Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Year 2016, Leap Day, February 29

Pope Gregory XIII                                                     engraving, 17th century

Every four years it seems we need an extra day to keep our cultural calendar - Gregorian - in line with the astronomical year of the planet. We add that extra day to February because it's the shortest month of the year. We can thank Julius Caesar for introducing the leap year concept and Pope Gregory XIII for tweaking it into something manageable every four years.

So what's happened on past leap years? lists these events:

1. The first arrests in the Salem witch trails took place in 1692;
2. The Panama Canal Commission was formed in 1904;
3. Gone With The Wind won several Oscars at the Academy Awards in 1940;
4. First Playboy Club opened in 1960;
5. Family Circus comic stripp made its debut in 1960;
6. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was named Album of the Year in 1968;
7. Gordie Howe made is 800th goal in 1980;
8. Davey Jones (The Monkees) died in 2012.

[ is an interesting site. Pay them a visit here.]

So who do - should - we know who was born in February 29? Wikipedia provides some answers:

1. Gioachino Rosinni, the Italian composer and pianist, in 1792;
2. William A. Wellman, American film director (A Star is Born), in 1896
2. Jimmy Dorsey, American saxophonist, band leader and composer, in 1904;
3. Dee Brown, American author and historian, in 1908;
4. Dinah Shore, American entertainer, in 1916;
5. Tempest Storm, American burlesque entertainer (still at it), in 1928.

For an entertaining article on what it means to have a birthday on February 29, go here.


Photos and Illustrations:
Pope Gregory, E, Helsius, 17th century engraver, Smithsonian Institution Libraries collection


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Marian Anderson: "I Have A Great Belief In The Future Of My People And My Country."

Today is the birthday of the American singer, Marian AndersonWhen she passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 the world lost one of its finest voices of the 20th century. She swept to international fame in 1939 with a public performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. 

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had denied her the opportunity to perform in their venue, Constitution Hall, because she was black. The decision didn't sit well with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who sat on the national board of directors of the DAR. Mrs.Roosevelt intervened and helped arrange one of the iconic events of our time.

Portrait of Marian Anderson, 1940
Here is a documentary, Portrait of Marian Anderson, produced for the Greater Washington Telecommunications Association and first aired on public television on May 8, 1991. I normally don't post lengthy audiovisuals but this one affords viewers a flexible opportunity to learn about her life, listen to her singing, and hear her personal observations on an extraordinary life that included seven decades on the stage.


Photos and Illustrations:
1939 concert, public domain photo by U.S. Information Agency, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
Anderson portrait, Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Title quote, Marian Anderson 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Birthday Of Our First President, George Washington

On February 22, 1732 - February 11 according to the Old Style calendar - a son, George, was born to Augustine Washington and his wife, Mary Ball Washington, on their plantation on Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He would grow up to become a soldier and statesman as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, a Founding Father of the United States, and the first President of the United States under the United States Constitution.

George Washington                                                            Gilbert Stuart, 1796

On his departure from office in 1796, he issued a letter to the American people which has become known as Washington's Farewell Address. Here is his conclusion:

. . . in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope, that my Country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love towards it, which is so natural to a man, who views it in the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations; I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat, in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

If you are interested in reading more about the man, the University of Virginia's Papers of George Washington site is a fascinating source.


Stuart portrait copy, known as the Lansdowne Portrait hanging in the White House. The original is located in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Postcards are from the author's archive.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Signs Of Peace And Luxury

Readers usually find lots of birthdays in my posts. Today is no exception; however, the center of our attention is a thing rather than a person. Yes, today is the birthday of the "Peace Sign." It was introduced on this day in 1958 by Gerald Holtom a British artist who developed it as a logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The anti-war movements of the 1960's readily adopted it as an international peace symbol.

The design was quite simple. The vertical line was derived from the British semaphore code symbol for "N" - standing for "Nuclear." The arms came from the symbol for "D." - standing for "Disarmament." Both were set in a circle symbolizing the world.  We've come fifty years and two generations from those early demonstrations and their new symbol. That's plenty of time for symbology to change but in this case most contemporary demonstrators still get it right.  That is, most demonstrators but not all.

For example, I'm totally in favor of giving Mercedes-Benz a chance. That's the least we should ask for the makers of some of the finest automobiles in the world.

And then there are those who ask humankind to end the horrors of war and replace them with a quality driving experience:

Perhaps this phenomenon is little more than a common oversight. On the other hand I suspect that the huge growth in American prosperity and marketing over those decades may be a greater influence. It is a comfortable journey from the houses most boomers experienced as children to the bourgeoisie dwellings we own - perhaps "finance" is a better term - in today's world.

Add trust fund babes to the mix and one can see where there may be some confusion with historic symbols and the branding going on in Mom and Dad's three- bay detached garage. 

If they only knew.

Alas, Gerald Holtom earned nothing directly from designing the peace symbol, an image that cannot be copyrighted or trademarked. Commercial users have made billions off the symbol now ubiquitous in our culture 57 years following its introduction.

This is a revision of an earlier post. 


Wikipedia, Gerald Holton
Center for Nuclear Disarmament
The Peace Symbol Celebrates Its 57th Birthday, But Still No Peace,

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Victory Over Liberalism Just About Every American Can Celebrate

The New York Times front page, February 17, 1933
Today we commemorate the passage of the Blaine Act in 1933. This brief piece of legislation began a year-long process that ended the debacle we know as Prohibition. Granted, overindulgence in alcohol was a national issue by the Gilded Age. At the same time, I doubt few liberals would have expected the degree of lawlessness that engulfed American society as a result of their best intentions. Indeed, a year before the Blaine Act, John D. Rockefeller wrote this appraisal:

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

And here's a photo of The Honorable John J. Blaine, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, who was responsible for not only writing the act bearing his name but also the 21st Amendment that officially repealed Prohibition.

I would suggest a toast this evening to Blaine and his realistic response to moral folly. Oh that we should have such wisdom today!


Photos and Ilustrations:
The New York Times,
Blaine, public domain photo, bioguide.congress.cov

Rockefeller quote, "Twenty-first amendment to the United States Constitution,"

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On The Wing: The Great Migration Of The Sandhill Crane

It's that time of year when cool mornings give way to pleasant afternoons in the warming sun. Some early spring flowers are already in bloom and even casual observation of the woods reveals a hint of color from rapidly expanding leaf buds. But not all of the activity is at ground level. It's time to look up, way up, for the magnificent Sandhill cranes

Over Atlanta, flocks ranging from a few dozen to as many as several hundred push north and northwest on their journey to summer habitats in the western Great Lakes and central Canada.  They are a pleasure to watch with their shapely "v" and wide arc formations as well as their "kettling" in uplifts prior to departure. In our woodland setting we always hear their distant croaking - "ka-roo, ka-roo, ka-roo" - that leaves us hoping they fly over our clearing. Most of the time they do because they fly high, sometimes into the thousands of feet. At those altitudes it's hard to imagine that you are looking at a bird that may stand five feet tall and soar on a seven foot wing span. Though there is a resident population of Sandhills in Georgia, several hundred-thousand will migrate from their wintering ground in Florida. Coming or going, they always bring a smile and leave us looking up for more.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Presidents Day 2016

Today marks the official federal holiday known as Washington's Birthday. At one time the nation had a Washington's Birthday holiday on February 22, the actual day of the man's birth, but that changed in 1971 when the "Monday holiday rule" took effect. The rule was

a postlude to a torturous twenty year saga of federal bickering, ineptitude, and state's rights issues over the national failure to honor our presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln, with their very own holiday. The fallout left us with what is in reality a Washington's Unbirthday holiday and a three-day weekend. Poor Honest Abe's birthday didn't even make the official cut.
Never keen to let a good shopping opportunity pass, American capitalists liked the idea of a President's Day, especially one that could be stretched over a full week . And Lincoln and Washington were a perfect match. Merchants saw the advantage of the patriotic fervor generated by matching silhouettes of Lincoln - log cabins - and Washington - axes and cherries - positioned over merchandise and big red signs reading "SALE." The concept caught on. Today, about all Americans have left with the third Monday in February is the opportunity to buy stuff, mostly stuff they don't need. On the federal level, this not only leaves us with nothing for Old Abe but also nothing for the other presidents save George.

So what is one to do? Perhaps it's best to forget the issues of a misnomer and the neglected presidents and return to Lincoln and Washington as our February presidents. And they have more in common as presidents who share the quality of American exceptionalism, a term we've been hearing more often these days as the republic drifts ever deeper into its golden years. With that in mind, I suggest readers find a comfortable setting and reflect on these men and their place in the American experience. If readers need a bit of encouragement here are two statements, one so very brief, the other a bit longer, both reflecting the greatness of their authors and the hope they shared for our unique national experience:

Washington's Farewell Address, written in 1796 on his coming departure from the presidency,  
and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863.

There is a growing national trend to refer to this day as "Presidents Day." Perhaps a day focused on the office instead of the long line of mostly dead white men doesn't matter much in a nation that has lost its appreciation for history and reality over the past decades. In my view there are still some personalities and events worthy of authentic remembrance if we want to keep the American experience alive and well. 


Photos and Illustrations:
early 20th century postcards from the author's archive

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Historic First Performance In Jazz, February 12, 1924

File:George Gershwin 1937.jpg
George Gershwin, 1937                                  Carl Van Vechten

Shortly after News Year's Day in 1930, the "King of Jazz," bandleader Paul Whiteman asked his friend, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his concert series in New York. Although faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin's place as an innovative, leading American composer. The rest is history.

There is no recording of the premiere but the bandleader and composer did appear in a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the 1930 film,King of Jazz. The film itself is an important piece of cinema history.

Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. His appeal comes in part from the colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived to see the 1980's.

As for Rhapsody in Blue it seems as fresh today as it did in 1924 ranking among the most popular of concert titles in orchestra repertoires around the world.


Photographs and Illustrations:
Photograph, Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Do take some time today to reflect on the life, time, and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. So much of what he was in his time, we are as a nation today. 

If you want to settle into an evening with Lincoln, your choice of titles will number in the thousands and in a variety of media. I am inclined to recommend Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It is available as a one-volume abridgement or you may choose to tackle the original six-volume version. Not always accurate, not always "organized" as a traditional biography, Sandburg's work is really the story of Lincoln as American experience. It's romantic, rich, warm, organic, meandering, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. I think the approach works well because the Lincoln story is, in so many respects, the American story. Also keep in mind that, although well-known as a poet, Sandburg soon was revered in the U.S. as a poet/writer for the people, once the first volumes appeared . With that in mind, I believe Old Abe would have been proud to select a writer of popular history and culture as his official biographer.

Abraham Lincoln Photo Portrait, early 1865                                       Alexander Gardner

As you can see from the photo below, Lincoln and I go way back. That picture was taken during the spring of 1952 during my first visit to Washington. It began a long association with Old Abe and his time that peaked during the last fifteen years of my career. What an honor it was to know him well and work to preserve his story for future generations visiting our national parks.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lincoln photograph, Gardner collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Lincoln Memorial, author's archive, 1952

Sunday, February 7, 2016

SS United States: New Plans For America's Flagship

Good news for history buffs and the historic preservation movement . . .

I first wrote about the dire situation facing the SS United States in 2010 and followed the post in 2014 with an update on the enthusiastic efforts to save this significant piece of national history. And this is why the SS United States is worth preserving:  

For seventeen years, the SS United States carried passengers across the Atlantic Ocean as the Queen of the American Merchant Marine. This great liner still holds the westbound Atlantic crossing record - at an average speed of almost 40 mph - set on her maiden voyage in 1952. Now merely an empty shell, she has been weathering away since the late '70's and moored at her last destination, Philadelphia, since 1996. With her interior furnishings gone, some may say that she is a vessel we can afford to lose. But instead of decoration, the SS United States was noted for her innovation, performance, and adaptability as a military as well as civilian vessel. She is, therefore, a most suitable example of American industrial and engineering history.

Earlier this week Crystal Cruises and the SS United States Conservancy announced they had reached agreement on a planned purchase, revitalization, and return of the famed ship as a luxury liner. You can read more about the project here.


Photos and Illustrations:, SS United States at sea, travel poster

Text:, SS United States

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

February 2 Is A Day Full Of Promise

Gen. Beauregard Lee emerged from his home outside Atlanta this morning to see cloudy skies and predict an early spring. That other groundhog up north came away with the same interpretation. I would be quite pleased to see winter wither across the South for the next three weeks. And speaking of interpretations, February 2 seems to have an inordinately large number of associations as do many of those ancient days in our calendar. 

American Groundhog                                        John James Audubon (1785-1851)

What a difference a day makes:

Groundhog Day; and,

World Wetlands Day; and,

Candlemas, or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and,

Feast of the Purification of the Virgin; and,

Imbolc, the first cross-quarter day of the year; and closely associated with,

St. Brigid's Day: and,

a scattering of additional national holidays and lesser feast days.

For us Candlemas has such a special meaning with its focus on Mary and Jesus. The day also reminds us that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - ends.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple          Hans Holbein, German, 1500

And so on this day we find ourselves with a completely unreliable winter weather forecast, all of our Christmas decorations neatly packed for next season, an enhanced understanding of the meaning of the number "40" in Judeo-Christian history, an introduction to the nexus of culture and cosmology, some knowledge of early Irish history, and an appreciation of the most biologically diverse ecosystem on the planet. After a late dinner tonight I intend to ponder all of this, drink in hand, in a silent conversation with the faces in the fire. We'll remark on this cross-quarter day where temperatures soared well into the 70's that winter's cold indeed gave way to the promise of spring. Better that than relying on predictions from a titled marmot living in a Colonial Revival mini-mansion.