Pencils ready, class? OK, let’s get started.
It’s the birthday of the match.
On this day in 1827, English chemist John Walker sold the first friction match. Fire-makers in various forms had been around for centuries, but this was the first to be successfully commercially produced. However, it smelled like fireworks and had an unfortunate and unpredictable tendency to shoot sparks a great distance upon lighting. In fact, the sulphuric scent was part of the reason that matches were called “Lucifers”, a name that persists in some countries.
Four years later, a Frenchman named Charles Sauria added white phosphorus to the matchhead to improve quality and reduce the smell. But with one drawback down, another was added. White phosphorus was exceptionally toxic, and resulted in the workers who were exposed to it daily in the match factories falling victim to phossy jaw, a horrible, disfiguring condition that caused the jawbone to abscess and to glow a greenish-white in the dark. Left untreated, phossy jaw caused brain damage, organ failure, and death.
The use of white phosphorus in matches was not completely banned until 1906, but activists started protesting it most vigorously in 1888, when the London Match Girls strike occurred.
1400 women and girls employed at disgracefully low wages in an incredibly toxic match factory run by Bryant & May refused to work until conditions improved. Activist and theosophist Annie Besant aided the women in appealing their cause.
The group generated widespread public support and became unionized, settling the strike with many of their terms met.
I too am one of the masses who enjoyed collecting matchbooks over the years since I left home. While it’s one of those things I’m learning to let go of (and it helps that restaurants and bars don’t often provide branded matchbooks these days), it is pleasant to take a walk down memory lane once in a while when I look through the matchbook basket.
Today in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted, the only volcano to erupt on the European mainland in the last 100 years. Having erupted in A.D. 79, destroying Pompeii and leaving one of the world’s most vivid living cemetaries, the 1906 eruption killed over 100 people and decimated several cities in the province of Naples.
According to some historians, today is the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion and death, although honestly, no one can say for sure. They just didn’t keep those kind of records. Well, if they did, they’re lost now. Funny how the talk is all about Jesus’ birthday and the day of resurrection, but not about the day he actually died.
Today in 1949, South Pacific opened at New York City’s Majestic Theater. Starring (originally) Mary Martin (who also played Peter Pan on Broadway) and Ezio Pinza, the musical ran for 1,928 performances.
South Pacific inspired many of us to dream of a tropical paradise thousands of miles away… palm-fringed islands of white sand, surrounded by turquoise lagoons….sigh….wait, where was I? Apparently, not where I want to be.
On this date in 1926, Benito Mussolini received a small portion of his just desserts – a feisty 50-year old Irishwoman named Violet Gibson shot him in the nose.
He didn’t die. She spent the rest of her life in a British mental institution. One of life’s little ironies.
Today is also the birthday of LSD, first concocted on this day by Albert Hoffman (not to be confused with ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman) in a Swiss Lab.
He first discovered its psychedelic powers when he accidentally absorbed it through his fingers – that must have been a real shock. But three days later, he deliberately ingested the substance and rode his bicycle home. Quite the trip. In fact, the first LSD trip is now known as “Bicycle Day”. Hoffman never thought the drug would be used recreationally, but did believe that it had some therapeutic efficacy. Little did he know.
In China, today is the Festival of Pure Brightness, the day to go visit your ancestors’ tombs, sweep them out and tidy them up. It is then customary to leave offerings, including cold food and flowers, and burn incense and paper money (hopefully fake paper money) as sacrifices to those who have passed.
It’s also No Housework Day (something that I personally have no problem with whatsoever), but this might be a conflict of interest for Chinese tomb-sweepers.
Today in 1923, Dr. K. Winfield Ney performed the first brain tumor operation under local anesthesia. The anesthesia was cocaine on the patient’s scalp. I’ve always thought this was an exceptional bizarre concept; any brain surgery seems unbelievable, but the idea of being awake and chatty for an operation on the most important part of your body just freaks me out. I wonder if that first patient was exceptionally chatty due to the cocaine? Although I don’t suppose it’s absorbed through the scalp. Anyway, I’ve always had a morbid fascination with those films of brain surgery where, when the surgeon pokes Spot A, the patient says, “I smell moose droppings!” and when the surgeon pokes Spot B, the patient says “I hear the William Tell Overture!”.
