My Own True Love and I recently decided to cancel our Great River Road Trip. It was a good decision; our old cat and our old house both require our attention and the Mississippi will still be there come spring.

Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate to consider a bigger picture than road signs, road maps and our GPS.  In short, globes.

Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation and Power, by professional globe-restorer Sylvia Sumira, is a history of globemaking from the late 15th through the late 19th centuries, when globes were used as educational tools, scientific instruments, and status symbols. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.

The first two sections of the book are scholarly articles in which Sumira considers not only who made globes, but why and how. The first of these, “A Brief History of Globes”, is clearly for specialists. The second will fascinate anyone who has wondered how globe makers wrap a flat map around a ball–a step-by-step description of the construction of printed globes from the process of forming a papier-mâché sphere around a mold to the challenges of fitting 2-D printed sections (triangular pieces called gores) around a 3-D object.

The text is almost irrelevant next to the photographs of sixty historic globes, most of them from the collection of the British Library. They range in rarity from an unusual hand-painted globe made in 17th century China to mass-produced globes from the end of the 19th century. Sumira includes printed gores drawn by master cartographers, self-assembly paper globes made as inexpensive educational aids for children, tiny pocket globes, elaborate clockwork globes, celestial globes that map the heavens and an oddly modern 19th century teaching globe that folds up like an umbrella. The brief essays that accompany the photographs consider each object both in terms of its provenance and historical context and also as a work of art.

Certainly worth a spin, Globes will grab the imagination of anyone fascinated by maps.

This review (or at least most of it) previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.



by pamela on August 22, 2014

salt shaker

Anyone who sat through a third grade social studies lesson learned that Europe’s search for pepper changed the world. Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, and all that. But did you know that salt played an even bigger role in world history?

Unlike pepper, we can’t live without salt. It is as essential to life as water. Our bodies need it to digest food, transmit nerve impulses, and move muscles, including the heart.

When we were hunter-gatherers, the salt we needed came from wild game. (Sometimes wild game got the salt it needed by licking the places where we urinated. The circle of life can be weird.) As mankind settled and our diet changed, we had to find salt from other sources, not only for ourselves, but for the animals we domesticated.

In theory, salt can be found almost everywhere on earth. It fills the oceans, lies in rich veins in rock near the earth’s surface, and crusts the desert beds of long vanished seas. But until the Industrial Revolution, it was often difficult to obtain.*

The law of supply and demand is almost as dependable as the law of gravity. Because salt was hard to come by, it was valuable. It was one of the first international commodities and the first government monopoly.** Merchant caravans carried it across the most inhospitable places of the earth. Governments taxed it. Roman soldiers were paid in it.*** Mohandas Gandhi staged a protest around it.

The next time you pick up the salt shaker, show a little respect.

* The phrase “back to the salt mines” is rooted in that fact that mining salt was dangerous work, historically done by slaves or prisoners. As late as the mid- 20th century, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used labor in the slave mines as punishment.

** China, ca 221 BCE.

***Hence the phrase “worth your salt”. Not to mention the word “salary”, which comes from the Latin word for salt.

Image courtesy of Carlos Porto at


Before Rosie the Riveter…

by pamela on August 19, 2014


A generation before Rosie the Riveter, munitionettes “manned”* Britain’s factories and mines, replacing the men who volunteered for General Kitchener’s New Army in 1914 and 1915.

Women were initially greeted in the work force with hostility. Male trade unionists argued that the employment of women, who earned roughly half the salary of the men they replaced, would force down men’s wages.** Some argued that women did not have the strength or the technical skills to do the work.

When universal male conscription was passed in 1916, need out-weighed social resistance. By the 1918, 950,00 women worked in Britain’s munitions industry, outnumbering men by as much as three to one in some factories.
The hours were long and the work was dangerous. Munitionettes were popularly known as “canary girls” because prolonged exposure to toxic sulphuric acid tinged their skin yellow. Deadly explosions were common.

Munitionettes were not the only women to enter Britain’s work force in World War I. Another 250,000 joined the work force in jobs that ranged from dockworkers and firefighters*** to government clerks, nurses, and ambulance drivers. The number of women in the transport industry alone increased 555% during the war.

At the end of the war, most of the munitionettes and their fellow war workers were replaced by returning soldiers. Many of them were probably glad to go. But the definition of “women’s work” had been permanently changed. The thin edge of the wedge had been inserted.

* So to speak.
** Evidently the simple solution of negotiated for women to be paid an equal wage for equal work did not occur to male dominated unions. As a consequence, women’s trade unions saw an enormous increase in membership during the war.
*** Imagine fighting a fire in a long skirt and petticoats.


Whose Remembrance?

by pamela on August 16, 2014

Indian Army in World War I

2nd Rajput Light Infantry in action in Flanders, during the winter of 1914–15

A few statistics from the Imperial War Museum in London make it clear that the First World War was a global war in more than one sense:

  • Roughly 1.5 million soldiers from British India served in the war; 80,000 lost their lives. Many of them fought in the trenches on the Western Front–if you don’t believe me, check out the names of fallen Sikh, Muslim and Hindu soldiers on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
  • More than 15,000 soldiers from the Caribbean fought with the allied forces.
  • Tens of thousands of East Africans were drafted into a non-combatant Carrier Corps to support* British troops in Africa.
  • Chinese and Egyptian Labour Corps, with roughly 100,000 and 55,000 men, supported British troops in France and the Middle East

Taken together, those numbers change the face of World War I. And that’s not even counting participants from French colonies and “areas of influence”. Not to mention the segregated African American units who fought in France.

The Imperial War Museum is commemorating the WWI centennial with a wide ranging research project titled Whose Remembrance? focusing on the experience of the peoples of Britain’s former empire in the wars. The researchers seem to be asking questions not only about the topic itself but what it tells us about how history is constructed. This is worth watching.

*That word, supported, deserves some attention.


Jack the Ripper

“A Suspicious Character” –one of a series of images from the Illustrated London News for October 13, 1888 carrying the overall caption, “With the Vigilance Committee in the East End”. (Notice the figure in the deer stalker cap–Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of Jack the Ripper?)

On August 6, 1888, Martha Tabram was stabbed to death in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London–many believe she was the first victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.*

Between August and November, five more women were murdered within a one-mile radius in London’s East End. All were prostitutes and all but one were horribly mutilated by their killer.

The East End was a notorious slum. Violence against prostitutes was not unusual. Tabram’s death received only a passing mention in the papers, described by The Daily News as a “supposed murder” even though she had been stabbed nearly forty times.* With the discovery of the second murder on August 31, the story became front-page news. The murders caught the public attention not only because of their brutality, but because of gloating letters sent to both Scotland Yard and the Central News Agency by a man calling himself Jack the Ripper. (Some or all of the letters may have been written by a journalist trying to heighten interest in the story.) Public opinion on the subject was so hot that both the Home Secretary and the London Police Commissioner resigned as a result of the failure to make an arrest.

From a historical perspective, the case provides a great deal of information about police procedure and life in the slums in Victorian London. Newspapers reported on the inquests, the investigation, and the appalling conditions prevalent in the East End. Reporters interviewed slum residents and police officers alike trying to keep the story alive.

Jack the Ripper was never caught and the number of his victims remains uncertain. (The police files included a total of eleven women whose deaths shared some of the elements associated with Jack the Ripper.) The case was officially closed in 1892, but his murders continue to fascinate armchair detectives–so much so that entire websites are devoted to “ripperology.” In the 125 years since his killing spree ended, Ripper enthusiasts have offered more than 100 possible identities for the killer, ranging from a German sailor on shore leave to Queen Victoria’s grandson Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence.

* AKA The Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron. Whitechapel Murderer I get, but Leather Apron???

**Bad copy-editing? An odd variation on describing someone as a “suspected” or “accused” murderer prior to conviction? Because the fact that someone was stabbed 40 times does not necessarily mean she was murdered?


Just in case you missed them the first time around:

In The Lost History of 1914, NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” surrounding the beginning of  the war.

NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. – See more at:
NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. – See more at:
NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. – See more at:
NPR’s Jack Beatty takes on what he describes as the “cult of inevitability” that surrounds historical accounts of the First World War. – See more at:

Who Made The Map Of The Modern Middle East? tells the story of how today’s Middle East was created from the remains of the Ottoman Empire during the peace negotiations are the end of the war.

Despite its title, The Making of the First World War: A Pivotal History by historian Ian F.W. Beckett is not another account of the events leading up to WWI. Instead Beckett is concerned with what he describes as “pivot points”: decisive moments that affected not only the course of the war but that of later history.


William Wallace

Statue of Braveheart at Edinburgh Castle. (What? You were expecting Mel Gibson?)

