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The Internet of the Old West.
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Scams, advertisements and demands from Prince “Wants Your Money” from some foreign country: Sound like your e-mail? You’re close. Only back in the 19th and 20th centuries it was called the telegraph. Not only did the telegraph create a quicker way to get junk mail, it changed the way Victorians lived, did business, received news and yes, even fell in love.
In his fascinating book, The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage tells us that there really is nothing new under the sun. Meetings, chat rooms, games, and illicit affairs were just as prevalent 150 years ago as they are today. And what, for that matter is a text message but a telegram, forcing people to be brief and to the point? (Tell that to your teen!)
If you think acronyms such as LOL and BTW are a modern concept, think again. Telegram security was an issue and secret codes were devised. Government regulators tried to control this new means of communication, but failed. Sound familiar?
Though the telegraph was first conceived in the 1600s and an optical one developed in the 1700s, it took a tragedy to make the dream of fast communication over long distances a reality.
Samuel Morse was an artist commissioned to paint a portrait in Washington. Upon receiving a letter informing him of his wife’s sudden death, he returned to his New Haven home as quickly as possible, but he had already missed her funeral. This had to be very much on his mind seven years later when he in a chance conversation aboard a ship he learned that electricity could travel along any length of wire almost instantaneously. Unaware that others had tried and failed to create a fast way of communications using this method, he immediately set to work.
It took Samuel Morse 12 years to perfect his invention and many trials and tribulations, but he was convinced that this new way of communicating would allow a husband to reach a dying wife’s bedside or save the life of a child. He thought it might even prevent wars. His hard work and perseverance paid off. On May 24, 1844, he sent the telegraph message “what hath God wrought?” from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland.
No longer was it necessary to communicate solely through trains, mail or horse. Even Morse himself couldn’t have imagined how telegraphic communications could change society.
Then as now, the first to embrace the new technology were criminals. The first telegrams sent were horse bets and lotteries. A man named Soapy Smith opened a fake telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska during the gold rush of 1897. The wires went only as far as the wall. The telegraph office obtained fees for “sending” messages from gold-laden victims. Though outlaws such as Butch Cassidy routinely cut wires or jammed telegraph keys to prevent lawmen from tracking them down, the telegraph eventually helped put an end to the train robberies that plagued the west.
Western Union might have been the first equal opportunity employer as women telegraphers were prevalent. The ratio of men to women in the New York office in the 1870s was two to one. Women operators were often chaperoned but that didn’t stop women from forming relationships with partners in distant offices. As a result, wire romances bloomed and one couple even married by telegraph. However, not all online romances had a happy ending. In 1886, The Electrical World magazine ran an article titled The Dangers of Wired Romances. That same article would no doubt be just as timely today.
Tom Standage writes that time traveling Victorians arriving in today’s world might be impressed with our flying machines but they would be unimpressed with the Internet. They did, after all, have one of their own.
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If you depend on a morning cup of coffee to get the old blood flowing, you can thank a bunch of frolicking goats. According to legend, coffee was discovered more than a thousand years ago by a sleepy-eyed goat herder who noticed that a certain berry gave his goats insomnia. After making himself a berry brew–and spending the night dancing with goats–he named the concoction Kahwa, the Arab name for wine.
Though coffee became the drink of choice for rebels after the Boston Tea party, its appeal was limited. Sold green, the chore of roasting beans baffled housewives and chuck wagon cooks alike. According to one old timer, beans had to be clean-picked, placed single layer in a roasting pan and stirred constantly. One burned bean would ruin the whole batch. Once the beans were roasted, they quickly lost flavor and aroma. The short shelf-life meant that roasted beans could be sold only in big cities.
John Arbuckle, a Philadelphia grocer, had an idea. Why not coat the roasted beans with something to keep them from deteriorating? He bought a roaster and got to work. He tried coating roasted beans with a glaze consisting of Irish moss, gelatin, isinglass, white sugar and eggs and it worked. Eventually, this glaze was simplified to only white sugar and eggs. This coating allowed him to ship roasted beans all over the country.
Not only did John Arbuckle solve the roasted bean problem, he pretty much invented the whole concept of marketing. He was the first to use premiums to encourage the sale of coffee. A peppermint candy was included in each one pound bag. “Who wants the peppermint?” was a familiar cry around chuck wagons. This call to grind the coffee beans got a rash of volunteers. No rough and tumble cowboy worth his salt would turn down peppermint candy.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Arbuckle next came up with a voucher plan. He printed a coupon bearing his signature on each package. A given number of coupons would earn the bearer one of a hundred items available in the Arbuckles’ catalog– the wish book of its day. Items included everything from a toothbrush to a double-action revolver. A young man could even order a golden wedding ring for his lady love. Claiming to mail out 80,000 rings a year, Arbuckles became known at the biggest distributor of rings in the world.
