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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.


Hand Fans

Through the ages, hand fans have been everything from functional to fashionable and from a form of art to a symbol of sanctity. The earliest evidence of fans can be found in pictorial records from approximately 3,000bc in China. There is also evidence that Greeks and Romans used fans as cooling devices and in religious ceremonies to keep insects away from sacrifices. Other ancient cultures that had fans as a part of religion were China, Egypt, Assyria and Phoenicia. Romans made fans from wood; in China they used feathers; and Greeks stretched linen over a wooden frame shaped as a leaf. These fans were all stationary and the folding fan did not appear for hundreds of years.

The Japanese are credited with making the first folding hand fan sometime during the 1600s. Many believe the idea for its design originated from the folded wings of a bat. Bone, ivory or mica was used to create the slats of the fan. Folding hand fans spread from the East via the trade routes of Portugal to the rest of Europe. Italian women were the first to carry fans as a fashion accessory. These fans were made from calfskin and leaves, cut into strips and woven together. By the 1700s, fashionable fans had spread to France and England and wealthy women were soon commissioning artists to design and paint their hand fans. This is probably when the fan first became a symbol of the frailty of women. In 1796, the invention of lithography (a printing process) made fans cheaper and the trend soon spread throughout society. Fans were now being decorated with events, maps, riddles and art. A fan was the appropriate gift for a women to mark any occasion in her life: a birthday, marriage, childbirth or a death in the family.

The 1800s saw an increase in the popularity of hand fans. Faster and cheaper production methods were patented and people became very interested in fine art. There was no better way for a woman to show her taste in fine art than to carry a fan painted and signed by a prominent artist. Fans were made of painted lace, silk or parchment, increasing the delicate look of the accessory. Nineteenth-century women used their fans as a means of communication with their admirers. A set code was developed and phrase books were published to translate a lady's gestures. For example, if a woman quickly fanned herself it meant "I love you", and if she slowly fanned herself it meant "I don't care about you."

The changes in society during the 1900s reflected the changes in the way hand fans were made and used. Fans began to don advertisements instead of art. As they fought for their rights, women no longer wanted to carry a symbol of frailty. Society was moving towards modernity and electric fans blew away the once fashionable, artistic and even sacred hand fan.



L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas (1876).

The liquor absinthe is believed to have been created in 1792 by Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor. Henry-Louis Pernod of Pontarlier in France first commercially produced absinthe in 1797. The name absinthe is derived from the Latin absinthium and from the Greek apsinthion, both words meaning wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which is the drink's chief ingredient. Also made with angelica root, aniseed, fennel, hyssop, licorice and star aniseed, the liquor has a high alcohol content and a harsh taste. Thujone, which is present in wormwood, is the chemical that is responsible for the hallucinogenic effects of the liquor.

Absinthe is highly aromatic and yellowish-green in color. When mixed with water, the liquor changes to cloudy white. The drink is often served with ice and water and used as a flavoring in mixed drinks. The classic absinthe drink is served in a special glass, where water is poured over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon. The sweetened water then drips into a glass containing absinthe.

The liquor enjoyed popularity in the 1800s. Absinthe, known as the "Green Fairy", was muse to artists and madmen alike and was sipped by many famous people. It is said that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear while infused with absinthe. Oscar Wilde wrote of absinthe that "After the first glass, you see things as they are. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." The artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec apparently drank it to the point that he was placed in an asylum. Several sensational murders were blamed on absinthe drinkers while under the spell of the Green Fairy.

By the end of the century, absinthe had gained a poor reputation due to its hallucinogenic properties. Absinthe was eventually prohibited in the early 20th century in most countries, including the US in 1912, due to its hallucinogenic effects.

Canada never officially banned absinthe, however, it could not be purchased in the country until recently. Versinthe, now available in Canada, has 1.5 parts thujone per million. The US, reversing its earlier ban, has a version of the drink which has 3.5 parts thujone per million. These versions are much weaker than the absinthe available at the end of the 19th century, which had about 2,000 parts thujone per million.



Eclipses, which occur whenever the moon is directly aligned with the sun and the earth, happen with some frequency. Lunar eclipses (when the moon passes through the shadow of the earth) happen several times a year, and solar eclipses (when the moon blocks the light of the sun) happen with some regularity.

The first recorded mention of an eclipse comes from ancient China sometime around 2100bc. The Chinese believed eclipses were caused by a dragon eating the sun, and that the dragon had to be frightened away by making loud noises and shooting arrows into the sky. On this occasion, goes the story, the royal astronomers, Hsi and Ho, neglected their duties and failed to warn the emperor of the upcoming eclipse, so the proper rituals could not be observed. Although everything turned out alright, the emperor had the astronomers beheaded just to be on the safe side.

