Source of Photograph.....
History is all about the origins of things…where did it come from? When? Why and How? People are fascinated with the origins of things and they’re constantly trying to find out more. People are fascinated with the origins of their families, which is why they draw up family-trees and hire geneologists to research their family past. Historians are interested in the origins of great events and archeologists are fascinated with the origins of great societies, which is why they go on archeological expeditions to find out more.
Please stay tuned for the next installment.....
But here I’ll be looking at the origins of some of the more obscure, everyday things which we see every day, which we think about every day…but of which we probably have no idea where they came from.
The Christmas Tree.
The festive season is nigh upon us and it is at this time of the year that we have presents and crackers and roast meat and parties and booze and…of course…the family tradition of…decorating the Christmas tree.
…It may surprise you to know, then, that the Christmas tree is actually fairly recent addition to the traditions of Christmas celebrations! Prior to the mid 1800s, very few people had Christmas trees and it had never entered upon many peoples’ minds to have them, either! So where did they come from?
The Christmas tree originated in Germany, of all places, where it had been a Christmas tradition since the 1500s, to chop down a tree, haul it home and decorate it in a manner similar to what we know today. Originally a fixture of nothern Germany, the tradition of the Christmas tree spread through Germany and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Visiting noblemen were impressed by these trees with decorations and candles and other frilly things on them; they decided they looked pretty and that this was a fitting way to celebrate the season of giving. At this time, however, the Christmas tree was still largely unknown to the English-speaking world, remaining very much a continental European tradition. So…who brought the Christmas tree to England? And by extension…the English-speaking world?
The Christmas tree was a tradition in the British Royal Family from the early 1800s. The family had a branch in Germany, you see, so when the English married the Germans, the Germans brought their own traditions to England. A young Princess Victoria mentions the Christmas tree in her diary as a child. But for nearly half a century until the 1840s, the Christmas tree remained strictly a royal family tradition. Who was it who made it popular for everyone to do it?
Interestingly enough, this can be traced to one man. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He was known as His Royal Highness, The Prince Consort…better known as Prince Albert, wife of Queen Victoria. There is a belief that Albert brought the first Christmas tree with him to England when he married Victoria…he didn’t. It was a well-established tradition in England by that time. What HE did was make it fashionable for everyone ELSE to have a tree. A woodcut picture of the British Royal Family standing around the Christmas Tree, which was published in the Illustrated London News of December of 1848 was what spread the tradition through England, and later, the rest of the world (given England’s vast empire at the time). It was Albert’s wish that his children should enjoy some of the German Christmas traditions which he had grown up with. This had ensured the survival of the Christmas tree in England and by extension, its introduction to the masses.
Thanks, Bertie! See? It pays to be a good father. You might be remembered for something.
It was this picture (though, black-and-white in its original publication), that introduced the Christmas tree to the masses and started a tradition that lasts to this day.
The Olympic Flame
Aaah, the Olympic Flame. Nothing like seeing athletes running around carrying a big, flaming pole, the world’s biggest matchstick. Nothing like watching them clmb the steps of the podium or the dais, to light the bowl and start the Olympic Games with the ancient and mystical ceremony which started centuries ago with the ancient Greeks…right?
The Olympic flame does indeed have ancient origins. It supposedly commemorates the theft of the gift of Fire, from the god Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods. In the ancient world, a fire was lit at the start of the ancient Olympic Games and was kept burning throughout its duration. When the Modern Olympic Games started again in 1896, the flame had long since been forgotten. It was reintroduced in 1928 for the Games of that year…but what about the famous relay-run which goes from Greece, around the world to the location of the Games, to symbolically light the bowl which starts the games!?
Sorry folks. That has no ancient or fantastical origin whatsoever. It was a propaganda stunt organised by the Nazis in 1936 during the Olympic Games in Berlin. It was supposed to look cool and amazing…and it was…but it wasn’t an actual, ancient Olympian tradition…So Hitler made it so! Or rather, Carl Diem, the man who came up with the idea, made it so. He must’ve had some pretty good marketing sense, because over 70 years later, it’s still an Olympic tradition today.
Traffic lights. They regulate traffic movements and they keep us safe. They frustrate us and mock us when we’re in a hurry. But where do they come from? Why is it that Green is Go and Red is Stop? Who on earth thought this was a good idea?
Traffic lights have maritime origins, would you believe it? They originated from the bow lamps of ships at sea. When travelling at night, ships needed to be aware of other ships out on the oceans. Before the days of radar, the only way to spot other ships was to see their lights. Ships hung a green lamp on the starboard side of the bow (right) and a red lamp on the port side of the bow (left). Two ships sailing together head on would spot each others’ lights and be able to turn away from each other. Having different coloured lights meant that there was no possibility of it looking like two ships sailing side by side.
A pair of ship’s navigation lamps, from the turn of the last century. The green lamp goes on the Starboard side, the red lamp on the Port side.
If two ships were sailing closer and closer together, perpendicular to each other, the lights indicated right of way. Two ships are sailing east and north respectively; they meet at a point. The ship sailing north would see the starboard side of the ship sailing east and would spot their green lamp. They had right of way, and could sail on northwards. The ship sailing east, which would spot the other vessel’s port side, and by extension, red lamp, would be obliged to stop and give way. This is the origin of traffic lights, and how it was established that green was Go and red was Stop. Ships still have red and green bow lights today, and they still serve the same purpose.
Port and Starboard
Port and Starboard are Left and Right onboard a ship. Most people know this. But why are they CALLED ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard’?
Back in ancient times, when early ships were powered by sails, they had no rudders. Instead, they had a large paddle, strapped to the stern of the ship, which was called the ‘steerboard’. The steerboard was strapped to the RIGHT side of the ship, which gradually became known as ‘starboard’. Because it was dangerous to dock a ship against a wharf with the right side, which would possibly cause damage to the steering-paddle, ships were tied up on the left side, which gradually became known as the ‘larboard’ side, which was later changed to ‘Port’, since ‘starboard’ and ‘larboard’ sounded too similar and might have been misheard during a storm or other occasions when loud noise might cause an instruction to be heard incorrectly.
Dalmations and Fire-Stations.
In the United States, at least, fire houses, station-houses or fire-stations, are famous for many things. Big, red, flashy firetrucks with those old-fashioned air-sirens, big, burly firemen, the object of many women’s sexual fantasies…and…dalmation dogs…firehouse pets and mascots since time immemoriam.
But…Have you ever wondered WHY dogs are associated with station-houses? And why Dalmations of all breeds? Why not Rottweilers or terriers or Great Danes or German Shepards?
This is one of the more obscure origins, that goes waaaaay back to 18th century Europe. Back in the Georgian period, and probably before that (although I’ve read nothing which stated that specifically), wealthy aristocrats would ride about town in grand carriages. These carriages were usually pulled by a pair of horses and would have a coachman and footmen to drive them and attend to them. They also had an animal known as a coach-dog or a carriage-dog. The coach-dog, an ancestor of the modern Dalmation breed, was there to protect the carriage against thieves and to protect the carriage’s two horses, in the event that the footmen or the coachman had to leave the vehicle unattended.
A Dalmation carriage-dog running alongside a horse-drawn fire-engine on its way to a fire, in this plate painting showing a scene, supposedly from 1910.
With the rise of professional firefighting in the early 1800s, station-houses needed to be protected at night from thieves and pranksters, who might want to damage or steal the station’s valuable firefighting equipment. When a fire was reported and the horse-drawn fire-engine was sent out to combat it, the station’s dalmation, the descendant of the 18th century coach-dog, went with it. Usually, one or two dogs would run alongside the fire engine, or out in front of the carriage, to clear the way for the horses. Once at the fire, their job was to protect the horses and the firefighting carriage, much like their ancestors did, as well as to keep people back from the blaze, or to go into the structure as rescue-dogs, looking for survivors.
It was darn hard, but…I finally found a photograph! Dated 1901, it shows firefighters and their horse-drawn fire-engines outside a station-house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. And what’s that sitting in the middle of the photograh? It’s the station’s dalmation carriage-dog! At the time this photograph was taken, the carriage-dog was becoming a thing of history, but until the introduction of actual modern firetrucks, it was common for carriage-dogs such as the one pictured, to follow the horse-drawn fire-engines to the scenes of major emergencies.
While dalmations no-longer run alongside fire-trucks on their way to an emergency, they have remained a fixture of fire-stations for the past 200-odd years in a tradition that continues to live on to this day.