Category Archives: History
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Most of us remember seeing the poster, somewhere, at some time stating that “Uncle Sam Wants You….” Did you ever wonder why it is everywhere, and why this United States mascot is called Uncle Sam?? Prepare to be informed…
During the War of 1812, Sam Wilson (Marvel’s Falcon was aptly named), a meat packer in Troy, New York delivered meat for the soldiers fighting the battles of the war. There was a directive from the government that all supplies sent to the troops be stamped with the name and location of the supplier. He stamped the barrels with a U.S. which actually stood for United States. Sam was locally called Uncle Sam; when the barrels were delivered to the troops, soldiers from Troy knew Sam Wilson and called him Uncle Sam to other soldiers. Word spread and hearing the story, more and more soldiers began saying that the meat came from “Uncle Sam.” The soldiers began calling themselves Uncle Sam’s soldiers. By the end of the War of 1812, Uncle Sam was considered a new nickname for the United States.
The United States of America had also been called Columbia, shown as a classical Greek statue of a woman, sometimes holding a flag – dos the song “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” ring any bells? The name Columbia was based on Columbus, since he discovered America (but maybe not the first discoverer any more…)
So now we know how the name Uncle Sam became associated with our armed forces. But what about the picture? We have to go back earlier than you might think. Thomas Nast was the first artist to create a picture of Uncle Sam. He’s the same artist who made Santa Claus into the character we see today. He created his image in the 1870s and 80s, and then continued to refine the image; he was the first artists to give Sam a white goatee, top hat and a suit of stars and stripes.
We’re probably all familiar with the poster Uncle Sam Wants You! Artist James Montgomery Flagg (truly, his last name is Flagg!) designed over 40 recruitment post for the United States as it entered World War I. Flagg was under a deadline; he didn’t have enough time to find a model for the poster. He looked in the mirror and used his own face for inspiration for Uncle Sam. He had a long face, with bushy white eyebrow and full beard. So he had the image he wanted for the poster. Flagg also had illustrations in “Photoplay,” “McClure’s Magazine,” “Colliers Weekly,” “Ladies Home Journal,” “Saturday Evening Post” and “Harper’s Weekly.”Now…, to find the message. He remembered seeing a poster of Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of War, asking the British to “Join Your Country’s Army – Lord Kitchener Wants YOU.” Inspiration! He created the poster with the soon to be iconic image of Uncle Sam with the caption Uncle Sam Wants You To Join the Army. It was this image more than any other that set the appearance of Uncle Sam as the elderly man with white hair and a goatee wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tail coat and red and white striped trousers, and his pointing finger. Flagg’s Uncle Sam first appearance is generally believed to be on the cover of the magazine Leslie’s Weekly, on July 6, 1916. Also on the cover was the title “What Are You Doing For Preparedness.” A poster of the image was also created, using the now famous phrase I wan You for the US Army. More than four million copies of this cover image were printed between 1917 and 1918. When Flagg was asked to update his famous image, he hired Indianan veteran Walter Botts as a model. Family lore has it that he was chosen because he had long arms, a long nose and extremely bushy eyebrows.
In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized that Sam Wilson “Uncle Sam” as the progenitor of America’s national symbol. Wilson died in 1854, and is buried in Troy, New York, which rightly calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
My boys, ages 9 and 13 love to sit down on a rainy day and watch Help!. The goofy antics of the four Liverpudlian lads have an entertainment value that transcends the decades. It’s not odd that people like the Beatles today, but it is an interesting change in the mindset of Americans. Most people do not listen to, let alone become avid fans of, the music of their grandparents. While I do enjoy big band and swing music, I would consider myself more exception than rule, even with the millennium era revival of Swing. My parents’ generation certainly did not listen to ragtime. So why do my kids, and many other of today’s children still love the Beatles? The answer is simply because they suffer from the epidemic that was called is Beatlemania.
