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Browse through a gluppity-glup Dr. Seuss book or the frabjous poetry of Lewis Carroll and you’ll find words that are simply funny, regardless of their meaning or context. So why are some words perceived as funny while others aren’t? It’s hard to say, but a new study is making a start at figuring it out. As Douglas Main at Newsweek reports, researchers at the University of Warwick in the U.K. conducted a survey to find the funniest real words in the English language.
The researchers selected 4,997 words based on lists developed in past research to get a representative sample of English. Then, using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, they asked 821 individuals to rate the humor value of 200 randomly selected words from the list on a scale of 1 to 5.
So what was the funniest word in the group? Booty, with a mean rating of 4.32. The other words in the top dozen, which all received a score of 3.9 or higher in descending order are Tit, Booby, Hooter, Nitwit, Twit, Waddle, Tinkle, Bebop, Egghead, Ass and Twerp.
It’s hard to say exactly why people chose those words, except to say the double-oh sound is funny and so is the “ti” and “it.” When breaking down the list by sex and age, however, some small trends to appear. For instance, according to a press release, men found sexually charged words like orgy and bondage hilarious, along with birthmark, brand, chauffeur, doze, buzzard, czar, weld, prod, corn and racoon.
Women found the words giggle, beast, circus, grand, juju, humbug, slicker, sweat, ennui, holder, momma and sod funny while people under 32 were partial to goatee, joint and gangster. People older than 32 thought squint, jingle, burlesque and pong were hilarious. The words rape, torture, and torment were the least funny across the categories. They published their results in the journal Behavior Research Methods.
In the paper, the researchers explain that philosophers and scientists have struggled to find a reason behind humor for centuries. While social scientists have come up with databases of which jokes people think are funniest, this study is investigating humor at the atomic level. “The database we present here offers a basis for studying humor in perhaps a highly rudimentary 'fruit fly' version, at the level of a single word,” they write. “If single words have reliable humor ratings, they provide humor in miniature, allowing us to investigate humor in relation to the many existing lexical norms.”
There are some theories out there explaining why some words are funny. For instance, as Danny Lewis reported for Smithsonian.com in 2015, psychology professor Chris Westbury at the University of Alberta came up with a formula that described what made a nonsense word seem funny to people. He found that nonsense words that sounded like real words weren’t that funny. But the more a word violated the expected norms of language, the more hilarious it is. For instance, the nonsense word “anotain” is not very funny, while the vaguely Dutch “snunkoople” is hilarious.
Westbury’s findings seem to line up with philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer’s “incongruity theory,” which says humor lies in the violation of expectations, like when a giant, muscle-bound weightlifter speaks with a high squeaky voice.
Lead author of the study Tomas Engelthaler doesn’t say whether his funny words fit any particular theory, but hopes researchers will use the list as a jumping off point. “The research initially came about as a result of our curiosity. We were wondering if certain words are perceived as funnier, even when read on their own. It turns out that indeed is the case,” he says in the press release. “Humor is an everyday aspects of our lives and we hope this publicly available dataset allows future researchers to better understand its foundations.”
Or at least understand how to better fluggernuff their pongkrongs.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, in February 1766, Benjamin Franklin, the most famous American in London, addressed the British House of Commons. His aim, which he achieved triumphantly, was to persuade Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, the legislation that had usurped the power of the colonial assemblies and caused the first major breakdown in relations between Britain and its American colonies. Franklin was determined to heal the breach; he sought to help British politicians understand the American continent’s vast potential as part of a closely knit Great British empire. In his own words, he viewed the colonies “as so many counties gained to Great Britain.”
This image of Franklin—working in London to secure Britain’s hold on America—is at odds with the usual picture of a great American patriot and Founding Father. Yet, for the better part of two decades, Franklin called London home. Furthermore, during a full four-fifths of his very long life, Franklin was a loyal British royalist. He was not alone in this. Until the Stamp Act, most Americans had no conception that they would ever be separated from Britain. Indeed, many of our Founding Fathers initially set out to assert their rights as Englishmen. Even as late as 1774, Thomas Jefferson, the chief framer of the Declaration of Independence, used a collection of English Civil War pamphlets when he “cooked up a resolution … to avert us from the evils of civil war.” Franklin himself stayed in London right up to March 1775, in an increasingly desperate search for a peaceful settlement.
Born in Boston in 1706, to an English father, Franklin first lived in London between 1724 and 1726 and worked as a printer. Young Ben’s intellectual framework was formed by the British written word. He perfected his writing style and focus by reading and re-reading Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s articles in The Spectator and rewriting them in his own words. They provided him with a brilliant introduction to London’s intellectual coffeehouse society, enabling the young American to deploy the necessary “polite conversation” that won him rapid acceptance. Franklin recognized his debt, later describing Addison as a man “whose writings have contributed more to the improvement of the minds of the British nation, and polishing their manners, than those of any other English pen whatever.”
The Franklin who returned to America at the age of 20 had the self-confidence bred from talking on equal terms with men such as Sir Isaac Newton’s co-author, Dr. Henry Pemberton, and Bernard Mandeville, whose book The Fable of the Bees was the publishing sensation of the time. In the decades that followed, as he built his own profitable printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, Franklin founded or co-founded some of America’s greatest surviving cultural institutions, including the Library Company, the American Philosophical Society, and what was to become the University of Pennsylvania. He gave them intellectual foundations built on what he had learned and discussed in London and centered on the philosophy of men such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke.
