A brief history of Thanksgiving

I try to avoid indulging in too much theme posting because of the preponderance of cheap “reason for the season” articles that pepper the press around the big holidays, but the Encyclopedia Smithsonian (yes, the Smithsonian website has an encyclopedia section and it rules) has such a neat little article summarizing the history of Thanksgiving celebrations on the North American continent that I’m giving in to the pressure and making this a theme entry.

First interesting fun-fact: the first Thanksgiving European-colonies-style was in Canada, and it wasn’t even in autumn, never mind November.

The first Thanksgiving service known to be held by Europeans in North America occurred on May 27, 1578 in Newfoundland, although earlier Church-type services were probably held by Spaniards in La Florida.

Other religious services giving thanks for colonists surviving the crossing, plague or starvation happened in the first decade of the 1600s in British colonies along the eastern seaboard.

The Pilgrims, contrary to popular belief, actually held a secular thanksgiving celebration first, in keeping with their anti-holiday theology, in 1621. They spent 3 days partying without any kind of religious service whatsoever. It wasn’t until 2 years later that they combined theology and party.

In 1623, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, held another day of Thanksgiving. As a drought was destroying their crops, colonists prayed and fasted for relief; the rains came a few days later. And not long after, Captain Miles Standish arrived with staples and news that a Dutch supply ship was on its way. Because of all this good fortune, colonists held a day of Thanksgiving and prayer on June 30. This 1623 festival appears to have been the origin of our Thanksgiving Day because it combined a religious and social celebration.

After that there were a variety of local celebrations coinciding with the fall harvest until

[I]n 1789, Elias Boudinot, Massachusetts, member of the House of Representatives, moved that a day of Thanksgiving be held to thank God for giving the American people the opportunity to create a Constitution to preserve their hard won freedoms. A Congressional Joint Committee approved the motion, and informed President George Washington. On October 3, 1789, the President proclaimed that the people of the United States observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” on Thursday, the 26th of November.

So the first official Thanksgiving in the United States of America was to give thanks for the Constitution. I think that’s pretty cool. Also cool is that Jefferson alone among the next 3 Presidents refused to proclaim a day of thanksgiving and prayer because he thought it violated the establishment clause.

After Madison the practice fell out of fashion. Thanksgiving the official annual holiday as we know it today was the result of one lady working avidly for 30 years to get one put on the books, plus the Battle of Gettysburg.

Most of the credit for the establishment of an annual Thanksgiving holiday may be given to Sarah Josepha Hale. Editor of Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, she began to agitate for such a day in 1827 by printing articles in the magazines. She also published stories and recipes, and wrote scores of letters to governors, senators, and presidents. After 36 years of crusading, she won her battle. On October 3, 1863, buoyed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln proclaimed that November 26, would be a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

You can read the text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation here. (It’s very God and Civil War-heavy.)

And now, I’m off to mash some sweet potatoes. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Clicky for explanation of the card's history and symbolism
Clicky for explanation of the card's history and symbolism

George the Robot walks again after 45 years

Tony Sale walks with GeorgeAll it took was a little oil on his joints and a fresh pair of batteries. Durability and ease of repair is where rudimentary early technology spanks the fancy new stuff. (Also because it’s not connected to the network so when Skynet turns evil and the Cylons launch their attack, George will still be on our side. Walking. Very, very slowly.)

Royal Air Force officer Tony Sale built George in 1950 for £15 and scrap aluminium and duralumin he scavenged from a Wellington bomber that had crashed at RAF Debden air base where Sale taught student pilots how to use radar. The 6-foot robot is powered by two 12-volt motorcycle batteries in his legs. His eyes light up and he can walk, turn his head, move his arms, and sit down. He used to be able to zero in on a specially-designed illuminated beer bottle with light sensitive cells in his eyes, but alas that functionality is no longer.

George's gutsMr. Sale is a robotics pioneer, and has been from a very young age.

Mr Sale has always been interested in mechanics and built his first George the robot using Meccano when he was just 12 years old. The instructions for making the robot were in the Meccano manual and it could walk at a steady pace by shuffling its feet.

In 1945 Mr Sale made a second George the robot and three years later at the age of 17 he improved it by making it bigger and controlling it by radio. This new 3ft version was also made from Meccano, but was covered with a silver cardboard skin and was considered so impressive it appeared on television.

“That summer I decided to build a fourth George, which was 5ft high and had a moving jaw to simulate speech,” he said. “He caused lots of excitement and was featured in the newspapers.”

But it was the 5th George that really made a splash with his impressive 6-foot height, 30 foot-range radio control, uncanny resemblance to the Tin Woodman and, of course, that sweet beer trick. Pathé made a classic 50s newsreel about him and his (fictional) housekeeping skills and he got a great deal of attention from the press for a while.

Shortly thereafter George’s 15 minutes were up and since the technology necessary to give George even rudimentary artificial intelligence was either non-existent or unminiaturizable, Sale packed George away in a corner of his garage where he remained for 45 years. When a BBC television show called Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention contacted him to ask after George, Sale dusted him off, gave his bearings a fresh coating of oil, put two new lithium batteries in his legs and he booted right back up like old days.

Now that he’s alive (ALIVE!) again, he’ll be going on display at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, the war-time home of the famous Colossus computer that broke the Nazi Lorenz cipher. Sale helped found the museum, and he led the team which spent 10 years recreating the Colossus Mark 2 computer which now stands in the same exact place the original once stood, breaking German codes during the war.

Here’s some excellent footage of George, Tony and Colossus Mark 2 Mark 2 today:

You can see the full 1950 newsreel about George excerpted in the above video on British Pathé’s website.

Hungary to sell communist art for red sludge relief

Bronze of LeninThe Hungarian government will be putting some of its communist history on the auction block in aid of the victims of the red sludge flood that killed 10 people, all the fish in the Marcal river and contaminated and destroyed vast swaths of western Hungary. The incoming government found the 230 sculptures, photographs and paintings squirreled away in various state offices and warehouses where they had been stashed after the fall of the communist regime in 1990. The collection includes busts and portraits of Lenin, Hungarian Party functionaries, socialist-realist paintings.

Lenin portraits up for auctionThe items were found when Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s new conservative government took office in May. Orban was a founding member of the Fidesz (“Alliance of Young Democrats”) party and famously delivered a barn-burning speech on Budapest’s Heroes Square in 1989 demanding free elections and the removal of Soviet troops from the country.

Not surprisingly, his government is not big on preserving communist-era iconography. The Facebook page about the auction is called “Never Again!” and features an avatar of Lenin getting hit on the head with own symbolic hammer (but, alas, not getting decapitated with the sickle).

State Secretary Bence Retvari made that point explicit: “The state does not want to look after these communist relics anymore. We hope this will be the last time we see artifacts from the Communist system in public buildings.” That’s not quite accurate, unless they intend to cover up the monumental painting “The Workers’ State” by German Expressionist painter Aurel Bernath which was hidden from public view between 1990 and 2004 but is now on display again in a government building in Budapest.

"Shipyard" by Rozs JánosNot everyone is so disparaging of communist-era art, though. There’s an outdoor museum in Budapest’s Memento Park which exhibits many of the large format statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin et al. Before the sludge avalanche, the government was discussing transferring the works to that museum.

Gallery owner Peter Pinter said he hoped the most valuable objects would go to a single bidder so “they could then be donated to a museum or public collection for exhibit.”

The auction pieces include a large, framed photo of Matyas Rakosi, the ruler who led a Stalinist-type regime between 1945 and 1956.

All revenues from the auction will go to Catholic charity Caritas to help people in the flood-affected area rebuild their lives.

Roman village found on west London Ducal estate

Roman village excavated in Syon ParkMuseum of London archaeologists excavating the site of the future Waldorf Astoria hotel on the outskirts of the historic Syon Park Estate in west London have discovered a Roman settlement complete with road, burials and over 11,000 individual artifacts. This astonishing wealth of antiquity was found just a foot and a half (half a meter) under the surface 2 years ago, but is only being announced now.

