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"Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family" Jack McMillen

I'm a sucker for art on a grand scale, like murals on the side of multi-story buildings, and the artist who wraps entire structures in fabric. I don't see many fabric-wrapped structures in my travels, but I do see murals fairly often. And when I do, I always think of the WPA, whether they're responsible or not.

The WPA, known as the Works Progress or Works Projects Administration, was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest innovations of FDR's New Deal program during the Depression Era. The WPA operated from 1935-1943. It was intended to put at least one household member to work in every household that had no one working. Even better: if the unemployed person had no skills, they learned one as part of this program - no excuses!

"Themes of the National Parks" David McCosh

The lion's share of the budget for the WPA went for construction projects, like building roads and painting buildings and so forth. But a small sliver of the budget was earmarked for creating art in many forms: paintings, books, music, performance. And the beauty of the program was that it sought out artists who were unemployed, so experimental artists such as Jackson Pollock found support and recognition they otherwise may not have gotten.

The WPA program ended when the nation reached its goal of full employment in 1943. By then, millions of people had benefited from WPA programs, including an estimated 10,000 artists. And of course, millions more of us benefit today, enjoying the fruits of their labors.

As I was researching this post, naturally I wondered if there were any extant WPA projects near where I live. Turns out there are tons of public works-type projects in South Carolina - buildings, roads, bridges, etc. But I was delighted to find a New Deal painting exists in a privately owned but vacant buildin

"Peach Orchard" Irving A. Block

g in the town nearest to me (we live out in the boonies). It's called "Peach Orchard" by Irving A. Block. So get to Googling - there might be a WPA beauty on a wall near you ūüôā

Fun Fact: Why peaches, you might wonder? Why not grits, or collards? Turns out South Carolina is the #2 peach producing state in the USA, second only to California. Take that, Georgia!

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

It's not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I exhort you to visit the New York Public Library's stupendous online digital collection, home of wonder, lore and inspiration for writers (and fellow history nerds!) everywhere. Today we will explore the entertainment style known as Vaudeville, featuring images generously shared with us by the NYPL.

Vaudeville soft shoe dance act Doyle and Dixon

The origin of the word 'Vaudeville' is in dispute. Its roots are most likely French, if that final syllable is any indication. The Vaudeville style consists of a pastiche of several different acts bound into a single session of entertainment. There might be some comedy, some dancing, some acrobatics, maybe an animal act, or some recitation. Vaudeville was specifically geared toward more genteel audiences - no booze served, no cursing, no naughty bits. The bawdier stuff was left to all male venues such as saloons, and burlesque shows.

Fun fact: the custom of referring to off-color behavior such as nudity or cursing as 'blue' originated in the Vaudeville era. The B. F. Keith theater circuit was the Amazon of Vaudeville - they dominated the industry. Mr. Keith had very strict guidelines for the contracted performers. Anyone caught violating said guidelines would likely receive a dreaded blue envelope containing strong suggestions on censoring that part out of their act. If they didn't comply, they were censored - fired, cut, kicked to the curb. The blue envelope was the predecessor of the 20th century pink slip.

Variety acts had been around since jesters learned to play a lute in addition to

Vaudeville era magician Howard Thurston

singing and telling jokes. The Vaudeville style of variety shows began to flourish toward the end of the 1880s when theater manager Tony Pastor got the bright idea to carve out a niche for himself. He decided to literally clean up the acts, offering family-friendly entertainment in his shows. It was a huge hit. Two enterprising businessmen took things to the next level when they came up with the idea of forming a chain of theaters and contracting with performers to present the same show at various theaters in the chain. This innovation helped performers by giving them a longer contractual period (weeks or months rather than one night stands) and thus more stability. It also benefited the venue managers by simplifying the booking process and likely reduced their cost per act when hiring for multiple dates.

Vaudeville began to wane in the early 1900s when radio, television, and movie technology emerged. Audiences loved the new forms of entertainment and couldn't get enough of it. Gradually the grand old vaudeville theaters installed screens and projectors and live acts took a back seat. The last Vaudeville acts closed their doors in the 1940s. But the concept of offering variety persisted into the movie era. Just ask anyone who was a kid in the 1940s what they got to see for a nickel at the Saturday matinee. It was probably a couple of cartoons, a news reel, and a main feature.

Two of the experimental dance group Three Little Maids

Many entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s got their start in Vaudeville. Judy Garland, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, and The Three Stooges come to mind. Some famously did not make the transition, immortalized by the Nora Desmond character in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Remnants the of Vaudeville format remain in more modern entertainment classics such as The Carol Burnett Show and, more recently, late night talk shows, which often intersperse multiple guests of various talents with musical interludes. Like Nora Desmond, Vaudeville may have been left in the dust. But variety is still very much the spice of entertainment life.

