June 19, 2016
June 03, 2016
Today is is the birthday of Henry Shrapnel (1761).
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
May 28, 2016
If there is one word that epitomizes the spirit of the Tawdry Knickers project and the entire notion of “unfortunate ways to be remembered” it is surely guillotine—namesake of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, born today in 1738. It is a historical tragedy that with such humanitarian intentions, he is doomed to association with so macabre a device. Pity this poor Frenchman today, and hold out hope that your own neck and legacy might remain intact.
The historical parade of torture paraphernalia would seem to support novelist Joseph Conrad’s assertion that “Man is a cruel animal. His cruelty must be organized.” In eighteenth-century France, popular execution methods included the breaking wheel, burning at the stake, hanging, and beheading. The speed with which prisoners died usually depended on social status, with the well-to-do able to bribe executioners to sharpen their ax and the lower classes dying of strangulation at the end of a noose or suffering multiple whacks from a dull blade.
Though both Louis and Guillotin had hoped that humane (and private) executions would be the first step toward complete abolition of capital punishment, their ideals would not be realized in France for nearly two hundred more years. Instead, the newly “painless” beheadings became public spectacles in France. The scaffolds were surrounded by cheering families and tricoteuses (women who would knit and purl as the heads rolled). Small-scale toy models became children’s playthings, and some women even wore earrings modeled after “Madame Guillotine.”
May 23, 2016
Today is the birthday of the whimsically whiskered Ambrose Burnside.
—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition
Though they enjoy a popular counter-culture resurgence every few decades (and remain a fashion mainstay for particular niches of the entertainment industry), the golden age of sideburns was unquestionably the American Civil War—led by the hirsute charge of Ambrose Burnside, who will long be remembered not for his positions as a general, governor, senator, or even president of the National Rifle Association, but for his outrageous facial hair.
Burnside was born in Indiana in 1824 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843. He guarded garrisons in the Mexican-American war, protected Western mail routes in the U.S. cavalry, and received an Apache arrow in the neck before first leaving the Army in 1853. He remained in the Rhode Island militia, however, and manufactured his namesake Burnside carbine rifle until a string of bad luck forced him to sell his patent after his factory burned down and he lost an expensive Congressional race.
The outbreak of the Civil War seemed to give him a second chance and, rising up from his position as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia, he commanded an entire brigade at the Battle of Bull Run. Despite his acknowledged lack of military experience and his repeated insistence to Abraham Lincoln that he was not qualified for the job, Burnside was eventually appointed to succeed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, after disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and later the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Burnside finally decided to resign.
Widely regarded in retrospect as being unfit for high command, Burnside is nonetheless remembered as an extraordinarily nice guy. He shook enough hands and slapped enough backs to become a railroad mogul, a governor and senator of Rhode Island, and the very first president of the NRA. But it was his signature facial hair—flamboyant mutton chops conjoined by a hearty mustache with a clean-shaven chin—that gave him infamy. His “burnsides” eventually flipped syllables to give us our sideburns today.
Sideburns have varied in length, shape, and name in subsequent years. They are called side-whiskers or sideboards in the United Kingdom. They have spanned the social map from presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to actors (James Dean) to singers (Elvis Presley) to footballers (Joe Namath). There are mutton chops (flaring out across the jawline) and friendly mutton chops (connected with a mustache). There is even a special category for them in the bi-annual World Beard and Moustache Championships. A hairless chin remains sacrosanct, however, lest the jowls be joined to form a beard.
Among the most spectacular sideburns of history were the jaw-line drapes sported by Edward Sothern in his portrayal of the eccentric and dim-witted Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (later made extraordinarily famous for being the featured entertainment the night Abraham Lincoln was shot). Sothern’s sweeping facial locks eventually merited their own name (see dundrearies).
But the original hipster, Ambrose Burnside, died in 1881. He was quickly immortalized in stone, and his boundless whiskers, astride his noble steed, are now permanent residents in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park.
May 19, 2016
Melba prolonged the end of her singing career with four years of farewell concerts from 1924 to 1928, leading to the Australian expression “more farewells than Nellie Melba.” She delivered her swan song in 1931, dying at the age of sixty-nine allegedly from complications following a face-lift. Headlines around the world announced her passing. Dozens of conservatories, music halls, and streets were named for her. Chef Escoffier (who adored the soprano) even named an elaborate dessert of vanilla ice cream, peaches, and raspberry sauce served betwixt the wings of a frozen swan for her (Peach Melba). But it is the inadvertent toast for which she is best remembered today.
May 04, 2016
May 02, 2016
n. a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations esp. on the basis of unsubstantiated charges
—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
The word still used today to chastise demagoguery and bullying political douchebaggery is the namesake of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, voted “the worst U.S. senator” by the Senate press corps even before making his famous unsubstantiated claim in 1950 that he had an extensive list of known communists working in the State Department.
During his life, McCarthy had fully embraced his namesake, even co-opting it for the title of his book McCarthyism: The Fight for America. But cartoonist Herblock ultimately had the last laugh regarding his creation. He insisted there was “nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he’s welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap."
April 15, 2016
n. a woman’s hairdo in which the hair is swept up high from the forehead, usually over a roll
—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition
The somewhat absurd hairstyle beloved by French courtesans and Elvis impersonators alike is the namesake of Madame de Pompadour, former mistress of King Louis XV.
Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in Paris in 1721. By all accounts she was extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated. She also had a bit of a stage mother who ensured that she would learn to play the clavichord, paint, get married, become friends with Voltaire, and charm the pantaloons off the king, all before her twenty-fourth birthday.
Within a month of their meeting, Louis XV had established Jeanne-Antoinette at Versailles as his mistress. He wooed her with an estate at Pompadour and gave her the title of marquise (more hoity than a countess, but not as toity as a duchess) so that she could appear in his court. Six months after seducing the king, the new Madame de Pompadour legally separated from her husband and began a lifelong crusade to have things named for her.
Despite being loathed by the upper crust for her bourgeoisie background, she became a trusted advisor to the king, and it was she who recommended the hiring of her dear friend Étienne de Silhouette to be France's new Controller-General (see silhouette). Outside of politics, she was a devoted patron of the decorative arts, and the unrivaled center of the Parisian fashion scene. Her support of porcelain manufacturing led to the creation of Pompadour pink, a specific color for fine ceramics. Handbags, silks embroidered with sprigs of flowers, and even richly plumed birds (Xipholena punicea, the pompadour cotinga) all bore her name. Though she was only his mistress for five years, legend has it that, after she died at age forty-three from congested lungs, a grieving Louis XV commissioned his craftsmen to create the oblong marquise or navette cut for diamonds to remind him of the delicate shape of her mouth.
Well after her death, a purple-uniformed regiment of the British Army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was nicknamed The Pompadours owing either to purple being her favorite color or—depending on the discretion of your source—the color of her underwear. Urban legend has also suggested that the classic French Champagne coupe may have been modeled from her breast—Marie Antoinette is another contender for this distinction—despite being designed several decades before either’s bosom sprung into public consciousness.
But it was her hair that brought her infamy. Though she classically wore it in loose rolls around her face, the style that became associated with her name eventually involved sweeping the hair upward to hang high above the forehead. And it was not simply for the ladies. As early as 1885, no less than the Atlanta Constitution newspaper recommended it for the gents:
“The pompadour is the most convenient way possible to wear the hair. It is cool, and simply running your fingers through it when you get up dresses it for the day.”
Elvis surely agreed.
April 05, 2016
March 09, 2016