History from
the Bottom Up

Curling Up with a Hairdo Archeologist

Flavia statue, which Ms. Stephens describes as a "mullet from hell"

Flavia statue, which Ms. Stephens describes as a “mullet from hell”

A couple of Facebook friends* sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal concerning a scholarly journal called the Journal of Roman Archeology, which published an article about ancient Roman hairstyles. You can read the original article here.

It was written by Janet Stephens. She’s not an archeologist. She’s a hairdresser from Baltimore.

I don’t wish to suggest that there’s anything wrong with hairdressers or people from Baltimore publishing articles in scholarly journals. But what’s remarkable is that this piece of original scholarship, published in 2008, is one of only two articles in the journal’s 25-year history written by a non-archeologist.

The premise of her article challenges the general consensus among ancient roman historians that most of these elaborate hairstyles were wigs. Stephens maintains that ancient stylists used women’s real hair, stitching it together with a long, blunt needle and thread in order to build the complex hairstyles. Her theory rests on the translation of the Latin word acus, which can be translated as a single-prong hairpin, a needle and thread, or a curling iron. After poring over ancient texts in translation, she determined that while most historians translated the word as “hairpin,” it was much more likely to have been a large needle, with thread that knitted together braids and affixed larger panels of hair to the head.

She goes on to demonstrate how these Roman hairdos might have been constructed, recreating them on mannequins and real-life hair models. You can see the pictures if you click through to the article.
Portrait of Salonina Matidia,

Here’s her video on how to construct a vestal virgin’s hairdo.

(For more about the vestals, you can check out my blog post here.)



*Special thanks to Cathy Ballou Mealey and Dayna Kaufman Lorentz

A Grim Reminder

Right now in the headlines there’s a big controversy–in California particularly, but in other states as well–over parents’ right to opt out of having their children vaccinated. As of last week, the California House passed a proposal that would make it illegal for parents to use their family’s personal and religious beliefs as reasons to exempt their children from school vaccinations. Here’s the website for one opt-out movement.

Many of my books touch on the history of infectious diseases, and I’ve lived in parts of the developing world where some of these diseases still occur. So … Read more

Lead Astray

I’ve been thumbing through old magazines, looking for advertisements to possibly include in my upcoming book, and came across an ad in this issue of The American Magazine, from December, 1923:It’s an ad for LEAD PAINT on page 195.It’s too small and detailed to include in the book, but fascinating nonetheless. A first glance might look like it’s a joke–like this Saturday Night Live spoof where Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin … Read more

Mind the Gap

How have I not yet done a blog about codpieces?

Codpieces are among the more, shall we say, curious fashions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—and that’s saying something, because there were some crazy fashions during this time. They were worn at the crotch area of men’s trousers and held closed with ties or buttons. They were originally conceived as a way to cover up a man’s private parts when the hemlines of men’s tunics became shorter and shorter, until they were barely below the hip. Something had to be done to … Read more

A Money Making Endeavor

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 5.14.47 PM

In honor of the U.S. Treasury’s recent announcement that it plans to put a picture of a woman (gasp) on the ten-dollar bill by the end of this year, I thought I would repost this blog I wrote a couple of years ago, about a cool chapter in the history of American currency.

In 1896, the  the Bureau of Engraving and Printing redesigned the U.S. paper money. Four artists were chosen to design the new bills, and the results were pretty spectacular. Instead of showing U.S. Presidents (and Founding Fathers), the new bills were neoclassical allegories.

Sadly, though, when President Cleveland chose not … Read more

Duck, Duck, Geese

A pontic duckfrom http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast259.htm

Fans of Monty Python movies may remember this scene about a killer bunny from the Holy Grail [warning: it’s meant to be funny, but the over-the-top gore may be somewhat upsetting]. What makes it memorable—and comical, in a black-humor kind of way—is that a cute little bunny is such an unlikely antagonist, and yet turns out to be “the most foul, crude, and bad-tempered rodent you ever laid eyes on!”

 … Read more

Research Riff

In this book from 1868 called The Guide to General Information on Common Things, written by “A Lady,” I stumbled across this entry called “What is Asbestos?”

I think I’ll let the entry speak for itself.

Crashing the Party

John Josep Merlin, possibly by Gainsborough

If you think about it, it makes sense that roller skates were invented in Holland. After all, that was the land of ice skating on frozen canals, and putting wheels on your shoes was a great way to ice skate in the summer.

Hendrick Avercamp, Ice Skating Near a Village c 1610 courtesy nga.gov

The first known inventor/improver of the roller skate was a Belgian named John Joseph … Read more

Last School Visit of the Year!

Sorry about the grainy picture–tough lighting!

Last Friday I traveled to Norfolk, Connecticut, for my last author visit of the year. Bottelle Elementary is a small school, only about a hundred kids, which was great, because the three groups I spoke to were just thirty or so kids at a time. My first talk was to the Kindergarten, first, and second graders, where we talked about the life of an author, and where we get ideas. Three delightful volunteers helped act out the parts of this book about math and … Read more

I’ll Take Manhattan

I live in Connecticut, also known as the “Nutmeg State.” It finally occurred to me to look into how our state earned this moniker. It turns out the history of nutmeg is fraught with drama and horror. And what does all of this have to do with Manhattan? Read on.

Nutmeg is not a nut, but a seed of an evergreen tree called Myristica fragrans. The same tree also produces mace.

It’s been a prized spice across cultures for centuries. Medieval and Renaissance societies thought it was an aphrodisiac and also believed it could … Read more

Page 1 of 10812345...102030...Last »