Smoking, women’s rights and a really great fake bar

February 3rd, 2014

"Why not go the limit?" by Harry Grant Dart, March 18th, 1908 issue of Puck

Last year, a cartoon by illustrator Harry Grant Dart that appeared in the centerfold of the March 18th, 1908 issue of the political satire magazine Puck went viral. It’s a scene set in a fictional New York bar called Cleopatra’s Cafe, Mrs. P.J. Gilligan proprietrix, which is populated entirely by women. Captioned “Why Not Go the Limit?,” it’s meant to be a gasp-worthy image of a hellish future in which widows play cards over the police blotter, mothers neglect their children and women assiduously follow news transmitted over a ticker that is not a stock ticker, by the way, but a sporting ticker reporting the results of horse races and boxing matches on which these degenerates have doubtless placed bets. It strikes a different note to many a modern viewer, however. Its charming cocktails (I’ll have a Hot Maud and Eliza, thank you), fashionably dressed, liberated Edwardian ladies and its free lunch banquet of almonds and fudge make it look like a pretty great place to hang out.

Most of the explanations of this image I’ve read see it as an anti-suffrage piece, a vision of what could happen should the movement advocating for votes for women succeed. See this piece by The Appendix, for instance, which describes Dart’s illustration as “a parodic, misogynistic one that imagined a world where women could vote and, consequently, had taken the traditional place of men as drinking, smoking, gambling barflies.” The fact that every single woman in the scene is smoking is mentioned only as a personal quirk of Dart’s, a particular appalled fascination he harbored for women using tobacco products.

That’s actually the reverse of what is really going on at Cleopatra’s Cafe. The bar’s entire raison d’etre is the smoking. It has nothing to do with suffrage. The subheading under the caption is “For the benefit of those ladies who ask the right to smoke in public.” That isn’t code for a wider campaign of women’s rights, like women demanding the right to smoke in public along with the right to vote. The suffrage movement had no interest in addressing the question of women smoking because it wasn’t a political issue but rather a debate over social mores and bore no relevance to the struggle for voting rights.

Caricature of sexually aggressive smoking woman hitting on a feminized man, 1890s GermanySuffragettes were, in the main, society ladies — educated, moneyed, and importantly to them, respectable. The taboo against women smoking in public in turn of the century America associated the act with women of ill-repute (actresses, prostitutes, etc.), the kind of women who were distinctly not ladies or anyone a lady would wish to be around. Smoking telegraphed sexual availability, with co-ed smoking often described as “promiscuous.” In the mouth of a woman, it seemed, a cigar was not just a cigar.

This was not the case in Europe, where women smoking were a common sight by 1906 when New York Times correspondent Elizabeth Biddle reported from London how English ladies, even very proper young ladies who would never dream of going to a restaurant with a man without an appropriate female chaperone, felt entirely free to light one up in front of everyone. When Biddle’s visitor from the US saw two “thoroughly respectable looking” women wearing no make-up and dowdy clothes (in contrast to slatternly actresses and other morally questionable women easily identifiable by their caked on slap and vulgar, showy dresses) smoke in a restaurant, he begged her forgiveness for mistaking the restaurant for a reputable establishment and hustled her out the door.

The taboo was still strong in the United States, but the end was nigh. What the cartoon is lampooning is a brouhaha that exploded in New York at the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908 regarding the erosion of that taboo. It all started on December 29th when Jean (called James in English) Martin, owner of the luxury French restaurant Café Martin at 26th Street and Fifth Avenue, announced that ladies would be allowed to smoke anywhere in the restaurant on New Year’s Eve.

Café Martin 1908“On New Year’s Eve all ladies who come to the Café Martin may smoke if they so desire. After this one night I may or I may not withdraw this privilege. Smoking by ladies is never objectionable. The smartest women in New York smoke, so why should puritanical proprietors rule against this mode of procedure any more than against the drinking of cocktails or highballs.

“For a time our head waiters have been blind. They have not seen women smoking. But why not be honest? One thing I want to emphasize. I mean by this announcement that ladies may smoke. Some women who smoke are quite as offensive to the eye as when they drink. A lady smoking a cigarette is not so objectionable as another kind of woman drinking a cup of tea.”

See that class mechanism at work trying to extricate the act of smoking from its association with women, not ladies, of the demimonde? Other restaurants like Rector’s quickly followed suit, and the shocking development made news all over the country. When New Year’s Eve came, reporters were on the ground to follow up on the pressing matter of which women were smoking and how much.

If all the women in the Café Martin had taken advantage of the proprietor’s permission to smoke if they wanted to on NYE, every one of the guests would have gone into 1908 in a haze so thick it could have been cut.

But the women, or a large majority of them, did not smoke. They seemed to have all sorts of a good time, but very few of them will have a chance to swear off the weed to-day. [...]

There were perhaps a dozen women smoking the café at one time, a little before 12 o’clock. They did it modestly, for the most part, and it was very evident that many were beginners, taking advantage of the edict just for the fun of it.

Others appeared to be used to cigarettes and to enjoy them thoroughly. The smoking, however, was only a small part of the fun, for there was plenty to eat and to drink, songs to be sung, and jokes to be played, and every one was a good fellow, worth wishing a Happy New Year to.

First New Year's Eve ball waits to drop in Times Square, New Year's Eve 1907So a few women (ladies?) smoked, the first ball dropped in Times Square and a good time was had by all. No biggie, right? Wrong. The backlash was swift and merciless. Within a week, a city ordinance was proposed prohibiting women from smoking in public places, public places in this case meaning establishments like restaurants, hotels, theaters, dance halls and what have you, not streets or parks. On January 21st, 1908, the New York City Board of Aldermen unanimously passed it. The Sullivan Ordinance, named after Tammany boss and the One Alderman to Rule Them All “Little Tim” Sullivan, enjoined all operators of such hostelries from allowing women to smoke on their premises. Violators would be sentenced to pay a fine of $5-$25 dollars and/or to serve up to 10 days in jail.

It is a mystery never fully explained why Little Tim, who himself owned several establishments of less than stellar repute in his homebase of the Bowery and whose cousin and partner in bossdom Big Tim Sullivan adulterously impregnated at least six actresses from his dance halls before dying of syphilis five years after the ordinance passed, suddenly found his monocle a’poppin’ over the very thought of ladies smoking in public. One possible explanation is that Little Tim saw it as a populist measure, a means to ensure fine uptown ladies didn’t get to smoke without opprobrium just like the not-so-fine downtown ladies in his purview didn’t get to.

Or perhaps his reasoning was more petty than that. Alderman Brown, who abstained from the voting, made sure the Times knew that he did “not believe the report that a certain well-known politician went to a restaurant some weeks ago, asked to have a table reserved, was told that all the tables were taken, and thereupon asked: ‘Do you know who I am?’ and on giving his name was told that it didn’t make any difference who he was, he could not have a table.” He absolutely did not believe that story one whit, and certainly not that said politician “told the proprietor of the restaurant that he would ‘hear from him’ or that this ordinance is the answer.”

Whatever the reason, the restaurants got the message. The Café Martin posted a sign on the front door informing women that they would not be allowed to smoke in the restaurant. The previous policy of willful blindness went back into effect, with waiters looking the other way when respectable ladies accompanied by men had a little puff of their husbands’ cigarettes behind their fans.

The response to the ordinance was not entirely positive. The women at the Gotham Club’s 1908 musicale protested vociferously against the practice of women smoking in public, but the men didn’t seem to be very riled up about it, and one of the women in secret admitted to a Times reporter that she actually did smoke but it wouldn’t do to approve of it publicly. A letter to the editor of the New York Times from an indignant woman called out Sullivan for his grandstanding and hypocrisy.

The anti-smoking law just passed affects a comparatively few women, but the principle underlying it is humiliating to every self-respecting woman, and is an insult to all.

Here we have a Bowery politician in his native atmosphere, the Bowery saloon and all it represents, vice in all forms unveiled, originating arbitrary laws for one-half of New York’s citizens, as if they were slaves or incompetents, without for one moment thinking it necessary to consult their wishes or opinions on the matter, just as if these citizens were not for the most part better educated, more moral, more law-abiding, and more self-respecting that the said Mr. Sullivan.

"Horatius at the Bridge" November 1st, 1905, issue of PuckIceburn! Such a monster iceburn. Because seriously, both Tim Sullivans were just drenched in corruption. So much so, in fact, that our old friend Puck magazine, which was of conservative Democratic leanings and was profoundly anti-Irish and anti-Tammany, in a 1905 centerfold placed them among the invading Tammany Hall politicans in the role of Lars Porsena’s army while a heroic William T. Jerome, District Attorney for the State of New York, stands alone as a valiant Horatius defending the bridge to “Honest Government.” (See Livy’s History of Rome, Book II, Chapter X for the story of Horatius’ solo defense of the Sublician Bridge in the face of Etruscan invaders.)

Even the Times, generally not in favor of women smoking on its editorial page, thought it was as ridiculous as when Peter Stuyvesant tried to force women to wear only “broad flounces” (apparently a type of petticoat ruffle in this context, although broad flounces were part of women’s dresses as well) and only dance “shuffle and turn” steps. The prohibition alone, went the logic, could be sufficient to cause women to rebel and smoke like chimneys where previously they had not.

Then there was an arrest. On January 23rd, 1908, at 1:20 AM, one Katie Mulcahey was witnessed by a beat cop striking a match against a house on Bowery and Division Street and lighting a cigarette. She was taken to night court where she refused to give her address and told the judge she’d never heard of the law and wouldn’t care if she had. She was fined $5 which she did not have and so was taken to jail.

This absurdity was a function of all the chatter about the ordinance, because it didn’t actually follow the law which did not prohibit smoking on the street and held the owners of establishments culpable for women smoking, not the women themselves. The misapplied and misbegotten ordinance didn’t have long to live anyway. On February 2nd, while Little Tim Sullivan was in Hot Springs, Virginia, trying to treat the kidney disease that would kill him in a year, Mayor of New York George B. McClellan, Jr., son of the Civil War general of the same name, vetoed the ordinance as illegal.

