Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part Two

Ready for part two of “Celebrating Black Inventors”? Here’s Doug with more!

Museum Interpreter, Doug Daye

Guitar

Watercolor of man with guitar by artist Wayman Adams (from the Villa Finale Collection).

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

Villa Finale’s 1957 Decca HiFi record player can only be viewed during our special “Music for Your Eyes” tours (from the Villa Finale Collection).

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.

Electric Lamp

One of the many lamps with lusters found throughout Villa Finale (from the Villa Finale Collection).

While Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb, it was Lewis 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!

https://savingplaces.org/stories/a-new-york-city-museum-shines-a-spotlight-lewis-latimer#.YkWx2ijMLIU

Stay tuned for Part 3!!

A Tribute to Scott Joplin: More Than Just the “King of Ragtime”

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.

Scott Joplin (from Wikipedia)

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.

Scott Joplin mural in Texarkana. (From arkansas.com)

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.

“The Cakewalk” (from pages.stolaf.edu: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music )

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.

(From the Library of Congress)

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.

Revival

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.

The Sting soundtrack (from calendar.songfacts.com)

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.

The pre-performance of Treemonisha in Atlanta, 1972 (from syncopatedtimes.com)

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.)

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part One

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!

Doug Daye

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!

Refrigerator

The refrigerator in Villa Finale’s kitchen takes us back to those groovy colors of the 1970s.

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.

Heating Furnace

Furnace in Villa Finale’s Pewter Room. (Note: the giant stein is not part of the furnace!)

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!!

Bicycle Frame

Cycling: not an activity for respectable young ladies!

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 Caster

Victorian furniture is heavy enough. Thank you, Mr. Fisher!

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.

Stay tuned for Part 2!!!

Historical Films to Watch (2020-2021) by Doug Daye

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!

Doug Daye

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.

Misbehaviour 

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.

Celebrating Children’s Literature Illustrators

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!

Doug Daye

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 (from GPB.org)

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)

Carole Byard (from villagepreservation.org)

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)

Ezra Jack Keats (from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation)

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!!

R. Michelson Galleries: https://www.rmichelson.com/illustration/

Eric Carle Museum: https://www.carlemuseum.org/

National Center for Children’s Literature: https://www.nccil.org/

University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum: https://www.mazzamuseum.org/collection/

“Collecting History”: The Most Famous Death Mask You May Have “Kissed”

Seine River, 1880s. (From worthpoint.com)

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.

Crowds looking at unidentified bodies at the Paris Morgue. (From medium.com)

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.”

“L’Inconnue de la Seine”

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.”

“L’Inconnue de la Seine” and “Rescue Annie” (From the International Life Cast Museum)

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 use L’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!

THREE’S COMPANY – “Boy Meets Dummy” – Airdate: December 1, 1981. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)JOHN RITTER;CHRISTINA HART;RICHARD KLINE

(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:

The Pagan Origins of Christmas (part two)

And now, part two of Sara Breshears’ “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.”

By Sara Breshears

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.  

“Advent calendar from Im Lande des Christkinds (In the Land of the Christ Child). Richard Ernst Kepler (1851-1927)

 

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! 

Getting a “head” of dinner. (From Pinterest)

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!  

The Vindication of Christmas (1652) . From thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com.

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! 

Conclusion 

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.  

Io Saturnalia! 

Sources: 

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Tudor-Christmas/

https://www.history.com/news/christmas-traditions-tudor-england

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ndb8c

https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/alison-weir-tudor-christmas-history-advent-calendar-festive-facts-siobhan-clarke/

https://www.ancient.eu/Saturnalia/

https://www.ancient.eu/Aurelian/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturnalia-Roman-festival

Remembrances: A Very Gen X Christmas

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?

The Mathis Christmas tree was almost always placed in the Main Hallway, ca. 1970s. Check out all the presents!

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?

Christmas 1978: opening presents with my brother while dad talked on the phone. This is the year I got my Whoopsie doll! I was so happ-ee!

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!

Castle Grayskull: “Fortress of Mystery and Power for He-Man and His Foes”

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!

The mighty ColecoVision! (I still have mine.)

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.

From my personal collection (with scissors as a size reference). I still own these gifts from “Santa.”

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.]

Introducing “Collecting History”: Stories Inspired by Villa Finale’s Most Weird & Wonderful Curiosities

When we buy an item from an antique store, we are getting more than whatever object is on our receipts. We are acquiring stories, some of which we not even be aware of.

Paperweight housed in Villa Finale’s Green Sitting Room.

Take this cranberry glass paperweight purchased at the Texas State Fair in 1906. How far did it originally travel? What child did “Mama” gift this to? If it could talk, what sort of wonderful stories could this object tell us?

The Post at Mittenwald, ca. 1900.

What about this charming little painting called ‘The Post in Mittenwald, Bavaria,” by German artist, Georg Hemmrich (1874 – 1939). This painting is nearly lost among the dozens of other Continental paintings hanging on the Walls of Villa Finale’s Pewter Room. Why did Hemmrich choose this subject for his painting? Did this place have a significant meaning to him? If we explore the artist’s other works, we find many of his other paintings capture many of the same type of scenes. Why?

