It has been a while but here is Doug Daye with part five of Black inventors and innovators.
Air Conditioning Unit
Accomplished inventor Fredrich M. Jones was led to research refrigeration techniques in order to store blood serum and medications during World War II. He created an air conditioning unit to be used in military field hospitals as well as a refrigerator to be used in military field kitchens. Jones was also awarded 60 other patents for various inventions in his lifetime which included, window air conditioning units and ice cream making machines. He was the first African American elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and was also a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Jones received his patent for the air conditioning unit on July 12, 1942. (Thanks to Jones, we have a way to cool off in the Texas summer heat!!!)
Photo Print Wash
Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus created an improved photographic print wash machine which he received his patent for on April 23, 1895. In the process of photo developing, Dorticus created a method that would eliminate over washing that would make the photograph too soft and stick to the sides of the tank. His design included an automatic register and automatic water shut off to conserve water. Also, a removable false bottom was used on the washer, in order to protect the prints and negatives from chemicals and sediment that remained in the tank. His design went on to be cited in five other patents for photographic film and print washers filed over the next 100 years!
On December 10, 1878, Osbourn Dorsey patented the design for the first modern doorknob at sixteen years old! Not much is known about his life other than that he was possibly born into slavery in 1862 but was freed before his first birthday. Most of the information on Dorsey and his inventions comes from examining his patents. Prior to his invention, people would open and close doors by using leather straps or latches which were not the most effective. Dorsey’s “door holding device” as he called it, allowed for a more effective way to secure a door. It was also the first doorknob design fit for manufacturing. While the general public was slow to adopt the doorknob, it eventually became a significant device in public and private spaces that is still used to this day!
Doug has more fascinating information for our readers in part three of his series, “Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators.”
Henry Blair was a farmer and inventor who became only the second black man to receive a U.S. patent for the mechanical corn planter in 1834. Though there is limited information about his early life, it is known that he was never enslaved (which determined his eligibility to apply for a patent since slaves could not apply for a patent with the U.S. government). He also ran his own commercial farming business despite the fact that he could not read or write. He received his patent on October 4, 1834 in Glen Ross, Maryland. His design for the corn planter favored a wheelbarrow with a compartment that dispersed seed. Rakes attached to the back were dragged over the seed covering them with soil. Blair’s invention produced a more efficient way to plant crops and made labor easier for farmers.
William H. Richardson made improvements to the baby buggy, for which received a patent on June 18, 1889, producing the first reversible baby carriage. Opposite of the original baby carriage design by Englishman William Kent in 1773, William’s design allowed for the bassinet to be turned facing the person operating the carriage. Changes were made so that the wheels would be able to turn individually, allowing the carriage to turn at a smaller radius of 360 degrees. He also designed the carriages to have the shape of a basket instead of a shell, like it was originally. Thanks to Richardson, strollers became more affordable and middle-class families were able to acquire them in the 1900s. He definitely made things a bit easier for parents and babysitters!
John Albert Burr worked as a field hand in Maryland during his late teenage years after he was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. His talent was recognized by wealthy black activists who made it possible for him to take engineering classes at a private university. He then went on to use his mechanical skills to service farm equipment and ended up moving to Chicago to become a steelworker. Later, in 1898, he filed his patent for the rotary lawn mower while living in Agawam, Massachusetts. His design helped limit clogs of grass and made it easier to cut closer to walls and fences. He also designed instruments for mulching, sifting, and dispersing grass clippings. His patent was finalized on May 9, 1899.
Ready for part two of “Celebrating Black Inventors”? Here’s Doug with more!
Robert Flemming Jr. a former civil war veteran and former slave, had the guitar patented on March 3rd, 1886. He also received a Canadian patent on April 5, 1887. Flemming’s guitar, which was called the “Euphonica,” produced a louder and more resonant sound than the traditional guitars. With the success of his guitar, he went on to become a music teacher and run his own guitar manufacturing business. Flemming’s guitar design is still used to this day!
Player Piano & Arm for Record Player
Joseph Dickenson was a musical instrument designer born in Canada in 1855. He moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1870, where he joined the very prominent Clough and Warren Organ Company designing his own successful line of reed organs. He also developed new devices to improve the function of the previous player pianos. Dickinson’s new piano could begin playing at any point in the musical roll and did not have to start at the beginning. His new player pianos became highly sought after. His invention was patented on June 11, 1912.
