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"Heroes Come with Empty Sleeves"

National Museum of American History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. Read more posts by the students in our Disability History section.

Andrew Roy was 26 years old when Lieutenant Henry S. Farley lobbed the infamous first shot of the Civil War over Charleston Harbor on April 17, 1861. He answered President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers by travelling north from his native Maryland and enlisting in a Pennsylvania regiment. The young man paid dearly for his zeal when he was gravely wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill.

A private in Company F, Tenth Pennsylvania Reserves, Andrew Roy and his unit rushed forward to bolster the Union line against tenacious Confederate assaults. During the charge, he was felled by a shot that destroyed the left side of his pelvis. Roy was then captured when the field hospital he was kept in was overrun by Rebel forces a few days later. Upon returning home from a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Richmond, Virginia, his transition to civilian life was plagued by the wound's perpetual pain and numbness. Back home, despite holding a managerial position at a mine, Roy took weeks off from his job because of his health, relying on a disability pension for survival. Before his death in 1914, he lamented, "My lameness grows worse and the pain is more severe each year. ... My [left] foot seems dead." Doctors commented that he was, "wholly unfit to care for himself and demands constant attention."

Drawing on olive-colored paper. Dead and injured horses lay on ground. Some stand. Gun, carriage, a few men visible. White smears may indicate clouds, smoke, explosions.

Andrew Roy was one of over 275,000 northern soldiers wounded in the American Civil War—although he avoided amputation, unlike more than 20,000 fellow comrades who wore the Union blue. Following the death and destruction of the war, survivors faced the difficult task of finding significance in their suffering and sacrifice. Northern civilians and wounded veterans of the Federal Army offered an array of responses to the nation's anguish through ritualized commemorations in the ensuing decades. Two dominant portrayals of disabled veterans emerged: pitiful cripples and a more popular version depicting the wounded as the epitome of masculine patriotism. Scars, limps, and amputations were honorifics that symbolized the Union man's character as an individual who had sacrificed dearly to preserve the Union.

Religion helped to define public perceptions of wounded veterans, suggesting that a soldier's torment was ordained by a higher power for the national good. As Henry Palmer wrote in a handwriting competition for Federal soldiers who had lost a dominant hand:

"My right arm, as if conscious of approaching dissolution, seemingly bequeathed unto the left arm, all the properties of which it died, seized and possessed.  The seal of this Last Will and Testament was the bloodseal of amputation—Patriotism, Love and Country, and Equal Rights were the subscribing witnesses to the instrument—The body from which the arm was severed, was the Executor—In Heaven's Court, the will was proved, allowed and recorded."

Black and white portrait of man in military uniform with two sleeves pinned up.

A carte-de-visite featuring a wounded veteran of the Union army taken some time during the 1860s. Many veterans with a visible, permanent wound would pin their shirt and/or pant sleeves together instead of opting for free artificial limbs that were considered very uncomfortable.

Despite the misery, Union veterans attempted to demonstrate self-reliance. Perhaps the greatest example of independence was Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who rose to become the head of the Freedmen's Bureau after the war. Veterans argued that their injuries encouraged increased social and economic independence, and some used their wounds for political leverage. Lucius Fairchild, who received an amputation after being seriously wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg, won the Wisconsin gubernatorial election of 1866 and became a prominent veteran-affairs spokesperson for former members of the Federal Army. As such, scarred veterans as virtuous harbingers appeared in the popular culture for a public concerned about the profound effects of the war on wounded soldiers. "The Empty Sleeve: A Song with Chorus" by P.A. Hanaford and Reverend J.W. Dadmun of Boston, Massachusetts, was a popular sheet music written in 1866. Its chorus venerated Civil War veterans:

"Three hearty cheers for those who lost

An arm in Freedom's Fray

And bear about an empty sleeve

But a patriot's heart today."

The lyrics correlate physical sacrifice and triumphant patriotism. This righteous empty sleeve iconography was not equally bestowed, however. African American veterans went unacknowledged, and were barred from most veterans' organizations. Veteran Will Thomas, who participated in the same contest as Henry Palmer stated, "I don't expect to win a position as a clerk, that being ascribed on count of my color." Thus, at least within the confines of northern society, the physical changes that black veterans like Thomas suffered were largely ignored by the community. Listen to the song here. This post's headline also comes from the song's lyrics.

Sheet music cover with fancy geometric border and text saying "The Empty Sleeve" in ornate typeface.

While many men spoke of their injuries in a variety of ways, many more remained silent about the nature of their wounds. While some wounded veterans celebrated personal success later in life, others endured a lifetime of hardship. Roy did not say how his wound affected his patriotism despite professing great esteem for the late Abraham Lincoln in a speech given several decades after General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant in Wilmer McLean's parlor. The stories circulated by thousands of northern veterans and civilians illustrated the complex post-war psyche that attempted to explain the presence of the permanently wounded soldiers who had served in "Mr. Lincoln's army."

Note: The phrase has been borrowed from the first book in Bruce Catton's trilogy chronicling the history of the Army of the Potomac.

Matt Coletti is a graduate student in the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His academic interests include the public memory and contemporary collective interpretations of the American Civil War, as well as the psychological repercussions of war on individual and community life in a historical context.

Author(s): 
Matt Coletti, graduate student in the public history program in the Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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Pay attention to the man on the television screen!

National Museum of American History

The year 1939 saw two important milestones in American entertainment history. One was the release of the acclaimed motion picture The Wizard of Oz from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The other came when Radio Corporation of America (RCA) introduced electronic television, their model TRK-12, at the World's Fair. Yes, Judy Garland's Dorothy and her friends made their screen debut the same year as modern television became available to the general public. It's likely neither company expected that the two events would become so interconnected in the years to come.

Clear cabinet with light blue light eminating from inside. It includes a mirror and cone-shaped object.

Early television in wooden piece of furniture

This was not the first time people could purchase televisions. Charles Francis Jenkins's Radiovisor mechanical television had been available in the United States since the late 1920s, albeit with a very limited market. The system invented by Jenkins (and independently by John Logie Baird in England) was crude by today's standards, and expensive, but it worked. Inventors including Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin worked on more reliable electronic components leading up to the introduction by RCA at the World's Fair.

Black and white brochure feature image of family on couch watching television in living room

After World War II, development and sales of consumer television picked up and engineers began investigating color television. By 1949, the DuMont Company had developed a color television receiver, though it was not readily available on the market. One chief hurdle concerned the lack of a single standard for color television broadcasting. Consumers needed to be reassured that their new television sets would not become quickly obsolete. Congressional hearings ensued and in December 1953 the Federal Communications Commission approved the RCA system with broadcasting to begin in January 1954. Other manufacturers quickly placed products on the market.

Black and white document with some red. Image of early television.

Other challenges to color television surfaced early on. One was the cost, prohibitive for many potential consumers. Prices ranged from $420 for a Philco set to $895 for one made by RCA. (That's about $3,755 and $8,003 in modern pricing, respectively.) Since television broadcasters produced most shows in black and white, many buyers were reluctant to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a color television that would go mostly unused. Color was seen as a luxury. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, even movies and shows that had been produced and broadcast in color were seen by many at home on televisions that only displayed black-and-white. Even so, sales of color sets steadily rose. In 1955, there were about 15,000 color sets in households; by 1959, sales were estimated to be about 90,000 units.

In 1956, CBS bought the rights from MGM to broadcast The Wizard of Oz on television. It would be the first nationwide broadcast of a full-length Hollywood film. The movie, aired on November 3, was broadcast in color—except, of course, for the opening and closing sequences which were intended to be in black and white (or, in the original film, sepia toned). However, the low number of color sets meant that the first time many people saw The Wizard of Oz was on a black-and-white television, on which the colors did not appear. The color shifting of Dorothy's dream sequence was lost on most of the younger viewing audience. In 1959, the film was back on television, and due to its popularity was shown (mostly) annually for many years thereafter. For many families, it became an annual tradition and this is one reason the film is known and loved by so many generations of Americans. (Joe Hursey in our Archives Center fondly remembers watching the movie each year in Kansas. It would air on television at the beginning of tornado season.) 

Cover of VHS tape with characters faces' from Oz and rainbow

Today, color television is taken for granted and on-demand media is the norm. You can watch The Wizard of Oz on different formats of television (regular, digital, flat screen, high-definition), on computer monitors, or even on a smart phone (though why anyone would want to escapes me). What are your early memories of seeing the movie? No matter how you look at it, The Wizard of Oz remains a well-loved movie passed down through many generations. Click your remote three times and repeat, "There's no place like a television screen."

Graphic including Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow hat

Connie Holland works in the Office of Curatorial Affairs as a project assistant. She went off to see a stage version of The Wizard of Oz starring Mickey Rooney as The Wizard and Eartha Kitt as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Author(s): 
Connie Holland
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2016 - 09:00
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Letter Shows Einstein’s Prescient Concerns About ‘Dark Times’ in Germany

Smithsonian Magazine

On June 24, 1922, the German-Jewish statesman Walther Rathenau was gunned down on the streets of Berlin by a group of far-right nationalists. In the wake of the assassination, German police cautioned Albert Einstein, Rathenau’s friend and himself a prominent German Jew, to leave the city for his own safety.

As the Associated Press reports, a prescient letter penned by Einstein after his departure from Berlin is headed to auction in Jerusalem this week. In the fascinating document, Einstein writes to his younger sister, Maja, expressing his concerns for a nation inching towards fascism, years before Hitler cemented his control over Germany.

The letter, which was previously unknown, was brought forward by an anonymous collector, according to the AP. It is being sold by the Kedem auction house, and is expected to fetch upwards of $15,000.

By the time Einstein wrote the letter on August 12, 1922, he was an internationally famous scientist; he received his Nobel Prize for physics that same year. But his escape from Berlin forced him into a more secluded lifestyle. Writing from an undisclosed location—possibly Kiel, where Einstein had moved after the assassination—Einstein tells Maja that “[n]obody knows” where he is.

“I'm believed to be missing,” he explains.

Einstein assures his sister that he is faring “quite well,” in spite of the anti-Semitism he has encountered among his German colleagues. “I'm very reclusive here,” he writes, “without noise and without unpleasant feelings, and am earning my money mainly independent of the state, so that I'm really a free man.”

He also notes that he had joined a League of Nations commission (founded in 1922 to promote relations between artists, scientists and other professionals), which “naturally upsets the people here.”

“There was nothing I could do about it,” Einstein adds, “if I didn't want to be unfaithful to my ideals.”

In spite of his seemingly good cheer, Einstein was clearly concerned about the political unrest fomenting in Germany. The famed scientist wrote to Maja during the tumultuous years after WWI, when Germany was crippled by reparations owed to the Allies and various parties were vying for power. It would be more than a year before Hitler catapulted to national attention after his failed attempt to overthrow the Bavarian state government, but Einstein nevertheless sensed that Germany was headed down an ominous path.

“Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he writes, adding later that “[i]n Italy, it seems to be at least as bad.”

This is neither the first nor the only time that Einstein sounded the alarm about events in Germany. He advocated for an end to German militarism “[a]s soon as he had the limelight,” Matthew Francis writes in a 2017 article for Smithsonian, and used his platform to help raise money for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because he worried about the welfare of Jews in other parts of the world. “I am really doing whatever I can for the brothers of my race who are treated so badly everywhere,” he wrote in 1921.

Einstein himself was a target of Nazi hostility; his Theory of Relativity was dismissed by the party as “Jewish science,” and like other Jewish professionals, he was affected by laws barring Jews from holding public posts, as George Dvorsky notes in Gizmodo. Einstein decided to immigrate to the United States in December 1932, one month before Hitler became the chancellor of Germany.

On the eve of the outbreak of WWII, Einstein wrote to the Swiss-Italian engineer Michele Besso to his express his frustration over being unable to issue affidavits that would bring more European Jews to the United States. He also criticized British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s endorsement of the 1938 Munich Agreement, which sought to appease Germany by permitting the annexation of western Czechoslovakia. Sure enough, in March 1939, Germany invaded the rest of the country.

