September 14, 1752 Double Dating

Confusion reigned as legal contracts, civic calendars and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by having two calendars. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion, over dates.


From the 7th century BC onward, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method often fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. Days were added to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled the calendar. The Roman statesman hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated a proper year to be 365¼ days, more accurately tracking the solar and not the lunar year.

“Walk like an Egyptian” he may have said.

The new “Julian” calendar went into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1.

Rank hath its privileges.

This “Julian” calendar miscalculated the solar year by 11 minutes every year, resulting in a built-in error of 1 day for every 128 years.   By the late 16th century, the seasonal equinoxes were ten days out of sync, causing a problem with the holiest days of the Roman church.

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In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius, to devise a new calendar to correct this “drift”.  The “Gregorian” calendar was adopted on this day in 1582, omitting ten days that October and changing the manner in which “leap” years were calculated.

The Catholic countries of Europe were quick to adopt the Gregorian calendar, Portugal, Spain, pontifical states, but England and her overseas colonies continued to use the Julian calendar. Confusion reigned well into the 18th century.  Legal contracts, civic calendars, and the payment of rents and taxes were all complicated by the two calendar system. Military campaigns were won or lost, due to confusion over dates. Sound familiar?

Between 1582 and 1752, many English and colonial records included both the “Old Style” and “New Style” year.  The system known as “double dating” resulted in date notations such as March 19, 1602/3.  Others merely changed dates. Keyword search on “George Washington’s birthday” for instance, and you’ll be informed that the father of our country was born on February 22, 1732.  The man was actually born on February 11, 1731 but, no matter.  Washington himself recognized the date of his birth to be February 22, 1732, following adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.

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Virginia almanack of 1752

Tragically, the exploding heads of historians and genealogists alike, are lost to history.

The “Calendar Act of 1750” set out a two-step process for adoption of the Gregorian calendar.  Since the Roman calendar began on March 25, the year 1751 was to have only 282 days so that January 1 could be synchronized with that date.  That left 11 days to deal with.

So it was decreed that Wednesday, September 2, 1782, would be followed by Thursday, September 14.

You can read about “calendar riots” around this time, though such stories may be little more than urban myth.

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a prime sponsor of the calendar measure.  His use of the word “Mobs” was probably a description of the bill’s opponents in Parliament.   Even so, some believed their lives were being shortened by those 11 days, while others considered the new calendar to be a “Popish Plot”.  The subject was very real campaign issue between Tories and Whigs in the elections of 1754.

There’s a story of one William Willett, who lived in Endon. Willett bet that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights, starting his jig about town the evening of September 2, 1752. He stopped the next morning, and went out to collect his bets.

I am unable to determine how many actually paid up.

Ever mindful of priorities, the British tax year was officially changed in 1753, so as not to “lose” those 11 days of tax revenue.  Revolution was still 23 years away in the American colonies, but the reaction “across the pond” could not have been one of unbridled joy.

The last nation to adopt the Gregorian calendar was Turkey, formally doing so in 1927.

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Back in the American colonies, Ben Franklin seems to have liked the idea of those “lost days”. “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2″ he wrote, “and not have to get up until September 14.”

Much to the chagrin of Mr. Clavius, the Gregorian calendar still gets out of whack with the solar cycle by about 26 seconds, every year.  Clever methods have been devised to deal with the discrepancy and several hours have already been added, but we’ll be a full day ahead by the year 4909.

I wonder how Mr. Franklin would feel to wake up and find out…it’s still yesterday.

September 6, (est) 1673 A Locker Room Joke

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

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On May 17, 1673, Father Jacques Marquette set out with the 27-year old fur trader Louis Joliet to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.

The voyage established the possibility of water travel from Lake Huron to the Gulf of Mexico, helping to initiate the first white settlements in the North American interior and bestowing French names on places from La Crosse to New Orleans.

Relations with natives were mostly peaceful at this time, as several tribes jockeyed for advantage in the lucrative French fur trade.

Marquette Joliet Route

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river.

Having no desire to share such a privileged position, the chief indicated that those people down the river…they didn’t amount to much. Don’t even bother. The chief called the group “Moingoana”, a name later transliterated into French as “Des Moines”.

Marquette was expert by this time, in several native dialects. Even so, the chief may have indulged himself in a little gag at the expense of the priest. The Miami-Illinois language is extinct today, but linguists suggest that Moingoana may derive from “mooyiinkweena”, translating if I may be polite, as, “those excrement-faces.”

Marquette and Joliet didn’t discover the Mississippi River, Native Americans had been there, for thousands of years. The Spanish explorer Hernan DeSoto had crossed the “Father of Waters” 100 years before. What they did was to establish the feasibility of travel from the Great Lakes, to the Gulf of Mexico. Armed with this information French officials led by the explorer LaSalle would erect a 4000-mile system of trading posts nearly exterminating every fur-bearing mammal in the upper Midwest and permanently altering indigenous cultures, along the way.

As for Des Moines there are alternate explanations of where the name comes from. They are much to be preferred I’m sure, by residents of the Hawkeye state. Even so it’s just possible Father Marquette had one put over on him that day, in 1673. That perhaps the Capital City of Iowa bears the name, of a 350-year-old locker room joke.

