Have a drink with: Mark Twain & Henry David Thoreau
Bring water, though.
Ask them about: grilling tips
One of the current West Coast wildfires made news recently when investigation revealed it had been started by smoke bombs at a California gender reveal party. The accident (not the first of its kind, following a similar fire in 2017) has drawn harsh criticism, including from the blogger who invented the party trend – but this is not the first time fame-seekers have tried to duck responsibility for errant wildfire.
Have a drink with: Postal Inspectors
Don’t mess with the postal service.
Ask them about: Snow, rain, gloom of night, Tommy guns
When former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested recently on charges of defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign known as “We Build the Wall,” it was by agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service. This may seem surprising to many of us, who typically think of the postal service as consisting of affable, hardworking people who look unusually good in shorts and the occasional pith helmet, but for most of American history, the Post Office has been home to the nation’s most powerful federal law enforcement.
Have a drink with: Your Local Mountebank
Healthcare! Fireworks! Toads!
Ask him about: What ails you
We’re all getting a lot of weird healthcare advice lately, and I admit that it’s hard to stomach the idea that our country, which vanquished polio and smallpox with scientific elbow grease, is entertaining the medical expertise of a presidential toady who thinks endometriosis happens when you have a demon boyfriend. But history has long tolerated – and even encouraged – the side hustle of non-traditional medical practitioners, and we continue to use some of their lingo even today.
Have a drink with: The 1919 Anti-Mask League
NO BARS, okay? NO.
Ask them about: Coughing in large groups
Since COVID-19 became a public health emergency in March, different cities and states have responded with protective measures, many of them including a recommendation or a requirement to wear a mask when in proximity to other people. These mandates have drawn protest from opponents, many of whom feel that masks are unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of individual rights. We can take a lesson from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, during which relaxed mask requirements may well have contributed to a resurgence of the virus in the San Francisco area after an initially successful lockdown period.
During the 1918-1919 flu, many Americans were big fans of masks – Red Cross workers made sure they were making and distributing tons, the Levi Strauss company went from making jeans to mask production, and as Atlas Obscura has pointed out, some people even masked their pets. But the flu roared back after an initial lull in illness, and a portion of Bay Area residents were not at all eager to mask back up. In language that could well have come from modern news reports, anti-maskers complained about masks being useless, about “political doctors,” and about “an infringement of our personal liberty.” In January 1919, a crowd of more than four thousand people gathered at a local rink to protest the passage of the city’s mask ordinance.
The Flour Rioters of 1837
Bread, meat, rent and fuel
Ask them about: sourdough starter?
In the pandemic months of 2020, one of the most initially surprising facts of life was the desolation of the supermarket baking aisle, with flour in desperately short supply as we all stress-baked our way through isolation. It isn’t the first time flour availability has been top-line American news, either. New Yorkers were obsessed with rising prices and short supply of flour in 1837, too – and that time, it led to a very contentious, very powdery riot.
Have a drink with: Black Historians
Ask them about: Maybe just listen.
Here’s something I found while I was researching this week. It’s a column from a September 1863 issue of Scientific American:
Part of the process of researching a subject is looking at all the adjacent issues that you encounter along the way, building a sense of daily consciousness and public culture in a given era. And I was still shocked – and absolutely should not have been – at the clinical distance with which the authors talk about black soldiers in the Civil War, and the suggestion that even the Union army thought of black men as such commodities that they’d rather send them in than risk white soldiers dying of malaria.
So it’s time to sit in that discomfort, and recommend that we all do more to understand America’s history of inequality. There are a lot of titles here, and this is just a small selection. I’m not going to link them – you can choose where you’d like to purchase (but bookshop.org and indiebound.org are cool because they help you support your favorite local bookstores).
Have a drink of: ANYTHING BUT BLEACH.
Disinfectants are not medicine.
Ask about: No. Don’t. Just DON’T.
I can’t believe I have to say this, much less marshal the historical evidence to prove it, but, please: don’t drink bleach. Don’t inhale bleach. Don’t inject bleach. DON’T USE BLEACH TO DO ANYTHING BUT CLEAN UP AROUND THE HOUSE.
For more on the dark history of what has happened every time people have tried to do this in the past (and, oh yes, they most certainly have) – click through to my essay at Medium.
Have a drink with: Carl Hagenbeck
Ask him: But do you sing country ballads?
Like many other people, I spent the first chunk of my home confinement (thanks, coronavirus) plowing through Netflix’s hot documentary series “Tiger King” whilst eating an inordinate number of Girl Scout cookies. And the show is so relentlessly bananapants that it’s hard to believe that it could be a product of anything but the current moment in history. But no! The 19th century animal entertainment landscape also involved a cluster of larger-than-life figures jockeying for notoriety and revenue, and the birth of menageries in Western culture can tell us a lot about private zoos today.
There had certainly been exotic animals in the West going back far earlier, as part of private collections meant to demonstrate the owner’s status and ability. (Think Mike Tyson owning a tiger.) But where at the turn of the 19th century there were an isolated few animals in private hands, during the 1800s the menagerie emerged as a structured public entertainment. At first this was a matter of novelty: OMG COME SEE AN ELEPHANT. But as time went on, zoos had to embrace a sense of place in the world, and replaced brutal colonialism with an idea of moral purpose – the idea of participation in education, science and conservation.
Read on at Slate for my full take on Joe Exotic and his historical counterparts.
Have a drink with: P.G. Lowery
The best under canvas.
Ask him about: Hustle.
If I say the words “circus music,” you probably have a certain type of music in your mind straight away – something loud, fast and slightly drunk – like this 1902 Sousa band recording of a typical “galop.” And that’s certainly on point, but it doesn’t clue you in to the fact that during the early 20th century, while largely white bands played under the big top, some of the most exciting circus music was happening over in the sideshow, where bands made up of black musicians not only played fast marches and brassy trombone “smears,” but innovated in ragtime, jazz and blues years before they would come into full public popularity. And perhaps the most impressive figure in these groups was the bandleader P.G. Lowery, a classically-trained cornet player who boiled down his many successes into a simple motto: “Good things cometh to he who waiteth as long as he hustleth while he waiteth.”
Have a drink with: Glenn Miller
Ask him about: giving Sousa some swing
Chances are, if I say “Glenn Miller,” something like “Moonlight Serenade” floats into your mind on cottony clouds, the dreamy musical equivalent of a Vaseline filter; or maybe it’s the sharp, perky big-band swing of “In the Mood.” Point is, the phrase “early-morning scourge of stuffy Yale professors” is not high on the list of speedy free associations. But in 1943, that was exactly on the nose – and Glenn Miller was waking up sleepy Ivy League students. For America.