History from
the Bottom Up

A Scar is Born


I don’t see the scar, but this is supposed to be Mithradates (via Wikimedia)

Practically everyone knows that Harry Potter received a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, sustained as an infant when Voldemort tried to strike him dead with a killing curse. But what I didn’t know, until I recently read Adrienne Mayor’s fascinating book The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, is that Mithradates VI, king of Pontus (134 BC – 63 BC), also purportedly had a scar on his forehead–also sustained as an infant, when a bolt of lightning struck his crib. The scar was shaped like a diadem, or crown. According to contemporary chroniclers, the scar was considered a mark of divine ordination that he should grow up to become king. The diadem shape meant the gods had crowned him at birth. Mithradates was seen as a savior for the people of the near east and Asia Minor, who roundly hated being ruled by Rome.

I’ve got to think JK Rowling knew of this story.

The Great Connecticut Caper

Update: Last January I posted this blog about the Great Connecticut Caper. This is the second to last week of the story, and my chapter is now up. I have a guest post here at author Katie Carroll’s website. Also, if you live in Connecticut or close by, the final event will be June 7th at Gillette Castle, from 2 to 4. I hope to see some of you there!

Today I’m excited to announce that I am to be one of twelve authors (plus twelve illustrators) who will contribute to a serialized adventure story called The Great Connecticut Caper. … Read more


The world before electricity and gas lighting was a very dark place. If you could afford them–and most ordinary people couldn’t–oil lamps and candles made from beeswax shed some light. Most people made do with rush lights or smoky, smelly tallow.

If you were of moderate income and could afford a single candle, your family would have spent a lot of quality time together. Your teenager couldn’t easily storm off to his room, at least not if he wanted to see. All of you would have to sit by the light of that … Read more

DC Days

Hello from DC!

I’ve had a wonderful week of author visits, interviews, and research.

On Tuesday I had an interview on Sirius XM Radio with Mindy Thomas on her show Kids Place Live. We talked about crazy fashions. She’s the best interviewer–so relaxed and fun. We tried to take a selfie but I looked awful, so here’s a picture of just moi. She advised me to put a hand on my hip the way the celebrities do in People, but I don’t quite have the knack.On Wednesday I gave a presentation … Read more

Crossing Swords (and Garters)

In the course of doing some image research I stumbled across this 1542 German how-to book on Athletic Arts, called Paulus Hector Mair’s De Arte Athletica.

I tried to translate some of the German descriptions with Google Translate but mostly what it gave me was text of this nature:
In gestracktem arm with obstructive deinam ever to face seinam He stands up to you so you unnd gögen with your right Fuoss In steest so far with your Rarpier on in the unnd nimb on your right side to be lincke lanngen with deinner
So I can’t enlighten you about the … Read more

Rise Above

For most of pre-20th century fashion history, women’s hemlines did not rise above ground level. What a nightmare it must have been to clean the hems after a sojourn outdoors. Here’s a fashion accessory you don’t come across much any more: the skirt-lifter (otherwise known as the dress-holder).

They were used by promenaders, … Read more

Sporting Types

In my book Why’d They Wear That? there’s a section about the history of athletic wear for both men and women. It was frustrating to narrow down the images to feature, as we only had two pages to devote to the subject (one for each gender), and I yearned for two dozen. But the beauty of a blog is I can post as many amazing images as I want, images I would love to have included in the book. So I’ll just post them here, in no particular order—just people being sporty, from back in the day. … Read more

Ad(s) Absurdum

I’m deep into image research for an upcoming book, and have been trawling old periodicals for advertisements. Here are some of my favorites–probably none of which I can use in my book, but I felt they deserved honorable mention here.

I love her come hither look.

From 1928, during Prohibition. Implied here is that whiskey was the … Read more

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