Saturday, October 29, 2016

What celebrity looked like in 1888

vintage portrait of Frances Folsom Cleveland from about 1886
Frances Folsom Cleveland in a photo
from 1886. Credit: Library of Congress
I can't let election season pass without writing about President Grover Cleveland's campaign visit to Florida in 1888. Or, more specifically, Mrs. Grover Cleveland's trip to Florida. The First Lady was the superstar of her time.

The nation's top newspapers all reported on the journey, according to Presidential Visits to Florida: Grover Cleveland 1888, an ebook by author Ray Osborne which I unearthed only in Google Books. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Harper's Weekly, among other publications, kept close tabs on the presidential entourage.

A good part of the interest focused on the president's wife, Frances Folsom Cleveland. She was young and fashionable and a major celebrity of her day. The newspapers "reported on his visit and with a fascination with his new young wife..." Osborne writes. She was so popular that young women nationwide copied her hairstyles, her clothing, and even the poses she used when being photographed, says the National First Ladies Library website. In my second novel, Stitching A Life in Persimmon Hollow, my heroine is one of these awestruck young women who can't believe she might get to see the First Lady on the Florida tour. (Yes, a shameless plug!)

A 21-gun salute heralded the Clevelands as they made their way to the Sub-Tropical Exposition in Jacksonville that long-ago day in February 1888. Locals staged a parade, VIPS gave speeches, and a crowd of thousands showed its enthusiasm. "A perfect tempest of cheering and clapping hands erupted" when Mrs. Cleveland stepped to the podium upon the request of the crowd, Osborne notes. "Five thousand throats cheered and greeted her."

The Feb. 23, 1888 issue of the Palatka Daily News even quotes the First Lady in a sub-head. "Mrs. Cleveland says it is no wonder people flock down here every winter for our delightful climate," the paper proclaims. The article gushes, telling how she alighted from the train "with the gracefulness of a fawn," and making note of her "pretty sylphlike figure." I kid you not. Military guards were needed to keep back the hordes at the evening reception for the Clevelands at St. James Hotel.

The newspaper did include a reprint of the president's Exposition speech, and listings of every locally important person and organization participating in the day's events. A visit by a presidential couple was a big deal in that pre-everything era - no Internet, no social media, no video, no cell phones, no television, no radio, no endless loops of replays in countless media.

If you think about it, the First Lady's popularity was an amazing thing - it happened without all the tools that accompany celebrity status today. She was a brand before personal brands existed.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hurricanes before The Weather Channel

Painting of a palm tree blowing in a hurricane
This Federal Art Project painting of a Miami hurricane was
created by Robert W. Burke. Photo credit: Florida Memory
With Hurricane Matthew a fresh memory, what else can I write about but stormy weather? We had time to prepare: we boarded up windows, removed or secured yard items, stocked up on supplies, and prepared evacuation kits in hopes we wouldn't need them. Then we watched The Weather Channel and local TV forecasters until the power went out.

Imagine not having warning systems. If there's any bright side to a hurricane, the advance forecast has to be it. Pioneers didn't have such a luxury. In Florida's Hurricane History (University of North Carolina Press, 1998; newer editions have been issued since then), author Jay Barnes writes that "Early hurricanes usually barreled ashore without warning, often with dire consequences." (32)

Barnes explains how early residents watched cloud formations, sunrise colors, and animal and insect behavior for signs of approaching bad weather. Behavior was said to include:
  • a cat's nervous tail twitching
  • wandering livestock
  • shorebirds gathered together
  • bees returning to a hive
  • low-flying swallows, bats, geese, and ducks
Barnes points out that such "questionable forecasting methods" weren't much help. What did help was the scientific research done by a Jesuit priest named Benito Viñes in Cuba. Barnes says Fr. Viñes was "the person who did the most to advance the early understanding of hurricanes ..." (33).

From the 1870s until his death in 1893, the Spanish priest studied the storms and created a warning system that relied on volunteer observers, ship reports, and storm alerts issued by horseback and telegraph. USA Today calls Fr. Viñes the hurricane priest in the headline of a 2014 article that features an audio interview about the scientist. I've embedded the file at the end of this post.

The U.S. Weather Bureau was formed in 1891. Four years later, in 1895, the Bradford County Telegraph in northern Florida featured an article about the department of agriculture's "new plan for the dissemination of hurricane warnings." The system consisted of steam vessels that would fly flags and blow whistles. Telegraphs also were used, but as the newspaper stated, only one line ran along the east coast "and in almost every hurricane communication is very soon destroyed."

Really, the 1895 system sounds similar to the one devised by Fr. Viñes. He deserves better name recognition. Here's a place to start: