Nubian Neighbors: The Long Overshadowed African Kingdom

To preface this article, I knew practically nothing about ancient Nubian civilization. Vague childhood memories from my Egypt-o-mania phase recalls a passing reference to Nubia as a subservient client kingdom. My bookshelf had plenty of Ancient Egypt books for kids and most neighboring kingdoms were glossed over. The Egyptians exerted authority over the Nubians through military and economic oppressions, rendering them impoverished vassals. A recent trip to the St. Louis Art Museum fundamentally changed those notions. Nubian Treasures, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, displayed an astonishing array of artwork and artifacts from various Nubian kingdoms that existed over two-thousand years. The exhibit left such an impression it compelled me to write this post. As time passes we discover more details and nuances about ancient civilizations that we didn’t know existed. We either don’t have the knowledge or it is explained by another source (No, ancient aliens do not count. Kill that thought right now). Who were the Nubians and why don’t we know more about them?

Faience lion that adorned a Nubian temple. Many of the raw materials and artistic design patterns were heavily influenced by Egypt, which presented difficulties for early archaeologists to separate Nubian from Egyptian (St. Louis Art Museum)

Like many who study ancient civilizations, there is a tendency to attribute cultural traits from an established societies to newly discovered adjacent ones. What does this mean? Essentially, when there’s a powerful kingdom that has large cultural exports such as art, language, religion, and government, bordering kingdoms can heavily rely on their neighbors leading to appropriation. Famed Egyptologist George Reisner believed this theory when excavating Nubia in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence collected at the time led Reisner to believe that the many of the Egyptian-like artwork and artifacts were remnants of a Egyptian occupied land of a subservient people. Hieroglyphs and artwork reinforced this notion as Westerners interpreted the darker depiction of Nubian characters as servants or slaves. This theory took hold in the academic world and remained unchanged for decades.

The Nubians were definitely not pushovers who allowed the Egyptians to dictate their civilization. The first recorded cultural group, Kerma, lived in Nubia from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE until it was conquered by Thutmose I during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period. During that one thousand years, Nubians peacefully co-existed with Egypt and other African kingdoms. Trade flourished between them and subgroups of kingdoms developed throughout the region. Nubia is first mentioned in Egyptian accounts in the 24th century BCE during the Old Kingdom. This didn’t mean that the Nubians weren’t of any importance; in fact, they were Egypt’s largest trading partner. Substantial amounts of imported wealth such as gold, ebony, incense, ivory, and copper made the Nubian kingdoms incredibly valuable to Egypt. The Nubians also had great notoriety with their archery skills. They boasted some of the best archers in Northern Africa and on several occasions participated in Egyptian military campaigns. Nubian and Egyptian intermarriages were commonplace and many archaeologists speculate that a handful of Egyptians pharaohs might have had Nubian ancestry. There is no doubting the mutual and reciprocal influence that the two civilizations had on each other for nearly a thousand years.

Nubian ushabtis were small figurines that were placed in the burial chamber of a tomb. They served a spiritual purpose by serving their master in the afterlife. This is one of the many cultural and religious practices that Nubians and Egyptians shared over generations (St. Louis Art Museum)

The dynamic changed drastically around 1500 BCE when the pharaoh Thutmose I expanded Egypt’s borders into the Levant and Nubia. The occupation lasted nearly 400 years, but during that time, competing Nubian factions challenged Egyptian authority creating a near constant state of civil conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE, the Kushites began emerging as the dominant power in Nubia and Egyptian control was relinquished. By the 8th century BCE, the tables were turned as a massive Kushite army led by Piye began a systemic conquest of Egypt. He founded the 25th Dynasty and its pharaohs ruled the two lands for a little over 100 years. In 525 BC, an invading Assyrian army removed the Kushites and forcibly keeping them in the south for the next thousand years. Its at this time that the ancient city of Meroe came to prominence as the cultural and power center for Nubia following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty. The Kushite Kingdom preserved many Egyptian traditions, customs, and religious practices and developed their own language, Meroitic. Today it remains as one of the few undeciphered ancient languages.

The bottom script is Meroitic; one of the last ancient languages never to be translated (St. Louis Art Museum)

The extent of my knowledge on African civilizations is slim, but the point of this blog is to broaden my own history knowledge boundaries. If the Nubian Treasures exhibit taught me anything, it was that civilizations constantly borrow from one another. Whether its religious beliefs, economic practices, cultural customs, or government bureaucracy, the Nubian peoples and Egyptians certainly had a strong and complex relationship. Nubian archaeology has received increased attention in the past two decades and as that interest continues, it’s likely we’ll uncover more about this long overshadowed civilization and its people.

For more information about the St. Louis Art Museum and its exhibits, visit their website: SLAM.org

The Flight Stuff: The Wright Brothers Ingenuity

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina is positively dead in the winter. Tourists have departed, taking the warm weather and sunshine with them. What remains are local residents and cold Atlantic air racing across the beaches. Business owners look forward to spring and summer returning with visitors who enjoy the sea air, fishing, and sailing. The remoteness and wind patterns were ideal for a different pair of tourists though. They scoured weather patterns finding the right conditions for their scientific experiments. After a lengthy search, the Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills. Since the area was unincorporated, the brothers relied on the nearby town of Kitty Hawk for transportation and commercial needs. History would soon make its mark on this remote stretch of North Carolina coastline.

Beaches at Kill Devil Hills. The North Carolina coast features numerous small island chains, lagoons, and reefs creating the ‘Outer Banks’, a popular tourist spot. The wind patterns from the Atlantic Ocean provided excellent conditions for the Wright Brothers flight experiments.

Rather than delve into the brothers’ history and their aerial achievement, it’s important to understand the ingenuity they showed throughout their venture. Scientists and engineers before them were classically trained students with years of mechanical experience. Neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school; they dropped out to pursue business interests and support their family. They taught themselves in advanced mathematics and engineering concepts, a majority of which came from their work with bicycles. They relied heavily on the work of predecessors and applying their innovations. Orville and Wilbur were well known in Dayton, Ohio with their bicycle business and made a comfortable living. This wasn’t enough for either of them though. They were obsessed with powered flight since childhood after receiving a crude model helicopter (a bamboo shaft with a cork top, paper wings, and a twisted rubber band) inspiring an aeronautical career.

Research was needed to see what contemporary aeronautical engineers were accomplishing. The brothers followed men like Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, and Sir George Cayley. Gliders was the preferred method in calculating heavier-than-air flight and the brothers debated ideas on control and resistance. Fixed wing aircraft would provide the necessary lift power, but the brothers puzzled over how to maintain control and account for airborne stability. While working in their bike shop one day, Wilbur was twisting an inner tube and they had a sudden realization; wings required warping and therefore a flexible frame design was needed. They studied the flights of birds, closely observing wing contours, banking different directions, and using airflow for lift. Testing this theory proved difficult as the brothers consistently tried to find the correct combination of control and lift, all while accounting for the addition of weight. The Wright brothers are prime example of trial and error and consistent testing when it comes to scientific research. Aeronautics was a novel scientific endeavor in the late 19th century as engineers tested new gliders, airships, and dirigibles. Humanity’s quest to fly presented infinite engineering possibilities, but created a slew of failed attempts, poor data results, and accidental deaths. The Wright brothers were no exception in this respect; they faced their own string of failures.