This post first appeared as part of my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

All that alliteration leaves me tingly

Ran across an interesting article reviewing a new book about dictators here. With tags including 'villain', 'lurid', 'perverse', and 'evil', how could I resist? Egotism, narcissism, torture, genocide, welfare moms - this story (and one presumes the book as well) has it all!

But what really caught my eye was this quote from the author being interviewed.

As a discipline, history is fuzzy and woefully unscientific. History is part gossip, part propaganda, part hearsay, and part theory, often supported by unsubstantiated attribution or outright fabrication.

Eureka! At last I have discovered the root of my fascination with a discipline widely associated with boredom by the majority of my fellow bipeds. But it says right there on the Internet that history has gossip, lies, it's unscientific, and it's fuzzy! What's not to like??

If you think about it this way, your average history class is basically National Enquirer minus the eyes-blacked-out photos of celebrity cellulite. This is a definite plus IMO. Some of the stories they are still shoveling in History 101 are right up there with Enquirer's bread and butter: Bigfoot/UFO/Elvis sightings.

Italian Explorer First European To New World!

Yeah, this guy Christopher Columbus had a pretty big day back in 1492. It used to be taught that he 'discovered America', which is grossly misleading. Not only was he NOT the first (as author Patrick Huyghe points out, in many ways, Columbus was LAST - the Norse were def here before him, as well as possibly the Celts, Chinese, Polynesians, and Libyans. Yes, Libyans.), he never actually set foot on the continental US. The Americas (Central and South) and the Caribbean, yes. The good ol' U. S. of A., nope. BTW in addition to the more recently accepted historical facts about the discovery of the New World, there are plenty of, shall we say, interesting theories not quite reaching 'proved' status. Check out the controversy surrounding the Kensington Runestone, or the academic practices (or lack thereof) of historian Barry Fell, for starters. Gossip! Hearsay! Propaganda!

English Settle North America, Pilgrim-Style

The Thanksgiving myth is beloved, mainly due to the ridiculous feed so many Americans put on to celebrate it. The two days off work and the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday cannot be overlooked. But what exactly are we celebrating? Yes, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, had a rough go, and likely would have died if it were not for the help of the local Native American population. But they weren't the first European settlers. That would have been the Norse, the Dutch, and even other English before them. They didn't bring civilization to the wilderness of the Americas (ref Inca, Aztec, Maya). And that lovely first Thanksgiving meal did not result in a future of champagne and giggles between Europeans and Native Americans.  There wasn't even any green bean casserole!

Justice Done As Nut-Job Harper's Ferry Attacker Hanged

Who needs Instagram?

What's the first thing you think of when you think of John Brown (if you do think of him at all?)? I bet it is one of three things: his appearance (wild-eyed, unkempt ZZ-Top beard); his mental state (bat-sh** crazy); with his politics (abolitionist) a distant third.

If so, the historic sensationalism that rules the textbook industry has done its job, feeding you the headlines that will sell papers/keep students awake and ignoring the deeper context that will result in broader understanding of historical events. Quoting James Loewen, author of one of my favorite books Lies My Teacher Told Me and by which portions of this post are inspired, "From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he regained his sanity." Meaning of course that Brown's mental state was interpreted differently based on who was telling the tale. But isn't that what sensational Enquirer-type journalism is all about, spin? Was Brown crazy, or was he the Johnny Smith of his day?

So history lovers everywhere, rejoice! Just about anyone in the field can write just about whatever they want about just about any topic, and if they give it enough spin, it will start to sound legit. It's our job to sniff this stuff out! History isn't boring if you stop accepting it all as gospel and start giving everything you read the Royal Stink-eye. Gossip! Lies! And it's fuzzy!

This post first appeared in February 2013.

Recently I was down the glorious Library of Congress digital collection rabbit hole, looking for something to post relevant to the Memorial Day holiday. Look what I found:

It's an illustration from Puck Magazine from Memorial Day 1899. In case you can't read the small print, its caption says 'Three Veterans Under One Flag'. History nerd that I am, naturally I wondered which three wars. Just from looking at the uniform of the Colonel Sanders character on the left and doing the math, I figured he was from the Civil War. But the other two had me stumped. Mexican-American War, maybe? Guy on the right, no clue (fail!). Had to research it. And here's the scoop:

Colonel Sanders is indeed from the Confederate Army of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Interesting that they were generous enough to consider him as 'under one flag'.

Cowboy Bob in the middle is from the Spanish-American War (1898). This is the war infamous for its slogan 'Remember the Maine', which referred to the sinking of a U.S. naval ship in Havana harbor. It's the one some historians theorize was instigated by decidedly biased coverage in the Hearst newspaper empire. The one featuring Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders? The one where we helped Cuba gain independence from Spain? I wouldn't blame you for forgetting. It only lasted ten weeks.

The third guy on the right is a Union veteran, also from the Civil War. That's where they got me - I was thinking it needed to be three different wars.

