Saturday, February 27, 2010
While he is not my favorite presidential crush (he has TR, Adams, and Jefferson to compete with) I will admit that I have a thing for JFK. Some of his letters are currently up for auction, and while I don't have the $100,000 they are expected to go for, newspaper snippets will do for now.
JFK met the Swedish beauty Gunilla von Post when she was 21 and he was a 36 year old senator. She was in the Riveria trying to improve her French when she met the visiting politician. They went to dinner and danced until 2 am, parting ways with a kiss. Although Kennedy got married to Jackie soon after their meeting- cad!- he continued to send her letters and try to meet up with her long after.
Now 87, von Post is selling eleven of his letters and three telegrams. If you can ignore the unattractive cheatingness of it all, they are actually pretty romantic. “I thought I might get a boat and sail around the Mediterranean for two weeks — with you as crew,” he wrote the year after the met. A year later, the two spent a week together in a Swedish castle. I think what makes this story so fascinating to me is that it's so relatable.
Read more here and here.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I spent a good chunk of this past weekend watching the Olympics- go, Apolo, go!- and realizing how weird the Olympics are if you think about it too hard. If aliens landed on earth right now, how in the world would you explain the thought process behind the nations of the world getting together to spend a ton of money on seeing who can zoom down an ice slide the fastest or wear the craziest figure skating costume? It’s weird, guys. Let’s face it.
Considering that weirdness got me vaguely remembering a strange story I once heard about the 1936 Berlin games. All I remembered was something about the Germans entering a man in drag into the woman’s high jump. That’s enough of a lead to merit some googling. As it turns out, the story is more complicated and more interesting than I expected. It also a heck of a lot sadder. While today's Olympics might be kind of weird, the political, religious, and gender issues at play behind the 36' Games put that all into pretty harsh perspective.
In 1933, Gretel Bergmann was a 19-year-old German Jew and a rising star in the high jump. While she had expected to compete in the 1936 Olympics, her hopes were dashed when she was kicked out of her sports club for being a Jew. They placed a sign on the stadium where she had trained reading “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.”
Gretel fled to England, leaving her family behind to continue her training. For a year, she trained and went to polytechnical school. She quickly became Britain’s high jump champion. In 1934, however, she heard from the Nazi government. They wanted her back on the Olympic team, and she went.
Why did the Germans seem to have a change of heart? And why did Gretel accept the invitation? The International Olympic Committee had told the Nazi government they were only allowed to host the Games if they included Jewish athletes on their team. As for Gretel, she felt she didn’t have much of a choice but to return. A Nazi official had paid a personal visit to her father, implying that harm would come to her family unless she rejoined the team. "In the beginning I thought I am going to get myself out of it by competing really badly, but then I thought it would be a much better thing if a Jewish girl can show she can compete with anybody in the world,” she says.
When Gretel got back to Germany, she found that the Jewish athletes were given subpar training and the worst facilities. Even still, she continued to perform astoundingly. In practice, she jumped 1.60 m, proving herself one of the strongest competitors around. She remembers telling herself to "Jump! Continue to jump. Show them what a Jew is capable of doing, of being." Her fellow athletes were amazed at her abilities. "Everyone who was there stood in awe of Gretel Bergmann," recalls one. "She reminded me of Nefertit," says another.
Gretel's roommate on the team was Dora Ratjen. Gretel thought she was nice enough, and they got along well in practice. However, she did think something was odd about her. She shaved her legs several times a day, had a deep voice, and never stripped down for the shower. “We all wondered why she never appeared naked in the shower,” says Gretel. “To be so shy at the age of 17 seemed grotesque but we just thought: well, she’s weird, she’s strange.”
After the American team had boarded their ship to Germany, and it was too late for America to withdraw from the Games, Gretel was told that her performance hadn’t been good enough. She was told in the form of a dismissive letter. "Looking back on your recent performances, you could not possibly have expected to be chosen for the team," it read. The German government feared having a Jewish athlete perform- and worse, excel- in front of Hitler. Gretel was cut from the team at the last moment. She was given a standing room spectator's ticket and told that her hotel and transportation expenses "could not be covered." That was that. Gretel was replaced by Dora, who came in fourth. A Hungarian Jew named Ibolya Csak took the gold.
Dora continued to compete in the high jump for two more years, setting a new world record for women in 1938. Gretel immigrated to the US after the crushing disappointment of the Olympics. She was married to a Jewish German sprinter and tried to get over the loss.
Dora’s own career came to an end just days after setting the new world record. She was on a train from Vienna to Cologne in 1939. Wearing a gray skirt suit and nude tights, she got out to stretch when the train made a stop. A ticket taker had reported to the police that a man in drag was on his train (remember, this was 1939) and a cop asked to see Dora’s ID. Unsatisfied with that, the policeman took Dora back to the station. After seeing Dora’s hairy hands, he threatened to strip her down to see if she was actually a woman. At this time, it was recorded that Dora confessed to being a man in disguise. An arrest was made, and it was found that the record-setting Olympian had bound up his scarred male genitals to compete as a woman. He was quickly enlisted in the army and most of his state records disappeared. Years later, he was working as a (male) bartender in Hamburg, living under the name Heinrich or Hermann.