A month later, Puck grumpily published Harry Grant Dart’s vision of a bar full of ladies smoking, gambling and eating fudge. This is what it’ll come to, is the message, if you allow these ladies to indulge publicly in the vice of tobacco. They would soon get a chance to find out. Within a few years, establishments allowing women to smoke were the norm. In 1911, Andre Bustanoby, co-owner with his brother Jacques of the elegant Café des Beaux Arts, put it succinctly:

“We think our clientele know better than we do what is proper and what is not. They are adults. They have traveled all over the world. We give all liberty to those coming here and none of them has ever taken advantage of us. They have as much common sense as we have. We do not see we have any right to ask one of our friends to stop smoking if she thinks she ought to smoke. A law against smoking in public by women would be a foolish law.”

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Erotic tiles from London pub on display for the first time

February 2nd, 2014

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London’s most iconic and oldest pubs, has had a couple of run-ins with fire. The original pub at 145 Fleet Street was built in 1538. It burned down during the Great London Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt in 1667. That same 1667 reconstruction still stands but it was put to heated test in 1962 when fire broke out on the upper storey. Thankfully the damage was not catastrophic. In fact, in one way at least, it was a boon. A set of old tiles was discovered in the debris with explicit depictions of impressively varied sexual encounters.

Because they were too awesome to be seen by the general public, the tiles were hustled away to the Museum of London for study, not display. Experts found they were plaster of Paris relief tiles with sooting on the back that suggests they were used as fireplace surrounds. There was also scorching on the front of some from unintentional fires like the one that exposed them. Some were in good condition with just a few scratches; some were missing significant portions of the scene with only a disembodied foot on a pillow remaining; some were broken into several pieces. From the dress of the figures, particularly their blunt-toed shoes, curators determined the tiles were made after 1740.

Among the more notable scenes depicted are one of a woman whipping a man’s naked buttocks with a bundle of twigs while another woman kneels in front of him, one of a woman in a basket on a rope, lowering herself onto a man on his back underneath her, one of a woman bent over holding a pillow while a man penetrates her from behind, one of a woman straddling a man seated on a chair. In the ribald 18th century, these kinds of materials were relatively common, if you had the money to acquire them. Moulded plaster reliefs were not expensive to produce, but the erotic subject matter would have jacked up (snicker) the price considerably. Very few of these erotic artifacts from this time have survived.

It’s not clear why the pub was so spicily decorated upstairs. One possibility is that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese had a little side business as a brothel going on. They could also have adorned a gentleman’s club room. The 18th century saw a proliferation of libertine private societies like The Hellfire Club which met to celebrate wine, women and song.

The collection was put in storage at the museum and hasn’t seen the light of say since. There aren’t even images on their entries in the online ceramics catalog, unlike with the thousands of other far less interesting tiles. Small pictures of one complete tile (a fairly staid one) and a few inscrutable fragments are available as prints for sale (the first eight results here), and that’s it.

That will change come Valentine’s Day, when the complete set will be put on public display for the first time at an evening exhibition for adults only alluringly titled Late London: City of Seduction. It’s a one night only event, and, in my nerdy opinion, a far more productive couples activity than boring old dinner reservations. Chocolate at Hampton Court Palace during the day, then absinthe tasting and sex tile viewings at night. Now that’s how you show a date a good time.

Having said that, I think it’s lame in this day and age that the tiles aren’t on regular display. I thought we were past needing secret rooms in museums for ancient Roman phalluses and erotic art to be hidden away where only men of wealth and hilariously theoretical good character were allowed to see them. Surely we’re past hiding them in storage all together and only allowing the public to enjoy them when there’s a nice Valentine’s Day profit to be made in ticket sales.

Museum of London curator Jackie Keily says in this article that “for obvious reasons these tiles are not normally out on public display.” Why is it obvious? If you’re concerned about children being exposed to sexually graphic historical material (I personally am not, but I get that it raises issues for some), you can keep the artifacts in an adults-only space. Otherwise, what’s the big deal? I say let the Georgian freak flag fly.

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Hampton Court chocolate kitchen to reopen after 300 years

February 1st, 2014

On Valentine’s Day, Hampton Court Palace will open its royal Chocolate Kitchen to the public for the first time. The chocolate kitchen was active in the 18th century under three Georgian kings, William III, George I and George II, all of whom were big chocolate fans. Chocolate played a particularly dramatic role in the life and Elvis-like death of George II. Chocolate was George II’s last meal. He had a cup of hot chocolate for breakfast at 6:00 AM on October 25th, 1760, then took to his convenience (ie, his pooping chair). His valet heard a crash and ran in to find the king unconscious on the floor. The king died shortly thereafter of an aortic aneurysm.

Chocolate had been popular in England since the 17th century when it became widespread in beverage form. George I’s personal chocolatier, Thomas Tosier, was particularly famous as was his wife Grace who capitalized on her husband’s connections and ran a successful chocolate house in Greenwich. Tosier’s domain was two rooms in the vast kitchens of Hampton Court: the Chocolate Kitchen and the Chocolate Room. The former was where the chocolate confections were made. It’s a small space compared to the giant multi-spit fireplaces of the Tudor kitchens, but it has a stove, a modest fireplace, counter and shelves. The Chocolate Room was for storage. Cocoa beans, a vast array of spices, sugar, other ingredients used in chocolate production (oil of Jamaican pepper, oil of aniseed, oil of cinnamon, cardamom, Guinea pepper, musk, ambergris, and civet musk were all included in a recipe King Charles II gave to the Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1600s) were kept in the room, along with silver, gold and porcelain vessels and cups for service.

