A Brush with Normalcy

This week marks the seventh week straight that the numbers of new Covid cases and Covid-related hospitalizations have been down in my little corner of the world. That’s great news. Vaccines are rolling out, never as quickly as everyone would like, but we’re making progress. And we are beginning to see hints that bits of normalcy are slowly, cautiously returning.

Also this week I went to the dentist for a regular cleaning and checkup, which is pretty normal, but it was especially, wonderfully normal this time, because I got a purple a toothbrush.

I should explain that though I regularly see my dentist every six months, I had been just a few weeks out from an appointment when the pandemic changed everyone’s everything around these parts. My appointment was indefinitely postponed while my dentist office figured out how to keep themselves and their patients safe while also putting their hands inside people’s mouths.

I mean, how exactly does social distancing fit into something like this? photo credit: electricteeth Dental Floss/Flossing via photopin (license)

I didn’t like missing that appointment. I have pretty good teeth and I do my best to take care of my smile, but missing that checkup felt wrong. I imagine it’s a little bit how William Addis felt when he went to jail in 1770 and began to think his oral hygiene routine was insufficient.

Entrepreneur, rag trader, and apparent rabble-rouser William Addis went to prison for inciting a riot in the Spitalfields district of London. It’s not entirely clear what Addis was rioting about. There was a great deal of unrest in the area at the time, primarily among silk weavers who were demanding better pay and generally not getting along very well with one another. A handful of men were hanged for their alleged part in inciting such riots, but Addis, or course, was not among them. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as so many people are when rioting is involved.

But regardless of why it happened, Addis found himself in prison, contemplating his grimy teeth. As he did so, his attention was caught by a broom being swept across the floor outside his cell and he was struck with sudden inspiration. Instead of wiping his teeth with a cloth and a bit of soot, or crushed shell, or coal dust, or salt, or whatever, he wondered if a mouth-sized broom might be more effective.

The story goes that the next night he set to work drilling small holes into a bone he’d saved from his dinner. Then he obtained a few bits of broom bristle, stuck them in the holes, and secured them to the bone with some kind of wire or glue. And the first tooth brush was born.

Because nothing screams “oral hygiene” quite like a dirty old broom. Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Okay, that’s not exactly true. The first toothbrush, or something like it, was probably invented more than five hundred years earlier in a Chinese prison. Or possibly not in a prison at all. But most likely in China. Addis didn’t even coin the word toothbrush, which first showed up in print in 1690.

Such a clever device hadn’t really caught on in Europe, though. Addis saw an opening in the market and as soon as he’d served his time, he set up his operation becoming the first man to mass-produce tooth brushes, made with bone handles and hair from a boar.

The company he started eventually became Wisdom Toothbrushes, which is still going strong, producing about 70 million toothbrushes per year. They did trade in the bone and boar hair design for a synthetic nylon version when that became a better option.

I’m pretty serious about toothbrushes. I dutifully replace mine every few months, and every six months, I bring a new one home from the dentist. It’s not a Wisdom toothbrush, which I understand markets primarily in England. It’s a boring Oral-B, which was invented in the fifties by a periodontist who I don’t believe ever went to prison. But it is always purple.

I might actually be a crazy lady, but this is what normal looks like to me.

The first time, about eight years ago now, I visited my current dental office, the hygienist asked me what color toothbrush I wanted. I’m almost as serious about dental hygienists as I am about toothbrushes, and it meant a lot that in addition to being gentle and fast and really good at not asking direct questions when her hands are actively in my mouth, this one took the time to figure out my toothbrush color preference.

In eight years, she’s never asked again, yet after every visit, there is a purple Oral-B in my paper sack of dental floss, toothpaste sample, and return appointment reminder. It’s become part of my normal.

So, when the office finally began offering appointments again and I got squeezed into a spot on a different hygienist’s schedule, it felt wrong. The new hygienist was also good. She was gentle and fast and seemed very nice. She didn’t ask me any direct questions while her fingers were actively in my mouth.

Just try me. Image by Daniel Albany from Pixabay

But she gave me a green toothbrush. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t realize her mistake until I was in the parking lot. What could I do? I wasn’t going to be the crazy lady who walked back in to demand a purple toothbrush.