Gretel didn’t hear the news until 1968, when she read a story in Time magazine. "When I read it I laughed like crazy. I couldn't help myself,” she says. "I wrote to him some years ago, but I never got an answer. Why he did this I do not know. Maybe he was forced by the Nazis, maybe it was for his own self-esteem, I have no idea.” Me neither, Gretel!
What happened here is unclear. Hermann gave only one interview after his arrest for fraud against the German government. Try as I might, I can’t track down the original. Many sources, however, refer to a 1957 confession that the Nazi government had pressured him to masquerade as a woman, thinking that a male athlete would have a better shot at bringing Germany Olympic glory. “For three years I lived the life of a girl. It was most dull,” he is quoted as saying.
Is that what really happened, though? Other historians claim that Hermann was not a man, but intersex, a person with both male and female genitals. A study by the Department for Sexual Medicine at Kiel University Hospital in Germany suggests that the Nazis may not have known about Dora’s condition, and that Dora herself may not have been intentionally trying to defraud the Olympics. According to this study, Dora’s father testified to the police that his daughter’s sex had been uncertain from birth, with the midwife originally telling he and his wife that their child was a boy- and then changing her mind after seeing the child’s unusual genitalia.
As Dora got older and it became increasingly obvious to his parents that something was off, doctors told them not to worry about it. By this account, Dora was raised a girl. “From the age of 10 or 11 I started to realize I wasn't female, but male,” he is quoted as telling the police. “However, I never asked my parents why I had to wear women's clothes even though I was male." Confused and isolated, Dora hid his secret from his three sisters and his coworkers at a tobacco factory. She found solace in sports, where she excelled as a high jumper and eventually found her way on to the Olympic team.
The 1939 medical exam found that Dora had a thick band of scar tissue on her genitals and was probably not able to function sexually as a man. The final legal decision was that she was not guilty of fraud “because there was no intention to reap financial reward." However, Dora was banned from sports and, by this account, pressured to assume a male name and identity, an edict that she and her family struggled with. Regardless, a Verden court issued a name change and a change of legal status from female to male in 1939. If Dora did live as a woman before 1936, I am inclined to sympathize with her. If she lived as a man for all but three years, then my feelings change.
I would feel better about taking a side on this if I could read the documents and interviews myself, but unless I am going to get ambitious and start writing books instead of a blog, I’ve hit a dead end on researching this one. The Nazi’s treatment of Gretel and other Jewish athletes proves how desperate they were to avoid the embarrassment of Jewish competitors winning medals for a government that wanted them to be seen as inferior in every way. It is certainly possible that they pressured a male athlete to dress in drag in hopes of obtaining a competitive edge. This was a time before hormonal testing was part of sports, and all it would take for a man to successfully cheat the system is the team doctor’s approval. While Dora might not have been beautiful, it isn’t unthinkable that her sex would have gone unquestioned.
On the other, intersex identity is poorly understood both in sports and general society even today. It seems realistic that Dora’s parents, her doctors, and the athlete herself may have just not understood the situation. While the Nazis are certainly guilty of engineering their team to exclude Jews, it is possible that they were unaware of Dora’s secret. Considering the fact that the supporting records come from the state, though, I don’t know how much faith we can put in them. I feel pretty convinced that Dora was intersex, not a man in drag. If so, I don’t really know that it was wrong for her to compete as a woman. All in all, this seems more like a really sad story than a con. As hard as it is to feel sympathy for a probable Nazi supporter, I can't help but find the possibility that Dora was confused, isolated, and then humiliated genuinely depressing. It goes without saying that that description fits for Gretel's unthinkable treatment.
I really am not sure whether the Nazis knew about Dora's condition and exploited her, or if she simply jumped on the chance to compete. The fact that many of the records were destroyed is also hard to interpret. Medical examiners of the day probably didn’t get the concept of being intersex, so the assumption must have been that Dora was either a man in drag or some kind of sideshow. Did the Nazis want to cover up their dishonesty, or were they embarrassed to have had Dora on their team?
Dora died last year, and Gretel is now 96 and living in New York. The German stadium that once barred her from practice in 1933 is now named after her. The Berlin stadium where Dora took Gretel’s Olympic spot was host to last year’s World Athletics Championship. There, South African runner Caster Semenya won her gold medal in the woman’s 800 meters- only to have her sex come into question shortly after. Gender testing is still a controversial issue in sports. In Semenya's case, I found it to be painfully poorly handled. Maybe it was for Dora, too. Or maybe she was just a fraud, after all.
