Cooking With George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver with a flower arrangement of sweet pea.
The flowers in this portrait look suspiciously like sweet peas, too, which are legumes – although they’re not edible. Nice.

All too often, Black History Month is treated as an exercise in tokenism. Middle school students across the country get assignments to do biography reports, and George Washington Carver ends up on the list of subjects as That One Black Scientist Who Did A Thing You Can Relate To. I seriously have a problem with this approach, since it assumes that students can’t understand what he actually did do, making this whole peanut butter invention fiction an elaborate way to talk down to people while also de-fanging history. Well. NOT TODAY! I’m aiming for this to go up deliberately well clear of February, and this post is all about just how important George Washington Carver actually was, his key accomplishments, and why his work was so badly needed.

The Agricultural South – King Cotton

In the early years of the 20th Century, as before, the Southern United States was deeply dependent on cash crop agriculture. Centuries of putting cotton back on the same land had sapped nitrogen and other nutrients out of the soil. The crop on which the region’s economy depended was slowly weakening. To make matters worse, even as soon as the Civil War, other cotton-producing regions in the world had increased production, and the price of cotton had continued a slow slide downwards. Cotton remained as labor-intensive as ever, but wealthy landowners used sharecroppers rather than slaves – although these tenant farmers were often the descendants of slaves themselves, still tied to working another’s fields, through economic hardship. A sharecropper is a farmer who doesn’t own the land they work, and in exchange for their labor, gets a share of the profit from the crop grown on the land. Although some could work a portion of the land for their own kitchen gardens, it was more economical to put as much of a cash crop on the landlord’s fields as possible, and hope for a high profit. Frequently, they bought seed from the landlord, as well as other supplies, and were constantly in debt, unable to purchase their share out, and take up land for themselves elsewhere, or even move away. This fragile cycle of debt-slavery and cash cropping for cotton continued, with harvests getting slowly weaker, and the sharecroppers steadily poorer, continued.

The Nitrogen Cycle

While this slow-motion death spiral of soil degradation and poverty continued in the South, some important advances in our understanding of how plants grow changed the way we farm forever. Most significantly, for Carver’s impact, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault recognized in the late 19th Century that legumes like beans, vetch, and peanuts can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, and therefore add nitrogen to the dirt they grow in rather than take it away. This nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes can be used to increase crop yields; if you’re growing crops that need a lot of nitrogen, it’s best to plant them either after legumes on a rotation, or with legumes in the same field. Intercropping and crop rotation for healthier and more fertile crops had been well-known and practiced before – by several Native American groups, for example, as in the Three Sisters intercropping system – but this approach was new to commercial agriculture in the United States, and required a change in culture. The picture below shows a cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) plant’s root system, and the round nubs attached to the roots are the root nodules, which house a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that works with the legume to suck nitrogen out of the air and feed the plant with it.

Cowpea root nodules. Nubbly.
Stdout [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletins

Working at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver ran the agricultural experiment station, and published scientific research as well as a series of booklets, which contained advice for farmers on best practices and increasing crop yields. Carver’s genius lay not only in scientific study, but also in understanding that economic, ecological, and social systems are interwoven. If you wanted to improve the life of the sharecropper, you had to increase the productivity of the land. If you wanted to increase the productivity of the land, planting legumes could go a long way toward nurturing the soil. But it wasn’t enough just to tell people to plant beans, peanuts, and cowpeas. These crops had to make money for it to make any sense for farmers to grow them. You had to provide people a concrete benefit for themselves. Rather than merely promoting the sowing of soybeans, Carver developed lots of recipes and uses for legumes, and popularized them through the widely-circulated bulletins, developing an economic rationale for introducing them into the regular crop rotation in the South.

Here’s a selection of these bulletins, so you can go read a few yourself (all of these are available at Archive.org):

A Study of the Soils of Macon County, Alabama, and Their Adaptability to Certain Crops

Alfalfa: the King of All Fodder Plants, Successfully Grown in Macon County, ALA

And, of course, the blockbuster smash hit –

How to Grow the Peanut: and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption

They’re a very interesting read, actually. Some of them are closer to scientific surveys, presented for the public. Some of them focus on home economics tips, like how to preserve the kitchen garden harvest and save money. Many of them, of course, promote growing legumes, notably the one on alfalfa, above. The message is clear – grow alfalfa, make money on fat, healthy livestock (and, incidentally, restore nitrogen to the soil).

Disaster and Recovery

Meanwhile, as cotton yields gradually dropped, disaster finally struck the weakened cash crop. The boll weevil arrived in the United States and proliferated in the vast cotton fields. Cotton crops across the South were ruined. Famously, however, the town of Enterprise, Alabama turned away from cotton, and planted peanuts instead. As other communities scrambled to find and plant new crops, Enterprise prospered as early adopters of legumes. They commissioned a giant neoclassical statue of a woman holding aloft a giant boll weevil, crediting the insect with saving the town by forcing the farmers to wean themselves off the cash crop early. The statue’s still there, and it’s glorious.

A woman in a toga holds up a giant bronze beetle with a long face - a boll weevil.
Martin Lewison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

When you drive past a corn field planted in soybeans this year, you’re seeing the results of George Washington Carver’s tireless promotion of legumes and crop rotation. The agricultural South could well have collapsed with its dying cash crop, but Carver’s work at the Tuskegee Institute Agricultural Experiment Station and the bulletins paved the way to a more sustainable future – the one we live in. If you want to make a difference on a large scale, it’s not enough to just tell people to do things differently; you have to provide them with real improvement to their own lives, and a pathway to success.

