Hat Smashing Shenanigans

School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.

These are the kind of big, beautiful pumpkins that will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Too bad someone forgot to tell them that Halloween is still almost two months away.

Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.

That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.

By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.

So wait, how do the scarecrows get away with such a blatant fashion faux pas? Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.

The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.

What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.

I’m sure that like me, and any other reasonable person, you find this picture completely infuriating. Maybe even worthy of a riot. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.

But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.

Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.

I Can Can. Can You?

It was the promise of 12,000 francs that first inspired French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert to experiment with food preservation methods in 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte astutely realized that keeping an army fed was a good way to ensure its success and offered the pretty substantial (my very rough calculation suggests maybe around $150,000 in today terms) reward.

It took fifteen years of effort, but Appert eventually claimed the prize with his method of sealing food into glass jars with cork and wax and boiling them. He then went on to produce the world’s first recipe book focused on canning preservation. It’s called L’Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétales, in case you speak pretty good French and don’t mind a good case of botulism.

When I read that Appert was a confectioner by trade, I pictured this, although it would take a lot more than a sealed lid to preserve candy in my house.

Even though his method heated food to flavorlessness and is no longer deemed entirely safe, Appert was onto something, and earned himself the title of “Father of Canning.” He believed the enemy of food preservation was air exposure, but along the way discovered that it was actually heat that prevented spoilage, a good fifty or so years before the “Father of Microbiology” Louis Pasteur explained why.

While Appert was busy jarring up fruits, vegetables, and in one case the meat of an entire sheep, Englishman Peter Durand translated the process to less breakable tin cans, which only two years later spawned the canned food industry in the United States as well.

Initially slow to produce, and hard to open since the can opener wasn’t invented for another forty years, canned foods eventually lined grocery store shelves. That is until March of 2020, when canned goods became almost as difficult to find as bread and toilet paper.

Ladies at a home demonstration meeting learning that they can can. By Cornell University Library. No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81522280

There are still a few quirky products that don’t seem to get restocked, but food supply lines in my corner of the world have pretty much stabilized by now. I don’t think they were ever seriously threatened, except by the fear of the average hoarding consumer. Still, the combination of barren canned soup aisles and more time spent at home with more people out of work and fewer places to go anyway, has led to a growing interest in food preservation skills.

My local stores now contain plenty of mushy canned peas and spring water packed tuna, but there’s not a Ball Mason jar or Kerr sealing lid to be found, nor can you order a set for a reasonable price from Amazon.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a huge problem. I don’t live on a homestead out in the middle of nowhere and have to rely on my own homegrown preserved veggies and my root cellar to get me through the long winter. But we do have a few prolific apple trees and last fall, my husband canned a whole lot of applesauce, something neither of us had ever done before. It’s been nice to have it throughout the year.

It really is excellent sauce.

It’s been so nice, that I even decided this summer that I would give it a try with some excellent sauce made from our garden tomatoes and some pickled peppers as well. I admit, it’s kind of made me feel like a bit of a superwoman, or like maybe I could live out in the middle of nowhere and rely on my homegrown preserved veggies and root cellar to get me through the long winter.

Home canning surged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then fell off when refrigeration became more prevalent. The skill enjoyed a brief resurgence in the DIY movement of the 1970s, and it seems to be experiencing a similar resurgence now.

As long as home canners are carefully sanitizing and following recipes and boiling times exactly, I think that’s great. It does maybe concern me just a tiny bit that historically, cases of botulism rise whenever the prevalence of home canning does, and that in 2005 a USDA survey found that 57% of home canners weren’t using safe methods.

And I’m a little saddened that now that I know that, it might take the modern-day equivalent of 12,000 1795 francs to motivate me to trust myself enough to eat my excellent tomato sauce. Maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t find all the lids and jars I want. It’s possible I’m not quite ready to move to a homestead in the middle of nowhere after all.

So, About King George . . .