He received a number of other patents for his musical inventions, including the arm for the record player which he received a patent for on January 8, 1918.
While Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb, it wasLewis Latimerwho had the idea to create the electric lamp with his partner Joseph N. Nichols. After fighting briefly in the Civil War, Latimer went to receive work as an office assistant at a patent firm where he fostered his skill for drafting and was soon able to do blueprint work. This gained the attention of Alexander Graham Bell who had him draw blueprints for the telephone. He went on to work for Hiram Maxim whose United States Electric Company was in competition with Thomas Edison. Latimer supervised the installation of the electric light bulb in various locations but came up with the idea to create a longer lasting bulb which used carbon filaments, resulting in the creation of the electric lamp. He and Nichols patented the electric lamp on September 18, 1881 and went on to work for Edison himself.
To learn more about Lewis Latimer, check out this article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation!
I remember hearing ragtime for the first time at age five during my first trip to Disneyland, along Main Street where they pipe in early 20th century music and I have been a fan ever since, particularly of Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” one of the greatest American composers in history.
Early Life of Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texas to Giles, a former slave, and Florence Joplin, who was born a free woman. By the time he was five, Scott Joplin’s family had moved to the Texas side of Texarkana. Both of his parents played music, so it was little wonder the young Joplin showed musical brilliance. He would practice piano at the homes where his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, worked. Joplin’s father knew being a musician would mean a rough life for his son, especially being Black, so he was completely against his musical education while his mother encouraged it. This led to the end of the Joplin’s marriage.
There are a lot of holes in Scott Joplin’s life story. However, we know he eventually taught music in Texarkana until the late 1880s when he began traveling as a musician playing in bars and brothels. These were some of the few places where Black musicians could find steady work. He traveled to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair and eventually moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 where he studied at George R. Smith College. Here, he learned to write music and became a piano teacher.
Ragtime: The Rock-n-Roll of Its Time
Ragtime was not invented by Scott Joplin but he did popularize it with his clever and upbeat compositions. Ragtime was born out of African folk music which had syncopated rhythms, that is, music that has unpredictable beats. This was revolutionary at the time. The name “ragtime” is due to the music having “ragged time.” Ragtime as a genre had been around for some time but it didn’t become nationally popular until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when it became “main stream.” Young people, especially, loved the music and doing the Cake Walk to ragtime. More traditional audiences believed Ragtime was corrupting the minds and morals of American youth.
Joplin’s Rise to Fame
According to one account, while playing at The Maple Leaf Club a man named John Stark, who was a publisher and owned a music store, approached Joplin to ask if he was interested in selling sheet music of his original compositions. Joplin agreed but only if he received royalties from sales, not a flat-out fee as was the custom at the time. The men agreed at a 1% royalty per sheet music sold, a very smart move by Joplin who insured himself a somewhat steady source of income. His first published piece with Stark, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” sold over one-million copies in 1899 making it one of the first – if not, the first – hit song in American music history.
The First All African-American Opera
Scott Joplin was more than a ragtime musician and composer, and he wanted to prove his talents beyond the genre that made him famous. He apparently wrote a piano concerto, a symphony, an opera called “A Guest of Honor,” and a musical. Sadly, the manuscripts to these works didn’t survive so we will never know the joys of hearing this music. However, his dream project completed in 1911, an opera he called Treemonisha was published, but not with a lot of financial and emotional pain.
Treemonisha was seen as controversial at the time for its social message: it was the story of a Black woman who leads her community out of ignorance through knowledge and education. Joplin could not find anyone interested in publishing the work, so he paid for it himself, a very costly endeavor. Further, getting the opera funded proved impossible as it was an expensive undertaking, and there was very little interest in sinking money into an all-Black opera. The most Joplin could manage was a read-through performance in 1915 in Harlem, with Joplin playing the score on the piano: no costumes or sets. The performance did not impress possible financial backers who attended.
Heartbroken, financially ruined, and suffering from syphilis induced dementia, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 48. The king of ragtime, one of the greatest American composers to ever live, was buried in an unmarked grave.
The 1970s saw a ragtime and Joplin revival. Composer and musician Joshua Rifkin recorded and released Scott Joplin Piano Rags in 1970. In 1973 the soundtrack for the movie The Sting featured multiple Joplin compositions. Although the film took place in the late 1930s, not at the height of the genre’s popularity, ragtime was used due to the lightheartedness and humor expressed in the songs. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” hit #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1974, seventy-two years after it was first written.
In 1972, sixty-one years after Joplin’s death, Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra joined forces for the first full staging of Treemonisha. This truly American opera is a magnificent musical blending of spirituals, folk, and ragtime. For his contributions to American music, Joplin posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. His unmarked grave was finally given a marker in 1974.
If you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to Scott Joplin’s music, play it and let your ears capture all the wonderful dancing notes as they take you through a captivating musical journey. Scott Joplin was an American genius, one who should be celebrated, studied, and listened to year-round.
(Below you can see a clip of the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Treemonisha. This is the final number, “A Slow Rag.” One can hear the clear sounds of Americana in this piece. A full performance is available on YouTube. Keep scrolling for a bonus video.)
Villa Finale’s collection contains several mechanized musical instruments, a couple of them contain rolls featuring ragtime. This is Villa Finale’s reproducing piano playing “Egyptian Rag” by Percy Wenrich, 1910.)
Happy February to all! Doug is back with part one of a new post celebrating the contributions of innovative and forward-thinking African Americans. Do enjoy!
Did you know that African Americans are responsible for creating many common items that we use today? Their innovative ideas have contributed to history and helped to improve our everyday lives. Let’s honor their scientific achievements by looking through the items we have on site at Villa Finale!
John Standard sought to improve the way people cooked and stored food in the kitchen. He pursued scientific research on cooling devices and stove constructions, which was very limited to the Black community at the time. He created a way to improve the design of refrigerators by using manually filled ice chambers for chilling and was given a patent on June 14, 1891.
Alice Parker was well known for patented system of central heating using natural gas. After finding that her fireplace was not enough to heat her home through the cold winters, she was inspired to come up with a new design to heat homes. Her design allowed for cool air to travel into the furnace, then be carried through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts in individual rooms of a house. She received her patent on December 23rd, 1919. Thanks to her, we don’t need a stove like this anymore to get warm!!
Though he was not the first person to invent the bicycle frame, Issac R. Johnson was the first African American to invent and patent a bicycle frame that could be easily folded or taken apart for storage. It could be used for traveling on vacation and stored in small spaces. While it was a challenge for African Americans to receive patents, especially in the 1800s, Johnson succeeded and received his patent on October 10, 1899. Though they do not fold up, Johnson’s bicycle frame pattern is still used on bicycles to this day!
Furniture workers faced the issue of moving heavy furniture while endangering their physical safety, as well as dropping furniture and damaging other items in the room. On March 4, 1876, David A. Fisher patented the furniture caster. His design was for a free turning wheel, coupled with a few others, to allow the safe and efficient movement of heavy items from room to room. With this, Fisher improved the needs of furniture workers in the industry by making their work much easier and safer.
Sara is back with three of her “Victorians and Egyptomania” blog post. Enjoy!
In the popular Mind
As the field of Egyptology changed, ancient Egypt (and Egypt in general) was fast becoming synonymous in the western mind with everything exotic, sexy, and mysterious.
Egyptomania continued in other areas and the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 kept Egypt on everyone’s mind. Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria, died in 1861, plunging the Queen into mourning with the nation following her. The Victorians had incredibly complex rituals and rules for mourning and so it’s probably no real surprise that they perhaps saw themselves in the ancient Egyptians and incorporated their symbols and motifs into their practices.
Egyptian revival mourning jewelry was quite popular among women and Egyptian revival style saw a resurgence, making its way into mortuary architecture and memorials. The famous Highgate Cemetery in London had its own Egyptian Avenue and was a tourist attraction even in the 19th century. The trend even made its way to the United States where an Obelisk was chosen as the memorial to George Washington, complete with Egyptian sun-disk!
The rising spiritualist movement in Europe and America incorporated ancient myths and ‘magic’ into their performances and even secret societies formed around various interpretations of the Book of the Dead. The Hermetic Order of the Dawn being one, with high-ranking members dressing in complete Egyptian priestly vestments.
Egypt was the setting of the successful Italian opera, Aida, which opened in 1871, a love story of a captured Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander torn between love and duty. It even had an Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette, designing the costumes, staging, and even suggesting the plot! Hollywood could maybe learn a thing or two!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, wrote a short story titled Lot. No. 249 about a mummy, which was just one in the growing number of popular horror and mystery stories featuring a mummy terrorizing the living. It was at this time that the idea of a “mummy’s curse” started to arise in popular fiction. Oscar Wilde published a poem in 1894 called ‘The Sphinx’ in which the narrator questions the Sphinx about what she has seen through the centuries before ultimately rejecting the sphinx and turning to his crucifix.
