So, November is a crazy month when one is working and finishing up class projects!
I have neglected posting this month because of being so busy with class projects while coordinating the end of semester with my work schedule. Since there is no way for me to do a full post this month, and since it is getting close to Thanksgiving, I will link to these posts from last year (when I didn’t have 2 jobs to coordinate; ah, the simpler times of full-on pandemic!). I will be making my Grandmother’s biscuits and dressing again this year, so I want to re-up my recommendation for them. If you are in the southern US, then you can get White Lilly flour and make these yourself. They really are the best!
I am late in getting this new entry posted, but I have been learning new things at a quick pace! I wanted to share two resources for anyone wanting to learn how to work with Excel sheets or how to code for websites. My class work lately has been heavy on website design, and my work as a graduate assistant has required more detailed knowledge of using Excel sheets than I had previously known. Like everyone else, I turned to the web to see what was available (and yes, I am in graduate school, but they expect me to find a lot of this information myself!). After trying several different avenues, I found two resources that I wanted to share. I have found both to be very helpful with learning and practicing new skills, so if you are interested in either, check these out!
The first is learning Excel. If you are like me, you probably have done some basic work with Excel, but never really needed to go very deep into its various uses. There are a lot of people who have to learn Excel for a job, but most people don’t deal with numbers and statistical analysis every day. However, if you want to gain a new skill on your own, I have found a set of YouTube videos that helped me a lot when working with Excel files. The person who presents these videos has a website with other resources as well, so I am going to include links for both his channel and website at the end of this section. The title of the video set is Microsoft Excel Tutorials for Beginners, and there are about 13 total videos. However, you can pick and choose which videos interest you, depending on what you want to learn. The presenter, Jamie Keet, provides a timed overview of each video, most of which are around 20 minutes. The overview allows you to jump to the sections you want to hear, or perhaps re-hear, without going through the entire video. His video is easy to follow, and he doesn’t make assumptions about what you already know. If you already know how to work with certain parts of Excel, you can always jump to the next section. (I recommend listening to the whole thing first, he provides little time saving tricks you might not know.) Mr. Keet also has a website/blog called Teachers’ Tech that has other helpful content for those wanting to learn about digital resources. I highly recommend the videos!
My second recommendation is for learning HTML and CSS coding. To be honest, most people probably don’t need to learn coding if they want to create a website or use most modern digital media. However, learning is always fun, and it helps you understand how websites work. If you are using a CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress, Wix, or Weebly, learning how coding works can help you make better decisions when you are creating your digital works. And really, at least you will know why the darn thing won’t do what you want it to! For learning coding, my biggest help has been W3Schools. This website is run out of Norway, and started in 1998. It has all different types of coding lessons, and the tutorials are very simple. Some people might think they are too simple, but I have found them easy to understand and quick to go through. You will need to practice your coding by writing code (I use Atom, a free download coding software, but you can easily just use Notepad if you are on a PC). The main thing about the way this teaches coding is through gradually taking you though each part, and allowing you to open up a practice page. On the practice page you have the code on one side, and the webpage result on the other. This makes it very simple to change something and see the result right beside the code. I wouldn’t try to do much writing on the Example pages, but once you get the idea, you can work on Notepad or any other code software and try out what you are learning. If you just want to dip your toes into coding, W3Schools are really nice to use.
[As a quick aside, my work has increased a lot for the next several months, so I won’t be posting as often, and poetry is my go-to option for less involved posts. Expect several of them over the nextfew months!]
The poem I am going to introduce in this post is an older one, from the poet Thomas Carew, who lived from 1595 to 1640. I haven’t found an exact date for this particular poem, but approximately 1620-1640 would be likely. I mention this because the wording can be a little harder to read because of differences in language use, but it still gets the meaning across clearly. The poem is Mediocrity in Love Rejected, and is one that I enjoy because it states a truth about humanity very well. I am not sure that was the intention of the poet, who was known for his erotic (at least for the 15th century) poem titled A Rapture. The website Poetry Foundation has a good overview of Thomas Carew and his life and writings if you are interested. In all honesty, though, my interest in this poem has nothing to do with the writer, but instead with how it shows how universal is the want to feel things intensely, rather than go along peacefully. At least, we seem to want that in the abstract! I am not so sure we enjoy it nearly as much when it is happening to us.
