Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Anne of Brittany

Have a drink with: Anne of Brittany
Iron will, heart of gold, death before dishonor

Ask her about: Being an early modern #girlboss

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For Women’s History Month in March, we’re diving into conversation with Rozsa Gaston, the author of a four-book series of historical fiction on Anne of Brittany, the only woman to be twice crowned Queen of France (married to Charles VIII and then to his successor Louis XII). Ruling at the dawn of the Renaissance, Anne was quite a character: wealthy, self-assured and strong-willed, she was devoted to the integrity and independence of her beloved Brittany, then an independent duchy in the northwest region of modern France.

Rosza is here to answer some questions about Anne, what it is like to imagine her life in detail, and what we might learn if we sat for drinks with her today.

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The Wellerman

Have a drink with: The Weller Brothers
Blow, me bully boys, blow.

Ask them about: Sugar and tea and rum

Amidst other things people probably did not have on their bingo card in 2021 was the rise of Sea Chantey TikTok, but it’s been a strange year already, so why not?

So the biggest question on everyone’s mind, no doubt: who IS the Wellerman, anyway, and why are we singing about him?

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The U.S. Capitol

Have a drink with: You. Just have a drink.
2021’s off to a start, huh?

Talk about: What wine goes with an attempted coup?

U.S. Capitol after burning by the British, 1814

U.S. Capitol after burning by the British, 1814 (Library of Congress)

Yesterday’s breach of the United States Capitol by a shaggy horde of insurrectionists egged on by the President of the United States was a historical anomaly of the worst kind: the first intrusion into the Capitol by an unwelcome force since the British invasion of Washington during the War of 1812. In the late summer of 1814, British forces tore through the District and laid waste to government buildings, including a fiery effort against the still-incomplete Capitol building.

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The Greely Expedition

Have a drink with: The Greely Expedition
Survivor: Climate Research Edition

Ask them about: Eating your shoes

Worlds Fair Diorama (LoC)

Hey folks! If you think you’ve got it bad having to stay home for Thanksgiving, well, at least you’re not marooned in the Arctic having to eat your shoes for dinner. My piece on the ill-fated Greely Arctic expedition – and how the Barnum Museum ended up with one of its odd, furry relics – is up at Atlas Obscura today. Click on over to read on.

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Democracy!

Raise a glass to: Democracy
Vote! Vote! Vote!

Look. A lot of people are saying a lot of things about Election Day. The results may take too long. Is absentee balloting trustworthy? And what the hell is up with the Electoral College? It is all very stressful. But these questions are not new, and there are some historical precedents we can lean our tired selves on:

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Historic Influencer Wildfires

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.

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Postal Inspectors

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.

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Mountebanks & Toad Eaters

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.

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The Anti-Mask League

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.

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The Flour Riots

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.

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