“Join, or Die:” America’s First Meme

Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 version of the iconic reptile.

The “Join, or Die” snake is one of America’s most recognizable, beloved and replicated icons. Emblazoned on flags and t-shirts, pillow cases and iPhone cases, and even on tv show title cards and in comic books, the image is upheld today as a both specifically as an emblem of American independence, and generally as bid for unity against a common oppression. But the world’s most adored reptile didn’t start this way.

Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the “Join, or Die” snake originally signified loyalty to the English empire. It wasn’t a call to action, but an order to fall into line. It was only later that “Join, or Die” evolved into a revolutionary rallying cry — and when it did, it became America’s first meme, too.

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Video: Helen Keller Tells It

In addition to being a die-hard advocate for women’s rights, a champion for people with disabilities and totally anti-war, Helen Keller, whose 138th birthday is today, was also fiercely socialist. Economic inequality was anathema to America’s promises of equality and opportunity, she said.

The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.

And this same sentiment informed her anti-war stance, too:

The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. … It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery… You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.

Today, as our nation hurtles further and further into a right-wing nightmare, let’s celebrate Keller not just for overcoming being deaf and blind to become an international inspiration, but for her staunch defense of human rights, democracy and American justice, something which, if recent news is any indication, is increasingly blind. (And will likely become even more so…)

AFTER THE JUMP, Keller discusses her greatest regret – not being able to speak like the rest of us, which is too bad, because she left a far larger impression than most people who can speak “normal.”

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The Incredible Arthur Ellerman

The Ellerman crew circa 1917. Based on his football background, I think Arthur’s standing second from right.

 

A history book’s minor character becomes the author’s editorial sidepiece, resulting in an essay that includes log cabins, net neutrality, research methods, Twin Peaks, romance, politics and one very good dog.

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Found in the LOC: Telegraph Repair, 1862

On this date in 1844, Samuel Morse typed out the first telegraph, sending a message from DC to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought?” Quite: we all know the technological revolution would accelerate exponentially in decades ahead, ending with, at the moment, smart phones. Who knows what will be next… Something more inescapable, intrusive and indispensable, that’s for sure.

That said, today’s truncated Found in the LOC is an image of a telegraph repairman doing his thing circa 1862. He’s like a high-tech lumberjack!

(And for more Found in the LOC, click here.)

Today is a Good Day for Adventuring

May 14th sure is a great day for launching unprecedented expeditions: it’s on this date that both the Lewis and Clark adventure and SkyLab took off to new frontiers, albeit almost two centuries years apart.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left the St. Louis region on May 14, 1804, for their continental traverse to the west coast, an adventure that riveted the nation in relative real time: readers devoured every update sent back east and inspired no shortage of unofficial “official” maps based on the men’s dispatches. Never before had Americans seen just what lay between them and the pacific and these images, as well as the official reports, expanded the American imagination to its greatest heights, tilling the rhetorical soil for the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny and other political notions that propelled the nation’s sojourn from sea-to-shining sea.

Meanwhile, fast-forward 169 years, to 1973, and there’s NASA launching SkyLab, the nation’s first long-term space station into the stars, creating a floating laboratory in which astronauts could conduct experiments on how bacteria grew in space, dissect various light rays without the pesky atmosphere eroding them and examine long-term space exposure’s impact on the human body.

Unfortunately, the lab was damaged by a micrometeoroid storm in 1974 and deemed too dangerous to house astronauts, and so SkyLab remained unused in space for five years, until 1979, when it came crashing back to earth. But, as with Lewis and Clark, SkyLab’s record-setting mission encouraged the next generation of Americans to push themselves to even greater heights. Pun partially  intended….

 

Links to Recent Stories On Earth, America

I’ve been away from the site for far longer than I intended, for which I apologize. It will be another few days before the regularly scheduled program starts cranking again, as I continue clearing my desk of pesky editorial debris.

In the meantime, I’d like to share links to some recent stories I’ve written elsewhere…

First, “The Congressman Who Warned Us About Climate Change in 1864,” which I wrote for The Daily Beast in honor of Earth Day.

A few days later Mental Floss published my piece “How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol,” which is a great condensed summary of my book, for those of you who are interested in quirky but critically rigorous American histories.

Alright, off to shovel more vowels and consonants. Be back soon….