A Recycled Anniversary

Coming up this week on, on May 9th to be exact, this blog will mark its tenth anniversary. Over the course of those ten years, it hasn’t changed much. I still know too little about SEO, don’t use nearly enough bullet points, overuse commas, and usually drone on longer than most readers care to pay attention. Yet here I am plugging away in my little corner of the blogosphere, writing about whatever little historical tidbit has lately taken my fancy, cracking stupid jokes, and sharing inane details about my life.

And you, dear readers, are kind enough to come along for the ride. Some of you have been checking in on what began as “The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History” since early days. Some of you have stumbled onto it by accident more recently and have chosen to stick around. If you happen to be my mother, then you’ve even read every single post. I appreciate every one of you immensely.

Some might argue that the 5th anniversary symbol is wood, but wood pulp makes paper, which makes books. So, I’m not wrong.

When the blog reached its five-year anniversary I published a little book, ridiculously titled Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, which contained about eighty or so posts that I considered to be the greatest hits of the first five years. In case you didn’t know, the traditional fifth anniversary symbol is a book.

The tenth anniversary is most often symbolized by aluminum, or aluminium if you must. I thought the most fitting way to celebrate, then, would be to write an amazing post about aluminum in history. It turns out, the earliest mention of alum comes from Herodotus, that famous 5th century BC Greek Father of History who liked to make things up. And that is the most exciting thing I could find about aluminum, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read any more.

But what I do happen to know about aluminum is that we’ve gotten pretty good at recycling it, and so, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this silly little blog, that’s what I am going to do, though this time I limited myself to ten posts rather than eighty or so.

Here are ten posts you can peruse if you so wish, recycled from the second five years of the Practical Historian:

Game of Allergens

Skinny Pants and Cupcakes: Everything a Young Republic Needs

Tough Questions on the Way to School

A Study in Buttery Bovines

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

My Immediate Travel Plans

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

Say What?!

A Day for Heroes

When at the age of ten, Christopher Walker began serving as ship-boy to his father’s merchant vessel, he could not have known how dramatically it would affect his wardrobe choices. Christopher’s father had begun his career similarly, as ship-boy on Columbus’s Santa Maria and that career ended on his young son’s first voyage when the ship fell under attack by violent pirates.

All aboard were lost, save one. Christopher washed up on the shore of Bengalla, a made-up setting that is vaguely jungle-like, where he was saved by a tribe of pygmy people called Bandars, which is also made up and is almost certainly a little racist.

Bengalla. Probably. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The orphaned Christopher regained his strength there among these friendly people and took the “Oath of the Skull,” saying, “I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms!” Then he tacked on, as ten-year-olds are apt to do, “My sons and their sons will follow me.”

Christopher made good on his vow by moving into a “skull cave” secret lair and wearing his underwear on the outside. Four hundred years later, on February 17, 1936, his story was revealed to the world by the King Features Syndicate. He became known as the Phantom, or sometimes as “The Ghost Who Walks” or “The Man Who Cannot Die,” what with his descendants continuing to take the reins, giving him the appearance of immortality.

In reality, neither Christopher nor his twentieth century iteration Kip, ever had any super powers. He’s always been a talented martial artist, a decent linguist, an exceptional intellect, and the perfect specimen of fitness. You’d really only know he’s a superhero at all because of his skin-tight purple outfit, stylish mask, and his skull ring that leaves an impression on the recipients of his powerful punch. If that’s not enough, he also hangs out with a couple of trained homing pigeons. He even has a movie, though I never saw it:

Some superhero historians (who probably live in their mothers’ basements) don’t even credit the Phantom, created by Lee Falk and Ray Moore, with being the first real superhero because he lacked powers. They’d rather give the credit to Superman who didn’t arrive on scene until two years later than his purple predecessor.

Superpowers or not, the Phantom had a silly outfit, a secret hideout, a tragic backstory, and a constantly endangered girlfriend. I admit that, as I often tell my sons, I don’t really superhero, but that sound like the real deal to me. And as far I could find, the Phantom was never rendered powerless by some glowing green rock.

Apparently there is also a 1943 serial about the Phantom. But don’t worry. I’d never heard of him either. Neither had my son who superheroes much more than I do. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, I mean no offense to Superman. He has that cool crystal cave thing, plenty of past trauma, terrible taste in women, and questionable fashion sense. I celebrate all heroes, at least today, because I very recently learned that today is National Superhero Day here in the US.

