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Subject: ‘Absurd’

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Happy 2014/1914

Posted in Absurd, Anniversary, Christmas on Sunday, 22 December 2013

Here, as our way of wishing you a Happy 2014, are a number of New Year’s cards for 1914, including one that is a little odd.

Best wishes from everyone at Look and Learn!

The crinoline was a lavish fashion statement which influenced Victorian architecture

Posted in Absurd, Fashion, Historical articles, History on Friday, 8 November 2013

This edited article about fashion originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 451 published on 5 September 1970.

Crinolined equestrian,  picture, image, illustration
The Crinoline Equestrian

Have you ever wondered why some old houses, even small ones, built during the Victorian era have wide doors? It was not to save bricks, nor was it because the house was built in a more spacious age. It was so that the women of the house could go in and out with their crinolines.

Everything changes in fashion, particularly in women’s fashions, but nothing has changed more through the ages than the shapes and sizes of women’s skirts. At various times they have been long and loose, at others so tight fitting that the wearers could hardly hobble. They have been so huge and flounced and stuffed and padded with petticoats that they must have been a burden to wear, or they have shrunk and shortened until there is hardly anything of them at all. Some people think that the “mini” has had its day. What next, the “maxi” and the “midi”? Then will these more ample garments swell into ultra modern reincarnations of the cumbersome crinoline?

The crinoline first appeared in Paris about the year 1840. It was a wide skirt padded out with horse hair and linen. (“Crinis” is Latin for hair, “linum” for thread.) Previously dresses had been very high-waisted and very straight.

At the start of this fashion skirts were padded out with petticoats. A cool two or three to begin with, but as the competition hotted up for the widest skirt, so did the petticoats, until young ladies at dances were suffering in the swirling midst of 14 petticoats! Once immersed in this sweltering array of linen they just had to stand. They stood in their coaches on the way to the ball, and they stood for refreshments and in between dances. For if they once sat down their crinoline and 14 petticoats would be crumpled and pushed out of shape.

And what a shape they were! Writers of their own time said that women in crinolines looked like tea cosies or bells!

To save weight and heat, attempts were made to stiffen the outerskirt with pneumatic tubes that were blown or pumped up like bicycle tyres. Some dresses had tubes filled with water, but these were disliked for fear of an embarrassing leak. Hoops of rolled horsehair, cane and wire were more popular, although they had the amusing effect of causing the skirt to swing from the waist like a bell, rising at the back if the lady stood too close to a table, rising high in the front if she sat down, and exposing her “ankles” almost to her knees when walking too close to a friend. At last, in 1856, all these problems were solved by the invention of the cage crinoline. The inventor was an ingenious Frenchman. He patented a device of wire spring and tape. There would be as many as 35 hoops in one cage.

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The question of honour over which two Frenchman duelled for 19 years

Posted in Absurd, Historical articles, History, Oddities on Tuesday, 5 November 2013

This edited article about dueling originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 447 published on 8 August 1970.

A duel, picture, image, illustration

The leisurely ritual of dinner in the officers’ mess was ending. At one end of the room a group of senior officers sat arguing tactics. One, a colonel named Fournier, was using knives and forks to show how he would have thrashed the British at Dettingen. An orderly approached, saluted and handed the colonel a note. Fournier read it and chuckled. Turning to a brother-officer, he remarked: “It’s from Dupont. He’s quartered 70 miles from here and he’s ready for another bout. You’ll act as my second?” The officer assented. “Capital,” said Fournier.

In this cool and agreeable manner he prepared to hazard his life once more. His affair with Dupont was no ordinary duel. It had already lasted ten years and would continue for nine more. It was perhaps the most oddly conducted duel in history.

The affair began in 1784 in Strasbourg. Fournier, then a captain of Hussars, challenged and killed a young Austrian. General Moreau, Fournier’s commanding-officer, viewed the matter with distaste. He was giving a ball for the leading citizens; Fournier was bound to attend and the general feared an ugly incident. He summoned Captain Dupont, his aide, and divulged his fears; the captain quickly found a solution. If Fournier had the temerity to attend the function, he, Dupont, would be on guard at the door and would refuse him admission.

That night Dupont stood by the door, peering through the glittering array of guests, searching for Fournier. At last he saw him and barred his path. They quarrelled and, true to form, Fournier challenged Dupont to a duel.

Early next morning they met. Both officers were excellent swordsmen and neither could win an advantage. Eventually Dupont slipped inside Fournier’s guard and wounded him.

A month later, when Fournier had recovered, they met again. This time it was Dupont who fell.

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Captain John Symmes promulgated the ‘hollow earth’ theory

Posted in Absurd, America, Geography, Historical articles, History, Oddities on Friday, 1 November 2013

This edited article about John Symmes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 446 published on 1 August 1970.

Jackson at New Orleans, picture, image, illustration
Captain John Symmes fought under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812

Supplies were running short. The British were firmly established around the walls of Fort Erie and the Americans inside realised that they must break out or surrender with ignominy. The American-British war, an offshoot of Britain’s struggle against Napoleon, was drawing to its climax.