In 1296, Edward I of England forced the Scottish king to abdicate and seized the throne of Scotland. Scottish unrest was immediate and widespread. It flared into full-scale rebellion in May 1297 when William Wallace led a raid against the town of Lanark, killing the English sheriff.* Under Wallace’s leadership, the Scots weakened the English hold on Scotland and raided across the border into England.** In late 1297, Wallace and his forces defeated a much larger English force at the Battle of Stirling. Wallace was subsequently knighted and made “guardian of the kingdom”, ruling Scotland in the name of its deposed king.

The victory at Stirling was a classic example of “win the battle, lose the war”. Edward marched north with his army to exact retribution. Wallace retreated deeper and deeper into Scotland. Edward followed. When the two armies met at Falkirk in July, 1298, the Scots were defeated and Wallace was forced to flee the battlefield.

Wallace resigned the title of guardian but did not give up his quest for independence. Turning to diplomacy, he sought support for the Scottish cause in France–the first step in what would be a centuries-long if occasionally shaky Franco-Scottish alliance against England.*** In his absence, Robert Bruce, Wallace’s successor as the guardian of the kingdom, negotiated a truce with Edward. Wallace refused to sign.

When Wallace returned to Scotland in 1303, Edward declared him an outlaw and offered a reward for his capture or death. For two years, Wallace continued to fight against English rule. He was captured near Glasgow on August 5, 1305–thanks to a tip from a fellow Scot–and taken to London where he was charged as an outlaw and a traitor. The result of his trial was a foregone conclusion. There was no jury and he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. Nonetheless, when accused of treason he denied the charge, saying he could not be a traitor because he had never sworn allegiance to the English king.

Wallace was drawn and quartered on August 23. His head was displayed on London Bridge. The quarters of his body were sent Newcastle, which he had savaged, and to Berwick, Stirling and Perth as a warning to would-be rebels.

Scotland regained its independence in 1328 with the Treaty of Edinburgh, only to lose it again with the Acts of Union in 1706-07. In the centuries after his death, William Wallace became an emblem of Scottish independence. (Contrary to popular belief, the winners don’t always write the history.)

Scottish independence is an issue once again, with a referendum scheduled for September 15. Polls suggest that a majority of Scots intend to vote yes for independence. Don’t touch that dial.

* The sheriff in medieval England was more than the local peace officer. As My Own True love puts it, he was a Big Wheel. The sheriff was the king’s officer at the level of the shire, responsible for collecting taxes, protecting the king’s hunting preserves, administering justice and, yes, keeping the peace.

**It’s only fair to point out that Wallace was a pretty brutal hero. He’s reported to have made a sword belt from the tanned skin of a fallen Englishman.

***Think Mary Queen of Scots. Think who supported the Stuart pretenders.

Photograph by Kjetil Bjørnsrud. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons


Trung Sisters

In 39 CE, two young women led Vietnam in its first rebellion against the Chinese empire, which had then ruled the country for 150 years.

Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were born in a small town in north Vietnam around 14 CE, the daughters of a Vietnamese lord who served as a prefect under the Chinese. According to legend, the sisters were trained in the arts of war by their mother.*

In 36 CE, a new, more oppressive, governor, To Dinh (aka Su Ting) took over the province. He demanded bribes and raised taxes on salt** . He taxed peasants for fishing in the rivers. In short, he was just the type of greedy and inept official who triggers rebellions in classic Chinese historiography.

Trung Trac, together with her husband Thi Sách, plotted to mobilize the local aristocracy to revolt. Learning of their plots and assuming that Thi Sách was the driving force of the conspiracy, To Dihn had him arrested and hung his body from the city gates as a warning to other would-be rebels.

To Dinh’s efforts to put down the rebellion by cutting off its head back-fired. Instead of giving up, the sisters raised an army of 80,000 troops, most of them in their twenties and a large number of them women.*** Their elderly mother served as one of their generals.(Evidently shin-kicking is hereditary.)

The Trungs and their untrained army drove the Chinese from Vietnam, liberating sixty-five strongholds along the way, and created a new state that stretched from Hue in the south into southern China. To Dinh was so terrified that he disguised himself by shaving off his hair and fled the country in secret.

For two years the Trung sisters ruled their newly independent kingdom unchallenged. In 41 CE, the Chinese emperor sent an army commanded by one of his best generals to reconquer Vietnam. For two years, the sisters defended their borders against the Chinese, but eventually they were worn down by the empire’s military and financial superiority. The Trungs fought their last battle near modern Hanoi in 43 CE. Thousands of Vietnamese soldiers were captured and beheaded and more than 10,000 surrendered.

The Trung sisters were not among those who surrendered. Instead, they committed suicide, which the Vietnamese believed was the more honorable option. Some sources say they drowned themselves in the Hát River; others claim they floated up into the clouds.

In the centuries that followed, the Trung sisters were held up as idealized examples of national courage in the struggle against first Chinese and later French domination. Over time,a Buddhist religious cult grew up around their memory and temples were built in their honor. Today they are remembered as national heroines in Vietnam, where the anniversary of their suicide is a national holiday.

* It may well be true, but this kind of thing has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt. As Antonia Fraser points out in The Warrior Queens, the Tomboy Syndrome is a standard trope in stories of women warriors.

**Always a bad idea. Salt is more than just a condiment.

***Vietnamese stories emphasize the heroism of the young women in the Trung’s army: one, General Phung Thi Chinh is said to have given birth on the battlefield, strapped the infant to her back, and continued fighting.


The Lost Art of Dress

by pamela on July 29, 2014

I’ve put off reviewing Linda Przybyszewski’s The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish for several months now. In part because life was busy life-ing. In part because I had other things I wanted to write about. But mostly because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the book.

The Lost Art of Dress is the history of what Przybyszewski calls the “Dress Doctors”: teachers, writers, retailers and designers who taught American women how to dress in the first half of the twentieth century. And if that were all it is I would be perfectly happy with the book. She begins with the rise of home economics as a branch of the Department of Agriculture and ends with the 1960s, when youth revolted against dictates on personal style as well as other forms of social constraint. Przybyszewski’s history is solidly researched, engagingly written and often surprising.*

But Przybyszewski has an axe to grind–the slovenliness of modern America–and she grinds it hard. (Now that I think about it, the title sort of gives it away) I have some sympathy with her position. I feel that Casual Friday in the workplace has proven to be the thin-edge of the wedge in many businesses. And I regularly see people wearing clothes in public that I would be embarrassed to wear at home while doing grimy work.** Nonetheless, I often found myself grinding my teeth, putting the book down and muttering “no, no, no”.

There is a great deal to admire in The Lost Art of Dress. If you are interested in the history of clothing or the changing roles of women, I recommend it strongly.*** Perhaps with a salt-rimmed margarita on the side.

* I was particularly stunned by the feminist roots of home economics. My personal experience of home economics class was–not feminist. And not pleasant. My strongest memories are being yelled at for mixing biscuit dough with my hands (a great way to get the texture right but not hygienic enough for the instructor), walking around the classroom with books balanced on our heads for posture (I’m very good at this), and learning to take off gloves properly. Not to mention the girl who ran the sewing machine needle through her finger. Screams! Blood!

**Let me make it clear I am not talking about the creative and/or subversive dress styles of the rebellious young.

***If you’re specifically interested in twentieth century clothing, let me point you toward The Vintage Traveler .


Laughter in Ancient Rome

by pamela on July 25, 2014

At some level, humor is a personal thing, as any one knows who’s made a joke only to be greeted with a fish-eye stare or squirmed uncomfortably as everyone around her laughs at something that seems–not funny. Humor seems to be tied to time, place, personality, age, and occasionally gender. If that’s the case, why do we still laugh at some Roman jokes two thousand years later?

In Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up, classicist and social commentator Mary Beard addresses not only the questions of when, how and why ancient Romans laughed, but what their “laugh culture” tells us about their society–and ours.

After a brief introduction in which Beard considers two examples of laughter from Roman history, the book is divided into two parts. The first looks at theories of laughter (ancient and modern), the methodological difficulties of writing a history of laughter, the differences between Roman laughter in Latin and Greek texts and the question of what we mean by “that superficially unproblematic adjective Roman.” The second part focuses on four aspects of Roman laughter: the famous orator Cicero’s discussion of the proper (and improper) ways to evoke laugher in an audience, the relationship between laughter and power in ancient Rome, the importance of mimicry in Roman humor, and the Roman joke book known as the “laughter lover.” Along the way, Beard debunks the popular image of Saturnalia as the precursor to Carnival, argues that smiling is a social construct, looks at the Roman roots of “monkey business” and stops just short of claiming that the joke as we know it was a Roman invention.

Written in Beard’s trademark combination of erudition and effortless prose, Laughter in Ancient Rome is a fascinating combination of history, psychology, linguistic exploration and humor. This is scholarly writing at its best: using a seemingly narrow topic to illuminate larger cultural issues.


Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.