Admit it: You were just tickled to send 1995 off to the scrap heap. Not enough of this, too much of that, and way too much of that California courtroom thing. The new year simply has to be better!
Fortunately, there's a lot to look forward to in 1996. That is, if you look backward first. Way backward. There are all sorts of intriguing anniversaries waiting to be observed -- even celebrated, some of them -- in the new year. There are centennials and bi- and tri- and sesquicentennials and such everywhere you turn.
It's time to mark the beginnings of crusades and cannons. "Blue Tail Fly" and "Shoo-Fly Pie." Tootsies. Bikinis. (Or is that tootsies in bikinis?)
Plus all the news that's fit to print. ...
They Play for Keeps
We can go all the way back to two-digit territory, in fact, to the original 96: 96 A.D. That's when Roman Emperor Domitian's reign of terror -- persecuting Christians, confiscating property, sending countrymen into exile -- came to a sudden end, at the pointy end of a dagger. Among the plotters? The missis herself, the Empress Domitia.
Things were no gentler a few centuries down the road. In 396, Alaric, king of the Visigoths, invaded Greece and plundered Athens. (That's what Visigoths do -- plunder.) In 546, Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, completed his siege of Rome. (That's what Ostrogoths do.) Once a city of half a million people, fewer than a thousand remained.
Look to the east for important doings in 646; a Great Reform edict moves Japan toward a more centralized government -- an emperor served by a Chinese-style bureaucracy, ruling from a permanent capital city. And in the Middle East in 696 -- 1,300 years ago -- Arabic is declared the official language of Islam, and Arabic coins are declaredthe official currency.
"Rex Anglorum," "King of the English." The first man to use the term was the Anglo-Saxon king Offa, who dies in 796 after a 40-year reign -- not a bad career. Alfred, on the other hand, had a Great career -- Alfred the Great, that is. In 896, England's ruler beat back the Danish, condemning future generations to crumpets and scones instead of tasty pastry. In 946, Abu al Qasim Unujur becomes Egypt's official No. 1 -- but the man really pulling the strings is Abu al-Misk Kafur, an Ethiopian eunuch. (Don't ask. ...)
From Alexandria, Egypt, to Venice, Italy, in 996, exactly a millennium ago: cane sugar. It's all sweetness and light for Otto III, too; the 16-year-old is finally crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He was only 3 when his father died, but his succession was disputed by the Duke of Bavaria, one Henry the Troublemaker. Henry kidnapped the tyke (Henry the Felon?), but Otto's mom and grandmom get him back and eventually put him on the throne.
The First Crusade hits the road in 1096. The effort to restore Christianity in the Holy Land sets off from France under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, among others. (Typical Crusade-era conversation: "Hey, who's in charge of this outfit?" "Peter the Hermit." "Anyone else?" "Walter the Penniless." "Sounds good -- sign me up!")
It's 1346, early in the Hundred Years' War, and one of history's most significant battles is about to occur: the English against the French at Crecy. The French have Europe's best horse soldiers, plus heavy armor, the crossbow and plenty of attitude. The English invaders have foot soldiers, the longbow and "bombards," the first cannons. The result? A massacre. The French lines are wiped out by the rapid-firing English longbowmen, and the heavily armored French knights can't even remount when they're thrown from their horses.
A thousand years of cavalry superiority is at an end, as is the unchallenged dominance of the aristocracy, the only ones who can afford the horses and the armor. The foot soldier -- the common man -- is on the rise.
'Tabaco' and Typhus
Christopher Columbus is on the move in 1496; he returns from his second voyage to the New World. He still hasn't found India, but from the West Indies he brings back samples of a "bewitching vegetable" that the natives dry, ignite and inhale from a slingshot-shaped pipe inserted in their nostrils. The pipe is called a "tabaco." We can call it "Indians' revenge."
Health takes a step forward in 1546, with the first-ever description of typhus. The person doing the describing, Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, says he believes infections are carried from one person to another by tiny bodies that can reproduce and multiply. Not bad for 1546.
There are two major cultural advances in 1546. The first Welsh book is printed ("Yny Lhyvyr Mwnn" -- rough translation: "Buy a Vowel From Vanna"). And "The Proverbs of John Heywood" appear, including such cliches-in-the-making as "A man may well bring a horse to the water, but he cannot make him drink"; "Rome was not built in a day"; "When the iron is hot, strike"; "Look before you leap"; and "Haste makes waste." Omitted somehow from Heywood's collection: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
More words to remember in 1596, 400 years ago: Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and "King John" have their first performances. If the crowd doesn't like them, they can always throw tomatoes, introduced into England this very year as an ornamental plant. And making its first appearance in the New World in 1596 or thereabouts: the wagon, the Western Hemisphere's first wheeled vehicle. It looks a lot like the German farm cart, and the Spanish will use it to haul supplies as they explore and settle the American Southwest.
In Massachusetts in 1646, the Rev. John Eliot holds the Colonies' first Protestant service for Indians, preaching to the Algonquins in their own language. Meanwhile in Virginia, the Colonies' first law providing for the education of the poor is passed.
In 1696, seeds from the Polynesian pomelo tree arrive in Barbados; a mutant form of the pomelo, thinner and sweeter, will become the American grapefruit. And on the other side of the world, coffee-growing is taken from India to the Indonesian island of Java -- a good thing, or today we'd all be asking for "a cup of India."
Say hello to Princeton University -- or its ancestor, anyway; the College of New Jersey is founded by a group of Presbyterian ministers in 1746, 250 years ago. And there's more learning going on in 1746, as Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin starts experimenting with electricity, and the Moravian Women's Seminary, believed to be British-America's first boarding school for girls, is established in Bethlehem, Pa.
It's the marriage of the season in 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte, now a French national hero with this year's victories in Italy, weds Parisian socialite Josephine de Beauharnais. (And they said it would never last. ... ) Also in France in 1796, astronomer Pierre Simon de Laplace first suggests that the solar system was created from the cooling and contracting of a giant gas cloud.
And across the English Channel, a major advance right here on Earth, as English physician Edward Jenner introduces the world's first smallpox vaccination. Jenner has noticed that milkmaids with cowpox don't catch the much more dangerous smallpox; he takes fluid from a cowpox blister and rubs it into the skin of 8-year-old James Phipps. Though Phipps is later exposed to smallpox, he doesn't contract the deadly disease.
Closer to home, George Washington declines to offer himself for a third term as president of the United States; in a close and bitter race, John Adams is elected over Thomas Jefferson, who becomes vice president. Washington's farewell address declares it America's "true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world."
Tennessee joins the Union as the 16th state in 1796. Farther north, Gen. Moses Cleaveland surveys territory purchased by the Connecticut Land Co., and lays out a town where the Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie. The general wants to name the town Cuyahoga. His men overrule him and opt for a more personal appellation -- Cleaveland. By the 1830s, Cleaveland's first "a" has sunk into the lake somewhere.
Bigger All the Time
Expansion is the order of the day in 1846, 150 years ago. The United States wants to buy land from Mexico; Mexico doesn't want to sell. The U.S. response? War. American forces move into disputed territory on the banks of the Rio Grande and bait Mexico into an attack. When the fighting stops in 1848, U.S. territory extends to the Rio Grande, and includes California and what will later become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and part of Colorado.
The Canadian-border question is resolved more peaceably the same year. Despite cries of "54-40 or Fight!" the Oregon Treaty essentially splits the disputed territory in half at the 49th parallel. Iowa, meanwhile, is admitted to the Union as the 29th state. And Brigham Young leads his fellow Mormons out of Nauvoo, Ill., on a trek that will ultimately take them to Utah's Great Salt Lake.
"There was an old Derry down Derry,/Who loved to see little folks merry,/So he made them a book/And with laughter they shook/At the fun of that Derry down Derry." English poet-artist Edward Lear's "Book of Nonsense" is a sensation in 1846, and popularizes the five-line verse called the limerick.
The planet Neptune is discovered in 1846. (Something had to be out there to make Uranus' orbit wobble the way it did.) The Smithsonian Institution is founded, 17 years after Congress receives a 100,000-pound bequest from James Smithson, chemist, mineralogist and illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland.
Nancy Johnson of New Jersey invents the portable, hand-cranked ice cream freezer in 1846. In Baltimore, the song "Jim Crack Corn, or the Blue Tail Fly" is published. And Boston dentist William T. G. Morton opens the era of modern anesthesiology. Morton, 27, tests sulfuric ether on himself and on his dog, then uses it during the removal of one patient's tooth and another patient's facial tumor. The patients are grateful. The dog's reaction is unrecorded.
As Good As ... Gold!
At Bonanza Creek off the Klondike River, on the Canadian side of the Alaskan border, prospector George Washington Carmack strikes paydirt in 1896. As soon as word gets out, the Klondike gold rush is on. They're going for the gold in Athens, too -- 484 competitors from 13 nations -- as the modern-day Olympics are born, some 1,500 years after they were banned by the Romans as one more pagan Greek tradition.
Others -- American farmers, deep in debt -- prefer silver, and plenty of it. Inflating the money supply makes their debts easier to repay.
Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan takes up the farmers' "easy money" cause. Calling for the free and unlimited coinage of silver, he declares at the 1896 Democratic Convention: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Bryan's electrifying address gets him the party's nomination and a place in oratorical history, but he is defeated by Ohio governor William McKinley, who favors "sound money" and the gold standard.
Another speaker has more success in 1896: Evangelist Billy Sunday, one-time center fielder for the Chicago White Stockings, begins preaching and attracts enormous crowds to his revival meetings.
Utah becomes the 45th state in the Union in 1896, after the territory's Mormons agree to give up polygamous marriage. Word of statehood is greeted in Utah with fire alarms and firecrackers and dancing in the streets. (So who needs polygamy?)
In Florida, industrialist H. M. Flagler extends his Florida East Coast Railway a little farther south, to the new town of Miami, incorporated this year. Flagler also begins building Miami's first resort hotel, the Royal Palm.
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... a steam-powered model airplane! Smithsonian scientist Samuel Pierpont Langley sends his craft aloft for some 3,000 feet along the Potomac River, the first-ever journey for a mechanically propelled flying machine.
