Ah, the ides of July…the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and, what’s that? Yes, if you’re lucky, you just might catch the elusive, odoriferous efflorescence of a man-sized flower that smells like a dead body. The roundup just put on some Drakkar Noir, so if the corpse flower has you down, and if you’re feeling a paucity of perspicacity, then nestle comfortably in the embrace of the trivia roundup.
1. Non-bay-area readers may not know that BART workers went on strike recently…but hey, did you know that strikes are at least 3000 years old? Artisans at the Royal Necropolis (wish we still had those) of Ramses III walked off the job because they were not being paid; the event was recorded on a papyrus which somehow survived, but no mention is made of its resolution. I’m sure it involved hiring a negotiator. Strikes even show up in the bible: workers building the Tower of Babel quit when god decreed that they would no longer speak one language and that there would be no more free donuts in the lounge.
Jumping ahead, in the Roman practice of secessio plebis, the plebes literally left the city en masse, forcing the ruling class to fend for themselves. Besides being morally satisfying, the move was also politically savvy: plebes vastly outnumbered patricians and were, on balance, actually useful. A series of secessions led to elimination of debts, the institution of a plebeian veto in the Senate, and a codified legal code available to the masses rather than just the priests. The thrilling denouement was the adoption of Lex Hortensia, under which laws passed by the plebes (i.e., without input from the patricians) were binding on all citizens, though the application of it was less cool than it sounds. Probably the closest modern populations have come to secessio plebis was the May 1968 general strike in France, in which more than 11,000,000 workers—nearly a quarter of the country’s population—struck for two weeks. This action nearly toppled de Gaulle, but the strike rapidly dissipated when he called for special elections, which somehow led to gains for his party (cognitive dissonance? corruption? something?).
July 15th marked the 54th anniversary of the steelworker’s strike of 1959. With industry profits soaring but wages largely stagnant, some 500,000 steelworkers went on strike—the largest in US history, as best I can tell. Awesome newsreel footage:
The steel industry refused to grant wage increases unless the union agreed to forego rules allowing the company to introduce new machines or non-union workers (rules meant to prevent companies from diluting/busting unions by hiring replacements). So the workers went on strike and the US steel industry was shuttered. Eventually Eisenhower stepped in to invoke the “back-to-work” clause of the union-restricting Taft-Hartley act, and the union took the case to court. After an initial victory,
the Supreme Court ruled the act constitutional, forcing workers back on the job. By January of 1960, the workers had received a 7 cent per hour pay increase and cost-of-living raises, and rules about worker retention were kept in place. The entire ordeal was a Pyrrhic victory, though, as in the interim steel-based industries had discovered that imported steel was cheaper and of similar quality to that made in the homeland, thus beginning the initially slow, then very rapid, descent of the US steel industry.
2. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, became a journalist after writing a “fiery rebuttal” to an “aggressively misogynistic” column in her local Pittsburgh paper. By 23, she’d left Pittsburgh for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where her initial claim to fame was an exposé on the horrific conditions in insane asylums—abuse, restraint, insufficient and/or disgusting food, cold water baths, etc.—for which she’d faked mental illness and entered a sanitarium. But you probably know her for her 1889 attempt to best Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (Verne’s publishers, with shocking foresight, almost convinced him to rename the book Around the World in a Remarkably Short Time so that it would remain profitable even as technology advanced). Less well-known is that it was a race! Cosmopolitan (not that Cosmopolitan) sent their reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on her own around-the-world trip, heading in the opposite direction.
Bly “won”, arriving back in New York just over 72 days later, and in the words of Jed Bartlet, “I’m particularly impressed she beat a fictional record.” Her victory was not without controversy and subterfuge: when she arrived on the west coast behind schedule, Pulitzer chartered a private train to bring her back. Bisland, meanwhile, had been in the lead but missed her steamer from England, possibly because of misinformation from Pulitzer. Bly would go on to a career as an industrialist and inventor; she’s most well-known in that regard for inventing the standard 50-gallon steel drum (no joke!). She also invented a novel top for milk jugs and a stackable garbage can. Renaissance woman!
Other famous Nellies include NBA coaching wins leader Don “Nellie” Nelson (and his preferred style of play, “Nellieball”), baseball hall of famer Nellie Fox, small-town Nellie, Ohio (population 131), and the boat in Heart of Darkness. Other famous Nellys include Nelly.
3. Bly’s 72-day circumnavigation record lasted less than a year: in 1890 George Francis Train went around the world in 67 days. The aptly-named Train had been a primary mover and shaker in setting up the Union Pacific railway, where he was evidently the brains behind the Credit Mobilier scam, a sort of shell corporation created to both bribe politicians and skim money off government rail contracts. A circumnavigation superfan, Train completed his first in 1870—no word on how long it took him—and it’s commonly thought he was Verne’s basis for Phineas Fogg.
