Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

Groundhog Day 2005 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Phil the Groundhog surrounded by his Punxsutawney posse, dressed as always in 19th Century garb.

So today is perhaps the strangest holiday on the calendar, the day when otherwise perfectly normal people seek psychic advice from a rodent. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day. Because I realize this “holiday” is somewhat unique to North America (and, really, to Pennsylvania, the University of Dallas, and a few other odd pockets), I’ll go ahead and explain the tradition.

On February 2, the groundhog emerges from his hidey-hole to check the weather. If it’s cloudy, the little guy scrambles out into the wide world and spring is (obviously) “just around the corner.” But if the sun is out and this genius prognosticator can see his shadow, he runs back inside and we can be sure to expect six more weeks of winter.

The most famous of these furry meteorologists is “Phil” of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (made, if possible, even more famous by the 1993 Bill Murray film) who has been making his predictions since 1886, a curiously long life for a groundhog that should normally live less than 14 years. Since the celebration began, Phil has seen his shadow 100 times. And because no one wants to let go of such a nice round number, this morning he emerged under cloudy skies and predicted a nice short winter.

Cover of "Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary...
A movie that never seems to get better even when you watch it again and again and again.

Of course the practical historian in all of us wonders, I’m sure, from where on earth such a tradition could have come? No one really seems to be sure, but there are a few theories. The one that makes the most sense to me (if one can approach rodent weather prediction sensibly) is that the celebration was born from the clashing of two calendar systems.

While western countries in the Northern Hemisphere recognize the first day of spring as the day the length of daylight finally exceeds the length of night (the Vernal Equinox, which is around 6-7 weeks after Groundhog Day), Celtic tradition places the first day of spring at the cross-quarter day of Imbolc, when it is said that the daylight begins to make significant progress against the night. Probably not coincidentally, Imbolc occurs in Early February (just around the corner from Groundhog Day).

Naturally, people wanted to know when spring really would begin so the most logical thing to do was to seek signs in nature as to when the thaw would begin and the sun would truly emerge. And a tradition was born. Today you can attend Groundhog celebrations in many small towns throughout Pennsylvania, though I should warn you that you’ll need to brush up on your Pennsylvania German because if you speak English during the event, it may cost you up to 25 cents per word.

Of course if you happen to be an alumnus of the University of Dallas, then you know that the party to beat all parties for Groundhog Day is in Groundhog Park in Irving, Texas. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the remarks by University President Dr. Donald Cowan that started the epic celebration: “Think of something to celebrate—celebrate Groundhogs Day, for instance—but whatever you do, do it with style.”

And they have. The Groundhog Day festivities at the school resemble a homecoming celebration with the election of a Groundhog King and Queen, campus-wide sporting events, and crowds of alumni swarming in to join the student body in all-night, semi-controlled, frivolities in the park, which, if I understand correctly, involve quite a bit of heavy drinking.

Now, of course, as a responsible adult and practical historian, I cannot condone such behavior. But as my Pennsylvania German is a little rusty, I was at a loss as to how I could observe the day. Here’s what I decided on:

As with almost all of my creative cool mom ideas, this one come straight from a magazine. You can find cuter ones in the most recent issue of Family Fun.
As with almost all of my creative cool mom ideas, this one comes straight from a magazine. You can find cuter ones in the most recent issue of Family Fun.

All that remains to be determined, then, is whether the Groundhog, or Marmota monax (because my Latin is better than my Pennsylvania German) is a accurate meteorologist. The answers to that question are mixed. According to organizers of the event, Punxsutawney Phil has been right 38% of the time, which probably does make him at least as accurate as the average TV meteorologist. Some studies have given the rodent much more credit, claiming accuracy of 75 to 90% of the time.

I think the discrepancy occurs, though, because the beginning of spring may actually be a fairly subjective thing to measure. Depending, of course, on where you live, spring generally pops up somewhere in the six weeks or so just around the corner from the first few days of February. Maybe, then, what the groundhog is really trying to tell us to be patient because spring is either six weeks away or maybe just half a dozen.

Fat Guy-Sized Footprints in the Sands of Time

The morning of March 22, 1882 dawned crisp and clear as a grief-stricken woman followed a slow procession from the London Zoological Gardens to St. Katherine’s Dock. She carried a mug of beer as a small goodbye token for the gentle giant who would depart that day.

After nearly seventeen years in London, Jumbo the elephant was beginning his trans-Atlantic journey to join Barnum & Bailey’s famous show. Jumbo enjoyed his beer,  and though it was a little bit of a struggle (likely because he’d heard that P.T. Barnum had a strict policy against inebriated elephants), allowed himself to be crated and taken to a boat from which he would later be placed onto the large ocean vessel, Assyrian Monarch.

Werbung von Barnum und Bailey
Werbung von Barnum und Bailey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thousands of fans waved and cheered him, causing Jumbo to become agitated, shifting his weight back and forth, the fortunately heavily ballasted boat swaying right along with him. This marked the end of a battle for the English public which had been outraged over the Zoo’s sale of Jumbo to P.T. Barnum. The February announcement of the sale was followed by a huge surge in visitors to the zoo, people (with their eyes popping out) flocking to see one more time, the nearly 12-foot tall African elephant that had given gentle rides to countless English children over the years.

A letter writing campaign both to the zoo and to Queen Victoria, whose own children had been passengers on the elephant’s back, began almost immediately with irate English citizens demanding that Jumbo remain in London. Jumbo’s biggest fans began a fund to try to save Jumbo from his fate as a circus attraction and soon launched a lawsuit against the sale claiming that it contradicted the Zoo’s bylaws.

Despite these efforts, Jumbo made the journey to America and through the aggressive promotion efforts of Barnum and associates, became an immediate star. Posters and handbills showed Jumbo standing head and shoulders above buildings and allowing wagons to comfortably pass under his belly. Barnum’s advance agent insisted that Jumbo stood 13 feet, 4 inches tall and claimed (oh so elegantly) that his trunk was “the size of an adult crocodile, his tail as big as a cow’s leg, and he made footprints in the sands of time resembling an indentation as if a very fat man had fallen off a very high building.”

Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and...
Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course he wasn’t quite that big (though I think you’ve got to admire the salesmanship, examination of the elephant’s skeleton reveal that he was actually 10’9”), but Jumbo proved even more popular on tour in America than he had in London, his name (again thanks to Barnum’s masterful promotion) even seeping into the English language as a descriptor for all kinds of large things (jumbo jets, jumbo-drinks, and jumbo-size packages of disposable diapers to name just a few).

Jumbo captured the public’s interest for a couple reasons. Obviously, he was well-promoted (I imagine if Jumbo were alive today he’d probably have his own twitter account: “ If one more kid tries to feed me a peanut I swear I will step on his foot #elephantskeepingitreal”).  But that’s not all there was to it, because Jumbo was not the first elephant to be shipped to the US and he was certainly not the first to make a lot of money for his owner. People loved elephants. And we still do.

Several weeks ago, my family and I visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland. We headed that way to view the annual Zoo Lights display, but we decided to go early. Actually, that sounds too casual. We rushed to get there in the early afternoon because on Friday, November 30, the zoo had welcomed a new baby Asian elephant who had finally been named (Lily) by public vote and was now on display for brief windows of time.

Lily at the Oregon Zoo
Lily at the Oregon Zoo. So stinkin’ cute!

Because captive elephant breeding programs are not widely successful (though the Oregon Zoo has been more successful than most), Lily’s birth was a big deal. We stood in line a long time to meet her and just before the docent let us in to see her, the keepers took mama and baby out to clean up a bit. That meant we got to enter the building in time to see Lily, a rambunctious 300-pound toddler, rush into the indoor enclosure to find fresh popcorn scattered between the glass from behind which we viewed her, and the bars that provided a walkway for keepers.

Mama (named Rose-Tu) lumbered in after her baby and reached her trunk through the bars calmly sweeping up the popcorn and dropping it into her mouth. Lily mimicked her, though Rose-Tu was pretty deft at sweeping the popcorn away from her baby. Lily’s little trunk (actually much smaller in proportion to the rest of her than you find in adult elephants) wasn’t quite coordinated enough to grab any of the popcorn, though that certainly didn’t stop her from trying.

I laughed (we all did) because not only was it just about the cutest thing you’d ever want to see, but, I think, because any of us who’d ever seen a human baby reaching and grabbing for something they shouldn’t have as Mom or Dad holds them close and keeps them out of trouble, recognized the actions we were watching.  It was undeniable in that moment that this nearly 300 pound creature was, in fact, a baby, in need of protection.

Lily has enjoyed her fair share of promotion just as Jumbo did, but I think we are drawn to elephants for more than just the fanfare (though I guess it is convenient that they come complete with their own trumpets). Our fascination, I think, stems from the fact that this giant among creatures is actually one of the most vulnerable animals on the planet and it needs our help if it is to survive both in the wild and in captivity. What’s more is that elephants, despite their size, are not overwhelmingly aggressive animals and, in fact, with caution, can establish lasting friendships with people (who they believe are people, no matter how small) and have been known on occasion to share their ice cream with small pigs. They also make very faithful babysitters, provided they stay away from the beer.

Horton Hears a Who
I wonder just how much helium it takes to make an elephant float.

It’s a Major Award!

The Leg Lamp at A Christmas Story House
The Leg Lamp at A Christmas Story House (Photo credit: Buy Leg Lamps)

My blog was recently nominated for the Sunshine Award. The award is a way for bloggers to recognize the efforts of fellow bloggers and express appreciation for writing they have found inspiring in one way or another. Wow!

So you can imagine my delight to find that another blogger, a very gifted one who knows a great deal more about history than I do, honored me with this nomination. Honestly, I was so excited, you would have thought I had just received a crate marked FRA-GI-LE (which is probably Italian).

You remember that scene from A Christmas Story, right? Ralphie’s dad has just received notice that he won a newspaper trivia contest by answering the question: “What was the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?” (It’s Victor, but I’m sure you already knew that). His major award arrives in a large crate during supper time and the whole family gathers around to see what’s inside.

When Mr. Parker pulls from the crate a lamp in the shape of a fishnet-stockinged leg with a fringed skirt shade, he can’t contain his enthusiasm. To his wife’s chagrin and his young sons’ amazement, Mr. Parker puts the lamp in a place of honor right in the middle of the front window for the whole town to admire.

The movie is based on the stories of Jean Shepherd including one titled: “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” (I think we should all just take a moment to appreciate how ridiculous and wonderful that title is). Shepherd’s lamp was inspired by an early advertising logo of the Nehi Corporation, a fruity soda company, whose ads featured the legs of a seated woman, her stocking visible up to the knee. The company’s bottle design at the time also incorporated a rope like pattern reminiscent of ladies’ stockings.

1932nehiad (Photo credit: lobstar28)

Though it is now nearly impossible to obtain Nehi soda, it enjoyed great market success in the United States through the middle of the 20th century with flavors such as: luau, chocolate, orange, peach, watermelon, blue cream, lemonade, pineapple, and fruit punch. Of course, the company sold a few of the flavors we would consider more traditional today as well and in the late 1950’s, the Nehi Corporation was renamed the Royal Crown Cola Company after its best selling flavor.

I’m guessing most of you are at least somewhat familiar with RC Cola. It’s that brand carried in a few restaurants that is often viewed as a acceptable alternative to the better Coca-Cola (and I suppose Pepsi fans might offer a similar description, but obviously they would be wrong). Nehi has been largely forgotten by most of us, except for perhaps the most devoted M*A*S*H fans who may remember that grape Nehi was Radar O’Reilly’s favorite soft drink.

Still, every year starting on Christmas Eve, 40 million of us tune into to TBS to watch at least a little bit of the marathon showing of A Christmas Story and Nehi enjoys a moment in the spotlight, as “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window” of Ralphie Parker’s boyhood home.

“Major Awards” have a way of sticking with us long after they are broken and discarded. We love to be recognized. And so I am honored to accept and proudly display the nomination of the Sunshine Award. Here’s how it’s done: First, thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to their blog. Second, answer a list of ten interview questions about yourself. Third, nominate ten blogs that have inspired you in some way, link to them and let them know you’ve nominated them.

So, thank you very much to Map of Time! Your posts are so thoroughly researched and informative, that really, they put mine to shame.

And the answers to the ten interview questions:

  1. What is your favorite color? That perfect shade of pink nightmare, just right for footed bunny pajamas.
  2. What is your favorite animal? Victor, the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse.
  3. What is your favorite number? This is a slight breach of etiquette, but I’m going right for the throat with the triple dog dare.
  4. What is your favorite drink? It was before my time, but I just know I would have been a big fan of blue cream Nehi. Rumor has it would even turn your teeth blue!
  5. What is your favorite pattern? Soda bottle fishnets.
  6. What is your passion? That yearly bacchanalia of peace on earth and good will to men.
  7. Do you prefer a good movie or a good book? I love it when a good book becomes a good movie. It rarely happens the other way around.
  8. Would you rather give or receive a gift? I love to give that unexpected surprise gift that someone has always wanted, like a “Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”
  9. What is your favorite day? Christmas, of course!
  10. What is your favorite flower? I’m quite fond of yellow daisies. Isn’t it pretty?


Finally, my nominations. One of the best parts about blogging is discovering the work of so many other talented writers. From among many, I have chosen ten that each inspire me in different ways. They all get an A+++++++++++++++++++ in my book.

1. Wine and History

2. Mowry Journal

3. The Laughing Housewife

4. Girl on Contrary

5. The Happy Logophile

6. Bottledworder

7. After the Kids Leave

8. samuelehall

9. The Nice Things About Stangers

10. revelinmomness

The Magic of Nothing

Ship's Steering Wheel

This past week, Hurricane Sandy met up with her blustery friends from the north and the west to pound the east coast of the US. And as cleanup efforts continue an equally terrifying political storm looms on the horizon as we finally get to elections next week. In the midst of all the turmoil, it’s difficult to know exactly where to turn for a blog topic. So what I have decided to do this week is to offer a moment of stress relief during this relative calm between the storms by writing about nothing.

Specifically, I want to talk about the invention of the “nothing” that occupies the center of a traditional American doughnut. Though versions of doughnuts have been around for centuries and can be found throughout the world, the round doughnut with a hole in the middle has become largely an American tradition since it was introduced, most likely by the Dutch. This is one piece of history on which no one can really be sure, but one story does stand out as the clear fan favorite.

At the age of sixteen, a young Dutchman named Hanson Gregory set out for a life at sea. Like most successful young men, Gregory had a mother who loved him and worried about him, probably would have even struck out into the world with him if she could have, but because a young man needs the space to make his own way she did the next best thing. She cooked up a bunch of his favorite pastries (olykoek or “oily cakes”) and sent them with him. And like great moms everywhere, she also sent along the recipe.

Young Gregory gave his mother’s recipe to his cook and set about his ship duties. Life was good. He was doing his own thing, but could still enjoy a taste of home. Then on June 22, 1847, a terrible storm rose up and Gregory, olykoek in hand, had to make a decision. Either he could grab the ship’s wheel with both hands and fight to keep the boat on a safe course, but sacrifice his tasty snack in the process or he could eat his olykoek and possibly sacrifice the ship and the lives of its crew.

The clever young man did the only thing there was to do. He took his olykoek and plunked it down one of the wheel spokes to secure it. His pastry now safe, he grabbed the wheel with all his might and saved the ship.

Doughnut (Photo credit: Images of Sri Lanka – Sequential Shots)

The early olykoek was pretty much just a ball of dough fried in pork fat which often cooked unevenly, leaving a gooey center. What Hanson Gregory discovered during that fateful storm was that an olykoek with a hole in the middle, tasted better than the original and so he asked his cook to prepare them that way from then on. The doughnut as we know it today was born.

The doughnut really took off in America, though, when, in 1920, New York businessman Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut-producing machine. His mass produced, holey, pastries received the label “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. We Americans have loved our doughnuts ever since and the proof is the success of chains such as Dunkin Donuts, launched in 1948 and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which got its start in 1936, as well as the rise of smaller doughnut boutiques throughout the nation, where one can often sample the best and strangest the doughnut industry has to offer.

On a recent trip to Portland, my sons and I visited one such doughnut shop. Voodoo Doughnuts has been a downtown oddity in Portland, OR (a city known for downtown oddities) since 2003.

Though it is possible to order a traditional glazed doughnut, the more than 90 doughnut varieties on the menu also include some truly bizarre options such as the Tangfastic. Sadly I was not brave enough to try that one, but the varieties we tasted were delicious. The boys chose chocolate-frosted cake doughnuts while I went for the signature voodoo doll doughnut, complete with a pretzel rod pin through the chest and red jelly filling that, like the hole, effectively addresses the concern of the underdone middle.

The doughnuts are good and the atmosphere is charmingly weird (you can get legally married there if, for some reason, you want to), but what I like most about Voodoo Doughnuts is their motto: “The magic is in the Hole!”

And they’re not wrong because if we learn anything from the heroic tale of Hanson Gregory, it is that this “nothing” in the middle of the doughnut, is really quite something. So as we take a deep breath in this semi-calm we have between storms here in the US, let’s just try to remember that after the ship has been righted and the undercooked dough has been scraped off the steering wheel, great things can come from some of life’s biggest storms, even if those great things might seem at first like nothing at all.

