March 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Today is Mardi Gras, yes—the beads, the cake, the booze, the breasts. We get it. I love a Dionysian spectacle as much as the next joe, but one can take only so many years of unhinged debauchery, face paint, and galettes des Rois before the charm wears thin, even when there’s nudity involved. We need a change of pace.
Enter Shrove Tuesday, i.e., National Pancake Day, i.e., today. Picture a Mardi Gras where men lust not for nipples, but for fluffy flapjacks. The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day has just taught me about the pancake bell, “A bell rung on Shrove Tuesday at or about eleven a.m., popularly associated with the making of pancakes.”
Imagine! A bell devoted entirely to pancakes, a bell whose mellifluous peals say to all within earshot, Abandon your post, hire a sitter, and get thee to the griddle—it is time to eat starch.
Shrove is the past tense of shrive, meaning “to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve.” On the Tuesday before Lent began, the same bell that called people to confession served as a stern reminder: use your eggs, milk, and butter now, because once the day is out, we must begin ritually fasting and you are totally fucked.
Thus, everyone began to run home and whip up hotcakes; some people, rumor has it, even tried to cook the pancakes as they ran home, tossing and jogging, jogging and tossing, perhaps ladling syrup on occasion. To this day, the British town of Olney holds a pancake race (“Participants must don an apron and hat or scarf to compete. They are also required to toss the pancake three times during the 415 yard race, serve it to the bell ringer, and receive a kiss from him”) and IHOP hosts a fundraiser, though it does not, to my knowledge, involve the tolling of a pancake bell.
The OED includes an early reference to the bell, from Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday, which dates to 1600: “Vpon euery Shroue tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell: my fine dapper Assyrian lads, shall clap vp their shop windows, and away. This is the day, and this day they shall doot, they shall doot.”
February 16, 2014 | by Edward McPherson
This is the second in a two-part series on St. Louis and the 1904 World’s Fair. Read part 1 here.
The Palace of Agriculture is a blinding colossus in the sun. The man next to me reads from a booklet: twenty acres large, covered with 147,250 panes of glass. I have timed my visit—in one minute a giant clock made of 13,000 flowers will strike the noon hour. I am finished with the exhibits. I have seen the Missouri corn palace, the 4,700-pound cheese; I have laughed at Minnesota’s contribution, “The Discovery of St. Anthony Falls by Father Hennepin” shaped out of one thousand pounds of butter. Now a hiss of compressed air throws the 2,500-pound minute hand the final five feet, where it points to the giant numeral 12. An hourglass flips, doors open to reveal the gears of the clock—the triumph of industrial time—and a massive bell tolls the death of more agrarian rhythms.
Pyramids of fruit on a sea of china plates—the entire Palace of Horticulture smells like apples. Virginia has created a statewide shortage by sending too many to the Fair. I dip my fingers into the fountain, which gushes ice water. Farmers shake their heads at the monstrosities on display: a pineapple the size of a turkey and a mysterious dimpled fruit, said to be the unholy cross between a strawberry and a raspberry.
* * *
The company is a major employer in this city. One cannot miss its print and radio campaign: “We grow ideas here.” “We work together here.” “We dream here.” “We’re proud to be St. Louis Grown.” Its website offers videos of employees working in food banks, cleaning up after tornados, visiting Forest Park, and standing in front of the Arch. Articles rate the town’s best burger joints, as judged by company workers. The company is a major donor to local charities and institutions, including the university in which I teach. In 2013, the company’s net sales were $14.8 billion, up ten percent. Its chief technology officer won the 2013 World Food Prize. The company has 21,183 employees in 404 facilities in sixty-six countries—but its headquarters are here, where, over the years, the much-maligned Monsanto Company has worked to produce saccharin, PCBs, polystyrene, DDT, Agent Orange, nuclear weapons, dioxin, RoundUp, bovine growth hormone, and genetically modified seeds. Read More »
February 14, 2014 | by Edward McPherson
I hand the attendant a fifty-cent piece and watch him drop it into the automatic turnstile, itself a marvel. Behind me, the murmur of moneychangers, the swish of gored skirts tapering to white shirtwaists. Beyond that, the din of St. Louis. My sack suit rustles as I stride ahead. I’m crossing the threshold of an impossible city: a manicured wonderland of symmetrical lagoons winding through sculpted gardens studded with allegorical statues. In the distance loom the massive palaces of learning, their Beaux-Arts façades harkening back to Ancient Rome and heralding a future brighter than the hundred thousand incandescent lights that line them against the night. The words of Exposition President David R. Francis ring in my ears—Open ye gates! Swing wide ye portals! Enter herein ye sons of man, and behold the achievements of your race! Learn the lesson here taught and gather from it inspiration for still greater accomplishments!—and I step into the Fair.