Recipes!

As promised, here’s a couple of recipes adapted from the bulletins. I chose two that looked good, and were pretty different from each other, and had accessible ingredients for us city people of the slightly more Northern future. Interestingly, food ways have changed quite a bit in the century between the bulletins and the present, so it’s absolutely worth reading the original, to see what’s different. For example, the peanut recipes take it for granted that you have access to raw peanuts, not roasted and salted ones, and the regular raw peanut, or at least blanched, is probably what the recipes are calling for, unless they actually specify otherwise. Interesting. Also, with recipes of this age, they tend to assume that the cook knows more about techniques than we might today. So for a biscuit recipe, they’ll just say “to any good biscuit dough add…” rather than explaining how to actually make biscuit dough from scratch, which is a pretty involved process that you’d definitely have to learn first. I’ve gotten these as close as I could to what the original probably was like, while substituting ready-made ingredients where possible and convenient (thanks to Carver, of course), and explaining things that the recipes don’t.

Very obviously, the peanut salad contains peanuts.

My take on No. 61, Peanut Salad Number Two from How to Grow the Peanut: and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption. I use ready-made mayo as a close approximation of the scratch-made salad dressing in the original recipe.

One tart green eating apple. One cup of roasted salted peanuts. Mayonnaise or plain salad dressing to taste. Romaine lettuce. Core and chop the apple, and pulse in a food processor with the peanuts until small pieces. You can also just chop them up, as long as it ends up the same way. Add mayo to the peanuts and apple mix and stir. Clean and carefully pull off the lettuce leaves whole, portioning them out onto serving plates. Spoon apple/peanut salad over the leaves and serve. (You’ll need a knife and fork to cut the lettuce up and eat the salad.)

A version of No. 39 – Cow Pea Loaf (A fine substitute for meat) from How to Grow the Cow Pea and 40 Ways of Preparing it as a Table Delicacy.

You’ll need: a sturdy mixing bowl, a very strong fork and unflinching resolve, or some sort of mixing machine like an egg beater. A baking pan, and an oven. A cup of sauteed diced green peppers and onions (think: fajita leftovers, or get someone to help you cook them). A can of black-eyed peas (they’re cow peas and they’re already cooked). Melted butter or neutral tasting vegetable oil. Okay, here we go! Open the can of black-eyed peas into the bowl, reserving the can liquid, and mash and whip the peas with the fork, until smooth and light. This is going to take a while. Mix in the peppers and onions. If the mix is too tough and crumbly, add the pea juice until it’s like a very stiff pudding that can be sculpted. Grease the baking pan, and form a loaf out of the pea/peppers/onions pudding. Bake in the oven on about 350 F, and brush the butter or oil over it periodically to keep it from drying out. Cook until browned and firm. Basically, pretend it’s a meatloaf. There’s a recipe for cow pea custard pie, too. I also really want to try the cow pea salads, which look honestly great, but we already have a salad on this list. Oh, and it’s a substitute for meat because meat was expensive.

Go read the bulletins, seriously. There’s so much more than peanut butter to be found here.

Cover of The Cabin by Natasha Preston

Guest Book Review: “The Cabin” by Natasha Preston

Review by Shayla Walker

My favorite book is The Cabin by Natasha Preston. Natasha is currently my favorite author at the moment because I love how suspenseful her books are. If you like a little excitement The Cabin is the book for you.

In the book, the main character’s name is Mackenzie. She and a few of her friends decide to spend the next few days at a cabin that belongs to her best friend’s boyfriend, who quite frankly, Mackenzie hates. Throughout the book Mackenzie keeps talking about how only he knows her secret and fears that he will expose her.

While at the cabin, the group of friends party late into the night. When Mackenzie wakes up her and Blake, a guy on the trip, go upstairs together and fall asleep. When they wake up again, they go into the kitchen to find her best friend and her boyfriend, the one that Mackenzie doesn’t like, dead. The other friends wake up and immediately call the police.

The police finally come to the conclusion that no one broke into the house and one of them murdered their so called ‘friends’. Mackenzie refuses to believe this. How could one of her friends do something like this? And is the murderer done with the killing?

cover of The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

Guest Book Review: “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards

Review by Shayla Walker

I just recently read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. This book is honestly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It caused me to think about and reflect on life from mine and other peoples’ perspectives. I think that everyone should read this book at least once in their life.

I personally like the author’s writing style. I liked how much the author used symbolism to help the reader really get the right mood for the plot. For example, throughout the story the author constantly refers back to snow to symbolize loneliness. I also thought this was interesting because in school we have been talking about how to use symbolism to develop the plot of a story and I think The Memory Keeper’s Daughter did an excellent job at this.

In the book, Nora and David are about to have a child. Due to the snow blizzard, David is forced to deliver his own son when they arrive at the hospital. To his surprise, David finds out that Nora is actually pregnant with twins. This book took place in the 1960s, so when Nora gave birth the nurse used gas to knock her out. David quickly discovers that the second twin is a girl who has down syndrome. He makes the decision to give the baby to the nurse and asks her to take the baby to a home, which was common in the 1960s. When Nora wakes up, David tells her that they had a daughter but she was born dead. David made the decision to give up their daughter all on his own. This decision is going to affect them for the rest of their lives, either for the best or the worst. Read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter to find out!

Black and white cover of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Guest Book Review: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Review by Shayla Walker

When I was in the 8th grade my class had to read To KIll A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Back then I didn’t like it because at the time I wasn’t old enough to really understand the book and connect to it. My class had to read it again this year, two years later, and I realize that this book still relates to today’s society, even though it was written a long time ago.                                  

The narrator of the book is a little girl named Scout. This is a really creative way to write a book because the way that Scout tells the story sounds mature and then there are times that we can tell that she doesn’t fully grasp what’s actually going on because she’s just a kid. Scout has an older brother named Jem and a friend about her age named Dill. Over the summer Dill visits the town of Maycomb and they all spend the summer together. They create a bad habit of teasing a person named Boo Radley who lives across the street from Jem and Scout, without really knowing Boo or even meeting him before. This is just what people in Maycomb do.

Jem and Scout’s father is a lawyer named Atticus. He is defending a black man named Tom Robinson. At the time this was basically mission impossible. In the early 1900s a white man’s word always won against a black man’s word. Atticus knows that he probably can’t help Tom but tries anyway because he wants to be a good role model for his children.                     

My favorite part about the book is that the themes of the book relate to our world today. There are several themes conveyed in this book: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, to think about what it’s like in other people’s shoes, to turn the other cheek even when someone doesn’t deserve it, and that regardless of race everyone is still a human being.

Book Pairings: Fierce Femmes of Lore

Reading about historical women, fact & fiction, in Pénélope Bagieu’s graphic novel Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World and in Joy McCullough’s older teen book in verse, Blood Water Paint.

Valerie P., Teen Library Assistant

It’s obviously part of my job to read as many books as possible, so I can give the best recommendations to folks that are interested in the widest variety of topics, niche and otherwise. However, lots of the time I don’t actually have much time to actually… read (!). Because our libraries are so busy, a lot of my time off of the reference desk gets eaten up by planning programs like storytime and Teen Tuesdays, problem solving technical issues, and getting people excited about coming to the library! So, how do I stay on top of what the coolest most interesting books are?? I read a lot of reviews and am on a ton of email lists from professional book reviewers (*insert heart eyed emoji here*), so I can 1) be aware of what’s out there and fresh and 2) wisely decide which books to spend my valuable time reading. I am very selective about what books I actually sit and read all the way through, just because there are so many books that look so good, and I have to guard the time that I do have!

But actually, for both of the books that I’m going to rave about today, no one recommended them to me! They just snuck up on me and jumped on my back and wouldn’t let go until I read them!! THEY WERE BOTH AMAZING AND QUICK AND EASY AND YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY CHECK THEM OUT!

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu

For the Francophiles out there, this graphic novel was originally released in two parts in French, called “Les Culottées”. Now, I don’t speak French, but according to Google Translate, that translates to “the cheeky ones,” which I personally think is a great title. I guess the publishers thought “Brazen” would sell better or whatever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Excerpt from Bagieu’s “Brazen” (2018): Katia Krafft, Volcanologist

Regardless, French artist/author Pénélope Bagieu did an amazing job with it, and it covers thirty women – trans women, cis women, lesbian women, bi women, straight women, Black women, Asian women, Native American women, Middle Eastern women, white women, autistic women, disabled women. There was a woman or three that I had learned about in my schooling – and I have a Master’s Degree in Women and Gender Studies – but mostly women I had never heard of before, all women who had done something really super cool, and things that SHOULD HAVE been included in my education! There were also more long dead as well as still living women included that I had expected there to be.

The art is beautiful throughout, and I kept wanting to buy prints to cover the walls of my room with them, and the book overall was inspirational, fun, and light – and helped me get out of a funk I had been in. HIGHLY recommended for everyone to check out! 🙂

Also also also!! I just learned that apparently they made/are making a TV show based on this book for French television, consisting of thirty 3 minute episodes, done with a different artist. Maybe soon there will be an English translation, or you could use it to learn some French! 😉 Learn more about the series and its performance at film festivals here.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

trigger warning: this book contains instances of sexual assault, parental abuse, & misogyny

Another really awesome famous woman who happens to be super dead now is Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian painter who lived in 17th century Italy. I mostly know her from this really cool piece of art, Judith and Holofernes, which is actually one of my favorite paintings from the Baroque movement (which lasted from the early 17th until the mid-18th century). I think one of the reasons that I like it so much is because it is a depiction of a scene from a Biblical story that has been done by other artists, but the way that Artemisia does it is so different, so much more real and full of emotion. Look at the expression on Judith’s face, and the muscles in her arms, how you can see her leaning back so she doesn’t get hit with the blood that’s squirting everywhere. ISN’T THAT COOL?!? Relatedly, for more information on her growth as an artist and an examination of the differences between her two paintings, below, check out this blog post “Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Dr. Esperanca Camara on SMARTHISTORY.ORG.

But like, aside from this cool work of art that I learned about when I was in high school, and was then lucky enough to SEE IN PERSON in a trip to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, I knew nothing else about Gentileschi – until I read this book!



Left: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith beheading Holofernes, 1611-12, oil on canvas, 159 x 126 cm (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples); and right: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Joy McCullough, the author of Blood Water Paint, actually first wrote this book as a play, which was staged in 2015 in Seattle and I’m super jealous of the folks that got to see it because it looks like it was really awesome! The book is actually mostly in verse – which means it looks like poetry – which can be a little intimidating if you’re not used to reading poetry or books in verse, but it’s actually really great and easy to read, with the format of the text heightening Artemisia’s emotions.