Rear view of Wilbur Wright making a right turn with the Wright Glider (“in glide from No. 2 Hill, right wing tipped close to the ground”) (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wilbur and Orville refined their glider designs throughout most of the 1890s and by 1900 they were ready for field tests. U.S. Weather Bureau data and recommendations by other aviators pointed the brothers to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills with the soft sandy beaches and ample gale winds providing ideal environmental conditions. The brothers worked first on gliders because they would be critical in proving the brother’s theory of airflow lift and three dimensional axis. Between 1900 and 1902, the Wrights redesigned, rebuilt, and retested their glider in dozens of trials, but they never achieved the necessary lift. What was wrong with their glider?

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to see where things are going wrong. Wilbur and Orville thought what if the Lilienthal data they relied on so heavily was incorrect? The lift co-efficient, which relates the lift generated by a lifting body to the fluid density around the body, needed to be double checked. How did the Wrights test this concept? They built their own wind tunnel. The apparatus was attached to a bike and as air passed by the airfoil, the lift it generated, if unopposed, would cause the wheel to rotate. The flat plate was oriented so its drag would push the wheel in the opposite direction of the airfoil. The brothers used different sizes of airfoils made of various materials based on existing data. This experiment confirmed their suspicions; Lilienthal’s data and lift co-efficient were all erroneous. Not to be deterred from their work, the brothers now had their own testing method for achieving lift with their glider. In a conversation with a colleague George Spratt, Orville said:

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”

Reconstruction of the Wright Brothers’ air lift apparatus, i.e. wind tunnel at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The wind tunnel tests were a pivotal moment in the pursuit for powered flight. Contemporaries described them as ‘the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted.’ What the brothers may have realized is that gliders and powered aircraft required different degrees of lift and incorporating a control system would maintain said lift. The structural design of the brothers’ glider changed as a result of their wind tunnel tests and they began to see major improvements in their test flights. They installed a rudder and recorded observations on lift, pitch, and yaw. From this, the brothers made a final critical breakthrough on their flight experiments: three-axis control. The three axes: 1) Wing-warping for roll 2) Forward elevator for pitch 3) Rear rudder for yaw.

Aviation historians claim that this development was far more significant than adding engine power to the glider. Simultaneously, how astounding is it that these two who never completed high school calculated an equation that became the basis for achieving flight? Their innovative mathematics did not end there. Before building an engine, they devised another equation that produced the necessary power to weight ratio and propeller efficiency. In 1903, the brothers were ready to test their new flyer, the Wright Flyer. They built a small-purpose engine in their bike shop, hand carved the propellers, and tested the rudders in their wind tunnel. Throughout these experiment years, the brothers also delivered lectures to the Western Society of Engineers detailing their process. Newspapers did not initially cover the brothers heavily, waiting until they produced something genuine.

Four flights changed the world on December 17, 1903. The brothers alternated turns flying the machine, with the last flight recorded as the longest and furthest launch. Years of research, experimentation, glider construction, and test flights boiled down to 59 seconds. From that moment on, the brothers refined their flyers and took the world by storm with their paradigm shifting accomplishments. Their persistence and ingenuity paid off immensely. The Wrights brothers spent their remaining years involved in patent battles with other manufacturers and other business disputes. While they were not as successful in their business pursuits, they demonstrated how a person could make strides in scientific experimentation through repeated processes, observation, and accurately recording data. They were an ingenious duo, without a doubt.

The original Wright Flyer now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. where a plaque perfectly summarizes the Wright brothers achievements and ingenuity.

“The world’s first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight, Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, Flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903, By original scientific research the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight, As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation”

In the Government Know: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

The right to understand what transpires in our government is essential to democratic principles. Voting citizens recognize that their elected representatives, government appointees, and various programs produce an enormous quantity of records and other information. All of said information is categorized under strict laws affording it protection for national security or commercial reasons. However, releasable information can still provide insight on how public servants work to make the government transparent. Inherent with the right to vote is the right to know what happens inside an agency or department and the documents therein. This is the basis for one of the most significant pieces of legislation created in the last sixty years: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Freedom of Information Act allows people to request specific information regarding agency operations, records, and government transparency. The act also establishes specific criteria for determining a record’s eligibility for public release pending a review process. The lifespan and accessibility of records change between agencies and each have their own additional criteria in addition to basic FOIA requirements. This is done to guard against the release of any sensitive, personal, or national security information. The act is also used to describe ‘opening up the government’ by letting the public see how it operates. In a famous court case, Fielding F. McGehee vs. CIA, the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its closing statement that having an informed voter is essential to a functioning democracy:

“It has often been observed that the central purpose of the FOIA is to “open … up the workings of government to public scrutiny.” One of the premises of that objective is the belief that “an informed electorate is vital to the proper operation of a democracy.” A more specific goal implicit in the foregoing principles is to give citizens access to the information on the basis of which government agencies make their decisions, thereby equipping the populace to evaluate and criticize those decisions.”

McGehee v. CIA, US Court of Appeals, Washington DC Circuit, January 4, 1983
U.S. Representative John E. Moss (D-California) led the charge for implementing FOIA and the restructuring of information security levels (Image courtesy of U.S. Congress)

California Representative John E. Moss made it his congressional career to passing FOIA and signing it into law. He would ultimately spend twelve years garnering support and shepherding it through various committees. In the late 1950s, government classification of documents was being mishandled and accidental leaks were problematic. Representative Moss chaired the Government Information Subcommittee and took it upon himself to upgrade security classifications and draft rules on accessibility. On July 4, 1966 a hesitant President Lyndon Johnson signed bill S1160 into law. Johnson recognized the need for the law, but gave additional measure to protecting military interests and allowing government officials to discuss things frankly without having to mince their words and actions with the overarching specter of public investigation constantly overheard. [Statement by the President upon signing the ‘Freedom of Information Act, July 4, 1966] The law was initially repealed following a revision of Title 5 of the US Code, but a new version was eventually drafted and signed with the effective date of July 4, 1967, just one year later.

Since 1967, FOIA underwent numerous revisions and amendments strengthening, limiting, and reclassifying information security. The most impactful occurred with the increasing scrutiny on national security and the War on Terror. Today there are nine exemptions when a person files a FOIA request:

  1. National security and foreign policy classified by executive order
  2. Internal personnel rules of an agency
  3. Specifically exempted from disclosure
  4. Trade secrets, commercial, and financial information
  5. Interagency memorandums not subject to litigation
  6. Personnel and medical files of government employees
  7. Records relating to ongoing law enforcement and federal investigations
  8. Supervising agencies on financial institutions
  9. Geological information relating to wells and water tables

Agency employees still have to be conscious of what is in a document that’s being requested under FOIA rules. Redactions still take place to ensure no personal information is being leaked. This can sometimes cause confusion as the general public sometimes assumes that a FOIA requests means they can ask for anything unredacted. This is incorrect. FOIA requests generally take around twenty to thirty days to process depending on the agency and even then, FOIA officials or subject matter experts still review the packet before it goes to the requester. They are sometimes classified as ‘Government Information Specialists.’ This screening process can cause frustration as the included information becomes more complex. Rarely do federal agencies meet this twenty to thirty day deadline because of the steps involved to release public and redact private information.

