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.
Have (many) drinks with: Thomas Fitzpatrick
Hold my beer.
Ask him about: air traffic control
Just last month, a small plane made an emergency landing on a busy street in Washington state (apparently even managing, no small feat, to stop for a red light). These sort of landings are not uncommon, as unusual as they may seem: in the past few months of 2019 alone, small craft have needed to land in decidedly non-airport locations in Florida, California and New Jersey.
For the most part, though, these pilots made the best of a bad situation, and certainly didn’t start their flights thinking they would have to come up with creative landing plans. Back in 1950s New York City, however, there was one pilot in particular who not only enjoyed the practice of, shall we say, non-traditional landings, he very purposely drunk-landed a Cessna on a New York City street. Twice.
Meet Tommy Fitz.
Have a drink at: Your College Dining Hall
Cabbage: now with extra protein!
Discuss: FOOD FIGHT
Today, a college’s dining hall is part of its overall outreach in the competition to attract students, and to keep them happy and achieving while they’re on campus. So much is put into the food and the architecture that travel magazines and college prep companies actually rank colleges by the quality and appeal of their food. This is a far cry from the college dining experience of the nineteenth century: in the summer of 1828, students at Yale College got so upset with their dining experience that they undertook a group protest that came to be know as the “Bread and Butter Rebellion” or the “Stomach Rebellion,” and it got so heated that the university president had to expel everybody to get them to cool the eff down.
You can see why a pasta station may be a better solution.
Have a drink with: Astronaut Snoopy
Houston? How about Petaluma?
Ask him about: Getting NASA to the moon
Tomorrow will mark fifty years since the splashdown of the Apollo 11 lunar mission (it’s easy to focus on the July 20th landing and next-day lunar walk, forgetting that the astronauts had to go through the equally perilous process of getting home a few days later before everyone could really and truly celebrate). This is an ideal time to revisit a post from a few years ago, talking about NASA and how the space agency used its partnerships with Charles Schulz’ comic Peanuts as a way to buoy up the space program during its darkest times. After the disastrous January 1967 Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts during a “plugs-out” test of the space vehicle, NASA was in need of a mascot to lift spirits, continue momentum towards the goal of landing a man on the moon, and emphasize safety in the process.
Snoopy was just the beagle for the job. Continue reading
Have a drink with: Joseph Priestley
Chemist, radical theologian, likes bubbles.
Ask him about: favorite La Croix flavor?
Part of social life for well-to-do Europeans in the eighteenth century was to visit a spa town – someplace like Bath in England, or the town of Spa in Belgium – and “take the waters.” Not unlike a modern wellness retreat, at which you can sneak in some pool time or an Instagrammable view in addition to your yoga class or cleanse, these getaways generally rationalized a desire to rest up and relax with a regimen of health-focused activities centered on the various mineral springs. Not only did visitors bathe in springs and baths at popular wellness destinations, they also drank the water, which on account of its geothermal properties and mineral content was often sharply flavored and sometimes effervescent.
Put another way: seltzer may be super in right now, but don’t forget that it was the on-trend drink of summer 1767, too.
Have a drink with: Claire Heliot
“Sentimentalist and lion tamer.”
Ask her about: herding cats
In 1905, the New York Hippodrome opened its doors with a banner performance of A Yankee Circus on Mars, a freewheeling half-circus, half-opera in which the King of Mars, acting as an intergalactic talent scout of sorts, comes to Earth to save a failing New England circus. A splendid spectacle, the show featured an ensemble of hundreds of actors wearing grand robes and frolicking amidst fifty-foot dragon sculptures, live elephants and decadent garden sets. Its star was a lion tamer named Claire Heliot, making her major American debut.
A Yankee Circus on Mars had snapped up Heliot for good reason: she was a sensation in the turn-of-the-century press, journalists marveling over this fair-haired young woman who, alone in the ring in a white satin gown, commanded the attention of a dozen lions. In her showpiece act, Heliot set an elegant table and invited the lions to sit with her, feeding each in turn a hunk of horseflesh with her own fingers, and as a closing flourish offering them “her own pretty head as a delectable morsel for dessert.” (The dinner guests respectfully declined this course.) Heliot’s lions agreeably performed with a group of boar hounds, doing tricks and pulling the dogs about in a chariot; and then in an act that seemed to defy both nature and physics, the lions Sascha and Nero walked from opposite sides of a tightrope towards each other, pausing to balance nose-to-nose in the center.
Heliot would lie down across the bodies of four reclining lions, pose for portraits in her boudoir cuddling the mane of a massive male, and play with the lions as though they were happy kittens. She typically finished her act by slinging a 350-pound male over her shoulders like an overgrown scarf and triumphantly striding from the ring.
Press headlines described Heliot as “frail but fearless.” She was neither; but they did not know what else to say.
Have a drink with: Anna Jarvis
Don’t even get her started on “Candy Day.”
Ask her about: Her mother.
Anna Jarvis was a public school teacher and devout Methodist, and widely regarded as one of the inventors of the Mother’s Day holiday. She would not seem to be the type of person who would try to flip off a room of candy manufacturers, but history is full of surprises.
Have a drink with: William Banting
Keto, paleo, intermittent fasting? Nope: BANTING.
Ask him about: before and after pics
When the Paleo diet became popular in the early oughts and the ketogenic diet more recently supplanted it as a nutritional craze, keen-eyed historians noticed something familiar about these diets’ recommendations to hork down all the meat you can get your mitts on, guilt-free: specifically, that it wasn’t especially new. Was this all that different, they wondered, from the low-carb, high-fat diet Dr. Robert Atkins had first published in 1972? Was this just a forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress?
To which I say: of course not. It’s a HUNDRED-and-forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress. I’m over at Narratively today with more about William Banting, the Victorian royal undertaker who, yes, popularized low-carb dieting.
Click over to Narratively for the full story.