September 5, 1698 Death and Taxes

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

It’s been said there are only two sure things in life. None of us get out of here alive, and the government thinks it’s entitled to what you earn. Or something like that.

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

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H/T Wikipedia

Twenty-eight countries around the world have a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a broadcast receiving license.  There’s good news though, the British government will waive half of it, if you can prove you’re legally blind.

This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

Tennessee passed a “Crack Tax” on illegal drugs in 2005, which drug dealers were expected to pay anonymously in exchange for a tax stamp (don’t ask). The measure was found unconstitutional in 2009, on grounds that it violated the drug dealer’s fifth amendment right to protection from self-incrimination.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Henak became a collector of state drug tax stamps, not long after helping to overturn Wisconsin’s crack tax on similar grounds.

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Undeterred, then-Governor Elliott Spitzer proposed a tax on illegal drugs as part of the Empire State’s 2008-’09 budget, making New York the 30th state to pass such a measure. “Mr. Clean” stepped down in a hooker scandal, amid threats of impeachment by state lawmakers. The state Senate passed a budget resolution the following day, specifically rejecting the crack tax.

Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6. Good to know, next time you want to plow into a box of donuts in one sitting.

Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So, yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it? Neither do I.

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New Zealand proposed a tax on bovine flatulence in 2003, to curb “Global Warming”. The fuss raised by New Zealand farmers over a tax on cow farts, was near-measurable on the Richter scale.  Red-faced politicians quietly dropped the proposal.

President Obama levied a 10% tax on indoor tanning in 2010, leading to 10,000 of the nation’s 18,000 tanning salons closing, with a loss of 100,000 jobs. The measure may actually have had a net negative effect on treasury proceeds.

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In 1662, King Charles II levied a tax on fireplaces.  Britons hurried to brick up fireplaces to avoid the hearth tax, preferring to shiver rather than pay up.  The village baker in Churchill in Oxfordshire knocked out the wall from her oven to avoid the tax and, unsurprisingly, burned the whole village down.

The idea worked so swell that England introduced a property tax in 1696, based on the number of windows in your home. Homeowners bricked up windows to avoid the tax, leaving them ready to be re-bricked and glazed, should such an opportunity ever arise.

The English government repealed a window tax in 1851 and France in 1926, but you can still find homes with bricked up windows. Perhaps they’re getting ready for window tax version 2.0. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed just that, as recently as 2012.

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In 2004, the Maryland Legislature passed a monthly fee on sewer bills, ostensibly to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic tributaries. You pee, you poo, you pay. The fee doubled in 2012, the year in which Governor Martin O’Malley signed a tax – on rain.

At one point, Holland levied a tax on the width of homes. Not surprisingly, the skinniest house in the world can be found at Singel 7, in Amsterdam. It’s a meter across, barely wider than its own door.

By all means tat yourself up if you like. Just don’t do it in Arkansas where tattoos, body piercings and electrolysis is subjected to a 6% sales tax.

On September 5, 1698, Czar Peter I was just returned from a trip to Europe, hot to “modernize” the Russian empire. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter introduced a tax on beards.

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When you paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “The beard tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”. Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some unfortunates had theirs pulled out by the roots, by Peter himself.

An anti-religious man and a Big fan of Voltaire and the secular humanist philosophers, ol’ Pete passed a tax on souls in 1718, joining the Russian levy on beehives, horse collars, hats, boots, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, all males, birth, death and marriage.

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When Henry I reigned over England (1100 – 1135), people who avoided military service were charged a “Cowardice Tax”, called a ”Scutage”. The levy was modest at first, but Richard Lionheart’s little brother John raised it by 300% when he became King, charging even his own knights during years when there were no wars. It’s no small part of what led to the Magna Carta.

Often, taxes are used to shape social policy.

In 1862, the California legislature passed a tax on Chinese residents, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.

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The new law levied a tax of $2.50 per month on every ethnically Chinese individual residing within the state, and followed a gold rush era measure levying a tax of $3.00 a month on all Chinese miners. This at a time when the average gold miner made $6 per month.

In 1795, British prime minister William Pitt (the Younger) levied a tax on wig powder.  By 1820, powdered wigs were out of style.

In New Jersey you can buy a pumpkin free of tax, until it been painted, varnished or cut up, for decoration. Then you’ll be charged a sales tax.

Pious politicians can’t resist “sin taxes”, “nudging” citizens away from the likes of evil weed and John Barleycorn, all the while making the self-righteous and the virtue-signaling feel good about themselves.

New Mexico likes competitive sports just fine but, games of chance like bingo or raffles? That’ll cost you another half-point.

I wonder. If cigarette taxes are supposed to encourage smoking cessation and taxes on Chinese were supposed to decrease competition from coolie labor, what are income taxes are supposed to do?

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Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tobacco tax in 1794, and they’ve been with us ever since.

Federal and state governments both get their vig on a pack of butts, ranging from 30 cents a pack in Virginia, to $4.35 in New York. Throw in the taxes levied by counties, municipalities, local subdivisions and Boy Scout Councils (kidding), and people really do change behavior. Just, not always in the intended direction. There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, home to a few hundred and measuring about a square mile. Their cigarette taxes are near zero and, until recently, tribal authorities sold about a hundred million packs a year.

