History As Stories

Which Singer Has a Birthday Today?

Today has been a really long week, so it seems like a good time for some birthday music, featuring a musician who was born on this date.

Gabriele Susanne Kerner, better known as Nena, was born on this date in 1960. In 1983, during the early years of MTV when music videos were everything, Nena and her band released a song called “99 Luftballons”. This was sung in German, although they did release an English version.

The story is that this is an anti-war song about how acts to show strength can escalate. But if you didn’t speak German, this was just a really danceable song.

If you’re interested in what was happening in Germany before and during the time this song was released, check out my post about the Berlin Airlift and my post about the divided city of Berlin.

So here is the original video from 1983:

And here is a really fun live version from 2016:

Go ahead, you know you want to dance!

Are You Using Your Public Library?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have, and utilize, a library card.

My local public library closed at 5:00 this evening. I am a huge fan of public libraries and have great respect for all who make libraries such a welcoming place for our entire community, so I have no issues with helping them stay safe and healthy. And before they closed, they extended all my due dates for a month, so I’m good with that.

Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

Since I figured it was going to close at some point, I checked some stuff out in advance. But I also know that even if I finish those books, modern public libraries won’t let me down. You see, at any hour of the day, whether the library is open or closed, I can check out digital books (if someone else didn’t get to them first) and download them immediately to my Kindle or other reader. Within minutes, I can begin something new.

I believe this also works for audio books, but since I can’t listen to fiction, I’m not sure about that.

I don’t know how your local public library’s website works, but on the search page, mine lets me limit my search to Downloadables, and then by type of book, like suspense or speculative fiction or romance or historical. Or, if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can search by author or title. So many options.

Public libraries are just one of the places I learned to love history. Let me tell you, when I was a pre-teen I could spot a gothic book cover from anywhere in the library.

So here is a little history.

Between 1883 and 1929, philanthropist and businessman Andrew Carnegie donated money to build 1,687 public libraries in the United States. That’s an average of 35 public libraries for each of the 48 states. (Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states yet.)

Public libraries are supported by (mostly) local taxes and services are available freely to all community members. I said “mostly” about the taxes because many public libraries have private sources of funding from individuals or corporations in the form of endowments, gifts, and grants. Seriously, if you want to do something that will benefit your community, then support your library.

The first public library in the United States that was completely supported by taxes was in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833.

Now may be a great time to catch up on your reading or check out some new books for your kids. Use your public library so they know that you love them.

History Breaking News: Lost and Found

This video is a great way to see this breaking history news. And see some very excited historians!

Thanks to my friend Portia Webb for giving me a heads-up about this.


If you want more information than was included in the video, you can check out these newspaper articles.



Hope you enjoy!

1692 Around the World

I had so much fun last week looking at the global history of 1863 that I wanted to try a different year. So I moved from the 19th century to the 17th century, to a time before the United States was a country. I’m going to look at 1692, the year of the Salem witch trials.

General knowledge about the Salem witch trials is culturally pervasive in the United States. Because the basics of the story are so well known, most Americans recognize it. But there is a lot of information presented in television and movies about that time that is either exaggerated or false. If you want to know the whole story there are plenty of well-researched books and articles available by respected historians.

Here’s an example of something I didn’t know from my popular culture training about the trials. I had no idea that the time period from the first accusations to the final executions of 20 people spanned less than one year. The more you know…

Examination of a witch, 1853 by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813–1884) at the Peabody Essex Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

So what else happened in 1692?

There is always fighting

  • Members of the Clan MacDonald in Scotland were killed in the Massacre of Glencoe by the rival Clan Campbell for delaying the signing of an oath of allegiance to the king of England, William III (William of Orange). This was 15 years before the 1707 Act of Union that merged Scotland and England into Great Britain, which is a whole other story.
  • In Barbados, a planned slave revolt is discovered. Severe reprisals are taken against the slaves believed to be part of the rebellion. A series of laws designed to stop future rebellions were passed immediately after the courts martial and the reprisals.
  • The year 1692 was about halfway through the Nine-Years’ War (1688-1697) between an expansionist France and a coalition of European countries known as the Grand Alliance.

After the Massacre of Glencoe , 1889 by Peter Graham (1836 – 18 October 1921) at the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


  • An earthquake and subsequent landslide and tsunami destroy the capital of Jamaica with thousands of deaths and injuries in the immediate aftermath. Thousands more died in the following months due to disease.
  • The strongest earthquake in the northern part of Western Europe happened in Belgium during this year. Estimates put the magnitude of the earthquake at about 6. The effects were also felt in eastern England, France, and in Germany.

