Tag Archives: history

Imagining the Ye Olde English coffee houses


In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!

Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.

Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.


Thirty-five years ago: “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, and the Iranian hostage crisis

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”

The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:

First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.

Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.

I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.

Diaries & journals as time travel devices


As both a history buff and a wannabe time traveler, I find that historically significant journals and diaries can be a wonderful way of jumping into the past. In the hands of gifted chroniclers, they offer intimate, we-are-there views of momentous times, blending reportage, observation, context, and some instant reflection and analysis.

Two of my favorites are William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 (1941) and John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years (1969). Here are some snapshot page views from both books:


William Shirer was both a print journalist and a radio reporter in Berlin during the tumultuous 1930s and the early years of the Second World War. In the photo above, we see Shirer writing about the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, regarded as the official launch of the war. He quickly and accurately dismisses attempts by Hitler and his High Command to spin the invasion as a defensive “counter-attack” in response to supposed Polish aggression.


And here’s one of his 1940 entries, writing about the British evacuation of Dunkirk following the fall of France. Note, at the bottom of the page, his observations about how the German people are now regarding the material deprivations they experienced as Germany prepared for war.

Shirer would go on to write one of the most popular books ever about the war, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.


John Kenneth Galbraith was an accomplished Harvard economist, liberal political figure, and author of a bestselling (and still relevant) book, The Affluent Society, when he became an advisor to the Kennedy campaign. Galbraith’s journal mixes insider stories about the Kennedy Administration, his experiences as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, and texts of letters that he wrote to the President.


Some of the most interesting parts of the journal recount the period immediately following Kennedy’s election in 1960. In the passage above, Galbraith shares news of his pending diplomatic assignment and his conversation with the President-elect about potential cabinet appointees.


And here’s an entry with news that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy will be making a short, informal trip to India, along with some humorous details about how Galbraith has been instructed to keep the visit confidential for now.


When it comes to journals and diaries from historically significant times, I much prefer the prose of observers such as Shirer and Galbraith over tawdry tell-all tales designed to sell books and attract talk show invitations. Shirer was a reporter, while Galbraith was a participant, but both journals share levels of restraint, sans the kind of voyeuristic detail we might expect in similar efforts today.

They are also fascinating to read, drawing us into different times and places. In the absence of time travel machines, books like these are pretty good substitutes.


Related posts

Time travel: Some favorite destinations (2013) — If I could go back in time, here’s my list!

A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero (2014) — My meeting with John Kenneth Galbraith, weeks before he passed away.

When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in 1893


Although Christopher Columbus isn’t on my list of favorite historical figures — click here and here for reasons — the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that bore his name was a sight to behold. The “Columbian Exposition,” named to recognize the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas, attracted a global audience to the brawny, growing metropolis of Chicago.

The 1893 Fair was a celebration of the world, its past, present, and future. This awesome little picture book, a gift from my long-time friends the Driscoll Family, presents a collection of photographs that capture some of that fascination. I’m delighted to share a sampling:


The Palace of Fine Arts was a chief showpiece building of the Fair. It is now Chicago’s famous Museum of Science and Industry.


This panoramic shot of the Fair helps to explain why it was called “The White City.”


While striving for an Old World look, the Fair celebrated scientific invention and manufacturing capacity.


Disney’s Epcot Center doesn’t hold a candle to the small scale re-creation of other nations at the 1893 Fair.


The Fair offered looks at exotic parts of the world. Check out the expressions of these ladies.


You could do some simulated exploring as well…maybe this inspired a future Indiana Jones?!


Refreshment stands dotted the Fair. I’m sure they were especially welcomed during hot Chicago summer days.


Guys who were bored with all of the cultural exhibits and displays could line up for this distraction. (This photo contains one of the longest lines of any exhibit in the book!)


America’s emerging role in international affairs and growing military strength were exemplified by the U.S.S. Illinois, a full-scale mock-up of a modern battleship that presaged even larger warships to appear at the turn of the century.


For more foreshadowing of events to come in the next century, the Krupp company, a major German gunmaker, had its own building.


But we shouldn’t finish our photo tour with ominous signs for the future. Rather, let us close with a reminder of the Fair’s beauty, via this wonderful night shot.


Could we ever have another World’s Fair? Probably not. The last genuine Fair was in 1964, in New York City. Subsequent efforts to stage such expositions haven’t generated the same levels of interest and attendance. In an age where the Internet, television, and international travel combine to shrink the globe, it’s hard to foresee anything like the 1893 Fair occurring anytime soon.

But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining the sense of fascination and wonder that drew visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair experienced back then. The Old World was making way for the New one, and these photographs make it clear that the Fair captured that moment in time.


If you want to learn more about the Chicago World’s Fair, check out its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a snippet:

The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired of the exposition.

The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. . . . More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.

Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.

Also, the Chicago Historical Society has an excellent online feature about the Fair.

Finally, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), interweaves the story of the Fair with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, whose private torture chamber was located a close west of the city’s fairgrounds. It’s a riveting book.

