And Now We Are 10!


It’s hard to believe we’ve been hanging out here on the Margins for ten years now. This blog started out as an experiment. It quickly turned into a conversation. (As far as I know, that first post had only three readers: my dad, My Own True Love, and my BFF from graduate school. Now there are some 3000 of you.)

Back in March, I blithely promised you a History in the Margins Top 10, without any sense of what that would mean. Luckily, quite a few of you took me up on my invitation to make suggestions about what should be on the list. Because how on earth could I chose ten out of a thousand?

The posts I’ve linked to below may not be the ten best posts I’ve written in the last ten years. But they are ten posts that you have enjoyed. Which makes me very happy.

In no particular order:

1. The Christmas Truce of 1914

2. The Thrill of the Vote (Some of you sharp-eyed folks  may notice that this first appeared in 2008.  That's true.  It originally ran as a guest post on someone else's blog.)

3.Cornelia Fort: Eyewitness to Pearl Harbor

4. Medieval Christianity: More Complicated Than You Might Think (Or At Least More Complicated Than I Thought)

5. Florence Nightingale Does the Math

6. Al-Khwarizmi Does the Math

7. Napoleon on the Art of War:

8. Word with a Past: Silhouette

9. Prince Henry, the So-Called Navigator

10. Road Trip Through History: Lake Itasca State Park and the Headwater of the Mississippi


And speaking of Road Trips Through History, I’m going to cheat and give you a link to an entire category instead of a single post as a lagniappe. As I read through posts from the last ten years, I realized that an extraordinary number of my personal favorites are about places we’ve visited on our travels. (This may be because I’m eager to hit the road again after a year of no travel, no museums, and not historical markers.) Road Trip Through History posts have been part of History in the Margins from the beginning. In my third post, I described what I like in a road trip: Road Trip Through History: The Utopian Communities of New Harmony.  I clearly had no idea that it would be the first of many posts about our history-nerd adventures. If this is the kind of thing you like, you can find all of the Road Trip Through History posts here.  With any luck we'll be hitting the road again in a few weeks, and I'll have more history-nerd adventures to share.

Thanks to you all for reading along over the last ten years.  I'm looking forward to many more.


In Praise of Nurses, Again. (And Always)

A post in praise of nurses during National Nurses Week, which runs from May 6 through May 12 * here in the United States, has become a tradition here on the Margins.

Like many of the best traditions, it happened almost without my noticing it. In the months after Heroines of Mercy Street was published, in 2016, I found myself talking to nurses–and their friends, mothers, daughters, granddaughters and nieces. (And occasionally their fathers, sons, grandsons and nephews.) The experience confirmed my long-held opinion that nurses rock. When National Nurse Week appeared on my radar, I knew I needed to celebrate.

After the year we’ve been through, I think it’s even more important to recognize nurses for the important, sometimes dangerous work they do. In honor of the nurses I know, and the nurses I don’t, here are links to a series of posts from 2016 about Clara Barton, the first nurse to catch my imagination:

Clara Barton: Nursing Outside the Box

Clara Barton, Act II: Finding the Missing

Clara Barton, Act III: The American Red Cross

If you run into a nurse this week, say thank you for a hard job done well.

*Florence Nightingale’s birthday.Florence Nightingale


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And speaking of birthdays:  History in the Margins turns ten next week.  I'm putting together a list of ten of the posts that people have enjoyed the most.  Back in March, I asked you to share any posts that you particularly remember for inclusion on this list.  I still have a couple of spots left.  If there is a post you'd like to nominate, let me know by Sunday, May 9, at 5:00 pm, Central time.


Déjà Vu All Over Again: Long Before Textspeak, There was Cablese


One of the things foreign correspondents juggled in the days before the internet rendered long-distance charges meaningless was the eternal trade-off between time and money in turning in a story. The mail was slow and (relatively) cheap. Cables and telephones* were fast and expensive. Reporters were torn between the desire to scoop other papers on big stories and the desire not to have their editors harp at them about their monthly cable bill.

If a reporter sent in a “mailer,” she had room to expand on a topic, fill in background, even play with language. But cables were paid for by the word, with an upper limit on how many characters counted as a word. As a result, foreign correspondents needed to send stories by cable to their editors back home using the fewest possible characters. The result was cablese: a funky shorthand in which reporters used special symbols and abbreviations, condensed some words, and left others out altogether, leaving the cable editor at the home office to put the stories back into plain English. “Untreaty smorning” became “no treaty agreed upon this morning” in the hands of a skilled cable editor. (These went the other way as well in the case of newspapers like the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, where reporters on the copy desk created columns for the paper from a fifty word dispatch of cablese from the home office.)

Every news agency had its own list of codes so they wouldn’t get scooped, but some techniques were common to them all. A creative use of prefixes was popular: exGermany appears frequently in Sigrid Schultz’s cables home. Words couldn’t simply be run together: canny wire operators would recognize that as a an attempt to game the system. But reversing a phrase was fair game: uplook for look up, downhold for hold down, onworking for working on.** There is a story that an editor sent British writer Evelyn Waugh*** an assignment to investigate reports that a British nurse had been killed in an air raid. The cable red SEND TWO HUNDRED WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE. Waugh found the rumors were not true and replied NURSE UNUPBLOWN.

Most of the examples I've seen don't feature that degree of flair. Here’s a pretty straightforward example from Sigrid Schultz’s correspondence: Thank u v much for letter of Oct 31 clears up the matter v satisfactorily since u assure me that u r not askg G office new information or cards issued f reporting purposes.


*Sometimes used in combination in the period I am dealing with in a effort to get the best balance. A reporter in Berlin would call in a story to a central office in Paris or London, from whence it would be cabled to New York, and then on the other hubs.

**Spellcheck hates these and suggests upload, download, and non-working as replacements.

***He was a journalist as well as a satirical novelist and used his own experience of covering a foreign war to great affect in Scoop.