Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Video: A Crash Course in Chinese History

I've been watching a bunch of these Crash Course world history videos.  Crash Course is pretty much a YouTube channel with videos on a variety of subjects.  John Green presents the US history and world history videos.  It's impossible to teach in depth history in one relatively small clip, but the videos are fun and interesting so I'd thought I'd share one about Chinese history.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lover, Sword Fighter, Diva - the Life of Julie d'Aubigny

Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th century fencer and opera singer. Also known as La Maupin or Mademoiselle Maupin, many stories about her life are more legend than fact. She sounds like something out of an adventure novel, but the basics are true. She was a star of the Paris Opera as well as traveling swordswoman.

Born in Paris in about 1670 (or 1673), Julie d’Aubigny was the daughter of Gaston d’ Aubigny, secretary of the Comte d’ Armagnac. Her father might have been the one who got her fencing lessons so she could defend herself. As a teenager she became the Comte’s mistress and he introduced her to life at court. To hide the affair, the Comte married her off to Maupin, of St. Germain-en-Laye, but the Comte ended the romance within a year.  Shortly after, the newlyweds separated as well.  There are separate accounts about their separation. Some indicate that her husband got a government position in another province. Others say she left him for a fencing-master a few months after they married.

Regardless of how they separated, she did meet Sérannes, an assistant at a fencing academy. Some sources say that it was Sérannes who taught her to use a small sword. She proved to be a better fencer than he was. In around 1688 Sérannes killed a man in an illegal duel, and the Lieutenant-General of Police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie went after him. The couple fled Paris for Marseilles. To travel safely, she dressed in male’s clothes and called herself Monsieur d’Aubigny. They didn’t have much money so they sang in inns and held dueling exhibitions. D’Aubigny fenced in male attire, though she didn’t hide that she was female – this probably made her more popular. Both reportedly had good voices, and despite knowing very little about music they were hired by the opera-house of Marseilles.

In 1690, the daughter of a rich merchant saw d’Aubigny on the stage and was smitten.  Sérannes all but forgotten, the equally smitten d’Aubigny tried to run away with the girl in the dark of night.  Some sources say that they were discovered and had to escape to a convent. Others say that the girl’s friends or family opposed their relationship and sent the girl to a convent in Avignon. After the girl was admitted to the convent, d’Aubigny went after her and became a novice. Soon after, a nun died. D’Aubigny stole the body, put it in her lover’s bed and there she set the room on fire. In the commotion, they ran away to a village. They hid for weeks but were eventually found. When officers appeared to take the girl back, d’Aubigny reportedly killed one and injured two others. The girl was returned to her family, and legend says that d’Aubigny was sentenced to be burned for kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and missing court proceedings.

But La Maupin had already headed back to Paris. On the way, she made money traveling from town to town singing in cabarets. In Paris she enrolled into the school of Lulli. Two months later, she debuted as Mademoiselle Maupin at the Opera in Lulli’s Cadmus et Hermoine. Audiences loved her contralto voice.

None of this kept her out of trouble with her fellow actors, one fellow named Dumenil in particular. In some accounts, Dumenil insulted her, so she thrashed him one night in the Place des Victoires. She made off with his snuff-box and watch. The day after, Dumenil told his colleagues that thieves had assaulted him and though he fought them bravely, they subdued him and made off with his belongings. La Maupin heard this lie and said:
"Fellow! you are a base liar and poltroon. It was I alone who assaulted you; and as a proof, I restore your miserable property." 
Then she presented his missing snuff-box and watch. In the other account La Maupin might have thought Dumenil insulted her.  So, during one of his performances, she jumped onto the stage, stopped the performance, and caned him in front of the audience.

One night in 1695, she donned her male attire and crashed a masked ball being hosted by King Louis XIV’s brother at the Palais Royale. She flirted shamelessly with a well born woman, and three jealous suitors were outraged, perhaps knowing that La Maupin was really a woman. La Maupin challenged them to a duel and they all went into the gardens. There she either injured or killed one or more of the men. It seems that the King himself pardoned her the next day because he concluded that anti-dueling laws could only applied to men.

