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Showing posts from 2018

Adding stars to the US flag

When we think of the early flag of the United States, we often think of the version with 13 stripes and 13 stars in a circle in the blue field in the corner.  While this is accurate, this is not the only version of this particular flag that was common in the early days of the republic. The number 13 represents the number of colonies that revolted against Great Britain in 1776 to form the United States of America, of course.  According to the Continental Congress’s Flag Act of 1777, the stripes were to alternate red and white, but there was no rule to the layout of the stars.  Putting them in a ring was fine, but so was putting them in rows, or in a star shape, or whatever you might want. All that mattered was that there was 13.  As long as you got that right, nothing else mattered. By 1795, the United States had grown to 15 states, following the admissions of the state of Vermont (1791) and the commonwealth of Kentucky (1792).  A new flag was approved to reflect this. It had 15 st…

The Cowboy Hat

In 1865, the John B. Stetson hat company introduced a new product.  It called it the Boss of the Plains hat: a durable, waterproof, good-looking hat for men.  The Boss of the Plains had a wide brim and a rounded top, and quickly became one of Stetson’s top sellers.

Brand-new Boss of the Plains, fresh out of the hatbox.

The Boss of the Plains dominated men’s hat fashion (back when there was still such a thing as men’s hat fashion) for about twenty years.  Post-Civil War photos frequently show men sporting one.  The hat was originally made of beaver pelts.  Stetson said it took about 42 beaver belly pelts to make one hat, which retailed for around $4.50, which is roughly $64.00 in 2017 money.  The design of the hat didn’t really change over this time… not really.  Not the product that Stetson manufactured, anyway.

The Montgomery-Ward catalogue was the Everything Store of the 19th century.

The change started with the customers.  The Boss of the Plains was designed to look good in all situati…

Manhattan Sinks – A personal account of September 11, 2001

Every so often, I share this piece.  I wrote it the night I got home from Manhattan on September 11, 2001.  I worked in Manhattan at the time, about ten blocks north of the World Trade Center.  The train I took from my home in Jersey City, New Jersey, would arrive beneath the World Trade Center, and I'd walk from there.  I cleaned up the piece a few days after I wrote it, but this is pretty much what I remember.

I also remember how we used to refer to what happened on that day.  We called that day "Tuesday" for the first week, because that's what it was.  Then "last Tuesday," once next Tuesday came around, and then "the eleventh".  I don't remember hearing the term "9/11" until almost a month later.  I've never liked the term, and I still refer to it as "September 11".  This might seem like a picayune point, only of mild interest to linguists, but I think it shows how we were trying to sort out what had happened.  It w…

Rat Island

In the late 18th century, Hawadax Island in the Aleutian chain saw a major change.  Following a Japanese shipwreck, this remote, then-Russian island in western Alaska saw its first encounter with rats, who fled the ship and managed to find refuge on the island.  Rats don’t usually swim, but it’s well known that they can, if they have to, and they had to.
Hawadax Island is one of the smaller Aleutians, about ten square miles, populated only by seabirds.  The rats found something to eat when they found the birds, pilfering their eggs, and eating the birds themselves.  Once full of birds, by 1780, Hawadax Island was completely dominated by rats. In 1827, Russian sea captain Fyodor Petrovich Litke renamed Hawadax Island, which gets its name from the Aleut word for welcome, to something a little more descriptive: Rat Island.
Rat Island has been described as eerily quiet.  Sailing in the Aleutians, you would normally expect to hear plenty of bird calls when you’re near land.  Rat Island of c…

The Election of 1912: The All-Progressive Election

The election of 1912 took place in the middle of the Progressive Era, and was one of the most hotly contended in American history, and certainly one of the most progressive.  It was a rare one, where three candidates were running pretty close to each other, and all of them promoted progressive ideas.  This was the first year of the existence of the Progressive Party, too.  The Progressive Party’s first candidate was Teddy Roosevelt, one-time liberal Republican who abandoned his old party and set out to start something new.  He’d been bucking the Republican Party on a lot of policy issues regarding corporate regulation and labor—issues where the Democrats of the day were much stronger—ever since his early days in New York state politics in the 1880s.. Roosevelt had an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style, and was very good at—and very impatient about—getting his agenda enacted.  The Republican Party, then a very conservative and business-friendly party, had mixed feelings about him.  Ro…

Really Big Numbers

It’s common knowledge in the West how Roman numerals work.  Some Roman numerals get more use than others.  Smaller numerals, like I, V and X (meaning 1, 5 and 10) get the most use, while the higher ones like L, C, D and M (meaning 50, 100, 500 and 1,000) aren’t as common.  They’re more often found in official use.  Movie credits often give the date in Roman numerals, maybe because MMXVII looks more impressive than 2017 (or, more to the point, MCMLXXXIX looks more impressive than 1989).  The date of the founding of the United States appears on the Great Seal as MDCCLXXVI (have a look at the base of the pyramid on a $1, if you want to see), and writing it that way does seem a lot grander, a lot more appropriate for the founding of a nation than the simpler (and clearer) 1776.  Even the Super Bowl gets a Roman numeral for its title.  (In 2016, what might have been Super Bowl L was marketed as Super Bowl 50, since the NFL had difficulty designing a logo for the game around the L.  As a si…

Popeye: Casinos, Moochers, and Adventures Across the Fourth Dimension

In 1929, the plot of the daily comic strip Thimble Theater, was starting another adventure.  The plot sent one of its main characters, Castor Oyl, down to the docks of the fictional town of Sweet Haven to find transport to Dice Island, where he intended to break the bank at Fadewell’s Casino.  Castor was sure he could do it, because he’d recently acquired Bernice, a rare bird called a wiffle hen, which brings good luck when you rub her head.  To get to Dice Island, Castor needed to find a sailor, and find one he did.  Sitting by the docks was a one-eyed, tough-looking old mariner smoking a corncob pipe.  No one knew it yet, not even Elzie Segar, the strip’s creator, but Thimble Theater was about to acquire a new star.  This was the entrance of Popeye the Sailor into the strip, and into American culture.


Castor Oyl first encounters Popeye, January 17, 1929.

From the beginning, Popeye was tough.  More than tough: he was indestructible.  He could get punched, knocked on the head, and eve…

Pithole, Pennsylvania: Petroleum Boomtown

Quick: where can you find a ghost town?  You probably imagined a dusty old town in the American west, probably in or near a desert, the decrepit façades of a once-thriving boomtown looming over an abandoned main street.  You can imagine the cowboys and the stagecoaches and other signs of Old West civilization, all of which pulled stake and moved on when the nearby gold mines played out.  Ghost towns aren’t restricted to the American west.  They occur anywhere that people have picked up and moved along for whatever reason.  There’s more of a romance with Old West ghost town, thanks mostly to Hollywood, but there are plenty of others. 

One ghost town not found in the Old West is Pithole \pɪtˈ hoʊl\, Pennsylvania.  Pithole didn’t exist before 1865, following the oil boom in western Pennsylvania that started in the wake of the construction of the Drake Well in Titusville in 1859.  For a brief period in the 1860s, western Pennsylvania was producing most of the world’s crude oil.  This might…