Liars, Outlaws, and Mandatory Fun

We’re in our second week of a heat wave here in the St. Louis area, the kind that pushes the heat index well over 1oo degree Fahrenheit and keeps us all stuck inside and miserable. We’re fortunate to have air conditioning and lots of fun places to escape the heat, but one day last week, it wasn’t enough.

It was one of those rare days when neither of my children had plans with friends and both were bored and cranky. We needed to get out of the house, to someplace else cool, obviously, but the struggle of agreeing on a destination proved too much. Finally I’d had enough. I decreed that we would have a “Mom’s Choice Mandatory Fun Adventure Day,” marched them to the car, and refused to tell them where we were going.

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For some reason once we hit I-44 it didn’t take the kids long to figure out where we were going. photo credit: el-toro Meramec Caverns Barn Ad via photopin (license)

Then I drove them an hour through winding back roads over to Interstate 44, to Meramec Caverns, the most widely toured cave in Missouri and where it’s always a crisp 60 degrees. If you’ve ever driven along I-44, you’ve seen the billboards. A lot of them. And a few painted barn roofs, too. Many of them identify Meramec Caverns as the one-time hideout for Missouri’s most infamous train and bank robber Jesse James and his gang. Sounds to me like a great place to get away and hide out from the heat for a while.

The story, as shared in complete earnest by our highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide goes something like this: Because the cave was a good source of saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), which was necessary for producing gunpowder, The Union Army used the cave as a munitions factory during the American Civil War until a group of Confederate guerrillas blew it up and put it out of business. Among those guerillas were the James brothers, Jesse and Frank.

Then in the mid to late 1860s, when the brothers began their crime spree, they remembered the cave and returned to use it as their hideout. It was a good one, too, because on at least one occasion a pursuing sheriff figured out their hiding spot, stood guard at the entrance, and waited to starve the criminals out. The man waited for three days before creeping further into the cave to discover a second exit through chilly 40 degree water that feeds into the Meramec River.

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Jesse and Frank James welcoming visitors to their alleged super secret cave hideout. photo credit: Jinx! Meramec Caverns via photopin (license)

It’s just the right kind of story to capture the attention a couple of squirrely boys who have been forced into an afternoon of cave adventure fun. The story continues to capture the imaginations of around 150,000 cave visitors per year, and countless others who drive along I-44, wondering whether they should stop.

So I suppose it’s probably not a huge surprise that it isn’t likely true. I mean, yes, the cave, which explorers originally named Saltpeter Cave, did serve as a mine and munitions factory for the Union Army, and it was attacked by Confederate Guerillas. There’s even a chance Jesse and Frank James were among the soldiers responsible. But there’s really no reliable evidence that the brothers ever returned to the cave. In fact, it seems unlikely that they did.

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You’d think it might be obvious that’s where Jesse was hiding out, what with the neon sign and all. photo credit: Jinx! Jesse James Hideout in Neon! via photopin (license)

The “proof” of the story comes from Lester Benton Dill, the man responsible for developing the renamed Meramec Caverns into a tourist destination. Soon after purchasing the cave, Dill began to expand its accessible parts, which led in 1941 to the discovery of a room beyond a crevice normally underwater, but slightly exposed during times of extreme drought. Dill claimed that the room beyond the crevice contained a strong box connected to a well known train robbery committed by Jesse James and his gang. He opened up the cave to create more access and the room now contains mannequins of Frank and Jesse and is a part of the tour.

But no one is totally clear on when Dill, a master marketer who was known to occasionally push the limits of truthfulness, made this fascinating discovery and the only witness who could testify to the truth of the cave hideout theory was a man by the name J. Frank Dalton, who at the age of 102 claimed to be Jesse James. An imposter, he said, had been shot and killed 67 years earlier. He also said that yes, of course the James brothers had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout and handy escape route.

