John Muir: Celebrated Naturalist And Unrecognized Genius Inventor

Kids gather around John Muir's study desk Wisconsin Historical Images

Kids gather around John Muir’s study desk
Wisconsin Historical Images

John Muir, one of America’s most influential naturalists and champions of the wilderness, celebrates his birthday this week.

Born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir and his family landed in Wisconsin in 1849. They settled near Portage on land they called Fountain Lake Farm. It was there in the woods, prairies, and wetlands of the farm that Muir discovered his passion for nature.

As a young man, Muir was also a talented inventor and could have made quite a career for his mechanical devices. On the farm, he constructed water wheels, thermometers, clocks and an automatic horse feeder. His father disapproved of his tinkering so he spent his nights working in secret in a cellar workshop.

Muir, whose formal schooling ended when he moved to Wisconsin, craved education. So he took several of his inventions to the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair and scraped up enough attention and money to pay for his college tuition.

Muir made the combination desk and clock pictured above while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s. More than just keeping time, it was a study aid for the harried college student. He arranged his books in the order he needed to study and set the timer. After a click, the first book was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk and thrown open for studying. After a set number of minutes, the machinery closed the book, dropped it back into the rack, and then moved the next book up and onto the top of the desk.

Muir filled his dorm room with these practical machines to maximize his college experience. Another of his inventions was a combination bed and alarm clock that tipped the bed up and the person sleeping in it to standing position and struck a match for the lamp at the appointed wake up hour. It was carved, as a former dormmate of Muir’s recalled, with “no other tool than a jackknife.”

Muir left the UW and Wisconsin in 1863 on what he called “a glorious botanical and geological excursion.” He didn’t consider his education done, however: “I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.”

Photographic Futures: High School Students Predict Careers in Photos

In this image, Menomonie High School senior William C. Klatt operates on a disembodied head using a bit of photographic trickery. Klatt’s photo appeared in a unique album, depicting members of the 1905 graduating class in quirky scenes that seem perfect to get us in the April Fools’ spirit.

The photographs were the work of Albert Hansen and Sarah Ana Heller, both students themselves. Hansen took the photos while Heller did the prophesizing, posing each student with a costume and setting appropriate to their fated careers. Heller also wrote the text that accompanied each photo. Some of her captions are humorous and all are intriguing, like this one for a young woman dressed as a cook: “The Queen of Madagascar has secured at an enormous cost and trouble the services of Birdie Retelstorf as chief cook for the royal family, where she serves such delicious dishes that the Queen would not part with her for love nor money. Recommendations can be received at any time from her majesty for any graduate from The Stout Manual Training School. Miss Retelstorf’s master piece in the culinary line is a toothsome dainty known as Missionary Salad.”

Students appeared as everything from doctors and socialites to cowboys, dentists, and violinists. In one image, a woman wins an international prize for her book on mathematics, a fate far ahead of its time. Hansen himself posed as a hobo while Heller’s profession was unclear. Of herself, Heller wrote, “Any person in the audience who will volunteer to predict the future of this singular looking object will receive a prize package of chewing gum at the close of this meeting.”

Heller dressed for an unknown future Wisconsin Historical Images

Heller dressed for an unknown future
Wisconsin Historical Images

Hansen took his first photo at age 14 and never stopped. He liked to experiment with the possibilities of the medium, as these photos demonstrate.

At least one student fulfilled his photographic prophecy. Fred Quilling really did become a pharmacist. After an apprenticeship and degree from Northwestern University, Quilling returned to Menomonie and ran a drugstore on the town’s Main Street for many years.

Hobo Hansen Wisconsin Historical Images

Hobo Hansen
Wisconsin Historical Images

Frank Lloyd Who? The Remarkable Aunts of the Famed Architect

Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed.

Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed. Wisconsin Historical Images

While Frank Lloyd Wright—his innovative buildings and his tumultuous love life—tend to get most of the attention, his mother’s remarkable sisters, Ellen “Nell” Lloyd Jones and Jane “Jenny” Lloyd Jones (“the Aunts” as Frank called them), had a lasting influence on him as well as the students they taught in their progressive coed school.

In 1887, Nell and Jenny founded Hillside Home School on their family farm in Spring Green. They commissioned their young nephew (Frank was 19) to design the building.

Jenny and Nell came to their educational enterprise with a wealth of experience. Nell had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School, while Jenny had directed a kindergarten-training school in Minnesota. Uniting farm, home, and school, the Hillside Home School was a progressive “learn by doing” school that educated students—girls and boys—from elementary through high school. It was perhaps the first coeducational home schools in the country.

The school’s location on a 100-acre farm was touted as an asset to education. “The location of the school removes them from the distraction of the city and surrounds them with the ennobling influences of nature,” proclaimed an 1893 Hillside Home School booklet. The sisters believed that education should teach the basics like math and reading while also attending to the development of empathetic and engaged human beings. Many classes were held outdoors. Older students taught younger ones about responsibility and good manners.

Jenny and Nell also believed that women should exercise and play sports, a view that was not yet common. Femininity throughout much of the 19th century was delicate and passive, not healthy and strong.

Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School Wisconsin Historical Images

Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School
Wisconsin Historical Images

Frank, an indifferent student himself, was inspired by the freedom of the educational curriculum offered by his aunts. He’d chafed against the rigidity of formal academic requirements. Among the students to attend the Hillside Home School were the architect’s sons Frank Lloyd, Jr., and John Kenneth as well as the three children of Robert La Follette.

The school closed in 1915. Nell and Jenny ran it for its entire existence. The school’s buildings were later repurposed as a school and studio for architecture students on the grounds of Taliesin.

When the White House Came to Wisconsin

Coolidge fishing on the Brule. No idea what that big wad of white fluff behind him is - cotton candy?

Coolidge fishing on the Brule. No idea what that big wad of white fluff behind him is – cotton candy? Wisconsin Historical Society

It’s all about the presidents this month. Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, and Presidents’ Day for all the rest (though really, Presidents’ Day is still officially Washington’s birthday and only became popularly known as Presidents’ Day in the 1970s). While Wisconsin might not lay claim to a president, it does boast a “Summer White House.” President Calvin Coolidge escaped to Wisconsin for three months in the summer of 1928 to fish the Brule River while working in a nearby high school.

In fact, Wisconsin has been a popular destination for fishing presidents. Since Ulysses S. Grant, five presidents have dropped a line in the state’s waters.

Ill health led Coolidge and his wife Grace to leave Washington for Cedar Island Lodge in Brule. The announcement sent residents into a panic as they prepared for their lofty visitors. They built a new railroad depot, strung telephone and telegraph lines, redid roads and constructed an airport. A makeshift Oval Office was set up inside Superior Central High School for the nation’s business. The whole city decked itself out in red, white and blue. And upon his arrival, a huge crowd turned up to greet Coolidge, embarrassing the man known as “Silent Cal.”

Coolidge appears to have spent most of his time fishing rather than politicking. In July, he welcomed presidential nominee Herbert Hoover and declared his support of Hoover’s bid for office to residents, visitors, and newsmen. But that was about it. The Duluth Herald reported that the president appeared “more anxious to master the paddling of a canoe against the Brule rapids than in learning what is going on.” Coolidge definitely kept his cool… if being cool meant his demeanor toward his job.

Coolidge left his summer White House able to fly fish and paddle a birch bark canoe. He hoped to come back to the Brule, but sadly, died before that came to pass.

Wisconsin’s Own Indiana Jones

In the above image, Roy Chapman Andrews feeds baby eagles at his camp in Mongolia in 1928.

In the above image, Roy Chapman Andrews feeds baby eagles at his camp in Mongolia in 1928.

Trotting the globe in search of adventure, Andrews battled blistering sandstorms and fended off deadly snakes in adventurous pursuit of science. Born in Beloit on Jan. 26, 1884, he once said he was “born to be an explorer.” Using money saved from his job as a taxidermist, Andrews paid for his education at Beloit College. He then hopped a train for New York City after graduation in 1906.

He applied for a job at the American Museum of Natural History but was told there were no jobs available. So, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He must have been done one heck of a job with those floors because he rose quickly through the ranks and was soon leading expeditions that took him around the world.

Andrews became most famous for his work in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s. Expecting to find the “missing link” for human evolution, he instead uncovered a wealth of mammal and dinosaur fossils, including dinosaur eggs. It was a find that proved how dinosaurs reproduced.

Besides fossils, Andrews also found a wealth of excitement and danger. He survived encounters with armed bandits, hungry sharks, and most Indiana Jones-like of all, dozens of poisonous pit vipers. Andrews later admitted to being so frightened that he screamed when he stepped on a coil of what he thought was a snake. It turned out to be rope. In the course of his life, Andrews was mistakenly reported dead more than once.

Political instability ended Andrews’ work in the Gobi, and in 1934, he became director of the American Museum of Natural History.

Andrews is widely believed to be the model for movie legend Indiana Jones. Although George Lucas never specifically cited Andrews or anyone else, Andrews’ life certainly makes a strong case. Andrews was one of the most famous explorers of the time and his discoveries featured in movie serials. He also looked the part – Andrews always wore a hat and carried a revolver.

In 1942, Andrews left the museum and, fortunately for us, spent the rest of his life writing about his expeditions.

Ringing in a New Year with Wisconsin’s Baby New Year

Jimmy Clark rings in 1954 as “Baby New Year” in cowboy boots, underwear, and a sash while standing atop a case of Appleton’s local Adler Brau beer and holding a cigarette (it was the 1950s – we didn’t know any better.). Clark was not the baby that year but he represented a custom that goes back thousands of years.

The tradition of “Baby New Year” can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, was reborn every year as a spirit of fertility and luck. They celebrated with a baby in cradle. Ancient Egyptians also symbolized the birth of the New Year with a baby.

Babies born on New Year’s Day are generally considered lucky and their arrivals heralded in the newspaper. “Lawrence Frank Upthagrove has requested Mayor Walters to telephone the Journal that he is Stevens Point’s first New Years baby,” read a 1911 article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal. It seems unlikely that baby Lawrence made that request himself but New Year’s babies are exceptional.

In Monroe, Wisconsin, the lucky New Year’s Baby of 1948 received gifts from local businesses. To stop any would-be cheaters, the doctor’s signature was required to win.

And in Menasha, Wisconsin, in 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Shukoski won the New Year’s lottery with a second New Year’s baby. The Shukoskis won their first first baby of the year in 1946. But it seems holiday births were nothing new to this family of eleven. Dad and one of the boys were born on Thanksgiving, another on July fourth, and another on Christmas Eve.

Vintage Wisconsin: The Perfect Christmas Outfit

I’ve started a new blog at Wisconsin Public Radio called “Vintage Wisconsin.” It includes things like this:

Have you picked out your Christmas outfit yet? In this great photo, a young girl takes dressing up for the holidays to a new level with this tinsel- and ornament-bedecked dress in the 1950s. 

Jesuit priest, the Rev. Claude Allouez, celebrated what was perhaps the first Christmas in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1665. He had set out from Montreal in August in the company of 400 Native Americans returning home to Wisconsin. He landed near where the city of Ashland is today and built “a little chapel of bark” that he decorated with “various pictures, as of Hell and of the universal Judgment.” Cheery decor, no? Allouez didn’t say what he did on Christmas, but it was probably praying and saying Mass rather than dressing as a Christmas tree.

Holiday cooking disasters have a long history in Wisconsin as well. In 1803, British trader Capt. Thomas Anderson attempted a Christmas feast for his Native American neighbors. He captured “the fattest raccoon” he could find – 32 pounds – and set to work stuffing it with venison, onions, and seasonings.

“No coonship’s body, I am sure,” he wrote, “was never so cram-full before.”

He set the stuffed raccoon by the fire intending to roast it in the morning but woke up to find it “putrid and stinking.” Mortified, Anderson went without dinner and got laughed at by his “half-famished friends.”

Despite this cooking disaster, Anderson was at it again in 1811, preparing a “sea pie” of muskrat for a Christmas feast. He made the crust and fit it in the bottom of a bake-kettle; spread a layer of muskrat meat, pepper, and salt; and continued alternating crust and meat until the kettle was full.

“But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food,” Anderson lamented. “On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air.”

Maybe Anderson should have tried the tree outfit instead. May your holiday feast be more relishable.

Electric Belts and Other Electrifying Health Aides

Electricity has long been a popular healer. In the 18th century, upper class people in the United States and Europe attended dramatic electrical performances as entertainment. The therapeutic uses of electricity were not just for the elite, however, extending all the way down to the lower classes.

Ancient Romans knew of the healing power of electricity. They prescribed the application of black torpedo fish, a kind of electric ray, to numb pain. Scribonius Largus, Emperor Claudius’ physician, was a staunch advocate of the remedy: “To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.”

The discovery of the Leyden jar – a way of storing up static electricity – in the 18th century allowed shocks to be delivered in a more forceful way. Soon after, Italian physician and scientist Luigi Galvani’s experiments activating the nerves in the legs of a dead frog seemed to suggest that electricity and life were intimately connected. If electricity restored life, suddenly, toothaches, back pain, headaches – just about any ailment seemed like it could be cured by the application of electricity. It ignited an electrical healing craze.

Mary Shelley used this belief in electricity to her advantage in 1817, giving birth to Frankenstein.

Electrotherapies were common in the 19th century. All sorts of electric devices – electric baths, electric belts, electric vests, electric soap, even electric hair brushes – could be purchased along with wild claims to health improvement.
photo (14)

 

 

 

 

Electric belts were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ads featured all manner of testimonials from satisfied customers. You didn’t even have to seek a specialist to get one –  they could be purchased from the Sears catalog. The Reinhardt brothers of Milwaukee were big proponents of electrical healing, selling their devices as cures for every kind of sexual dysfunction imaginable.

 

 

 

 

 

photo (15)I spotted these electrical belts in the collections at House on the Rock.

Of course, electrical therapy still exists to this day. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS, for instance, uses a low-voltage electrical current for pain relief, not unlike the torpedo fish of Roman times. Electricity may not be a cure-all but it’s definitely still with us.

Single Ladies – 19th Century Style

Long before Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte brought singledom to the television, real women known as “bachelor girls” were doing the same in American cities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were expected to marry. They had no social identity without marriage and motherhood.

But in the late 19th century, some single women with respectable ways of earning money came to regard marriage as unnecessary for self respect or financial stability. They didn’t oppose marriage but set certain standards for suitors to meet to gain their hand. “A great many bachelor maids are not living alone because they so choose, but have been unable to find a suitable companion,” declared Helen Gould, a self-proclaimed bachelor maid. Women like Gould formed social groups, known as Bachelor Maids’ Clubs, first in New York and Washington D.C., and then in cities and towns around the country. Sixty women, “banded together by an ‘all-for-one-and-one-for-all’ compact that would make the Musketeers themselves pale with envy,” formed the inaugural membership of the New York Bachelor Girls’ Club. The women first considered calling themselves “The Old Maids’ Club” but the bad feelings associated with spinsters – “corkscrew curls and a tabby cat” proclaimed one bachelor girl – led them to embrace bachelorhood.

The generations of women born between 1865 and 1895 had the highest proportion of single women in history. Before this time, a single woman who didn’t have to work to support herself would likely have resigned herself to a boring life in her childhood home with her parents. Not these ladies. Instead, they pursued higher education, fulfilling work, and independent living.

In 1907, the Washington Herald began publishing a popular column “Bachelor Girl Chat” that soon found a home in the women’s pages of newspapers across the country. Written by Helen Rowland (the “Carrie” of the past), the columns featured an ongoing conversation between the “Bachelor Girl” and the “Mere Man.” The Mere Man clearly wants to marry the Bachelor Girl but his interest gets subsumed beneath talk of feminism and patriarchy. Complaining of new laws barring women from smoking in New York City, the Bachelor Girl proclaims, “The moment you find anything amusing, you discover that it’s unladylike. Her reputation is the white woman’s burden. It takes all the fun out of life to have a good reputation.”[1]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of the most visible and influential women in the United States were unmarried: Susan B. Anthony, leader of the suffrage movement, Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, and Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago. Reformers and progressives often cast independent women as the vanguard of women’s struggle for equality.[2]

Even though most bachelor girls would end up at the altar, their existence and that of the newspaper column show that views of women were beginning to shift in the early 20th century. Single women now had options, and they dared to reach out to claim them.

[1] “New York Girls Organize Club,” The St. Louis Republic (22 June 1902), part 1, pg 6; Elizabeth K. Stratton, “The Bachelor Girl Confesses,” New York Tribune (4 April 1909); “Bachelor Girls Find Defender,” The Washington Herald (26 July 1912), pg 5; Helen Rowland, “Woman’s Rights and Man’s Privileges,” The Washington Herald (1March 1908)

[2] Trisha Franzen, Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States (New York: New York University Press, ) 5

The Original Ice Bucket Challenge

It was the summer of the ice bucket challenge. Dumping icy water (or just ice. Or just ice to make a stiff drink) on your head to raise awareness for ALS while challenging others to follow suit.

One hundred and fifty years ago, people poured ice cold water on their head or bathed in it as a medical treatment itself. Hydropathy, or the water cure, promoted the benefits of pure cold water to good health. Many people took the cure at any number of water cures that opened around the country in the 1840s and 1850s. Most cures were located in beautiful spots alongside streams, lakes, or beside mountains. But the best time to come wasn’t summer but winter when the water was colder and the breezes strong and chilling. Water cures often advertised their winter amenities to people looking to be well.

Hydropathy’s founder Vincenz Priessnitz maintained that the water “cannot be at too low a temperature.” The “lower the temperature,” he claimed, “the more efficacious it will prove.” As a result, many water cures charged more in the winter than for a summer visit.

V0011765 A man is treated to a cascade of water in the name of hydrop

Unsurprisingly, winter brought its own hazards to those taking the cures. Icicles sometimes formed around the head of the outdoor shower, sending icy daggers along with cold water down on the head of the patient below. Outdoor bathers sometimes found themselves floating beside chunks of ice.

While critics of the water cure delighted in these tales of peril, patients loved it. Reformer and teacher Catharine Beecher declared hydropathy “the safest and surest methods of relieving debilitated constitutions and curing chronic ailments.”