In spring 1905, painter Hubert Vos received a letter at his Manhattan residence from the Dutch Legation in Peking inquiring if he would be able and willing to travel to China and paint the portrait of a prominent official. The invitation was vague, but too tempting to refuse for a painter who had made the portraiture of racial types his specialty. [Read more…] about Painter Hubert Vos’s ‘Exotic People’: Maastricht to Manhattan and Beyond
In the history of migration the (often neglected) participation of women has been crucial. Tales of hardship and bravery are legion. The plight of women who have had to make painful sacrifices has been highlighted by artists and historians, though more easily forgotten by the general public.
Zaida Ben Yùsuf joined the American labor force in the 1890s. She was in the vanguard of women who became professionally involved in the production of periodicals, as magazines reached a mass readership and photographs supplanted illustrations. But it was her migrant mother who had blazed the trail. [Read more…] about Anna Ben-Yùsuf: The Bravery of a Migrant Mother
The invention of the wheel has been celebrated as a hallmark of man’s drive for innovation. By the 1890s, Europe and America were obsessed with the bicycle. The new two-wheel technology had a profound effect on social interactions. It supplied the pedal power to freedom for (mainly white) women and created an opportunity for one of the first black sporting heroes.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, bicycle racing as a sporting event reached feverish popularity both amongst the public and within artistic circles. In the early twentieth century racing developed as a distinct facet of modernity. The bicycle was the pre-eminent vehicle of the avant-garde. [Read more…] about The Black Cyclone & The Unbearable Whiteness of Cycling
Exploding urban populations during the nineteenth century demanded new solutions towards burying the dead. Traditional congregational graveyards were either full or overcrowded. A combination of practical thinking and the wish to commune with nature (inspired by Romantic poetry) led to the development of serene burial grounds outside the city boundaries.
Founded as a “rural” or “garden” cemetery in 1838, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is famous for its picturesque landscape features with evocative names such as Camellia Path, Halcyon Lake, Oaken Bluff, or Vista Hill. Elaborate monuments and mausoleums, designed in an array of architectural styles, honor the Lispenard dynasty (Norman), William Niblo (Gothic), the Steinway family (Classical), and others.
And then there is the Feltman mausoleum, the columns of which feature Corinthian capitals. On each side of the doorway stands a trio of mourning figures. Those on the left hold symbols of faith (cross and doves); those on the right show grief and sorrow. The pediment features two cherubs holding a wreath with the initial F in the center. On top of the temple is a cupola with the Archangel Michael standing guard, sword at the ready. The building serves to celebrate the memory of just one man. Who was this person? A Founding Father maybe? A respected politician (if that is not a contradiction in terms)? A celebrated artist? [Read more…] about A Dog’s Tale: Dachshunds, Hot Dogs, Coney Island & Greenwood Cemetery
At least since Roman times oysters were associated with sex. The most obvious reason for this association is the oyster’s resemblance to the pudendum. Raw oyster was praised as an aphrodisiac. Giacomo Casanova boasted to have eaten fifty at breakfast together with a lady of his fancy.
European painters used oyster as a symbol of fertility and sexual pleasure. Aphrodite (Venus), the Goddess of love and lust, was blown over sea on an oyster shell landing at either Cythera of Cyprus (both islands were regarded by the Greeks as territories of Venus). In “The Birth of Venus” Botticelli painted her approaching the shore on a giant oyster (clam) shell. By then, the associations with female beauty and physical love were well established. [Read more…] about Jonathan Swift’s Oyster Test: Oysters, Sex and Culture
For thousands of years the Thames provided London’s inhabitants with a plentiful supply and variety of fish. Until the 1820s locally caught fish was the city’s staple diet. Subsequent pollution of the river drove many professional fishermen and their families into financial ruin because of the collapse of fish populations.
Up until the twentieth century New York Harbor oysters reigned as the quintessential New York food long before pizza, pretzels, bagels, or hot dogs took their place. The metropolis once was a Big Oyster. There too, reckless management of the marine environment led to the obliteration of a huge natural resource. [Read more…] about Oyster Slurpers: A Tale of Two Rivers
December 12th, 1799, was a freezing cold day in Virginia, but the weather conditions did not stop President George Washington riding out on horseback for the daily inspection of his Mount Vernon plantation. On return, he developed a fever and respiratory distress.
As there were no means to diagnose or treat a bacterial infection, doctors believed that bloodletting would improve a patient’s condition. In addition to the application of crude purgatives and emetics, over half of Washington’s blood was drained in just a few hours. Today, it is widely held that the President died from aggressive bloodletting which resulted in severely low blood pressure and shock.
Recurrent yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia and George Washington’s medical treatment contributed to a fierce politico-medical fall out in which the issue of bloodletting took center stage.
By the mid-nineteenth century European gymnastics was an established system that had evolved through a century of innovation and adaptation. Originating in the Enlightenment with the
experiments of educational reformers intent on reviving a Greek ideal which the Roman poet Juvenal had summarized as mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), gymnastics achieved widespread recognition after Friedrich Ludwig Jahn initiated the Turnverein (gymnastics club) movement.
The inventor of apparatus such as the balance beam, parallel bars, and vaulting horse, he used the discipline of organized exercise to inspire young gymnasts with a sense of national (Prussian) duty and solidarity. Jahn turned gymnastics into an agency of German patriotism.
The ambiguity of his message: enjoyment of competition and companionship versus militant nationalism, brought about Jahn’s contrasting legacies in Europe and the United States. [Read more…] about Gymnastics History: The Legacy of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s Turnerism
Weightism is a bias or discrimination against people who are overweight. It is based on a set of stereotypes about the abilities of overweight individuals and includes prejudices that they are self-indulgent, socially inept, and mentally slow. Obesity was judged to be incompatible with intelligence and acuity.
The weight stigma is a relatively modern one. Fat shaming started in the 1950s. In March 1954, Life magazine featured an article entitled “The Plague of Overweight” in which obesity was described as the most serious health problem of the day. Without any further consideration the condition was linked to gluttony. At the time, only around three percent of Americans were considered overweight.
From the Renaissance onward, obesity had suggested wealth and power. It pointed at the means to supply and enjoy the luxury of food. Plumpness equaled prosperity. If one’s body was a temple, then being the size of a cathedral signaled status. Physical proportion was a badge of economic and physical well-being, both in individual and national terms. [Read more…] about The Joy of Eating: Billy Possum, Fat Men Clubs & Obesity History
Frances Steloff was the daughter of a Russian immigrant and itinerant rabbi who, in an age of rising anti-Semitism, was one of the early Jewish settlers in Saratoga Springs. The large family lived in dire poverty.
After the death of her mother, Frances was “informally” adopted by a wealthy Boston couple. Having run away from her foster parents, she made her way to New York, worked in a Brooklyn department store selling corsets, before establishing a tiny bookshop in Midtown Manhattan. On her death, after eighty-one years in the business, she was revered as one of America’s most influential booksellers and bibliophiles. Founder of the Gotham Book Mart, she turned her establishment into a center for avant-garde literature. [Read more…] about Saratoga’s ‘Fanny the Flower Girl,’ Gotham Book Mart Founder