10 Things About the History of Forensics

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Crime shows and mystery novels have been popular since probably sometime around the dawn of entertainment itself. Before I finished middle school I had read almost every crime novel in the library. These days I mostly read in other genres, but I still love a good whodunit now and again. I’m not a scientist. The hand-waving that some authors do doesn’t phase me most of the time. I repeat *most* of the time. I do have friends and family members who are in various scientific fields and have learned enough just from talking to them over the years that sometimes the hand-waving (term meaning to gloss over the how something is done in favor of the fact that it was done and in whatever fictional world is possible. Think of a Jedi waving his hand and saying, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”) leaves a little to be desired.

A lot of the downfalls of mystery novels and crime shows come down to the realities of forensics. DNA evidence is not proof, it is evidence which reveals probability. Most crime cases, even the “straight forward” ones, can take months or years to investigate and prosecute–and that’s if either one is ever fully accomplished. So your favorite forty-five minute television show that has your larger than life detective solving a complicated murder case in less than a week? Not so much. But we wouldn’t watch a show or read a series that took 3-5 years for the killer to go to trial only to have it all be postponed over and over for several more years. We willingly suspend our disbelief of the timeline. But if the audience is already willing to suspend disbelief over a few details for the sake of a satisfying conclusion, the least the creators can do is to make as many of the other details as plausible as possible.

Recently, I have read two books and watched two television series that were based in eastern Asia and involved crime solving in antiquity. I do not know what forensic procedures were like during the time periods covered, or if such procedures even really existed. But the creators made sure to make it so believable that I didn’t question it. The writer of the books (both were by the same and were consumed in less than a week), even included some historical information at the end of the book to explain why she used certain techniques and what the research supports from the time period. I loved that.

Clearly, forensics have been on the brain based on my media consumption lately. So, naturally, since I have ADHD, access to the internet, and general lack of impulse control, I fell down the rabbit hole of research. I’m not even sorry. You get to enjoy the fruits of my hyper-fixation as I tell you 10 things you might not know about the history of forensics.

  1. For over a thousand years before fingerprint evidence was ever considered in the West, Eastern cultures were using fingerprints as form of signature on important documents since they could be matched to a specific individual. Fingerprint matching was recorded in ancient Babylon before the time of Christ. However, when the practice was brought to the West it was through a British Officer who served quite some time in India–one of the countries where fingerprints had been used for centuries already. And yet, many sources credit the British officer with creating the concept of fingerprint analysis.
  2. The first procedural manual of forensics and etymology is believed to be Xi Yuan Lu (Translated: The Washing Away of Wrongs) by Song Ci, a director of justice, jail, and supervision, in 1248 during the Song Dynasty. It included notes about the importance of impartiality, respecting the dead even as you examine them and a legend about the original use of forensics being to solve the case of a murdered farmer using a type of fly to locate the bloody scythe of the neighboring farmer, though the tool had been washed clean to the naked human eye. Personal note: I could have researched this one legend for a long time all by itself if I hadn’t been quite so exhausted.
  3. There are three ancient precursors to the Polygraph test. Much like a polygraph test can’t determine guilt or innocence, but instead tests bodily reactions to verbal stimuli to check for evidence of falsehood, these tests had similar goals. And just like a polygraph, their validity is questionable, but still believable (and very convincing to many for a long time). In ancient India, they would make a suspect put a large handful of uncooked rice in their mouth. When they spit it back out, if too much of it stuck to their mouth and tongue, it suggested a dry mouth, a common sign of nervousness and therefore of a possible lie. Similarly, in ancient China, they used rice powder to run such a test. Neither of those seem quite as painful, though, as the ancient Middle East (or Western Asia) procedure of making the suspect lick a hot metal rod. The prevailing theory being that if you had a healthy layer of saliva, it wouldn’t burn you too much, but if you were telling a lie and were dry mouthed, it would burn much more severely. Yikes.
  4. Forensic dentistry, aka forensic odontology, was in use at least as early as 1692 in the West. During the Salem Witch Trials, Rev. George Burroughs was made to show his teeth in court to compare it to the bite marks on his victims who he was accused of coercing into witchcraft through biting. The Rev was convicted and hanged when the teeth marks matched his own teeth. However, many–if not most–forensic dentistry has since been largely discredited.
  5. The modern stethoscope was invented, more or less, in 1816 when an ear trumpet (precursor to a hearing aid) was used to listen to a victim’s chest for the sound of breathing or a heartbeat to determine if they were actually dead. Rene Laennec saved a lot of people quite a lot of trouble. Before using his new contraption, people had to either sit with a relative for a few days to make sure they actually started decomposing, or inject them with painful stimuli (even enemas) to double check for signs of life before declaring the person truly dead. And with the number of “dead ringer” stories, myths, and legends out there, such a device helped ease the mind of the public who greatly feared being buried alive by mistake.
  6. Dr. Edmond Locard (1877-1966), remembered as the “Sherlock Holmes of France” is responsible for Locard’s Exchange Principle, which underpins much of the theory of forensic science. “Every contact leaves a trace.” Paint chips, wheat chaff, hair, clothing fibers, etc mean that everyone you come into physical contact with leaves some small trace on you just as you do on them.
  7. Modern forensic pathology practices are commonly traced back to 16th century mainland Europe where Army surgeons would test and observe the effects of disease on human flesh and record the differences between different diseases and the body’s reaction. I would like to note here that there is good reason to believe that some of the same types of observations and tests were performed in the East, but were outlawed or the records destroyed or damaged enough to leave some doubt in following centuries.
  8. The concept of fingerprint analysis first came to the United States via the World’s Fair in 1904. Scotland Yard had been using it for decades, and sent a representative to demonstrate it at the St. Louis Fair. Just a few years later, in 1911, it was first used in a US court case in Illinois to get a conviction.
  9. Forensic science is used for a lot more than just solving crimes, however. The Red Cross and the International Committee on Missing Persons both use DNA to help identify missing persons after conflicts, disasters, or migration. They have even been able to reunite families who have been separated during such events, or give closure to those who would otherwise be left wondering about the fate of their family members.
  10. Bad science does exist and there have been, over the centuries, several forensic practices used to rationalize or “justify” racism. All the ones I read about have been discredited, but I hesitate to say that all such practices have been discredited because I am not a scientist but I do know human nature and hate.