Einstein similarly criticized American leaders in a September 1942 letter to Princeton University President Frank Kingdon, in which he condemned Washington’s reluctance to participate in the fight against fascist powers in Spain and France. The United States would enter the war two months later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But when he wrote to Maja in 1922, Einstein may have still held out hope that the course of this difficult period would turn out for the better; it would be a decade before he renounced his German citizenship and left Germany for good.

“Einstein's initial reaction was one of panic and a desire to leave Germany for good,” Ze'ev Rosenkranz, the assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, tells the AP.Within a week, he had changed his mind.”

Musician José Feliciano shook up a baseball tradition at age 23

National Museum of American History

José Feliciano will remain forever celebrated for his perennial Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad," one of his many hit recordings that have resulted in 45 Gold and Platinum records and eight Grammy awards. His launch to stardom began 50 years ago, with his hit 1968 recording of "Light My Fire," but it was not until his appearance at a baseball game later that fall that he truly became a household name.

Photo of acoustic guitarIn 1967 this guitar was custom built for José Feliciano. On it, he recorded his first hit in 1968, "Light My Fire," and performed before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series.Jose Feliciano, wearing sunglasses and leather jacket, plays acoustic guitar and sings as three others look on.In 2018, Jose Feliciano welcomed new citizens into the United States during a naturalization ceremony hosted by the National Museum of American History.

Indeed, his early life in Lares, Puerto Rico, and then in New York City, where his family moved when he was five, conjured for him spectacular visions of the brilliant traditions of American music, song, and . . . baseball. So when he was asked to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Detroit's Tiger Stadium, he crafted the most beautiful, and meaningful, rendition that he could imagine. He was only 23 at the time, and his interpretation of the anthem was unexpected, new, different, and vital. It was soulful and searching. Steeped in blues and folk music traditions and seasoned with the percolation of his fingers across a guitar built in the Sunset Boulevard shop of an immigrant family from Torreon, Mexico, his rendition demonstrated the complexity of the American experience as none had before.

The live national broadcast of his youthful and pleading, yet unorthodox, performance reverberated throughout a country embroiled in the Vietnam War, reeling over the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and recovering from the previous summer's civil uprisings in cities throughout the country, including Detroit.

Some were offended by the way he made the song his own. They believed that performances of the anthem should be delivered with the solemn pomp and circumstance of marshal music, rather than incorporate the instruments, vocal inflections, and musical styles found in the more popular genres of the day. They considered Feliciano's version not as heartfelt and sincere, but as an attack on authority and tradition. The day after the game, the Los Angeles Times reported that NBC had "received a rash of calls from irate viewers." One spectator at the game called it "a disgrace, an insult. I’m going to write my senator about it." Another, also quoted in the Los Angeles Times, called it "non-patriotic." Feliciano heard boos from many in the crowd, and stood his ground while interviewed during the event: "I just do my thing—what I feel. . . . I love this country very much. I'm for everything this country stands for."

Others supported him and, through their embrace, Feliciano sent "The Star-Spangled Banner" into the pop charts for the first time ever. As Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers put it after the game, Feliciano made Marvin Gaye, who sang the anthem in a conventional manner before Game 4, "sound like a square." The attention that he drew from the performance launched a revolution through the present day for popular artists, from Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston to Lady Gaga, to personalize and seek new ways to find meaning in the anthem.

We continue to place great weight in the ritual singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events—both as an opportunity to express thanks for the sacrifices of those before us, and, through solemn protest, to challenge the country to do better, to continue our march toward a more perfect union. It was Feliciano's 1968 performance, however, that led the way for us all to search and explore together how and why "The Star-Spangled Banner" matters.

Following his keynote address, delivered just a few feet from the flag from Fort McHenry that inspired the anthem, Feliciano performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his 1967 Candelas guitar, just as he performed it during the 1968 World Series. You can also find this video on YouTube.

José Feliciano has donated a set of objects to the National Museum of American History that each speak to different facets of his life and career. The objects include the braillewriter that he has used since the 1960s to write lyrics, notes to fans, and love letters to his wife, Susan, who joined us at the donation ceremony on Flag Day. Feliciano has been blind since birth, and his braillewriter was a critical songwriting tool that also contributes magnificently to the museum's growing collection of objects that convey the stories of Americans who are blind. 

Heavy-looking grey/dark green piece of equipment with six typewriter-style keys.Feliciano's Perkins BraillerLetter that starts "My dear Mr. Jose Feliciano, This is the first letter I have written to somebody in film world..." Embroidered in pink, green, and yellow, on black background.This letter was embroidered and mailed to Feliciano in the early 1970s by a member of Japan's José Feliciano Fan Club.

 

Feliciano talks about the guitar he donated to our collections. This video is also available on YouTube.

Three objects now in our collection represent the extent of his global reach: a pair of his iconic sunglasses, the likes of which have featured on millions of album covers and concert posters throughout both hemispheres; a long-used performance stool that has journeyed with him to concert halls and recording studios all over the world; and a cherished letter from the early 1970s that had hung in his home studio for years—a piece of fan mail embroidered with a message in English from a member of Japan's José Feliciano Fan Club that demonstrates not only the breadth of his global appeal, but also the intense dedication of his fans. Finally, he donated his beloved 1967 Candelas guitar—the guitar that was built specifically for him by famed Mexican American instrument-maker Candelario Delgado. With this guitar, Feliciano recorded his first hit, "Light My Fire." And with this guitar he provided the world that historic 1968 performance of the national anthem.

Acoustic guitar in caseDuring a naturalization ceremony in Flag Hall, Feliciano performed "The Star Spangled Banner" on this 1967 Concerto Candelas guitar before donating it to the National Museum of American History.

John Troutman is Curator of American Music in the Division of Culture and the Arts. He has also blogged about the legacies of James Cotton and Chuck Berry.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 10:00
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Special Event: Tactile and Verbal Description Tours

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Accessibility Coordinator Lilli Tichinin, with interns Cyle Cucinotta and Sarah Blakeney, leads visitors on a tactile and verbal description tour. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Accessibility coordinator Lilli Tichinin, along with interns Cyle Cucinotta and Sarah Blakeney, leads visitors who are blind or have low vision on a tactile and verbal description tour. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

The rain on June 27 may have pushed the Festival inside the National Museum of the American Indian, but it didn’t stop this year’s first tactile and verbal description tour. Led by Festival accessibility coordinator Lilli Tichinin, the event helps visitors who are blind or have low vision experience Perú: Pachamama.

Each visitor is paired with an intern or volunteer who can verbally describe the environment. “The Festival really is an entire atmosphere,” Tichinin explains. “It’s important to describe the feel of the site as well as physical objects.”

The tour also focuses on objects with unique textures that can provide interesting tactile experiences. This year there was a wide variety of possibilities such as textiles from Cusco, handwoven rope of the Q’eswachaka Bridge, and totora reed rafts.

Marinera belt weaver Margarita Mechán shows a visitor her backstrap loom on the tactile and verbal description tour. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Marinera belt weaver Margarita Mechán shows a visitor her backstrap loom on the tactile and verbal description tour. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Co-curator Olivia Cadaval began the tour with an overview of the Peru program. “Talking with a curator gives visitors some context before they began their tour” explains Tichinin. “With her help they were able to ask in-depth questions about the artists and the objects on the tour.”

The visitors then made their way through the craft demonstrations in NMAI’s Potomac Atrium to learn about a variety of art forms.

“The Festival participants were so welcoming and helpful,” volunteer services intern Cyle Cucinotta says. “They encouraged the visitors to touch their art work and ask questions. Margarita Guzmán, the Marinera hat weaver, even let visitors lay their hands over hers while she was weaving so they could feel what she was doing.”

Hat weaver Margarita Guzmán lets a visitor feel her work. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Hat weaver Margarita Guzmán lets a visitor feel her work. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Although the tour began as a group, visitors and their guides split off for more personalized experiences, moving around the museum at their own speed. As Cucinotta explains, the tour’s individualized approach is vital to helping each visitor get the most out of their experience.

“Some people wanted detailed information about who made an object, what it was made of, and what it is used for,” she says. “Other people wanted to focus on exactly what objects looked like. I found that it was best to follow their hands while giving descriptions. That way, I could give real-time commentary as they moved across the artwork.”

Visitors ended their tour by feeling a selection of handmade goods from the Festival Marketplace. “Many of the visitors really liked going to the Marketplace,” Cucinotta says. “The fact that they could feel something on the tour and then buy one to take with them was a great experience.”

Once the tour was over, several visitors stayed to listen to storytelling sessions and performances in the Rasmuson Theater.

Despite the weather, Tichinin is pleased with the outcome of the tour. “The visitors really did take full advantage of the experience, even though they had to adapt to a condensed space.”

Quinua farmers and musicians perform in the Ayacucho Carnaval. Photo by Michelle Arbeit, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Quinua farmers and musicians perform in the Ayacucho Carnaval. Photo by Michelle Arbeit, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

“One of my favorite moments was actually after the tour,” she adds. “One of the visitors, whose parents are from Peru, was especially intrigued by the costumes at the Ayacucho Carnaval, a special performance in the Rasmuson by traditional quinoa farmers. She met the participants after the show, both to express her compliments on a wonderful performance and to feel the costumes that she had heard about from the performance presenter.

“What I appreciate about this moment was that it tied the tactile tour to other aspects of the Festival. The tour can be a jumping-off point for visitors’ Festival experiences, but it is by no means limiting and can be just the beginning of exploration at the Festival.”

A second tactile and verbal description tour for Festival visitors who are blind or have low vision for will take place on Thursday, July 2 from 3 to 5 p.m. Weather permitting, this second tour will take place outside on the National Mall.

To join the tour, please RVSP to ensure that each visitor can be paired with a guide. Contact the Smithsonian Accessibility Program at access@si.edu or (202) 633-2921.

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.

Festival Photo Daily Dozen: July 3, 2013

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

We kicked off the second week of the Festival after a two-day break. We bade fond farewell to several participants, and we welcomed a number of new ones–in particular, to the Will to Adorn and One World, Many Voices programs.

Though a bit muddy underfoot, a rainy day turned into a very nice one with bearable temperatures. And the Festival site was once again hopping with lots of activity and sound. Looking forward to more great performances, workshops, and demonstrations.

Click on images to enlarge and view captions.

The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the... Sierra Nevadas?

Smithsonian Magazine

The sun was setting and the cow was gone. On all sides, Spain's snow-capped Sierra Nevadas reminded us that the day’s spring warmth would turn cold at nightfall.

We were lost.

“Not lost,” insisted my friend Danielle. After all, we knew how we’d gotten here—we’d been forced to stray from the official high road when it ended in a precipice, the result of a landslide that had washed away the trail. We had descended to an alternate route, where we found the rocky remnants of the slide and no sign of an expected bridge over the riverbed’s raging current. A brief cow sighting had given us hope that we could make it up the opposite slope slightly farther upstream.

So we had river-forded and rock-scrambled, pushed over thorns, past brambles and under barbed wire, and, finally, emerged—nowhere. Of course, much as we were not lost, we were technically not nowhere, but we were certainly neither found nor anywhere recognizable either.

__________________________

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. After all, my two friends and I were hiking to Trevélez, which, at 4,593 feet, is the highest village in mainland Spain.

We had decided to spend part of our March vacation trekking in Andalusia, the Southern region where Moorish rule guided Al-Andalus (as Andalusia was known in Arabic) from the 700s to the conclusion of the Christian Reconquista in 1492. The region is known for its melding of Muslim and Christian influences in its religious buildings and palaces—the core of Cordoba’s famed Mezquita mosque contains a Gothic cathedral. Washington Irving made the “Arabian spice” of Granada’s Christianized palace complex known to Americans in 1832 in Tales of the Alhambra. Famous Andalusian artists include Malaga’s Pablo Picasso, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and temporary resident Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bullfighting (and not the GR-7 hiking path, despite the ominously almost-apropos title) in Death in the Afternoon.

For the outdoors-hombre of any level, Andalusia offers abundant trails, with one-fifth of its land under government protection. Vías verdes, or green ways, comprise over 1,000 miles of flat, former railway land, perfect for easy walking or biking trips between villages. As the Zuheros-based hiking author Clive Jarman told me: “You can’t get lost on a vía verde.” More advanced hikers can use vías pecuarias, or old cattle trails, now publicly protected for use by farmers and tourists.

On our trip, we followed low, red- and white-striped wooden posts that marked the route of the GR-7, one of more than 50 Gran Recorridos (large paths) that stretch across Spain. At 723 miles, the GR-7 is part of the much longer E-4, a European route that weaves from the southern tip of Spain, near Tarifa, up through France and across the continent to Greece. (Europe has 11 such long-distance “E” routes.) It takes approximately 40 days to hike from one end to the other of the GR-7’s Andalusia segment. We had chosen to hike only one day’s worth.

But even short routes can cause trouble. Speaking from personal experience, Jarman said, “The problem with walking routes is the minute you write about them, they’re out of date.” We found this out the hard way.

__________________________

Image by Marina Koestler Ruben. On her trip, author Marina Koestler Ruben followed the GR-7 route that stretches across Spain. Certain routes can cause trouble as they found out when she came across a dead end. (original image)

Image by Marina Koestler Ruben. Andalusia offers abundant trails, with one-fifth of its land under government protection. (original image)

Image by Danielle Soya. In the five months from October to the beginning of March, some regions in Andalusia received three times the average annual rainfall. (original image)

Image by Danielle Soya. An employee at a Trevélez hotel informed the author that rain had caused the trails to become more dangerous than in past years. (original image)

Image by Marina Koestler Ruben. The town of Trevélez sits at 4,593 feet and is the highest village in mainland Spain. (original image)

Image by Marina Koestler Ruben. The author enjoyed the view of the village of Zuheros from a nearby via pecuaria . (original image)

The previous day, we had arrived at our hike departure point without incident, traveling southeast from Granada by bus and arriving in the evening in the town of Pitres, in the Sierra Nevada range. We stayed overnight in a hotel, woke before sunrise and left on foot by 8 a.m., carrying all our gear. Our plan: to hike the ten miles to Trevélez in 5 1/2 hours, arriving by midday.

An initial run-in with a dead end left me clinging to a cliff, dizzy, but we had descended to an alternate route, wading barefoot across a freezing stream. Then, for several hours, we had a pleasant climb through the pueblos blancos, or painted ”white villages,” of Pórtugos and Busquístar and past olive trees, oaks, chestnuts and evergreens. The air smelled of pine and manure, birds chirped and, as the day warmed, we removed our sweaters and bared our arms to the bright blue sky.

We stopped for a picnic lunch of pan and queso on a rocky overlook to the edge of the path, bounded on one side by a mountain view and the other by pines—some wearing the white cotton-candy nests that signal caterpillar infestation. After lunch, we continued uphill. The path narrowed, and at times we had to walk across snowy ledges, unable to rely on the wet, loose slate walls for support.

By 2:30, we had reached the high dirt path that would lead us along the mountainside on the final ascent and descent to Trevélez. But something didn’t look right. The trail, formerly wide enough to accommodate cars, now ended abruptly in the aforementioned sheer drop.

We backtracked, our options limited. We would have to venture across the valley on the route our guidebook said the GR “purists” favored—a route that would have us lose all the altitude we’d gained over the past several hours so that we could cross a bridge at the base of the valley.

Had we known what we would later learn—that the bridge, too, had been washed out, along with the path on the opposite side of the river—we might have tried to turn back to Pitres. Of course, had we fully understood what it meant to hike in March, at the start of the hiking season following a winter with a record-setting amount of rain that weakened Andalusia’s renowned bulls, destroyed a third of its citrus crops and even flooded the meat off the drying ham haunches of Trevélez, we might not have taken this route at all.

According to Rosa Espinosa, an employee at Trevélez’s Hotel La Fragua (spoiler: we eventually did make it to the village) and a lifelong resident of Trevélez, the trails were not usually dangerous, but this year was different. In the five months from October to the beginning of March, some regions in Andalusia received three times the average annual rainfall.

So, when we reached the shady, bridgeless base of the trail, realizing that sunset was drawing nearer, we had no choice but to officially abandon the GR-7. We climbed carefully over boulders alongside a raging brook, its strong current sweeping away the test rocks we dropped in as possible stepping stones. Eventually, we found a big rock from which we could throw our backpacks across the river and then jump. Then we scrambled up the steep hill, tearing our hands on brambles and barbs, and found ourselves in a clearing, surrounded on all sides by trees and mountains.

We were off the trail, and it was now around 4 p.m.—I wasn’t entirely sure, as my watch had been ripped off my wrist earlier in the day. But then Danielle pointed to the distant side of the valley, where we could see the height of the road that traced its way around the mountainside. In theory, a path could exist at the same altitude on our side of the mountain.

We made for the shortest route toward the tree line, and with that, we were back on the trail—or a trail, at least. It was a dirt road marked with a single, simple inspiring sign: “Parque Nacional.” Naturally, this being Spain, the path led us to a field of bulls. They were sedate (among the bulls weakened by the rain?), and we dropped our precautionary rocks and passed without incident.

Soon, at long last, as we wound our way down a series of switchbacks, we were thrilled to find that we had our first view of Trevélez. We looked down happily at the flat-roofed, whitewashed buildings below, terraced in their altomedio and bajo districts.

The next time we woke before sunrise, it was to catch a bus out of the Sierra Nevadas. We had trekked from Pitres to Trevélez in ten hours. By bus, we made it back in 20 minutes.

Five Wild Ideas: From a Vest for Weight Loss to an Electric Skateboard

Smithsonian Magazine

The average American worker spends 13 hours sitting every day at home and at work. Some plant their feet squarely on the ground underneath their desks, but others sit cross-legged or prop their feet up.

For the latter set, Matt Hulme and Brent Murray, two Brigham Young University students from Provo, Utah, have invented the Foot Hammock. Exactly what it sounds like, the product is a miniature mesh or fleece hammock, intended to improve a user's posture, that attaches, with adhesive hooks, to the bottom of any desk. A Kickstarter campaign for the product, which wrapped five days ago, raised $113, 212, blowing its original $15,000 goal out of the water. Who knew?

Here are five other quirky ideas that were funded this week:

The Cold Shoulder Calorie Burning Vest (Goal: $13,500 Raised: $281,319 on Kickstarter)

In order to stay warm when it’s cold, the body must burn extra calories. This logic is the inspiration behind the Cold Shoulder vest, the latest in unconventional approaches to weight loss. The idea comes from NASA scientist Wayne Hayes, who believes that people can drop pounds, even while sedentary, by wearing a garment lined with ice packs.

Users place the vest in the freezer, and once it’s frozen, take it out to wear anytime. Watching television? Commuting to work? Put it on. Through mild cold exposure, Hayes claims that wearers can burn 500 calories daily, which could amount to a pound of fat per week. He also emphasizes the vest's casual wearability. Luckily, his wife was able to talk him out of wearing it at their wedding.

Zboard: An Advanced Electric Skateboard (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $435,000 on Indiegogo)

Bikes may soon have to make way for the Zboard 2, an electric skateboard that starts, stops and adjusts its speed based on the rider subtly shifting weight. Fans of extreme sports, the Northern California inventors of the product want to offer a fun but reliable mode of transportation for short distances.

The lightweight, waterproof board, equipped with LED lights, charges in 90 minutes and tops out at 20 miles per hour, although speed is at the user’s discretion. There are currently two models available: the Blue, which can traverse 16 miles on a charge, and the Pearl, which can cover 24.

Neeo Remote: Universal remote control (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $1,558,280 on Kickstarter)

A Cupertino, California team of designers and engineers has taken the sci-fi notion of a universal remote and made it a reality. Neeo is a two-piece home automation system, consisting of a remote and a “brain."

The brain—a stationary, oval-shaped device that can be placed anywhere in the house—connects to any infrared and Wi-Fi products in the home, including lighting, window shades, the television and speaker systems. It is compatible with over 10,000 home appliances, such as Nest, Sonos and Apple TV. With the remote, the user is able to control all these devices from one place. Just don't lose it.

Facets: Building Blocks of 3D Geometry (Goal: $12,500 Raised: $36,864 on Kickstarter) 

The next-generation of building blocks. (Kickstarter)

Ron Worley, a Las Vegas toymaker, has a fascination for Archimedean solids. If you need a little geometry refresher, these form when two-dimensional shapes, like triangles, rectangles and pentagons, meet at different edges to create something three-dimensional. And to share his nerdy obsession, he created Facets, a set of magnetized blocks that connect at interesting angles. With a set of these dandy things, kids (and adults!) can move beyond the basic tower and build something more reminiscent of a complex molecular model.

Modus Sketching Tool (Goal: $1,400 Raised: $25,754 on Kickstarter)

Modus is a protractor, ruler and compass, all in one. (Kickstarter)

Move over, melon baller. Watch out, egg separator. Sayonara, mango slicer. The Modus puts unitaskers to shame. By Shard Designs of Pleasanton, California, the slick, metal tool boasts 11 uses. It fulfills an artist's many needs, serving as a portable ruler, compass, protractor, T-square and more. The size of a credit card, the Modus can easily stowed in a wallet, where it actually protects against RFID theft.

The Entertaining Saga of the Worst Crook in Colonial America

Smithsonian Magazine

For every hero in American history, there must be a hundred scoundrels—con men, Ponzi schemers, cat burglars, greedy gigolos, jewel thieves, loan sharks, phony doctors, phony charities, phony preachers, body snatchers, bootleggers, blackmailers, cattle rustlers, money launderers, smash-and-grabbers, forgers, swindlers, pickpockets, flimflam artists, stickup specialists and at least one goat-gland purveyor, not to mention all the high-tech varieties made possible by the internet.

Most of these vandals have been specialists who stuck to a single line of skullduggery until they got caught, retired or died. Some liked to brag to admirers about their enterprises, and a tiny few dared to write and publish books about them; Willie Sutton, for example, the Tommy Gun-wielding "Slick Willie" who heisted some $2 million robbing banks back in the first half of the last century (when that was a lot of money), wrote Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber in 1976. There was Xaviera Hollander, the Park Avenue madam whose memoir, The Happy Hooker, inspired a series of Hollywood movies and helped encourage the sexual frankness of recent decades.

Occasionally, one of these memoirists tells of diversifying, spreading out, trying this dodge if that one doesn’t work. Sutton's lesser known contemporary, Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed in the movie Catch Me If You Can, wrote of bilking wealthy innocents of some $2.5 million by posing as a lawyer, teacher, doctor and airline pilot before going straight. Other such confessors are hiding in the archives.

But there has been only one Stephen Burroughs, a poseur whose life would make a fabulous movie if today’s audiences were as interested in early American history as in robotic space monsters. His exploits began during the Revolutionary War when he ran off to join—then depart—the Continental Army three times at the age of 14. By the time he was 33, he had lived and misbehaved vigorously enough to make up the first version of his autobiography. So far, Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs false has been published with slightly differing titles in more than 30 editions over a span of more than 216 years. 

The New England poet Robert Frost wrote that Burroughs's book should stand on the shelf beside the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. To Frost, Franklin's volume was "a reminder of what we have been as a young nation," while Burroughs "comes in reassuringly when there is a question of our not unprincipled wickedness…sophisticated wickedness, the kind that knows its grounds and can twinkle…Could we have been expected to produce so fine a flower in a pioneer state?"

Harper’s Magazine once described Stephen Burroughs as “a gentleman who at times came in somewhat violent contact with the laws of his country.” (NMAH, from the Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs,1835)

“Sophisticated wickedness that can twinkle” sounds like a review of one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, his sublime caricatures of English nobility. But in Burroughs we find no nobility, only 378 or so flowing pages by the only son of a harsh Presbyterian preacher in a colonial New England village; a memoirist who lived his adventures before he wrote about them with such jolly sophistication. Or at least he said he did.

Stephen Burroughs was born in 1765 in Connecticut, and moved as a child to Hanover, New Hampshire. At home and briefly away at school, he earned and proudly wore a reputation as an incorrigible child, stealing watermelons, upsetting outhouses, restlessly looking for trouble.