Immediately after the ball, Mlle. Maupin left France for Brussels where her legend, beauty, and talent dazzled the people of Brussels. Maximilian II Emanuel von Bayern, Elector of Bavaria allegedly became infatuated with her. Their relationship lasted until the Comtesse d’Arco distracted him. He had the Comtesse’s husband give Mlle. Maupin 40,000 livres to leave Brussels. She reportedly flung the purse at the envoy and in a fit of rage left for Madrid hours later, taking the 40,000 livres with her.

After her stay in Spain, she returned to Paris in about 1698. She went back to the Opera and she was named prima donna since the soprano Marthe le Rochois had just retired. Her role in 1702 as Clorinde in André Campra’s Tancrède was written specifically for her. It was the Paris Opera’s first role for a female lead who wasn’t a soprano.

Towards the end of her life, La Maupin began a relationship with Marie-Louise-Thérèse de Senneterre, La Marquise de Florensac. After the marquise died suddenly in 1705, La Maupin was so heartbroken she left the stage. She reunited with her husband and they lived quietly together until he died. Soon after his death she went to a convent and died there in 1707.

Queens of Song by Ellen Creathorne Clayton
Chevalier, Louis-Joseph, prince de Grimberghen by Neil Jeffares
The Sketch Book of Character

Further Reading
Mademoiselle Maupin

Monday, March 18, 2013

15th Century Conical Headdresses

When I was a kid, I thought a conical hat was just part of the Medieval princess uniform.  My mother helped me make a a bright blue one that I wore to a Medieval fair at school.  As it turns out, those cone hats have a name.  And they weren't worn during the entire Middle Ages either.  A while back, I had to research them, and I had no idea what the heck they were called.  Googling 'Medieval cone hat' gave me a surprising amount of useless results - sorry to all the people selling cone hats with princess costumes.  As it turns out, the hats are called hennins.

 Maria Portinari of Bruges

These headdresses were especially popular in 15th century Burgundy, Flanders, and France, but noblewomen also wore them in England, Hungary, and Poland.  Women probably began to wear them in the 1430s and hennins became more noticeable after the 1450s.

Stylish women at the Flemish court wore hennins with veils at the top.  Flemish women plucked their hair and even their eyebrows for a desirable, high forehead.  Eyebrows were shaped into a slender line or totally removed.

A translucent or semi-translucent veil was often draped over the hennin and covered the wearer’s face.  Veils of various lengths could also start from the top of the hat and drape down over the shoulders.

 Mary, Duchess of Burgundy

By 1467 women had started to wear conical hats that sometimes measured at “half an ell” - an ancient measurement that changed over time. In the 15th century, the measurement of the ell differed with each country. In England it was the equivalent of 45 inches. In the Low Countries it was 27 inches. Therefore half an ell might be approximately a foot long. Some historians guess that the tallest hennins weren’t taller than two feet, though I’ve read that some could be as tall as 36 inches. The average hennin was probably between eleven and sixteen inches.

 It’s hard to figure out how exactly, the cones stayed on without sliding off. Some costumers make replicas with chin straps, but there don’t seem to be contemporary paintings showing a hennin with chin straps. Some conclude that because paintings of women wearing hennins show that their hair was drawn back very tightly, a forehead loop and an ear piece might have kept the hat in place.

During the 15th century, the hats were commonly referred to as “atours” or “tyres”, or another word that was used in a particular country. The word “hennin” was probably a French word used for an earlier headdress.

A variation on the hennin was the truncated hennin, which was flat at the top.

Truncated hennin

The hennin stopped being fashionable in the 1490s.

