Thursday, October 8, 2015

Uncle Sam was born in 1813

More than 200 years ago, the United States got its nickname: “Uncle Sam”

The best story about it is that American soldiers stationed near Troy, NY, during the war of 1812 recognized that the beef they were eating came from the Troy meatpacking plant of Samuel Wilson.

Wilson shipped his meat in barrels marked “U. S.” for “United States” under a subcontract with an army quartermaster. Wilson, a Revolutionary War veteran, was prominent in Troy, and some soldiers were aware that his nickname was Uncle Sam.

The troops started referring to their grub as beef from “Uncle Sam.” The name stuck, and gradually became standard in the soldiers’ lingo.

Fifty years later, Thomas Nast, the trenchant mid-19th century political cartoonist, got the ball rolling in defining the iconic image of Uncle Sam, including the white beard and the flag-themed suit.

For the record, the Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruiting poster was created by James Montgomery Flagg during World War I. It first appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916.


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

You can call him Quake

About 2,885 years ago, a man was born in Mesoamerica, in what we now call Mexico. We know only two things about him: he died about 750 B. C., fighting against the Zapotec empire; his name was 1-Earthquake.

Among the tens of millions who lived in ancient times in the American hemisphere, 1-Earthquake is the earliest whose name we know.
In the Mesoamerican cultures that flourished three millennia ago, the day of birth often was an augury of the future of the newborn, and often the birth date was adopted as a name. 1-Earthquake was the Zapotec name for the 17th day of their 260-day sacred calendar.

It is apparent that the name was carved as two glyphs in the stone threshold of a temple in San  José Mogote, near the city of Oaxaca. This is the earliest known writing in North or South America that can be accurately dated: 750 B.C.

Urban site in Zapotec empire

Note the date.. At about the same time as Rome was founded (753 B. C.), when  the early Greeks were emerging from their own Dark Ages, and when much of Europe was populated by the “barbarian” Germanic and Celtic tribes, there were civilizations in the Americas like the Zapotec and the earlier Olmec, that had sophisticated cities, governments, organized religion, art, agriculture, commerce, astronomy and mathematics.

Source: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 243.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


You thought the guillotine is ancient French history, right?

Well, here’s a shocker:

The guillotine was the legal method of execution in France until 1981, when capital punishment was abolished.

The iconic terror of the French Revolution was last used in 1977 to behead a murderer named Hamida Djandoubi.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Six Grandfathers

Admit it: you’ve always wondered what Mt. Rushmore looked like before the presidential sculptures were done.

Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, did the work starting in 1927, and it was completed in 1941. The Borglums and their crews blasted more than 400,000 tons of stone off the face off the mountain.

It wasn’t always called Mt. Rushmore. The granite bluff was named after Charles Rushmore, a wealthy New York lawyer, in 1885.

The Lakota Sioux name for the mountain was “The Six Grandfathers.”

Too bad the federal government didn’t authorize carving their likenesses into the face of the bluff.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

It was the Renaissance, everybody knows that….

You know about the Middle Ages, right? Roughly a thousand years in European history, from the fall of Rome in 476 to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century or so. The Renaissance itself lasted several hundred years, into the 17th century.

The thing is, the folks who lived through those extended dynamic eras didn’t know what they were doing. I mean, they didn’t know it was “the Middle Ages” or “the Renaissance.”

Those words weren’t used in the English language until the early 18th century.

During the Middle Ages, for example, medieval writers referred to historical events as “ancient” and described their own times as “modern.” Beauty is in the eye…

Pundits or philosophers of the future may call our current era the Age of Tomfoolery. We’ll never know.

Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Hudson, NY: The Lindisfarne Press, 1953), 167.

No surprise here

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

When safety tests were more interesting....

In 1912, testing the ruggedness and protective features of a football helmet was a fairly straightforward process:

1912 product safety test

Find someone who knew how to simulate diving through the defensive line, strap the helmet on him and do the test.

William "Pudge" Heffelfinger
Football already was starting to hit the big time in 1912. You might say that professional football got started on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 under the table to help the AAA team beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, 4-0 (touchdowns were worth 4 points at that time). Nobody worried too much about head or brain injuries back then.

The thing that bothers me most about the safety test picture is that the three safety consultants appear to be enjoying themselves a bit overmuch. Of course, they didn’t have TV back then.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Guacamole is an Aztec word

Long before Jamestown, long before the Roanoke Colony (“Lost Colony”), long before the first English attempts to gain a foothold in the Americas, Spanish explorers and adventurers were hard at work trying to plant the royal flag of Spain in Central America and South America.

On August 13, 1521, Hernán Cortés and his small force captured Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire, on the site of present-day Mexico City. This conquest marked the downfall of the Aztecs’ far-flung domain, as Cortés became the de facto ruler.

