History from
the Bottom Up

Desk Jobs

I’ve been researching the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I got curious about writing desks. They’ve evolved quite a bit over the past two hundred years, from this:Rolltop_DeskTo this:IMG_1574Yeah, that’s my treadmill desk. Not that my desk represents the most highly evolved of writing desks, but desks have definitely changed a lot.

Robespierre at his desk.

Robespierre at his desk.

Edison at HIS desk.

Edison at HIS desk.

What had me flummoxed me was how often I was seeing references to Enlightenment-era writers taking their writing desks along with them wherever they went.

Alexander Hamilton and George Washington brought theirs along to every campaign throughout the American Revolution. Lewis and Clark lugged theirs across the rugged Louisiana territory, over the Rockies, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And then there was the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

In 1845, British explorer and nineteenth century celebrity John Franklin set off from England across the Atlantic Ocean with two ships, 129 officers and crew, and enough food for three years. Their mission was to find a northwest route to Asia by sailing around the top of Canada. Many Europeans eagerly awaited their news. A few months after setting sail, the expedition vanished.

A major search effort was organized. Little by little, a few clues were revealed. Eventually the remains of twenty-five sailors were recovered. They’d been pulling a lifeboat across the icy terrain on ropes, hoping to reach mainland Canada. In the boat were strange items like button polish, curtain rods, and…a writing desk. Not exactly what you’d expect to find in an Arctic survival kit.  The exact fate of the Franklin expedition remains a mystery, but a plausible theory is they developed severe lead poisoning from their lead-soldered cans of provisions.

Anyway, it turns out, the writing desks that all of these guys brought with them were the traveling kind. They looked like this:Sloped_Writing_Desk_LACMA_M.2000.123.1a-c_(1_of_2) Sloped_Writing_Desk_LACMA_M.2000.123.1a-c_(2_of_2)

This is Thomas Jefferson's desk.

This is Thomas Jefferson’s desk.

Henry VIII's writing desk. Not know for his moderation.

Henry VIII’s writing desk. Not known for his moderation.

The first laptops.





Read It And Weep

I’m researching colonial America, and just spent the morning reading a book written in 1660, by one Thomas White. The full title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but here it is: A Manual for Parents: Wherein is Set Down Very Particular Directions in Reference to the Baptising, Correcting, Instructing, and Chusing a Calling for Their Children : to which is Added A Little Book for Little Children : Wherein Besides Several Instructions, and Encouragements, Several Examples.

The book was later republished in Boston, in 1702, with the much more succinct title A Little … Read more

Racine and Reason

I have a couple of vivid memories from my high school AP French literature class. Our teacher, Madame Sorrell, was a lovely woman whose bright red hair tumbled in tendrils to her shoulders, and who was all chiffon scarves and jingly jewelry and heady perfume. Once she gave our class a cooking lesson. We watched her douse the baba au rhum with a healthy few glugs of rhum until it was deeply saturated. The cake tasted pretty much like a kitchen sponge soaked in rum, but I think we all thought … Read more

On the Banks of Blumb Creek

I’ve been reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and others from the Corps of Discovery expedition (which began in May, 1804). (You can read them online here.)

It’s compelling, entertaining reading, and not just because of Clark’s hilarious spelling.

During the first two weeks of September, 1804, the expedition was traveling through Knox County Nebraska, heading toward South Dakota. They lugged their pirogues and keelboat up a creek, which, in Clark’s words, “abounds with blumbs of a Delicious flavor.” But fresh fruit was a luxury for the men of the … Read more

Anne Hutchinson, Cheeky Preacher

The road I drive on to get in and out of New York City is called the Hutchinson River Parkway. It was named, of course, for the Hutchinson River. But I wonder how many people know who the Hutchinson River was named after.

Anne Hutchinson, that’s who. If she hadn’t been a woman, she would have been a powerful minister at the level of her contemporaries, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and John Cotton. But she was a woman, and in 1637 she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and excommunicated by … Read more

Author Visit!

For two days last week, I visited the Hampden Meadows school in Barrington, Rhode Island, to talk to multiple classes of fifth graders. I knew it was going to be a great author visit when this greeted me: And once inside, this:I shared the pink doughnut five ways with my four library helpers, who were there to help me get my presentation technology up and running. Best doughnut I ever spent. They had the slideshow up on the screen in no time. Here … Read more

Boy Oh Boy

I love fashions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and fun fact: men were every bit as into fashion, if not more so, than were women. In the days when an outfit could cost as much as a house, one wore one’s wealth and image on one’s back. Here’s a little picture show for you, with some of my most favorite crazy, outlandish men’s fashions. First, the sixteenth century:  … Read more

Way to Glow

In the course of my research for an upcoming book about poison in history (Spring, 2017), I came across a lot of cool facts that, for space reasons, I was unable to include in the book. One of these is luminous glassware. That would be glass that contains uranium. Under an ultraviolet light, the glass glows bright green. And yes, the glass emits radiation.

In ancient times, glassmakers discovered that adding uranium, a naturally-occuring element found … Read more

Oh, Baby!

From National Library of Medicine

I remember that anxiety I felt when we brought our first baby home (he’s now in college). Everything in our apartment became a Potential Hazard that might hurt my precious child. New parents are given a lot of advice, and I was all ears. Also, I worked at Sesame Street at the time, so I’d read a LOT of safety articles already. Most of the advice I received seemed pretty reasonable. Stuff like—be sure to swivel pot handles around so … Read more

Duel Purpose

I saw the show Hamilton last week. My family is somewhat obsessed with it, and we knew every note of the soundtrack. Still, it exceeded our expectations.

One question left unanswered by the musical is: what became of Alexander Hamilton’s killer, Aaron Burr? Why was he not arrested for murder?

Quick summary: Burr, the Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, challenged Hamilton to a duel, after years of simmering tensions and mutual badmouthing of one another in the press. On July 11th, 1804, Burr shot Hamilton, and by the afternoon of the … Read more

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