Though most astronomers have understood the basic mechanics of solar eclipses for quite some time, common people have been less enlightened about the darkness. Describing the total solar eclipse that occurred on the morning of 14 May 1230, medieval historian Roger of Wendover wrote: "it became so dark that the labourers, who had commenced their morning's work, were obliged to leave it, and returned again to their beds to sleep; but in about an hour's time, to the astonishment of many, the Sun regained its usual brightness."

Christopher Columbus was able to exploit ignorance of eclipses to his advantage during his early explorations of the New World. In 1504, Columbus was having difficulties convincing the natives of Jamaica to trade him food in exchange for European trinkets. When he stumbled upon a copy of Johannes Muller's Calendarium (1474) aboard his ship, he devised a plan to trick the Indians into being more favorably inclined towards the trades he suggested. Armed with the Calendarium's prediction of a lunar eclipse on the evening on 29 February 1504, Columbus arranged a meeting with the native chief for that evening. At the meeting, Columbus announced that God would demonstrate his anger with the natives by taking away the moon. Surely enough, shortly after Columbus issued his warning, the moon began to be swallowed up by the earth's shadow. The frightened natives pleaded with Columbus to intervene with God on their behalf, and, upon securing his crew a supply of food until they were able to leave the island, Columbus obliged. The moon was returned later that evening.



Long before George Washington suffered with his false teeth, people were looking for ways to replace their missing teeth.

As far back as 700bc, the Etruscans were making false teeth from ivory and whale and hippopotamus bone fitted into gold bridgework.

Later methods were not as sophisticated. In the 1500s, false teeth carved from bone were tied to the remaining teeth with silk. Often only the silk was tucked into the holes between teeth. For those with no teeth, anchoring false teeth was next to impossible.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, some dentists had the idea to use teeth from the dead soldiers as a source of dentures for the living. This method proved to be not only disgusting but a failure because the teeth would rot and fall out of the bridgework.

Fortunately for the toothless, French dentist Dubois de Chement and pharmacist Duchateau invented a hard-baked, rot-proof set of porcelain dentures in the late 1700s. Italian dentist Giusseppangelo Fonzi created the single porcelain tooth on a pin and attached to a metal plate in 1808.

Mass marketing of dentures began in the early 1800s. One of the greatest improvements to dentures came in 1839 when Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber. This rubber was cheap and flexible making the false gum fit the mouth properly. When less painful tooth extraction became possible, the number of dentures sold increased dramatically.

Dental innovations like putting fluoride in drinking water, regular dental visits and improved dental hygiene reduced the number of people needing dentures, though many people still rely on this invention.


Sedan Chairs

Sedan chairs have been used as a form of transportation for centuries. A sedan chair is a chair surrounded by decorated walls or curtains and supported by horizontal poles. Two or more people carry the sedan chair by these poles.

The origins of the sedan chair are not certain but these early vehicles were used in various cultures in the Far East and Europe. Sedan chairs were also commonly used in ancient Egypt to carry queens and pharaohs throughout the cities and villages.

In China, sedan chairs used by common people were called minjiao meaning civil sedan. The rich used a sedan called a guanjiao, which means official sedan. Both were constructed out of wood or bamboo. The guanjiao for the rich was decorated with silk curtains. Sedan chairs were also used for weddings. A bride was carried to her wedding ceremony by a sedan chair otherwise known as a jianyu, which means "shoulder carriage". Jianyu were decorated in red, which is the traditional color for Chinese weddings. The tradition of using sedan chairs in China began with emperor Quinlong of the Qing Dynasty (1736-95). During a tour through the countryside, the Emperor and his party met with a bride and her wedding party proceeding to the ceremony. A donkey carried the bride. The emperor offered his sedan chair to the bride if she could recite a poem to him on the spot. The bride promptly thought of a poem and the emperor was so impressed he immediately handed over the sedan chair. In Korea, both the bride and groom are carried to the ceremony in separate, elaborately decorated sedan chairs.

In Europe, the sedan chair was popular in the 1600s and 1700s, and its use spread from Italy to France, England and Scotland. The chairs could easily be carried through the narrow streets of many European cities. Sedan chairs for the wealthy were decorated, carved and painted while those for the lower classes were of a simple design.

By the mid-1600s, sedans for hire were a common mode of transportation. In London, sedans were available for hire in 1634. Each sedan was assigned a number and the driver had to have a license to carry passengers. A similar system was later used in Scotland. In 1738, a fare system was established for Scottish sedans. A trip within a city cost six pence and a day's rental was four shillings. A sedan was even used as an ambulance in Scotland's Royal Infirmary. Sedan chairs were used by the wealthy in colonial America. Benjamin Franklin used a sedan chair until late in the 1700s.

Sedan chairs had their problems. The ride was usually slow and bumpy and the carriers would easily tire after a short journey.

The use of sedan chairs began to decline with the advent of faster forms of transportation such as the rickshaw and bath chair. These devices were similar to sedans but used wheels and only one driver. However, sedans are still used for ceremonial purposes throughout Asia.


This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.