The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.

As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.

I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.

It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.

The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.

But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.

But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.

If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!

Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.   

I Cannot Post a Lie: A Lesson in Irony

In 1806, sixty-eight years after it didn’t happen, minister, bookseller, and promotor of all things virtuous Mason Locke Weems revealed to the world that a six-year-old George Washington had once chopped his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. According to the story, the unfailingly virtuous young George confessed his wrongdoing to his father who was proud of him for doing so.  

As far as pervasive lies go, I suppose Washington chopping the cherry tree isn’t so bad. Stephen Goodwin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until the fifth edition that Weems included the charming tale in his instant bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Like all good biographers, Weems dug deep and attempted to look beyond the familiar public service life of his subject into the less well-known influential moments that eventually led to greatness.  

Weems spun his biography around the idea that in order for George Washington to grow into the great man he had been, he must have developed a healthy collection of good virtues throughout his early years of formation. The trouble was, Weems didn’t have access to all the stories he needed to make the concept work.

So, Weems joined the ranks of those who engage in popular history—that genre which includes a little less strict scholarship and a little more making stuff up for the sake of telling a good story and selling lots of books (or creating a silly blog post).

It worked. Weems sold a lot of books, and he invented one of the most often repeated stories told in American elementary school classrooms, where young children are lied to about history so that they learn to be honest and accountable for their mistakes if they ever want to be president.

I was wrong about cherry pie when I was a child, which I can admit to you because I am a very virtuous person. But as always, please do not vote for me for president. Image by Mary Bettini Blank from Pixabay

So that might have been a slight miscalculation on the part of Mason Locke Weems and the American school system, but at least it is a good lesson in irony. I could think of approximately 42 million things I’d rather do than become the President of the United States, but I do remember learning the story.

And I thought about the tale every spring, because at my house we always had at least one cherry tree that produced a ton of cherries for my mom to turn into pie. I would refuse to eat it, of course, because when I was young, I didn’t see the point of calling something dessert if it included more fruit than chocolate.

Still, I have fond memories of picking cherries. And seeding cherries. Lots of cherries. For hours. Until my fingers were stained red and everything was sticky and I might have been tempted to take a hatchet to that tree. I cannot tell a lie.

Ah. Spring.

I did eventually learn the joys of eating cherry pie and now that I’m a grownup with a home of my own, we have a cherry tree that we manage to pick a few cherries from every spring. For some reason, this was a particularly good year for it. I don’t know if it was the just perfect weather pattern or if our fairly young tree finally reached its fruiting potential or what, but we had a lot of cherries to pick and pit.

And about a week or so later, so did my parents. I recruited my youngest son and we went to the grandparents’ house to help pick more cherries. Their much bigger tree had outdone itself. We picked and reached and climbed and picked some more, until we were hot and tired, our fingers were sticky, and Grandma said she had enough for more pies than they could probably manage to eat.

By that point, I think I’d not have been surprised if my son had taken a hatchet to the tree. He would have come clean about it because he’s a pretty virtuous kid, and though I wouldn’t wish this on him, I’m sure he would make a brilliant president someday.

Say What?!

In 1774, German naturalist Johann Matthaus Bechstein published a treatise on cage birds in which he mentioned an African Grey Parrot owned by Cardinal Ascanius. This bird could perfectly recite the Apostles’ Creed. I’m sure that took some dedication on the part of the cardinal, but it’s not terribly surprising that the parrot could accomplish such a feat.

African Greys, which live for a good sixty to seventy years, are known for their intelligence and loyalty as well as their ability to mimic the sounds and words that they hear, particularly those they hear frequently. Clearly, the cardinal was a pretty pious man, or at least it was important enough to him that his bird thought so.

Andrew Jackson, looking respectable and not at all like a man who swears at his parrot. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Evidently Andrew Jackson was not as careful about what was said around his pet bird, an African Grey Parrot named Poll. Jackson had purchased Poll when he won his presidential bid, thinking it would be a good companion for his wife Rachel. The Jacksons weren’t really part of the scene of political elites in the US and he feared Rachel would feel a little outclassed and isolated. Unfortunately, she died between his election and inauguration, leaving Poll in the president’s care.

But Poll must really have been a pretty good companion because the bird certainly had a lot to say when the then former president died in 1845. The parrot was present at Jackson’s funeral, along with thousands of mourners, and according to the account of the officiant Reverend William Menefree Norment, Poll had many words to share. The only problem was that those words were of the variety that might get one kicked out of a funeral.

Say what?! Found Animals Foundation, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The bird cussed up a storm and was carried away from the shocked crowd, who let’s face it, were probably just trying not to giggle. I mean, this was a man whose military prowess carried him to the White House where one of his first orders of business was to add a dozen spittoons to the place. He was a rough-around-the-edges kind of guy who was prone to fighting in duels, once gave the beat-down to potential presidential assassin, and who probably would have been banned from Twitter. Or at least his pet parrot would have been.

On standby under my desk, just in case I need to chat.

But he was also the kind of guy who carried on conversations with his pet. As a devoted pet conversationalist myself, I find that pretty charming. My dog Ozzie gets a lot of talking to. I bounce story ideas off of him, occasionally read him blog posts, and tell him the jokes no one else will appreciate. He’s a great listener, particularly when our talks include plenty of scratches behind the ears and the inclusion of the words “good dog.”

I don’t think he’s ever heard me recite the Apostles’ Creed, but I also don’t think he’s heard me do a great deal of cussing. Of course, if he has, I’m fairly confident that my secret is safe with him. With a life expectancy of only about fourteen or fifteen years, I sincerely hope Ozzie won’t be at my funeral. But even if he is, he’s a really good dog who loves me a lot. He won’t say a word.

Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.

