Thursday, April 30, 2009

Panic! It's the Swine Flu...and Walter Reed

At Right: Walter Reed experiments

I was planning on writing about the Snow Riot this week, but it will have to wait. We’ve got an epidemic to deal with people! The Swine Flu has gotten to the World Bank, and now the Secret Service reportedly has it too!!!!

What should I do? A. Wear a mask? B. Avoid the metro? C. Skip out on tonight’s Nats game? I don’t have a mask, and I’m planning to take the metro to the game, so options B and C are out. I know from writing on the Great Influenza of 1918 that I ought to “avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, and tight gloves.” But that can’t be enough! The paranoia is just too great! I shall console myself by reading up on Walter Reed, for which Walter Reed Hospital is named.

In recent years we’ve associated Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) with the scandal of neglect for wounded American servicemen, but this is a taint on the good name of Walter Reed. Born in 1851, Walter Reed was a precocious student who graduated from the University of Virginia with a medical degree in 1869. Joining the Army Medical Corps in 1875, Reed was sent to remote outposts including Nebraska and Arizona. In 1893 he moved to Washington, DC to serve as a faculty member at the Army Medical School. At the school he studied infectious diseases including malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. His research led him to Havana, Cuba in 1900 to study yellow fever, a serious killer at the time (During the Spanish-American War more soldiers died from yellow fever than combat wounds).

In the late 1800s, it was still believed that yellow fever was transmitted through clothing (i.e. germs on blankets) and from person to person. Despite taking precautions like burning “infected” blankets, yellow fever remained a persistent threat in tropical climes. The idea that yellow fever was transmitted through mosquitoes had been floating around, but it was not until Reed and his US Army Yellow Fever Board decided that the only way to prove the theory was by conducting tests on humans that the theory was confirmed. Essentially, Reed’s experiments involved allowing oneself to be bitten by a mosquito that had bitten a yellow fever victim and then waiting to see if you got yellow fever and died. Sign me up for that!

Reed returned to Washington to present his findings, short one team member who had died while using himself as a test subject. His presentation did not go well, and in fact the Washington Post called it “silly.” And so, more tests were conducted in an isolated camp in Cuba. This time the trials (using paid volunteers) were met with success when Reed presented the new findings at the Pan-American Medical Congress in 1901. Efforts to eradicate mosquitoes in Havana led to a sharp decline in the prevalence of yellow fever.

In recognition for his work Major Walter Reed received honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan. Sadly, his life was cut short in 1902 by complications arising from appendicitis. He died in the hospital named for him, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

All right, I’m getting on the metro where I will be holding my breath and not touching anything.

Sources: The American Experience, “The Great Fever.”

University of Virginia, Phillip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walt Whitman's Washington Part 2

A continuation of Walt Whitman's hangouts. At Left: Walt Whitman and companion Peter Doyle in 1865.

14th Street: From this thorough-fare for Union troops, Walt witnessed wounded soldiers returning from the fronts in thousands. Noting their disheveled states and pained gazes, so unlike the grand military reviews held near the White House, Whitman stated, “This is way the men come in now, seldom in small numbers, but always in these long, sad processions.”

Analostan Island (Teddy Roosevelt Island): Though Whitman was by and large a Unionist, he was not an abolitionist. In effort to convert him, abolitionist coworkers in the Army Paymaster’s Office took him on a trip to Analostan Island, near Georgetown, to watch the First Regiment US Colored Troops receive pay. Whitman conceded that the colored troops fought bravely and honorably, but still believed them to be genetically and intellectually inferior.

Pennsylvania Ave: After hospital duty, Whitman strolled down the Avenue in the night air, clearing his thoughts and taking in the scenery.
· On this street he would see President Abraham Lincoln walking to and from the White House. Though he never met Lincoln personally he commented, “Who can see that man without losing all wish to be sharp upon him personally? Who can say he has not a good soul?”
· Whitman found love and companionship toward the end of the war from Pennsylvania Avenue horsecar operator and Confederate deserter Peter Doyle. Though 25 years Doyle’s senior, the two became inseparable over the next five years. At night Whitman would ride the lonely streetcar from Georgetown to Capitol, talking and confiding in Doyle.
· At the Center Market on Penn and 7th, Doyle and Whitman purchased watermelon. Sitting on a curb eating it, with passersby laughing at the odd couple. Walt would say, “They can have the laugh—we have the melon.”