A New Century and A New Science
As the 19th century came to an end, what had begun as a side project for Napoleon had blossomed a whole new art style and scientific field. Egyptology had grown by leaps and bounds, as had the public’s interest in Egypt and its history. Egypt became increasingly under the influence of European powers such as England and France. The turn of the 20th century resulted in the waning of Egyptomania at least for a time, until one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time occurred within the first two decades.
Doug is back with an informative blog on Hispanic architects in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Enjoy!
In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s look at a few Hispanic architects that have made astounding contributions to the field of architecture!
Luis Barragán (1902 – 1988)
Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín was a Mexican architect and engineer who influenced many of Mexico’s architects. He received his educational training in engineering and his skills as an architect were self-taught.
Barragán spent much time traveling to Europe, including France and Spain, to further his architectural knowledge of different styles. While in Morocco, he became interested in learning the architectural styles of North Africa and the Mediterranean, which he related to the country of Mexico.
Barragán’s architectural work was referred to as minimalist but rich in color and texture. Nature was a great influence in his ideas, which included walls of stucco, adobe, timber, water features, and the use of color. In 1943 he constructed The Lava (El Pedregal), a subdivision in Mexico City, which was his most iconic work.
Barragán was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 after years of designing elaborate houses, plazes, fountains, and gardens.
Ricardo Legorreta (1931 – 2011)
Ricardo Legorreta was one of Mexico’s most prolific architects.
After studying at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Legorreta went to work at the firm of José Villagrán García (who designed the master plan for the university) and later became a partner in 1955. Legorreta then developed his own practice in 1960.
Under the mentorship of notable Mexican architect and engineer Luis Barragán, Legorreta incorporated bright colors, solid Platonic shapes, and attention to light and shadow within his style of architecture. In his designs, he made it a point to reflect Mexico’s climate and heritage.
Some of his most renowned works include the Camino Real Hotel (Mexico City), The IBM Factory (Guadalajara), The Solana Village Center (Dallas), The Museum of Contemporary Arts (Monterey), and, of course, the San Antonio Central Library here in San Antonio!
Frida Escobedo (1979 – )
Frida Escobedo is a very accomplished young architect who has gained much attention in Mexico and abroad.
In 2009, Escobedo won the Young Architects Forum, presented by the Architectural League of New York. She has also had her work presented in the Mexican Pavilion at the Architecture Biennial in Venice in 2012.
Escobedo earned her bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Urbanism from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and a master’s degree in Art, Design, and Public Domain from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She then went on to establish the Perro Rojo architecture studio in 2003 and later founded her own practice in 2006.
Escobedo’s projects include the Hotel Boca Chica in Mexico (2010), The Civic Stage in Portugal (2013), and a unique courtyard for the Serpentine Pavilion in London (2018).
Celebrated since 1939, National Aviation Day, August 19, was created by presidential proclamation to coincide with the birthday of aviation pioneer, Orville Wright. Here at Villa Finale, we are also commemorating the birthday of Walter Nold Maths, the home’s last owner, who would have been 102 years old on August 13th. It’s fitting that we celebrate both occasions by highlighting Mr. Mathis’ time as a pilot during World War II.
First, some little known facts about about Orville Wright. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Orville never finished high school – and neither did his brother, Wilbur – but he and his siblings were encouraged by their father to feed their curiosity through reading as many books as they could get their hands on. Orville also played the mandolin and brewed his own candy. Ever the builder, he made his own printing press while in high school to publish his own newspaper with friends contributing to content. One contributor was his friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was the class poet and the only Black student at the school. Although curious by nature, some believe Orville may have been on the autism spectrum due to his being awkward and shy in social situations (although without a proper diagnosis, this cannot be confirmed). In fact, Orville never married but considered his younger sister, Katherine, the dominant female figure in his life and was apparently devastated when she married at the age of 52. Clearly, there was more to Orville Wright than his contributions to aviation. He was an intelligent yet complicated person.
