Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

A Wild Duck

07 12 george e ohrSometimes, I just have to see someone’s portrait to know that they are the person I want to write about. Today is the birthday of George E Ohr who was born in 1857 in Biloxi, Mississippi. His father was a blacksmith, his mother ran a grocery store. As you can see from the photo, he was an unusual looking fellow. George was a potter and he used to tie the ends of his eighteen inch long moustache behind his head while he worked. As you might guess from looking at him, his pots were quite unusual too. They were deliberately misshapen and he used bright glazes in unusual combinations at a time when everyone expected their pots to be brown. His boast was that he never made two things that were alike. Mostly he made his living by turning our chimney pots, planters, inkwells and little clay coins with rude messages on them. But he barely sold any of his more creative pieces. This was partly because he asked such a high price for them. People didn’t want to pay $25 for a pot that just looked as though it had gone a bit wrong. But it was also because George couldn’t bear to part with them. He was so fond of them that he called them ‘mud babies’. If he did manage to sell one, he would often chase his customer down the street and try to talk them out of their recent purchase.

George Ohr was one of five children. He described them as “a rooster, three hens and a duck”, he was the duck. At first George was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith. But he was a restless individual and, at fourteen, he moved to New Orleans. By the time he was twenty-two, he had tried nineteen different jobs, including sailor, which he gave up after only one voyage. But then a friend offered to teach him how to make pots. He knew immediately it was the thing for him. He said “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” which is lovely because it shows how excited he was about it. After that, he went on a two year tour of the United States, visiting potteries in sixteen states to learn all he could. In 1883, he returned to Biloxi and built his own studio, his own wheel, his own kiln, he even dug his own clay. It was pretty good clay, red in colour and he was able to use it to make pots that were wafer thin in places.

In 1884, a fire swept through the town, destroying twenty businesses including his mother’s grocery store and his studio. George raked through the ashes and recovered his pots, he kept most of them for the rest of his life, and referred to them as his ‘burned babies’. Then, he built himself a new studio. What he built was a five storey pagoda, which he painted bright pink. George knew how to draw attention to himself. He styled himself ‘The Greatest Art Potter on the Earth.’ and the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. He was great at self publicity, he just wasn’t very good at selling pots.

07 12 ohr pottery workshop

By the turn of the century, he was gaining respect for his work. People were beginning to enjoy his colourful glazes. It was around this time that he decided to stop glazing his pots. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he won a silver medal for his work. He didn’t sell a single pot. He later tried to sell the whole collection but no one would come up with the thousands of dollars he was asking. In 1906, he sent fifty unsolicited pieces to a museum in New Orleans and when they would only accept a dozen of them, he insisted that they were all sent back immediately. Once, he took a bag of his pots, a shovel and a lantern and buried them deep in the woods. He also made a treasure map showing their location but it has since been lost. Possibly because after he died, his son, Leo, burned all of his papers, including all his recipes for beautiful glazes, many of which cannot now be replicated. The buried pots are probably still out there somewhere.

George and his wife, Josephine, had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The first two, Ella and Asa, both died young. But then George noticed that his initials. G E O, also spelled the first three letters of his first name. For some reason, he then decided to name his subsequent children: Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo.

In 1910, he closed his pottery and he devoted the rest of his life to becoming even more eccentric. He grew his beard long as well as his moustache and would appear at the Biloxi Mardi Gras as ‘Father Time’, in long flowing robes. Or you might find him racing his motorcycle along the beach with long white hair and beard flying out behind him. His unusual demeanour and self-aggrandizing make him a sort of Dali before Dali. When interviewed in 1901 he said ‘I have a notion….that I am a mistake.’ but predicted that his work would be cherished when he was gone. He died in 1918.

He had packed away around seven thousand of his pots and his sons turned the pottery into an auto-repair shop. After languishing in his sons’ shop for around eighty years, they were discovered, quite by accident, in 1968 by a man called James Carpenter. He wanted to buy them all, but the sons wouldn’t sell. After years of negotiation, he finally persuaded them to part with them for an unknown sum, but possibly around $50,000. Gradually, Carpenter began to sell them. Artists loved them. Andy Warhol bought them,so did Jasper Johns, they appeared in his paintings. Now his work commands very high prices. Jack Nicholson and Stephen Spielberg both own pieces by Ohr. George Ohr was once asked to put a price on his work, he replied that they were “worth their weight in gold”. Now they’re probably worth more that that.

There is now a museum in Biloxi dedicated to his work. You can see a little video of it here. The sound isn’t great, but you can see more of what his work looked like. It is so much more beautiful and elegant than I imagined from the descriptions. You can also see more of his amazing portraits.

07 12 ohr pot 1

Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.


07 06 airshipOn this day in 1919, the R34 airship touched down in Mineola, Long Island and became the first airship to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first aircraft to cross it from west to east. The R34 was ninety-two feet high and the length of two football fields. Her crew nicknamed her ‘Tiny’.

The airship had left East Fortune, just east of Edinburgh, four days earlier and almost didn’t make it. They had carefully limited the amount of crew and equipment that they would need to carry in order to make the journey, as landing or refuelling would have been difficult. Twelve hours into the flight, they found they had two stowaways on board. The first was man named William Ballantyne, who had been ordered to stay behind, but two hours before the launch, he had hidden himself in the hull of the ship amongst the gas balloons. He had also brought with him a second stowaway, a kitten named Whoopsie. Ballantyne was forced to reveal himself when he began to feel ill due to the gas leaking from the balloons but, by then, it was really too late to do anything about it. As they were now flying over the ocean, it was decided that they would both just have to stay. Had they been over land, he would have been given a parachute and expected to jump.

They travelled via a northern route, so that they might be closer to land if anything went awry. During their voyage they slept in hammocks and prepared hot food over a metal plate welded to an engine exhaust pipe. They kept themselves entertained by playing jazz records on a gramophone and, of course, by a small cat. Strong winds and bad weather meant that they almost ran out of fuel before they arrived, they would land with only another forty minutes worth of petrol in their tanks. As they approached the landing site, their commander, Mayor E M Pritchard, put on his parachute and jumped from the craft in order to assist with the landing. He thus became the first person to arrive on American soil from the air. The crew received an enthusiastic welcome and were treated like royalty during their three day stay in the US. Ballantyne, the stowaway, was sent home by ship. Whoopsie, as far as I can tell, became the airship’s mascot.

Everyone was pretty excited by the possibilities of transatlantic airship travel. They thought that airships, perhaps five times the size of the R34, would soon be crossing the Atlantic with passengers and cargo. It seemed as though the airship would be, compared to an aeroplane, what an ocean liner was compared to a cross channel ferry.

The R34 was not the only airship to attempt to cross the Atlantic with a cat on board. In 1910 an airship called ‘America’ set off from Atlantic City. Just as they were taking off, someone, rather unhelpfully, threw a cat on board. The cat hated flying. Pretty much everyone else on the America hated flying with a cat who hated flying. The America was the first aircraft to be fitted with radio. The first historic in-flight radio message was “Roy, come and get this goddam cat!”. They did try quite hard to get rid of the cat, whose name was ‘Kiddo’. They put him in a canvas bag and tried to lower him onto a boat, but couldn’t quite manage it and had to pull him up again. Oddly, after being dangled over the sea in a bag, the cat calmed down a bit. One of the crew, Murray Simon, noticed Kiddo was particularly good at predicting bad weather. In fact, he thought no airship should ever cross the Atlantic without a cat. Unfortunately, even the cat couldn’t help them when, after flying a thousand miles, they ran into problems and had to abandon the flight. They were forced to ditch into the sea in their onboard lifeboat. All were saved, including Kiddo, but the airship flew on without her crew and was never seen again.

This Too Shall Pass

07 04 flagsToday is, of course, United States Independence Day. So everyone there will be enjoying an extra day off. There will be parades and picnics, concerts barbecues and fireworks displays. If you are an American citizen I truly wish you a wonderful day and I’m glad your independence has worked out so well for you. Here in the UK however, our own new and largely unlooked for independence is not going so well. Seriously, we must look like a bunch of idiots to the rest the world right now. So, I’d like to say, that if you’ve seen a very rude and stupid man called Farage spouting off in the EU, he doesn’t speak for all of us. We think he’s awful. This man pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject right now, but don’t click on the link unless you enjoy swearing. In case you’ve never seen him before, Jonathan Pie is a performer, not a reporter, but he’s always pretty much spot on about these things.

So, I’m going to leave humanity aside for a moment, to tell you that Koko the gorilla was born in San Francisco Zoo on this day in 1971. Koko has learned a form of sign language which means she is able to communicate with humans. What began as a piece of research for a Ph.D. thesis in 1972 has become a life long relationship between Koko and Dr. Francine Patterson. She says Koko can now understand around 2,000 English words and 1,000 signs. She is even able to put signs together to make new words. For example, when she didn’t know the word for ‘ring’, she was able to put together the words ‘finger’ and ‘bracelet’ to make herself understood. Similarly she had put together the words ‘eye’ and ‘hat’ to mean ‘mask’ and ‘trouble surprise’ for ‘crazy’. She is also able to recognise herself in a mirror, which is unusual for gorillas.

In 1983 she asked if she could have a cat. She was given a toy cat, but that wasn’t good enough. She refused to play with it and kept making the sign for ‘sad’. So on her birthday in 1984 she was allowed a kitten, who she named All Ball. She was very gentle with the kitten, treating it like a baby gorilla.

All Ball was the first of five cats that she has cared for. Although she is clearly delighted by her pets, their relationships have also revealed her ability to lie. On one occasion, whilst feeling particularly destructive, she managed to tear a sink from the wall in her enclosure. When she was asked how it had happened, she replied that the kitten had done it.

07 04 rube goldberg 1928Ah, even animals lie to us, maybe I’ll stick with humans. There seem to be loads of famous American humans who celebrate their birthday today. But out of all of them, I think I want to tell you about Rube Goldberg, who was born in San Francisco in 1883. Goldberg loved drawing but, on his father’s advice, trained to be an engineer and wound up working for the San Francisco sewer department. He didn’t like it very much and soon left to take a job as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and later, the New York Evening Mail. He drew political cartoons which earned him the Pulitzer Prize and also a lot of hate mail. So much that he persuaded his sons, George and Thomas, to the change their surnames. Thomas chose the name George and George liked it as well, so they became Thomas George and George George.

07 04 hat tipperGoldberg’s time spent in engineering was not wasted because he became most famous for his cartoons featuring a character called Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. A character who he later admitted was based on a couple of his university professors. Professor Butts built extremely complicated machines that performed simple tasks in a very round about way. Perhaps he was inspired by devices like this one, on the right, What it does is lift your hat from your head, rotate it slightly then drop it back down again. It was a serious invention that was patented in 1896. What was its purpose? So that you could still greet someone politely, even if your hands were full.

The name Rube Goldberg is now synonymous with any overly complex apparatus. There is even a national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. This year, the winners found an extremely tortuous way of opening an umbrella.

07 04 self operating napkin

In the UK we use the term ‘Heath Robinson’ in a similar way. There’s something terribly satisfying about watching a ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine in action. They are universally appealing. You can find them in Sesame Street. You can find them in the Saw films. But, as I opened today by giving you a link to a video of a furious man, I thought maybe we could have a look at this OK GO video, which never fails to cheer me up.

Flying the Flag

06 25 rainbow flagThe rainbow flag, also known as the gay pride flag and the LGBT pride flag was flown for the first time on this day 1978, in San Francisco at the Gay Freedom Day Parade. It has now become an internationally recognised symbol for the LGBT community.

The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker. Gilbert had grown up in Kansas where his grandmother owned a clothing store. He was fascinated by fabric and clothing, but no one had ever had the inclination to teach him to sew. He served for two years in the US army and afterwards, in 1972, moved to San Francisco just as the city’s gay community was flowering. The first thing he did was buy a sewing machine because, he said, “it’s 1972 and I have to look like Mick Jagger and David Bowie every single second”. Because he knew how to sew, he was soon making banners for protest marches. When the United States celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, he really noticed what a powerful symbol a flag could be. The Stars and Stripes do not have any words on it at all, yet everyone knows it says ‘America’. Then Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician, asked Gilbert if he would make a flag for the march he was organizing.

Before Gilbert sewed his rainbow flag, the symbol for the gay movement had been the pink triangle. This was a symbol that the Nazis had used to identify prisoners who had been convicted of homosexuality. The idea had been to reclaim the symbol for themselves, but Gilbert saw that it came from a bad place: “a place of murder and holocaust and Hitler, We needed something beautiful, something from us”. Gay communities across the world had often identified themselves by wearing bright colours. Oscar Wilde and his friends had worn green carnations. In Australia, gay men had often identified one another by wearing bright yellow socks. A rainbow suggested diversity, in terms of race, age and gender. Also it reminded him of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who had also travelled from rural Kansas to a new and colourful world.

Gilbert decided the flag needed a suitable birth place, so he did not make it at home, but at San Francisco’s Gay Community Centre. He gathered a team of thirty volunteers, including a friend called Fairy Argyle who was, he said, “the queen of tie-dye”. They used plain cotton fabric and dyed it all themselves using natural dyes. Two flags were made, each sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, so they needed huge barrels to dye the material. Rinsing the fabric was a bit of a problem and what they really needed to do was take if to a laundromat and use the big machines there. But you really weren’t allowed to put dye in the machines in case it spoiled the next person’s washing. So they waited until really late at night when no one else was there. After they were done, they threw Clorox in the machines to get rid of the dye, and just hoped that the next customer’s underwear wouldn’t all come out pink.

They made two flags, one with eight coloured horizontal stripes and one that was like the Stars and Stripes, but with rainbow stripes instead of the red and white. His friend used her tie-dye skills to make the stars, which were arranged in circles. Each of the colours was assigned a particular significance. Hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit. They also picked the place they unveiled their flag carefully. They chose the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco, because they knew that gay rights were important to people all over the world.

Everyone loved their new flag, loads of people asked him to make one for them. Especially after the shocking assassination of Harvey Milk later that year. When the rainbow flag began to be reproduced commercially, it had to loose its pink stripe, because no one made pink flag material. In 1979, it was modified again and reduced to six colours when the design was split in half and hung on either side of the street for that year’s parade.

In 1994, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gilbert produced a rainbow flag that was a mile long. It was carried through New York and afterwards cut up. Parts of it were sent all over the world and they were carried in Gay Pride marches the following year. By 2003, he was able to restore the hot pink colour to the flag, which had now become a commercially available colour. He made another giant flag, one and a quarter miles long, which was again cut up and sent all over the world. Gilbert is incredibly proud to see his flag has become such an important and internationally recognised symbol for the LGBT community. But it hasn’t made him rich, it seems you can’t patent a flag. You can see a little video about the flag which features an interview with him here.

No Smoke Without Fire

06 20 steamshipOn this day in 1819, this ship, the SS Savannah, became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. I know it doesn’t look much like a steam ship, but if you look carefully, you can see a paddle wheel on the side. She left Georgia, in the United Sates, in May and arrived in Liverpool on June 20th.

Although the ship had a full set of sails, she also had two 16 ft paddle wheels, one on either side, that were driven by a steam engine. The ship was too small to carry much fuel, so the wheels were only intended for use when the sea was calm and there was not enough wind to fill the sails. When not in use, they could be folded like a fan and stowed away on deck. It was something of a one-off design, the only ship known to have had retractable paddle wheels. Below decks, she was fitted out in a luxurious style with three large and comfortable saloons and sixteen state rooms, each with two berths.

In spite of this, they had a great deal of trouble persuading anyone to sail with them. Crossing the Atlantic was a dangerous undertaking at the best of times, but in such an unusual ship, no one was prepared to take the risk. They weren’t keen to travel on the Savannah, and they didn’t care to send any freight on her either. It was hard enough even to find a crew. No one thought such a ship had a hope of making it across the Atlantic in one piece. She was quickly dubbed ‘The Steam Coffin’. Their departure was delayed several times, including an occasion when an inebriated sailor fell off the gangplank and drowned. Despite last minute appeals for passengers and freight, no one came forwards. The ship’s historic voyage would be purely an experimental one.

Twice on the journey they were hailed by passing ships who were concerned because, seeing the smoke rising from the funnel, they assumed that the ship was on fire. Firstly, on May 29th, she was spotted by a schooner. They saw the smoke and pursued the ship for several hours but couldn’t catch up with her, On the second occasion, a ship called the Kite sighted her just off the coast of Ireland. After chasing her for some time, they eventually brought the ship to a halt by firing several warning shots across her stern. The Kite’s commander demanded to come aboard to inspect the ship and was surprised and ‘much gratified by the inspection of this naval novelty’.

When she approached Liverpool hundreds of boats sailed out to greet the unusual ship. Some were concerned though, that she had been sent by Jerome Bonaparte to rescue his brother Napoleon from prison on St Helena. One of their visitors was a British warship, demanding that they take down their American flag, which was perceived as some sort of insult. One of its officers told the captain, Moses Rogers, that if he would not take it down, he would send someone to make him. The captain, responded by calling to his engineer to “get the hot-water engine ready.” There was no such piece of equipment on board, but the threat of it was enough to dissuade the officer from pressing the point.

The Savannah sailed on to Russia, Denmark and Sweden. Captain Rogers, was showered with gifts from royalty and offers to buy the ship. But she recrossed the Atlantic, returning to her home port in November. Sadly her first crossing was her only one. A fire in the city of Savannah the following year damaged the business of the Savannah’s owners and they were forced sell the ship’s engine. She remained in use as a sailing ship until 1821. It would be almost another twenty years before steamships began to make regular trips across the Atlantic.

Seen Here First

06 19 nickelodeonToday, I want to tell you about the first Nickelodeon, which opened on this day in 1905 on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the first venue to be dedicated solely for the showing of film. Previously, films had been shown as part of a programme of entertainment featuring otherwise live performers. Only ten years after the Lumière brothers had projected their first moving pictures, people were growing tired of the medium and the film was often shown at the end of the evening as a signal that it was time to clear the building. Things were, in America, not looking great for cinema.

Then two brothers-in-law called Harry Davis and John P Harris decided to open a small store front theatre. Both were already in the entertainment business. Davis was a one time carnival hustler who owned several dime museums, penny arcades and playhouses in the city. Harris and his father ran a company that produced vaudeville shows and had screened Pittsburgh’s first moving picture in 1897. They named their new enterprise ‘Nickelodeon’. ‘Nickel’, because that was how much it cost for a ticket and the ‘odeon’ part came from the Greek word ‘odeion’, which meant enclosed theatre. Their theatrical connections meant they were able to decorate the interior building in an opulent theatrical style, relatively cheaply. They created an atmosphere that most of their clientele could not otherwise hope to experience. Their tiny theatre though, could accommodate only ninety-six people seated on folding chairs with standing room for more. They showed a programme of short films totalling about fifteen minutes in length. They opened at eight o’clock in the morning, closing at midnight. It was incredibly popular. On the first day 450 people turned up, on the second day there were 1,500. soon they had more than 7,000 visitors a day. Their audience were queuing round the block day and night. Opening on Sundays meant that people could also come on their day off.

It was such a great idea that loads of people started opening five cent theatres. Four years later, there were 8,000 of them. By 1919 there were 20,000 moving picture houses in the United States. Shortly before the First World War, there were so many cinemas that all those five cents added up to around 150 million dollars a year. In Pittsburgh alone, there were over a hundred five cent cinemas. Film production companies flocked to the city. So did film exchanges, which hired out film reels to the new cinemas. Production companies vied with one another to make more and more elaborate films. That meant that films became longer, which was good for everyone. Distributors were paid according to the length of the film, so they made more money. The cinema owners found it easier because they didn’t have to spend so much time editing a complicated programme of short films and, for film makers, it was a whole new opportunity to experiment with the medium. So, that’s how a multi-million dollar industry was built up, five cents at a time.

Silent film was wonderful entertainment for newly arrived immigrants who didn’t yet have much grasp of the language. All kinds of people flocked to see comedies, dramas, adventures and a sort of early documentaries called ‘actualities’. The film could be speeded up to show the opening of a flower or slowed down show the beating of a hummingbirds wing. There is a rather long and florid article written in 1919 which concludes “…the mass can be taught by pictures when it would not read books and will understand pictures when it would have small comprehension of, or interest in books.”

Not everyone was in favour of the Nickelodeon though. There were those who were not happy about men and women being allowed to spend such a long time sitting together in the dark. Some called for the films to be shown with the lights on, others gathered together to form ‘film review boards’ to judge the morals of the film being shown. There were plenty who concerned that seeing violent films was having a bad influence on children. The Nickelodeon was though, eventually, a victim of it’s own success. As films became longer, ticket prices doubled. That led to the building of larger and more comfortable cinemas. The original Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street was demolished after only five years to make way for a bigger movie theatre.


06 17 meester van de sint joriskermis - olifantWhat has a nose four and a half feet long, a mouth three feet wide and weighs just over 200 tonnes? Sadly, it isn’t one of these, but it’s a good picture, so I thought I’d show it to you. No, it’s the Statue of Liberty. She sailed into New York harbour, from France, on this day in 1885. She was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.

Its designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, really wanted to build a statue of a giant woman that doubled as a lighthouse. It’s an odd sort of ambition, but he was thinking of the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, a hundred foot high figure that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He had originally wanted it to be an Egyptian peasant woman, clad in loose robes and holding a torch aloft. She was to stand at the northern end of the newly built Suez Canal, at Port Said, Sketches and models were made, but it was never built.

06 17 bartholdiThen, Bartholdi and his friends, who had been avid supporters of the Unionists in the American Civil War, thought the statue would be a great thing to celebrate their victory and the abolition of slavery. The sculptor travelled the US in 1871, to try to locate a site for his statue and to find funding. Bedloe’s Island was an excellent choice, because all the ships coming into New York harbour sailed past it. Plus, it belonged to the United States Government. Unfortunately times were hard and there was no government funding forthcoming in either America or France. So, after years of struggle, the project was largely funded by private individuals.

At first, Bartholdi only had sufficient funds to build the arm holding the torch. It was taken to America and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Celebrations in Philadelphia, to arouse interest and generate funds. People paid to climb up into the torch. The money raised from that was sufficient for the artist to build the head. He was so grateful that he almost gave the statue to Philadelphia instead of New York. The head was exhibited at Paris World’s Fair in 1878 and models of the statue were sold to help raise funds. It was also possible to buy a ticket to visit the workshop at Gaget, Gauthier and Co. where the statue was being constructed.

06 17 liberty 2

Meanwhile, in America, a group of people were trying to raise enough money to build the plinth that the statue would stand on. Things were not going well. Some people thought a statue celebrating America should be built in America, by an American. Others thought that, if the French wanted to give a statue, they should jolly well give a plinth to go with it. Then, in 1882, it was discovered that the city of Boston was making a play for the statue. That was when New Yorkers decided that they really wanted it. The New York Times announced: “that great light-house statue will be smashed into… fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor.” Then, Joseph Pulitzer had a brilliant idea. He would publish, in his newspaper, the name of anyone who made a donation to the project, however small. That was how they raised just over $100,000 and also a massive rise in sales of his paper. There were more than 120,000 contributors, with most people giving less than a dollar. Over 200,000 turned out to welcome the statue on June 17th. Its parts were packed into crates to be reassembled on site.

06 17 liberty 1

The framework inside the Statue of Liberty was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame). The outer skin is made of copper and is less that two and a half millimetres thick. It was originally a dull brown colour but within five years it had begun to turn green. By 1906 the whole statue was covered with verdigris. Many were concerned that it was evidence of 06 17 statue of libertycorrosion. But when it was investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, they concluded that the patina protected the skin and also that it “softened the outlines of the Statue and made it beautiful.” Which was probably uncharacteristically sentimental of them.

Despite best efforts, engineers were unable to make the statue work as a lighthouse, much to the consternation of Bartholdi. It was not his only disappointment, if he had got his way, the entire 151 foot high statue would have been covered with gold leaf. Luckily there wasn’t enough money to do that, because I think it would have looked awful. Thomas Edison also had a rather disturbing idea. He wanted to build a giant phonograph and put it inside the statue so that it could talk. Fortunately, that didn’t happen either.

Pig War

06 15 pigI don’t often mention a war on this blog, as wars are generally not brilliant. They are awful things that definitely shouldn’t happen. But, I can promise you that the only casualty in this war will be… one pig.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Americans and the British were trying to decide exactly where the border between the United States and British Columbia lay. They produced a document saying that the border would be along a narrow strait between the coast of Oregon and Vancouver Island. This might have been fine, but in the middle of the strait there were the San Juan Islands. Which side of them did the border lie? Who did the islands belong to? No one was sure.

In 1853 the Hudson Bay Company, who were mostly interested in fur trading, decided to set up a sheep ranch on one of the islands which was managed by a man called Charles Griffin. Along with the sheep, he brought crop seed and other farm animals including, importantly for this story, some Berkshire pigs. When the Americans found out about it, they were pretty unhappy. They thought the island belonged to them so they demanded import duty for the animals. The Hudson Bay Company refused to pay. Things escalated pretty quickly and the Americans decided to just take the sheep and sell them, as a way of getting the money that they felt was owed to them. This culminated in around fifty breeding rams being rounded up on a beach and sold in an auction which took place shortly after midnight. The scene in which the purchasers tried to force unhappy rams onto tiny boats in the dark can only be imagined. Griffin and several of his herdsman arrived to see thirty eight of his rams sailing away.

06 15 potatoesEverything was reasonably quiet, until American settlers began to arrive in 1858. They were returning, disappointed, from a short lived gold rush and were looking for something else to do. Then, in the spring of 1859, a former gold miner called Lyman Cutler arrived to stake his claim. His farmstead stretched over 160 acres and was not well fenced. The morning of the 15th June 1859 was not the first time he had woken to find Griffin’s pigs rooting up his potato crop but on this occasion he snapped and shot one of the pigs.

Griffin demanded $100 compensation for the pig. Cutler refused, saying the pig wasn’t even worth $10. Cutler said Griffin should keep his pig under better control. Griffin replied that Cutler should do a better job of keeping potatoes out of his pig. Cutler was threatened with arrest for the murder of the pig, so he called in the American authorities. The American authorities sent sixty-six soldiers. The British responded with three warships. This situation continued to spiral out of control. By August, there were four hundred and sixty-one American soldiers with fourteen cannon and five British warships carrying seventy guns and two thousand, one hundred and forty men. At this point people, thank goodness, began to show some sort of restraint. Both sides were under orders not to fire the first shot. For several days the British and U.S. troops had to content themselves with trading insults, but neither side could be goaded into firing.

Negotiations eventually led to an impasse. The island was occupied amicably by both sides for the following twelve years. While the rest of the United States was fighting their terrible Civil War, the soldiers on San Juan were having a great time. Because no one had decided who owned the island, no taxes were collected and alcohol was freely available. The two sides visited each others camps for parties and sporting events. A lack of civil law on the island attracted more and more settlers. Particularly smugglers, who were looking to avoid paying import duties on their goods. Especially on wool. At that time, you might be surprised to learn that, the sheep of the San Juan Islands were famous for apparently producing up to one hundred and fifty pounds of wool each per season. That’s a lot of wool. If you want to know how much, I can tell you as, because of some stuff you probably don’t know about me, I happen to own a fleece at the moment. I weighed it. It weighs about five pounds. So if a sheep had a hundred and fifty pounds of wool on it, it would have to roll around the field, because it’s little hooves wouldn’t reach the ground…