It is interesting to note that there is an acknowledged difference between forensic science and litigation science. The former is mainly concerning observation and information gathering. The latter concerns data collected or sought for the sole purpose of being presented in a court of law.

While I find this topic rather fascinating, I’ve seen enough crime scene photos and example illustrations that I’m going to need a palate cleanser now. Someone turn on a silly (in the best sense) Rom-Com STAT!

10 Things I Learned This Summer

As I write this it’s nearly midnight and I’m running down my list of things I have to do in the morning to prepare my children for school. Both of them. My youngest started Kindergarten last week and it was a momentous day in our household. I was excited for him, but there it was still a little bittersweet. He’s my youngest, my baby boy, only now he is definitely not a baby. He goes to “big kid school”. There is a twinge of sadness, but I didn’t cry. Like I said, I’m excited for him. And for me, too, honestly. I love being a mom. LOVE it. But it’s nice to reach a point in my children’s lives where I get to be both mom and an adult with an actual first name.

I spent the summer preparing for this emotional rollercoaster. We did all the things and went all the places. The beach? Yep. We even went with friends so the kids had someone to play with that they weren’t related to and wouldn’t fight with the whole time. It was glorious. The lake? Of course. In our family you can’t really call it summer if you didn’t get lake water up your nose at least once. Camp? Zoo Camp is a perennial favorite. Mountains? Why, yes. We did take a hiking vacation to the Smoky Mountains while I was recovering from a stress fracture in my foot. If ditching your crutches to hike with your kids out to the giant osprey nest and back isn’t love, what is? We colored, we painted, we read books, we visited the library, they each earned a trophy at the end of baseball season, you name it we did it. A last hurrah before I turn them over to the care of (excellent and wonderful) elementary school teachers each day for the next nine months.

Note: Before I continue I just want to interject that I recognize the level of privilege that allows me to do all this with my kids. It does not make you a lesser parent for not being able to afford (with money or time) to take your kids on special vacations.

During all of this, I learned several things. Being as it is very late and I need to punch this out if I want to actually make my deadline, I thought I’d share a few thoughts as my 10 Things post this month.

  1. Blue Buttons are not technically jellyfish. They are hydroid colonies (made up of a ton of smaller organisms). I didn’t know this. I knew that their sting didn’t hurt, but that some people still react to it, generally with swelling, rash, or itchiness. However, I always thought they were a type of jellyfish. I figured if it looks like a jellyfish, swims like a jellyfish, stings like a jellyfish, and washes ashore like a jellyfish, it must be a jellyfish. Not these little wonders.
  2. Manta rays kept in captivity in places where people are allowed to touch them, often begin to act like domesticated dogs. They crave “pets” and attention, and will even “wave” and splash people to gain their notice.
  3. In some after sun lotions there is enough spf built in that if you accidentally cover your whole family in it before spending an entire day at a friend’s pool (you know, instead of actual sunscreen), you won’t all come home baked to a crisp. Whew.
  4. I never sunburned as a kid or a teen. Never. And hardly ever even considered sunscreen. It was never a concern. I have skin that tans really easily (one of the few gifts my genetics gave me), and didn’t have to worry about it. I’m in my mid-to-late thirties now and I can sunburn. It’s still not a common thing, but it can happen. It’s usually not too unpleasant, but just uncomfortable. What’s not comfortable is remembering that after an entire morning of snorkeling off the coast of Belize. I had to sit on a towel at dinner.
  5. Cashews grow on trees. I never really thought about where cashews come from before because they don’t grow anywhere near me. I buy them in containers from the local grocer. But they grow on trees and there is even a cashew fruit. It’s quite pretty to see in nature, actually. Unfortunately, the cashew fruit also contains the same toxin found in poison ivy, so don’t try to eat it. I didn’t make this mistake thanks to some well timed advice from someone who had made the mistake before me.
  6. I have reached the age where I can, in fact, fall asleep on an airplane if I’m tired enough. It’s still uncomfortable, but no longer impossible.
  7. No matter how old you get, riding in a boat with wind blowing in your face and the water occasionally soaking you from head to toe is still fun.
  8. When you have one kid, school supply shopping involves a list and a timeline strategy over your area’s tax-free weekend. When you have multiple kids, school supply shopping involves a spread sheet, hours of price comparisons online before ever setting foot in a store, and purchases from multiple vendors before you can be sure you have everything covered. If you want the “supply chain issues” of the world solved, put moms who are pros at back-to-school shopping in charge of it all. The problems will be resolved by next week.
  9. They make attachments for stand mixers that will shave ice for snow cones at home. You can order the flavor syrups online. Of all the things we did this summer, and the all the places we went, having snow cones at home whenever I would allow it was probably my kids’ favorite part of the summer.
  10. Blue light blocking glasses can make a substantial difference for some kids. My youngest seems mostly unaffected by it, but my oldest has had limited screen time for years because his behavior always spirals after he spends too long in front of one. This summer, as an experiment, we bought him some blue light blocker glasses and it is like he’s a different kid. I still limit overall screen time because, well, I’m that mom, but I’m able to let him have more than I did before because he doesn’t have the same struggles he did even just a few months ago as long as he wears his glasses. I wish I had figured that out before he learned how to play video games or read e-books!

Vacation is over. Back to our regularly scheduled learning! And hopefully, my regular posting schedule too!

10 Things Hiatus

You might have noticed a distinct lack of additions to the 10 Things series so far in 2022. At first, I missed January because a friend passed away and I was not in the right head space to write one. In February, one of my children was sick (stomach bug) and so I had other priorities. In March, I was sick (flu followed by bronchitis) and couldn’t muster the energy to do much of anything. Which brings us to April.

Here’s the honest truth: I’m a hot mess and I’m still not caught up from when I got behind on everything while I was sick last month. I wear a lot of hats in my daily life, and a lot of them didn’t get worn during the entire month of March. I haven’t had time to plan or research a post.

