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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Meet the Fam

My previous post was a report on how I got motivated last year and began tracing the Smith family lineage in a serious way. With the help of Ancestry.com and other online resources, I traced the family way back — to the King of Jutland, a Danish Viking born circa 760 A.D.

His name was Halfdan Haraldsson, and he lived 33 generations ago, in the Early Middle Ages. Back then, Charlemagne was King of the Franks, forcing Christianity on everyone, and the heathen Vikings were busy plundering the region.

When doing the research, I focused on my paternal lineage, and I was able to follow the Smith name back 400 years before I ran out of clues.

That was disappointing, but not fatal. It was an easy matter to switch from paternal to maternal lineage and keep going back. Eventually, I stopped with Halfdan.

To be clear, the line of ancestry I documented is just one thread in the greater tapestry. I followed the most promising clues, going in one direction when others were equally available. In the end, I identified one specific chain of relatives out of a veritable web of them.

With that preamble, here is a summary of what I learned about our forebears over the 1,200 years between Halfdan Haraldsson and the Smiths of today.

———

Denmark, Germany, and France

Halfdan Haraldsson (circa 760-810) was born on the Jutland Peninsula in northern Germany near the Danish border. He lived in Denmark as an adult, fighting various rivals and becoming King of Jutland. He was a Viking and certainly facilitated much of their signature raiding and plundering.

The son of Halfdan and his Norwegian wife Helga was Harald “Klak” Halfdansson (c. 800-854), who succeeded his father as king. Harald married Sigrid Helgesdatter (800-854) also Norwegian.

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King Harald “Klak” Halfdansson.

Klak’s son, Godfrid “The Dane” Haraldsson (825-885), was in line to become king, but he was impatient. Godfrid moved south with a contingent of followers and seized land in Germany. Twice, he led raids back into Denmark, trying to overthrow his father. He failed.

Godfrid finally gave up and moved further south, establishing a fiefdom in Guines on the northern coast of France near Calais. Godfrid’s son Sigfrid (905-968) was the 1st Count of Guines.

Beginning with Sigfrid’s son Ardolph (965-996), the family name was gallicized to Le Blount.

Ardolph Le Blount was the 2nd Count of Guines. His son Rudolph (996-1036) was the 3rd Count. Rudolph’s son Robert (1036-1086) was the 4th Count. There was no fifth Count because events led the Le Blounts to leave France and become Englishmen.

To England in 1066

In 1066, William the Conqueror assembled an army from across France to invade England. That undertaking was, as you undoubtedly know, successful. Sir Robert Le Blount (the 4th and last Count of Guines) commanded William’s fleet of warships. He was known as “the Admiral.”

As the spoils of war, the Admiral was awarded a large chunk of the county of Suffolk, northeast of London. He became the 1st Baron of Ixworth, that being his town of residence in Suffolk.

Between 1066 and 1270, six Le Blounts held the title Baron of Ixworth.

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The family coat of arms.

During the 1200s, the family name evolved to Le Heyre, Le Eyre, and Eyre. Historians haven’t confirmed the reasons.

English Nobility

For several centuries, the Eyres lived as proper English nobility with holdings in both Suffolk and the county of Derbyshire, north of London.

In 1424, Sir Robert Eyre (1392-1459) of Padley, Derbyshire, England, married Joan de Padley (1399-1463). My previous post describes Sir Robert’s service as an English knight and the burial place of Sir Robert and Lady Joan.

To America

By the mid-1500s, the names Smythe and Smyth had appeared in the lineage. Richard Smyth (1553-1593) of Herefordshire, England, who died in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the first Smith in our family known to have come to America.

Richard’s son John Smyth (1592-1649) and John’s wife Margaret Blythe Smyth (1596-1645) were among the first 140 settlers of the Maryland colony, arriving in 1634 aboard the Ark and the Dove.

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The arrival of Lord Calvert, leader of the Maryland colony, on the Ark and the Dove.