The precise location of the Chocolate Kitchen was lost in the mists of time after George III, who hated Hampton Court and refused to stay there, and subsequent monarchs abandoned the palace to benign neglect. Researchers have recently rediscovered the spaces in the palace’s Fountain Court. Both rooms had been used as a storage and were crammed with assorted clutter. That turned out to be a boon for historic preservation. The kitchen was found virtually intact, complete with its original stove, furniture and equipment. It is the only surviving royal chocolate kitchen in the United Kingdom.

On December 13th, 2013, Hampton Court Palace launched a fund raiser to conserve the Chocolate Kitchen and deck out the Chocolate Room with the rarified ingredients and rich accouterments that graced it in its Georgian heyday. It was brief but successful and the Chocolate Kitchen will reopen on February 14th, one of a number of special exhibitions and events in 2014 commemorating the 300th anniversary of the accession of the Hanoverian Dynasty to the British throne.

The new display will explore the story of the royal responsibility of making chocolate for the King. The former Chocolate Room, which once housed dining luxuries, will be dressed with ceramics, copper cooking equipment, bespoke chocolate serving silverware, glassware and linens of the time. Elegant and refined Georgian table dressing and decorating will also be explored in the display, and in the private rooms Queen Caroline herself once dined in. [...]

Polly Putnam, curator, Hampton Court Palace, said: “This is a ‘below stairs’ story like no other. Chocolate was an expensive luxury. Having your own chocolate maker, chocolate kitchen and chocolate room filled with precious porcelain and silver – all this, just for chocolate – was the last word in elegance and decadence. It was really something that only kings and queens could afford, and is a real contrast with all the pies and meat we associate with the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton court.”

Visitors to Hampton Court Palace will be able to watch experts make chocolate the way it was done in the Georgian era. Live demonstrations will take place regularly over the year and the entire process, from production to service in the private rooms in which Queen Caroline, wife of King George II and a big chocolate fan, indulged her taste for the sweet cocoa beverage.

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Charlemagne’s bones found in his coffin

January 31st, 2014

That may seem obvious, but given how often he was exhumed and reburied and parts of him given away as relics, it’s actually quite notable that the collection of bones in the Karlsschrein, the Shrine of Charlemagne, and other reliquaries in the Aachen Cathedral all appear to come from the same person who matches contemporary descriptions of the Frankish king.

Charlemagne died almost exactly 1200 years ago, on January 28th, 814, and was buried in the choir of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen Cathedral. (See Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written 15-20 years after his death for a description.) In 1000, Otto III, keen to present himself as the successor of the great man, had the burial vault opened. According to German chronicler and bishop Thietmar of Merseburg who was a contemporary of Otto’s, when the vault was opened they found Charlemagne’s uncorrupt body seated upon a marble throne wearing a crown with a scepter in his hand and the gospels open in his lap. Otto reportedly Helped himself to some of the relics and brought them to Rome.

Frederick I Barbarossa was the next to disinter Charlemagne. In 1165, he had the remains exhumed and displayed as holy relics at the Aachen Court festival. Again this was a means for Frederick to establish a connection with the revered leader and to position Aachen as a center of pilgrimage like St. Denis or Westminster. To curry favor with Frederick, Antipope Paschal III canonized Charlemagne that same year, although this, like all of Paschal’s acts, was never recognized by the Vatican. Barbarossa had Charlemagne’s remains reburied, this time in an elaborate third century A.D. Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the Rape of Persephone, which may seem incongruous as a topic for Christian burial, but like many ancient myths was re-interpreted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

He didn’t stay there for long. In 1215, Frederick II had Charlemagne exhumed yet again. He commissioned local goldsmiths to make a rich gold casket to hold the bones. That’s the Karlsschrein originally in the placed in the center of the Palatine Chapel underneath a chandelier donated by Frederick Barbarossa in 1168.

Nearly 200 years passed before the next king inserted himself into Charlemagne’s eternal rest. In 1349, some of his bones were removed to individual reliquaries by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He had a gold reliquary made to contain a thigh bone, and the Bust of Charlemagne to contain the skullcap. Louis XI of France contributed to the trend in 1481 by commissioning the Arm Reliquary, a golden arm that contains the ulna and radius from Charlemagne’s right arm.

It was scientists who took over from the emperors and kings. In 1861, Charlemagne’s remains were exhumed again so they could be studied. His skeleton was reconstructed and a very generous estimate (1.92 meters, or 6’4″) made of his height. In 1988, scientists exhumed his remains one more time, this time in secret. This study covered the bones in the reliquaries as well, a total of 94 bones and bone fragments, and they spent years meticulously examining and testing the collection. On Wednesday, January 28th, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, the results of the research were announced.

One of the scientists studying the remains, Professor Frank Rühli, said: “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne.”

