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Found 180 Resources

A journal of voyages and travels in the interiour of North America : between the 47th and 58th degrees of north latitude, extending from Montreal nearly to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 5,000 miles, including an account of the principal occurrences, during a residence of nineteen years, in different parts of the country : to which are added, a concise description of the face of the country, its inhabitants, their manners, customs, laws, religion, etc. and considerable specimens of the two languages, most extensively spoken; together with an account of the principal animals, to be found in the forests and prairies of this extensive region : illustrated by a map of the country / by Daniel Williams Harmon, a partner in the North West Company

Smithsonian Libraries
"Preface, by the editor", p. [v]-xxiii, signed: Daniel Haskel.

Portrait frontispiece signed: Schroeder del., Leney sc.

Errata slip.

Sabin 30404

Pilling, J.C. Bibl. Algonquian lang., p. 222

Also available online.

SCNHRB has 2 copies.

SCNHRB c.1 (39088006517536) is imperfect: lacking portions of both frontispiece and folded map, lacking errata slip..

SCNHRB c.1 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries: Gift of Marcia Brady Tucker; with the Tucker pencilled collation notes on t.p.

SCNHRB c.1 retrieved from SILRA in 1987; transferrd from SCDIRB on 25 August 2006.

SCNHRB c.1 bound in recent maroon cloth, printed paper spine label.

SCNHRB c.2 (39088012042636) inscribed in ink on front free endpaper: Asa Davis's of Charlton County of Worcester Massachusetts U.S.A. Montreal ... Oct. 16th 1820.

SCNHRB c.2 stamped on t.p.: Bureau of American Ethnology Library 1897 [acc. no.] 7209.

SCNHRB c.2 has errata slip pasted to back free endpaper.

SCNHRB c.2 has folded map in pocket on back paste-down.

SCNHRB c.2 bound in blue buckram, title in gilt on spine, marbled edges and endpapers.

Elecresource

A history of the island of Madagascar : comprising a political account of the island, the religion, manners, and customs of its inhabitants, and its natural productions : with an appendix, containing a history of the several attempts to introduce Christianity into the island / by Samuel Copland

Smithsonian Libraries
Errata: p. [371].

Mendelssohn, S. South African bib., v. 1, p. 628

Also available online.

SCNHRB copy 39088012039822 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries. The Russell E. Train Africana Collection.

SCNHRB copy has armorial bookplate of the Earl of Portsmouth. Inscribed in ink on front pastedown: Lady Lymington Hurstbourne Park.

SCNHRB copy with bookdealer's invoice laid-in that has been removed to the Train manuscript file.

SCNHRB copy half bound in calf and marbled paper over boards, gilt lettering on spine.

Elecresource

A Massive Aerial Sculpture Is Hoisted in Downtown Vancouver

Smithsonian Magazine

This week, astronauts and beatboxers, magicians and climate scientists, and filmmakers and activists are mingling in Vancouver, where TED is hosting its annual conference. As speakers and the event’s 1,200 attendees muse about the landmark innovations of the past three decades and those that lie ahead, let’s hope they look up.

High above the plaza, a billowing sculpture spans the 745 feet between the 24-story Fairmont Waterfront Hotel and Vancouver Convention Center. The 3,500-pound net—a complex matrix of hand and machine-made knots—is “like a custom-knitted sweater for the city,” its artist has said, and the Daily Mail likened it to a nebula. To me, it looks like a giant web spun by Spider-Man. But whatever you call it, it is a feat of engineering for sure.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks is the largest aerial sculpture that Janet Echelman has ever made. The Boston-based artist has collaborated with architects, engineers and lighting designers in the past 16 years to construct, as she puts it, “living, breathing sculpture environments that respond to the forces of nature” in cities around the world. TED invited her to make this site-specific piece in Vancouver to mark the nonprofit’s 30th anniversary.

Echelman discovered her medium—fishing nets—while in India on a Fulbright lectureship in 1997. She had planned to teach painting and exhibit her work in the country, but when the set of paints she had shipped from home never made it to the fishing village of Mahabalipuram, where she was staying, she took up sculpture. From local fishermen, Echelman learned ancient techniques for knotting fishing nets, and, together, they fashioned nets in shapes that she sketched, hanging them like wind socks.

“There is this resiliency and adaptability of the netted structure that is brilliant. If one part of the net fails, the other nodes take the forces, and it is immediately redistributed by the entire system,” says Echelman. “Learning to work with it and how to make volumetric form with it is still an unfolding process for me.”

Echelman's sculpture, 1.26, premiered at the Denver Art Museum in the summer of 2010. (Studio Echelman)

In many ways, science informs the artist’s work. Echelman based the shape of an aerial sculpture called 1.26, first displayed in Denver in 2010 and later in Sydney and Amsterdam, on a simulation the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made of a tsunami formed by the Chilean earthquake that year. The name, 1.26, is in reference to the 1.26 microseconds that the earthquake sliced off the length of the Earth’s day by shifting its mass.

But what is a shorter day, Echelman muses, when there are longer ones to come? “I’ve been thinking a lot about time and the day, and the fact that the Earth’s rotation is slowing so that my experience of a day is splitting off from atomic measurement of a day,” she says. 

For Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, Echelman collected data sets of her own subjective experience of the day based on looking up at the sky. She took photographs of the sky every five seconds for a 24-hour period. Then, she calculated the hue and brightness of the sky and graphed those figures radially to come up with the sculpture’s form.

“I don’t see any separation between art and science. Some people like to experience my work in a purely visual manner, without any additional content, just the pure kinesthetic color and form experience. And others are interested to understand these references to science and data sets,” says Echelman. “For me, as an artist, I invite people to enter the work in whichever way draws them in.”

But the sculptures aren't just depictions of science and art—they're also marvels of engineering. Before mounting them for display, Echelman must overcome the monumental logistics involved in creating something that, as it seems to hover in the air, must be able to withstand up to 90-mile-per-hour winds.

With the help of software engineers from Autodesk, a company that makes 3D design software, Echelman’s studio has worked to develop a special tool for her to use to test the viability and structural integrity of her sculptures before they are hoisted into the air. The artist uses Honeywell Spectra fiber that is 15 times stronger than steel. But, with the software, she can input a sculpture’s specifications and watch, in a simulation, as she exerts the forces of gravity and wind, all the while adjusting the aesthetics of her design to accommodate the environmental conditions.

What Echelman finds exciting, as an artist, is infusing a traditional craft with modern technology. “Fishermen have been splicing ropes for their traps for centuries if not millennia,” she says, “but we are using those techniques in new ways with new materials to create a new kind of urban art.”

Visitors can use their smartphones or tablets to interact with the Vancouver sculpture's lighting, thanks to a collaboration with Google. (Studio Echelman)

Echelman collaborated with Aaron Koblin, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab, to install interactive lighting on the Vancouver sculpture. At night, five high-definition projectors cast a giant canvas—literally, a massive Chrome window—onto Skies Painted. Visitors with smartphones or tablets can interact with the sculpture through an app; a swipe or swirl of a finger on their touchscreen produces, in real time, a colorful ripple or pattern on the netting.

“Each person becomes a participant and actually completes the art for me,” says Echelman. “I don’t know how it will unfold.”

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks will be on display at the Vancouver Convention Center until tomorrow, March 22. Echelman hopes for it to travel to other venues in the future. 

A Descriptive Catalogue of Catlin's Indian Gallery

Archives of American Art
Exhibition Catalog : 49 p. : ill. ; 21 x 17 cm

Full title: A Descriptive Catalogue of Catlin's Indian Gallery; containing Portraits, Landscapes, Costumes, &c. and Representations of the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians, Collected and Painted Entirely by Mr. Catlin, During Seven Years? Travel Amongst 48 Tribes, Mostly Speaking Different Languages.

A Descent Into the Maelström

Smithsonian Magazine

We had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak.

"Not long ago," said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man—or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of—and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man—but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you know I can scarcely look over this little cliff without getting giddy?"

The "little cliff," upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from falling by the tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge—this "little cliff" arose, a sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or sixteen hundred feet from the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky—while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance.

"You must get over these fancies," said the guide, "for I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned—and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye."

"We are now," he continued, in that particularizing manner which distinguished him–"we are now close upon the Norwegian coast—in the sixty-eighth degree of latitude—in the great province of Nordland—and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise yourself up a little higher—hold on to the grass if you feel giddy—so—and look out, beyond the belt of vapor beneath us, into the sea."

I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer's account of the Mare Tenebrarum. A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever. Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed, and at a distance of some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleak-looking island; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of surge in which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a cluster of dark rocks.

The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore, had something very unusual about it. Although, at the time, so strong a gale was blowing landward that a brig in the remote offing lay to under a double-reefed trysail, and constantly plunged her whole hull out of sight, still there was here nothing like a regular swell, but only a short, quick, angry cross dashing of water in every direction—as well in the teeth of the wind as otherwise. Of foam there was little except in the immediate vicinity of the rocks.

 "The island in the distance," resumed the old man, "is called by the Norwegians Vurrgh. The one midway is Moskoe. That a mile to the northward is Ambaaren. Yonder are Iflesen, Hoeyholm, Kieldholm, Suarven, and Buckholm. Farther off—between Moskoe and Vurrgh—are Otterholm, Flimen, Sandflesen, and Skarholm. These are the true names of the places—but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than either you or I can understand. Do you hear any thing? Do you see any change in the water?"

We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, to which we had ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the sea until it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed—to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion—heaving, boiling, hissing—gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly—very suddenly—this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.

"This," said I at length, to the old man–"this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelström."

"So it is sometimes termed," said he. "We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-ström, from the island of Moskoe in the midway."

The ordinary accounts of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene—or of the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder. I am not sure from what point of view the writer in question surveyed it, nor at what time; but it could neither have been from the summit of Helseggen, nor during a storm. There are some passages of his description, nevertheless, which may be quoted for their details, although their effect is exceedingly feeble in conveying an impression of the spectacle.

 "Between Lofoden and Moskoe," he says, "the depth of the water is between thirty-six and forty fathoms; but on the other side, toward Ver (Vurrgh) this depth decreases so as not to afford a convenient passage for a vessel, without the risk of splitting on the rocks, which happens even in the calmest weather. When it is flood, the stream runs up the country between Lofoden and Moskoe with a boisterous rapidity; but the roar of its impetuous ebb to the sea is scarce equalled by the loudest and most dreadful cataracts; the noise being heard several leagues off, and the vortices or pits are of such an extent and depth, that if a ship comes within its attraction, it is inevitably absorbed and carried down to the bottom, and there beat to pieces against the rocks; and when the water relaxes, the fragments thereof are thrown up again. But these intervals of tranquillity are only at the turn of the ebb and flood, and in calm weather, and last but a quarter of an hour, its violence gradually returning. When the stream is most boisterous, and its fury heightened by a storm, it is dangerous to come within a Norway mile of it. Boats, yachts, and ships have been carried away by not guarding against it before they were within its reach. It likewise happens frequently, that whales come too near the stream, and are overpowered by its violence; and then it is impossible to describe their howlings and bellowings in their fruitless struggles to disengage themselves. A bear once, attempting to swim from Lofoden to Moskoe, was caught by the stream and borne down, while he roared terribly, so as to be heard on shore. Large stocks of firs and pine trees, after being absorbed by the current, rise again broken and torn to such a degree as if bristles grew upon them. This plainly shows the bottom to consist of craggy rocks, among which they are whirled to and fro. This stream is regulated by the flux and reflux of the sea—it being constantly high and low water every six hours. In the year 1645, early in the morning of Sexagesima Sunday, it raged with such noise and impetuosity that the very stones of the houses on the coast fell to the ground."

In regard to the depth of the water, I could not see how this could have been ascertained at all in the immediate vicinity of the vortex. The "forty fathoms" must have reference only to portions of the channel close upon the shore either of Moskoe or Lofoden. The depth in the centre of the Moskoe-ström must be immeasurably greater; and no better proof of this fact is necessary than can be obtained from even the sidelong glance into the abyss of the whirl which may be had from the highest crag of Helseggen. Looking down from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the simplicity with which the honest Jonas Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief, the anecdotes of the whales and the bears; for it appeared to me, in fact, a self-evident thing, that the largest ships of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and at once.

The attempts to account for the phenomenon—some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal—now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect. The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Feroe islands, "have no other cause than the collision of waves rising and falling, at flux and reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it precipitates itself like a cataract; and thus the higher the flood rises, the deeper must the fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of which is sufficiently known by lesser experiments."—These are the words of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part—the Gulf of Bothnia being somewhat decidedly named in one instance. This opinion, idle in itself, was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented; and, mentioning it to the guide, I was rather surprised to hear him say that, although it was the view almost universally entertained of the subject by the Norwegians, it nevertheless was not his own. As to the former notion he confessed his inability to comprehend it; and here I agreed with him—for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.

"You have had a good look at the whirl now," said the old man, "and if you will creep round this crag, so as to get in its lee, and deaden the roar of the water, I will tell you a story that will convince you I ought to know something of the Moskoe-ström."

I placed myself as desired, and he proceeded.

"Myself and my two brothers once owned a schooner-rigged smack of about seventy tons burthen, with which we were in the habit of fishing among the islands beyond Moskoe, nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent eddies at sea there is good fishing, at proper opportunities, if one has only the courage to attempt it; but among the whole of the Lofoden coastmen, we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands, as I tell you. The usual grounds are a great way lower down to the southward. There fish can be got at all hours, without much risk, and therefore these places are preferred. The choice spots over here among the rocks, however, not only yield the finest variety, but in far greater abundance; so that we often got in a single day, what the more timid of the craft could not scrape together in a week. In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation—the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.