Next month, my kids will be wrapping up the school year (we let out for summer break in May where I live), and I will attend several performances and activities that revolve around that. Both of my sons are also playing baseball this year, my husband is coaching both of their teams (which makes me Team Mom by default) and also has a small role in a local community theater production. We also have a trip with family coming at the end of the month that I have to prepare for (not just packing, but getting things ready for our temporary absence so I don’t fall behind all over again).

I have no idea what the summer will bring, but my calendar is a color coded rainbow of “When am I supposed to get to that” throughout June and July.

As you can see, 2022 came in like a lion and shows no signs of lambhood yet. So I’ll be taking a general blog hiatus for a bit because something’s gotta give and this is the thing that will have the least effect on others. Hopefully, this will give me some time to think of some really great topics to share or even get a few guest posters to share some things!

I hope to see y’all in August. Wish me luck with my first world problems!

10 Things About Christmas Decorations (Part 2)

I’m continuing last month’s topic because I friggin’ love Christmas and there was a lot I didn’t cover. I love Christmas, I love history, I love completely useless trivia. I’m really surprised you didn’t all see this coming. Buckle up, I went into hyperfocus mode and my ADHD won’t let me walk away from the topic yet. Don’t worry, I’m trying. I don’t want to get stuck on this forever, so I started an audiobook (Dial A for Aunties) and it’s kind of hilarious so far. It definitely has a chance to bring me back. Back to the land of the Neurotypical. Or at least the world of the masked neurodivergent.

But I digress.

Here are 10 MORE things you might not know about Christimas decorations.

  1. The reason we associate the colors red and green with Christmas is because of The Paradise Play from the 11th Century. The play is about creation, not the birth of Christ, but due to its religious themes it was quickly associated with Christian celebrations in general, and Christmas falls into that category. In the original play, there was a green tree with red fruit on it used as a central and iconic prop. The red/green motif eventually became associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas and today everyone is decking the halls with red and green regardless of whether they are celebrating on a religious basis or a cultural one.
  2. Tinsel was a way for Germans to flaunt their wealth. That’s right kids, long before the French peasantry got fed up and started forcing nobles to the guillotine and Russians went on a murderous rampage against all things Tsar, the Germans were stirring up ill feelings among the masses. This also led to more than one period of heavy peasantry exodus from Germany to places like the American colonies (just one example). But those who had money had no shame in their game. They literally decorated their trees with strands of silver. Originally, they claimed it was to “reflect the lights” of the candles and make the tree glow a bit more, but mostly it was a statement. It said, “I have so much money, I can literally decorate dying greenery in my home with strands of silver.” Or maybe even, “Oh, you have purebred racehorses and a mansion? That’s cute. I have a castle and with a tree dripping in precious metals inside it.” Anyway, eventually the masses began to copy the look using cheaper materials. Centuries later during World War I and II, when those materials became scarce, they changed again. First to aluminum, which is turns out was crazy flammable (keep in mind this was placed on a tree with lit candles on it), then to lead which is literally poison. These days it’s made of synthetics and is basically safe, though now most very affluent households have abandoned the idea of tinsel because it’s considered tacky or gaudy. I mean, if poor people can afford it, what is EVEN the point? **A lot of people who read this don’t know me in real life, so let me assure you that I’m completely joking.
  3. Mistletoe is actually a parasite. No, really. It’s spread by birds when they, ahem, defecate on tree branches. Then it grows on the tree and dries it out by leeching water and nutrients from it. To save the tree, the mistletoe must be removed before it spreads. In ancient times, once removed from trees, it was used medicinally. Romans as far back as the lifetime of Pliny the Elder are recorded using mistletoe to battle epilepsy, gastric distress, or other ailments. Due to its ability to flourish even in winter, Druids considered it a sign of fertility and used it to treat infertility in humans and animals. While the Norse have a myth that involves a mother’s love and Loki’s jackwagon nature that somehow ends in a kiss, most historians are still in debate about how kissing under the mistletoe came about. There are several different theories, but what we know for sure is that it was a practice among English servants by the 1700s.
  4. Gingerbread houses are another holiday tradition we can thank the Germans for. Though, theirs were first decorated with gold foil and were mostly used a table decorations among the affluent (seems to be a theme with German Christmas decor). Then came the story of Hansel and Gretel, a cautionary tale that seems to be somewhat allegorical now that I better understand its origin. As the tale spread across the region, so did the tradition of building houses (now big and small) of gingerbread.
  5. Poinsettias are named after a diplomat. The Aztecs called the flower Cuetlaxochitl (Flower That Grows in Residue) and used it both to make red dye and as a fever reducer. Eventually, the flower would be given the Spanish named Flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower) due to its vibrant red and green color. It is still called by its Spanish name in most of Central America (to which it is native). However in the 1820 Joel Poinsett was the first U.S. Minister to Mexico and during his travels between Mexico and his home in South Carolina, he brought the plant back to his greenhouse, in love with its beauty. He showed it off to many of his friends, began cultivating it and sharing the flower and between 1828 and 1836 it was dubbed the Poinsettia after him.
  6. Snowglobes were an accident. In 1900 Erwin Perzy was trying to improve the brightness of electric bulbs. Over the course of his experiments he ended up pouring (or spilling, depending on which source you read) semolina into a small, round, glass bulb and he saw how it looked like snowfall. After that he created a small winter themed diorama and attached it. The snowglobe was born.
  7. The very first Nativity scene was staged by St. Francis of Assisi. He got approval from the Pope before staging the live scene in Grecio, Italy. Locals were used as actors and the scene was setup in a cave. The scene included the Holy Family, shepherds, and three wise men and as people came to see it, the saint preached a message about the Savior. Though, shepherds and wise men never actually appear together in the Biblical narrative (the wise men do not arrive until Jesus is two years old and we are told of three gifts, but not how many men come to him), the original scene still inspires those sold and displayed all over the world today.
  8. While Santa Claus is the Dutch rendering of Saint Klaus, the shortened form of Saint Nicholas (a real person), the white-bearded, red wool suit wearing image used to decorate many places for Christmas is actually the work of a commercial artist. Coca-Cola created a series of painted Christmas advertisements in 1931 that featured the image we’ve come to embrace. The artist’s inspiration was a poem from 1823 that described a red robe or cloak wearing Santa.
  9. Rudolph was born in 1939. He was featured in the storybook that Montgomery Ward gave out during the holiday season that year to customers visiting his department store. The song featuring the quickly beloved little red-nosed reindeer was written in the 1940s, and a couple of decades later his story was immortalized in claymation.
  10. The ringing of bells to call church patrons to mass and prayer dates back a long way. Many sources credit St. Patrick with the use of a handheld bell to call his parishioners to prayer, but the tradition was solidly in place for all major Christian holidays long before it became associated with Christmas. By the early 1800s, however, carolers in England would ring bells as they traveled through the streets singing to call the attention of the residents. It was then that the ringing bell became primarily associated with Christmas.

