The thing I love most about history is its quirky little pieces. Don’t get me wrong- names, dates, and places on a map are all important, and provide a necessary context for understanding. But it’s the strange bits of information that can really capture a person’s curiosity and help us relate to the people that lived long ago. They’re also the most fun things to share with our guests and get the best reactions from students. Some of my favorites include:
• During the Civil War, a woman named Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man and joined the Union army. Then, still thinking she was a man, her commanding officers asked her to disguise herself as an Irish peddler woman and spy on the Confederates. She was a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.
• Lye for soap comes from running water through wood ashes. You need dirt in order to get clean.
• Beaver fur from the frontier was used to make high-quality felt for fashionable hats in Europe. Unfortunately, the chemical process used to transform the fur into felt involved mercury. Hat makers often got mercury poisoning, and thus the expression “mad as a hatter.”
• In nature, honeybees frequently live in hollowed out trees. Beekeepers developed the idea of “smoking” their bees before entering the hives because when bees smell the smoke, they instinctively think their hive is on fire. They then eat a lot of honey in case they need to escape, but then they are too full to bend over and sting.
• In “The American Frugal Housewife,” (the Better Homes and Gardens of its day) the author recommends using ear wax as lip balm.