Constructing the Headdresses of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Marie Vibbert
Illuminating the Rennaissance

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Way out West: Images of African Americans in the Wild West

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American West was a place that blacks felt they could start over.  Between 1865 and 1920, thousands of blacks left the South to establish towns, make money, and create better lives.  Movies tend to ignore their presence, but African Americans were a part of the Wild West as lawmen, outlaws, soldiers, cowboys, settlers, and adventurers.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves escaped slavery into Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) sometime during the Civil War.  After working as a scout and a tracker he was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1875.  He reportedly made 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws during his 32 year career.   

This flier promoted an anniversary celebration for Benjamin "Pap" Singleton's birthday.  Singleton was one of the leaders of the Exoduster movement of African Americans who left the hardships of the South and settled in Kansas.  Many of Singleton's colonies failed and life in Kansas was difficult for the new settlers.  Singleton's Dunlap Colony, however, was successfully established in the late 1870s.

 Henry Williams and Reece Switzer were settlers of Nicodemus, Kansas.  Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was one of the black towns established during the Exoduster Movement.

Nona Marshall photographed in her ostrich feather hat during the late 19th century or early 20th century in the Arizona Territory.

Also known as Ned Huddleston, Isom Dart was an outlaw in Wyoming Territory.  He was also nicknamed the "Black Fox" or the "Calico Cowboy", and rode with the Tip Gault Gang.  After life as a horse thief and cattle rustler he decided to give that up and set up his own ranch.  But some ranchers didn't believe he really gave up cattle rustling, and they hired hitman Tom Horn to take care of him.  Horn decided not to bring him in alive, and gunned Isom Dart down in 1900.     

 Lou Southworth was a settler and fiddler in Oregon.  His master took him on the Oregon Trail into Oregon Territory in 1853.  Southworth tried gold mining in southern Oregon and California to pay for his freedom, but he soon realized that he could earn more money from music than mining.  So, he became a violin instructor and played at dance schools in California and Nevada.  He earned enough money to pay for his freedom and became free in 1859.  

Paul Cephas Howell, about 1880.  Howell settled in Salt Lake City in 1874, and became the first black police detective in the United States.

George Stevens and his wife Lucinda Vilate Flake.  His mother was Spanish and her parents were African American, but they were legally married in Utah in 1872.  Interracial marriage became illegal in Utah in 1888 and would remain illegal until 1963.

Bill Pickett was a rodeo performer of African, European, and Cherokee ancestry.  Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett performed in silent films and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show between 1905 and 1931.  He invented steer wrestling (or bulldogging), toured the world, and was friends with entertainers like Will Rogers and Tom Mix.   

"Stagecoach" Mary Fields arrived in the town of Cascade, Montana in 1884.  6 feet tall, and rarely without a pistol hidden beneath her apron, a shotgun, a jug of whiskey, and a cigar, Fields became the first African American and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service in 1895.  In her 60s, she rode a stagecoach across the dangerous Montana territory, delivering mail on time no matter the weather or terrain.  She didn't take any nonsense from any man - one newspaper said she had "broken more noses than any other person in Montana."  Fields eventually became a beloved citizen of the town of Cascade.  She could have free meals at a town hotel, and residents even rebuilt her house after it burned down in 1912.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Silent Film Starlet Louise Brooks Gets the Hollywood Treatment

It looks like Fox Searchlight has gotten the rights to adapt Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone.  The novel is about a 15 year old Louise Brooks and a fictionalized Alice Mills (Cora Carlisle in the novel), who chaperones her on her summer trip to New York City in 1922.  She's supposed to make sure Louise behaves.  Good luck lady.  Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is attached to the film and will play the chaperone. It's been on my to read list because it's set in the 1920s (my favorite era), and because Louise Brooks is my favorite silent film star.  I can't wait to find out who will get to play her.

 Louise at about age 16, circa 1923

In her day, Brooks was apparently considered a "second-tier star".  We'd probably consider her a B-list celebrity if she was around today, but she became an icon over the years.