The poem describes the two extremes of falling in love, both joy and despair. The need for one or the other, rather than a more stable, comfortable experience, seems to sum up that need for intense experiences that so many think they want. There is no effort to make this relationship peaceful! Like many of the poems I like to read, it is very good at giving a description of a complicated subject in a short summary. I have never read any other poem by this poet, and I doubt I would want to; however, this one appealed to me for some reason. See what you think!
Mediocrity in Love Rejected
Give me more love, or more disdain;
The torrid or the frozen zone
Bring equal ease unto my pain;
The temperate affords me none;
Either extreme, of love or hate,
Is sweeter than a calm estate.
Give me a storm; if it be love,
Like Danae in that golden shower,
I swim in pleasure; if it prove
Disdain, that torrent will devour
My vulture hopes; and he's possessed
Of heaven's that's but from hell released.
Then crown my joys, or cure my pain;
Give me more love, or more disdain.
Thomas Carew, 1595-1640
This post is going to be about tomatoes – yes, it probably would have been better to post this in July or August, or better yet May, when tomatoes are planted in this area! However, I don’t really do the planting and tending myself, I do more of the cooking. So for me, tomatoes are really more of an August crop, when I start to do a lot more cooking with them. (The first tomatoes are mainly for eating fresh, after the long months of having to settle for store-bought tomatoes. If that is all you have ever eaten, I feel your pain!) If you have read some of my earlier posts on gardening, you know I am not really the gardener of the family, that’s my mom. She has planted a garden every year since I was 4 years old, and tomatoes have been grown every year. And I’m not talking two or three plants. Generally the number has only gotten higher over the years, and for the last 20 or so years, its been anywhere from 40 to 60 plants. Usually about 45 is the average, and this year it was only about 37 plants. Mom went on a 4 week trip out west this summer, so she decided to ‘down-size’ the garden. (I argued, I was over-ruled. I had to do some of the picking while she was away – not my favorite thing in late July!)
So when I say ‘*some personal experience’ let me clarify that to say that I have seen how tomatoes grow since I was a kid, and I know the work someone else has done on a daily basis. What I don’t do is the main planting and tending! But I have seen a lot of the experiments tried, and on this post I’ll just share one – suckering – that is fairly easy to do, especially with just a few plants. It is also a great benefit if you are planting in a small area, because suckering helps contain the size of the plant. If you are interesting in reading more about the process, this link is a study done by Cornell University using the practice to increase yield. If you have grown tomatoes before, and never suckered them, you probably had a big plant with lots of leaves. At full size, they look like a leafy bush. Suckering prevents a lot of that leaf formation, so you will see the main stem of the plant the whole growing season. This has the benefit of allowing air to circulate, keeping moisture from causing disease, especially in areas of high humidity (hello, North Carolina). However, if you have never done it, the feeling early in the process is that you are going to either kill the plant or not have any tomatoes. I promise, done right, suckering will actually help with production!
When growing, a tomato plant will put out alternating leaves on each side as it grows up, and each leaf will begin a new stem that grows out from the main stem. As that stem grows bigger, another small leaf will form at the juncture of the main stem and the side stem. That new leaf is a ‘sucker’. It too will grow into a new stem. This will happen at every stem juncture, for the entire early growing season. Basically, you end up with a bush that has multiple large stems. ‘Suckering’ is removing that extra leaf before it has a chance to grow into a new stem. This way, you keep one main stem at the center of the plant, and all side stems are limited to just one on each side of the main as you go up. Since you prevent the plant from putting effort into all that green stuff, it puts more effort into fruiting. As a gardener, you want the fruit, so suckering means you get bigger tomatoes when you sucker for the first 6 to 8 weeks of growth . After that it usually isn’t worth continuing, since most of the plant growth will go into producing fruit (there may be a small drop in number, but their greater size will more than make up for it).
What does all this mean? Well, usually we don’t bother to sucker cherry tomatoes that we plant, because they are supposed to be small, and the plants just grow too fast to bother with the work of suckering them. However, last year mom forgot which plants were cherry and which were regular tomatoes in a small section, and suckered one row of the cherry tomato plants, while leaving the others to grow out. So we had a natural experiment. All the cherry tomatoes were in the same area, they all got basically the same water and sun, and we harvested tomatoes from both plants. Here is a picture I took comparing them side by side. Remember, these are the same type of cherry tomato, the only difference is that one set of plants were suckered, and the others were not.