Maryland and Georgia

In the Maryland colony, the spelling of the family name changed to Smith. Maryland was home to the next several generations of Smiths, most of whom lived in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. I haven’t made inquiries, but many of our relatives undoubtedly still live there.

Around 1800, three Smith brothers from Maryland moved south to Georgia. They were Archibald Smith (1736-1799) and two of his three younger brothers. (Benjamin, George, and Elijah were the brothers, but I don’t know which two accompanied Archibald or where they settled.)

Archibald lived in Hancock County, midway between Atlanta and Savannah. His son moved further south to a rural area near Savannah.

In 1839, Archibald’s grandson George (1817-1867) married Jemima Ruth Sumner (1815-1896), and they settled in Bartow, Georgia, near Augusta. The second of their eight children was John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), my great-grandfather.

In 1875, John Wesley, a Confederate veteran, married Martha Roseanna Sherrod (1854-1939) in a double wedding ceremony with her sister Elizabeth.

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The youngest son of Martha and John Wesley was Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950), my grandfather.

Savannah

In 1892, John Wesley Smith and his family moved to Savannah, where he worked as a house painter and roofer. In 1918, at age 73, he died on the job in a fall.

In 1916, John Wesley’s son Walter married Stella Etta Ham (1894-1969) of nearby Pooler, Georgia. The oldest of their four children was my dad, Walter Anthony Smith, Jr. (1917-2002).

Walter Senior was a prominent Savannah businessman. At age 19, he took a one-year business course and became a clerk at the Railway Express Agency. Soon thereafter, he went into the cotton business.

Walter became a “cotton factor” at the Port of Savannah — an agent for inland cotton farmers. His job was to grade, sell, and arrange for the shipment of the cotton to world markets. He was in the cotton factoring business for 40 years.

My dad, Walter Junior, was a bomber pilot during World War II, and he flew jet fighters in Korea. After his Air Force career, Dad went into banking, which had been his major in college. I’ve written about him many times on this blog.

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Dad, a dashing cadet at Army Air Corps Flight School. He included this photo with his Christmas cards in 1940.

Today

Names come and go. And soon, I regret to say, the Smith name will fade away in my family.

That’s because all of the children in the latest generation of Smiths are female. When they marry or pass on, our line of Smiths will come to an end. The literal end of an era.

I realize, of course, that a name is a superficial matter. As the foregoing family history illustrates, what counts is the bloodline and the people. I get that.

Still, the looming demise of the Smith name makes me sad.

 

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The Family Iceberg

Two years ago, I posted a story about finally biting the bullet and delving seriously into Smith family genealogy. As it turned out, we Georgia Smiths originally came from Maryland. I’m not sure what I expected, but Maryland wasn’t it.

Around 1800, for reasons unknown, three Smith brothers left Maryland, where their family had lived for several generations, and moved to Georgia. We, the Savannah Smiths, are descended from one of the brothers, Archibald.

At the time I wrote that post, we also thought we had identified the first American Smith in our lineage: James Smith, who arrived in Maryland from England in 1660.

We were wrong. That distinction, it now appears, belongs to Richard Smyth (1553-1593) of Herefordshire, England, who died (at a young age, you’ll note) in Massachusetts.

James wasn’t even the second American Smith. His parents, John and Margaret Smyth, were here before him. They were among the original settlers of the Maryland colony, arriving in 1634.

For us, those revelations were a big deal. Prior to 2016, we could trace the Smiths back only as far as Archibald. No one could figure out where he came from.

We guessed he was Scotch-Irish and came from North Carolina, because that’s a common background for Georgians. Now, suddenly, we had traced our lineage back 400 years to England.

Well, I’m here to tell ya, that was just the tip of the family iceberg.

Last year, feeling on a roll, I continued the research and traced our ancestry back a lot more. A WHOLE lot more.