Because yes, Blood Water Paint is actually about Artemisia when she was a teen, and still learning how to paint, still learning about her place in 17th century Italy’s society. In the book, Artemisia is living with her father, who is a master painter, but Artemisia’s skills have actually surpassed her father’s, so she’s doing his work for him and signing his name on the art, to keep money coming in. Her mother died when she was small, and she doesn’t really have anyone to confide in. However, she still remembers the stories that her mother told her about other strong women, and she uses them to give her strength when times get tough. So when her father uses Artemisia’s youth and beauty to get her a spot working under a more respected artist who is in town working on a big ($$$) job, Artemisia is excited about the opportunity, and hopes that this handsome man can teach her how to paint perspectives. Unfortunately, being a woman has never been easy, and when those that she trusts take advantage of her, she has to make some hard decisions.

This book was powerful in a different way from Brazen, and particularly timely, as I happened to be reading it as more and more people were speaking out about their experiences of sexual assault. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone that feels able to read it. 

If you or a person you love are a victim of sexual assault and need someone to talk to, know that there are helplines and support systems in place. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800.656.HOPE (4673), or log on to the RAINN site at centers.rainn.org to find a local service provider who can help you with counseling, legal advocacy, healthcare, and more.

Big Ideas: Historical Narrative

It’s time for Big Ideas! Welcome to a mini-series-within-a-series on history and how it is made. One way to think about history is as a story, a series of events that happened, and when. Get comfy, and settle in, because this post will explore the events of the Wars of the Roses, from the lead up through the aftermath – one of the most headache-inducingly complicated historical narratives I could think of. In the end, after the dust settles, and the Tudors take over, I’ll discuss the value of treating history this way, and what we can really learn from it.

Story Time (Skip to the Relationship Map if you Feel Your Eyes Glaze Over)

A long time ago in England (about 600 years ago), King Edward III had three sons (who survived to adulthood and are important to this story). His first son, Edward the Black Prince, had a son, who became King, Richard II. His second son, Lionel of Antwerp, went on to have kids, and that branch would be the House of York (White Rose). Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, had a son, who would depose Richard II, and become King Henry IV. Descendants of John of Gaunt are the House of Lancaster (Red Rose). John of Gaunt also had another son, by a mistress, and his name was John Beaufort, and he was legitimized later, so he could inherit and hold titles. So, for those keeping score at home, the new King, Henry IV, and John Beaufort are half brothers through their father.

Henry IV has a son who becomes king, Henry V, who marries Catherine of Valois. They have a son, who becomes king too: Henry VI. After Henry V dies, Catherine of Valois goes on to marry a second time, this time a wealthy Welsh landlord, Owen Tudor. This marriage produces another son, Edmund Tudor. Remember the half-brother of King Henry IV, John Beaufort? He had a daughter, Margaret Beaufort, and she marries Edmund Tudor.

Meanwhile, the latest King, Henry VI, marries Margaret of Anjou. He has increasing trouble keeping up with all his kingly duties, though, so she’s actually the one in charge of things, and he has two advisers, also. One of these advisers is the wealthy and influential descendant of Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp, Richard of York. The other is another wealthy power-broker, Richard Neville, AKA Warwick the Kingmaker. Richard Neville married his daughter Anne Neville to Henry VI’s son and heir, Edward of Westminster. You hanging in there? Breathe into a paper bag if it gets too complicated and you need a break.

So, Richard of York and Margaret of Anjou basically hate each other, because he figures that the House of York descends from the second son of Edward III, and not the third, like the House of Lancaster, so by rights, he should be King instead. He gets Richard Neville’s support and fights with Margaret of Anjou and the House of Lancaster to get Henry VI deposed. In one of these battles, Edward of Westminster, the King’s heir, is killed. THEN Richard Neville has his daughter, the newly widowed Anne Neville, marry Richard of York’s youngest surviving son, also confusingly named Richard. He also marries off his oldest daughter, Isabel Neville, to Richard of York’s third surviving son, George. Then, Richard of York dies in battle, too. His oldest surviving son eventually wins the fight, and deposes and replaces (and, let’s face it, probably has murdered) poor Henry VI, who has been held hostage, rescued, and then re-captured, and ends his life in the Tower of London. Richard Neville switches sides, and mounts a rebellion with George against Edward IV. Richard Neville is killed in battle, Edward IV puts down the rebellion, and has his brother George drowned in a butt of wine for his backstabbing ways. Somehow, the new King Edward IV actually dies of natural causes, and has a son, the new King Edward V.

BUT WAIT, there’s more! It turns out that Richard of York’s youngest son Richard thinks that HE should be king, and has Edward IV’s marriage declared illegal, so that King Edward V is now illegitimate, and has him thrown in the Tower of London with his younger brother (they’re both just kids at this point). He’s declared King Richard III, and then the two “Princes in the Tower” just… disappear. (Again, probably murdered on the order of Richard III.) So… remember Edmund Tudor, from waaaaay back there? He had a son, who figures that he’s as close as anybody to being King, and comes back from France and defeats Richard III, who dies in battle, and, in the distant future, is discovered buried under a parking lot (confirmed by DNA testing in 2013). The End.

That was complicated and horrible, so here’s a relationship map, to help you figure out what happened:

A disgustingly complicated chart of all the major relationships of all the major players in the Wars of the Roses
This is like the seventh draft of this chart. I should’ve stuck with my original plan for this series to follow up rocket science with quantum mechanics. Ugh.