European governments levied a tax on soap in the middle ages, leading to memorable moments in personal hygiene, I’m sure.

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In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

In the first century AD, Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian levied a tax on pee. Honest. In those days, the lower classes pissed into pots which were emptied into cesspools.

Urine was collected for a number of chemical processes such as tanning, and it did a swell job whitening those woolen togas. When Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax his father showed him a gold coin, saying “Pecunia non olet”. “Money does not stink”.

Vespasiano e vespasiani.

To this day, Italian public urinals are called vespasiani.  In France they’re vespasiennes. And if you need to pee in Romania, you could visit the vespasiene.

My personal favorite might be the long distance tax that used to appear on American phone bills. This one began as a “Tax the Rich” scheme, first implemented to pay for the Spanish-American war, in 1898. Nobody ever made long distance phone calls but rich guys, right? It took a lawsuit to end the damned thing which was finally discontinued, in 2005.  We can’t be too hasty about these things.

June 8, 1959 Rocket Mail

1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

To talk about Rocket Mail sounds like we’re speaking of the early free webmail services, something like Hotmail or a few others.  Not that we ever delivered the mail on real rockets.

Yes we did. Well, sort of.

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In the early 19th century, expanding western settlement meant that a letter sent to California could one of several routes. Earlier stagecoach passages were replaced by steamship routes traveling around South America, or by overland transfer across the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. By mid-century the rapid dissemination of information was becoming ever more important, even as the simmering tensions which would bring the nation to Civil War proved such a system, inadequate.

The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, was the short-lived effort to speed up the process. Between April 1860 and October ’61, continuous horse-and-rider relays carried letters the 2,000-mile distance from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento, California.

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Individual riders covered 75 – 100 miles at a time, on somewhere between five and ten horses.  The Pony Express compressed the standard 24-day schedule for overland delivery to ten days, but the system was a financial disaster.  Little more than an expensive stopgap before the first transcontinental telegraph system.

Throughout post-war reconstruction and on toward the turn of the century, individuals living in more remote precincts had to pick up the mail at sometimes-distant post offices. Either that or they had to pay private carriers.

The Post Office began experiments with Rural Free Delivery (RFD) as early as 1890, but the system was slow to catch on. Georgia Congressman Thomas Watson pushed RFD legislation through the Congress in 1893, making the practice mandatory. Implementation was slow and RFD wouldn’t be fully adopted until 1902, but elected officials were quick to implement this new way to reach out to voters.

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The first mail carried through the air arrived by hot air balloon on January 7, 1785, a letter written by Loyalist William Franklin to his son William Temple Franklin, at that time serving a diplomatic role in Paris with his grandfather, the United States’ one-time and first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin.

The first (unofficial) mail delivery by aircraft took place on February 17, 1911, when Fred Wiseman flew three letters between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California. Comprehensive airmail rules were adopted by the Universal Postal Union in 1929. Since then, airmail was often marked “Par avion”: “By airplane”.

Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book states that carriers would deliver “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” What exactly constitutes “Public Convenience” was open to interpretation but, in some cities, business districts received between three and five daily deliveries and twice a day to residential areas.

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In 1950, the Postmaster General ordered residential deliveries reduced to once a day and, by the early 1990s, businesses had learned to live with the same.  There was little to be improved upon in this happy state of affairs.  Unless of course you’re receiving your mail, by rocket.

The concept is older than you might think.  German novelist Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811) was the first to bring up the idea in 1810, calculating that a network of batteries could relay a letter from Berlin to Breslau, a distance of 180 miles, in half a day. Such a system was attempted using Congreve rockets in 19th century Tonga, but proved unreliable. By 1929, American ambassador to Germany Jacob Gould Schurman was discussing the finer points of transatlantic rocket mail delivery, with a German reporter.

A 1936 experiment with rocket-powered mail delivery between New York and New Jersey ended with 50-pounds of mail, stranded on the ice of frozen Greenwood Lake.

From India to the United Kingdom, the 1930s were a time for experimentation with rocket-propelled mail delivery. 1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

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As a piece of technology, the rockets’ origins are both simple and ancient. A rocket quite simply is a vessel, powered by stored propellant such as gunpowder, kerosene, or liquid hydrogen & oxygen. A missile is a vehicle propelled by rockets whose purpose it is, to deliver a payload.

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Regulus Cruise Missile

In 1959, the diesel-electric submarine USS Barbero officially became a branch location of the United States Post Office, for purposes of “delivering” mail to Naval Station Mayport, in Jacksonville, Florida. The nuclear warhead was removed from a Regulus Cruise missile and two Post Office-approved containers installed.  3,000 letters and postcards were inserted, addressed to President Eisenhower, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and other dignitaries.

On June 8, the 13,685-pound, 32-foot cruise missile launched from the decks of USS Barbero, two Aerojet-General 33,000 lb solid-propellant boosters giving way to the turbojet engine which would guide the missile onto its target.   Twenty-two minutes later the missile struck, the Regulus opened and the mail forwarded to the Jacksonville post office for sorting and routing.