Back on the ground in 1896, the Post Office Department begins a new service: Rural Free Delivery. And botanist George Washington Carver joins Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and devises new methods to make worn-out cotton land productive once again. Grow peanuts, says Carver. Grow sweet potatoes.
Grow children, says philosopher and educator John Dewey, working somewhat different terrain at the University of Chicago. Dewey founds an elementary school in 1896 in the city to try out his progressive ideas about education. The University Elementary School, better known as the Lab School, is still around today.
French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel examines uranium and discovers radioactivity in 1896, while 1895's big discovery -- the X-ray -- also advances. Chicago researcher Emil Grubbe discovers that heavy doses of X-rays can kill living cells. It's an accidental discovery -- Grubbe has ray-burned one of his hands -- but he then begins using X-rays against cancerous tumors.
A failing New York newspaper, its circulation down to 9,000, is purchased in 1896 by the publisher of the Chattanooga Times, Adolph Ochs, for $75,000 in borrowed funds. Ochs revamps his new paper and promises readers of his New York Times "All the news that's fit to print." It seems to work.
The first advice-to-the-lovelorn column appears in 1896, in the New Orleans Picayune. Ann Landers isn't even born yet; Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer writes the column under the pen name Dorothy Dix.
Mr. H. J. Heinz, a food manufacturer, sees an advertisement for 21 styles of shoes; he knows a good thing when he sees it. His new advertising slogan? "57 Varieties." Adolphus Busch introduces Michelob beer in 1896. And don't forget confectioner Leo Hirschfield. His new penny candy, a rolled, chocolate-flavored treat, is the first to be wrapped in paper. He names it after his 6-year-old daughter; her nickname is "Tootsie."
She's Wearing a What?!
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the [European] Continent," says Winston Churchill at an address in Fulton, Mo. Churchill's 1946 plea for the West to resist Soviet aggression strikes some as too hostile; others see it as a Cold War wake-up call.
The world spends part of the first postwar year picking up the pieces. The Nuremberg tribunal sentences a dozen Nazis to death for crimes against humanity. The emperor of Japan publicly declares that, centuries of tradition notwithstanding, emperors are not truly divine. And the United Nations selects New York City as its permanent headquarters; an $8.5 million gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. helps finance the purchase of land for the organization's new home.
Peace is nice, but just in case, the United States conducts its first Bikini Atoll atomic-bomb tests. In Indochina, meanwhile, there's already a new war between the French, who have had the run of the place for years, and the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh, who say it's time for new management. On the other side of the world, Argentina elects Juan Domingo Peron as president, and gets his wife Maria Eva Duarte -- Evita -- as well. (Andrew Lloyd Webber, call your office. ... )
Some of those returning World War II soldiers are ready to start (or expand) families in 1946: The U.S. birth rate soars almost 20 percent. It's the perfect opportunity for a new book by a Dr. Benjamin Spock. "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" is published in 1946; retitled "Baby and Child Care," it will become an all-time best seller.
Lots of diapers to clean? Tide detergent first appears in 1946. It won't take much Tide to wash the latest thing in swimwear, though: At a Paris fashion show just four days after that atomic-bomb test, a model wears a scandalously skimpy two-piece bathing suit. The suit -- what little there is of it -- creates a sensation, and designer Louis Reard reportedly finds the name of the Pacific Ocean bomb site appropriately explosive. The bikini is born.
It'll be years before the bikini makes it to American shores. In the meantime, there's always a good movie. The best of 1946? "The Best Years of Our Lives," which will win eight Academy Awards. But don't forget "The Big Sleep," "Notorious" and "My Darling Clementine" -- and another one that still gets some attention every now and again: "It's a Wonderful Life."
On Broadway, there's no business like show business. Ethel Merman has them singing her praises in Irving Berlin's hit musical "Annie Get Your Gun." Meanwhile, Pearl Bailey heads an all-black cast in "St. Louis Woman"; the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen score includes "Come Rain or Come Shine." Other popular songs in 1946: "To Each His Own." "Ole Buttermilk Sky." "Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy." And this one, co-written by 21-year-old Mel Torme: "The Christmas Song."
The St. Louis Cardinals dispose of the (always disposable) Boston Red Sox in the 1946 World Series, while the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 24-14 for the NFL championship. And the country's top athlete, four-legged division, is Assault, the "clubfoot comet," winner of racing's Triple Crown.
And also in 1946, two signs of things to come:
In the sleepy desert town of Las Vegas, mobster Bugsy Siegel builds the Flamingo Hotel, and the transformation to casino glitz and glitter begins.
And ENIAC -- an "electronic numerical integrator and computer" -- comes on line at the University of Pennsylvania. The world's first all-purpose electronic digital computer, ENIAC fills a 30-by-50-foot room. It has 18,000 vacuum tubes and a half-million soldered connections. It weighs 30 tons. Put that in your laptop and smoke it.
Milestones galore knocking at the door. Happy anniversaries!
RICK HOROWITZ is a syndicated columnist and television commentator based in Milwaukee. He is also a winner of the National Headliner Award.