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: Thomas Nashe
It was the merry month of February…
Ask him about: Valentine’s Day plans
Though he lived in Elizabethan England, Thomas Nashe was not an unfamiliar figure to modern thinking: in his twenties, Nashe was out of college, short on funds and trying to make it as a writer in London. It was a tough time for a writer without independent wealth or consistent patronage – plague outbreaks made life dangerous and, as a practical matter, often closed the theaters that called on writers for material. And while young Thomas was very talented, let’s face it: when you’re a freelance writer, no matter how good you are sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills. Sometimes having to “prostitute my pen in hope of gain” means writing corporate sales copy, sometimes it means ghostwriting, and yes, sometimes it means reluctantly writing raunchy poems about sex toys. Welcome to the Elizabethan Cialis ad.
Have a drink with: Lovestruck 19th C New Yorkers
Don’t do it, girls!
Ask them about: Victorian-era sexting
In 1893, the city of Baltimore got serious about keeping harmful and degenerate behavior out of its city parks. By which it meant it was tired of kids flirting on on public property, and forbade young couples from courting in the parks lest they offend public morals. The New York press seized on the opportunity to make fun of its southern neighbor, with the World quipping: “A man must not put his arm around a woman’s waist if he has scruples about being indicted…the affectionate and spooning throng have been informed of the terribleness of the fate that will overtake them if they are caught swapping gum or tootsy-wootsying within the park limits.” They also made sure to proudly note that, in New York, “joy is unconfined.” Nyah.
Joy does have its limits, though. You may have earned the right to tootsy-wootsy in Central Park by now, but if we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: NO SEXTING.
Have a drink with: La Befana
Auguri. Va bene.
Ask her about: Getting stuff done.
In Catholicism, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany: the last of the twelve days of Christmas and the day on which the three visiting kings are said to arrive to meet the baby Jesus.
And in Italian legend, it’s when La Befana comes to visit. And trust me, your holiday life needs La Befana. Because say what you will about Christmas, but it’s a predictable holiday. Man in red suit; bizarre Bing-Bowie version of Little Drummer Boy; cookies for the man, carrots for the reindeer; cars winning the Giant Bow Invitational; gifts for everyone whether you’ve been naughty or nice.
La Befana to the rescue: because if the Christmas season needs anything, it’s a cranky, elderly Italian lady with a heart of gold, a sack full of cheese, and an advance wine order for a nice red.
Have a drink with: Halloween hooligans
Trick or treat, smell my feet…
Ask them about: Mayhem, outhouses, peanut scramble.
It was 1933, and Charles J. Dalthorp had had it. Writing in the Journal of Education in 1937, the superintendent of schools in Aberdeen, South Dakota, bemoaned the Halloween holiday and its attendant juvenile warfare. Describing the aftermath of the day he calls “Hell-o-e’en” (get it?), he writes that the police in Aberdeen are, plainly: “out-generaled, out-manoeuvred, and finally view the results of battle in large property losses, a complaining citizenry, and a smug but triumphant army of boys who have outguessed the law enforcement agencies.”
Surely he’s overreacting, right? This must be the sort of pearl-clutching exaggeration one expects from days gone by. What adorable mischief did the little scamps get up to?
[I]n 1932, the grand and glorious Hallowe’en brought general property damage in excess of five thousand dollars, and left the streets and avenues in the city strewn with 135 truckloads of junk and refuse.
All of this occurred in a town with a population of less than 18,000 people.
Suffice it to say helicopter parenting was not a thing in the 1930’s.
Have a drink at: The White House Egg Roll
Mr. President, can we play in your yard?
Ask Rutherford B. Hayes about: Inviting 600 kids over for Easter
It was 1876. Congress was debating expenditures, and they were in a pickle over the Capitol grounds – every year at Easter, the place was swamped with kids and families rolling dyed eggs down the hills. This in and of itself was ok, but the overall ruckus made a mess of the lawn, and Congress’ landscaping budget was totally dry for the year. Plus, this was an age where cattle still routinely grazed in downtown D.C. and people were totally freaking out the cows.
So Congress, in its characteristic fun-loving spirit, proposed a solution in the form of “An act to protect the public property, turf and grass of the Capitol grounds from injury,” reading:
It shall be the duty of the Capitol police on and after April 29, 1876, to prevent any portion of the Capitol Grounds and terraces from being used as playgrounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury.
The President was on board, and the Capitol Building Turf Protection Act was enacted on April 21, 1876. You may now in your mind picture Ulysses S. Grant shaking his fist and shouting, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!”
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: Yankee Whalers
Amazon Wish List: a dead whale or a stove boat.
Ask them about: holiday shopping
Ron Howard’s new movie In the Heart of the Sea, a film adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book of the same name, tells the story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaler rammed and sunk by a whale in the Pacific Ocean, and of her crew grimly struggling for survival miles from anywhere.
So whaling is a hot topic right now, and I am all about that. I could talk to you about whether Melville aped the Essex tale when creating Moby-Dick, what it feels like to take a Nantucket sleigh ride, or even whether or not the Essex crew’s fear of fierce cannibal islanders was legitimate (short answers: a little; waterskiing on your face; not really).
But let’s face it, it’s the holidays, and you are no doubt wondering to yourself: what’s the perfect gift for that special person in my life? Wonder no more: the Yankee whaler’s gift guide knows exactly how to get your presents on-trend for 2015.
Have a drink with: The Thanksgiving Turkey
Our dinner, who art in oven…
Ask it about: Patriotism, Christology, stuffing.
On October 28, 1909, the Boston-based Journal of Education – the nation’s oldest continuously published educational journal – prepared its readers for Thanksgiving by printing a suggested script for a holiday-themed school play.
This seems harmless enough – festive, even! – until you realize the whole exercise kicks off with a creepy read-aloud poem entitled “The Martyrdom of St. Turkey,” which no doubt traumatized any of the students so unlucky as to be assigned to read it.