I followed our lineage back through many generations in England; and before that, through many more in France; and before that, to Germany and Denmark.

At the moment, our earliest known ancestor is Halfdan Haraldsson (circa 760-810) a Danish Viking king.

I could have kept tracing Halfdan’s forebears, but I had to stop somewhere.

While doing all that digging, I learned some interesting lessons about genealogical research.

Lesson 1. To state the obvious, a family tree consists of numerous lines of ancestry, branching out (pun intended) in all directions. When you research your ancestors, you enter a labyrinth that is complex and mind-boggling.

You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and 32 great-great-great-grandparents. That takes you back just six generations.

In addition, every generation consists of some mix of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Not to mention divorces, re-marriages, stepchildren, and adoptions.

In light of all that, genealogical research means choosing which path to follow out of many before you.

Lesson 2. On the positive side, this complexity also means that when the clues run out and you hit a roadblock, you can back up a step and explore another path.

Lesson 3. In my experience, the hardest part of the research was of the generations immediately preceding me.

I suspect that’s common. Like most families, the Smiths were ordinary folks leading ordinary lives. They were farmers and merchants, not presidents and popes.

They were not lauded for grand accomplishments, their deeds recorded in history. Most made the newspapers only upon birth, marriage, and death.

If your family includes presidents or popes, doing the genealogy will be a snap. If it doesn’t, be prepared to work hard for every tidbit of information you unearth. Believe me, that goes double if you are a Smith.

Lesson 4. At some point, you may discover an ancestor who was famous to some degree. This will be an important breakthrough, because someone likely has done the genealogical work before you. The famous person’s lineage will be on the record, waiting for you to find it.

In other words, find your celebrity, and the rest is much easier.

In my case, I came across a celebrity of sorts in Sir Robert Eyre (1392-1459), an English nobleman and knight who fought in the Battle of Agincourt (France, 1415) during the Hundred Years’ War.

If the name Eyre is familiar, you’re probably thinking of Charlotte Brontë‘s novel Jane Eyre, which takes place in the same family in the 1700s.

Doing the research back to Sir Robert was difficult and slow, because most of his descendants, as far as I could determine, were not remotely famous; researching the generations before him was much easier, because in his lineage was a succession of barons, counts, and kings.

FYI, Sir Robert and his wife, Lady Joan Eyre, are buried at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Hathersage, England.

This brass plate is affixed to their tomb:

Eyre-1

Nearby, this plaque is on display:

Eyre-2

Sir Robert and Lady Joan had 14 children.

In my next post, I will present a summary of the Smith family lineage, from Halfdan Haraldsson to the present.

I decided to make that a separate post, in case you aren’t interested in someone else’s ancestors and have better things to do.

You’re welcome.

 

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The Questions…

1. A full-size replica of the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus, is located in what American city?

2. Who was the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital?

3. How did celebrity chef Paula Deen get her start in the food business?

4. In the early 1700s, King George I of England decreed that all pigeon droppings in the realm were the property of the Crown. Why?

5. In the 1966 TV series Batman, the role of the Penguin was first offered to Spencer Tracy. However, Tracy made a demand that the producers found unacceptable, and Burgess Meredith got the part. What did Tracy want that scuttled the deal?

The Answers…

1. In Columbus, Ohio, of course. The replica was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus.

2. Jimmy Carter. He was born in 1924 at the Wise Sanitarium in Plains, Georgia, where his mother Lillian worked as a nurse.

3. In 1989, she started a catering business from her Savannah home called The Bag Lady. She prepared bagged lunches that her sons delivered to local businesses.

4. In those days, pigeon droppings and bat guano were the only known sources of potassium nitrate, a key ingredient of gunpowder. The poop was a highly prized commodity until the early 1800s, when natural deposits of potassium nitrate were discovered in Chili and Peru.

5. Tracy wanted the Penguin to kill Batman.

Santa Maria

Penguin2

 

 

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During the Civil War, Ohio native Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) fought for the Union with distinction at Shiloh, Chicamauga, Kennesaw Mountain, and elsewhere. After the war, he became a prominent journalist and author.

Bierce is known for both his Civil War writings and his tales of horror and the supernatural. Of the latter, someone said Bierce bridged the literary years between Poe and Lovecraft.

In the late 1890s, while a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, Bierce raised enough public ire to stop a bill being slipped through Congress that would have forgiven massive government loans to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. That’s my kind of journalism.

Bierce was something of a Hemingway type. In 1914, at age 71, he announced plans to go to Mexico to see the Mexican Revolution for himself. Perhaps travel with Pancho Villa as an observer. He promptly disappeared, fate unknown.

Like many ex-soldiers, Bierce declined to glorify war in his writings, as the following essay demonstrates.

———

Bivouac of the Dead

Published in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1, 1909

Away up in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, is a beautiful little valley through which flows the east fork of the Greenbrier river. At a point where the valley road intersects the old Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a famous thoroughfare in its day, is a post office in a farm house.

The name of the place is Travelers’ Repose, for it was once a tavern. Crowning some low hills within a stone’s throw of the house are long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skilfully designed and so well “preserved” that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war.

This place had its battle — what was called a battle in the “green and salad days” of the great rebellion. A brigade of Federal troops, the writer’s regiment among them, came over Cheat mountain, fifteen miles to the westward, and, stringing its lines across the little valley, felt the enemy all day; and the enemy did a little feeling, too.

There was a great cannonading, which killed about a dozen on each side; then, finding the place too strong for assault, the Federals called the affair a reconnaissance in force, and burying their dead withdrew to the more comfortable place whence they had come.

Those dead now lie in a beautiful national cemetery at Grafton, duly registered, so far as identified, and companioned by other Federal dead gathered from the several camps and battlefields of West Virginia. The fallen soldier (the word “hero” appears to be a later invention) has such humble honors as it is possible to give.

His part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the Summer hills
Is that his grave is green.

True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked “Unknown,” and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in “honoring the memory” of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.

A few hundred yards to the rear of the old Confederate earthworks is a wooded hill. Years ago it was not wooded. Here, among the trees and in the undergrowth, are rows of shallow depressions, discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves.

From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced) small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades. I found only one with a date, only one with full names of man and regiment. The entire number found was eight.

In these forgotten graves rest the Confederate dead — between eighty and one hundred, as nearly as can be made out. Some fell in the “battle;” the majority died of disease. Two, only two, have apparently been disinterred for reburial at their homes.

So neglected and obscure is this campo santo that only he upon whose farm it is — the aged postmaster of Travelers’ Repose — appears to know about it. Men living within a mile have never heard of it. Yet other men must be still living who assisted to lay these Southern soldiers where they are, and could identify some of the graves.

Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves? One would rather not think so. True, there are several hundreds of such places still discoverable in the track of the great war. All the stronger is the dumb demand — the silent plea of these fallen brothers to what is “likest God within the soul.”

They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime.

They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification — did not pass from the iron age to the brazen — from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen.

Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society. Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause.

Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.

———

Bierce’s position that the Confederate dead should have been buried in the National Cemeteries was a minority view. As you probably know, the National Cemeteries did not accept Confederate dead. According to policy, the cemeteries were for Federal casualties, not the enemy.

In 1901, the 482 Confederates who managed to get buried at Arlington anyway were re-interred in a Confederate section.

In 1906, Congress okayed headstones for Confederate soldiers who died in a Union hospital or prison and were buried at that location. Prior to that, the graves were marked by the families, if at all.

The Civil War ended 150 years ago. It amazes me how much genuine animosity still lingers on both sides.

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The green graves of Grafton National Cemetery, West Virginia.

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Bierce in 1896.