Like Orville Wright, there was also a lot more to Walter Mathis than merely being a collector of decorative art and his restoration of Villa Finale, and up to fourteen other homes in the King William neighborhood alone. At the age of sixteen, Mathis’ mother died suddenly of a heart attack, and this event shaped the person he would become as an adult. Having to work his way through college beginning his sophomore year (his father, Arthur’s business suffered with the stock market crash of 1929 and could not financially support his son’s education) Mathis worked up to three jobs, determined to complete his degree. He had just started a job with the Lone Star Ice Company in 1941, after graduating with a business degree from the University of Texas at Austin, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The following morning, Mathis and many other young men rushed to enlist because they believed “Hitler was a menace,” said Mathis. “We believed we were going to save the world. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s simply what we thought.”
Walter Mathis chose to enlist with the Army Air Corps (the aerial division of the Army prior to the establishment of the Air Force in 1947). Up to that point, Mathis had never considered flying airplanes but as he said, “War changed everything.” The first part of his training was with single-engine planes at Garner Field in Uvalde before graduating to twin-engine planes at Ellington Field in Houston. He graduated from his training and received his wings in the summer of 1942 at Randolph Field (now part of Randolph Air Force Base). He and others in his group then spent a few months in South Carolina before being transported to a training center in England on a converted passenger ship.
The training center, used by both the United States and the Royal Air Force, was in the parish of Little Easton in Essex, less than two miles from the historic market town, Great Dunmow. It was here that Mathis, by this time a Lieutenant, was assigned to fly the B-25, called the “flying brick” by pilots because it had no glide, it would drop like a heavy brick when they pulled back the throttle. While at Little Easton, he trained B-25 combat crews in a number of capacities including overseas air raids, pilot fitness for bombing raids, and his specialty, instrument flying. Instrument flying was a valuable skill during the War as pilots needed to be proficient flying in the dark and during weather where having a reference to the ground was nearly impossible.
Walter Mathis flew with the 9th Air Force Pathfinder Squadron in support of General Patton during this time, forty-five missions in the B-25 alone. Once the Germans started retreating, he was moved to Le Bourget, north of Paris to fly front-line support. In February 1945, the Allies focused on strategic bombings to transportation and oil targets in order to drive in the final death nail to the Axis alliance. Twenty-seven pilots from the 9th Air Force, including Mathis (by then a Captain), were chosen to fly the pivotal missions. “We always had another bridge or marshalling yard to strike,” recalled Mathis in an interview. “Always something to bomb.” His last twenty missions were flown in an A-26B, a pursuit bomber – the fastest during World War II – which was heavily armed and could carry up to 4,000 pounds of bombs. The Pathfinders’ job was to lead other bomber groups to a designated target amid heavy fire: if the Pathfinders missed, so would everyone else making their mission a failure.
By the time the War ended in September 1945, Mathis had flown sixty-five missions, an incredible feat considering the average tour of duty for an Army Air Corps pilot consisted of twenty-five missions, with fifteen being the average success rate. “There were twenty-seven of us that went over on that group,” Mathis remembered, “and we would mark the orders every time one of them was killed. And only three of us came back alive. Death flew with us.”
Mathis’ decorations for his accomplishments included air and theater medals, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a Presidential Citation for a mission flown over Germany. These were all sent to his father who, along with those of his older brother, Arthur, had them framed and displayed in his office. After Arthur Sr. died, the medals were returned to Walter Mathis who hung them at the entrance to his bedroom suite. When you visit Villa Finale, you can still view them there today.
It is sometimes difficult today with all the air traffic we see in the sky to appreciate not only the technological marvel human flight truly is, but also how it has been used for over one-hundred years in combat. Hats off to the early pioneers of aviation, the pilots who take us safely from point A to point B, and to all the aviators who have courageously put their lives on the line for their country. Thank you for your service, Walter Nold Mathis.
McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Phillips, Charles. (2007). Villa Finale: The Home and Collections of Walter Nold Mathis [Unpublished manuscript]. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C.
Pfeiffer, Maria Watson. (March 16, 2001). Interviews with Walter Nold Mathis for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Maria Watson Pfeiffer. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C.
Sara is back with part two of her “Victorians and Egyptomania” blog post. This time, Sara focuses on mummies and mummification. Let’s “wrap” ourselves around this fascinating subject!
Of the many artifacts that got shipped back to Europe, what often drew the most attention was mummies.
Mummies were not new or unheard of in Europe. During the medieval period it was believed that mummies were a source of bitumen (or natural asphalt), and merchants would scour ancient Egyptian graveyards and tombs for mummies to grind up and use for mummia, which was believed to have medicinal properties. At times merchants would even steal the bodies of executed criminals to turn into mummies, grind them up, and sell to unsuspecting clients!
In the 19th century it was not uncommon for members of the European aristocracy to purchase mummies as souvenirs of their travels. One French aristocrat and monk by the name of Abbot Ferdinand de Geramb wrote in 1833, “it would hardly be respectable to return from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”
Mummification for the Ancient Egyptians was an essential part of their religion and they believed that the preservation of the mortal form was essential for living well in the afterlife.
Intentional mummification of the dead in Ancient Egypt dates back at least to the 2nd century BCE or about 2800 BCE. By the time Pharaoh Khufu was building the Great Pyramid at Giza, roughly around 2580 BCE, the Ancient Egyptians had begun to perfect the skills required to preserve a body.
The body was believed to be a vessel for the soul and for the soul to continue existing in the next world, the body needed to be preserved in this one. By preserving the body, the living could offer food and drink and prayers and the soul would continue to exist in the afterlife, enjoying all the things they had in life. If the body was damaged or destroyed, then the soul which would periodically come back to its body, would not be able to recognize it and would be lost.
Mummification took about seventy days to complete. Special priests, acting as embalmers, would first remove the body’s organs through a small incision in the person’s side and wash and embalm them before placing them in separate jars. The heart was believed to be the center of feeling and reason so it would be carefully removed, washed, embalmed, and then placed back within the chest cavity. Often protective amulets and jewelry would be woven into the wrapping to assist in protecting the body as its spirit journeyed to the afterlife.
Members of the royal family, the nobility, and priesthood would often be buried with valuable artifacts meant to offer the dead a life of comfort in the afterlife. Such as their favorite chair, clothing, jewelry, beds, statues of their gods for protection, and servants to work for them.
Usually, only the upper-classes, the nobles, priests, and royalty, could afford the kind of mummification that would best preserve the body, or what Herodotus referred to in his Histories as the near “perfect method.”
Many in the lower end of ancient Egyptian society could probably only afford for the body’s intestines to be removed, injected with oil, and then covered in natron for seventy days before returning it to the family to be buried in a small shallow grave. While not as gold-flecked as the pharaoh’s tombs, these small burials still tell Egyptologists much about what life was like for the average Egyptian.
Unwrapping a grim gift.
In 1834, a London surgeon by the name of Thomas Pettigrew is believed to have held one of the first “mummy unwrapping parties.” While Pettigrew was not the first to unwrap a mummy, he was the first to turn it into a show!
After paying a small fee, academics, affluent members of society, and so on would crowd into an operating theater to watch the mummy be unwrapped. Pettigrew became somewhat of an expert on mummification and was even recruited to reverse engineer the process by Alexander Hamilton, the 10th Duke of Hamilton, who wished to be mummified after his death. He even purchased an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus for the occasion to be buried in. And he was, when he died in 1852!
Mummy unwrapping parties appealed to the Victorian’s fascination with the macabre and the scientific. They also didn’t always go according to plan. Stories of finding a mummy with its head filled with sand, a “princess” who was really a man, and having to pry the linen wrappings away with a crowbar, all filled the headlines.
But eventually public mummy unwrappings fell to the wayside. Many Victorians, like us today, felt that it was disrespectful of the dead, and as Egyptology became a more scientific field, Egyptologists felt that too much information was lost in the attempt to sell a cheap thrill. Though academic mummy unwrapping continued, the public moved on to the next fashionable trend.
A sad fact, though, is that information from these early studies of mummies and ancient Egypt, were used to the support racist ideology of the day and the results have had a long-lasting impact on the field of Egyptology.
One such debate was over whether the native ancient Egyptians were even capable of constructing marvels like the pyramids and the theory that the true builders were in fact Caucasian in origin and not African at all. Phrenology & Craniometry were popular pseudosciences that used measurements of the skull as well as any bump or dips to measure intelligence, and personality traits. Many early anthropologists, in particular George Samuel Morton, used ancient Egyptian skulls and mummies to “prove” his racist theories.
Even renowned Egyptologist Flinders Petrie believed that at one point in predynastic Egypt (6000 BCE-3100 BCE), a “Caucasoid race” had invaded Egypt and had taught the native Egyptians the methods to construct these monuments.
While these beliefs no longer exist in mainstream archaeology and Egyptology today, the damage still lingers in the field, and are present in modern fringe archaeological theories, such as ancient aliens.
To learn more about mummification and the study of mummies, click here.