What are your “comfort books”?

Yes, this is one of my favorite books

OMG, I am an utter, hopeless geek

What are your “comfort books”? You know, those books that make you feel all warm and cozy, like a good meatloaf or bowl of soup?

It could be a classic novel, scary story, or atmospheric mystery. Or maybe a compelling tale of history or travel. How about an inspirational or spiritual book? If you’re a sports fan, maybe it’s a story about your favorite team.

I have comfort books that fit into most of these categories.

But in a confession of my free fall into complete geekdom, I’ll share one that I’m guessing you haven’t heard of before. It’s an intellectual history book, Men of Learning at the End of the Middle Ages (2000), by French historian Jacques Verger. I spied it at a bookstore over a decade ago, and it looked interesting enough to take a flier on it.

Men of Learning looks at how educated European men of the 14th and 15th centuries — mostly scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and bureaucrats — contributed to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

Verger combed through a lot of libraries and archives to be able to share, for example, the numbers of volumes in the private libraries of well-known and not-so-well-known individuals of the era. The Gutenberg printing press did not come along until the 1440s, which meant that printed books were precious, and that books written out by copyists were still quite popular. A personal library of even a few dozen or so volumes was considered an impressive (and monetarily valuable) intellectual endowment.

Today, libraries of major research universities contains millions of books and countless other print resources, not to mention access to even more via online resources. In the late Middle Ages, however, even the libraries of great medieval universities typically numbered in the hundreds(!) of volumes. I probably shouldn’t get too big headed over the fact that my personal library contains more books than that of the entire Oxford University library during the early 1400s, especially given that volumes such as Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader are a part of mine, but I still think it’s pretty neat.

Oops, I’m already getting carried away! Why does Men of Learning resonate with me as a comfort book? Probably because it connects with a big part of who I am, someone who revels in books and learning.

Your comfort books may be much different than mine — I don’t expect a run on Men of Learning because of this blog post — but that’s fine and dandy with me. Read and enjoy.

Classic movie report: August 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.

Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)

Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.

The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).


The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)

The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.

Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.

Latest binge view: “The Knick” (season one)

Last weekend I plowed through the ten episode first season of The Knick, a Cinemax drama set in a fictitious Manhattan hospital during the early 1900s. It stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackeray, a brilliant, driven, and cocaine-addicted surgeon. It has a great ensemble cast playing various doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, ambulance drivers, and board members.

The Knickerbocker hospital serves Manhattan’s poor and working class, and its medical staff attempts to be on the vanguard of treatments, diagnostics, and surgical techniques. It makes for sometimes gruesome scenes, and for this reason some readers might want to avoid it. (Think a turn of the century version of ER and you’ll have some sense of what I mean.)

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Knick is how it portrays the evolution of health care as it moves out of the Victorian Age. Even those generally familiar with the history of medicine will appreciate the sense of drama in storylines about new and experimental approaches to health care.

The Knick also depicts treatments that by today’s standards are wrongheaded and even barbaric. Ambulance drivers are profiteers and body collectors. Issues of race are dealt with bluntly, including the presence of an African American surgeon whose knowledge and experience are completely dismissed when he joins the surgical staff.

And finally — no spoiler alert necessary — the last scene of the final season one episode is simply brilliant.

My cable subscription doesn’t include Cinemax, so I’ll have to wait for the season two DVDs to jump back into the world of the Knickerbocker Hospital. I can’t wait!

Classic movie report: July 2015

A film clip by the museum's co-founder, running on an old-style projector.

A film clip by the co-founder of the Third Man Museum in Vienna, running on an old-style projector.

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month’s selections have a distinctly Austrian flavor to them, inspired by a week-long visit to Vienna this month to participate in a conference on law and mental health.

The Third Man (1949) (4 stars out of 4)

This is widely recognized as one of the all-time best movies, a story set in postwar Vienna, with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli in starring roles. IMDb neatly sums up the plot without giving anything away:

Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime.

The other star is Vienna itself, largely shorn of its glorious beauty and instead portrayed as city of intrigue and recovery in the years following the Second World War.

My first sightseeing visit in Vienna was not to an art museum or classical music venue, but rather the small Third Man Museum, dedicated to the movie and life in postwar Vienna. It was time very well spent. Here are some photos from the museum:

Still shots and memorabilia from the movie.

Still shots and memorabilia from the movie.

If you know the movie, you know what this is about!

If you know the movie, then you know what this is about!

Wonderful zither concert by Viennese musician Cornelia Mayer…again, if you know the movie, you know this instrument!

Wonderful zither concert by Viennese musician Cornelia Mayer…again, if you know the movie, then you know this instrument!

The Sound of Music (1965) (4 stars)

This beloved, iconic movie musical, set in pre-war Salzburg, is about as wide a contrast from The Third Man‘s depiction of Austria as one could imagine. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the renowned classic is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release. In addition to offering songs that are firmly embedded in our popular culture, the film makes maximum use of the beauties of Salzburg.

Back in 1981, after finishing a semester abroad program in England, I made a quick tour of the European continent, and Salzburg was one of my stops. Even though at the time I had never seen the movie, I allowed myself to get dragged onto The Sound of Music bus tour by one of my traveling companions. While she was thrilled at every recognizable location from the movie, I just kept taking pictures, figuring that someday I’d watch the movie and then flip back to my photos to compare. I’m glad I did.

Here are some of those old snapshots.

Top: The famous gazebo. Bottom: The road where the Von Trapp kids are up in the trees.

Top: The famous gazebo. Bottom: The road where the Von Trapp kids are up in the trees.

Top: The Von Trapp family home. Bottom: The cemetery where they're hiding.

Top: The Von Trapp family home. Bottom: The cemetery in the abbey.


Photos: Third Man Museum (DY, 2015); Salzburg (DY, 1981).

Heaven for a history geek: A David McCullough book talk

Not a great photo, but a wonderful book talk

Not a great photo, but a wonderful book talk

One of the best things about living in Boston is that a lot of authors do book talks here, including many great writers of history. I just got back from one of them, a talk by historian David McCullough about his latest book, The Wright Brothers (2015), a story of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who invented and flew the first successful airplane in 1903.

McCullough spoke in Cambridge as part of the Harvard Book Store speaker series to a packed house at the First Parish church.

McCullough is one of America’s foremost popular historians, and he is one of my personal favorites. His love of history pervades his books and his public appearances. In addition to being a master storyteller in print, his gravelly but gentle voice and a contagious enthusiasm for his subject matter add a magical quality to a talk or documentary.

The ticket holders line stretched for over a block!

The ticket holders line stretched for over a block!

McCullough confessed that before he started his research, he knew little of the Wright Brothers’ story beyond the basics: Two brothers, owners of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, would go on to build and fly the first successful airplane, flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

However, as he dug into their story, he learned about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

It is clear that McCullough came to admire his subjects, for both their intelligence and their character. The Wright Brothers, he made clear during his talk, had the right stuff. He allowed himself to make broad connections, suggesting that great history is not just about politics and war. He compared the brilliant inventiveness of the Wright Brothers to that of composer George Gershwin.

Wright Brothers Jacket Art

During his prepared remarks and a lively Q&A, McCullough waxed eloquent about the importance of historical literacy. He said that history can be a “wonderful antidote” to the hubris of our present era. He noted that developments we take for granted today may be regarded as breakthroughs many years from now, adding that prognosticating about the future may be futile. “There’s no such thing as the foreseeable future,” he quipped.

David McCullough is a national treasure, as exemplified by tonight’s audience thanking him with long, warm rounds of applause and a standing ovation. It was just so much fun to be in the presence of this great historian and storyteller.

Classic movie report: April 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my two selections for April:

WarGames (1983) (3.5 stars out of 4)

WarGames may not be a great movie, but I find it so eminently entertaining and re-watchable that I have to give it 3.5 stars.

Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a young computer maven and high school student who manages to hack into the U.S. Defense Department’s new super computer. In doing so, he engages its artificial intelligence in a way that almost causes a nuclear war. Ally Sheedy plays his adorable sidekick, Jennifer Mack, and the two become partners in crime.

The chief adults in the movie are Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, the computer expert who persuaded the government to adopt the new mainframe, and John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, a withdrawn scientist whose theories become central to the story.

WarGames has its serious side. On occasion it has been cited by scholars as an excellent pop culture depiction of how Cold War mentalities and an uncritical worship of the “wisdom” of computer technology could lead us down a disastrous path.

But it’s also a ton of fun. Broderick and Sheedy are well-paired in this movie, and their scenes together include some hilarious high school moments and (now) nostalgic depictions of early personal computing and video games.

For me it pushes nostalgia buttons as well. I first saw WarGames when it was at the movie theaters in the summer of 1983. It was right after my first year of law school, and I was living in one of the law school dorms. In consultation with a couple of friends, we picked it out of the Village Voice listings and decided to give it try. I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, and I’ve watched it many times since then.


Gallipoli (1981) (3.5 stars)

Mel Gibson and Mark Lee co-star as young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They find themselves deployed to the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey), as part of the Allied Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

The film starts as something of a buddy movie with some 80s-style artistry, but by the time the climactic battle scenes arrive, it is a story of the terrors of trench warfare. It also reinforces a common First World War theme of utter futility, with senior officers repeatedly ordering their troops to go “over the top” in charges met by murderous machine gun fire.

Gallipoli isn’t the best of the WWI movies, but it belongs on a list of “should watch” films about the war, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front and the excellent Paths of Glory.

In terms of 20th century history, I relate more strongly to the Second World War than to the First, but that gap is closing as I learn more about the Great War during this period of centennial observation (1914-18). It is a fascinating historical story, one infused with a haunting sense of loss due to the brutality of trench warfare, as well as the knowledge that the terms of surrender eventually imposed on Germany would help to fuel the rise of Nazism in the decades to come.

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