National Superhero Day has been celebrated every April 28 since 1995. That’s when the pretentiously named Marvel Cinematic Universe declared it a day for turning our attention to their movies and merchandizing that are so ubiquitous, we usually just kind of tune them out. Also, I think we’re supposed to thank police officers and the like, even though they might be somewhat less heroic since they tend to wear their underpants on the insides of their uniforms.

As I mentioned, I don’t superhero much, but this whole thing got me thinking that I should designate a day myself. April 28 is already pretty crowded, so I am declaring right now that tomorrow, April 29, 2022 will be the first annual celebration of Read a Book by Sarah Angleton Day. Feel free to observe it on Saturday if that works better for your schedule. Spread the word!

A Big Butt in the White House: A Story of the Bustle

When twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom became the youngest first lady in US history on June 2, 1886 at the only presidential wedding ever held in the White House, she also became something of a fashion icon. Yes, Grover Cleveland was twenty-seven years older than her and had known her as a baby, but no one was thinking about how skeevy that might have been because boy could she rock a bustle.

Check out the bustle on that bride! Frances Folsom marries President Grover Cleveland, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned French fashion designer Charles Worth dressed her in a heavy ivory satin, silk, and muslin gown, trimmed in orange blossoms and draped over a birdcage-like bustle. Okay, some people might have been thinking about the kind of creepy age difference between the president and his choice, but everyone agreed she was a beautiful bride. And the event served as a much needed boon for the ever-important bustle.

New Yorker Alexander Douglas patented the bustle in 1857, but it didn’t gain much traction until Worth, who never actually had to wear one, began incorporating it into his designs a few years later. Then by the end of the 1870s, the popularity of this peculiar fashion accessory had waned as even the most fashion-forward of women decided they might like to occasionally be able to sit down.

Charles Worth wasn’t ready to give up on it yet and pushed to bring back the exaggerated tushy in the early to mid-1880s. Thanks in part to the new Mrs. Cleveland, it worked. But then just two years into her stint as first lady, an article in the Atlanta Constitution mentioned that Mrs. Cleveland had decided she was done with bustles.

Frances Cleveland sitting comfortably without a bustle. Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Women throughout the US breathed a collective sigh of relief as, for the first time in a few years, they boarded trains and entered crowded public spaces without fear of knocking someone over with their accentuated keisters.

The bizarre thing was that, though women throughout the United States were happily removing these pointless additions to their wardrobes, Mrs. Cleveland hadn’t yet gotten the memo. She entered one of her favorite Washington Department stores and asked for a bustle, only to be shown the Atlanta Constitution article, in which a reporter had taken it upon himself to declare the first lady’s shift in fashion choices. I guess it was a slow news day.

Frances Cleveland took the article in stride saying, “I suppose I shall have to adopt the style to suit the newspapers.” She took her dresses in the next day to be altered for wear by a woman without a comically poofy backside. She was happy enough to let it go.

Before all the fashion historians get mad at me, I realize that not all bustles were probably incredibly uncomfortable. But some of them looked like this. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

No one seemed particularly upset to let bustles become a thing of the past, as they hadn’t really served much of a purpose to begin with, and life was certainly a lot easier when one didn’t have to worry about tucking a bird cage into one’s skirt in order to appear in public.

What Charles Worth thought of the development I don’t know. I assume he was a little annoyed. Perhaps he even attempted to preserve his power over the fashion industry by suggesting that one or two layers of bustle should still be worn. Unfortunately for him, the people seemed inclined to follow the guidance that made the most sense to them and more and more women began sitting comfortably wherever they pleased.

Regardless of how relevant the influential designer might have felt, or how much he had once enjoyed the confidence of the White House and important people, the air had gone out of his overinflated posteriors. The citizens had had enough. They’d taken off their bustles and weren’t keen to put them back on, even on public transportation. In 1888, the occupants of the White House were pretty much okay with that. 

One Angry Egyptian Princess

Late tonight and into tomorrow morning will mark one hundred and ten years since the tragic sinking of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. The terrible accident was a difficult lesson in the critical value of good safety procedures, plentiful life boats, and respect for vengeful deceased Egyptian princesses.

Titanic leaving Southampton. Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or at least one particularly angry deceased Egyptian princess who might not have been a princess at all, whose name may or may not have been Amen-Ra, and whose mummy curse has been blamed for numerous deaths, countless sicknesses, the loss of an appendage or two, and as many as three sinking ships.

Amen-Ra, or whatever her real name was, has been busy in her afterlife which was presumably fairly peaceful for millennia. Then in the late nineteenth century three mummy-obsessed Englishmen engaged in a bit of good old fashioned grave robbing in the vicinity of Thebes.

Cover of 1909 Pearson’s Magazine featuring the story of the Unlucky Mummy, before she sank the Titanic (British Museum ref AE 22542). Pearson’s Magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Englishmen cast lots to determine who would keep the linen-wrapped treasure and that was that. Soon after the discovery, their Egyptian guide was seen wandering disoriented into the desert and was never heard from again. The two who had not won possession of the mummy soon died, and the lucky winner, Thomas Murray, lost an arm in a hunting accident before boarding a ship back to England with his newly acquired princess.

That’s when the real trouble began. Everywhere the mummy went, tragedy occurred, until finally Murray decided to unload her on the British Museum, where rumors of her malicious intentions soon spread. She was dubbed the “Unlucky Mummy” by those unfortunate enough to incur her wrath and live to tell the press about her.

One member of that press was investigative journalist W. T. Stead, famous for shining lights on the need for important social changes in England, and in this blogger’s humble opinion, kicking off the slide down a slippery slope away from journalistic integrity we’ve been experiencing ever since. He also had something of an obsession with spiritualism and loved the tale of the unlucky mummy.

In fact, there is no evidence that the mummy of Amen-Ra, whose brightly painted coffin lid is still displayed in the British Museum, ever left her final resting place in Egypt, let alone traveled on the Titanic after a relieved British Museum pawned her off on a wealthy American. There is a pretty good chance Stead and his buddy Murray made up the story in the first place.

Curse or not, I personally enjoy a good mummy tale.

There’s also no record of a mummy aboard the Titanic, but W. T. Stead did travel on the doomed ship and went down with her to the ocean floor just one day after regaling other passengers with a dinnertime tale of the Unlucky Mummy and all the chaos she had caused.

The story was later recalled by survivors of the Titanic tragedy. From those recollections, it wasn’t a big leap to the assumption that the mummy of Amen-Ra had been an unwilling passenger on the unsinkable ship, nor that she made it onto a lifeboat and survived to sink two more vessels, including the Lusitania of World War I fame.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson to learn in there somewhere, something about it being easier to blame the supernatural for tragedy than it is to address its causes or consider what decisions might have prevented it. Or maybe the lesson is that journalists should be careful when wielding their power for stories because one never knows when one might go down with the ship. Or just maybe there’s a really powerful curse emanating from an angry Egyptian mummy causing havoc all over the world because she’d like her coffin lid back.

If I could, I’d probably give it to her. It might at least be worth a try.

Bathed in Journalistic Integrity

You might have noticed that the world right now is a pretty messy place. I suppose that’s always true to some extent, but in this moment, it feels especially difficult to discuss important things without a misstep sure to incur the wrath of someone. Of course, this particular blog doesn’t enjoy a terribly wide audience anyway and so I doubt there would be much public outcry were I to accidentally presume an incorrect gender pronoun or commit an inadvertent microaggression or innocently inquire whether a particular bumbling world leader is in fact a malfunctioning animatron.

It’s a good thing this blog audience is small because this is how rumors get started.

Not that I would do any of those things. As I have stated numerous times, this blog is rarely about anything important, but there are moments in history when open, honest, and nuanced conversation is of critical importance. It’s at times such as these that those with public platforms of any size have a sacred duty to explore the stories that truly matter and that have the potential to shape public discourse and affect the world.

As you no doubt have assumed, I’m talking about stories such as the history of bathtubs.

It was during the lead up to WW I, another difficult moment in history, when long-successful journalist H. L. Mencken discovered that his sympathies for the German culture and its people, outside of the scope of its politics, could find no place in the media. Amid a sea of reports that universally painted German citizens as inherently monstrous, there was no room for the more balanced approach of Mencken’s writing.

Image by JillWellington , via Pixabay.

And so, he decided to go in a different direction. On December 28, 1917, the New York Evening Mail published his article lamenting the fact that on December 20th of that year, the nation had failed to celebrate the momentous seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub in the United States.

The leap forward in American hygiene, Mencken attributed to a Cincinnati businessman named Adam Thompson, whose world travels had led him to appreciate the ingenious tub his fellow countrymen so desperately feared. Thompson hired cabinetmaker James Cullness to make him a bathtub of his own, a project which soon gained a great deal of attention and spawned a rapidly growing controversy that resulted in numerous American cities enacting ordinances governing the use of the dangerous bathing contraptions.