Well, I decided to include two poets for this post, in part because of all that is happening right now with Afghanistan, and in part with the rise in Covid again. You might think that I pick out a lot of poems that seem to talk about sadness or grief, and that is probably true. I think poetry is one of the better ways to express emotions that are hard to discuss in regular conversation. Also, the best poetry has a way of getting to the heart of issues, which is one of the biggest reasons I like reading it. So for this post, I am going to highlight an Emily Dickinson poem about loss, and one by Stephen Crane on war.
Emily Dickinson wrote a lot of poems about grief and loss, and I think many of them are some of the best on those subjects. This poem is just 8 lines, but it conveys the first reality of loosing someone, no matter how strong a religious faith they may have. In many of her poems, Dickinson seems to have a very realistic and slightly sarcastic view of humanity (I like snark, and no matter what century a writer comes from, you can always identify those who recognize humanity’s foibles). When dealing with personal loss, she was much more likely to be straight-forward, and break it down to basic emotions. At least, that is how I have experienced her poetry. You may disagree! For me, it is hard to better express grief and loss than the last two lines of this poem –
My life closed twice before its close
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge - so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Now that we have talked about death, let’s look at war (yes, I know, pretty grim stuff). Stephen Crane was often writing about war; his most famous book was about Civil War soldiers on the Union side, The Red Badge of Courage. Crane often wrote about starting out with the idea of glory in war, only to be disillusioned by its reality. This poem was part of a book of poems, though I have never read all of them as a group. Like with Dickinson’s poem above, I think this one captures the end of a war in very few words, especially the confusion around why the war had been fought. As I see so much just in the last week on various explanations, analysis, excuses and reasons for the Afghanistan war, I thought of this poem, and I think that Stephen Crane had a lot right about our reactions, no matter the time period.
There was crimson clash of war
Lands turned black and bare;
Babes ran, wondering.
There came one who understood not these things
He said: 'Why is this?'
Whereupon a million strove to answer him.
There was such intricate clamor of tongues,
That still the reason was not.
Stephen Crane, The Black Riders & Other Lines, 1905
One of the areas I have been focused on learning during my graduate work is digital technology. While I have been familiar with the general Microsoft products and use the internet for many activities and work, there are always new things coming out that I wanted to make sure I learned while I was getting a new degree and discovering a new career. While it may seem strange, I used digital technology a bit in my museum job, especially in research, but also in creation. I worked with the behind the scenes systems that any museum has to use to reach its visitors, and in general, I like the combination of face-to-face interaction combined with digital outreach. Each has a place, and strengths and weaknesses. The job of a programming designer is to know the best way to use both. So during my graduate work, I have been pushing myself to learn new things, and take chances when I can. This website is a direct result of that. When given a choice, instead of just creating a student profile as a digital page, I decided to create a full website and blog. It might have been a throw-away option, but I decided that there was no point in going small, better to go big and learn as much as possible in this new realm!
I can easily say that was the best decision I have made so far in my graduate work. By forcing myself to learn how a website is put together (I will admit there was a bit of cursing, but it was privately!), I have been able to work better and with more focus on later projects, such as creating a LibGuide. After that choice, it also wasn’t hard to go ahead and spend the money for a video editing software package after researching the options and asking a professor for advice. I decided to get Camtasia, because that software had a lot of support online for helping me learn the techniques, and a professor used it a lot and recommended it as a solid video editing program.
And so began my efforts to learn video editing. I will admit to being unsure about whether I had made a good choice at first, since there are a number of free video apps available, but over the last two months I have come to see I made a good decision for learning how to do this work. And I also have come to really like doing it! Video creation and editing is a bit like making a puzzle – there are a lot of little parts that have to fit together to create the whole picture, and you have to look at them individually and see them as a part of that whole, even if they don’t look like the fit at first. The first video I created was a simple instructional video, to describe how to do a Boolean search. For the second I had to film myself giving a book talk, then edit the result (I added an entrance shoot, so I learned how to cut and paste in that section,) The next two efforts were considerably better, a Book Trailer and a PSA about the importance of public libraries.
