Friday 31 January 2014

The Mexican Suitcase

Frank Capra courtesy

Three cardboard boxes were discovered in a closet in Mexico City in 2007.  They would be called simply "The Mexican Suitcase".  Their contents would tell the story of a vicious war.

Three photographers met in Paris in 1934:  Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour.  They were at the cusp of a new style of wartime photojournalism -- photographers who dove into the centre of combat. And they did not have to wait long and travel far for that war.  France's neighbour, Spain, broke out into civil war within two years.  With their handheld cameras, Capa, Taro and Seymour roamed the spanish streets looking for subjects.  Right-wing nationalists, armed by Hitler and Mussolini, were trying to unseat the government.  Many Madrid buildings were reduced to rubble.  Spaniards were left homeless.  While the three photographers documented the bullets flying, they also captured film of everyday life in Madrid:  a farmer taking in the harvest, a woman shopping, a child going to school.  

The photographs would serve two purposes:  they might be used as propaganda for the left-wing Spanish government; they might also be purchased by the European magazines.  Capa entrusted the 4500 negatives they took with a friend, asking that he send them to the United States.  

While wartime photography might have put food on the table for the three photographers, it also put them in harm's way.  All three would die in a war zone:  Taro was killed in 1937; Capa died in Indochina in 1954; and Seymour died in 1956 in Egypt.

In the meantime, the 4500 negatives disappeared for decades.  In 1999, Cornell Capa, a descendent of Robert's, attempted to find the undevelopped photographs.  It turned out that the negatives travelled from Spain to France and then on to Mexico with the Mexican ambassador in Paris.  In Mexico City, they stayed hidden for years in a closet.  Finally in 2007, the "Mexican suitcase" was dusted off and its contents revealed. The negatives were finally processed and eventually placed in a museum, bringing to life the Spanish Civil War decades after it ended.

Note:  For more information, read The Mexican Suitcase by Cynthia Young.  A film was also made about the subject.

Thursday 30 January 2014

The History of the Suitcase

The word "Luggage" dates back to 1596 and refers to "what has to be lugged about".  

The French term "valise" dates back to the 1600's and refers to a travelling back or soldier's kit.  The Louis Vuitton, designer luggage, first appeared in 1854.  

Carpet bags, made of patches of oriental carpet, were used by Southerners after the American Civil War, hence the term carpetbagger.  

In 1870, steamer trunks were first used by passengers making trans-Atlantic passage.  Dr. Barnardo issued a trunk to each of the British Home Children in his care who immigrated to Canada.  

The hat box suitcase was popular when women wore hats.

In 1910, the Samsonite suitcase first appeared, known for its strong exterior after Samson in the Bible. 


The duffel bag, named after the town where the material came from, Duffel, Belgium, was first used by ex-Navy personnel in the 1940's and 1950's.  

In 1972, the patent for wheeled luggage was filed, a phenomenon that is in widespread use today. 


Wednesday 29 January 2014

Hailstones as Large as Baseballs

In July of 2010 a hailstone hit Vivian, South Dakota measuring 18.62 inches in circumference.

Here are ten famous hailstones in American history.

1.  In 2000, Lake Worth, Texas had a storm which produced softball sized hailstones.  One struck a man in the head and he passed away the following day from his injury.

2.  In May of 2000, a hailstorm caused $572  million in damages in Chicago, Illinois.

3.  The states which suffer the most hailstorms are:  Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

4.  Peak months for hail are:  March, April, May and June.

5.  Previous to the Vivian, South Dakota hailstone, in 1928, Potter, Nebraska boasted the biggest hailstone measuring 17 inches in circumference and weighing 1.5 pounds.

6.  On average 24 people per year are injured by hailstones in the United States.

7.  Large hail is most common in rotating thunderstorms called supercells.  Less than 30% of supercells also produce tornadoes.