Any object can lead us to ask many questions, and what we can discover if we take the time to dig deeper, is truly fascinating! Our new video and blog series, “Collecting History”: Stories Inspired by Villa Finale’s Most Weird & Wonderful Curiosities, will highlight objects in the collection that aren’t always highlighted during our regular tours, but have more stories to tell than the eye can behold. The series will have a short video – viewable on our social media platforms and website – where we take a closer look at an object accompanied by a blog post that can be found here where we go into further detail.

Be on the lookout for this fun series. We’re looking forward to bringing it to you as well as all the fun and entertaining stories that come from it!

“Spiritual Weekend” Featuring Three Historic Properties in October

If you have been following Villa Finale’s events and programs, then you are probably aware that we will be hosting our second seance in 2018. But this year it’s more than just one night, it’s an entire weekend for those who are interested in spiritualism and the mystery behind historic homes. Our “spiritual weekend” – Friday, October 12 and Saturday, October 13 – will feature two seances and a pendulum workshop at three different historic homes in the King William neighborhood, each with its own stories of loss and sadness.

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“Hello From the Other Side” seance at Villa Finale, 2017.

The weekend begins on Friday, October 12th at Villa Finale with night one of “Hello From the Other Side: 75 Years of Spiritualism and a Live Seance.” Seance-goers will be treated to light refreshments and bar drinks themed to the evening’s occasion before being led into the house for the main event being presented by the duo of Austin Seance. Built in 1876 and remodeled at least four different times, Villa Finale has seen its share of people come and go throughout its 142-year history. Those of us who were in the house during last year’s seance “heard” footsteps in the rooms directly above us and on the main staircase. Could these sounds have been figments of our imagination? Or maybe it was the Polk family who lost the house through foreclosure in 1895 and have never really left? Could it have been Billy Keilman who owned the home and ran a brothel and speakeasy here in the mid 1920s, and was murdered off-site during his tenure? Perhaps it was one of Keilman’s disgruntled customers? We may never find out!

Otto

Otto Meusebach, ca. 1890s.

On Saturday, October 13 at 2:00pm, the weekend’s activities continue with “Pendulums: A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit” being held at Villa Finale’s Meusebach House, located across the street at 414 King William Street. Participants will learn about the history of pendulums and how to make and use them. Pendulums are simple devices that have long been used to communicate with spirits, and folks will get a chance to do just that at this historic house. Built in 1886 by Smith and Josie Ellis, the couple sold the house to Otto Carl and Martha Meusebach in 1889. Otto and his brother, Max who lived in the house briefly in the 1890s, were sons of German pioneer John O. Meusebach, founder of Fredericksburg. Both Otto and Max were known for participating in raucous saloon brawls throughout town. On November 4, 1900, the Meusebach’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Anita, died in the house after days of being ill with peritonitis. As was the custom at the time, Anita’s funeral was held in the Meusebach home. Does the spirit of Anita remain in her family’s home? Or do the rough and tough souls of Otto and Max refuse to rest? Participants at the pendulum workshop may find out!

Johanna Steves undated

Johanna Steves, undated. Courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

The last of the weekend’s activities happens later on Saturday evening with seance number two being held at the Edward Steves Homestead located one block from Villa Finale and the Meusebach house. Edward and Johanna Steves built their home in 1876 following the success of their lumber company. Just like Villa Finale and the Meusebach house, the Steves home has also seen its share of sorrow. Following Edward’s death in 1890, family members talk about Johanna sleeping in the hallway outside of the master bedroom during her period of mourning. But Johanna was a tough German woman who, despite being under 5-feet tall, was master of her home and lived there for forty years following her husband’s death. Although she baked cookies for the neighborhood kids and allowed them to swim in her pool, Johanna expected her pool cleared for her own private swim as soon as she rang a bell from her back porch.

 

Johanna died in 1930 within two weeks of her beloved son Ernest’s death. Ernest, who was the youngest, had been admitted to the hospital to get his appendix removed but, as was not too uncommon at the time, didn’t survive the procedure. Newspapers speculated Johanna died of a “broken heart” but, certainly, being 90 years old also didn’t make coping with the sorrow any easier. Like Anita Meusebach, Johanna’s casket lay in state in her home, right in front of the formal parlor’s bay window. During night two of the seance, will Johanna announce her private swim by ringing her bell? Will laughter from neighborhood children of bygone days be heard again? Join us and find out!

You can purchase each of the three events of Villa Finale’s “spiritual weekend” separately: “Hello From the Other Side” seance night one at Villa Finale ($55.00 per person), “Pendulums: A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit” at the Meusebach House ($10.00 per person), or the “Hello From the Other Side” seance night two at the Steves Homestead ($55.00 per person). If choosing just one is difficult, you can participate in all three with the “spiritual weekend bundle”: $100.00 for a chance to see “who” says “hello” from the spirit world in each of these fascinating historic homes! Come experience it for yourself.

Seance nights include light refreshments and alcoholic beverages. Seances are for audiences 18 and older only. Space is limited for all three. Click on the links below to purchase admissions or call (210) 223-9800 during business hours for tickets or more information.

Seance nights one and two and “spiritual bundle”

Workshop only – “Pendulums:  A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit”