Stupid Holidays, but Milkshakes

In 1936, a man by the name of Earl Prince invented a machine that could make five milkshakes simultaneously. Made possible by the newfangled freon-cooled refrigerator systems, his “Multimixer” represented the greatest leap forward in milkshake-making since Steven Poplawski’s 1922 invention of the blender. Eleven years before that, Hamilton Beach made a drink mixer, which was soon put to good use making milkshakes at soda fountains everywhere.

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I received this Hamilton Beach blender as a wedding gift more than 19 years ago. To the best of my knowledge it has only ever been used to make chocolate milkshakes.

But Prince’s machine was a welcome leap forward because what the American public had come to realize in the forty-seven years since the word “milkshake” first slipped into the English language, was that this thick, chilly beverage was awfully tasty.

Late nineteenth century milkshakes were similar to eggnog in texture and usually contained alcohol. In the early 1900s they received a family friendly facelift with the exchange of whiskey for ice cream and malted milk.

By the time Earl Prince created a way to produce a lot of milkshakes in short order, lending the ability of the then barely emerging fast food industry to get in on the trend, the public was clamoring for them.

I prefer the hand-dipped variety created in a trusty blender. Preferably made with chocolate. Still, I can appreciate the innovation that allows for speed because sometimes you just gotta have a milkshake.

Father's Day Chocolate Milkshake with Bokeh
I’ll celebrate that. photo credit: marrngtn (Manuel) Father’s Day Treat via photopin (license)

And that’s why I was not disappointed to discover that today, September 12th, is a very special made-up holiday here in the United States. Today is National Chocolate Milkshake Day.

I will be the first to admit that here in the US we are maybe a little too obsessed with the stupid holiday. One online source for all things made-up suggests there are more than 1500 weird national holidays that some guy somewhere invented for some probably very silly reason.

But as far as ridiculous made-up holidays go, this is one I can get behind. I’m not sure how far this day of observation stretches back into history, but it’s at least a few years. I have to assume someone made it up because either he owned a shop that sold killer chocolate milkshakes and was looking for a way to drum up some publicity or because he lived near a shop that sold killer chocolate shakes and he was hoping for a discount.

Either way, I’m happy for an excuse to dust off the old blender and celebrate this most excellent day with a chocolate milkshake. Or maybe five.

Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

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Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

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I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

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Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

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She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

vagabonds
Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Fruit-Plants, Cheap Coconuts, and the Need for a Brilliant Editor

The kids are back in school this week and I am back in my little hidey hole in the basement where I churn out silly blog posts and the occasional book. It’s a big year for us. My oldest is starting high school. My youngest is headed to middle school. And I’m, well, probably going to pen the next great American novel or something.

Actually, I am pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things, starting with some novel editing. If you’ve been following along with this blog for very long, you might recall I wrote what I refer to as a lost novel. It’s a long story (the “lost” part, not the novel, which is pretty average length), but basically, a publisher did me wrong and a book that was supposed to come out never did.

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It’s possible that I should also spend some time cleaning up the hidey hole in the basement.

Fortunately, the lost book saga is nearly at an end. The rights will return to me early next year and I hope to release the book myself in February. And that means that right now, I’m spending a lot of time editing.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Mostly I just have to read through the book for the 4,782nd time and acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant editor who calls me out on all my silly mistakes.

She’s also very kind. While I’m sure she rolls her eyes as she corrects my nineteenth dialog formatting error in the space of four pages, not once has she called me idiot, or even made me feel like she might. I really don’t know how she does it. I’d go cross-eyed and just start throwing in commas between every other word.

But that’s why I need a brilliant editor. Because sometimes I do that. And as small and inconspicuous as commas seem, they really do matter.

I recently stumbled on the story of a very important comma that once lost the US government about 2 million dollars. I realize that if you are a politician and not just a normal person, $2 million may not sound like that much money, so let me explain that this was in 1872. Really, that $2 million was more like $40 million in today’s money.commas save lives

Okay, if you are a politician, you’re probably still not all that impressed, but to us regular folk, that’s a pretty pricy comma.

The problem started with a tariff act passed that year which specified that on August 1, 1872, the following imported goods would be duty-free: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”

If like me, you’re not so great with commas, you might gloss over the fact that this list seems to suggest that all imported tropical and semi-tropical fruits are no longer subject to tariff. Since the previous tariff act placed a 20% tax on lemons, oranges, pineapples, and grapes, and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, mangoes, pomelos, and coconuts, this had people in the business of pineapple importation pretty excited.

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William Adam Richardson, probably not the best Secretary of the Treasury the US has ever had, and definitely in need of a brilliant editor. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then Secretary of the Treasury William Richardson was less excited as he explained the act contained a clerk’s typo and that the comma after fruit was meant to be a hyphen. It was fruit-plants, he insisted, that were duty free, and not bananas. The threat of litigation made him roll back his statement and it took two years before an angry congress managed to correct the mistake with a new tariff act. In the meantime, a whole lot of potential government revenue helped line the pockets of some grammar enthusiast pomelo importers.

I’m pretty sure none of my comma mistakes are going to cost me that kind of money. Then again maybe my potential book sales are more substantial than I think. Like A LOT more substantial. Just in case, I’m combing through my almost-found-again book at least one more time with the help of a brilliant editor who I’m pretty sure would also not let me get away with using the word “fruit-plants.”

Still Faster than Spit

Okay, okay. So I know it’s been longer than two weeks since I last wrote in this space. Yes, I did set the goal of posting every other week through the summer. Obviously, I didn’t make it. Instead, I have spent the last month or so enjoying summer with my boys, now twelve and fourteen. We’ve done a fair bit of traveling and playing and adventuring. Most recently we took a family trip up to Minnesota.

Having spent a little time earlier in the summer exploring New Orleans, where the mighty Mississippi River comes to its end in the Gulf of Mexico, we thought we might wander up to the start of the great river just so we could say we’d travelled its length.

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Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a man who is not too proud to ask for directions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously we’re not the first to have searched for the headwaters. In the late eighteenth century, the Mississippi River determined the western border of the young United States and several geologists attempted to determine exactly where the river began.

That wasn’t a simple task. The source has been placed variously at Lake Pepin, Leech Lake, Lake Julia, and Cass Lake, because the Mississippi starts in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” many of which connect to one another. And just to confuse matters, every explorer who “discovered” the source took it upon himself to rename it, which makes tracing the history of discovery of the source of the Mississippi nearly as convoluted as the source itself.

It was finally in 1832 with the help of an Obijewe guide that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, evidently the only explorer man enough to stop and ask for directions from the locals who had identified the source long before that, found the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the great river at Lake Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan. He swiftly renamed it Lake Itasca by taking a couple letters out of each of the Latin words for truth and head. It sounded pretty cool to him.

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Lake Itasca, and some very slippery rocks.

Schoolcraft wasn’t wrong about that. He may, however, have been wrong about the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the Mississippi River. Because four years later, a man by the name of Joseph Nicollet found a creek running into Itasca, which was, of course, named Nicollet Creek. That cracked open the debate again. It wasn’t until 1888 that a detailed survey was taken and Itasca regained its title since it turned out that the creeks running into the lake occasionally run dry.

On April 20, 1891, the Minnesota state legislature established Itasca State Park and now there’s a large brown sign that makes it very easy to spot the once and forever indisputable source of the Mississippi River.

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I found it pretty easy to spot the source of the Mississippi.

Despite the sign, there are some hydrologists who even today insist the source is actually Hernando de Soto Lake because it is connected to Lake Itasca by underground aquifers. But nobody likes those people very much.

Every year about a half million visitors flock to Itasca to walk across the slippery rocks where it all begins. If you can’t count yourself among them, you can still enjoy a view of the headwaters via a super riveting live webcam. It’s also a great place to kayak, and some crazy, adventurous kayakers put in there to begin a 2,348 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. That is definitely not on my bucket list.

My family was happy enough to wade a bit, take a few pictures, and learn some fun Mississippi River facts that are posted throughout the park, including in all of the bathrooms. For instance, did you know that it takes a single drop of water starting in Lake Itasca, about ninety days to make the journey to the Gulf of Mexico? What that means then, is that if on the last day I posted to this blog space I had also spit into the Mississippi headwaters, that spit would still not have reached the Gulf of Mexico by the next time I posted. So, I’m still faster than spit.

 

A Super Historically Significant Tour of New Orleans

Hello from summer break!

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am going to do my best throughout these summer months to post in this space at least every couple of weeks. The last two have been busy. My kids are now eleven and fourteen, which means two things. First, they don’t really need me to entertain them all the time, but second, they do need me to drive them places. All. The. Time.

We’ve also been adventuring as a family when we can squeeze it in. Last week, we loaded up the family truckster and embarked on a quest to strike another state off the list for the kids by spending a couple days in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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This museum is massive and still growing.

And this is the point at which any serious history enthusiast and blogger would impress upon you that the National World War II Museum in New Orleans is amazing and is well worth the trip. She’d surely mention the care with which a variety of perspectives on the war are portrayed though artifacts, interactive video, and personalized stories throughout the many visually stunning exhibit halls. She might even attempt to communicate the overwhelming emotional response visitors have to this museum, including shame, sorrow, joy, and pride.

But this isn’t that kind of blog. Instead, I’m going to write about cocktails.

Because after visiting the World War II Museum we decided to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter and learned from our wonderful guide that the Big Easy is also sometimes referred to as “the cradle of civilized drinking.”

If, like me, you’ve ever spent any time on Bourbon Street, then you might, like me, question the use of the word, “civilized,” but what is meant is that New Orleans considers itself the original home of the cocktail.

The story, as I heard it, involves a man by the name of Antoine Peychaud who in 1841, opened Pharmacie Peychaud in order to sell his special herbal remedy cleverly called Peychaud’s Bitters. Like Mary Poppins a century later, the druggist discovered that a spoonful of sugar can be helpful when getting people to take their medicine, especially when combined with water and spirits and served in an egg cup called in French a coquetier.

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Now the site of Royal Pharmacy in the French Quarter of New Orleans, this is allegedly where the world’s first cocktail was mixed. Except it wasn’t.

With the increasing importance of the coffee house social scene throughout nineteenth century America, and the simultaneous discovery that without a large dose of cream, twenty-seven packets of sugar, and a Starbucks logo, coffee is actually kind of gross, Peychaud’s concoction in a coquetier became the cocktail. This, it turned out, was a much more entertaining beverage to enjoy with a gathering of know-it-all friends sharing silly stories from history.

And while it does seem there is some truth to this one, like most silly stories from history, it has been a little embellished by carriage tour guides over the years. New Orleans is definitely the original home to many cocktails, including the hurricane and a bunch I’ve never heard of because I drink cocktails almost as often as I drink coffee (which is almost never).

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There are a few other places in New Orleans well worth a visit.

The city is not, however, the originator of the word “cocktail,” which appeared in print in the US for the first time in New York as early as 1803 and according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, probably got its start in England where it had more to do with perking up the back end of a horse than it did with raising the spirits of a self-medicating New Oreleander New Orleanite New Orleanan citizen of New Orleans. The cradle of civilized drinking is also probably not the home of the original cocktail party, which according to Wondrich, might have been hosted by George Washington. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

Still that doesn’t stop the rumor that tour guides throughout the city work hard to perpetuate. New Orleans is even the home the Museum of the American Cocktail, where I suspect you can learn all about Antoine Peychaud. I wouldn’t know, because this history blogger spent most of her time at National World War II Museum. And it really was well worth the visit.