Her early years weren't always good.  A bachelor she dubbed "Mr. Feathers" or sometimes "Mr. Flowers" molested her when she was nine years old.  It was a memory she would block out for decades.  She ditched high school, left Wichita, Kansas and began her career dancing in 1922 after Ruth St. Denis invited Brooks to her dance company.

After being fired from the dance company she was hired to be a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925.  Once a producer saw her in the Follies, she was given a contract with Paramount.  She was 19 years old.

Brooks had a reputation for being direct, and utterly unimpressed by Hollywood.  But the celebrity mags seemed to love her, especially her sleek black hair.  If Brooks got a mention in the fan magazines, so did her High-brow Bob.  Or her square bob.  Or her bangs.  Her love life - including her "wild and swift" romance with director Eddie Sutherland - was the source of endless fascination and speculation.

 Pandora's Box

Though half of her 14 films with Paramount are considered lost, it is her work outside of Paramount - 1929's Pandora's Box - that Brooks is most remembered for.  Originally, the film bombed, and the critics hated her performance ("Louise Brooks cannot act," one said bluntly), but as time went by, critics like Kenneth Tynan recognized her alluring paradoxes:
She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. 
When she returned to Hollywood, her career in American films was practically over.  Silent film stars who wanted to stay in talkies had to make the transition fast, and she missed the opportunity by making movies in Europe for too long.

You can head on over to YouTube for a look at a rare interview with Louis Brooks in her later years.

Who would you cast to play Louise Brooks?

"The Girl in the Black Helmet" by Kenneth Tynan
"The Martyrdom of Lulu" by Dan Callahan
Photoplay Magazine (January-June 1927)

Further Reading
When Kenneth Met Lulu
Opening Pandora's Box by J. Hoberman

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Manuscripts of Medieval Timbuktu

Before militants fled Timbuktu last month, they set fire to the library inside the Ahmed Baba Institute. The library housed thousands of treasured manuscripts, some of which the militants tried to burn. But as it turns out, thousands of texts had already been stealthily removed by librarians and security guards. At night, library staff packed manuscripts onto donkey carts and transported them to boats on the Niger River. Then, the boats sailed to Mopti, which was out of militant control. From Mopti, a truck, took the manuscripts to Bamako, Mali’s capital. But even the few hundred manuscripts that the militants burned had reportedly already been digitized.

Manuscripts in the library included the Tariqh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), a 17th century narrative of the history of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire rose in the 14th century after the Mali Empire began to fall. The capital of the Songhai Empire was another historic Malian city – Gao. The Tariqh al-Sudan, called Timbuktu:
"a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats." 
Other manuscripts also included Korans, inventories, receipts, letters and documents on medicine, chemistry, geography, history, astronomy, literature, poetry, grammar, magic, botany, mathematics, women’s rights and law. Most documents were written between in Arabic, but others were written in Songhai, Tamashek, and Bambara.

The new library in the Ahmed Baba Institute housed tens of thousands of manuscripts and it has been estimated that these manuscripts were one-fifth of all the texts in the Timbuktu area. Documents outside of the library were in Timbuktu’s public and private libraries or hidden in the city and in surrounding towns. The library staff wanted to restore and digitize Timbuktu’s documents, but residents were still reluctant to loan or even sell their manuscripts, wanting to protect their heritage themselves.

Over the years many residents of Timbuktu tried to preserve these documents, vigilant in their mission to protect their history from invasions from Morocco, the Songhai Empire, and France in the late 19th century. They have also had to face the challenges of termites, the passage of time, and illegal trafficking of manuscripts. Residents have hidden these family heirlooms under furniture or floors or in the desert sand to protect them. Sometimes old hiding places are found, the original owners long forgotten about the hiding place. During this most recent invasion by militants residents once again hid their family manuscripts to preserve their history.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries Timbuktu was a city of learning for scholars from all over the world. There were refugees from Spain, teachers and students from Cairo, Baghdad, and Persia, and intellectuals from the Mali and Songhai Empires. It developed from a trading center, and by the 16th century had become a university town. The learning spread to other cities like Gao and Djénné. It was in the early 16th century that Askia Mohammed ruled the Songhai Empire, a huge West African empire which included Timbuktu. During that time, adventurer and visitor Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi (also known as Leo Africanus) wrote:

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men…Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

 Sankoré Mosque by Baz Lecocq

Camel caravans brought salt to Timbuktu. From the 12th century onwards, scholars came with these caravans, transporting thousands of texts on their journey. Merchants also brought textiles and spices from places like Granada to Mecca, in exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves from Ghana. Goods were bought and sold with cowrie shells and gold nuggets. Scholars began to leave Timbuktu after late 16th century invasions from Morocco forced them from the city.

In addition to manuscripts, modern Timbuktu is home to historical buildings. The most famous being three large 13th and 14th century earthen-brick mosques – Djingarey Ber, Sankoré, and Sidi Yahia – which formed the University of Timbuktu. The militants destroyed many of the tombs at these mosques several months ago.   Unesco officials are preparing to rebuild the tombs.

Further Reading
Ibn Battuta's: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu
Tombouctou Manuscripts Project

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Belle Époque Paris in Color

Paris 1914 has a collection of color photos of Paris taken between 1907 and 1930.  The Lumière brothers patented Autochrome in 1903, and this process was used to take color photos until the 1930s.  Banker Albert Kahn, commissioned photographers to record the era across five continents.  The Albert Kahn Museum has about 72,000 of these color photos.  Some of the photos go a few years beyond the Belle Époque, but I thought they were fascinating.

 Grand Palais exhibition in 1909, by Leon Gimpel


Notre Dame in 1909, by Leon Gimpel

 The airship Zodiac III, 1909

 Quai de la Corse, 1910

 Place de la Concorde on November 14, 1918

Mess Nessy Chic compares turn of the century color photos of Paris with contemporary ones.  You can also find more photos at Paris Unplugged.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Les Misérables: Paris in the Early 19th Century

The new movie tries to capture the turmoil, splendor, and misery of post-revolutionary France. The government of the early 19th century was always changing. There were abdications and assassinations. In 1820 the Duc de Berry, son of the eventual Charles X of France, was stabbed to death on the steps of a Paris opera house in front of his pregnant wife.

The opera was an important place for the nobility, but was increasingly where the emerging bourgeoisie went to socialize. After the Revolution, the bourgeoisie wanted to emulate the nobility rather than take its place. They wanted to keep their ideals, but live in the same opulence as the nobles. The opera was one of the best places to do this. Patrons attended to gossip and mingle with each other.

Winter balls were also popular. And the summer balls took place in public gardens and in salons on the Champs-Élysées. There were balls for all social classes, some of which were described as “of a lower description”, while others were considered more respectable. Like the opera, the Champs-Élysées was where Parisians could socialize, as they strolled past theaters, restaurants, and shops.

Madame Récamier by François Gérard

The early 19th century salons of Paris were a gathering place for intellectuals who wanted to discuss politics, society, and culture. Socialite Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier was renowned for her beauty; some male patrons reportedly visited her salon to be in her company, instead of for the usual debates and conversations. Juliette, as she was called, was also admired for her charm and kindness. Actresses, artists, and composers flocked to her salon. Women’s magazines gossiped about her style. Wearing white gowns with pearls was her signature fashion statement. She had a love of the arts could play the harp, piano, and organ. A rival, Madame de Krudener, persuaded a friend to beg Madame Récamier:

"I acquit myself with a little embarrassment of a commission which Mme. de Krudener has just given me. She begs you to come as little beautiful as you can. She says that you dazzle all the world, and that consequently every soul is troubled and attention is impossible. You cannot lay aside your charms, but do not add to them." 

She was the toast of Paris, but she was not without scandal. She married a banker in 1793 at 15, and there were rumors that her husband, Jacques might have been her father. Perhaps he married her so that she could be his heir and keep her inheritance. In any event, she and her husband lost their fortunes in 1805. Prince Augustus of Prussia wanted to marry her, and though her husband seemed to open to a divorce, she declined his offer – she didn’t want to deal with the inevitable scandal. Napoleon attempted to bring her to his court, and he asked her to be lady in waiting to his wife, Joséphine. Madame Récamier refused, and he would come to see everyone who visited her salon as a threat. He later exiled her from Paris.

 Prince Augustus of Prussia in front of a painting of Madame Récamier

 Life was of course, a different matter for the poor in Paris. Children worked alongside adults in workshops under appalling working conditions. Many children were deserted or placed in unsuitable homes.

Impoverished women often had no choice but to turn to prostitution or theft. Women turned to prostitution if they were unemployed or had family members to take care of. Child prostitution wasn’t uncommon. Girls were forced to sell themselves for sometimes a mere franc. Girls usually worked on certain streets, in back alleys, or under bridges. These unregistered prostitutes had to watch out for the police who constantly looked for prostitutes working without a permit. There were dangers to prostitution, rape and assault especially.

But the poor tried to shape their own lives.  As difficult as life was, they organized and demonstrated against the government over the treatment of the country’s least fortunate.

You can read a travel article in the Telegraph about Paris landmarks associated with the movie.  There are some spoilers. 

Childhood in Nineteenth Century France by Colin Heywood
France in the Age of Les Misérables 
Galignani's New Paris Guide, 1830
Juliette Récamier, the darling of Europe
The Women of the French Salons by Amelia Ruth Gere Mason

Further Reading
Paris: Capital of the 19th Century by Dana Goldstein

Monday, January 21, 2013

Remembering Presidential Inaugurations in Eight Photos

George Washington was the first president to have an inauguration.  While his inauguration was on March 4, 1789, the date was eventually changed to January 20.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be sworn in on January 20 in 1937.  The change was supposed to decrease the amount of time between the election and the beginning of the president's term.

The Inauguration of James Buchanan at the Capitol on March 4, 1857.  This is the first known photograph of a presidential inauguration.

President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865.  It rained during the day, and it was the first time that African American troops took part in the inaugural parade.
First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln wore pearls and diamonds with her ball gown to President Lincoln's second inauguration.

Theodore Roosevelt on his way to the Capitol on March 4, 1905.

Helen Taft's gown for the 1909 inaugural ball.  She was the first wife to ride with the president from the Capitol to the White House.

Outgoing president, William H. Taft and the newly elected Woodrow Wilson at the inauguration in 1913.

Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace right before the inaugural celebration begins in 1925.   Coolidge's address made history as the first one broadcast on national radio.

 Fireworks at President Harry S. Truman's inauguration on January 20, 1949.

 What are your inauguration memories?  Which is the first one you can remember?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nikola Tesla on the 70th Anniversary of His Death

This month marks the 70th anniversary of inventor Nikola Tesla’s death on January 7, 1943.  Born in 1856, in modern day Croatia, Nikola Tesla arrived in New York in 1884, and began to work for Thomas Edison.   Their working relationship didn't last for long after a financial dispute, and by 1886, Tesla had resigned and started Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing.

Tesla's contributions to science eventually included improvement and developments to alternating current, fluorescent lighting, radio, x-rays, and the first hydro-electric power plant at Niagara Falls. 

But, Nikola Tesla has never had the same level of fame that his rival Thomas Edison has.  At least, not in America.  There are Edison museums and memorials. His achievements are taught in schools. I even vaguely remember watching Spencer Tracy in Edison, the Man.  (As an aside, Edison, the Man was not the only Edison movie to come out in 1940.)  But for Tesla, there is no permanent museum dedicated to his work in the United States. I certainly never learned about him in school.  I don't intend to add to the endless (and exhausting) Edison vs. Tesla arguments, and on this occasion, I'd rather focus on remembering Tesla as a historical figure.

As overlooked as Tesla has been by history, it seems that over the past several months, there have been announcements about Tesla projects that are in the works.  There were rumors about two big budget movies - a sci-fi movie starring George Clooney, and a film about Tesla and Edison starring Christian Bale (Bale’s attachment turned out to be too good to be true).  There's also a docudrama, a cartoon pilot about a time traveling Nikola Tesla with bonus Josephine Baker in their concept art:

And best of all, there might be a Tesla museum in America after all.  An online fundraiser to buy and renovate Tesla's lab, Wardenclyffe ended up raising about $1.8 million.  Before the fundraiser, there were reports that Wardenclyffe was going to be demolished or transformed into commercial property.

Tesla's plans for a laboratory and a tower, Wardenclyffe on Long Island, New York started in 1898.  Funded in part by J.P. Morgan, the tower was meant to transmit wireless energy, and building started in 1901. Tesla moved his lab to Wardenclyffe in 1902, but the construction went over budget and by 1904 financiers stopped their funding. Wardenclyffe was closed by 1905 and never completed.  The location is probably in disrepair but maybe, thanks to the fundraiser, Tesla’s equipment might be found on the site. 

People are interested in Tesla for different reasons – for his contributions to technology, his role as a turn-of-the-century historical figure, his eccentricities.  Being an admitted fool when it comes the science, it’s the last two that interest me. 

Tesla's personality is part of the reason why a non-geek like me actually wanted to learn about a scientist for once.  He didn't own many of his patents, since his financier, George Westinghouse had purchased them.  He might have earned millions from the royalties, but when Westinghouse was in financial trouble, Tesla agreed to forgo his royalties, instead of letting Westinghouse go bankrupt.  Part of this is why the public never associated Tesla with his innovations since Westinghouse owned the patents.

 He was the quintessential mad genius.  He reportedly spoke 8 languages, and his eccentricities were numerous.  Numerous enough for people to suspect he might have had a mental illness.  He was celibate his whole life, insisting that he would rather focus on his work.  He was closer to pigeons than he was to some humans, and would often leave what was his home for the last decade of his life - the New Yorker Hotel - to go and feed pigeons.  Of one particular injured white pigeon, he professed:
“I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

He avoided going to see doctors. On one occasion in the autumn of 1937, he was hit by a taxi. There were broken ribs, but most of his injuries are a mystery since he never got medical attention.  He stayed in bed until the spring of 1938.

He dined at New York landmarks – Delmonico’s restaurant and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel – naturally from precisely 8pm to 10pm.  One editor described him as “almost the tallest, almost the thinnest and certainly the most serious man who goes to Delmonico’s regularly.”  But, the eccentricities probably don’t paint the entire picture of a man described as also being refined and gentlemanly. 

He was friends with other historical figures including Mark Twain and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Tesla on the July 20th, 1931 cover of Time

When asked about the future, he made all kinds of predictions - some were extremely accurate:

“We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events--the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle--just as though we were present.”

 Most of the attention Tesla gets comes from the science community, but I always gotten the sense that history has under-appreciated him.  Naturally, it's the science geeks who try to remind the world about him, though I think Tesla can be just as fascinating for the history geeks too.

Further reading
Selected Tesla Articles
My Inventions by Nikola Tesla

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tutmania in the Roaring Twenties: When Ancient Egypt was in Vogue

When archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, it set off a global firestorm.  The beginnings of the decade's Egyptomania started five years earlier with Cleopatra starring Theda Bara.  Bara's transparent, wispy costumes became iconic at a time when fashion was turning away from corseted silhouettes.  The press had covered Carter's earlier six seasons of excavations in the Valley of the Kings before his find, so there was a move towards Egypt in fashion and architecture before Carter actually found Tutankhamen's tomb.  Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, for example, opened a mere five weeks after Carter's discovery in 1922.  The design plans had originally been Spanish style, but those plans were mostly scrapped and replaced with an Egyptian design.  But the real craze came after the discovery.

 Unbroken seal of King Tut's tomb

Applications swamped the Patent and Trademark Office.  A whole slew of companies wanted to trademark Tutankhamen for products targeting women.  Businesses were eager to cash in on the craze and there were advertisements with Egyptian references.  The Saturday Evening Post ran Palmolive ads with ancient Egyptian imagery.

The New York Times reported on America's Tutmania:

"There is only one topic of conversation…One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs, and tomorrow probably genuine Tut-Ankh-Amen antiquities. Every hotel in Luxor today had something a la Tut-Ankh-Amen…There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag."

A sheer evening ensemble with Egyptian inspired patterns from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American fashion shows of 1923 in were filled with Egyptian inspired garments. Silk merchants saw a typically slow period improve. Silk company Cheney Brothers sent one of their designers to Egypt for inspiration, and designers from other companies went to the Metropolitan Museum for ideas. The 1925, International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris featured clothes that used Egyptian patterns to influence geometric shapes and simple, basic lines.  Colors came in shades like Nile green.  There were ancient Egyptian patterns on handbags, cigarette holders, and jewelry. Images of sphinxes, lotuses, camels, and palm trees could be found in stores across the country. Fashionable women wore headpieces.  Scarab-shaped jewelry mimicked Egyptian jewelry, and the trend influenced jewelers like Boivin, Lalique, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany, and Cartier. Cartier used striking, bright precious and semi-precious stones like emeralds and lapis lazuli on some of its designs.

 Egyptian revival Cartier ring, circa 1928 from FD

 Evening dress with ibis or vulture motif, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps as a way to cope with the rapid changes of 1920s society, Americans noticed the similarities they shared with ancient Egyptians. One Egyptologist saw the era's shortening hemlines in the dress lengths of Egyptian art. A headline in the Los Angeles Times read "Ancient Egypt Lives Again in Hollywood: Even the Bobbed Hair Reincarnated From the Flappers Who Lived When Tombs Were Built. The article included what were thought to be parallels between Hollywood and Egypt - scarab jewelry, bobbed hair, makeup. If ancient Egyptian women bobbed their hair, how bad could it be? Art and Archaeology noted the similarities between modern and ancient vanity that were unearthed in the excavations - jars and boxes for cosmetics and metal hand mirrors. Kohl was fashionable as eyeliner in the 1910s and 20s, and this vampish look was altered to a heavier, more authentic Egyptian look.

 Louis Brooks

These interpretations of ancient Egyptian art and design were of course, not entirely accurate either. Some attempts at hieroglyphics were pure gibberish. And there were skeptics about the longevity of the Egyptian trend. Art and Archeology called it a "passing fancy. National Geographic agreed. And while announcing increased silk sales in July 1923, the chairman of the Dress Fabric Association called the trend a "thing of the past".

1926 flapper dress with Egyptian inspired lotus detail from Vintage Seekers

In many ways these skeptics were right. The frivolity and decadence of the Egyptian revival began to taper off with the 1929 stock market crash. And while more toned down styles came with the Great Depression, the Egyptian revival is one of the most recognizable fads of the 1920s.

 Egyptian inspired showgirl costume

"Ancient Costume and Modern Fashion" in Art and Archaeology by Mary McAlister
Ancient Style Icon: King Tut Returns
Cleopatra & Egyptian Fashion in Film by Tove Hermanson

Egyptian Influences on Dress in the 1920s
Egyptian Theatre by Howard B. Haas and Ken Roe
Egyptian Revival in Art Deco by Aileen M. Mason
Fashions of a Decade: The 1920s by Jacqueline Herald
Old World, New World: America Meets Tutankhamen by Mary Rekas