Conservators Concerned About Plastic

But not for reasons you think! Early plastics are beginning to degrade. It is so bad that venues have been having to remove plastic historical items from display because they are visibly deteriorating. Historians have many advanced chemical and biological techniques to preserve artifacts but they are for “traditional” artifacts which are made from natural materials -- wool, wood, iron -- not man-made materials. Now conservators are having to quickly discover new techniques to keep plastic artifacts from deteriorating, techniques that work on materials which have never before had to be conserved. It is apparently a huge challenge!

The First Artificial Sweetener Was Ancient

The Romans discovered that if they boiled grape juice in lead pots, it produced an even-sweeter drink. They did not know why it worked. But they knew they liked the result. Of course, today, we know that it was the lead in the pots that was getting into the juice and making that sweet taste. Delicious, but dangerous.

A Shady Portrait Of The Greatest English Playwrite(s)

"Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare Playing at Chess." Unfortunately, this painting's authenticity has been subject to debate for more than a century. It became widely known only in 1878, when the painting was purchased for $18,000 by Colonel Ezra Miller; note this is more than two hundred years after both its subjects were dead. Already suspicious. Then, the authenticating documents were lost in a fire 17 years later. Meaning investigation of the documents, and modern forensic analyses, are impossible.

Supporters claim that it was painted by Karel van Mander (1548-1606), and in the best possible case, the painting would give us new likenesses of Jonson and Shakespeare painted by a contemporary. But a biography of van Mander, probably written by his brother, makes no mention of this painting, nor of the artist ever visiting London. Further, Shakespeare here appears younger than Jonson, but in fact he was eight or nine years older.

The Princess Who Smoked Cigars

Born in Austria on February 26, 1836, to a Hungarian count and an Austrian princess, Pauline Clémentine von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein eventually became famous in Paris, where she had significant social and cultural influence. When her husband Prince de Metternich (who happened to be her uncle as well) was appointed the Austrian Ambassador to Napoléon III’s court in 1859, the twenty-three year-old moved to France, where she quickly adopted the Parisian lifestyle. In French high society, Pauline became famous for her ready wit, her fashion-forward style, and her cigars. Most women of her status could not dream of smoking cigars, but Pauline could get away with it, somehow charming many of her contemporaries with her "shocking" habits including Napoléon III’s wife, the Empress Eugénie. Many, of course, disapproved. But Pauline's friendships in high places kept her important -- and accepted -- in Parisian high society.

Pauline’s penchant for eccentricity and rule-breaking translated into her wardrobe, which became a regular talking point in the fashion and society columns. Englishman Charles Frederick Worth was Pauline's dressmaker and she enjoyed debuting his more out-there sartorial innovations. In fact, Princess Pauline introduced Worth to his most famous client, her dear friend Empress Eugénie.

The princess (and her prince) fled Paris during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. After the war, Napoléon III was out of power, as was his court where Pauline had thrived. The House of Worth survived the power transition and remained at the forefront of high society, but Pauline did not, and she lived a quiet, private life until her death in 1921.

Did You Know Jews Thrived In Ming China?

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) a population of Jews immigrated into the heart of China and lived as just another obscure, minor religion. There is poor documentation, but there what records exist show Jews worked as army officers, mandarin bureaucrats, tax inspectors, and school inspectors.

That is rare considering during this same period Jews were often persecuted as an unwanted group elsewhere: to name a few examples, Jews were expelled from France twice (1306 and 1394), forced to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain (1492), and heavily taxed and punished for inciting unrest in Egypt (1324).

A Puzzling Cold Case

In Ramsgate, a town on the coast of southeastern England, on September 20th, 1930, a mysterious murder occurred. At 6p.m., a 12-year-old girl was sent across the street to buy a blancmange powder (used to make jellies) from the neighborhood sweetshop. When the owner, 82-year-old Margery Wren, came to the door, the girl was shocked to see blood streaming down her face.

Wren was taken to the hospital and she suffered for five days before dying of her wounds. She had eight wounds and bruises on her face, and the top of her head had seven more. Wren gave multiple, conflicting statements including that she had fallen over the fire tongs, that a man had attacked her with the tongs, that he had a white bag, that it was another man with a red face, that it had been two men, and that it had been an accident. Note these were all made to people other than the police -- Wren refused to make a statement to the police. When the Ramsgate vicar visited, she promised him she would make a statement after he left, but she never did. At one point Wren said she knew her attacker but that “I don’t wish him to suffer. He must bear his sins.” Just before she died she said, “He tried to borrow 10 pounds.”

Wren had been seen alive and well at about 5:15pm by another schoolgirl. That meant she was attacked between about 5:30pm and 6pm. However no one reported seeing a man entering the premises. In the end, the police had three main suspects who stood to benefit from Wren's death, but no hard evidence to tie any specific one man to the crime. The case was never solved.

The last woman to be executed in Europe through a judicial system is Elena Ceausescu. She was the wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and they were both killed by firing squad on December 25th, 1989. The conviction was for genocide, undermining the national economy and other offences.

This charmed me. A little bear, poised expectantly, or perhaps posing for the viewer. “Little” is also the right word: it is just under a foot tall (or 29.5 cm).

Bronze, Italian or possibly German, circa 1600. Courtesy of the Getty Museum.

The earliest known alternative history was written by the Roman historian Livy. In his grand history of the world, Livy makes a digression in book 9, and imagines that if Alexander the Great had lived longer, he may have turned west and attacked Italy. Livy wrote that the Romans would have defeated him. Of course.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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