By 1757, Franklin had become a leading member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and was chosen to return to London. His ostensible mission was to open negotiations with Thomas Penn and persuade Pennsylvania’s absentee proprietor to pay at least some local taxes. However, Franklin in London was much more than a Pennsylvanian representative. During the late 1740s and early 1750s he had thrown himself into groundbreaking scientific research, which he published as Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America. This won him the 1753 Copley Medal (the 18th-century equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and a fellowship of the Royal Society. It also transformed his social standing. He was famous. This son of a poor tallow chandler was embraced by a British aristocracy enthralled by science and particularly keen on the sizzle of electricity. Celebrated in London, he was also renowned across Europe, with the great philosopher Immanuel Kant describing him as “the Prometheus of modern times.”
Franklin appreciated his British life from his home in London’s Craven Street, just south of the Strand. This house is the only one of all those in which Franklin lived that still stands today and has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as the Benjamin Franklin House museum and education center. Franklin enjoyed a strong platonic relationship with its owner, Mrs. Stevenson, who was not so much a landlady as the manager of his London household. But he also missed the comforts of home, upbraiding his wife Deborah for failing to send his favourite Newtown Pippin apples and thanking her for dispatching such American delights as buckwheat cakes, cranberries, and “Indian meal.” Deborah was of more use to Franklin back in Philadelphia, managing his affairs there as well as sending him treats. It was an arrangement that suited him far more than her.
Franklin briefly returned to Philadelphia for 18 months between 1762 and 1764, but was soon back in London and increasingly drawn into wider British politics. The Stamp Act repeal proved a false dawn. By 1768, Franklin was acting for four colonial assemblies: Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania. His role for the first—the most vehemently opposed to further taxation—brought him into sharp conflict with ministers in Lord North’s government. By the early 1770s, Franklin’s relationship with them was one of mutual loathing. Crucially, it was further inflamed because of Franklin’s close links with a British parliamentary opposition that was seeking power itself. On March 20, 1775, Franklin was forced to flee in order to escape arrest by the men he called “mangling ministers.”
It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.
Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.
As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”
George Goodwin is the author of the just-published Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. He is author in residence at Benjamin Franklin House in London and was a 2014 International Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Monticello.
Whether you find them icky or fascinating, you’ve got to admit — mold and fungi come in many different colors. But why are there so many shades of mold? Popular Science’s Daniel Engber writes that the jury’s still out on how mold gets its rainbow tints.
Oregon State University researcher Sara Robinson told Engber that that in different parts of the country, mold and fungi takes on different hues. However, it’s not entirely clear why mold grows green in the Pacific Northwest and orange in the Amazon, he writes.
Robinson tells Engber that some molds use color as a way to protect themselves from their enemies, such as UV light and other fungi. And other biologists, writes Engber, have been studying what happens to fungi when the melanin that gives them color is removed. They’ve learned that mold without color is “pathetic” — severely hampered by their huelessness.
Here’s one clue that color imbues mold with both beauty and skills: in 2007, scientists studying black mold found in the damaged reactor at Chernobyl discovered that melanin-rich Cryptococcus is actually able to “eat” radiation. The mold uses radioactivity as its energy source, leading scientists to speculate that dark mold could someday be grown in space and feed astronauts.
Another brightly-colored mold superstar is Neurospora crassa, which produces red spores on bread. Scientists are studying how the mold generates chemicals in the hopes of improving biofuels.
Scientists may not have quite figured out why mold looks so strangely gorgeous. But the how of making magic out of mold is already within reach. And still others see other kinds of potential in all that color and texture: Wired’s Daniela Hernandez reports that creative minds like Estonian photographer Heikki Leis are turning moldy veggies into stunning art.
If you have visited the Folklife Festival or seen our promotional posters around the area, you have probably noticed the swirling logo for the Perú: Pachamama program. Much time and research went into its design, so the “icon” could thoughtfully and equally represent the twelve artisan groups we brought from Peru to the National Mall. In an earlier interview, Festival art director Josué Castilleja shared his general design process. Here, he explains the designs for the Peru program.
How did you begin designing the icon?
We started working on the icon in the fall of 2014 when we finalized the name of the program as Perú: Pachamama. The first thing I designed was the lettering. In the word “Perú,” the letters are broken up to represent building blocks coming together, reflecting the overall theme of the program and of the icon: connectivity. “Pachamama” means Mother Earth and is also represented by the spiral in the center of the icon. The spiral moves inward, to symbolize how the participants from the twelve groups are coming together on the National Mall. The spiral is also, however, moving back out. This represents culture and people going out into the world and includes communities of Peruvians living in the United States.
What is the meaning behind each of the twelve symbols around the outside of the circle?
Each symbol represents a different one of the twelve artisan groups featured at the Festival. They are hand drawn to reflect the style of pre-Hispanic iconography and writing. Their design is modern but is still connected to Peru’s history, representing each of the case studies equally in a unifying way.
Click on each icon to learn more:
How did your designs change throughout the process?
I started sketching after reading about each of the artisan groups. When I traveled to Peru, I shared the designs with the participants and made some changes once we finalized who would actually be coming to the Festival.
What is your favorite thing about the icon?
The icon is meant to be viewed from a distance at first, with the lettering as the main component. The whole icon is colorful, family-friendly, and fun, but visitors may not notice its layers of meaning at first. As visitors spend time with the participants they can learn about what all of the symbols mean and gain a better understanding of how they’re connected. The goal is for visitors and participants to take the icon with them on the T-shirts or the Festival guide as a reminder of the people they meet and the things they learn.