That’s why it was such a relief this week when I walked into the office and was greeted by my regular hygienist and walked back out after my appointment with a brand-new purple Oral-B. It felt like emerging from prison with a better way of doing things. Probably. I’ve never actually emerged from prison. Or been there in the first place. I’m not much of rabble-rouser. But try to give me another green toothbrush and I might just carve it into a shiv.

A New Hobby in the Bag

In 1568, Mary Stewart arrived at the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor looking for some help.  Mary was fresh from a controversial straight-from-the-soap-operas marriage to a man who may have murdered her previous husband, had kidnapped and imprisoned her, and was just the right kind of divorcé who could make a group of angry Catholic Scottish lords demand an abdication and force their queen into exile.

It seems she may have also spent a fair amount of time posing for portraits. Mary, Queen of Scots. National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Protestant Elizabeth I was not particularly happy to see the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who might have, from a certain point of view, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, so instead of being strictly helpful, Elizabeth decided to imprison Mary.

It wasn’t exactly a harsh prison we’re talking about here. Basically, she just had to spend her time in comfort at the various estates of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She didn’t have the freedom to go outside unsupervised, but she did have nice furniture, a full domestic staff, and a lot of time on her hands.

She also made a friend. Talbot’s wife, Bess of Hardwick, seemed to get along with Mary pretty well and the two spent many, many, many hours embroidering together. I have no idea if Mary was particularly good at embroidery before her imprisonment, though she was surely familiar with it, as it was a common pastime of the 16th century woman of a certain class. I do know that she got pretty good at it during these long years of her life. I also know that if you find yourself suddenly stuck at home for a long time, it’s good to develop a hobby.

As we come upon nearly a year since life in my corner of the world went completely sideways due to the pandemic, I can look back and see some good things that came from spending a little more time at home and a little less time rushing about. One of those is a new hobby, begun more or less because I had too many plastic grocery bags on my hands.

Woo hoo! I figured it out!

First, let me explain that I have long been dedicated to the reusable shopping bag, not only because it uses a lot less plastic, but because you can weigh one of those suckers down with a gallon of milk, three bottles of wine, and a giant cheese wheel big enough for Thomas Jefferson. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder with as little effort as the world’s strongest man pushing a locomotive, and saunter to your car. Also, you don’t end up with bags and bags full of bags and bags waiting months for someone to remember to take them to be recycled.

But when the pandemic hit, two things happened around these parts. First, the grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags because, obviously, such bags are notorious for virus transmission. It’s probably safest if you don’t even see a reusable bag.

Second, the recycling center that processed plastic shopping bags shut down operations for a while. I’m not sure why this happened, but it led to the buildup of a large number these bags in my house. I had an easy solution, though, because I have a couple friends who use the bags to make these really cool plastic sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness. I even knew how to cut the bags and make the plarn (plastic + yarn) they used to do the crocheting.

If I see you leaving the grocery store with colorful bags, don’t be alarmed, but I will probably follow you to your car.

I dutifully made plarn, setting aside just the scraps to one day be recycled, and reached out to say I had it for anyone who wanted it. And that’s when a very kind friend instead said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet.” It took some time, but I had plenty of that. It also took some dedicated YouTubing and a Zoom tutoring session, but I finally got it.

So now, in my year of forced social distancing that has contained a couple stretches of actual quarantine and has at time felt a little like imprisonment, I have crocheted sleeping mats out of plastic grocery bags. I’ve even started asking friends for their bags so I can do more. Because developing a new hobby really does help.

It certainly helped Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an envoy from Elizabeth I how she was passing the time, Mary said that “all the day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious.” I get that, too, because after crocheting rows and rows of brown, gray, and white, I get ridiculously excited to get to use a bright blue or orange or yellow.

If you have any interest in learning how to make these, I found this YouTube tutorial particularly helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr_WHW_tGSE&t=742s

And Mary used her needlework well. Between 1569 and 1586 when Elizabeth finally went ahead and had her beheaded, Mary and friends produced a vast number of embroidered panels, many of which contained secret messages and emblems. Collectively they came to be known as the Oxburgh Hangings because they made their way to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, where some of them can still be seen today. The panels contain birds, elephants, plants, and all kinds of natural and symbolic scenes.

My work mainly contains wobbly stripes. It probably also won’t be on display for the public more than four hundred years after my death. But that’s okay, because I’m hoping that someone will get some good used out of my efforts. And I know it has helped me pass the time this year. It’s good to have a hobby.