Fun fact: my history knowledge strong points are really East Asian and African history, not European, so I didn’t really know most of this until I researched this article. In fact, I picked this particular topic purely because I didn’t know much about it. We’re learning together! Yay! It really doesn’t help things that nearly every dude is named either Edward or Richard. At least the various Henrys are numbered. So that’s the story of the Wars of the Roses. But, in the end, after all that, what has changed? England has a different king. The family in charge is now these guys, not those guys. The Tudors would continue the foreign policy aims of trying to get back France, so that didn’t change. The social structure is the same. The economic structure is still the same too. It’s a story dramatic enough for a whole batch of Shakespeare plays, but is the series of events actually important enough to how the world turned out to remember in detail?

On one hand, you can argue that without the Wars of the Roses, there isn’t a Henry VIII to have a succession crisis and kickstart the Catholic vs Protestant divide that would dominate the politics of later England (and then the United Kingdom, and everything including the potato famine in Ireland, and even a really scary undertow of Brexit negotiations much later).

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost

For want of a shoe, a horse was lost

For want of a horse, a rider was lost

For want of a rider, a battle was lost

For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

On the other hand, the horseshoe nail approach ads nothing to our understanding. Sure, it’s easy to say that future events come from events in the past, but that’s the very definition of what “past” even is: it’s the events that led here, so of course that’s what they do. There’s a lot of value in looking deeper, and asking more questions. If it wasn’t Henry VIII, would it have been someone else anyway, due to rules of succession and legitimacy being what they were? Could someone in a position of power have simply done the same thing, with their own pivotal decisions? Or, if you prefer, would the real reason be the way that English culture passed property on to children, and the critical role of religion in supporting this system? These questions are the core of historiography – the discipline of how history is written.

In a very literal sense, history is the practice of finding meaning in events of the past. History is writing about events of the past, but FOR the sake of the present and ultimately the future. Otherwise, why remember it? For everything you know about history, consider all that has been forgotten, or left unknown. History is what we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it. As for historiography, narrative alone isn’t bad, and can be compelling. Remember, the narrative of the Wars of the Roses itself – with lots of spin, of course – was good enough for Shakespeare. Next time, we’ll dive into the duelling perspectives of historiography, and the question of whether it is pivotal decisions or socioeconomic forces that drive this narrative.

A Brief (ha) History of Underwear

Go ahead, laugh: get all those giggles out of your system. Yes, this is the underwear post. As it turns out, though, underwear is anything but frivolous. There are actually a lot of important things underwear does, from the practical to the cultural, and – since we’re due another humanities post – this one will be a fairly thorough historical overview of how your very own modern underwear came to be, and how technology and cultural shifts shape what we wear. You may be surprised by just how much there is to learn! 

IMPORTANT CAUTION: This Big Fat Historical Survey will only cover European underoos, since those, in the main, are the ones that mutate into the majority of current fashion. Maybe someday, we’ll do a cross cultural analysis of underwear, which would be cool. 

What Underwear Does:

  • Protects outer clothes from the oils and sweat of your skin
  • Supports and shapes outer clothes
  • Extra layer for warmth or even cooling
  • Communicates

So, with all this in mind, let’s start (because this is where fashion of the time makes it easy) in the last years of the 1400s.

Meet the Chemise

Albrecht Dürer wearing about as many layers as possible, in fashionable disarray.
Self Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1498. Note the chemise, the white garment with the embroidered band right against his skin across his chest. Very nice. A fun detail is that, although everything appears to match, the lower arm portion of the sleeve seems to be detachable, in case you want to wear them with a different top.

By 1498, wearing your clothes like you rolled out of bed and just don’t care was in fashion, fortunately for us. This means that we can see plenty of the chemise, which was basically a really long undershirt. Dürer here is wearing his chemise practically on the outside, with his clothes wide open at the chest. You can also see a bit more chemise sleeve puffed through slits in the sleeve, too, especially at the elbow. While early chemises were very plain, by this point, people wanted you to see it, and they began to be embroidered at the neck, or gathered up and stitched, like the very tiny pleats you can see on the artist’s own chemise. The chemise was worn by everybody, since its main function, aside from looking fashionable, was to absorb sweat and oils and gunk from the skin before it could soil your actual clothes. The bottom hem of the chemise usually ended up tucked into the hose, or eventually breeches. Pants or slacks as we know it didn’t really exist.

The Reign of the Hose

Hose were the other universal underoos, and were basically separate leg sleeves, like whole-leg socks, and could therefore be mixed and matched. Hose were held up with ties to a belt under your clothes, or, for very short menswear, even sewn together into proto-pantyhose.

Dürer engraving showing a man in baggy giant stockings, and a woman with an elaborate hairdo.
The young farmer and his wife, Albrecht Dürer. Here’s how clothes worked for normal people, and not the ultra-wealthy.

Fashions at this point created an interesting problem: men could wear their tunics long or very short to nonexistent. Note that separate leg sleeves mean that there’s a need to invent coverings for sensitive bits if the hemline rises too far. That’s what a codpiece is for. Fairly rapidly, we end up with the classic poofy breeches, codpiece, and stockings combo of the menswear of the next two centuries. Fashion history aside, though, men and women just keep wearing stockings and the chemise for several more centuries, until the French Revolution.

Famous portrait of Juan de Pareja.
Portrait of Juan de Pareja, By Diego Velázquez. Oh, and the chemise develops a detachable collar, which eventually become the ruff, and then stock, and doesn’t really go away entirely until the advent of the washing machine and dryer, mid 20th Century. Ask your grandparents about laundry day and shirt collars.