Had that been the end of the story, the bathtub may have fallen out of use and been lost to the complexities of history, but its path toward greatness crossed with that of then vice president Millard Fillmore, who decided that taking a bath maybe wasn’t as bad as the outcry from the medical community suggested.

Millard Fillmore, looking like a man who recently took a bath. George Peter Alexander Healy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When he later became president upon the death of Zachary Taylor, one of Fillmore’s first acts as the new occupant of the White House, was to add a bathtub, a terribly presidential action that served to help normalize the tub’s usage and forever alter the hygiene habits of the American public.

The article was well-received. More than a hundred years later, Mencken’s work remains a frequently quoted authoritative source on the fascinating history of the bathtub. It stands as a brilliant testament to the same kind of journalistic integrity we expect to see today.

And by that, I mean he made the entire thing up. It was Mencken’s stated intention to provide lighthearted distraction during a time of tough news, though many have suggested that he was fed up with his own struggles to get his more serious work out there and wanted to provide evidence of just how easily a journalist such as himself can feed pretty much any information to a gullible public as long as he isn’t asking them to think too hard about it. He came clean about the fabricated history in 1926, but by then Millard Fillmore’s place in bathtub history was sealed. It still isn’t difficult to find the tale splashed across the internet or even occasionally in serious books written by serious people.

We may never know Mencken’s motivation for certain, but what we do know is that currently the White House contains thirty-five bathrooms. As I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of those bathrooms probably contain tubs, I might know a way to get to the truth of this malfunctioning animatron rumor.

A Conflict Among the Stars

Three hundred fourteen years ago today on March 31, 1708, well-known astrologist, physician, and former shoemaker John Partridge died right on schedule. The prediction of his “infallible death” had been published earlier that year in a letter written by a man called Isaac Bickerstaff, who then at the prescribed date, also published a clever rhyming eulogy.

Turns out the pen really is mightier than the slap.

No one was more surprised by the timely demise of Partridge than the man himself who returned home from a trip shortly after the report to discover that even those he knew well had heard and were so convinced by the news that he had a hard time persuading them that he was, in fact, still alive. When he wrote an article explaining that he had not died, Bickerstaff quickly answered with an admonition for the rogue that would write so insensitively of the dead.

As mean-spirited as Bickerstaff’s pronouncement might have been, from one perspective, Partridge may have earned it. He was a self-proclaimed reformer of astrology who published an annual almanac in which he regularly and erroneously predicted the deaths of renowned individuals. He was also somewhat outspoken against the Church and in his 1708 almanac had referred satirically to it as the “infallible Church.”

Partridge, who lived another six or seven years after Swift’s pen killed him off, and whose precise date of death is unknown, which might also be Swift’s fault. He’d probably have preferred a public slap. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The barb settled uncomfortably on Isaac Bickerstaff, which was a pseudonym of the highly offended writer, satirist, astrology skeptic, and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift. In the moment, Swift decided against charging the stage and slapping the spit out of Partridge and instead chose to give the man a taste of his own medicine by predicting his death.

Swift’s revenge was definitely effective. After the news spread that the prediction had been spot on, Partridge coincidentally also found himself in a dispute with his publisher that led to the discontinuation of his almanac for a few years. When he finally did attempt to re-emerge, he found his reputation damaged beyond repair. Some astrology enthusiasts even suggest that it was this prank of Swift’s that led to a general discrediting of the entire field that lasted through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

So, maybe the satirist who once modestly proposed that the most sensible solution to Irish poverty was to eat babies, pushed it a little too far this time. Comedy can, after all, be a hit or miss, depending on context and perspective and perhaps whether or not one’s spouse has a penchant for the dramatic and a mean right slap.

It’s A Big Conspiracy

In August of 1926, The Yale Review published a little sci-fi story that I suspect had much further-reaching consequences than the editors imagined it would. But some astute readers were paying attention and quietly began spreading the highly instructive message of “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley.

Julian Huxley. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Huxley tells the tale of a group of scientifically minded explorers that, lost in the African bush, follows a two-headed toad and stumbles into a giant engaged in worshipping a microscope slide. The party soon becomes acquainted with a previously unknown kingdom with a highly developed culture of blood and ancestor worship.

Also in the kingdom is another white man who had been captured fifteen years earlier and, with the aid of the King’s most important advisor, had managed to exploit the people’s religious rites for the purpose of scientific experimentation, thus giving rise to the worship of tissue cultures as the means to immortality for the king and beloved elders.