8.  Hail one inch or larger, the size of a quarter, is considered severe.

9.  Hail originates from cumulonimbus clouds.

10.  The average hailstorm lasts only 6 minutes and most are not more than 15 minutes.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Snowflakes as Big as Milk Pans

It was on this day in 1887 that a rancher in Fort Keogh, Montana reported seeing a "snowflake as big as a milk pan" fall to the ground, recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Fort Keogh is a former United States Army Post on the banks of the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. The town is named after Myles Koegh, a veteran of the Civil War who earned the rank of major after fighting valiantly in the Battle of Gettysburg.  He later fought under General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn where he was killed.  His horse, Comanche, was found wandering riderless.

In keeping with its military tradition, Fort Keogh supplied thousands of horses for the First World War.  In 1924, a beef production lab opened in the town which houses 2000 cows.

At its height in the 1880's, the town of Fort Keogh boasted about 120 buildings. Today, only four remain.

The snow continues to fall on the former fort.  But one would be hard pressed to find a snowflake bigger than the 15 inch one recorded on that day back in 1887.

Abandonned building in Fort Keogh circa 1989 courtesy

Monday 27 January 2014

The Name Game

Here are the origins of ten famous names.

1.  The Snickers chocolate bar was named in 1930 after Frank Mars' favourite horse, Snickers.  Mr. Mars also created the Mars Bar.

2.  One of my students asked me today who Clark Kent was named after.  I just happened to do a blog post on Superman recently explaining that his creator liked to watch movies.  Clark came from movie star Clark Gable, and Kent, from movie star Kent Taylor.

3.  Buzz Lightyear, the animated character in Toy Story, is named after the real life astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon in 1969.

4.  Pringles potato chips have three possible origins:

a.  the name came from a Cincinnatti phone book
b.  the name came from Pringle Drive where two Pringles advertising executives lived
c.  the name came from Mark Pringle who filed a patent for processing potatoes

5.  Starbucks is named after the coffee-loving first mate in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.

6.  Legend has it that the pop Dr. Pepper, which was invented in Waco, Texas, was named after the friend of a pharmacy owner where the beverage was first served.  The friend's name was Dr. Charles Pepper.

7.  The Ritz cracker, which was slathered in coconut oil and therefore looked shiny and "ritzy", was named after the Ritz Hotel.

8.  The Kit Kat chocolate bar is rumored to have been named after the Kit Kat Club, an 18th Century Whig Literary Club located at Christopher Katling (Kit Kat)'s pie house in Shire Lane.

9.  SPAM, canned meat invented to feed World War II soldiers on the frontlines, was a blending of the words "spiced ham".  

10.  The cereal Apple Jacks was supposedly named after an old American liquor called apple jacks.

Sunday 26 January 2014

From Fireside Chats to Alien Invasions

Here are ten facts about the history of radio.

1.  The first commercial radio broadcast was about the 1920 American federal election.  The winners were Harding and Cox.

2.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to broadcast his fireside chats during the Great Depression and Second World War which served as a great comfort to many Americans.

3.  An AM radio wave runs the length of a football field.

4.  The term "broadcast" originates in the agricultural concept of broadcasting seeds on the plowed ground.

5.  Dr. Frank Conrad started the first commercial radio station KDKA in his garage in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.

6.  The 1938 CBS radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, a fake Martian invasion of the U.S., panicked thousands of Americans.

7.  NBC first used The Three Chimes (G-E-C) on November 29, 1929.

8.  AT & T was the first to develop a radio network in the United States.  The company used the existing telephone lines, amplified by vacuum tubes.

9.  Walter Winchell, the most influential newsman of the early 1940's, used to start his broadcasts with the line:  "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all ships at sea..."

10.  Originally stations along the Atlantic Seaboard were given the first letter W.  Any stations west of the Mississippi were given the letter K.


Saturday 25 January 2014

The Transcontinental Telephone System

It was in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell, experimenting on the telephone in his Boston lab, spoke those famous words to his assistant in the next room:  "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!"  It was almost 40 years later that Professor Bell spoke those same words to Mr. Watson.  Only this time, the two men were on either side of the North American continent.

Alexander Graham Bell, co-founder of AT&T, demonstrating on a prototype of the original telephone courtesy

With the 1915 World Exposition coming up in San Francisco, the AT & T company president thought it would be a good idea to mark it with the opening of a transcontinental telephone system.  The question the president faced, however, was how to amplify sound.  He hired Dr. Harold Arnold to work on solving the problem.  In 1912, inventor Dr. Lee de Forest had invented the audion.  ON the advice of Arnold, AT & T bought the rights to the audion and successfully implemented it in the telephone system.

Map of transcontinental telephone line courtesy

In the Fall of 1913, construction began on the North American intercontinental telephone line.  Work went quickly -- so quickly, in fact, that the line was completed by June 17, 1914 well before the Exposition was set to begin.  Therefore, AT & T delayed the official opening of the telephone line by six months.

(Photo of erection of final pole construction in Wendover, Utah, June 17, 1914.)

Final pole completed at Wendover, Utah on intercontinental telephone line circa 1914 courtesy

The first transcontinental phone call would require a speaker phone, involving four parties:  Alexander Graham Bell in New York City, AT&T President in Jekyll Island, Georgia, President Woodrow Wilson in Washington D.C. and Thomas Watson in San Francisco.  Professor Bell proclaimed those famous words:  "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!"  Only this time Mr. Watson's response was different:  "It would take me a week now."  And the rest is history.

(Photo of Alexander Graham Bell and other AT&T executives preparing to inaugurate transcontinental telephone service, January 25, 1915.)

First intercontinental phone call courtesy

Friday 24 January 2014

Winter Landscapes











Thursday 23 January 2014

The Lost Art of Handwriting

"Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers." (Isaac Asimov)

My daughter is working on a novel study project in Grade 5 and each page has to be written in cursive handwriting.  It brings back great memories of the first time I wrote something, and the first time I was allowed to use a pen rather than a pencil.  How privileged I felt!  And yet today I never use my cursive writing skills.

Today is National Handwriting Day, celebrated on John Hancock's birthday, the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence back in 1776.  The day is set aside to celebrate a skill that is a lost of art with the invention of computers.  You can't replace the uniqueness of a signature, the sincerity of a handwritten note.  

Handwritten documents have played a vital role in our history:  they have "sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence" (  Our history is full of important handwritten documents dating back to 1215 with the Magna Carta.  The writings of artist Leonardo DaVinci have been studied by scholars.  There are 65,000 letters, diaries, reports, military records written by George Washington, veteran of the American Revolution and America's first president.  If you read the cursive letters of Civil War soldiers, you will be amazed at their handwriting and their command of the English language.  The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, was handwritten.  Similarly, most of the 1 1/2 million condolence letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy upon the assassination of her husband were handwritten.

Handwriting is not only a lost art but a window to history.  As George Orwell stated:  "Good writing is a windowpane."

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Campbell's Soup Cans

In honour of National Soup Month, here are ten facts about soup.

1.  Soup is of Sanskrit origin.  "Su" and "po" mean "good nutrition".

2.  Arceologists found remnants of pots used by the Japanese for fish soup some 15,000 years ago.

3.  Opera Composer Verdi ate a bowl of noodle soup for inspiration.

4.  An old law stated that Newfoundland seal hunters had to eat soup on Saturdays.

5.  Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans" exhibit opened at the Los Angeles Gallery on July 9, 1962.  The main exhibit featured 32 paintings of every kind of Campbell's Soup.

6.  There is an old German proverb which states:  "He who has once burnt his mouth always blows his soup."

7.  In 2011, people in the U.K. spent 617 million pounds on soup.

8.  Women are two or three times more likely than men to order soup in a restaurant.

9.  Soup is a great way to sneak veggies into your child's diet.

10.  Creamy soups can be very fatty.  One cup of light whipping cream contains 700 calories and 74 grams of fat.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

A Snowball's Chance in San Francisco

Believe it or not, it has snowed in San Francisco more than once in the city's history.  It received a dusting on this day in 1962.  Here are some other occasions where San Franciscans made snowballs.

San Francisco circa 1962 courtesy

One or two inches fell in 1976 courtesy

San Francisco circa 1951 courtesy

San Francisco streetcar circa 1932 courtesy

San Francisco street circa 1887 courtesy

Snow filled street circa 1882 courtesy

Monday 20 January 2014

Schindler's List

"Whoever saves one life saves the entire world." 
(inscription inside ring given to Oskar Schindler)

Schindler's List courtesy

One man -- one list -- 1200 names.  "Schindler's List", made into a movie in 1993, is the story of Oskar Schindler who employed many Jews in his factories and whose lives he saved by bribing, cajoling and sweet-talking Nazi officials.  Here is his story.

Oskar Schindler was born into a wealthy business owning family in Zwittau, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic).  In the 1930's, he became a member of the Nazi Party.  He bought a factory in Krakow, Poland where enamelware was manufactured.  He employed many Jews as they were cheaper labour than Poles.  However, as the rights of Jews were taken away, he started to hide wealthy Jewish investors.

Krakow Factory courtesy

In 1942, Schindler witnessed a round up of Jews in the Krakow ghetto in an effort to ship them to a concentration camp in Plaszow.  He was appalled by the murder of many Jews who attempted to hide from the Nazis during the round up.  In the movie, director Steven Spielberg shows Schindler sitting atop a horse on a hill above the ghetto watching the horrific black and white scene, punctuated only by the red coat of a little girl.  

Schindler vowed to save as many Jews as he could, intending on transferring them to safety in his two factories.  Using the black market, he bribed Nazi officials.  In October 1944, a train carrying 700 Schindler Jewish men to Gross Rosen Concentration Camp was re-routed to Brunnlitz, the site of Schindler's factory, only after he sweet-talked officials.  Similarly a trainload of 300 Schindler Jewish women was sent to Auschwitz. After several weeks, Schindler managed to get them transported to Brunnlitz, thanks to his black market food and diamond bribes.

Oskar Schindler (center) at a dinner party in Krakow

Oskar Schindler (centre) schmoozing Nazi officials courtesy

In May of 1945, Schindler stood with his workers on the factory floor and listened to Churchill's speech announcing victory for the Allies.  The workers gave him a ring, made from the dental work of one of their own, inscribed with the verse:  "Whoever saves one life saves the entire world."  Then Schindler and his wife wife, considered spies by the enemy, escaped by car.  Their vehicle was confiscated by the Russians but they continued their flight by train and by foot to Switzerland.

Schindler saved 1200 Jews.  Although movie offers were discussed in the 1950's and 1960's nothing came of them.  In the 1980's, Australian author Thomas Kenneally wrote a book about the entrepreneur's life called Schindler's Ark, later published in the United States as Schindler's List.  Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to the story and the movie premiered in 1993.  

Schindler spent millions to help the Jews.  He died penniless, but a hero.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Golden Rum Cake


1 cup chopped nuts
1 package yellow cake mix
1 package instant vanilla pudding
4 eggs
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup dark rum
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup dark rum


1.  Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.  Grease and flour a ten inch Bundt pan.  Sprinkle chopped nuts over the bottom of the pan.  

2.  In a large bowl combine cake mix and pudding mix.  Mix in eggs and 1/2 cup water, oil and 1/2 cup water.  Blend well and pour over chopped nuts in pan.

3.  Bake in preheated oven for 60 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.  Let sit for 10 minutes in pan and then turn over onto serving plate.  Brush glaze over top and sides.  Allow cake to absorb glaze.  Repeat until all is used up.

4.  To make the glaze:  in a saucepan combine butter, quarter cup water and 1 cup sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium heat and continue to boil for five minutes, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup rum.

Golden Rum Cake Recipe

Saturday 18 January 2014

The Rum Runner Pub

Bar at Walpole Hotel  

Our friends Heather and Justin took my husband and I to the Rum Runner Pub in Kitchener for a murder mystery last night.  It was like stepping back into the Roaring Twenties.  Descending into the basement, we were walked past a dark wood-panelled bar, through a long twisting tunnel to a backroom.  Right away I knew there was something unique about the pub.  I asked the waitress about the pub's history and she said that during Prohibition, it was a rum running joint.  It had secret passageways, hollow walls and an old safe. Rumor has it that gangster Al Capone visited the place to buy liquor back in the Thirties.

Al Capone courtesy

I wanted to find out more so I googled the pub.  It is part of the Walper Hotel at the corner of King and Queen Streets in downtown Kitchener.  Built in 1893 for the price of $75,000, it originally had only two stories.  The hotel was built in the Beaux Arts style with elegant brick work and arches.  Originally, a guest could get a room, three meals a day, a water pitcher, gas lamp lighting, a horse hitching post and a common bath for only $4.50 per week.

Wilfrid Laurier courtesy

The elegant hotel attracted famous guests including Prime Ministers Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau.  The Queen Mum paid a visit along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Canadian author Pierre Berton also stayed at the hotel.  The Walper attracted first class musicians including Louis Armstrong, who played his trumpet on the hotel balcony, and Duke Ellington, who conducted his orchestra in the crowded ballroom.  At its peak, the hotel housed 10,000 guests per day.

Duke Ellington courtesy

Gangsters continued to visit the hotel even after Ontario repealed prohibition in 1927 as it would be another six years before the law was repealed in the United States.  Today, people come for the good food and the murder mysteries (and the history).

Friday 17 January 2014

His Only Authority Was His Courage

"He climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed.  He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away.  He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them." (Sandor Adai, on witnessing Raoul Wallenburg intercepting a train headed for Auschwitz.)

Raoul Wallenberg courtesy

He persuaded, cajoled and bribed Nazi officials to obtain passports for Jews during the Second World War, regardless of the risk to himself.  He had no official authorization, only his courage.  In the end he would save almost 100,000 Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg was born in Sweden in 1912.  His father died of cancer when he was only 3 years old, leaving his mother to raise him on her own.  He sailed to America to studied architecture at the university of Michigan.  It was there that he learned to speak English, French and German, skills that would serve him well later in life.  Along with other male students at the university, he took a job as a rickshaw driver at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair.

Returning to his home country after his studies, Raoul was disappointed to discover that his American degree would not suffice in Sweden.  A relative secured a job for him in South Africa where he worked for a year.  In 1938 the Swede learned how to speak Hungarian and started working in an import/export business, travelling between Stockholm and Budapest.

By 1944, the Nazis realized they would not win the war, leading to the mass deportation of Hungary's Jews.  Between May and July of that year, 400,000 Jews were deported.  it was at that time that Wallenberg was appointed secretary to the Swedish legation in Budapest.  In his role he started to issue protective passports to Jews.  He rented 32 buildings and gave them such names as "Swedish Library" and "Swedish Research Institute", hanging large blue flags with the yellow cross over the door, only serving as a subterfuge for the rescue operation.

With each passport that he forged, Wallenberg increased his risk of being caught by the Nazis.  He started to sleep in a different house every night so as not to be caught.  Ironically it was the Soviets who arrested Wallenberg as a spy when they arrived in Budapest in 1945.  Wallenberg was detained in Lubyanka Prison where he was removed from his cell in March of that year, never to be seen again.  One report stated the he had died of a heart attack in 1947.  Another said that he had been executed the same year.

Wallenberg will always be remembered for his courage in the face of fear.

Wallenberg's briefcase which held many forged passports which saved Jews courtesy