From studying the dimensions of the upper arm, thigh and shin bones, scientists have built up a picture of the man behind the skeleton, and it matches descriptions of Charlemagne.

At 1.84 metres (six feet), he was unusually tall for his time. The team also estimated his weight at around 78 kilograms, giving him a slim body mass index of around 23.

The average height for an adult male in the 9th century was 1.69 meters or 5’6″, which put Charlemagne in the 99th percentile. Einhard’s description of him fits the results of the study even in some of the smaller details, like the limp that struck him in his later years. Researchers found that the kneecap and heel bone had deposits consistent with an injury.

From Chapter 22 of the Life of Charlemagne:

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot.

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Babe Ruth’s lost 1923 World Series watch for sale

January 30th, 2014

The first World Series Championship rings were given to the New York Giants in 1922 after they defeated the New York Yankees, who were actually their tenants at that time, paying extortionate rent to use the Giants’ Polo Grounds as their home field. The next year’s World Series would be a rematch with a very different outcome. For one thing, the Yankees weren’t their opponents’ tenants anymore. Yankee Stadium opened to a record crowd of 74,000 on April 19th, 1923, and when the New York teams went to the World Series, Babe Ruth inaugurated their new home with a home run in game one. He hit two more home runs in the remaining games of the series and finished the season with a phenomenal .368 batting average, the highest of his career and still to this day the highest batting average in Yankees history. The Yankees won in six, their first World Series win.

The Yankees received a pocket watch for their victory in the 1923 World Series, then a common gift. The Yankees would continue to receive watches until 1927 after which they switched to rings too, and in the next decade all the other teams followed suit. Now rings are de rigeur and watches are artifacts that only rarely appear on the market. It’s a 14 karat gold Gruen Verithin watch made in Cincinnati. It has an unusual pentagonal shape and is engraved on the back with a scene of a pitcher throwing a ball at a hitter while a catcher crouches behind him. Above them writ large is “YANKEES” and below the field is “World’s Champions 1923.”

Babe Ruth’s 1923 World Series watch was one of his most prized possessions, representing the dawn of Yankee dominance, his personal best batting average and the opening of the stadium that would become known as The House That Ruth Built. In 1946, Ruth was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his skull and in his neck. His doctors tried everything — experimental drugs, radiation — but despite a brief remission in 1947, the Babe’s health rapidly deterioration. During this time, his friend Charles Schwefel, manager of the Gramercy Park Hotel whose bar Ruth had been a regular at since the 1930s, was constantly by his side as the cancer took its inexorable toll in 1947 and 1948.

His doctors and family hid his cancer from Ruth, but he could see the writing on the wall. Sometime in those last two years of his life, Ruth asked Schwefel if he’d like to have anything from his collection as a memento. Schwefel asked for the 1923 watch. Ruth had his name engraved on the upper edge of the back of the watch, added a line to the engraving on the inside rear case “To My Pal Charles Schwefel,” and gave his pal the watch.

Schwefel only kept it for two years after which his wife gave it to Charles’ nephew Lewis Fern saying that it should have been his all along. Fern had caddied for Ruth for years, including on May 6th, 1937, when they saw the Hindenburg pass overhead on the way to its tragic fate while they were playing at St. Alban’s Golf Club in Queens. Lewis Fern kept the watch for almost four decades. In 1988, he sold it to an anonymous private collector (sigh) for $200,000. Said collector apparently has one of the greatest sports memorabilia collections in the world, but he keeps it hidden and unpublished. Once the watch was sold to him, it disappeared off the face of the earth and was considered lost.

Now it emerges again, for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Sports Platinum Night Auction in Manhattan on February 22nd. Online bidding has already begun with the current bid at $240,000. The pre-sale estimate is $750,000+, but for such an important artifact from baseball’s most legendary player and most dominant franchise, the sky is the limit.

“As the Babe’s personal award for the first World Championship in New York Yankees franchise history, I believe that this is the most important piece of New York Yankees memorabilia that exists,” said Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Collectibles at Heritage Auctions. “This championship watch, which was thought lost to time, will now take its rightful place as one of the crown jewels of sports memorabilia. Based on prices realized for similar historic championship hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it far exceed our preliminary auction estimate.”

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One of the oldest temples in Rome unearthed

January 29th, 2014

A team of archaeologists excavating the site of Sant’Omobono in the historic center of Rome have unearthed the foundations of one of the oldest temples in Rome. In the shadow of the 15th century church of Sant’Omobono just east of the Tiberine Island, archaeologists and students from the University of Michigan, the University of Calabria, the Museum of London Archaeology and the City of Rome dug a trench 15 feet deep to reveal the remains of an archaic temple from the 6th century B.C. when Rome was still ruled by Etruscan kings. Along with the remains of the first temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, also built under the reign of the kings in the 6th century B.C. and destroyed in 83 B.C. during Sulla’s second civil war, these are the oldest temple ruins found in Rome.

Because the depth of the trench was seven and a half feet below the water table, the walls had to be shored up with metal sheeting and multiple sump pumps to allow the team to dig through the ancient layers. That’s why Alison Telfer, the Museum of London Archaeology expert, joined the team this season, because of her expertise in excavating waterlogged environments thanks to years of digging in soggy London.

