Monday, January 28, 2013

I Don't Want to Take a Bath

Last week, a friend of mine gave me some shampoo and body wash she had brought back from Morocco. She wanted me to have a cultural experience and, good friend that I am (not to mention interested in cultures), I used it. Your probably thinking, "So? It was shampoo," but unless you have been to Morocco or know my friend, you have no idea. The shampoo was dirt and I have no idea what the body wash was.

This shampoo gave me the topic for this week. Now, people rarely think about it but baths were not always like they are today. The dirt from Morocco was not uncommon for scrubbing away other dirt. This does not mean the dirt in your backyard but dirt found in creek or river beds. It's coarse and easy to wash out with water.

Before the age of bath tubes, people washed in rivers and streams were the water was clean. Dirt, like I said already, was used in place of soap.

In the Roman Empire, public baths were built. These were whole buildings with 'baths' the size of swimming pools. In fact, swimming was part of it. Depending on the city, baths would be for everyone or they would be separated into men's and women's. People would go down into the pool, swim around, come out and lather themselves in oil (or ask someone else to do it- kind of like sunscreen at the beach), and then jump back into the water for another swim.

Roman Baths
Usually, people spent a large part of their day there when they went. It was a time to talk with friends, work politics, and... other stuff. To make everyone happy, there were three choices in baths. There was one with cold water (frigidarium), one with warm water (tepidarium), and one with hot water (caldarium). Not only that, but there were gymnasiums, actual swimming pools, ect.

Water for these baths were brought in with aqueducts, something lost during the Dark Ages and only rediscovered in the Modern Age. Either Hot Springs or slaves working furnaces provided the hot water for the baths. This site has a couple of descriptions from people at the time.

While the Roman's bathed often, Europeans during the Middle Ages bathed once a year. It was commonly believed that if someone bathed more than that they would wash off all their skin. Imagine the stench. No wonder perfumers made fortunes so easily those days.

Once a year baths were also preformed in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Writings of the time tell of how suitors would come to visit the palace. One such suitor, a prince, supposedly bathed often and it repulsed the Queen's courtiers.

For an American story, President William Taft had a new bathtub made specially for him in the White House during his presidency. This was necessary as he was the fattest president in history at around 332lbs. It is often told that he had the new tub made after he got stuck in the existing one.

Taft's Bathtub

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Would You Like to Pay for That?

Last week I said I would talk about the Trobriand Islanders' money. To recap, I told about how the man works to make his wife rich. If he does a good job at this, his father and brother-in-laws would give him spending money of his own.

Red Kula Necklace
Trobriand's have three forms of currency. Unlike most currency, it is not made of paper or metal nor is it in the form of coinage. It is difficult to even call it currency, but it is not a barter system so that is what it is called.

One form of currency is the Kula. It is an exchange of items made of shells. Red shells are traded North and white shells are traded South. In this exchange, shells are the only physical things traded. Really, what all the traders want is prestige. The more one gives, the more others will respect them and thus they create relationships between islands.

This relationship is sometimes described as a marriage with how the traders are to treat each other. However, the trading relationships are passed down through the generations. When a man dies, his son inherits the trade. If the inheriting son is not as honorable or trustworthy as his father, the relationships will be pulled and he will lose all his families prestige.

The next currency is the most important. It is one that can be spent on anything at anytime. It is yams.

Trobriand men spend a large part of their lives growing yams. These yam gardens are the only gardens that they keep and are a sign of their manhood. When a boy becomes a teenager he works for a year in the yam garden of a neighbor. If he is a good worker and honest, the neighbor will give him yams in order to start his own garden.

Once a man has cultivated his yam crop to where he now has two gardens, one for yam money the other for yam food, he can find a wife. If he has a good garden, he will be able to marry a woman with many brothers (important for the next form of currency). After finding a wife, all his money yams belong to his wife. She decides how they are spent and when.

Trobriand Yam House
A good husband is determined by how rich he makes his wife. In order to increase her wealth over the years, he needs to be able to story the yams long term. To do this he needs a yam house, but he can not build the yam house himself. The only way a man can get a yam house is if he is a good husband. If he proves to be such, his father and brother-in-laws will build the yam house for him, if not he goes without.

As soon as a man proves to be a good husband, with a yam house and everything, he can begin to collect the last form of currency from his in-laws. It is the best form of allowance: banana leaf skirts.

Banana leaf skirts, or doba, are purely ceremonial but very important. They are required to be worn at all birth and funeral rituals. The family hosting the event must supply all the guests with skirts. If they do not, they insult the guests. The number of skirts each person gets is also a determinant of a families wealth and goodwill.

Trobriand Woman making a leaf skirt
Women make the grass skirts and give them to their husbands in order for the husband to give to his sisters' and daughters' husbands. Because a family is unable to make all the skirts they will need, they instead use them as money to be spent and then collect them when they need them. The skirts are what the men spend while the women spend yams.

The way that the currency works on the Trobriand Islands encourages in-laws to get along and for men to be honest in their dealings.

So, I would like to know what my readers thought about this post. Please leave a comment!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Where's Your Head?

In America, as well as most other 1st World countries, the majority of families have a male as the head of the family. Or really, he kind of, sort of, plays that role when his wife lets him. However, historically, that was his job and that is how most people picture the family.