By Memorial Day 1899 there were three other wars fought by American soldiers that could have supplied images of veterans for this illustration: the American Revolution (1765-1783); the War of 1812 (1812-1815); and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

BTW The Library of Congress has loads more entertaining illustrations from Puck Magazine. Puck was published from 1871-1918. It was a combination of humor and political satire - think BuzzFeed meets The Daily Show. This particular illustration is by artist Udo J. Keppler.

 

Originally published May 2016

Cyrillic monogrammy of the letter Y circa 1902

Branding is all the rage now. Business owners from solopreneurs to megacorporations are encouraged to come up with a visual symbol to represent ourselves to the world.

The concept of branding may seem like a recent development, but it's hardly new. Literal branding of livestock (as well as human property, unfortunately) has been practiced for thousands of years. It was a simple and effective way of denoting ownership and discouraging theft. (Best not to ask how the brandee felt about it.) The subset of branding known as monogramming, or combining letters to form a new symbol, also is nothing new. Ancient coins were marked in this way to denote place of origin. Artists also found it a handy shorthand in signing their work.

Technically, it's not a monogram unless there's more than one letter represented.

The monogram became associated with the upper classes because long ago, the upper classes were the only ones who had any property worth protecting! Gradually the trend filtered down through the various layers of nobility. By Victorian times, monogramming was all the rage among the non-royal wealthy. As sewing skills were widespread among the middle and lower classes prior to the industrial age, monogramming became an inexpensive way to add a touch of class.

Tennis legend Roger Federer is the master of his brand as well as the court

These days monograms are everywhere, from the fingertip towels in Aunt Hattie's guest bath to the toned torsos of sports superstars. Maybe it's time for you to get on the branding train. If you're stumped for a brand logo, get back to the basics and use your initials. Just pick a cool font, avoid embarrassing letter combinations, and let your initials represent.

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

So I'm out to dinner with some friends I only see occasionally. These are friends from way back, the kind you spend most of your visit catching up on all the stuff you would already know if you saw each other more often. Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to books. Conversational style changed from quiet chatting with those seated near you to a more organized, but less organic approach. And like that dreadful team-building activity where you pass the talking stick around the circle, my turn was soon coming.

I flashed back to times in elementary school when I was not only The New Kid but also Teacher's Pet with a side order of Nerd. All too often my attempts at contributing to a group conversation were met with blank looks and sniggers. What did you do this weekend? Kid #1: egged Charlotte Shrenk's brother's car, the pansy. Kid #2: Lifted a pack of gum from Skillern's. Kid #3: Looked through my uncle's stash of Playboy magazines. Me (too honest/naive to come up with a more exciting lie): Stayed up most of Saturday night to finish The Hobbit. Cue embarrassed silence and blank looks.

Then, as now, as the virtual stick approached, I was too slow coming up with an amusing line of BS, so I just went with the truth. I bungled the intro, already knowing this admission would be the turd in the punchbowl, the pin in our balloon of reminiscing revelry. "The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt", I said, hoping against hope this book, unbeknownst to me, had made Oprah's Book Club, and it would be the darling topic of our dessert course. I was close. It did win the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011. Strangely, this does not equate to Oprah's Book Club-like popularity. Cue blank looks. Strike one.

"It's a really cool book I first heard about on NPR." Cue eye glaze. Strike two.

"It's about the chance rediscovery of a previously lost ancient manuscript written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who basically ended up influencing all modern liberal thought as we know it." In that moment, I discovered that the killing of a buzz does indeed have a sound, and it is this: the sound of a great iron gate banging closed, ringing the ears as it fades to an ominous silence. Not a called strike, #3, oh no - it was a hundred mile-an-hour fastball luring the batter into a cartoonish 360¬į whiff, the kind that spins him so hard, the only thing keeping his tuckus from hitting the dirt is his quick hands using the bat as the third leg of his human tripod. Any notion that the Teacher's Pet/Nerd had shaken her grade school persona and become cooler, more worldly, sophisticated, even, in middle age, was immediately quashed by my nerd reading confession. Someone smiled thinly and said, "Sounds great!", and thankfully we lurched back into Conversation Lite.

But since this is, after all, my blog, and I can talk about whatever I want, I feel I owe it to Lucretius to spread the word about him. I have to admit the book was something of a grind. Sorry, Mr. Greenblatt! Having written some non-fiction, I know it is a challenge living up to the Laura Hillenbrand/Mary Roach gold standard of edutainment. The Swerve plodded along for the first half. But I was determined to finish what I had started, and I am so glad I did. When I finally got to the meat of the matter, Lucretius' own words laid out in black and white as they had originally begun thousands of years ago, my liberal heart soared.