Union Hotel: Early in the Civil War, the Union Hotel in Georgetown (at 30th and M Streets) became a temporary hospital for those with contagious diseases. By 1864 the Hotel had reverted back to its status as a popular saloon. Tired after a late shift on the streetcar, Doyle would fall asleep at a table in the bar, awoken at the end of the night by Whitman.

Walt Whitman resided in Washington, DC until 1873, when working late one night in the Treasury Building he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. At age 54, he had become an old man. Relocating to be close to family in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman hoped that he would be well enough to return to Washington, DC and Peter Doyle. However, he never recovered fully enough to make DC his home once more and lived the rest of his days in Camden.

Sources: Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life.

Roy Morris, Jr.,
The Better Angel.

Walt Whitman's Washington Part 1

Finding his brother’s name on a casualty report after the Union’s blunder at Fredericksburg in 1862, poet Walt Whitman left his home in Brooklyn, and set out to confirm his brother’s death. He arrived on the battlefield to find his brother alive, though wounded in the cheek from a shell fragment. It was in Virginia that Walt Whitman witnessed the horrors of the war with the blood, the amputations, the disease, and the filth. Vowing that his New York days were over, Whitman moved to the Capital of the Union to volunteer at the army hospitals. Below, is a rundown of his Washington haunts.

Various Homes: The Federal City Whitman arrived in ran the gamut from office-seekers, profiteers, religious zealots, prostitutes, and deserters.
· It was a wild town, and it’s no wonder that Whitman’s landlord kept 7 locks and a bulldog to guard the front door at his L Street apartment.
· In 1863, Whitman moved to a third story backroom at 456 6th Street between E and D Streets, coincidently located diagonally across his nemesis’s Salmon Chase’s stately mansion.
· Later he lived at 502 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was “a miserable place, very bad air.”
· In 1865, he was renting a room at 468 M Street.

Work: Whitman initially secured a position as a part-time copyist in the Army Paymaster’s fifth floor office at 15th and F Street.
· Seeking a higher Clerkship, Whitman used Ralph Waldo Emerson as a reference when applying for a Treasury position under Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase, who refused him the position because he considered Leaves of Grass to be a disreputable book. Whitman called Chase “the meanest and biggest kind of shyster.”
· Becoming sick in 1864, Whitman left his copyist position for a time while returning home to Camden, NJ.
· Moving back to DC, he took a position in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in the dusty basement of the northeast corner of the Patent Office at 7th and G Streets (now the National Portrait Gallery). His annual salary was $1,200. Whitman lasted only months before he was fired, perhaps again because of his controversial writings.
· Fortunately, friends found him a position in the Attorney General’s office in the Treasury Building, and there he stayed until 1873.

The Hospitals: During the Civil War, Washington had between 40-50 military hospitals.
· Many were little more than canvas tents set up on wooden planks, such as the Lincoln Hospital located in a swamp just east of the Capitol.
· Two newer “state of the art” hospitals included those at Amory Square (seen at right), adjacent to the Smithsonian castle, and the Carver Hospital at Judiciary Square, built on the “Pavilion Plan” that allowed for wards with ample ventilation.
· About 70,000 wounded or sick soldiers were treated in the Washington hospitals at a given time, a number equal to Washington’s peacetime population. Running out of space, the city used churches, the US Patent Office, the Capitol, and the prison in Georgetown for overflows.
Surrounded by suffering, Whitman became consumed with his volunteer work at the hospitals. With the soldiers he played games of Twenty Questions, read Shakespeare, and wrote letters to their families. On one visit he secured ten gallons of ice cream to offer at the Carver Hospital (no meager feat during wartime rationing). Many of his patients would die, but Whitman held their hands, knowing well the look of death upon their faces. According to Whitman, war was “nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.”

Eventually the horrors of war got to Whitman, who became feverishly ill in June of 1864. The diagnosis for his illness is still contested, but at the time the doctors referred to it as “hospital fatigue.” Health and family issues brought him home to Brooklyn, to spend a few months recovering. The War progressed, the Union began winning, and by the end of 1864 only 17 hospitals in Washington remained, treating 9,265 patients. Returning to the Capitol after his illness, Whitman assured his brother that he was not visiting the hospitals as much as before. Still, he volunteered at least two or three times a week, particularly frequenting Amory Square Hospital until after the war had ended.

The nice thing about writers is that they leave a paper trail...stay tuned for part two.

Sources: Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life.

Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel.

Friday, April 24, 2009

-. ..- -- -... . .-. ... ..--- ...-- ..--- ...-- STOP

He was a young artist on the rise; Dying Hercules and Judgment of Jupiter were already considered masterpieces by the British public. His paintings embodied Americanism—the rise of common man over the aristocracy. He was an admirer and friend of James Fenimore Cooper, whose The Last of the Mohicans proved to the world the value of American culture. If he could be a success in London, he could certainly reach equally great heights in America. Deciding in 1815 that he had studied in Britain long enough, he returned home to the United States. His talents brought him to Washington, DC to paint the official portrait of President James Monroe. John Quincy Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette also sat for him.

And now, Congress was expanding the Capitol. Murals would be needed to cover the halls and rotunda. Congress was calling on artists to submit designs depicting the young nation and democracy. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he desperately needed this accolade. Economic recession had slowed his commissions. When he submitted his design, Samuel F.B. Morse was confident that the commission would be his. To prepare for the Capitol project, Morse sailed to Europe in 1829 to improve his skill.

In 1832, Morse learnt that he had lost the Capitol commission. Dreams shattered, he gave up on a career as an artist. Broke, he returned to America to take up a position as a professor at New York University. But fortune smiled upon him, for it was on the boat home that he met Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who introduced him Michael Faraday’s theories of electrical current. Always intrigued by science and invention (he was an early fan of photography), Morse studied electromagnetism and designed his first telegraph machine.

His new machine needed funding. In New York he found the financial backing of entrepreneur Alfred Vail, who assisted Morse in improving the telegraph design so that it was smaller, sleeker, and had a button for typing dots and dashes. It was this version that received a patent in 1840. In 1842 it was time to test the range of the electrical current. Morse and Vail set up a wire from Governor’s Island and Manhattan (a two mile range), but the test failed when a boat sailed in to the wire, snapping it.

Persistent, Morse returned to Washington, DC submitting a bill requesting $30,000 to run a telegraph line from the Supreme Court Chamber in Washington to the B & O Rail Station in Baltimore. Congress stalled on the bill for over a year. Just as a once again defeated Morse was about to leave town, he heard news that the bill had passed! The 38 mile experimental line was completed in 1844. On May 24, 1844 (as of today that’s 164 years and 11 months ago) Morse officially opened the line for communication. Sitting in the old Supreme Court Chamber, Morse typed out his famous first message, “What Hath God Wrought!” The message was received in the B& O Rail Station, but no one paid much attention. In fact, Samuel Morse had to write his own newspaper article proclaiming its success, “The Electric Telegraph Triumphant.”

It wasn’t until three days later when Morse sent news of James K. Polk’s presidential nomination from a deadlocked Democratic Convention in Baltimore across the wire to the Capitol that the nation finally took notice. The journalists and public were astounded! The ability to transfer information within minutes had just rendered the postal service obsolete! Ok, well maybe that last part is an exaggeration as we still continued to use snail mail, but the telegraph had changed the speed at which Americans lived their lives. “3 cheers have been given here for Polk and 3 for the Telegraph!” was the message of the day, and the rest is history!

Note: Morse asked a US Patent Commissioner’s daughter Annie Ellsworth to compose the first message. To find out the source of “What Hath God Wrought!” translate the blog title. Or, cheat and look it up on Wikipedia.

