Monday Musings: Spring Cleaning (and a few odds and ends)

Have you started spring cleaning yet?  I’m not sure if you’d call it spring cleaning, but of late I’ve been trying to organize my life a little better.  I spent a few hours recently cleaning and re-organizing my storage unit and found some long-forgotten stuff (and some stuff I should have forgotten and thrown away a long time ago, truth be told!). Of course, that got me to thinking about the history of spring cleaning.  Whenever or however it all began, it appears to have first been practiced for religious reasons.  For instance, the Jewish season of Passover is preceded by Unleavened Days of Bread – seven days when not a crumb of leavened bread is to remain in the house.  Orthodox Jews would clean their home thoroughly to eliminate the possibility of violating this sacred observance. Traditionally in Eastern Orthodox faiths the home is thoroughly cleaned during the week of Great Lent – the first day being “Clean Monday” or “Pure Monday”.  For the faithful, the week represents a time of spiritual cleansing as well. Excavations to uncover the ancient city of Pompeii began in 1738 following earlier discoveries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, marking the beginning of the modern science of archaeology.  In 1871 American newspapers were reporting an intriguing discovery, titling the article “Seventeen Hundred Years in the Oven”. One home had been found in a state of repair at the time of the volcano eruption.  The family may have been absent, but evidence of “painters’ pots and brushes and workmen’s tools were scattered about.  Tell-tale spots of white-wash stained wall and floor.”1...

Monday Musings: New Year’s Resolutions (care to make a peacock vow?)

The ancient Babylonians made resolutions by making promises to their gods to return borrowed items and pay outstanding debts at the beginning of their calendar year, coinciding with the planting season to ensure a successful crop and an abundant harvest later.   The Romans made promises to their gods, specifically Janus, the two-faced god from which the first month of our calendar system derives its name. Following the conversion of  Roman Emperor Constantine by Pope Sylvester (who also healed the emperor of leprosy), pagan gods were no longer worshiped.  To drive away the darkness of the past Romans wandered through dark streets shouting and making noise – you know, acting foolish much like many do today.  A mask or costume ensured the ancient gods could not punish the revelers as they made merriment. In medieval times knights gathered for one last feast during Christmas week, vowing to remain chivalrous by placing their hands on a peacock (“peacock vow”).  Fast forward to the eighteenth century when the Wesley brothers instituted watch night services on New Year’s Eve as a means to close out the old and welcome the new year by soul searching, praying and resolving to be better Christians.  In a way it was akin to both the Babylonian custom and the Jewish Rosh Hashanah (New Year) which culminates with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Different cultures, even regions of the United States, have their own New Year’s customs.  For instance, the folks of Tallapoosa, Georgia hold an annual “Possum Drop” – a stuffed one (no innocent possums are harmed despite PETA’s protestations).  In Brasstown, North Carolina, however, a live...

Monday Musings: Searching For That EUREKA! Moment (Who Were You Roy Simpleman?)

I am the newsletter editor for my local genealogical society (South Plains Genealogical Society [SPGS]) and recently introduced a column entitled “Adventures in Research:  Sometimes You Just Have to Keep Digging”.  In the November issue I shared the story below, intending also to share it soon with readers here at Digging History since that’s where it originated back in October 2013.  The research I wrote about was not mine but it’s such a fascinating story I think you will find it interesting and informative. Who Were You Roy Simpleman? On July 5, 2015 I received a comment from a reader at Digging History on one of the very first articles I wrote in October of 2013.  After learning about the Dawson, New Mexico coal mine disaster one hundred years previous, I decided to write a Tombstone Tuesday article entitled “The Immigrant Miners of Dawson, New Mexico“. I usually write those articles focusing on a single person, or perhaps a husband and wife.  Instead, for that article I wrote about the tragic deaths of immigrant miners, some who had literally just gotten off the boat days earlier.  Over two hundred and fifty men perished that day. One of the survivors was a miner whose name was reported by newspapers as Roy Simpion.  As it turns out, that was either a misprint or misspelling of his name.  The email I received in July was from Roy’s great grandson Doug Simpleman. Doug wrote me a bit more about his great grandfather, adding that Roy later worked as a mine rescuer before being paralyzed and passing away a few years later.  Doug also...