Georgia “Ellie” Dassler is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the College of William & Mary, where she studies anthropology and teaching English to speakers of other languages.
“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” sing the cast of Hamilton in the finale of the smash Broadway musical. In the case of Aaron Burr—the “damn fool” who shot Alexander Hamilton—the answer to that last question, at least before playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda came around, was simple: Gore Vidal.
More than 40 years before there was Hamilton, there was Burr, the best-selling and critically acclaimed 1973 novel about the disgraced Founding Father—written by a celebrity author with a reputation as a skilled duelist himself (albeit with words, not pistols).
Vidal died in 2012. In his obituary, the New York Times called Vidal a “prolific, elegant, all-around man of letters.” He was also a successful television writer in the medium’s early days, and a regular on the talk show circuit later in his career (Reportedly, Johnny Carson was impressed enough to offer him a spot as a regular guest host of “The Tonight Show”). The aristocratic Vidal also dabbled in politics: He ran for Congress from New York in 1960, and for the Senate in California in 1982. “Though he lost both times,” noted the Times’ Charles McGrath, “he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, ‘There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.’”
His sharp wit and on-camera poise was best displayed in his debates with luminaries like conservative ideologue William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review. (2015’s documentary Best of Enemies highlights these vituperative but entertaining televised fights between two heavyweight intellectuals of the left and right.)
Vidal began writing about Burr in late 1969. That was the year after the debates which, along with the publication of his scandalous sex satire, Myra Breckenridge, had helped propel the then 43-year-old to national prominence.
“At the time he begins writing Burr, he’s on the top of his game,” says Jay Parini author of the 2015 Vidal biography, Empire of Self. “He’s been on the cover of Time, Life and Look. He’s everywhere.”
So what got a man so very much in-the-moment interested in a character 200 years in the past? Parini cites multiple reasons, from the nation’s excitement over the anticipated bicentennial celebration of its independence in 1976 to his stepfather’s purported distant relationship with Burr to the shadowy machinations of the Nixon White House reminding Vidal of the intrigues of the Jefferson White House. In addition to those motivations, Vidal wanted to continue his exploration the historical novel—a genre he had experimented with in his 1964 novel Julian about the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus.
But perhaps most significantly, says Parini, a writer and professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, who was also Vidal’s friend for nearly 30 years ,“I think he saw himself in Burr.”
Certainly few characters in early American history have sparked such passion as the man who fought with distinction in the American Revolution and lived well into the Industrial Revolution. In between, of course, he figured prominently into two of the most infamous episodes in the history of the early Republic: The 1804 duel in which Burr—then vice president of the United States—shot and killed Hamilton; and the so-called “Burr Conspiracy” three years later, when he was ordered arrested by President Thomas Jefferson and charged with treason, allegedly for plotting to create an independent nation in the Southwest, taking some of the United States with him (Burr’s defenders maintained he wanted to “liberate” Mexico from Spain). The truth was somewhere in the middle. Historian Nancy Isenberg writes in her 2007 biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, that “Burr never planned the grand conspiracy that attached to him, and neither did he seriously contemplate the assassination of the president or his own installation as emperor of Mexico” (all things he was charged with at various points). “But it seems undeniable that he was foolish in his dealings with Jefferson.”. After a trial that gripped the new nation, presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Burr was acquitted of treason, and his political career was over.Illustration, Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund (Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, "American Founders.")
Vidal certainly wasn’t the first writer to recognize that Burr’s life made for a fascinating story. In her book, Isenberg traces the history of Burr-Lit, noting that as early as 1838—two years after his death—the “devilish Burr” made an appearance in a novel about his alleged schemes in the West.
While he would have his defenders in print over the subsequent years, most depictions of Burr were ugly. Isenberg notes that even as late as 1955, playwright Thomas Sweeney, in his “Aaron Burr’s Dream for the Southwest,” depicts the former vice president as “a hypersexualized and insane genius...a weird blend of Dr. Frankenstein and Hugh Hefner.”
It’s likely that Vidal would have been familiar with most of these earlier works when he began researching his own novel on Burr. He was known for exhaustive research – when he wrote Julian he moved to Rome to spend a year immersed in the history of the Roman Empire. Parini describes his research zeal as “fanatical...he would buy up books on the subject and talk to experts at length.” Burr was no exception: To prepare for his novel, he consulted with his friend and historian Arthur Schlesinger on the most useful books and sources, and had about 200 volumes shipped to his residence in Rome.
Every morning, Vidal would head to a café near the Pantheon and sip coffee as he began to immerse himself in the period, and the character. “I was beginning to feel the weight of the book, and worked easily,” Vidal later told Parini. At first, “I had in mind only the glimmer of a sequence.”
While there was certainly plenty for him to read, part of the problem in re-telling Burr’s story, fictional or historically, is the paucity of his personal papers. “People don’t realize that the archive shapes the story,” says Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University. As opposed to the other Founding Fathers, who left extensive troves of documents—not to mention, as in the case of Hamilton, children and a widow to manage them and help shape the legacy—most of Burr’s papers went down at sea, along with his only child, daughter Theodosia, and grandson, in 1813.
Without many of his own words left for historians to use in his own defense, Burr has been at a disadvantage in posterity, which tends to paint him as an elusive and dark figure,
“He’s always stood in for this role to be the villain, the traitor,” Isenberg says.
