Morsels of Historical Goodness: Paintings and Meditations on Moments from the Past

Everything has a history. The clothing we wear, the items in our handbags. From a silk handkerchief you can unpack the story of the Silk Road, ancient trade routes, deals made with a handshake, paths crossed, lives lost. From a Victorian lady’s parasol you can unlock the story of whaling and the Nantucket sailors who braved high seas to harvest the baleen that gave umbrellas their structure. The history of the Delta Blues can’t be told without mention of a simple machine made from a wooden box, a crank and two drums: Eli Whitney’s cotton gin which also, inadvertently, kickstarted a civil war. These paintings celebrate moments and objects that have a story to tell.

Darwin vs. His Dad

Sometimes your dad’s vision for your future just doesn’t interest you. Charles Darwin was no different. Curious from the start about animals and nature, young Darwin always enjoyed long solitary walks. What his family saw as aimless meanderings were actually his earliest fieldwork. Darwin was taking the mental notes that launched his career as a naturalist. But you can imagine his family shaking their heads as he scampered around like a fawn, nosing in the shrubbery or absentmindedly falling off stone walls when something interesting caught his eye. (That really happened.) 

By sheer luck, and thanks to his careful study of nature, he was invited to join the HMS Beagle expedition while in his early 20s; the trip of a lifetime! But when he asked his father’s permission he was met with a long list of reasons to decline. His father called the idea “A wild scheme,” sure to result in discomfort and wasted time. It would divert him from a much safer plan: a quiet life in the clergy. What was probably on his dad’s mind was that Darwin might die at sea. Crews on these voyages often met a horrible death.

Crushed, but wanting to please his father, Darwin nearly gave up. Just think: his journey on the Beagle almost didn’t happen! Darwin’s theory of evolution and all his observations of plants and critters around the globe might never have come to pass. To hatch his dangerous and beautiful ideas Darwin needed his father’s blessing. And he almost didn’t get it. But Darwin’s uncle saw his heartbreak and they made a plan to change his dad’s mind. The senior Darwin finally gave in. Then another obstacle nearly derailed the journey. In an absurd turn of events, Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, hated Darwin’s nose so much he wanted to kick Darwin off the crew. He thought Darwin’s nose reflected a weakness in character that might jeopardize the expedition. FitzRoy got over it, and off they went. And nose shapes continued to be a theme. Darwin made detailed studies of finches and the variations in the shape of their beaks. These beak studies helped him develop his theory of evolution.

When Color Kills

In 1861 19 year-old artificial flower maker Matilda Scheurer died from arsenic poisoning. Her job was to coat the leaves and stems of the fabric flowers in a brilliant green powder made with copper arsenite. She inhaled and ingested the dust as she worked. Historian Allison Matthews David writes, “By all accounts, Scheurer’s final illness was horrible. She vomited green waters; the whites of her eyes had turned green and she told her doctor that everything she looked at was green.” Green was the defining color of the Victorian era. The industrial revolution choked the air with soot and dulled the colors of the city. Factory work was drab and monochromatic. It’s no wonder people became obsessed with lush, romantic gardens. In Victorian homes waterfalls of foliage and bursts of bright blooms covered every surface. Fine clothing was saturated in green dye. Green wallpapers and paints covered walls. Cloth flowers, like Matilda’s, adorned clothing, hats and headpieces. 

Scheele’s Green, invented by Swedish chemist Charles Wilhelm Scheele, was the was the most popular hue. Next to the duller forest greens or olives that came earlier, this bright, saturated green seemed electric — lit from within, thanks to its high arsenic content. Ladies with money to spend on fashion and home goods were understandably bewitched by this green.

William Morris, Renaissance man and designer of the period, used the Scheele’s Green in his popular wallpapers. Arsenic laden papers emitted a musty, garlicky smell, particularly in damp weather, and it’s said that this off-gassing made many people sick. Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park, fell victim to his bedroom wallpaper and had to convalesce for several weeks in another room. But Morris, who’s family fortune was in copper mining, had too much skin in the game to pull his poisonous products off the market. He dismissed claims that arsenic was toxic, and people continued to get sick. 

As the public became convinced of the dangers of arsenic, Scheele’s green fell out of fashion. But it took too long, and cost too many lives. Beauty and fashion trends often have a human cost. Our modern day arsenic scandal might be the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh, or the rivers in China that run red with textile dye.