"We kept the smack in a cove about five miles higher up the coast than this; and it was our practice, in fine weather, to take advantage of the fifteen minutes' slack to push across the main channel of the Moskoe-ström, far above the pool, and then drop down upon anchorage somewhere near Otterholm, or Sandflesen, where the eddies are not so violent as elsewhere. Here we used to remain until nearly time for slack-water again, when we weighed and made for home. We never set out upon this expedition without a steady side wind for going and coming—one that we felt sure would not fail us before our return—and we seldom made a miscalculation upon this point. Twice, during six years, we were forced to stay all night at anchor on account of a dead calm, which is a rare thing indeed just about here; and once we had to remain on the grounds nearly a week, starving to death, owing to a gale which blew up shortly after our arrival, and made the channel too boisterous to be thought of. Upon this occasion we should have been driven out to sea in spite of everything, (for the whirlpools threw us round and round so violently, that, at length, we fouled our anchor and dragged it) if it had not been that we drifted into one of the innumerable cross currents—here to-day and gone to-morrow—which drove us under the lee of Flimen, where, by good luck, we brought up.

 "I could not tell you the twentieth part of the difficulties we encountered 'on the ground'—it is a bad spot to be in, even in good weather—but we made shift always to run the gauntlet of the Moskoe-ström itself without accident; although at times my heart has been in my mouth when we happened to be a minute or so behind or before the slack. The wind sometimes was not as strong as we thought it at starting, and then we made rather less way than we could wish, while the current rendered the smack unmanageable. My eldest brother had a son eighteen years old, and I had two stout boys of my own. These would have been of great assistance at such times, in using the sweeps, as well as afterward in fishing—but, somehow, although we ran the risk ourselves, we had not the heart to let the young ones get into the danger—for, after all said and done, it was a horrible danger, and that is the truth.

"It is now within a few days of three years since what I am going to tell you occurred. It was on the tenth of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of the world will never forget—for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen what was to follow.

"The three of us—my two brothers and myself—had crossed over to the islands about two o'clock P.M., and soon nearly loaded the smack with fine fish, which, we all remarked, were more plenty that day than we had ever known them. It was just seven, by my watch, when we weighed and started for home, so as to make the worst of the Ström at slack water, which we knew would be at eight.

 "We set out with a fresh wind on our starboard quarter, and for some time spanked along at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, for indeed we saw not the slightest reason to apprehend it. All at once we were taken aback by a breeze from over Helseggen. This was most unusual—something that had never happened to us before—and I began to feel a little uneasy, without exactly knowing why. We put the boat on the wind, but could make no headway at all for the eddies, and I was upon the point of proposing to return to the anchorage, when, looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular copper-colored cloud that rose with the most amazing velocity.

"In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, and we were dead becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things, however, did not last long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us—in less than two the sky was entirely overcast—and what with this and the driving spray, it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other in the smack.

"Such a hurricane as then blew it is folly to attempt describing. The oldest seaman in Norway never experienced any thing like it. We had let our sails go by the run before it cleverly took us; but, at the first puff, both our masts went by the board as if they had been sawed off—the mainmast taking with it my youngest brother, who had lashed himself to it for safety.

"Our boat was the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water. It had a complete flush deck, with only a small hatch near the bow, and this hatch it had always been our custom to batten down when about to cross the Ström, by way of precaution against the chopping seas. But for this circumstance we should have foundered at once—for we lay entirely buried for some moments. How my elder brother escaped destruction I cannot say, for I never had an opportunity of ascertaining. For my part, as soon as I had let the foresail run, I threw myself flat on deck, with my feet against the narrow gunwale of the bow, and with my hands grasping a ring-bolt near the foot of the foremast. It was mere instinct that prompted me to do this—which was undoubtedly the very best thing I could have done—for I was too much flurried to think.

 "For some moments we were completely deluged, as I say, and all this time I held my breath, and clung to the bolt. When I could stand it no longer I raised myself upon my knees, still keeping hold with my hands, and thus got my head clear. Presently our little boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does in coming out of the water, and thus rid herself, in some measure, of the seas. I was now trying to get the better of the stupor that had come over me, and to collect my senses so as to see what was to be done, when I felt somebody grasp my arm. It was my elder brother, and my heart leaped for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard—but the next moment all this joy was turned into horror—for he put his mouth close to my ear, and screamed out the word 'Moskoe-ström!'

"No one ever will know what my feelings were at that moment. I shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of the ague. I knew what he meant by that one word well enough—I knew what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove us on, we were bound for the whirl of the Ström, and nothing could save us!

"You perceive that in crossing the Ström channel, we always went a long way up above the whirl, even in the calmest weather, and then had to wait and watch carefully for the slack—but now we were driving right upon the pool itself, and in such a hurricane as this! ‘To be sure,' I thought, ‘we shall get there just about the slack—there is some little hope in that'—but in the next moment I cursed myself for being so great a fool as to dream of hope at all. I knew very well that we were doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship.

"By this time the first fury of the tempest had spent itself, or perhaps we did not feel it so much, as we scudded before it, but at all events the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind, and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky—as clear as I ever saw—and of a deep bright blue—and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear. She lit up every thing about us with the greatest distinctness—but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up!

"I now made one or two attempts to speak to my brother—but in some manner which I could not understand, the din had so increased that I could not make him hear a single word, although I screamed at the top of my voice in his ear. Presently he shook his head, looking as pale as death, and held up one of his fingers, as if to say 'listen!'

"At first I could not make out what he meant—but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run down at seven o'clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Ström was in full fury!

"When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her—which appears very strange to a landsman—and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase.

 "Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the counter, and bore us with it as it rose—up—up—as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream. But while we were up I had thrown a quick glance around—and that one glance was all sufficient. I saw our exact position in an instant. The Moskoe-ström whirlpool was about a quarter of a mile dead ahead—but no more like the every-day Moskoe-ström, than the whirl as you now see it, is like a mill-race. If I had not known where we were, and what we had to expect, I should not have recognised the place at all. As it was, I involuntarily closed my eyes in horror. The lids clenched themselves together as if in a spasm.

"It could not have been more than two minutes afterwards until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in its new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek—such a sound as you might imagine given out by the water-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss—down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the amazing velocity with which we were borne along. The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the horizon.

"It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.

"It may look like boasting—but what I tell you is truth—I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God's power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man's mind in such extremity—and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a little light-headed.

"There was another circumstance which tended to restore my self-possession; and this was the cessation of the wind, which could not reach us in our present situation—for, as you saw yourself, the belt of surf is considerably lower than the general bed of the ocean, and this latter now towered above us, a high, black, mountainous ridge. If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection. But we were now, in a great measure, rid of these annoyances—just as death-condemned felons in prison are allowed petty indulgences, forbidden them while their doom is yet uncertain.

 "How often we made the circuit of the belt it is impossible to say. We careered round and round for perhaps an hour, flying rather than floating, getting gradually more and more into the middle of the surge, and then nearer and nearer to its horrible inner edge. All this time I had never let go of the ring-bolt. My brother was at the stern, holding on to a large empty water-cask which had been securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only thing on deck that had not been swept overboard when the gale first took us. As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this, and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act—although I knew he was a madman when he did it—a raving maniac through sheer fright. I did not care, however, to contest the point with him. I thought it could make no difference whether either of us held on at all; so I let him have the bolt, and went astern to the cask. This there was no great difficulty in doing; for the smack flew round steadily enough, and upon an even keel—only swaying to and fro, with the immense sweeps and swelters of the whirl. Scarcely had I secured myself in my new position, when we gave a wild lurch to starboard, and rushed headlong into the abyss. I muttered a hurried prayer to God, and thought all was over.

"As I felt the sickening sweep of the descent, I had instinctively tightened my hold upon the barrel, and closed my eyes. For some seconds I dared not open them—while I expected instant destruction, and wondered that I was not already in my death-struggles with the water. But moment after moment elapsed. I still lived. The sense of falling had ceased; and the motion of the vessel seemed much as it had been before while in the belt of foam, with the exception that she now lay more along. I took courage and looked once again upon the scene.

"Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.

"At first I was too much confused to observe anything accurately. The general burst of terrific grandeur was all that I beheld. When I recovered myself a little, however, my gaze fell instinctively downward. In this direction I was able to obtain an unobstructed view, from the manner in which the smack hung on the inclined surface of the pool. She was quite upon an even keel—that is to say, her deck lay in a plane parallel with that of the water—but this latter sloped at an angle of more than forty-five degrees, so that we seemed to be lying upon our beam-ends. I could not help observing, nevertheless, that I had scarcely more difficulty in maintaining my hold and footing in this situation, than if we had been upon a dead level; and this, I suppose, was owing to the speed at which we revolved.

"The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Mussulmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. This mist, or spray, was no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel, as they all met together at the bottom—but the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that mist, I dare not attempt to describe.

"Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we swept—not with any uniform movement—but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet—sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.

"Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious—for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,' I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,'—and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all—this fact—the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.

"It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-ström. By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way—so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters—but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed—that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb, as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance, that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean, without undergoing the fate of those which had been drawn in more early or absorbed more rapidly. I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent;—the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere;—the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.

Since my escape, I have had several conversations on this subject with an old school-master of the district; and it was from him that I learned the use of the words ‘cylinder' and ‘sphere.' He explained to me—although I have forgotten the explanation—how what I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the floating fragments—and showed me how it happened that a cylinder, swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.

"There was one startling circumstance which went a great way in enforcing these observations, and rendering me anxious to turn them to account, and this was that, at every revolution, we passed something like a barrel, or else the broken yard or the mast of a vessel, while many of these things, which had been on our level when I first opened my eyes upon the wonders of the whirlpool, were now high up above us, and seemed to have moved but little from their original station.

"I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. I attracted my brother's attention by signs, pointed to the floating barrels that came near us, and did everything in my power to make him understand what I was about to do. I thought at length that he comprehended my design—but, whether this was the case or not, he shook his head despairingly, and refused to move from his station by the ring-bolt. It was impossible to force him; the emergency admitted no delay; and so, with a bitter struggle, I resigned him to his fate, fastened myself to the cask by means of the lashings which secured it to the counter, and precipitated myself with it into the sea, without another moment's hesitation.

 "The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is myself who now tell you this tale—as you see that I did escape—and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say—I will bring my story quickly to conclusion. It might have been an hour, or thereabout, after my quitting the smack, when, having descended to a vast distance beneath me, it made three or four wild gyrations in rapid succession, and, bearing my loved brother with it, plunged headlong, at once and forever, into the chaos of foam below. The barrel to which I was attached sunk very little farther than half the distance between the bottom of the gulf and the spot at which I leaped overboard, before a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew, gradually, less and less violent. By degrees, the froth and the rainbow disappeared, and the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise. The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-ström had been. It was the hour of the slack—but the sea still heaved in mountainous waves from the effects of the hurricane. I was borne violently into the channel of the Ström, and in a few minutes, was hurried down the coast into the 'grounds' of the fishermen. A boat picked me up— exhausted from fatigue—and (now that the danger was removed) speechless from the memory of its horror. Those who drew me on board were my old mates and daily companions—but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told them my story—they did not believe it. I now tell it to you—and I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry fishermen of Lofoden.

A Brief History of the RV

Smithsonian Magazine

On August 21, 1915, the Conklin family departed Huntington, New York on a cross-country camping trip in a vehicle called the “Gypsy Van.” Visually arresting and cleverly designed, the 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance had been custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company to provide a maximum of comfort while roughing it on the road to San Francisco. The New York Times gushed that had the “Commander of the Faithful” ordered the “Jinns… to produce out of thin air… a vehicle which should have the power of motion and yet be a dwelling place fit for a Caliph, the result would have fallen far short of the actual house upon wheels which [just] left New York.”

For the next two months, the Conklins and the Gypsy Van were observed and admired by thousands along their westward route, ultimately becoming the subjects of nationwide coverage in the media of the day. Luxuriously equipped with an electrical generator and incandescent lighting, a full kitchen, Pullman-style sleeping berths, a folding table and desk, a concealed bookcase, a phonograph, convertible sofas with throw pillows, a variety of small appliances, and even a “roof garden,” this transport was a marvel of technology and chutzpah.

For many Americans, the Conklin’s Gypsy Van was their introduction to Recreational Vehicles, or simply, RVs. Ubiquitous today, our streamlined motorhomes and camping trailers alike can trace their origins to the time between 1915 and 1930, when Americans’ urge to relax by roughing it and their desire for a host of modern comforts first aligned with a motor camping industry that had the capacity to deliver both.

The Conklins did not become famous simply because they were camping their way to California. Camping for fun was not novel in 1915: It had been around since 1869, when William H.H. Murray published his wildly successful Adventures in the Wilderness; Or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, America’s first “how-to” camp guidebook.

Ever since Murray, camping literature has emphasized the idea that one can find relief from the noise, smoke, crowds, and regulations that make urban life tiresome and alienating by making a pilgrimage to nature. All one needed to do was head out of town, camp in a natural place for a while, and then return home restored in spirit, health and sense of belonging. While in the wild, a camper—like any other pilgrim—had to undergo challenges not found at home, which is why camping has long been called “roughing it.” Challenges were necessary because, since Murray’s day, camping has been a recapitulation of the “pioneer” experience on the pre-modern “frontier” where the individual and family were central and the American nation was born.