Of course the James family and DNA evidence both denied the new Jesse’s identity claims, but he’d already breathed life into the tale Dill had been trying to spin on billboards all across Missouri.

me and my book
If you happen to like history that has been commandeered and cleverly woven into other stories and is occasionally a little made up, you should check out my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

So basically, this guy just commandeered the tale of an interesting historical figure, and wove it together with his own story, sort of making up history a little in order to promote himself. Frankly I don’t know what kind of person might do such a thing. But personally I don’t really mind so much, because Meramec Caverns does make a great hideout on a hot day with bored kids, and a little tall tale doesn’t change that.

The cave features all kinds of wonders, including an amazing formation that looks like a genuine stage curtain on which the tour guides project lights and patriotic images while a recorded Celine Dion belts out a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced on a cave tour, and that’s including the James mannequins.

But it’s a literally cool tour in a figuratively cool place, well worth the stop if you find yourself driving down I-44, or in the middle of a heat wave with bored, cranky brothers who need to have some mandatory fun.

Let’s Just Call Those the X-Days

What I really need is a do-over. At the start of the summer, all those sunny weeks and lazy days ago, I had visions of happy kids and chore charts and nutritious picnics, followed by well-sunscreened adventures to swimmin’ holes, bike trails, or the ballpark. During the long, relaxed evenings, we were going to harvest the latest offerings from our garden and work together to prepare a nice meal followed up by a pie we made with the abundant fruit we picked at the local orchards.  Of course, even in my fantasy my children wouldn’t eat said pie because fruit is NOT dessert. Sigh.

But you get the idea. This was supposed to be a highly organized, smooth running summer to remember. And it was all to start with that Day 1, when the biggest thing on our agenda, before all the fun could officially begin, was the organizing of all the random junk they brought home from school at the end of the year.

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An actual picture of my actual office floor. Well, or what you can almost see of it.

Scheduled to take place in what is, throughout the school year when I have more time, my writing office, Day 1 never quite happened the way I hoped it would. The boys did follow my instructions and dump their well-worn backpacks, scribbled-on notebooks, and eraserless pencil nubs in the middle of the floor so we could sort the reusable supplies from the detritus. Somehow that’s as far as we got.

Each had his own idea of how he wanted to spend his first day of summer, and this was definitely not it. And so the pile of school year castoffs remained.

From there it was all downhill. We had a packed June with a fabulous family vacation and then camps and VBS and a mission trip for my oldest, and somehow that summer chore chart never got posted or enforced. I still can’t see the floor of my office. We haven’t been to the orchard or baked a pie my children won’t eat. And the math workbooks I bought so my children’s brains wouldn’t turn to mush over the summer break? Filled with nothing but unsolved problems and the best of intentions.

I feel like I just let the whole thing run away from me to become a disorganized mess, like the pile of crap in my office, or even like the US Patents office prior to 1836. That’s when Maine Senator John Ruggles formed a bill designed to revolutionize the US patent system, which until then had been kind of a hot mess and was in definite need of a do-over.

Prior to the 1836 act, patents required signatures from the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the POTUS, in the age long before a simple fax between these extremely busy people might have done the trick. Patents weren’t issued for months after they were filed, weren’t tracked effectively enough to protect an inventor from having his idea stolen, patented by someone else, and marketed falsely, and were limited to US citizens.  These patents weren’t widely available to the public, held in duplicate, or even issued an identification number.

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The 1877 fire in the new and improved fireproof US Patent Building. By Timothy H. O’Sullivan original photographer – Library Of Congress Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The new act set up a Patent Office, run by a designated Commissioner of Patents. It required newly filed patents to be a matter of public record throughout libraries in the nation, allowed anyone to apply for a patent in the US, and demanded that applications be submitted in duplicate. The new patents were to be assigned identification numbers, with Patent Number 1 awarded to Senator Ruggles for his unique take on train wheel design. The previous patents were then retroactively numbered with “X” placed at the beginning, earning them the name “X-Patents,” and a new fireproof building was commissioned to house the records, which turned out to be timely since a few months after the act passed, the temporary patent office burned to the ground.  

There was a lot of great history lost in that 1836 fire that swallowed nearly 10,000 records, including the original patent for the fire hydrant. The majority of the X-Patent records weren’t recovered. The new building, not entirely completed until 1867, didn’t catch fire until 1877. Models and records (including that of an improved fire hydrant system) went up in that blaze as well. But by then the Patent Office had gotten its act together and no records were entirely lost to history.

school supplies
As many of my friends are lamenting the presence of school supplies in stores, I’m considering just torching all the X-supplies and starting fresh.

Now when I say I want a do-over, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that our summer has been a complete bust so far. We had a great family vacation and we’ve done a lot of fun things. We have ridden our bikes and done lots of swimming and made some delicious meals with the harvest from our garden. We’ve caught lightning bugs and completed summer library reading logs and been to the ballpark and gotten together with friends. I don’t want to burn the memory of those things.

But with about a month until school starts up again, I am feeling the need to start fresh. So today, on the 181st anniversary of the issuance of US Patent Number 1, I’m going to declare this Summer Day Number 1, the beginning of a refocused, more organized summer break. Everything that came before, I’m just going to call those the X-Days.

Ancient Toilets and A Little Inconvenience

In 1827, Englishman Charles Masson was a soldier for the East India Company, though not a particularly dedicated one. In that year, he deserted and began what became a several year journey of exploration through parts of India, and what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he collected coins and artifacts, and became the first European to stumble onto the ruins of the city of Harappa.

Officially excavated for the first time in 1920, Harappa is one city within a very large prehistoric civilization known as the Indus Valley Civilization that stretched across the northern portion of South Asia and may have at one time supported a population of 5 million people.

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Ancient well at Harappa. By Hassan Nasir (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This civilization had well-planned cities, a system of measurement, established trade, a thriving art scene, and a possible form of writing. It also had a system of wells, public and private baths, and the earliest known household flush toilets. All somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 to 4000 BC.

Here is perhaps where it should be noted that the men who excavated the site at Harappa came from a civilization that had at this point been enjoying the widespread (though still not mandatory) use of in-home flush toilets for about seventy years.

I realize that sanitation and water supply isn’t a matter to be taken lightly. There’s no greater advancement in all of human history that has more profoundly influenced health and safety, and there are still many parts of the world in which safe drinking water and the safe disposal of waste is still sadly lacking.

It’s a huge privilege to live someplace where I can pretty much take the clean water flowing from my faucet for granted. And this week, my town has been experiencing a reminder of just how amazing that privilege is.

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Anytime I start to think it might have been fun to live in the 19th century, I picture this. photo credit: Midnight Believer Outhouse via photopin (license)

Early this week we received a call from our water district explaining that the city had issued a mandatory water conservation order. It seems a large 36-inch water main supplying our town took some damage. While repairs were underway, our little town was expected to receive about a third to a half of our normal water supply. In order to avoid depleting reserves and losing pressure in the system,  the city asked its citizens to aim for a reduction of water usage by 50%.

What that meant was no grass watering, car washing, or clothes laundering. I couldn’t hose down my thirsty garden and my neighbors couldn’t top off their swimming pool. The kids couldn’t run through the sprinkler on a hot day or whoosh down the slip ’n’ slide. With later updates the city attempted to lighten the harsh tone of the conservation order by expressing that if citizens really, really needed to do a load of laundry, they should forego taking a shower and washing their dishes.

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So you’re saying I CAN’T do the dishes? Darn. photo credit: Curtis Gregory Perry Hot and Cold via photopin (license)

I don’t know if you’re very familiar with my neck of the woods, but here along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, where occasional and sometimes catastrophic flooding is a legitimate worry, we don’t often have to deal with having too little water. So this was a bit of a shock to the system.

But I’m happy to report that late last night we got the okay to resume our normal water usage. We might have been a little smellier and our lawns are maybe a little less green and lush than they were a few days ago, but for the most part, we came through the ordeal unscathed. And despite a few snarky comments on the city’s Facebook page that were all in good fun, the people of our city didn’t really complain.

We know we’re the lucky ones. It’s thought that one of the major contributing factors to the eventual failure of the once thriving Indus Valley Civilization was drought and shifts in river flow.  

We continue to thrive here in our well-planned city where we have tape measures, a Walmart, a thriving art scene, and bloggers who practice a possible form of writing. And we have clean running water and flush toilets in our homes. Yes, life is pretty good here, even when it’s a little inconvenient.

One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

bloggiversary cupcake
Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

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P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

LaunchingSheep-CoverImage
Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.

 

If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+

The Ultimate Grilled Bagel Sandwich. Trust Me.

On September 12, 1683, after two long months of siege by the Ottoman Empire, the city of Vienna, Austria was rescued by the largest cavalry charge in history. Led by King Jan Sobieski III of Poland, the large combined force freed the city, a victory that became a turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars, a conflict already spanning nearly 300 years.

To say the people of Vienna were grateful would perhaps be an understatement. And legend has it that at least one Viennese baker took it upon himself to thank the king with a unique gift. The baker rolled a special bread into the shape of a horseshoe, boiled it, then baked it, so it would form a nice crust, and offered it King Jan, calling it a beugel, the German word for stirrup. King Jan took the gift, smeared it with cream cheese and lox and declared it gishmak.

KingJan
King Jan Sobieski of Poland placing his bagel order after the Battle of Vienna. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, that’s the persistent legend anyway. Actually the bagel, which does seem to have come from that general region of the world, predates the Battle of Vienna. Bagels are first mentioned in a list of “Community Regulations” in Krakow, Poland, dated 1610, where they are a suggested gift for mothers in childbirth, which, as far as I’m concerned, would have been way better than ice chips.

Some bagel historians (a highly competitive field, obviously) suggest the bagel may be a direct descendent of the soft, doughy pretzel produced in German monasteries from the twelfth century or so.

But however the wonderful chewy, crusty, traditionally Jewish, round bread came to be, it became a staple of the Polish diet and eventually found its way into New York (where they take their bagels very seriously), Chicago, and in 1983 to Carbondale, Illinois.

It’s true that Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, probably had bagels before 1983, but that was the year the Winston Bagel cart opened for business and introduced the world, one college student at a time, to the ultimate grilled bagel sandwich.

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Salukis go crazy for bagels. photo credit: gott.maurer Kehailan Laura Baggins via photopin (license)

As an alumna of this esteemed institute of higher learning and a former frequenter of Winston Mezo’s weekend bagel stand, I was a little saddened to hear of Winston’s retirement this past weekend. It’s the end of an era at the old alma mater.

After a stint in the military, Winston arrived in Carbondale, in his words, “to sober up.” A recovering alcoholic, sober for 35 years, Winston served bagels, wisdom, and really bad jokes to the student population throughout all of that time.

His bagels became legend in the little college town and far beyond as students he encountered spread across the world. Before I left for school as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old, I was given this sage advice by another student: “Order a Winston bagel with everything, except the ingredients you absolutely cannot tolerate. Trust me.”

And it does take some trust, because fully loaded, Winston’s bagels (grilled over charcoal while you listen to some bad jokes), include: butter, cream cheese, cucumber, apple slices, garlic powder, cinnamon, raisins, chopped onions, sunflower seeds, and bacon bits.  I always ordered mine without onions and raisins. And it’s one of the most delicious combinations on the planet. Trust me.

winstonbagel
Trust me.

I had a full schedule this past weekend or I might have made the trip to Carbondale to have one last bagel grilled by the man himself. Instead, I joined SIU alumni around the world and fired up the grill to make my own.

Though it lacked the charm of the bad jokes, the bagel was every bit as delicious as I remember. It tasted like college and memories. And it tasted like the kind of food you might make for a king who just delivered your city from a long siege, and for whom you are especially grateful.

There’s a nice article about Winston and his bagels in a recent edition of the university paper, the Daily Egyptian. I wish the bagel man well in his retirement. SIU will miss him.

A Paper Book Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.

Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.

Agloe
Agloe is an anagram of the initials of Lindberg and Alpers, a good name, I think, for a dot in the middle of nowhere. By OpenStreetMap contributors (OpenStreetMap) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.

The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store.  Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.

Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.

Paper towns
Author John Green thought the concept of paper towns was pretty cool, too, and Agloe features prominently in his novel.

I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.

That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.

In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.

But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.

bookbox
A whole box full of highly meaningful paper books that really do exist.

If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

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Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

Kinetoscope
Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.