Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Agnes Rogers

Have a drink with: Agnes Rogers
The future is female.

Ask her about: Equality, dignity, good manners, mild snark.

The other day I was reading a lifestyle blog talking about the challenge of living a halfway sane female existence in the face of social pressures that demand women be simultaneously effortless, clean, intelligent, ambitious, authentic, confident and masterful. (Also pretty. Duh.)

Surely most could empathize with the featured image, and the look of quivering overwhelm on the woman’s face as she faces a swirl of demands:

“Spend more time with your children!”
“Leave your children alone!”
“Use herbs for gracious living.”
“Is your hair dull, stringy, lifeless?”
“How much do you really know about your candidate?”
“She’s thirty-five but men still turn around to look at her.”
“Are you letting your mind go to seed?”
“It’s up to the women of this town!”
“Learn Spanish in only five minutes a day!”

Oh. Did I say lifestyle blog? I meant 1940’s coffee table book.

Continue reading

The Speed Limit

Skip drinks because it’s: The Speed Limit
You there, do you know how fast you were going?

Ask it about: Can it drive 55?

Most of us like to think that history is a parade of accomplishments, but when you get down to it somebody has to invent the everyday stuff, too – and as much as it pains me to say so, my home state has done more than most in making the world a duller place. Go ahead and thank Connecticut, pioneer of the boring, for we have given you: wooden nutmeg scandals, government paperwork, car taxes, the insurance industry, and the nation’s first law school.

And as if that weren’t enough, in 1901, my home state was first in the country to set a speed limit for motor vehicles.

No city driving over 12 MPH, now. In the burbs, you can punch it up to 15.

Continue reading

La Befana

Have a drink with: La Befana
Auguri. Va bene.

Ask her about: Getting stuff done.

La Befana vien di notte...

In Catholicism, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany: the last of the twelve days of Christmas and the day on which the three visiting kings are said to arrive to meet the baby Jesus.

And in Italian legend, it’s when La Befana comes to visit. And trust me, your holiday life needs La Befana. Because say what you will about Christmas, but it’s a predictable holiday. Man in red suit; bizarre Bing-Bowie version of Little Drummer Boy; cookies for the man, carrots for the reindeer; cars winning the Giant Bow Invitational; gifts for everyone whether you’ve been naughty or nice.

BORING.

La Befana to the rescue: because if the Christmas season needs anything, it’s a cranky, elderly Italian lady with a heart of gold, a sack full of cheese, and an advance wine order for a nice red.
Continue reading

Spike Jones

Have a drink with: Spike Jones
The best offense is a good fart joke.

Ask him about: firearms as percussion instruments

In 1942, New York radio DJ Martin Block sold war bonds on air – to an audience that was under wartime food and gasoline rationing – on the promise that he’d give a free record to any listener who bought a $50 bond. Every time the pledge total went up another $2,500 Block played the single in question on-air, to cheers and peals of laughter.

The song was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and Block sold $60,000 of bonds inside a week.

Because you can argue, you can petition; you can organize demonstrations and engage in politics; but sometimes the most effective piece of international policy dialogue is a Bronx cheer.

Continue reading

The Electoral College

Have a drink with: The Electoral College
Neither elected, nor a college. Discuss.

Ask them about: Any December plans?

electoral_college_mg_2874

Most people hadn’t though much of the Electoral College before the contested Bush-Gore election in 2000, and many assumed that up to that point in American history it had mostly been a smooth, rubber-stamp affair. In truth, before 2000, seventeen elections ended in Presidents elected without a majority of the popular vote, and some scholars have figured out that minor vote shifts – a matter of 75,000 votes or fewer – could have changed the result in half of the elections for which data is available. (see detail here and here)*

So what did the founders mean when they set up this odd institution to elect the President? The Electoral College emerged from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which the founders were justifiably pissed off at having to spend their entire summer indoors in Philadelphia.

After long weeks of gridlock and argument over the structure of the Congress for our not-yet-unwrapped nation, there was no break in the fighting between small states and large. The Virginia Plan based the structure of Congress on state population, while the New Jersey Plan insisted each state have equal representation in the legislature. The Connecticut Plan won the day with the suggestion that one house be based on population and the other on equal allocation across states.