18th Century Revolutions and a Side Note on Stays

So, eventually, women still wore separate stockings, attached at the belt or held up with garters, and men’s stockings were held on by the sheer pressure of the cuffs of their buttoned up breeches. The codpiece was long gone, and elaborately buttoned fall front flies ruled the day. Everybody still wore the chemise, though, and stockings were still in, until the French Revolution would switch men to pants, permanently. Seriously, that’s what happened. Stockings were expensive, so regular people tended to wear pants. During the French Revolution, it might well be risking your head (literally) to look too aristocratic, so French men started wearing pants. Everybody looked to France for fashion, and pants spread. Within a few decades, stockings for menswear would be completely dead, except for a few ceremonial vestiges.

Stays were support undergarments, generally worn by women, and they were one of the options to tie your hose to. Stays and eventually corsets and girdles weren’t always about pinching the waist, but also provided support for accessories like tie-on pockets, key rings, sewing kits, bustles, crinolines, panniers, and so on. Lest you assume that stays were strictly for the ladies, here’s a great cartoon that actually shows a bunch of men’s body-shaping underthings in 1819, for gentlemen who wanted to achieve a fashionably wasp-waisted silhouette with nice legs:

A fashionable gentleman fusses at his dressers to pull his stays harder.
Think that those Beau Brummell style fashion plates of the 1820s are unrealistic for any human figure to achieve? You’d be right. Mr. Darcy and company are almost certainly wearing a LOT of undergarments like calf pads and stays to cheat the system. Note the implication that being over-fashionable is somehow un-English: having an “D____n big John Bull Belly” being undesirable to the dandy in question.

Remember: no boxers, briefs, jockeys, whatever – he’s got his chemise stuffed into his breeches. Also, for centuries, there were only a few ways to fasten and shape clothes to stay on and fit the body: laces, ties, pins (yikes), or buttons. Velcro, snaps, zippers, elastic, and truly stretchy fabrics – all of which we use to do the same – were firmly 19th or 20th Century innovations. This is a major factor in why young children wore dresses, until the boys were old enough to handle the complications of breeches. To illustrate, here’s toddler Franklin Delano Roosevelt in an adorable sundress and hat, looking pensive on a donkey.

Donkey and toddler FDR in a cute sun dress and hat. The future president is wearing the sun dress, not the burro.
Pretty sweet setup. I think it’s a double-sided wicker chair pack saddle thing, and looks wildly unsafe. This kid will grow up to be president during the Great Depression and WWII.

Enough about menswear, though. Because of their lower hemlines, women’s stockings never had to change beyond tie-able thin socks until very recently. Similarly to the situation with gentlemen, actual panties as we know it didn’t exist because that’s what the chemise was for. By modern standards, absolutely everyone went commando because hemlines were low enough to conceal everything. (Under normal circumstances. Kind of puts Fragonard’s famous painting The Swing or can-can dancers in a very different light, huh?) As for keeping legs warm in the wide skirts of the 19th century, there were pantalettes. Imagine ankle or knee length frilly cotton or wool (itchy!) leg sleeves that tied on to the stays or to a belt. In this picture, the pantalettes are the frilly cuffs you see around the ankles, below the skirt:

Pantalettes seen under the hem on two small girls.
Words cannot express how hard it is to find quality images of actual pantalettes. Portraits were for important, rich people, and girls young enough to be wearing visible pantalettes weren’t important enough generally for their own portraits. Or, I could get pictures of women in pantalettes, but not normal ones, because they had some kind of job that required specialty underwear, like circus performer, dancer, or coal mine pit brow worker. Not kidding. I also don’t really trust fashion plates of the time, and so many of those images of perfect lacy pantalettes were for boys, anyway.

Bodily Functions Interlude!

On the subject of going commando, and pantalettes as separate leg sleeves, this means that the problem of “how did they go to the bathroom” basically is resolved by the fact that nobody’s underthings worked like the modern versions. Here’s a (perfectly safe for school and work) video. You’re welcome! As for the dudes, it’s just an awful lot of buttons, for breeches, or otherwise normal pants. When it comes to monthly bodily functions for the ladies, imagine basically cloth or rags buttoned, tied, or pinned to a belt. This is why safety pins (also a 19th Century invention) are a big deal, folks. You live in a world that has achieved comfortable, convenient, safe fasteners for your clothes.

Corsetry, Swimwear, and Materials Science

So, you may have noticed that even by the late 19th Century, we don’t really have the advent of actual underoos as we know them. Between holding up stockings, pantalettes, and crinolines, corsetry is actually the foundation of a very complicated suspension system. That’s why women wore girdles, even way past the time that wasp-waisted silhouettes were in fashion.

A very 1920s corsetry ad from Barcley custom corsets. It's all about holding up the stockings.
Roughly a dozen more buckles and adjustable clasps than I’d want to deal with at least twice a day. There’s stockings, but they don’t hold themselves up. This is probably the most 1920s thing you’ll see this week, too. Note that we’ve still basically got the chemise, under the girdle. The basic pattern – chemise, stockings, stays – still hasn’t changed, despite the differences in fashion in over 400 years.

It was over the 20th Century that things really started to change. Innovations in materials science, actually, gradually made new and exciting clothing possible. You could have stockings that held themselves up, for example. Or elastic bands rather than ties that made actual underwear like you’re used to feasible. Stretchy fabrics meant that you could buy off-the-rack clothes that fit like a glove. For a while, this was so new and exciting that the trope that “in the future we’ll all wear skintight body suits” took hold. Ultimately, though, in the far-off and futuristic year 2019, we only wear skintight and futuristic underwear. Oh, and undershirts on the outside, since that’s what the t-shirt eventually derives from: the chemise. It happened fast, mostly because there was another category of clothes that needed to be fairly form-fitting, reasonably warm, and easily washed and absorbent. Swimwear! (Technically also weird, specialty underwear like the union suit, as well, which eventually became two-piece long underwear as soon as we had elastic to hold it up. Union suits, being one piece, had that hilarious buttoned buttflap.)

If you look at swimwear from 100 years ago, it really does look suspiciously like modern underwear.

Tug of war in knit wool swimshorts and shirts.
Tug-of-war on the beach, Southport, Queensland, Australia. 1917! Forget all those stuffy ideas you have about Victorian swimsuits. People did have fun back then. The women are wearing their hair up in scarves.

By the 1930s, short shorts had never been shorter, barely visible under a shirt:

A team of Aussie lifeguards, from about 1930.
St. Kilda Surf Life Saving Team, 1930. Manly, New South Wales, Australia. (No, really. It’s the name of the beach.) The weird side-window on the shirts was in fashion, too. I don’t know what’s with that, but I’ve seen it several times in 1930s swim shirts. I’ve also never seen a lack of swim shirts on men, at this time either. Apparently men couldn’t go topless swimming, but swim trunks could be super tiny.

The reason swim trunks existed was because now public beaches were a thing. Before the 1800s bathing craze, it was easy to decide what to wear when you went for a swim: nothing (or you just didn’t swim). But, if the beach was mixed-sex and public, swimwear had to be invented.

The techniques, at least, already existed, and could be rapidly adapted for new underwear. As for the advent of modern clothes, if you’re really lucky, you can find people in really old photos, wearing something that wouldn’t make anyone look twice on the street today. Especially in informal situations, like students or street scenes, or factory workers, or farm hands. People’s “best clothes” tend to be fashionable, which is instantly dated. The trick is also to catch people so that they aren’t so aware there’s a photographer: body language changes over time, substantially. Here’s an article on a famous case of a “time-travelling hipster” from 1940, but I found several more, too:

Dancers at a juke joint, 1939.
The woman in the white sweater, scarf, and riding boots and breeches. If she was standing in line with you at the grocery, you wouldn’t even notice anything was off. 1939. Also, note the guy in a short sleeved shirt on over long sleeves. The cut of the trousers are a giveaway, though.
Woman in a yellow baseball cap, with short sleeves and overalls, 1944.
Lathe operator in an aircraft factory, 1944. When you work with heavy machinery, practical clothes are the only way to go. Also, this is a woman: men couldn’t wear hair that long in the 1940s.
Guy in wrap around glasses and a ribbed t-shirt at a drill press.
Fashionable hipster, or 1940s factory worker? Nice ribbed t-shirt, and those wrap-around glasses, as safety glasses, here. 1944.
Man in a tan rolled up shirt with a hat and normal sized pants.
This guy? He’s a 1941 sugarcane cutter, in Puerto Rico. It helps that he doesn’t have his belt halfway up to his armpits, or a hilariously tiny necktie, as was the style at the time.
Japanese-Americans used as farm labor, 1942. It looks really hot too.
Eeeeeevery last one of these perfectly normally-dressed people in jeans and various sensible hats are all Japanese-Americans working on a farm since being locked up at Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Circa 1942.

Basically it’s easier in the 1930s and 1940s, because you’ve got most modern materials, making more recent clothing styles possible; there’s cameras and film allowing for faster shutter speeds, and less deliberate more candid photography; the Great Depression and WWII forced people to cut back on insta-dated fashion choices like lots of makeup, elaborate hair treatments, and new clothes. Go, explore archival photos of regular people doing hard work and find some time-travellers of your own, in old photos!

Dog Gallery

In the course of finding the right picture of a dog in white-tie dress for the Limits of Logic post, I found a whole bunch of weird dog pictures, so I decided to caption a few of them, and share them with you. Enjoy!

a 19th century painting of a dog with a chain of sausages on its nose.
Wilhelm Trubner (1877): Dogge mit Wursten – Ave Caesar morituri te salutant.
Dog with sausages – Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you!
(German / Latin / English hat trick!)
A few things come to mind: German is pretty close to English, I don’t know what this has to do with the famous but probably apocryphal gladiators’ salute, and dogs have also been putting up with food-on-nose shenanigans for centuries.
two dogs, a horse, and three falcons in too close proximity in a very nice 19th century English painting
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (CA 1834): Favourites, the Property of H. R. H. Prince George of Cambridge
I know that this is just a nicely-composed and very well executed painting of a prince’s pets, but I like to imagine that this quiet scene exploded into pure mayhem a fraction of a second later. There’s just no way that the horse is just going to stand there with a dog literally holding the reins inches from its face, and that trio of birds of prey up there are basically a pressure cooker of raw high-strung anxiety and murderlust, restrained only by the hoods they’re wearing. Just a reminder that no matter how pretty and realistic and detailed an old painting is, it can be as much a product of the artist’s imagination as any digitally altered photo is today. Could all these animals have been in the same place at the same time? Sure, just not like this.
Swishy fashionable Chihuahua fumble.
Giovanni Boldini (1905): Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel.
This is the very height of Gilded Age fashion. Hilariously taken way too far, of course. That poor Chihuahua just looks dead at the viewer with resignation as she slips to the floor because her owner is too busy looking elegant to actually hold the dog up. This painting is also very much a fiction – a quick and loose sketch of movement and elegance.
A baffled dog hitched to a wagon, a dubious looking boy behind the dog, and a crying child in the wagon. Fun times.
Somewhere in Queensland, Australia, CA 1900. No part of this image is altered though. My favorite part is how absolutely nobody in this picture is having fun, including the bewildered looking dog. Dog carts: don’t worry, I’m planning to cover them soon.
a pretty good looking spaniel chews on the drumstick of a waterbird from the depths of uncanny valley.
Abraham Hondius (1670): Fight Between a Dog and a Heron. Sometimes, you get to see a bit of the artist’s process in the painting itself. That’s a very credible spaniel, but the heron is frankly hilarious. Thank goodness there are only a few species of heronish birds in Europe, and the closest I can come is that this is a (badly) taxidermied Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). Or at least it’s dead, if not stuffed. Artists have plenty of chances to see dogs, and figure out what they look like, but secretive and notoriously well-camouflaged water birds are not so easily available.

In case you were curious, this is what a live Great Bittern looks like. Eesh, look at those weird, strongly downturned eyeballs. It’s like someone glued orange googly eyes to the underside of its brow.

Great Bittern looking seriously weird.
PeterRohrbeck [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

ACT Practice Test at Bon Air and Main THIS SATURDAY!

Anyone needing to prep for an upcoming ACT Test is welcome to join us THIS Saturday for a practice round! The practice test at Main/Bon Air will start at 9:30/10AM, but participants are encouraged to arrive fifteen minutes early to get signed in, and people who arrive after the start time will not be able to make up the time they missed. Bring two #2 pencils, an ID, a calculator, and a small snack to enjoy during the fifteen minute break. The test will last four hours, until about 1:30/2:00. If you are interested, PLEASE CALL THE LOCATION TO SIGN UP. Bon Air’s phone number is (502)574-1795 and Main’s phone number is (502)574-1724.

If you feel like you need to do some ACT prep, but don’t want to do a Practice Test right now, Newburg will be hosting an ACT Basics class on Saturday from 10 to 11:30, which will include what will be covered on the test, strategies for studying, and how to approach test day. Please call 502-479-6160 to register for that.

If you want to take part in some ACT prep but are unavailable THIS Saturday, Fairdale and Middletown will be hosting more ACT Practice Tests on Saturday, January 26th, and you can just call those branches to sign up! Middletown will also be hosting an ACT Basics class on Monday, January 14th from 6 – 8pm!

Have a good one, and good luck with any standardized testing in your future! 😀

The Bottle Imp and the Limits of Logic

Logic! It’s fantastically useful stuff. Use it all the time for sorting out your options, thinking up plans, and generally making your life easier. There’s some very real limits to it, though, and whether an idea checks out logically doesn’t always have anything to do with its relevance to the real world. Here’s the test: can this idea be used to predict what will happen?

vintage photo of a dog in a top hat and white tie suit
Very dapper, but will this dog hunt? (Also proof that dogs have been putting up with the human impulse to dress them in clothes for a very long time.)

There’s a Robert Louis Stevenson story called The Bottle Imp. Go read it in this collection, here, if you like. No plot spoilers, but I will be discussing the premise of the story, so if you want to read it before we get to that, do. The main idea of the story is this: there’s a bottle that contains an evil imp. It can grant any wish except to prolong the bottle owner’s life, and if you die with the bottle in your possession, you go straight to Hell. The only way you can get rid of the bottle is to sell it to someone for less than you paid for it. Here’s where it gets interesting.

A display of ancient glass bottles of various murky clear shades
Some 17th Century glass bottles in a museum. Probably not full of evil, though.

Truth and Consequences

Let’s play a game, and think about the Bottle Imp problem logically. Eventually, there’s an ultimate loser: someone stuck with the bottle who bought it for a single penny, and they can’t sell it. So, following that, the next person up, who sold it to them, bought it for two cents, and must have known that they wouldn’t be able to sell it to someone for one cent. There must have been someone above them who got it for three, but should have known that they couldn’t sell it for two, because the person who got it for two would have to convince someone to take it for one, which nobody would ever do. Theoretically, nobody should ever take the bottle for any price, because the problem of not being able to sell it for a cent should cascade up the chain of prospective bottle owners. This is, of course, assuming that everyone involved is thinking logically (and whenever you hear that phrase, you should also assume that this perfectly spherical, frictionless dog hunts perfectly spherical, frictionless partridges in a vacuum).

The trouble here is that real people just aren’t rational actors, any more than real hunting dogs are spherical and frictionless. Realistically, everybody in the chain, down to perilously close to the bottom, is probably going to think “eh, I’ve got plenty of time, and I’m sure I can find some sucker to sell the bottle to” – and, in the main, they’d probably be right. The existence of the whole idea of gambling in general testifies to the idea that people – real people – generally do a terrible job of thinking logically and rationally. If the odds could really be in your favor in the long term, casinos wouldn’t exist.

a shack by a creek, with a man and a dog sitting outside
Las Vegas in 1895, before the gambling industry really took off.
a view of the Vegas strip in 2011. Reasonably recent.
A view of the Las Vegas strip. Practically a monument to the irrationality of humans. Keep feeding those one armed bandits, guys…

Sometimes, especially when dealing with real human behavior in the real world, logic does a truly wretched job of predicting real-world outcomes and decisions. There’s a distinction between logic, and actual utility. Most of the time, logic is very useful, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with questions of real human behavior, not so much.