I admit that so far, the story sounds a little far-fetched, but I think it’s safe to say that’s just what They want us to think. Late in the story, just about the time this reader’s eyes want to glaze over, another type of ongoing research is introduced. The captured scientist reveals that, with the enthusiastic support of the King’s man, he has been experimenting with hypnosis and telepathy.

Excited at the possibilities of the experiments, the narrator begins to assist and soon the two are able, with group hypnotic suggestion, to send instructions in a wave over the entire kingdom. At this point the narrator thinks they might use their newfound scientific powers to put the kingdom to sleep and make their escape, if only they can find a way to shield themselves from the hypnotic suggestion.

Rory112233, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To us modern readers, the answer is clear. The captives shield themselves from the telepathic waves by donning hats made of metal foil. It works, at least until they assume they are far enough away to abandon their protective headgear, only to discover that the King’s evil henchman has overcome and amended their suggestion to a simple, irresistible command to return.

Experts on tin foil hats, who are extremely difficult to find and are rarely willing to make public comments, suggest that Huxley’s fairly obscure story is the smoking gun in the truth about where the foil hat phenomenon came from in the first place. Of course, they also admit that could be a lie fed to us by the government. The world may never know.

What we do know, thanks to the incredibly important work of some MIT grad students who allegedly have too much time on their hands, is that there may be more to the story. In 2005, the students released the results of a groundbreaking and mind-shattering study which revealed that aluminum foil hats actually amplify the radio frequency bands allocated for use by the US government.

Image by iirliinnaa, via Pixabay.

It’s worth noting that the MIT researchers did not receive so much as a whiff of interest from the Nobel Prize committee. And I suspect we all know why that might be.

This leaves us, I think, with some questions. First, if Julian Huxley’s story really is the first mention of the protective nature of tin foil hats, then how did that idea first occur to him? Could it have been fed to him telepathically by a government intent on amplifying the private thoughts of its citizens? Was Huxley, instead, involved in the elaborate plan? Was the editorial staff of The Yale Review complicit? Is the MIT study merely an attempt at misdirection by the Feds?

Or did Julian Huxley never intend for any of his readers to actually wear tin foil hats? And was the point of “The Tissue-Culture King” exactly as stated in the story itself, that the increase of scientific knowledge and the power it may lend to those who would yield it for their personal gain, might carry with it some consequences well worth considering? Eh, that seems a little far-fetched.

A House Divided

In the first century, Pliny the Younger wrote from Rome to his buddy Calvisius in order to defend himself. Apparently Calvisius had previously questioned Pliny about his determination to stay inside and study his books while living in the most exciting city in the world. Pliny’s response, roughly translated into modern English, was: “Ew. Sportsball.”

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit that may not be my finest translation work, as he did go into a little bit more detail than that. In the letter (9.6), Pliny expressed his complete failure to understand how grown men could be so obsessed with athletes standing up in their chariots and being dragged around by horses. But what was even more perplexing to him than that was the dedication of these same grown men to a particular color of uniform, to the point that, he claimed, if the charioteers were to trade colors mid-race, they would also end up trading fans.

He probably wasn’t wrong. Chariot racing was big business in Ancient Rome and had been for hundreds of years. The sport was organized into different stables or factions that competed to obtain the best charioteers, who then often coordinated to help one another win. There are references in historical writings to at least six different factions that existed at one time or another, each represented by a color. The main four seem to have been Red, White, Blue, and Green, with Blue and Green eventually having become the most dominant and even serving as a flashpoint in the bloodiest riot in history.

Charioteers in the red tunics of their faction from the Charioteer Papyrus (c. 500), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fans of the races, which was pretty much every Roman except for Pliny the Nerd, were exceptionally dedicated to their faction, and I kind of get it. I mean, I’ve never watched a chariot race and I don’t consider myself a huge fan of sportsball in general, but any baseball player who wears a Cardinals jersey is my favorite baseball player until he’s traded to another team and becomes more or less dead to me.

The human desire to rally around and lift up a team seems pretty ingrained to me. I’m sure I could do a deep dive into the history and psychology of that phenomenon, but I don’t really have the time. My life just got a whole lot busier, because suddenly it’s sports season at my house.