Before the fall of their capital, the Aztecs’ empire embraced almost 500 small “states” with a population of 5-6 million people. At the pinnacle of Aztec power, the capital city had more than 140,000 inhabitants and was the most densely urban city that ever existed in Mesoamerica.

Disease played a role in the transition of power, as it did later in the conflict of European settlers and Native Americans in North America. An outbreak of smallpox among the Aztecs in 1520 substantially weakened their ability to resist the Spanish conquistadors. Almost 250,000 Aztecs died in the fighting for Tenochtitlán.

By 1530, the Spanish conquerors had renamed the Aztecs’ domain and called it “New Spain.”

The Aztecs had an advanced culture, including sophisticated science and highly developed commerce and arts. Familiar words in our modern conversations can be traced to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: these include avocado, chocolate, coyote and guacamole.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

No surprise here

Making profits and the foibles of human nature don’t seem to have any trouble co-existing, and they have done so for a long time.

I came across this somewhat incidental observation in a book on the history of clocks and timekeeping:

“This maritime struggle was linked to commercial rivalry. For both countries the eighteenth century was a period of rapid growth of trade and competition in what were known as colonial wares: sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco—what I like to call Europe’s ‘big fix.’ “  

The author, David Landes, was referring to the long-running naval policy and tactical conflicts between England and France.

The thing that struck me is: all four of those “colonial wares” are addictive commodities. There wasn’t any difficulty about selling the stuff. The rivalry was all about who would transport it from the colonies to Europe, and who would cash in when it was finally sold to the end users.

Eighteenth century mercantilism had many dimensions, and this was one of them.

David Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 159.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Woodstock: that was a music thing, right?

The pleasure palace at Woodstock opened 46 years ago on August 15, 1969.

Wasn’t there. Didn’t do that. Maybe you did. So, you can have my share of the memories.

As it happened, I was at Fort Benning near Columbus, GA, doing officers’ infantry basic training.
Not saying that was a better way to spend some summer days in August. One thing: seems like we probably had better weather in Georgia, the Woodstockers got rain several times.

Of course, no one is surprised whenever I mention (at least four times in the last 46 years) that I didn’t go to Woodstock. Even if I hadn’t been on active duty, I wouldn’t have gone.

Wasn’t my thing.

But it was a big thing.

Woo hoo.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Science ruins everything

The world and universe we live in is what it is, although some folks insist on their right to believe otherwise.

Let’s be straight here: for example, believing that the earth was made in six days doesn’t make it so.

The reference to 1543 calls to mind the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer of the Renaissance who startled the Western world by publishing his evidence (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) of a heliocentric solar system—sun at the center, planets revolving around it. It took a while for that to sink in.

Full disclosure: Copernicus had nothing to say about Santa Claus.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Same old, same old

Politicians and representative government have been around for a long time in the United States.

The first legislative assembly in the North American colonies was called to order on July 30, 1619 in Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia, with the professed intention of providing “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”

The Virginia House of Burgesses had 22 members elected initially by the free adult English males in the colony’s 11 boroughs. Soon after the first election Polish and Slovak artisans in the colony were given the franchise.

The first law set the official minimum price of tobacco at three shillings per pound. In the burgesses’ first six-day session, they passed laws prohibiting gambling, drunkenness and “idleness,” and also approved a bill that established mandatory observance of the Sabbath.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Legislation that arbitrarily regulated the price of an important commodity (think “milk”).

Bills aimed at preventing some people from doing some things that are obviously suited to our human nature but don’t measure up to the moral/religious standards of some other people (think “medical or recreational marijuana”).

A law to require everyone to conform with the religious scruples of the dominant group in the community (think “abortion restrictions”).

The Burgesses didn’t have to be concerned with raising gas taxes to fund transportation infrastructure repairs, or the ravages of global climate change, or squabbling about the national debt and “shutting down the government.”

That first legislative assembly got the job done in six days.

Arbitrary, short-sighted, ideologically constrained government was an easier gig in 1619.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Miep Gies saved Anne Frank's diary

Annelies Marie "Anne" Frank

On August 4, 1944, Anne Frank and her family were arrested by the Gestapo in Amsterdam and sent to their deaths in German concentration camps. Only her father, Otto, survived.

No one knows the name of the Dutch informer who revealed the Franks’ hiding place.

Few people know the name of the brave woman who helped hide and shelter the family before they were captured, and who saved Anne’s heartbreaking diary.

Miep Gies before WWII
Miep Gies (1909-2010)) was one of many stalwart Dutch resisters who hid Jews during World War II in the Netherlands. She was born Hermine Santruschitz in Austria. As a child, she adopted the surname of her foster family in Amsterdam. With her husband and three others who protected Anne and her family, Miep worked for Otto’s father in the building where the Franks hid from July 1942 to August 1944. After the Gestapo raid, she found the 15-year-old girl’s diary in the ransacked rooms where the family had desperately survived.

Miep kept the diary—but never read it—and gave it to Otto when he made his way back to Amsterdam after the war ended.

Here’s a chilling note: Anne had innocently written in her diary the names of all the resisters who concealed and fed her family for so many months. After it was published, Miep told Otto that if she had read the diary after Anne disappeared, she would have destroyed it to protect herself and the other Samaritans of No. 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

Miep Gies was a brave and wonderful woman. If she had been a curious lady, Anne Frank’s name would have died with her at Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.

The only known video of Anne Frank, as a young girl looking out a second-floor window at the wedding of a neighbor in 1941see it here

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Masters of war, revisited

World War I got started in earnest 101 years ago, when Russia and Germany declared a mutual state of war on August 1, 1914. France piled on a couple days later, and Britain did the same within hours.

The textbooks say that WWI was provoked a month earlier by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28. The shots fired by a Bosnian Serb nationalist led to 20 million military and civilian deaths.

A more accurate understanding of the origins of the war—and any war—must include a recognition that the effective causes of war are the many, sometime independent and sometimes overlapping, incremental acts and plans of individuals and governments that finally make conflict seem “inevitable.”

The European powers, including Russia, had been jockeying for years for economic power and political hegemony or dominance on the continent. Britain and Germany had been openly competing for naval superiority on the seas and coastal waterways. The 19th century monarchical and dynastic powers were struggling to retain power in an increasingly hostile international environment.

The brutal fact is that the European powers had been preparing for war for a long time. It really wasn’t a great big surprise in the summer of 1914 when it started.

The bitter truth is that many leaders, and many of the men and women who would become cannon fodder, welcomed the advent of World War I.

The frightening reality is that human nature hasn’t changed in the last 100 years.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Canadians are coming!

Well, not really, but almost 100 years ago American military planners weren’t so sure.

You may have heard or learned in school that Canada is the only country for which the United States doesn’t have a standby war plan in case hostilities become imminent.

In the 1920s the Canadian military feared that their country might become a battleground if Britain and the United States were to escalate their competition for dominance around the world. So, as explained in a Boston Globe book review, the Canadians developed a plan to preemptively invade and conduct a holding operation to give British troops time to come over and pile on.

On our side, military planners cooked up “War Plan Red” (yeah, they did pick snazzy code names back then) to stop Canadian invaders in their tracks.

World War II got started a short time later and the Canadians and British and Americans found themselves on the same side and the war plans were ultimately pigeonholed.

Now, let’s be frank: today Canada has the world’s third-largest petroleum reserves and it has 20% of the planet’s fresh water supply. Not insignificant treasure.

Still, I don’t think any Americans are going to be heading to Toronto in a troop carrier any time soon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book reviewing, the dubious career path….

Book reviewing never has been the noblest profession.

The art of the book review is relatively young. Edgar Allan Poe wrote some reviews for Graham’s Magazine in the 1840s. The first explicitly titled book review appeared in 1861—it was a sweetheart review, in the awkwardly reserved language of the era:

“The present work has the additional recommendation of an unmistakably useful subject…”

An interesting point is that no one thought there was a need for book reviews before the middle of the 19th century. The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History says:

“By the 1840s, improved production techniques and faster distribution networks meant that middle-class readers in America could expect convenient access to a wide range of literary materials in a variety of formats. But they also meant that readers trained to prize discernment needed more sophisticated ways to evaluate the materials passing before their eyes. This was one of the requirements that led to early attempts to define an American national literary canon.”

Book reviewers haven’t been getting a lot of respect since the early days. Poe criticized book reviews in 1846:

"We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright."

A century later, George Orwell had these unkind words for reviewers:

“In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.”

If you’re feeling the urge to be a full-time book reviewer, take a moment and think about medical school.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bicycle what?

Sometimes we tend to think the ancients and so-called savages and sadly disadvantaged foreigners have strange medical practices, but we don’t have to look elsewhere for doctors gone bonkers…. offers this little gem about a dark corner of late 19th century American medical care that flourished for a while when bicycling was a new fad and all the rage.

Doctors—almost exclusively male—took great pains to warn women that riding a bicycle could cause “bicycle face.” You know, bicycle face….

Here’s a quote from the Literary Digest in 1895: "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face . . .'"

And more: the “bicycle face” is “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness . . .characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes."

You know, bicycle face….

I guess maybe you had to be a doctor to recognize the symptoms….

And another thing: you have to wonder where women bought those exercise outfits….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plugging the meter….

The first parking meter was put into operation on July 16, 1935, in Oklahoma City, OK. It cost a nickel to park downtown for an hour on the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue.

Park-O-Meter No. 1

Finding a parking space was becoming a problem for motorists and shoppers. Nevertheless, some drivers fought the parking fee, calling it a “tax” without due process of law.

That gripe didn’t get any traction.

Within a half dozen years, there were 140,000 parking meters in America.

You know the rest of the story.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Colonization: think of it as a bad idea….

Remember that white European impulse to establish colonies all over the world? It was the thing to do for several centuries, and it died hard.

Just for the record: the first two American soldiers were killed in South Vietnam 56 years ago, in July 1959, long before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, long before “escalation” began and long before some guys started burning their draft cards.

Maj. Dale Ruis and MSgt. Chester Oynand died at Bien Hoa in their Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) compound during a guerrilla attack.

The MAAG had been set up in South Vietnam in November 1955, barely more than a year after the last French soldiers died in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu.

Some folks in America thought it was a good idea at the time.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Trash, it turns out, is really old news

The first identifiable landfill was first used about 5,000 years ago on the island of Crete. I guess it was pretty much a run-of-the-mill landfill, except that probably no one knew exactly what to call it. 

There weren’t any bulldozers back then to cover up the mess, so I wonder if anyone had the courage to object to hauling trash and garbage to that particular spot and just dumping it there in a pile.

We still haven’t figured out a good solution for taking care of our trash, really, and in some parts of the world, like Japan and Europe, acceptable landfill sites are becoming filled to capacity. Guess what happens next—less acceptable landfill sites are going to be used, and then unacceptable landfill sites are going to be used.

The Atlantic magazine recently reported that about three-quarters of the stuff in the trash stream in America could be composted or recycled, but it isn’t. Most of it is being buried or burned.

The average American produces about 130 pounds of trash each month.

Those Cretans who started piling up their trash 5,000 years ago got us started on the wrong track.

We’re trashing the planet, and I think the trash thing is going to bite us soon, in a lot less than 5,000 years.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Declaration was a re-write

Book review:
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., 1998.

The Declaration of Independence was a re-write….and it didn’t start the Revolution.

A quick review of what we know about the Declaration, courtesy of the late Prof. Pauline Maier: basically, it’s trash talk to King George III.

This book exposes the backstory of the Declaration. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in his stuffy room in Philadelphia, but the final document is the work of many hands. The Second Continental Congress substantially re-worked Jefferson's draft. The Declaration didn't "start" the American Revolution. It wasn't the "kickoff" event. It was more like a final formality to officially authorize the colonial rebellion which had been evolving for years and which had already been the subject of a shooting war for more than a year.

A point that’s interesting to me: much of the stirring prose in the Declaration had already been written in various forms by Jefferson and others in the multitude of documents approved locally throughout the colonies, expressing the colonials' increasing frustration with the failure of their efforts to negotiate a suitable accommodation with the King and his ministers and Parliament. Until the shooting started, there was persistent strong support throughout the colonies for remaining within the empire as long as American self-government could be sustained. 

 Finally, there is Maier's take on the Declaration as a late blooming "American Scripture." She documents, and challenges, the 19th century politicians' cumulative (and heedlessly incorrect) re-interpretation of the Declaration as a statement of governing principles and a blueprint for American political values and American democracy. Maier makes a plain case that the Declaration was intended only to demonstrate why, finally, the colonial disdain of King George had made American rebellion necessary and unavoidable.

A note for the serious reader: Chapter 4 incongruously seems to stray into anecdotal commentary on various interpretations by Abraham Lincoln and others. I understand the imputed relevance, but this section of American Scripture seemed to be casually written and insufficiently edited.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Before Plymouth Rock….

Our understanding of American colonial history tends to be English-centric, regardless of the fact that both Spain and France had active and substantial colonies on the North American continent.

The whole colonial experience never was all-English, all the time.

For instance, Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596) was the first Englishman to land on the California coast near present-day San Francisco in June 1579. Naturally, he claimed the “new land” for Queen Elizabeth I and England. Just one problem: the English never established a colony in California.

In fact, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (?-1543), a Portuguese explorer, stepped on to a California beach near present-day San Diego in September 1542, about 37 years before Drake got California sand between his toes. Cabrillo claimed the western coast as part of “Alta California” for the Spanish Empire. California was absorbed into Mexico in 1821. The Spanish colonists and their descendants were a presence in California until it was admitted to the Union as the 31st state in September 1850 (after the gold rush started).

N. B. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, by some estimates the California territory was the home of about one-third of Native Americans living in the transcontinental expanse that would become the first 48 American states.     

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.