Archive for February, 2012

Today, February 29, is a Leap Day, and this year, 2012, is a Leap Year.  In the tradition of the Gregorian Calendar, a day is appended to the end of February once every four years to account for the fact that the earth takes slightly more than 365 days to rotate around the sun.  To be precise, it takes 365.2425 days.

Children playing leap-frog. Image courtesy of the University of Tennessee Library.

Cultures throughout the word have devised different methods of compensating for the additional time, and those with lunisolar calendars observe an additional month, referred to as an embolismic month.  Moreover, a variety of cultural traditions have emerged to mark the occasion of a Leap Year.  Across the United Kingdom and northern Europe tradition holds that women may only propose marriage in a leap year or specifically on leap day.  In fact, gender role reversal is also a common American theme, as attested in the following 1936 clipping from the Spokane Chronicle:

Mason City Dance Idea "Different." Image courtesy of Washington State University Libraries.

Browsing though Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820-1860, 1870-1885 reveals that waltzes and polkas were often written in commemoration of leap years, and several of them reflect the theme of women courting reluctant men with titles like “The Trials of Leap Year” and “I Wish You Would Propose, or The Leap Year”.

Leapling twins born in 1952. Image courtesy of the University of Southern California Digital Library.

Children born to women on leap day are referred to as “leapers” or “leaplings”.  Growing up in America, leaplings commonly celebrate their birthdays either on February 28 or March 1, but they are remarkable for having only a quarter as many birthdays as people born at any other point in the year. You can find out more about leap day in popular culture by browsing the many primary source materials available through Opening History.


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On February 19, 1847, a group of rescuers, traveling from Sacramento Valley, reached the Donner Party’s camp at Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada.  The Donner Party was a wagon train consisting of several families emigrating west to California in 1846.  Though the California Trail was well established at that time, the Donner Party had received word of a short-cut that promised to save 350 miles’ travel by traversing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The new route was called Hastings’ Cutoff, and it was described in Lansford Hastings’ The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California from 1845.

A lithograph depiction of the camp at Donner Lake in November 1846, created by C.W. Burton circa 1879. Image courtesy of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, made available via Calisphere.

Timing was crucial because the pioneers needed to cross the Sierra Nevada before the winter brought heavy snow to the mountains.  Though Hastings’s Cutoff offered a shorter route, few had followed the trail, and the Donner Party was responsible for the arduous work of clearing the path for their wagon train.  Several other incidents delayed their travel, including illness, stolen oxen, and dwindling supplies.  In late October, the Party had reached Truckee Lake and stopped to rest.  The snows were not expected for another month, but when the snow came early, the families set up camp for the winter.  From November to February, 24 members of 87-member Party had died, primarily of starvation or hypothermia.  In order to survive, the living had no choice but to eat the flesh of those who had perished.

James Frazier Reed, shown here with wife Margaret Keyes Reed, was a member of one of the two surviving families. Image courtesy of Utah State History.

In the first rescue effort, 21 members of the party, aged 2-32, were guided over the mountains into Bear Valley, though three more died along the way.  A second and third relief group arrived on March 1 and 14, but several others had died in the intervening weeks.  By April, the 48 surviving members of the party had reached California.  In 1911, Eliza Houghton, the youngest daughter of George Donner, published a first-hand account entitled The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. She was three years old and an orphan when she was rescued by the final relief effort on March 14, 1847.

Monument in Truckee dedicated to the Donner Party, depicting a pioneer family. Image courtesy of the University of Southern California.

The texts and images above are drawn from various collections that may be accessed through Opening History.  Collections containing items related to the Donner Party include California As I Saw It: First-person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 from the Library of Congress; Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869 from Brigham Young University; and the University of Utah Photo Archives among others.

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Though there is no clear explanation for how Valentine’s Day came to be associated with romantic love, greeting cards, hearts, candy, and flowers, the practice of sending valentines to one’s beloved is known to have gained traction in the late eighteenth century and become widely popular in the nineteenth century.  Today some 190 million valentines are sent each year, and according to the United States Greeting Card Association, teachers receive more valentines than any other demographic group.  The boy in the photograph below appears to prefer his dog, but the GCA has not released statistics on how many valentines are sent to beloved pets.

A boy and his dog on Valentine's Day, 1958. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, made available via the USC Digital Library.

You can find many more sweet images at Opening History — perhaps you’ll even be inspired to share one with your valentine!

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On February 7, 1894, a miners’ strike led by the Western Federation of Miners began in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Elkton Mine, 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

The strike occurred on the heels of the Panic of 1893 which caused the price of silver to crash but left the price of gold relatively high.  Gold had been discovered near Cripple Creek three years earlier, and in the wake of the Panic, miners began flooding the area.  By the time of the strike there were more than 150 active mines.

C.O.D. Mine, 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

The conflict began when mine owners lengthened the miners’ work day without increasing wages.  Miners complained, and the owners retaliated by offering to retain the eight-hour work day but decrease compensation from $3.00 a day to $2.50.

Union men on parade before the strike in Victor, Colorado, 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

The strike escalated through February, March, and April.  In May, the mine owners raised a private army, and in response, the miners armed and organized themselves under the direction of Junius J. Johnson.  They built a fort at Bull Hill, and further attacks were characterized by firefights and dynamite explosions.

The fort at the summit of Bull Hill built by striking miners in 1894. Image courtesy of Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

In June, the state militia, who had previously assessed the situation in March, returned to Cripple Creek in support of the striking miners, which shortly brought the conflict to a close.  The Cripple Creek strike proved a major victory for the labor movement, and the Western Federation of Miners gained considerable power and influence in the following years.

View of Cripple Creek in 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

Opening History is a rich resource for major events in the American labor movement, and the Heritage West collection provides an intimate portrait of the miners’ strike at Cripple Creek, Colorado.

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Norman Rockwell was born on this day in 1894.  Rockwell was an American illustrator best known for the cover artwork that he created for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963.  Though often criticized for his sentimental portrayal of American culture, his work earned him the affection of the American public and such prestigious honors as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to him in 1977, just one year before his death at the age of 84.

An undated photograph of Norman Rockwell from the George Grantham Bain Collection. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more Rockwell images through Opening History, including his paintings from the renowned Four Freedoms series.  Depicting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four principles for universal freedom and used to promote war bonds, they are among the items digitized by the University of Minnesota as part of it’s Summons to Comradeship: World War I and II Posters collection.

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