  • He outlined the basic structure of the universe, proposing that all things were made up of tiny particles, infinite in number, combining and recombining, eternal in time and space. Pretty advanced, not to mention accurate, for someone who lived a thousand years before Galileo.
  • His thoughts about these small particles and endless combinations led him to theorize Nature is constantly changing and experimenting and yes, evolving. Sound familiar?
  • He had some incendiary thoughts about organized religion as well (thought it was bunk). Some describe him as an atheist, but he was more of a deist. He never said god(s) didn't exist. He just didn't think they gave two hoots about what we puny humans were up to.
  • He talked about sex (it's a really long work), including a passage W. B Yeats called 'the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written'. If that's not enough to encourage you to check out Swerve or The Nature of Things, I give up.
Spiral galaxy via Hubble Telescope

 

My favorite passages are more philosophical. He may be the founder of today's minimalism movement, for he believed life's goals are simple: seek pleasure, avoid pain. But there are boundaries, and failing to recognize them leads to acquisition and excess, which spoils everything.

He believed in something Greenblatt calls a 'swerve'. Call it serendipity, or happenstance, or the butterfly effect. Lucretius applied this concept at the molecular level and beyond, proposing these minute and random changes often produce the most remarkable results.

It would be silly to generate an over-long blog post about Lucretius without actually quoting the guy. Here's a passage Greenblatt admired. I've experienced this feeling a couple of times. If you've ever volunteered to be the Designated Driver, you've probably experienced it, too:

"It is comforting, when winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person: not that anyone's distress is a cause of agreeable pleasure; but it is comforting to see from what troubles you yourself are exempt. It is comforting also to witness mighty clashes of warriors embattled on the plains, when you have no share in the danger. But nothing is more blissful than to occupy the heights effectively fortified by the teaching of the wise, tranquil sanctuaries from which you can look down upon others and see them wandering everywhere in their random search for the way of life, competing for intellectual eminence, disputing about rank, and striving nigh and day with prodigious effort to scale the summit of wealth and to secure power."

Lucretius wasn't satisfied with defying convention and authority and being right about just about everything. Oh no. He had to write it all in verse. As a poem. In Latin, natch. (drops mike) Why on earth go to all this trouble? It was hard enough noodling around the concepts that drive society (or should) as well as our universe. Lucretius said he considered presenting his ideas as poetry "honey smeared around the lip of a cup containing medicine that a sick child might otherwise refuse to drink" (Greenblatt quote, not Lucretius). So basically, if he were around today, he would frame his work as an indie film or a rap song or a Banksy-style graffiti.

My FFF (favorite founding father)

Lucretius' poem The Nature of Things lay undiscovered for a thousand years until a papal staffer named Poggio chanced upon it in 1417. Once recovered, copies were made, at first by hand, then by press post-Gutenberg. Ripples of its influence spread from Florence outward. With the advantage of hindsight, one can see his impact on intellectual giants more familiar to us, including Galileo, da Vinci,  Newton, Darwin, a couple of Thomases (More and Jefferson), and even Shakespeare. One wonders what things might be like if Poggio had overlooked a crumbling manuscript in a musty library so long ago. It delights me no end that he didn't, and that it came to light again because of a swerve.


This post was originally published in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

Legend says she constructed the prototype from two hankies and some ribbon

I've had the idea for this topic sitting around in my drafts folder ever since I learned that bras were originally designed to reduce the silhouette of the bosom, not enhance them. During the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper look was all the rage. It was as far from the previous style as one could get, from neckline to hemline. It dispensed with corsets altogether, thank goodness!  But as most of us ladies know through sad experience in the 1960s, the majority of the female population benefits from a little support up there, whether it is pushing up, pushing out, or pressing flat. Enter one Mary Phelps Jacob, a plucky New Yorker who invented the modern brassiere out of frustration with corsets.

Some interesting tidbits (yeah, yeah, insert bosom wordplay if you must):

 

  • Ms. Phelps used a nom de bra and marketed her new invention as 'Caresse Crosby'. That's a name made for a romance novel if I ever heard one.
  • She sold her idea to Warner Brothers Corset Company. Warner's Bras is still in business. They do not have any apparent connection to the movie studio of the similar name. However, they are the inventors of the alphabet cup sizing method still in use today.
Flappin' in the breeze 

As for the nether regions, modern undies also came on the scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to that, there was a time when nothing was worn under all those heavy long skirts. Fresh air was considered good for the privates. In the 1800s, a light garment known as pantaloons added an extra layer, especially welcome in chilly climates. Initially they covered only the legs and were open nearer the top (some might say crotchless), for ease in answering the call of nature. Eventually they came to look more like a loose set of capri pants. As dresses shortened and became more form fitting, unmentionables needed to evolve as well. More items of interest:

  • Some think the modern ladies' brief is based on the design of a baby's diaper. Now that you mention it . . .
  • Wearing form-fitting undies daily is a relatively recent (20th century) development. Prior to that time, they were only worn during a certain time of the month to keep feminine hygiene products in place.

And with that, we'll stop and save that whole discussion for another blog post. You gents reading this can exhale now.


This post originally appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

In honor of Women's History month, I want to give props to The State, our local newspaper here in Columbia, SC, for the fun article on South Carolina women they published last spring. The article was in a quiz format. Being relatively new to SC, I failed the quiz big-time.  I cherry-picked some favorites from the original 19 questions, just in case some of you are as woefully unaware of these cool factoids as I was.

Mary Chesnut. Photo credit: Ohio State University. What?? Not Gamecocks??

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born on her father's plantation in 1823 in Stateburg SC which is between Columbia and Sumter. Chesnut is the 1860s female version of Jon Stewart - educated, opinionated, entertaining. Her claim to fame is her Civil War diary. An annotated version won the Pulitzer Prize. Ken Burns referred to it extensively in his Civil War documentary. I'm super pumped to get reading it as my kids gifted it to me on my recent birthday. One of hundreds of her pithy quotes regarded plantation life versus life in the big city: "These people have grown accustom to dullness. They were born and bred in it. They like it as well as anything else."

Mary McLeod Bethune. Photo credit: Talbot School of Theology.

I actually knew the answer to the first question in their quiz because I wrote a biography of her several years ago. But I had forgotten she was from South Carolina. Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 in Mayesville SC, a hamlet of a few hundred souls between Sumter and Florence. She was obsessed with education. Through a somewhat miraculous series of events considering her family's humble circumstances, she attended school and eventually earned her teaching degree. Bethune founded a school for girls and was one of the first of her race and gender to serve as a college president. This child of former slaves advised Franklin Delano Roosevelt and three other presidents.

Eartha Kitt. Photo credit: Daily Mail

Who doesn't love Eartha Kitt? So talented, so lovely, so purrfect. She's been described in more feline terms than the Pink Panther. Orson Welles called her 'the most exciting woman alive'. Apparently he also found her delicious, as he is reputed to have bitten her during a scene they had together in the play "Time Runs". She was born in 1927 the amusingly named North, SC, a small town south of Columbia. So many fun little factoids about her, it's hard to choose one (and that one about Welles is pretty tasty!) but I love that later in her career, she referred to herself as "the original 'Material Girl'". Take that, Madonna!

Althea Gibson. Photo credit: whiskymoods.com

Tennis Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson grew up in Harlem but was born in Silver, South Carolina (between Sumter and Lake Marion) also in 1927. She struggled in the classroom but was an athletic prodigy. Her tennis skills earned her a scholarship to Florida A&M University. Gibson was the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open; the first to win the French Open; and the first to win Wimbledon, in 1957- almost 20 years before the first African American man would win that title (Arthur Ashe, 1975).  Not satisfied with breaking barriers in tennis, Gibson was also the first African American member of the LPGA (golf). Is there any game she couldn't play??

Peanut Johnson

Have you seen that commercial envisioning the time when we see the first pitch thrown by a female in a major league baseball game? Well, it's sorta been done. Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson was one of the first women, and the first pitcher, to play in the Negro Leagues baseball league. She was born in Ridgeway, just north of the Columbia metro in 1935. She honed her pitching skills by throwing rocks at the crows on her grandmother's farm. Peanut played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s. She retired with a record of 33-8. All those wins from a player who was only 5'-3".

Linda Ellison aka Fabulous Moolah taking down an opponent

There are some wild and woolly tales floating around out there about Lillian Ellison, aka Fabulous Moolah. Even her birthplace sounds fantastical: 'Tookiedoo'. I have never heard of this place but apparently it is, or was, in the Columbia area. Moolah led quite a life. Sex, drugs, match fixing, racial tensions, sexism, feminism, fraud, midgets (their term, not mine) - name the issue, Moolah dabbled. Her favorite move: the 'flying mare'. "A flying mare is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard as you can. And I love doing that."

She only lived there for two months before moving with her family to the

Viola Davis. Love the hair!

northeast, but South Carolina is not one to be swept up on a technicality, so that two months counts, by golly! Viola Davis was born in 1965 in St. Matthews, which is an easy drive down I-26 from Columbia. She's been in a ton of stuff, but here's a fun tidbit: it's her voice we hear grilling George Clooney in the first scene of Ocean's Eleven. She's got a hit with the TV show, How To Get Away With Murder. And she can now add an Oscar to her list of accomplishments.

I would love to see all of these gals at together at a Girls Night Out. I think Chesnut and Moolah would get along like a house on fire.

The original version of this article was published in March 2016.

Not to be outdone by Dr. Pepper's '10, 2 and 4' campaign . . .

A recent rabbit hole started innocently enough as I enjoyed an article about local foods/drinks that are not easily available outside their home geographic area. The North Carolina beverage Cheerwine was prominently featured.