Not that there weren’t supporters. One of them was John Greenwood, who knew Burr later in life. Greenwood was a clerk and student in Burr’s law office from 1814-1820. Years later, and by then a judge, Greenwood gave an address to the Long Island Historical Society on his old mentor. He recalled Burr, who would have been in his 60s at the time Greenwood clerked for him, as a good storyteller with seemingly few unpleasant memories, and asa man who would go to great lengths to help a friend. “His manners were cordial and his carriage graceful, and he had a winning smile,” said Judge Greenwood who also noted that Burr’s “self-possession under the most trying circumstances was wonderful...he probably never knew what it was to fear a human being.”
Greenwood’s remarks were later reprinted by the late 19th-century biographer James Parton. Published in 1892, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr was likely one of the books consumed by Vidal in his preparations for his novel, as his Burr sounds very much like the one described by the Judge.
Researching and writing Burr took Vidal several years. In between working on Burr, he wrote a Broadway play An Evening with Richard Nixon that lasted 13 performances, and also contributed articles and reviews (he was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and Esquire). But the main focus of his effort for the two years leading up to its publication was Burr. In his 1999 book, Gore Vidal: A Biography, historian Fred Kaplan cites a letter from Vidal to his editor in June, 1972, expressing satisfaction with his progress on the novel. “70,000 words written, about a third I would think,” he wrote. “Odd things are happening to my characters, but then again, look what happened to their Republic?”
The finished novel was a story within a story: The narrator is one of the few fictional characters in the book, Charles Schuyler, a young journalist who is hired to write Burr’s memoir. (A few pages into the novel, Burr has Schuyler make the point that “I was not one of the Schuylers,” a reference to Alexander Hamilton’s storied in-laws. It’s unclear why Vidal gave his narrator this surname...although maybe it was an inside joke). The memoir is designed to discredit presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren-—in the hopes that “The Colonel” (as Burr is referred to throughout the book) will somehow reveal that Van Buren is really his illegitimate son, an actual rumor that existed at the time. Although far apart in age, Burr and Van Buren were good friends who agreed on many issues, says Isenberg. “The resemblance between the two men extended to their personal appearance,” she wrote in Fallen Founder. “Each was of small build, dressed meticulously, and was called a ‘dandy.’ Rumors later circulated that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child. He was not.”
Schuyler has mixed feelings about his mission, as he grows fond of Burr—whose reminisces for the memoir are the second narrative of the book. These offer the opportunity for much Founder-bashing by Vidal. In particular, George Washington (“He had the hips, buttocks and bosom of a woman”) and Jefferson (“The most charming man I ever knew, and the most deceitful”), are skewered by his Burr. The former is further depicted as a vainglorious, inept general—while Vidal’s Burr tweaks Jefferson for his cowardice during the Revolution, fleeing ignominiously at the approach of the British and leaving Virginia without a governor. Burr, through Vidal’s deliciously acerbic writing, asserts that Jefferson’s much-vaunted inventions frequently broke and that he was a bad fiddle player.Gore Vidal at age 23, November 14, 1948 (Library of Congress)
Critics loved it. Burr was published by Random House in late 1973 to lavish praise. “What a clever piece of machinery is Mr. Vidal's complicated plot!” wrote New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. “By setting the present- tense of his story in the 1830s and having Aaron Burr recall in his lively old age his memories of the Revolutionary War, the early history of the Republic, and his famous contests with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (as if these mythic events had happened only yesterday)--what a telescoping of the legendary past Mr. Vidal achieves, and what leverage it gives him to tear that past to tatters.”
Burr soared up the best-seller list and remains in print today. “Gore never got prizes,” Parini said. “He was, “not part of the literary establishment in that way.” But his work did have an impact on politics, albeit an unexpected and much-delayed one. In a 2010 speech to fellow Republicans in Troy, Michigan, Rep. Michelle Bachmann claimed Burr as the reason she became a Republican. She was a student in college at the time, and a Democrat. "Until I was reading this snotty novel called Burr, by Gore Vidal, and read how he mocked our Founding Fathers," said Bachmann. She was so outraged by this, she told the crowd, she had to put the book down. “I was riding a train. I looked out the window and I said, 'You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don't think I'm a Democrat.'"
Of Vidal’s 25 novels, and works of non fiction, Burr is often considered at or near the top. Writing in Slate in 2012, critic Liam Hoare, judged Burr and Vidal’s 1984 best seller Lincoln, “unsurpassed in the field of American historical fiction.”
Burr was part of what Vidal would later call his “Narratives of Empire,” a seven-volume series fictionalizing various periods of U.S history. In addition to Burr, its follow-up 1876 (in which an older Charles Schuyler re-appears) and Lincoln, the series would go on to include Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000).
“I re-read (Burr) again and again, to remind myself of what the historical novel can do,” says Parini. “How it can play into the present and how it can animate the past. And how you can get into the head of a character.”
“As fiction it’s an excellent work,” agrees Isenberg. In terms of the historical veracity, “what I like is that he gives a fuller portrayal of (the Founding Fathers) as men. It’s more realistic in that it shows, yes, they had sex, yes, they engaged in land speculation.” (And yes, they frittered away their money. “The one thing that Jefferson, Hamilton and I had in common,” says Vidal’s Burr, “was indebtedness. We all lived beyond our means and on the highest scale.”)
Vidal’s urbane but cynical Burr was a perfect anti-hero for the ’70s. But what would he make of the popularity of Broadway’s ubiquitous hit? According to Parini, the usually astute Vidal missed the boat on that one. He relates a visit to Vidal by his friend Leonard Bernstein, who at the time was having trouble with his historical musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which focused on the early occupants of the White House and race relations. Bernstein knew Vidal was steeped in the history of this period, and asked him to help. The writer declined, which may have been just as well considering that the show only lasted for seven performances. “I remember Gore saying to me, ‘Poor Lenny,’” Parini recalls. "'They’ll never make a Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers. I just can’t see Jefferson and Hamilton dancing across the stage.’”
From 1917 to 1919, the Woman's Land Army of America brought more than 20,000 city and town women to rural America to take over farm work after men were called to war.
Most of these women had never before worked on a farm, but they were soon plowing fields, driving tractors, planting and harvesting. The Land Army's "farmerettes" were paid wages equal to male farm laborers and were protected by an eight-hour workday. For many, the farmerettes were shocking at first--wearing pants!--but farmers began to rely upon the women workers.
Inspired by the women of Great Britain, organized as the Land Lassies, the Woman’s Land Army of America was established by a consortium of women’s organizations--including gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups, and the YWCA.
The WLA provided a fascinating example of women mobilizing themselves and challenged conventional thinking about gender roles.
Like Rosie the Riveter a generation later, the Land Army farmerette became a wartime icon.
The following excerpt from Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army in the Great War chronicles the farmerettes of the California division of the Woman’s Land Army.
A brass band welcomed the first unit of the California Woman’s Land Army when it arrived in the town of Elsinore on the first of May, 1918. The whole community turned out to greet the fifteen women dressed in their stiff new uniforms. The Chamber of Commerce officials gave speeches of welcome, the Farm Bureau president thanked the “farmerettes” for coming, and the mayor gave them the keys to the city.
The Land Army recruits drove the fifty miles from the WLA headquarters offices in downtown Los Angeles to Elsinore in style: the mayor had dispatched a truck to chauffeur them. At the welcoming ceremonies, Mayor Burnham apologized for the lack of an official municipal key ring, and offered instead a rake, hoe, and shovel to the farmerettes, “emblematic of their toil for patriotic defense.” The grateful citizens of Elsinore gave the farmerettes three loud cheers.
While California fruit growers held lucrative contracts with the U.S. military to supply troops with dried and canned fruit, the extreme wartime farm labor shortage enabled the California Woman’s Land Army to demand extraordinary employment terms: a guaranteed contract, equal pay to what local male farm laborers could command, an eight hour day, and overtime pay. The employers also agreed to worker protections--comfortable living quarters, designated rest periods, lifting limits, and workers’ compensation insurance—considered radical for the time.
The Los Angeles Times trumpeted the arrival of the “Great Land Army” in Elsinore as an “Epochal Experiment” and proclaimed the farmerettes were “To Turn New Earth in History of the American Woman.” Photographs of the farmerettes’ first day at work, handling horse-drawn cultivators and gangplows, or at the wheel of giant tractors, were spread across the pages of the state’s newspapers. Asked if the strenuous labor might prove too hard, and some of the farmerettes might give up after a short stint, the recruits denied that was even possible. “Would we quit?” one farmerette told a reporter, “No, soldiers don’t.”
Idella Purnell didn’t lie about her age in order join the Northern California division of the WLA, which opened its San Francisco headquarters just a week later. She didn’t need to. The daughter of American parents, Idella was raised in Mexico but came north in preparation for entering university at Berkeley that fall. As a patriotic gesture, she wanted to serve in the Land Army in the summer months, but she was only seventeen years old, a year shy of the official entrance age. She passed her physical at headquarters, “and as I am ‘husky’ they decided to let my youth go unnoticed and simply make me 18!” Purnell confided, after the fact. The San Francisco recruiting officers were willing the bend the rules as they faced the prospect of trying to fill their large quotas; requests for more farmerettes were pouring in daily.
“This is the recruiting slogan of the Women’s Land Army of America,” reported one San Francisco area newspaper: “Joan of Arc Left the Soil to Save France. We’re Going Back to the Soil to Save America.”
An “advanced guard” of women, mostly Berkeley students, was sent to the University of California’s agricultural farm at Davis for training and soon proved themselves “extremely efficient and as capable as men workers.” Another unit was based in the dormitories of Stanford and worked the crops of the Santa Clara Valley in WLA uniform.
Sacramento set up a district WLA office, and more than 175 women enlisted for service in the first month. “Up in Sacramento they are nearly as proud of the WLA as of the new aviation field,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “In both cases justification lies in actual achievement…the WLA shows that the women and girls are serious…and mean to do their bits.”
In mid- June on the eve of their deployment, twenty-four fresh recruits gathered in the San Francisco WLA headquarters, located in the Underwood Building on Market Street. They were the first group assigned to the brand new farmerette camp at Vacaville, and they were summoned together for a pre-departure pep talk.
The Vacaville Camp was constructed and furnished by a consortium of local fruit growers, who paid for it out of their own pockets. They built the camp on high ground near the Vacaville train station, with a six-foot high pine stockade surrounding it for privacy. Inside the stockade were canvas sleeping tents with wood floors, a screened kitchen and dining room, showers, and a dressing room, as well as a hospital tent. The camp cost about $4,500 to build and the growers agreed to share the investment: only those who contributed towards the camp were to enjoy the assistance of the farmerettes.
These farmerettes now assembled in the San Francisco WLA office, listening as their supervisor, Alice Graydon Phillips, explained what their life and work would be like in the Vacaville Camp. She warned them that the summer heat would be brutal, and that picking fruit atop ladders would make their backs, arms, and fingers sore.
Image by Library of Congress. The California Woman's Land Army were able to demand extraordinary employment terms due to the extreme wartime farm labor shortage. (original image)
Image by Corbis. Farmerettes of the Woman's Land Army of America took over farm work when the men were called to wartime service in WWI. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute. A poster for the Woman's Land Army of America asking women to enlist. (original image)
She read them the Woman’s Land Army pledge and then asked aloud if they willingly would arise to the sound of a bugle at 5:30 in the morning? “Yes!” they shouted. Would they consent to the WLA military-style structure? “Yes,” they agreed in unison. Would they agree to muster for inspection, line up for exercise drills, take kitchen police duty, and eat the rations they were served without complaint? “Yes!” Would they submit to strict rules of discipline—including the provision that five offenses for lateness constitutes one breach of discipline and an honorable discharge? Here the “Yes” chorus was punctuated by some sighs, but they assented..
They signed the pledge forms. They elected two “majors” from their ranks to lead them—one, a girl who had four brothers fighting at the front; the other, an older woman from Santa Barbara with girl-club experience. Led by a college girl from Berkeley, they all joined in a rousing cheer:
Don’t be a slacker
Be a picker or a packer
WLA, Rah, rah, rah!
They took the early train to Vacaville, just beyond Napa, a journey of about sixty miles. “It was hot in the orchard at Napa,” Idella Purnell recalled.
The sun rose higher and higher, and the long ladders grew heavier and heavier. Perspiration started on our foreheads and beaded our lips. The golden peaches were so high—so hard to reach! The peach fuzz and dust on our throats and arms began to irritate the skin, but we did not dare scratch—we knew that would only aggravate the trouble. One who has never had “peach fuzz rash” cannot appreciate the misery of those toiling, dusty, hot-faced girls.
Purnell, who would make her career as a writer and editor of an influential poetry journal, was getting a crash course in the less romantic aspects of farmerette life. As word of their good work spread, more northern and southern California farmers asked for WLA units to be based near their orchards and ranches. The newspapers charted the farmerettes’ summons into the golden groves with headlines like: “Hundreds Go Into Fields at Once” and “Women to Till Thousands of Southern California’s Acres.” Sunset magazine carried an editorial in its July issue titled “The Woman’s Land Army is Winning” illustrated by a photo of farmerettes in uniform posing with hoes slung over their shoulders like guns.
The Los Angeles Times sent one of its star reporters, Alma Whitaker, to spend a day working with a Land Army unit, and she came away rather dazzled. Describing one farmerette as “tall and husky and wields a spade like a young Amazon her sword” and another as possessing “a pair of shoulders and muscular arms like a bantam lightweight” Whitaker was taken with the farmerettes’ serious attitude:
“This woman’s land army, composed of able-bodied young women, selected just as the men are selected by the army, for their physical capacity, their good characters, their general deportment, and trained and disciplined even rather more strictly than the men... are acquitting themselves with amazing efficiency.”
Whitaker took note of the Land Army uniform, which became a hot topic of conversation in that summer: “The official uniform has called forth criticism,” she reported. “Farm laborers don’t wear uniforms. But those uniforms are proven to be an essential and desirable asset, for not only are they intensely practical, but they have exactly the same effect on girls as they do on the men—one lives up to a uniform.”
As in the military, the Land Army uniform also served as a great social equalizer and provided a powerful sense of social cohesion. “The cotton uniform,” wrote one California farmerette, “soon muddy and fruit stained, in which some girls looked picturesque, but no one overwhelmingly beautiful, leveled all distinction except those of personality, manners and speech.”
As the season progressed, Idella Purnell was promoted to the captaincy of her own squad of Land Army workers. But amid the grape vines of Lodi, captain Purnell encountered what every American feared in this time of war: the snake in the garden, the saboteur. At first Purnell assumed the woman was simply that lesser form of wartime menace, the slacker, not willing to do her share, but Purnell’s suspicions hardened when her lazy farmerette resorted to shoddy picking: “She took to sabotage,” Purnell explained. “Green grapes, rotten grapes—anything and everything went into her boxes, tossed there by a hand careless of the precious bloom—and they all were only half full.
Purnell tried to handle the situation herself:
I remonstrated—mildly at first. I showed her again…At noon I made a special talk to the girls for her benefit, in which I pointed out that we were soldiers just as much as the ones ‘over there,’ that we too had a chance to make good—or to be classified as slackers and cowards. I made it clear that a slacker was a person who tried to palm off poor boxes of grapes for good ones. One bad bunch ruins a whole box, and that is the same as helping shoot cannonballs at our boys.
But the slacker farmerette did not improve: “In fact, she seemed to take a malicious delight in doing her worst, and trying to get away with it,” said Purnell. “I argued, pleaded, threatened and scolded by turns. Commanding did no good. “That night I made a report to the camp supervisor, and learned that mine was not the first complaint against her. Mine was the last straw, and she was dishonorably discharged.”
A saboteur farmerette in the ranks was exceedingly rare; more often the Land Army worker was hailed as the “Patriot Farmerette.” And in that role, she deserved a “pin-up” above her cot, a photo of a handsome movie star to inspire her, just like her brother in the army or navy had his starlets, teased L A Times reporter Alma Whitaker, who archly exhorted the local movie industry’s matinee idols to do their bit by becoming “godfathers” to farmerettes and other women war workers:
Now, while our masculine regiments are well supplied with fair godmothers, not a single godfather has arisen for the benefit of the land army girls or the war efficiency motor maids or the Red Cross chapter girls… It isn’t fair. What are the stylish picture heroes thinking about? Why isn’t Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks offering themselves in this guise? Is masculinity trying to assert, in this day and age, that women’s patriotism is not as important and self-sacrificing as men’s patriotism? Pshaw!
