The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...
English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)
Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

Live turkeys, dead possums and a very vocal Tea Party

By Caitlin Kelly

Welcome to Virginia!

It’s most definitely not New York.

We’re staying with friends for a few days and exploring the area. Yesterday I drove 90 minutes to Richmond to visit the Tredegar Civil War Museum, on the site of the ironworks that supplied the Confederacy with munitions.

"Ruins in Richmond" Damage to Richmo...
“Ruins in Richmond” Damage to Richmond, Virginia from the American Civil War. Albumen print. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t know that much about the Recent Unpleasantness, as some Southerners still call it, but I learned a lot. I did know, and included in my 2004 book Blown Away: American Women and Guns, that women served in the Civil War as soldiers, being small and slight enough to pass for teenage males. I used a terrific history of this issue, They Fought Like Demons, in my research.

A One Hundred Dollar Confederate States of Ame...
A One Hundred Dollar Confederate States of America banknote dated December 22, 1862. Issued during the American Civil War (1861–1865). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, I did not see a reference to this in the museum, although it might be there — it’s interactive and highly detailed. One of the most compelling sights was the green velvet lined surgeon’s kit, complete with amputation saw, and a battered metal post he would have used to prop up a leg before a soldier was to lose it to surgery.

Another artifact was a black striped silk dress and its wearer, in a daguerrotype, with her husband and baby — four years later she was dead in childbirth. And heavy metal shackles, worn by slaves.

It is one thing to read about this in books, or see it in movies, but to read the words of soldiers and their wives was also sobering.

Made in China, of course!
Made in China, of course!

I ate lunch at a great old diner, Millie’s — a pulled pork sandwich on a cheddar biscuit. I skipped the grits in favor of salad. Each table had its own jukebox.


Then I visited Carytown, the funky part of Richmond, and scored a handful of antique treasures.

Two of my found treasures
Two of my found treasures

It’s an odd place for someone like me. Every church — and there are many, many churches here — is United Methodist or Baptist, with a few Episcopalians. I have yet to see a Catholic church or synagogue.

The highways are lined with very large trucks driven by farmers in caps. We ate dinner at a local restaurant and 14 men, most of them Hispanic farmhands, came in for $4 taco night. The fields are filled with winter wheat, and the new corn crop is just starting to show.

As I drove, I passed two dead possums and many live turkey, in the fields, on the roadside. They’re big!

The Tea Party has many large signs in bright yellow posted just outside of Richmond — past the Battlefield Elementary School — asking “Are you a Patriot?”

In March 2012, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring women who want an abortion to have a sonogram:

The legislation has proved ideologically polarizing, with many Democrats decrying the bill as an invasion of privacy aimed at shaming women out of having abortions, and Republicans heralding it as a way to provide women with as much information as possible about their pregnancies prior to having an abortion.

“This law is a victory for women and their unborn children. We thank Gov. McDonnell and Virginia’s pro-life legislators for their work to ensure that women have all the facts and will no longer be kept in the dark about their pregnancies,” said the conservative Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in a statement.

Any woman choosing an abortion is hardly “in the dark” about her pregnancy. She’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be.

I wonder where (if/when) we’ll retire  — and which part of the world we’ll choose.

Our friends have chosen this part of the United States, and it is lovely to look at. But politically and religiously, not my cup of tea.

It's Not Just 'Dates, Facts And Dead People' — A New History Channel Series Tries To De-Snooze History

The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth ...
Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1575. Image via Wikipedia

I love reading history, probably because it’s basically revised, cleaned-up, multiply-sourced journalism — often called the first draft of history.

Right now I’m loving a biography of Queen Elizabeth I by British historian Anne Somerset. As unlikely as this sounds, it’s a page-turner. (Oddly enough, the image I’ve chosen here is the same one on my book’s cover, from the National Gallery.)

I confess, though, that one passage is truly memorable, in which a priest is being burned at the stake, too slowly because the wood is wet, and he begs his onlookers to fan the flames so he can die faster. No matter how gross, it’s hard not to picture, and remember that scene.

Yet so much of history, as presented to most of us along the way, is a big fat snooze, boringly taught and impatiently suffered through.

A recent piece in my favorite newspaper, the weekend Financial Times, looked at the problem and determined it was a case of “Too Much Hitler and the Henrys” — i.e. for British students anyway too narrow a focus on WWII and the Kings named Henry.

A new television series, “America: The Story of Us” began this week on April 25 and continues for six more Sundays on the History Channel. It’s the most ambitious project of its kind since Alistair Cooke’s 13-part “America: A Personal History of the United States, broadcast in 1972.

Reports The New York Times, the new series is:

“a naked attempt by the producers to rope in viewers whose experience of United States history may be limited to their school history classes. “In that attempt to make it feel epic, it’s actually quite refreshing to see big personalities commenting on what history means to them and what that moment in the story means to them, and how that has inspired them,” said Nancy Dubuc, the president and general manager of the History channel. “It sort of ups the entertainment value of the show.”