Confessions of a Box Hoarder

In 1840, the French village of Valréas discovered its destiny. That’s when this little town, which self-identifies as the totally brag-worthy “cardboard capital of the world,” got into the business of moth transport. What they discovered is that cardboard boxes provided the best packaging option for shipping the silk-producing Bombyx mori moth and it became their number one business.

In fact, the people of Valréas are so serious about their boxes that the town is also home to the Musée du Cartonnage et l’Imprimerie (the Cardboard and Printing Museum), which I’m sure you’ll rush right out to see as soon as travel becomes a thing people do again. I probably won’t go, but I wouldn’t mind if you pick me up a brochure.

Though it may be the proudest of the humble cardboard box, Valréas is not its originator. Not surprisingly, the first cardboard comes from China which can also lay claim to the earliest examples of paper and it was about 1817 when the English began using kind of flimsy cardboard boxes commercially.

I mean, you could put anything in there. Even moths. photo credit: Creativity103 Emptied cardboard box via photopin (license)

The corrugated cardboard box that we all know and love today appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, not long after New York paper bag producer Robert Gair accidentally cut thousands of paper bags in a machine that should have been folding them. The accident occurred in 1879 and led Gair to realize that with some adjustments his machine it could be made to produce foldable boxes.

By 1900, wooden shipping boxes had been largely replaced by the sturdy, lightweight, recyclable alternative that today carries backordered toilet paper directly to the front doors of homes all over the world, protects breakable cargo from damage caused by the rough and tumble world of shipping a thing from here to there, and needlessly stacks up in my basement for years and years and years.

My family has more or less settled in the St. Louis area where we’ve been for about eight years now, but in the earlier years of my marriage we moved a lot. That required a lot of boxes and it caused us to develop a habit. Every time we’ve purchased something big, my husband has saved the box.

Not an actual picture of my basement, but this box shortage might be my fault. Well, that little girl might have helped, too. photo credit: fudj P1070917 via photopin (license)

It’s not entirely fair for me to throw him under the bus here, because I am a willing accomplice in the crazy. And it wasn’t crazy when we were moving every few years. But now that we’re settled, and have a basement large enough to accommodate the original boxes of every piece of electronic equipment we’ve ever owned (some of which have been replaced), I admit I had begun to question whether we should consider downsizing the box collection.

And then I learned something really interesting. Yes, something interesting about cardboard boxes. I’m getting to it, I promise.

The first thing I learned (on Facebook of all places because that’s where there are so many true things to learn) is that I have a friend in the cardboard box business. The second (and this really is the interesting part) is that we are currently experiencing a worldwide cardboard box shortage. True story. As if toilet paper and coins weren’t bad enough.

And though I (and probably you) haven’t spent much time thinking about the cardboard box (except when I’m unnecessarily tucking them onto a shelf in the basement), it’s kind of a big deal. That’s according to both the BBC and my friend who sells boxes. For some reason the American media has been somewhat silent on the whole matter. Perhaps they just haven’t seen the enormous entertainment value of cardboard boxes.

Whatever the American media might think, the cardboard box is indisputably entertaining. So says the National Toy Hall of Fame which inducted it in 2005. photo credit: juhansonin Udo finds Viggo via photopin (license)

Here’s the problem. The pandemic has led to a rapid increase in online shopping and home delivery. That means products that used to arrive in large boxes at stores that broke them down and baled them into neat, clean stacks to be quickly recycled, now arrive on our porches in larger numbers of small boxes which uses more material. There they sit in all kinds of weather, to occasionally fall under attack by dogs and eventually be torn open without much care. Then they’re either piled up in the basement or tossed into the garage where they are contaminated with grease and who knows what else before maybe being recycled a month or so from now.

In an industry where recycled material typically makes up at least 75% of every new product, that’s turning out to be a serious material shortfall. And while big online retailers are managing okay by buying out the cardboard box market, smaller companies are really struggling to package their goods. And I don’t even want to know what it’s doing to the moth shipping business. To quote my friend, it’s “a brutal time to be a box salesman.”

It turns out, boxes are the hot ticket item right now, and while I totally missed out on the hoarding of hand sanitizer, masks, canned food, bread, and toilet paper, I am way ahead of the curve on this box hoarding thing.

So, fear not. If you’re waiting for that backordered thing (or boxful of moths) that can’t get to you because there aren’t any shipping boxes, I got you. I’ll clean out the basement and garage and head to the cardboard recycling drop-off today. I mean, I’ll keep a few of the really important ones. And I won’t get to it today. It’s really cold and awfully snowy outside. But I’ll do it soon. Probably.

Snow Day and a Free Glass Vase

It’s been kind of a crazy week here. It’s the third day in a row that my kids have had a snow day declared and haven’t gone to school. This is because we have received a grand total of very nearly two inches of snow in that time, if I squint just right.

It certainly hasn’t prevented me from driving to run errands, but then I assume school buses don’t handle as well as my Subaru. I suspect, too, it is significantly easier to be an armchair school superintendent than it is to actually be one, which also might be why a school superintendent makes a lot more money than I do.

But anyway, it’s been a strange week of thrown-off schedules, and also I just happen to have a perfectly good seasonally appropriate post from a few years back just collecting dust in the practical history archive. Please enjoy the re-run! And if you happen to live in a location with very nearly two inches of accumulated snow (or perhaps even more), stay safe out there.

Empress for Life and a Free Glass Vase

On November 30, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to deliver some bad news to his wife Josephine. Nearly fourteen years after he married this widowed mother of two who was six years his elder, and almost five years after he declared her Empress of France, the time had come for him to ask her for a divorce.

Presumably he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. The two had weathered family disapproval, a fair bit of infidelity, and the kind of long absences conquering often requires.  But the love letters he wrote to her reveal that Napoleon was a man very much in love with his wife.

The problem was that an emperor needs an heir, and Josephine had yet to give him one, so Napoleon had to make a change. Josephine screamed when he broke the news to her, but after she had a little time to think about it she agreed to the divorce. And he insisted that she retain the title Empress, even after his remarriage.

NM2432
Josephine, Empress of France and Patroness of Roses. By Jean-Baptiste Regnault – Per-Åke Persson / Nationalmuseum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52123172

Now either Josephine was an extremely understanding woman, or Napoleon was an incredibly convincing guy. Or maybe a little bit of both. But I’m guessing it also didn’t hurt that over the years he’d given her a lot of roses.

Because as everyone who ever turns on the radio, or watches television, or opens an Internet browser around this time of year can tell you, roses are the only certain way to a woman’s heart. And a lot of people are getting the message, because florists sell somewhere around 220 million of these most magically romantic flowers for Valentine’s Day each year. Half of those are sold in the US, where 75% of the sales are to men who are, obviously, the best husbands, boyfriends, or sons a gal could ask for.

And the best of the best of those men upgrade to two dozen of the all red variety along with chocolate dipped strawberries and a free glass vase for only $59.99 as long as they order before midnight on February 12 and use promo code: Napoleon.

strawberries
You can keep the vase, but these do look delicious. photo credit: k is for kristina via photopin (license)

Because who wouldn’t want that?

Maybe most women really would. Personally, I don’t get too excited about roses or free glass vases. Don’t get me wrong, I think roses are gorgeous, and they smell good, and it’s nice to get flowers every once in a while because it’s a reminder that my man was thinking about me and wanted to make a romantic gesture.

But the primary reason the rose (which in addition to representing love has often been adopted as a political symbol) has become our Valentine flower of choice, may have more to do with the fact that we celebrate love in the middle of winter. To do so, we have to import a huge number of flowers, and as flowers go, roses are pretty hardy.

And for Napoleon, it’s a good thing they are, because his Josephine loved roses. In 1799, without consulting her husband, she purchased the run-down Château de Malmaison on 650 acres a few miles outside of Paris, and began work to establish a large rose garden.

Soon, gathering roses for Josephine’s garden became something of a national priority. Napoleon ordered the French Navy to confiscate any seeds (and, I assume, glass vases) found aboard seized vessels. And even during the height of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, many English gardeners were given safe passage through blockades so they might deliver rose varieties to Josephine.

napoleon_bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte, much to the dismay of high end comedians everywhere, was not as short as we’ve been led to believe. In today’s standard measurements he was around 5’6 or 5’7, respectably average for a man of his time. By Unknown – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21290

When in 1809, Napoleon informed his beloved that he would divorce her to marry a woman who might conceive an heir, the jilted woman sought solace at her chateau among her hardy roses. By the time of her death in 1814, Château de Malmaison boasted almost 200 varieties of roses, and her enthusiasm had begun a trend, leading to the establishment of more than 2500 varieties by 1830 in nurseries across France.