Bonus fact. Jingle Bells was originally written for a Thanksgiving celebration concert in the 1800s. It didn’t become associated with Christmas until years later.

Merry Christmas, y’all! Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in January, when I’ve taken all my wonderful Christmas decor back down after the Epiphany on the 6th.

10 Things About Christmas Decorations

I love, love, love to decorate for Christmas. I enjoy it and look forward to it every year. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it makes me happy. And yes, I decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving (the U.S. Thanksgiving, anyway, I do not decorate before Canadian Thanksgiving). If any of that bothers you, just don’t come over to my house during this time of the year. I’m not sorry and I won’t stop.

I realize that for many Christmas, a holiday that many people in Western society treat as a holiday of extravagance, can be difficult. And I don’t mean to be insensitive to that. It’s not about the money spent to me. I love digging through old boxes of ornaments each year and remembering where they came from, who made them (even the not-so-pretty ones), and why we have them. I like making small crafts with my kids to display around the house. One of the traditions I have with my boys is to help each other build a Christmas tree out of Lego to put in their room each year.

We don’t have an intricate Christmas Village display or a lot of moving parts, and we still shy away from anything particularly delicate, expensive, or irreplaceable (my kids are young and they play rough). But what we do have, I love. And I wait eagerly every year for Halloween to end so I can begin prepping for Christmas. Though, I do usually wait until the second week of November only because we have several family birthdays to celebrate first. My ADHD brain can only handle one event prep at a time.

But why do we decorate the way we do for Christmas? Why a large tree? Why all the lights? The answer is mostly Germany, but I’ll get into that in a minute. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Christmas Decorations.

  1. Being that the birth of Jesus (yes, I am a Christian) has been argued to be in March, April, September, and several other months based on different points of reference, the old rumor that Christmas is celebrated in December to make it easier for Roman pagan converts to accept it is true. Why Romans? Because Christmas was not actually celebrated until about 300 years after the death of Jesus. It was during the final years of the reign of Emperor Constantine, who famously converted to Christianity himself. Romans had long celebrated the Winter Solstice as a time when Saturn (Roman God of Agriculture) would begin to return to full strength and bring the warmth and growth of spring with him. Evergreen boughs and branches were often used for Saturnalia decorations and transitioned somewhat easily into Christmas decor.
  2. Boughs and branches are great, but how did we get around to having a whole tree indoors? Remember when I said the answer was mostly Germany? This is where that begins. Sometime in the 1500-1600s, Germans began melding the formerly Pagan use of evergreens with the blossoming (no pun intended) Christian tradition of the “Tree of Light”. The Tree of Light is not an actual tree. It was more of a wooden pyramid that stood over an empty manger and held a candle on top. They began to decorate it with branches, pine cones, nuts, etc. And while there are still places where a wooden “Tree of Light” is more common than an actual tree, eventually the Germans moved on to just bringing an entire tree into the house. Though it should be noted that since the beginning of the tradition, it was more common to see trees about four feet in height, whereas once the tradition made its way to America it immediately became a floor-to-ceiling, bigger is better kind of thing.
  3. Martin Luther is credited with putting lights on the tree. The legend has it that while walking home one winter night the stars shining through the evergreen branches struck him as so beautiful and ethereal, he wanted to take the vision home to his family. He placed candles on their “artificial tree” (wooden pyramid decorated with evergreen boughs and branches) and voila the tradition of lighting the tree was born. I have no idea if this is in any way true, but several sources mention it so I’m rolling with it.
  4. German immigrants brought the tradition of a Christmas Tree with them to the United States. Actually, to be more accurate, they began bringing the tradition to the “New World” that was still divvied up among Western Europe despite having a thriving and sophisticated network of Native civilizations. But I digress. The best I can find (read: It’s okay to correct me if I am wrong here), most Indigenous tribes basically looked at the Christmas tree as one more weird thing White people did. And let’s be real, it really would have been just a drop in the bucket at that point. English settlers took great offense in the early days though. They decried the Christmas tree as being a “mockery” of the “sacred event”. They also thought Christmas Carols, any other kind of decoration, or “frivolity” was offensive. Basically, the English were sticks in the mud. It took a while, but by the mid 1700s, the Christmas tree began to take a foothold in the British colonies, though still mostly among German families.
  5. Enter Queen Victoria. The colonies are now their own country, it’s the mid 1800s and Queen Victoria (who was from a German line of English monarchs herself) and her German born husband are painted celebrating with their young children around a Christmas tree in the palace. Whatever Victoria did at this point in time immediately became fashionable, not only in England but throughout Western Europe. It also became so among the wealthy elite along the East Coast of the United States who desperately wanted to seem as trendy as their English counterparts. Suddenly, the Christmas tree and its growing list of appropriate decorations was not only something for poor or recent immigrant families, but also for those looking to keep up with the Saxe-Coburg-Gothes. What a mouthful. Methinks the change to “Windsor” wasn’t just a PR move during the First World War, but an opportunity to simply the House name. But again, I digress.
  6. By the end of the 1800s, Woolworth’s Department Store was selling about $25 million worth of German style Christmas tree “baubles” such as blown glass balls in a variety of colors. Other stores followed suit to try to get a piece of the burgeoning market. Mass production and a flood of supply suddenly made commercial Christmas decorations affordable to those outside the upper class. Christmas tree decorations as a business venture spread like wildfire (again, no pun intended). Today, there are Christmas Tree Farms in every U.S. State including Hawaii. I live in Mississippi and there are several within a half hour drive from my house.
  7. In the 1880s, the VP from the Edison Electric Light Company (started by Thomas Edison and now known simply as General Electric or GE) had the grand idea to design a special string of bulbs encased in glass to string around his Christmas Tree. He used Red, White, and Blue glass and used the lights to replace the “fire prone” candles that people still used to decorate the tree. He placed the tree in front of his parlor window. The window faced the street in his trendy, expensive New York neighborhood and passersby talked so much about it seemed to glow through the street that newspapers across the nation picked up the story and photographs circulated with the write ups. Soon anybody who could afford them (and had access to electricity) wanted electric lights on their tree. In 1895 then President Grover Cleveland would put up the first lit Christmas tree in the White House (the first tree without electric lights was brought in by Franklin Pierce before the Civil War).
  8. In 1923 then President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. During the Great Depression, construction workers building what would eventually be Rockefeller Center put up a small, plain Christmas tree to boost morale at the work site. In 1933, just two years after the workers put up the first tree, the publicist for Rockefeller decided it should be an annual event, complete with electric lights and fancy decorations. The lighting of the Rockefeller tree began to broadcast on NBC in the 1950s and remains a holiday tradition in the US today. This year’s Rockefeller tree will be brought in from Maryland, is the usual Norway Spruce, and is 79 feet tall. It will be lit (and broadcast) on December 1st. The National Christmas Tree Lighting in D.C. will not have a live audience and music show this year due to COVID concerns. However, the tree will still go up. This year’s tree hails from Six Rivers National Park in California.
  9. With all these beautiful spruces, firs, etc going up to great fanfare you might be wondering how and why modern artificial trees became prevalent. The answer is Boomers. No, really. After WWII suburbs were on the rise, Christmas decorations were somewhat affordable, and parents who grew up in the Great Depression were eager to share seemingly lavish Christmas traditions with their young children. However, now they more and more people were living in towns or even apartments without quick and easy (or cheap) access to trees to cut down for such a thing, the market for artificial, easily transported, trees opened up. They became so common and popular that for a time artificial trees were considered far more trendy than real ones. Especially when they became available in a variety of colors. My grandmother, who indeed grew up in the Depression and had Boomer children, loved her artificial tree. The rest of us not so much, but we loved her and so we helped her get it out of the attic and put it up each year without fail, while all having a real tree in our own homes. After her passing, the memory of that tree is something that makes us all smile. I now have an artificial tree so I can put it up so early. Thankfully, mine is at least meant to look natural, something my grandmother’s color changing tree did not even attempt.
  10. It was also during the childhood of Boomers that tinsel flooded the market. But about the time Gen Xers were joining their Boomer parents in decorating the family tree, tinsel was temporarily outlawed. Back then it was made of lead. Not that it was the first toxic decoration though. Ladies’ magazines had been suggesting ways to decorate for Christmas that included toxic substances since the late 1800s. Luckily, they all fell out of favor pretty quickly (turns out asthma attacks don’t exactly scream Christmas Spirit). Tinsel eventually re-entered the market as a plastic made item, for better or for worse.