1774 was a pretty big year for George Washington. He co-authored a call for the recognition of the fundamental rights of colonial British citizens in the midst of fallout from the Boston tea party. He did some important Continental Congressing. And he built a pretty fantastic porch onto his ever-expanding house.

That’s a great porch. Mount Vernon.
By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28359040

Washington designed the two-story piazza at Mount Vernon to look out over the Potomac and catch a breeze off the river on a hot Virginia summer day. It’s where he often welcomed guests and served lemonade to friends seated in Windsor chairs, while grumbling about King George III.

The piazza was not an entirely unique structure. The iconic columns were based on the designs of Englishman Batty Langley, and the idea of an expansive outdoor space connected to a home has roots in Ancient Greece. But prior to Washington’s porch addition, such an expansive space was uncommon in America. It inspired some copycats.

The popularity of the porch has waxed and waned a bit throughout the history of the United States, reaching its height between 1880 and through the 1920s, when people sat in the evening to catch a cool breeze, wave hello to a neighbor strolling by, or even invite a friend to sit for a spell and enjoy a glass of lemonade while the kids played together in the front yard.

Another great porch!
Image by Gretta Blankenship from Pixabay

Then as the family began to gather in the evenings around the radio and later the television, porches began to sit empty a little more often. Pretty soon, house designs became less likely to feature a front porch, or at least certainly not a wide one with columns and a porch swing, or even a collection of simple Windsor chairs. Still, although we may have gotten a little distracted, I don’t think the appeal of the front porch has ever really gone away.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I love watching real estate shows on HGTV. I’m sure you know the ones. I heard them described once as those shows where people want to buy a house and then they do. There are a lot of versions—House Hunters, Tiny House Hunters, Hunters Off the Grid, My First Place, Lakefront Bargain Hunt, House Hunters on Vacation, etc.

I have to assume the show just fails to mention that at least one of the buyers is also the sole heir to the fortune of his elderly Uncle Moneybags. I hope. photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)

I love them all, from the introduction in which we’re told that she’s a preschool teacher and he’s a part-time barista at Starbucks and that they have a budget of $4.7 million for their second home in Southern California, to the moment this couple with highly questionable financial judgement makes the wrong choice.

I love seeing the houses and thinking about the priorities of the buyers. I appreciate seeing how home considerations vary in different parts of the world. And though I’m happy with my home, I like dreaming about what I might be looking for in a house several years from now when my family enters a different phase of life.

I’ve noticed one thing that remains fairly consistent in the episodes. The majority of these home buyers, regardless of budget or location, are looking for great views, outdoor space, and a gathering spot. In all the episodes I’ve watched (a truly embarrassing number), not once have I seen a potential home buyer make a negative comment about a porch. In fact, they are overwhelmingly positive about such spaces and often spin dreams of hosting friends and neighbors on mild summer evenings with glasses of lemonade while the kids play together in the front yard.

I could go for some of that.
Image by graywendya from Pixabay

My current house doesn’t have much of a front porch, but many of the homes in my neighborhood do, and over the last many months of pandemic and social distancing, I’ve seen more neighbors sitting on them, waving hello to passersby.

The front porch seems to be experiencing a resurgence, I think probably because we humans miss each other. Social distance, that has at times felt more like isolation, has made us realize that even if we don’t always agree or sometimes get annoyed by one another, we really benefit from face-to-face interaction.

And outdoor spaces remain some of the safest places to spend time with others. A great big, expansive porch with simple, individual Windsor chairs will fit the bill. So, grab a glass of lemonade and sit on the porch with me. We probably still can’t share a swing, but we’ll catch a breeze and chat. We might even complain about King George and that ridiculously catchy song from Hamilton that’s been stuck in our heads for months.

Everybody . . .

The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.

Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.

We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.

After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.

The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.

But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.  

When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.

Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.

Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.

Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

Authors Recognition Award

If you follow along with this blog fairly regularly you may have noticed that I have been taking it a little easier this summer than I normally do. 2020 has brought plenty of strangeness and with that, I’ve found it useful to have the flexibility of trading my normally weekly post for an every two weeks schedule. At this point I anticipate returning to a weekly posting schedule when school starts at the end of August. But it’s 2020, so I may be carried off by murder hornets or blown away in a dust storm by then. I’m not making any firm promises.

Or maybe I’ll be be eaten by carnivorous plants grown from mystery seeds. What a strange year. Image by MarcosJH from Pixabay

In the meantime, with this “off” week, since I’m not researching any weird historical tidbits to share with you, I’m going to participate in an award/tag that I received recently.

The Author’s Recognition Award was originally created by Beverly at her Becoming the Oil and Wine Blog. She wants to support fellow bloggers who have written and published books, or who are somewhere in that process, to give them an opportunity to write about their work. Thanks, Beverly. That’s pretty super cool of you!

Thank you also to the Dippy Dotty Girl who nominated me for this award, and who is furiously querying agents in hopes of publishing a book about her “dippy-dotty travels through Cornwall.” As somewhat of a dippy-dotty traveler myself, I’m anxious for the someday when I can read it.

This is the image to which the rules refer, but feel free to use the Venus Flytrap picture if it works for you.

Like any blog award, there are few rules:

  1. Create a new post on your blog with the above logo or with one of your own creation.
  2. Include both the purpose of the award and the rules of the award.
  3. Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog.
  4. Include links to the creator of the award and to the inspiration post Celebrating and Supporting our Fellow Writers.
  5. Write a brief description of the books you have written or the book you are currently writing.
  6. Include a link to your published books or the potential timeline of release.
  7. Nominate at least five bloggers who have published books or who are writing a book.
  8. Support at least one of the bloggers you nominated by either purchasing one of their books or sharing the links to their books. If they haven’t written a book, share one of their blog posts

My books:

Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense is a collection of humorous essays about quirky history, viewed through the lens of modern-day family life. Released in the spring of 2017, it is a celebration of the first five years of this very blog, which was originally called The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History. The blog title grew up a little as my writing career became more developed, but the posts have not matured at all. You can find more information about the book at this link.

Gentleman of Misfortune is a historical novel about a 19th century gentleman criminal who commandeers a shipment of Egyptian mummies, attempts to make his fortune by taking them on the road, and gets more than he bargained for. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

Smoke Rose to Heaven is a historical novel that tells the 19th century coming of age story of a girl with a unique gift and a dangerous secret. It is a companion novel to Gentleman of Misfortune, but as the timelines intersect, the two books can be enjoyed in either order. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

My Work in Progress is another historical novel that does have an actual working title, but one never knows how it will go with titles. It was inspired by a 19th century diary discovered by my aunt in the false-bottom drawer of a desk that once belonged to my grandmother. Close to completion now, this novel will soon attract an influential agent, a large advance from a major publisher, and inevitable fame. And since I’m dreaming big anyway, I might as well sell the film rights, too.

Now for the nominees:

  1. Jane Olandese (Book ‘Em Jan O)
  2. M.B. Henry
  3. Steven Baird (Ordinary Handsome)
  4. Tammie Painter
  5. Matthew Wright

I know a lot of writers, many of them wonderfully creative people I have met virtually in the blogosphere. I’ve listed five here, and I suggest you check them all out because they’re great. But please also know that if you are a writer and I didn’t list you, that was in no way an intentional slight. I know we’re all busy blogging away about anything other than our books so people don’t get sick to death of us writing endlessly about our books and begging them to buy our books and love our books and write thoughtful reviews about our books, but sometimes, it’s nice to get to just share. Also, I want to read about your books. So please consider yourself nominated and carry on.

Thanks for stopping by! I promise next week I’ll post something about a little piece of history you never knew you wanted to know, but that might come in handy at your next cocktail party, which will probably be swarmed by murder hornets so you should probably just stay home to be safe.

