In today’s excerpt–at the founding of our country, Americans drank more alcohol than at any time before or since, five gallons of pure alcohol per person per year as opposed to two gallons today. Currently, America is a nation of relatively moderate drinkers, ranking around 20th among the world’s countries. Along the way, American anti-German hysteria during World War I helped usher in thirteen years of Prohibition:

“American prohibitionists believed the demon rum and its church, the saloon, were the world’s prime sources of evil. ‘When the saloon goes,’ said Ernest Cherrington, a leader of the Anti-Saloon League, ‘the devil will be ready to quit.’ The American temperance movement is as old as America itself, but it became a political force in the mid-1800s, fueled in part by a bias against immigrants, including Irish and Italian Catholics, who were stereotyped as shiftless alcoholics. After the Civil War, it spawned two powerful groups–the Prohibition Party and [hatching-toting Carry Nation’s] Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose slogan was ‘For God, Home and Native Land.’

“But is wasn’t the antics of Carry Nation that won the fight for prohibition, it was the political savvy of the Anti-Saloon League. … Founded in 1895, the league pioneered many of the techniques now used by modern advocacy groups. Working through local churches–generally rural Methodist or Baptist churches–it raised money, endorsed candidates and successfully lobbied for laws banning liquor in many towns and counties. In 1905 the league demonstrated its growing power by defeating Ohio Governor Myron Herrick, who had thwarted the league’s legislative agenda–an upset that terrified wet politicians.

“In 1913 the league kicked off its drive for a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor with a march on Washington and a massive letter-writing campaign that flooded Congress with mail. The amendment failed in 1914, but gained strength during World War I, when the league exploited America’s anti-German hysteria by deliberately associating beer with German-American brewers. ‘Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go,’ declared the league’s general counsel and wily Washington lobbyist, Wayne Wheeler.

“It worked. Congress passed the amendment in 1918. … When the new law went into effect on January 17, 1920, evangelist Billy Sunday held a funeral for John Barleycorn in Norfolk, Va. ‘The slums will soon be a memory,’ he predicted. ‘We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. … Hell will be forever for rent.’

“Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Prohibitions not only failed to eradicate slums and prisons, it even failed to curtail drinking, a pastime that now took on the allure of a forbidden thrill. … In 1935, two years after Prohibition’s repeal, two middle-class alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, founded an organization– Alcoholics Anonymous–that proved far more effective than Prohibition in combating drunkenness.”

Peter Carlson, “Uneasy About Alcohol,” American History, December 2008, p. 37.


In today’s encore excerpt, having completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, U.S. businesses and the U.S. government try to recruit immigrants to settle the middle of the country–promising such things as freedom to speak their native language, local self-governance, and exemption from military service. For the railroads it was not only a way to support their operations, but a way to increase the value of the landholdings they had received from the government as inducement to build the railroads:

“It had at first been thought that no settlers could survive anywhere on the semiarid, mostly treeless Great Plains that rolled all the way from Montana and the Dakotas south into Texas … but the Homestead Act of 1862 began to change all that. It promised 160 acres of public land to any person who filed a claim, paid a ten-dollar fee, and agreed to work the property for five years. As it happened, the 1870s and early 1880s were unusually wet years in the West, and the prairies, plowed and planted for the first time, yielded bumper crops. Promoters made the most of it … [but] most of these efforts came to nothing. Factory workers [from the East] weren’t farmers, and even those who might try it could rarely afford it. Land itself was cheap, but getting to it, getting started, and surviving for the five years required to get title to a homestead cost money that most of them didn’t have.

“Prospects seemed better overseas. The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society recruited Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe to establish farming communes in Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, and the Dakotas. The First Swedish Agricultural and Galesburg Colonization Companies started the towns of Salemsborg and Lindsborg in Kansas. Small groups of Dutch, French, Bohemian, English, and Irish families scattered across the Plains. Two hundred Scottish families settled together on the Kansas-Nebraska border. By 1875, more than half of Nebraska’s 123,000 settlers were members of families headed by foreign immigrants. …

“Then C.B. Schmidt [of the Santa Fe railroad] was dispatched for the biggest prize of all–the German- Russian Mennonites. They were pacifists who had fled Prussia rather than serve in its army three- quarters of a century earlier. … There was plenty of competition for these able and prosperous farmers. After Canada offered them immunity from military service and free transportation if they would settle there, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota all also solemnly offered to exempt them from military duty– although they had no legal authority to do so. Everyone promised them the right to govern themselves in their own communities, to speak German in their own schools, plenty of land at good prices, and easy credit.

“Mennonite emissaries were taken to Washington to meet President Grant. … Secretary of State Hamilton Fish personally assured them the United States would not go to war again for at least fifty years.”

Geoffrey C. Ward, The West, Back Bay Books, 1996, pp. 243-7.

China falls behind!

In today’s excerpt–how China, once the world’s economic and technological leader, fell behind. It closed its doors to the outside world in 1434, and with this isolation from trade in commerce and ideas, began a centuries-long period of stagnation:

“China’s population of 1.3 billion constitutes more than a fifth of humanity. Asia’s population, in total, includes 60 percent of humanity. Asia’s fate is truly the world’s fate. .., China and India are ancient civilizations that in important ways were far ahead of Europe not so many centuries ago. The rise of the West–the western part of the Eurasian landmass–was one of the great ruptures of human history, overturning more than a millenium or more in which Asia rather than Europe had the technological lead. [Today], Asia is not merely catching up with Europe and the United States, it is also catching up with its own past as a technological leader. …

“Where did China stumble, and why? … Around the start of the sixteenth century, just after Columbus had found the sea route to the Americas and Vasco de Gama had circled the Cape of Good Hope to reach Asia by sea, China was clearly the world’s technological superpower, and had been so for at least a millenium. Europe conquered Asia after 1500 with the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, all Chinese innovations. There was nothing fated about such a turnaround. China’s dominance, it appears, was squandered, and 1434 is increasingly understood to be a pivotal year.

“In that year, the Ming emperor effectively closed China to international trade, dismantling the world’s largest and most advanced fleet of ocean vessels. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese fleet, under the command of the famed eunuch admiral, Zheng He, had visited ports of the Indian Ocean all the way to East Africa, showing the flag, transmitting Chinese culture and knowledge, and exploring the vast lands of the Indian Ocean region. Then, all at once, the imperial court decided that the voyages were too expensive, perhaps because of increased threats of nomadic incursions over China’s northern land border. For whatever reason, the emperor ended ocean-going trade and exploration, closed down shipyards, and placed severe limitations on Chinese merchant trade for centuries to come. Never again would China enjoy technological leadership in naval construction and navigation, or command the seas even in its own neighborhood. …

“In 1975, China’s per capita income was a mere 7.5 percent of Western Europe’s. Since then … China has soared, reaching around 20 percent of Europe’s income level by 2000. … China is ending extreme poverty, and is on its way to reversing centuries of relative decline.”

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, Penguin, Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey Sachs, pp. 149-151.

Raising a princess

In today’s excerpt–the life of the infant princess Mary (1516-1558), first child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine. Mary later reigned as the first queen of England and is remembered as “Bloody Mary”:

“[Newborn] Mary was an attractive baby, and there was genuine parental affection. But she did not stay with them long.

“From these very early days, Mary would live close to, but separate from, her parents. As a baby she seems to have stayed very near them, and to have passed Christmas with them at Greenwich, but babies and all their paraphernalia did not figure in the day-to-day lives of 16th-century monarchs. … The notion that Katherine raised her daughter herself is at odds with the role of a queen consort, and Katherine had been a very diligent practitioner of this role during her years of childlessness.

“So, in the first two years of her life, Mary was cared for by a wet-nurse, Katherine Poole (later Lady Brooke), wife of one of the king’s gentlemen ushers, a team of four rockers, no doubt intended to sooth her when she was lying in her magnificent cradle, and the highly necessary person of a laundress, to deal with all the washing that a small child generates. In the feeding, changing and daily routine of her daughter’s life, Katherine took no part. …

“The princess’s household seems to have been a functioning unit within days of her birth. As well as the nursery staff and the lady governess there was a treasurer to manage finances, a chaplain and a gentlewoman. Mary’s expenses soon began to grow. In the six months between October 1517 and March 1518 they stood at £421.12s 1d. By 1519/20 they had risen to £1,100, about £400,000 today [or $735,000]. Not until her father’s death in 1547 would Mary actually have an income of her own, but she grew up as the focus of a substantial business unit, whose members had considerable responsibilities as well as privileges. …

“Although she was a little girl in an adult world, her life was not necessarily devoid of amusement. A later fixture of Mary’s life was her fool, Jane Cooper, one of the few female examples we have of a role that was generally given to men. The two seem to have had a close relationship, with Mary meeting Jane’s expenses for haircuts and illness. Fools were not just entertainers, they were something of an emotional safety valve. It is probable that as a child Mary enjoyed the antics of her father’s court jesters. …

“There are no records of Mary having contact with other children or being educated with them, unlike her siblings Elizabeth and Edward two decades later. This is not conclusive proof that she grew up in complete isolation, and it is possible that she knew the daughters of her aunt Mary.”

Linda Porter, The First Queen of England, St. Martin’s Press, Copyright 2007 by Linda Porter, pp. 14-15.

In today’s excerpt–after the Black Death, the terrifying plague that killed one-third to one-half of all Europe’s inhabitants from 1347 to 1349, there was a change in the names parents gave their children:

“The centrality of religion in medieval European life is impossible to overstate. … If you want to pray, you go to your parish and submit to the direction of a priest. If you want to confess, you sit in the confessional and [tell] your sins to the man on the other side of the partition, who pronounces judgement and penance. …

“Then along comes the Black Death, mowing down the sinful and the sinless indiscriminately. … You can be healthy on Monday, infected on Tuesday, and a corpse on Saturday, leaving precious little time to wipe the sin slate clean by confessing and repenting in preparation for your personal judgement day. The biggest hurdle of all might have been luring the priest, any priest, to one’s deathbed of contagion in order to perform last rites, the final cleansing. If a cleric does show up, he might charge an outrageous price for mumbling a few prayers. Stories of deathbed fee-gougers also abound, adding to the popular perception that extravagance and greed motivate more often than not. …

“Once the epidemic is over, the survivors increasingly turn away from organized religion. Instead, they put their faith in the saints, especially those associated with pain and suffering. One modern historian conducted a comparative study of the most popular names for boys in Florence following the Black Death, in part to determine its effect on religious practice. That effect appears to be, in a word, enormous. Virtually no Florentine born before 1350 was named ‘Antonio,’ after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the oppressed, the elderly, the poor, and the starving. After 1427 the name ranked second. At number six, also unknown preceding the plague, is Bartolomeo–after one of the original twelve apostles; he was purportedly flayed alive and crucified by the Romans, surely qualifying him for the pain-and-suffering category. (Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement shows Bartholomew clutching his skin, the organ of the body that most visibly bears the signs of Black Death.)

“Also rising out of nowhere to the heights of post-plague fashion is Lorenzo. Here the inspiration is Lawrence of Rome, a third-century deacon who achieved martyrdom by being roasted on a gridiron. The sudden vogue for ‘Christopher,’ patron saint of pestilence, needs no further explanation.”

Susan Squire, I Don’t, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 166-167.

In today’s excerpt–the ancient Greeks determined the Earth was a sphere and calculated its diameter over 1700 years before Columbus sailed to America:

“The Greeks had noticed that on occasion, Earth blocks the sunlight from hitting the Moon, causing what is called a lunar eclipse. By observing the shadow of Earth cast upon the Moon during a lunar eclipse, they could see that Earth was also a round body, a sphere, just like the Moon and the Sun.

“Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar and the chief of the famous ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, around 240 BCE, knew that in a town far to the south, Syene, there was a deep water well. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year–June 21–the full image of the Sun could be seen reflecting, for a brief moment, in the water of the deep well in Syene precisely at noon. Therefore, the Sun at noon must be passing exactly overhead in Syene. He noticed, however, that on this same day, the Sun did not pass directly overhead in his hometown of Alexandria, which was 800 km (500 mi) due north of Syene. Instead, it missed the zenith, the point directly overhead in the sky, by about seven degrees. Eratosthenes concluded that the zenith direction was different by seven degrees in Alexandria from that in Syene. Using some elementary geometry, he could determine the diameter of Earth and found it to be 12,800 km (8,000 mi).

“Earth’s true diameter, as we know it today, depends slightly upon where you measure it, since Earth is oblate, that is, wider through the equator than through the poles, and it also has mountains, tides, and so on, that require us to quote only an ‘average value.’ The average diameter of Earth through the equator is about 12,760 km (7,929 mi), and through the polar axis, about 12,720 km (7,904 mi). This means that Eratosthenes derived the correct result for Earth’s diameter to an astounding precision of better that 1 percent, assuming Earth was a sphere.

Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, Prometheus, Copyright 2004 by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, pp. 18-19.

In today’s encore excerpt, the liberated women of the aristocracy in tenth and eleventh-century Japan:

“It just happens that the women of Kyoto, in the days when it was the residence of the Japanese emperor and known as ‘the capital of peace,’ made a record of what they felt, illuminating human emotion … While men wrote learned texts on the usual subjects of war, law and religion, in the language ordinary people could not understand (Chinese, the Japanese scholars’ equivalent of the Europeans’ Latin), women started writing novels in the everyday Japanese language, and in the process invented Japanese literature. For about a hundred years novels were written only by women … The world’s first psychological novel is the Tale of Genji, written between AD 1002 and 1022, by a widow in her twenties …

“In this period, it was shameful for an aristocratic woman to be dependent financially on her husband. She did not move in to live with him on marriage; each kept their own home. … [t]hey had both the ability and time to reflect on their relations with men, which were unusual in that there were virtually no restrictions on sexual intercourse. … Men could have many wives (some went up to ten at a time) and even more concubines. … Wives were encouraged to have all the lovers they could attract, and virgins were thought to be blemished, possessed by evil spirits.

“Nobody expected a partner, either short or long term, to be faithful. A wife, indeed, believed that if her husband had many mistresses, she was more likely to have exciting and affectionate relations with him, provided she was the woman he preferred; that was a constant challenge. But this system became a nightmare because these wonderfully elegant people could not stand the uncertainty. Both men and women were morbidly jealous, even though jealousy was regarded as a breach of good manners. They all pined for security, though they were bored by it.”

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Vintage, 1998, pp. 281-284.