“It’s not about dates, facts and dead people,” she added. “It’s about presenting a very rich story in an engaging and entertaining way, and along the way, lo and behold, hopefully millions of people will watch something that they hadn’t anticipated they would watch.”

I read a lot of great women’s history – (check out anything written by Glenda Riley, a historian of the American West)  — when I researched my first book, about American women and guns, and learned that entire swaths of Colorado and Wyoming had been homesteaded exclusively by women, for whom being armed and ready to shoot was a matter of life or death. Many women fought in the Civil War, even those heavily pregnant, their gender or condition undetected by their comrades in arms, and detailed in the great book, “They Fought Like Demons” by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.

Too often, as women know, history books typically focus on wealth and power, those narratives told and driven by men. Women, confined for centuries to domestic or religious life, often seem almost invisible.

A wildly popular series for kids, (now available on DVD) is Horrible Histories, filled with gruesome/alluring details like the fact it took two swings to lop off Mary Queen of Scots’ head. The series has sold 11 million copies in the UK and 20 million worldwide, with the accompanying books translated into 31 languages.

Something is working when there’s such hunger for history amongst the young ‘uns.

Some of my favorite recent reads have been social histories of Paris, Roy Porter’s portraits of London and of England in the 18th. century. I enjoyed David McCullough’s history of the Brooklyn Bridge, although he skimped on the juicy details of how Washington Roebling’s wife Emily saved his butt; it was she who took charge of the project — this, in the male-dominated 1880s — after he fell ill with the bends.

I fell in love with well-told history when I read a history of medicine in my early teens, introducing me to a roster of heroes, from Hippocrates, Galen and Harvey to Jenner and Semmelweiss.

How many of you know — for example — that most babies born (in North America anyway), have an Apgar test within minutes of birth? Did you know the test is named for a woman, Virginia Apgar, a pilot and Columbia University’s first female medical professor?

What history taught in school — before you had a choice in college — do you remember best and why?

Do you ever read history now for pleasure? Which periods and authors do you like?

Even Michelangelo Got Paid Late, New Vatican Archives' Book Reveals

A Ignudo, Sistine Chapel.
Another artist who waited to get paid for his 1550. Image via Wikipedia

The Vatican has unlocked its archives, publishing them in a new book, reports the Toronto Star:

The book, $87.23 at Saturday (but temporarily out of stock), is being published in English, French, Italian and Dutch editions.

And for the truly obsessive collector, there’s a limited edition available for $8,400. Only 33 copies will be printed on felt and hand-stitched, and three are already reserved – one for Pope Benedict XVI, one for the Vatican Library and one for, what else, the Vatican Secret Archives.

The original letters, whether written on parchment, silk or birch bark, are reproduced in exquisite detail, and a modern commentary accompanies each document.

They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – a 1586 letter from Mary Queen of Scots, written to Pope Sixtus V several weeks before her execution, to a 1246 demand by Grand Khan Güyük, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ordering Pope Innocent IV to travel to Central Asia, his “kings” in tow, to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission.”

Otherwise, it warns, “you shall be our enemy.”

Also included:

  • In what surely must rank as one of history’s most impertinent “pay up” letters, Michelangelo writes in 1550 to demand that the Vatican pay his bill, then three months overdue, and complains that his work on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica has been interrupted by a papal conclave;
  • Letters from Henry VIII and the peers of England written in 1530 about the king’s “Great Matter” – divorce, of course, and a matter near and dear to the hearts of any Tudors fan;
  • The document conferring the Order of the Golden Spur on Mozart in 1770;
  • The 1493 papal bull “inter cetera” of Alexander VI, awarding the New World, as the Americas were then known, to Spain;
  • Documents from the heresy trials of the Knights Templar in 1308-10;
  • The sentence of the Council of Pisa in 1409 deposing popes Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, and
  • The papal bull condemning and excommunicating Martin Luther in 1520-21.
  • Catholic News Service reports:
  • The new book lets readers see some of the things the academics have seen, including handwritten letters to Pope Pius IX from Abraham Lincoln and from Jefferson Davis.Both letters were written in 1863 while the U.S. Civil War raged on.The letter makes no mention of the war, but assures the pope that King is “well informed of the relative interests” of both the United States and the Vatican “and of our sincere desire to cultivate and strengthen the friendship and good correspondence between us.”On the other hand, the letter from Jefferson Davis, president of the secessionist Confederate States, is filled with references to the war and its “slaughter, ruin and devastation.”Only the first page of the letter and Davis’ signature are included in the book, but the Vatican historian’s commentary about the letter includes quotations from the second page as well.

    The commentator said Davis wrote to Pope Pius after the pope had written to the archbishops of New York and New Orleans “urging them to employ every possible means to end the bloodshed and restore peace.”

    Davis wrote to the pope about the suffering caused by “the war now waged by the government of the United States against the states and people over which I have been chosen to preside.” He assured the pope that the people of the South are fighting only to defend themselves and to ensure they can “live at peace with all mankind under our own laws and institutions.”

  • President Lincoln’s letter is a formal, diplomatic request that Pope Pius accept Rufus King as the U.S. representative to the Vatican.