A La Mode – Part Ten

Panniers or side hoops

It was the height of fashion, particularly in the 18th century, amongst women, especially those of noble birth, to wear enormous, highly decorated dresses. The bigger, more voluminous and decorative they were, the greater they enhanced the social status of the wearer, not least because the expanse of material required and the time and effort to make them made them heavy on the purse.

Decorative external fabrics are one thing but they need a firm structure over which to stretch and this was the job of an astonishing feat of engineering known as panniers or side hoops. Worn as undergarments, their purpose was to extend the width of the skirt whilst leaving the front and back relatively flat. This was achieved by having a large stuffed sack or bag which hung down from each hip so that they stood out from either side of the waistline. They resembled the wicker baskets slung over mules, from which they took their name, pannier being French for a basket. The undergarments were made from a variety of materials including whalebone, wood, metal or reeds.

The name may be French, but the fashion probably originated from Spain in the 17th century, if some of the portraits by Velazquez are anything to go by. It then spread to France, being popular in the latter years of Louis XIV’s reign and then to the rest of Europe. Panniers were adopted in England, it was thought, around 1710.

Panniers varied in size depending upon the size of dress they were supposed to support, the largest panniers being reserved by noblewomen for special occasions. But this strange form of undergarment descended the social scale, servants wearing more modest structures. For many they helped create the perfect female form, wide busts and hips with a thin waist.

There were some drawbacks to wearing a pannier.  Not only were they uncomfortable but they hampered mobility. Because the emphasis was on width – they could increase the width of a dress by several feet – it meant that two women wearing the things couldn’t get through a door at the same time or sit together on a couch. Some architectural modifications had to be made to accommodate the fashion, including the widening of doors and the development of curved balustrades.

For some men, the opportunity to pour scorn on this mode of dress was too great to let pass. A contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine, in March 1750, really went to town. “Every person we meet, every post we pass, and every corner we turn, incumber our way, and obstruct our progress. We fit in a chair hid up to our very ears on either side, like a swan with her head between her lifted wings. The whole side of a coach is hardly capacious enough for one of us. We go up a pair of stairs, as if we were pushing some great burden before us”.

On the face of it, Jack Lovelass launched a stout defence in his The hoop-petticoat vindicated, published in 1745, claiming that the fashion accessory was a boon to society, “finding Work for a great Number of Hands that would otherwise be unemployed.” I can’t , though, help thinking his tongue was firmly in his cheek.

The pannier had a good run for its money but the upset of the French Revolution and the move to crinolines and then bustles saw this rather bulky undergarment fall out of favour.


Double Your Money – Part Thirty Three

Oscar Hartzell (1876 – 1943) and the Sir Francis Drake Association

One of life’s many mysteries is what happened to Francis Drake’s loot. After all, he was an indefatigable pirate. But when he died of dysentery in 1596 without heirs, his not inconsiderable fortune seemed to vanish into thin air. From time to time bounty hunters would emerge, claiming direct descent to the English adventurer, but were unable to prove their claim. Where there is a pot of gold to be had, there is ample opportunity for a spot of financial skullduggery.

Around 1919 a couple of minor fraudsters persuaded an Iowan woman out of $6,000 by selling her shares in a scheme to retrieve Drake’s fortune. The unfortunate woman happened to be the mother of Oscar Hartzell. Rather than feel sympathy for his mother’s plight, Oscar was more intrigued by the con, cut himself into the action and moved it on to an industrial scale.

Thousands of individuals who shared Sir Francis’ surname began to receive letters ostensibly from the Sir Francis Drake Association, a cod society set up by Hartzell. The contents of the letter were stunning. Drake’s fortune, estimated at being between $22 and $400 billion – Hartzell gave full rein to his fancy here – was tied up in the English probate system. In order to cut the legal Gaudian knot, funds of around $2,500 a week were required. For every dollar invested a return 500 times the amount would be guaranteed, once the money had been prised from the lawyers.

Odds of 500 to 1 were too good to miss and thousands took the bait. Indeed, so successful was the mailshot that Hartzell opened the scheme to others who did not share the pirate’s surname. In all Hartzell had around 70,000 subscribers. To keep the momentum going, he recruited agents who toured the country recruiting subscribers and issued newsletters giving updates on how his negotiations with the British authorities were going.

Rather unsportingly the British revealed in 1922 that there wasn’t any money while the FBI, after extensive investigations, revealed that what money Drake had probably went to his second wife, Elizabeth. But odds of 500 to 1 were too good to ignore and anyway Hartzell was a man on a mission, wasn’t he?