A foppish dandy taken with wearing white vests and lavender gloves, Train was an engaging speaker and, uh, eccentric personality. In his autobiography, he claimed to have invented canned salmon, the idea of putting erasers on tops of pencils, and putting steps on the side of a carriage. In 1872, he ran (unsuccessfully) for president and defended the right of a friend to publish her views on sex; he was put in jail for several months for his troubles. Upon examining him, psychiatrists called him a “monomaniac, but not insane,” which is as backhanded as it gets. He was a strong supporter of women’s rights, and was the financial backing behind the Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton-helmed journal Revolution. When they first asked him to come to Kansas, then gearing up for a vote on women’s suffrage, he responded with a demonstration of how his eccentricity went all the way to the syntactic level: “Right, Truth, Justice is bound to win. Men made laws, disfranchising Idiots, Lunatics, Paupers, Minors, and added Women as junior partner in the firm. The wedge once inserted in Kansas we will populate the nation with three millions voting women.” And as with seemingly so many people we call “eccentric,” by the end of his life he was penniless, living on a park bench and talking to animals. For more, see here.
Other circumnavigation notes:
a) In 1881, King Kalākaua of Hawaii became the first reigning monarch to circumnavigate the globe
b) Between 1950-1958, Ben Carlin became the first person to circumnavigate in an amphibious vehicle (a modified Jeep). Who keeps track of this shit?
c) The first aerial circumnavigation was in 1924; the first by car between 1927-1929.
d) Between 1969 and 2008, Arthur Blessitt walked more than 38,100 miles while carrying a 45 pound wooden cross. And his fucking name is “Blessitt”. Jesus christ.
4. Poptarts have been with us since 1964. 1964! Post announced a plan to produce foil-wrapped pastries called “Country Squares” in 1963, but took so long to get to market that Kellogg’s beat them to the punch. Here we see the famed Pop-Tart flavor scientists in a group photo before heading to their secret underground tasting bunker in the deserts of New Mexico.
Actual Pop Tart flavors include: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Hot Fudge Sundae, Ice Cream Sandwich, Salt Water Taffy (don’t really see how that’s a flavor), Rainbow Cookie Sandwich (?), Baby Bits, Pumpkin Pie (legitimately intrigued by this one), Peanut Butter & Jelly, Guava Mango, Pancake Syrup Blueberry, French Toast, Mars Bar, Caramel Chocolate, and Birthday Cake. Only one of those is fake, and it’s NOT Baby Bits. I’m waiting for a doritos loco poptart. And if you’re eating poptarts, you should probably have a nice glass of OJ to wash them down:
5. The first half of the 18th century saw Britain in the grips of what would be called the gin craze. The roots go back to 1688, when William of Orange ascended to the throne. His baggage? Hating the French, and, as a Dutchman, loving gin, which was invented in Holland. Then a cascade of events: most French goods were banned outright or subject to heavy taxation (to wit, brandy); beer was heavily taxed; the distillers monopoly was broken up in 1690 (leaving a hard liquor vacuum); William’s landed friends/patrons had a surplus of low quality grain they wanted to sell (to be made into alcohol). The final piece of the puzzle: a growing economy was providing low/middle class workers with disposable income. Thus did the match of greed, power, and grain surpluses meet the powder keg of the innate human desire to get shitfaced, and the invisible hand of the economy smacked the shit out of London.
Gin production and consumption exploded in the early 1700s, and over the next 50 years, five separate gin-centric laws were passed to try and fix the problem. It’s estimated that at its peak, approximately 1 in 4 Londoners were drunk at any one time (I can’t even begin to imagine how you figure that statistic…perhaps it’s more clear to say that by another estimate, the average Londoner drank 14 gallons of gin each year. That’s 1/20th a hogshead!). The drunkenness and lack of local constabulary helped contribute to a wildly lawless and utterly debauched society; gin quickly earned the sobriquets “Mother’s Ruin”, “Madame Geneva”, “Cuckold’s Comfort” (no idea on that one), and “Ladies’ Delight”, the gendered terms because even women were getting drunk off their ass, leading inexorably—in the moral calculus of the time—to prostitution and child neglect (Victorian social morés would later introduce us to the “gin palace”, an opulent drinking establishment for people who wanted to get drunk in only the classiest of fashions). One parent was rumored to have killed her two year old child, buried him, and sold his clothes for a cup of gin. I’m sure that’s apocryphal, but jesus christ! Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, warned that drunken mothers would produce a “fine, spindle-shanked generation” of children; Lord Hervey remarked that “drunkenness of the common people was universal.” William Hogarth came up with this fine depiction of life at the height of the gin craze:
The legislature kept passing laws ostensibly intended to curb consumption, but of course they were in service of two masters, since the landowners selling the grain were making the money. It’s commonly held that the gin craze died out after the Gin Act of 1751 instituted heavy licensing fees on gin sellers, but it’s just as likely it died out because the bottom fell out of grain prices, making it less profitable for the growers.