Camping’s popularity grew slowly, but got more sophisticated when John B. Bachelder offered alternatives to Murray’s vision of traveling around the Adirondacks by canoe in his 1875 book Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them. Bachelder identified three modes of camping: on foot (what we call “backpacking”); on horseback, which allowed for more gear and supplies; and with a horse and wagon. This last was most convenient, allowing for the inclusion ‘of more gear and supplies as well as campers who were unprepared for the rigors of the other two modes. However, horse-and-wagon camping was also the most costly and geographically limited because of the era’s poor roads. In short order, Americans across the country embraced all three manners of camping, but their total number remained relatively small because only the upper middle classes had several weeks’ vacation time and the money to afford a horse and wagon.

Over the next 30 years, camping slowly modernized. In a paradoxical twist, this anti-modern, back-to-nature activity has long been technologically sophisticated. As far back as the 1870s, when a new piece of camping gear appeared, it was often produced with recently developed materials or manufacturing techniques to improve comfort and convenience. Camping enthusiasts, promoters, and manufacturers tended to emphasize the positive consequences of roughing it, but, they added, one didn’t have to suffer through every discomfort to have an authentic and satisfying experience. Instead, a camper could “smooth” some particularly distressing roughness by using a piece of gear that provided enhanced reliability, reduced bulk, and dependable outcomes.

Around 1910 the pace of camping’s modernization increased when inexpensive automobiles began appearing. With incomes rising, car sales exploded. At the same time, vacations became more widespread—soon Bachelder’s horses became motor vehicles, and all the middle classes started to embrace camping. The first RV was hand built onto an automobile in 1904. This proto-motorhome slept four adults on bunks, was lit by incandescent lights and included an icebox and a radio. Over the course of the next decade, well-off tinkerers continued to adapt a variety of automobiles and truck chassis to create even more spacious and comfortable vehicles, but a bridge was crossed in 1915 when Roland and Mary Conklin launched their Gypsy Van.

Unlike their predecessors, the wealthy Conklins modified a bus into a fully furnished, double-deck motorhome. The New York Times, which published several articles about the Conklins, was not sure what to make of their vehicle, suggesting that it was a “sublimated English caravan, land-yacht, or what you will,” but they were certain that it had “all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.” The family’s journey was so widely publicized that their invention became the general template for generations of motorhomes.

The appeal of motorhomes like the Conklins’ was simple and clear for any camper who sought to smooth some roughness. A car camper had to erect a tent, prepare bedding, unpack clothes, and establish a kitchen and dining area, which could take hours. The motorhome camper could avoid much of this effort. According to one 1920s observer, a motorhome enthusiast simply “let down the back steps and the thing was done.” Departure was just as simple.

When the Conklin family traveled from New York to San Francisco in their luxury van, the press covered their travels avidly. (Courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress)

By the middle of the 1920s, many Americans of somewhat more average means were tinkering together motorhomes, many along the lines made popular by the Conklins, and with the economy booming, several automobile and truck manufacturers also offered a limited number of fully complete motorhomes, including REO’s “speed wagon bungalow” and Hudson-Essex’s “Pullman Coach.”

In spite of their comforts, motorhomes had two distinct limitations, which ultimately led to the creation of the RV’s understudy: the trailer. A camper could not disconnect the house portion and drive the automobile part alone. (The Conklins had carried a motorcycle.) In addition, many motorhomes were large and limited to traveling only on automobile-friendly roads, making wilder landscapes unreachable. As a consequence of these limitations and their relatively high cost, motorhomes remained a marginal choice among RV campers until the 1960s. Trailers, by contrast, became the choice of people of average means.

The earliest auto camping trailers appeared during the early 1910s but they were spartan affairs: a plain device for carrying tents, sleeping bags, coolers, and other camping equipment. Soon, motivated tinkerers began to attach tent canvas on a collapsible frame, adding cots for sleeping and cupboards for cooking equipment and creating the first “tent trailers.” By mid-decade, it was possible to purchase a fully equipped, manufactured one. In 1923’s Motor Camping, J.C. Long and John D. Long declared that urban Americans were “possessed of the desire to be somewhere else” and the solution was evident—trailer camping. Tent trailering also charmed campers because of its convenience and ease. “Your camping trip will be made doubly enjoyable by using a BRINTNALL CONVERTIBLE CAMPING TRAILER,” blared an advertisement by the Los Angeles Trailer Company. The trailer was “light,” incorporated “comfortable exclusive folding bed features,” and had a “roomy” storage compartment for luggage, which left the car free to be “used for passengers.”

Tent trailering, however, had some drawbacks that became clear to Arthur G. Sherman in 1928 when he and his family headed north from their Detroit home on a modest camping trip. A bacteriologist and the president of a pharmaceutical company, Sherman departed with a newly purchased tent trailer that the manufacturer claimed could be opened into a waterproof cabin in five minutes. Unfortunately, as he and his family went to set it up for the first time, a thunderstorm erupted, and claimed Sherman, they “couldn’t master it after an hour’s wrestling.” Everyone got soaked. The experience so disgusted Sherman that he decided to create something better.

The initial design for Sherman’s new camping trailer was a masonite body standing six-feet wide by nine-feet long and no taller than the family’s car. On each side was a small window for ventilation and two more up front. Inside, Sherman placed cupboards, icebox, stove, built-in furniture and storage on either side of a narrow central aisle. By today’s standards, the trailer was small, boxy and unattractive, but it was solid and waterproof, and required no folding. Sherman had a carpenter build it for him for about $500 and the family took their new “Covered Wagon” (named by the children) camping the following summer of 1929. It had some problems—principally, it was too low inside—but the trailer aroused interest among many campers, some of whom offered to buy it from him. Sherman sensed an opportunity.

That fall, Sherman built two additional Covered Wagons. One was for a friend, but the other one he displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1930. He set the price at $400, which was expensive, and although few people came by the display, Sherman reported that they were “fanatically interested.” By the end of the show, he had sold 118 units, the Covered Wagon Company was born, and the shape of an RV industry was set.

Over the next decade the company grew rapidly and to meet demand, trailers were built on an assembly line modeled on the auto industry. In 1936, Covered Wagon was the largest trailer producer in an expanding American industry, selling approximately 6,000 units, with gross sales of $3 million. By the end of the 1930s, the solid-body industry was producing more than 20,000 units per year and tent trailers had more or less disappeared.

Arthur Sherman’s solid-body trailer quickly gained acceptance for two principal reasons. First, Sherman was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. Detroit was at the center of the Great Lakes states, which at that time contained the country’s greatest concentration of campers. Furthermore, southern Michigan was the hub of the automobile industry, so a wide range of parts and skills were available, especially once the Depression dampened demand for new automobiles. And, a solid-body trailer took another step along the path of modernization by providing a more convenient space that was usable at any time.

Today’s 34-foot Class A motorhome with multiple TVs, two bathrooms, and a king bed is a version of the Conklin’s “Gypsy Van” and fifth-wheel toy haulers with popouts are the descendants of Arthur Sherman’s “Covered Wagon,” and these, in turn, are modernized versions of Bachelder’s horse-and-wagon camping. Between 1915 and 1930, Americans’ desire to escape modern life’s pressures by traveling into nature intersected with their yearning to enjoy the comforts of modern life while there. This contradiction might have produced only frustration, but tinkering, creativity, and a love of autos instead gave us recreational vehicles.

A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa

Smithsonian Magazine

“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”

Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.

Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.

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Letters to Santa Claus

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Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.

This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.

“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.

Longfellow’s letter bore a return address of “Chimney Corner,” likely because she left it on the family hearth. During these early decades of Santa’s evolution in the U.S., not only did the saint travel in and out of homes via the chimney, so did his mail. Parents left their notes to children by the fireplace, or in one of the nearby stockings, and soon children put their replies to him there.

As postal workers began hand-delivering mail to urban centers during the Civil War, Americans began to view the mail as a pleasant surprise arriving at one’s door, rather than a burdensome errand. The Chicago Tribune captured this shift in the experience of receiving mail in an 1864 story, commenting that the addition of 35 deliverymen had changed the city’s whole understanding of postage. Instead of “the annoyance of having to carry letters to the office,” now, as each postman brought mail directly to residents’ doors, it transformed the mail carrier into “a genuine Santa Claus [visiting] households on his beat.” As the postal system became more formalized and efficient, partly in response to the explosion of mail during the Civil War, the cost of postage began dropping in the mid-1860s. Parents grew more comfortable with paying for stamps, and children began to view the postman as an actual conduit to the Christmas figure.

Pictures, poems, and illustrations of St. Nick— particularly Thomas Nast’s 1871 depiction in the widely read Harper’s Weekly magazine —sorting letters from “Good Children’s Parents” and “Naughty Children’s Parents”— helped spread the idea of sending Santa mail. Nast is also credited with popularizing the idea that Santa lived and worked in the North Pole — for example, with an 1866 illustration that named “Santaclausville, N.P.” as his address — giving kids a destination to send Santa’s mail. The use of the post office to contact St. Nick began as a particularly American phenomenon. Scottish children would shout their wishes up the chimney, while Europeans simply left out stockings or shoes for the gift bringer. 

Soon newspapers across the country were reporting the arrival of Santa letters to local postal departments, and then to their own offices (recognizing the emotional power of the letters, many papers published the children’s scrawls and even offered prizes for the “best” letters). “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a reporter for Columbia, South Carolina’s Daily Phoenix in December 1873. A correspondent for the Stark County Democrat, in Canton, Ohio, noted the following year: “One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them.”

The gifts that kids requested in this period tended to be simple and practical. Dear Santa includes letters written during the 1870s that ask for gifts such as writing desks, prayer books, and “a stick of pomade” for “papa.” As society changed, the children started to ask for more fun items, such as candy, dolls, and roller skates.

But as the letters piled up, so did tensions about who should answer them. While some newspapers published letters sent to them and invited readers to respond, most missives sent to the post office ended up in the Dead Letter Office where they were destroyed, along with other mail sent to unreachable addresses. By the turn of the 20th century, the public and press began complaining that children’s wishes were treated with such neglect. Institutions ranging from charitable societies to the New York Times asked if an alternative could not be found.

After a few stopgap attempts, the Post Office Department (as the United States Postal Service was known until 1971), saw little other option but to permanently change the policy in 1913, allowing local charity groups to answer the letters, as long as they got the approval of the local postmaster. In Winchester, Kentucky, an organization began delivering Christmas goodies like nuts, fruits, candy—as well as firecrackers and roman candles—to letter writers. In the city of Santa Claus, Indiana, the city’s postmaster, James Martin, started answering the city’s large pile of Santa letters himself, then tapped local volunteers as the city’s name brought in ever-more mail for the man in the red suit.

But New York City had the most prominent letter-answering program. In 1913, customs broker John Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association, which coordinated the answering of tens of thousands of letters each year, matching children’s requests with individual New Yorkers who often hand-delivered the gifts to the letter writers. The effort earned accolades from the press, public and celebrities including John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. But each year, the group requested funds to cover ever-more gifts and postage costs, and even $300,000 to pay for a vast Santa Claus Building in Midtown Manhattan. Fifteen years after its initial launch, it was found that much of the money was unaccounted for and — as The Santa Claus Man tells in greater detail — Gluck was exposed as having pocketed much of the money (as much as several hundred thousand dollars in donations) for himself.

As a result, the Post Office Department revoked the Association’s right to receive Santa’s mail, and changed its policy nationally, restricting which groups could receive the letters. This led to the department’s establishment of Operation Santa Claus, at first an informal group of postal employees who pooled their own donations to send gifts in response to children’s pleas. The program evolved after being spotlighted in the climactic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, then enjoyed a significant boost when Johnny Carson made a practice of reading several letters each December on “The Tonight Show,” urging viewers to take part in the program.

“The range is incredible, from the very basic where they can’t afford to buy anything but a token, to the opposite end where they will invest in a school and redo a playground,” says Pete Fontana, the “Chief Elf Officer” in New York City, who has overseen the Operation Santa Program the past 17 years (though he will be retiring after this season). This program avoids fundraising by simply facilitating donations of willing donors. Individuals can volunteer to answer a Santa letter (or several), then it is up to that donor to buy the requested gift and bring it to the post office to send to the child. While the postal employees shuttle the gifts to children, it is the donors who pay for them. “It’s amazing how it can vary from almost nothing to the extreme,” says Fontana.

While post offices throughout the country managed most of these answering campaigns, the city of Santa Claus has taken its own approach. In 1976, a number of the local volunteers established Santa’s Elves, Inc., separate from the post office. In 2006, the Santa Claus Museum & Village opened, merging with the Elves. It is this organization that is behind the book Letters to Santa Claus, drawing on its archives of missives going back to the 1930s.

“It goes from very simple letters to far more expensive wish lists—you watch the progression from ‘I’d like some blocks’ to ‘I’d like a VCR’ and ‘I’d like an iPad,’” says Emily Weisner Thompson, the executive director of the museum who compiled Letters to Santa.

The letters reflect the changing wants of children, from spurs and a cowboy hat so the writer can “play Roy Rogers” to an Xbox with Assassins Creed 3, from a Shirley Temple doll to an American Girl doll. There are also some more unusual requests, such as a child in 1913 who asks Santa for a glass eye. One letter in Letters to Santa comes from an adult woman asking Santa to bring her a “tall, stately, well-bred…man of wealth with a steady income,” while in another, a boy negotiates with Santa to “trade you my sister when she comes from the stork for an elf.” A number of poorer children writing at the start of the 20th century even ask for coal—seeking warmth rather than viewing it as a punishment for naughtiness.

The letters tell a larger history as well. From World War I (a mother wrote to Gluck’s Santa Claus Association “We had to break up our home last winter, for my husband who is a longshoreman could not get work since the war began”) to the Great Depression; from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy (a child writing in 2012 promises to “ask for much less this year so you can focus on the kids that are less fortunate than me”).

“I love the idea that we can see history through these letters,” says Thompson.

In more recent years, the process of answering Santa’s letters has been more regulated. In 2006, the Postmaster General formalized Operation Santa Claus nationally, putting in place a set of guidelines for all post offices taking part in the program. These include requiring donors to present a photo ID when they pick up Santa letters, and redacting the children’s full names and addresses—assigning each letter a number and storing the delivery info in a database that only the postal employees who actually deliver the gifts can access.

“It was different in every place it was done—some only had a letter-response campaign where they would send form letters out to the kids, there was no gift giving,” says Fontana. “In New York, we send only the gifts.”

It’s a much more modern approach to playing Santa than Fanny Longfellow or John Gluck could have imagined. Fontana hopes to see the program evolve further, scanning the letters and uploading them where people can fulfill children’s wishes from their laptop or smartphone. Programs such as EmailSanta.com and PackagefromSanta.com are already giving Santa the powerful tool of the Internet to help him accomplish his annual duties.

But what seems unlikely to change is kids’ continued eagerness to correspond with the jolly fellow, and adults’ continued enjoyment in playing him.

Alex Palmer will be discussing the history of Santa letters and signing copies of The Santa Claus Man at the National Postal Museum, on Saturday, December 12, from 3–5 p.m., as part of the annual holiday card workshop.

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1950s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1930s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1970s. (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1980s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from 2008 (original image)

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Dear Santa: Children's Christmas Letters and Wish Lists, 1870 - 1920

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Bench end, scroll

Smithsonian Gardens
Zinc bench end with saber back. The arm rest connects to the seat section with a large scroll. Below the seat the front leg is formed from an elongated S shape. The front and back legs terminate in backwards-facing scrolls, and an arched brace connects them. The playful scrolls of this design are in the manner of the late-Regency style wrought-iron furnishings. The major characteristics of the art, architecture, and decorative arts produced in nineteenth century are historicism, eclecticism, and mixing multiple styles together. The most popular style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century leading up to the Victorian era (1837-1901) was Neoclassicism. In America it has been called the American Empire style, Greek Revival, or Grecian style and was called Regency or Empire style in Europe. Neoclassicism was seen in painting, sculpture, furnishings, architecture, fashion, and even politics. This revival of classical taste was encouraged by the increased interest in classical, ancient, and antique forms inspired by recent excavations of in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Neoclassicism pulled motifs, ornamentation, and forms from antiquity, as well as the Renaissance interpretation of the classical world. Elements of neoclassical design included fretwork, columns, palmettes, pilasters, acanthus leaves, tulips and lotus motifs, grotesque masks, processional reliefs, mythical creatures, laurel garlands, fruit swags, scrolls, tassels, fringe, passementerie, frieze decoration, lyres, and vases; as well as accurate depictions of flora, fauna, birds, and insects; and repeating patterns such as the Greek key and egg-and-dart. A characteristic of Neoclassical designs is strict symmetry of all the elements.

Bench end, saber back

Smithsonian Gardens
Zinc or aluminum bench end with saber back. The arm rest connects to the seat section with a large scroll. Below the seat the front leg is formed from an elongated S shape. The front and back legs terminate in backwards-facing scrolls and an arched brace connects them. The playful scrolls of this design are in the manner of the late-Regency style wrought-iron furnishings. The major characteristics of the art, architecture, and decorative arts produced in nineteenth century are historicism, eclecticism, and mixing multiple styles together. The most popular style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century leading up to the Victorian era (1837-1901) was Neoclassicism. In America it has been called the American Empire style, Greek Revival, or Grecian style and was called Regency or Empire style in Europe. Neoclassicism was seen in painting, sculpture, furnishings, architecture, fashion, and even politics. This revival of classical taste was encouraged by the increased interest in classical, ancient, and antique forms inspired by recent excavations of in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Neoclassicism pulled motifs, ornamentation, and forms from antiquity, as well as the Renaissance interpretation of the classical world. Elements of neoclassical design included fretwork, columns, palmettes, pilasters, acanthus leaves, tulips and lotus motifs, grotesque masks, processional reliefs, mythical creatures, laurel garlands, fruit swags, scrolls, tassels, fringe, passementerie, frieze decoration, lyres, and vases; as well as accurate depictions of flora, fauna, birds, and insects; and repeating patterns such as the Greek key and egg-and-dart. A characteristic of Neoclassical designs is strict symmetry of all the elements.

1860 Sitz Bathtub

National Museum of American History
A bath in a sitz or sit tub was said to provide relief from inflammation of the brain and organs of the chest, as well as nervous fevers.* The bather sat partially immersed up to the navel, in cold water with the head supported at the back and the feet dangling over the edge. Physician John Bell wrote A Treatise on Baths in 1859 in which he defined baths by the manner of water application to the body, by the bath’s temperature, and the parts of the body immersed in water. He categorized such a bath taken in this type of tub as a semicupium (lower half of body), cold (40°–70°), immersion type. This tin tub, now worn and unattractive, shows evidence of a fomer beauty. Hints of red paint beneath the current chips of cream indicate that it was a red tub, with cream–colored striped accents on the base and a cream interior. The arm rests, ending in bold scrolls, lend elegance to the form. For more information on bathing and bathtubs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, please see the introduction to this online exhibition. * John Bell, A Treatise on Baths, (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1859): 295-296.

100 years later, do we think Prohibition was good for the nation?

National Museum of American History

January 17, 1920, was an important day in American history. Why? Because on that day the grand social experiment called Prohibition was first enforced. The Volstead Act, the law that put enforcement teeth into the Eighteenth Amendment, banning intoxicating beverages, went into effect. The transformation of the nation from an alcoholic republic to a dry state created a surprising list of winners and losers.

People at a bar.Real photo postcard, 1907
From frontier saloons to prohibition era speakeasies, drinking has held a romantic place in the American imagination.

Let’s start with the obvious people who lost out: drinkers, especially working-class immigrants. Temperance advocates worried about immigrant men who gathered—and drank—in saloons. “Alien illiterates rule our cities today; the saloon is their palace,” proclaimed prominent Prohibitionist Frances Willard. Of course many temperance advocates had a double standard; a drink for themselves with dinner was good manners, but booze for others (especially working-class people) was dangerous.

The increasing number of immigrants, and their bars, was a source of race- and class-based fear for many white middle- and upper-class people born in the United States.  By 1900, there were 300,000 saloons across the nation (one for every three hundred citizens), and they were heavily concentrated in urban areas. The neighborhood drinking establishment was where working-class men aired grievances, organized politically, and found jobs. The patrons, speaking their native languages (such as German, Croatian, and Italian, among others), worried Temperance advocates who feared the saloon customers were socialists or communists and perhaps fomenting political upheaval. To save America, the saloon must go.

A sign for the Bauernschmidt brewery.Before Prohibition, breweries were largely local, serving distinct ethnic communities. By 1895, the Bauernschmidt brewery was the largest brewery in Baltimore, producing 60,000 barrels per year for the city’s heavily German population.

While Prohibition may have killed saloon culture, it didn’t end the consumption of alcohol. Working-class men moved their drinking from saloons into their homes, private halls, “athletic clubs,” and illicit bars. Affluent Americans also continued to drink. Famed Chicago mob boss Al Capone was reported to have said “When I sell liquor, it is bootlegging. . . . When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it is hospitality.”

A GIF of a cocktail set.The cocktail hour was born as Americans, responding to Prohibition, increasingly began drinking at home. 

One unexpected downside of Prohibition was its impact on the health of the nation. While alcohol consumption initially decreased after implementation of the Volstead Act, working-class consumers soon turned to alternative forms of alcohol, not all of which were safe. Patent medicine and over-the-counter goods with a high percentage of alcohol (even hair tonic) were consumed for off-label purposes. 

Hair tonic with a flower on the label.Desperate drinkers used products like Ed. Pinaud hair tonic (68% alcohol), masking them with flavoring and consuming them as beverages. 

Tainted alcohol was an even bigger problem—especially for poor people. Alcohol is an important industrial chemical, and large quantities are produced for use as solvents in paint, antifreeze, and other non-potable substances. Industrial alcohol is not taxed like drinking alcohol and is denatured (purposely adulterated) to make it unattractive for human consumption. During Prohibition, denatured ethyl alcohol and deadly methyl alcohol found their way into the U.S. beverage stream. Many people got sick and some died from unregulated and tainted alcohol.

Retailers and producers of alcohol also lost out during Prohibition. Closing saloons was not only a blow for men who frequented the drinking establishments, but meant a significant loss of business in immigrant communities. Of all licensed saloons, 80% were owned by first-generation Americans.

A sign for Schlitz Famo, a metal sign for the "famous soft drink."Joseph Schlitz Beverage Company produced the non-intoxicating beer-like beverage FAMO during Prohibition.

Some beer producers turned to legal nonalcoholic beverages, but with only limited success. Others made ice cream, cheese, ceramics, and even homebrewing supplies. Vintners and distillers had different options. Since the United States has a large religious population, the Volstead Act allowed for the production and shipment of sacramental wine. Sales went up with Prohibition, essentially making some priests and rabbis bootleggers. A 1925 report by the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ angrily reported that “there is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is, but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years.”

A full whiskey bottle with a label that says "For medical purposes."This bottle of Prohibition-era whiskey tells the story of another loophole. 

Most distillers closed their operations during Prohibition, but another loophole in the Volstead Act allowed for the sale of medical whiskey. While medicinal whiskey had been sold by pharmacies for years, sales skyrocketed during Prohibition. Affluent customers could afford the three-dollar physician visit to get a prescription for legally purchasing their whiskey. In general, however, alcohol producers and retailers took a financial loss during Prohibition.

A pink prescription for "whiskey, 1 pt."Throughout the 1920s, doctors could use their medical liquor prescription pads to write 100 authorizations for booze a month. Patients could get a refill for one pint every 10 days.

But, not all sellers of alcohol took a loss. The amount of money to be made in bootlegging was astronomical. Booze is big business. According to United States Attorney Emory Buckner, bootleg liquor sales in 1926 amounted to $3.6 billion. That was about the same as the U.S. federal budget at the time. Bootlegging was an opportunity for entrepreneurial criminals to become fast millionaires. But smuggling, transporting, and distributing large amounts of alcohol was complicated. Criminals organized national operations to manage and conduct their business. Where crime had once been local, the Volstead Act inadvertently promoted the development of organized crime. And competition between rival operations soon became violent.

A gun.Thompson sub-machine gun, 1921.
Rivalry between criminals for control of the lucrative bootlegging trade led to hyper-competition and violence. Public panic over brutal crime that spilled into the streets was a significant factor in driving the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Despite Prohibition, many Americans chose to flout the law and continue consuming alcohol at home or in illicit bars. Making matters worse, the poorly paid Prohibition officers hired to enforce the Volstead Act often found lucrative opportunities in criminal sales of alcohol. The resulting rise in government graft and corruption led to a lack of respect for authority that continued after Prohibition was repealed. 

A hub cap cover with the text "Repeal the 18th Amendment" and a woman standing by it.Motivated in part by the violence of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, a bloody conflict between rival bootlegging gangs, the temperance organization The Crusaders formed to argue for the repeal of Prohibition. 

Who were the winners during Prohibition? One was quick meals. As saloons closed during the first decade of Prohibition, the number of restaurants in the country tripled, and eating patterns changed with the rise of quick meals. Luncheonettes, cafeterias, and soda fountains sprang up in largely urban neighborhoods catering to middle-class and lower-middle-class workers.

Women on a float for Prohibition.The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the largest women’s organization in 1890.

Women helped win the argument for Prohibition. White protestant women were the principle advocates for Prohibition. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League made a moral argument, claiming that men squandered money on drunkenness, putting their wives and children at risk. Women’s and family rights were recognized and protected to a degree by Prohibition. More importantly, these activist groups not only won their argument when Prohibition became law, they developed skills and expectations that applied to another cause: woman suffrage. In general, the 1920s was an era of increased rights for women (although to different degrees). 

Wet or dry pamphletCampaign booklet, 1932

The ultimate loser in the tale of Prohibition was the Eighteenth Amendment itself. Andrew Volstead, author of the Prohibition enforcement act, was defeated in 1922 in his bid for an 11th term in Congress. Widespread unemployment and the economic chaos of the Great Depression fueled political upheaval. The 1932 elections swept many “wets” (politicians opposed to Prohibition) into office. Widely considered unenforceable and a failure, the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment were repealed by passage and ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. The effort for a government-led common good (Prohibition) was replaced by a public desire for a good time. Americans could legally drink again. 

A banner with a glass of beer on it that reads "Happy days are here again."A mug of beer takes prominence in this banner celebrating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932
presidential victory and the end of Prohibition.

Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition in the Mars Hall of American Business. 

Posted Date: 
Friday, January 17, 2020 - 12:30
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"The Alligewi Cherokee Mounds." with manuscript annotations

National Anthropological Archives
Largely a transcript from John Heckwelder, "An account of the history, manners, and customs of the Indian nations who once inhabited Pennsylvania and neighboring states," Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, v. 12, 1876, pages 48-49 (cited in footnote to Manuscript.)

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