* * *
St. Louis is a city of gates that do not normally swing wide. The urban private street, or “private place,” is believed to be a local invention, dating to the 1850s. Private places are owned by their residents, who typically build and maintain the road, median, sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, and—most crucially—gates. Some gates were utilitarian, imposing, and plain; others were small castles, complete with clock towers, fountains, statues, gaslights, and gatehouse apartments that caretakers (and, later, college students) lived in until the 1980s. Private places offered a refuge from the ever-booming city, a world apart. Some have been razed, their gates uprooted, the neighborhoods now troubled by crime; many still stand, pockets of wealth and privilege, with boards of trustees that oversee matters of law (historic preservation, landscaping) and etiquette (street parking, book clubs, Easter egg hunts).
Nearly two years ago, when my wife and I were moving to town and looking for an apartment, we were taken aback: everywhere, gates, gates, gates. Gates that lock and unlock according to byzantine schedules publicized only to residents (thus thwarting commuters and anyone else who might try to cut through the neighborhood). Gates that open by remote control. Rolling metal gates with yellow hazard signs. Gates built for carriages that now barely fit a car. Even in less-rarified neighborhoods—with weeds in the lawns and unwashed economy sedans on the street—at the end of the block might stand a pitiful sawhorse made of white PVC pipe. A symbol that speaks to the natives. Private Street: Not Thru. Private Street: No Public Parking. No thru traffic. Private neighborhood. No smoking beyond this gate. Private. No trespassing. Keep Out. Read More »
February 4, 2014 | by Matthew Olshan
Remembering the National Air and Space Museum and the nation’s guilty conscience.
People think of Washington, D.C., as a transitory place—a city of four-year leases, tourists, and revolving doors—an impression that dates back to the earliest days of the federal capital. The city fathers, desperate to counter the District’s reputation as a provincial backwater, fought back by building monuments. Think of it as overcompensation, the attempt to create an illusion of age-old power. Why else plant a fifty-story Egyptian obelisk in the center of town?
For those of us who were born and raised in Washington, there was both a pride in living near the nation’s symbolic center and a nagging feeling that the city didn’t really belong to us. A drive down Massachusetts Avenue, past the mansions of Embassy Row, was a reminder of how much of the town was actually built on foreign soil. Even the parts that were supposed to be ours were somewhat foreign, in the sense that they belonged to the whole country. Our Fourth of July fairground was the National Mall; the church in which I sang was the National Cathedral; and our local museums were the Smithsonian Institution—the “Nation’s Attic.”
The museums were the best part of living in Washington. My friends and I took a proprietary interest in them. This might not be our town, exactly, but these were our museums, none more so than the National Air and Space Museum, which opened when I was nine years old and obsessed with outer space. Read More »
February 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
On Holland’s legendary tulip bubble, which burst today in 1637.
When economists need to summon an age of unchecked speculation and financial fecklessness—usually as an analog to our own—the Dutch tulip mania is at the top of the list. If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s an early and especially hysterical example of the vagaries of the stock market: In the mid-1630s, the Dutch fell rapturously in love with tulips, whose vivid petals made them the envy of every Hendrik and Veerle in the neighborhood. The flower became a status symbol, and the Dutch were all but tripping over one another’s clogs in a race to conspicuously consume. To satisfy burgeoning demand, speculators began to trade in what were essentially tulip futures; these grew outlandishly complicated and expensive, and on the third of February, 1637, the tulip market collapsed.
The Scottish journalist Charles Mackay gave currency to the incident. He offers a trenchant, if dubious, account of the whole debacle in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which takes, as its title suggests, a pretty dim view of group dynamics. In his chapter on “the tulipomania,” Mackay presents a cautionary tale rife with tulip jobbers, tulip marts, tulip notaries, and tulip parties:
The demand for tulips of a rare species increased so much in the year 1636, that regular marts for their sale were established on the Stock Exchange of Amsterdam, in Rotterdam, Harlaem, Leyden, Alkmar, Hoorn, and other towns … The tulip-jobbers speculated in the rise and fall of the tulip stocks, and made large profits by buying when prices fell, and selling out when they rose. Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and one after the other, they rushed to the tulip-marts, like flies around a honey-pot … Nobles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, sea-men, footmen, maid-servants, even chimney-sweeps and old clothes-women, dabbled in tulips. People of all grades converted their property into cash, and invested it in flowers. Houses and lands were offered for sale at ruinously low prices, or assigned in payment of bargains made at the tulip-mart … In the smaller towns, where there was no exchange, the principal tavern was usually selected as the “show-place,” where high and low traded in tulips, and confirmed their bargains over sumptuous entertainments. These dinners were sometimes attended by two or three hundred persons, and large vases of tulips, in full bloom, were placed at regular intervals upon the tables and sideboards for their gratification during the repast. Read More »
December 30, 2013 | by Michael Lipkin
In honor of the new year, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!
In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”
These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.
Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning. Read More »