Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Follow the Arrows

As the summer wears on, and my children increasingly have trouble entertaining themselves, I find myself struck at the genius of my mother. It was well-known in my house growing up in Smalltown, Illinois, that it was a very bad idea to utter the words, “I’m bored” in front of Mom. Her response would, without fail, be, “Great! The toilets need to be scrubbed.”

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc</a

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc

But every so often, if one of us had a friend or two over to play and we found ourselves in a lull, she would take pity on us and come up with these amazingly creative ideas, from fun little games to large scale projects of awesomeness. One of my favorites was a game she resurrected from her own childhood in Even Smallertown, Illinois called an arrow hunt.

The idea was that one person (or one team) would take a piece of chalk and go somewhere in our Smalltown neighborhood to hide. Along the route, the hiders marked a chalk arrow every time they changed directions. The arrow had to be clearly visible, though it could be in an unexpected place, and the final arrow pointed to the spot where the hider(s) would be found.

The game was a hit. It killed a lot of otherwise boring summertime hours, no toilets were scrubbed, and my friends and I discovered all the nooks and crannies of the nearby park and neighborhood landscaping. And I got really good at spotting a trail.

So did pilot Jack Knight on one dark night in 1921 when he completed a successful flight from Chicago to North Platte, Nebraska. This was important for two reasons. First, it was the first (and possibly only) time anyone ended up in North Platte on purpose. Second, Knight’s flight had been a test for the US Postal Service.

A relatively new technology, airplanes offered the promise of efficient coast to coast mail delivery. But navigation was still in its infancy with pilots relying on landmarks to guide them. This meant that night flying was pretty much out.

It's possible this man has no idea where he's going.

It’s possible this man has no idea where he’s going.

That is until someone had the brilliant idea to use postal workers and citizen volunteers to man a series of bonfires along Jack Knight’s dark route. His success led to the (slightly) more sophisticated plan to dot the Transcontinental Air Mail Route from New York to San Francisco with 50-foot steel, gas-lit beacons mounted into giant yellow concrete arrows on the ground.

Each arrow pointed toward the next beacon, around ten miles or so away depending on topography. Congress thought it was a great idea and by 1924 there were giant arrows pointing the way from Cleveland, Ohio all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. And because the Postal Service realized there weren’t a lot of reasons to stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, the route was extended over the next few years, eventually reaching from New York to San Francisco.

air mail route

Transcontinental Airmail Route

Of course it wasn’t long before fancier navigation systems developed and pilots began to feel that radio frequencies were somewhat more reliable than the old fly-real-low-and-follow-the-arrows system. During WWII, the steel beacon towers were dismantled and repurposed, putting a practical end to the dotted Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

But the arrows are still there. Their paint is faded and they may have a few cracks here and there, but many of them that haven’t become the victims of development are still there to be found by the odd eagle-eyed traveler.

So we’re almost to the countdown to the start of school. I am not as creative as my mother and my boys are spending their childhood in Not-So-Small-Suburb, Missouri so even in our very safe neighborhood, I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea of them chasing arrows through the streets. My solution for summer boredom is to plan the big family vacation for the end of the summer, as a reward of sorts, for making it this far. And now I know as we pack up for our trip west, we’ll be following the arrows after all.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.

 

Ending with a Bang: The Long Weary Road to the Last Out

One hundred years ago, on July 17, 1914, a weary baseball crowd at Pittsburg’s Forbes Field awaited the end of a very long game. For 21 innings the Pirates and the New York Giants battled it out. At last, Larry Doyle of the Giants sent a two-run shot over the wall bringing the game to a score of 3-1, devastating the remaining Pittsburg faithful. It had been a dreadfully long game. Pittsburg’s manager had long since been ejected for arguing a call. The mood was surely solemn. And to top it off, a storm was brewing above the city.

There would be no celebratory fireworks for the Pirates, but there would be an impressive light show when in what has to be the most spectacular baseball play of all time in the bottom of the 21st inning, New York outfielder John Joseph “Red” Murray caught a long fly ball for the third out and was simultaneously knocked unconscious by a lightning strike.

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while.  photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while. photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

I love baseball, though I’m not a great sports fanatic in general. I only know who won the world cup because my Facebook feed briefly became the hooligan section (Germany, right?). As much as I have tried for my husband’s sake, American football is just beyond me. And all I know about hockey and professional basketball is that they have ridiculously drawn-out playoff schedules that seem to stretch into the next regular season of play.

But baseball captures my attention. So I was thrilled when both of my sons, ages 6 and 9 decided they wanted to play this summer. My 9-year-old had some previous experience. Last summer he played in a non-competitive coach-pitch league where he made some friends, developed some skills, and had a pretty good time. And as a little kiddo he played on a tee ball team where the two biggest highlights of his season were losing a tooth in the infield and handing it to the nearest parent volunteer (who took it quite graciously I thought), and dumping a glove-full of grass on the head of a little girl who had just run to third.

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball.  photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball. photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Unfortunately this summer hasn’t gone as well. This season we tried a different, competitive league. I’m certainly not opposed to competition. It’s important to learn how to both win and lose well. And the kids have done well will that. But what has broken my heart has been seeing the way that my son and his teammates have been crushed by frustrated and inconsistent coaching and by bad sportsmanship from both parents and coaches (on all the teams).

With only one game to go, we’re nearing the end of the season, and my son doesn’t want to go to practice and doesn’t want to go to the game. I’m going to make him, because it’s a good lesson in honoring commitments, even when it’s tough, but I get it. I don’t really want to go to the game either.

It hasn’t been all bad, of course. He has made some friends, gotten much better at spitting sunflower seeds, and has learned that even in the midst of endless innings stuck in the outfield and pointless arguments between hothead coaches and umpires who aren’t bold enough to toss said coaches from the field, there are bright moments.

His team isn’t going to win first place, but they are well over .500 and my son’s still thrilled when he manages to field the ball well or when he has a good at bat. But I’m also afraid that this kid, who loves to watch this sport as much as I do, may never want to try to play baseball again. Frankly, he’s weary. It’s been a dreadfully long season and going into the last game, against the best team in the league, the mood is solemn and a storm is brewing.

I sincerely hope the game doesn't get called for bad weather because then we'd have to play a make-up.

I also sincerely hope the game doesn’t get called for bad weather because then we’d have to play a make-up.

So although I sincerely hope that none of the players get struck by lightning (and I suppose no coaches or parents either because I am trying to model good sportsmanship), I do hope that there’s something in this last game that sparks his excitement for the sport again and provides him with a good memory to carry into next time.

Nothing will stop this man from catching a fly ball. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTHING will stop Red Murray from ending a 21 inning game. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure that Red Murray remembered the game winning catch he made that day in Pittsburg, but his legend certainly lived on. And so did he. Rumor has it he even played in the very next Giants game. In my book that either makes him the most dedicated baseball player ever, or perhaps this the biggest tall tale in the sport. Either way it’s a good story with a great ending.

Oh the Places I’ve Never Gone: A Story of SPAM

I love a good road trip and, I confess, I have a little bit of an obsession. I collect brochures. I don’t mean that I have a basement full of full color brochures from every place I’ve ever visited. That might actually make sense.

I mean that at every hotel, roadside diner, and rest stop, the first thing I do is check out the tourism brochure rack, and I usually pick up at least three or four. Of course I do this in the places where I’m staying for a while, but also in the places I’m just driving through.

 

In case you can't read it, that phone number is 800-LUV-SPAM, so you can get all of your SPAM and SPAM Museum-related questioned answered. I'm sure you have many.

It’s Free! And it has bathrooms. And probably tee shirts.

 

And here’s the strange part, I almost never go to the places in the brochures. But I love to learn about bizarre little tourist sites that get highlighted on those racks. I guess it’s my way of soaking in some of quirkiness of the communities I am privileged to pass through.

There are the standard places like zoos, waterparks, and outlet malls and in this part of the country there’s usually a cave tour or two. Sometimes those are accompanied by interesting stories. But the ones I like best advertise those truly unique places, the ones that are just weird enough that it’s unlikely anyone would ever travel specifically to a particular area just to see them.

My latest find, maybe the best brochure I have ever picked up on a road trip, came from a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota where we stopped this weekend on our way to watch a community theater musical production that featured one of our very talented nieces.

Obviously she stole the show and we were delighted to be there to watch her performance, but I admit, second to that, my favorite part of the trip was the place we didn’t go: The SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota.

Austin is only about a 45 minute drive from Rochester and not particularly out of the way for a traveler headed back to St. Louis, but it was the last day of our whirlwind weekend road trip. We were anxious to head home. And I was the only one who seemed at all interested in going.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

How could I not be? First of all the museum is free, so even if it’s not everything it’s advertised to be, all you’ve lost is an hour or so of your time, which you can’t ever get back. Still, how can you say no to a tourist destination that boldly proclaims: “Theater! Game Show! Restrooms! IT’S ALL HERE!”

So since my family wouldn’t be convinced to tour the museum (okay so it’s possible I didn’t try that hard), I had to research SPAM the old fashioned way and just Google it.

