When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

When Grandpa Was a Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

A Popular History of the 20th Century

The Right Feel

1946: The Swedish aircraft manufacturer Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, SAAB, branched out into cars. The bodywork of the first prototype was produced by hand, hammered into shape with the steel panels resting on horse manure, which supposedly gave the panel beaters the right feel.

Source: Björn-Eric Lindh, Saab: The First 40 Years of Saab Cars (1987), pp. 17, 20

Stylish In Stripes

1945: Bessie, comtesse de Mauduit, returned to Paris from Ravensbrück concentration camp still dressed in her striped uniform, but looking elegant all the same (“encore vêtu de l’uniforme rayé des déportés et très élégante tout de meme”). Another inmate, a head seamstress from the Schiaparelli fashion house, had restyled her uniform.

Source: Jean Galtier-Boissière, Journal 1940–1950 (1992), pp. 410, 413

Right Priorities

1944: Major-General Charles Gerhardt, commander of the American 29th Division, was a stickler for discipline. Amid the carnage and destruction of Omaha beach on D-Day – mangled corpses, smashed landing craft, burned-out vehicles and discarded weapons – he yelled at a soldier for dropping orange peel.

Source: Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009), p. 153

“Smoke Began To Rise With A Hiss Or Whistle”

Parícutin erupting by night, photographed by R.E. Wilcox of the U.S. Geological Survey

1943: For weeks, the Mexican village of Parícutin had been jolted by earthquakes. On the afternoon of 20 February, as farm labourer Demetrio Toral and his oxen ploughed a cornfield, wisps of smoke appeared from a furrow they had just completed.

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Unsinkable Ship

1942: Habbakuk was the code name for a secret British project to build a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier. The project never got beyond research and the early stages of development, but if the vessel had been constructed, it would have been twice as long as the Queen Mary. Even more remarkable was the intended construction material – a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp. In essence, Habbakuk would have been a gigantic iceberg with a flat top to serve as a flight deck. The ice, of course, would have made it unsinkable; the wood pulp was for reinforcement.

Source: Georgina Ferry, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (2007), pp. 98–110

Suspicious Activity

1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted Donald Keene’s Japanese studies at Columbia University. Japanese in the United States were classified as enemy aliens, and the day after the attack, New York police detained Keene’s teacher, Tsunoda Ryūsaku. Japanese residents were suspected of gathering information about American defence facilities, although the most serious evidence against Tsunoda seems to have been that “he had been observed taking long walks without a dog”.

Source: Donald Keene, The Blue-Eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology, ed. J. Thomas Rimer (1996), pp. 8–9

Deadly Device

1940: In Warthegau, Polish territory annexed by Germany in 1939, Herbert Lange’s Sonderkommando used a large van fitted with a sealed chamber to eliminate mental patients. To allay suspicion, the side of the vehicle carried the logo of a well-known German coffee company – “Kaiser’s Kaffee-Geschäft”. Once the patients were loaded, carbon monoxide was piped into the chamber.

Source: Patrick Montague, Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp (2012), pp. 21–30, 64, 199–211

“Animalistic Hopping”

1937: The Lambeth Walk, a jaunty number from the musical Me and My Girl, was a success first on the London stage, and then in dance halls around Britain and on the Continent. Fascist leaders in Europe, however, took a dim view of the craze. In Italy, the dance was condemned for its “ugly, coarse, awkward motions and gesticulations”, and in Germany it was denounced as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping”.

Sources: The Times, 19 May 1939; The New York Times, 8 January 1939

Dahl Dislikes Dust

1936: After two years’ training with the oil company Shell, Roald Dahl anticipated an exotic foreign posting – somewhere with tall coconut palms, silvery beaches, jungles, lions and elephants.

Head office called him in to meet one of the directors. “We are sending you to Egypt,” the director said.

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Papal Divisions

1935: During a visit to Moscow, the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, urged Joseph Stalin to improve the lot of Catholics in the Soviet Union. Stalin was utterly contemptuous of Catholics and the Vatican. “The Pope!” he snorted. “How many divisions has he got?” (To which the perfect riposte would have been: “The same number that Karl Marx had.”)

Source: Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, I: The Gathering Storm (1950), p. 121

Attractive Feature

John Betjeman, phototgraphed in the 1920s

1932: Penelope Chetwode met her future husband, the journalist and promising poet John Betjeman, for the first time. Asked shortly afterwards what it was she liked about him, she replied, “He has green teeth.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, Young Betjeman (1988), p. 373

What If . . . ?

1931: On the afternoon of 22 August, a young British aristocrat named John Scott-Ellis was making his way along Brienner Strasse, in Munich, in a little red Fiat. “Although I was going very slowly, a man walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car.” The 42-year-old pedestrian was bowled over, but quickly picked himself up, politely shook hands with the driver, and went on his way.

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Women At War

1929: A distinctive feature of the so-called Igbo women’s war was the way the women shoved the men aside to lead resistance to British rule in Nigeria.

The principal cause of the disturbances (“war” is an overstatement) was a clumsy attempt to conduct a census of women in the southeast of the country, provoking fears that the colonial authorities planned to impose a poll tax. “We women are like trees which bear fruit,” protested one woman. “You should tell us the reason why women who bear seeds should be counted.”

Women orchestrated and took a leading part in protest marches, the harassment of local officials, the burning of court buildings and the looting of European factories. They thought troops wouldn’t fire at them, but they were wrong; about 50 women were killed and a similar number wounded.

Source: Harry A. Gailey, The Road to Aba: A Study of British Administrative Policy in Eastern Nigeria (1971), chaps. 4–6

Fixed Date

1928: After more than a thousand years of putting up with Easter chopping and changing between dates in March and April, Britain decided to pin it down. Parliament passed the Easter Act, under which the festival was fixed for “the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April” – between 9 and 15 April. Straightforward, except that the act included a proviso that “regard shall be had” of the opinions of churches and Christian bodies. Ninety years later, those opinions are still unclear and the law remains in limbo. Easter continues to fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the March equinox.

Source: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/
1928/35/pdfs/ukpga_19280035_en.pdf

Lindbergh’s Logic

Charles Lindbergh, standing in front of the plane he flew across the Atlantic, the Spirit of St Louis

1927: Charles Lindbergh’s inflight food for his trans-Atlantic trip consisted of five sandwiches. With dry logic he explained, “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more either.”

Source: A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh, 1998, pp. 14–15

Keeping A Tally

1926: British road accident and casualty data, collected nationally for the first time, showed there were 124,000 accidents and 4,886 deaths during the year. The worst single year for road deaths came in 1941, when 9,196 died. Between 1951 and 1999, 15.6 million people were injured in accidents on Britain’s roads, and 285,752 killed.

Source: Road Casualties Great Britain 2006 (2007)

Working His Passage

1925: After graduating from college in Iowa, William Shirer made his way to Montreal, where he boarded a cattle ship that carried him to Europe and the start of a career in journalism. To save money, he worked his passage across the Atlantic by feeding and watering the cattle and shovelling their manure overboard.

Source: Steve Wick, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (2011), pp. 9–12

Risky Childbirth

1924: The women’s rights campaigner Dora Russell produced statistics to show that in Britain, it was four times as dangerous for a woman to give birth as it was for a man to work down a coal mine. The death rate for miners from fatal accidents was 1.1 per thousand miners; the death rate among mothers in childbirth was four or five per thousand births, on average, and as high as nine per thousand in heavily industrialized towns.

Source: Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love (1975), p. 171

Blame The Immigrants

The Marunouchi district of Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake

1923: The massive earthquake that struck Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding areas on 1 September killed as many as 140,000 people, injured 100,000 and damaged or destroyed the homes of more than 3 million. The tremors themselves destroyed less than 1 per cent of homes in the Japanese capital, but fires that raged for almost two days destroyed a further 62 per cent.

Stunned by the magnitude of the disaster, many Japanese believed rumours that Koreans were deliberately starting fires, looting shops and houses, and poisoning wells. Gangs of Japanese vigilantes, egged on by irresponsible government announcements, attacked Koreans. The police reported that 231 Koreans were killed and 43 injured.

Source: Michael Weiner, The Origins of the Korean Community in Japan 1910–1923 (1989), chap. 6

Angel Of Rome

Alessandro Moreschi, photographed in about 1900

1922: The last castrato singer from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, Alessandro Moreschi, whose otherworldly voice had earned him the sobriquet l’angelo di Roma, died at the age of 63. “When his voice rose above the choir in a crescendo, it overpowered the accompanying boy sopranos as completely as a searchlight outshines a little candle.”

Source: Nicholas Clapton, Moreschi: The Last Castrato (2004), pp. 135, 137, quoting Franz Haböck

Level-Headed

1920: Montagu Norman, the governor of the Bank of England, once confided to a colleague that he could literally walk through walls – just the sort of level-headed individual the country needed to run its central bank.

Source: Andrew Boyle, Montagu Norman: A Biography (1967), p. 87

End Of The Line

1919: On a stormy night at the end of December 1879, a dozen central spans of the Tay railway bridge at Dundee collapsed while a train was crossing. The train tumbled 30 metres into the Firth of Tay, killing everyone on board – about 75 passengers and crew – and smashing the carriages. The engine, however, North British Railways No. 224, was scarcely damaged. It was salvaged, repaired and put back to work. Nicknamed “The Diver”, it remained in service until 1919.

Source: David Swinfen, The Fall of the Tay Bridge (1994), p. 56

Eccentric Tastes

1918: Maurice Bowra described his commanding officer as a man of “much fancy and charm”, though he had “certain eccentric tastes, such as pornography”. He was an avid reader, and sometimes read aloud to his men from The New Ladies’ Tickler.

Source: C.M. Bowra, Memories 1898–1939 (1966), p. 87

Unmusical Anatomy

Erik Satie, photographed by Man Ray in about 1921

1917: The music critic Jean Poueigh congratulated Parade’s composer, Erik Satie, when the ballet was first performed in Paris, but then savaged it in print. The enraged composer fired off a series of insulting postcards. “You are an ass-hole – and, if I dare say so – an unmusical ‘ass-hole’.” (“Vous êtes un cul – si j’ose dire, un «cul» sans musique.”)

Source: Satie Seen Through His Letters, ed. Ornella Volta (1994), pp. 131–3