A movie was released in Germany last year called Berlin 36, a fictionalized version of Dora and Gretel’s story. In the film, Dora is depicted as a male Nazi ringer. I think the truth might be stranger than fiction. What I know is that this story was a sad one for at least one high jumper and for dozens of German Jews exluded from the Games. It is startling to think about how an event we associate with healthy competition and personal triumph was once so marred by Nazi domination. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to check out this footage of the Berlin Olympics put together by the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Berg, Stefan. “How Dora the Man Competed in the Woman’s High Jump.” Spiegel Online International. 15 September 2009. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,649104,00.html
“Berlin 36 Tells How Nazis Replaced Jewish Woman Athlete for Man in Drag.” Times Online. 3 September 2009. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6819342.ece
“Dora Ratjen.” Olympic Sports Reference. http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/athletes/ra/dora-ratjen-1.html
“The Jewish Jumper and the Male Imposter.” BBC News. 9 September 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8241631.stm
Lehrman, Sally. “Sex Police.” http://www.salon.com/health/feature/1999/04/05/sex_police/print.html 5 April 1999.
Macy, Sue and Bob Costas. Swifter, Higher Stronger: a Photographic History of the Summer Olympics. Mexico: National Geographic Society, 2004.
Mallon, Bill and Ian Buchanan. Historical Dictionary of the Olympic Movement. Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Mandell, Richard D. The Nazi Olympics. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Sandomir, Richard. "TV Sports: 'Hitler's Pawn' on HBO: an Olympic Betrayal." The New York Times. 7 July 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/07/sports/tv-sports-hitler-s-pawn-on-hbo-an-olympic-betrayal.html?pagewanted=1
"Sports: Transgender Issues." GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/sports_transgender_issues.html
“Woman Jumper was a ‘Herr.’ The Age. 24 July 1957. Melbourne. http://www.theage.com.au/
Sunday, February 14, 2010
The little guy on the right is Mash. He’s a friendly mummy balloon Nora and I bought to advertise the awesome candy bags we’d made to trick or treaters back in October. Hung out on the porch, he somehow failed to attract even one costumed kid to my door, leaving Nora and I with a lot of peppermint patties (the horror!). However, he has since become my pet and general best bud. He hangs out in my room, watches tv with me, and generally is just the sweetest balloon mummy you’ve ever met.
Unfortunately, Mash’s health has been in decline as his helium level drops. While I have had no luck in finding medicine for mummies, I have been more successful in learning about medicine made from mummies.
The word mummy comes from the Arabic word mumiyah. Mumiyah means bitumen- a sticky black mix of natural ingredients like sulfur, lead, and nickel that we use today in paving roads. In the 15th century, the word was attached to the preserved remains of ancient Egyptians because it was believed bitumen was used to in their preservation process. While the hardened brown stuff on mummies is actually resin, not bitumen, the misconception led to a whole lot of tomb raiding.
By the Middle Ages, Europeans had begun to think of bitumen as a sort of cure-all, treating everything from stomach troubles to serious wounds. If bitumen was obtained from mummies, it was thought to be particularly curative. Since bitumen had been so successful in keeping mummies (relatively) fresh-faced after death, Europeans figured it had to be in even better in preserving the health of the living. Mummy medicine was made in Egypt by raiding ancient tombs, stealing the mummies’ linen wrappings, and crushing them up into powder. Presumably, this work was done by a bunch of guys who had never seen a horror movie in their lives.
Eventually, the trend moved from making meds out of linen to making them out of the whole mummy. Thousands of genuine Egyptian mummies were pulverized before supply started to run low. Given the shortage, the mummy med manufacturers started to make their own supply. They would stuff the bodies of the recent dead (often criminals, beggars, the poor, or victims of disease) with bitumen. Then they’d bury the bodies in the sand or leave them out in the sun to dry. Ta da! Just as good.
None the wiser, Europe remained gripped by mummy mania into the early 17th century. French monarch Francis I (1494-1547) was such a fan that he carried a satchel of ground rhubarb and mummy with him at all times (never hurts to play it safe!). Scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-126) was another die-hard fan of dried-hard drugs. Doctors prescribed the stuff freely until French doctor Ambroise Pare traveled to Egypt and reported on the inner workings of the industry.
While no one had thought ingesting the powdered remains of ancient Egyptians was disgusting, people felt differently about the newly deceased hanging out in their medicine cabinets. Since Pare reported that the fake mummies had died from Ra knows what, Europeans were particularly grossed out. This bad PR and increased taxation on Egyptian mummy exports put a damper on the market.
As demand for mummy meds fell, new mummy products took their place. By the early 19th century, tomb raiders and mummy creators has started to sell ground-up mummies as fertilizer. By some accounts, British and American paper companies used tons of the linen wrappings to make paper. Mark Twain described mummies being used as train fuel in The Innocents Abroad, with an Egyptian engineer tossing mummy after mummy “purchased by the ton or by the graveyard,” into the engine. My personal favorite is the use of mummies in paint. “Mummy brown” was sold throughout most of the century, composed of pitch, myrrh, and mummies. Alas, one 1891 warns that fake mummies were often used here, too. Plus, “genuine or not, it cannot be recommended to the painter, as, although is a rich colour, it dries with difficulty, is not permanent, and may contain ammonia and particles of fat.” Chubby little mummies ruined many a painting, I guess. Cover your ears, Mash!
