History from
the Bottom Up

France, Part Deux

IMG 2776 450x335 France, Part DeuxBonjour again, this time from Lyon, France. We’re staying in an incredible sixteenth century building on a very narrow cobbled street in the old part of the city. Here’s the street–just out of the frame, on the left, would be the heavy oak door to our “hotel,” although it’s really more of a residential apartment, on the sixth floor. It’s awesome. And it has wifi. (Ah “l’ironie!”)

Can you see that there are a few street signs overhanging the narrow street? Maybe you can’t, but trust me—there’s a long wooden baguette signaling a bakery, and a big pair of scissors announcing a barbershop. A few centuries ago, such signs would have been on most streets, because house numbering didn’t start until the nineteenth century. There might have been an enormous tooth announcing the location of a tooth drawer, or a huge cow indicating a butcher. Barber surgeons usually just set a couple of buckets of congealed blood on either side of their doorway, to indicate their services as blood drawers.

We’ve had an action-packed couple of days. Our last day in Paris, we visited the catacombs (thanks to the recommendation of my friend, Kate Messner). They’re a huge bone repository (ossuary) and were created in the galleries of the former quarries whose stone was used to build the major sites of Paris–including the Louvre and Notre Dame. For decades, out of concern for public health (and because so many cemeteries were so overcrowded, bones kept resurfacing during heavy rains), Parisian officials had bones dug up and moved down to the catacombs. You can’t believe how many there are.

IMG 2747 450x335 France, Part DeuxAccording to the website, the remains of six million Parisians, including many victims of the French Revolution, are there.

When we got to Lyon we visited two museums devoted to the silk-making trade, of which Lyon is justly famous, and the museum of decorative arts, which is situated in a magnificent seventeenth-century villa that once belonged to a wealthy Lyonaise family. They had two sedan chairs, and I got to look right inside this one: IMG 2780 335x450 France, Part DeuxI couldn’t get a good picture, but it was lushly upholstered, with chair arms and everything. And I helpfully explained to a confused American couple that this is known as a pole screen:IMG 2779 335x450 France, Part DeuxAs I have blogged about before, fireplaces were pretty inefficient—blazing hot close up, but inadequate for warming much of a room even a few feet away. So people used pole screens to shield their face from the heat of the fire and to keep their waxy makeup from melting, or their patches from sliding off.

Sadly, the furnished rooms of the mansion had not a single pot de chambre. I know because I asked several of the museum docents.

We also visited the ruins of two Roman amphitheaters. Lyon was an important Roman city in Gaul, founded back in 43 BC. They called it Lugdunum. The larger amphitheater could seat over 10,000 people. Here’s Jon, standing in front of what appear to be the Sky Boxes:IMG 2785 450x335 France, Part DeuxAnd finally, because my basketball-player husband deemed the walking we’d done not quite enough for one day (12.24 miles as clocked by my Fitbit), he decided to “aller faire du jogging.” Actually, he ran up an ancient staircase that happened to be a few feet down the street from our hotel. So as his workout, il a monter les escaliers en courant about nineteen times. Here’s proof:

IMG 2786 335x450 France, Part Deux IMG 2787 335x450 France, Part Deux IMG 2788 335x450 France, Part DeuxWhile he ran stairs, I went shopping.

Bonjour from Paris!

I’m in France for ten days with my history-teacher husband. On the itinerary are many places we’re both eager to see, including Lyon, some chateaux in the Loire Valley, the Bayeux tapestry, and the beaches and battle sites of Normandy. But Saturday was a special day for me. We visited the Paris sewers.

Yes, there is actually a museum devoted to exploring the sewers beneath the streets, of which Parisians get to be very proud. If you’ve read my Poop book, you’ll know that London was the first major city to build massive … Read more

Triple Tragedy

Credit: The National Trust

On Monday I blogged about this portrait of Richard Croft’s children—where Herbert, aged ten, is lying in the pose of Melancholy, in the background in partial shadow, due to his having died.

The children’s father, the 6th Baronet Richard Croft, has his own tragic story.

Croft was a doctor from an aristocratic family, and in 1817 he became the personal physician overseeing the pregnancy of Princess Charlotte, second in line, after her father, to the British throne. At the time, doctors could … Read more

Skeleton Suits

skeleton-suit Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792), possibly 1790s Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)

I have a new book coming out next February with National Geographic. Here’s the cover. The subject is fashion, namely, a history of the world through the lens of what people wore, and why. It’s in the final layout phase now. The layout phase has been so much fun, because I love, love, love to do image research. The one downside of image research is that it’s so easy to get sidetracked.

Here’s one story I … Read more


Today is the first full day of my annual writing retreat, on the beautiful shores of Lake Champlain, near Plattsburgh, NY. I’m here with a couple of dozen other children’s book writers. We’ll be spending the next several days writing in solitude, in a beautiful setting, sharing meals together that someone else cooks. This blog will resume next week!






Curve Balls

Torsten Bolten, (http://creativecommons.via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re in World Cup Soccer Frenzy mode in my house, and sad as it was to see the U.S. lose to Belgium on Tuesday, it was an incredible game. I am married to a former goalkeeper and have spawned two goalkeepers and a midfielder, so even though I’m not super knowledgeable about the game, I have lots of people around me who can answer my questions.

For instance, there was that unbelievable goal by Jermaine Jones in the game against Portugal. … Read more

It’s About Slime


This is hardly breaking news—in fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) was the first to herald the benefits, but did you know that snail-slime face cream is a hot beauty trend? Creams containing slug mucus have been flying off the shelves in far-flung places like Korea and South America.

According to this article (and many others), Chilean farmers noticed that after handling snails they were breeding for escargot, their hands felt noticeably smoother. The snail’s secretions protect its own skin from cuts and scrapes … Read more

Shipped Off


Chain gang convicts going to work near Sidney, Australia.
Prior to the seventeenth century, convicted criminals in Britain faced grim fates. Few went to prison—the Tower of London was reserved mostly for high class prisoners. Instead the courts relied on one of two options: physical punishment or death. And the latter option frequently held sway–there were 225 capital offenses on the books, including those for mild offenses like petty larceny.
But according to Peter Higginbotham in his fascinating book The Prison Cookbook, British officials hit upon … Read more

Dead But Not Gone

Yesterday in the New York Times there was an article about a growing fad in New Orleans and elsewhere for propping dead people in life-like poses. The idea is that loved ones who attend the wake may have one last look at their dearly departed sitting at their kitchen table, straddling their Harley, or standing with their hands on their walking cane, a hat tilted at a jaunty angle. One woman wanted to be seen for the last time standing over her cooking pot.

You can see the article here. It’s pretty creepy, isn’t it? But there’s actually a tradition … Read more

School and Skype Visits

The past week was a whirlwind of Skype and school visits, but Monday was my very last school visit of the year. Some highlights of the visits:*

Loved my Skype visit last Tuesday with Tamara McKenna’s seventh grade writing class at Rye Country Day. They had fantastic questions and we had a great discussion about writing nonfiction:

And I had a great Skype last Thursday with super-librarian Jenny Goulden’s summer writing program kids in Altoona, Iowa:

and last Friday was … Read more

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