Monday, September 29, 2008

P.T. Barnum

If you wanted to see a mermaid, a giant, or a bearded lady, P.T. Barnum would gladly grant your wish. During the 1800s, Barnum was one of America’s best-known showmen. He prided himself on being a master of the art of “humbug,” or fooling people.

Barnum’s show-business career began in New York City in 1835, when he exhibited an old woman whom he said was George Washington’s nurse. He claimed that she was 161 years old. Though Barnum’s story was false, people flocked to see the old woman anyway.

Later, Barnum opened his American Museum, where he displayed a variety of heavily publicized attractions, some real and many fake. Among the most popular attractions were Chang and Eng, Siamese twins joined at the waist, and a dancing midget who became famous as General Tom Thumb.

Barnum also presented genuinely talented performers, such as Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer. He sent her around the country on a successful concert tour. In 1871, Barnum launched a traveling circus that later featured Jumbo, which he claimed to be the world’s largest elephant.

Barnum’s circus merged with others owned by J.A.Bailey and the Ringling Brothers to form today’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “the greatest show on earth.”

P.T. Barnum was elected to the Connecticut state legislature and also served a term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The First Thanksgiving

In 1621, Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was just a year old and progressing well. The Pilgrim leaders decided to give thanks for their survival by holding a festival. Their day of Thanksgiving wa planned for October after the harvest.

Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe had been helpful to the colonists since the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth in 1620. Now the Pilgrims decided to show their appreciation by inviting Massasoit and his Wampanoags to the first Thanksgiving. In preparation, the Pilgrims sent out hunting parties to obtain ducks and geese for the feast, and wild turkeys. They gathered corn and fish, and other foods from the forest as well.

On the appointed day, Massasoit arrived with 90 tribesmen, and his hunters brought five deer for the feast. This first Thanksgiving dinner also included lobsters, clams, smoked eels, dried berries, wild plums, and even grapes. The feast was so successful that it went on for three days, until all the food was gone and the Indians returned to their villages. Thanksgiving has been an American holiday ever since.

Thanksgiving was made a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War when President Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote. “It’s the best book we’ve had.” Many critics share this high opinion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet some people have called the book crude and racist, and it has been banned by some libraries.

Set in the South before the Civil War, the book tells the story of young Huck Finn, who runs aways from his abusive father. Huck teams up with a runaway slave named Jim, and the two head down the Mississippi River on a raft. Along the way, they meet feuding families, crooks, and Huck’s friend from an earlier Twain book, Tom Sawyer.

When Jim is captured by slave catchers, Huck and Tom rescue him. At the end of the book, Jim learns that he has been freed by his owner, and the self-reliant Huck heads west to avoid being adopted and “civilized.”

It is a humorous tale, yet the author explores such key themes in American history as slavery, independence, and equality. Moreover, he captures with amazing accuracy the speech of ordinary people of the time. Twain, however, jokingly threatened to prosecute, banish, or shoot anyone who found a motive, moral, or plot in Huckleberry Finn. He wanted people to enjoy reading it. And for more than 110 years, they have.

Like his character, Huck Finn, Mark Twain grew up in a small Missouri town on the Mississippi River.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Timothy O'Sullivan

Taking pictures in the early years of photography was hard work. Cameras were large, heavy boxes that sat on strong tripods. Bright light, and at least several seconds were needed to take a picture. The negative images were recorded on fragile glass plates that had to be coasted with light-sensitive chemicals just before the exposure was made, then developed immediately afterward. So a photographer working away from his studio had to carry a portable darkroom in his horse-drawn wagon. It would not be until the 1880s when rolls of film replaced glass plates for photographic negatives.

Despite these limitations, some early photographers managed to take remarkable pictures. One of the best photographers was Timothy O’Sullivan, who had a natural talent for selecting interesting subjects and making striking visual compositions. O’Sullivan learned his craft from the famous photographer Matthew Brady. During the Civil War, O’Sullivan accompanied the Union army; his heartbreaking battlefield images were published in a book, Harvest of Death, in 1863.

After the war he traveled with survey expeditions to the American West, taking memorable pictures of the Great Salt Lake, Arizona’s Canyon de Cheily, and other wonders of the then little-known region. He was the first to photograph the ruins of the ancient Native American civilization that flourished in the Southwest around 1100 A.D.

The image with this post is a Timothy O'Sullivan photograph.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone ranks as one of the first American heroes. Short on education, he was long on adventurousness, courage, and frontier skills.

At the age of 21, Boone joined a British military expedition to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley and barely espcaped with his life, as did young George Washington. In 1767, Boone began exploring Kentucky, blazing the Wilderness Trail through the Cumberland Gap and then leading new settlers west. He founded the settlement of Boonesborough in 1775. Because Kentucky was prime Shawnee and Cherokee hunting ground, Indians and settlers often battled one another. At one point, the Shawnee captured Boone and took him far away from home, but he escaped and used his wilderness skills to make the 160-mile trek back in only four days.
In 1782, Boone fought in the so-called “last battle of the Revolutionary War” near Boonesborough against the British and Indian forces. He later served as an officer in the militia and as a state legislator. His claims to land in Kentucky were invalidated because of improper registration, but Congress gave him land in Missouri, where he lived until his death in 1820.

Boone prided himself on being able to find his way anywhere. When asked whether he had ever been lost, he replied, “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”

Monday, September 8, 2008


“Do-si-do!” Swing your partner!” “Promenade!” The caller sings out instructions. The fiddler plays a lively tune. Women in swirling skirts and men in bright Western shirts link hands and move in complicated patterns across the floor. This is a square dance, the best known form of American folk dancing.

Square dancing began in early colonial times. Settlers had brought traditional dances from their homelands. In time, these dances had merged and developed into a uniquely American form. Once found in rural areas, square dancing later became popular in cities too.

At house-raising parties in colonial days, cornmeal bran was spread on new wood floors. Couples square danced on the bran to smooth and shine the floors.

Today, square dancing are still performed to traditional country or mountain tunes played on a fiddle, guitar, or banjo. An even number of couples, usually four, face each other either in a square (quadrille), two lines (contra dance), or a circle (running set). A non-dancing caller directs the patterns, singing out or speaking rhythmically (“patter calling”) over the music. Calls, patterns, and dancing styles vary. In general, Western-style square dancing is more vigorous and complex than the older Eastern style. But both styles provide fun and exercise for dancers of all ages.