Other stuff

  • At a riot in Mexico City an angry mob torches government buildings and loots nearby shops. The riot is blamed on grain shortages and rising grain prices, but riots like this are generally caused by multiple grievances, rather than just one. In this case, many believed that the government was hoarding the grain to increase the price, which is why they went after the government buildings.
  • Famine in France, partly due to the cost of fighting the Nine-Years’ War, killed up to 2 million people in 1692-1693.

I would love to hear why you think most of us don’t know about the other items listed here, but that the Salem witch trials are such a huge hit in popular culture.

1863 Around the World

I am always interested in what was happening around the world during any particular year. For this post I chose to look at 1863. In the United States, the Civil War was 1861-1865 and Americans tend to concentrate completely on that when looking at history for that period.

But there were other things happening around the world, and even other things happening in the U.S.

United States

  • The first homestead was claimed in Nebraska under 1862 Homestead Act.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Even during the Civil War, the Indian Wars were still taking place, including the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.
  • Samuel Clemens first used pen name “Mark Twain”.
  • The Arizona Territory and Idaho Territory were created/established.
  • The first wartime conscription law in the U.S. went into effect. Anti-draft mobs in New York City lynched blacks in response.
  • President Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.
  • President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address.
  • West Virginia became the 35th state.

Other fighting around the world

Battle of Miechow during January Uprising 1863. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The January Uprising, an unsuccessful Polish rebellion against Russian rule. The Russians had a significant numerical and technological advantage over the guerrilla insurgents, but the uprising, which also involved issues of class and wealth, into 1864. In the end, the Russians tightened their control and exacted cruel reprisals.
  • A series of conflicts known as the New Zealand Wars, between the Colonial British government and the Maori, stretched from 1845 through 1872.
  • The Franco-Mexican war took place in Mexico from 1861 to 1867. In 1863 Mexico City was captured by French troops.
  • In Japan, they were fighting for control of the Shimonoseki Straits against Great Britain, France, The Netherlands and the U.S.
  • The British were also fighting Japan in the Anglo-Satsuma War.


  • A storm ravages The Netherlands coastal regions.
  • An avalanche in southern Switzerland kills 29. In the same canton a few days later the weight of snow atop a church causes it to collapse, killing 47.
  • The HMS Orpheus sinks off the coast of New Zealand, killing 189.
  • A fire ravages the Jesuit Church of La Compana in Santiago, Chile, killing 2,000-3,000.

Other interesting stuff

Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd Century, B.C.E) (Discovered in 1863) Paris, Louvre
Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo by Rodney via Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Football Association starts in England, standardizing the rules of soccer.
  • Linoleum is patented in the United Kingdom.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is born. His death by assassination in 1914 sparked the events that led to World War I.
  • Lots of railways either started construction or opened in the U.S. and Europe, including the opening of the first section of the London Underground.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross, formed to improve medical conditions on battlefields, was created by a resolution signed by 16 countries. The meetings were held in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • A statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, was discovered and is now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris . Titled Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue was 8 feet tall and was created c. 200-190 BCE.

I hope something (or several somethings) on this list sound interesting enough that you will dig a little deeper. Does anything on the list really surprise you or make you want to dig into some further research?

Breaking News: A Farmer’s Diary

This post combines two general ideas about history that I often write about in other posts.

First, there is “breaking news” in the study of history. Sometimes people find stuff that tells historians something completely new or changes perceptions about something we already knew.

Second, primary sources, sources from the time that you are studying, are important when doing historical research. It’s especially fun when you’re looking for one thing and find something else.

There was an article on the BBC News website yesterday titled “The 200-year old diary that’s rewriting gay history” by Sean Coughlan. I’ll tell you a little about it, but recommend that you check out the link.

A farmer in Yorkshire, Matthew Tomlinson, kept a diary, writing about his life and personal experiences. He also wrote his thoughts about things he read in books and newspapers. Some of his handwritten diaries found their way to the Wakefield Library in the 1950s and have been used by researchers as a primary source. Apparently it’s a good source for information about Luddites, in case you ever need that.

Lupset Golf Course, in the same area as Tomlinson’s farm (which no longer exists). Lupset Hall is now the clubhouse for the municipal golf course at Lupset. Photo attribution:
SMJ / Lupset Golf Course / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

University of Oxford researcherEamonn O’Keeffe found something else in the 1810 diary while looking for something completely different.