By establishing a large garden devoted to only one type of flower, Josephine elevated the rose, long valued as a sweet smelling, medicinal flower, to the status of a flower grown primarily for its beauty, especially when gathered by the dozens and presented on February 14 along with chocolate covered strawberries and a free glass vase. 

And now I don’t want to sell Napoleon short (see what I did there?). I’m sure it took more than roses to convince Josephine that a divorce was the right thing to do for the good of France. Because I gotta tell you, if my man were to present me with my favorite flowers (a bouquet of seasonally available, local-ish varieties at a time when flowers are more seasonally available), and then tell me that even though I’d always be his favorite empress, we had to break up for the good of our country, I wouldn’t scream. I’d just clock him in the head with the free glass vase.

Which Commercial Will You Root For?

On July 4, 1941 the Brooklyn Dodgers took on the Philadelphia Phillies at home in Ebbets Field, a game that was broadcast on local television station WNBT. Though only about 1% of US homes had a television at the time, maybe as many as four thousand households tuned in. It was probably less than that, but just before the game started, those watching also got to see a ten second advertisement for the Bulova Watch Company.

Remembered as the first ever television commercial, it cost less than ten dollars to create, somewhere in the neighborhood of $70-$160 in 2021 dollars. I have no idea what the return on investment for this commercial was, but given that the same company produced the first radio spot advertisement in 1926 and in 1931 engaged in the watch industry’s first million-dollar advertising campaign through its retail partners, I think it’s a safe bet that Bulova thought it was money well spent. That might be especially true since we’re still talking about it eighty years later.

And it seems like a particularly reasonable price tag when you consider that the bidding for a 30-second commercial time slot for this weekend’s Super Bowl 55 began at 5.6 million dollars. Of course, commercial slots aren’t always quite that expensive. When that one pirate-themed team with the quarterback who cheats takes on the Great State of Missouri’s one and only professional football team which just happens to be the reigning champion, more than 100 million people are expected to be watching.  

Eighty years later America still runs on Bulova time.
photo credit: Max Grabert Bulova Precisionist Champlain 98B142 via photopin (license)

As much as it might sound like I do, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I tried for a while because my husband enjoys watching the sport, but I’ve never much cared for American football. Now more and more it just feels like I’m watching repeated brain trauma.

So, like an estimated 37 million of my closest friends, I will tune into the commercials and use the football breaks to go to the bathroom, enjoy some snacks, or perhaps read a book.  I am reading a really good one right now. I will root for the best commercials, those that stick with me because they made me laugh, or cry, or admire their cleverness.

I don’t really have a dog in that fight either because I couldn’t quite swing the $5.6 million. A while back I did spend exactly zero dollars of 1941 currency to produce two book trailers that I have now posted (for the bargain price of zero dollars in 2021 currency) here on my blog where nearly 5,000 followers could potentially see them. It will probably be somewhat less than that and they aren’t exactly Super Bowl quality, but who knows? Maybe people will still be talking about them eighty years from now.

Life Stinks. Deal with It.

In the 6th century BC, the Greek city Sybaris banished both noisy tradesmen and roosters to beyond the city walls. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar restricted the times during which clattering wagons could be driven down city streets or through residential districts. And in 1595, a Londoner could face charges for disturbing his neighbors with noise while beating his wife in the middle of the night.

In 1595, Londoners were expected to conduct their wife beatings during daylight hours. Like civilized people.
By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66185487

It’s not hard to imagine that as cities grew and industry rose that noise followed, and I doubt anyone would argue with me that todays’ cities with their incessant honking, street musicians, police whistles, and general milling about of thousands of people doing whatever it is that thousands of people do are not exactly peaceful places to be. And then there’s the smell.

As a suburbanite, at least for the last eight years or so, I can assure you that it’s noisy and smelly here, too. For one thing, my neighbors have windchimes that tinkle away in the breeze seemingly right outside my office window. In addition to that there’s an interstate not too far away with plenty of traffic rushing by, a train track well within loud whistle blowing distance, and this one black dog that barks and barks and barks.

Seriously, this dog barks all the time. And he leaves stinky poops in my yard, too. Then he sleeps in my house. Because he’s my dog.

So, I understand why city-dwellers would occasionally wish to seek escape in the countryside where the air always smells sweet and there is absolutely no noise at all. Or at least that seems to be the expectation in France, where tensions between country and city folk have been on the rise in recent months.

With the pressure to socially distance during the pandemic has come a surge in those city dwellers who can afford to do so investing in getaway properties in the French countryside. And that has led to complaints. And lawsuits. Truly ridiculous lawsuits.

In the fall of 2019, one farmer was sued for $5,000 because her ducks had the nerve to be quacking too loudly. Another suit sought to silence a rooster who liked to greet the morning earlier than his new neighbors preferred. A small-town mayor received a request to exterminate the local cicadas because of their droning. He opted instead to erect a six-foot tall cicada statue, because I suspect he is my kind of guy.

In other cases, the plaintiffs were more successful. A pond was ordered to be drained because of excessive frog croaking. A horse was handed a restraining order because his poop was too smelly. It was getting beyond ridiculous.

You do you
You French rooster you.
Cock-a-doodle-doo.
And this, my friends, is why I don’t write poetry.
Image by miniformat65 from Pixabay

And that’s when French lawmakers stepped in. Without amendment and with unanimous support, the Senate passed a bill from the National Assembly on January 21 that protects the “sensory heritage of the French countryside.”

Secretary of Rural Affairs Joël Giraud is pretty psyched about the move calling it a “real victory for rural communities.” And I suppose it is, though certainly not one this practical historian would have thought necessary to proclaim. Essentially, what the French government just did, what the city dwellers of France just forced its own government to do, was to deal out a little tough love and tell its citizens in no uncertain terms (well, maybe a little uncertain, because who really says things like “sensory heritage”) that if one wishes to enjoy the French countryside, then one should expect to take a good whiff of France’s fresh dairy air.

In other words: Life stinks. Deal with it.

America’s Big Cheese

On January 1, 1802, then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson became the recipient of what I think is safe to say was probably the best gift ever received by someone who has held the office. After travel by sleigh, barge, sloop, and wagon, a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese arrived at the home of the president.

The cheese came from the good people of Cheshire, Massachusetts who, led by cheese enthusiast (I’m guessing) and Baptist minister John Leland, made the wheel from the milk of nine hundred (non-Federalist) cows in a gigantic press fashioned specifically for that purpose.

Monument to John Leland and his impressive cheese press in Cheshire, MA Makeitalready, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The gift, allegedly created entirely without slave labor, served as a show of support and appreciation for Jefferson’s commitment to the complete separation of church and state. What was a controversial issue among religious citizens, was embraced as freeing rather than limiting by Leland and his flock. So, they sent cheese. As one does.

The cheese wheel made quite a splash in the towns it passed through as it traveled five hundred miles over the course of three weeks. When at last Thomas Jefferson saw it, he graciously thanked the gift-givers for their thoughtfulness and accepted it, while also donating $200 to their church because he opposed the practice of presidents accepting gifts.

But what a gift it was! The cheese wheel was even carved with the words of his favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” I mean, who doesn’t love a good motto carved into a giant wheel of cheese?

Thomas Jefferson, a man who could appreciate a good cheese-carved motto. By Rembrandt Peale – White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=1604678

Not Thomas Jefferson. Despite his Federalist political opponents’ mockery of what they called the “mammoth cheese,” the president proudly had it served at his home for more than two years. Of course, rumor has it that by then, some of it may have gone a little south and ended up at the bottom of the Potomac.

Because as you probably know, cheese doesn’t tend to last forever and big cheeses have to be changed out once in a while.

Yesterday in the United States, we officially changed out the big cheese in the White House. There are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty excited about that. And there are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty nervous about that.

Even though this has been a particularly tumultuous political season, that’s pretty much how it’s always been and yet, transfer of power happens and the nation, for better or worse, rolls forward. Like a big wheel of cheese.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst gift. Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

No matter how any of us might feel about the inauguration of a particular new president, I think we can be proud of and celebrate what has become a grand tradition.

To be clear, I’m referring to the peaceful transition of power and not the presentation of giant cheese to the new president, which with the exception of one other occasion involving Andrew Jackson, never really caught on.

