November 8, 2013

A Hole Worth Not Fixing

There’s some really good stuff inside the historic Tennessee state capitol: cast-iron railings and spiral stairs, columns of limestone and marble, elaborate gasolier light fixtures decked with tobacco leaves, cotton blossoms, Indian corn, and elk heads. The elegant upstairs chamber of the House of Representatives is the very spot where American women finally secured the right to vote in 1920 when state representative Harry Burn switched sides unexpectedly—making Tennessee the last state needed to sew up the Nineteenth Amendment—because, among other reasons, his mother wanted him to.

But that’s just my third-favorite detail in the Tennessee statehouse in Nashville, after the tomb of its architect—who is buried right there in the building—and the 1866 bullet hole in the stone rail of the main stairs. (more…)

September 23, 2013

Please Look After…


My mum wants to know,” Jayne said to me, “if you want to hear all about how she was evacuated during the War.”

Well, who wouldn’t want to hear about that? The story of how trainloads of children were whisked out of British cities and into the tranquil green countryside to keep them safe during World War II is the stuff of Masterpiece Theater. Add Jayne’s mother Marion into the mix—statuesque, red-haired, dramatic, a woman once ideally cast as trident-wielding Britannia in an outdoor extravaganza on the grounds of Walmer Castle—and it’s certain to be an evening unlike any at home. (more…)

August 27, 2013

Hats Off

75 years hats


My husband and I discovered no end of peculiar items while clearing the house where his parents lived for more than fifty years: an astonishing number of flashlights, almost all of them broken; an appliance designed exclusively for heating frozen pizzas; soap in the shape of George Washington from the American Bicentennial of 1976. One of the most unexpected things—and one of the few I kept for myself—was a 1951 magazine that celebrated the history of American ladies’ hats. (more…)

June 4, 2013

Old Glory


Smack between Memorial Day and the fireworks of the Fourth of July comes the patriotic American non-holiday of Flag Day. We are not, as a rule, flag wavers here in the coastal Pacific Northwest. As a national symbol the U.S. flag makes us a little uncomfortable—carrying, as it often does now, the whiff of stubborn, conservative, My-Country-Right-or-Wrong sentiment. Sometimes Blue Staters can’t help feeling the Red States have captured our flag.

But I’m a fool for Old Glory. The original Old Glory, I mean, the hand-sewn American standard that flew from a New England sailing ship, survived the U.S. Civil War, traipsed out west to Nevada, and ended up at the Smithsonian in 1922. The exact details of its history are a little difficult to pin down, as is so often the case with family stories and national folklore. But the main facts remain undisputed, and even the weak bits are good. (more…)

May 20, 2013

A Stitch in Time


The lines aren’t all entirely straight and the stitches aren’t always even, but there’s no mistaking Windsor Castle rising above the treetops or the royal coat of arms down below, beneath the slightly imperfect slogan that appears to read GODSAVE THE KING. Back in 1936 someone spent days—perhaps even weeks—memorializing with a needle a moment in British history that never took place at all. (more…)

August 28, 2012

The War of the Plucky Women

In case it’s not on your calendar, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

This is not, to put it delicately, a war that most Americans think about very often. We find it a little confusing, the fact that we fought Britain again after the Revolution. The notion that U.S. soldiers attacked Canada in the process is also surprising—at least to us. The citizens of Canada seem to be clear on this point.

For Canadians the War of 1812 is a pivotal moment in national history, the time when they defined themselves as Not Americans.

But for those of us south of the 49th parallel, other wars loom so much larger that the War of 1812 inevitably shrinks to a footnote. If pressed we might be able to name Francis Scott Key and The Star Spangled Banner, or Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture . . .

No, wait. That’s the Russians fighting Napoleon. Same year, different war. (more…)

July 30, 2012

You Go, Girl

As the Summer Olympics get underway, let’s give a cheer for Melpomene.

At the first Modern Olympiad in 1896, when women were prohibited from competing in any event, a Greek woman known to history only as Melpomene respectfully asked permission to run with men in the long-distance race between Marathon and Athens. When Olympic officials refused her she jumped into the race from the sidelines and finished the course at the back of the pack. You don’t always have to win the gold medal in order to make your point.

So think about Melpomene as you watch the world’s best marathon runners slog through the streets of London next week. Consider the fact it took 32 years for any women’s track events to be added to the Olympics and more than another half century before women could run in Olympic races longer than 800 meters.

As for the marathon—Oh dear, no. Women were far too delicate for a road race that covered 26 miles. They would faint. They would swoon. They would most certainly damage their health, especially their feminine parts. Besides, insisted the International Olympic Committee, there weren’t enough women around the world who wanted to train for a marathon. (more…)