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

The chocolate chip cookie was invented in 1938 by Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Wakefield used an ice pick to break up bars of Nestlé’s chocolate and sprinkled the pieces onto cookie dough. She named her creation Toll House cookies.

In 1939, Wakefield gave Nestlé the right to print her recipe on its packaging. Nestlé hired her as a “recipe consultant,” her compensation being one dollar and free chocolate for life.

● British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was half American. His mother was Brooklyn socialite Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and thus transitioned to being a British socialite.

● Planned Parenthood has twice as many members as the National Rifle Association.

● Grass was cut with a scythe until the lawnmower came along. It was patented in 1830 by British mechanic Edwin Budding. His device was a push mower with blades in a rotating cylinder.

In 1914, auto industry pioneer Ransom Olds patented a gasoline-powered version of the rotary mower. The self-propelled, walk-behind power mower we use today appeared in the late 1920s.

Lawnmower

Speaking of Ransom Olds, his 1901 Oldsmobile was the first vehicle to be mass-produced on an assembly line. Henry Ford made the auto assembly line famous, but Olds invented the concept.

● Sweden has developed a highly efficient system that combines serious recycling with a national network of incinerators that burn garbage and trash to generate electricity. Today, less than one percent of Sweden’s refuse ends up in landfills. In fact, to keep up with its energy needs, Sweden imports refuse from neighboring countries.

● American painter James Whistler’s is famous for the iconic 1871 painting popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The actual name of the painting is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.”

● In 1931, Alfred M. Butts invented Lexiko, a modestly successful game in which players made words out of letter tiles drawn at random. In 1948, Butts sold the game’s rights to James Brunot, who changed the name to Scrabble. Sales were miserable.

Brunot gave up in 1952 and sold out to Selchow and Righter, an established game manufacturer. Sales promptly soared.

Today, the Scrabble trademark is owned by Hasbro in the U.S. and Canada and by Mattel in the rest of the world. In all, about 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold.

Scrabble

In 1792, a small Spanish settlement was established on San Francisco Bay to serve arriving ships. In 1835, English homesteader William Richardson expanded the settlement and named it Yerba Buena after a common plant in the area. In 1847, one year after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. laid claim to California, and Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco.

An acersecomic is someone whose hair has never been cut. The word comes from the Latin acersecomes, which means a youth with long hair. In ancient Greece and Rome, a boy’s hair often remained uncut until he reached adulthood.

In 2009, for the first time, state-run TV in North Korea aired a feature film made in the decadent West. It was the 2002 soccer film “Bend It Like Beckham.” The film was shown in honor of the 10th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Great Britain.

● Jordan almonds have been a staple at weddings for centuries. The Greeks served them in groups of five (a number that is indivisible, as everyone hoped the marriage would be). In Italy, five almonds represent five wishes for the happy couple: health, happiness, fertility, financial success, and longevity.

In some cultures, the combination of the bittersweet almond and the sugar coating is a symbol of the good times/challenging times ahead. In the Middle East, Jordans are associated with fertility and are considered an aphrodisiac.

In 1502, at the marriage of Italian noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI) and her third husband Duke Alfonso d’Este, the wedding guests reportedly consumed 260 pounds of Jordan almonds.

Jordan almonds

 

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Out the Window

In 1866, the Civil War barely over, German immigrant William A. Breyer of Philadelphia was unemployed with a family to support. He got the bright idea of making ice cream in the family kitchen and selling it around the neighborhood.

Breyer made a variety of flavors, and he advertised that his home-made ice cream contained only the finest all-natural ingredients: cream, cane sugar, fresh fruit, nuts, and healthy, yummy flavorings.

Further, Breyer did not add egg yolks to the product for richness, which was the practice with the French style of ice cream popular at the time. (The Breyer style later became known as Philadelphia or American ice cream.)

Breyer’s ice cream was a hit, and his business venture clicked. Family members pitched in to increase production. To reach more customers, Breyer purchased a horse-drawn wagon, insulated to hold blocks of ice and equipped with a dinner bell to announce its approach.

Soon, several horse-drawn rigs were in operation. Before long, the family opened a retail shop.

When William died in 1882, his son Henry took over the business. In 1896, the era of hand-cranked Breyers came to a close when the family opened a manufacturing plant.

In 1908, Henry incorporated Breyer Ice Cream Company. Trucks replaced the horses and wagons. By 1918, the company was producing and distributing over one million gallons of ice cream annually.

Through it all, the Breyers organization built its reputation on using only a few select, wholesome ingredients.

Even after Breyers was purchased by Kraft in 1926, the “all-natural”mystique was so strong that the ice cream remained relatively unchanged — carefully unsullied by the sinister-sounding additives and preservatives that were creeping into competing ice cream brands.

You had to wonder how long that mystique could prevail over the baser instincts of capitalism.

———

As far back as I can remember, Breyers was the Smith family ice cream of choice. Flavor preferences varied, but, when it came to birthday parties and holiday get-togethers, only Breyers would do.

The brand became a family tradition because, first, it was great ice cream, and second, we admired Breyers for keeping the ingredients minimal and natural.

The label would read MILK, CREAM, SUGAR, VANILLA; or MILK, CREAM, SUGAR, COCOA; or MILK, CREAM, SUGAR, STRAWBERRIES.

Sure, a random new ingredient would sneak in now and then — TARA GUM and SOY LECITHIN and such.

Sure, that was unsettling. But maybe, we thought, the additives genuinely benefited the product. Or perhaps they were required by some new government safety regulation. Besides, it still tasted like good old Breyers. So we looked the other way.

———

Clearly, Breyers was aware of the value of its “all-natural” reputation. A few decades ago, the company ran TV commercials featuring children struggling to read the names of the ingredients in competing brands. The ads were quite effective.

Those sentiments, of course, were phony. Sheer corporate crapola. They were ironic, too, considering the downward spiral, ingredient-wise, that Breyers soon would enter.

The decline of Breyers can be traced to 1993, when Kraft sold its ice cream brands, including Breyers, to the British-Dutch company Unilever. That was when the Breyers commitment to making ice cream with simple, all-natural ingredients went out the window.

Under Unilever, Breyers folded like an empty ice cream carton. Steamrolled, as it were, by expediency and the pursuit of profit.

Today, a Breyers product can contain up to 40 additive ingredients.

For example:

Breyers-1

Food additives fall into a range of categories: preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, thickeners, bulking agents, coloring agents, antioxidants, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and more. All have legitimate purposes.

But some varieties of Breyers now contain so little milk and cream that, legally, they no longer can be called “Ice Cream.” They are classified instead as “Frozen Dairy Dessert.”

To be fair, Breyers branched out to market a range of dessert variations — Gelatos, CarbSmart, Lactose Free, Fat Free, Gluten Free, Non-Dairy, Non-GMO. In those cases, simple and all-natural are not going to happen anyway. But the classic flavors have been adulterated, too.

The company does its best to apply lipstick to the pig, but only embarrasses itself:

“Only the highest quality ingredients go into Breyers® original flavors. We start with fresh cream, sugar, and milk and then add ingredients like real fruit and chunks of chocolate.”

“Add ingredients,” indeed.

———

Speaking of additives, here are the ingredients of “Breyers No Sugar Added Light Vanilla Ice Cream”:

Breyers-2

And here are the ingredients of “Breyers Blasts! Sara Lee Strawberry Cheesecake Frozen Dairy Dessert”:

Breyers-3

Indeed, the mighty have fallen.

At least William Breyer isn’t around to see what the suits have done with his legacy.

———

I close with one final observation.

Here are the ingredients of “Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream”:

Breyers-4

To the company’s credit, the ingredients are few and the additives minimal.

But please note that vanilla is not an ingredient of Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice Cream.