He explained his boyhood thus: “My thirst for amusement was insatiable…I sought it in pestering others…I became the terror of the people where I lived, and all were very unanimous in declaring that Stephen Burroughs was the worst boy in town; and those who could get him whipt were most worthy of esteem…however, the repeated application of this birchen medicine never cured my pursuit of fun.”

Indeed, that attitude explained most of Burroughs’s imaginative career. 

When he was 16, his father enrolled him at nearby Dartmouth College, but that didn’t last long—after another prank involving watermelons, he was sent home. Young Burroughs proved that schooling was not necessary for a quick-witted young man zipping between gullible New England communities so nimbly that primitive communications couldn’t keep up with him.

At 17, he decided to go to sea. Venturing to Newburyport, Massachusetts, he went aboard a privateer, a private vessel authorized to prey on enemy shipping. Having no pertinent skills, he picked the brain of an elderly medicine man before talking himself aboard as the ship’s doctor. This produced a dramatic account of surgery amid storms, battling a British gunship and later being jailed for improperly issuing wine to the crew, a series of adventures that would strain even Horatio Hornblower.

The historian Larry Cebula recalls two unacquainted travelers sharing a coach in 1790 New England when one of them, a Boston lawyer, discoursed about a famed confidence man named Burroughs. This Burroughs, he said, had “led a course of the most barefaced and horrid crimes of any man living, including stealing, counterfeiting, robbing and adultery, escaping prison, burning the prison and killing guards.” He did not realize that the fellow listening quietly to all this was Stephen Burroughs himself, who by then, at the age of 25, had a log of misdeeds stretching well beyond the lawyer’s account.

Burroughs’s life can barely hint at the richness of his memoirs, which scholars accept as mostly, or at least partly, true. (NMAH, From the Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs,1835)

A hundred years after Burroughs first tried to become a boy soldier, Harper’s Magazine described him as “a gentleman who at times came in somewhat violent contact with the laws of his country.”  Yes: after his seafaring adventure, he snitched some of his father’s sermons and headed out pretending to be a preacher; he got away with it until the congregation caught on and chased him out of town. Skipping from village to village, he briefly occupied pulpit after pulpit.

When that career dwindled, he branched into counterfeiting. Printing phony money was a popular crime in those days, before common currency was established, and Burroughs was a master. The National Museum of American History in its new exhibition American Enterprise, displays a prime example of his art—a $1 certificate on the Union Bank of Boston, dated 1807, signed by Burroughs as cashier, and later stamped COUNTERFEIT.  

Artful but not quite perfect, he was caught and jailed, but broke out and moved on, becoming a schoolteacher. Convicted of seducing a teenage student, he was sentenced to the public whipping post. He escaped again and took his tutorial talents to Long Island, where he helped organize one of the nation’s first public libraries. After failing at land speculation in Georgia, he returned north and settled across the border in Quebec, nominally a farmer but still counterfeiting till he was caught and convicted yet again. But there he settled down, converting to Catholicism and living as a mostly respectable citizen until he died in 1840.   

This race through some of the high/low spots of Burroughs’s life can barely hint at the richness of his memoirs, which scholars accept as mostly, or at least partly, true. Whatever their factual percentage, they remain an affectionate, sometimes hilarious, extremely readable meander voyage through provincial life in the brand-new republic.

The permanent exhibition “American Enterprise” opened on July 1 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and traces the development of the United States from a small dependent agricultural nation to one of the world's largest economies.

When Don the Talking Dog Took the Nation by Storm

Smithsonian Magazine

In the heyday of American vaudeville—roughly 1880 to 1930—few shows were complete without an animal act or two.

Rats in little jockey costumes rode cats around racetracks. Elephants waltzed and danced the hula. Kangaroos boxed, sea lions juggled, monkeys pedaled bicycles and smoked cigarettes.

But no animal act seemed to get as much notice as Don the Talking Dog, a sensation from the moment he debuted in 1912. Variously described a German hunting dog, forest dog, setter, or pointer, the 8-year-old Don was acclaimed as “the canine phenomenon of the century.”

With a vocabulary that ultimately reached eight words—all in German—Don had garnered attention in the United States as early as 1910, with breathless newspaper reports from Europe. According to some accounts, his first word was haben(“have” in English), followed by “Don,” kuchen(“cake”), and hunger (same word in English and German).

Theoretically, this allowed him to form the useful sentence: Don hunger, have cake—although most accounts say he typically spoke just one word at a time, and only when prompted by questions. He later added ja and nein (“yes” and “no”), as well as ruhe (“quiet” or “rest”) and “Haberland” (the name of his owner).

Vaudeville was designed as family entertainment suitable for all ages. While less prestigious than “legitimate” theater (think Hamlet), it was a considerable step up from its competitor, burlesque, which tended to be more risqué (think scantily clad dancing girls.) It also catered to Americans of all socioeconomic groups, from the well-established middle class to freshly arrived immigrants—basically anybody with the 25 cents to $1.50 it cost to buy a ticket.

Though centered on Broadway and other prime locations around Manhattan, with lavish theaters that could seat several thousand patrons, vaudeville also flourished in cities large and small across the U.S. Performers would go on a “circuit” from city to city, often starting in New York, gradually making their way to the west coast, and then looping back again. Some acts would also travel to England, continental Europe, Australia and South Africa, where vaudeville (sometimes called “variety”) was popular, as well.

The vaudeville historian Trav S.D., author of No Applause—Just Throw Money, thinks the fact that Don “spoke” German may have been part of his appeal, given the large German immigrant population in New York City at the time. “I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that many German-Americans went out to see their canine countryman utter a few words of their native language out of sheer patriotism and nostalgia,” he told Smithsonian.com.

Don arrived in the U.S. in 1912 at the invitation of the vaudeville impresario and publicity genius William Hammerstein. Hammerstein had hyped Don’s pending visit by putting up a $50,000 bond (more than $1.25 million in today’s dollars) in case the dog died between London and New York; Lloyd’s of London had supposedly refused to insure him. “This makes Don the most valuable dog in the world,” the New York Times reported.

“Don will sail on the Kronprinz Wilhelm next Wednesday,” the Times noted. “A special cabin has been engaged in order to insure his safety.”

When Don’s ship docked, he was greeted like any other visiting celebrity, met by ship reporters hoping for some lively quotes. Unfortunately, as the New York Evening World’s reporter noted, Don was “too seasick on the way over to converse with anybody. As yet, therefore, his opinion of the New York skyline and other local sights is unknown.”

Image by Chronicling America/LOC. Headline from The Salt Lake Tribune, April 09, 1911. (original image)

Image by Chronicling America/LOC. Feature article headline from The San Francisco Call, May 18, 1913 (original image)

Image by Chronicling America/LOC. Headline from the Omaha Daily Bee, April 9, 1911 (original image)

Image by Chronicling America/LOC. Illustration from Chicago's The Day Book, July 22, 1912. (original image)

Don would stay in the States for the next two years, appearing first at Hammerstein’s prestigious Roof Garden theater on 42nd Street in New York City, where he performed on the same bill as escape artist Harry Houdini. He then toured the country, performing in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities.

Not every performer of Houdini’s caliber would share the bill with an animal act. Some considered it undignified. Others objected to the way the animals were sometimes treated, especially the often-cruel methods used to train them. Among the latter group were the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who appeared on the vaudeville stage late in her career, and the hugely popular but now largely forgotten American singer Elsie Janis. Janis once wrote that, “any man who earns his money by the hard, cruel work of dumb beasts should not be known.”

Don seems to have had it relatively easy, though. Wherever he appeared, his act consisted of answering a series of questions served up by his regular straight man and interpreter, a vaudeville veteran known as Loney Haskell. Haskell became so attached to Don, according to the famous New York celebrity columnist O.O. McIntyre, “that in one-night stands he slept in the dog’s kennel.”

Off stage, Don’s purported ability to talk was taken seriously even in academic circles. Lending some credence to the notion that a dog might actually converse, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell had once claimed that as a young man he taught his Skye terrier to say “How are you grandmamma?”

On a 1913 visit to San Francisco, Don and his handlers called on J. C. Merriam, a respected paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who, if contemporary newspaper accounts are to be believed, was “astonished” and “declared his belief that the dog can reason and think for himself.”

Earlier, the respected journal Science had another explanation, based on statements by a University of Berlin professor who had also examined Don. His conclusion, the journal reported in May 1912, was that “the speech of Don is… to be regarded properly as the production of sounds which produce illusions in the hearer.”

In other words, Don’s audience was hearing what it wanted (and had paid) to hear—a genuine talking dog.

The trade paper Variety came to a similar verdict in several enthusiastic, if appropriately skeptical, reviews of the act. “The trained growls which emanate from his throat can readily be mistaken for words,” one reviewer concluded.

Despite his relatively limited vocabulary, Don also became a pioneering celebrity endorser, in his case for Milk-Bone dog biscuits. Referring to Don as “the most valuable money-making dog in the world,” newspaper ads claimed that the cash-cow canine “is fed only on Maltoid Milk-Bone—the Best Food for Your Dogs Too.”

After two years in the U.S., Don seems to have retired and returned to his homeland. Haskell calculated that their stage performances paid Don $92 per word, the equivalent of about $2,300 a word today. That meant his full eight-word performance would have returned the modern equivalent of $18,400—presumably enough to keep him in cakes and/or Milk-Bones for life. (And vaudeville acts typically performed multiple times a day.)

Don reportedly died at home, near Dresden, Germany, in late 1915, when he would have been about 12. His last words, if any, seem to have gone unrecorded.

There would be other “talking” dogs, including Rolf, a German-born terrier who supposedly communicated by a sort of Morse code of his own invention and also solved addition and subtraction problems (circa 1915), and Queen, “positively the only dog in the world that speaks the English language” (circa 1918). Singing dogs had their day, too.

The phenomenon would gradually die out as vaudeville yielded the stage to other forms of entertainment, especially motion pictures. Author Trav S.D., who pays attention to such matters, says he isn’t aware of any “talking” dog acts on the scene today. However, he notes, there are plenty of amateurs to be seen (and heard) on YouTube.

But no dog, however vocally gifted, is likely to capture the American public’s imagination quite like Don. A top dog, if there ever was one.

Dr. John's Prognosis

Smithsonian Magazine

Mac Rebennack, better known as the musician Dr. John, has been impressing audiences since the 1960s with a stage show deeply rooted in the culture of his native New Orleans. In his heyday, Rebennack would appear on stage in a puff of smoke, decorated in Mardi Gras plumes, bones and amulets, reciting voodoo chants while spreading glitter into the audience. But he is also a highly regarded blues, rock and jazz artist considered a solid songwriter and session musician. In his most recent album, "The City that Care Forgot," he criticizes the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and plays with Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Ani Difranco. Rebennack, 68, spoke recently with Kenneth Fletcher about his wild past and concerns about the future

What kind of music did you hear growing up?
Well, my father's records were what they called "race records", which was blues, rhythm and blues, traditional jazz and gospel. He owned a record shop and had a large black clientele. They would come by and play a record to decide if they liked it. I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson?

But I started playing guitar because I thought I'd never get a job playing piano. Every guitarist I knew could get work easy. Somewhere in the early ‘50s I started doing recording sessions and after that I went on the road.

How did you get back to playing piano?
Around 1960, I got shot in my finger before a concert. A guy was pistol whipping Ronnie Barron, our vocalist. Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me "You better look out for my son." Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.

So you switched to piano because of the injury. You must have been playing some seedy places.
They were pretty much buckets of blood joints. It was not a wholesome atmosphere where you could bring your family along. There were gang fights. The security and the police would fire guns into the crowd. It was pretty wild.

Bourbon Street was always the touristy scene, but Canal Street, Jackson Avenue, Lasalle Street, Louisiana Avenue- all of them had strips of clubs on them. Later [New Orleans District Attorney] Jim Garrison padlocked and shut down the whole music scene.

What kind of music did you play?
All different kinds. At one gig we might be backing up strippers and playing Duke Ellington stuff. One girl might want flamenco or maybe belly dancing music. Then the next gig we would play pop and R&B songs of the day. Later there would be an after-hour jam session. It was pretty great. We worked 365 days a year, 12 hours a night, and did sessions during the day. I've always thought that my chops were a lot better then than they ever have been since.

How did you go from Mac Rebennack the backup musician, to becoming Dr. John?
I was never fond of front men. I didn't want to be one. All my plans were for Ronnie Barron, the same guy who I got shot in my finger over, to be Dr. John. Then my conga player said "Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher can do it you can do it." He talked me into it. I did my first record to keep New Orleans gris gris alive.

The Dr. John character is based on gris gris, or voodoo?
Well yeah. I always thought it was a beautiful part of New Orleans culture. It's such a blend of stuff; African, Choctaw, Christianity, Spanish.

I just figured that if I wrote songs based on gris gris, it would help people. A lot of the people practicing it were dying off and the kids were not following it. I was trying to keep the traditions going.

Where did the name Dr. John came from?
If you go back in the historical records of New Orleans there was a guy in the 1800s that was named Dr. John. He was a free man of color, as they said in those days, and a gris gris man.

Image by © Christopher Felver / Corbis. "I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson? (original image)

Image by © William Coupon / Corbis. In his heyday, Dr. John would appear on stage in a puff of smoke, decorated in Mardi Gras plumes, bones and amulets, reciting voodoo chants while spreading glitter into the audience. (original image)

How would you describe voodoo?
It respects all religions, it respects everything. An old lady told me one time, "There's nothing wrong with any religion, it's just that man can mess up anything and make it into something very bad." It's true. It happens all the time.

Didn't you use voodoo chants into your songs?
I went up to some of the reverend mothers and I asked them could I do a sacred song. But I couldn't do them because it was not for a ceremony. So I wrote something similar.

One we used went "corn boule killy caw caw, walk on gilded splinters." It actually translates to cornbread, coffee and molasses in old Creole dialect. It's very connected to the real one that it's based on.

Can you describe your stage show as Dr. John?
We would wear large snakeskins, there was a boa constrictor, an anaconda, a lot of plumes from Mardi Gras Indians. We were trying to present a show with the real gris gris. We had a girl, Kolinda, who knew all of the great gris gris dances.

How did audiences react? 
We did just fine, until we got busted one day in St. Louis for a lewd and lascivious performance and cruelty to animals. We would come out on stage wearing only body paint. Everywhere else that was cool, but not in St. Louis. We also had Prince Kiyama, the original chicken man. He would bite the head off the chicken and drink the blood.

Why?
When you offer a sacrifice in gris gris, you drink some of the blood. In church they would chant "Kiyama drink the blood, Kiyama drink the blood." I thought it would be really cool to add Prince Kiyama to the show. That was another one of my rocket scientifical ideas.

Prince Kiyama said, "If you are going to charge me with cruelty to chickens, arrest Colonel Sanders." It didn't go over well with the judge. I think the courts looked at it like we were dropping acid out the wazoo. Everybody thought we were part of the acid thing, but I don't think any of us did that.

Your latest album, The City that Care Forgot, criticizes the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. 
None of my work has been as aggravated or disgusted as this record. I had never felt the way I do now, seeing New Orleans and the state of Louisiana disappearing. We've given the world jazz, our kind of blues, a lot of great food, a lot of great things. It's so confusing to look at things these days.

I'm concerned that much of the population of New Orleans is not there anymore. There were families split apart and just dumped across the country. A lot of people lost their homes, don't know where their loved ones are. I see them on the road all the time. These people have no idea how to live in Utah or wherever they are. Some have never left New Orleans and just don't know how to deal with it.

On the song Save Our Wetlands, you sing "we need our wetlands to save us from the storm"?
Our culture is getting hit from so many directions, like the oil companies cutting salt water canals that are destroying the wetlands in South Louisiana. Seeing that makes me feel horrible. There is more and more offshore oil drilling, and just so many stands of dead cypress trees. I'm just trying to tell the truth about stuff that nobody seems to wants to talk about. Really it gets me a little crazy.

Louisiana is a small state where corruption has been rampant for too long. The songs on this album came out of not knowing how else to get the message across. If we don't do what we can musically trying to help somebody, what are we here for?

Genghis Khan’s Treasures

Smithsonian Magazine

Of all the wonders in The Palace of the Great Khan, the silver fountain most captivated the visiting monk. It took the shape of “a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares,” wrote William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar who toured the Mongol capital, Khara Khorum, in 1254. When a silver angel at the top of the tree trumpeted, still more beverages spouted out of the pipes: wine, clarified mare’s milk, a honey drink, rice mead – take your pick.

The Khans had come a long way in just a few decades. Like the rest of his fierce horsemen, Genghis Khan – whose cavalry pounded across the steppe to conquer much of Central Asia – was born a nomad. When Genghis took power in 1206, Mongolian tribes lived in tents, which they moved while migrating across the grasslands with their livestock. As the empire continued to expand, though, the Khans realized the need for a permanent administrative center. “They had to stop rampaging and start ruling,” says Morris Rossabi, who teaches Asian history at Columbia University. So in 1235, Genghis’s son, Ogodei, began building a city near the Orkhon River, on the wide-open plains.

“It was as if you put Venice in Kansas,” says Don Lessem, producer of a new Genghis Khan exhibit touring the country now.

The ruins now lie beneath sand and scrubby vegetation, but lately there’s been renewed interest in Khara Khorum. A book of new scholarship, “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire,” coming out in June details major finds that archeologists have made in recent years, which shed light on what life was like in the city as the Mongols transitioned from raiders to rulers. The traveling exhibit, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas through September 7, 2009, and then at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for three months starting October 10, 2009, will showcase some of those artifacts for the first time on American soil.

Now archaeologists who’ve worked on the site believe that they might have located The Palace of the Great Khan, home of the fabled silver fountain.

The name Khara Khorum means “black tent,” Rossabi says. Surrounded by tall mud walls, The Mongol capital rose up out of the blank plains.

“It wasn’t Cairo, but people compared it to European cities,” says William W. Fitzhugh, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History and a co-editor of the new book.

People of many nationalities walked its warrens of narrow streets: Chinese, Muslims, even a lone Frenchman -- Guillaume Boucher, the goldsmith who designed the fountain. Many of these foreigners lived in Khara Khorum involuntarily, conscripts from conquered cities. The city layout reflected their diversity: there were mosques, “idol temples” and even a Nestorian Christian church. Archaeologists have found Chinese-style tiles and turret decorations that probably adorned the roofs of buildings.

Khara Khorum was also a trade center and goods from far and wide have been recovered there: silver Muslim coins, pieces of Chinese pottery. The Texas show includes an obsidian mask that likely traveled to Khara Khorum all the way from Egypt, Lessem says.

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. This Pharaoh’s mask made of obsidian likely traveled to Khara Khorum all the way from Egypt, according to the curator of a traveling exhibit about Genghis Khan. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. One of the riches found at Khara Khorum, this gold alloy bracelet dates from the 14th century. It is decorated with a phoenix flanked by demons. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. This decorative lion dates from the 14th century. Thirteen-and-a-half centimeters in height, the porcelain sculpture was found in an archaeological dig at Khara Khorum. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. The traveling exhibit about Genghis Khan, currently at The Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, showcases some of these artifacts for the first time on American soil. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Khara Khorum was also a trade center and goods from far and wide have been recovered there: silver Muslim coins, pieces of Chinese pottery. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Dating from the 13th century, this porcelain plate is among the many artifacts found at the Khara Khorum site. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. A glazed-ceramic jar was found with depictions of the Greek god Mercury on it, suggesting that the Mongols traded with cultures far beyond central Asia. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. This cast copper mold would have been used to make a bracelet in the 14th century. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. This blue plate is from the Song or Yuan dynasty and was discovered in the ruins of Khara Khorum. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. As the empire continued to expand, though, the Khans realized the need for a permanent administrative center, which is what spurred the construction of Khara Khorum. (original image)

The Mongols didn’t have strong artistic tradition of their own but loved beautiful objects and often spared vanquished craftsmen in order to put them to work. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of glass-working and bone-carving workshops. “We found relics of the craftsmen’s quarters and firing places and iron and metal artifacts,” says Ernst Pohl, a German archaeologist who spent years excavating the site. His team discovered a gold bracelet decorated with a phoenix flanked by demons that had apparently been made in the city.

Just as they were inspired by the cities that they conquered, the Mongols were influenced by the Chinese and Arab civilizations that they absorbed.

“Nomads are not dogmatic,” says Bill Honeychurch, a Yale University archaeologist. “They had the idea that you can learn from people you’ve brought into the fold.” From these pieces the Mongols forged a culture of their own. “They didn’t just adopt, they synthesized and acquired, and the end result was something unique and different.”

As it turned out, Khara Khorum was a less than ideal site for a city. “There wasn’t sufficient food or resources,” Rossabi says. Five hundred carts of supplies were brought in each day to feed a population that grew along with the empire, which by the mid-thirteenth century would stretch from Hungary to the shores of the Pacific. Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, eventually moved the capital city to Beijing and built a summer palace at Shangdu -- the “stately pleasure dome” of Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem.

“You can’t rule a population of 75 million from Mongolia,” Rossabi says. “Kublai was trying to ingratiate himself with the Chinese, playing down the foreignness of his dynasty to win over his subjects.”

Khara Khorum began to fade, although the Khans periodically returned to the city on the steppe. After the Mongols were expelled from China in the fourteenth century, they briefly made the city their center again; in 1388 the Chinese obliterated it. The site remained important to various Mongol clans and in 1586 Abtaj Khan built a large Buddhist monastery there.

The Palace of the Great Khan, archaeologists now think, lies beneath the remains of this complex, much of which was destroyed by Mongolia’s Communist leadership in the 1930s. Its silver fountain may never be recovered, but to historians the real fascination of the Mongols’ city is that it existed at all.

“It is kind of amazing that they conceived of, or accepted, the idea of setting up a permanent structure,” Rossabi says. If the Khans hadn’t “moved toward having an administrative capital, the empire wouldn’t have succeeded so readily.”

Where the Blues Was Born

Smithsonian Magazine

"If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here," said the late and great B.B. King while standing in front of the Dockery seed house in the 1970s Mississippi Public Television documentary, “Good Morning Blues.”

King, who grew up in Mississippi, knew all too well that the sprawling plantation, which at one time covered 40 square miles and was home to 3,000 people, was the home base for blues pioneers over the course of three decades. The legendary musicians who called Dockery home included Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Eddie "Son" House, and Chester Burnett, who later would be known as Howlin' Wolf. Roebuck "Pops" Staples of The Staple Singers lived there in the later years and blues legend Robert Johnson joined in what were sometimes all-night performances on the plantation.

"All of these guys fed off each other and created this country blues that came out of that part of the Delta," says Luther Brown, the recently retired director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. "They traveled around. They weren't at Dockery all of the time. But it was pretty much their headquarters.”

The front porch of the commissary, where they often started playing on Saturday afternoons, is still standing at Dockery although the building burned down 50 years ago.

People would begin gathering on the porch on Saturday afternoons where the blues men would play for free before the party moved across the one-lane bridge to what they called the Frolicking House, a sharecropper's home emptied of furniture. With no electricity on the plantation, the musicians would put big mirrors along the walls of two rooms with a coal oil lantern in front of each for illumination and the music would start. They'd play all night, charging 25 cents a head. A musician could earn as much as $250 cash on a good night, far better than making 50 cents a day in the cotton fields.

Today, the farms are a collection of six buildings and a feeling, a destination for blues pilgrims who come from all over the world.

At the center of the Dockery Farms story is Charley Patton, considered the father of the Delta Blues. His father, Bill, and mother, Annie, moved to Dockery with their 12 children when he was about ten years old. By the time he was a teen, he was taking lessons from Henry Sloan, another transplant to Dockery who had started playing a different kind of music some were calling the blues.

By 1910, Patton turned from student to teacher, schooling bluesmen like Brown and Johnson. Later, he would share his style with Howlin' Wolf and Staples, who lived for 12 years on the plantation.

Charley Patton, father of the Delta Blues. (Dockery Farms)

The plantation was founded on the vision of Will Dockery, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, who took a $1,000 gift from his grandmother and purchased tracts of Delta wilderness in 1885. Over a decade, the transformed the land into a cotton plantation. Eventually, the company town had an elementary school, churches, post and telegraph offices, a resident doctor, a ferry, a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin, cemeteries, picnic grounds for the workers, its own currency, and a commissary that sold dry goods, furniture, and groceries. To ship out the cotton, Dockery built a railroad depot and a spur route, named the Pea Vine for its twisted path, was laid from the main station in nearby Boyle (Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” pays tribute to the line). At one time, roughly 3,000 people lived on the plantation’s 40 square miles.

That concentration of people a big consumer base made Dockery an incubator for blues musicians. Howlin' Wolf moved there, Brown notes. Robert Johnson moved there. "Part of the draw was that they could go to the commissary on a Saturday or hang out at the railroad station or street corner and they could draw a crowd and make enough money to make a living," Brown says.

Patton was a flamboyant performer who played guitar with his teeth and behind his head and considered himself a professional musician, not a sharecropper. He and the others were the rock stars of their day. "Honeyboy Edwards played with Robert Johnson and he said if you saw a black man walking down the street in a suit he was either a preacher or he was a bluesman," Brown adds. "They were the only ones who would have enough money."

In 1934, shortly before he died, Patton was in a New York studio cutting what would be his final recordings. Months earlier, he'd been thrown out of Dockery Farms, a consequence of his womanizing. It stung. Like all great blues musicians, he chronicled his pain in song. This one was called “34 Blues:”

They run me from Will Dockery’s, Willie Brown, I want your job

Buddy, what’s the matter?

Ah, one of them told papa Charley

I don’t want you hanging around my job no more

Well, look down the country, it almost make you cry

After the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker in 1944, the Great Migration saw 6 million African Americans emigrate to the industrial urban centers of the Midwest and the Northeast, and the bluesman followed suit. Dockery continued as a mechanized farm, eventually diversifying into corn, soybeans, and rice as the price of cotton fell.

William Lester, the executive director of the Dockery Farms Foundation, is the last man living on the plantation. Forty years ago, he convinced Joe Rice Dockery, Bill’s son, to sell him some land so he could build a home there when he got a job teaching art at nearby Delta State University. During his early years on the farm, he befriended Tom Cannon, Patton’s nephew who told him stories – “All the good stories and all the bad stories,” Lester says – about his uncle’s years on the farm.

Six key buildings remain standing, including three that have been restored – the seed house with the iconic sign listing the farm’s owners, the gas station, and the platform where cotton bales were stored awaiting pickup by the train. Three more buildings -- the original seed house, which became a hay barn, the supply house, and the cotton gin – still need repair. The Dockery family heirs lease the land to farmers who grow soybeans, rice, corn, and cotton.   

As the farm buildings fell into disrepair, the plantation's blues legacy became largely forgotten. In the transcript of a 1979 oral history with Joe Rice Dockery, who worked on the plantation starting in 1926 and took over after his father died in 1936, the blues are mentioned only in passing. In the 1990s, when Mississippi sought to widen the two-lane road running by the plantation to four lanes, the original plans would have destroyed several of the historic buildings on the site, Brown says.

Lester organized a protest on the site with more than 300 people. After they’d finished, a Swedish motorcycle group -- European blues fans have long made the Dockery pilgrimage – rode up and he asked them to sign a petition and pose for a picture. They happily agreed. The shot made the front page of the local Boliver Commercial newspaper the next day. Blues fans and history buffs, as well as politicians, inundated the Mississippi Department of Transportation with calls and letters. The department surrendered. “They said, ‘Tell people to quit calling us,’” Lester recalls. “’We will not tear down Dockery.’”

About a decade ago, the Dockery Farms Foundation formed with Lester as head. In 2006, the farm was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Those buildings that have been restored used 12x12 cypress planks, milled just as they were more than a century ago. Three years ago, the nonprofit foundation added an advisory board of heavy hitters, musicians and other celebrities including the legendary music producer T Bone Burnett, jazz star Herbie Hancock, producer and writer Quincy Jones, and native son Hodding Carter III.

Smithsonian American Ingenuity award winner Rosanne Cash, who chronicled her exploration of her Southern roots on her Grammy-winning album, "The River and the Thread," will play a benefit on June 6. Why get involved? “Because it's so incredibly important to American music history and American history, period,” she says. “What came out of the Delta, the blues, Southern gospel, has culturally seeded us as Americans.”

She visited Dockery during a series of trips that led to the writing of the album. While there, her husband and collaborator, John Leventhal, played a 1930s National Guitar.

“You could almost hear the blues wafting over those fields,” she says. “It’s kind of like visiting The Globe (Theatre) in London, thinking about, oh, Hamlet was first performed here. (At Dockery), I was thinking, oh, Howlin’ Wolf sat right over there.”

Biomimetic Design Means We’ll All Be Living A Bug’s Life

Smithsonian Magazine

Firefly (Photinus pyralis) (image: wikimedia commons)

When I was a kid I had a “bug box” – a small, homemade container built from wire mesh and a couple pieces of wood. During the summer I’d try to fill this box with lightning bugs –fireflies or glow bugs, depending on where you’re from– in the attempt to transform the small translucent container into a natural lantern full of the insects whose biological incandescence was nothing less than a minor miracle. It never quite worked as I imagined. In, retrospect, the whole endeavor seems like a fantasy fueled by too many cartoons.

Or perhaps not.

Recently an international team of researchers looked to the firefly for inspiration in designing more efficient lighting. Building on previous research into the chemical reactions that powered the glow bugs’ glow, the team focused on the insect’s exoskeleton, which features unique shingle-like surfaces that reduce internal reflection, thereby allowing more light to escape. Using lasers to recreate the shingle shapes on the surface of an LED, the researchers were able to create a 55% more efficient LED. This is only one of the many, many ways that insect biomimicry is improving our products and our lives.

Biomimicry is a design principle that looks to reproduce systems, behaviors, or effects observed in the nature. After all, what we stupid humans have been working on for a couple hundred years –at best!– nature has been developing for eons. Though it sounds high-tech, biomimicry is by no means a new field. Inventors, artists, and scientists dating back millennia have looked to nature to advance human technological prowess. Birds are perhaps the most common example, but insects, the most diverse and expansive class of animals on the planet, offer designers literally millions of opportunities to unlock innovation.

A hovering dragonfly (Aeshna juncea) (image: wikimedia commons)

With robot and drone technology advancing — and shrinking — rapidly, flying insects are a natural model for the killing machines, surveillance swarms, and nanobots of tomorrow. Researchers at the Center for Neuroscience Research at the University of Adelaide believe that dragonflies hold a secret for improving robotic tracking and targeting. Dragonflies, you see, have developed an exceptional ability to see moving objects in the dark – making them an excellent nocturnal predator. Research leader Dr. Steven Wiederman explains it: “To perceive the edges of objects and changes in light or darkness, the brains of many animals, including insects, frogs, and even humans, use two independent pathways, known as ON and OFF channels….But what we show occurring in the dragonfly’s brain is the combination of both OFF and ON switches.” The researchers are hoping to technologically reproduce this unique visual capability, which so far has only been observed in dragonflies. There are obviously military implications for this work that could improve drone recognition and targeting capabilities but the team also aspires to more benevolent applications such as neural prosthetics that might one day help people with visual impairment.

Robo-bee, a collaboration between Harvard University electrical engineers Rob Wood and Gu-Yeon Wei, and computer scientist Radhika Nagpal (image: National Science Foundation video)

In recent years, bees have been dying and disappearing around the world. Colony Collapse Disorder, as the phenomenon is known, is a threat to the world’s food supply and a mystery that, despite much research and at least two documentaries, remains largely unanswered. In lieu of a solution, a team of Harvard scientists are looking for an alternative. Enter RoboBee, which is exactly what it sounds like: a robot modeled after the performance and behaviors of the honey bee. When complete, RoboBees will fly like bees, operate in unison like a colony, and most importantly, pollinate. But the potential for hive-mind robot insects is much greater. For example, such technology could be used in search and rescue efforts following disasters. Of course, that’s all much easier said than done. But advancements have been made. By looking at the movement of other flying insects, the RoboBee team have so far been able to create a nickel-sized machine capable of basic flight and they hope to see it swarming in five to ten years. This of course means that five to ten years after that, the RoboBee empire will have conquered Earth. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Until that fateful day, biomimicry will continue to keep our lights bright, our planes in the air, our plants pollinated, and generally improve the quality of everyday life. Although I probably won’t have my bug-powered lantern anytime soon.

With Google Maps, It's Now Possible To Travel Through Time

Smithsonian Magazine

A lot can change in seven years: buildings rise and landscapes change. Whether you’re standing near the ocean in Japan or in the middle of Times Square, your view will likely be quite different in less than a decade.

That’s the premise behind Google Maps’ newest time-lapse tool, launched today. Since it was released in 2007, Google Street View has allowed users to explore a given area from the perspective of walking along a sidewalk, but with the new tool, they’ll actually be able to see how the street and its surroundings have changed.

“Our mission in maps is to build a map that’s accurate, useful and comprehensive, and I think that being able to expose historic images that we’ve collected in the past helps us be able to meet this comprehensiveness aspect,” says Vinay Shet, the product manager of Google Street View. 

The new time-travel function draws on image data captured by a fleet of Google Street View SUVs, snowmobiles, tricycles, and even a backpack, which for seven years have trekked across the globe with video cameras and GPS units to capture busy intersections and rolling hillsides across all seven continents. By selecting "street view" and clicking on a clock icon at the top of the screen, users can explore an area’s evolution as far back as Google’s photo-documentation can reach. The project pulls together years of Google Street View imagery, some of it previously unreleased, and took several months to complete. It marks the latest in a recent string of expansions in what users can see in street view, from the ruins of Angkor Wat to the Colorado River.

A screen shot shows the reconstruction of New Orleans' 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. The window with the clock icon in the upper right-hand corner shows the same street in October of 2007. Other photos submitted by Google Maps users (single current images, not historical) run along the bottom. (Google)

Users can travel back in time wherever street view is available around the world, and the project will continue to add to its collection of image data as years pass.

“In two years time 2007 will be vintage, so we hope that as time goes by this tool becomes more and more valuable to our users,” Shet says.

On some level the tool is similar to time-lapse videos, but it's not the same. The tool serves as an interactive visual archive that to date has only been available manually by sifting through old digital images, film strips and negatives. 

Before releasing the tool, Shet and his team did some exploring of their own with what the technology could offer. Some of the most common scenes to be viewed with the tool are ever-changing urban skylines around the world, including the rise of landmark buildings like the World Cup stadium in Rio de Janiero, the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower in New York City, and the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. 

Google Street View images show the construction of the Freedom Tower in New York City from September 2007 to August 2013. (Google)

Users can also see changes in nature as the world shifts between seasons, a natural phenomenon that’s made time-lapse videos across the Internet forever popular. In Norway, for example, a mountain road goes from an idyllic summer scene to one blanketed with snow.

“It’s the same place but it looks dramatically different,” Shet says.

A panoramic split-screen shot shows seasonal changes in Norway. (Google)

The tool also highlights areas hit by natural disasters in the last seven years, from the fallout and reconstruction of land along coastal Japan—ravaged by both an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011—to the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand that same year.

Interestingly, in Japan, the viewer gets the impression of physically moving horizontally when clicking between past and present. At first, developers thought they had taken footage from the wrong coordinates. “In reality, the ground had shifted by around 5 meters,” Shet says. “But you see that effect when you go across time, so I think that this a really powerful imaging tool that you have there.”

Beyond imagery highlighting the beauty and destruction of nature, the Google Street view imagery shows social change. Changing advertisements in Time Square reveal shifts in technology from flip phones to smart phones, while a street view of an urban building might show the artistic evolution of its graffiti. 

Graffiti changes over the years on the facade of the 5 Pointz art center in Queens. (Google) Users can see how the faces of Times Square's billboards have changed since 2007. (Google)

Google's decision to make the images public opens them up to a wide array of possibilities. One could envision urban scientists looking at how a neighborhood has changed over the years, or criminal investigators reconstructing the appearance of an old crime scene. Whether those fields find the tool useful remains to be seen, but Shet is optimistic it will have applications beyond the initial wow-factor. 

“Obviously, people can use it in whatever way they want. People are going to look at how things have changed in an interesting way and how humanity has kind of moved forward in different ways,” Shet says. “It’s going to be exciting to see what people find.”

So, go forth and virtually explore your neighborhood’s evolution over the last seven years—who knows what you might discover.

The Man Who Changed Reading Forever

Smithsonian Magazine

Among the narrow cobbled sidewalks and winding canals of Venice’s Sant’Agostin neighborhood is a pretty yellow palazzo, its balcony overflowing with pink astoria flowers. Amid the ornate windows and lush flower boxes, it’s easy to miss a small plaque, carved in stone and written in formal Italian, commemorating one of the most important men in publishing history. This was the home of Aldus Manutius, says the plaque, and it was from here that “the light of Greek letters returned to shine upon civilized peoples.”

The palazzo, now divided into rental apartments and gift shops, is where Aldus forever changed printing more than half a millennium ago. He introduced curved italic type, which replaced the cumbersome square Gothic print used at the time, and helped standardize punctuation, defining the rules of use for the comma and semicolon. He also was the first to print small, secular books that could be carried around for study and pleasure—the precursors to paperbacks and e-readers today. “He was very much like the Steve Jobs of his era,” says Sandro Berra, managing director of the Tipoteca Italiana museum of typography outside of Venice (open to the public Tuesday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.). “He was ahead of his time, risking everything on an untested whim that somehow he knew would work.”

Fueling his risk-taking were fervent views on spreading knowledge to a broader audience. Before Aldus, books were extremely precious items, held in private collections or monasteries, inaccessible even to many scholars. “What he wrought, from the appearance of his first published book in 1493 until his death in 1515, was something akin to the first editorial boom,” writes Helen Barolini in her biography Aldus and His Dream Book. “He made the book an accessible vehicle of thought and communication.” Books, Aldus believed, provide an antidote to barbarous times and should not be hoarded by the privileged few. “I do hope that, if there should be people of such spirit that they are against the sharing of literature as a common good, they may either burst of envy, become worn out in wretchedness, or hang themselves,” he wrote in the preface of one of his volumes.

Aldus challenged received doctrine and sometimes pressed the limits of what the powerful Roman Catholic Church would accept. “He was the type who knew the difference between fearing God and fearing the church, and he lived his life on that fine line,” Berra says. “He also knew when to take a step back and reflect on what was important to his goals.” He printed most of the Greek canon for the first time and made secular literature portable, but he also printed important letters of the early church fathers; in 1518, his heirs printed the first edition of the Greek Bible.

**********

The 500-year anniversary of his death is being celebrated in New York and Venice and other cities where books are cherished. Early this year, he was honored with a far-reaching exhibition called “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, where 150 of his antique volumes were on display. A series of memorial initiatives in Italy, where he is known as Aldo Manuzio, include a full calendar of “Manuzio 500” events in Venice, featuring readings and exhibits of his libelli portatiles (Latin for “portable books”), as well as demonstrations of the printing techniques he introduced.

The emblem of the Aldine Press—a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, inspired by the Latin motto festina lente, or "hasten slowly"—is still used by Doubleday Books. (© Corbis)

Aldus was a complicated man. His legacy is anchored in Venice, but he was born in a village south of Rome. He came of age shortly after the final demise of the Eastern Roman Empire, which had long been in decline but fully collapsed after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. He was a humanist, one of a small but growing number of scholars who studied ancient Greek and Latin texts at a time when most had all but given up on the classics, and a pioneer in the wave of Renaissance thinkers who helped salvage and eventually spur a reawakening of the region’s intellectual class.

In 1490, at the age of 40—in what might have been a midlife crisis—he moved to Venice. The city then was a humming capital of commerce, open to outsiders with fresh ideas. It was also writhing with creative energy, as artists and intellectuals from elsewhere in Europe flocked to the canals for inspiration. Aldus opened his own publishing house, the Aldine Press. His first book, Constantine Lascaris’s Erotemata, was followed by more than 130 other titles, including works by both Aristotle and Theophrastus.

Much of what made Venice a cultural hub in the 15th century remains intact today, albeit often hidden and protected from outsiders. It is possible to find a bar or café along a lonely canal where modern Venetians meet to share readings and discuss everything from theology to ancient history. “Aldus’s Venice is still here,” says Berra. “But the Venetians keep it to themselves, far away from the tourists.” Yet the purple sunsets and elegant palazzi along the Grand Canal haven’t changed much since Aldus’s time, and those remain open to all.

The techniques Aldus introduced were quickly copied across Italy, and later more broadly around Europe, with little credit given to the original printer. In 1502, when he printed Dante’s Divine Comedy, he introduced to the Aldine Press the emblem of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, inspired by the Latin motto festina lente, or “hasten slowly.” The emblem is still used by Doubleday Books. Aldus’s name, meanwhile, has become associated with desktop publishing: The software company that introduced the innovative PageMaker program in 1985 is the Aldus Corporation, named in his honor.

Berra laments the fact that Aldus is appreciated more outside of Italy than he is at home. In recent years, he has been the subject of two novels: The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, published in 2004, and Robin Sloan’s 2012 best seller Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreThe Rule of Four is a page-turner in the style of The Da Vinci Code, focused on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an elaborately designed book that was controversial for its phallic illustrations; the Sloan novel features a secret society of bibliophiles and code-breakers that, as imagined by the author, originated with Aldus.

In Italy today, his name has more mundane associations. “If you ask people who he was, they might recognize his name as [that] of a street or their favorite restaurant or bar,” says Berra, but they wouldn’t be able to tell you much more. “That’s because historically typography is mistakenly considered a technique, not an art, but in reality it is as much an art as many other Italian treasures.” In Aldus’s time, it also had a profound purpose: to promote reading as a more common pursuit, and to spread knowledge as widely as possible.

Read more from the Venice Issue of the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly.

Barbers Are Giving Buzz Cuts to Detroit's Overgrown Lots

Smithsonian Magazine

Have you ever wondered what a mohawk would look like on a park lawn? Or what about a shrub trimmed in the style of a trendy undercut?

With more than 90,000 vacant lots, many of which are overgrown and dilapidated, Detroit currently has a massive surplus of underutilized space. Erin Kelly, a program manager at Detroit Future City, an urban planning initiative, is raising awareness about this issue as well as creatively addressing it by pairing Detroit's barbers and landscape contractors. Together, they might be able to do some interesting pruning.

Kelly's project, aptly named "The Buzz," is one of 32 projects (five of which are in Detroit) to be funded by the first annual Knight Cities Challenge. The challenge allocated more than $5 million to different works promoting local civic development, and "The Buzz" received $84,055 in grant money.

Barbers shape intricate designs in hair, a skill that this program aims to apply to landscape design. (Corbis)

Just as a fresh haircut can uplift a person, Kelly hopes her initative can energize Detroit as it continues to recover since declaring bankruptcy in 2013. "Sometimes when things aren't going well, you can't afford a new outfit or new car, but most people have access to a haircut," she says. "This could be a way to bring that to Detroit neighborhoods."

The grant will help fund several workshops that introduce local barbers and landscape contractors and ask them to learn about their counterparts' skills and collaborate. The first workshop involves members of each profession showcasing their expertise. In the second, the two swap mediums, and the third and fourth focus on team-based brainstorming and execution. Their final projects will be presented to the broader community in a final "vacant lot mowing pageant" in September and a series of videos documenting the entire process.

"A barbershop is a place of conversation, exchange and dialogue," says Kelly, inspired by her local shops. "In Detroit, because we are about 85 percent African-American in our population, there is a larger culture around hair. True barbery is a form of design."

In 1991, David Humphries started "Hair Wars" in Detroit, an event highlighting creative and experimental styles that would go on to become one of the largest black hair shows in the country. "All the new trends start here. Everybody across the country copies Detroit hairdos,” Humphries told the Detroit Metro Times in 2004. In the same article, Regina Kimball, director of the documentary My Nappy Roots, added, "Just like you think of Paris and Milan as the nucleuses of high fashion, Detroit definitely has become the nucleus of black hair."

Dorothy Grigsby, the owner and operator of Shep's, one of the oldest barbershops in Detroit, notes that her shop has aimed to stay on top of current trends while consistently serving generations of regulars. "The barbers are like artists—they have a vision and customize it to make it appealing to that particular person," she says. Grigsby thinks the meticulous and creative nature of their work is directly transferrable to the manicuring of lawns and shrubs. "Those design ethics will carry right over," she says.

The hope is that designs from barbers could infuse vacant lots with local personality. (Robert Polett/AgStock Images/Corbis)

With help from development organizations in the southwest and east sides of the city, Kelly and her team are now recruiting participants for the project and identifying vacant lots across neighborhoods in need of a trim. The group also aims to develop a larger plan for managing vacant land and maintaining these spaces.

Kelly sees this effort as a chance to transform the role of landscape design within citiesby infusing the spirit of a city into these lots. "Everything I've seen on pattern-making and forms related to mowing has come from ecologists," she says. "This partnership could be used to introduce a sense of localness and neighborhood-based expression."

Kelly, who has a degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has previously worked with design in large civic parks, tested partial deconstruction of abandoned buildings in Detroit (a means of tearing down structures while conserving materials), and spearheaded the Patch vacant lot contest, which challenged residents to clean up abandoned areas in their neighborhoods in order to win funding to maintain those sites.

Nina Bassuk, a professor and program leader of the Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell University, sees this effort as an intriguing one, but notes the fundamental importance of site preparation and maintenance to effectively transform these vacant lots long-term. "There is much clean up and soil preparation that will need to take place before the aesthetics of design will weigh in," she says. "I think that anyone who is interested in working on revitalizing vacant lots can make a significant improvement."

The quirky project should get more people talking about capitalizing on vacant spaces. "Land is one of the biggest potential liabilities in Detroit, but it’s also one of our biggest potential assets," says Kelly.

Additionally, the venture is about connecting and using the talents of different members of the Detroit community to address a common problem. The daunting goal of rebuilding the city hinges on the collective energies and focus of its citizens, requiring efforts beyond the bounds of city government. "People need to take ownership of the landscape," says Bassuk.

"It’s going to take everyone to understand how we better manage our land in Detroit," says Kelly. "We aim to showcase the talent and the ideas that already exist in Detroit that don’t require importing someone from New York to give us an answer—ideas that are not exclusively developed by the municipal planning commission."

This initiative is one of several fresh tacts taken to address some of the overwhelming civic challenges in Detroit. "In order to keep up with the new trends," says Grigsby, who has kept Shep's in business since 1944, "you have to be able to change."

Wire frames, wreath

Smithsonian Gardens
The wreath was the most popular floral design of the nineteenth century and is still commonly used today at funerals, special occasions, and holidays. The wreath could be made in an endless array of styles and combinations from simple to ornate, either tightly arranged or in a loose spray. This allowed the florist to create designs that were either very formal or artistic. The wreath was the most profitable set design for the florist and depending on the size and materials, it ranged in price from $2 to $200, making it appealing to all socioeconomic statuses. Ribbons with inscriptions or lettering might appear on a wreath with phrases or the person's name. The wreath has a longstanding tradition of being used at funerals and was the earliest form of arranged flowers to be used in the funeral in the West. The classic wreath form, which has no end and no beginning, symbolized eternal life, love everlasting, and victory over death. This made it a meaningful choice for funeral tributes. The wreath was appropriate for all genders and ages and was the most frequently ordered sympathy design leading up to the twentieth century. The language of flowers was often applied to these forms, wheat might symbolize old age, oak leaves-strength, marguerites or small roses-an infant’s purity. The wreath was also closely linked to the holidays, and the tradition of hanging a Christmas wreath is followed by many Americans today. American Christmas traditions with plants and flowers are based on a collection of various immigrant traditions brought over from their native cultures. As a result of their plant lore holy, ivy, laurel, pine cones, straw, poinsettia, yule logs, and, most notably, the Christmas tree became tied to the American conception of the holiday. The wreath of holly was both the favorite and most traditional flower frame design, and it was tied with ribbon and berries for a decorative effect. Due to the timing of this holiday, few floral varieties were in bloom, making evergreens and immortelles other popular wreath materials.

The wreath has a longstanding tradition of being used at funerals and was the earliest form of arranged flowers to be used in the funeral in the West. The classic wreath form, which has no end and no beginning, symbolized eternal life, love everlasting, and victory over death. This made it a meaningful choice for funeral tributes. The wreath was appropriate for all genders and ages and was the most frequently ordered sympathy design leading up to the twentieth century. The language of flowers was often applied to these forms, wheat might symbolize old age, oak leaves-strength, marguerites or small roses-an infant’s purity. The wreath was also closely linked to the holidays, and the tradition of hanging a Christmas wreath is followed by many Americans today. American Christmas traditions with plants and flowers are based on a collection of various immigrant traditions brought over from their native cultures. As a result of their plant lore holy, ivy, laurel, pine cones, straw, poinsettia, yule logs, and, most notably, the Christmas tree became tied to the American conception of the holiday. The wreath of holly was both the favorite and most traditional flower frame design, and it was tied with ribbon and berries for a decorative effect. Due to the timing of this holiday, few floral varieties were in bloom, making evergreens and immortelles other popular wreath materials.

The wreath was also closely linked to the holidays, and the tradition of hanging a Christmas wreath is followed by many Americans today. American Christmas traditions with plants and flowers are based on a collection of various immigrant traditions brought over from their native cultures. As a result of their plant lore holy, ivy, laurel, pine cones, straw, poinsettia, yule logs, and, most notably, the Christmas tree became tied to the American conception of the holiday. The wreath of holly was both the favorite and most traditional flower frame design, and it was tied with ribbon and berries for a decorative effect. Due to the timing of this holiday, few floral varieties were in bloom, making evergreens and immortelles other popular wreath materials.

Meissen cup and saucer (part of a service)

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen: Part of a tea service

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Coffeepot: H.7" 17.8cm; Teapot: 4⅜" 11.1cm; Cups H. 2" 5.1cm; Saucers: D. 5¾" 14.6cm

OBJECT NAME: Tea service

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1745-1760

SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection

Art

Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1983.0565.52a,b; 53a,b; 54AB

COLLECTOR/ DONOR: 147a,b; 148a,b;149AB

ACCESSION NUMBER:

(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue; Maltese cross impressed on coffeepot; “53” impressed on saucers.

PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1943.

These pieces from a tea service are in the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (reg. 1733-1763), ordered a large service for Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia (reg. 1741-1761) on the occasion of the marriage of her nephew Karl Peter Ulrich Duke of Holstein-Gottorf (later Tsar Peter III, reg. 1761-1762) to Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst (laterTsarina Catherine II, reg. 1762-1796). The service was one of the early diplomatic gifts produced at Meissen on a large scale, and included a tea and coffee service in the 400 items sent to Russia in 1745.

Unpainted sections on this service are decorated with the “raised flowers” (erhabene Blumen) in relief; a pattern modeled for a service in 1741and ordered two or three years later by the Berlin merchant, art dealer, and porcelain entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (1710-1775). The enamel painted sections contain the double-headed imperial eagle with St. George on the pectoral shield, which is one of the emblems on the chain of the Imperial Order of St. Andrew First Called, and the cross of St Andrew can be seen on the saucers. The Order of St. Andrew was founded in 1698 by Tsar Peter I the Great. The naturalistic German flowers are painted in overglaze enamel in a style that followed the German woodcut flowers (Holzschnittblumen) that appear on the service for the Tsarina, indicating that these pieces were a later addition to the service, or made at a later date for the Russian market. The gold border decorating the rims was the work of a specialist gold painter.

In the eighteenth century tea, coffee, and chocolate was served in the private apartments of aristocratic women, usually in the company of other women, but also with male admirers and intimates present. In affluent middle-class households tea and coffee drinking was often the occasion for an informal family gathering. Coffee houses were exclusively male establishments and operated as gathering places for a variety of purposes in the interests of commerce, politics, culture, and social pleasure.

On the service for Tsarina Elizabeth see Lydia Liackhova, chapter 4 “In a Porcelain Mirror: Reflections of Russia from Peter I to Empress Elizabeth” in Cassidy-Geiger, M., 2008, Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts 1710-63; Ulrich Pietsch “Famous Eighteenth-Century Meissen Dinner Services” in Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp.101-102.

On tea and coffee drinking see see Ukers, W. H., 1922, All About Coffee, and 1935, All About Tea; on the practice of drinking tea, coffee, and chocolate see Bowman, P.B., 1995, In Praise of Hot Liquors: The Study of Chocolate, Coffee and Tea-drinking 1600-1850; See also Weinberg, B.A., Bealer, B.K., 2002, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. On the coffee house see Ellis, M. 2011, The Coffee House: A Cultural History.

Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 290-291.

Meissen cup and saucer (part of a service)

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen: Part of a tea service

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Coffeepot: H.7" 17.8cm; Teapot: 4⅜" 11.1cm; Cups H. 2" 5.1cm; Saucers: D. 5¾" 14.6cm

OBJECT NAME: Tea service

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1745-1760

SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection

Art

Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1983.0565.52a,b; 53a,b; 54AB

COLLECTOR/ DONOR: 147a,b; 148a,b;149AB

ACCESSION NUMBER:

(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue; Maltese cross impressed on coffeepot; “53” impressed on saucers.

PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1943.

These pieces from a tea service are in the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (reg. 1733-1763), ordered a large service for Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia (reg. 1741-1761) on the occasion of the marriage of her nephew Karl Peter Ulrich Duke of Holstein-Gottorf (later Tsar Peter III, reg. 1761-1762) to Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst (laterTsarina Catherine II, reg. 1762-1796). The service was one of the early diplomatic gifts produced at Meissen on a large scale, and included a tea and coffee service in the 400 items sent to Russia in 1745.

Unpainted sections on this service are decorated with the “raised flowers” (erhabene Blumen) in relief; a pattern modeled for a service in 1741and ordered two or three years later by the Berlin merchant, art dealer, and porcelain entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (1710-1775). The enamel painted sections contain the double-headed imperial eagle with St. George on the pectoral shield, which is one of the emblems on the chain of the Imperial Order of St. Andrew First Called, and the cross of St Andrew can be seen on the saucers. The Order of St. Andrew was founded in 1698 by Tsar Peter I the Great. The naturalistic German flowers are painted in overglaze enamel in a style that followed the German woodcut flowers (Holzschnittblumen) that appear on the service for the Tsarina, indicating that these pieces were a later addition to the service, or made at a later date for the Russian market. The gold border decorating the rims was the work of a specialist gold painter.

In the eighteenth century tea, coffee, and chocolate was served in the private apartments of aristocratic women, usually in the company of other women, but also with male admirers and intimates present. In affluent middle-class households tea and coffee drinking was often the occasion for an informal family gathering. Coffee houses were exclusively male establishments and operated as gathering places for a variety of purposes in the interests of commerce, politics, culture, and social pleasure.

On the service for Tsarina Elizabeth see Lydia Liackhova, chapter 4 “In a Porcelain Mirror: Reflections of Russia from Peter I to Empress Elizabeth” in Cassidy-Geiger, M., 2008, Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts 1710-63; Ulrich Pietsch “Famous Eighteenth-Century Meissen Dinner Services” in Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp.101-102.

On tea and coffee drinking see see Ukers, W. H., 1922, All About Coffee, and 1935, All About Tea; on the practice of drinking tea, coffee, and chocolate see Bowman, P.B., 1995, In Praise of Hot Liquors: The Study of Chocolate, Coffee and Tea-drinking 1600-1850; See also Weinberg, B.A., Bealer, B.K., 2002, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. On the coffee house see Ellis, M. 2011, The Coffee House: A Cultural History.

Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 290-291.

Distinguished Americans

National Portrait Gallery

Painting (Circus Horse)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Meissen Chinoiserie teapot and cover

National Museum of American History
MARKS: K.P.M. in undergalze blue (Koenigliche Porzellan Manufaktur); dot in gold.

PURCHASED FROM: Hans Backer, London, England, 1947.

This teapot is part of the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychoanalysis and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in Germany, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

Unexpected events in 1720 accelerated the pursuit of color into one of the most important breakthroughs for the Meissen manufactory, and this was a high priority because it allowed for the application of decorative motifs that were not only durable, but exceptionally rich and luminescent in color quality. From Vienna, the painter Johann Gregor Höroldt (1696-1775) came to Meissen in April 1720 with Samuel Stölzel (1685-1737), a former member of the Meissen team who took the secret of porcelain manufacture to the Imperial capital. Subject to severe punishment for revealing the secret, known as the arcanum, to the Viennese, Stölzel’s pact was to bring the talented Höroldt to Meissen in order to build the color palette and train apprentices in enamel painting. Höroldt organised the laboratory for the production of enamel colors, and developed the so-called muffle kiln to fire the enamels onto the surface of the glaze at a gentle temperature of about 1382° F., 750°C. By 1731 a trained company of twenty-nine enamel painters was in place with Höroldt then appointed their director. Höroldt’s objective was to achieve a unity of style in the work of the porcelain painters, and towards this end he took on young inexperienced painters as apprentices with others more experienced. (See Pietsch, U., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords, p.17).

This teapot is one example of the porcelains painted in the chinoiserie style developed by Höroldt at Meissen. During the seventeenth century cargoes of exotic goods traded through the Dutch and English East India Companies reached Europe, bringing new colors, images, and tactile sensations into people’s lives. Even if the goods were not affordable to the majority, they were still visible in fashionable city centers where they were marketed. Following the civil war that ousted the Ming dynasty, China settled down with the establishment of the Manchu Qing dynasty after 1644, and in 1665 a commercial “Embassy” of the Dutch East India Company travelled there. The Embassy's progress to the Imperial court in Peking, now Beijing, was recorded by Jan Nieuhof (1618-1672) in his Embassy from the East India Company to the Emperor of China. The publication that followed contained many illustrations that contributed to the so-called chinoiserie style in Western Europe, a style adopted principally in architecture and interior decoration. Höroldt adapted chinoiseries for miniature painting on a range of tea, coffee and chocolate services in Meissen porcelain. It was a style that represented a European fantasy of the Orient, a land peopled with curious figures, richly dressed, and engaged in the pleasure pursuits of a fantastical daily life.

On the teapot you see a male figure on the left directing a woman who crouches on the ground weighing provisions in a beam scale. The porcelain jar by her side has a figure holding a parasol painted on it. A brightly colored bird and an insect fly above the figures, and floral growth frame the scene. More of these oriental flowers ornament the lid, handle, and spout of the teapot. On the reverse side a richly dressed figure on the right approaches a woman who reaches down to a sack full of fruits. Between them stands a box containing various items including a branch of coral, an auspicious symbol for longevity in Chinese culture. A scene similar to these two examples exists on the side of a covered bowl in the Meissen porcelain collection in Dresden, Germany. To produce these scenes Höroldt and his enamel painters worked from a collection of drawings, over one hundred of which remain in the collection known as the Schulz Codex. (See Behrends, R., 1978, Das Meissener Musterbuch fuer Hoeroldt Chinoiserien). No two scenes on the porcelains painted in this style are identical, Höroldt and his painters elaborated and adapted the scenes from the original drawings, although Höroldt did produce six etchings in 1726 that served as models for the painters. The teapot has a grotesque mask, a convention of European decoration, at the base of the spout. With some exceptions, Höroldt’s chinoiseries, which he described as “Japanese figures” were mostly painted on Meissen’s tea, coffee and chocolate services, items that made excellent diplomatic gifts to other European courts and favored members of the aristocracy.

On Johann Gregor Höroldt see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 17-25.

On chinoiserie see Impey, O., 1997, Chinoiserie: the Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration; on the porcelain trade and European exposure to the Chinese product see the exhibition catalog by Emerson, J., Chen, J., Gardner Gates, M., 2000, Porcelain Stories: from China to Europe

On gift-giving see Cassidy-Geiger, M., 2008, Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts 1710-1763.

Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 76-77.

Realm of the Immortals

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
187417-187440 of 187,938 Resources