SPAM hit the market in 1937 and soon dominated the canned meat industry. A spiced ham product initially made entirely from pork shoulder which had been an underutilized cut of meat up to that point in the company Hormel’s canned meat products, SPAM received its iconic name from a somewhat suspicious contest.

The winning entry was submitted by an actor named Ken Daigneau who also happened to be the brother of a Hormel Foods Vice President. There’s no word on whether or not said vice president was in fact the judge of the contest, but Hormel awarded Daigneau $100 for his efforts and it’s a good thing they did because “ham jello” just doesn’t sing as well.

Though SPAM (which Hormel claims stands for “spiced ham” and not the “something posing as meat” that some have suggested) took off largely as a wartime food, its real boost into the popular psyche came from Monty Python’s famous 1970 SPAM comedy sketch, which period actors with brilliant British accents (I’m sure) reenact daily for a fascinated audience at the SPAM Museum.

Alas, I’ve never been. Still, I do have the brilliant brochure that both splits into detachable postcards with fun SPAM facts so you can conveniently invite your friends from all over the world to a SPAM pilgrimage they won’t soon forget and also features a helpful map placing the museum into geographical context with the World’s Largest Stack of Empty Oil Cans. I haven’t managed to collect a brochure advertising that American travel gem yet, but it’s definitely on my list of sites to not visit.

spammap

10,000 Lakes? Big Deal. Come to Minnesota for the SPAM!

Super Foods of Future Past

In the fall of 1902, twelve healthy young men sat down together in a dining room set up in the basement of the former Bureau of Chemistry in Washington D.C. for the first of many meals they would share. The food they ate was whole and healthy, prepared with the finest ingredients, and calculated to meet the specific caloric needs of each individual. Oh, and it was laced with borax.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Chief Chemist in the United States Department of Agriculture. Food and drug safety enthusiast. Poisoner of young men.

The twelve young men at the table were the first volunteer subjects of a study designed by the Bureau of Chemistry’s Chief Chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley to determine the human health effects of various common additive food preservatives.

Each young hero agreed that for the duration of his participation he would ingest nothing but the food provided him through the study, the only exception being water, which was carefully measured. He also agreed to regular medical examinations, and, of course, he agreed to clean his plate.

Wait, there isn't any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.

Wait, there isn’t any radiated spider venom in this, right? I have the weirdest reaction to that stuff.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Americans were as concerned about the chemicals in their foods as we are in 2014. And with no real regulation, it was nearly as difficult to make good family food decisions as it is today amidst confusing regulation and an overwhelming amount of ever evolving and sometimes conflicting health information.

Then along came Dr. Wiley and his “Poison Squad” as they were soon called by the press. They operated under the motto, “Only the Brave dare eat the fare,” rotating through and testing at various times throughout the five year duration of the study: borax, benzoic acid, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, copper sulfate, salicylic acid, and saltpeter.

As soon as a man developed symptoms that inhibited the performance of his daily routine, he was given a minimum of forty days rest during which he ate nutritious food that contained none of the test chemical. But as Dr. Wiley later explained during a hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the study was necessarily limited because unlike with animal testing, he couldn’t cut open his test subjects and examine their organs. Apparently, they wouldn’t agree to that.

So, I don't know what's in that turkey leg, but I don't think it agrees with him.

So, I don’t know what’s in that turkey leg, but I don’t think it agrees with him.

Still, the study and the publicity that accompanied it, helped pave the way for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and for the agency that would emerge officially in 1930 as the Food and Drug Administration. The act addressed fairness in labeling more than the elimination of food dangerous food preservatives, but four of Wiley’s test additives are long since gone from American foods, including borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate.

Thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the poison squad, the food we eat is a little bit safer, which doesn’t seem to do much to ease our minds as we are still at war with all things perceived as unnatural in our foods. Regardless of what diet you subscribe to, be it the Mediterranean, Paleo, Flexitarian, or whatever, the one thing they all pretty much agree on is that you should eat as much real, single-ingredient, “whole” food as you can.

And even the most practical of nutritionists, who caution against adopting a diet so rigid that it’s not workable, agree that this is probably a pretty good idea. But as a mom who does the vast majority of the grocery shopping and as much of the cooking as I can’t get out of, I wanted to know, just what are those whole superfoods my family should be eating?

Turns out Prevention magazine has some suggestions. Actually, there are quite a few lists of the super-est foods of 2014, but I liked this particular list because most of the foods on it were included elsewhere, too, and there were several I’d never heard of before. You just can’t get any more super than that.

Holy Whole Foods, Batman!

Holy Whole Foods, Batman!

A few of my favorite are:

1. Avocado oil – just the oil, not the avocado because it was super a couple of years ago
2. Coffee – some years it’s good; some years it’s bad; this year the price is going up so it’s super
3. Shichimi togarashi – a Japanese spice that is apparently really hot and rich in antioxidants, but way more Hipster-friendly than say, blueberries
4. Salsify – a root vegetable that is low calorie and high in fiber because, you know, it’s a vegetable
5. Za’Atar – a Middle Eastern spice that decreases the instances of foodborne illnesses, kind of like cooking does
6. Teff – a gluten free grain whose biggest claim to healthfulness seems to be that you can’t digest it
7. Canary seed – yep, that’s right, bird seed is a gluten free grain option for people, too, so that in 2014, you have permission to finally eat the way you’ve always wanted to, like a bird. Super.

Um, just no.

Um, just no.

I don’t know what was on the list of super foods in 1906, but I guess I know what wasn’t. Don’t worry, though. No formal follow-up study was ever done on the participants of the poison squad, but anecdotally their health didn’t suffer in the long term. One participant, William O. Robinson of Falls Church, Virginia, passed away in 1979 at the age of 94. I think we have to conclude that his longevity stemmed from the fact that he was so well preserved.

One Really Bad Idea. One Really Good Day.

In 1926, in a cozy family kitchen in Faribault, Minnesota, a father by the name of Herbert Sellner entertained his young son Art by sitting him on a chair on top of the kitchen table and then, in an example of really bad parental judgment, rocking the table. This is according to Sellner family lore and, yes, Art lived to tell (and probably exaggerate) the tale. And even though to responsible parents everywhere, this sounds like one of the worst ideas possibly ever, the sight of young Art tipping every which way and laughing on top of the table did give Herbert Sellner a great idea.

Sellner is the inventor of the Tilt-A-Whirl, which debuted at the 1927 Minnesota State Fair. And even though to nearly anyone with the constitution of a person over the age of 16, the Tilt-A-Whirl sounds like one of the worst ideas possibly ever, it went on to become a feature in carnivals and amusement parks all over the world.

Even this picture makes me feel a little sick at my stomach.  photo credit: boeke via photopin cc

Even this picture makes me feel a little sick at my stomach. photo credit: boeke via photopin cc

Okay, maybe you don’t feel as strongly about the Tilt-A-Whirl as I do, but I would almost rather be sitting in a chair on top of a rocking table than ride on one. But I tell Sellner’s story for a couple of reasons. First, it’s summer time, which in our house means we do a lot of running back and forth tipping this way and that until we’re so dizzy we don’t know for sure which way is up and we feel a little queasy.

I’ve now survived nearly two weeks of summer break. Don’t get me wrong. I love summer. I love baseball and swimming, fireflies and staying up late around a campfire. And, yes, I love spending all day playing with my kids.

What I don’t love (besides the Tilt-A-Whirl) is the fighting. I mean the “He hit me just because I was bored so I whacked him in the head first,” the “He won’t give me a turn on the video game I’ve just been playing for 45 minutes without a break,” and the “He’s cheating in the game we just made up that has continuously fluxing rules” kind of fighting.

So in order to spend as little time refereeing the impossible as I can, I keep them busy running every which way until they fall asleep. It was in this spirit that I recently took them to a water park across the river in Illinois that I’d never been to before.

The thing is, if you read this blog regularly, you may recall that I developed a stress fracture in my foot a little while back. It’s not healing quite like expected so seven weeks later I’m still wearing a clunky, and oh-so-attractive boot, which makes water-parking difficult. I did take it off for a while and floated around the lazy river thereby entertaining my almost seven-year-old for a good 30 seconds.

Just imagine the tan line.

Just imagine the tan line.

Fortunately, one of my teenage nieces graciously agreed to go with us and get tossed around in the wave pool with the boys, and ride the great big water slide with my nine-year-old. We all came home that evening sun-drenched and tired, but happy and not fighting. Much.

And this is the second reason I bring up Sellner. Because before he became the inventor of the Tilt-A-Whirl, he was first the inventor of the modern water slide. His Water-Toboggan was a large slide built on a beach and stretched out over water. Riders climbed to the top with a floating sled and then sped down shooting up to 100 feet across the surface of the water. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds pretty fun.

That looks like way more fun than a Tilt-A-Whirl.

That looks like way more fun than a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Sellner’s 1923 invention thrilled beach goers everywhere and eventually gave rise to the modern water park. So it’s Herbert Sellner I have to thank for one great mostly conflict-free day of summer. And as long as I keep the boys tipping every which way in this Tilt-A-Whirl season, we should do okay. If I get desperate I suppose I could always put them in a chair on top of the kitchen table and rock them silly.

 

The Real Renaissance: Elves, Fairies, and the Golden Age of Piracy

058

I have long maintained that this is not a serious history blog. Though I do attempt to provide good-ish information, and have generally completed at least some “research” on the topic, I’m a storyteller first and so I often fill in a few blanks along the way. And, on occasion, I may throw in a few anachronisms that you, intelligent reader, I assume will pick up on.

Still, I think it bears repeating, if you are starting your big school history research project and the first thing you’ve done is stop by to see what the practical historian has to say about it, you’re probably not going to get a very good grade.

That’s why I decided recently that I should beef up my credentials a little so that I can provide more reliable, useful information. With that in mind, this past weekend, I attended, for the first time ever, a Renaissance festival. Just for you.

It turns out, I don’t live too far from the site of the annual St. Louis Renaissance Faire, a festival that isn’t the biggest (that’s in Texas where everything is bigger) or best of its kind (or even the top 13 according to the Travel channel), but seemed to me like a good place to start my quest for historical accuracy.

The real Renaissance is that period of time that spans the gap between the Middle Ages and life that is somewhat more recognizable by us modern folk. Generally considered to stretch from the 14th century to the 17th, it started as a cultural explosion in Florence and much like the black plague, spread through all of Europe.

The period is characterized by major shifts in art, science, religion, and education. The people of the Renaissance began to think of the world and of themselves differently. Exactly when and exactly why this shifting began is open to a surprising amount of (kind of hostile, actually) debate among scholars. The whole thing is frankly a little nebulous, so in the interest of making it a little more concrete, here’s what I learned when I visited the fair, set in the 16th Century French Village of Petit Lyon:

  1. There was an enormous amount of cleavage during the Renaissance. Seriously, it was everywhere, breast tissue spilling over the tops of
    Queen Elizabeth I didn't get the memo about the cleavage. Evidently she had no sense of style at all.

    Queen Elizabeth I didn’t get the memo about the cleavage. Evidently she had no sense of style at all.

    incredibly tight corsets. I even saw a too-tight corset paired with a pair of sweatpants. So, evidently, there were also no decent tailors.

  2. The Renaissance can be marked by the presence of elves, although admittedly this could have been only in France. A lot of elves. Many of them had bows. Some wore jester hats and jingling shoes. Still others had too-tight corsets. But though they varied, they could all be easily identified by their very pointy ears.
  3. Bands of singing and dancing Caribbean pirates roamed village streets. They were not the clandestine thieves you might expect, but rather were garishly dressed, self-identified as pirates, and occasionally performed for royalty.

    Someone should probably tell theses "gentlemen" that they belong in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, not in 16th century France. To illustrate the point, Captain Jack Sparrow was there, too, but he was too surrounded by an adoring crowd to get a good picture, as I was unwilling to wait in line.

    Someone should probably tell theses “gentlemen” that they belong in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, not in 16th century France. To illustrate the point, Captain Jack Sparrow was there, too, but he was too surrounded by an adoring crowd to get a good picture, as I was unwilling to wait in line.

  4. The waffle cone, suggested by many to have been invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, was a favorite treat of European royalty during the Renaissance.
  5. If one could manage to avoid the elves, there was still the large number of fairies to contend with. So many fairies, complete with delicate wings, blue-tinted skin, high-pitched sugary voices, and sparkly magical fairy dust. It was best to avoid these whenever possible.
  6. Jousting knights mostly told jokes, especially puns. They loved puns. They also enjoyed insulting the attending royalty, who were pretty much cool with it.
  7. The most popular food of 16th century France was by far the turkey leg. As most sources claim that the turkey, which is native to the Americas, arrived in Europe in the 17th Century, I think we can safely assume that those sources are wrong.

    Anachronism tastes delicious!

    Anachronism tastes delicious!

  8. King Francois II of France did not speak French. I know this because my nine-year-old who only knows a few French phrases had the opportunity to be knighted. When the king addressed him in French, my boy responded politely in the king’s own tongue, to which King Francois blushed and quickly changed the subject, in English.

So there you have it, the real Renaissance as best as I can tell. I should caution you, though. If you happen to be starting your big school history project on 16th century France or the Renaissance in general and you start by checking out the St. Louis Renaissance Faire, you’re probably not going to get a very good grade. Unless of course you happen to be writing about elves and fairies. In that case, you should be good.