Have a drink with: Elias Howe
Adventures in sewing: now with cannibals!
Ask him about: patent trolls
It’s kind of easy to knock Elias Howe, historically speaking. There is a statue of him in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he is claimed as a famous son despite the fact that he was born in Massachusetts; he is largely credited with inventing the sewing machine despite the fact that he sort of didn’t; and some biographies describe him as a hero of the Civil War despite the fact that he was a 40-year-old private.
Facial recognition technology is fun: particularly when you can log into your phone as an Animoji lion. But is it reliable, particularly when entrusted with decisions about security – and when profiling is a likely outcome? Suggestions that facial recognition technology can identify bad actors echoes the 19th century belief that phrenology could help identify criminals, and is woven through with the same social anxieties and pseudoscience. I’m over at the Washington Post’s Made by History site today digging into biometrics, phrenology and the problems with using biology to make decisions about criminal guilt, innocence or predisposition.
Have a drink with: Napoleon Sarony
Work with me, darling.
Ask him about: Oscar Wilde, cover girl
The author of an interview with the photographer Napoleon Sarony, published in the June 1895 edition of Decorator and Furnisher magazine, was clearly excited about getting to meet such a famous figure. In the style of the modern celebrity profile, with luxe asides about the subject’s choice in clothing, food or furniture, the writer gushes that Sarony’s apartment is lavishly decorated, stuffed with Rococo furniture, Latin American pottery, even an Egyptian mummy in its sarcophagus. Fat portfolios of photographs nod to Sarony’s profession, with images of “every known celebrity that has either been born or set foot upon American soil, as well as thousands of photographs of the rank and file of American Democracy.”
There is more than Sarony’s luxe eccentricity to mention, though: the article opens with a mention that the state legislature, under the thrall of Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice movement, was then entertaining the idea of a law to prohibit any representation of the nude human figure from going on display (and a catty aside that the law’s advocates were not simply seeking legislation, but “incidentally some notoriety for themselves.”).
Surely America’s most flamboyant celebrity photographer would have an opinion on the Comstock crusaders?
The key, he explained, was in portraying the nude as refined, innocent and graceful – free of seductive gazes or vulgar poses, presented as naturally as a flower in nature. Citing his own work, he explained: “I think my work proves that photography has aspects personal and individual apart from mechanical considerations. The camera and its appurtenances are, in the hands of an artist, the equivalent of the brush of the painter, the pencil of the draughtsman, and the needle of the etcher.”
He would know: the U.S. Supreme Court had told him so.
Have a drink with: Single Ladies (Halloween Edition)
Burning hair, apples, chicken guts, lead poisoning.
Ask her about: Do you know the Heimlich maneuver?
For most of American history, Halloween was not a holiday for children. Quite the opposite: to the extent Halloween was celebrated at all, by the 19th century it was known as an occasion for creepy seances or playful mischief-making by the adolescent set, where “playful” is mostly a euphemism for “requiring the assistance of the fire department.” (So intense was the prankster habit that one local fire chief sighed that, while he had no problem with teens celebrating the holiday with some reasonable pranking, “when droves of youngsters march through the streets pelting citizens and houses with vegetables he will make somebody answer for it.”)
People at the turn of the century would have had no concept of Halloween as the sort of holiday with small children playing charming dress-up, adults playing unnecessarily sexualized dress-up (seriously: WHY?), and everybody just doing it all for the Snickers bars.
They were too busy looking for their future spouse in the basement mirror.
With a check mark in each column: Henry Opukaha’ia. Good news: remarkable Hawaiian visits Connecticut, absolutely crushes scholarly agenda and impresses the pants off of the leading religious voices of his day. Bad news: his fan club includes a legion of New England missionaries bound for the Pacific.
In the anonymous New York Times opinion essay about staff dissent within the White House published earlier this month, the author mentioned (among many other things) deliberation over use of the 25th Amendment in response to perceived presidential instability.
To be fair, this is not a new topic: the the 25th Amendment has been a common topic in shouts and whispers over the past two years as pundits consider whether its terms would or wouldn’t realistically attach to the current occupant of the White House.
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 in direct response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the questions involved had well predated the 25th Amendment even if they had not been presented so directly: what to do when the Presidency changes fundamentally and irrevocably, due to death, removal, resignation, or disability?
Dealing with matters of succession and power transfer, the 25th was invoked in the 1970s around the Nixon administration, and is occasionally put into action when a sitting President is temporarily incapacitated (despite the promise of intrigue and drama inherent in the amendment, in reality it’s been used, for example, to cover the duration of each of the Bush presidents’ colonoscopies).
But for the first word on the matter of presidential succession, you’ll need to go back to 1840 and then-Vice President John Tyler, who set up a century-long American precedent on succession that boils down to a very Trumpy word: MINE.
Have a drink with: Fanny Fern
Reform yourselves, gentlemen!
Ask her about: Menswear styles for fall
“Fanny Fern” was the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton, a popular 19th century writer who advocated for women’s independence, kept her pencil sharp and her wit sharper, and insisted on being paid handsomely for her output: she got $100 a column, making her the highest-paid newspaper writer in the nation at the time, and was therefore criticized for “certain bold, masculine expressions that we should like to see chastened.”
Like fellow 1800s firebrand Delia Bacon, she was educated by Catherine Beecher and came into her adult fame and abilities after exercising considerable survival skills (her second husband was an abusive turd, and she overcame initial rejection and the opposition of her own family to get herself published).
Clear-eyed and honed sharp by the time she began publishing in her forties, Sarah was a dynamo, and did not shy from conspicuously poking at any hypocrisy or injustice that reared its head within her view.
Have a drink with: Presidential Hats Come at me, bro.
Ask them about: how buff was Teddy Roosevelt?
With the collective American mind very much on upcoming midterm elections, and with a host of new and nontraditional contenders running for office, one phrase pops up perhaps a little more than usual: the announcement that one candidate or another has tossed his or her hat in the proverbial ring.
It’s a common, casual phrase in American English – but where does all this hat-throwing come from?
Perhaps the first public use of the phrase was on November 30, 1804, when the London Morning Post recapped a boxing match between fighters Tom Belcher and Bill Ryan. The sports reporter set the stage for the bout by writing:
“The parties arrived at Wilson Green, soon after ten o’clock, where a ring was formed by the spectators, who anxiously waited the event of the fight. Belcher appeared confident of success, and threw his hat into the ring, as an act of defiance to his antagonist, who entertained the same confidence of success, and received this bravado with a smile.”
(FYI: Belcher was favored in pre-fight betting with 6:4 odds, but went down in the 37th round on a knockout. )
If you believe, as I do, that history is an act of community through which we use the experiences of others to learn about ourselves, there can hardly be a better example than Stevenson. Not merely the author of such beloved thrillers as Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was a lifelong traveler and spent the last handful of his 44 years living in Samoa in an effort to lessen the pain and effect of lung disease.
Stevenson set himself up on a jungle estate named Vailima, along with his American wife, Fanny, and a shape-shifting cohort of friends, relatives and locals. He learned the local language and advocated politically for the indigenous population, for whom he held great respect despite the fact that most Europeans’ attitudes towards the islanders ranged from interfering to dismissive (the Europeans were eventually dismissive of Stevenson, too – most regarded his later-life books, which told South Seas tales, as indulgent twaddle compared to his earlier adventure stories). The Samoans, for their part, called Stevenson “Tusitala,” or “teller of tales,” and after his death buried him in a place of honor on the island.
And Stevenson’s best life lessons (aside from being wary of peg-legged pirates and making sure it’s your nice personality who makes the CVS run) have to do with something we all need to do: take a friggin’ break.
That’s all well and good until you consider that some 40% or more of Americans don’t sleep well, despite the assurances that if we deploy the right combination of baths, essential oils, soundproofing, early bedtime and smartphone avoidance, dreamy bliss will follow. So you can take your successful business, Mister-or-Ms. Fancy Journalist, and your perfectly-behaved child, and your one-night stand in Fiji, and get back to me when you have an article on the philosophical ramifications of Netflix asking you if you still exist when you wake up at 1:30 a.m. with no memory of having fallen asleep on the dog.
Despite the tossed-off surety that history cannot possibly understand us on this particular anxiety, let’s check in with one brave journalist from 1870 who was worn out enough to suggest: please, folks, please? Can we just start parties at 6 p.m. for a change, and hit the hay early?