Scandal always draws attention, and in this case a naval surgeon, 37-year old James Nehemiah Taylor, was court-martialed and executed for the crime of sodomy. As always happens with scandal, this case was widely reported and undoubtedly discussed by neighbors and friends.

In Britain, sodomy was a death penalty offense until 1861 and was not decriminalized until 1967, more than 150 years after Tomlinson’s diary entry.

Tomlinson’s views about the Taylor case are what make this breaking news. Tomlinson believed that if men chose to be homosexual, then castration was an acceptable punishment. But he also believed, as a religious person, that if the Creator made a person gay, then those acts were not unnatural and shouldn’t be punished with death. Tomlinson said it better than I did, so really, go read the article.

So why is this a big deal? This is exciting news for historians because it is evidence that people in Britain were more tolerant of homosexuality than previously believed. This is the belief of an ordinary man, a rural farmer who was not rich and powerful and did not own the land that he farmed. This is an indication of the thoughts of the general public.

Today, the thoughts of the general public are all around us, especially on social media. But back in 1810, the general public did not leave as many sources for historians as did intellectuals, and people of wealth and power.

My take on this? Historical evidence is important, so this is great news. But one of my core beliefs about history is that humans don’t change much. There have been and will always be, among other things, people that are tolerant of others and people that are not. When I first read this article, my first thought was that of course there were people in 1810 that didn’t believe that same-sex relationships should be punished by death. But it’s always good to know there is primary source evidence to back me up.

A City Divided

Last week I wrote about the division of defeated Germany and its capital city of Berlin by the Allied Powers after World War II.

You may recall from that post that the eastern part of Germany was taken over by the Soviet Union, while the United States, the United Kingdom, and France controlled western Germany. The capital city was about 100 miles into the Soviet territory and was also split between the four powers.

After the Berlin Airlift, the tension between east and west Germany, as well as east and west Berlin, continued to grow. In 1952 the full border between east and west Germany had been closed, but people from the east could still get to the west if they went through Berlin.

And lots of people in the east believed that life was better in the west and left East Germany, known as the German Democrat Republic (GDR). If you’re old enough to have watched the Olympics before 1988, you have heard the name GDR.

East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall. Photo from U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons.

Massive numbers of people were leaving the GDR, and that number was steadily increasing. Many of those leaving were professionals, teachers, doctors, scientists. This amounted to a brain drain on the communist system in the east, as well as being a huge embarrassment. It’s hard to say your system of government is the best is nobody wants to live under that system. Since the divided Berlin was the biggest problem in this drain, that’s where the government placed their solution.

One night in August of 1961, workers in East Berlin started putting up barbed wire fences and creating a wall from concrete blocks. They also shut down the subways and trains that the people used to travel between the east and west areas of Berlin. In the end, they left three checkpoints, three places you could get from one side of the city to the other. Assuming, of course, that you had the correct papers.

Check out this 6-minute newsreel about that night in 1961.

And there wasn’t just a wall through the center of Berlin. All of West Berlin was surrounded by wall, like a little island in the center of Soviet territory.

And the reason they said they created a wall? They said they were trying to keep our western ways out of their communism. They weren’t trying to keep East Germans in, they were trying to keep the rest of us out. I’m not sure if anybody bought that bit of propaganda. This border was physical and political.

Berlin Wall Reinforced. Under The Watchful Eye of Communist Police, East German Workers Near The Brandenburg Gate Reinforce The Wall Dividing The City, October 1961. Photo from United States Information Service, Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

Living under a system of surveillance and control in the east, people still wanted to get to freedom in the west. People escaped by jumping over the wall from windows and buildings that were along the wall, crawling through the sewers, climbing through the barbed wire, crashing cars through the weakest points of the wall, and hiding under seats of cars. There were a number of tunnels dug beneath the wall. And there was always the fear that if you got caught, you would be either killed or imprisoned.

All these escapes prompted the creation of better fortifications. The GDR replaced concrete blocks with full concrete walls, added watchtowers, electrical fencing, floodlights, tripwires, dogs, land mines, and lots and lots of armed guards. In many places there was a space before the final wall known as a “death strip”. Up to 160 yards wide, it was filled with deadly obstacles to keep any potential escapee from even making the attempt.

This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg, via Wikimedia Commons.

The border eventually opened in November 1989, due to factors both in Germany and the wider world. Once the border was open, people took hammers and other tools to the actual wall. But the wall not just physical, and that historical stain will remain.

And during those 28 years? People died trying to get to freedom in the west, although there is no consensus on the actual number. The amount of resources, in terms of time and money spent on building, monitoring, and maintaining this wall, is staggering. Just imagine if that determination and those resources had been used for good.

Now the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it was up.

When I heard about the wall coming down, I was in bed with a migraine, waiting for my parents or one of my sisters to come get my 2-year old before my head exploded. I had all the lights off except the TV screen, watching the news, wishing my daughter was old enough to understand that this was a really big deal.

Do you remember where you were when you learned about the end of the Berlin Wall?

Berlin Airlift

I’m old enough to have lived during the the last half of the Cold War and remember different ways it impacted my life, especially since I grew up on military bases in the U.S. and other countries. The Berlin Airlift was part of the beginning of the Cold War.

After Germany was defeated in World War II, that country was split between the victors, the Allied Powers. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union would all occupy different areas of Germany, as indicated in the map below.

Photo by Leerlaufprozess via Wikimedia Commons

They also agreed to divide Berlin, the capital of Germany, into four parts even though that city was deep in the Soviet territory. You can see the divided Berlin in the red area above.

Although they had worked together to defeat the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the Soviet Union had different values and aims than the other Allied Powers. Those differences were the cause of the highly armed and globally concerning Cold War.

The Soviet Union wanted all of Berlin and all of Germany, and in 1948 they set up a blockade of all highways, railroads, and canals into Berlin. The Soviets wanted to choke off supplies from the outside because they believed that the people of West Berlin, once they were no longer getting supplies from the other powers, would turn to them for supplies and be so grateful that they would become Soviets.

Even though the people of West Berlin had already shown in their municipal elections that they did not want to join with the Soviets, the Soviets seemed to believe that could still happen and once it happened, the other powers would just…leave?

By the terms of the agreements signed to divide Germany, the Soviet Union was allowed to block access to the highways, railroads, and canals. But the agreement explicitly stated that three air corridors would be available for access.

So began what the United States called Operation Vittles. The U.S. and UK agreed to fly necessary supplies to the people of West Berlin, a procedure they believed would only last a couple of weeks.

Milk being delivered during the Berlin airlift, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Just think of what you would need if you were stuck without any stores. We’re talking about supplying more than two million people with food, clothing, water, medicine, and coal. Even with their supplies being airlifted in by plane, they still lived with rationing and with a thriving black market.

After almost a year, the Soviets realized that they weren’t going to win this one and removed the blockade. We kept flying in supplies for another couple of months, just in case, and the Berlin Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949.

C-47 aircraft parked in front of the terminal at Tempelhof Central Airport during the Berlin Airlift. Photo from the Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. and British forces (with help from other allies) had delivered more than two millions tons (yes, tons) of supplies on more than 275,000 flights. At the height of airlift efficiency, one plane was landing in West Berlin every 30 seconds.

I have two resources I recommend if you want to learn more about the Berlin airlift. Original documents are available at the Truman Library. You can also check out the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, which has information, photos, and videos.

The reason I remember this story, and think people younger than me should hear about it, is because this was a good thing. People helped and people were helped. I think it’s helpful to be reminded of stories like this.


Due to the fires burning in Australia, I’ve been thinking about animals indigenous to that island. So I did a little research about kangaroos.

Before I give you any of that information, I want you to think about something. We’ve all seen kangaroos in person or on television. And in history, the indigenous peoples of Australia hunted kangaroos for their meat, fur, and skins. But what would the first first Europeans have thought of these odd (to them) animals?

Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Just imagine. Kangaroos have a head like a deer, but they stand upright. They jump and hop more than they walk. They have that huge tail. And that second head that looked to be sticking out of the belly? The stories they told when they returned home probably sounded like mermaid stories. Not really believable.

A portrait of the Kongouro (Kangaroo) from New Holland by George Stubbs, 1772, via Wikimedia Commons.

So here are some interesting things to know about kangaroos.

  • They are herbivores.
  • The are good swimmers and if threatened may head to the water. And if pursued, they may hold their pursuer under water to drown them.
  • Gestation is short, about 30-36 days. Babies are hairless and only about the size of a lima bean at birth.
  • Their lifespan is only about 6 years in the wild and up to 20 years in captivity.
  • They can be over 6 feet tall and weigh up to 200 pounds.
  • Kangaroo meat is a good source of low-fat protein.
  • They have a thing called embryonic diapause, which means (in the simplest possible terms) they can have an embryo which is dormant and not implanted into the uterus until they are ready for another pregnancy. I’ve never heard about this and have to admit that I am a little weirded out by the whole idea.
  • They can run about 40 miles per hour over short distances.