That was a quick 10 things, and there is so much I didn’t cover! I didn’t even make it to poinsettias! Hmm. Maybe I should continue this discussion next month.

What holidays do your characters celebrate? Do they decorate? Where do those traditions come from and what do they represent? Are they toxic? Beautiful? Odd? We have some strange ways of celebrating different holidays, so having something that your characters celebrate makes them feel more relatable, more real.

In the real world, what holiday (not just Christmas) tradition represents this time of year to you and your family? My knowledge of anything related to Diwali is practically non-existent, Kwanzaa is not much better. I am very familiar with Hanukkah because I celebrated it with my Jewish friends growing up (we went to their house for one of the nights of Hanukkah and they came to our house on Christmas Eve), but I’d love to know how different people celebrate!

10 Things About Embroidery

Random fact about me: when I was very little there was an older lady who sometimes babysat me. I don’t remember her name or why she was the one watching me (I had three older siblings, three grandparents, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the same town back then), but I remember what I learned from her. She taught me how to crochet and to cross stitch. Going over to her house meant learning how to craft. She had a lot of doilies. A lot.

We moved out of that town when I was only eight years old, and I didn’t crochet anything again until I was in college. Several of my friends had learned how to knit, but I remembered being taught how to crochet and did that instead. It was like sort of like remembering how to ride a simple, but very painstaking bicycle. Eventually, I made baby blankets, hats, scarves, etc for anyone and everyone. I could afford yarn easier than I could afford other types of gifts. I could do a lot with a single skein. I never picked cross-stitching back up, though.

Fast forward to the present (2021). I was cleaning out a room in my house and came across a craft kit that I had actually bought for someone else before changing my mind about what to get them. Instead of returning the kit, I decided to save it for who knows what reason (hence why I have to periodically purge my house of unnecessary stuff). The kit was a “learning how to embroider” starter pack. It had a book of instructions, some floss, a couple of needles, a hoop, and some designs to choose from. I wasn’t having the greatest mental health day, and crafting sometimes helps me hit my emotional reset button, so I decided to give it a go. It’s been two weeks. I have now embroidered a small bag, several bookmarks, and have about five more projects planned out. It’s simple, it’s pretty, and it’s addicting. It gives my hands something to do even when my mind is kind of a mess. Unfortunately, it sometimes makes me go into hyperfocus mode and takes over my whole day. ADHD is a wild ride, y’all.