Source: Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man.
Thomas Streissguth,
Communications: Sending the Message.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUMUEL MORSE! April 27, 1791! You don't look a day older!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Know Nothing about the Washington Monument?

Those blasted Know Nothings are up to no good again! Not only did they cause a riot, pitting the Plug Uglies against the Marines, they also spear-headed an effort to prevent the construction of the Washington Monument.

The Washington Monument was slow to get off the ground to begin with. Sure, the government and the people of the United States loved their Founding Father, but when it came to funding architect Richard Mill’s costly obelisk…well, it turns out they were sunshine patriots. Though the National Washington Monument Society convened in 1833, the cornerstone was not placed until1848. Because the federal government refused to entirely foot the bill, the Society asked states, nations, civil organizations, churches, and even Native American tribes to contribute money toward the project. However, rather than send money, states and organizations donated blocks of marble. Many of these stones came with engravings, such as, “Alabama. A union of equality, as adjusted by the constitution.” Alabama and Equality in the 1850s? Right. And I’m the Pope.

But speaking of popes, construction of the obelisk was moving along until Pope Pius IX donated a stone. The Know Nothings were anti-immigrant, which meant that they were anti-Irish, which meant they were anti-Catholic by extension. So fearful that the stone was an attempt by the papacy to take over the country, the Know Nothings stole stone and allegedly threw it in the Potomac. Through elections within the National Washington Monument Society, the Know Nothings managed to gain control of the society, halting construction. Acting sensibly, Congress opted to withhold funds from the Society until the party dissolved, but by that time the nation was heading toward a Civil War. Any available funds were diverted toward preserving the Union.

The Civil War ended, but the Washington Monument remained neglected. Some years later Congress finally mustered up the will to complete the project. A new cornerstone was laid in 1880 and the capstone was finally placed in 1884. If you look closely at the monument you will see that the marble at the bottom is a darker color than the marble that begins about 150 feet up. The project took so long that when construction resumed in the 1880s, builders needed to use stone from a different quarry. Exposed to the elements, the two types of marble have aged differently. And now you Know Something!

Source: David Clark, “Blending Stupendousness With Elegance: The Washington Monument,” Mental Floss, 2009.
National Park Service,
Washington Monument, available online April 2009.

Picture Source: Special thanks to friend of the blog and photographer Christine Ruffo for use of the photos! Her prints are available for purchase at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome to the White House, First Puppy

Recent pictures of Washington DC’s newest/fluffiest resident, Bo the dog, romping around the White House remind us that this iconic Washington residence is indeed just that. A residence. Home to the President and the first family, the White House also does triple duty as part top secret office building and part museum. It is understood by all of its inhabitants (except perhaps the dogs) that their residence is temporary, but each administration does try it’s best to leave their mark. Fortunately enough, because of these territorial instincts (something the dogs would understand?) the interior of the White House now holds one of the greatest collections of American decorative arts in the country.

The cornerstone of the President’s Mansion was laid in 1792 under the supervision of architect James Hoban. While George Washington advised Hoban on the design, John Adams was the first president to move into the house in 1800 while it was still under construction. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson introduced the first indoor water closet, and running water was piped in through hollowed out logs beginning in 1833. While living there in 1809, James Madison commissioned noted American architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design what is now the Blue Room in the fashionable Greek Revival style at which Latrobe excelled. Unfortunately, in 1814 Madison and his wife Dolley were famously forced to flee the home with George Washington’s portrait as it burned under British attack. Incoming President James Monroe again hired James Hoban to rebuild the house, and updated the interior fashions with new French Empire furnishings. Several of these, including a Parisian-made settee and seven gilded chairs, remain today as the oldest original pieces of furniture in the home.

During the Victorian Era, President Buchanan brought modern Victorian decor into the house, and later Mary Todd Lincoln spent a great deal of effort to upgrade the mansion with Rococo Revival laminated rosewood furnishings. Many of these remain today in the famed Lincoln bedroom. During his administration in the late 1870s, Rutherford B. Hayes improved and expanded the White House greenhouses to reflect current interests in scientific advances and exotic curiosities.

By the time Chester Arthur entered office in 1881, the Victorian was on its way out. Arthur sold much of the extravagant interior decorations added during the period and commissioned fellow New Yorker and color expert Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the oft used Blue Room in it’s namesake blue hue. In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt continued the trend by bringing on the Neo-classical powerhouse architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to fully remove the Victorian dressings and replace them with the streamlined interiors found in the White House today. Roosevelt also commissioned McKim, Mead and White to construct the West Wing of the building to help separate his office space from the family quarters occupied by his six rambunctious children. The West Wing was later expanded in the 1930s by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also added (given the times) a small movie theater and an air raid shelter. 

In 1948, Harry Truman took office and shortly thereafter discovered that the structure of his new home was in a disastrous state. Over 130 years of constant use as office and living spaces had passed since the last reconstruction, and Truman began planning for a new restoration as soon as his daughter’s piano started to sink into the floor. From 1948 to 1952, the house was completely gutted and rebuilt with modern steel beams and concrete slabs that were pinned to the original 1814 exterior. The interiors were then replicated using Hoban’s floor plans, with decorations mimicking McKim, Mead and White’s classically inspired designs.

The gutted interior of the White House in 1950

Truman’s restoration of the house was well received, but his one major misstep was to redecorate much of the interior with standard issue furniture. Luckily, the White House found its savior in 1960 with the arrival of Jackie Kennedy. An icon of fashion herself, Jackie Kennedy worked tirelessly to make the White House a showcase for the decorative arts. Aware of the importance and depth of history that the house possessed, she worked to establish a collection of original pieces and to restore the public rooms as period spaces. Under her guidance, in 1961 the White House gained a curator and officially became a museum. She then created the White House Historical Association, which still exists today to raise money for the care of the home’s collections and to acquire further pieces of furniture and art. After Jackie, the care and preservation of the White House became an official task of the First Lady. In 1964 Lady Bird Johnson helped establish the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, of which the First Lady is the honorary chair, and in 1979 Rosalynn Carter oversaw the creation of the White House Preservation Fund (now the White House Acquisition Trust) with an original endowment of 25 million.

Today the historic preservation of the White House is managed by the National Park Service and the General Services Administration. It received its museum accreditation from the American Association of Museums in 1988, and visitors willing to call their Congress members in advance can view prominent pieces from the collection on daily tours. And of course, the collection is always growing. Reflecting her personal style, new First Lady Michelle Obama hired interior decorator Michael Smith to create casual, homey interiors that are distinctly American; mixing priceless Early American antiques with affordable modern pieces. Ubiquitous furniture sources like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn were tapped for the more affordable items, while the President and First Lady sleep in an 1820’s tall-post maple bed and Malia Obama does her homework on a desk used by President Lincoln.

Here’s hoping that Bo doesn’t get to chewing on the legs of those.

Source: Delahanty, Randolph. "The Nation's House" Museum, January/February 2009 

Image Sources: Obama and dog,; White House Shell,

Circles and Squares Roundup


No it's not a lesson in geometry. Simply put, I was thinking the other day that I know who most of the squares and traffic circles in DC are named after, but I'm fairly certain most others who live here do not. Now, that may have something to do with my time as a fifteen-year-old shut-in Civil War buff; a phase I imagine the majority of people did not endure. Therefore, I thought it might be nice to do a little write-up on who the various historical figures whose names we use each day were, given that the vast majority were, in fact, Civil War figures of varying degrees of importance. So, here are a few Civil War-related circles and squares you may have passed through, in no particular order:

Thomas Circle - General George Thomas, who made up for his rather commonplace name by having lots of fun nicknames: "Pap," "The Rock of Chickamauga," "The Sledge of Nashville." General Thomas was a level-headed, competent Union General in the Western Theater.

McPherson Square - James B. McPherson, another competent general of the Western Theater, who died in 1864 just outside Atlanta.

Dupont Circle - Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont, who did not fare well during the Civil War. Though he was the first officer to command Union ironclads, he never distinguished himself during the war and retired in 1863 after a failed assault on Charleston.

Farragut Square - Admiral David Farragut, who distinguished himself in the taking of New Orleans, as well as Mobile, AL. He was the highest-ranking naval officer in the United States during the Civil War.

Scott Circle - General Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking officer in the American army at the time of the Civil War. General Scott was truly a hero of the Mexican-American War, and was so old and unhealthy by the time of the Civil War that he resigned in 1861.

Logan Circle - General John Logan, yet another competent but undistinguished Western Theater commander. See my Bizarre Bites post for more on his later political career.

Sheridan Circle
- General Phil Sheridan, an able Western commander who was transferred to the Eastern Theater late in the war, and succeeded in gaining control of the long-contested Shenandoah Valley. Later an Indian killer.

Picture Source:

To Market

I am a foodie. I like to cook with Sea Salt. You will not find Velveeta in my fridge. “Imitation vanilla flavoring” may as well be considered profane language. Since moving to DC, I’ve come to appreciate the weekend farmer’s market scene, be it in Eastern Market, Dupont Circle or Arlington. I get inspired by DC Foodies' rundowns on local markets around town. With anticipation of the summer months, when the market will be booming with vendors, today’s topic is the Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Opening to vendors in 1801 with the encouragement of President Jefferson, the Center Market
was the primary location of commerce in this Tidewater Town. To get the best produce and meat, you had to get their early in the morning and be willing to pay a higher cost. As the day progressed, prices dropped until the market closed in the mid-afternoon. Farmers from Virginia and Maryland occupied the outer, less expensive stalls to sell corn, potatoes, and apples. Early transportation of goods was done on horseback. In his Early Recollections of Washington City, DC-native Christian Hines (1781-1875) described the transportation of tobacco:

The hogshead containing the tobacco, had a hole bored in each head, and an axle run through from one end to the other. To this axle a shaft was attached something like the shaft of a cart. To this the horse was hitched and the tobacco brought to town, up and down hills, over stones, &c. It looked precisely like the roller with which the streets are now rolled.

By the 1830s the Center Market played a significant role in the lives of African-American slaves. Unlike those on the plantation who worked dawn to dusk, slaves living in the cities often worked on a task system. A task system afforded slaves free time once their chores had been completed for their master—free time which could be used to plant a small garden and sell the produce at market. Money earned went toward purchasing freedom.

Starting as an open-air market, an indoor structure two blocks long was built in 1871 to accommodate over 700 vendors, with an additional 300 in stalls outside (at left: outside vendors sell goods, c. 1900). Improved railways and railcars brought oranges from Florida and beef from the Midwest. A streetcar stop carried customers. But as the nation and government grew, the government found a pressing need to protect the rapidly deteriorating documents of our past. Sitting on a prime location on Penn Ave, the market was demolished in 1931, and the National Archives took its place.

Sources: Cultural Tourism DC, African-American Heritage Trail Database, “National Archives/ Center Market”.

Christian Hines,

Early Recollections of Washington City.

National Museum of American History, America on the Move,
"A Streetcar City".

Monday, April 13, 2009

Treasury Courtesans and Postmistresses

Above: A Womens lunchroom at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, 1913.

We might be in an “Information Revolution” today, but let’s not forget that the latter half of the 19th century saw a boom in information technology as well. The development of telegraphs, typewriters, and improved mail service (by use of rail) all contributed to stacks upon stacks of paper piling up in the government agencies across Washington. An efficient and cheap source of labor was sorely needed to keep up with demand. The government needed women!

Finding himself with a shortage of men due to the Civil War, US Postmaster Montgomery Blair was the first to hire women in traditionally white collar jobs by placing them as clerks in the Dead Letter Office at the Postal headquarters. By 1865, women outnumbered men in that office 38 to 7.

Soon women were filling clerical positions across departments—handling mail, keeping financial records, and typing correspondence. In 1870 the number of women employed as clerks was in the low hundreds, but within twenty years their numbers surpassed 4,000. By 1910 women filled 8,443 clerical positions in the federal government. When we look at the statistics nationally, 16% of women in DC were employed in white collar jobs, compared with 7% across the country.

While the Federal City led the country in employing women, we should note that these white collar jobs were for white women only. Most African-American women living in DC continued to be employed in domestic service positions, with many DC-born blacks working in the housekeeping departments of the governmental agencies.

White women employed by the government found themselves not without a glass ceiling. Employed as clerks, women rarely if ever rose in the ranks of management. In fact, the US Postal Laws and Regulations of 1866 forbade women from holding the position of postmaster (this was amended 7 years later so that married women could become postmasters). Women received 35% less pay than their male peers. Further, by breaking traditional roles women had to endure the whispers and criticisms of others. Those in the treasury department were referred to as “Treasury Courtesans,” sent there to seduce their male counterparts!

Despite the hardships of the working world, women remained in government offices and proved to be an efficient and educated source of labor. Postmaster Blair later admitted that women handled the mail with “fidelity and care” and with faithfulness greater than the men.

Sources: Carl Abbott, Political Terrain.

Smithsonian U.S. Postal Museum, Women in the U.S. Postal System.

Picture Source: Shorpy,

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Washington Senators: Die Hard

Ah, baseball in DC. The Nationals open their beautiful stadium for the season on Monday. However, at 0-5, the Nats are the only team in the National League without a win, and look to be working on another hard-to-watch season. So, that makes this the perfect time to write about a team that isn't terrible, because they no longer exist: The Washington Senators.

Several incarnations of the Senators have come and gone in the last 130 years. Originally, the Senators (known alternately as the Nationals or Statesmen) were a National League team from 1891-1899, playing at Boundary Field. The Senators had an appropriately miserable winning percentage (the team to beat of the era: The Boston Beaneaters) and when the NL cut four teams at the end of 1899, the Senators were among those eliminated.

Two years later, the Senators were reborn, this time as one of the founding teams of the American League. The new Senators, however, were as bad as the previous incarnation. After going 38-113 in 1904, as will happen to terrible teams, the owners decided to change the name to the "Nationals." Local people and newspapers seem to have ignored this change, however, and continued to refer to the team as the Senators. Making it easier to ignore the name change, the team wore only a "W" on their jerseys throughout most of the following era. In the ensuing years, the Senators/Nationals continued to dominate the bottom of the standings (though in 1908 they managed to edge out both the Boston Doves and the Brooklyn Superbas). Somewhere along the line, the name was changed (officially) back to "Senators,"but it wouldn't matter, because in 1960 the team moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins.

The very same season, the hard-to-kill Senators were re-reborn in Washington, with a new team, a new owner, and the same win-loss ratio. In 1962, they played moved into a brand-new ballpark, present-day RFK Stadium. However, the following ten seasons would produce only one winning record, and in 1972 the team again moved, this time to Texas where they became the present-day Texas Rangers.

A thirty-year drought of baseball in Washington ensued, which was happily ended by the relocation of the miserable Montreal Expos to Washington in 2005. This newest team, the Nationals, has continued Washington's hilarious baseball tradition.

All statistics from:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Duel of the Month Club: Clay v. Randolph

Senator Henry "Blackleg" Clay (at left) v. Representative John "Crackshot"Randolph of Roanoke (at right).

In 1826 one of the worst names you could call someone was a “Blackleg,” a cheater. That is just what John Randolph called Senator Clay when he implicated him a “corrupt bargain” with John Q. Adams. Ever the hotheaded southerner, Senator Clay called Randolph out, much to the horror of Washington. After all, Randolph was known for his aim, as well as his alcohol and opium induced erratic nature. No one thought Clay stood a chance. Senator Thomas Hart Benton attempted to mediate. But it was no “sticks and stones” for these gentlemen; they chose pistols and set a date for April 8, 1826.

Randolph insisted that the duel be fought in his native Virginia, the only place worthy of his blood. The two men, along with their seconds and Benton as their witness, met a half mile north of the Chain Bridge at Pimmit Run in Arlington. Despite Randolph’s earlier promise to Benton that he had no intention of shooting at the distinguished Clay, you just never knew with Randolph. He could go either way.

So there they were at Pimmit Run ready to duel, when the second loading Randolph’s pistol accidently fired it due to a hair trigger. Randolph was furious; this was a breach of the code duello and an embarrassment to his honor. Clay was angry too, but since it was clearly an accident, he was willing to overlook it. The two counted their paces, turned and fired. Both bullets had missed. Randolph had clearly fired at Clay! The bullet just barely missed!

In keeping with dueling protocol, Benton asked both men if they were satisfied. Both Clay and Randolph declared that they were not satisfied and had their seconds reload. This time Clay shot first. After the echo of the first shot, Benton raised his pistol above him, fired and shouted, “I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay.” The two met halfway and shook hands. A visibly relieved Senator Clay asked if Randolph had been wounded. John Randolph replied, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.” Henry Clay replied, “I am glad the debt is no greater.”
Footnote: Thomas Hart Benton once shot his friend Andrew Jackson in the shoulder, servering an artery, after a dispute in a bar. Jackson survived. The two reconciled and remained friends.
Source: Thomas Hart Benton in, G.E. Rule, “The Brown-Reynolds Duel”, edited by Walter B. Stevens, 1911.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Secret Entryways to the White House? Maybe not…

At the corner of 15th and Constitution and 17th and Constitution stand two small houses, ornate in design considering their small size. The story I had always been told is that they were escape routes from White House… …the one Dolly Madison used when she took George Washington’s portrait and the Constitution and some other stuff out of the White House…there was a vague fire…possibly by the British…in 1812ish. Turns out that’s a lie.

Named after the Architect of the Capitol, Charles Bulfinch, the Bulfinch Gatehouses served a different purpose altogether. Back in the day, it was common to use the public grounds around the Capitol for the grazing of cattle and livestock. By the 1820s the grounds had become a zoo, literally. To combat this problem, Charles Bulfinch constructed a fence around the Capitol to keep the animals out, with a guardhouse at each of the four corners. There the buildings stood until Frederick Law Olmstead (famed designer of Central Park) came to the U.S. Capitol to provide some sorely needed renovations and landscaping in the 1880s.

Two of the gatehouses and gateposts were moved to their present location near the White House grounds, along Constitution Avenue. On the southeast side of the markers are two lines carved in the sandstone indicating the high-water marks for the Potomac River floods in 1877 and 1881. The latter prompted Congress to dredge the Potomac.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ancient Cherry Blossoms

(At right, photo of the blossoms of a cherry tree in East Potomac Park)

The Washington Post had a fantastic article in today's Metro section about how a member of the National Park Service thinks he may have found the remaining "original" cherry blossom trees from 1910. Since WaPo will not let you access the article without a membership, I'll summarize briefly.

Though the Japanese Embassy had presented the city with 2,000 trees back in 1910, all but a handful were burned due to disease and insect infestation. A second and more healthy shipment of cherry trees arrived in 1912, becoming the foundation of today's Cherry Blossom Festival. But what happened to the handful of remaining trees? A newspaper article following the burn said that about 24 surviving trees had been planted in an experimental plot. No one knows where that plot might be until now...

National Park Service cherry blossom expert Rob DeFeo has located 18 cherry trees in East Potomac Park near Hains Point. The trees are gnarled and have rooted in themselves, something they only do as they get extremely old. They are also y-shaped, probably from early pruning. DeFeo researched the area and notes that East Potomac Park belonged to the Bureau of Plant Industry in 1910. This and other evidence leads DeFeo to conclude that this grove holds the original trees. Mystery solved? I think so.

Thank you Washington Post for covering the Cherry Blossom Festival, so that we here at Ten Miles Square don't have to-- we're not huge fans...there are crowds...traffic jams...litter...tourists with fannypacks...someone help us please...

Source: Michael Ruane, "Century-Old Mystery Blooms In Grove of D.C. Cherry Trees," The Washington Post (April 2, 2009).