The Fab Four started out as a fab five: John, Paul, George, Pete and Stuart, and were originally known as the Quarrymen, then Johnny and the Moondogs before moving through several variations of the name we all know and love, before settling on just The Beatles. They got their start in Liverpool, but played in Hamburg, Germany for a time before they all had to leave for one reason or another (Harrison was an unaccompanied minor, Best and McCartney were deported over an arson charge, and Lennon left of his own accord.)They played Liverpool and acted as a backing band and even returned to Hamburg before returning to England and starting to record their own music. Stuart Sutcliffe returned to his art, and the other three replaced Best with a drummer named Richard Starkey, Ringo. The rest of the story is known to music and pop culture fans the world over. They took England by storm in 1962 and 63, then America later that year followed by their first visit in 1964. It was the spark of the British Invasion, and the moving of a phenomenon from Europe to American shores. Beatlemania had made its beach head in the United States.
The outpouring of affection and devotion dedicated to the Beatles took the world by surprise. It was never observed before and really has not been repeated since. Many bands have been called the next Beatles, from the Bee Gees to Oasis to One Direction, but no one has ever lived up to the name. No one had or ever has caused wholesale hysteria among fans like the Fab Four, although Elvis had come the closest. The best explanation that anyone can seem to come up with is that the Beatles tapped into a confluence of factors that hasn’t occurred before or since. The large number of potential fans brought about by the baby boom, the safe appearance (despite the scruffy band stories we all hear their androgynous haircuts, suits, and simple movements while playing meant they were far less threatening than the overtly masculine and sexual Elvis), and the unsure world brought about by the height of the Cold War and death of President Kennedy, made teens everywhere ready to latch on to something. They fell to that with a will. Screaming, fainting, panicking and occasional rioting were more than just a trope from the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night, they were the reality of day to day life for the guys.
The lasting effect of the Beatles, in my opinion, is not the pop culture phenomenon. It is what they brought to music and more importantly musicians. Many people make fun of the Monkees as a manufactured Beatles rip off, but what many people don’t realize is that many bands were structured in the same manner. Even the Beatles were told they were going to play certain songs and not others. Rock and Roll was very much like today’s country music where songwriters made the songs that would sell and musicians played what they were told to. The Beatles began playing songs that were commercially viable. This meant basic formulaic songs and covers. As they increased in popularity, they gained more bargaining power so that by the time Help! (the album) came out, they only had one cover and were able to add more experimental songs like “I Need You”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, and “Yesterday”. The greater their popularity, the more control they had, and it’s evident as you go through Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The experimentalism of The Beatles (more often known as “The White Album”) shows the power they had been able to amass. They were the first major band to tell a big label that they would play what they liked and make it stick. This changed the way rock and roll worked from that day on. That’s not to say that the manufactured band had ended, but it meant that a band with good songwriting chops and a strong following was more important than record executives market analysis, and bands have used this to innovate ever since.
I really think that the best testament to the power of Beatlemania is that the 55 years of fanaticism it caused is only based on seven years of collaborative work. Four Generations have grown up with the Beatles’ music and they are loved by members of all of them. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and U2 have been playing together for a much longer time and released a great many more albums, but have not reached the iconic stature of the Beatles. They have changed the state of modern music for their era, but still had less impact than the Beatles. Their fans and their impact stem from the inroads made by the Beatles and, while their impact is not cheapened, it is diminished by the fact that the Beatles had already planted their flag in those lofty heights first.
- Dreaming the Beatles: A Love Story of one Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield 782.4216 SHE
- The Beatles: All These Years by Mark Lewisohn 782.42166 LEW
- Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World by Steven D. Stark 782.42166 STA
- Beatles ’66 The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner LP 782.42166 TUR
- How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler J 782.421660922 SAN
- The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull J 782.42166092
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
In case you don’t know, Cinco de Mayo means the Fifth of May in Spanish.
So sit down with a margarita, put on some mariachi music and read about this almost more American than Mexican holiday. (May 5 is often confused with the Mexican day of independence. The nation celebrates its Independence Day on September 16. On this date in 1810, Mexico won her independence from Spain.)