Missilemail

Postmaster Summerfield was effusive, proclaiming the “historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”.  “Before man reaches the moon”, he exclaimed, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

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Arthur Summerfield’s golden future of missile mail was never meant to be.  Despite the postmaster’s enthusiasm, the system was Way too expensive.  The Defense Department saw the first and only mail delivery by intercontinental ballistic missile in history as more of a demonstration of the weapon system’s capabilities.  In any case, aircraft were  delivering airmail by this time, in less than a day.

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The Regulus was superseded by the Polaris missile in 1964, the year in which Barbero ended her nuclear strategic deterrent patrols. She was struck from the Naval Registry that July, and suffered the humiliating fate of becoming target vessel, sunk by the nuclear submarine USS Swordfish off the coast of Pearl Harbor on October 7.

USS Barbero is gone but that US mail container lives on, at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton Connecticut. Launched from a Balao-class sub June 8, 1959, sixty-three years ago today.

A Trivial Matter: The first post office established in colonial America began in a bar and the home of one Richard Fairbanks, whose tavern was known for the sale of “stronge waters”. At one time the Postmaster General was in line of succession for the Presidency. Today Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is the third-highest paid employee in the federal government earning $303,260, ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris with a base salary of $261,400 and behind President Joe Biden with a presidential salary of $400,000. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the highest paid employee in the federal government in 2019 at $417,608, more than six times the average American household income for the same year.

February 19, 1914 Baby Mail

With new postal regulations now in effect, people tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

At one time, nations paired up to negotiate postal treaties providing for the direct exchange of mail. The US signed such a treaty with Prussia, in 1853. Germany wasn’t a country in those days in the sense that it is today, more of a collection of independent city-states. Some states in southern Germany sent US-bound mail through France but, there being no Franco-American treaty, mail was forced to travel on British or Belgian cargo vessels. France and the United States wrangled over a postal treaty from 1852 until July 1874 leading the exasperated Minister to France Elihu Washburne to groan: “There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.”

The German Empire was formed in 1871 following victory, in the Franco-Prussian War. The German Reichspost was now free to enact uniform postal regulations within the new nation. Even so, US-bound letters required differing amounts of postage, depending on which ship the letter traveled on. Something had to change.

German Postmaster-General Heinrich von Stephan called for an International Postal Congress in 1874. The Treaty of Bern signed on October 9 resulted in a uniform system of postage between nations. That, and a very nice statue in granite and bronze in memory of the new, Universal Postal Union.

All was well between nations but here in the US, the postal service was barely out of diapers. The mail didn’t even go to the “country”. Rural residents were forced to travel days to distant post offices or hire private express companies, to deliver the mail. For years, the National Grange and other farmers’ welfare organizations lobbied Congress for inclusion in the national mail service. The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) act of 1896 opened new worlds to farmers who soon clamored for exotic foodstuffs and tobacco unavailable in rural districts.

Unsurprisingly, rural merchants and express delivery companies fought the measure tooth and nail but they were destined to fail. Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913.

Overnight, parcel limits increased from 4 pounds to fifty. During the first five days alone 1,594 post offices handled over 4 million packages.

People tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

You know where this is going, right?

In 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beauge of Glen Este, Ohio mailed their baby boy. Seriously. The couple mailed their ten-pound son off to his grandmother’s house a mile away at a cost, of 15¢ postage. History fails to record whether the kid was left in the mailbox or stuffed through a slot in the door, but these people were no cheapskates. The pair popped for 50 bucks’ insurance, “just in case“.

5-year-old May Pierstorff came in just under the weight limit at 48½ pounds. On February 19, 1914, little May was mailed to visit her grandmother in Lewiston Idaho with 53¢ postage, pinned to her coat. She rode the whole way in the postage compartment but hey, postage was cheaper than train fare. Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty delivered the kid to her grandmother’s house, personally.

Six-year old Edna Neff was mailed 720 miles away from Pensacola, Florida to Christiansberg, Virginia, to visit her father.

.If you have read thus far with horror permit me to assure you that mailing babies might not be as bad as it sounds. In the rural America of this period the mail carrier was no stranger but a well known and trusted member of a close-knit community. In the case of little May Pierstorff the postal worker who took her by rail, was a relative. No one ever put a child wearing diapers in a mailbox. The photographs above were staged, the sepia-toned faces grinning back over the years at those of us, they have punked.

Be that as it may, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard of the Pierstorff incident and put his foot down. The practice of mailing humans was officially prohibited. The golden age of baby mail had come to an end. Sort of.

In August 1915 three-year old Maud Smith was mailed forty miles across Kentucky by her grandparents, to visit her sick mother. Hers may be the last human journey by US mail and the postmaster in Caney Kentucky, had some explaining to do.

In June 1920 1st Assistant Postmaster General John C. Coons rejected two applications to mail live children stating they could no longer be classified, as ‘harmless live animals”.

February 13, 1945 Of Battles and Beignets

So what does Joan of Arc have in common with pancakes, pigs and potatoes? Why, I’m glad you asked.

We fancy ourselves a land of sand and fun here on Sunny Cape Cod™, not the kind of place for an epoch changing clash of arms. Truth be told the place really IS “Mayberry by the Sea” but even we, have had our moments.

On April 3, 1779, local militia sallied forth to the beaches of Falmouth, to oppose a landing by some 220 of the King’s Regulars. The invaders were indeed repulsed but not before little Falmouth sustained a cannonade of ball and grape lasting from eleven in the morning, until well after dark.