If you are interested in donating to help the human victims, firefighters, or wildlife victims of the fires in Australia, there are plenty of options available. This one, WIRES, was recommended to me for wildlife such as kangaroos.

Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

Re-run: Don’t Hate the Fruitcake

My original plan for today was to write about traditional Christmas foods from various countries. As often happens, a little research showed me that my original idea wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it was, in this case because there are simply too many traditional holiday foods. For any country there is never just one traditional food that everybody eats only at Christmas.

This weekend I spoke with my Aunt Nancy, my dad’s sister, and she mentioned that my grandmother made fruitcake every year, starting the process in late November so that it would be ready in time for Christmas. We didn’t live near my grandparents and I was very young the last time we spent Christmas with them, so I don’t remember her fruitcake. I called my dad, and while he didn’t remember his mom making it, he remembered eating it, and he still loves a good fruitcake.

Although fruitcakes have a long history, they are often ridiculed in the U.S., and I wanted to learn more about fruitcake before it became a punch line. The first place I went was mentioned in my post about Food History Research, a website created by a reference librarian called The Food Timeline. Once I had the basics, I could expand my search.

There is evidence that the Romans made a precursor to the modern energy bar, a sweetened substance made of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins in a mash of barley. This didn’t spoil, required no preparation, was packed with calories and could be carried and eaten by soldiers. From these humble beginnings the fruitcake has evolved.

A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack
A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack

During the Middle Ages dried and candied fruit became more widely available. These methods preserved the fruit so that it was edible longer and therefore could be shipped farther. Now that people had the fruit, they could add them to breads and cakes. In England during the Victorian era, fruitcake was an important accompaniment at tea.

It continued to evolve as the basic fruitcake made its way to other cultures and as a variety of fruits and nuts and other ingredients were added. It’s a simple history, but it brings up other questions.

Why is fruitcake a Christmas tradition? One theory is that during the Middle Ages ingredients like fruit were expensive and considered special fare, and therefore were made only on special occasions. There is also a theory that in England, slices of fruitcake were given as treats to poor carolers at Christmas.

How does fruitcake last so long without spoiling? Apparently sugar and alcohol are preservatives. Sugar became more widely available in the 16th century and it not only made fruit last longer, but intensified the color and the flavor of the fruit. I don’t know at what point in history alcohol was added to the process by some fruitcake creators, but this is also a preservative and adds to the shelf life. Alcohol also neutralizes the sweetness from all the sugar. These natural preservatives are required because fruitcakes are not meant to be eaten right after they are created. The fruit releases tannin over time and deepens the flavor, so it’s best to let them sit for about a month before eating.

I wonder how much trial and error was involved in reaching these conclusions.

How long does a fruitcake last? Although not scientifically proven, there are stories of an existing fruitcake made in the late 18th century. A family in Michigan has a fruitcake they claim was made in 1878. I also read that fruitcakes last for 26 years, but that seems a rather arbitrary determination. Although it may not spoil or become moldy after hundreds of years, that doesn’t mean I would want to eat it.

And finally, when did the jokes start? Fruitcakes started being mass produced rather than homemade in the early 20th century. It’s possible some of the jokes started then. With most foods, people want them prepared a certain way. It may be that the mass produced fruitcakes just weren’t the same as the family recipe. It was in the 1930s that people started referring to those they deemed crazy as “fruitcakes”. And it was in the 1980s that Johnny Carson joked that there was only one fruitcake in existence, being constantly re-gifted.

Ultimately, the jokes don’t seem to bother those who love fruitcake. Since I started this little bit of research I’ve spoken with several people who love fruitcake of all types, which leads to the most important thing I’ve learned. There seems to be an endless variety of fruitcakes from light to dark, fruity to cakey, with alcohol or without, and including additions never dreamed of in the Middle Ages. With that kind of variety, it makes sense that everyone should be able to find one they like. At the website for The Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake you can find recipes, FAQs and links. And don’t forget National Fruitcake Day on December 27th.

So what do you think? Are you a fruitcake fan? If so, is it the taste or is it the memories evoked and tradition that keep you coming back for more?

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