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Houdini Buried Alive

On August 5, 1926, Harry Houdini successfully performed a variation the Buried Alive stunt that had nearly killed him 11 years earlier.  Houdini was locked inside a coffin and lowered below the waters of the swimming pool at the Shelton Hotel in New York City where he remained submerged for an hour and a half.  The stunt was performed in response to Rahman Bey’s claim to have channeled supernatural powers in order to survive in a sealed casket for one hour.  Having survived the stunt himself, Houdini attributed his own success to controlled breathing. Houdini performed the stunt once more in the summer of 1926 and had planned to incorporate a stage version into his 1927 performance season.  Unfortunately, Houdini died of a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926.

Harry Houdini, 1926. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more images of Houdini and other American performers at Opening History.

On August 1, 1779, Francis Scott Key was born on his family’s plantation in Maryland.  He studied law at St. John’s College, and it was in his capacity as lawyer that he witnessed the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.  Key had been aboard a British ship negotiating the release of American prisoners when the British initiated their attack on Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814.  He was retained on board and witnessed the bombardment from the HMS Tonnant where he remained watchful throughout the night for signs that the American flag was still flying over Fort McHenry.  At dawn he reported to the prisoners below deck that the flag was still there.

Painting of Francis Scott Key, oil on canvas by DeWitt Clinton Peters, 1902. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society via Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage.

Six days later, Key published a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry” in the Patriot, which he had composed on his return to journey to Baltimore. The poem with written to correspond with the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  Once set to music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Key’s patriotic song gained popularity throughout the United States.  Key continued to practice law and write occasional poetry until the end of his life in 1843.  It wasn’t until 1931, however, that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the American national anthem through a Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.

Printed broadside of the Defence [sic] of Fort M’Henry [sic], 1814. First printed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the song by Francis Scott Key. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society via Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage.

You can learn more about the War of 1812 through Opening History, which includes such collections as the Paul Hamilton Papers from the University of South Carolina, the War of 1812 collection from the Maryland Historical Society, and the War of 1812 collection from the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Booth Tarkington Born

On July 29, 1869, Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Today, Tarkington is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Though most of his works have fallen out of favor with contemporary readers, he was one of the most popular American novelists of his time.  His novels were humorous, satirical depictions of the American class system, usually set in or around his hometown, where he maintained a residence until his death in 1946.

Booth Tarkington. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more primary sources relating to Pulitzer Prize winners and other American novelists at Opening History.

On July 23, 1982, the International Whaling Commission officially adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, which was to take effect four years later.  The decision followed the birth of the anti-whaling movement in the 1970s and two sobering reports (in 1977 and 1981) from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that asserted several species of whales were in danger of extinction.

A 19th century pen and ink drawing featuring examples of whalecraft (harpoons, lances and spears) used in whaling. Image courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Whaling consists of hunting whales for either meat or oil, and it has been practiced by humans since prehistoric times.  In the United States, many Native American tribes have a long history of whaling, and a thriving whaling industry was established alongside some of the earliest colonies.  Commercial whaling in American reached its peak in the mid-19th Century, but by the early 20th century the number of active whaleships quickly dwindled and commercial whaling had ceased entirely by 1927.  According to the IWC’s moratorium, whaling may still take place for scientific research and aboriginal subsistence, and whaling in the United States still occurs today under the auspices of the latter provision.

Whale at the Tyee Company whaling station, Tyee, Alaska, August 25, 1910. Image courtesy of the University of Washington via the Western Waters Digital Library.

You can learn more about the history of whaling in the United States at Opening History.

Hollywoodland

On July 13, 1923, the iconic Hollywood sign was officially dedicated after being erected to advertise a housing development in the Hollywood Hills.  Initially (and as seen in the 1925 photograph below) the sign read “Hollywoodland” with each of the 13 letters constructed out of wood and sheet metal and measuring 30 feet wide and 50 feet high.  It was only meant to remain on the hillside for a year or two, but it soon became an enduring symbol of the American film industry.  It was renovated once in the 1940s, when the last four letters were removed, and again in the late 1970s when 9 celebrities each donated $27,777 to replace the deteriorated letters with a more durable steel counterpart.

View of Vine Street looking north from Barton Avenue towards the Hollywood sign, ca.1925. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society via the USC Digital Library.

You can find more images of early Hollywood and primary resources relating to popular culture at Opening History.

SPAM Introduced

On July 5, 1937, the Hormel Foods canned meat product SPAM came on the market. While it remains the target of many jokes, SPAM has been enormously popular since its introduction. Because it was easy to ship, SPAM became common fare for World War II soldiers. After the war, a musical group of 60 women dubbed the “Hormel Girls” traveled the United States to perform and advertise SPAM. The meat remains enormously popular today in Hawaii and Guam, and in 1998 the SPAM packaging became part of the Smithsonian Institution collection.

The Factoria Supermarket in Bellevue, Washington, with a sign advertising SPAM in the window, ca. 1955. Image courtesy of the Eastside Heritage Center

Opening History includes items throughout its collections documenting the history and traditions of food in the United States. In particular, HEARTH (Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, and History) at Cornell University offers a large selection of home economics journals.

ZIP Codes

On July 1, 1963, the United States Postal Service introduced ZIP codes, a system of postal codes for efficiently delivering mail within the US.  ZIP is short for “Zone Improvement Plan” and the codes consist of a unique sequence of 5-digit numbers assigned to specific delivery points across the country.  When first announced, the USPS urged Americans to “use ZIP code” by developing a series of promotional stamps, signs, and even a cartoon mascot named Mr. ZIP, but the system remained voluntary until 1967.

Mailmen receiving mail order catalogs in Vernal, Utah a few year before the introduction of ZIP codes. Image courtesy of the Uintah County Library Regional History Center.

Opening History has a wealth of primary sources relating to the history of the United States Postal Service, including a set of films documenting mail collection and delivery in the Edison Motion Pictures collection, and a collection of mailbox photographs from the 1960s and 1970s in the Fife Slide Collection of Western U.S. Vernacular Architecture.

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