Cinco de Mayo does commemorate an historic event in the city of Puebla de Los Angeles in Mexico. President Benito Juarez sent a rag tag army of volunteers to meet the French army there. General Zaragoza led this army against the much-better supplied French army. The 4,000 man Mexican army defeated the 8,000 man French army on May 5, 1862. The French army was considered the best in the world at that time and defeating the French was a huge morale booster, and gave the beleaguered country a sense of unity and patriotism. The Mexicans lost 100 men in the battle, the French 500.
France returned next year with a much bigger army (30,000 soldiers) and a chip on its shoulder. This time France defeated Mexico, and ruled the country for three years. How did this all come about? When Juarez became president in 1861, Mexico was broke. They were still recovering from the Mexican-American war in the 1840s, when a defeated Mexico allowed the United States to annex Texas. The country had borrowed money from Spain, Britain and France to keep the country going, and was recovering from the defeat. It couldn’t afford to pay back the loans.
Spain and Britain negotiated with Mexico and settled the matter. France was in no mood to settle; they wanted more territory and decided to invade Mexico at the port city of Veracruz. France only ruled Mexico for three years, installing Maximillian I as king. The United States was able to help Mexico after the Civil War ended. With additional funds and arms, plus with the pressure on France from Prussia, France withdrew to protect closer borders. In June, 1867, President Benito Juarez became president again, and started pulling Mexico back together.
Interesting Facts about Cinco de Mayo:
- Napoleon III, the emperor of France, had the idea to take over Mexico, and then send arms and men to help the Confederate Army. Not that he was pro-Southern, he just wanted the nation to continue to be divided and weak. Since this invasion, no foreign country has ever invaded any nation in the Americas.
- Some historians believe that if it were not for the Mexican victory during the Battle of Puebla, the Confederates would have won the Civil War and changed the fate of the United States forever.
- Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico, and is not really celebrated outside of Puebla and a few other cities. In the United States, however, it is a huge holiday.
In and around Puebla, “Cinco de Mayo” is known as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of Puebla Battle). And they celebrate with re-enactments and parades more than with tequila, margaritas and such.
- May 5th was made more popular under Franklin Roosevelt, who established the “Good Neighbors policy” in the 1930s.
- Americans eat nearly 81 million pounds of avocadoes on Cinco de Mayo every year, according to the California Avocado Commission.
- Many cities in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo with weekend-long festivals, including Denver, Chicago, Portland and San Diego.
- Los Angeles wins with the largest party (in the world!). It is called Fiesta Broadway. Many other countries enjoy this celebration as well. Even Vancouver, Canada has a big celebration, with a skydiving mariachi band!
- Chandler, Arizona has a Chihuahua race on May 5!
- Because we like to celebrate and drink tequila, the United States drinks more of this potent liquor than Mexico, where most tequila is made!
- Enchiladas and tamales make up more the traditional dishes and as they take a bit of time to create and cook, it becomes a time for family togetherness.
We all know about Groundhog Day on February 2, when a fuzzy animal is brought forth to predict the weather. How could we miss that huge celebration at Punxsutawney, when Phil, the groundhog (the official term is woodchuck –remember the tongue twister?), is brought out of his den and the crowd goes wild. If he sees his shadow, then winter will end sooner than later, but if he doesn’t see his shadow, that means 6 more weeks of winter. Of course, this weather forecast has never been that accurate…
And of course, many people fondly remember watching the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. It has become a “contemporary classic.” In case you don’t remember, Phil (Bill Murray) gets stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, and only after he learns from his mistakes is he able to get back on track. In 2006, it was even added to the United States National Film Registry for being a culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film.
So where does Candlemas fit in, you may ask?? This holy day is celebrated by Christians on February 2 to commemorate both the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and Jesus’ first entry into the Temple. Since Jesus is considered a “light-bringer,” the custom was to bless candles on this day as well, which is where we get the term Candlemas from. In pagan times, this day was also known as Imbolc (pronounced i-Molk), a festival marking the first day of Spring, which usually fell on February 2. Evidently spring came early in the Gaelic lands, and coincidentally (meaning it was probably a direct influence), this holy day was also used to predict the coming weather.
These poems, found in English and German, show how on Candlemas the weather could be forecast.
If Candle-mas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.
If Candle mas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
The German immigrants also brought with them the tradition of a hedgehog telling the spring forecast, but with no hedgehogs to be found, groundhogs were the closest animal they could find in the new world. And Pennsylvania has had many Germans settlers.
And now you know how Groundhog Day and Candlemas both have a place in American culture.
An aside: The name Punxsutawney comes from the Lenape name for the location “ponksad-uteney” which means “the town of the sandflies.” The name woodchuck comes from the Indian legend of “Wojak, the groundhog” considered by them to be their underground ancestor.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
WARNING! Dangerous, do not approach. If seen, call Santa immediately.
**The Rogues Gallery is the cast of colorful and numerous Recurring Characters that show up to torment the heroes week after week.**
Zwarte Piet, (aka. Black Pete)
Active Areas: Belgium, Netherlands
Bio: He was formerly a Moorish servant from Spain, or a Turkish orphan, or Ethiopian Slave rescued by Saint Nick and now attending Saint Nick as a helper
M.O.: A Prankster who might whip naughty children with birch wood rods or put coal in their shoes. However, those especially naughty he could stuff in his sack and carry them off to Spain.
Père Fouettard, (aka. “Father Whipper”)
Active Areas: France
Bio: This rouge’s chilling past involves his killing and cooking three wealthy children who stayed at his inn. Saint Nicolas ended up resurrecting the three children and bringing Fouettard to repentance. Fouettard then became St. Nick’s helper.
M.O.: For those untouched by the good will of St. Nicolas, Fouettard doles out whippings to children who misbehave.
Active Areas: Austria, Germany
Bio: Thought to be from a nature goddess who affects humans only during Christmas. She rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.
M.O.: Good children might receive a silver piece in their shoes, while naughty children would receive something much, much worse. She would take out their insides by slitting open their bellies, and replace their entrails with garbage, straw and rocks which are sewn up to cause grievous pain. Oh for a mere lump of coal!
Active Areas: Alsace; Lorraine France
Bio: Trapp was supposedly a real man who was exiled into the forest where he would disguise himself as a straw-stuffed scarecrow and cannibalize children. He was struck down with lightening by the Lord.
M.O.: Trapp accompanies Santa to punish naughty children with beatings.
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: She is a giant ogress who has powers that let her detect children who misbehave. Her favorite food is a stew of rebellious children.
M.O.: She is full of mischief and trouble, and likes to eat children who disobey their parents.
The Yule Cat
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: The Yule Cat is ogress Gryla’s pet. And she is likewise dangerous and threatening.
M.O.: The Yule Cat encourages hard work. Children who do not work hard and are lazy will be eaten by the Yule Cat.
Active Areas: Germany
Bio: Belsnickel is from the word belzen meaning “to wallop,” along with nickel referring to St. Nicholas.
M.O.: He is a wandering man dressed in tattered furs wearing a mask and carrying a switch to frighten children into good behavior. He rewards good behavior with candy.
Active Areas: Found especially throughout the Alpine region and including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia
Bio: The half goat, half demon appearance of Krampus seems most likely to have grown out of early Alpine traditions related to the Horned God of the Witches of the region. Krampus eventually becomes a “side kick” of St. Nicholas in a rogue sort of way.
M.O.: He especially punishes unruly children with birch switches. But for really bad children Krampus might put them in a basket, drown them in a stream, and then devour them.
By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department
A popular holiday song assures us that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” and the “hap-happiest season of all.”1 Many people feel that way because they celebrate Christmas, marking the historical and (Christians believe) blessed virgin birth of the Christ child. Two other seasonal celebrations, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, also make this time of the year special for those who practice them. For this reason alone, they merit our recognition and understanding. While Hanukkah dates back to the second century BCE and Kwanzaa was first practiced in 1966, these celebrations have much in common beyond the double letter combinations in their names – and much to teach us all.
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival of lights that began on December 12 this year (2017). The festival commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Greek Seleucids. The Seleucids wanted the people of Israel accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of their own beliefs and religion. The overall theme of the celebration is one of triumph against overwhelming odds. Hanukkah participants now recount the story of how a single day’s worth of olive oil, used to light the Temple’s seven-branched candleholder, miraculously lasted for eight days.
Each night during Hanukkah, a candle is lit on a special candleholder called a menorah. There are nine flames on the menorah – one for each day of the festival and a center flame called the attendant (shamash) that is used to light the other candles. One candle is lit the first night, two the second night, and so on throughout the festival. The menorah is placed in a window or a doorway; each family has at least one menorah, but some households have a menorah for each person in the home.
Hanukkah is a distinctly religious holiday. Participants sing songs of worship and recite special prayers during the nightly menorah lighting festivities. Menorahs are also lit in Jewish synagogues and in many outdoor public spaces. Hanukkah participants are encouraged to gaze at the lights and think of the lessons they impart.
Food holds a special place in Hanukkah, as well. Fried foods are eaten to remind those present of the miracle of the oil. Two popular examples are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled fried donuts (sufganya).
Playing with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, is a popular pastime during Hanukkah. Each side of the dreidel is marked with a Hebrew letter. The letters used are nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.”
The giving of gelt (special coins) to children is also part of the tradition. The idea was to reward children for good behavior and inspire them to learn charity and give to others. Today, gifts are often exchanged during Hanukkah, as well.
Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It was founded in 1966 in Los Angeles by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of African Studies and activist-scholar. From its important beginnings in the U.S. with African Americans, the holiday has blossomed into recognition by the world African community and is today celebrated on every continent.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture, during which families and community members gather to celebrate Nguzo Saba, which is Swahili for The Seven Principles. Each day marks one of the principles, developed and described by Dr. Karenga as follows:
- Unity (Umoja) – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
- Self Determination (Kujichagulia) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
- Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) – To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
- Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses, and to profit from them together.
- Purpose (Nia) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their original greatness.
- Creativity (Kuumba) – To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Faith (Imani) – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Families who celebrate Kwanzaa choose a central place in the home to display the Kwanzaa Set. A table is covered with a colorful African cloth, and then adorned with a mat and a special candle holder called a Kinara. Seven candles are placed in the holder, one black candle representing the people, three red candles represent their struggles, and three green candles represent the future and the hope the results from such struggles (the African liberation colors). These candles also correlate with the seven principles.
The black candle in the center signifies Unity and is lit on the first day. The remaining candles are lit from left to right on the following days, showing how a unified people move through struggle to hope. Ears of corn and a Unity Cup are also placed on the mat, which is typically surrounded with books on African life and culture, as well as African works of art.
Different Peoples, Different Celebrations, Shared Light
I find it interesting to consider the common elements in Hanukkah and Kwanzaa: the Kinara and the menorah, the candles and the lighted oil, and the daily family observances. In a world that seems to be increasingly dark, there is something about this season inspires us to slow down and consider the lights. We ponder our shared humanity and our bonds as families and communities. I believe that learning about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and the heritage of those who mark these events can only serve to bring us closer together. Have a blessed season, everyone!
If you enjoyed this glimpse at Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, then you may want to learn more. The library can help! Take a look at some of the resources available. Read the rest of this entry
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood. Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season. This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.
The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years. Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.
The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.
So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.
We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.
We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas. So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.
- Songs of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown
 Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.
By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
Across the world there are places with two seasons, one season, and four seasons. But in America there are five—and that fifth season is Football Season! Everything is decked in shades of crimson, gold, yellow and orange… and blue and black and brown and green and maroon and white, because I’m not talking about leaves, I’m talking about the paraphernalia of our favorite teams. Across the nation, people dress football, talk football, write football, watch football, and even sometimes play football. The game is as much a tradition of the season as trick-or-treating, turkey and stuffing, and early Christmas shopping.*
But how did all this come to be? When did we start all the cheering, the celebrating and, yes, the playing?
For that, we have to start halfway around the world and over two millennia ago, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Back in the days of tunics and togas, a game called phaininda (or harpaston) was all the rage with the Greek culture, and the Romans picked it up as well, changing the name to harpastum (or harpustum; the Romans may have helped invent football, but dictionaries weren’t on their agenda). The game involved two teams, a field divided into two halves, a ball, and copious amounts of pushing, shoving, kicking, and throwing, some of it even involving the ball. And that’s about all we really know of it.
The Roman era writer Atheneaus said this of the sport: “There is a great deal of exertion and labor in a game of ball, and it causes great straining of the neck and shoulders.”
Yep, that sounds like football. Just ask Peyton Manning.
Atheneaus also credited Antiphanes with the following poem describing the game:
“And so he gladly took the ball,
While dodging the other player;
He pushed it out of someone’s way,
While raising another to his feet,
And all around the cries rang out:
“Out of bounds,” “too far”, “right by him”,
“Over his head,” “down below,” “up in the air,”
“Too short”, or “pass back to the scrummage.””
Which shows that football spectators have disagreed with the referees since before there were referees, offering opinions which the players probably even then were wiser to ignore.
From ancient Greece, the Romans carried that game with them, along with roads, aqueducts, armies, and generals who liked to conquer whatever they saw, eventually dropping it off on the island of Britain. And while the Romans left and the Saxons and the Danes and the Normans all came to conquer whatever they also saw in Britain, the game stuck around. Or well, something involving a ball and shoving and kicking and (occasionally) maiming stuck around. We have records of rival villages regularly challenging each other in a contest involving getting a ball to a set goal on opposite sides (sometimes a line, sometimes a post, sometimes the church tower, which was the medieval equivalent of saying “the endzone is Joey’s driveway.”)
One chronicler describes an event like this: “After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.”
Which sounds like any given weekend in America from September through November. Including tailgating, only with horses.
The ball game was apparently quite violent, and various kings attempted to ban it. Which banning lasted about as long as the king (and probably less). Eventually, even the monarchs began to enjoy it (Henry VIII is known to have ordered a pair of “football shoes” for his own efforts in the game).
Sometime over the next centuries, this “ball game” began to split into two distinctive types. One involved being able to carry, throw and catch the ball, as well as kick it over the goal. The other involved only kicking the ball, with hands not allowed. The former was given the name “rugby football,” or simply “rugby” after the English school which developed it in 1825. The latter was called “football,” or “association football” when in the 1860s, organizations called “associations” began to actually codify the rules (and try to end all the maiming). And yes, the word “soccer” is an abbreviated nickname for “association football.”
At some point the game traveled into America, where it leaned towards rugby or soccer depending on who was playing, but was almost always called “football.”
And that’s when the college students took over.
The first official game of “college football” took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, on the Rutgers commons. The game consisted of a contest between two teams to get a ball between two posts behind each team’s side of the field. The first team to score 6 goals would be the winner of the game. Apparently, the ball could be kicked through this goal, not carried or thrown, but the players could knock the ball out of the air with their hands. The teams took turns starting with the ball (the first turn was decided with a coin toss, possibly the first football opening coin toss on record), keeping it as long as they could prevent the other team from taking it away or until a goal happened. There was no clock, there were no downs, and it sounds more like soccer or rugby than what we know today, but it was, nevertheless, football, and Rutgers won it 6-4.
It wasn’t long before other schools began challenging each other in similar contests, though the game rules seemed somewhat fluid as to what could be done, decided by the teams when they met. In 1874, four colleges set down rules for “Rugby Union,” formally introducing a running game, a touchdown, and a “free kick” afterwards. And that’s when Walter Camp, a Yale student, was invited to join his school’s erstwhile team. In the manner of great walk-ons, he proceeded not only to become the star, but to change the game itself. Camp was supposed to be studying for a career in medicine, but what he became was a doctor of football. Walter Camp almost immediately took over as the leader of the Intercollegiate Football Association rules committee. IFA, formed with Yale’s rival Harvard, was the forerunner of the NCAA and even the NFL, creating precise and specific rules about the game, including the use of an oblong ball. Over the next decade Camp invented the scrimmage line, the rule that one team possessed the ball at a time, the quarterback, the snap, the concept of downs and limited possessions, the idea of lining off the field in white at 5 yard intervals (a “gridiron”), and the idea of different levels of scoring for different types of goals, including the touchdown, field goal, and safety. He also invented tackling, reduced the number of players on each side from 20 (or more) to 11, developed the practice of signaling plays and created pretty much everything we think of as essential to modern American football. He even threw the first forward pass, resulting in a run for a touchdown; the referee ruled the play valid on a coin toss! Ironically, the forward pass was specifically rejected as a legal play by Camp’s rules committee when it was finally discussed in 1903 (some thirty years after Camp’s winning play). Then the committee adopted the pass three years later, in part to deal with accusations (made by President Theodore Roosevelt, among others) that the game had become too dangerous.
Camp’s football was certainly a different game from rugby, soccer, and ancient haspartum, and it was, essentially, all American. And Camp didn’t just stop with created the game; he created player statistics and the “All-American” ranking of players by quality and performance, paving the way for the modern sports page and the endless arguments of who the GOAT** is. Camp was the first collegiate head coach (for Harvard), the first to train other coaches (including the celebrated Amos Alonzo Stagg), and the first to have an assistant coach with an eye for knowing which player to put in which position—who was none other than his wife, Allie. Walter Camp is honored as the Father of American Football, but Allie Camp was unquestionably the game’s mother, showing that football has been the passion of women as well as men from its very start!
Of course, today we have college football and professional football. The latter rose out of competitions among local athletic clubs (including YMCA clubs). These were amateur events at first, until in 1892 a club paid $500 to “Pudge” Hefflefinger for a single game (a rather tidy little sum). Pudge earned his pay, winning the game with a fumble return for a touchdown. Within a year other clubs began paying their players, almost all workmen who played in their own time off, for about $10 a game. Eventually, these ad hoc professional teams would formalize, giving birth in 1920 to the American Professional Football Association—which would later change its name to the National Football League. By 1925, professional football was popular enough and successful enough that the question of whether the talented Ohio State football star Harold “Red” Grange would “turn pro” was the national news story of the day. Grange’s decision even involved a sports agent negotiating a contract with the Chicago Bears. Grange would earn over $125,000 for his first year on the team, an enormous sum, well over 400 times the income of the average professional player! That’s quite a change from the early days of tossing a pig bladder at a church tower for nothing but bragging rights.
But despite all that has happened over twenty centuries and the span of half a world, the words of an ancient Greek spectator still echo true today:
“A youth I saw was playing ball,
Seventeen years of age and tall;
From Cos he came, and well I know
The Gods look kindly on that spot.
For when he took the, ball or threw it,
So pleased were all of us to view it,
We all cried out; so great his grace,
Such frank good humour in his face,
That every time he spoke or moved,
All felt as if that youth they loved.”
Maybe that’s all there really is to our love for the game: The simple joy of watching young athletes at play in the crisp cool light of an autumn afternoon. Go team!
*Some people do this, I’m told. I’m male, so “early shopping” means the day before Christmas Eve.
** Greatest Of All Time, not a reference to the Navy football team’s mascot, Bill the Goat. Though you can certainly stop the argument by insisting that Bill is the Goat, and no one can say differently.
- Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football by Richard Whittingham , Library Call No. 796.332 WHI
- NFL.Com History pages: http://www.nfl.com/history
- Attalus.org Translations of Athenaeus: http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus1.html#14