Monday Musings: Attending Your Own Funeral

I don’t mean to start the week out with such morbid musings, but have you ever thought about it?  It seems to have especially been on the minds of folks in the nineteenth century.  Who knows – it might have been a Victorian thing, except it spilled well over into the next century it appears. In search of stories to write I often run across interesting phrases that are used repeatedly – like “saved by her corset” (I will write a story on that one day!) and the one I researched last week: “own funeral”.  A search at one newspaper archive site yielded a result of over thirteen thousand articles containing the phrase. I found the phrase used quite often when referring to someone’s political missteps.  It might refer to a one-time high and mighty fellow making a less-than-inspiring speech or taking an unpopular stand – he was attending his “own funeral” – as in his political career was kaput. Then, there were the unfortunate folks who either “attended their own funeral” because they were thought to be dead but were in fact not (surprise!), or someone mis-identified a dead body.  In that case, often the supposed dead person would walk in on the funeral proceedings and create quite a stir. In the case of those thought to be dead, placed in a coffin and brought to their funeral, here are a few examples: There was a woman named Lucinda Neely of Jeffersonville, Indiana who became ill one day in 1884 and within two hours was pronounced dead, heart disease brought on by asthma thought to be the cause. ...

Monday Musings: Aunt Jean’s Daily Talk

It wasn’t the first newspaper column geared toward children, but “Aunt Jean’s Daily Talk” published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle beginning in the early twentieth century was one of the most influential during its long run.  “Aunt Jean’s Daily Talk” was a special section set aside “for [our] young readers”, news for Aunt Jean’s “nieces and nephews”. The column featured stories geared toward children and fun things like contests, puzzles and various clubs (entertainment, humane, games and more).   Children joined the clubs and regularly wrote to Aunt Jean submitting their stories, poems and drawings (many quite good), garnering credits for prizes.  They learned about history, how to be kind to animals, being kind to one another, how to be a good citizen and more. Typically a child’s letter would be signed “your nephew” or “your niece” and covered a range of topics: Dear Aunt Jean – I want to ask you if any of the baseball teams need a player aged thirteen.  I am a good player and will furnish my own suit.  I could call and see the captain of a team on Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock.  I am a very fine catcher and pitcher and would like to belong to one of the teams and help win a good name for it.  Your nephew, LEWIS A. WALDRON Dear Aunt Jean – Inclosed [sic] please find a stamp which I omitted to put in my letter yesterday when I returned the list of credit winners with my name.  The skates I received for 100 credits are just fine.  At first they kept running backward and I had...

Monday Musings: Is It Locofoco Time Yet?

I recently came across the term “locofoco” (or “loco-foco”), and curious as I tend to be, set out to discover if there was anything historically significant which might be shaped into a Monday-Musing sort of article.  My first question was, “what the heck is a Locofoco?”.  As it turns out I found myself relating the term to the current political fray. In the nineteenth century the term was connected to the Democratic Party – a name the Whig Party pinned on their opposition. The term “loco-foco” first made an appearance as a novelty item when John Marck invented a self-lighting cigar.  A patent for the “self-igniting”cigar was granted on April 16, 1834, although it was never referred to as “loco-foco” in Marck’s patent application or journal notices. The cigar had a match component at its end, and according to Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms the term “loco-foco” was derived from the word “locomotive”.  Locomotive “was then rather new as applied to an engine on a railroad, and the common notion as, that it meant self-moving; hence as these cigars were self-firing, this queer name was coined.”1  “Foco”, although spelled differently, may have been the Italian word (“fuoco”) for fire.  The term came to be associated with a particular kind of match as well – Lucifer or locofoco matches. The following year the name was applied to the Democratic Party after a division arose amongst the party faithful when Gideon Lee was nominated as a Democratic candidate for Congress by a faction calling itself the Equal Rights Party.  Lee’s supporters expected opposition from New York’s Tammany Hall who, of course, had...