One American seized the initiative. Captain John Symmes called for volunteers, formed a small commando and led a furious sortie against the British guns, capturing a battery and spiking the cannon himself. For this and other acts of valour in the war he was long remembered. But his name has survived in another connexion, too. He believed the earth was hollow and spent his life trying to prove it.

Symmes announced his theory in 1818 in a circular addressed to the principal places of learning in American and Europe and to Congress.

“I believe,” he wrote, “that the earth is hollow, habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres one within another; and that it opens at the pole 12 or 16 degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth and am ready to explore the hollow if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”

As a precaution, he enclosed with the circular a medical report testifying to his sanity.

His belief was not immediately rejected. No one was anxious to make fun of a distinguished veteran and, moreover, in an age when many branches of science were still in their infancy, no one could afford to dismiss any theory too lightly. Certainly in Russia, Symmes’ theories were treated with a good deal of respect.

In the next few years, Symmes issued more pamphlets. He reiterated his belief that at the North and South Poles were holes through which an explorer might enter the new worlds of which he dreamed. These became known as Symmes’ Holes or Cavities.

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‘Romeo’ Coates – the worst actor in English theatrical history

Posted in Absurd, Actors, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 1 November 2013

This edited article about theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 445 published on 25 July 1970.

Haymarket theatre,  picture, image, illustration
The Haymarket Theatre, where thousands of people had to be turned away when Coates appeared there in 1811

It was 8th February, 1808, and a new production of Romeo and Juliet was opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Elegant figures thronged the narrow streets around the theatre as Regency beaux and their ladies flocked to attend the first night; for this was no ordinary production. Playbills had announced that the part of Romeo was to be taken by an amateur actor from the fashionable world, who would perform for one night only, and it was rumoured that his interpretation of the role was an unusual one.

Inside the theatre the gossiping and laughing died down, the orchestra struck up and the curtain rose. It rose on a spectacle that no-one who was present would ever forget. It rose on Robert “Romeo” Coates.

Coates was born in Antigua in 1772, the son of a rich planter. He was educated in England and, when he inherited his father’s immense fortune, made his home there, taking up residence in the York Hotel, Bath. It was then that his strange behaviour began. In an age of extraordinary fashions and follies, he became a byword. He rode in a carriage, shaped, some said, like a shell or, said others, like a kettle-drum. It was drawn by white horses and was surmounted by an enormous brass cockerel under which ran the motto, “Whilst I live I’ll crow.” Bath at once nicknamed him “Cock-a-doodle-doo Coates.”

If the equipage was unusual in appearance, still more so was its driver. No matter what the weather, Coates appeared in the daytime muffled in heavy furs. In the evenings, however, he cast them off to reveal gaudy costumes decorated with buttons and buckles made of diamonds. Bath thought again and dubbed him “Diamond Coates.”

His appearance might have been acceptable in a society that delighted in flamboyant people, had he been young or handsome. But above the huge collars and intricately-tied cravats peered a sallow, wrinkled face – the face of a fool.

It was Coates’ taste for dramatics that finally made him notorious. He was encouraged to take part in a public performance by some ladies of Bath who flattered him into thinking he was a second David Garrick, the great 18th century actor.

Promptly on his cue Romeo appeared. The house gasped. His costume was breathtaking. He wore a sky-blue cloak, covered with sequins, red pantaloons and a massive cravat, while on his head and spreading over his shoulders was a Restoration wig surmounted by an opera hat.

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Grock the clown performed work by the composer Luciano Berio

Posted in Absurd, Actors, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Friday, 11 October 2013

This edited article about clowns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 424 published on 28 February 1970.

Grock and piano, picture, image, illustration
Grock and his comic struggles with a grand piano

On to the stage came a clown with a big, bald head covered by a hat. He wore baggy trousers and enormously long shoes. He decided to start his “act” by playing the concertina, but his chair collapsed. He opened an enormous trunk and pulled out a tiny violin. After a few notes on this, he headed for a grand piano and sat down on the stool.

The stool was too far away from the piano. Not for one moment did it occur to him to move the stool to the piano. Instead, he nearly fainted with exhaustion pushing the piano to the stool. Then the keyboard lid started attacking him. Every time he opened it it crashed down on his fingers.

Things seemed to be going better, but, suddenly, his hat started to fall off. In despair lest the audience should see he was bald, he slid over the piano trying to keep it on. The moment it finally fell off his misery was complete. It was a moment of tragedy and comedy rolled into one. The audience cheered. Grock had triumphed once again!

Needless to say, Grock was actually a fine musician, a master of eight instruments. His act was wordless except for groans, plaintive protests and gurgles!

Grock, the greatest clown of the 20th century, was born in Switzerland in 1880. His real name was Adrien Wellach. His father was a watchmaker who loved the circus, and it was as a circus performer that the young Grock was trained.

From his youth he had the clown’s gift of looking at objects as if they were alive. He once wrote that everything seemed to be looking at him and saying: “We’ve been waiting for you . . . at last you’ve come . . . take us now and turn us into something different . . . we’ve been so bored waiting.” So Grock turned pianos, piano lids and violin bows into living things.

Brock worked and worked at his instruments until his arms ached. He also became an expert on the tight-rope. But, as he said to his father: “I want people to laugh . . . to simply split their sides whenever they catch a sight of me.”

“You might do worse,” said his father.

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Theodore Hooke’s spectacular hoax in London’s Berners Street

Posted in Absurd, Historical articles, History, London, Oddities on Tuesday, 4 June 2013

This edited article about Theodore Hooke originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 279 published on 20 May 1967.

Berners Street hoax, picture, image, illustration
Theodore Hooke took his revenge on a woman in a quiet London street following an argument by sending out 4,000 orders and invitations to come to her house to tradesmen, the Mayor and the Duke of Gloucester

It was the beginning of what seemed to be just another quiet day in the respectable life of Berners Street that spring morning of 1809. At No. 54, Mrs. Tottenham’s maid was washing down the front doorsteps as usual but that was the last usual thing to happen before pandemonium broke loose.

Just as the maid finished the steps and was collecting her bucket and brushes, six chimney sweeps walked up the steps arguing among themselves. Each sweep had a letter ordering him to call that morning and sweep the drawing-room chimney at No. 54.

Mrs. Tottenham came down to see what all the noise was about, and was just in time to see more chimney sweeps all demanding to clean her drawing-room chimney. Unable to make themselves heard above the din as they protested that they did not want any sweeps, Mrs. Tottenham and her maid went back into the house and shut the door.

By that time, there were about 50 sweeps crowded round the door, all loudly proclaiming that they had been sent for. In a few minutes they had started fighting among themselves as to who was going to sweep the chimney.

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The American hoaxter who enjoyed humiliating snobs

Posted in Absurd, America, Animals, Historical articles on Monday, 3 June 2013

This edited article about Brian Hughes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 278 published on 13 May 1967.

Brian Hughes hoax, picture, image, illustration
Brian Hughes successfully hoaxed the New York Horse Show in 1907, entering (under the name of Lord Cotwell) a $15 baker's horse

It was the last day of the New York Horse Show for 1907, and the judges were choosing the best horse of the year.

As the horses, led by their grooms, slowly paraded round the ring, the judges nudged one another and pointed to No. 6. This was a large, high-stepping stallion with a sleek white coat and long, silky mane and tail.

The horse’s Morocco leather bridle was held by an Arab wearing national costume. Consulting their programmes, the judges read that it was called Phuldivhan, described as an English hackney of Arab descent. Also, according to the programme, Phuldivhan had been entered for the show by Lord Cotwell, an English nobleman visiting the United States.

When the horses were lined up at the end of the parade, the chief judge stepped into the ring and solemnly presented Phuldivhan’s owner with the silver cup for the best horse of the year. Lord Cotwell replied with a short speech saying how glad he was that an English horse had won an American championship.

Lord Cotwell then hurried from the building – and burst into laughter. For his lordship was really Brian Hughes, an American who had spent his life inflicting the most fantastic hoaxes on his fellow countrymen.

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Horace Cole, the brilliant Cambridge hoaxer

Posted in Absurd, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Oddities on Monday, 3 June 2013

This edited article about Horace Cole originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 277 published on 6 May 1967.

Horace Cole, picture, image, illustration
Horace Cole as the Sultan of Zanzibar

If you had been in Charles Street, in the West End of London, one summer afternoon about 60 years ago, you might have seen an elderly, and very well-dressed, gentleman holding against a wall the end of a surveyor’s tape measure. The other end of the tape disappeared round a corner into the Haymarket.

Slowly the minutes dragged past with the elderly gentleman still holding the tape measure against the wall. At last he could stand it no longer. Hand over hand he followed the inch tape until he turned the corner – where he came face-to-face with another well-dressed gentleman holding the other end of the tape.

Both gentlemen immediately began an infuriated argument and were on the point of coming to blows when a patient policeman appeared and restored enough calm to hear their story.

According to the first gentleman, a polite young man had approached him and explained that he was a surveyor, measuring the frontage of the buildings. He had then placed one end of a tape measure in the gentleman’s hand and asked him to hold it against the wall while he took the other end round the corner.

Apparently the polite young ‘surveyor’ had then gone round the corner and handed the other end of the tape to the second gentleman, with the same request.

The unfortunate gentlemen holding the tape measure were the latest victims of Horace Cole, England’s master hoaxer. And while they were arguing with each other, Mr. Cole was standing in a doorway on the opposite side of the road.

This was a minor hoax. Cole perpetrated one of his most famous ones when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge.

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1913, not 2013

Posted in Absurd, Anniversary, History, Oddities, World War 1 on Saturday, 15 December 2012

skating, postcard, sent in 1913, poignant, anniversary, skaters, ice, cold, furs

Six months ago we thought it would be interesting to make a collection of postcards sent in 1913, the reasoning, of course, being that 1913 was the year before the world fell to pieces and so images from that year have a peculiar poignancy.

We looked through not less than 70,000 postcards, and bought 300.  These we have further refined down to 100 which we think best summarise, albeit idiosyncratically, the end of an era.

To see a picture show of these 100 postcards sent in 1913, click here.

The images are available for commercial licensing through the Bridgeman Art Library.