A Surefire Cure for the Hiccups

This week I received a note of thanks from WordPress. Apparently, I have been blogging along in this little space for nine years. In that time, I have averaged around forty-seven posts per year, once a week, except for the weeks I miss. It’s been a little higher in recent years because as my children have gotten older, they’ve become easier to ignore.

The internet actually attributes several “successful” hiccup cures to Pliny the Elder, but in my cursory attempt to chase down the references (yes, sometimes I look stuff up), I couldn’t find them. I fear this means that people believe Pliny the Elder is some kind of reliable medical authority. Clearly they have never read his work. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each post averages about eight hundred words or so, in addition to the occasionally ridiculously long picture caption. I figure I have vomited approximately 350,000 words onto this blog over the last nine years. I’m grateful to WordPress for the acknowledgement, because that seems worth acknowledging, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying encouragement to: “Keep up the good blogging.”

Or at least I am thankful for the presumption that what I have been doing for the last nine years has been good blogging worth keeping up. But if I think about it, it’s also a lot of pressure to put on a person. Because blogging regularly can occasionally be a difficult thing to do. It requires coming up with ideas again and again that readers might actually want to read about.

I’ve been pretty lucky with topics these past nine years. History is the gift that keeps on giving. Stories of individuals in history doing smart or interesting or silly or stupid things are abundant. Still, some weeks, I sit down to do some good blogging and I’ve got nothing. I encounter a hiccup.

This week has been one of those. After 350, 000 words, I have developed a case of the hiccups. I blame WordPress.

Fortunately, there are lot of cures for hiccups. I could hold my breath or suck on a lemon, or gulp water, or stand on my head. Actually, I probably couldn’t do that last one. But I might use an Ancient Chinese cure by chewing slowly on ginger and swallowing the juice, or try the old Viking remedy of grasping my tongue with a handkerchief and tugging on it while I count to 100. I could give the advice of Pliny the Elder a chance by drinking small amounts of raw cabbage mixed into vinegar with a hint of dill or chervil.

D–n this hiccup, by Henry Alken, 1837. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or maybe I should take a page out of John Mytton’s book. Born in 1796, John “Mad Jack” Mytton, wealthy British playboy who definitely earned his nickname, was most known for horseracing, gambling, naked hunting, and intentionally getting into carriage accidents. He also earned a bit of fame by attempting to cure a case of the hiccups by setting himself on fire. This according to an account written by his friend Charles James Apperley (aka Nimrod) who was present at the time.

The cure worked, though I’m not sure it was worth it. Mytton continued on, presumably hiccup-free, for another year or so of fast living before dying of alcohol poisoning in 1834, leaving behind an estranged second wife, four children, an enormous amount of debt, and a surefire hiccup cure.

Hiccups can be awfully frustrating, but they usually go away after a while. I know that after nine years, that still seems to be the case in my little corner of the blogosphere, where history continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, and there are plenty of Mad Jack Myttons out there with stories worth exploring. I don’t know if that really makes for good blogging, but it sure is a lot of fun.

In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

Chew on This

In 1891, salesman William Wrigley, Jr. moved to Chicago to peddle soap. As an incentive to storeowners to stock his product, he offered free cans of baking soda. When he discovered that the baking soda was the more popular product, he began selling it and using chewing gum as an incentive. And when the gum proved to be the hot item, he became a very wealthy man.

I bet this man could walk and chew gum at the same time. Artist: S. J. Woolf (Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880-1948)Time, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first person to crash onto the gum-selling scene, but he was possibly the savviest because Wrigley focused heavily on marketing. In 1915 he was sending free samples to homes all across the United States and had launched a series of newspaper ad campaigns with a wide range of claims about the benefits of chewing Wrigley’s gum while avoiding all those dastardly knock-offs.

Wrigley’s gum was sanitary, long-lasting, and refreshing. Kids loved it and it was good for teeth, stimulated appetite, and quenched thirst. It was soothing after a nice healthy smoke or it could take the place of one if you couldn’t indulge on the job. It eased digestion, relieved stress, and freshened breath. Not to mention soldiers in World War I probably couldn’t function without it. Allegedly.

I question the research, but for some reason I have the sudden urge to chew Wrigley’s gum. Public Domain image.

And you know, some of these claims actually sort of hold up. But one advertisement I found particularly suspicious claims that early man sucked on rocks to moisten his mouth, because he didn’t have gum. Let me tell you, William Wrigley, Jr. might have been a genius when it came to advertising, but his anthropological research missed the mark.

An article published in December of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications squashes the Wrigley rock-sucking theory when it describes a wad of chewing gum that is about 5,700 years old.

Discovered in southern Denmark, this wasn’t the first ancient gum ever uncovered by paleontologists. It wasn’t the oldest either. There’s evidence that some of the people of northern Europe were chewing birch bark tar as far back as 9,000 years ago. The Ancient Mayans, too, chewed chicle from the sapodilla tree, as did the Aztecs who even had elaborate rules of conduct regarding it. For example, if an Aztec schoolgirl popped a chicle bubble in class, she had to immediately spit it out and probably got sent to the principal’s office.

You had me at “purity package.” Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What’s exciting about this recent gum discovery is that researchers managed to extract from it a complete human genome sequence. The chewer was a woman, though it’s not known why she might have been chewing this particular wad of birch bark. It’s possible she was looking for some pain relief from a toothache or perhaps she was softening it so she could stick it to the underside of a desk.

We do know she was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed, hunter-gatherer who’d eaten duck and hazelnuts for dinner and had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease.” Which might explain the gum.

Although I doubt her gum had quite the sweet taste or breath-freshening qualities of Wrigley’s. It probably wasn’t as sanitary, either. But it was surely better than sucking on a rock.

A New Hobby in the Bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woo hoo! I figured it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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