OMG! Txtng in 1800s PGH

Originally posted 2016-07-13 20:26:39. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Currier&Ives print is an imaginary scene showing technological advances of the 19th Century, but for all intents and purposes, it could be Pittsburgh. The telegraph figures prominenty. Steam, as manifested in trains, river boats, and even a printing press, powered Western nations into the 20th Century.

Currier&Ives print is an invented scene showing technological advances of the 19th Century, but it could well be Pittsburgh. The telegraph figures prominenty. Steam, as manifested in trains, river boats, and even a printing press, powered Western nations into the 20th Century.

Securing the Steam-Age Internet

Back before most people had indoor toilets, Pittsburghers were texting and encrypting business emails.

Here’s a sample: Maudlin bigamy angel cart.

That’s a secret text message to sell 50,000 gallons of oil in the speculative futures market, and do it fast.

Electronic messages back then were called telegraphs.

It was the start of the telecommunications industry, the Internet, the information age.

Before the telegraph, messages could travel no faster than people — unless you had a really loud voice and a really big megaphone. Or, a reliable pigeon to tie notes to.

Then, as now, some people argued that we didn’t need to communicate any faster. If we did, it would change the world we live in. And so it did.

A portrait painter saw the need.

Death Motivates Invention

He received a week-old letter in Washington, D.C., saying that his wife was ill back home in Connecticut. A day later, a second letter came saying she was dead.

He immediately suspended his painting of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American revolution, and rushed home.

“Rush” back then was limited to how fast a horse could gallop and pull a carriage. When he got there, his wife was already buried. He never got over it. It shifted his vocation from painter to communications pioneer.

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Dead Two Centuries, Mary Irwin Inspires Today’s Women

Originally posted 2017-02-13 21:55:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Are you a feminist? A lover of bodice-ripping romantic novels? Maybe you are a patriot. Or, maybe marijuana turns you on.

Everyone of you should get to know Mary Pattison Irwin.

She’s been dead and forgotten nearly 200 years, but memory of her life is once again flickering  in Pittsburgh.

Mary is to be honored March 2 by civic leaders who are holding her up as an example for aspiring Pittsburgh women to follow.

The short story is that she — a woman — was among the first industrialists in Pittsburgh, manufacturing rope when fewer than 2,000 people lived here.

Oh, and she managed the operation while raising four kids without her husband, a disabled Revolutionary War hero.

The longer story begins at Dublin Castle in Ireland. That’s where Mary met the dashing, if greatly perforated, hero.

The castle had been the center of English rule over Ireland for centuries. The ruling class — royalty and gentry — held lavish state balls there on St. Patrick’s Day.

The first St. Patty’s extravaganza there, and perhaps the most lavish, happens to have been in 1784, the year our future Pittsburghers attended.

It culminated weeks of formal receptions. The elegant festivities kept the working classes employed fashioning gowns and laying out sumptuous dinners. 

It reminded members of the ruling class of their status and ensured continuation through controlled and proper mating. But matters of the heart cannot always be orchestrated.

Etching of a ball at Dublin Castle where Mary Pattison met John Irwin and quickly dumped her fiancé. Unfortunately, this is not them. We don’t know what they looked like.

Already Spoken for, but No One Spoke for Mary

Mary’s descendants say her father was a surgeon in the British Army, and she was already engaged to a doctor when she went to the ball.

It is worth noting something about the British Army. War was considered to be an unfortunate but inconsequential part of army life.

The most important thing about the army, according to 19th century writers, was that it created gentlemen. Not only that, it certified them as such.

That was very important to aristocratic women looking to mate. So, most of the men at the ball would have been wearing military uniforms, gentlemen all.

Even so, John Irwin grabbed Mary’s attention. He likely was the center of everyone’s interest. The 32-year-old had such tales to tell.

First of all, he was a local man who was now an American.  Americans had just managed to do something dear to the hearts of Irishmen — unyoke themselves from English rule.

Journals of the time show the Irish eagerly awaited any news from ships coming from the fledgling United States. All had friends and relatives who had moved there. They particularly wanted to hear about George Washington. Trouble in the states? No problem. George Washington would take care of it.