While the FOIA request process is not a perfect one, the legislation itself is remarkably important to maintaining a transparent government that allows people to ask questions about its function and policies. An informed electorate is powerful in a representative and democratic government and FOIA is the best legislative tool to be in the know.

European Roots: How to Research Immigration and Naturalization Records

Human beings are mobile creatures. We’re always moving in some form or another; a walk around the block, driving to the store or a friend’s house, or traveling for business and pleasure. Uprooting one’s life to start anew elsewhere is a journey unlike anything else. What opportunities await and what dangers lie ahead? Those questions and more faced Europe immigrants arriving in the United States since the first settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Immigration and naturalization records are a window into such experiences.

Immigration to the United States can be described as cyclical. Large influxes followed by a period of doldrum. Reasons for immigration are varied; economic opportunity, escaping religious or ethnic violence, joining family members already in country, etc. Millions from Europe immigrated to North America since the colonial period. Family history and genealogical research routinely incorporates information from immigration and naturalization records. These are critical because it allows us to trace when and where people are moving and settling. Tracking movements can illustrate how their particular fortunes change and motivating factors for migrating. For many Americans who are descended from immigrants, these records are invaluable in constructing a family narrative. We first ask ourselves broad questions on how we access and interpret said records. Where do we begin and how far back does the documentation extend?

German immigrants boarding a ship for America in the late 19th century (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Many genealogists and historians will tell you to gather as much firsthand information and primary documents as possible. They provide a vivid window into your ancestor’s journey. Journals, diaries, and letters are excellent sources, but consider yourself lucky if these survived multiple generations. The physical condition of paper records can deteriorate rapidly unless properly curated. Families who preserved genealogical records and wrote family histories are sometimes held in local local libraries. Immigrants that first settled a region are normally the subject of historical preservation. With primary documents and oral history, you can construct a chronological framework of an ancestor’s immigration and motives.

When researching European immigration, an important reference point is the Steerage Act of 1819. Congress required all foreign and domestic ships to produce manifests and passenger lists with demographic information. This information was then collected by the local customs office. Why is this law important? First, it produced a record of any taxable revenue for the customs office. For genealogists however, it marks official recordkeeping of immigration to the United States. If your ancestors arrived in 1820 or after, a physical record of their arrival exists. Immigration records prior to 1820 are significantly more difficult to acquire, but not impossible. Most libraries with genealogical offices keep a copy of William Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of … Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. This annotated index provides a wealth of pre-1819 information on immigration to North America. This aid can provide leads to passenger lists and the national origin of ships. Ship manifests from 1820 onwards give the name, date of arrival, port of arrival, and national origin. In addition to the Filby work, publications by Carl Boyer and Michael Tepper compiled passenger lists by region, such as the following:

[Ship Passenger Lists, National and New England (1600-1825), New York and New Jersey (1600-1825), Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825), the South (1538-1825)] [New World Immigrants: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature, Passengers to America: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists From the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Emigrants to Pennsylvania, 1641-1819: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Immigrants to the Middle Colonies: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record]

European immigration occurred via oceanic crossings. Handfuls of immigrants found it more economical to travel to Canada or Mexico first and then to the United States. Border crossings were not as well documented before the mid-20th century though. If you believe this might be the case, there are numerous resources referencing ships, crew lists, and ports of entry in wider North America. Determining when and where your ancestors came forms an essential component of writing a family history. Dates and names are always subject to different ranges and spellings in websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. Searching by trial and error is necessary; it eliminates possible misspellings or wrong dates. Narrowing a search helps reduce the number of unrelated entries. Persistence is a good trait with genealogical research. If spelling on a name is off or a date range too large, revise and submit again!

Once you have sufficient returns on researching immigration records, the next step is learning how your ancestors became U.S. citizens. Naturalization records provide information on how immigrants became citizens. Prior to 1906, any court of law granted U.S. citizenship provided that resident aliens met residency requirements. After filing a ‘declaration of intent’ anyone could petition the most convenient courthouse and be granted citizenship. These include country, state, appellate, and circuit courts. The Naturalization Act of 1906 revised that practice. Beginning on September 27th 1906, only Federal courts were allowed to oversee the naturalization proceedings. This benefits modern-day genealogists in defining the parameters for searching naturalization records. An ancestor’s location at the time of naturalization is key in locating the appropriate archives that hold their information. Knowing where they lived will direct you to what state archives will hold those court documents. Archival holdings can vary by state so be sure to read up on their website on the research process. Post-1906 naturalization records can be searched through the National Archives (Naturalization Records). All Federal court systems periodically have records transferred to the archives and depending on when your relatives became citizens that will aid in your research. Copies of naturalization certificates are not kept by the archives; one goes to the recipient and another is filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When submitting a naturalization request from the National Archives, the most basic information needed is the following:

Name of individual (including known variants)
Date of birth
Approximate date of entry to the US
Approximate date of naturalization
Where the individual was residing at the time of naturalization (city/county/state)
Country of origin

Census records are another valuable resource connected with researching immigration and naturalization. The census can reveal a wealth of information on relatives, including basic demographic information and national origin. If they immigrated, their year of arrival is listed. For more information, make sure to visit the National Archives – Census Records.

Wilson’s naturalization laws of the United States, showing how to become an American citizen; including U. S. Constitution, Declaration of independence, department regulations, forms, circa 1913 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the history and genealogy field to adapt. While in-person research was abruptly halted, online and digital services exploded. More households began some form of family history work and websites like Ancestry and DNA ancestry recorded a major uptick in usage. Fortunately much of the industry was already moving in this direction. What does this mean for the researcher who purchases physical copies of immigration and naturalization documents? Until normal research practices resume, digital services are being reconfigured to help with their researching backlog. Hundreds of professionally managed and volunteer websites combine information and share resources on immigration and naturalization. Here are a list of excellent European immigrant research tools and databases:

  1. Guide to Immigration Records
  2. Passenger Arrival Lists, National Archives, New York
  3. US Immigration Passenger Arrival Lists, FamilySearch
  4. Arrivals at US Ports form Europe
  5. Library of Congress
  6. FindmyPast
  7. Archion
  8. Castle Garden (New York immigration records from 1820-1892)
  9. Ellis Island / Statue of Liberty Foundation
  10. National Archives – Immigration Records
  11. National Archives – Naturalization Records
  12. Citizenship Reference Reports
  13. Fold3
  14. Library and Archives, Canada
  15. Ships and Passengers (The UK National Archives)

A final piece of advice when it comes to researching immigration, naturalization, and other genealogical records; be patient. This type of work is a massive time commitment and not all resources are uniform. Frustration can easily set in if you find certain documents aren’t available online. There are literally millions of documents that are yet to be digitized and only a handful of institutions are conducting such work. This means that more information is being posted every year. Your researching process can evolve as a result. You may spend years searching for one name or document, but when you finally find it, the reward is well worth the effort and patience.