Think of the land army girls, exuding honest sweat on California farms, day in and day out, in uniforms quite as becoming as any at Camp Kearny…all without a godfather.
It would be such a nice compliment if, say, Charlie Chaplin should adopt the first unit of the woman’s land army and go down to see them decked in a land army uniform, just as Mary Pickford wore khaki when she went to San Diego.
There are no known photos of Charlie Chaplin donning a Land Army uniform, but the farmerette was truly a star in California in the summer of 1918.
Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s story is not so surprising if you consider that a man did not need a medical degree to practice medicine in early 19th-century Philadelphia. In fact, he didn’t even need a license—a practice that Philadelphia would not embrace into the final decade of the 19th century. Although the tide was changing, the clear truth was that anyone who wanted to put out a shingle and call himself a doctor could do just that.
Basics of modern medicine, such as the infectiousness of diseases, were still under heavy dispute. Causes of even common diseases were confusing to doctors. Appendicitis was called peritonitis, and its victims were simply left to die. Bleeding the ill was still a widespread practice. There was no anesthesia – neither general nor local. If you came to a doctor with a compound fracture, you had only a 50 percent chance of survival.
But Mütter was a different kind of doctor and a different kind of teacher. By the end of the 1830s, Mütter, young, smart, ambitious, and blessed with extraordinary talents was gaining a reputation as “one of the best of good fellows” in the Philadelphia medical world and not just in the lecture hall.
“He possessed spontaneously, as it were, the art both of making and holding friends,” a fellow doctor would write of him, “a natural amenity of manner and gentleness of character, a manliness of bearing so intermingled with feminine graces that even children were attracted by it, and a love of approbation that induced him to do what he could to please others.”
When Dr. Thomas Harris, Mütter’s mentor, grew too sick to make house calls, he asked Mütter to go on his behalf. Mütter’s skill, matched with his comforting and charming demeanor, endeared him to the patients. Soon, other doctors, including and especially the ever-encouraging Dr. Samuel Jackson, made a habit of sending Mütter to make house calls in their stead. As a result, within a few months, Mütter began to develop a healthy private practice. He was also garnering an impressive reputation as a surgeon. His access to the Jefferson Medical School’s surgical rooms allowed him to attempt the kinds of ambitious surgeries he had learned about in Paris, many of which defiantly occupied “the difficult domain of reparative and reconstructive surgery.”
His first surgical patients found their way to him through the school itself, who promised citizens free surgical treatment, provided they agreed to the surgery’s being performed in a public setting. But it didn’t take long for Mütter to also begin receiving surgical patients privately as word of his unusual skills began to spread. The first patients came from the Philadelphia area, but soon, “strangers from various parts of this wide domain . . . sought from his skill the relief which their various sufferings demanded.”
“He succeeded with patients for the same reason as with students,” it was written of him; “he was both respected and liked.” This seemed like a welcome change from the relentless acrimony and open hostility that now marred the reputations of the city’s two top teaching surgeons. Mütter might have sensed that he was being groomed for something greater when three distinguished Philadelphia doctors—all several years his senior—independently approached him and inquired if they might assist him in one of his next surgeries radicals. They each wanted to see firsthand how Mütter took cases so damaged and tragic, and fixed them so seamlessly.
Perhaps the most sensible response would have been to have each doctor come in separately and then select patients whose surgeries would be easiest to perform in front of such an esteemed audience. But that wasn’t Mütter’s way. He knew it was risky, but he couldn’t help it. He decided to do a very difficult surgery, and asked all of them to be his assistants on it. It took some finessing, but Mütter assured them that each individual would serve a necessary part in the surgery. Still, it was quite a sight to see: men at the prime of their careers, lining up to assist a 29-year-old surgeon who was perhaps best known to their wives as the doctor who liked to match the color of his expensive suit to the carriage in which he was riding. But the simple truth was that the doctors were happy to line up by Mütter’s side, to witness his surgical prowess, to be close to his quick, sure hands.
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Plaster bust of Thomas Dent Mütter by Peter Charles Reniers, circa 1850s. The college of Physicians of Philadelphia (ST 514). (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Woman with Ulcer of the Face" woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter. (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Man with Tumor of the Jaw" woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter. (original image)
Image by From the Author's personal collection. "Surgery on Nathaniel Dickey" woodcuts from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1846). (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University Archives & Special Collections, Philadelphia. Surgeon's Amputation Kit. (original image)
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Wet specimen of tumor extracted from the scalp. Original donation by Dr. Mütter. Mütter Museum Collection (6535.05). (original image)
Image by By kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Evi Numen. Copyright 2014 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.. Current Photograph of the Mütter Museum, taken from upper level. (original image)
Less happy, however, were Mütter’s students, who grumbled in their seats on surgery day, upset that their own views of the operation might be blocked. After a quick contented survey of the scene, Mütter began the process of tuning them all out so that the entirety of focus could be directed to the patient shaking and drooling in the surgical chair. Nathaniel Dickey was a local Philadelphian whom Mütter had liked from the first time they met: intelligent, funny, and in perfectly good health, aside from the obvious. The 25-year-old’s face was dramatically split down the middle. His lips and the top of his mouth were raw and open, and despite Nathaniel’s best efforts to prevent it, thick cords of spittle often poured from the opening.
It was Nathaniel who sought out Mütter, asking if anything could be done to help a person like him. With a thick slur but bright eyes, he confessed to Mütter how badly he wanted to have a wife and children, how much he dreamed of walking down the street with this beautiful family he so often envisioned having, and have not a single passing stranger gawk at his deformed face. Now, weeks later, Nathaniel sat in front of Mütter, his head firmly supported against the chest of a seated Dr. Norris, and his arms held down against his torso by a tight white sheet.
Mütter had already explained the surgery to Nathaniel in detail. In the days leading up to it, Mütter would thrice daily massage Nathaniel’s face, attempting to desensitize his vulnerable palate. Even the slightest amount of vomit rising from his throat would threaten the entire operation, ruining the delicate work he was attempting to do, and inviting dangerous infection to nest in his already beleaguered mouth. The risk of purging was one of the reasons the surgery had to be performed with the patient almost entirely sober. Mütter also needed him to stay still and stiff, to open his mouth wider and wider if need be, and to keep the contents of a nervous stomach in their place.
Nathaniel had to be more than a patient; he had to be a partner in seeing this difficult surgery to its end. Mütter knew this. And so they would meet multiple times a day for facial massages. And as Mütter’s hands gently explored Nathaniel’s handsome but broken face, he would walk the young man through each moment of the surgery, carefully explaining each danger and tenderly warning of each increasing level of pain. Nathaniel never once wavered in his determination to see it through. But now on the day of the surgery, Mütter saw Nathaniel’s eyes widen and his body become rigid as he moved toward him. Mütter paused for a moment, letting Nathaniel take several deep breaths. Nathaniel’s eyes unconsciously wandered to the table where Mütter had laid out his tools: a knife, a hook, a pair of long forceps, needles, waxed thread, scissors, sponges on handles, wine and water, cold water, towels, and—hidden under a handkerchief for emergency use only—leeches, opiates, and a sharp lancet.
After making his opening remarks, being sure to name and thank each of his impressive assistants, Mütter took care to position himself properly. He decided to stand a little to one side of Nathaniel, to obstruct the entrance of light into the mouth as little as possible. He then asked Nathaniel to throw his head back as far as he could and to open his mouth and keep it in this position as long as he was able. He placed a comforting hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder, squeezed just once, and then began.
Within moments of the surgery’s quick first step—the insertion of a sharp hook into the roof of Nathaniel’s mouth used to gently pull the deformed mass of muscle and skin back—the trio of doctors forgot who they were, or that anyone else was in the room. The students groaned and fussed, as the doctors blocked their view, closing their small circle in an attempt to get a closer look at Mütter’s whirlwind actions. The trick to surgeries of this kind, Mütter knew, was twofold: You had to be quick so as to lessen the stress and pain of the patient, but slow enough to make sure you were doing it right. Mütter’s hands were a confident blur of motion as he cut and pierced, excised and sutured, flayed and positioned.
He checked in with Nathaniel often, offering whatever words of comfort and support he could. And when possible, he tried to involve the doctors who had agreed to assist, but once he realized they were more than content to watch, he focused solely on the job at hand. If Mütter had chosen to look at them, he would have noticed their faces: mouths pursed, eyebrows gathered in concentration, eyes narrowed in half disbelief. Each one wanted to ask Mütter to stop, to slow down. Mütter’s ambidextrousness meant that he could do twice the work in half the time. The doctors grew dizzy and overwhelmed, unsure of which hand to follow, unsure how they would be able to replicate the surgery themselves when it seemed like quick, efficient chaos.
But Mütter paid them no heed. The only thing that could distract him from his work was the face of Nathaniel, which he monitored as a mother would—tracking each wince, each moan, each muffled cry. When Nathaniel’s body would quake uncontrollably under Mütter’s hand, he would remove all instruments and look into Nathaniel’s eyes. With Mütter’s hand gently placed in Nathaniel’s damp hair, he would feed him a small glass of cold water. Nathaniel gargled it, and spat. The pan turned red as it grew slick with blood. And when Nathaniel was ready, Mütter returned to his work, his face calm and focused, clear and bright, almost happy.
After just 25 minutes, it was done. Nathaniel’s face, which just a moment earlier had been an open wound—bleeding, raw, and split—now was tenderly united, the silk thread straining at the incision sites, but holding. Nathaniel, exhausted and drenched in sweat, relaxed into the chair as Mütter walked backward, wiping his hands on a fresh towel. The doctors were silent, still trying to process what they had just seen. The students sat back in their seats, their journals open and empty on their laps. What notes could they take that could capture what they had just witnessed?
It felt as if perhaps they had been given a glimpse of the future, a sign that things were about to change. But Mütter noticed none of it. Instead, he remained focused on Nathaniel. He stepped again toward the trembling young man, a small sponge in hand. He softly blotted the last remnants of blood from his newly reunited mouth, his hand firm and proud on Nathaniel’s shoulder. Where others once saw a monster, Mütter thought, he had revealed the man. And from under the handkerchief on the surgical table, he pulled one more hidden item: a small mirror, clean and shining. With one tender hand cupping the back of his exhausted patient’s head, he held the mirror in front of Nathaniel’s new and handsome face. Mütter smiled. And Nathaniel Dickey, disobeying doctor’s orders this one time, smiled back.
From DR. MÜTTER'S MARVELS: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.