Not only was the coffee a life saver to those early westerners, so was the packaging. Coffee was shipped in sturdy Maine fir crates, 100 one-pound bags to the lot. The crates were used to make furniture, coffins and cradles. The Navajo Indians even used the wood to make hogans, and the trademark flying angel that emblazoned each package of coffee adorned many a western Christmas tree.
The next time you brew a pot of coffee, just think: all this happened because a bunch of caffeinated animals got one man’s goat.
According to a recent survey 38% of us will go through the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions this year. Sad to say, only 8% of us will meet with success. As someone once said, even the best intentions go in one year and out the other. That’s probably because we insist upon making resolutions that involve giving up something (drinking, smoking) or getting rid of something (weight, debt).
I don’t know what resolutions they made in the Old West, but I’m willing to bet that giving up or getting rid of something was not on anyone’s priority list. It was more like getting something (land or gold). Early settlers probably didn’t do any better than us modern folks in keeping their resolutions, but you have to give them credit: some died trying.
I plan to take my best shot at keeping my New Year’s resolutions—but dying is where I draw the line.
I resolve to….
Visit Margaret’s Website:www.margaretbrownley.com
If you’re like me, you’ve probably had your full of Christmas cheer and gift wrappings about now, and are longing for a little bit of that “peace on earth” we keep hearing about.
Still, no matter how hectic our lives might seem at the moment, nothing compares to Christmas in the old west. Instead of forging their way through crowded malls and reams of wrapping paper, early pioneers living in canvas homes, soddies and log cabins battled blizzards, bitter cold and driving winds. In 1849, Catherine Haun wrote in her diary that her family’s Christmas present was the rising of the Sacramento River that flooded the whole town.
Those of you planning to travel this holiday season might empathize with the passengers who spent the Christmas of 1870 on Kansas-Pacific trains stuck in snow. Fortunately soldiers from a nearby fort provided fresh buffalo meat, which is a whole lot more than you get if you’re stuck at the airport.
We don’t generally associate fireworks with Christmas, but for some early settlers it was the only way to celebrate. In 1895, a riot broke out in Austin on Christmas Day when revelers shot off Roman candles. Animals stampeded, but law and order was soon restored. Other parts of Texas didn’t have it so lucky. The Fort Worth Gazette reported several incidences of people being shot and stabbed on Christmas Day over the use of Roman candles. In some places, fire crackers were encouraged as this piece in a 1880s newspaper attests: “Firecrackers are in evidence creating the genuine Christmas atmosphere of gunpowder smoke.”
While most pioneers decorated their Christmas trees with strung popcorn, berries and pictures from Arbuckle’s coffee, McCade Texas takes the prize for the most unusual ornaments. On Christmas morning in 1883, three men were found hanging from a tree. If that wasn’t festive enough, the shootout that followed provided “genuine atmosphere” a-plenty.
What is Christmas without a feast? Even the poorest of families managed to splurge a little. Oysters were considered a luxury and one bride in Montana proudly served them to her guests on Christmas Day, unaware that the oysters had spoiled during transport. Her guests fared better than the man named Avery who, on Christmas day in 1850 set out to bag a deer for his dinner and was killed by Indians.
Crime never takes a holiday and that was as true back then as it is now. On Christmas day in 1873, a group of Indians stole five army horses near the Concho River resulting in a shootout. In 1877 Sam Bass robbed a Fort Worth stagecoach of $11.25, and in 1889 Butch Cassidy pulled his first bank holdup on Christmas Eve at a Telluride, Colorado bank. That same year, Christmas day proved to be unlucky for a couple of cattle-rustling brothers who were tracked down and shot by the Texas Rangers.
In the early days of the west, Christmas gifts were modest if not altogether non-existent. Not so for Johnny Wesley Hardin who got an unexpected gift after he won a duel following a disputed card game. The good citizens of Towash, Texas spread the word that he was the “fastest gun in the west,” which probably did wonders for his card game. He was also the meanest gun in the west, though he claimed he never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.
In case you were wondering, Christmas wasn’t all gunfire and fireworks. In 1881, Tombstone in Arizona Territory made news for having a “quiet” holiday. Not to worry, they made up for it the following year.
Come to think of it, maybe those crowded malls aren’t so bad, after all, even without the “genuine Christmas atmosphere.”
A Lady Like Sarah is available now. He’s a preacher; she’s an outlaw. Both are in need of a miracle. Ride on over to my homestead and say howdy: