Category Archives: history

Pandemic blog 9: The Class of 1895

I was wondering about what the last major pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, looked like in real time, so I looked at the 25th anniversary report of the Harvard Class of 1895, published in June 1920 and written in 1919. To my surprise, the flu is barely mentioned. Henry Adsit Bull lost his oldest daughter to it. A couple of classmates worked in influenza hospitals. Morton Aldrich used it as an excuse for being late with his report. Paul Washburn reported being quite ill with it, and emphasizing that it might be his last report, demanded that the editors print his curriculum vitae with no editorial changes. (Nope — he was still alive and well and banking in the 1935 report.) I thought 1894, whose report was written more in the thick of the epidemic, might have more to say, but not really. Two men died of it, including one who made it through hideous battles of the Great War only to succumb to flu in November 1918. Another lost daughter.

But no one weighs in on it; I have read a lot of old Harvard class reports, and if there’s one thing I can tell you about an early 20th century Harvard man, it’s that he likes to weigh in. Not sure what to make of this. Maybe the pandemic didn’t much touch the lives of the elite. Or maybe people just died of stuff more and the Spanish flu didn’t make much of an impression. Or maybe it was just too rough to talk about (but I don’t think so — people recount pretty grisly material about the war.)

Back to the present. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered all jury trials halted for two months for the safety of jurors, witnesses, and officers of the court; an extremely overwrought dissent from Justice Rebecca Bradley insists that if a right is in the constitution it can’t be put on pause, even for a couple of months, even in a pandemic, which will be news to the people in every state whose governors have suspended their right to assemble.

CJ made a blueberry bundt cake, the best thing he’s made so far, aided by the fact that at the Regent Market Co-op I found a box of pectin, an ingredient I didn’t even know existed. Powdered sugar there was not, but it turns out that powdered sugar is literally nothing but regular sugar ground fine and mixed with a little cornstarch! You can make it yourself if you have a good blender. And we do have a good blender. We love to blend.

Walked around the neighborhood a bit. Ran into the owner of a popular local restaurant and talked to him from across the street. He’s been spending days and days working to renegotiate his loan with the bank. He thinks we ought to be on the “Denmark plan” where the government straight up pays worker’s salaries rather than make businesses apply to loans so they can eventually get reimbursed for the money they’re losing right now. (I did not check whether this is actually the Denmark plan.) Also saw my kids’ pediatrician, who told me that regular pediatrics has been suspended except for babies and they’ve closed the regular clinic, everything is consolidated in 20 S. Park.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about different groups’ COVID projections, claims and counterclaims. I’ll write about it a little in the next entry to show how little I know. But I think nobody knows anything.

Tomorrow it’ll be two weeks since the last time I was more than a quarter-mile from my house. We are told to be ready for another month. It won’t be that hard for us, but it’ll be hard for a lot of people.

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The American bar mitzvah, 1887

“And during the time when the Hungarian or Polish Jewish youngster was brought to a level where he could understand the Prophets, and listen to rigorous biblical and legal studies, the American youngster is merely brought to the magnificent level of being able to stammer a few words of English-style Hebrew, to pronounce the blessing over the Torah, and to chant half the maftir from a text with vowels and notes on the day he turns thirteen — a day that is celebrated here as the greatest of holidays among our Jewish brethren. From that day onward a youngster considers his teacher to be an unwanted article.”

Moses Weinberger, Jews and Judaism in New York, 1887 (Jonathan D. Sarna, trans.)
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The great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way — and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world?

(William Makepeace Thackeray, from Vanity Fair)

 

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Look how much I saved you on this goddamn vacuum cleaner

I wrote this on Facebook about a year and a half ago.


Thought of it today when I saw this tweet from Donald Trump Jr.

 

American Revolution

I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago with AB and we went to the brand-new Museum of the American Revolution.  It’s a great work of public history.  Every American, and everybody else who cares about America, should see it.

The museum scrapes away the layer of inevitability and myth around our founding.  Its Revolution is something that might easily not have succeeded.  Or that might have succeeded but with different aims.  There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be.  The museum puts you face to face with them.

E Pluribus Unum was an aspiration, not a fact.  There was a lot of pluribus.  The gentility in Massachusetts and the Oneida and frontierspeople in Maryland and the French and the enslaved Africans and their American slavemasters were different people with different interests and each had their own revolution in mind.

Somehow it came together.  George Washington gets his due.  The museum presents him as a real person, not just a face on the money.  A person who knew that the decisions he made, in a hurry and under duress, would reverberate through the lifespan of the new country.  We were lucky to have him.  And yes, I choked up, seeing his tent, fragile and beaten-up and confined to a climate-controlled chamber, but somehow still here and standing.

The Haggadah tells us that every generation of Jews has to read the story of Exodus as if we, ourselves, personally, were among those brought out from Egypt.  The museum reminded me of that commandment.  It demands that we find the General Washington in ourselves.  In each generation we have to tell the story of the American Revolution as if we, ourselves, personally, are fighting for our freedom, and are responsible for what America will be.

Because we are!  We are still in the course of human events.  The American Revolution isn’t over.  It won’t ever be over.  It’s right that we call it a “revolution” and not an “overthrow” or a “liberation.”  We’re still revolving, still turning this place over, we’re still plural, we’re still arguing.  We still have the chance, and so we still have the obligation, to make the lives of our children more free than our own.

Happy Independence Day.

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Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk

One more from Why Men Fail:

Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk would dream of trying to make his own shirts, and confidential investigation would probably reveal that mighty few darn their own socks.  Yet the cities are full of women on march larger salaries who not only make their own clothes, but cook their own meals and do their own laundry.

So in 1927, it was more unusual to cook for yourself than it was to make your own clothes?  When did that flip?

 

Why Men Fail

That’s the book I picked up off the shelf while working in Memorial Library today.  It’s an book of essays by psychiatrists about failure and suboptimal function, published in 1936.  In the introduction I find:

We see what a heavy toll disorders of the mind exact from human happiness when we realize that of all the beds in all the hospitals throughout the United States one in every two is for mental disease; in other words, there are as many beds for mental ailments as for all other ailments put together.

That’s startling to me!  Can it really have been so?  What’s the proportion now?

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Maryland flag, my Maryland flag

The Maryland flag is, in my opinion as a Marylander, the greatest state flag.

Ungepotch?  Yes.  But it has that ineffable “it shouldn’t work but it does” that marks really great art.

But here’s something I didn’t know about my home state’s flag:

 

Despite the antiquity of its design, the Maryland flag is of post-Civil War origin. Throughout the colonial period, only the yellow-and-black Calvert family colors are mentioned in descriptions of the Maryland flag. After independence, the use of the Calvert family colors was discontinued. Various banners were used to represent the state, although none was adopted officially as a state flag. By the Civil War, the most common Maryland flag design probably consisted of the great seal of the state on a blue background. These blue banners were flown at least until the late 1890s….

Reintroduction of the Calvert coat of arms on the great seal of the state [in 1854] was followed by a reappearance at public events of banners in the yellow-and-black Calvert family colors. Called the “Maryland colors” or “Baltimore colors,” these yellow-and-black banners lacked official sanction of the General Assembly, but appear to have quickly become popular with the public as a unique and readily identifiable symbol of Maryland and its long history.

The red-and-white Crossland arms gained popularity in quite a different way. Probably because the yellow-and-black “Maryland colors” were popularly identified with a state which, reluctantly or not, remained in the Union, Marylanders who sympathized with the South adopted the red-and-white of the Crossland arms as their colors. Following Lincoln’s election in 1861, red and white “secession colors” appeared on everything from yarn stockings and cravats to children’s clothing. People displaying these red-and-white symbols of resistance to the Union and to Lincoln’s policies were vigorously prosecuted by Federal authorities.

During the war, Maryland-born Confederate soldiers used both the red-and-white colors and the cross bottony design from the Crossland quadrants of the Calvert coat of arms as a unique way of identifying their place of birth. Pins in the cross bottony shape were worn on uniforms, and the headquarters flag of the Maryland-born Confederate general Bradley T. Johnson was a red cross bottony on a white field.