So here was John Irwin, who knew the general. He was with him at Yorktown, VA, when the English surrendered, essentially ending the war.

Gen. George Washington accepts surrender of British troops at Yorktown by Gen. Charles Cornwallis. The English were outmaneuvered by the Americans (with help from the French Navy) more than they were outfought. It didn’t help that people in England were tired of the war. Washington always maintained his job was not to win the war but to not lose it, meaning he had to outlast English patience. He did.

It was something of a miracle that John stood before people at the ball at all. They knew he bore 32 bayonet scars  under the stiff fabric of his splendid dress uniform. 

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Odd Bits

Originally posted 2016-07-20 21:19:43. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Sorcerer’s Gun Control


Don’t Be Evil-Eying My Guns!

Many Americans see government regulation of guns as a curse, but there was a time when they thought curses controlled their weapons.

Thomas Mellon, father of Andrew Mellon, explains such peculiar habits of German farmers  in his 1885 memoirs, “Thomas Mellon and His Times”:

9780822955726_lLore to Live By

“The old and wise men among our Dutch (Deutsch) neighbors possessed abiding confidence in the folk-lore of their ancestors. They would admit that the active practice of witchcraft had generally ceased, but most of them claimed having had, at one time or another, personal experience of its effects.

Many of them in their youth had been great hunters; even in our day, Peter Hill and other old Germans were accustomed to make their annual winter excursion into the then wilderness of Clarion and Forest counties, and would each bring home a sled load of venison. And they all expressed undoubting belief that no matter how unerring the aim, if some one with an evil eye or possessed of the power of sorcery should happen to put a spell on their gun, no game could be killed until the spell is taken off. This was done by marking a human figure on a tree to represent the witch, and shooting a silver bullet into it with the gun supposed to be affected. The bullet was usually the smallest silver coin battered into the proper shape. Old Philip Drum and our neighbor Peter, who were great hunters, usually took the precaution of ridding their guns of these sorceries before setting out on the hunt; taking it for granted that if the gun was not affected the purification would do no harm.

Hex sign to ward off  "evil eye."

Hex sign to ward off “evil eye.”

“. . . The signs of the Zodiac in the Dutch (Deutsch) almanac afforded an indispensable guide for farm work . . . Our neighbors generally entertained these beliefs and only pitied the presumptuous ignorance of such as ourselves who disregarded them. Science had not as yet greatly disturbed their thoughts . . .”


Zoom In, Zoom Back

This week we stroll down the alley of Pittsburgh's past, picking up a few odd bits. This is Banner Way in Lawrenceville in 1908 as it gets paved in brick. Asphalt covers it now, but the buildings remain. See photo below.

Click on this 1907 photo to zoom into the past of Banner Way in Lawrenceville. My money says the man under the derby in foreground is a salesman. Note the bi-racial crew paving the alley in brick. Also check out the flame in the gas street light, the lack of telephone lines and poles, and the girl in the window with the best view.  Asphalt covers over their work now,  but the buildings remain largely intact 110 years later. Google provides a modern view of Banner Way below. This old photo and thousands of others can be seen at:

Historic Pittsburgh Images Collection


Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 12.13.05 PM

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One Weekend in 1884

Originally posted 2016-07-06 22:07:56. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Monday, Sept. 29, 1884, was an ordinary day in Pittsburgh. It followed an ordinary wild weekend.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 9.43.13 PM

True, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show happened to be in town, but a glance at the newspaper shows the performers were hard-pressed to be any wilder than the people already living here.

It’s all too evident in that Monday edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette. 

Looking for information on the Wild West show, I was obliged to scan all the news. In the process, I found numerous briefs that, taken together, paint a clearer picture of Pittsburgh’s past than I have yet seen.

I offer them to you now.

By the way, if the professional demeanor of 19th Century reporters seems overly jaded and flippant, it may only be that we are accustomed to the overly serious, shocked tone of modern journalists.

