Doug’s final post on Black inventors and innovators is here! We know you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have.
Alexander P. Ashborne was a well-known and respected caterer in Philadelphia when he came up with the idea to reinvent the way biscuits were made. While working at the 1863 Emancipation Celebration, he noticed the biscuits were hand patted and lacked definition. This led him to design a spring-loaded biscuit cutter that would allow biscuits to have more shape and form. His cutter included a board to make loading and unloading simpler. It also included metal plates with various shapes. The cook could press down on the plate to cut the dough into shapes. He received the patent for his design on November 20, 1876.
Fountain Pen and Hand Stamp
William Purvis was born into an influential family of abolitionists, educators, businessmen, and poets so his inspiration for innovation came as no coincidence. Though he had numerous other inventions, he was best known for the improvements he made to the fountain pen. His pen allowed for the elimination of ink bottles and instead used stored ink in a reservoir inside the pen. An elastic tube connected the ink reservoir and the tip of the pen. The suction and pressure in the tube regulated the flow of the ink which depended on the force and speed of the writer. The unused ink was then returned to the reservoir. He received the patent for his invention on January 7, 1890. Purvis’s fountain pen has contributed to businesses all over by making office work cleaner and more affordable.
His other inventions include a hand stamp that was able to replenish its own ink. This was the first invention he received a patent for on February 27, 1883.
Home Security System
In 1969, Marie Van Brittan Brown received a patent for the first home security system, along with her husband, Albert. Brown worked long hours as a nurse and had to return home at night. Her husband, a technician, also worked irregular hours which meant that she would be home alone many nights. Fearful of being vulnerable in a neighborhood with high crime, Brown decided to figure out a way to see who was at her door if she heard knocking. In 1966 she went to work designing a security system with her husband’s assistance. The system included four peep holes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and two-way microphones. This created a closed-circuit television system for surveillance called CCTV. Brown’s invention contributed to the design of modern home security systems.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how Black inventors contributed to our society! Be sure to learn about more Black inventors and their inventions from the Black Inventions Museum: https://theblackinventionsmuseum.org
Also, please come visit us at Villa Finale to see these objects for yourself!
On January 6th, Joan of Arc – arguably the most famous patron saint of France – would have celebrated her 611th birthday. Known for her visions that led her to request Charles VII let her “lead” French forces in order to stop the English and assure his coronation during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), and for her famous death (she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 at the tender age of nineteen), Joan is also famous for her defiance of gender norms. She spoke her mind (pretty brave for a woman in the middle ages), wore what were traditionally men’s clothes, and cut her hair short in what may have been history’s most famous bobbed haircut.
While some people argue there is no evidence Joan of Arc truly sported this haircut, artists throughout the years have famously depicted her with the short hairdo. In 1911, one of Paris’ most famous hairstylists known as Monsieur Antoine or Antoine de Paris (born in Poland, his real name was Antoni Cierplikowski), gave 40-year old actress Ève Lavallière – who was going to play an 18-year old in a play – the shortened hairdo to make her look younger. Audiences were amazed! Had Antoine discovered the key to everlasting youth? Claiming Joan of Arc as his inspiration, the hairdo began to be called “à la Jeanne d’Arc.”
In 1915, famous dancer Irene Castle – half of the Vernon and Irene Castle duo – cut her hair short as a mere manner of convenience prior to an appendectomy; the hairstyle then began being called the “Castle Bob.” The bob didn’t truly take off until the 1920s, however. In May, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a shy girl who is tricked into getting her hair bobbed and is then quickly shunned by boys and society. (If you haven’t seen the 1976 TV movie by the same name starring Shelley Duvall as Bernice, you’re missing out!) 1920 was still a time when femininity was judged by a number of “criteria” including long hair.
At first, hairstylists resisted requests for the haircut driving many women to barbershops where barbers were more than happy to comply. By 1925, hairdressers had given into the fashionable trend sought by women eager to break societal norms. This one, simple hairstyle drove up profits for the beauty industry! Soon, there were accessories to compliment the bob such as hairbands and the iconic cloche hat. Attitudes of women donning the do – that were just as controversial as the haircut itself – also pushed the limits: they drank, smoked, showed off their knees, and wore makeup … scandalous! Actress Mary Gordon was quoted in a 1927 issue of Pictorial Review as saying, “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seem, is well worth while.” [Victoria Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 2006.]
The bobbed haircut – or some version of it – has transcended well beyond the 1920s into today. The right haircut can sometimes make a career. In 1988, a then “up and coming” model, Linda Evangelista, had her hair cut by stylist Julien d’Ys into what can be described as a “grown-out pixie.” The hairstylist admitted to cutting Evangelista’s hair on a “whim,” and wasn’t sure how he was going to cut it until he actually began snipping. Although nervous about her new look at first, Evangelista’s new look was a hit and, she admitted, her modeling rates “quadrupled.”
Celebrities like Halle Berry, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Lawrence – just to name a few – have all made fashion statements by cutting their hair short. “When you have short hair, there’s just a feeling of here I am. What you see is what you get,” said Halle Berry in the February 11, 2015 issue of Glamour magazine. “And there’s a confidence that comes with wearing short hair and I like the way that makes me feel.” If Joan of Arc did indeed bob her own hair, she then most certainly felt that confidence described by Halle Berry – assertive enough to lead French forces to victory! Perhaps when you look and feel good, anything is possible. Thanks, Joan!
A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world! — Louise Brooks
To see more versions of the famous “bob” – like the “Moana” and the “Coconut” – click here.
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.
With the 93rd annual Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, April 25th, Doug Daye is back to give us his suggestions for interesting films to watch with a historic theme. I can smell the popcorn already!
Hey history buffs! If you love movies, especially movies about history, you are in for a treat! In honor of the film award season (Academy Awards, Golden Globes, etc.), here is a list of a few historical films that have recently come out that complement the National Trust’s theme of “Telling the Full Story.” These movies are all available on streaming services, so look them up, grab some popcorn, and enjoy!
United States Vs Billie Holiday
United States Vs Billie Holiday is a biographical film following singer Billie Holiday in the peak of her career. She is targeted by the government in an effort to boost the “War on Drugs” initiative, with the overall goal to force her to stop singing the controversial song “Strange Fruit.” However, Billie Holiday refuses to let them silence her voice.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
This film centers around the trial of seven defendants who faced charges of conspiracy to enact a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. What was meant to be a peaceful protest ignited into a violent uprising against police officers. The trial of the seven men, who were leaders of various advocacy groups, became one of the notorious trials in history and sparked outrage across the country.
The 1970 Miss World Competition, hosted by comedian Bob Hope in London, England is underway. It is the most watched event on television at the time, however it takes place in the midst of the women’s liberation movement. A group of protesters interrupt the broadcast arguing that the pageant objectifies women, which results in an uproar.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah is the biographical story of how Bill O’Neal was sent by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell and J Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and betray Party Chairman Fred Hampton as he rose to power. O’Neal suffers an internal struggle as he gains the trust of Hampton, but has to hide the fact that he is working with the government to destroy him.
Today, March 2nd, is Read Across America Day! In celebration of this wonderful activity, Doug is back with a blog post celebrating his favorite illustrators of children’s books. Do enjoy!
As a child I loved books! I really liked to listen to story books being read to me by my parents, my grandparents, teachers, or the local librarians during story time programs at the local library. I grew up watching shows like “Reading Rainbow” and listening to story books on cassette tape which encouraged my love for books. I felt like story books fueled my imagination and transported me to another world! Here’s a look at a few children’s book artists that I remember from my childhood.
Eric Carle (1929 – )
Eric Carle grew up in difficult circumstances during WWII. During the war, his German immigrant family moved from New York back to Germany where his father was drafted into the military and was held captive as a prisoner for many years. Despite adversity, Carle went on to study graphic art at the Academy of Visual Art in Stuttgart, Germany. He returned to New York City to become a graphic artist for the New York Times in 1952, until being drafted during the Korean War. Upon returning from the war, he returned to his position at the Times, then left to become a freelance artist in 1963. He met children’s book author Bill Martin who encouraged him to pursue book illustration. Together they published their first collaboration project Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? which became a bestseller. Despite their many collaborations together Carle still wrote and illustrated his own books, 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was his most famous book.
Carole Byard (1941 – 2017)
After attending high school in New Jersey, Carol Byard went on to study art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and the Phoenix School of Art of Design in New York City during the late 1950s to early 1960s. She was inspired by the Black Arts Movement which began as a result of the Black Power Movement, which called for Black culture to be reflected across music, poetry, theater, and other art media. Byard used her artistic talents to create projects that fit within that goal. She contributed her artistic skills to illustrations for many children’s books including Dreams of Africa (1978) and Cornrows (1980). She was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award for both books. Her other works include Working Cotton and The Black Snowman.