When we first moved to the Carolinas several years ago, Cheerwine had me guessing. Is it wine? If so, why is it sold in a can like beer or soda? Of course the best way to get my questions answered was to try one. Turns out it's a soft drink, or as we say in Texas, it's a coke. Tastes similar to Dr. Pepper but is even sweeter IMO if you can imagine such a thing. Fruity, hint of cherry, hence the name.

I've always been curious about that name, so close to what it actually is, but just a little off (like using the Car Fox to shill for the Car Fax product. Still confused about that.). Shouldn't Cheerwine be Cherr Wine as in 'cherry'? But then maybe Chair Wine to get the pronunciation correct, because you know everyone would be pronouncing Cherr 'share'. The problem with Chair Wine is of course that we sacrifice meaning for pronunciation. No one would have a clue what it's supposed to be - is it so awful/amazing, you need to be sitting in a chair to drink it? Obviously way too many issues with Cherr/Chair, so they went with the next best thing: Cheer. That still doesn't explain the 'wine' part. . .

But I digress -

So I'm reading this article and my South Carolina hackles rise because we have our own local soft drink here, Blenheim Ginger Ale, so where's the love, dang it?? Blenheim was omitted from the article, but you know I won't leave it out of this post.

I did a little poking around and found some interesting stuff about the history of soft drinks. The term 'soft' is to differentiate them from 'hard' drinks, or drinks that contain alcohol. Soft drinks are non-alcoholic (or very low alcohol) and are often, but not always, carbonated and flavored. The soft drink biz is a $50 billion industry (flavoring and manufacturing combined) in the U.S.  Yes, billion with a B. Their popularity is linked to many serious health issues including diabetes and obesity. In other words, people can't get enough of the stuff!

The roots of this addictive habit can be traced to ancient times, when naturally carbonated mineral spring waters were prized for their healing properties. It's our nature to believe this stuff is healthy! But in ancient times, no festively decorated 18-wheelers rolled into your village and dropped off conveniently packaged cans of the stuff.  If you wanted some, you had to hoof it to the nearest mineral springs, the locations of which may have been the origin for the phrase 'few and far between'. Most folks just were not up for that, considering they were busy avoiding the Mongol hoards, Viking raids, the Black Death, and other delights of bygone eras.

So the trick to enjoying refreshing drinks was either to live near a mineral spring, or find a way to bring the mineral spring waters to you. In 1767, Joseph Priestly made this one step closer to a possibility. If you're thinking he was a master plumber of the Roman aqueduct school, not exactly. Running miles of plumbing pipes wouldn't have worked - the spring water would get flat by the time it arrived at your house. If you're thinking he invented glass bottles, wrong again by over a hundred years. No, what Mr. Priestly came up with was pretty ingenious - he figured out how to add bubbles to plain old water.

Riker's Drug Store soda fountain New York City 1923

Okay, great - now, with the right equipment, we have the potential for creating an endless supply of bubbly water on premises. And that's exactly what businesses did. They set up carbonation rooms and connected the bubbliciousness to a tap. Voila! Fizzy water on demand without all that annoying trekking cross-country to the mineral spring.

This was all well and good except for one small problem: the product didn't taste all that great. Appetizing ingredients required to create the bubbles such as sulphuric acid, calcium carbonate, and marble dust didn't translate well to the average palate. But not to worry: recall that the early mineral waters were consumed primarily for their purported health benefits, so the natural place to purchase them was at the local pharmacy. Also note: many early medicines were consumed in liquid form. Experienced pharmacists had long been in the business of making yucky liquid medicine taste good enough that their patients would actually take it. If it tastes good, they will drink. Light bulb moment! By the mid-1800s the great experimentation with adding flavors to carbonated water had begun.

Soda fountains also came in tabletop versions if you couldn't afford a big production like Riker's

Flash forward to the early 20th century. Soda fountains were popular, but bars were still their primary competition - until Prohibition came along. From 1920-1933, the soda biz exploded (literally as well as figuratively - explosions during the carbonation process were a known hazard). The trifecta of technology (carbonation process), increased demand (due to the addition of appealing flavors), and economics (Prohibition drastically reducing competition from the bar sector) resulted in a boom time for soda fountains. It was very similar to what we are seeing today with craft beers. As with all things, the soft drink boom did not last. Once the bars were back up and running, the soda fountain business flattened out. But a surprising number of these drinks are still around. Many have been gobbled up by conglomerates, but their hometown roots are still there if you look hard enough. Here's a great article listing the local brews from all 50 states.

Some fun facts

Because the soft drink boom was long before artificial colors and flavors existed, many early soft drinks relied on plant-based ingredients such as roots (ginger, sassafras, gentian), vegetables (celery), and fruits (grapes, cherries, lemons, limes) for their flavors. You're probably aware the original recipes for many popular drinks also contained ingredients that are now considered illegal and addictive. After all, Coca-Cola didn't get its name because the inventor had a stammer - it actually did contain a form of cocaine. Around the turn of the century, soft drinks were positioned more as health pick-me-ups, the forerunners of today's energy drinks. Ingredients were often touted to improve health in various ways, and early on, products from the coca plant were considered beneficial. Lithium was also included in some early recipes, notably 7UP, and of course caffeine. Lithium and coca were eliminated when their possible deleterious side effects were discovered. Curiously, the same cannot be said for sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and the various alphabet soup of chemicals currently in many sodas. Maybe some day we will all be reading one of my future blog posts talking about the olden days when people actually enjoyed drinking the gut-destroying concoctions known as 'soft drinks'.

New York entrepreneur John Matthews is known by some as the Father of the Soda Fountain. Not long after he emigrated from England and determined to get into the soda fountain business, the iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral had undergone a recent renovation. Knowing that marble dust could be used in the chemical reaction to create carbonation, Matthews bought up all the crumbled marble. It's estimated the holy scrap fueled 25 million gallons of soda water.

A passing resemblance

Ginger ales were far more popular in the early days of soft drinks than they are now. Many contemporary soft drinks available in a variety of flavors today such as Shasta, Polar, RC Cola, and Vernors have ginger ale roots. Literally. Ginger root has been used as a flavoring ingredient and as well as a health aid for thousands of years. When found to flourish in the Caribbean, ginger was readily available in the New World and as such, a natural to make the leap to flavoring carbonated water as well as many other types of food and drink. True ginger ale bears little flavor resemblance to the bland tasting stuff primarily used today as a background for mixed alcoholic drinks. My first Blenheim Ginger Ale was a delightful surprise. If you think you don't like ginger ale, and you have the chance to taste one of these heirloom brews, do it. You'll thank me. Beware the hot versions if you don't like spicy stuff. They're not kidding. Also beware that at a distance, to the South Carolina DNR (boat staties), a clear glass bottle of the golden goodness that is Blenheim looks very much like a clear glass bottle of Corona. . .

Speaking of beer: the various beer-named soft drinks of course do not contain alcohol, much to every child's chagrin. Who of us didn't feel a guilty pleasure/burst into giggles/think we were more grown up when allowed to have a root 'beer'? Root beer is the foundation for many soft drink dynasties such as Barq's, IBC, and the granddaddy of all root beers, A&W (interesting side note: California-based A&W was America's first franchised restaurant chain and the first restaurant to use drive-in and curbside service. Take that, Mickey D's!) The root used for 'root beer' originally was the sassafras root until one of its components, safrole, was found to be carcinogenic  - yikes! Nowadays the safrole is removed from the sassafras compound or an artificial sassafras flavoring is used. This is one of the rare cases when no one will be carping about going back to the original natural ingredient! Sarsaparilla is a close cousin to sassafras, and therefore root beer, in taste if not in taxonomy. Birch beer is flavored with an extract of tree bark, usually birch, and also tastes similar to plain old root beer.

Grape flavors have also proved popular over the years, as evidenced by Alabama's Grapico,

Arkansas' Grapette, and Louisiana's Delaware Punch (which is named for the Delaware grape, not the state). There's nothing like an ice-cold grape soda to give you a temporary but delicious soda mustache.

Arizona's orange-pineapple Cactus Cooler may not have as lengthy a pedigree as some drinks I have mentioned, but it's the only one I found that was inspired by a cartoon (The Flintstones).

Thanks to the bitterness of Maine's local brew's main ingredient, gentian root, it has entered our lexicon as a synonym for 'guts', as in, you have to have plenty of guts to drink it. The name? 'Moxie'.

Michigan's Feigenson brothers weren't pharmacists; they were bakers. Like pharmacists, their profession also lent itself beautifully to the soft drink biz. Icing recipes did double duty as inspiration for the many flavors of their in-house beverage, Faygo. Mmmmmm, icing . . .

As a kid, I grew up drinking Kool-Aid. One of the few bright spots of being hauled along on the drudgery of grocery shopping trips was being allowed to choose which Kool-Aid flavor packets went into our basket (Black Cherry was my favorite, and yes, my mom used real sugar when she mixed up a pitcher). But Kool-Aid wasn't always sold dry. Back when Kool-Aid was getting its start in Prohibition-era Nebraska, they briefly offered a bottled, carbonated version of the iconic powder mix.

New York's Dr. Browns figured out a clever niche for their product. They were one of the few, if not the only, early soft drinks that was Kosher certified. That may be why people continued to drink it, despite the celery they insisted on adding to their flavors. Celery was the hot new health fad once upon a time. Look for a blog post about that here soon.