Anyway, since I have it on the brain, you get to join me in learning about my latest addiction (better books and crafts than dangerous things). Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Embroidery:

  1. Historians don’t actually know when embroidery first began as an art form. There are ancient examples of embroidered items from multiple different cultures and on most continents. A few years ago, a dig in Russia unearthed a Cro-Magnon (30,000 BC) with embroidery on his clothing and hunting gear. So it’s not just an old art, it’s literally prehistoric.
  2. In Greek Mythology, Athena is credited with gifting the mortals with embroidery. It is what led to an eventual showdown with Arachne, a mortal.
  3. It comes from a French word meaning embellish. While I’ve never heard it used this way, apparently there are places where to say someone is “embroidering” a tale colloquially means they are exaggerating quite a bit.
  4. The largest piece of embroidery in the world (that we know of) is the Bayeaux Tapestry. On display at a museum in the north of France, the tapestry is 50 cm high and 250 ft long. It depicts William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry dates to the 1070s.
  5. There is evidence of multiple ancient Asian cultures using embroidery as a sign of social status for centuries. The higher your rank or greater your wealth, the more intricate and pervasive the design on your clothing or other items.
  6. Cross-stitching, a specific style of embroidery, entered the scene–at least in the West–in the early 1800s. It quickly became all the rage for “well-bred” young ladies. Even after machine embroidery took over, for a young woman to know how to cross-stitch and to do so with skill was seen as a mark of refinement. That probably explains why I did NOT learn how to do it from my own family.
  7. Embroidery machines went through several phases before truly becoming a catalyst for change in the industry. Both of the earliest automated embroidery machines were designed by men from Switzerland. The first only ever sold two of his machines. But he inspired others to piggyback off of his idea.
  8. While artists, shop owners, and manufacturers have all been male dominated fields in pretty much every culture, embroiderers employed women before most other industries would even consider it. In fact, when the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing availability of embroidery machines, many businesses still hired women to run the machines and to serve as quality control for the designs. Men still got most, if not all, of the credit, mind you, but it was an industry that welcomed female labor.
  9. If you are a talented embroiderer and want everyone to know (especially if you’re a merchant), you can get your City and Guilds textile certification. City and Guilds began as a technical and vocational licensure committee in England in 1878. It still operates today. The president of the organization is a member of the royal family. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t know that certification in a guild was still a thing people did. I thought they were like most professional organizations these days where you paid your money and generally agreed to follow a given set of rules in order to make your own business endeavors seem more legitimate. Apparently, there are still actual classes and exams involved for this.
  10. It is possible to embroider on wood. It involves drilling holes, sanding, staining, and then threading said holes, but it creates a very unique look for signs, plaques, and even furniture. It’s not a style I’m into, but there is apparently a decent market for it because when I looked up examples online I found a plethora and they are not cheap.

Since I generally try to relate these topics back to world building in writing, let’s do that. Here is an art that transcends culture, time, trends, etc and has stood the test of time. Technology has made it more affordable and easier to access, but “the old fashioned way” is still valued by many. I can sit down with needle, thread, fabric, and hoop or frame and literally do the same activity that other women have done for thousands of years. In your fictional world, is there something that can make that claim? Is there something so valuable, so beautiful, so appealing that people are still willing to do it “the hard way”? Why?

Cooking comes to mind, but it was a necessity before it was an art. Embroidery–to my admittedly limited knowledge–was never a necessity. Maybe the beading techniques I’ve read about from certain Native American Tribal Nations that get passed down each generation, though by some definitions that can be lumped in with embroidery. I suppose much like painting, sculpting, or even composing, the tools may change through the centuries, but the art is still the same at the heart of it. A tradition that is never traditional.

10 Things about L. M. Montgomery

Personal Confession: I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables as a child. Or teen. In fact, I was in my 30s before I ever gave Anne Shirley more than a passing glance. Many, if not most, of my female friends had the entire series collection, but somehow it always escaped my interest.

It was until the Netflix adaptation of Anne with an E, when many, if not most, of my female friends began to exclaim their excitement for the then upcoming series of the heroine of their childhood that I took notice. I watched the show and loved the spunky, intelligent, awkward Anne. But was a series that debuted in the early 1900s really this…progressive?

Yes and no. As many book lovers do, after seeing a story based on a book series that I had previously skipped over, I started reading. There are progressive sentiments, but they are not quite to the level of the series. In any case, I had questions about who L. M. Montgomery was that this person wrote a series that captivated the hearts of little girls across Western Civilization (and even some of my friends from across the world).

Recently, while volunteering in my church library (yes, I have fully embraced all facets of my nerdiness), I came across a DVD (re-release) of the 1985 film version of Anne of Green Gables. It got my easily distracted ADHD mind back on track wondering about the author of such a beloved tale. So I followed Google down the rabbit hole.

Here are 10 Things about L. M. Montgomery.

  1. Lucy Maud Montgomery was born November 30, 1874 on Prince Edward Island. Before she turned two, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father, grief stricken and not trusting himself to properly care for his daughter, left her in the custody of his in-laws. He remained near their home in Cavendish, PEI until Lucy was about seven when he took a job in another territory.
  2. She hated the name Lucy, but rather liked Maud. However, she often pointed out to people that Maud was “not with an e, if you please”. Lucy was the name of one of her grandmothers, while Maud was the middle name of one of Queen Victoria’s own daughters (Princess Alice Maud Mary).
  3. In 1901, she got a job working for a newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was the only female employed by the paper and earned meager wages, but she adored her job. She wrote gossip articles under a pen name, but also proofread for other writers, and edited the society pages.
  4. Unfortunately, Lucy Maud would have to give up her beloved job at the paper when her grandfather passed and her ailing grandmother needed help running things around their home. Her grandmother wasn’t supportive of Lucy’s writing, claiming it was unpractical, so she often did it at night by sneaking candles into her room.
  5. She kept up her writing career by secretly sending off submissions to magazines and publishers. It was relatively simple to do since her grandmother’s farm also served as the local post office and she was the de facto post mistress during her grandmother’s illness. She sent off her submissions and received her replies with nobody the wiser. Through her writing, in 1904 she made about $700. The average woman at the time only made $300 in a year.
  6. She was courted by many suitors and had multiple failed engagements. She liked courting more than the thought of actual marriage and admitted that when she finally did get married, she regretted it before the bridal feast got underway. She claimed she felt trapped and craved freedom. Regardless, she stayed with her husband to the end of his life and had several children with him.
  7. She never wanted to write any of the Anne sequels. It was in her original contract with the publisher that should the story gain popularity, she would be obligated to follow it with more Anne books. She wrote to friends saying the thought of being tied to one story and one character made her sick. She loathed the idea of following Anne through college. By the end of the series she was “done with Anne forever–I swear it as a dead and darkly vow.” After such a claim, however, she did eventually return to the series for one final novel.
  8. She was infected with the Spanish Flu in 1918 and almost died. Her best friend did lose her life and afterward L. M. suffered from Depression and became addicted to barbiturates. It was the “family secret” for almost 100 years, but one of her granddaughters eventually revealed that her death was a suicide caused by overdose because she lost the battle against her Depression. Her husband also suffered from severe Depression and L. M. had to spend a lot of effort to mask his even more so than hers in order to keep his place in the community. It eventually proved to be too much.
  9. From the start of her career, she tried writing under several pseudonyms including Maude Cavendish and Joyce Cavendish, but none were so successful as her gender neutral initials. L. M. Montgomery.
  10. King George V honored her as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Forevermore, her official title is Lucy Maud Montgomery, OBE. I think even Anne Shirley would be impressed.

There are actually a lot more interesting facts that I discovered. Truthfully, she was a complicated and interesting lady. And it seems much about Anne was based on Maud. No wonder she has captivated so many hearts and minds. She wrote from a place of emotional vulnerability and readers related to it.

Somewhat unrelated side note: If I ever publish anything of note and somehow become deserving of something like a Wikipedia page, y’all be nice. There is absolutely no need for people a century from now to know every embarrassing detail of my life. Poor L. M. has no more skeletons left in her closet.

10 Things About Kudzu

It’s no secret that I’m from “the South”. I put that in quotation marks because south, being a cardinal direction, should be a relative term. In the United States, it’s not. Arizona is in the southern half of the contiguous states. It is not part of “the South”. The Mason-Dixon line (named for two surveyors who marked the boundary in our colonial period) is much farther north than most people realize. While “south of the Mason-Dixon” is a phrase generally meant to encompass “the South”, the line itself was created to officially separate Maryland and Pennsylvania. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the U.S., Maryland and Pennsylvania are…not “south”.

The South is more of a nickname for an area of the country that is vaguely Southeastern. Exactly which states get included is sometimes up for debate, unless talking about “the Deep South”. As for me? I’m from the Deep South. What most people from other parts of the country might refer to as “Paddle faster, I hear banjos.” Mississippi. Hollywood would have you believe that we’re all backwoods racist rednecks. That is just not…entirely true. Okay, yes there are jerkwads who need to reexamine their worldview, but there are also good people who are learning to be actively anti-racist. Diversity booms here, in peoples, cultures, languages, animal and plant life. It’s not perfect–far from it–but my oh my, can it beautiful.

It can be especially beautiful in its landscapes. Wide rivers, deceptive in their lazy appearances that hide the power underneath. Hills of trees, still mostly unburdened with signs of human habitation. Farmland. Urban oases. Waterfalls, flat lands, historical trails ugly in their subject matter but beautiful in their preservation. The South is a landscape photographer’s dream. Of course, nothing is more iconic to the southern landscape than kudzu.

Kudzu, aka “the vine that ate the South”. Much like most of the people who claim the south as their ancestral home, kudzu is not native to the Americas. But it has become so intertwined with the idea of all that is southern that it is part of our very identity.

And yet, most people–Southerners included–don’t know as much about it as they think. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know about Kudzu.

  1. It was first introduced to the Americas during the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. The creeping vine is actually native to Japan. I have no idea how the word is actually supposed to be pronounced in Japanese, because I highly doubt that the way I learned to say it has any roots–no pun intended–in the actual Japanese pronunciation. For the record, in the South, kudzu rhymes with Mud Zoo.
  2. Even after it’s late 19th century introduction, kudzu didn’t immediately spread in growth or popularity. It was more of a novel garden vine. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a severe drought turned soil erosion into front page news thanks to the Dust Bowl that kudzu made a name for itself. Because of its self-reproducing nature (it grows stolons, often called runners, that have nodes used to form new roots), it was thought to be an excellent tool in the battle against soil erosion. The government offered up to $10 per acre to anyone who would grow it. And since this also coincided with the Great Depression, $10 was a king’s ransom to many starving families who were land rich but money poor.
  3. By the 1950s, the government dropped any offer it made to subsidize kudzu plantings and growth. It was everywhere in the South. Along roadsides that were becoming more and more visible as cars became more and more available and affordable, it grew in open fields, it grew over abandoned or ill-cared for structures likes homes and barns, even cars. It covered everything.
  4. Alice Walker, famed author of The Color Purple, once compared kudzu to racism. “Racism is like that local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses; if you don’t keep pulling up the roots it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.”
  5. The reason kudzu fell out of favor went beyond the fact that it propagated so easily that it covered everything anyway, it also had other drawbacks. It’s not a good companion plant to anything, and to a still largely agricultural economy, a vine that takes over fields of crops if not contained is an absolute money pit.
  6. What those mid century farmers didn’t know, was kudzu has had a number of profitable uses for centuries. It can be used to make teas, soups, soaps, lotions, and natural medicines (it is said that kudzu tea is great for a headache). It is also sometimes used as a sort of stew thickener when food supplies run scarce because it has a decent amount of nutrition. These days it is often used as animal feed and has even been researched as a biofuel. I still say if you can figure out a way to make paper or cardboard out of it, we could make a significant dent in deforestation worldwide.
  7. It didn’t really “eat the South”. It looks that way when driving down our highways. It covers trees, hills, fields, you name it. And it kills whatever it grows on top of because, as I mentioned, it’s not a good companion plant. For those who are not up on gardening or farming, a companion plant is a good friend for another type of plant to have. They can share the soil nutrients and even help each other grow. Kudzu helps nothing else grow. It’s selfish that way. And while kudzu thrives in the hot, humid, sunshine soaked conditions of the South, it’s one great weakness is that it needs almost constant sun to survive. Put it in the shade and it withers. So it looks like it covers everything, and it kind of does, but as soon as you get past the sunny areas along roadsides and at the edges of fields, it dies away quickly, letting the natural vegetation grow.
  8. Even so, since a lot of other plants need that same sunshine to thrive, kudzu is in the top 10 of “invasive species” in the United States. It’s classified as a “noxious weed”. When you have the right conditions for it to grow, you have to pull it up by the root and make sure you get ALL of it, or it will come back. Fairly quickly. It’s what makes it a good food source for grazing animals (that and the high amount of protein in it). Herbicides and fungicides work, but again, if you don’t kill the entire plant, it comes back. It can be pretty difficult to eradicate.
  9. Another reason it is so often loathed by Southerners is the animals that so enjoy taking refuge underneath the overlapping vines. Mainly snakes. Kudzu loves the sun, snakes like to hide from the sun during the hottest parts of the day. They make a good team. Unfortunately, that means wherever you see large amounts of kudzu, you’re also more likely to find the slithering serpents. Sometimes entire nests of them.
  10. It’s a flowering vine. The flowers are purple and smell like grapes that are a little too ripe. When bees feed on the nectar from these purple kudzu flowers the honey they make from it is also naturally purple. And tastes a bit like grape jelly or sometimes bubblegum.

There you have it. Our biggest foe could easily be one of our greatest assets if only we figured out how to properly harness it. In the end, though, whether you love it or hate it kudzu is synonymous with the South. It hides old secrets, chokes out anything that tries to compete for its home and habitat, it can be dangerous, but also beautiful. No wonder Southerners hate kudzu. We might just be too much alike for our own good.

10 Things About Vacuum Cleaners

I have two sons. They love dinosaurs. One of their favorite games in the backyard is to dig holes to “excavate fossils” while pretending to be paleontologists. They have discovered and named many new species of dinosaurs in our backyard to date.

I encourage their imaginations and their love of science. Unfortunately, my carpet often pays the price. They track in dirt on their shoes, on their clothes, in their hair, under their fingernails, and–as in a recent case–sometimes they just plain ol’ carry in big chunks of it to further examine after they’ve been told to come inside. It doesn’t help that we have a Rottweiler who loves and adores these boys so much that she is more than happy to help dig holes for them and track in her own amount of debris.

First world problems, I know. But the truth is, in their short little lives so far, these boys have killed three vacuum cleaners. Expensive ones. A Dyson, you know, the kind that promises to never lose suction, choked on their dirt. A Shark choked on their dirt. Lately, we opted for a less expensive model just in case it happened again. It did. The Eureka also burned out. We have a stick vacuum to help pick up the slack, but I feel a lot like that little robot in Wall-E that rolls around screaming “CONTAMINANT” as it follows Wall-E around the spaceship. Side note, that’s an underrated movie.

It seems however, I am not alone in my struggle. A friend of mine was commiserating with me because her kids have also cost her more than one vacuum cleaner along the way and shared this video she found for a good laugh. I’m not ashamed to say that I absolutely cackled. I don’t know who this woman is, but SHE GETS ME.

As you can see, vacuums have been on my mind lately. And because the internet can be a very useful thing, I did a little research to share 10 Things You Might Not Know About Vacuum Cleaners.

  1. The earliest incarnation of a cleaning device that would eventually lead toward the vacuum cleaner was, like many of its immediate successors, quite the behemoth. Invented in the 1860s in Iowa, it used bellows and blew instead of sucked. After typing that sentence the former teacher in me immediately braced for teenage giggles.
  2. Most early versions of the vacuum had to be carted around on horse drawn carriages and took at least two people to operate the mechanisms. Moreover, they were too big to enter the buildings they were meant to clean, so they had to be hooked to pipes and hoses through windows and doorways. The most famous was the “Puffing Billy” and was commissioned to clean Westminster Abbey before the coronation of King Edward VII. Lord Chamberlain was so impressed that he commissioned a Billy for Buckingham Palace and another for Windsor Castle.
  3. The quest for the perfect vacuum technology also spawned the hair dryer. The large blowing machines were hooked up to chairs with large hoods and used to blow air from furnaces to a person’s hair. Modern handheld hair dryers wouldn’t become widely commercially available until the 1950s.
  4. Anna and Melville Bissell ran a crockery shop until they managed to create a mechanized sweeper that used brushes. Their invention took off and the company they started has carried their name (and been run by their descendants) ever since. In fact, in 1889 when Melville Bissell passed away, Anna took over the company to steward it for her five children before they were of age and became the first female corporate CEO in America.
  5. In the early 1900s a department store janitor named James Murray Spangler used the Bissell Sweeper and added a few modifications of his own and created something that would make his job easier. He quickly realized the commercial viability of his invention and patented it. However, he didn’t have the means to manufacture and sell the machines himself, so he turned to family. His wife’s brother-in-law just happened to be William Henry Hoover. Hoover bought the rights, but also kept Spangler on in the business. However when Spangler died in 1915, he changed the name of the company from the Electric Suction Sweeper Company to The Hoover Company.
  6. The first iron lung was created by using an electric motor and two vacuum cleaners in 1927.
  7. A woman purchased an Electrolux vacuum in the 1930s (when they were the equivalent about $800 today) in Kent. She continued to use it without replacing it until it finally kicked the bucket in 2008 when it exploded in mid use. The Electrolux Company sent her a new one for free. Maybe I should look into getting an Electrolux if the whole Ridgid Shop Vac thing doesn’t work out for me.
  8. There are modern artists whose installations are primarily made from vacuum cleaners, and even one stage musician who is known for “playing” a vacuum cleaner.
  9. There is a vacuum cleaner museum in St. James, Missouri. And actually, my research calls it “the first vacuum cleaner museum” suggesting that there are more elsewhere.
  10. Before World War II, vacuum cleaners ranged in price from the modern day equivalent of $800-$1,300. After the war, manufacturing processes helped lower the price somewhat. However, it was the rapid growth of the middle class that is credited with the boom of consumer sales. Today 98% of American homes own a vacuum cleaner.

There you have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean my floors. Again.