This blog post is NOT about the St. Louis Cardinals

Though sport has been a part of the human experience for about as long as history has been recorded, the concept of professional team sports is relatively recent. Until industrialization came along, people simply didn’t have time for much leisure activity, but  the mid-1800’s saw the emergence of the first professional football leagues (that’s “soccer” to all us uncultured Americans).

Then in 1876 professional sports, specifically baseball, arrived in the US with the establishment of the National League. The American League joined the fun in 1901. The NHL, with a slightly more complicated history, can trace its origin to 1909. 1920 brought us the NFL and the NBA started in 1946.

And with the rise of all these professional athletes came the rise superstition in sports. Why is this, you might ask? Well, historians have often noted that superstition is most pronounced in times when people feel they have little control over the outcome of their own lives. Professional athletes capable of competing at the highest level of their sport find themselves competing against others who are more or less equally capable.

The result of this kind of competition is, more often than we would like, dependent less on pure talent than on circumstance. Often miscommunication, questionable calls by officials, and poorly timed injuries make the difference between winning and losing. How can a team protect itself from such unforeseen problems? The answer is obviously to conjure the most luck.

Teams do this all the time. NHL teams famously refuse to touch their Conference Champion Trophies for fear it will bring them bad luck in their quest for the Stanley Cup and often the members of a baseball team will not shave during a post season run. My favorite team ritual by far, though, is that of professional rugby team, The All Blacks who perform a traditional war chant in front of the opposing team before each game.

But whereas team rituals can be attributed to increasing team camaraderie, the personal superstitions of many professional athletes are just plain bizarre. They range from the unwillingness of baseball players to change places in the batting order, to rubbing the head of the bat boy, or commonly the refusal or insistence of stepping on particular markings on the field of play. It seems there’s no end to what rituals professional athletes will try in an attempt to give themselves a slight edge. But not all players put much stock in such behaviors.

Babe Ruth, who once famously said, “I have only one superstition. I touch all the bases when I hit a homerun,” penned an article that ran in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on May 28th of 1929, about his response to a fan’s suggestion that Ruth was wearing the wrong number. That year the Yankees became the first team to consistently wear numbers on the back of their jerseys and the Bambino wore the number 3 on his. The concerned fan, a self-identified numbers expert, explained that according to his observations of Ruth (who was in a minor hitting slump at the time), the player should be wearing the number 7. If he made the change, the fan insisted, he would have a great season. If not, Lou Gehrig, who sported the number 4 on his jersey (the appropriate number for him according to the “expert”) would certainly outhit Babe.

In response, Babe had only this to say: “Somehow I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the number on a fellow’s back doesn’t have much to do with his hitting one way or another—and I’m a lot more interested in getting my eye on the ball right now than I am in picking out lucky numbers or studying the stars.” Turns out Babe Ruth probably didn’t do any harm by disregarding the fan’s suggestion. In 1929, he hit 46 homeruns, drove in 154 runs and had an overall batting average of .345. Not bad; and, notably, better than #4 Lou Gehrig.

English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United St...

The Yankees did have an off year, though. Their pitching struggled terribly and even with heavy hitters at the plate, they weren’t able to pull off a third consecutive championship, finishing up in second place behind the Philadelphia Athletics. If I know anything about baseball fans, I’m guessing numbers guy wasn’t surprised.

Because if professional athletes sometimes depend on a particular routine or good luck charm in an attempt to influence those factors that are largely out of their control, that is nothing compared to what their fans do. Fans are, after all, stuck on the sidelines, in front of the television, or tuned in to the game updates when our focus really should be elsewhere. Fans have no real control over the outcome of the game. All we can do is wish and hope and stress out.

So fans don good luck charms, eat specific foods, perform elaborate celebration dances, and generally engage in all manner of charm casting. Pretty much anything goes, because as a recent Bud Light commercial expresses: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

So for example, a practical historian known for rational thought and witty discourse (perhaps for her beauty and charm as well, but who can say) might convince herself that it is essential that she wear the same piece of jewelry every day of the playoffs as long as a certain flock of baseball playing birds from an undisclosed Midwestern city are still in contention. She might seek comfort during tense playoff moments by tightly hugging a plush toy of the team mascot. And perhaps she would even refuse to blog about her team until their postseason run is over. It wouldn’t be weird, though because it’s totally going to work.