Sarah Angleton is a wife, mom, blogger, book nerd, history buff, and author. Her books include Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense and Gentleman of Misfortune.
This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.
Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.
That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.
On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.
Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.
I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.
The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.
It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.
And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.
But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.
There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.
Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.
But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.
He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.
It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.
Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.
The end of October is finally upon us and for writers that means only one thing: bowls full of miniature candy bars will be widely available for snacking.
Or maybe two things. Because tomorrow is the first of November and the start of National Novel Writing Month. Once again it’s that time of year when people dedicated to the craft of novel writing, become even more dedicated and join upwards of 400,000 of their closest friends in setting the goal of writing 50,000 words in a single short month that, at least for US participants, includes a major holiday.
I’ve participated a few times in NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to say that each time I have been among the usually less than 20% who completed the challenge. I’d love to do it this year, too. I even have a couple of ideas for books floating around in my brain and tonight I will be attending a NaNoWriMo kickoff party for local writers who will get started on their future masterpieces at the stroke of midnight.
Sadly, I’ve had to accept that this year I will be attending in a strictly cheerleading capacity. I’m still working through one project and preparing for the rapidly approaching launch of a new novel. And, well, it’s a short month with a major holiday in it. Unless I can find myself a ghostwriter, I think I’m out of luck.
But I suppose you never know. It happened for another St. Louis woman in the summer of 1913. Mrs. Pearl Curran had been experimenting with her Ouija board for nearly a year when she was first contacted by Patience Worth. The English-born ghost claimed to have lived from 1649-1694, traveled to America as a Puritan, and eventually died at the hands of hostile Indians. She also had a way with words and a story to tell.
Actually, several stories, quite a few letters, and a whole lot of poems. With the help of her living companion, Patience Worth wrote at least six novels before Pearl Curran died in 1937, at which time, presumably, the two continued to hang out.
In 1918 alone, the strange duo produced eighty-eight poems that were published in various magazines. Some of this large body of work even garnered praise from literary critics, one of whom wrote that Worth had “a sense of humor that is rare in ghosts.”
As a novelist whose work has yet to attract a great deal of critical attention, I admit this bothers me a little bit. Mrs. Curran definitely encountered her fair share of skeptics and I am among them. Believers argued that Curran lacked the formal education to produce the works on her own, but there’s some evidence that she might have had more creative abilities than her background would suggest.
Frankly, I don’t think it really matters much. Great work came from the collaboration, whether Patience Worth was a figment of a highly developed imagination or she was a literal ghostwriter.
Either way, I’ll probably miss out on penning a novel this November. I suspect I’m unlikely to come across a ghost willing to share its literary genius. I don’t even own a Ouija board. But I am looking forward to the candy.
This time of year I always think I should blog about Halloween—its history, which is a little muddled depending on what source you look at, and its bizarre traditions. But every year I think I end up writing about how I don’t care much for this particular holiday. I do enjoy seeing all my cutest little neighbors dressed up like princesses and super heroes (with extra padding because it’s super cold and almost always raining) and smiling at me because I just gave them the good candy. Yes, we are that house. We consider it a responsibility.
But I don’t like haunted houses, or gruesome decorations, or scary movies. I mean, sure, a good psychological thriller might be in my wheelhouse, but very rarely have demon nuns, possessed dolls, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs amounted to a good cinematic experience in my book. And you might disagree with me, but you’re wrong if you do, that no one in the history of the universe has ever actually enjoyed a jump scare.
I guess what I’m saying is that media entertainment is not my friend at this time of year. I’ll catch it on the other side, when the cheery holiday movies start up and the scariest thing I might see while flipping through channels is the ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come.
I do, however, make one exception to my television and movie hiatus, because once a year, ABC airs the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Actually, ABC has only had the rights to the show since 2000. Before that the holiday classic had been a CBS exclusive since it debuted in on October 27, 1966.
I wasn’t watching then, but I’ve seen it most years as far back as I can remember. And I did watch it this week when it was on. With my youngest son. While eating a caramel apple. Because some Halloween traditions just make sense.
For example, the Great Pumpkin, the belief in which has young Linus van Pelt, with his signature blue blanket, waiting on Halloween night in the most sincere pumpkin patch he can find just to catch a glimpse. The Great Pumpkin, according to Linus, travels around on Halloween night bringing gifts to good boys and girls.
In all the years I’ve been watching the special, the Great Pumpkin has never appeared. Instead, Linus falls asleep shivering in the pumpkin patch and it’s up to his big sister Lucy to bring him home and tuck him into bed with dreams of trying again next year.
It’s not so silly, is it? According to Charles Schulz, a number of scholars thought it wasn’t, and even approached him to ask about the origin of the Great Pumpkin mythology. Schulz joked that he told them they’d be better off asking Linus.
The myth, of course, began with the cartoonist himself. Not entirely comfortable with promoting a childhood belief in Santa Claus, he introduced Linus’s widely mocked belief in the Great Pumpkin in 1959 in the Peanuts comic strip as a kind of humorous social commentary. And there may have been a light jab at organized religion in there as well, as Linus explains that Charlie Brown’s bizarre belief in Santa Claus is an expression of “denominational differences.” It might even include a plea for civil discourse as Linus says, “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”
I’m assuming most of you don’t wait up all Halloween night in the sincerest pumpkin patch you can find just to catch a glimpse of the Great Pumpkin yourself, but I do hope you’ve seen the special. I might even recommend that you watch it every year, while eating a caramel apple. It’s a sweet little cartoon, beloved by generations of children, many of whom for years sent boxes and boxes of Halloween candy to Charles Schulz to give to Charlie Brown who had only received rocks in his trick-or-treating bag. He should have come to our house. We’d have given him the good candy.
It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”
I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”
He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”
I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”
Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.
He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”
Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.
And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.
In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.
The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.
At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.
The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.
The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.
But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.
For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.
Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
I even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.
Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.
Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.
If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.
Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.
Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:
Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?
Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.
The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.
At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.
But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.
But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.
Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.
I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.
Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.
I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.
To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.
But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”
Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.
I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.
Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.