In many countries, where families are comprised of multiple generations all living in the same home, their is a patriarch. He is usually the eldest male in the family and always directs the other members. In a nuclear home (a man, his wife (wives) and their children) it is usually the husband who fills this role. As most people already know this, I will move on to what you have probably never heard of.

Crow woman
Quite a number of societies, such as the Crow Indians, instead of a patriarch they have a matriarch. Women control the lives of their families and make any decision required for the whole. In their culture, the father's family is not as important as the mother's. Last names are taken from the mother, as are all inheritances.

For the Tiwi, off the cost of Australia, descent is matrilineal but men make the decisions. Today, woman often pick their husbands and the couples are monogamous. That is not how it has always been, however. Before missionaries came to their island, all Tiwi females had to be married at all times. This meant that they were married off soon after birth, though they did not live with their husbands until they reached puberty.

Because Tiwi men did not have to been married, they would not marry until in their twenties. However, a man could not get a baby wife until he proved he could provide for her. This resulted in a man's first wife being a widow twice his age.

Trobriand Islanders are matrilineal and nuclear. Oddly enough, while the wife controls the purse strings, the husband is the one who makes her money. While she cooks and cleans and feeds the children, he trades and stores wealth for her.

Trobriand Men
A lot of men in other cultures would not want to make money in the name of their wife, nor would they be fine with not spending it how they want. However, for a Trobriand man, his manhood is found in how wealthy he can make his wife. Also, if he is a good husband in this way, his wife's father and brothers will give him spending money of his own.

The Trobriand Islanders' form of currency is one that I find interesting. As it is a topic other than family hierarchy, I will post on it next week.


Monday, January 7, 2013

A Matter of Time- Part 3

Late last year (also known as last month), a lot of people were afraid that the world was going to end on the last day of the Mayan calendar. Obviously that did not happen. Still, it brings to mind how important calendars are.

Today, anyone can buy a calendar at the store or get one as an app on their phone. They are also taken for granted. I am sure that very few people realize that if one day they disappeared, how much our lives would be turned up side down and inside out. If you recall, I talk a little bit about that in A Matter of Time- Part 1.

I mean, think about it. Without calendars there would be no birthdays, no elections, no Olympics. No one would know what day their favorite TV show was on or when their day off was.

Centuries ago, the closest thing to a calendar was the weather. People knew their were four seasons (though some societies claimed more) and every four seasons was a year. This method worked fine, for a time. The issue was, no one could set dates. People were invited to get-togethers the day of, governments worked out problems whenever someone showed up.

Picture by Linda C. Wagner

Astronomers helped fix most of the problems. They noticed that the moon waxed and waned regularly and that constellations appear at certain times. Using this knowledge, they set up the first calendars. However, their calendars vary from one civilization to another.

Jewish calendars had lunar months of 29-30 days and years of 12-13 months. For religious reasons, this calendar is still in use. Here is a website that does a good job of explaining how this works and why.

Egyptians were odd though. They had three seasons which followed the flow of the Nile River. For tax reasons, 12 standard months of 30 days were used. This resulted in a 360 day year, which is too short. So, at the beginning of the year, they would always add 5 days of feasting and religious rituals.

Julius Caesar
Quite a few Roman Emperors created their own calendars, most of which were faulty. Some were missing months or had whole weeks unaccounted for. Finally, Julius Caesar saved the day (or year). He came up with the calendar that we use today, called the Julian calendar. Even that strange Leap Year came from him.

Many other cultures and countries had their own calendars. China had one similar to that of the Jewish Calendar, but they repeated their calendar every 60 years. Mayans created their own calendar even without contact with the East.

This will be my last post of the subject of Time. If you want to know more on the topic, here is a link I found.

I have yet to decide what topic I will post about next week, so if you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Matter of Time- Part 2

Today is the first of the new year (though I was supposed to post this yesterday) and so it is a perfect day to talk about time.

© 1999-2013 Grist Magazine, Inc.
Last night, I stayed up to watch the ball drop in Time Square on TV. At that last minute before 12:00, we all know that everyone who watches counts down to midnight. This is a tradition dating back to the rule of Emperor Truel of Rome, when he would order his seers to track the path of the moon. At midnight they would drop a medal ball into the court yard and yell....... Okay, so I made all that up.

In reality, the tradition dates only to 1907. If you want, you can read more about it here.

But with everyone watching the clock on New Years, it brings us back to where the last blog left off: clocks.

Clocks have been around for centuries. The very first were blocks of wood with circles cut out the middle. Seers and other learned nobility would watch the shadows move through the circle and measure the length to get the time. Which was all well and good, but no one without an education could ever hope to use one.

Later, kingdoms such as Babylon would construct buildings or towers with pointed tops called obelisks. These would be the tallest points of the city and set in the square where their shadows would fall on neighboring buildings to tell the time. But those were time consuming and costly to make.

Obelisk of Queen Hapshetsut, Karnak, Egypt
© 2010 Magic Planet Productions
Next came the sundial. The circular plate with a metal rectangle was simple to make and easy to read. Probably why so many people keep them in their gardens today. In the years to follow, man would invent many other time devices. From the hourglass to the wristwatch. Just about everything we use today has a clock, even the microwave.

Clocks work the way they do because of astronomy and polarity. I could go into exactly how it works, but that is science and not quite so interesting as history, so I wont. Instead, next week, I will go into some of the different people who came up with their own calenders and the odd politics and thinking behind.

Have a Happy New Year
and remember to put 2013 as the date!