Ezra Jack Keats (1916 – 1983)
Growing up in the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn, NY, Ezra was artistically gifted as a child. His family was very poor and suffered hardship during the Great Depression. Though his mother was supportive, his father wanted him to focus on more practical skills in order to get a decent job. However, Ezra continued to excel in his artistic talents. After high school, he took art classes when he could but mostly worked to support his family after father died. He worked as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and he illustrated backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic book series before going into the military during World War II. He went on to publish his first children’s book, My Dog is Lost! (1960) which featured Juanito, a Puerto Rican boy, as the main character. Ezra wanted to make it a point to cast minority children as main characters for his stories. His most famous book, The Snowy Day (1962) featured Peter, who was based on a young Black child he saw pictures of in Life magazine. He was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his work in 1963. He also went on to feature Peter in six more books following The Snowy Day. Watch the animated film “The Snowy Day” on Amazon Prime!
Children’s Book Museums
Get info on museums dedicated to children’s books and view artwork by other authors and illustrators here!!
Villa Finale is pleased to have a copy of what may be Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask in our collection. As famous as this one may be, there is a death mask more widely seen – and even “kissed” – throughout the world. According to lore, in the late 1880s, the body of a young woman around 16 years old was found in Paris’ Seine River. When investigators pulled her lifeless body from the water, the young woman showed no signs of violence on her person anywhere. She was taken to the Paris Morgue where a pathologist examined her further. After a thorough investigation, the woman’s death was ruled a suicide.
Reports about the young woman’s death were reported widely, her corpse was even put on public display as was the custom with unidentified bodies; however, no one claimed her. In the hopes she would be identified, the mortician in charge decided to make a death mask of the woman’s face. He also couldn’t help feeling captivated by the young lady’s beauty and haunting smile that remained on her lifeless lips, one compared to that of the Mona Lisa’s. This mortician admitted to casting the death mask with another intent. He said, “Her beauty was breathtaking and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved.”
Although the woman was never truly identified, her death mask caused a sensation; it was reproduced and sold as a morbid fixture to be displayed in the private homes of Parisians, and by 1900, she could also be found abroad. L’Inconnue de la Seine or “the unknown woman of the Seine” was seen as a type of muse within the artistic community; she could be found hanging as a decorative piece in the homes of poets, writers, and artists like Picasso and Vladimir Nabokov. Philosopher Albert Campus called her “the drowned Mona Lisa.”
In the 1950s, an Austrian doctor, Peter Safar, was working with Norwegian medical device manufacturer and toy maker, Asmund Laerdal, to create the first CPR mannequin. Laerdal’s young son had nearly drowned but he was saved by Laerdal’s quick use of a form of CPR. Around the time the mannequin was in development, Laerdal paid a visit to his parent’s home. While there, he became instantly inspired by a copy of “the unknown woman of the Seine” displayed in his parent’s home. Just like the French pathologist who had originally examined the young woman over fifty years earlier, Asmund Laerdal found her completely ravishing. It was then the decision was made to useL’Inconnue’s likeness – as she is commonly known today – on the mannequin that became known as “Rescue Annie” or Resucci Anne. Today, the woman who may have drowned by suicide over 100 years ago is responsible for possibly saving thousands of lives. Maybe there was a little bit of foreshadowing in the young lady’s curious smile!
(If you would like your own copy of L’Inconnue, L’Atelier Lorenzi, a family-run workshop in southern Paris, can create hand-made copies using their own 19th-century plaster mold.)
See the video introducing L’Inconnue de la Seine here:
And now, part two of Sara Breshears’ “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.”
The Party Gets Rolling
As previously mentioned, in early Christianity, Christmas was not widely celebrated and was overshadowed by Epiphany or the visit of the Magi, which was celebrated on January 6th. By the High Middle Ages, with Christmas becoming more prominent thanks in part to the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas in 800 CE and William the Conqueror in 1066, Christmas was the first in a long list of religious holidays that were celebrated.
Like Saturnalia, Christmas in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was a party, filled with drinking, overeating, and merrymaking!
In England, Christmas kicked off a long continuous party that culminated in Twelfth Night celebrations, on January 5th. Leading up to the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations was Advent, which was twenty-four days of fasting and prayer. This was done by most families to save money and food for to be used the celebrations.
The Catholic Church at the time had strict rules about celebrating during the Twelve Days of Christmas and decreed that only the minimal amount of work could take place during the celebrations. So, Advent was used to prep the farm and household for the festivities and so no rules would be broken.
During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was chosen to oversee the celebrations, particularly the Feast of Fools. In England, sometimes the Lord or King of Misrule was chosen by finding a pea in the Twelfth Night cake, not unlike King Cake today.
In France and in Switzerland a boy would be chosen to be ‘Bishop for a Day,’ much like the Saturnalias Princeps, and would be dressed in bishop’s clothes and could give light-hearted orders though out the day.
Gifts were usually given on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day 1532, Henry VIII of England accepted a set of Pyrean Boar Spears from Anne Boleyn, while he gave her hangings of cloth of gold, silver, and crimson satin. Reportedly, he rejected the gold cup his then-wife Catherine of Aragon had sent him as a gift. How rude!
The traditional meal during Christmas was the Yule Boar or pig for most people, since they were safer to acquire than a boar, which were quite large and could easily kill a man. Turkey was not introduced from the New World until 1532 and Henry VIII again is the first known English king to eat the bird at Christmas, since at the time, they would have been a new and rare delicacy.
Chroniclers of the courts of Europe record magnificent feasts being held, games being played, and drunken debauchery! While most peasants couldn’t afford to spend the whole day partying, they too had their fun!
Homes would be decorated with holly and ivy and large Yule logs, big enough to burn over the course of twelve days were selected and dragged home covered in ribbons to be put on the hearth. Christmas crowns were wooden structures built, covered in holly, ivy, and of course mistletoe, and hung in homes to add a bit of decoration.
In Germany, in the 16th century these were called ‘kissing bough.’ Made out of evergreens like holly and bay leaves and a touch of mistletoe (of course), these were suspended from a ceiling and required any unaware couple to share a kiss before being freed.
The Party Ends…Temporarily
As you can see, up till the 17th century, the whole Christmas season was a never-ending party, with pageants, masques and diners, gambling and sporting, and gift-giving!
However, in 1647, Puritans banned Christmas in England, condemning it as ‘trappings of popery’ and a Catholic invention. Basically, they didn’t like people having too much fun! Once the Parliamentary forces executed King Charles I in 1649 there wasn’t really anyone to argue with them.
Three years earlier in 1640, the Parliament of Scotland abolished the observance of Christmas and it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was once again a Scottish holiday!
Pro-Christmas riots occurred in several cities and with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 the ban was lifted, but there were many among the clergy who did not approve of any celebration of the holiday and so resumption of the celebrations were not widely common.
Early pilgrims in Colonial America (who left England not because of religious persecution but because they believed the Anglican church was not strict enough) continued this intense dislike of Christmas and showed it, by working on Christmas day!
After the American Revolution, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the United States because it was seen as being ‘too British’.
It wasn’t until the Victorians and the publishing of Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, that Christmas was again widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and the United States.
This sparked the revival of many of the old traditions along with the emergence of some new ones such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees, though the festivities were markedly, more ‘family friendly’ than in centuries previous! Caroling, Christmas trees, Yule logs, evergreens, gifts, and games all made a comeback and then some!
The history of Christmas, and the festivals and celebrations that influence our modern Christmas, is fascinating and I only mentioned three of many different holidays that were celebrated throughout Europe and the ancient world!
That all these different pagan traditions were shared and changed and shaped into something new, is amazing and I am glad we still have them.
When I first joined the Villa Finale project in 2008, I was very excited about the wide range of interpretive eras we could tackle. From the construction of the house in 1876 (and even before if you figure Villa Finale was built on Alamo farmland) through Walter Mathis’ death in 2005, the epochs and variety of subjects we can cover at the museum for programs, events, and the like are far-reaching, even when talking about Christmas. If you have visited Villa Finale during our Holiday Open House Tours (a first-floor, self-guided experience from now until December 19th) you may have noticed the wide-ranging decorations that include some from the 1970s and 1980s. Since I do spend a lot of time in the house, I began to think: what would it have been like to celebrate Christmas as a kid in Villa Finale?
Mind you, Walter Mathis did not have any children of his own. More than likely, his great-nieces and great-nephews would have been the first children in the house during his ownership and, just like me, they would be Generation X (born between 1965 – 1980). And just like today, those children would’ve most looked forward to the presents … specifically, toys! So, what sort of toys were popular with Generation X children? Let’s reminisce a little, shall we?
There are so many toys I can cover but times-sake, I will only highlight a handful. You’re invited to share your favorites in the comments! Let’s begin with this: who remembers the catch phrase “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down”? Weebles, the egg-shaped roly-poly toys manufactured by Hasbro, made their debut in 1971 with a variety of “Weeble people” and accessories including vehicles and playsets. There were over 40 sets of Weebles manufactured between 1972 and 1982 but there was only ONE I just had to have: the Weebles Haunted House (1976)! Santa Claus did come through with this fun little set for us one Christmas. I guess old “scary-looking” houses were always in my future!
One of our most popular holiday programs at Villa Finale is the “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” tour where we not only demonstrate the museum’s music machines, but also talk about toys for Christmas, especially dolls (incidentally, we will be having a live virtual version of this tour on December 17th). On the tour we talk about the Cabbage Patch, the most popular doll of all time (mass-produced by Coleco in 1982), but in this blog post I would like to mention a little-known doll, “Whoopsie.” Manufactured by Ideal between 1978 – 1981, little pigtailed Whoopsie had a vinyl body that, when its tummy was squeezed, would let out a little “whistle” as both of her pigtails would fly up. I mean, what Gen X little girl wouldn’t want one? I can’t tell you how happy my six-year-old little heart was to find Whoopsie under the Christmas tree in 1978. Thanks, Santa!
I also recall toys my brother – who is four years younger than me – wanted for Christmas. Like many little boys back in the early 80s, my brother was obssesed with “Masters of the Universe,” the Mattel line introduced in 1981 that gave us such characters as He-Man, Skeletor, Battle Cat, and all sorts of other strange, super-muscular personalities. I remember my brother had his Masters of the Universe action figures all over the house, including one He-Man that had armor that could be punched and dented at the chest! My mom never understood my brother’s fascination with those monos feos (ugly-looking action figures), but my brother sure loved them! I remember how excited he was to get the Castle Grayskull playset for Christmas one year. Castle Grayskull was where He-Man or Skeletor or someone lived – not sure. Ha!
We Gen Xers experienced the “golden age” of arcade video games (1978 – 1982). We loved going to the mall, having mom give us a couple of dollars in quarters to spend in the arcade while she went shopping. Gen Xers were among the first to grow up with home video game consoles, as well. I remember being about four and watching all wide-eyed as my uncles (who were in their late teens, early 20s) played Pong. It was magical! There were other home video game consoles that followed including the Atari 2600 in 1977, and the very famous 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System – NES for short – in 1985. My little neighbors had the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s and I would be as anxious as can be waiting for them to invite me over to play! That is until Christmas 1982 when Santa Claus brought us the pièce de résistance of home video game consoles (at the time): the ColecoVision!
Then it became OUR turn to host little friends for video game playtime! Released in 1982 by Coleco Industries, Inc., ColecoVision was far superior to the Atari 2600 because the graphics looked like what they were supposed to be! Donkey Kong actually looked like an ape (if you’re familiar with the Atari, you know what I’m talking about). In addition to this home console, Coleco also put out miniature table-top versions of arcade cabinets beginning in 1982. Over a couple of Christmases, Santa brought us table-top cabinets of Zaxxon, Frogger, and Donkey Kong.
If you love classic video games, do check out the National Video Game Museum in Frisco, Texas where you can travel back to play in an arcade of the 1980s called “Pixel Dreams.” Click here for more information on the NVM.
While I can’t say for sure any of the toys mentioned in this post were ever under Walter Mathis’ Christmas tree, it certainly is fun to imagine these – or others – were. Can you imagine Villa Finale’s rooms filled with the laughter of children ripping presents open and pieces of wrapping paper scattered everywhere? It would be kinda neat, don’t you think?
[Villa Finale’s virtual “Music for Your Eyes – Holiday” will be transmitted via Facebook Live on Thursday, December 17th at 6:00pm CST. Join in to share your own remembrances during the tour via the Facebook Live chat! Click here for the Facebook event page.]