For the book trailer, I pulled images from the book I had chosen in my Children’s Literature class. The storyboarding process was simple, creating the basic outline I wanted for the trailer. Then I used Microsoft 3D Paint to create effects and the still images I needed. From that point, everything was about the editing process, putting the images in order, layering tracks to create the narrative for the trailer, and then picking out music and layering it onto the video. I really enjoyed the process, and I learned a lot while I was doing it.
The next project, the last to date, was a PSA that I entitled Public Libraries: They’re Where It’s At! This one I had six tracks layered together, two sound and four video. Working with the pacing, and playing it over and over to make sure that each picture and effect was up just long enough, but kept the video moving, was the trickiest part. But I think the result wasn’t bad. I still have a lot to learn, but this is a skill that I believe will continue to be useful in many areas, and especially in Outreach Programming.
So, I am a few days late getting this post up, but classwork has been a bit hectic with the end of summer term coming up. Another post will be coming soon about video editing, one of the big new skills I am learning. However, to the second part of this blog post, the actual practice of cooking during the summer over an open fire. Just to remind everyone, wood, start fire with banked coals, get water on to heat. (Note: my experience is from research in a middle-class German immigrant town, which had enslaved workers in some, and later most, of the homes.)
So, now you have your fire going, you have gotten your water started heating, and it’s about 5:30 am. You’ve got a good start! Now its time to prepare the second largest meal of the day, breakfast. It is likely that the household has already gotten up and started working by now, because they also want to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. Breakfast in a German town would be around 7 to 8:30, depending on the family, but often a couple of hours of work would be done before eating (the English usually ate about 1 to 2 hours later than Germans for all meals of the day). I have even seen mentions of ‘second breakfast’ in records, which probably indicated getting some type of bread before starting work, especially those doing heavy labor, and then sitting down to a full meal once it was cooked (you thought Hobbits thought this up?). One thing to keep in mind about breakfast – if you wanted meat, it needed to be either quick cooking, or leftover from the day before. The thing to remember about meat before modern storage (meaning freezing or refrigeration) is that your choices for fresh meat are limited to the times you can slaughter and eat the meat before it spoils. That means there are big differences to what types of meat you are eating in summer, and how you need to cook it. Fresh pork is not available outside of the coldest months, and those are fairly short in NC. Between November and February at the latest would be the only time you ate fresh pork. Other than that, it was all cured (German families raised pigs on small lots and put up their own pork). Beef has a longer time it is available, up into May and early June, especially for young animals (veal). Mutton, common with English, is similar to beef. But the most common types of meat for summer are the smaller animals, fish, poultry, and eel being the most common I have seen. All of these can be killed and eaten fairly quickly, so spoilage is less of a problem. Other than that, you need to soak and cook cured meat for long times, so you are not cooking them for breakfast. So if a cured ham was boiled yesterday, you can cut slices for the breakfast meal, otherwise, it will be something that can be fried quickly, such as sausages. Eggs are quick to cook, and easily available during summer. Left over pies or puddings from cooking the day before, or on a baking day, were also commonly served at breakfast (these could be savory or sweet pies). Breakfast would be a hearty meal, similar to our idea of lunch today.
At the same time as getting breakfast ready, you have to get started on cooking dinner. This is the mid-day meal, and the biggest meal eaten. ‘Dinner’ is actually just the biggest meal of the day, but since most people have that at the end of the day now, we call that meal ‘dinner’. In the 18th century, the last meal of the day was ‘supper’, which was the smallest in terms of food consumed. Unless you were wealthy and had moved the main kitchen out of the household, no one wants the heat of a cooking fire to heat up the house, no matter who was doing the cooking. While it wasn’t uncommon for middle class households to have enslaved women cooking for them, there was still the issue of a hot chimney heating up the house, so most food was consumed before the hottest part of the day. Another thing to consider is how you want to serve the food – hot or ‘room temp’. Remember that ‘room temp’ in the 1700s is not 72 degrees, its whatever the house is at noon. So if you can fix some items early, then serve them at room temperature, you can get some pretty hearty meals without cooking up until the last minute. Something that was commonly served was savory egg pies, similar to a quiche, that could easily be prepared early, and then served at meal time at room temp. Most savory pies and puddings could be cooked early and served at room temp during the summer.