Naturalization ceremony of Albert Einstein. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940 after emigrating from Germany in 1933. He feared the rising power of the Nazis and fascist policies of the German government (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Here Come the Scots: Burns Clubs, Clan Organizations and St. Andrew Societies in North America

*Note: the following article is an abridgement taken from my MA thesis on Scottish cultural history and heritage in the United States; an oral and public history project undertaken at Emporia State University between 2014-2016.

Flashy tartans, loud bagpipes, and thickly exaggerated brogues are just something to assault the eyes and ears when attending a Scottish event. In North America, hundreds of Highland games, Scottish festivals, and Burns dinners are held to highlight Scottish-American heritage. Scots settled the continent long before the American Revolution and promptly banded together for survival. Modern Caledonian groups, St. Andrew societies, Burns clubs, and clan organizations provide an educational service: public forums on information sharing, membership networking, and educational activities.  These groups are essential in the dissemination of historical and cultural knowledge of the Scots. They are repositories through their members’ contributions, communications, and cultural events. They reflect historical traditions and heritage. Social groups grow through the active participation of members who have become aware of their history and ancestry through self-education. As a result, members contribute to the overall growth of public and historical memory through their association within the Scottish-American community.

The Order of Scottish Clans was a fraternal organization founded in St. Louis in 1878 aimed at providing relief for widows and families. Chapters sprang up across North America, but the group was defunct by 1971 where it was assimilated by the Independent Order of Foresters.

Modern cultural organizations are framed around institutions that were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early Scottish societies functioned primarily as charitable groups addressing a community’s needs.  What many practiced was maintaining their cultural hegemony in foreign areas.  Building outreach and charitable groups modeled on a shared cultural identity allowed for their community to develop simultaneously.  St. Andrew societies were established for this purpose. St. Andrew societies (named after the patron saint of Scotland) adopted educational goals for their members. Today, St Andrew society activities include assisting in genealogical research, sponsoring cultural events, and educational outreach.  Societies regularly participate in public events and engage with similar groups in practicing cultural and historical preservation. These connections are important in promoting openness and outreach, which foster relationships within the Scottish-American community. 

Cultural groups remain open to dialoguing over different methods of leaning and teaching heritage.  As more people discuss Scottish history and heritage, shared public memory is stimulated, prompting increased individual self-education.  Participation has been integral in historical and cultural preservation.  The key is active public engagement founded on learning and teaching about Scotland.  St. Andrew societies maintain their repertoire of historical information through their own records and the knowledge produced by their memberships. 

Highland games and Scottish festivals typically open with a ceremony entitled ‘Calling of the Clans’ where representatives announce their clan’s presence to the audience.

Modern Scottish clans are centered around a forum for sharing genealogical and historical information encompassing the clan itself and members. The global network that stems from these associations provides people with a common knowledge base and opportunities to cultivate shared heritage practices. This includes learning about the clan’s history within the broader Scottish narrative. By joining clan groups and accessing materials and members, they can augment their research and incorporate additional historical narratives into their genealogies.  Such practices also contribute to the collective sense of joining a cultural community.  Clan organizations regularly conduct social events, participate at Scottish public events, sponsor educational programs and scholarships, and network with international chapters and share information globally.  Throughout these exchange, historical dialogue is exchanged through references to clan heritage, cultural practices, and individual genealogical research.  Drawing connections between the clan historical narrative and the genealogical narrative of the researcher himself constructs an integrated narrative.  This can be instrumental in revealing additional connections between ancestors and investigating the associated history in deeper detail. 

Prominent St. Louis businessman William K. Bixby sponsored the Burns Cottage at the 1904 World’s Fair. Afterwards, he and other Burns enthusiasts founded the Burns Club of St. Louis, which still meets today with a very selective membership.

How do these all contribute to public learning of Scottish history and heritage?  They consolidate and streamline historical, cultural knowledge, and heritage practices into public perspectives building a collective consciousness.  Group meetings, reunions, and more act as forums encouraging an exchange of ideas and knowledge people utilize for their research. Heritage groups are also important in orchestrating cultural networks and outreach. Their visibility and transparency is central to attracting the general public’s attention in garnering interest.  The Burns Club of St. Louis is an example of garnering public interest in sharing Scottish heritage and history.  Founded in 1904 following the World’s Fair, the organization was established for the purpose of discussing literature by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Aside from hosting annual Burns suppers, the club was actively engaged in collecting Burns manuscripts, hosting lectures, and networking with other Scottish organizations. By focusing on a central figure in Scottish history, these club members were accomplishing two goals; they augmented their knowledge of Burns literature and second, they were educating themselves on the accompanying history through heritage practices. Historical memory is influenced by these groups because as they acquire new members and exchange of historical knowledge, public interpretation of that specific cultural group and its associated history can fluctuate dramatically.  Scottish organizations are therefore indispensable in coordinating cultural and historical knowledge for public education.  

The upper room of the St. Louis Burns Club. The original building where the club held meetings was demolished, but the organization still meets (although current sources have been tight-lipped about their status)

Humanity in the Ocean: The SEALAB Program and Capt. George Bond, MD

Dr. George Foote Bond envisioned people living in the ocean. Not just in submarines or diving bells, but in fully furnished environments where a person can eat, sleep, and work for weeks at a time. Much of what the ocean offered in terms of scientific research was immense in the mid-20th century. Underwater explorers only glimpsed what was beneath the waves. Pioneers like Jacques Cousteau who led conservation efforts and developed novel aquatic technology like the ‘aqualung’ were a new generation of scientists exploring the ocean. The barrier to expanding these horizons was overcoming the physical and psychological limitations of the human body. Dr. Bond would spend his entire Naval career researching the answer.

George Bond was a well-loved doctor in North Carolina. He was profiled by the American Medical Association for his services in rural counties and was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Year’ by the community of Bat Cave, NC where he lived. In 1953, Bond joined the U.S. Navy’s medical corps and was certified as a diving and submarine medical officer. It was during these early years that Bond became enamored with diving and undersea exploration. At the Naval Medical Research Lab (NMRL) in Connecticut, Captain Bond collected data on the effects of underwater pressure on the human body and novel diving techniques. One practice called the ‘blow-and-go’ was a method for endangered submarine crews to safely exit the craft if it sustained damage. Bond was obsessed with his theory of ‘saturation diving’. Bond argued that as divers descended deeper underwater and their bodies absorbed the maximum amount of gas molecules, their decompression time would remain static. An underwater habitat pressurized to the appropriate depth was needed in order to allow divers to live in that environment. Under direction from the Secretary of the Navy and the NMRL, Bond and his colleague Walter Mazzone began the Genesis Project.

Capt. George Bond (far right) instructing Navy divers on the various parameters of the Genesis Project. They needed to be extremely accurate in their data findings in order to ensure their theory of saturation diving could be proven in real-world practice (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Genesis’ goals were developing a safe breathing mixture in a pressurized environment for divers and determine the amount of time needed for decompression. These two puzzles were crucial to Bond’s saturation theory. Mazzone developed a gas mixture comprised primarily of helium with small levels of oxygen and nitrogen. After various trials with test animals (the first batch dying from oxygen toxicity), the project moved onto human testing. Volunteers were observed inside the pressure chamber conducting experiments for specific lengths at time. Between 1957 and 1963, the Genesis Project gathered a mountain of data on atmospheric and environmental conditions. Test subjects and Navy divers Robert Barth, Sanders Manning, Raymond Lavois, and John Bull endured a battery of varying breathing mixtures, but after their longest endurance of 12 days at 198 fsw (feet of seawater, or 7 atmospheres of pressure), saturation diving became a proven concept. A person could live underwater in a controlled environment indefinitely. In an article in ‘Environmental Health’ Bond presented his findings:

As a result of some six years of animal and human studies involving closed ecological systems, elevated pressures, and synthetic atmospheres, the stage has been set for operational application of the work. It would now appear that we can safely station men at any point on the submerged continental shelf, with a reasonable expectancy of useful performance for prolonged periods of time.

New Developments in High Pressure Living‘, 1964

With atmospheric testing completed, constructing a suitable habitat was the next step. Bond and his team searched through shipyards and found two old depth charge sweepers. These cylindrical structures were the perfect size. Welders and engineers improvised in joining the shells and produced a long, cigar shaped habitat. They outfitted it with bunk beds, kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and a workspace for recording scientific data. While the setup seemed crude, it was all the divers needed.

SEALAB I. This relatively simple design was the first step in the man-in-the-sea program showing that a person could live on the ocean floor, circa 1964 (Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In July 1964, SEALAB I and its crew were sent to the coast of Bermuda to test the new habitat. During this preparation, they received an unexpected boost in public profile; Malcolm Scott Carpenter. The decorated Navy commander and Mercury astronaut who recently completed an orbit around Earth, became interested in Bond’s research. His interest in oceanic research was sparked by Jacques Cousteau while attending a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carpenter looked forward to participating in the first SEALAB expedition, but an motorcycle accident days before sidelined him. On July 20, the habitat was lowered almost two hundred feet into the ocean. The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert A. Barth, and Sanders Manning) spent their days swimming in the surrounding waters, recording data, and documenting the issues with the SEALAB capsule. Problems arose concerning the internal temperature, humidity, and communications, and the divers sometimes improvised repair work on the seafloor. Ominous tropical storms approached Bermuda eleven days into the project, cutting their schedule short. In that time however, Bond and the diving team proved that a person could work and live in an underwater pressurized environment. Bond finally proved his theory of saturation diving.

Shifting the focus from SEALAB to the broader historical context, Bond’s research was crucial in the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union. The Cold War influenced scientific research with the U.S. Armed Forces and researchers embarked on a flurry of defense work to gain advantages. Confrontations were most likely to occur at sea and with modern navies transitioning to nuclear-powered ships and submarines, the race for oceanic dominance progressed. Deep-sea diving was given high priority as the potential for underwater rescue crews increased. Geopolitical factors now played a role in the success of research like Bond’s and SEALAB needed to perform flawlessly.

With the success of SEALAB I, the Navy immediately authorized Bond to begin work on SEALAB II. Bond received an enormous increase to his budget from the Navy (along with the Legion of Merit medal) following the success of SEALAB I. The design and construction of the second habitat comprised a full year and made improvements on the previous schematics.

Commemoration of the SEALAB II facility and crew. Scott Carpenter is standing in middle of front row in a dark suit (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Heating coils and air-conditioning were added to regulate temperature and humidity, refrigeration to store perishable foods, and a larger laboratory. Fully recovered from his accident a year before, Scott Carpenter joined the SEALAB team in La Jolla, California ready to become an aquanaut. The first team of divers moved into the habitat on August 28, 1965 along with Carpenter. Two separate teams worked fifteen days each in the habitat, but Carpenter remained for the entire thirty day duty. This world was totally different from the warm waters of Bermuda. Freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness obscured the diver’s work. Marine life posed dangers too; jellyfish, pufferfish, and others could penetrate wetsuits and leave painful welts. Despite these challenges, the SEALAB II team made headlines for their achievements, including a celebratory phone call from President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to collecting more data on saturation diving and pressurization, SEALAB II tested electrically heated wetsuits and conducted salvage operations off the California coast. The team also welcomed a new addition, but it wasn’t a diver or new equipment; a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) trained animals to assist Navy personnel in rudimentary tasks and in the case of SEALAB, Tuffy was trained to ferry supplies between divers and the habitat. The results were mixed, but well enough to retain Tuffy for the next project. SEALAB II completed its mission on October 10, 1965 and the future looked bright for George Bond and his crew. Underwater exploration and deep-sea diving operations began to assume even greater importance in Cold War context. Humans were going further than had ever though possible.

CDR Carpenter performing inspections inside SEALAB II. His experience with SEALAB sparked a lifelong dedication to oceanography and marine conservation (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

These accomplishments, however, did not cement SEALAB’s permanence and shelter it from outside forces. As the Vietnam War consumed an ever-climbing cost of men and resources, funding for programs like SEALAB were given low priority. Experienced sailors, divers, and engineers were transferred to the South China Sea and left Bond’s program in disarray. It wouldn’t be for another four years before enough funding and materials became available for SEALAB III. Always wanting to improve upon the past, Bond upgraded the SEALAB II habitat in order for divers to conduct salvage operations and fishery studies. From these optimistic goals though, problems constantly set the SEALAB team back. Construction delays caused the majority of problems. New types of seals, gaskets, pressurized containers, and electrical lines were changing specifications on a constant basis. The result was ill-fitting parts causing air leaks in the main cabin which if left unresolved would have resulted in divers asphyxiating. The project exceeded budget and costs, further irritating Bond and his superiors. A date for submersion was finally set for February 15, 1969; five teams of divers would serve twelve day rotations off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. Another sudden change caught the SEALAB team off-guard; the depth of the habitat was increased to an unprecedented 600 feet (18 atmospheres of pressure). Bond became concerned since all previous tests had not occurred at that depth so the likelihood of failure was elevated. The divers were lowered into the water, but their insulated suits were not adequate enough to keep them warm. The crippling cold waters sapped their strength and when they arrived at the habitat, more problems arose. An interior neoprene seal failed causing helium to leak from the chamber. Unable to raise the habitat back to the surface, the diver needed to repair the seal themselves. It was during this repair that SEALAB experience its first human fatality. Berry L. Cannon, an electronics engineer, began convulsing and struggling to breathe. Other divers like Robert Barth tried forcing their breathers into his mouth, but muscle contractions prevented Cannon from opening his mouth. They moved back into the diving bell trying to resuscitate Cannon, but it was too late. His body was transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital where the final autopsy report indicated the cause of death as carbon dioxide poisoning. An inquiry board was established to evaluate the events leading up to the tragedy. They learned that Cannon’s diving rig was not functioning properly; the carbon dioxide baralyme scrubber was empty meaning that carbon dioxide couldn’t be expelled from the system. This caused a backlog in the breathing mixture, thereby resulting in CO2 poisoning. Hypothermia was viewed as a contributing factor also given the extremely cold water.

The SEALAB III habitat being transported through San Francisco Bay in 1969. After four years of research and development and millions of dollars over budget, the structure was ready for testing. It still came plagued with problems from the beginning (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Berry Cannon’s death foreshadowed the death of SEALAB. As family and fellow teammates mourned this loss, potential culprits were never prosecuted. Officially the U.S. Navy ruled his death as an accident, but outside geopolitical forces arguably prevented them from arresting anyone at fault. A year prior, on January 23 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces, marking a major incident in the Cold War. John Craven, head of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project, claimed that any other negative press about the U.S. Navy wouldn’t be tolerated. With Cannon’s death and coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, the SEALAB program ended and scrapped the SEALAB III habitat.

Bond’s dream of underwater living did not die with SEALAB though. In following years, other governments and the private sector took the lessons gained from Bond’s work and applied it to their own. Saturation diving meant that people could function underwater for extended periods of time and opened novel ways of working in the ocean. Today, the Office of Naval Research and its Undersea Medicine Program relies heavily on Bond’s work with their experiments in testing human endurance in underwater environments. Marine conservation groups rely on saturation diving to document natural and man-made disasters in the ocean and promote oceanic health. When it comes to exploring the ocean, scientists and divers can thank George Bond and the SEALAB team for blazing a trail to the bottom of the sea and opened up new ways of looking at our world.

Aquanauts for SEALAB II. Scott Carpenter is positioned in the front row, second from the left (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

This Grad Life: Learning Experiences as a Graduate Student

Education has its milestones in a person’s life; their first day at school, high school graduation, acceptance into college, college graduation, etc. We put a major emphasis on what we learn and what we do with the knowledge we gain. I thought for many years that just doing well in school would have guaranteed a future career, but I was wrong. There’s far more to school that obtaining high marks and getting listed on the Honor Roll. I should have known then, but I understand now that making a push towards what I want in my career stems from the drive to make your mark.

Attending graduate school and earning my MA in History was one of the best life decisions I made. Following my graduation from the University of Arkansas, there were absolutely zero job prospects in the history field. No state or National parks were hiring and neither any museums within a hundred mile radius of home. After securing a job with an auto parts company, I began working in their shipping and receiving bay where I put together orders and conducted inventories. After about two weeks there while standing in front of the derelict counter and computer with a malfunctioning monitor, I said out loud, “This sucks. I’m going back to school and do something to get a history job because I’m going to go insane here.” For a year I put up with overbearing managers who wanted to fire me because they wanted to feel superior over someone who had a college degree (I wager that only a handful of those there actually completed high school). There was no A/C, heating, or any functioning ventilation of any kind, so it was brutal in the summer and winter. The job did mandate that I become forklift certified so that was one upside I guess. All the while, I’m squirreling money away to go back to school. I spent weeks researching different schools and their graduate programs until I landed upon Emporia State University, located in Emporia, Kansas. I was amazed to find out that not only did they accept my application, but offered me a job as a Graduate Teaching Assistant! I would have been thrilled to just study, but to have gainful employment at the university was a significant bounty. After submitting my two weeks notice, I began packing my bags and I moved to Kansas.

Returning to  the academic environment was a smooth transition for me. I found that I can achieve peak productivity in an academic environment as a student because of all the learning possibilities. Armed with a graduate assistant position and after meeting my faculty counterpart, I was ready to return to the history world. For two years, the time I spent working alongside the faculty and students was incredibly rewarding. Graduate student colleagues were some of my best confidants out there in school and the times we spent rambling and ranting about our research filled long hours at Mulready’s Pub. There were six of us in a small, shared office with graduate students from the English Department and we all got along swimmingly. There were times the stress was visible; fast-approaching deadlines, trouble verifying sources, dealing with the politics of academia, working late hours grading papers and tests. You could always count on having to do some amount of work. Anyone in that office who said they had nothing to do was outright lying.

One piece of advice that I’d share with other graduate teaching assistants is that when you’re selected to lead a lecture or session, always find something to engage the students and have them participate collectively. Right off the bat in my first day of class, students in back rows were asleep, sneakily checking their phones, or finding some way to appear busy to cover their lack of discipline. That perspective from the front of the classroom was not new to me (having delivered presentations before) but in the role of educator, you find ways to uplift the students and encourage them to study what they might slough off as just a mandatory course box on their degree plan. You may find that an interactive quiz, interactive primary sources, using historical artifacts, or something similar can bring students to both a better understanding of the material and greater respect for the subject. Not every student reacts the same way and not everyone can garner the same level of interest. I struggled with that because I wanted everyone to emulate the passion that I had, but I accepted later on that not everyone would and it allowed me to refocus my teaching energy.

Before the first semester began, I vowed to steer clear of the cliche office politics that came with the territory of academia. Instead, I found myself right at the center. Full disclosure, I was not privy to many discussions taking place in the Social Sciences Department itself, but I was there to receive their decisions, many of which I disagreed. I hit upon the idea early in my studies to pursue a public history path. Public history centers on researching and portraying historical subjects in a manner easy to public education and bring widespread notice to the general public. This is ideal for those wanting to work in a museum, library, archives, or a historical park. I knew that was what I wanted to do career wise and I soon hit upon my thesis idea. In 2010, I spent time studying overseas at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and became obsessed with my Scottish heritage. I quickly connected with some local Scottish groups back home in Missouri and took that passion with me to Kansas. The idea of interviewing Scottish-Americans, recording their experiences, and seeing how people learn about historical topics through their heritage practices sounded golden. At least it was to me, but to the faculty, it took some convincing. Ultimately my advisor supported me wholeheartedly, one committee member remained a mix of cautiously optimistic and skeptical, and the third endorsed it because of the oral history approach I used for interviewing candidates. I had my share of obstacles, especially with the faculty and administration, but I endured it and finally walked across the stage with my new MA History degree.

My advice for graduate students: never let any office politics get in the way of your degree. Your research, the sole purpose of you being there, should not be held hostage by the actions of some squabbling professors who don’t like each other. You aren’t accepted into the program to be a pawn, you’re there to pursue a passion that shapes your future career path. I remember telling my colleagues in numerous ‘Mulready meetings’ that our research shouldn’t be held hostage to advance one professor’s agenda over another.

