Have a drink with: The Store Detective
Enemy of deviant feminist candy thieves!
Ask her about: hiding a football field’s worth of fabric in your skirt
The modern department store came into its own in the 19th century, as retailers jumped feet-first into the growing Barnumesque sense of spectacle suddenly required to get a consumer’s attention (and their disposable income) in a mass-media society. In an effort to court customers, and to change what it even meant to “need” something, 19th century department stores went all-out in terms of decor and attraction: one Chicago store contained a “reproduction of a gold mine in active operation,” and a New York store had live lizards on hand to add some extra flair to a display, meaning that eventually “the police had to interfere to disperse the crowds.” Other stores offered enticements – free ice cream, a complimentary tea salon, cooking classes.
Much as people joke today about the porn industry being the inevitable first-to-market as far as any technology is concerned, department stores were that innovator in the 19th century. If you wanted to see huge plate glass windows, elevators and escalators, or grand displays of electric lighting, department stores were the place to go – and they were remarkable in that they were specific retail spaces in ways none had been before. Window shopping, for the first time, became a thing.
Stealing also became a thing.
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: Daniel Sickles
Once I was the King of Spain…
Ask him about: What’s the name of his other leg?
Daniel Sickles sat weeping in a Washington, D.C. jail in 1859. The young, charismatic New York Congressman was an up-and-coming star in American politics – a favorite of President James Buchanan, in fact – and he was sitting in a dirty jail cell, heartbroken and awaiting trial for murdering his wife’s lover.
But before you feel too sorry for him, consider this: Daniel Sickles was a tool. How much of a tool?
He robbed the mail to take a political adversary’s advertisements out of circulation.
He was indicted for various financial schemes, including selling fake news subscriptions so he could drink the $1,000 profit at an upscale bar.
He took campaign contributions from his favorite prostitute, whom he also brought along as his companion and introduced to Queen Victoria while on assignment as James Buchanan’s secretary in London. While his pregnant wife was at home.
Whom he’d seduced, knocked up and married when she was sixteen.
After sleeping with her mother.
So his jailhouse blubbering is really a matter of the pot calling the kettle slutty, but you can thank Sickles for creating something we still use today: temporary insanity.
Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…
Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism
The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.
This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink in: New Jersey
Jug handles and justice.
Ask: what exit?
No one would blame you for reading the news lately and deciding that 2016 was the year that somehow squeaked past quality control at the Time & Space Assembly Plant, having been created from spare parts by drunken intern howler monkeys.
Even though reasoned voices assure us that things in fact aren’t that bad, that doesn’t mean any of us are exactly sleeping better in the short term. But once again our 19th century friends at the New York Ledger arrive to the rescue, with some brass-tacks advice on where exactly America can find an example of solemn, principled order: