Category Archives: History

The Shipwreck Spectacle

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm (photo by Sally Reeder)

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm (photo by Sally Reeder)

If I had been a parent in Stockholm back then, I would have taken my kids down to the harbor to see the big event of August 10, 1628.  As a parent, though, I’m not sure how I would have explained to my kids what actually happened that day.

The Vasa had been commissioned by King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden to be a mighty war machine of a ship with not one but two gun decks and a high-above-the-water profile.  Presumably the heavily-decorated hull was intended to inspire awe among allies, and to intimidate enemies.

It had been under construction for a couple of years, and the king was eager to rush it into service.  The Vasa had been moved from the shipyard and anchored at a dock directly below the Royal Palace.  After all of the ceremonial blah-blah that day, it was finally time for the ship to take its maiden voyage.  For the occasion, the crew was allowed to bring their wives and children aboard.  A band probably played; thousands cheered and waved from shore.

Dock workers used cables to tow the ship to the place where the current would then take Vasa east.  They finally released her, the crew set four sails… and within minutes, a gust of wind pushed the ship over onto its port side.  Water gushed in through the gun ports and the ship began to sink, right there in Stockholm Harbor.  People on deck were hurled into the water, while others clung desperately to the masts.

There was a lot of confusion and panic, as you might imagine, but since there was a substantial spectator fleet of small boats surrounding Vasa, most of its crew and guests were saved.  The exact number who lost their lives is not known for certain, but is believed to be about thirty.

A subsequent inquest confirmed what several of the king’s subordinates had privately feared:  The “improvements” to the ship’s design, insisted on by the king, had made it dangerously top-heavy.  The ship remained at the bottom of the harbor, taking on mud for centuries.

Then, in 1956, a Swedish naval engineer named Anders Franzén located the sunken ship.  He’d been searching for it a long time, and when he finally found it, he had a big idea:  Let’s try to raise it and turn it into a museum!  To its credit, the Swedish government said “Ja.”

Stockholm residents and their children crowded around the site as crews successfully brought Vasa back to the surface on April 24, 1961 — it was a much happier outcome than what had transpired there 333 years earlier.

The ship was in good condition, considering that it had been underwater for three centuries, but painstaking restoration began immediately and is still going on.  The Vasa is now the centerpiece of a museum that has been built around it.

There are wonderful exhibits in the museum: facial reconstructions of some of the victims, based on skeletal remains, a meticulous 1:10 scale model of Vasa adorned as it was in 1628, cannons and tools that demonstrate how war at sea was waged back then.

There’s also an exhibit called “Life at Sea”, which in the case of Vasa is sort of hypothetical.  No one lived aboard her; the ship had traveled less than a mile of horizontal distance before it headed straight down.

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Pencil Pusher

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Back in January of 1988 I purchased my first computer.  It had a 10-megabyte hard drive; the salesman assured me, “That’s all you’ll ever need.”  It was not inexpensive, and neither was the printer that I got that day, but I was able to rationalize the extravagance because as a professional writer, I needed to upgrade my tools.

As I soon learned, though, it was very difficult for me to do the actual writing of scripts on a computer.  While I stared at the screen, hoping to get an idea for repartee among characters, the cursor just kept blinking at me, as if to say “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.”

So I went back to writing the way I’d been doing it for over a decade at that point, with a lined yellow tablet and a pencil.  That allowed me to work through a scene as the words came to me — sometimes quickly, and at other times glacially.  There are inevitably those periods when inspiration is elusive, so while trying to come up with the next amusing bit of dialogue, I’d stare at the ceiling, or glance out the window, or study my pencil.

Before long I’d be wondering why pencils have that hexagon shape, and why are so many of them yellow… and how the heck do they get the lead to stay inside there!?  In other words, the writer part of my brain would be given a little time off by the lobe that generates idle speculation.

I have since learned that the six-sided pencil has a couple of virtues:  supposedly it is easier to grip than a round pencil, and it won’t roll off your desk.  Round pencils are more common as souvenirs because, according to Pencils.com, they are easier to print on.

The majority of them are yellow because the premium pencil of the late 19th century, called the Koh-I-Noor, was yellow.  Other manufacturers followed suit to convey that their products were high-quality, too.

The precursors of the pencils we use today go back to the 1500s, but it was a man named Joseph Dixon (along with his son-in-law) who mechanized pencil manufacturing in the middle of the nineteenth century.  So, you’re wondering, how did they get the lead to stay in there?

OK, as you probably know, even though we call it lead, it really isn’t — it’s graphite mixed with clay.  Anyway, while workers in one part of the pencil factory are making those skinny rods of graphite, other workers are cutting cedar blocks into slats, and grooves are then carved into the slats.

The graphite rods (called “writing cores” by pencil professionals) are glued into the grooves.  Another grooved slat is glued onto the slat that has the writing cores, creating a pencil sandwich.  That sandwich is sliced into individual strips, which are sanded and painted.  The ferrule — that’s what the metal ring is called — is crimped into place on the end of the pencil, and an eraser is glued into it.

This process is repeated with impressive frequency:  Around fourteen billion pencils are made worldwide every year.  That suggests I’m not the only person on the planet staring at my pencil and hoping for inspiration to strike.

Sometimes You Get Lucky

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America, New York

Mapamundi (1526), Hispanic Society of America

“Did you come to see the map?”

Actually, until the moment he asked us that question, we hadn’t been aware of the existence of this particular map.  Truth be told, it hadn’t been all that long that we’d even been aware of the existence of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, which is where we were.

But when the librarian there asked us that question, Sally and I exchanged a quick glance and then responded, “Yes, please.”

The real reason we had taken the subway up to the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan was to see some large-format paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla.  Somehow I had stumbled onto the information that the Hispanic Society had commissioned Sorolla to produce these works early in the twentieth century.  We like Sorolla’s paintings, so we thought we’d go check them out.

By the way, the Hispanic Society of America was the brainchild, if that’s the word, of a man named Archer Huntington, the heir to a railroad fortune.  He had envisioned this project as a museum and reference library devoted to the arts and culture of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

“All right, if you’ll follow me,” the librarian said, and took us into a reading room.  It was occupied by two or three researchers sitting at wooden tables; they were studying historical documents and stealing an occasional glance at us, trying to figure out, I suppose, what the heck these two tourists were doing there.

The librarian indicated where we should stand.  He then raised a cloth curtain that was protecting the map.  One thing we could tell right away was that the map was very, very old.

In fact, it had been made in 1526 by Juan Vespucci, the nephew of Amerigo Vespucci, and depicted the known world at a time when a lot of the world still wasn’t known.  For instance, North America (Amerigo’s namesake), ended at about the Mississippi River, and Vespucci had depicted a giant Spanish galleon in the middle of an imaginary ocean which we now know is the left side of the South American continent.

Still, it was pretty cool to be standing in front of a map that is almost five hundred years old.  There’s a vivid splash of red in the map; I leaned in to see what it was.  Evidently Vespucci was a cartographer with a sense of humor: the red streak was the Red Sea.

We took our time looking at the map, thanked the librarian, and wandered into other rooms.  We found the Sorolla murals that had drawn us here, and all by themselves they would have been worth the trip from midtown up to Broadway and 155th.

But the Hispanic Society of America also has a gallery with paintings by Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and other notables.  There were literally millions of dollars’ worth of paintings being displayed rather casually, I thought.  But they probably aren’t at much risk, since it seems that hardly anyone knows they’re there.

That’s the fun of taking these little off-the-beaten-path adventures.  They don’t always reward you, but sometimes — as in this case — you get lucky.

 

The College Paper That Changed the U.S. Constitution

Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom -- The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom — The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

“Hey, look at that,” I said to myself, which was unnecessary since I was already looking at it.  We were in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., examining the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  You undoubtedly remember from your high school Civics class that the Bill of Rights was a collection of ten amendments to the Constitution.

As I stood there squinting at the original document, though, I noticed that there were twelve articles, not ten.  What we call the First Amendment was actually number three in the original lineup.  The first two didn’t make the cut — at least, they didn’t back when somebody’s quill pen enumerated the articles on this piece of parchment.

It was 1978 when I learned this, and all I did about it was say “hunh”, and then I moved on to look at other exhibits in the National Archives.

A few years later, in 1982, a sophomore at the University of Texas named Gregory Watson needed a topic for a paper in his government class.  While doing some research, he stumbled upon the two proposed Constitutional amendments that had gone unratifed since they were originally proposed by James Madison in September, 1789.  Unlike me, Watson did something with that information.

The 20-year-old student focused on the second proposed amendment, which had to do with pay increases for members of Congress.  It read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”  In other words, any pay raise that Congress approved would not take effect during the current session, so they couldn’t directly give themselves a bump up.  Or technically, a pay cut — yeah, like that would happen.

A few states had ratified the proposed amendment back in the 1790s, but not enough for passage, so it had basically been in a coma for almost two centuries.  Realizing that there was no time limit built in, meaning that passage was still theoretically possible, Greg Watson did more research and became convinced that it was a good idea and needed to be ratified by the state legislatures and passed into law.

That’s the paper he wrote for his government class; his instructor was unimpressed — she gave him a “C”.