By the end of the Civil War, therefore, both the yellow-and-black Calvert arms and the red-and-white colors and bottony cross design of the Crossland arms were clearly identified with Maryland, although they represented opposing sides in the conflict.

In 4th grade, in Maryland history, right after having to memorize the names of the counties, we learned about the flag’s origin in the Calvert coat of arms

but not about the symbolic meaning of the flag’s adoption, as an explicit gesture of reconciliation between Confederate sympathizers and Union loyalists sharing power in a post-war border state.

The Howard County flag is based on the Crossland arms.  (There’s also a sheaf of wheat and a silhouette of Howard County nosing its way through a golden triangle.)  The city of Baltimore, on the other hand, uses the Calvert yellow-and-black only.

Oh, and there’s one more flag:

That’s the flag of the Republic of Maryland, an independent country in West Africa settled mostly by free black Marylanders.  It existed only from 1854 to 1857, when it was absorbed into Liberia, of which it’s still a part, called Maryland County.  The county flag still has Lord Baltimore’s yellow, but not the black.

 

 

 

 

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Driftless Father’s Day

This Father’s Day I found that, by some kind of unanticipated-gap-in-the-Red-Sea-level miracle, neither of my children had any events scheduled, so I gave myself a present and did something I’d been meaning to do for a year; take them to Dubuque.

It’s not far from Madison.  You drive southwest through the Driftless Zone, where the glaciers somehow looped around and missed a spot while they were grinding the rest of the Midwest flat.

At the exit to Platteville there was a sign for a “Mining Museum.”  We had about six seconds to decide whether we all wanted to go to a mining museum but that was plenty of time because obviously we all totally wanted to go to a mining museum.  And it was great!  Almost the platonic ideal of a small-town museum.  Our guide took us down into the old lead mine from the 1850s, now with electric lights and a lot of mannequins caught in the act of blasting holes in the rock.  (One of the mannequins was black; our guide told us that there were African-American miners in southwestern Wisconsin, but not that some of them were enslaved.)

This museum did a great job of conveying the working conditions of those miners; ankle-deep in water, darkness broken only by the candle wired to the front of their hat, the hammers on the rock so loud you couldn’t talk, and had to communicate by hand signals.  Riding up and down to the surface with one leg in the bucket and one leg out so more men could fit in one load, just hoping the bucket didn’t swing wrong and crush your leg against the rock wall.  There’s nothing like an industrial museum to remind you that everything you buy in a store has hours of difficult, dangerous labor built into it.  But it was also labor people traveled miles to get the chance to do!

Only twenty miles further to the Mississippi, my daughter’s first time seeing the river, and across it Dubuque.  Which has a pretty great Op-Art flag:

 

 

Our main goal was the National Mississippi River Museum; slick where the Platteville museum was homespun, up-to-date where the Plateville Museum was old-fashioned.  The kids really liked both.  I wanted fewer interactive screens, more actual weird river creatures.

The museum is on the Riverwalk; Dubuque, like just about every city on a body of water, is reinventing its shoreline as a tourist hub.  Every harbor a Harborplace.  OK, I snark, but it was a lovely walk; lots of handsome bridges in view, all different, an old-timey band playing in the gazebo, Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa invisibly meeting across the water….

Only disappointment of the afternoon; the famous funicular railway was closed.  Maybe they could have posted that on their website or something.  But in a way it’s good they didn’t; if I’d known it was closed, I probably would have decided to put off the trip, and who knows if we’d ever have gone?

On the way back we stopped in Dickeyville to get gas but missed the Dickeyville Grotto; would have stopped there for sure if I’d known about it.  Dinner in Dodgeville at Culver’s, the Midwest’s superior version of In-N-Out, where I got my free Father’s Day turtle.   I like cheese curds and brats as much as the next guy, but I gotta say, I think the turtle is my favorite of the many foods I’d never heard of before I moved to Wisconsin.

 

 

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