After weeks of excavation, the team found three levels of masonry and a step. The stonework is exceptional, dry wall construction of precision-cut volcanic tufa blocks that are still beautifully flush even after millennia.

Terrenato says the archaeologists had to fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as 8 hours a day at the bottom of that trench.

“You’re in a very deep hole, and although you know in theory that the sheeting is going to hold everything up, there is a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of there, if the walls come closing in there’s not going to be any way out for you,” he says.

The foundations of the temple of Fortuna were visible for only three days — for security reasons, the team could not leave the trench open and it had to be filled up again.

To the west of the temple remains was discovered a large bank of clay that is so straight is can’t have been formed by human hands. Archaeologists believe it may have been built up against a vertical structure that is now gone, perhaps a wooden form that was removed or wall that has long since decayed. It could have been a river wall to protect the temple from flooding or perhaps used during the construction of the temple. About halfway down the clay bank, the team unearthed a group of vessels that are thought to have been votive offerings, sacrifices to the gods that were placed on the site when the bank was being built.

The area in which the temple remains were discovered was known as the Forum Boarium, meaning “cattle market,” a center of trade on a bend in the river that was both a natural harbour and a crossing point of the Tiber. When the temple was built, Rome was already trading with the likes of Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt as well as Italian peoples including the Latins, Etruscans and Sabines. The temple was deliberately built on the harbour so that it would welcome visitors and merchants, standing as a symbol of good will and fair trade guaranteed by the deity.

Archaeologists believe the temple was dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. It was dismantled in the early Republican period, around the 5th century B.C., and replaced with twin temples dedicated to Fortuna and Mater Matuta, a Latin mother goddess whose temples have been found on other ports. The temples were added to and rebuilt over the centuries through at least the second century A.D. In the sixth century an early Christian church was built on the site. The podium of the twin temples, made out of tufa slabs, still survives. It is now part of the foundation of the church of Sant’Omobono.

And that’s not all this archaeological site has to offer. Since it was first discovered during the burst of Fascist construction in the city center in the 1930s, the Sant’Omobono area has revealed evidence from 17 different phases of human occupation, from pottery sherds that date to between the 16th and the 12th centuries B.C., some of the earliest artifacts ever found indicating human habitation of the spot that would become Rome, to the remains of wattle and daub structures from the seventh century B.C.

To read Alison Telfer’s short and ever so sweet weekly reports on the dig, see the Museum of London Archaeology website. Keep an eye on the Sant’Omobono Project’s publications page for upcoming papers on the newly discovered temple and other finds from the season.

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Two new Sappho poems discovered

January 28th, 2014

Although the 7th century B.C. Greek lyric poet Sappho of Lesbos was one of the most revered poets of antiquity and highly prolific, by the Middle Ages most of her works were lost. Only one complete poem and parts of four others have survived, including three fragments among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Now two new poems have been found on a 3rd century A.D. papyrus in private hands.

The anonymous owner brought the papyrus to Oxford University classicist and papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink who recognized its enormous significance. The condition is exceptional. Harvard classics professor Albert Henrichs calls it the best preserved Sappho papyrus known to survive. The two poems are 20 and nine lines each, with a total of 22 lines preserved in their entire length. The last seven lines are missing three to six letters from the beginning and end of verses and there are only traces of the last line remaining.

The subject matter is even more exciting than the condition.

One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

“There will be endless discussion about Charaxos and Larichos, who may or may not be Sappho’s brothers,” Prof. Henrichs commented. One important point in that debate will be the Brothers poem’s clear implication that Charaxos was a sea-going trader. The historian Herodotus, writing about two centuries after Sappho, also describes Charaxos as a wayfarer—a man who traveled to Egypt, where he spent a fortune to buy the freedom of Rhodopis, a beautiful slave he had fallen in love with. Upon his return home, Herodotus relates, Sappho brutally mocked her brother’s lovestruck folly in one of her poems.

The Brothers poem contains no such mockery, but rather depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker — perhaps Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear — advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favorites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, presumably Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

The second poem is an appeal to the goddess Aphrodite, possibly a prayer for aid in securing the affections of a new lover.

The source of the papyrus is not known. It’s most likely to have come from Egypt where the dry climate preserves papyrus like the Oxyrhynchus fragments.

Dr. Obbink has published a paper about the discovery which is available online here (pdf). It includes a transcription (not a translation) of the text, so those of you who can read Aeolic Greek can read the full poems.

UPDATE: The Telegraph has a translation of the Brothers Poem!

Still, you keep on twittering that Charaxos
comes, his boat full. That kind of thing I reckon
Zeus and his fellow gods know; and you mustn’t
make the assumption;
rather, command me, let me be an envoy
praying intensely to the throne of Hera
who could lead him, he and his boat arriving
here, my Charaxos,
finding me safely; let us then divert all
other concerns on to the lesser spirits;
after all, after hurricanes the clear skies
rapidly follow;
and the ones whose fate the Olympian ruler
wants to transform from troubles into better –
they are much blessed, they go about rejoicing
in their good fortune.
As for me, if Larichos reaches manhood,
[if he could manage to be rich and leisured,]
he would give me, so heavy-hearted, such a
swift liberation.

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Rare Edward VI shilling found in Canada

January 27th, 2014

Retired security system specialist Bruce Campbell (no relation to Ash from Evil Dead) was looking for Victorian-era coins and artifacts along the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13th, 2013, when he found a coin buried three or four inches deep in the mud flats at low tide. It was so caked in the area’s characteristic blue clay that he couldn’t identify it. He posted pictures of his finds — an 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s a silver dime, an early Canadian penny and the mystery coin — on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting forum where he is a moderator. It was the clay-caked coin that aroused the most interest of the forum denizens, some of whom recognized it as a rare silver shilling from the brief reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I.

The coin is one millimeter thick and 33 millimeters in diameter and was minted at the Tower of London between 1551 and 1553. On the obverse is a bust of the young king crowned facing left. It is inscribed EDWARD VI D G AGL FRA Z HIB REX (Edward VI by the Grace of God King of England, France and Ireland). On the reverse is a shield bearing the royal coat of arms over a long cross fourchee, a heraldic term for a cross where the end of each arm is forked. The inscription reads POSUI DEU ADIUTORE MEUM (I have made God my helper).

This is a significant coin for many reasons. It was one of the earliest shillings — the 12 pence coin was called the Testoon when it was first minted — and it’s the first one that was made of sterling silver instead of base. Edward VI restored the silver standard in 1551, increasing the silver content from a paltry 0.250 (meaning 25% silver by mass) to 0.925. The sterling silver shilling was popular and widely circulated, but that popularity means surviving coins tend to be heavily worn, trimmed or damaged.

The one Bruce Campbell found is in quite good condition. The dense blue clay of the Gorge is a low oxygen environment which makes it an excellent preserver of 500-year-old coins. Campbell attempted to remove the mud crust by cleaning the coin first in olive oil. When that didn’t work, he soaked it in lemon juice for two days and then wrapped it in aluminium foil for a half hour. The crust came off, revealing the details of the design. Obligatory disclaimer: although the results in this case appear to be okay, don’t clean things! Let the experts handle it. You could so easily damage the artifact, ruin its market value and historic patina. Also, you never know what’s in the stuff that looks like dirt.

The coin’s condition and discovery spot has led some to speculate that it might have made its way to Victoria via Sir Francis Drake who may or may not have visited Victoria on a secret mission in 1579. The main evidence of this mission appears to be two other English coins from the 16th century found elsewhere in British Columbia, which is not exactly solid ground considering that coins can travel at any time after they’re minted.

It doesn’t need a Drake association to be awesome. It’s the oldest coin found on the west coast of Canada and it’s an important coin in English history. Now it has drawn the attention of the Royal B.C. Museum. Curator Grant Keddie has made contact with Mr. Campbell and plans to examine the shilling. He’s interested in the Drake theory and will test the material to attempt to discover how long the coin has been in Victoria. Keddie would like other metal detector enthusiasts and mudlarks “to take another look at things they may have found here that are not identified — such as ceramics or glassware — that might date to the same time period as the coin.”

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Saucy Fragonard pair together again after 25 years

January 26th, 2014

Two paintings by French rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard will be on display together for the first time in 25 years in an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw were created as a matched pair when Fragonard was still a student in the atelier of François Boucher. Like almost all of his works, the two paintings are not dated. We know they were done after he began to study under Boucher in 1750 and before 1752 when the young Fragonard won the prestigious Prix de Rome. He was just 18-20 years old, therefore, when he painted these works that already display the characteristic playfulness and thinly veiled eroticism that would make him famous.

The paintings are thought to have been commissioned by Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien, a writer, amateur artist and avid collector. It is certain that the pair were in his collection when it was sold in 1784 after the Baron’s death. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw sold as a pair for 500 livres to the leading art dealer of the time: Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, grand-nephew of painter Charles Le Brun and husband of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, official portrait painter of Queen Marie Antoinette. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was a pioneer in his field. He actually invented the saleroom lit by overhead lighting, now a staple of art galleries and museums.

The pair then moved through the hands of various other dealers and collectors, including Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in Vienna and Baron Maurice de Rothschild in Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland, always staying together. In 1954 they were sold again by Baron Maurice three years before his death. This time, they did not survive as a couple. They were sold separately. Blind Man’s Bluff was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art with funds from the Libbey Endowment, a gift from glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey, founder of the Toledo Museum of Art and president from its founding in 1901 until his death in 1925. The See-Saw was bought by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, heir to a great naval construction and oil fortune which he spent building a world-class art collection. It was on display at his private museum in the 17th century palace Villa Favorita on the banks of Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and when those works were transferred to Spain to become the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid starting in the late 1980s, The See-Saw went with them.

Divided by an ocean, the two Fragonards rarely caught a glimpse of each other. They’ve come together three times since their separation: in London in 1968, Paris in 1987 and New York in 1988. Now, thanks to a loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, they’ll be together again in Toledo.

“They’re risqué, they’re provocative—and the artist intended these canvases to be seen together,” said Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “So to reunite these two very important paintings by one of the most significant French artists of the 18th century is quite an exciting opportunity.”

They may not seem all that risqué to our jaded eyes, but even though the only actual glimpse of slightly naughty flesh is the leg of the woman on the see-saw, the erotic imagery was clear to its original audience.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists and authors used blind-man’s bluff as a symbol of the folly of marriage, where one took one’s chances in choosing a mate. In Fragonard’s portrayal, however, because only one couple plays the game, neither the ultimate partner nor the final outcome is in doubt. As the youth tickles his blindfolded beloved on the cheek with a piece of straw, an infant, in the role of a classical cupid or putto, brushes her hand with the end of a stick to distract her from the object of her desire. Reaching out to locate her lover, the woman steals a glance from underneath her blindfold and catches the viewer’s gaze with a knowing look—she is the one in control of the situation.

The setting for this courtship game is a terrace surrounded by a low wall—a reference to the enclosed garden, traditional symbol of virginity. Leaning against the wall is a gate that has fallen off its posts. The sexual symbolism of the gate—not only open but broken off—would have been obvious to eighteenth-century viewers.

Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw will be on display at the Toledo Museum of Art from January 24th through May 4th, 2014.

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A view that hasn’t been seen in 500 years

January 25th, 2014


What you’re looking at here is the beautiful prospect from a lancet window in the north wall of Mingary Castle, a window that was sealed in the late 15th or early 16th century and has now been reopened for the first time in 500 years. Built on a promontory on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the northwest coast of Scotland in the 13th century, Mingary Castle was a stronghold commanding the Sound of Mull, an important part of the great western shipping lane at a time when the Viking/Gaelic rulers of western Scotland ran fleets of galleys for trade, travel and war. Since the ships hugged the coast to avoid Atlantic storms, coastal castles dominated seagoing traffic.

It’s not certain who first built the castle. Clan MacDougall is one possible candidate, but by the time the window was sealed, Mingary Castle was the seat of Clan MacIain, one of the most powerful septs (vassal branches) of Clan MacDonald. Although technically they were vassals of kings of Norway and Scotland at various times, in practice they ran their territories independently as Lords of the Isles. Mingary was one of a chain of strategically important castles in the MacDonald fiefdom.

It was a new threat from the landward side that caused the MacIains to block up the north windows. The slender pointed arch windows, used to fire arrows and crossbow bolts onto attackers, were in walls that ranged in thickness from 60 centimeters (ca. 1’12″) to 80 centimeters (2’7″). This was the thinnest the castle walls got and since they faced land, they were particular susceptible to recently-invented cannons that packed enough punch to pierce much thicker masonry walls. To fix this weak spot, the MacIains had stonemasons fill in the windows and the chambers where defenders wielded their weapons. They did a most thorough job of it, too.

The castle fell out of MacIain and MacDonald control in the early 17th century. The Campbell family, Earls of Argyll, took the castle and held it so effectively that they destroyed Clan MacDonald when they attempted to retake the castle by besieging it. In the early 18th century the Mingary estate was sold to Alexander Murray; 50 years later it was sold to James Riddell whose family owned it until 1848. All of these post-MacIain owners made modifications and additions to the castle, keeping it in livable condition without destroying the original structure from the 1200s. After 1848, the estate was still used by locals, but the castle increasingly deteriorated until the interior was too dangerous to inhabit.

The estate was purchased by Donald Houston 20 years or so ago. He has restored many of the structures on the property, and is now restoring the castle itself with the goal of keeping the walls from crumbling and making the castle inhabitable as a residence for humans again. Because of its relative remoteness and the long centuries of occupation, Mingary Castle is the best preserved 13th century castle in Scotland. It’s therefore of great historical significance to the country.

Mr. Houston has founded the Mingary Preservation Trust, a charitable organization that is raising the £2 million ($3,300,000) needed to restore the castle. (If you’d like to contribute, click here to donate or, if you’d prefer to get a piece of the castle itself, you can adopt your very own stone.)

Part of the restoration project was the reopening of the north wall chambers and lancet windows. On Thursday, January 16th, workmen broke through the incredibly hard infill that blocked off the left top window, gingerly removed the stones and opened it to expose a beautiful view last seen by human eyeballs 500 years ago.

Jon Haylett, a local historian who has been overseeing the excavation said: “There was a real sense of excitement that we could, for the first time in 500 years, look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.

“Looking out of the window was an eerie experience, realising that the last person to see that view was probably a stonemason, some half a millennium ago.

“Next to me, doing the clearing, were two modern stonemasons from Ashley-Thomson, the building restoration firm, and I think they were equally moved.”

They were hoping to find organic material or some artifacts embedded in the fill that would help narrow down when the windows were sealed, but so far all the attending archaeologist has found are some tiny bone fragments, probably the detritus of a meal left behind by the masons who last worked there half a millennium ago. They did find an interesting architectural element: a groove around the inside of the window, probably used to hold a shutter or wooden board to close the window when necessary.

Now the restoration team is digging across to the double lancet windows on the right. You can read all about their progress and enjoy the exceptional photographic documentation of the restoration on the marvelous Mingary Castle blog authored by Jon Haylett.

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