The best way to avoid the heat of the fire? Don’t cook the food. In summer, there are plenty of options for cold salads made with cucumbers, beans, and other garden produce that don’t require heat. Cooking a large ham can be done one day, then it can be used for several days after to create cold meals. A beehive bake oven (German style) contains the heat much better than an open hearth – when you have to bake bread, the best use of that heat is to bake other items that can be used over the next few days to supplement uncooked produce. All of these tricks allows a cook to limit the time in summer that the kitchen fire needs to be lit. But what about supper, you say? Well, that was the smallest meal of the day, especially in summer. You have worked all day in the heat. Most likely, you took a break at the hottest point of the day, and with sunlight lasting into the evening, you can work later when it gets a little cooler. A big, hot meal is the last thing you want to eat. Supper in summer might be bread and butter, or some fresh, green corn (field corn eaten before it matures was called ‘green’ when the shucks were still green; that is the only sweet corn that was available, and it was only eaten in late July to the first week or so of August). And that was all you had. The only people who ate big meals in the evening were the very wealthy who had separate kitchens, had not done heavy physical work during the day, and had enslaved women and men doing the cooking for them. Without all of those elements, supper was a small meal, and might not even be eaten at all in the hottest weeks of the year (a slice of bread and some beer would be enough for many).
So if you ever wondered how people dealt with cooking before the gas or electric stove and modern air conditioning, wonder no more. They adjusted what they ate and how they cooked, and dealt with the heat just like we do – by staying as cool as possible!
So, I have been intending to write about my experience cooking on an 18th century hearth with an open fire, and what better time to start that set of postings than during the beginning of the hot season in NC! To give a little background on my experience with hearth cooking, I am not a camper or a girl scout type of open fire cook. Personally, I like my gas stove, refrigerator, and running water when I am cooking for personal enjoyment. My open hearth experience is all due to my work in living history, where I got paid to work over an open hearth in July and August. It also means that I have cooked full, three course meals on a hearth, and served them to staff during working hours. This experience means that I am not going to talk about all the nifty camping equipment you can buy to cook with. Instead, I am going to give you an idea of how hearth cooking was done when it was the only option, and what middle class people did with average kitchens, not what the wealthy had available to them (I have never cooked in a kitchen like at Monticello, for instance). In this first post, I’ll give some of the starting points, and then next week I’ll continue with some specifics about summer cooking short-cuts.
The first thing to know about hearth cooking is that it is all about the wood. I have done a lot of research about supplying and purchasing for kitchens, as well as cooking techniques, and let me tell you, all wood is not the same. In the 18th century, small town stores would re-sell fire wood that they bought from wood-cutters and others who sold it. The only types of wood I have seen accepted as payment in this way is hickory and oak (probably red oak, as white oak is better used for building purposes). Hickory brought the highest price, but oak was common. The reason for only these two types of wood is because of how hearth cooking is done. Big flames are not really the point, what you want are the coals. Flames are hard to control, they flare in and out, so cooking with flames isn’t really very efficient. Coals on the other hand radiate heat evenly, you can put them right where you want the heat, and you can ‘turn up’ the heat by putting more coals, or ‘turn down’ the heat by removing them. Hickory and oak, properly dried out, provide very good coals that radiate heat for longer than other types of wood. Properly dried out means that you can’t use green, or freshly cut, wood. Green wood takes high heat and a lot of attention to catch fire, and the extreme heat means that it burns to ash quickly – it doesn’t produce coals. (I have worked with wood so green it foamed when you used it – trust me, don’t use green wood if you expect to get any delicate cooking done without cursing, a lot!)
How much wood do you need? More than you would ever believe. A true cord of wood is 4 feet wide, by 4 feet tall, by 8 feet long (I say a true cord, because almost no one who sells you firewood today will ever quote a price for a true cord; most wood today is sold by the truckload, and it varies a lot, depending on the truck and how it is put into the truck). How many cords a family would need depends on a lot of factors, so there isn’t really an average. However, most estimate that around 30+ cords would be necessary for middle class households, and that is every year (a lot depends on where you are living, what type of heating is used, and house construction). That’s a lot of firewood! While that isn’t just for cooking, the kitchen would be the heaviest user of wood in a house, since cooking would take place year-round, while heating would just be seasonal. Summer cooking would definitely use less wood, but there would still be the need to have a fire everyday in the kitchen hearth, even if only for a few hours in small family homes.