Part of a Late Bronze Age gold penannular ribbon braceletMost of the artifacts found are fragments of pottery, but archaeologists also found 100 coins, a mean-looking cleaver, Roman jewelry like shale bangles and even parts of a late Bronze Age (1000-700 BC) gold bracelet. The skeletons are buried in an unusual way — in shore ditches with no grave goods — and since there are no specific cultural or date markers, they’re a bit of a mystery right now. They may predate the Romans.

Jo Lyon, a senior archaeologist at the [Museum of London], said: “We were extremely fortunate to discover such a comprehensive repertoire of Roman finds and features so close to the surface. They tell us a great deal about how the people of this village lived, worked and died.

“The archaeology at Syon Park has given us a valuable, rare insight into the daily life of an agricultural village on the outskirts of Londinium (London) that would have supplied the Roman city and provided shelter for travellers passing through. It helps us build a picture of the Roman landscape and shows how the busy metropolis of Londinium connected with the rest of Roman Britain.”

A Roman skeleton buried in a field ditch at Syon ParkLondinium was founded by the Romans around 49 A.D., 7 years or so after the 43 A.D. invasion of Britain. They built roads in and out and settlements radiated outwards around the roads. The Syon Park village was between the road and the Thames, a highly convenient location both for travel and for agriculture. Most Roman settlements were continuously built over. This one remained intact just under the surface despite its suburban London location thanks to its being preserved as parkland in the Syon estate.

Local legend has it that the area where they were found is just a few hundred yards away from where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames and defeated an alliance of British tribes under chieftain Cassivellaunus in 54 B.C.

The Duke of Northumberland, whose family has held residence at Syon Park for more than 400 years, said: “Syon Park has a rich and remarkable history. The Roman findings are an incredible addition to this legacy and emphasise Syon Park’s place as a prominent landmark in ancient British history.”

The Waldorf Astoria is scheduled to open early next year. Some of the artifacts will go on display in the luxury hotel.


First Batman comic sells for $500,000

Detective Comics #27, sold for $492,937Robert Irwin bought a copy of Detective Comics #27 at a Sacramento newsstand in 1939 for a dime. He was 13 and an avid reader of comics. This one issue was the only one he kept past childhood. Thursday he sold it at auction for $492,937.

Detective Comics #27 features the first appearance of “The Batman.” Although 250,000 copies of the comic were printed in 1939, only 150 are known to be extant today, hence the big price tag. Mr. Irwin kept his in excellent condition over the years, but even so it’s still not the top of the market for this particular issue. Earlier this year, Heritage Auction sold a near-mint copy for $1.75 million.

In fact, it was that sale that inspired Robert Irwin to finally sell his copy. He had rediscovered it 6 years earlier and he knew he had something special when a collector offered him $100,000 for it. He turned down the offer and held on to it for another 5 years.

As impressive as the sale price is, that’s not the part that gives experts the biggest thrill. It’s the backstory, the fact that the boy who bought it when it was new in 1939 is the man who sold it in 2010.

Although he has seen comic books sell for more than a million dollars, Jaster considers this auction a once-in-a-lifetime kind of sale at the auction house.

“I’ve been here for nine years and been part of a lot of major auctions, but this one was unique,” said [Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage]. “To come across an item that someone bought for 10 cents and have it sell for almost a half million dollars — that’s special.”

Robert Irwin with his copy of DC #27When asked why he kept only this one comic out of the hundreds he and his brother bought when they were kids, Irwin said: “I don’t know. I must have just liked the cover.” The cover was designed by the great Bob Kane himself, so that’s as good a reason as any.

Once the auction house gets its cut, Irwin should clear about $400,000. He’ll celebrate with his wife and son over dinner in Dallas, then he’s going back to Sacramento to pay off his mortgage.