Ah, the ides of July…the sun is shining and flowers are blooming. If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll catch a whiff of the elusive, odoriferous efflorescence of a man-sized flower that smells like a dead body. The roundup just put on some Drakkar Noir, so nestle comfortably in its embrace.
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1. BART workers went on strike recently, and I discovered that strikes are at least 3000 years old. Artisans at the Royal Necropolis of Ramses III—wish we still had those—walked off the job to protest non-payment. The event is recorded on a papyrus that somehow survived, but no mention is made of its resolution. Strikes even show up in the bible: workers on 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.
Jump ahead to the Roman practice of secessio plebis, in which the plebes literally vacated the city, forcing the ruling class to fed for themselves, which probably would have turned into a Mad Max scenario if they’d given it a little bit longer. The move was both morally satisfying and politically savvy: plebes vastly outnumbered patricians and, on balance, were useful in mundane matters like making food and clothing. A series of secessions led to the elimination of debts, the institution of a plebeian veto in the Senate, and a codified legal code for the masses rather than just priests. The thrilling denouement was the adoption of Lex Hortensia, under which laws passed by the plebes—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. Was this some kind of weird cognitive dissonance or decision-making bias?
July 15th marked the 54th anniversary of the steelworker’s strike of 1959. Some half a million steelworkers struck in protest of stagnant wages, which was the largest strike in US history, as best I can tell.
The steel industry would not grant wage increases without a concession from the union: eliminating union-busting rules against introducing new machines or hiring non-union workers. The strike continued and the entire 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 responded by taking the case to court. After an initial victory,
the Supreme Court ruled Taft-Hartley constitutional, putting workers back on the job. They ended up receiving 7 cents/hour raises, cost-of-living raises, and the rules about worker retention were kept in place. The victory was Pyrrhic, though: in the interim steel-based industries discovered that imported steel was cheaper and of similar quality to that made in the homeland, beginning the downfall of the US steel industry.
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2. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, Nellie Bly journalistic career started when she penned a “fiery rebuttal” to an “aggressively misogynistic” column in her hometown Pittsburgh paper. By the age of 23, she’d joined Pulitzer’s New York World. Her initial claim to fame came from faking a mental illness and entering a sanitarium, then writing an exposé on the horrific conditions: abuse, restraint, insufficient and/or inedible food, cold water baths, and more. But most know her for the 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 the race, arriving back in New York just over 72 days after she departed. In the words of Jed Bartlet, “I’m particularly impressed she beat a fictional record.” Her victory was achieved through subterfuge and created controversy. When she’d arrived on the west coast behind schedule, Pulitzer chartered a private train to bring her back at speed. Bisland was, at that point, actually “ahead” of Bly. But she missed her steamer from England, perhaps due to misinformation supplied by Pulitzer. Bisland went on to a long career as a writer. Bly became an industrialist and inventor—she invented the standard 50-gallon steel drum. She also invented a novel top for milk jugs and a stackable garbage can. A true 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.
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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 bribe politicians and skim money off government rail contracts. A circumnavigation superfan, Train completed his first trip around the world in 1870—no word on how long it took him—and it’s commonly thought he was the basis for Phineas Fogg.
A foppish dandy taken with wearing white vests and lavender gloves, Train was an engaging speaker and…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 for president, defended the right of a friend to publish her views on sex, and was jailed for several months. Psychiatrists examined him and decided he was a “monomaniac, but not insane,” which seems fair. He supported women’s suffrage and financially backed the Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton-helmed journal Revolution. When they asked him to come to Kansas, then gearing up for a vote on women’s suffrage, his response demonstrated that his syntax was equally as eccentric as his behavior: “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.” 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 stuff?
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 name is BLESSITT. Come on.
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4. Poptarts were birthed in 1964! One year earlier, Post announced a plan to produce foil-wrapped pastries called “Country Squares,” but took so long to get to market that Kellogg’s got their first, and with a better marketing team to name them. In the undated file photo below, we see Pop-Tart flavor scientists in their secret underground pastry lab and tasting bunker in the barren deserts of New Mexico, isolated to prevent the spread of unstable flavor molecules and realfruitTM fallout in the event of an experimental pop tart core going critical after being over-toasted or being exposed to air.
Actual Pop Tart flavors include: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Hot Fudge Sundae, Ice Cream Sandwich, Salt Water Taffy (don’t get how that’s a flavor), Rainbow Cookie Sandwich (?), Baby Bits, Pumpkin Pie (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 I’ll wash it down with a nice glass of OJ:
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5. The first half of the 18th century saw Britain in the grips of the gin craze. Back in 1688, William of Orange ascended to the throne, bringing with him a hatred of the French and a love of gin, invented in his homeland of Holland. What followed was a cascade of seemingly unrelated events: French goods (e.g., brandy) were banned or heavily taxed; beer was taxed; the distillers monopoly was broken up, leaving a hard liquor vacuum; wealthy speculators found themselves with a surplus of low-quality grain to offload; a growing economy meant low/middle class workers had 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 don’t know how you estimate that, but another estimate puts per capita gin consumption at 14 gallons of gin annually. Drunkenness and lack of constabulary contributed to a lawless, debauched, and truly grim society. Gin was called “Mother’s Ruin,” “Madame Geneva,” “Cuckold’s Comfort,” and “Ladies’ Delight,” the gendered terms because even women were getting wheeled, which according to contemporaneous moral calculus led inexorably 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, but do it with class). One parent was rumored to have killed her two year old child, buried him, and sold his clothes for a cup of gin. Daniel Defoe 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:
Laws were passed over and over aimed at curbing consumption, but the legislature was also in service to the landowners making money selling the grain that became gin. The gin craze died out after the Gin Act of 1751 instituted heavy licensing fees on gin vendors, but that may not be causative: the bottom fell out of the grain market about the same time.