But I suppose that tradition could be resurrected. All we need is a well designed press and about nine hundred (non-Republican) cows.

The Title of this Post has Been Censored

In March of 1919, noted socialist activist Kate Richard O’Hare, fresh from the Missouri State Penitentiary where she had been briefly imprisoned for interfering with military recruitment through her anti-war speech, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa where she was scheduled to speak at the public library auditorium.

There she was denied the right to present by city librarian Forrest Spaulding who claimed the auditorium had been booked under false pretenses, stating “I believe that I have the support of the large majority of citizens of Des Moines whose interests I am endeavoring to serve.”

I don’t doubt that he was correct about a majority supporting him, but I question his assertion that he was serving their best interests by denying space for a perspective many might have found unpalatable. And it turns out, he probably questioned it, too.

Because by 1940, his tune had changed dramatically. That’s when a local minister approached him about banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the library shelves, to which Spaulding responded, “If more people had read Mein Kampf, some of Hitler’s despotism might have been prevented.” It wasn’t the material that frightened him nearly as much as the “small minds” who wished to prevent others from engaging intellectually with controversial ideas.

Go ahead and read it, you rebel you. photo credit: covs97 Banned books display via photopin (license)

He was also pretty outspoken against the frequent banning of Grapes of Wrath, for which I am grateful because it was one of the better books I was required to read in high school. And it was the fight over access to that book that led the American Library Association in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, a slightly more generalized version of the one created specifically for the Des Moines Library by Forrest Spaulding in November of 1938.

The wording of that document has been tweaked a little through the years, but it’s still going strong and you should click here and read it, because it’s important. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

Now, this is more or less an apolitical blog. As a writer who is not apolitical in my personal life, I do try very hard to keep it that way. I think there should be some places where we all can just have fun. But about this one issue I will shout loudly from every corner of every platform I ever have the opportunity to occupy.

Censorship is the death of freedom. And willfully ignoring or silencing the voices on the other side of an argument only leads to increased violence and instability. That’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a human thing.

Politically speaking, we’re still going through a rough patch here in the US. It’s been building for a long while and for a lot of reasons and it’s erupted in violence and destructive behavior more in the past few years than it had for quite a while. I think it’s safe to say that no matter our individual political bents, that’s kind of scary.

I remain optimistic that we’ll eventually weather it okay, not without fallout of course, but hopefully with the opportunity to move forward and be better. However, I am absolutely convinced that it will only get rougher if we silence one another.

Librarians are seriously some of my favorite people. photo credit: nataliesap Banned Books Week display via photopin (license)

And so, I ask you, please listen and consider, especially when those you tend to agree with are saying you shouldn’t. Turn on the channels you have a hard time watching, reach out to your friends who post things that make you want to block them, read the books and articles by authors you aren’t sure you trust, and look up the actual wording of the speeches of those politicians you wouldn’t mind seeing thrown out of office.  

Don’t do this because you’ll likely find something to agree with them on. You might. You might not. Don’t do it because it will feel good. Because it probably won’t.

Do it because the humanity of the person on the other side of the argument matters as much as your own. Do it because they don’t really understand how you reached your conclusions, either, and maybe in the act of listening and considering, you both might see that your differing perspectives don’t actually make you all that different from one another.

It’s not too late to be part of the solution, even if we’ve failed in the past.

Forrest Spaulding, original photo. By State Library of Iowa – http://publications.iowa.gov/9347/1/Spaulding.pdf, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33823093

Forrest Spaulding once disallowed a speech by someone many of his library patrons would have found disagreeable. And by the standards he himself later laid out, that was the wrong thing to do. He then went on to speak out against censorship and was included on the American Library Association’s list of the hundred most important library leaders of the 20th century.

I know you may not think that such a list is a big deal, but I bet that like me, you know a few great librarians. So, consider that Mrs. G., the wonderful children’s librarian in my hometown when I was a kid, is not on that list. This is the woman who listened to me drone on and on about the books she’d probably read a hundred times because she knew that a reader becomes a thinker and a thinker becomes a person who can stand up and speak for the rights of all. That made a difference in my life and, I’m guessing, in a lot of lives. And she’s not even in the top 100.

And this is where I tell you that this morning, I very nearly decided to pull this post and replace it with a sillier, lighter re-run from the Practical Historian archives. Ah, the irony.

But next week will be sillier.