Undeterred, Watson started a one-man letter writing campaign to state legislatures.  Remember, this was before the internet, so he was typing letters and paying postage out of his own pocket to mail them.

Stricter controls on Congressional pay raises proved to be a popular idea, which probably doesn’t surprise you.  Maine ratified the amendment in 1983; Colorado did in 1984.  Five more states ratified it the following year.  High-profile figures ranging from Howard Jarvis to Ralph Nader started pitching in with favorable comments, but Greg Watson remained the driving force behind the campaign.

It took ten years — Watson had long since finished college — but eventually the necessary three-quarters of the 50 states (38) had ratified it, and that second article officially became the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on May 7, 1992 — almost 203 years after James Madison had proposed it.

By the way, the first article on that original document is still not ratified, and we can hope it stays asleep.  It’s about Congressional apportionment, spelling out a formula by which the number of Representatives would increase as the population increased.  If this proposed amendment had been ratified, we would now have way over 5,000 members in the House of Representatives.  The current 435 members seems like plenty to me.

One Year of Fame

Vaughn Meader at the height of his fame

Vaughn Meader at the height of his fame

How much longer will there be a demand for Elvis impersonators?  It was 1977 when the original Elvis Presley died (or disappeared, as conspiracy theorists assert), but almost 40 years later, he’s still the subject of these “tributes”.  There are people who weren’t even alive in 1977 who go to Las Vegas and have their marriage solemnized by a guy with a greasy pompadour and a sneer.

Elvis is probably the most impersonated celebrity, but the most successful impersonator in recent history didn’t “do” Elvis.  Even if you were listening to comedy several decades ago, you probably remember this entertainer only dimly.  Does the name Vaughn Meader ring any bells?

Meader was a piano player who became a standup comic.  He worked into his act some bits as the newly elected president John F. Kennedy.  A native of Maine, Meader’s natural accent only had to be tweaked slightly to become an excellent simulation of JFK’s speech patterns.

In 1962, He and several other performers recorded an album called “The First Family”.  Meader did Jack Kennedy, and an actress named Naomi Brossart voiced Jackie Kennedy; if you listen to the album now, you’ll be struck by how relatively tame the humor was.

The theme was basically that the family in the White House was pretty much like every family, so there were jokes about the children’s bath toys and relatives dropping in and why the President wasn’t eating his salad.

“Well, let me say this about that,” Meader, as Kennedy, intones. “Now, number one, in my opinion the fault does not lie as much in the salad as it does with the, uh, dressing being used on the salad.  Now let me say that I have nothing against the dairy industry…”  And so on.

For some reason, Americans could not get enough of “The First Family”.  The album was released in November, 1962; in the first two weeks, it sold — get this — a reported 1.2 million copies.  In two weeks!  The album ultimately sold over 7 million, and went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.  (For historical context:  Song of the Year was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.)

The album’s phenomenal success swept Vaughn Meader to stardom; he was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows and became a headliner in Las Vegas, raking in over $20 grand a week, back when that was serious money.  Another album, “The First Family Volume Two”, was released in the spring of 1963.  Vaughn Meader was in his mid-twenties and had reached the pinnacle of show-business success.

Then, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The “First Family” albums were pulled from store shelves.  Gigs that had been booked were canceled — suddenly, no one wanted Vaughn Meader.  Apparently in the collective consciousness, he was a reminder of the tragedy.

Meader released a couple of more albums that did not have any Kennedy-related material, but they didn’t sell.  Within a few years, he was grinding out a living playing piano in small venues — taverns and such.  His fame had lasted almost exactly one year, and then Vaughn Meader plummeted into obscurity.

He died in 2004, but the New York Times obituary noted, “Mr. Meader often referred to November 22, 1963, as ‘the day I died’.”

What Was Ponzi’s Scheme?

Charles Ponzi, who let about 40,000 people in on a rare investment opportunity.

Charles Ponzi, who let about 40,000 people in on a rare investment opportunity.

Get-rich-quick schemes are a dime a dozen.  Well, the initial investment is usually more than a dime, but the prospect of making a fortune by risking only a modest sum has been touted by shady characters for centuries.

One of the most notorious methods of defrauding investors is the Ponzi Scheme.  It’s named for a guy named Charles (Carlo) Ponzi, who came to the United States, along with millions of other immigrants, at the beginning of the 20th century.  He had several occupations, most notably “prisoner”.

After spending three years in a Montreal penitentiary and two years in Atlanta Prison, Ponzi went to Boston and worked in an actual job.  That’s where he accidentally found out about something called an International Reply Coupon.

The coupons were a way of obtaining international postage; the IRCs could be exchanged for postage stamps to send and receive parcels and correspondence.  The fact that many people who had recently arrived in North America still had friends and relatives abroad meant that a fair amount of mail went in both directions.

Since World War I had just concluded, the European currencies were still depressed relative to the U.S. dollar.  Ponzi figured out that it would be possible to buy the postal reply coupons in Italy for the equivalent of $1 (U.S.), and then sell them in America for three or four times that much.

So that’s what Ponzi did.  At least, that’s what he did at first.  In 1919, he borrowed some money, sent it to relatives in Italy, had them buy IRCs with the money and send the coupons back to him.  This proved to be a bit of a hassle, so it occurred to Ponzi that it would be a lot easier to eliminate the step of actually buying the coupons.

He talked friends into investing wih him, supposedly to purchase IRCs; he promised them a whopping 50% return in 90 days.  Sounds good, right?  As word got around, more eager investors wanted in, so Ponzi was able to pay the initial clients with cash he collected from newer clients.  Within months, millions of dollars were rolling in.

Because the rate of return was high, a lot of clients chose not to immediately take their profits; they reinvested, which helped Ponzi stay afloat a while longer.  The obvious flaw in a Ponzi scheme is that to keep paying high returns, an ever-increasing supply of fresh money is necessary.  Apparently, Charles Ponzi naively believed that the money would keep flowing in forever.

The scheme started to fall apart when a reporter thought to ask the Post Office’s coupon redemption department how they were handling the huge increase in demand.  The response was basically, “What demand?”

According to author Bill Bryson, “It turned out that Ponzi had cashed in only $30 worth of postal coupons.  All the rest was money taken from one lot of investors and given to another.”

Ponzi spent three and a half years in federal prison for his eponymous scheme, and then moved to Florida where he attempted to sell swampland to suckers.  Following that he did a stint in a Massachusetts prison, got deported to Italy, and eventually relocated to Brazil.

Charles Ponzi died broke in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro.  Investors in his notorious scheme lost an estimated $20 million, which was once considered a lot of money.

Expensive Souvenirs

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) -- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) — Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“My uncle did the Grand Tour and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

No one actually wore that, since the custom of printing slogans on clothing didn’t exist in the 18th century.  Besides, for the individuals who went on the Grand Tour, coming home with reasonably priced mementos would be considered disgraceful.

After completing their formal education, young aristocrats went off to see the sights of the European continent, a journey that could last from several months to several years.  The general goals of the Grand Tour were to get a closeup look at the cultural treasures of western civilization, improve language skills, make contact with fashionable society in other countries, and spend a big chunk of one’s inheritance.

Grand Tourists eventually went home with trunks full of books, ancient coins, furniture and artwork.  Among the most prized souvenirs of the Grand Tour were paintings of Venice by an artist known as Canaletto.

His real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal, which is fitting for a man born and raised in Venice, a city famous for its canals.  You might say Canaletto painted portraits of places: the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, the Rialto and other landmarks of Venice.

There was a lot of architectural detail in his scenes, but his paintings were more than just giant postcards.  Canaletto had an eye for cloud textures, too, and the effects of shadows and daylight.  As an art dealer in 1725 said of his work, “you can see the sun shining in it.”

Demand for Canaletto’s work grew quickly, and he did his best to accommodate it.  At that point he didn’t have any real competitors, which may have been a factor in his reputation for being difficult.  A patron named Owen MacSwinney wrote in 1727 that anyone who wanted to commission a painting by Canaletto “must not seem to be too fond of it, for he’l (sic) be ye worse treated for it, both in the price and the painting too.”

Canaletto may have had to adjust his prices downward in 1740, because the Grand Tourists abruptly stopped coming.  Something called the War of the Austrian Succession had most European countries fighting on one side or the other.  The rich guys thought it prudent to confine their touring to the manicured grounds of their own estates.

By 1746, Canaletto succumbed to a suggestion by a British consular official that, since the buyers weren’t coming to Venice, he should go to them.  Canaletto stayed in England for ten years, cranking out paintings of bridges and buildings and grand houses.  In general, these works aren’t as admired as his Venetian views, partly because an artist whose strength is painting the effects of sunlight might be hampered by the comparative absence of sunlight in England.

Upon his return to Venice Canaletto continued painting his favorite subject until his death in 1768.  By then he had inspired other artists to adopt his style, notably Francesco Guardi, who presumably made a nice living when the Grand Tourists returned.

Canaletto sold well over 500 paintings in his lifetime.  King George III of England bought a bunch of them in 1762; the Royal Collection has over 50 paintings and 140 drawings, making it the greatest collection of Canalettos in the world.

My travel souvenirs do not include any Canalettos, but I do have a pretty nice collection of coffee mugs from airport gift shops.  What treasures have you brought home from your “Grand Tour”?