Since I will continue this post next week, I want to begin with how a cook would start each day’s work. The next post will be more on how to cook quickly in summer, and what type of dishes would be most likely eaten in the hot season. As for getting started, the first thing to remember is – it’s hot in summer! I know, this seems obvious, but lets really look at what that means for a cook. With longer days, you really do want to get started as soon as possible with getting a fire going in summer. The main thing to consider is how fast can you get any work done over the fire, so that you can get it out and stop heating up the chimney. And no, most people did not have outside kitchens. That is another chimney and building to construct, and your average person would not bother with it. Instead, getting up by 4:30 in the morning, getting as much done by noon as possible, then get that fire out was the way to go. You might use an outside fire pit to heat water later in the day, but the main cooking would all be done by the noon meal. Another consideration – chimneys draw better when the air around the chimney is cooler. Really hot, humid days means that more smoke gets into the house, so the earlier you get that fire going, the better.
As for starting a fire, no matches, but also no flint and steel. Flint and steel looks good in the movies or written about in a book, but it is actually a pain to do, especially when it’s humid. The best option is to bank your fire carefully, which means to cover up the coals with ashes, and to do that before they burn out completely. That way, you just brush the ashes off, and have hot coals to start your fire the next day. (A big pile of coals properly banked will stay hot for several days.) And what is the first thing you put on the fire? Good question. The very first thing, after you make sure the fire has caught the wood, is to put a big pot of water on to heat. You’re going to need that for washing dishes, adding to cooking pots, all sorts of things. Generally, I want about 3-5 gallons of hot water available, depending on what kind of meal you are preparing (in summer, you might be fine with 3 gallons if you are doing less heavy cooking). And how do you get that water? Ah, the really fun part – go get it. Either from a well, or a creek or stream. I did sometimes have indoor water, but so did the 18th century town I was recreating. Most cooks would need to get water from some distance away, and carry it in wooden buckets. Two buckets full generally gets you 5 gallons at a time, and weigh about 50 pounds combined. You will usually need at least 10 gallons of water total, and I often got more over the course of cooking and washing dishes. (Don’t remind me about laundry days, then you’ll need between 40 and 50 gallons; yes, I have done laundry by hand!)
The next blog post will be about the actual cooking, but for this beginning, let’s look at a few things that the cook/housekeeper also would need to do that would involve a fire. Laundry was a 2-3 day job for most people. Two days if you don’t count the sorting, mending and soaking at the beginning. And those 2 days would need fire. The laundry itself would be boiled during the 18th century, and boiling a 30 gallon kettle of water takes several hours of a really hot fire. This was usually done outside, hopefully under shade if you’re lucky. Ironing was the second day, and for that task you have to set the irons in front of a hot fire to heat them. Depending on how much you need to iron, it can take anywhere from an hour to 2-3 hours. Since meals will also be needed those days, some planning needs to be done to make sure whatever is cooked can be done on the same fire if possible, or you have leftovers that don’t need heating (such as pre-baked dishes and fresh produce). The other big job that needs a fire is baking. If you’re English, a loaf or two every few days will need to be baked during regular cooking. Germans did batch baking, using one day to produce all the bread and many other baked goods needed for the week in a beehive oven (if you are smart, you plan laundry soon after baking). Both of these methods require additional fire and wood beyond what is needed for cooking. So next time you decide its just too hot this summer, think about having to work over a fire (and without air conditioning!).
Ok, so this is a longer post than I planned, but hopefully it holds your attention. I expect a lot of people will think it can’t possibly be fun to study weights and measurements, but I promise you, it really is! There is a lot of interesting trivia, and its not just that the US doesn’t use the metric system like the rest of the world. In this post, I am going to link to a lot of different sources, but hopefully I can convince you that this subject is worth reading about!
Weights and measures are actually more important than we think. Its not just that we use them everywhere, they also help society run smoothly. The first writing that has been found was used to keep track of weights and measures, so that people knew how much was paid and owed for goods, services, and taxes. It has been assumed that writing was developed to keep track of these things in settled groups of people, the first ‘civilizations’, at least as we judge them today. So it is hard to overstate how important weights and measures are to a society. In just the last few years, scientists have officially begun to shift away from a physical thing to represent the prototypes of weights and distances, to a mathematical calculation based on universal constants. If this sounds a bit crazy, just consider why they need this. In a physical object, such as an official object to identify a kilogram, there is some loss or gain of mass over time (in terms of atoms- these are some small numbers, folks!), no matter how carefully it is stored. With the need for the absolutely precise measurements needed by today’s standards, basing units of measurement on something that never changes is essential! This change was just approved in 2019, after years of work to establish the calculations. If you want to read up on this, here is a link to a story on Vox about the process.
This brings up a particular point about the metric system, and the United States still using imperial weights and measures. The ‘Imperial’ system is based on our use of the British-style weights and measures, with all of its inconsistencies between types. (What inconsistencies? Just consider how many ways you can divide an inch – by thirds, fourths, eighths, sixteenths. Then look at the pound, as compared to volumes, etc. That is a lot of different types of conversions!)While it is true that the basic system is hundreds of years old, there were almost uncounted ‘imperial’ systems in use until the mid 19th century, and they all differed not just by country, but also by the product being measured, and even by the city of original shipment. Basically, there were a lot of differences! In the 1790s, the new French Republic wanted to use the same system across its territory. The result was the metric system. So the metric system is older than you might think. It is also what our imperial system is based on today, after a treaty in 1875. You can read about the history of this creation in Pys.org.
Oh, you thought we didn’t use the metric system? Well, actually, yes we do. All our weights and measures are based on those metric prototypes that are being recalculated now. So really, even though you might think you are working with inches, feet, ounces and pounds, actually, your numbers are all percentages of centimeters, meters, grams and kilograms. A pound is 0.453592 of a kilogram; there is no other definition of it in science, no ultimate prototype pound. And if you wondered why everyone else has come around to this system, its because it actually is a lot easier to calculate with than the imperial system. And I know, everyone wants to say ‘No, our system is easier!’ But really, we already had this argument, and the other side won, it just took a long time to convince everyone.
In 1792, the new constitutional government of the United States had to make a decision about creating a new national currency. Under the previous Articles of Confederation, each state ran its own monetary policy, and rates of exchange across the new country were based on the British pounds, shillings, and pence (even though the most common coin used was Spanish; trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg on complications to monetary policy!). When the federal government had the chance to start fresh, the decision was made to push everyone to switch to a new system based on a decimal system. What does a decimal system mean? It means we use base 10 for calculating money divisions, so 100 pennies is 1 dollar, and so on. What does this sound like? You guessed it, meters and kilograms! 100 centimeters is 1 meter, 1000 grams is 1 kilogram. All in base 10, because it makes calculating and conversions much easier. (Can you guess why base 10 and base 12 are so commonly used? It’s right in the palm of your hand; well, actually your fingers. Ten fingers makes base 10 natural. Now look at the fingers-not thumb, you count with that- of one hand, and the number of segments in each finger – 3 X 4 =12.) If you want some in-depth mathematics, The Story of Mathis a great documentary on the development of numbers, counting, and why it is so important. It can get pretty complicated, but it’s still a really good series. (You can find it on Amazon Prime, but the link I have here is to the Films on Demand catalog, which is available to most people through public and academic libraries.)
However, don’t think that the new system put in place for money in 1792 was adopted quickly! Oh, no, they didn’t want to change any more than we do today. As a result, from the 1790s through at least the 1820s, and in some areas into the 1840s, there were plenty of people still using the old money calculations. I have personally looked at store account books from the 1820s that have (what I presume is) a younger clerk using dollars and cents for a sale, and the next entry the sale was recorded in pounds and shillings. And for every shilling, you had to calculate 12.5 cents, and then do all the conversions to total the accounts at the end of the day in dollars. Even later, in the mid 1800s in New York (and I will promise to update this blog when I relocate this source) I have read a newspaper letter to the editor from a citizen who stated that if stores and companies would stop using base 12 for product packaging, maybe people would switch over to the decimal system for money completely. Poor man, he would still be disappointed in us today. When was the last time you bought 10 eggs at the grocery? (The reason for packaging by the dozen in English products? Because there were 12 shillings in a pound, and that made products easier to calculate packaging divisions for selling. Why 13 in a ‘baker’s dozen’? Because in the 16th century English bakers were under-weighting their bread, and instead of risking a hefty fine for an under-weight dozen, they just threw in an extra one.) So you see, it is really hard to get people to change once they get used to something, especially a system they use every day.
If this has gotten you curious about the history of weights and measures, or you want to see some of those many different Imperial weights and measures that were used before metric, one of the better sources I have found is from a professor of mathematics at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Russ Rowlett is retired, but his Dictionary for Units of Measurement is still up, and provides a great, easy to understand list of weights and measures from antiquity to today, as well as conversions where possible. If you are like me, it’s fun just to read. But I have also used it for research when needing to understand primary source material from the 18th century. If you are interested in currency history, try the American Numismatic Society or the U.S. Currency Education Program. And finally, if you really want to see how long a group known for accounting, money, and business can hold on to a system long after it is out of use, just take a look at the New York Stock Exchange. If you ever wondered why the ticker at the NYSE used fractional divisions of stock (instead of decimal divisions) until the beginning of this century, it dates back to the old weirdness I mentioned about the states using British accounting and Spanish coins. Spain divided its peso, or milled dollar (which America based our dollar size on) into 8 reales. Spain minted a lot more gold and silver coinage than anyone else during the 1600s and 1700s, so everyone used their coins, including us. New York state didn’t like the quarter division of the American dollar that was decided on in the 1790s, so they stuck with the 1/8 Spanish division into the late 19th century. The NYSE didn’t change it’s use of fractions until 2001! (What is 1/8 of a dollar? – 12.5 cents. And the Spanish reale was called a ‘bit’, so 2 bits was equal to a quarter. See how much fun this is?)
In this post, I am going to recommend a couple of documentaries about two of my favorite subjects, astronomy and language. I have watched both of these videos numerous times, and they always make me happy and tear up at the same time, as well as being just really good documentaries. Both of these videos are available on NCLive through most public and academic libraries. However, if you are not in North Carolina, you can check your own public library video streaming and DVD collection. The astronomy documentary, The Farthest, can also be found on PBS Passport. And currently the language documentary, Breaking the Maya Code, is on Amazon Prime.
I’ll start with The Farthest – Voyager in Space released in 2017, which is a film on the building, launch, and travel to the outer planets by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. It is one of the best astronomy videos I have ever watched, and I really like documentaries and films on astronomy. The format includes commentary by some of the scientists who worked on the project, together with still photography, contemporary video, and a great music score that weaves into a whole that is both informative and entertaining. The film captures the epic scale of the achievement, but also makes it personal to the people that worked on the project, emphasizing the human aspect of the search for answers through science. While it has a lot of good science information in it, the emotion it conveys about why we reach for the stars, and strive to know what is outside our planet, is a constant theme of the film. If you want to feel optimistic about the human species, this film can give you hope. (2 hour film)
The second film I want to recommend is called Breaking the Maya Code (2008). Like the above documentary, it is one that combines interviews of linguists with a really good narrative and great pacing. The music score can’t compete with The Farthest, but other than that, it is an excellent documentary. The subject of this film is the effort to translate the Maya glyphs found in ancient Central American cities, after almost all books of the writing were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. As a historian and a new librarian, I find this documentary painful when considering how much was lost when European colonists destroyed so many books of the Mayan people during the 1600s. However, it is also uplifting to see some efforts being made to return the writing to those Mayan descendants now living in southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, especially since their modern language is what gave the clues to translating the ancient writing. The film follows the beginnings of the efforts to translate the carvings of the Mayans by Europeans during the 1800s, then goes back to the reasons for the loss of the language. From there, it picks back up with the efforts in the 20th century to figure out the complex Mayan language and translate it to better understand the Mayan culture. One of the most fascinating parts of the film is how the invention of the fax machine and the photocopier made such a difference in the speed of understanding. Even before the advent of the internet and its coordination of scientific discovery across the world, these two machines helped researchers to collaborate in their efforts. That cooperation and the use of many minds to make progress is inspiring for the future. And the last part of the video, about the schools in Guatemala that are teaching Mayan writing to its children, is a wonderful use of historical knowledge to help a people connect with the past that was taken from them. All in all, a great documentary to watch for anyone. (2 hour film)