 

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● While exploring Asia in the late 1200s, Marco Polo encountered a rhinoceros and concluded it was a unicorn. “They are very ugly brutes to look at,” he wrote. “They are not at all such as we describe unicorns.”

● Writing with pen and ink was a messy and frustrating business until a ray of hope appeared in 1888. That year, a patent was issued for a pen with a rotating ball in the tip to control the release of ink. A clever concept, but the thing was still annoyingly unpredictable.

The real breakthrough came in the 1940s, when Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, observed that printing ink dries faster than writing ink. Biro developed a formulation that worked well in a ballpoint pen, made millions, and eventually sold his patent to the Bic Corporation.

In most of Europe and Asia today, a ballpoint pen is called a ‘biro.”

● The first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who served two terms in the House of Representatives, 1917-1919 and 1941-1943, both during wartime. A Republican, she was a long-time leader of the women’s suffrage movement and a committed pacifist.

During the 1916 campaign, as World War I raged in Europe, she said, “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of the House to vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman, I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”

● In the Western Hemisphere, hurricanes are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Developed in 1971, the scale rates a storm based on sustained wind speed and anticipated property damage.

The scale’s creators were Herbert Saffir, a structural engineer, and Robert Simpson, a meteorologist. They patterned it after the Richter Scale, which quantifies earthquakes.

Hurricane scale

● Vodka is a tasteless spirit distilled from fermented grain or potatoes. The name comes from the Russian word “voda” (water) and/or the Polish word “woda” (water).

Both countries claim to have invented vodka. Russia says it invented the stuff in the 9th century. Poland says vodka was first distilled in Poland in the 8th century. Russia dismisses the early Polish version as a crude brandy, not real vodka. Take that, Poland.

● The largest national park in the U.S. is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Established in 1980, the park covers 20,000 square miles, which is a bit larger than Switzerland and a bit smaller than Ireland.

● Cleopatra (69 BC – 30 BC) ruled Egypt as the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greeks who took power after the death of Alexander the Great in 305 BC. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy to speak Egyptian instead of Greek. After her death, reportedly by suicide, Egypt became a Roman province.

● Nike, Inc., the footwear and apparel behemoth, began in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports. In 1971, having settled on a new “swoosh” logo design, the company sought a new name.

Among the top proposals by the founders and employees were Peregrine, Bengal, and Dimension Six. Then, employee Jeff Johnson called in from a business trip to Portland, Oregon, and suggested Nike, the name of the winged Greek goddess of victory.

CEO Phil Knight made the final decision. “I guess we’ll go with the Nike thing for a while,” he reportedly said. “I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”

Nike

● The 17th Century Native American woman Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, is famous for intervening to save the life of Captain John Smith as her father was about to execute him. For the most part, her story has been romanticized and exaggerated.

In real life, she was kidnapped by the English, converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, got married, had a son, toured England as an example of a “civilized savage,” and died there at age 21.

● You know how bags of potato chips are inflated and puffy, and they go whoosh when you open them? That’s because the bags are filled with nitrogen gas before sealing. Nitrogen is used because it’s a stable gas that doesn’t react chemically with the chips, so they remain fresh longer.

● At present, 24 countries around the world are named for men (Bolivia for Simon Bolivar, Colombia for Christopher Columbus, The Philippines for King Philip of Spain, etc.). Only one country, the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia, is named for a woman.

Saint Lucia of Syracuse, aka Saint Lucy, was martyred in 304 AD by the conquering Romans for distributing her considerable riches among her Greek countrymen. This displeased her betrothed, a highly-connected Roman, and she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel.

According to legend, the guards who came to arrest her were unable to move her, even with a team of oxen. They tried to burn her at the stake, but the fire went out. Finally, she was sent to her reward by sword.

The late comedian Jackie Gleason (1916-1987) is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami. Etched into the marble steps leading to his grave is one of his well-known catchphrases, And away we go!

Gleason grave

 

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