The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.

Beer, Pumpkins, and Other Blue Things

In 1781, Connecticut-born Episcopalian Loyalist Samuel Peters found himself fleeing persecution from his American Liberty-loving neighbors to seek safety across the pond in Great Britain. There he received a warm welcome, an audience with King George III, and the time to write about the peculiarities of his one-time neighbors, basically hacking off the entire state of Connecticut forever.

photo credit: jjbers I-84 via photopin (license)

Because that’s when he penned his General History of Connecticut. A biting work of satire, outlining the somewhat outlandish “rigidly moral” Puritan laws of a fanatical and bigoted people, the book included a list of what came to be known as the Connecticut Blue Laws, probably the second biggest thing Connecticut is known for, the first being Lyme disease.

Blue, in this 18th century sense is a disparaging term for strict moral codes or for a person who would adhere to them, like the blue stocking-clad supporters of Oliver Cromwell from the previous century. And it turns out, Peters wasn’t entirely out of line in making reference to the laws.

The General Court of Connecticut did adopt the First Connecticut Code in May of 1650, and it did include some fairly rigid guidelines addressing the religious and moral order of the colony. But it didn’t go as far as the General History of Connecticut, which included a mandate that mothers not kiss their children on Sundays and the requirement that men receive weekly Saturday haircuts around a round cap. In case no round caps were available, there was an allowance made for using half a pumpkin instead.

photo credit: Miss Barabanov Jack Reads via photopin (license)

Even real blue laws (or Sunday laws) can at times seem a little ridiculous, particularly in a society as heterogeneous as the US, but over the years such laws have been upheld as constitutionally acceptable by the US Supreme Court and have been routinely supported by labor unions. The idea, of course, is that the laws serve to protect the religious liberties of workers and at the same time provide protections from overwork from a more secular perspective as well.

While most states have gotten rid of the more restrictive ones, thirty of the fifty states still have some form of blue laws on the books. Until this past weekend, I didn’t actually know that my own great state of Missouri is one of them.

In this era of social distancing, one of the adjustments that our family has had to make is “attending” church online on Sunday mornings. This has allowed for a more casual and unhurried start to the day, and recently led me to engage in a little early Sunday morning gardening. I’m pretty sure there is no current Missouri law against that.

No, I’m not planting beer bushes. My neighbors probably think I’m crazy.

While tending my otherwise thriving garden, I discovered slugs in my squash plants. Apparently, slugs have no moral code whatsoever and are unbothered by working on a Sunday morning. But it’s okay, because I have a simple solution for garden slugs, which has been working pretty well for many years, and has, strangely enough, even been previously featured on this blog that is sort of usually a little bit about history.

The solution is beer. Slugs love it, especially the morally deficient ones that would eat innocent squash plants on a Sunday morning. They will happily slime their way into a partially filled, mostly buried bottle of it and drown themselves. It’s not cruel because they’re drunk enough not to feel a thing. Also, they are slugs.

So, I donned my face mask and hustled off to the grocery store to pick up a six pack of beer for the garden only to discover that Missouri, where I have lived for seven-and-a-half years without ever noticing before, has at least one active blue law. The aisles containing alcohol were roped off. Surprised, I assumed I could just come back after noon to buy my weapon of choice. I picked up a few other needed items and made my way to the checkout by 9:06 AM, with plenty of time to spare before virtual church.

I’m just imagining the awesome haircuts in our future.

When the clerk asked me whether I found everything I needed, I said something about not realizing there were blue laws in Missouri. The kindly lady looked at her watch and said, “It’s after 9. You can buy it now.”

Now, I’m no theologian, but I’m really not sure why buying beer before 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning is any less moral than buying it at 9:06, but I hustled back to the newly opened beer department and grabbed some cold ones for the slug garden party. Then I did less than five minutes of research and discovered that in Missouri, slugs can’t buy beer between the hours of 1:30 AM and 6:00 AM on Monday through Saturday and can only purchase it between 9:00 AM and midnight on Sundays. Sunday sales also require an additional license fee.

Anyway, the beer is placed. The traps are set. And I’m sure glad the grocery store I chose has the Sunday liquor license extension. Because some of those squash plants are pumpkins, and if we should ever misplace all our round hats, those will definitely come in handy.

&%#$@!

In 1884, seven-year-old German-born Rudolph Dirks immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Chicago. A gifted artist, Dirks began doodling comics at an early age and as a young man he moved to New York to seek out employment as an illustrator. Before long, he was hired onto the staff the New York Journal.

At the time, the New York Journal was in a heated circulation war with the rival New York World, which contained one of journalism’s first featured Sunday comic strips, The Yellow Kid. Dirks’s editor asked him to create a comic strip that would compete.

Wilhelm Busch’s Max & Moritz. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reaching back to the tales of his childhood, Dirks created Katzenjammer Kids, based on an 1860 illustrated children’s story Max & Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, which tells of a pair of truly naughty boys who engaged in a series of brutal pranks and, in the grand tradition of German stories for children, wound up dying gruesome deaths.

The Katzenjammer Kids, whose names were Hans and Fritz, didn’t share the same terrible fate, but they were naughty. The comic strip consisted of their many shenanigans as they made life terribly difficult for a cast of adult characters that included, among others, their mother, a shipwrecked sailor, and a school official. These adults were sometimes, understandably, frustrated enough to say words that weren’t suitable for Sunday comics.

Hans & Fritz, the &#%’n #^%#s. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dirks came up with a pretty clever solution for that. When his characters were wound up and so frustrated they couldn’t think straight enough to reach for better words, they said things like “%&$#!” instead.

The term for this handy little tool in the comic artist’s kit became official in 1964, when Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term “grawlix” in an article he wrote for National Cartoonist Society. By then the cartoonist’s version of audio media’s bleep had been in common use since its initial appearance in Katzenjammer Kids in the early 1900s. And I for one, am grateful for that.

I’m not a big fan of profanity in general. I don’t use it much either as a writer or in my personal life. It’s not that I’m particularly shocked or offended by it and I don’t step too far out of the way to avoid it in the writing of others. I’m just aware that profanity seems to be the thing I reach for when it’s probably not the best time for me to speak.

It pops into my head, and if I’m not careful out of my mouth, when I’m angry, frustrated, exhausted, and irrational. When I write fiction, I do occasionally bring a character to that point and in those moments, a well-timed, and rare, use of profanity may be the best way to express his or her emotional state.

But for me, I find I’m usually best served by taking a deep breath and a step back to think about whether or not I need to communicate my feelings at all and if so, how best to do it. After all, according to some estimates, there are nearly a million words in the English language. Even if 800,000 or so of those are essentially obsolete, that still gives me a lot to work with.

Even with all of that at my disposal, I have found it difficult to put together the right words during these past few weeks of unrest in the United States. I’m angry of course; also worried about the future of the nation if we can’t redirect righteous anger into rational conversation and actionable solutions. Oh, and there’s still a pandemic, I think? I kind of just want to say, “&@#%$!”

But then sometimes . . . Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I chose not to post to my blog last week because I realized that probably wouldn’t be that helpful for anyone. I didn’t know what words to send into the blogosphere. I had no comfort to offer readers who are likely feeling some of the same things I am and who maybe aren’t even ready to find comfort. I have prayed a lot and have found a great deal of personal peace in that, but I’m aware not everyone who stumbles across this blog views prayer in the same way I do.

So, a week later I still don’t have the right words. Because even with a million to choose from, sometimes the right one just can’t be found.  Maybe we need some creative person to invent a new term for us. Or maybe we all really do just need to say a collective, “&%#$@!”

And then take a deep breath and a step back.