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: 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.
But let’s cut the guy some slack, really. Because there’s a lot to love about Elias Howe – and not just that he was solid Daguerreotype Boyfriend material:
This is a guy who created the United States’ first patent war, all while insisting his creative inspiration came from a dream about being held captive by cannibals.
Have a drink with: Vinegar Valentines
You’re awful; I love you
Ask them about: Negging in the Victorian era
Is Valentine’s Day not for you? Are you sick to death of hearts and teddy bears? Can Starbucks shove its molten chocolate latte up its molten mermaid tail? Are you looking for something that more befits the holiday in our modern age, but maybe short of actually cheering for gangland murder?
Search no more, for here to the rescue is the heartless Internet troll of the 19th century: the insult comic valentine.
Have a drink with: your friendly ancient Egyptian donkey rental clerk
Wheeler-dealer, manure shoveler, debt collector
Ask him about: whether you want that rental insurance after all
Deir el-Medina was a village on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes, populated largely by the work crews who built the famous royal tombs and monuments. The great monuments tell us about the theology and government of Egypt, the foundation and iteration of pharaonic society. Deir el-Medina is more modest, but no less interesting: the site is a village of 120 some-odd houses intended for workers and their families (in that regard, not dissimilar to the “model villages” of Victorian England, or Eli Whitney’s Whitneyville development). We know some of the residents by name thanks to written records, we can tell that some if not many of the villagers were literate, and can piece together their participation in a robust everyday construction economy.
In Deir el-Medina as elsewhere in the region, donkeys were what author Brian Fagan calls “the pickup trucks of history,” carrying merchant loads, provisions, caravan cargo and more. They carried water and wood, drew plow equipment, carried food or goods for sale. Donkeys were ideal: unfussy, strong, good over tough terrain and long distances.
In short, if you needed to carry something, you got a donkey. But what if you didn’t own one?
Have a drink with: Captain William Kidd
Privateer, man of song and legend, unwitting pirate?
Ask him about: the tabloid trial of the (18th) century!
William Kidd, a merchant captain and commissioned privateer, was tried and executed in 1701 for throwing away the king’s commission to turn pirate in the Indian Ocean. Not 25 years later, Captain Kidd was renowned in England as the man “whose publick Tryal and Execution here, rendered him the Subject of all Conversation, so that his Actions have been chanted about in Ballads.”*
To the end Kidd denied he’d been a pirate, and lamented a perfect storm of mutiny, betrayal and scapegoating.
So: birth of a pirate king, or a complete bus-chuck?