Illumination

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Modern lighting is so ubiquitous that we scarcely think about it, but from prehistory to A.D. 1782 there were just a few primitive means to banish the dark, chiefly fires, rushlights, and tallow candles. And even these were rather precious — in the 17th century John Aubrey wrote of William Oughtred that “his wife was a penurious woman and would not allow him to burne candle after supper, by which means many a good notion is lost.” In 1763 James Boswell was midway through a night of writing when disaster struck:

About two o’clock in the morning I inadvertently snuffed out my candle, and as my fire before that was long before black and cold, I was in a great dilemma how to proceed. Downstairs did I softly and silently step to the kitchen. But, alas, there was as little fire there as upon the icy mountains of Greenland. With a tinder box is a light struck every morning to kindle the fire, which is put out at night. But this tinder box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. I was also apprehensive that my landlord who always keeps a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief.

What did he do? “I went up to my room, sat quietly until I heard the watchman calling ‘past three o’clock’. I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened to him and got my candle re-lumed without danger. Thus was I relieved and continued busy until eight the next day.”

(William T. O’Dea, The Social History of Lighting, 1958.)

Signing Off

donne letter

In England and France, from the 1500s to the 1700s, the placement of a letter writer’s signature on the page conveyed meaning as to his relationship with the recipient. In his 1568 letter-writing manual Enimie of Idlenesse, William Fulwood writes that the subscription and signature of the letter “must be doone according to the estate of the writer, and the qualitie of the person to whom wee write: For to our superiors wee must write at the right side in the neither end of the paper, saying: By your most humble and obedient sonne, or seruant, &c. Or, yours to commaund, &c. And to our equals we must write towards the middest of the paper, saying: By your faithfull friend for euer, &c. Or, yours assured, &c. To our inferiours wee may write on high at the left hand, saying: By yours, &c.”

In 1601 John Donne married Anne More without the blessing of her father, who was lieutenant of the Tower of London. Donne was incarcerated, and in his letters begging for clemency he crammed his signature into the bottom right-hand corner of the page to signal his self-abasement.

(From Sam Willis and James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected, 2018.)

Filial Duty

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Most people would agree that children have special duties to their parents, even once the children have grown up. We might feel an obligation to keep in touch with them, for example, or to care for them in their old age. Where do these duties come from?

  • Certainly my parents have done a great deal for me, so perhaps I owe them a debt. But it seems there’s no way to repay this debt completely, and I seem to owe it regardless of how great (or small) a burden I was to them as a child. (Also my obligation to them seems to vary with my own circumstances, which is not the case with other debts.)
  • Perhaps what I really owe them is an appropriate gratitude for what they’ve done for me. But this doesn’t seem right either — if I help my mother through a difficult time, fundamentally it’s because she wants me there, not to show that I recognize and appreciate what she’s done for me. Also, I seem to feel a duty to her even if I required relatively little sacrifice as a child, which is not normally how we think about gratitude.
  • Maybe my parents and I are friends, and I owe them the duties that come with friendship. But I can’t choose to end our relationship, as I can with friends, and I would never feel an obligation to provide medical care (say) for my friends, as I would for my parents.

Each of these explanations is unsatisfactory, writes Boston University philosopher Simon Keller. “Each tries to assimilate the moral relationship between parent and child to some independently understood conception of duty, but this relationship is different in structure and content from any that we are likely to share with anyone apart from a parent.” So what’s the source of our obligation to our parents?

(Simon Keller, “Four Theories of Filial Duty,” Philosophical Quarterly 56:223 [April 2006], 254-274.)

Loss

Our servants were devoted to us and took their duties very much to heart. At a time when houses were still lighted by candles and lamps, a considerable staff was needed to attend to the lighting. The manservant who was in charge of the staff was so grieved when electric lighting was introduced that he drowned his sorrows in drink and died from its effects shortly after.

— A childhood memory of Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), of the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg, from his 1952 memoir Lost Splendor

Directions

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, sociolinguist William Labov ran a revealing experiment in three New York department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and S. Klein. Of the three, Saks generally commanded the highest prestige and S. Klein the lowest. Labov had found that one marker of social stratification in the city was the pronunciation of the letter R, and he wanted to see whether this was reflected in the speech of the salespeople at the various stores.

He did this by approaching a salesperson in each store and asking directions to a department on the fourth floor. When the salesperson told him “Fourth floor,” he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me?” This forced the person to say the phrase “Fourth floor” again, this time rather self-consciously.

As expected, Labov found that salespeople at the upscale Saks tended to pronounce their Rs, while those at the lower-priced Klein tended to the broader New York pronunciation “fawth flaw.” But when asked to repeat the phrase, those at Macy’s and Klein’s tended to amend their pronunciation to sound more “classy.”

“How can we account for the differences between Saks and Macy’s?” Labov wrote. “I think we can say this: the shift from the influence of the New England prestige pattern [r-less] to the mid-Western prestige pattern [r-full] is felt most completely at Saks. The young people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s there is less sensitivity to the effect among a large number of younger speakers who are completely immersed in the New York City linguistic tradition. The stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation: very few of them rely upon the older pattern of prestige pronunciation which supports the r-less tendency of older Saks sales people.”

In separate interviews Labov found that two thirds of New Yorkers felt that outsiders disliked the city accent. “They think we’re all murderers,” one man told him. A woman said, “To be recognized as a New Yorker — that would be a terrible slap in the face.”

(William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2006.)

Menagerie

https://archive.org/details/comparativephysi00redf

In his Comparative Physiognomy of 1852, American physician James Redfield claimed that people of a given nationality tend to resemble a certain animal, and that the animal’s disposition illuminates the national character. For example, Henry VIII, a representative Englishman, resembles a bull: “A ‘bull-neck’ suggests the idea of a tyrannical disposition, or of irresistible desire, and is never spoken of in the way of compliment. … When oxen draw together in a yoke, they lean away from each other, so as to be under the necessity of holding each other up. This is on account of their great repulsiveness — a trait which was mentioned as being a prominent element of the English character.”

The table of contents gives the general tone:

Chapter 2. Resemblances of Germans to Lions
Chapter 14. Resemblances of Laplanders to Reindeers
Chapter 16. Resemblances of Arabs to Camels
Chapter 19. Resemblances of Italians to Horses
Chapter 23. Resemblances of Chinamen to Hogs
Chapter 29. Resemblances of Frenchmen to Frogs and Alligators
Chapter 34. Resemblances of Jews to Goats

He even compares Turks to turkeys. I’m not aware that he ever actually visited these places, but I suppose that’s not necessary to reach these sorts of conclusions.

The whole thing is in the Internet Archive.

03/24/2022 UPDATE: Reader Manuel Saiz sent this video:

The Beard Tax

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In his efforts to reform Russian society, Peter the Great once resorted to banning beards. To bring Russian society more in line with Western Europe, in 1698 he began to charge a fee for the privilege of wearing whiskers, ranging from 100 rubles a year for wealthy merchants down to 1 kopek for a peasant entering a city. Police were empowered to shave scofflaws forcibly.

If you paid your tax you were given a “beard token” with a Russian eagle on one side and a beard on the other. One coin bore the legend THE BEARD IS A SUPERFLUOUS BURDEN.

Because Russians generally resented the law, the tokens are quite valuable now. As early as 1845 collector Walter Hawkins wrote, “The national aversion to the origin of this token probably caused their destruction or dispersion, after they had served their purpose for the year, as they are now very rarely to be met with even in Russia.”

The Poverty Map

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When H.M. Hyndman claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in abject poverty, Charles Booth was skeptical. So he organized his own investigation. His findings, published as Life and Labour of the People in 1889, showed that fully 35 percent of residents in the East End were poor.

In the map above, the red areas are “middle class, well-to-do,” light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family,” dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want,” and black areas are the “lowest class … occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals.” (More of Booth’s maps can be seen here.)

A second volume, covering the rest of London, was published in 1891, and a third, in 17 volumes, appeared in 1902. He pressed for many reforms, but he remained optimistic. “What is needed is more vigorous life in every direction: social, educational, industrial, political and religious,” he concluded. “If they be evidences of vigour, pleasure seeking and extravagance need not be condemned, nor even some excess be dreaded. We may confidently trust in the balance of forces; a running stream is always wholesome; a stagnant pool, the danger.”

Silent Warning

aa ad

In the early days of motoring, bicycle patrolmen with Britain’s Automobile Association would sometimes warn AA members of nearby speed traps. In a 1910 legal case, Chief Justice Lord Alverston found this practice illegal — in effect the patrolman would be “obstructing an officer in the course of his duty.”

So AA adopted a new policy — an AA patrolman would salute any car that bore an AA badge … unless there was a speed trap nearby. The AA Handbook warned members, “It cannot be too strongly emphasised that when a patrol fails to salute, the member should stop and ask the reason why, as it is certain that the patrol has something of importance to communicate.”

The new system was used until the 1960s.

A Modest Proposal

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On March 28, 1912, bacteriologist Almroth Wright wrote a letter to the London Times arguing that women should be denied the vote and in fact kept away from politics altogether in light of their psychological shortcomings. Two days later the Times printed this response. It was signed “One of the Doomed” but in fact had been penned by 26-year-old Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston:

March 30th, 1912

To the Editor of The Times.

Sir,

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have votes?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’

I have been so much impressed by Sir Almroth Wright’s disquisition, backed as it is by so much scientific and personal experience, that I have come to the conclusion that women should be put a stop to.

We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitiveness, and that their presence is distracting and irritating to men in their daily lives and pursuits. If they take up a profession, the indelicacy of their minds makes them undesirable partners for their male colleagues. Later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and, if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up.

Now this being so, how much happier and better would the world not be if only it could be purged of women? It is here that we look to the great scientists. Is the case really hopeless? Women no doubt have had their uses in the past, else how could this detestable tribe have been tolerated till now? But is it quite certain that they will be indispensable in the future? Cannot science give us some assurance, or at least some ground of hope, that we are on the eve of the greatest discovery of all — i.e., how to maintain a race of males by purely scientific means?

And may we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented, and immoral species which has infested the world for so long?

Yours obediently,

C.S.C.
(‘One of the Doomed’)