History As Stories

History Podcast: In the Past Lane

Last week I recommended Ben Franklin’s World, one of the history podcasts that I listen to regularly. This week I want to talk about another history podcast, In the Past Lane: The Podcast About History and Why It Matters. This podcast is hosted by Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. If you’re a fan of The Great Courses and lifelong learning, O’Donnell has a couple of courses available you can check out here.

Like the podcast from last week, the host interviews experts about American history. However, In the Past Lane includes all periods in American history, not just the early years. The topics covered are generally the same (politics, war, individuals, culture, slavery, daily life, and religion), except they may be discussed in different eras. Episodes are generally 40-50 minutes long.

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Andrew Johnson.
Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, April 11, 1868 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you subscribe to In the Past Lane, you also get a weekly download on Mondays called “The Pit Stop”. This is approximately five minutes of information about events that happened or people who were born during each week in American history.

One of my favorite things about this particular podcast is that O’Donnell gives us more than just facts about history. He explains how events and laws from our shared history affect the way things are now and may affect us in the future. He also uses current events to inform the topics he chooses to discuss. History impacts our lives and it matters.

Here are links to some In the Past Lane episodes that I enjoyed.

Episode 169 The Myth of Black Confederates

Episode 160 The History of Impeachment

Episode 127 The History of Ice and Refrigeration in the US

Episode 105 The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920

Episode 100 The Eugenics Movement: The Effort to Create a Pure American Race

Episode 094 The Founders, The Constitution, & the Fallacy of Original Intent

I hope you have a chance to listen and enjoy, and I would love comments letting me know what you think of these two podcasts.

History Podcast: Ben Franklin’s World

I listen wide variety of podcasts. I listen in the car and on walks, and since I don’t have a TV, I listen when I’m cooking, cleaning, or just hanging around the house. Podcasts are a great way to learn new stuff!

One of the history podcasts that I listen to is Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. The host, Dr. Liz Covart, interviews experts about America in the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic periods. She is also the Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by artist David Martin, in the Green Room at The White House. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I really like the format, in which the host interviews one guest. Each episode is about an hour long, so they have time to delve into the topic under discussion. The topics include politics, war, individuals, culture, slavery, daily life, and religion.

There is a Ben Franklin’s World group page on Facebook and Dr. Covart is active on Twitter. Besides history, I know from Twitter that Dr. Covart is also a Boston Red Sox fan. On Twitter I have also seen many comments from teachers who use this podcast in their classrooms. Along with the factual information gained from listening, there are also many tips about resources to use for good historical research.

Early American history is not my primary area of study, but I still listen to all the Ben Franklin’s World episodes. Even if the episode title doesn’t sound interesting to me, I know I will always pick up bits of unexpected information.

The current episode is #260, but if that is overwhelming and you don’t know where to start, I’ll give you links to some of my favorite episodes. Of course, you can also just subscribe to the podcast and listen to the episodes as they appear.

Episode 252: Matthew Dziennik, The Highland Soldier in North America

Episode 244: Kimberly Alexander, Shoe Stories from Early America

Episode 239: Joseph Adelman, Post & Travel in Early America

Episode 219: Adrian Covert, Taverns in Early America

Episode 216: Lisa Wilson, A History of Stepfamilies in America

Episode 192: Brian Regal, The Secret History of the New Jersey Devil

I hope you listen, enjoy, and learn something!

Teamwork and Breaking News

I love breaking news about history! This one is a few years old, but since the original story happened about 1,500 years ago, I’m not going to worry that I’m late to the update.

The first element of this story is malaria. Malaria is an infectious disease that is spread by mosquitoes. When the mosquito bites you, parasites from the saliva are deposited into your blood. There are generally no signs of illness during the first week. After that, the symptoms are like the flu, with the most well-known symptom being periodic fever and sweats.

Malaria is now preventable and treatable. Most cases occur in tropical regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most deaths from malaria are in Africa and are associated with poverty.

But there have been records of these periodic fevers throughout recorded history, and those cases were not always limited to the poorest areas. Malaria was once common in North America and Europe. This includes Rome before the fall of the Roman Empire, generally dated as 476 CE.

I am not an expert on ancient history, not even a little bit, so I will just say that the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire are much discussed and debated.

So finally, to the breaking news.

Thanks to the knowledge of many experts and the use of modern technology, it has been proven that malaria existed in the Roman Empire. How much that infectious disease had to do with the decline and fall will undoubtedly be a source of debate for a long time.

I recommend you watch this BBC production “Malaria and the Fall of Rome” even though it is 49 minutes long.

What interests me isn’t so much the actual findings, but what it took to get there. I recommend the video so that you can see the work that was done by various experts.

I don’t know if other experts were involved and not mentioned, but here’s what I saw:

  • The people digging up the harbor to create a new road, who recognized that they had found something archaeologically interesting and called in the relevant experts.
  • The archaeologist who specialized in ships, in this case 16 Roman ships.
  • The archaeologist who specialized in pottery and coins, called in to use those objects to establish a date for those ships.
  • The archaeologists who were digging at a site, found what they believed to be a Roman villa, and the archaeologist they called in who had more specialized knowledge.
  • The forensic anthropologist who was called in to determine the ages of the children whose bones were found at the villa.
  • The special forensic expert called in to identify the animal bones buried with the babies.
  • The people who did the literature search to find contemporaneous reports of a disease with the same symptoms as malaria.
  • The botanist called in to identify the plant ash that was found with the bones of the children.
  • The mosquito expert called to identify the physical conditions of the area that would account for the spread of malaria. (Did you know that mosquitoes can only fly about 100 meters?)
  • The DNA specialist who used the bones from the villa to analyze for the existence of malaria.

So there’s your breaking news in history, evidence of malaria found in bones from ancient Rome.

But equally important, in my view, is what this story says about the value of teamwork and expertise.

London Millennium Footbridge

The post I was writing for today went sideways on me, making me realize that I wanted to write it from a different angle. I’ll have that for you next week.

For today, here is my favorite photo of the London Millennium Footbridge, taken three years ago this week. Enjoy!

Photo by Cathy Hanson

Replay: Resistance By Music and Carnations

For many people, mention of a resistance movement brings to mind the Polish, French and Danish resistance movements against the occupying German forces during World War II. Those events are fairly recent, often heroic, and get a lot of play in movies, so they are in our public consciousness.

As a descriptor, “resistance movement” is vague enough to encompass a variety of actions, although the idea of a movement requires some organization. Resistance can be armed or unarmed, violent or non-violent, against a government or against an occupying force, and can be aimed at objectives ranging from physical freedom to civil rights.

Mural em Grândola contendo a pauta de Grândola Vila Morena by Paulo Juntas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Mural in Grândola to commemorate the Carnation Revolution. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite examples is the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In 1926 there was a military coup overthrowing an unstable parliamentary government. As often happens with coups, the result was an authoritarian government. This one lasted over forty years, longer than any other authoritarian rule in Western Europe.

By 1974, the rulers controlled the press, persecuted religions other than Roman Catholicism, and had a secret police force to take care of any opposition. Women were not allowed to vote and had low literacy rates because they were denied education. Portugal’s NATO partners tolerated the entrenched right-wing dictatorship because they were anti-communist.

Portuguese citizens were being conscripted into military service and a big part of Portugal’s budget was being spent to fight colonial wars against African independence movements. Some of the military officers fighting these wars, which had dragged on for 13 years, finally had enough, both of their government and their wars. Like any military coup, they were aiming for regime change, but in this case they wanted to replace a dictatorship with a democracy and to negotiate with the African independence movements.

The coup turned out to be quick and almost bloodless. Four people were killed by the authoritarian regime’s police forces.

Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons
Monument to the Revolution of 25 April, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Francisco Santos via Wikimedia Commons

This was a military coup joined by civil resistance once the public realized what was happening. Although the coup leaders announced over the radio that they wanted the citizens to remain in their homes, the people wanted to be a part of this and poured into the streets. Carnations were in season and available in the market square, so once the coup was successful, the people started putting carnations into the soldiers’ rifle muzzles and on their uniforms.

My favorite part of this story? The leaders of the coup had two secret signals. When a certain song was played, the soldiers were to begin the coup. The song they used was Portugal’s 1974 entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho. (ABBA’s “Waterloo” won that year.) The second signal, to take over certain strategic positions, was announced with a song by Zeca Afonso, a musician banned from Portuguese radio as part of the government’s media censorship.

Music to take down a dictatorship. Now that’s some good resistance.

Sea Otters and International Treaties

I returned to work today after the long weekend and flipped my calendar to September. The new month shows a mother and baby sea otter kicking back. Completely adorable, so today you get to read about sea otters and the first international wildlife conservation treaty.

I also saw a sea otter when I was at Morro Bay, but my photo was not this good. Sea Otter with Pup in her arms, Morro Bay, CA, March 23, 2007.
Attribution: “Mike” Michael L. Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, most sea otters live in the coastal waters of Alaska. They weigh about 45-90 pounds. They use rocks as tools to open shells for their seafood dinners. They hold hands or wrap themselves in seaweed so that they won’t float away while napping.

Sea otters at Moss Landing, California.
Attribution: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike other sea mammals, they have no blubber layer because they have fur that keeps them warm. They have the thickest, most dense fur of any animal, up to one million hairs per square inch. Humans have maybe 1/10 that many on their entire head.

The fur on pups is so dense that they can only float and are physically unable to dive underwater until they get their adult fur. That’s one of the reasons they stay with mom for their first six months.

As you can imagine, that dense fur makes coverings or clothing that is incredibly warm. And people were willing to pay a lot of money to have something that soft and beautiful.

Remember I said above that most sea otters live off the coast of Alaska? Before they were almost wiped out, sea otters lived throughout the north Pacific Ocean. But by the middle of the 18th century, people were traveling around the continents pretty well, often in search of new resources that they could either use or sell.

Oceanário Sea Otter. Photo by
Alexander Svensson via Wikimedia Commons.

These travelers traded with natives or hunted on their own to get the furs they needed to sell, mostly in Europe and China. The most profitable fur was the thick fur of the sea otters.  Because of this profit, sea otters were hunted almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

(As I wrote that, in my head I heard Kyle Reese from The Terminator saying “We were this close to going out forever”.)

Finally, people started to realize that this income stream wasn’t going to last forever. After all, the prices of the furs were going up due to scarcity, so obviously there weren’t as many as there used to be.

This problem was created internationally by traders and buyers from many countries and needed to be resolved internationally. The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention was signed in 1911. It was an international treaty between the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, and the Empire of Japan.

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) preening itself in Morro Bay Feb. 21, 2007.
Attribution: “Mike” Michael L. Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

All countries agreed to stop commercial harvesting of sea otters and fur seals in open waters for five years to allow the recovery of those mammal populations. It turns out that five years ended right in the middle of the first world war, so this wasn’t a priority. This treaty, the first international wildlife conservation treaty stayed in effect until World War II.

It was man and markets that almost brought sea otters to extinction before, but they are still not completely safe. Some of the issues that threaten them today are diminished food sources, commercial fishing nets, disease caused by stuff that gets flushed into the ocean, sharks, and oil spills. An estimated 2,500-3,000 were killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

I try to walk on the side of hope rather than despair. I also almost always believe that enough of us care and ultimately learn from history. Long live the sea otter!

A Nickname Makes a Comeback

I have always been fascinated by historical nicknames. First, because it’s interesting to learn how people define themselves or others. Second, because language evolves and when we look back into history, we can’t always be sure those nicknames mean what we think they mean.

Which brings us to Harald Bluetooth. Because Harald lived and died more than a thousand years ago, we don’t know everything about him. Although it’s possible he was born in 910, we don’t know that for sure.

We do know that Harald’s father was the first King of Denmark in a new line and his name was Gorm. Ok, that’s not really important to this story, but the name kinda makes me giggle, so I wanted to share.

Harald in 987, circa 1685. Source
Bildarchiv Austria via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to Harald. The accepted history about Harald is that he unified Denmark, and then Norway (for a short time), under a single ruler. During his time as ruler, he also promoted conversion from the old Norse gods to Christianity among his people.

Harald died in 986 (or 985, or 987), fighting a rebellion led by his son Svein Forkbeard.

The baptism of Harald Bluetooth. Detail from baptismal font from circa 1100 in
Tamdrup Kirke, Denmark. Photo by Sven Rosborn via Wikimedia Commons.

So why was he called Bluetooth? This seems to be an issue of language. Harald probably had a rotten tooth, in the front where it was highly visible, that had turned black. The word used originally may have just meant that it was dark rather than blue.

One more thing about Harald. More than one thousand years after his death, in the late 1990s, some businessmen were inspired by Harald’s ability to unite people and named their company Bluetooth in his honor. They even used the runes for his initials, HB, and combined them to use as their logo.

If you’re interested in more nicknames, check out this previous post, “A Rose By Any Other Name: 3 Intriguing Historical Nicknames”, about Ivar the Boneless, Edward, the Black Prince, and Henry the Impotent.

The Evolution of Paul Bunyan

I’ve always thought of oral traditions as a long game of telephone. You know, the game where each person whispers to their neighbor and at the end, you all compare the original statement with the final statement. Then you all laugh like crazy.

In the 19th century U.S., logging was a very big deal. Try to imagine how many trees there were growing naturally before people started moving into those newly cleared areas. The lumberjacks who cut down those trees were out in the middle of nowhere with no TV or smartphones. So after their work was done for the day, they told stories.

Paul Bunyan & Babe, Trees of Mystery, Route 101, Klamath, California. Library of Congress photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of those stories were about a legendary lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. It’s unknown if the original stories were based on a real lumberjack and were increasingly exaggerated, or if they were all completely made up from the beginning.

Either way, similar stories were told around lumberjack campfires not just in one area, but spread throughout the northern United States. Again, it is unknown whether the stories were spread due to lumberjacks moving to other areas and carrying the stories with them, or if the same type of exaggerated stories grew organically in all areas.

Smiley Paul Bunyan!

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine. Author: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons

In all these stories, Bunyan was the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, and the most skilled lumberjack that had ever lived. Some storytellers claimed to have known Paul, or at least to have known someone who knew him. He was like a superhero, but still human.

But that all changed when the folk legend became an advertisement.

In 1914 artist William Laughead (1882-1958) started creating ads for the Red River Lumber Company using Paul Bunyan. That’s when Bunyan became not seven feet tall, but taller than mountains. That’s when he created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe along the ground and his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota with his hoofprints.

I was not expecting that mustache!

Illustration of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, Babe by William B. Laughead from “Paul Bunyan and His Blue Ox.” via Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, this new mythology of Bunyan has inspired books, poems, statues, the Paul Bunyan Land Amusement Park, cartoons, and even movies.

But if you want the real stories of Paul Bunyan from the lumberjacks, the Paul Bunyan before he was a promotional figure, check out this academic article. “Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack”, written by K. Bernice Stewart and Homer A. Watt was published in the journal Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1916. It’s only 13 pages and easy to read. It was written not long after Laughead started using the Bunyan myth in ads.  

Ok, the mustache is also in Bemidji.

Statues of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Bemidji. Author:Tastocke via Wikimedia Commons.

He’s a Paul Bunyan we no longer recognize, and it is fascinating to “hear” the stories from actual lumberjacks, just like we were all sitting around a campfire.

Want to Be a Street Fighter?

I am going to flat-out admit my ignorance about the various forms of martial arts. I don’t know the differences between various martial arts, their underlying philosophies, or even the rules of the MMA fights that my daughter and her friends love to watch.

So it’s not surprising that I didn’t know anything about Krav Maga.

Krav Maga, which translates from Hebrew as “contact combat”, is a self-defense system of fighting in close contact. Basically, fighting off an attacker. It was developed in such a way that people of different ages, genders, and levels of fitness could learn it quickly.

“Krav maga” lesson in paratroopers school. Israel, 1955. Author TZAHAL via Wikimedia Commons.

Imi Lichtenfeld was born in 1910 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary and grew up in Bratislava, which is now in Slovakia. His father had been part of a professional circus, where he learned gymnastics and other sports, and then became a police inspector. While working for the police, he also owned a gym and taught self-defense.

Lichtenfeld trained at his father’s gym and became an international competitor in sports such as boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics.

But when he was in his 20s, things in Europe took a dark turn, especially for Jewish families. In 1930s Bratislava, anti-Semitic gangs wandered the streets harassing Jewish people. Lichtenfeld and other young men banded together to protect their neighborhoods from these gangs.

It didn’t take long for Lichtenfeld to realize that the martial arts training he had done for sport was a world away from street fighting. The biggest difference was that there were no rules in street fighting.

Lichtenfeld had enough variety in his previous training that he could identify the problems and develop his new fighting style. And his new fighting skills were working well enough that he became a target and needed to get out of Europe.

He left Europe in 1940 and, after an eventful two years, landed in British-ruled Palestine in 1942. His family did not make it out and were killed there during the war.

In 1944 he started training others in his fighting style, including special forces and police officers. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, he served in the newly form Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), still training others in what was called Krav Maga.

Krav Maga – Grand Master Imi Lichtenfeld (left) and Yaron Lichtenstein. Author Yaron Lichtenstein via Wikimedia Commons.

When Lichtenfeld retired in 1964 he had refined his self-defense and hand-to-hand combat methods and decided to train civilians. He established two training centers in Israel, and eventually his system went global.

He died in 1998 at the age of 87. Here is a tribute video. I found the music distracting and the subtitles difficult to read, but the photos are great.

Krav Maga. A system of self-defense now taught globally was originally developed to help a group of men protect their Jewish families from anti-Semitic gangs.

My Local Surfer Van

I live in a beach town in Southern California that hosts a lot of tourists. I also live close enough to the center of town and the beach that I see a lot of foot traffic, especially people walking from parking spaces to the beach. And the most photographed thing in my area is this:

The backdrop for many vacation photos. Photo by Cathy Hanson.

People take photos from all angles, posing and using props, like skateboards, if they have them. I am amused by the kids who all have the same idea of pretending to be skitching for the photos.

The Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter (the Beetle was Type 1) was introduced in 1950, not long after the end of World War II. But for as long as I can remember, its image, at least in the United States, has been linked to the 1960s and the counter-culture movement. When I was a kid we called them “hippie vans”, imagining people camping in them on their way cross-country to a music festival.

Like the Beetle, the Type 2 had its engine in the back, so it had a flat nose. This allows the driver to feel as if they are on top of the world and can see everything around them. The interior was plain with rubber mats on the floor, which was one of the reasons for its popularity with surfers. No worries about getting saltwater or sand on the carpet. They could also throw some boards on top, leaving plenty of space to sit or sleep if they wanted to stay at the beach when they were done surfing.

Check out all the windows on this one! Photo by
ONordsieck via Wikimedia Commons.

The VW bus has evolved over the years, from the original with the split windshield, known as a Splittie (produced 1950-1967), through various iterations. Most of the changes seem to involve adding or removing windows.

The VW vans were loved by surfers and campers and families for their simplicity and roominess. They were cheap, easy to maintain, and you could pack a whole bunch of people into them. It was also slow and top-heavy, but the positives made up for that.

These days, I still see plenty of them around this beach community, at various levels of disrepair. I’ve heard that restored ones can go for a whole lot of money. But I still see all types from all eras, still hauling surfboards and people. Apparently you can still grab your board and your friends, and sleep in the van after a long day of surfing.

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