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During the War of 1812, locals once again took up squirrel guns along the beaches and fired, on British warships. HMS Nimrod fired back holing no fewer than thirty buildings, with cannon shot. Until recently, three of those buildings yet stood, holes and all. Sadly, the Nimrod Restaurant is no more. Today there are but two cannonball holes but you can still see them still, one at the Elm Arch Inn and the other, at the former home of Captain Silas Bourne.

And who can forget that battle for the ages remembered far and wide, as the “Herring War”. “The Cape” has always been a sport fisherman’s paradise (and still is) but the earliest settlers were more focused on more important things. Like eating. The earliest mill was built in 1700. Others came into service over the next 100 years, mostly grist and woolen mills.

Before the age of internal combustion such enterprises harnessed the power of running water, and there came the rub. There were those who plied the waterways in search of a migratory and tasty little silver fish, called a Herring.

Long simmering animus between the two groups came to blows in 1800 when new mill construction threatened to block a herring run, in East Falmouth. Locals took to a cannon on the town green to express their ire. Packing the barrel with powder and herring they though to touch the thing off but, if some is good then more just has to be better. Right?

A herring left strictly to nature is an unlikely object to put in a cannon, but these guys figured it out. By the time they were done there must have been fish tails, hanging from the muzzle. Match was touched to to powder and the fuse was lit BOOM! The barrel exploded killing the gunner and raining down fish guts, for half a mile.

Thus ends another chapter of the never ending Herring Wars. And yet, this wasn’t the first conflict coming down to us with a funny sounding name. This wasn’t even the first Battle of the Herrings.

Today, the Siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years’ War marks the first appearance of Joan of Arc, at the head of a French Army. On February 12, 1459, Joan was making her final plea for support and safe conduct to enter the battle. The future saint prophesied that very day the King’s forces would suffer a dreadful defeat as indeed they did in an action remembered, as the Battle of the Herrings.

The city of Orléans was under siege for five months when an English supply train of 300 carts and wagons set out to provision the besieging force. Set upon by a vastly superior force of French and Scottish allies the English took refuge behind walls bristling with sharpened wooden stakes and wagons laden with – you guessed it – herring, in barrels. The tactic served them well at Agincourt and again, on February 12. Three to four thousand French forces attacked with gunpowder artillery, a new and poorly understood weapon, at that time. The Scots deplored such unmanly tactics and went to the attack, only to be cut down by a torrent of English arrows. The French cavalry then charged to the rescue while English longbowmen finished the job. The battle ended in a rout resulting in the loss of 500-600 French and Scots allies at the cost of a negligible number of English.

Word of the disaster reached the Dauphin, days later. Plunged into despair the young King-in-waiting and his ministers decided it couldn’t hurt to let this illiterate peasant girl take part. Thus we remember the Battle of the Herrings and the legend, of the Maid of Orléans.

In many Christian nations, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent and the last day (for now) to gorge on pancakes, beignets and other sweet treats. Also known as “Fat Tuesday”, “Mardi Gras” and “Pancake Tuesday”, Christians across the nation turn to pantries and supermarket shelves in the quest for some sweet confection. Many of those will see the face of Aunt Jemima smiling back. At least they once did, but then there was 2020.

Sigh.

Speaking of Aunt Jemima, Shrove Tuesday fell on February 13 in 1945, a day marking the continuing effort to evict the Japanese occupier from pre-communist China. In the US, OSS operatives, precursor to the modern CIA, devised an explosive compound with a color and consistency very much like, pancake flour. You could even cook with the stuff and eat it though it wasn’t recommended and probably not very tasty. As it was explosives were easily smuggled into occupied China in Aunt Jemima packages for the use of Chinese patriots, in the war against Imperial Japan.

Today Nancy Green, the original (and very real) Aunt Jemima is once again relegated, to anonymity. Her descendants don’t understand and neither does anyone else, why her likeness was removed from grocery store shelves and replaced by the impersonal, “Pearl Milling Company Original”. But hey, who are we to stand in the way of the conspicuous display of meaningless virtue?

Today the United States and the United Kingdom enjoy a “Special Relationship” and may it ever be thus, but it wasn’t always that way. Three epoch changing clashes of arms were to unfold before we got to this place: the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Pig and Potato War.

Wait…What?

Yeah. The Oregon treaty of 1846 failed to make clear who governed the tiny but strategically important San Juan Island in the Gulf of Georgia, near Vancouver. Despite the diplomatic limbo British and American settlers alike lived in the place and got along perfectly well. Until June 15, 1859. A pig belonging to an Irishman named Charles Griffin was helping himself to potatoes belonging to the American farmer, Lyman Cutlar. Cutlar shot the pig. Scorning the farmer’s £10 peace offering Griffin insisted the farmer be arrested as indeed, he was. Anger boiled over on both sides and before long, a 461-man force of pissed off Americans armed with with 14 cannon faced over 2,000 British soldiers and five warships.

Very little ends well that begins with armed and angry men but sometimes, cooler heads prevail. British Admiral Robert Baynes had no intention of fighting with Americans over a dead pig. US President James Buchanan felt the same way and, before long, ruffled feathers were soothed. The island was handed over to US administration in 1872 following thirteen years, of mediation.

Now, wouldn’t I just love to talk about the Battle of the Cheeses, and how Mad Honey laid low the legions of Pompey the great? Yes I would, this is too much fun but, sadly, work awaits. That must remain a tale, for another day.

February 10, 1863 Tom Thumb

Jack Earle once joined Ringling Brothers circus as the world’s tallest man with a reputed stature, of 8’6″ tall. Apprehensive at first about joining a “freak show”, Clarence Chesterfield Howerton better known as “Major Mite”, had the last word. Standing all of 2-feet 2-inches in his bare feet Howerton told the gentle giant, there are “more freaks in the audience than there are on stage”.

Charles Sherwood Stratton began touring with the legendary showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, when he was only five.  Quick on his feet with a flawless sense of comedic timing , Stratton could sing and dance with the best of performers. 

He was one of the great entertainers of the age and you probably know him even today though not perhaps, by his given name. He was “General Tom Thumb”, a giant among those who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and yet, a man who barely stood 2-feet 10-inches tall, on his 21st birthday.

Apologies to the bard for that one.

Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum

Born in 1838 in Bridgeport Connecticut, Tom Thumb was not only a celebrity in the United States but an international star following a European tour in which he personally met several heads of state, including Britain’s Queen Victoria.

The French couldn’t get enough of “Charley’s” impersonation of Napoleon Bonaparte and all across Europe, ladies lined up for blocks for a kiss from the diminutive superstar.

Tom Thumb as Napoleon Bonaparte, H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Fun Fact: One of the best known of all time among “little people” Tom Thumb was a hefty 9 pounds 8 ounces at birth. He stopped growing at six months. Over a long career some 50 million the world over came to see Tom Thumb at a time the world population stood at only 1.2 billion.

Today some 30,000 Americans are dwarfs with an estimated 651,700, the world over. The term is generally preferred over “dwarves”, a word hearkening back to the fictional dwarves of J.R.R. Tolkien and the legend, of Snow White. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the term “midget” during the 19th century, a term now considered offensive calling forth as it does impressions of a tiny, biting insect.

“P.T. Barnum (left) alongside General Tom Thumb, circa 1850. General Tom Thumb was 12 at the time”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The term dwarf stems from the Old English dweorg referring to the mountain dwelling dwarfs of Norse mythology, beings associated with wisdom, metal smithing, mining the earth and handicrafts.

Vāmana

In Sanskrit the term Vāmana refers to one small or short in stature and also the 5th alter ego or “avatar” of the Lord Vishnu, appearing in no fewer than nine chapters of the Bhagavat Purana, one of eighteen Great Texts of all the Hindus.

Entire books could (and should) be written of the mythological “little people” of Native American legend. In the northeast, Delaware and Wampanoag folklore tells of diminutive imps known as the Pukwudgie, translating as “little wild man of the woods that vanishes”. Lewis and Clark expedition notes tell of “spirit mounds” inhabited by fierce little “devils” only 18-inches tall. So ferocious are these little people Lakota folklore tells of 350 warriors once wiped out to the last man, for getting too close to one of their mounds. The Cherokee people originally inhabiting northeast Georgia and Alabama to western South Carolina tell of the “Yunwi Tsunsdi”, a race “hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well-shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground” escorting their people, along the notorious ‘Trail of Tears”.

Seneb

Seneb was a high ranking official in the ancient court of the Old Kingdom of Egypt (ca 2,520BC) and a “little person”, married to the High Priestess Senetites, a normal sized woman with whom he fathered three children. Seneb’s wealth included cattle by the tens of thousands and no fewer than twenty, palaces.

Some 70% of dwarfs attribute their short stature to the genetic disorder achondroplasia. Most of the remainder result from growth hormone disorders.

One of the most unlikely stories of World War 2 involved the “Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz“, the Ovitz siblings who fell into the malevolent hands of the “Angel of Darkness” Josef Mengele himself and yet, lived to tell the tale.

The Ovitz siblings, the “Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz”

Physically, dwarfs face any number of challenges and yet, to look up the subject on Johns Hopkins’ website is to learn that dwarfism is not an intellectual disability, nor is it a “disease” which requires a “cure”. Most people with dwarfism have normal intelligence and go on to live long, productive and fulfilling lives.

In 1861 the United States broke in two resulting in Civil War, a conflict so dreadful as to destroy the lives of more Americans than every war from the French and Indian Wars to the War on Terror, combined. We all grew up learning of a death toll in the neighborhood of 632,000, in a nation of only 31 million according to the census, of 1860. Modern investigations of census data reveal much higher death tolls ranging from 650,000 to 850,000 killed. Many historians now settle on the middle figure, of 750,000.

Applied in proportion to the US population in 2012 such a butcher’s bill would reach an astonishing, 7.5 million.

The modern imagination can barely conceive of a such a calamity and yet, the New York Times pushed the thing off the front page for three days straight to cover the wedding, of Tom Thumb.

A pretty dwarf woman called Lavinia Warren joined the circus in 1862, romantically pursued by another Little Person and fellow Barnum performer, “Commodore Nutt”. From the moment the two met Lavinia only had eyes for Stratton and for him, the feeling was cordially mutual. The two were married on February 10, 1863 in the social event, of the season.

New York society clamored to get into the “fairy wedding”, an extravagant affair at Grace Episcopal Church followed by a reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. Never one to let a good business opportunity go to waste admission to the wedding was free, the reception open to the first 5,000 guests who ponied up $75 apiece where the happy couple greeted guests from atop a grand piano.

Today the term “freak show” is downright cringeworthy to our ears as well it should but in ages past, such performers lived a range of experience. Some endured lives of humiliation, cruelty and misery while others became celebrities earning more money than anyone in the audience. Some earned even more than their own promoters.

Tom Thumb was one of those whose wealth was such that he once bailed out Barnum himself, when the great showman got into financial trouble.

“Left: Jack Earle with fellow performer Major Mite, who stood 2’2″. Right: Earle with an average-sized man”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Jack Earle once joined Ringling Brothers circus as the world’s tallest man with a reputed stature, of 8’6″ tall. Apprehensive at first about joining a “freak show”, Clarence Chesterfield Howerton better known as “Major Mite”, had the last word. Standing all of 2-feet 2-inches in his bare feet Howerton told the gentle giant, there are “more freaks in the audience than there are on stage”.

Once a Blood gang member who served ten years, ten months and ten days in Folsom prison, Luigi “Shorty” Rossi turned his life around to found “Shortywood Productions”, to provide career opportunities for his fellow little people in the world, of entertainment. Rossi himself is the star of cable TV’s Animal Planet’s series “Pit Boss” and the founder of Shorty’s Pitbull Rescue, an organization performing rescue, rehabilitation and adoption for abused and neglected pitbulls.

Ex-con or not…anyone who puts that much heart into caring for animals, is alright with me.

February 3, 1887 Happy Groundhog Day

Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.

Here on sunny Cape Cod, there is a joke about the four seasons. We have “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.

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Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

The ancient Romans observed their mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary. For reasons not entirely clear, early Christians believed that there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.

Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter was expected to be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota monax.  The common Groundhog.

groundhogpuppet

Groundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability held in great envy by some people I know. During that time, their heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5, and they live off their stored body fat.  Another ability some of us would appreciate, very much.

The male couldn’t care less about the weather.  He comes out of his burrow in February, in search of a date.  If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.

But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat.  The groundhog hunter.

In 1887, a group of Pennsylvania groundhog hunters took to calling themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887: you could search far and wide but their groundhog “Phil” was the only True weather forecasting rodent.

Groundhog-Day-1

There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”. North Carolinians look to “Queen Charlotte” and “Sir Walter Wally”, while Georgia folks can take their choice between “Gus” the Groundhog and “General Beauregard Lee”.

Since the eponymously named Bill Murray film from 1993, nothing seems to rise to the appropriate level of insanity, more than Groundhog Day drinking games. For the seasoned Groundhog enthusiast, “beer breakfasts” welcome the end of winter, across the fruited plain. If you’re in the Quaker state, you can attend the Groundhog day “Hawaiian Shirt Beer Breakfast”, at Philadelphia’s own Grey Lodge Public House. If you’re in Des Moines, stop by the The High Life Lounge, where free Miller High Life beers will be served from 6am, to eleven. And for the late sleeper, there is the annual screening of the Bill Murray Masterpiece, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Beer Dinner.

Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.

groundhog-day-driving

It appears that there is no word for groundhog in Arabic. Accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض. “Ground Rat”. I was pretty excited to learn that, thank you Al Jazeera.

If anyone was to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all their houses. Starting with the guy in the top hat. It’s been a long winter, and Mr. Ground Rat’s dressed up for a date. He has other things on his mind.

January 19, 1945 Town of Bent Necks

For sixty years people either talked to each other or turned, and looked away. It all depended on which side you were on.

In the biblical story of Genesis, Cain was born to Adam and Eve, followed by his brother Abel. The first to be born slew his own brother, the first human to die, and Cain was cast out to wander in the land of nod, east of Eden.

According to legend, the evil King Amulius ordered the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the war god Mars drowned in the Tyber River. Instead, the boys washed ashore to be suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus and Remus went on found a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called the place “Rome”, after himself.

Two thousand years later, two brothers come into this story. The enmity between Adolf and Rudolf Dassler never rose to fratricide but it came close, a detestation for one another to endure, beyond the grave.  And you may be wearing one of their products right this moment, as you read this.

Oh.  Did I tell you, the brothers were both Nazis?

The Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach is located in the Middle Franconia region of West Germany, about 14 miles from Nuremberg. In the early 20th century, the local textile economy collapsed in the face of more industrialized competitors. Many turned to shoe-making. By 1922, the small town of 3,500 boasted some 122 cobblers. Christoph Dassler was one such, specializing in felt slippers.

Herzogenaurach

Adolf “Adi” Dassler was the third son and youngest of four children born to Christoph and Paulina Dassler.  An avid sportsman and athlete, Adi engaged in a variety of sporting events including track & field, futbol, skiing and ice hockey.  Usually with close friend Fritz Zehlein, the son of a local blacksmith.

adolf_dassler
Adolf Dassler

The “Great War” descended over Germany in 1914, and the elder Dassler boys were conscripted into the army. Not yet thirteen, Adi was apprenticed to a baker, but turned to his father instead to learn the intricate stitching of the cobbler. Adi was particularly interested in sports, and how the proper shoe could improve athletic performance.