No treatise on soft drink history would be complete without a mention of Texas' multi-ingredient, cherry cola-flavored Dr. Pepper. DP is one of the few drinks from the soda fountain heydey still going strong today. Invented in 1885 by a pharmacist in Waco, Texas, Dr. Pepper was light years ahead in the marketing game. It got a big publicity bump when it was featured at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As a Texan, I have a soft spot for DP. Back in the 1970s Dr. Pepper earned my undying devotion when they introduced a diet version. It tasted great! At that time, the only other diet soda available in our area was an abomination known as Tab. Think carbonated cod liver oil. Diet DP was my morning office pick-me-up for years since I'm not a coffee drinker. Envision a hot summer day, walking in from the shimmering asphalt of the company parking lot, greeted by a blast of air frostily conditioned the way only Texans know how, and reach for that chilled bottle of DP straight out of the artic atmosphere of the behemoth coke machine. Heaven!

I don't drink much in the way of soft drinks anymore. I gave up my hardcore forty-year one-a-day Diet Coke/Coke Zero habit in November 2013, thank you very much. At the peak of my addiction, I would scoff at my mom's insistence that cokes just didn't taste the same without the pure cane sugar and the other natural ingredients she remembered from her youth. I was so busy counting calories, I wouldn't have dreamed of drinking a 'real' coke. My, how things have changed. I think that's why I enjoyed that Blenheim ginger ale. So much flavor, without the chemicals in most modern soft drinks that I can taste now that I've kicked the habit. It's definitely an experience I would like to repeat in moderation. What's the best soft drink produced locally in your area? And how can I get some?

The original version of this post was published in July 2015.

 

Martha Matilda Harper, a real-life Rapunzel, had a great reason for keeping her hair long: it was her livelihood

Raised in a Southern Baptist household, I recall it being said on more than one occasion that a woman's hair was her 'crowning glory'. I understood the words and concept. But like most children, the deeper meaning sailed over my head.

I certainly didn't see that principle practiced at home. My mom experimented with many different hair styles when I was growing up. There was the home perm, the 'Dorothy Hamill', the pixie cut, the peroxide blonde, even one phase of wigs! None of which were anything I would put in the 'crowning glory' category. Not that her hair wasn't attractive - Mom always took great pains with her appearance. But when I thought of 'crowning glory', I guess I had more of a Rapunzel look in mind, and believe me, Mom never reminded me of Rapunzel. I believe it is the Pentecostal faith that disallows women from cutting their hair, not the Baptists. If indeed it was a Baptist tenet, Mom sinned mightily.

In my former day job as a tennis instructor, I have students of all different cultures and faiths. One of my Muslim students was eager to share about her faith and its various precepts. From her I learned how much a woman's hair is revered in their faith, and why after a certain age (when they 'become a woman'; i.e., get their period) they cover it up. Apparently the logic goes like this: when it is so long and luxurious, it is a tremendously attractive temptation to the males. Best cover it up rather than invite unwanted advances. Keep in mind she was about 10 at the time, so something may have been lost in the translation there. Apologies if this is incorrect.

I understand why long hair on women was perceived as desirable and attractive back in the day. With the origins of Christian and Muslim faiths in the Middle East where long, thick, wavy 'Princess Jasmine' hair runs strong in the gene pool, I bet Princess Jasmine hair was pretty common. If I had hair like that, I wouldn't cut it, either! But much has changed. Genetic diversity has resulted in diluting the Princess Jasmine gene. For every head of Princess Jasmine hair, there are many that are more Phyllis Diller or Bride of Frankenstein.  Leaping into the breach, technology in the entertainment industry has made fictional hair do things no natural hair could ever achieve. I love long hair when it looks like Cher's. But it's so rare anymore to see hair in a natural state that hasn't been colored or processed or flattened or curled or blown out and sprayed to within an inch of its likely very damaged split ends to achieve, however briefly, the cartoon ideal.

Actress Louise Brooks sporting her 'black helmet'

The Roaring Twenties ushered in an age of follicle liberation. Someone, somewhere decided all that long hair and tedious braiding and brushing and pinning just wasn't worth the trouble. That someone was a man: Monsieur Antoine, by some accounts the first celebrity hair stylist. The Czech-born Paris resident claimed he was inspired by Joan of Arc, who was in the process of being beatified about the time Antoine got his inspiration (early 1900s). Joan claimed to be inspired by no lesser style icon than God Himself to cut her hair into a 'pageboy', a style worn by many male knights of her era. Didn't work out so well for Joan, but nearly 500 years later there was a decidedly better outcome for women around the world when Antoine's stylings set off a short-wave tsunami.

Short hair styles for women have come a long way, but we've got a ways to go. For every chic trendsetting Twiggy, there are three extension-wearing pseudo celebrities. Short hair is often depicted as a tragedy or punishment in movies. One exception, ironically, is reality TV, where spiffy short 'dos are typically part of the winning formula in makeover shows featuring 'real' women. I'll feel better when we see a blockbuster with a strong, smart, female lead whose prospects improve AFTER she cuts her hair. Hey - there's an idea! Sorry - gotta go - there's a niche that needs filling!

The original version of this post was published in March 2014.