Due to COVID, we’ve been directed to wear masks to help stem the spread of the illness. People wear masks, whatever their feelings, and our current medical masks look very much the same. They cover nose and mouth, are generally pleated, and made of some kind of fiber.
People stuck at home have begun to make their own masks, and now masks respond to the feelings of the wearers. They come in a wide variety of materials, colors and print messages. They are cotton, silk, plaid, floral or just full of text.
I personally wear a surgical mask, given to me in a hospital, that is pink on one side, blue on the other. My son, who is a doctor, told me that my mask is 92% effective, but it’s designed to protect the patient, not the surgeon wearing it. Therefore, I am saving the world from myself, but my mask really doesn’t protect me. As a result, I have little feeling for the mask I wear.
While the surgical masks hide the nose and mouth, they don’t hide the eyes. People recognize each other mainly by looking at eyes. Last week a woman wearing a fabric mask covering her nose and mouth stopped me in the grocery store. We immediately started a fairly long friendly conversation, as if we’d known each other a long time. To be honest, I didn’t know who she was, and because her mouth was covered, I had difficulty understanding everything she said. I’m sure it was the same for her.
Although we wore masks, we shared the same feelings We both needed human contact and conversation, and the masks didn’t stop us. We acted like old friends, and I’m sure we both felt better for going to the grocery that day.
Masked Men and Feelings in History
Masks are as old as the human race. Over millennia, they’ve been used as a disguise, for medical protection, for religious rituals, and for theatrical performances. There are many famous masked men, for example, Batman and Zorro. My favorite masked man is the Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger on Silver. Tonto in Background.
The Lone Ranger was powerful and heroic; his mask gave us feelings of admiration and loyalty. Children dressed up as little Lone Rangers. They wore cowboy hats and black masks and carried shiny pistols.
But the Lone Ranger’s mask would be insufficient against COVID. It covers only the eyes and sits on the nose. A COVID mask covers nose and mouth and blocks breathing from one person to another.
Masks in Ancient Days
Masks can be found wherever people live, on every continent, Anthropologists believe some of the ancient cave dwellings in France show images of people wearing masks. The oldest physical mask, dating probably to 7000 B.C. and found in Israel, is made of stone:
Stone Mask, circa 7000 B.C.
The mask has vacant eyes and a toothy smile. It looks like a ski mask, something that bandits might wear when they stick up banks. These are quite different from the surgical masks most people wear now due to the pandemic. Hockey masks are reminiscent of these ancient masks.
In ancient Egypt, masks covered the faces of the dead and embalmed, in order to prepare them for the afterlife. Similarly, Andean people buried the dead with their faces covered with masks. Masks have been used for religious and ritual purposes for centuries. These masks evidently help to provide feelings of security or solace to worshipers and survivors suffering deep grief.
In the middle ages and early industrial period, people wore masks whenever they walked outside their homes in large cities. Cities were filthy places and pedestrians wore great over-cloaks and face masks to protect themselves from dirt and general pollution. The masks also provided privacy and a feeling of security.
Masks and Feelings in Performance
Unlike the ancient stone mask, ritualistic and theatrical traditions require masks to demonstrate emotional and moral expressions. In the west we are familiar with the sad and happy Greek masks that symbolize tragedy and comedy in drama.
Likewise, the classical Japanese Noh theater, which dates from the 14th century, presents performances that integrate dance, music and drama to relate classical Japanese folk tales. The masks are iconic in Japanese culture and are used to represent ghosts, women, children and the elderly.
Japanese Noh Masks
Compared to ancient masks, Japanese Noh masks are vibrant and lively. They communicate character and emotion.
Masks for Ritual and Symbolic Purposes
In Africa, many different cultures have used masks to celebrate the interaction of humans with agriculture and the natural world. Numerous masks from various African cultures represent animals and the sprouting of grain.
In Latin America pre-Columbian traditions merged with Christian rituals, and various masquerades emerged. Carnivals and wrestling matches have used elaborate and creative masks from ancient days until today.
Similarly, native American tribes have used masks in various ceremonies and celebrations. Hollywood has portrayed great spectacles of Indian war dances with dancers arrayed in colorful and frightening masks.
Masks in Epidemics
People have long known that disease could be spread by inhaling the breath of the sick. During the Middle Ages with the onset of the bubonic plague, masks were developed that would protect the wearer from any inhalation. These “beak masks” featured a giant nose in the form of a bird’s beak. The wearer would stuff the beak with cotton and aromatic spices to prevent inhaling the “atmosphere.” Thus, the wearer’s feelings for the mask were strong: he felt it protected him from illness and death.
The beak mask became a symbol of the doctor during the days of the plague. With the wide black hat and long black robes, this image of the Venetian doctor became a symbol of death. The mask and costume became a staple of Mardi Gras and other carnival marches depicting All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead.
Bubonic Plague Doctor in Beak Mask
A Lone Ranger Story
The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After they got their tent set up, both men fell sound asleep.
Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, “Kemo Sabe. Look towards the sky. What you see?”
The Lone Ranger replies “I see millions of stars.”
“And what does that tell you?” asks Tonto.
The Lone Ranger ponders this for a minute and then says “Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically speaking, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you, Tonto?”
Tonto fixes the Lone Ranger with a steely glare and replies “It tells that you are dumber than buffalo crap. It means that someone’s stolen our tent!”
With less than two weeks before election, I’m remembering past election campaigns. I recall Michael Dukakis looking silly in an oversized military helmet. When Ronald Reagan told Walter Mondale that he, Reagan, wouldn’t hold Mondale’s youth against him, I laughed. For me, comedy is what I remember best. as a result, thoughts of humorous political debates and events remind me of the great comedians of the past as well as some of their famous punch lines.
The Great Comedians Had Long Lives
The comedians of the past began their careers before live audiences. Egged on by live customers, many were versatile. They often could sing and dance as well as tell jokes and stories. Sometimes they played musical instruments. As a result, they connected to people: their personal characters were on display and didn’t change. Consequently, audiences felt they knew these people, as if they were neighbors or relatives.
I’ve kept the obituaries of various great comedians of the past, and they all lived a long time. Amazingly, Bob Hope lived to 100; Milton Berle died at 93; and Henny Youngman died at 91. Joan Rivers, the latest and best educated of the group, died at 82.
All of these great comics of the past left legacies of jokes and stories that were unique to them personally. Above all, they addressed everything, from health and doctors, to personalities, to family members and politics. For example, Bob Hope left his collection of over a million jokes to the Library of Congress; Milton Berle claimed to have some 200,000 jokes and stories.
The Oldest: Bob Hope
Bob Hope’s career spanned nearly 80 years. Born in England in 1903, he moved to the United States with his family when he was four; he grew up near Cleveland, Ohio. He began his career as a boxer, but subsequently moved to vaudeville and appeared in several Broadway productions in the 1920s. In the early 1930s he performed in radio broadcasts and after that moved to Hollywood.
Starring in 54 feature films, Bob Hope’s movies included seven “Road” musical comedy movies with Bing Crosby as costar. In recognition of his ability before audiences, Hope hosted the Academy Awards television show 19 times, more than any other host. He also authored 14 books.
Hope is best remembered as a comic, delivering rapid-fire one-liners, and, above all, entertaining American troops around the world during wartimes. From 1941 to 1948 he performed nearly all of his 400 radio shows at military bases.
Bob Hope USO Show for US Troops in Germany, 1945
Vincent Canby in his New York Times obituary of Hope says that “There was nothing Bob Hope loved more than an audience, and audiences responded in kind, particularly soldiers facing combat who desperately needed a laugh.” Canby describes Hope’s character as that of “a fast-talking wiseguy, a quaking braggart, an appealing heel with a harmless leer and a ready one-liner.”
Quotes from Bob Hope
Hope loved sticking barbs into politicians. For example, Canby relates Hope’s commentary on the 1984 election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale:
“I wonder if anyone woke up the president and told him.”
“Mondale knew this was gonna be a bad day when he called Dial-a-Prayer and the taped message answered him by name.”
“The farmers hate to see it end. All those campaign speeches were good for the crops.”
The Most Famous: Milton Berle, Mr. Television
Milton Berle, born in New York City in 1908, entered show business at the age of five when he won a children’s Charlie Chaplin contest. Subsequently, he appeared as a child actor in silent films and claimed The Perils of Pauline as his first film appearance.
Berle appeared in vaudeville and Broadway shows and by the 1930s was a successful stand-up comedian. He wrote musical scores for films and appeared regularly on popular radio broadcasts. By the late 1940s, Berle starred in his own radio variety show, together with a cast of writers and performers who would move to his television show in 1948.
Lawrence Van Gelder in his obituary of Berle for The New York Times describes the revolution brought about by Berle:
“The uninhibited Mr. Berle almost single-handedly led the entertainment revolution that addicted the nation to the small screen by wobbling on his ankles while wearing high heels, flouncing in evening gowns, grinning to reveal blacked out teeth, braying “What the hey,” being whacked silly with sacks of flour after shouting “Makeup!” and invariably thrusting himself into the routines of his guests.”
Within two months after its debut on Sept. 21, 1948, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was so popular that it was the only show not canceled to make way for election coverage on the night that Harry Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey. After that, Berle dominated Tuesday night television for several years and reached a 97% share of the viewing audience according to Nielsen ratings.
Uncle Miltie, Mr. Television
Quotes from Milton Berle
Milton Berle was often accused by contemporary comics of stealing their jokes, and Berle didn’t deny it. For example, Walter Winchell hailed him as the “Thief of Bad Gags”, and Berle replied “God, I wish I’d said that, and don’t worry, I will.” Other quotes from Berle:
‘Folk who don’t know why America is the Land of Promise should be here during an election campaign.”
“Why are we honoring this man? Have we run out of human beings?”
“The human brain is special. It starts working as soon as you get up and it doesn’t stop until you get to school.”
The Greatest One-Liner: Henny Youngman
From Tom Kuntz’s obituary of Henny Youngman in the New York Times:
“Henny Youngman was a real musician, born with a fiddle in his hands and a bow in his legs. Youngman had more talent in his little finger than he had in his big finger. He had such a big mouth he could eat a banana sideways. Henny and his wife were a fastidious couple: she was fast and he was hideous. He thought of himself as a wit, and he was probably half right. Henny Youngman was an entertainer who needed no introduction; he needed an act. His last audience was with him all the way; no matter how fast he ran he couldn’t shake them.”
Henny Youngman was hailed by Walter Winchell as “the King of One-Liners.” In other words, a performance by Youngman might last only fifteen or twenty minutes, but would contain dozens of jokes in rapid succession.
Henny Youngman and Fiddle
Henny Youngman was born in London in 1906 and brought by his family to New York City when he was a child. Growing up in New York he began in show business as a musician. He led a small jazz band and often told jokes. Soon he became a stand-up comic and appeared mainly in nightclubs. Henny Youngman spent most of his life performing hundreds of shows per year, in small clubs and theaters around the country.
Quotes from Henny Youngman
After appearing on Kate Smith’s radio show in 1937, Henny Youngman became famous. For example, when the New York Telephone Company started Dial-A- Joke in 1974, over three million people called in one month to hear 30 seconds of Youngman’s material—the most ever for a comedian.
Obviously, Youngman’s one-liners became very well known, not only to other comics who stole them, but to the general public. Here are a few:
“You have a ready wit. Let me know when it’s ready.”
“I haven’t talked to my wife in three weeks. I didn’t want to interrupt her.”
“Two dumb guys go bear hunting. They see a sign saying, “Bear Left,” so they went home.”
“I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?”
Youngman never retired. He performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs until the time of his death at 91.
Joan Rivers: First Female Host of a Late-Night Television Talk Show
Described in her obituary in the New York Times by Robert D. McFadden, as “the raspy loudmouth who pounced on America’s obsessions with flab, face-lifts, body hair and other blemishes of neurotic life, including her own” provided “five decades of caustic comedy that propelled her from nightclubs to television to international stardom.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, Joan Rivers attended private schools and participated in student theatrical activities. She graduated from Barnard College in 1955 with a B. A. in English literature and anthropology. Before entering show business, she worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a writer/proofreader at an advertising agency, and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores.
During the 1950s and 1960s Rivers performed in numerous comedy clubs in Greenwich Village. By 1965 she had a stint on Candid Camera as a gag writer and participant; she was the “bait” to lure people into ridiculous situations for the show.
After numerous auditions she made her first appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in February 1965. Subsequently, she became well known on television, appearing as a guest on numerous popular shows. She made prize winning record albums, directed films, and performed at Carnegie Hall. A permanent guest host on the Johnny Carson show, she was offered her own late-night television show in 1986.
Joan Rivers, Thinking?
Joan Rivers received an Emmy for her day time program, The Joan Rivers Show, in 1989 and authored 12 best-selling books and three comedy LP albums. In 2015, Rivers posthumously received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album, for her book, Diary of a Mad Diva. She also marketed a line of jewelry and apparel on the QVC shopping channel. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked her sixth on a list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Quotes from Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers projected a controversial personality. She could be self-deprecating, but always was sharp. She saved her most acerbic comments for celebrities and politicians. Here are some quotes:
“On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
“At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents.”
“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
Great Comedians: What We Can Learn from Them
Creating laughter must be a good thing. They all lived so long. Almost all the photographs of the great comedians of the past show them smiling.
Laughter is infectious, imagine three million people in one month paying to hear thirty seconds of material by anyone other than a comedian, like Henny Youngman. Only a comedian, like Milton Berle, could compete with Presidential election coverage. Only a comedian like Bob Hope, could be remembered with such warmth by all the servicemen who saw him when he performed during the war years. The only woman in the group, will be remembered for saying what we all were thinking. I guess I miss them all.
My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it. The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.
For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:
- The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it. The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
- Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
- The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.
Communication has Changed Form
This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.
Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.
Newspapers Used to be Numerous
Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.
Communication and Dictatorship
Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication. In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them to support their actions and abuse opponents..
The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication. If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses. They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.
The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.
Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens
Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints. When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.
Forms of Communication and Content
About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.
The digital world has no geographic limits. My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places. Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.
I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place. I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.
Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship
As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.
Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses. Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.
These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.
It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates? Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?
Dictators have a harder time with social media. They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection. But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.
It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.
During the Golden Age of Piracy (the early eighteenth century) royal governors treated pirates as criminals, even though no established law of the seas existed. Pirates operated outside the law, and brought prosperity, and even chocolate. Pirates when caught on land could be held in jail for ransom or executed for crimes against the king’s justice.
Ship owners, to avoid being labeled pirates and hounded by tax collectors, could pay for a charter issued by the king’s bureaucracy. They could then sail their ships for the mother country and pillage whatever other ships they could find. A pirate with a charter complied with the law. He became a privateer, and on the seas he could break all of the laws that existed on land.
Pirate Ships at Work
Who Became a Pirate under the Law?
The general public saw through this and didn’t think of pirates as criminals. If ships brought needed goods to the ports of the new world and sold them at a fair price, the pirates who sailed them became popular. Blackbeard was popular during his lifetime and remains so to this day.
Of course, if pirates didn’t pay the ransom demanded by the law established by royal bureaucrats and governors for their charters, they could sell their goods at a competitive price. They could charge less for the same goods, compared to privateers who paid the price of the charters.
In the early 1700s only people appointed by the established monarchy could become governors and bureaucrats. Civil service exams didn’t exist. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses exercised power over local taxation, but the bureaucrats in London decided the cost of a ship’s charter for ships crossing the ocean.
Pirates operated outside the law and freely. On the seas they could make their own laws. They elected their captains and adopted a system of sharing the profits from their voyages. In this environment, pirates could enlist whole crews of ships they seized at sea as volunteers. Sailors decided to join pirate fleets for the feeling of freedom and the hopes of sharing in the ship’s profits.
Pirate captains commanded large fleets. For example, historians estimate that Blackbeard commanded a fleet of more than forty ships when he blockaded Charleston harbor in 1718. For more on this, see my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy.
Pirates, the Law, Science, and the Development of Chocolate
Not only sailors on rival ships joined pirate fleets. Anyone with a skill that could be used on board a ship could try to join. For example, people who wanted to see the world volunteered. A ship needed navigators, doctors, and a variety of specialists. If a ship operator planned to load agricultural products and foodstuffs, he needed a specialist or botanist to help with the selection, loading and description of the cargo’s uses.
William Hughes, a serious botanist, served on ships that plundered the Caribbean in the 1630s. Hughes was interested in the characteristics of the New World’s plants. A low ranking sailor, he manned a long boat that took sailors to shore during various raids.
Hughes used his opportunities to explore unknown coasts. He met with native peoples and took detailed notes on his discoveries. After he returned to England he published a treatise on New World botany, The American Physitian (1672). In it he included notes on sugarcane which he described as “both pleasant and profitable”. He described lime as “excellent good against the Scurvie.”
The longest entry in Hughes’ book addressed chocolate which he described as “the American Nectar.” He included a recipe and a long list of potential ingredients. His hot chocolate recipe is discussed by Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “First Chefs” exhibition.
Pirates and Law: Chocolate is Still with Us
When Hughes sailed, Spain and much of Europe already drank hot chocolate. Columbus had brought the cacao bean to Europe more than a century earlier. Hot chocolate had already become a popular drink sold from street carts and chocolate houses.
Hughes didn’t say much about his experience as a buccaneer, but returned to his profession as botanist and gardener. He ended his life working at the country estate of a noblewoman, Viscountess Conway. In his later years, he published a book on grapevines, and later his notes on the New World.
Here is Marissa Nicosia’s plate of ingredients for hot chocolate (cocoa nibs, chopped dark chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, breadcrumbs, chili flakes, and milk):
Ingredients for Hot Chocolate
Jokes about Chocolate
An elderly man lay dying in his bed.
In death’s agony, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.
Gathering his strength, he lifted himself from his bed. He slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and, with even greater effort, forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands. With labored breath, he leaned against the door, gazing into the kitchen.
Were it not for death’s agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven: there, spread out on the kitchen table, were hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.
Mustering one final effort, he threw himself toward the table. His aged and withered hand painstakingly made its way toward a cookie when it was suddenly smacked by a spatula.
“Stay out of those,” said his wife, “they’re for the funeral.”
If Bob has thirty chocolate bars, and eats 25, what does he have?
Never eat more chocolate than you can lift.
Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Washington Surveying the Field
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.
Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
Susan Constant docked on James River
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.