Adi himself was drafted into the army in 1918, five months before his 18th birthday.

Adi returned to what he knew after the war, repairing shoes while starting a business of his own. The German economy lay in ruins.  Dassler was forced to scavenge war materials, to form his designs. Leather from bread pouches. Canvas from uniforms. And always the need to improvise, jury rigging available machinery in the absence of electricity.

jesseowensadidasshoes

Rudolf Dassler trained to become a police officer, but left to join his brother’s company, forming the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe company, in 1924.  Dassler Brothers may have been the first to use metal spikes, fashioned by Adi’s old buddy, Fritz Zehlein.

The following year, the company was making leather Fußballschuhe with nailed studs and track shoes with hand-made spikes.

January 19, 1945 Sibling Rivalry

Former Olympian and coach of the German Olympic track & field team Josef Waitzer took an interest in the work, becoming a friend and consultant. Dassler brothers shoes were used in international competitions as early as the 1928 games in Amsterdam and the Los Angeles games, of 1932.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, it was hard not to see the economic self-interest, in politics. The Dassler brothers – Adi, Rudi and Fritz all joined the party on May 1.

bundesarchiv_bild_183-r96374,_berlin,_olympiade,_jesse_owens_beim_weitsprung
Jesse Owens

For the family business, the big break came in 1936 when American Olympian Jesse Owens agreed to compete in Dassler Brothers shoes. This American athlete of African ancestry went on to win four gold medals, a humiliating defeat for Hitler’s Aryan “master race”, but the sporting world soon beat a path to Adi’s door.

Compared with his brothers, Rudi seems to have been the more ardent Nazi.  Adi confined himself to coaching Hitler Youth teams, while Rudi was off at rallies and political meetings.  Politics formed much of what led to their parting ways.

Germany once again found itself at war and Adi switched over to producing army boots.  Christoph and Paulina lived with their two grown sons and their wives, and five grandchildren.  Käthe (Martz) Dassler, Adi’s wife, had frequent run-ins with her mother and father-in-law, and seems to have had a relationship of mutual detestation with Rudi’s wife, Friedl.

Family fault lines were already irreparable in 1943 when Adi and Käthe climbed into a bomb shelter. Rudi and his family were already there when Adi quipped, “The dirty bastards are back again”. He was referring to the Allied war planes overhead. Rudi was convinced the comment was directed at himself and Friedl.

Rudolf blamed his brother and his “Nazi friends” when he was called up to fight the Russians, in the east.  Adi himself was drafted but dismissed when his civilian services, were deemed indispensable to the war effort.

rudolf_dassler
Rudolf Dassler

Stationed in Tuschin that April, Rudi wrote to his brother: “I will not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that you be forced to take up an occupation that will allow you to play the leader and, as a first-class sportsman, to carry a gun.”

The Soviet Red Army overran Tuschin on January 19, 1945, decimating Dassler’s unit.  Rudi fled to Herzogenaurach where a doctor certified him as militarily “incapable”, due to a frozen foot.

Allied “de-nazification” efforts after the war led to a blizzard of recriminations between the two brothers, and the end of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. 

The two men now hated each other.

Adi Dassler formed a new company which would come to be known, as Adidas.  Rudi attempted to copy the idea but the name “Ruda”, just didn’t have the same ring.  He settled on “Puma”.

Evolution of the Adidas logo

Herzogenaurach became a two-factory town, the sight of a German Hatfield & McCoy, blood feud.  The rivalry extended to the two soccer clubs in town, ASV Herzogenaurach and 1FC Herzogenaurach.  There were Adidas stores, and Puma stores. Adidas restaurants, and Puma restaurants.  And don’t even think about being served if you had the wrong shoes on your feet.   

For sixty years people either talked to each other or turned, and looked away. It all depended on which side you were on. The town became so saturated with the hate these two brothers felt for each other, the place came to be known as “The Town of Bent Necks“. 

Puma logo, over the ages

The Dassler brothers never reconciled.  They are buried in the same cemetery, as far away from each other as it is possible to be.  The families are now out of the business, and so is the antagonism which held out for all those years.  So remember that familiar cat or those famous three stripes, next time you lace up.  You just might be wearing, a piece of history.

071512_1035_adidasvspum1

January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys that they are literally slower than cold molasses. In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

molasses-floods-boston.jpg7_

If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40-feet high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from foundations. Horses, wagons and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people struggling in the brown deluge, speeding across the North End. Twenty municipal workers eating lunch in a nearby city building were swept away, parts of the building hurled some fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen, alive.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

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The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water. You can propel yourself through the stuff but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as ketchup or molasses, behaves differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear” in response to pressure. You can’t propel yourself through a non-Newtonian fluid. The stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps would be able to swim out of a sea of that gunk.

firefighters-tried-to-wash-the-molasses-away-with-freshwater-but-would-later-find-that-briny-seawater-was-the-only-way-to-“cut”-the-hardened-substance.-paranormalsoup-300
“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first to arrive on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing which was leaking so badly the company painted it brown, to hide the leaks.

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

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