Then someone broke the news that they had to figure out how to elect the President, and it was late August by this point. Everyone could agree on one thing: we don’t want to repeat THAT whole mess again, plus we are running out of states after which to name proposals. Can we make the president thing easier? Yes.

Continue reading

Election Day

Have a drink with: The American Voter
On Tuesdays we wear white.

Ask her about: Her “citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens.”*

election_day_mg_2847

In case you need some historical comfort for your Election Day habits:

Compulsively clicking “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight? We get it. P.T. Barnum got it, too, which is why he offered a daily “Presidential Test Vote” at his American Museum (open to women as well as men!) and fed results to the daily papers:

Women as well as Men vote at BARNUM’S MUSEUM All this week. Now is the time, Ladies, to show your preference. The vote will be taken, and the curiosities and entertainments of the museum increased in proportion.”

ny-trib-9-16-56-test-vote-2

(While at the Museum, you could conveniently escape your polling anxiety with “Two LIVING ANACONDAS, a LIVING SKELETON, the DWARF LADY, a MODEL of the MALAKOFF, &c.”)

Continue reading

Halloween Mischief

Have a drink with: Halloween hooligans
Trick or treat, smell my feet…

Ask them about: Mayhem, outhouses, peanut scramble.

pumpkin_mg_2824

It was 1933, and Charles J. Dalthorp had had it. Writing in the Journal of Education in 1937, the superintendent of schools in Aberdeen, South Dakota, bemoaned the Halloween holiday and its attendant juvenile warfare. Describing the aftermath of the day he calls “Hell-o-e’en” (get it?), he writes that the police in Aberdeen are, plainly: “out-generaled, out-manoeuvred, and finally view the results of battle in large property losses, a complaining citizenry, and a smug but triumphant army of boys who have outguessed the law enforcement agencies.”

Surely he’s overreacting, right? This must be the sort of pearl-clutching exaggeration one expects from days gone by. What adorable mischief did the little scamps get up to?

[I]n 1932, the grand and glorious Hallowe’en brought general property damage in excess of five thousand dollars, and left the streets and avenues in the city strewn with 135 truckloads of junk and refuse.

Um.

All of this occurred in a town with a population of less than 18,000 people.

Suffice it to say helicopter parenting was not a thing in the 1930’s.
Continue reading

David Bushnell

Have a drink with: David Bushnell
Damn the torpedoes.

Ask him about: The one that got away

bushnell_img_1929

Folks in Warrenton, Georgia were understandably sad when Doctor David Bush passed away in 1826. Single and in his eighties at the time of his death, the old man was a local institution: in more than thirty years in town Bush had practiced medicine, been active in local politics and even set up an area school. Folks knew the local doctor was quiet, civic-minded and accomplished.

So his secret identity may have come as a bit of a surprise.
Continue reading

Surly Puritan Judges

Have a drink with: New Haven Puritans
Judge swung his fist down, plunk plunk

Ask them about: Anything but Quakers.

nhv_puritans2_mg_2703

It’s election season, which means we are faced with ample opportunity to confront our worst tendencies and unresolved problems as a society, along with the inevitable call to harken back to a better, simpler, more moral time in American history.

Just so we’re clear, though, that time was not the 17th century.

Consider The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity, a fascinating collection of thirty-three cases heard before the Puritan courts of the 17th century New Haven Colony and superbly edited by Connecticut superior court judge Jon Blue. We can learn a few things from this book:

  1. Do not let a few instances of good justice wallpaper over a majority approach that marginalizes citizens and preserves a fear-based status quo.
  2. Don’t serve sailors booze by the quart.

Continue reading

The Republican Congressional Cook Book

Have a drink with: Your Friendly Postwar Congressional Republicans
Reducing sauces AND the national debt…

Ask them about: Recipes for your Labor Day cookout

GOPCookbook_MG_2669

In 1962, then-Congressman Gerald Ford lent his name to The Republican Congressional Cook Book, a collection of recipes and peppy political axe-grinding given to constituents.

“It is our hope that as you read this Cookbook and use its recipes,” the book begins, “you will enjoy cooking, which is one of the few things not yet regulated by the Federal government.” Ha!

Continue reading

« Older posts