It’s official fellow historians, spring is here at last; what better way to celebrate the coming of warm weather and blossoms than with some epic moments in history? This week we’ll take a look at several interesting events ranging from food to international cooperation, so without further-ado let’s begin!
Have you ever heard of hanami? Translated from Japanese it means “flower viewing.” As a celebration of spring, hanami beckons people to see the beauty in nature, to appreciate the changing of the seasons, and perhaps most iconically, to honor the magnificent blossoms which grace cherry trees across the globe.
Unfortunately, cherry trees are not incredibly common in much of New England, despite the climate being suitable for their growth, and contrary to popular belief, the story of George Washington cutting a cherry tree was fabricated by his first biographer, Mason Locke Weems, in order to better depict the founding father after his death. So, how come the capital of the United States is flooded with cherry trees? How come Washington D.C. not only has a cherry blossom festival, but attracts countless visitors to the streets around the capitol buildings to see the bright pink trees bloom?
This beautiful part of the U.S. capital came to be due to the persistence of one woman, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. To those who have never heard her name before, I urge you to look into her life as I couldn’t possibly fit all of her fascinating endeavors here. She was a well traveled, independent woman who was single handedly responsible for the delivery of cherry blossom trees to the United States.
Scidmore had a vision. She had traveled to Japan and marveled at the beauty of the Japanese “sakura” cherry trees, and perhaps admired the people’s respect through hanami that compelled them to value the coming of spring. But despite the beauty she witnessed, her vision fell upon deaf ears. For 24 years she petitioned U.S. officials to plant cherry trees in the unused sections of the capital, not a single one listened. But Scidmore was not one to give up so easily.
In 1909, Scidmore wrote directly to the First Lady, Helen Taft. After getting the backing of a daring and eccentric agricultural scientist named David Fairchild, Scidmore planned to raise money to buy Japanese cherry trees to plant across the U.S. This time, Taft finally appreciated Scidmore’s vision, and so began talks with the Japanese embassy which quickly concluded with the Japanese generously promising some 2,000 trees as a gift.
However, soon after receiving the trees, President Howard Taft signed an order to burn every single tree given by the Japanese. Shocking right? It turns out the trees were infested with molds, nematodes and all sorts of unpleasant things. Due to this the trees could not be planted.
Of course, the Japanese didn’t hesitate, they soon sent over another approximately 3,000 trees, this time free of any unwanted pests. Finally, on March 27, 1912, Eleanor Taft and a Japanese official planted the first two cherry trees in a park in Washington D.C., beginning the beautiful groves we now see across the capital. While Scidmore wasn’t present, her vision was finally reached and she was no doubt joyous to have left her mark on the capital of her country.
Moving from the blossom-lined streets of D.C. to the urban clutter of New York City, the next event of the week takes a much sadder tone. Recall how in the Harry Potter series, the dark lord Voldemort cannot be mentioned by name, instead he is regarded as an evil so powerful that you must not acknowledge it? Perhaps a real life comparison could be drawn to the life of Mary Mallon. Does she sound unfamiliar? Perhaps you know her as “Typhoid Mary.”
Mallon was born in Ireland, and became an immigrant to the U.S. in the late parts of the 19th century. Mallon was an aspiring and quite successful chef. Working her way through various jobs she found herself working as a cook for wealthy families, hoping she could finally earn enough money to settle down in her new country.
Mallon worked laboriously for eight families during that time, and remarkably, seven of those families contracted typhoid fever. For context, typhoid fever is a horrible illness, with essentially an unending list of symptoms ranging from diarrhea to harsh rashes; it has a very high death rate. So, when most of the families Mallon worked for contracted the disease, suspicions began to rise.
Like clockwork, Mallon’s next employments saw similar outbreaks of the fever, causing countless families to get dreadfully ill. Soon, authorities pointed the finger towards one lady, the asymptomatic chef, Mary Mallon.
Imagine, people are accusing you of causing incredible pain and death to countless families through a highly infectious fever, yet you haven’t had a single symptom; how would you react? For Mallon, people expected her to just act for the greater good, give up her life and quarantine so that she may not infect anyone else, she essentially had to give up her career, livelihood and any chance of beginning a family.
Mallon sternly was in denial. After being quarantined involuntarily at North Brother Island, scientists and doctors studied her condition. Between 1907 and 1909 they attempted to determine what made Mallon a carrier and treated her as, in her own words, a “peep show.” After taking several negative Typhoid fever tests, and proving to be in good health, authorities released her upon the grounds she would no longer cook, and would follow all health guidelines to prevent the spreading of the fever. Essentially she had to social distance akin to modern COVID-19 era regulations.
Of course, Mallon could not make nearly enough money without being a chef, her whole career revolved around cooking; so logically she began to cook at restaurants and immediately another outbreak of the fever began. This was the final straw, after hiding from authorities for sometime, on March 27, 1915, Mallon was once again admitted to North Brother Island, where she would spend the remaining decades of her life in isolation. She lived in a small cabin-like housing provided by the hospital, and was forever scarred by the infamous moniker, “Typhoid Mary.”
The last event for this week takes a much more joyous note, on March 29, 1859, Oscar F. Meyer was born! Of course, that name probably sounds familiar, he and his brothers, Gottfried and Max, were responsible for the creation of the large meat and produce company, Oscar Meyer.
Meyer and his family were immigrants from Germany, and started their business in Chicago in a small two story building. Eventually, through clever branding and smart advertising the company grew to the massive size that it is today. For instance, instead of calling meat products by their direct cut, they named them iconic titles such as bacon, bologna or ham, simplifying the industry and causing much higher sales. Likewise, the company donated immensely to the fascinating 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which infamously ended in the death of the mayor of the city. This publicity caused the company’s name to become known not just city-wide, but across the country.
While there is much more to cover about all three of the events this week, I want to say thank you for reading through the column! If you’re interested in some of the history I couldn’t fit in, I recommend looking into the Cherry Blossom Rebellion of 1938, the ruins of North Brother Island Hospital or the fascinating lore of Oscar Meyer’s advertising! See you next week!