Let’s begin with the most common stories: drunkenness. It’ll be easy for you to see what led to the temperance movement and Prohibition.

copHUNTING A MANprositute2

A Commotion Raised by a Woman’s Leap from a Carriage

Quite a commotion was raised on Sixth street Saturday night by the dash a woman made for liberty. A carriage came along Sixth street with a policeman on the box and a man with a well-dressed woman inside. Midway between Penn and Liberty avenues the door of the carriage opened and the woman sprang out. She struck on her head and rolled over and over through the mud until stopped by the curb stone.

The street was crowded and there was a rush of people for the prostrate woman. The carriage kept on up the street until the officer on the box had his attention attracted by the rush down the street. He glanced down, saw the open door and was off the box without waiting to stop the horses. When he got back the woman had disappeared in a store, but she was recaptured and taken to the Central Station. There she registered as Mollie Brown. The charge against her was drunkenness, and she was allowed to put up $15 and go.

Miss Brown, as she chose to call herself, is well known in the city. She was hunting a man and making herself conspicuous on Penn avenue and this led to her arrest. She was only slightly bruised by her jump from the carriage.

Think she got off easy? $15 was the equivalent of $400 or $500 today. Presumably she was a prostitute drinking on the job. Her name reflected the large number of Irish living in the city. Immigration from eastern Europe was only beginning. The man with her? Client? Pimp? We’ll never know.

 He Will Probably Die

Mr. McKee, of Liberty street, was arrested on Saturday night for drunkenness. He had fallen on the pavement and received a severe cut. He was taken home yesterday and erysipelas has set in and his death will probably result.

Erysipelas is a bacterial infection that can result from alcoholism, but would not kill him before something else did.

Two Houses Raided

The police made a raid on Dave Holmes’ place, corner of Fourth avenue and Liberty street, last night, and captured five women and three men. An information has been made.

A fight started in Dickenbach’s saloon, on Diamond street, last night. Chief Braun sent the proprietor word to shut up, and he refused. The place was raided and four men captured.

The first raid, of course, would have been at a house of prostitution on what is now Liberty Avenue. Diamond street, where the second occurred, is now Forbes Avenue. When the chief told Dickenbach to shut up, he was telling him to shut down — not to be quiet.

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Originally posted 2017-05-16 00:52:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

When Racism Greeted

A Black Musical Genius

In Pittsburgh



Perhaps the most significant black artist ever to perform in Pittsburgh was pelted with stones, rotten eggs and curses of “Nigger!”

You haven’t heard of this?

Well, community shame tends to have a short shelf life. And, it did happen a long time ago.

It was May 16, 1843. The protagonist of this story was the most important name in American music you never heard of: Francis (Frank) Johnson.

People who know the evolution of American music know about him.

Johnson, we’re told, had uncanny skills with a new instrument — the keyed bugle. That was a bugle with keys like a flute. Later, valves replaced the keys, leading to the cornet and trumpet.

A keyed silver bugle like the one Frank Johnson used to delight audiences.

He also was a whiz on violin. He combined those skills with genius-level composition talents. That fueled a cultural force that started the Brass Band Era.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of brass bands and marches, but for a long time, it was THE  music of America; roughly between the mid 1800s and early part of the 20th Century.

A Divided Nation

Johnson, probably born in Philadelphia, was a free black traveling a divided nation. Much of it kept imported Africans and their offspring as slaves.

In nonslave states and territories, free blacks were seen by poor native-born whites and Irish immigrants as taking jobs away from them.

Then, as now, America was quite polarized. People had points they wanted to make to the stupid people on the other side.

There were those who thought slavery was wrong. Often, the same people favored restrictions on alcohol, and thought women should be allowed to vote.

Others — probably more — thought women could not vote responsibly, alcohol was a daily staple that should not be taken from free men, and black slaves were personal property that no American should have to give up to do-gooders.

It was into that rift that Frank Johnson and his bands played.

Not that he didn’t escape occasionally. Before coming to Pittsburgh, Johnson achieved great fame when he played for an 18-year-old woman in London.

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