The Crapper

Thomas Crapper, of 19th Century England, gets all the credit for inventing the toilet. And it’s widely believed that the word crap comes from his surname. The truth is, crap has been in use since the middle ages, and it’s just a miracle, or destiny, that Mr. Crapper became a world famous sanitation pioneer. And though he was very clever he did not invent the toilet. Elizabeth I flushed her waste away as early as 1597, when her godson invented a toilet that was then installed at Richmond Palace. Other innovators, including Thomas Jefferson, ushered the technology further into the mainstream before Crapper fine-tuned the “U Bend” and “ballcock” technologies and patented his iconic “Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer,” the toilet design that prevails today. It needs to be said, of course, that the true heroes of this story are the servants, slaves and women across all cultures who for centuries were charged with the cleanup and removal of household waste. We can only hope that today, thanks to Crapper, most of them have been relieved of their duties.

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Tea and Opium

There’s at least one Englishman who lost his taste for tea; loyalist John Malcolm, the customs officer on duty during the Boston Tea Party. That night a rabble of rebels, frothy with anger over high taxes, stormed British ships docked in Boston harbor and chucked all the tea they could find overboard. They captured Mr. Malcolm, tarred and feathered him, poked him with a stick and beat him with clubs. In the following weeks John sent a letter to his boss asking if he could please return to England, and as proof of his ordeal he included a piece of charred skin that had fallen off his body. Tea had a way of stirring up emotions. By the 18th century, Chinese tea was something the British couldn’t live without. But tea growing secrets were so closely guarded in China that anyone who leaked information to foreigners was hanged. So the British were utterly dependent on the Chinese for their fix. And to make matters worse the Chinese didn’t want to trade tea for British exports, only silver. So the British coffers were quickly drained. 

At last the British found an export to tempt the Chinese: Opium. They conquered the poppy fields of India and began trading opium for tea, kicking off a catastrophic opioid crisis in China. Brits and Americans also consumed opium in the form of the tincture Laudanum which was said to relieve teething pain in babies, diarrhea, migraines,  hysteria and numerous other complaints. Every 19th century medicine chest had a vial. Users claimed to be pain free and in a state of heightened imagination. But when the magic wore off, they became wretched and preoccupied with taking their next dose. It soon became clear that opium needed to be a controlled substance.

The British eventually took control of their tea supply. Robert Fortune, an undercover tea spy, toured China in disguise stealing seedlings and learning the tricks of the trade. Thanks to him, within 50 years India became the new epicenter of tea production under the control of the Crown. 

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A Winged Army in the Breadbasket

In 1874 Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family sold their little house in the big woods and headed west. They settled in a dugout cottage tucked into a hill on Plum Creek in Minnesota. It was a beautiful green place and Pa set to work planting a wheat crop. Pa must have read the accounts in the papers of that sunny day just a year ago when a swarm of locusts darkened the sky and covered the land in a thick blanket. According to a witness their wings and jaws sounded like thousands of scissors cutting and snipping. Over the month the locusts devoured everything in sight leaving fields bare and farmers destitute.

That swarm also left behind a ground pock-marked with little holes where the locusts had lain their eggs. The mild winter created the perfect conditions for these eggs to thrive. And then, in June, billions of hungry locust nymphs hatched in a flash. They headed for fields and gardens, forming the largest swarm in human history, 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long (a scientist measured the cloud of insects for 10 straight days). I remember reading Laura’s account of that day, the day the swarm eclipsed the sun. They clung to her skirt and squished beneath her feet. Pa tried to fight them with fire, setting up berms throughout the fields to smoke them out. People covered their gardens with cloth but the locusts chewed right through. One woman said the insects covered her and ate the green stripes from her dress. Finally, after gorging themselves they marched away, across the fields, like an army.

But in the following years the locusts began to vanish. By 1877 the swarm was small and sluggish. The last collection of the species was in 1902. Scientists still can’t agree why the Rocky Mountain locust is gone. Were eggs plowed up as industrial agriculture moved west? Were beavers over-hunted, resulting in new patterns of flooding, disrupting egg habitat? Did grazing cattle stomp the eggs? How can such a mighty insect population just disappear? But what if the swarm persisted? Would the American Midwest have become the nation’s breadbasket?