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: 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: Henry Opukaha’ia
Ask him about: No pineapple on Pepe’s, right?
We’ve talked before about how Connecticut has given the world a wide assortment of innovations, some good, some bad: speed limits, law schools and scary Puritan judges, sure, but also Pepe’s pizza, submarines, constitutional government (maybe?) and P.T. Barnum.
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.
Have a drink with: Robert Louis Stevenson
Under the wide and starry sky…
Ask him about: Self-care Sundays
I need a vacation. This makes me think of Robert Louis Stevenson.
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.
Have a drink with: The Riders of the Pony Express
Colt pistols, bacon and beans, buns of steel.
Ask them about: Are horses allowed in the Dunkin’ drive-thru?
It’s December 1860, you live east of the Mississippi, and your options for sending Christmas cards* to West Coast relatives are, shall we say, limited. You can take the overland option, which involves sending your holiday greetings by stagecoach: wagons fording rivers and dodging rocks (and dysentery!) on lousy roads down to Texas and through the unending desert, but that’ll take a good month even at a good clip, so if you’re not on top of things by Thanksgiving, you’re toast. Steamers are no more help: they’re reliable, but since they go to California by way of Panama, that’ll still take 6 weeks.
And yet, all is not lost: the Pony Express can get your elf on the shelf in ten days.
Have a drink with: Abercrombie and Fitch
Do’s: Rifles, tweeds, pickaxes. Don’ts: flip-flops.
Ask them about: How to build a fish pond on a Manhattan rooftop
The words “Abercrombie & Fitch” might suggest any number of things to you: overpriced t-shirts for cool kids, shady employment practices, shirtless models, or maybe the soothing feeling of being locked inside a 150-decibel cologne diffuser.
But one of today’s most vilified brands was, once upon a time, America’s most successful gear shop. Hiram Bingham used A&F as outfitters for the Yale Peruvian expeditions that revealed Machu Picchu to Western culture, and customers like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt were known to shop there for their rugged manly provisions of choice (not to exclude the ladies, either: Amelia Earhart liked their suede jackets).
And in the brand’s 1970’s twilight, a salty old doctor from Cleveland, Ohio found out just what Ezra Fitch meant when he offered a lifetime guarantee.
Have a drink with: Astronauts Charlie Brown & Snoopy
Just don’t ask about kicking a football in zero-G.
Ask them about: getting America in the mood to fly again
I’ve got space on the brain. There’s New Horizons doing its Pluto drive-by, and my toddler running around with a plastic pail on her head insisting she’s going into orbit, and a Discovery documentary on TV that convinces me of nothing so much as the plain audacity of the early space program: basically a handful of men trusting to fate whilst strapping themselves to a giant directional bomb.
I am perpetually amazed with spaceflight but also terrified, since I like many others of my age group watched Challenger explode on live television in my elementary-school classroom. In the Challenger accident, NASA lost astronauts for the first time since the Apollo 1 fire of the late 1960’s, in which three astronauts were killed in a launchpad test of their vehicle. In coping with the deep personal, social and institutional trauma of both accidents, NASA went through a very similar process of examination and rebuilding, but that isn’t where the similarities end. In preparing for the return to manned spaceflight, NASA had some trusty allies: a boy and his beagle.