In around 1924 Hartzell moved to England to be closer to the action or so he claimed. In reality, he was living the life of old Riley at the expense of his subscribers. When funds were running short, he would tap his subscribers for more cash. And generally they coughed up, his scam lasting an incredible 15 years and generating around $2 million of funds.

But all good things must come to an end. In 1933 Hartzell was deported back to the US and was up before the beak on charges of mail fraud. Incredibly, so convinced that Hartzell was the man to make them rich were his subscribers – bear in mind it was the Depression era when people were desperate for a lucky break – that they raised a further $350,000 to fund his defence costs.

They may have had faith in Hartzell but the court didn’t, finding him guilty and sentencing him to 10 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary in north-east Kansas. He never left, dying in jail in 1943, by which time Hartzell actually believed that he was Francis Drake. In the year that he was being tried Hartzell’s agents collected a further $500,000 in subscriptions and some of his investors believed to their dying day that they were in for a share of Drake’s billions.

But as the wise always say, if it looks too good to be true, it is.

What Is The Origin Of (197)?…

To be in someone’s bad books

To be in someone’s bad books is to be in disgrace or out of favour. It is not a situation many of us would choose to be in but on occasions it happens. Often it is a phrase used to chide a child but what are these books and why are they bad?

In times of strife and civil turmoil it is not uncommon for one side or the other to draw up lists of people they would like to get out-of-the-way. The Roman dictator, Sulla, compiled a list of what were known as proscriptions in 82 BCE and around forty years later the ill-starred triumvirate of Octavian, later to become Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus also drew up their lists. Cicero was unfortunate enough to find himself on one of these scrolls and that was the end of him.

Given the influence of the Roman way of doing things on Western thought, culture and language our phrase could be a throwback to this way of identifying and eliminating your opponents. Mercifully, these days anyone who finds themselves in someone’s bad book is unlikely to be killed but they face some form of social ostracism, albeit temporary.

Whether this is the origin of our phrase is speculation but what is clear is that the noun book was used in the early 16th century for certain, and probably earlier, to indicate the extent of one’s interest and concern. In the poetic tract, The Parlyament of Deuylles (Devils), printed by W de Worde in 1509, we find the passage, “he is out of our bokes and we out of his.” It is perhaps an early example of if you are not on the list, you can’t come in.

Soon book gathered an adjective to accompany a possessive pronoun. The first such adjective seems to have been black. Robert Greene wrote Black Book’s Messenger, published just before his death in 1592, in which he layed “open the life and death of Ned Browne, one of the most notable cutpurses, cross-biters and cony-catchers that ever lived in England.” Greene was not as exhaustive in his listing of Browne’s felony as his preamble led the reader to believe because he then noted that “Ned Browne’s villanies..are too many to be described in my Blacke Book.

By 1771, though, books, black in colour, were being used to record the indiscretions of those in the armed forces and supposedly studying at universities. It was defined thus; “a book kept for the purpose of registering the names of persons liable to censure or punishment, as in the English universities, or the English armies.” But by that time it was also being used in a figurative sense. The inestimable Francis Grose recorded in his Dictionary of the Vulgar the following definition; “He is down in the black book, that is, has a stain in his character.”

Qualitative adjectives were a later development. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839, used the figurative good book when Miss La Creevy says to Mr Noggs, “If you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady.” Wise advice, I’m sure. And its antonym, bad books, made an even later appearance, first used in George Perry’s History of the Church of England, published in 1861; “the Arminians, who at that time were in his bad books.

Since then, most of us have appeared in figurative books, whether they be black, good or bad.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Twenty Five

Benjamin O’Neale Stratford (1808 – 1875)

A man needs a hobby but some take their enthusiasm to extremes. One such was Stratford, the sixth and last Earl of Aldborough – as we will see, he didn’t have time to sire an heir. His passion, nay obsession, was ballooning and his ambition was to build the biggest balloon the world had ever seen.

The starting point was to build somewhere to house it and in the 1830s he had a hangar built in the grounds of his family seat, Stratford Lodge, in Baltinglass in County Wicklow. It was no tin or wooden affair. Standing some 60 feet high and fifty feet wide, it was chiselled out of the Wicklow granite. And it had doors, because Stratford was paranoid that someone would see what he was doing and steal his ideas.

For the next twenty years or so he worked away, designing, building, adjusting, and modifying his meisterwerk. Throughout the time Stratford lived as a recluse, attended by only one servant. He refused to compromise the secrecy of his project by hiring a cook. Instead, he had his meals sent down to him from Dublin on the Baltinglass Royal Mail coach.

Eventually, by the early 1850s our Benjamin believed he had cracked it and started to make plans for its inaugural flight. His intention was to fly initially to England and then transport the balloon to the south coast where he would fly to the ballooning capital of the world, Paris. He had even bought a piece of land by the Seine as a landing strip – a triumph of optimism over reality if there ever was one.

By this time, England was embroiled in the Crimean War and in a fit of patriotic fervour Stratford offered his machine to a doubtless bemused military. There is also evidence that he sought to protect his invention with a patent. Patent number 224, filed in 1854, records “this inventor proposed a man-powered aircraft, either aided in flight by an elongated balloon, or by wings. The wings are intended to act in a manner similar to birds, based on theories of bird flight put forward by the inventor. A tail is described, which may act as a rudder, striking downward when the vessel is rising, thus compressing the air beneath, as the inventor believed birds do, especially pigeons.

The patent went on; “any number of persons on board may aid propulsion, each having a separate wheel.” Stratford continued modifying his design, filing another patent (no 2062) in 1856, in which “he appears now to suggest an engine to provide propulsive power. There are also improvements to the passenger accommodation and other minor features.” For all his efforts, there still had been no public unveiling.

And then one Sunday morning in 1856, tragedy struck. Fire broke out at Stratford Lodge. Stratford’s only concern was to save his balloon. He organised a human chain from the many onlookers to carry buckets of water to the hanger but to no avail. The balloon went up in flames.

Stratford was devastated, his purpose in life destroyed. He initially moved into what remained of the hangar and, when the family fortune had been all but spent, he moved to Alicante in Spain where he eked out a living breeding dogs and selling patent medicines. When he got bored with that, he became even more reclusive, shutting himself up in hotel rooms, having meals delivered to his door but refusing to allow anyone to collect the dirty crockery. When his room became uninhabitable, he simply moved into another one.

But some good did come of his balloon. Struts from the structure kept the locals in fishing rods for many years and some of the stones from the hangar were used in the Baltinglass’ new catholic church.

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Ten

The Iowa-Missouri Boundary dispute, 1839

The limitations of surveying equipment, geographical ignorance and terminological inexactitude can provide no end of opportunities for those intent on picking a quarrel as the rather odd territorial dispute between the nascent Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri amply illustrates.

It all began in 1816 when John Sullivan was hired to map out the northern border of Missouri. In describing what was later to become known as the Sullivan Line he referred it, rather airily in hindsight, as running “through the rapids of the River Des Moines.” A blazed tree was said to mark the spot. The precise location of the boundary didn’t seem to matter at the time but as more and more settlers moved into north-eastern Missouri and south-western Iowa in the 1830s it became increasingly more important, if only for tax and law enforcement purposes, to determine whether they were in Iowa or Missouri.

The only thing to do was to order a new survey which the Missouri legislature did in 1837. They picked one J.C Brown to carry out the survey to determine the precise boundary. Not realising that the rapids which Sullivan had described were actually the Des Moines Rapids in the Mississippi River. Brown set off looking for a Des Moines River. He came across a bit of a mini-waterfall near what is now the town of Keosauqua. This he concluded was the latitude Sullivan had described and proceeded to conduct his survey from that point going due west. Unfortunately, Brown’s border was some nine and a half miles further north than the original Sullivan line and the result was that Missouri had gained a large strip of new land.

It was only when Congress was constituting the Territory of Iowa that they noticed the discrepancy. Their solution – to order another survey. But before that got underway, the gloriously named Governor of Missouri, Lilburn W Boggs took matters into his own hands by ordering his officials to enforce local laws and collect taxes in the disputed area. The locals objected, claiming they were Iowan and demanded that began to collect taxes in their new area, the locals in the disputed area refused to pay and called upon the Governor of Iowa, Robert Lucas – yes, he of the Toledo War fame – to defend their interests.

In November 1839 a tax inspector from Missouri appeared in the disputed area. Although the Iowans chased him away, he had time to extract partial payment of outstanding taxes, chopping down three trees which contained bees nests chock full of honey, an important mainstay of the local economy.

Boggs was not standing for the insult inflicted on his official and called upon his militia, some 800 men, to assemble near Waterloo. Lucas retaliated by recruiting a rag-tag army, sporting an assortment of rifles, shotguns and swords. Before a shot was fired in what was known as the Honey War, though, some sort of sanity prevailed. Both armies stood down and the matter was referred to the Supreme Court. In the interim, whilst both states laid claim to the disputed area, a sort of uneasy co-existence prevailed.