We celebrate two human birthdays today:
Will Kellogg (1860-1951), developer of Kellogg’s cereal flakes and bookkeeper at his brother’s Battle Creek Sanitarium. He looks like a bookkeeper, doesn’t he?
The Sanitarium, which was THE hot spot for the rich and famous to come and subject themselves to enemas, mechanotherapy, physiologic tonics and nuts (seemingly of all sorts).
With a staff of over 800, I doubt anyone had to lift a finger for themselves, but the Depression depressed the sanitarium, and it eventually became a U.S. Army Hospital. Luckily, the Kelloggs were able to fall back into their bowls of flakes. Better flakes in bowls than flakes in hot tubs, I suppose.
Jackie Chan (1954 – currently alive), cutie-pie and martial artist/stuntman extraordinaire.
He holds the Guinness World Record for Most Stunts Performed By A Living Actor, and, not surprisingly, his heroes are Bruce Lee, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, who also performed their own stunts.
He holds himself up as a role model for children by the characters he portrays in his films, and has broken almost every bone (although not arms and legs), and some of them more than once.
And today, we mourn the loss of the following larger-than-life figures:
Dick Turpin, romantic English highwayman, was hanged on this date in 1739.
Highway robbery got its name from rogues such as Turpin, who, after trying to follow a straight and narrow course under an assumed name, was unmasked and arrested (and subsequently hanged) as a horse thief. His body was stolen by grave robbers (a.k.a. body snatchers, a.k.a. Resurrectionists) but they were caught red-handed with the corpse and it was returned to its final resting place.
Growing up, one of my favorite poems was Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”. It’s actually one of Kelsea’s favorites now, and she’s not a big poetry fan. There’s no evidence that Noyes based the poem on the tale of Dick Turpin. However, Dick Turpin’s horse was named Black Bess, and in the poem, the Highwayman falls in love with the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, Bess. Coincidence? I think not.
If you’re not up for reading, Loreena McKennitt did a lovely musical rendition of this epic piece.
The great showman, P.T. Barnum passed into the great beyond today in 1891 at the age of 81.
(Barnum is the larger one in the above picture.) An entrepreneurial egomaniac and consummate showman, Barnum made millions by promoting hoaxes and human oddities. He established “The Greatest Show on Earth”, which was originally known as P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome (and which included a freak show), and was the first to buy his own train, which he used to transport the show across the yet-to-be-paved county.
And in 1977, we said Sayonara to Tomoyuki Tanaka, Japanese film producer and father of Godzilla.
What red-blooded American child of my general age didn’t root for Godzilla as he terrorized cities and ate trains?
And, oh, the sequels, the spin-offs, the battles, the little tiny singing Asian girls who lived in a flower from Godzilla vs. Mothra! I think that was my favorite.
And finally, today is International Beaver Day. This date was chosen for the honor because it is the birthday of the late Dorothy Richards of Little Falls, New York, who studied beavers for 50 years.
And to help you celebrate, here are some little-known facts about beavers.
In the 18th Century, Canadians used silver trading tokens in the shape of a beaver – it was valued at 10 beaver pelts.
In April of 1999, beavers were responsible for the untimely deaths of eight of the famous flowering cherry trees of Washington, D.C., in an event that was known as “Beavergate”. In a sting that was followed intently by dozens of Washingtonians, three beavers were snared in the Tidal Basin by trusty Park Services employees, and peace once again reigned in the our nation’s capitol.
The slap of a beaver’s tail in the water can be heard up to half a mile away.
Beavers have three eyelids, and the third is transparent so that the critter’s eyes are protected underwater – this curious feature is called a nictitating membrane. (Note that the photo below does not show a beaver – honestly, I have no idea what animal this is. Nor am I sure that I want to know.)
Beavers mate for life. Isn’t that sweet?
The world’s largest beaver statue is located in Beaverlodge, Alberta, Canada. It’s 15 feet tall, 18 feet long and poses the beaver atop a 20 foot long log.
Drop in for a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.
OK, pencils down! Thus endeth the history lesson. Hope you feel slightly enlightened.