington’s only surrender… but he had inadvertently set a chain of events in motion that are now called the Seven Years’ War, sometimes called the French and Indian War in the United States.

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The Charlotte History Field Trip

If you drive north on Beatties Ford Road headed towards Huntersvillle, you will eventually come to the intersection of Beatties Ford and McIntyre Avenue:

clt_field_trip_01

If you look to your left, diagonally across the intersection, you’ll see a gravel parking lot, a lonely picnic table, and his only friend, a trash can:

clt_field_trip_02

If you were to park your car in this lot… well, first you’d see this creepy sign warning you to “walk with a friend”, a polite way of saying “don’t come here alone”:

clt_field_trip_03

But what you’d really see is a tiny park, not much larger than a typical residential lot. And the only amenity at this park, other than the picnic table and trash can, is a poorly-maintained path, which winds around the park:

clt_field_trip_04

The whole park seems kind of pointless, as if the Mecklenburg County Parks & Recreation Department somehow ended up with this piece of land, and half-heartedly decided to turn it into a neighborhood park.

But something really, really important to Charlotte’s history happened here. If you take a few steps back, you’ll see something amazing:

clt_field_trip_05a
(click to enlarge)

OK, so that was a bit of a let down. But don’t let that empty space fool you.

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The (Bizarre) History of American Coinage

A while back I stumbled across this article at British newspaper The Guardian‘s website. It’s a filler piece written by a young man named Richard Morris. In it, he discusses the “five best” and “five worst” things about the year he spent studying at the University of West Georgia in the United States. One of Morris’ “worst things” was American coinage:

I’m not very good with numbers, so maybe this didn’t help me, but I still cannot understand American coins after living here for 10 months. One of the coins which is larger actually has a lower value than a coin which is smaller (and of the same colour), go figure. “Dimes” and “nickels,” still mean nothing to me.

Of course, to many of you the real mystery might be why anyone would travel 4,270 miles to go to West Georgia! SERIOUSLY: THOUSANDS OF UNIVERSITIES IN THE UNITED STATES, AND YOU CHOSE THAT ONE?? But that’s neither here nor there. And it is true that many foreign visitors have trouble with American coins. So let’s take a look at the history of American coinage and see if we can make sense of it all.

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Modern American coins go back 221 years, to the Coinage Act of 1792. The act authorized the construction of the US Mint in Philadelphia, the very first building erected by the federal government under the new Constitution. The act also made the dollar the national currency of the United States, finally abolishing the hodgepodge of British and Spanish coins that had been used before. The act also defined several types of coin, which I’ll summarize below:

THE MILL

A mill is a thousandth of a dollar, or, to put it another way, a tenth of a cent. The name comes from the Latin millesimum, which means “thousandth part”. The funny thing is, even in 1792 mills were useless as a unit of currency. One couldn’t buy anything with a mill coin, so the Mint never bothered to make any. A few states made mill coins out of cheap materials like tin or paper for the purpose of paying taxes, but for the most part, mill coins have never existed.

But just because mills don’t exist as coins doesn’t mean they don’t exist as units of currency. In most American locales, property taxes are calculated using mills. Counties assess the value of each property in their jurisdiction and apply a millage rate to calculate the amount of tax a landowner owes. For example, a county might assess a piece of property as being worth $250,000. If the tax rate is 5 mills, then the homeowner owes $1,250 in taxes ($250,000 x .005 = $1,250). Mills are also used in a couple of industries: electric power is usually measured internally in mills, and stock brokers often charge their clients in mills rather than percentages.

But outside property taxes, the average American sees the mills most often with gasoline prices. In every US state, gas prices have nine mills tacked on the end, so that gas might cost $3.109 per US gallon. Why this is so is a mystery. Some say it came about thanks to a 1933 increase in the gas tax from 1¢ to 1.5¢ per gallon. Others say it’s just “charm pricing”, which is to offer an item for $1.99 instead of $2.00, because our brains process the former as being significantly cheaper than the latter. Still others believe a more likely story: that back when gasoline emerged as a consumer item in the early 1900s, it was sold in such small amounts and at such low prices that mills actually mattered.

But gas prices reveal something else about American culture: the universal dislike of mills. With the exception of property taxes, most every American will discuss such small units of currency as fractions of a cent instead of mills. No one ever thinks of a gallon of gas costing $3.10 and 9 mills… it’s $3.10 and 9/10 of a cent. And this might be because of trading stamps.

For almost a century, retailers across the United States offered trading stamps with every purchase. You’d save the stamps and redeem them for things like clocks, toasters and lamps. You may even remember the “54-40 and Fight” episode of The Brady Bunch, in which the kids agree to pool their saved trading stamp books, but chaos breaks out when the boys want to use the stamps to get a “boy’s item” (a row boat) while the girls want to use them for a “girl’s item” (a sewing machine).

Green Stamp

Of course, the stamps weren’t free. Companies like Sperry & Hutchinson charged retailers to join their programs, and charged for each roll of stamps the retailer ordered. And retailers, not surprisingly, passed these costs on to consumers as higher prices. In 1904, the state of New York passed a law requiring trading stamp companies to offer cash rebates in addition to housewares and sporting goods. Companies like S&H placed a value of one mill on each stamp, meaning that one could trade a book of 1,000 stamps for a dollar. But here’s the thing: almost no one took them up on the offer, because it was almost always a better deal to redeem stamps for goods instead of cash.

Continue reading “The (Bizarre) History of American Coinage”

Taking Measure

Several historians have described the American Revolution as the “American Secession”. This is because the American Revolution was pretty tame compared to later revolutions in France and Russia. Most Americans weren’t even in favor of the Revolution, and the majority of those that were didn’t want to change their entire world… they just wanted the British to leave them alone. So after the British left, life continued for most Americans more or less as it had for decades.

Contrast this with the French Revolution, where revolutionaries railed against a millennia of rule by a theocratic monarchy. Most of France belonged to the monarchy or aristocracy, and much of the rest belonged to the church. From a revolutionary point of view, it wasn’t enough to just change their form of government. Society had to be recreated from the ground up, and certain people needed to be gotten rid of or “re-educated”. So aristocrats, bishops and priests were executed by the thousands, and their wealth and property redistributed to the working class.

But even that wasn’t enough. French revolutionaries created a new calendar to eliminate religious and monarchical days. The calendar would start not from the birth of Jesus, but from the founding of the Republic. Revolutionaries even invented a new decimal clock, partly because of its perceived ease of use, but also as another way to eliminate all traces of the Ancien Régime.

Many reforms weren’t very popular. Decimal time became the “official time” of a handful of towns, and was readily embraced by a few scientists and revolutionaries… but almost no one else. The Republican calendar was more successful, being used by the French government for 12 years. There was, however, a significant error in the calendar related to the calculation of leap years which made it mathematically inaccurate. And while many Frenchmen were at least initially more enthusiastic about the calendar than the clock, so many people had to use the Gregorian calendar so often – in business dealings with other countries, or working with dates from before the Revolution – that most just gave up and went back to the old calendar. For some reason, I’m picturing an 18th century French version of Lewis Black, complete with liberty cap: “we already had one perfectly good calendar, but invented a new one… SO WHY THE HELL DO WE KEEP GOING BACK TO THE OLD ONE? IF EVERYONE’S GONNA KEEP USING THE OLD ONE, WHY DON’T WE JUST DITCH THE NEW ONE? AM I THE ONLY SANE PERSON IN THIS REPUBLIC??”  In any case, the French government agreed and went back to the Gregorian calendar in 1805.

But there was one reform that was insanely popular. It was so popular, in fact, that almost the entire world now uses it. And people in France at the time were happy to see it.

It’s the metric system.

metric

The first unified system of measurement used in France was established by Charlemagne in AD 790. His system was remarkably similar to Britain’s “Imperial System”. For instance, the pouce was the French equivalent of the inch, and was exactly 1.066 inches. And the pied du roi (“the king’s foot”, usually just shortened to pied) was equal to 12 pounce (12.86 inches, or 1.066 feet). Thus, the pied carré (square foot) was equal to 1.136 sq ft. The toise, the French equivalent of the fathom, was 6.394 feet, compared to 6 feet in England (the English only used fathoms at sea; the French used it on both land and sea). Liquid measurements varied a bit: the chopine was equal to .84 Imperial pints (but almost exactly 1 US pint, which was the system in use in England until 1824), the pinte was 1.86 Imperial pints (or 2.01 US pints). The quade was equal to a US half-gallon (or .42 Imperial gallons) and the velte was equal to 2.01 US gallons (or 1.68 Imperial gallons).

Continue reading “Taking Measure”

AMAZING LIVES: Timothy Dexter

“Selling coal to Newcastle” (or variations, like the alliterative “carrying coal to Newcastle” or the less popular “taking coal to Newcastle”) is a British idiom for a pointless or foolish action. The city of Newcastle upon Tyne was the home of Britain’s coal industry for at least 150 years, so taking coal there to sell would be silly. I’m not sure there’s an exact analogue for it in American English, but the old saying “he could sell ice to Eskimos” shows a similar ironic humor.

But there was once a man who did sell coal to Newcastle. And his name was Timothy Dexter.

Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22, 1748. His family would probably be considered poor by modern standards, but was a typical farming family of the day that didn’t have a lot of material wealth. Timothy therefore stopped attending school at age 8 and, barely literate, started working on the family farm. At 16 he was apprenticed to a leathermaker. At some point thereafter, he moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts to open his own leather business. The historical record is silent on whether Timothy’s business was a success, but somehow or the other was soon able to convince a rich widow named Elizabeth Frothingham to marry him.

Dexter was nothing if not ambitious, and frequently petitioned the Newburyport council for some sort of job that might improve his station. Remember, Dexter was barely literate: not only was his spelling awful (even by the loose standards of the time), his penmanship was said to be truly terrible. It’s likely that the Newburyport council only read the first or second petitions, then tossed all subsequent petitions into a pile. But they could only ignore him for so long: the pile of Dexter’s petitions eventually got so tall that the council, perhaps sarcastically, resurrected the ancient title of “Informer of Deer” – a job not filled since the early days of the Massachusetts Colony, when the line between eating and starving was so thin that it was considered a good idea to have a person whose full-time job was to go out and look for deer. So, Timothy Dexter: Informer of Deer.

Local “society” types in Newburyport took an instant dislike to him. I don’t know if this was strictly because of Dexter’s lower-class background, his lack of formal education, his “eccentric” personality or what. But many of Newburyport’s moneyed men purposely gave him bad business advice, in hopes of making him go broke. Unfortunately for them, Timothy Dexter seemed to have the world’s longest streak of good luck.

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London’s Lost Rivers

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, currently the commander of the International Space Station, has an awesome Twitter feed in which he frequently posts amazing pictures of Earth as seen from the ISS. For example, he recently posted this picture of nighttime London as a memorial to Margaret Thatcher’s passing:

London from ISS
(Click to enlarge)

What’s striking about this picture is that you can clearly see the River Thames as it bisects London. What you can’t see in the picture, however, are the 21 other rivers in Greater London that flow into the Thames. And that’s because, in most cases, the rivers are now underground:

London's lost rivers
(Click to enlarge)

Here’s a brief summary of just a few of London’s “lost rivers”:

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The largest, and perhaps most well-known, is the River Fleet. The river begins as two separate steams near Hampstead Heath, an ancient park which first entered the historical record in AD 986 when the gloriously (and accurately) named King Ethelred the Unready gave one of his servants land there. From Hampstead, the streams flow through Kentish Town to Camden Town, where they join. The river then flows underneath King’s Cross, which was previously known as Battle Bridge, because Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus said the Romans fought legendary Iceni ruler Boudica at a bridge over the Fleet there. It then flows down Farringdon Road, and then Farringdon Street, before ending in the Thames underneath Blackfriars Bridge.

For centuries, the Fleet was a regular part of London life. It’s thought that the Romans built the world’s first tidal mill on the Fleet. The Anglo-Saxons, who called it fleot, meaning “tidal inlet”, dug several wells next to the river, from which Londoners got place names like Clerkenwell, Bagnigge Well and St. Bride’s Well. They also used the Fleet for shipping, and two short streets now named Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane were originally wharves.

Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

– Jonathan Swift, on what the Fleet looked like after a heavy rain

But by the 1200s, the river had become so polluted that the area became home to slums and prisons. Sir Christopher Wren advocated widening the river after the Great Fire of London (1666), but instead a man named Robert Hooke turned the river into a canal in the style of Venice in 1680. The upper part of Hooke’s canal was never popular, so in 1736 the area was covered up and a market built over it. The market survived until 1829, by which point it was so decrepit that it was knocked down and modern Farringdon Road was built in its stead. And the lower part of the river – already mostly covered by bridges and buildings – was built over in 1769 as part of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge.

To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames
The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
with deeper sable blots the silver flood

– Alexander Pope, 1728

The most famous part of the Fleet is probably the street named after it. For centuries, Fleet Street was home to most of London’s newspapers, and although most have since moved away, “Fleet Street” is still synonymous with the British media, in the same way that “Madison Avenue” in synonymous with American advertising.

The current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wants to uncover the Fleet as part of a “beautification plan” for the city, although the government agency tasked with the project is unsure it can be done.

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