Eventually, in 1849, the Supreme Court ruled that the original Sullivan Line marked the boundary between Missouri and Iowa and ordered a team of surveyors to make an extensive search to find Sullivan’s blazed tree. After several days of searching, the team found the mark by chopping into a decayed tree. They then ran a line due west to the Missouri River and due east to the Des Moines River, inserted large iron pillars at each end and then ran a series of wooden or iron posts from one end to the other.

Once the work had been completed and the Supreme Court was satisfied with the result, this curious dispute came to an end.

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns – Part Nine

A train in Peru

Travelling by train can be a daunting experience. On commuter services, which increasingly resemble cattle trucks, the primary concern of anyone brave enough to venture into a carriage is to find somewhere to park their posterior. This may require them to engage in a modicum of conversation with a fellow-passenger but once some space has been secured, the convention, at least in the South East of England, is to mind your own business and studiously avoid any contact with anyone in your vicinity.

Out in what we rather pejoratively call the sticks train travel can be a slightly more civilised experience and on longer journeys it is not uncommon to engage with your neighbour in some small talk, perhaps a general enquiry as to where they are going, the weather prospects or an observation on the punctuality of the train.

Travelling on a train service abroad is an entirely different proposition altogether. It can often be a relief, as a foreigner, to find a fellow traveller from your home country and the temptation to strike up conversation is almost impossible to resist. In the 1920s, at least we are led to believe, people were much less self-absorbed and, dare I say it, more polite and better mannered than they are today. So it was not unnatural for three Englishmen who found themselves in the same carriage on a train trundling through darkest Peru – alas, the train did not set out from Paddington – to strike up conversation.

As well-bred Westerners their first task was to introduce themselves, doubtless with the shaking hands and possibly even the proffering of business cards. One of the three announced himself as Mr Bingham. When it was time for the second man to reveal his identity, he told his two travelling companions that he was Mr Powell. The third floored his companions when he told them his name – he was Mr Bingham-Powell, no doubt the engineer, H J Bingham-Powell, who published in 1916 the blockbuster that was Sanitary Progress in Peru and Bolivia.

What are the chances of that?

I suppose we need to recognise that in those days, probably the only way to get around Peru in any sort of comfort and with any degree of speed was to go by train. And Westerners, particularly those on business or well-heeled, would naturally gravitate to the first class carriage, if such a facility was available. So for three Westerners to find themselves in the same first-class carriage on a train in Peru is not that unusual in itself.

But what about the coincidence of the surnames?

In researching this conundrum I came across a rather interesting website, www.sofeminine.co.uk  which includes a glossary of most surnames found in the UK. There is no information, at least that I could glean, as to the currency of the data so I think we can only use its data as a general indication of the relative frequency of the given surnames.

Let’s start with Powell. The database reveals that it is the 85th most common British surname with some 76,793 people, give or take, sharing the moniker. Bingham, on the other hand, languishes down at 1,588 with just 6,444 folk bearing that family name. A search for Bingham-Powell took me down a dead-end, returning the less than helpful message that there was insufficient data but there were probably less than 1,300 with that surname.

So even allowing for the likelihood of three Westerners sharing the same carriage on a train in Peru being relatively high, the probability of them sharing the surname combinations that they did is quite low – cleverer mathematicians than I could have a stab at calculating it. After all, it is not like a Smith, Jones and Smith-Jones combination.

A bizarre coincidence, to be sure.

City Of The Week

Fancy moving to a city which is expected to double its population in the next few months? If so, Ruso in the McLean County of North Dakota may just suit you fine.

Ruso, in its pomp in the early 20th century, had a population of 141 but since the last business, a grain elevator, shut down in 1956, the number of citizens has dwindled dramatically. The death, in July, of its mayor, 86-year-old Bruce Lorenz, brought the population down to just two, one short of the absolute minimum for a community to be incorporated as a city under the rather liberal North Dakota Century Code.

After a bit of head scratching, the remaining duo have convinced the authorities that Greg Schmaltz, who has a mailbox in Ruso and checks his livestock on land within the city limits every day, qualifies as a resident.

So that’s all right then.

To regularise matters, Greg, who is expected to be appointed the new mayor, and his wife, Michelle, are building a house in the city and expect to move in during the next few months.

But there is plenty of room for others.