Adeline, Jules and Frederic William Fairholt. Adeline’s Art Dictionary: Containing a Complete Index of all Terms Used in Art. Architecture, Heraldry, and Archaelogy. London: J.S. Virtue and Co, Limited, 1891.
“The Afterlife: an Interview with Egyptologist Salima Ikram.” NOVA. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mummy/ikram.html
Packard, Francis R. Life and Times of Ambroise Pare, 1510-1590. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1921.
Perl, Lila. Mummies, Tombs, and Treasure: Secrets of Ancient Egypt.
New York: Clarion Books 1987.
Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad: or, the New Pilgrim’s Progress. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1906.
Wilcox, Charlotte. Mummies and their Mysteries.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Lady Georgiana Berkeley (1831-1919) was British aristocracy. She was also an amazingly inventive artist, incorporating photographs of her family into trippy and terrific collages. An excellent summary of what is known about her life and work is provided here. If you're into her, check out the work of other Victorian photo collage artists here!
Guess the source of this celebrity quote: “Beer is living proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Jon Gosselin? Colin Farrell? Mel Gibson? LiLo? Nope! Ben Franklin: American great, and a man of his times. Don’t let the conservative clothes fool you: late-18th and early 19th century Americans were a bunch of high-functioning alkies. Today, the average American consumes less than one gallon of liquor a year. In 1820, the average yearly consumption was nearly five gallons. Five gallons per American, per year! I am not sure exactly how they successfully started the world’s most successful democracy while blacked out, but frankly, I am impressed.
This average includes women, slaves, and kids. Did they skew it? Somewhat. While it was considered improper for them to imbibe heavily in public, the fairer sex did do their share of drinking. At parties and social gatherings, be it a posh dinner or barn raising, drinks flowed freely for all in attendance. After coming home from the wild quilting bee, ladies could keep the buzz going with a nightcap or a trip to their medicine cabinet. Patent meds were often composed mostly of liquor. Frequently, they also included opium (an interesting alternative to margarita mix). Under the guise of healthful living, women could get in on the boozing pretty much whenever they wanted.
Slaves were technically barred from entering most bars, but some taverns had mostly black clientele anyway. Slave masters often provided some poor quality, low proof liquor to their slaves, as well as a sanctified Christmastime binge. Slaves could sometimes sell crops they grew in their own garden plots, or use the profits of other private enterprises, to buy their own spirits.
Even young kids knew their way around more than a baby bottle. Mothers routinely rubbed liquor on the gums of teething babies or had their toddlers finish off their glass of booze. Rum and opium was even sold as a tonic for babies- just like mommy's! Like those parents who think that hosting keggers in the basement will prevent their kids from drinking outside the house, these moms often hoped that small tastes would keep their kids from going bonkers down at the tavern. It didn’t seem to work all that well, as pre-teens were a common sight at bars. Dear old dads considered these visits something to be proud of. “That’s ma boy, barkeep!,” they’d say, as their 12 year old puked in ye olde bathroom. Read that in a history book, friends.
While all three of these groups did do their share of drinking, they were lightweights compared to white men. From the working class to society’s hotshots, white men drank all day, every day (except Sunday! Let’s not get crazy). An American man would kick the day off with the breakfast of champions: some beer, whiskey, or hard cider. John Adams had a big old glass each and every morning- and this is a guy who was considered a light drinker. Before we had coffee breaks, we had ‘the elevenses’ and ‘the fourses,’ 11:00 and 4:00 booze breaks. Bosses were expected to give their workers time off for something stronger than Folgers, and sometimes even to provide the spirits themselves. Laborers of all sorts would take a half-hour break to have a “sling, toddy, or flip” at a bar, friend’s house, or coffee-house. After work, guys downed huge quantities of alcohol with dinner, regardless of their line of work. Thomas Jefferson inaugurated the first White House cocktail party. His guests drank 1,203 bottles of wine in under two years. And we thought the Clinton years were crazy.
19th century terms for drinking included ‘half-shaved,’ ‘cut in the crew,’ and ‘high up to picking cotton.’ I am praying for all three of these to make a come-back. While the terms may have changed, it appears that the effects of liquor have all always been the same. An 1828 newspaper article described all the different types of drunks. A Nervous Drunkard is “a very harmless and tiresome personage,” while a Phlegmatic Drunkard has “blood in their veins as sluggish as the river Jordan, and their energies as stagnant as the Dead Sea” (ew). A Surly Drunkard is “suspicious and very often mischievious. If at some former period they have had a difference with any of the company, they are sure to revive it, although, probably, it has long ago been cemented on both sides, and even forgotten by the other party.” The good old Choleric Drunkard is “quick, irritable, and impatient, but withal good of heart.” The Sanguineous Drunkard sounds like a looker, sporting “usually a ruddy complexion, thick neck, small head, and strong muscular fiber." Sadly, ladies, "their intellect is generally mediocre.” With all those sluggish bloodstreams, tearful fights, quick tempers, and thick necks, colonial America sounds like a season of The Jersey Shore.
So why The Situation? Mostly, we had too much corn. With the expanding settlement of the fertile western territories, American farms were producing more of the crop than people could eat. Faced with potentially wasted crops (and profits), farmers found a convenient way of both preserving their goods and moving the product. Corn whiskey didn’t go bad, was relatively easy to transport, and, most importantly, was a big seller. Whiskey became plentiful and cheap, and Americans took advantage. The fledgling American government was so aware of the national dependency that it looked to it as a cure for the nation’s budgeting woes. When Alexander Hamilton (aka the Killjoy Founding Father) decided to levy taxes on whiskey, people got mad. Pennsylvania farmers, spunky as ever, went into armed riots to protest the taxation of their most valuable product. The 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, as we all learned in high school, had to be forcefully shut down by President Washington.
It wasn’t just that whiskey was cheap, though. Believe it or not, most Americans believed that water was bad for your health until well into the nineteenth century. Unlike Tufts students, who seemed to obsess over the evils of plastic water bottles for about two years straight, they freaked about the supposedly deadly effects of the liquid itself. This fear seems to be rooted in both misinformation and the very real dangers of impure water. An 1834 medical journal reported the following horror stories. “A man returned from work at 6, sent for some cool water, drank freely, and expired at 8. A man who sold charcoal drank freely of cold water and expired in a few moments. A laborer drank from the pump copiously of cold water, and expired in a few moments. A laborer at the new University was carried home, insensible from drinking cold water, and died in a short time.” Cold water was thought to freeze your insides, but water of any sort was considered risky and low-class. Liquor was cheap enough that only the poorest of the poor would be caught dead drinking it. Literally, I guess. Booze was seen as both safer and classier.
When you think about it, the national bender makes sense. Frontier life was hard, and western farmers took solace in their drink. So valuable was it in dulling the pain of hard physical labor and a hard-scrabble lifestyle that they actually called it the “Good Creature of God.” For slaves, the small comfort liquor could have provided is obvious. Even if you were white and relatively comfortable, the relief of alcohol-based patent meds must have sometimes felt like a godsend, no matter how addictive or potentially lethal. Kids emulated the behavior they saw in their parents, viewing drinking as a badge of maturity. Maybe most significantly, social drinking was pretty much required for all parties involved. It's a classic case of colonial peer pressure.
By the turn of the century, temperance movements took off, culminating in Prohibition. The party was over, and I bet the country had one heck of a hangover.
“The American Quarterly Observer, Vol. 1. Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1833.
“The Different Kinds of Drunkards.” The Adams Centinel. 4 June 1828. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=74wlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1PIFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5800,7750783&dq=drunkard&hl=en
Jewett, Tom. “The Spirits of our Forefathers.” Early America Review. http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2002_summer_fall/forefathers.htm
Mackay, Charles. The Hope of the World. London: Richard Bentley, 1840.
Martin, James Kirby and Mark Edward Lender. Drinking in America: a History. New York: The Free Press, 1987.
Massachusetts Medical Society, New England Surgical Society. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. 10-11. Boston: D. Clapp. Jr, 1834. http://books.google.com/books?id=17AEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA384&dq=water,+drink,+cold&lr=&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=1810&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1840&as_brr=0&ei=JZl0S5e-NobIywS57KTDBA&cd=2#v=onepage&q=water%2C%20drink%2C%20cold&f=false
Parker, Jonathon. "Dr. Snow's Fight Against King Cholera Remembered at Kew Bridge Steam Museum." Culture 24. 25 May 2005. http://www.culture24.org.uk/science+%2526+nature/animals/art28614
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. Rorabaugh,W.J. The Alcoholic Republic: an American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Spoiler alert! I have been saving the hair I find in my shower drain to weave you all anklets for Valentine’s Day. They still smell kind of like Pantene, and you’re welcome in advance. I know you must be panicking because you haven’t bought me anything yet, and when you do, it’s going to look thoughtless in comparison (God, that is SO typical of you). You also must be wondering where I got such a fabulous idea. No, Martha Stewart hasn’t done an episode on it…yet. This time, I took a cue from the ever-creative Victorians.
“Hairwork,” the art of making human hair into jewelry, “paintings,” or wreaths, became popular in the US and Europe in the mid-19th century. Often, the work was done as a remembrance of a deceased friend or loved one, sometimes with the living owner’s hair intertwined into that of the dead. Other times, they were tokens of affection presented from one living person to another. This could be romantic, an extension of presenting someone with a lock of your hair, or just a sign of friendship. They could also be purely decorative artworks (at the 1855 Parisian Exposition, a life-sized hair portrait of Queen Victoria drew a big crows). Some were even community projects that incorporated hair from different people in a neighborhood into one piece.
The timing of this trend’s peak popularity makes sense. The Victorians had an interesting and sentimental relationship with death, embracing everything from taxidermy to mediums. Mourning hairwork fit this culture perfectly. In artwork, hair could be made into the kind of symbolic motifs these guys just ate up. Willows (a symbol of grief or lost love), conch shells (reincarnation), and zinnias (absent friends) were all popular subjects for hair art. In jewelry form, they provided a public way of showing your loss and devotion. Hair could be made into net-like tubes, twisted into chains, woven into a solid material, or artfully arranged inside a brooch. While non-memorial hairwork also became popular, death remembrances kicked the industry into high gear.
An 1866 advertisement with the creative headline of “Hair Work! Hair Work!” gives some perspective on how this stuff was marketed and what was available:
“The high degree of improvement to which the art of HAIR WORK has arrived now meets with universal appreciation. We cannot, therefore, recommend too highly to families this branch of industry- being the only means by which the precious remains of a cherished child, a husband or a mother, can be indefinitely preserved, for, at the moment of a painful bereavement, what can be more piously kept than their hair?
As we employ in our establishment none by skillful artists, who work under our immediate supervision or in the presence of such of our clients as may desire it we can warrant the most scrupulous fidelity as regards the use of hair entrusted to us.
We can, besides, by means of an ingenious piece of machinery recently invented, execute with hair howsoever short, a large number of artistic and tasty works, such as CHESTS, FLOWERS, MAUSOLEUMS, CROSSES, NECKLACES, BROOCHES, BRACELETS, EAR RINGS, STUDS, FINGER RINGS, WATCH CHAINS etc.”
Some tasty examples:
Usually, you would bring a clipping of your loved one’s hair to a hairworker and let them know what type of piece you wanted done. There were both mini-factories of women who sat and did piece after piece as well as independent artisans. Buyers with means would go to a local operation or craftsman of good reputation. If you were looking for a piece of hairwork on the cheap, you could mail the clipping through a service like the Sears Roebuck catalogue. They would do the work and mail the reinvented strands back to you. However, not all hairwork was created equal.
Often, supplementary hair would have to be used to create the right look or provide more material. Horsehair was frequently used to provide stiffness, but so was human hair that might not have come from your dearly beloved. An 1872 home manual stressed the benefits of doing your own hairwork, promising those who learned the complicated craft for themselves that they would “enjoy the inexpressible advantage of knowing that the material of their handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’”
An 1872 book called The Domestic World speaks to this sketchy side of hairwork:
“There are regular hair harvests in France; peasant women cultivate their tresses on purpose to sell them to dealers, who sell again to large merchants in Paris, and these latter supply the peruke makers and hair workers. English dealers mostly but the shiny black hair of the south of France, rather than the lighter tints of Germany, although the latter, at one time, ruled the market. The home supply here is very limited, for English women, however poor, would, in most cases, scorn to part with their tresses for money; it is only by the miscellaneous cuttings collected by the hairdresser that are available, and these are not sufficient for the finest work- hence the importation.”
No matter what that guy thought, American and British women did in fact sell their hair, to supply both the wig and decorative hairwork industries.. In Little Women, Jo sold her hair for twenty five dollars (prompting her family to say: “’Your hair! Your beautiful hair! O Jo, how could you! Your one beauty.” Ouch). You might also remember this from O’Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” where a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain and the husband, unfortunately, sells his watch to buy her a hair comb. (While this has nothing to do with Victorian hair jewelry, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the most touching moment in television history: the Sesame Street Christmas episode where Bert trades his paperclip collection to buy Ernie a soapdish for his rubber duckie and Ernie trades his rubber duckie- his RUBBER DUCKIE!- to buy Bert a cigar box for his paperclip collection. Youtube clip provided for you here, with someone breathing heavily in the background. It was the best I could do).
Anyway, around the turn of the century, people got creeped out by the increasing prevalence of rando hair jewelry on the market. This became especially true as people noticed that mail-in providers were mysteriously capable of providing hairwork even when the buyer didn’t send in any hair. This led to allegations that they were using locks from unclaimed corpses, That kind of PR that will kill a trend pretty fast.
By the early 20th century, hair art was on the steep decline. Today, the craft obviously isn’t practiced much. It is, however, abundantly displayed at Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri. This temple of tresses is possibly the world’s only museum of hair art, boasting 159 hair wreaths and over 2,000 pieces of jewelry made from human hair before 1900. Leila Cohoon started the museum 37 years ago when she founded the Independence College of Cosmotology, and she seems awesome. Admission is only $5. A round trip ticket from Boston to Branson, leaving tomorrow, is $606 on Orbitz. By my calculations, $611 to see this place would be a steal. Who’s in??! There’s an extra Valentine anklet in it for whoever will accompany me.
Researching for this post, I came across a website called Prison Talk that... I… didn’t have bookmarked or anything. One of the message boards was a debate about whether it was weird or not for a lady to ask her prison pen pal to send her a lock of his hair to take on a trip with her. Yes, some ladies in love found this- although apparently not dating a prison inmate- to be a weird thing to do. They responded with comments like “lol sorry i gotta say creepy too. i dunno how your relationship is tho, everyone is different. but i know if i asked my boyfriend for a piece of his hair he'd be like "uhhhh....." LOL :).” LOL, I know! But a vocal minority responded with “HAHAHA. IT'S COOL AND CREEPY!” I’ve got to say, that might be closer to how I feel about Victorian hairwork.
Especially in cases where this art was done as a remembrance, I kind of agree: creepy, yeah, but cool. And sort of nice. While it might not choke me up as much as Bert and Ernie’s Christmas spirit, I actually think it's sort of sweet. Before people had big boxes of snapshots to go through and remember people they had lost, I could see how maybe wearing a brooch made out of your husband’s hair might be a comfort. Hey, it's not like you think it's gross to touch someone's hair when they're alive, right?
Today, a company called LifeGem can make a diamond out of carbon from your loved one’s cremated remains or from, you guessed it, a strand of their hair. The next generation in hairwork? Maybe when I hit the lottery, it will be the next generation in gift-giving, too.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1922.
Campbell, Mar. Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work. New York: M. Campbell, 1867.
“Hair Work! Hair Work!” The Daily Southern Star. 13 March 1866. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=J3EzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6DgHAAAAIBAJ&pg=2677,5411272&dq=hairwork&hl=en
“Hair Wreath.” Millicent Library. Millicentlibrary.org
“Lock of Hair: Cool or Creepy?” Prison Talk.
“Leila’s Hair Museum.” http://www.hairwork.com/leila/
"Leila's Hair Museum." Roadside America. www.roadsideamerica.com/
Philip, Robert Kemp. The Domestic World. New York: George Routledge and Sons, 1872.
“Pretty Hairy.” Notes from the Orlop. Maine Maritime Museum. http://www.mainemaritimemuseum.org/what_to_see/notes_from_the_orlop.php?page_function=detail&orlop_note_id=34
Sherrow, Victoria. Encylcopedia of Hair: a Cultural History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Today is a day for double celebration. Most importantly, LOST is back. This is history in the making, folks (assuming it all works out, which I have faith that it somehow, miraculously, will). Almost as importantly, it is also Groundhog’s Day, one of the best holidays ever and the product of the best state ever, Pennsylvania.
PA has given us Ben Franklin, the Declaration of Independence, the industrial revolution (you’re welcome for all the coal, by the way), Hershey’s chocolate, Peeps, the world’s first oil well, Joe Biden, The Office, Jimmy Stewart, the first baseball stadium, President James Buchanan, and, above all, Punxatawney Phil. Today, we will focus on the last guy.
I was curious about where this particular Pennsylvania tradition came from, and I thought I would do a cute little post about it. However, I quickly found out that this history is way weirder and more confusing than I anticipated.
Apparently, February 2nd is also the Catholic feast day of Candlemas. Mosaic law deemed a mother who had just given birth to a boy unclean for 7 days. For 33 additional days, she was supposed to stay home and become pure. On the 40th day, she was to present her son at the temple, where she would offer a sacrifice of a lamb or pigeons. She and her son would then be blessed. Since Jesus was to be the light of the world, the day commemorating his own presentation in the temple is now celebrated with a candle-centric mass. At a Candlemas service, priests bless candles to be used in church rites throughout the year and give them out to parishioners. So far, nothing too strange.
It is when you look back even further than things start to get really interesting. The Church may have chosen this time of year for the Candlemas ceremony to pre-empt pagan holidays called Imbolc and Lupercalia. These holidays were also celebrated in February, the end of the Roman calendar year. They were supposed to celebrate the fertility of the spring, as well as the mythical twins Romulus and Remus, who were birthed by a wolf and went on to found Rome (a rags to riches story we can all relate to). In what sounds like an amazing party, Roman priests would sacrifice a dog and a pair of goats, cut their skin into strips, dip them in blood, and then go around touching fields and pelting women with them. This was supposed to make both the crops and the ladies more fertile. Man, I bet women just couldn’t wait for Imbolc and Lupercalia. Nothing like getting hit with blood-soaked goat hides to say ‘spring is here,’ you know?
As Rome moved towards Christianity, the Church may have co-opted the timing of these celebrations for their own holiday. While Candlemas is a lot less creepy, it does revolve around similar ideas of fertility (what with the newborns) and purification (of mother and child). Because of the time of year and the theme of new life, both holidays are also rites of spring. It wasn’t uncommon for the new Church to try to ease people away from paganism by incorporating elements of their old holidays into the new, so this mix of Christian practices and pagan traditions might explain why Candlemas is surrounded by a ton of peculiar folk beliefs.
A 1902 book on superstitions has given me a lot to think about today. Apparently, it is bad luck to have Christmas decorations up past Candlemas. If you happen to be a redneck woman who keeps her Christmas lights up on the front porch all year long, watch it. The consequences are grave. In fact, “traces of holly and berries will bring about the death of the person involved.” Either that, or you will see as many goblins as the number of leaves left on your wreath (depends on who you ask). If you have a deck of playing cards you’ve been meaning to toss out, today is the day to do it. If you get a candle at church, it will protect you from witchcraft for a whole year. And bear in mind that if “you hear a bell toll for a funeral” today, the number of strokes will tell you the number of days that will elapse before you hear of the death of a friend.” A likely candidate from your social circle is the guy with the blow-up Santa still sitting on his lawn. I hear holly has it in for him, so you might want to give him a heads up.
My favorite Candlemas tradition is a Scottish one described in a 1899 New York Times article. “On Candlemas Day each Hebridean family takes a sheaf of oats and dresses it up in women’s clothes; they place the dummy in a large basket, and lay a wooden club on it; this they call ‘Brud’s Bed.’ [brud means bride, in case anyone else didn’t know that]. The mistress of the family then, just before going to bed, marches around the basket three times, calling out, ‘Brud is come! Brud is welcome!’ The next morning she carefully examines the ashes in her stove to see if by chance any impression resembling a club be there. If she finds it, it foreteless a prosperous year for herself and her family, if not, it is taken as an omen. The dummy is carried to the top part of the house, where is expected to ward of lighting for a year.” I am so going to freak my kids out someday by doing this.
I could go on, but the stuff relevant to Groundhog’s Day seems to come from Germany. Their tradition is that the badger’s behavior on Candlemas day predicts the weather. If he sticks his head out of his hole and sees snow on this day, he will go back inside to sleep. However, that means good weather is coming. If he wakes up to see sunshine, that is bad news badgers. There is even a little poem about it, written by someone who didn’t understand rhyme scheme.
“If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The Half o’ Winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o’ Winter’s gane at Yule.”
How the Germans came up with this particular spin on Imbolc and Lupercalia/Candlemas is no clearer to me than I imagine it is to you. Regardless, it seems to be the forerunner of Groundhog’s Day. Punxutawney, Pennsylvania (home of many an awesome German immigrant, but more groundhogs than badgers) hosted its first official celebration in 1886. "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” has given his prediction every February 2nd since.
An 1888 article from the Pittsburgh Press gives you some idea how seriously Pennsylvanians take this. The writer proclaims that the forefathers of Groundhog’s Day counted on groundhog shadows as their Doppler Radar because “men were more truthful in those days than they are now.” The writer sings the praises of the creature for several paragraphs, even going so far as to defend their proper name. He notes that “some overpolite Yankees, shooked by the harsh sound of the word hog, undertook to establish the word ‘woodchuck,’ but it was no go. The groundhog of our fathers was good enough for us, and the iconoclastic Yankee has transmitted his word only to college professors and New York dudines.” Dudines, I will have you know, is the proper feminine of dude- not dudette.
It seems that the groundhog of our fathers is still good enough for us, as Punxatawney Phil continues to do his thing today. During the year, Phil lives in the window of the town library with and his lovely wife, Philomenia. Escorted by his Inner Circle, a group of Punxatawney businessmen in top hats and tails, he emerges on the big day from a heated log at Gobbler’s Knob. If he sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, we’re headed to sunbathing season!
Phil whispers a proclamation to his human interpreters, who announce his shadowy decision to the crowd. What a crowd it is. Punxatawney has a population of just 6,800 people. But on February 2nd, Gobbler’s Knob sometimes hosts as many as 30,000 guests, who gather in the early morning and the bitter cold to pay homage to Phil. My family attended once, and I can promise you that it is a thing.
There is, embarrassingly for all involved, a whole host of poseur groundhogs out there, ranging from Canada’s Wiarton Willie to Sir Walter Wally of North Carolina. Nice try, guys. But I’m afraid there is only one true prophet, and he belongs to the Keystone State. Jealous? Can’t blame you.
This morning, Phil broke the news that we shouldn’t put away our coats just yet. Love you anyway, buddy. Now: got any predictions on LOST?
“All About Candlmas.” Church Year. http://www.churchyear.net/candlemas.html
“Candlemas Day at Hand.” The New York Times. 29 January 1899. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9C05EED7163DE433A2575AC2A9679C94689ED7CF
“Candlemas.” Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03245b.htm
“Famous Groundhogs from Around the World: Punxatawney Phil to Wiarton Willie.” http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/famous_groundhogs/Famous_Groundhogs_Around_the_World.htm
“The Groundhog on Top.” The Pittsburgh Press 2 Feb 1888. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=tX8kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZUgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7061,1194091&dq=groundhog's+day&hl=en
Morrison, Cora Linn. Encyclopeida of Supersitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences, vol. 2. Chicago: J.H. Yewdale & Sons Co, 1902. http://books.google.com/books?id=ns0gK0efOvYC&pg=PA1498&lpg=PA1498&dq=candlemas,+brud&source=bl&ots=0mj4RqpwHf&sig=XA4as1sNATdxn8Y-0pO4TwwX8rc&hl=en&ei=t5JnS8SRJ8Wf8AbdmfCxBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CAwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=candlemas%2C%20brud&f=false
“The Myth, the Legend, the Rodent…Punxatawney Phil.” Newstype. 21 January 2009. http://lkessler41.newsvine.com/_news/2009/01/21/2333002-the-myth-the-legend-the-rodent-punxsutawney-phil
Wiginton, Patti. “Lupercalia: Celebrate the Coming Spring.” http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/imbolcfebruary2/p/Lupercalia.htm