Like a Bat Out of Hell

Clara Ford was at home one day in 1919, I assume doing whatever it is that Clara Ford typically did at home, when she was informed by police that her husband Henry had gotten into trouble with his car. Evidently, he’d been driving “like a bat out of hell,” as one does, I suppose, when one essentially invents the modern auto industry and is probably showing off for one’s grandson who is also in the car.

And worse, he’d been doing so without a driver’s license.

The charming story about Henry Ford and his run-in with the police is shared by the Henry Ford Museum, where you can also see Ford’s first driver’s license, which obviously the above image does not show. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

That in itself is not as terribly shocking as it first sounds because Michigan only started issuing licenses that year. And after his run-in with the police Henry Ford, at the age of 56, went ahead and got one.

At the age of 56 I think it’s fair to expect that a person is wise enough and cautious enough to be trusted with such power. In fact, that probably happens well before the age of 56. I for one am pretty responsible behind the wheel at a mere 43 years of age. I can’t say I’ve never been pulled over, but it’s been a rare occurrence in my life as a driver. And though I’ve had my license since the tender age of 16, I don’t believe I’ve ever driven like a bat out of hell.

Still, in the last few weeks, 16 has been striking me as incredibly young for the responsibility of driving. Because my oldest son recently hit that milestone.   

A lot of young’uns aren’t pushing so hard these days to get their driver’s license the moment they can. In 2018 there were approximately 227 million licensed drivers on the road in the United States, but only about 25% of sixteen-year-olds were among them. That was down from nearly half in the mid-1980s. I have no idea why so many of the kids aren’t as anxious to get behind the wheel these days, but that was not the case for my son.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that 227 million people were actually on the road at the same time. Can you imagine the traffic jam?
photo credit: Shawn | Shiyang Huang Traffic jam @ Beijing via photopin (license)

He wanted to drive. Actually, I think he’s been wanting to drive since he was four years old, strapped into a car seat in the back, and asking me remarkably intelligent questions about the rules of the road. True story.  

It wasn’t exactly a shock that when he turned fifteen and was old enough to take the written driving test and receive a learner’s permit in our state, he was pretty excited to do it. And he’d been studying since the age of four, so it also wasn’t shocking that he pretty easily passed.

In that year of learning, first in an empty parking lot, then back roads, busier streets with traffic circles and stoplights, lonely highways, and eventually busy interstates where he merged like a pro and stayed nicely centered in his lane, he became a fairly competent driver.

Then he turned sixteen and he wanted to take his driving test so he could get his license. He passed with no trouble. And then on the very day I celebrated the sixteenth anniversary of the first time I ever held my squirming, squishy-faced baby boy, I watched that same kid back out of the driveway and disappear down the street in a car that he was driving all by himself to his martial arts class.

Still what I see.
photo credit: Frank Hemme Hacer camino. via photopin (license)

It was the most anxious moment of my life.

My husband, also anxious, quickly decided he needed to run an errand and followed him. I was grateful, because until that moment, I was pretty sure I might also have an errand to run, and I was relieved when I received a text a little bit later letting me know the car was safely parked at the school.

My son really is a good driver and I become more comfortable each time he returns home safely. I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t drive like a bat out of hell, but I know he never did in his year of permit driving and so far, the police haven’t indicated that that has changed.

I don’t know if these bats are flying out of Hell, but they do seem to be in a reckless kind of hurry. photo credit: USFWS Headquarters Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave via photopin (license)

At least he had to pass a test. Henry Ford didn’t. Michigan only began driver testing in 1931. That is better than the Great State of Missouri, which was actually one of the first to issue licenses for drivers, in 1903. It was another 49 years before the state began testing.

But despite what I sometimes suggest when I am not-so-silently judging the other drivers on the road from the privacy of my own car, they seem to do a pretty good job of it now.

So maybe, depending on the kid, 16 isn’t such a bad age to issue a driver’s license? I don’t know. But I suppose I’d probably worry about him at any age. Maybe even if he were 56.

And Once Again, NYC Drops the Ball

In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Super pretty, but if launched from Times Square, admittedly maybe not the safest way to celebrate.
By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.

The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.

What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.

Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.

He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.

The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.

The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.

This view might be the only thing I’d find worse than being packed into the Times Square crowd on a cold New Year’s Eve. By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.

Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.

I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.

Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.