My sons are now both in high school (a freshman and a junior) and for the first time this spring, both will be participating in high school sports. Both are on the track & field teams for their schools, which because of the complications of rapid community growth and district expansion, are completely different schools. Fortunately, my sons do different events so they will not be in direct individual competition with one another, but because track meets tend to be large, regional events, their schools will often be competing at the same meets.

I have tried to explain to my children that running is stupid, but here we are. 12019 via Pixabay.

Of course, there is a friendly rivalry between both my sons and their schools. One school has well established sports programs with a history of successes. The other has a shiny new facility in which to train the very first athletes that will ever wear the jersey. And of course, each school has its own mascot and school colors. The question is: how is a mother to show her support for each of her children when her house is divided?

It turns out I have a friend who has a gift for creating custom tee shirts. We’ve gone back and forth a couple of times about the design, with my children weighing in when they thought one school was getting more emphasis than the other. I think we’ve figured out something that will work. I don’t have it yet, but it will include the names of each school in that school’s colors, a heart, and the words: “A House Divided.”

I’m not sure the average Ancient Roman sportsball enthusiast would approve, but perhaps Pliny the Younger would. He’d probably also approve of my plan to take a book for the hours and hours of track meet time in between cheering at my sons’ events. But he still probably wouldn’t come to watch.

Speaking of boring track meets and books: March 6th is the first day of “Read an Ebook Week,” which I recently discovered is a thing. To celebrate, I’m giving away five ebooks. If you sign up by midnight (CST) on March 12th to receive my email newsletter (which I promise will not clog your inbox), you will be entered to win the ebook of your choice. Well, as long as it is one of the four written by me.

Sign up at this link: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Or if you are one of the handful of wonderful people already receiving my infrequent newsletter, you can still enter. Just drop me an email at s_angleton@charter.net to let me know you’d like to participate.

Harpin’ Boont on the Bucky Walter

It was somewhere around 1862 when John Bregartes arrived in the Anderson Valley of California, a little more than a hundred miles north of San Francisco, and founded the little town of Boonville. And it wasn’t long after that when the farmers, ranchers, and loggers who came to live in this fairly isolated community started to develop a language of their own.

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, every region’s got one to some extent. If you come to my corner of the world here in St. Louis, for example, you might drive farty-far to get some t-ravs, go to the laundromat to warsh your clothes, and then grab a concrete for a treat. If someone accidentally bumps into you along the way, you’ll likely hear them say “Ope!” and they’ll expect you to respond with a friendly, “You’re fine.”

We’ve all got our little quirks, maybe made slightly more accessible by the mingling and spreading of regional expressions across the internet where I learned not so long ago that a take-a-plate dinner in New Zealand is the same thing as a potluck supper in the Midwestern US.

But what Boonville, California has going is much more than a few quirky expressions that rose up over time. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it had an entire language all its own.

I’m not sure what the Boontling word is for potluck. U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Boontling is based on English, it contains more than a thousand unique words and expressions that show influence from Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, and Indigenous languages and is peppered with the names and experiences of generations of Boonters.

So, Bucky Walter is a payphone, because bucky is the word for nickel and a guy named Walter was the first person in town to have a telephone. To me this sounds a little like getting directions from a local that include turning left at the corner of the field Fred used to own that once had that big red barn that burned down thirty years ago. Except it’s a whole language with standardized grammatical patterns and there’s no GPS to guide you to the right address.

No one is quite sure why the small town invented its own language, though there are plenty of stories. Most suggest that it was a convenient way for one group of people to speak secretly about another group (wives gossiping about husbands, elders wanting to exclude youngsters, or vice versa), which led eventually to the tightknit residents of Boonville using it to keep themselves to themselves when strangers came to town.

Where St. Louis goes to eat its frozen custard concretes. Philip Leara, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The real mystery to me, however, is why it has persisted for so long. This peculiar language which has never traveled much outside of the Anderson Valley and has probably never been spoken by more than a thousand people at any time its history, has existed for nearly a century and a half. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, the number of fluent speakers has dwindled in recent years to include only a handful of people. Over the years it has generated lots of interest for linguists, but not as much for the youngest generations of Boonters. One source I found laments the fact that the elementary school no longer teaches Boontling, which indicates that at one time it did.

The Anderson Valley Historical Society would like to keep the language alive a little bit longer and has provided a nice glossary to get you started if you’ve a mind to learn to harp Boont on the Bucky Walter. Maybe you can even get together with your apple head, pike to grab aplenty bahl steinberhorn, and have yourself the bahlest harpin’ session you ever had. Or you could just stick to English and go out for concretes.