Another great demand that graduate school makes is one that lies with yourself. Work-life balance isn’t just for your full-time job, but with school also. Achieving that balance was difficult for me because I was went full-bore into my schoolwork, all the time. There was some venting with exercise and swimming at the school gym, but looking back I think I could have done better.

When you look back on an experience, you want to ask yourself; was it worth it? In my case, yes. I got my degree, secured a job with the National Archives, and now I’m finally applying my history knowledge to my job, which is something I’m immensely proud.

Nothing Like Homemade: Making Beer, Wine, and Spirits during Prohibition

People surprise you when it comes to finding innovative ways overcoming an obstacle. Ask any contractor, tailor, chef, or any profession really and they’ll tell you about an intriguing problem and the equally intriguing approach they took to solve it. Now whether that’s done legally or not, that’s a different question altogether. During Prohibition, the public still wanted their alcohol and if they couldn’t afford prices set by bootleggers (or risk being caught by authorities), they made their own. What’s striking is that even though the drys pushed for national prohibition, neither the 18th Amendment or the Volstead Act banned the consumption of alcohol itself. Therefore it was still legal to drink alcohol, but illegal to produce, distribute, or sell alcohol.

The first draft of the Volstead Act stipulated that anything with more than one-half of one percent alcohol content was illegal. The problem with that was it would have outlawed industrial alcohol needed to make products such as embalming fluid, rubbing alcohol, varnish, aftershave, and various cleaning chemicals. Revisions lifted such restrictions, on the condition that manufacturers obtain permits for industrial alcohol production. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for draconian enforcement measures, but to pass the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act, he was forced to compromise and remove certain clauses. Drinking alcohol was still legal under the act, opening a considerable legal loophole for the public and bootleggers.

Drug stores and pharmacies were allowed under the Volstead Act to sell alcohol for medical use and consumption, if they received proper permits. Those who didn’t (or were caught selling unauthorized prescriptions) the Prohibition Bureau shut them down

Two major exemptions that are commonly associated with the Volstead Act were the use of alcohol for religious and medicinal purposes. Parishes and synagogues received an allotment of sacramental wine every month. Priests and rabbis would only order a size comparable to their congregation. However, there was lax enforcement on verifying the number of priests and rabbis who applied for sacramental wine permits and purchasing them. Along the Eastern Seaboard, there was an explosion of applications from false clergy trying to obtain sacramental wine. Alcohol for medical use was allowed as well. Doctors were allowed to write a limited number of prescriptions per month and no more. However, it was really up to the doctor’s discretion on whether or not a particular ailment required prescribing alcohol. It also wasn’t uncommon for an ‘epidemic’ to break out in a neighborhood and whole families would come in seeking ‘treatment’.  Despite the Prohibition Bureau’s efforts to curb these law-dodging practices, they remained impotent to arrest these scofflaws.

The brewing industry changed their business practices, marketing, and manufacturing overnight to stay open during Prohibition. Brewers utilized the lead time from passing to ratification of the 18th Amendment to adjust their production lines. Their infrastructure allowed for an easy transition into other grocery products, such as ice cream, yeast, bread dough, and non-alcoholic near beer, which had the same taste as beer, but without the alcoholic content. Despite being banned from selling beer, the Volstead Act did not outlaw selling the ingredients to make beer. This allowed large brewing companies like Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch to sell products like malt extract and syrup. Although marketed primarily for bakers and for selling bread, inventive minds quickly learned how to make homemade beer from malt extract, yeast, and other ingredients. Near-beer products like Pivo and Bevo never really caught on, but these could have their alcohol content modified once purchased. At the moment of purchase, whatever people did with the brewing ingredients was at their discretion. It can be argued without a doubt that big brewers ignited the 1920s home-brewing craze and resonating to the present day with home-brewers trying new recipes all the time.

Malt syrup and extract products could be used to make beer at home. Although beer was outlawed, the ingredients used to make it were still available, leading to a rise of home-brewing and kept breweries in business

Hard liquor and spirits were harshly condemned by dry politicians and the Anti-Saloon League, citing them as the main evils and purpose of the 18th Amendment. Big distilleries such as Jack Daniels, Squibb, and Jim Beam were targeted by anti-alcohol forces and at the start of prohibition, their distilleries and warehouses were padlocked and placed under government bond. This meant that only those with proper government permits and credentials for using medicinal alcohol were allowed to withdraw said alcohol. Infamous bootlegger George Remus exploited this loophole by creating his own trucking and pharmaceutical company to withdraw bonded alcohol and sell to drug companies, at enormous profit. Hard liquor could be obtained by other ways through bootleggers bringing product down from Canada which was another profitable venture. Roy Olmstead brought down thousands of crates of whiskey, rum, gin, and champagne down from Canada and distributed across the Pacific Northwest, earning him the nickname ‘King of Puget Sound.’ Additionally, those who had the tools and resources to make their own spirits did so with gusto. Distilling moonshine in the Appalachian region stretched back to the days of the American Revolution and was a way of life to many families. Prohibition agents struggled to find and dismantle these clandestine stills hiding in the mountains and forests. Despite their efforts, moonshine and other whiskies kept producing and eluding federal agents.

Prohibition agents locate an illegal still in an underground bunker. Stills were hidden in almost any place that could be easily concealed. Common hiding places include bunkers, barns, caves, abandoned factories, and boats

The only proviso under the Volstead Act that allowed for the production of alcohol at home was wine. Individual households were allowed to preserve fruits for juice and ‘other purposes’ which was interpreted as wine could be made at home. As previously mentioned with beer, the alcohol itself was illegal to sell, but the individual ingredients could still be purchased. The wine industry made adjustments during Prohibition to accommodate the growing demand for fruit juices, but also the sacramental wine market. Fruit growers in California specifically adapted their crops to the new market by growing apricots, peaches, cherries, and other popular fruits. These same companies also found a unique way around the Volstead Act by indirectly selling the wine to consumers. Companies like Vine-Glo sold grape juice concentrate which consisted of a block dehydrated grapes. Conveniently, these blocks came with warning labels consisting of language such as ‘do not mix with sugar and leave in dark place’ or ‘do not allow fermentation by adding sugar’. Subtle hints like this were signs to customers that they could make wine in their homes. Wine companies and fruit growers utilized their home wine making exception by selling ready-to-make wine; just add water, sugar, and let ferment.

Grape brick sold by Vine-Glo. On the surface, it’s a block of dehydrated grapes that can be used to make grape juice; or for the more enterprising mind, wine

The major question that arose for many legislators, lawyers, and dry advocates who wanted the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment upheld, what prevented law enforcement from stopping these work-arounds? Unfortunately based on the wording and descriptions within the Volstead Act, the raw ingredients used to make alcoholic beverages were not illegal and if in fact they were outlawed, they would have ended up banning fruits, wheat, barley, and other staples needed to produce basic foodstuffs. Temperance advocates and dry politicians banked on the assumption that people would respect the new law because of its enshrinement in the Constitution. The idea of breaking not only a law, but a constitutional amendment would deter people from drinking. However, the alcohol industry readily adapted to provide what wasn’t excluded and left it to the people to interpret what they will. Prohibition agents routinely searched for illegal stills and contraband, but were prevented from raiding grocery or drug stores in order to stop selling malt extract. There were an incalculable number of ways to procure alcohol during the 1920s and it perplexed the drys that a country that put a nation-wide ban on alcohol was also the world’s greatest importer of cocktail shakers.

People find unique ways to solve a problem. Not allowed to purchase wine? Well, you should know that it’s not a good idea to mix sugar, water, and dehydrated grapes, then leave the mixture in a cool, dark place. It’ll cause fermentation and you’ll get some strange smelling grape juice that only adults can drink. Just something I heard.

Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Treasury Department. Man standing next to still looking at contents of glass (photo courtesy of National Archives)

 

The Dry Crusader: Wayne Wheeler’s Quest for Prohibition

‘My childhood was an idyllic time in the most beautiful country. The sun shone brightly every spring and summer, making the great fields of wheat and corn glow brightly as they sway in the gentle breeze. I was so fond of working in those fields and doing such valuable work in God’s land. That is, until one day, a vagabond who worked on our farm was so besotted, he carelessly thrashed about his scythe and injured me greatly. His drunken misconduct taught me a valuable lesson: alcohol is the root of dangerous acts. Had he not been drunk, my idyllic childhood would not be tarnished with such a sorrowful stain.’

Sounds quite traumatizing does it not? Would hearing this story convince you to throw out all the alcohol in your house and campaign on this single issue until alcohol was totally banned? Well, the above story is only a fictionalized version, but a similar anecdote was shared by the leader of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the early 20th century. He worked tirelessly to advocate a single issue policy: the prohibition of alcohol. The efforts of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. They did so with such ravenous lobbying that many U.S. Representatives and Senators caved to their pressure for fear of losing their seat in the next election cycle. The man who oversaw all these political operations was Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. 

Wayne B. Wheeler, executive director of the Anti-Saloon League (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Before delving into Wayne Wheeler himself, it’s vital to understand the history and mission of the Anti-Saloon League within the larger story of Prohibition. Since the early 1800s, various temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated for the reduction and strict limitations of alcohol production and consumption. These early groups included alcohol temperance as part of their many causes to improve society, such as changing child labor laws, public sanitation, women’s suffrage, and urban housing. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin, Ohio and they adopted a different approach from preceding groups. The ASL advocated for a total ban on the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol and pursued it as a single issue platform. The total ban of alcohol was the organization’s only mission. The group exploded in membership and in a couple of years, they became a powerful national lobbying group whose influence stretched from local city government to the U.S. Congress. The league published thousands of pamphlets, leaflets, news articles, and gained a massive following with local churches so Wheeler utilized those connections to great advantage. The ASL was different from previous popular movements due to their bureaucratic, corporate structure and building departments dedicated to a certain aim of the organization. The publishing department wrote to thousands of newspapers and at one point, the ASL had whole page stories and columns in nearly every major newspaper in the United States. Enter Wayne Wheeler and his crusader zeal. 

Wheeler began his work with the ASL campaigning from door-to-door and sharing the anti-alcohol message. Wheeler joined the ASL shortly after their founding and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the executive director in 1904. Wheeler earned his law degree from Western Reserve University while working for the ASL and along with his teacher background, he was the organization’s most effective organizer and lobbyist. He embarked on a special brand of political lobbying (selfishly labeled Wheelerism) that became his trademark. he heavily pressed on the issue of prohibition and did so through any means to get a vote from elected officials. If they did not support prohibition legislation, Wheeler mobilized ASL followers to vote against them. The best case example was with Myron T. Herrick in his re-election for Governor of Ohio. Herrick supported local option laws that were backed by the ASL, but when he tried to modify them slightly, Wheeler used the publishing arm of the ASL to denounce him, and it worked. Herrick’s defeated was a monumental victory for the ASL which now demonstrated their political power. 

Political cartoons were effective in drawing attention to the issue of alcohol and the evils of the saloons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wheeler’s leadership model focused on achieving national prohibition by any means necessary. He was known on occasion to work with wet (pro-alcohol) politicians who were willing to vote on dry (anti-alcohol) legislation. This horrified some within the ASL, but Wheeler’s die-hard lobbying and cult-like followers were able to get results in every local and state election in passing dry laws. As more dry politicians were elected to office, the prospect of enacting a constitutional amendment banning alcohol became more of a reality. Single issue lobbying was forcing many legislators to choose a side as prohibition became a wedge issue. Wheeler also took the approach of focusing on the margin electorates. This meant that he needed to convince the small number of undecided voters to push them into choosing a side. This was accomplished by constantly pushing for change until they were worn down. 

Anti-Saloon League supporters turned up in large numbers at every election and by 1910, their political influence was unparalleled in Washington D.C. Despite this, they were still unable to garner enough votes to pass national prohibition or even a constitutional amendment on alcohol. The federal government relied heavily on alcohol tax revenue, but that changed in 1913 when Congress established an income tax with the 16th Amendment. Now with the government’s primary source of revenue coming from the general population instead of one industry, the economic argument for keeping alcohol collapsed. Wheeler quickly advanced upon dry legislators to pass the 18th Amendment and he himself was involved in drafting the Volstead Act, setting the draconian rules for alcohol’s usage. After years of political pressure and advocating, Wheeler and the ASL finally achieved their goal of national prohibition. 

The story of Wayne Wheeler doesn’t end with the passage of the 18th Amendment. The height of the league’s power in the 1920s now required them to constantly press home the need to prohibit alcohol, but the lobbying strength needed to do so was beginning to fade. Intent on keeping the issue of alcohol in the national spotlight, Wheeler sought to influence the Bureau of Prohibition and monitor the selection of agents to enforce the Volstead Act. Throughout his tenure with the Bureau, he entered a dark phase of condemning those who consumed tainted alcohol. Wheeler didn’t feel sympathy for those who died from tainted alcohol (tainted sometimes by the government’s orders). This callous, cold attitude turned off many political supporters from Wheeler who started to change their dry positions. Wheeler was also an uncompromising individual who refused to change his stance on prohibition, which ended any prospect of adjusting the Volstead Act in order to reduce the number of violations. The public outcry surrounding his comments on the victims of tainted alcohol forced him into an early retirement from the ASL, but he never ceased his prohibition lobbying. Wheeler suffered a series of personal tragedies; his wife and father-in-law died from a house fire and heart attack respectively within hours of each other and on September 5, 1927, Wayne died from a chronic kidney disease. 

Wayne’s legacy doesn’t only encompass Prohibition, but also the effectiveness of pressure politics that force people to choose sides on a wedge issue. We can see it today in a variety of political arguments surrounding immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, drugs, and more where groups tirelessly campaign for a single issue. We can learn from these lobbying tactics and see how they impact our government today. There is so much we can learn from the history of Prohibition; it’s not all speakeasies and gangsters, but a moral quest that battled for America’s soul. 

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration)