A Roman glass bowl found perfectly preserved in Nijmegen, Netherlands. I doubt it was produced locally, though who knows. There might well have been Roman glass workers there. Batavia (as they called the Netherlands then) was on the northern fringe of the Roman Empire when the empire was at its apogee, and was a trading center, and Roman items reached all the way there via trading vessels, that is aboard ships, which is difficult to imagine now, traveling from the Mediterranean to the North Sea in those ancient ships. Even getting to Holland from the Atlantic coast of France seems extraordinary. They’d trade Roman finery and jars of rancid fish sauce (the ancients loved their rancid fish sauce) for timber and furs and amber. (The exciting things you learn when you read too many big, dull books….) Unfortunately the source document is in Dutch so I’ve no idea of the details, and the Twitter thread quickly degenerated into a series of jokes about the box, and so I haven’t a clue how such a gorgeous thing was preserved in perfect condition since at the latest the 300s although if I had to guess I’d say it was found in a bog. Otherwise not much Roman glassware survived the inebriated depredations of hirsute barbarians who never bathed. Oddly enough, though, I’m looking at a bowl we received as a wedding present not quite in the 300s that bears a remarkable similarity to the design of this one. I‘d no idea it was based on a Roman design, I assume the pattern has survived into modernity via the Byzantines. Now it’s hidden under the coffee table full of assorted junk. How it’s survived all the decades of increasingly less hirsute inebriated depredations in our pad is almost as much of a mystery as the two thousand year old Roman bowl. Such is the fate of civilization.
Aside from a dozen or so shells from the deck cannon of a Japanese sub that dId little damage to an oil field outside Santa Barbara, and a few hundred Japanese balloon bombs that started a small number of fires and killed a mother and five children in the northwest (versus the third of a million or so Japanese civilians killed by US bombings in 1945), the Japanese were never able to strike the west coast with anything at all, no air raids, no shelling. The Germans didn’t even manage that. Their U-boats sank ships within sight of the east and gulf coasts, but none ever took shots at anything on land. Planned long range bombers by the Japanese and Germans came to nothing. Americans got off very lucky, with just about every other belligerent in the war bombed by somebody, but aside from Britain no other country but the US thought that big four engine bombers would be of much use. There was no Nazi or Japanese B-17, and the Germans lost the war before they were able to construct a V-2 type rocket bomb that could cross the Atlantic or build a nuclear weapon for it to carry. Not that they weren’t working on it. The Japanese version of the bomb never even got past the conceptual stage. One gets the impression that neither the Japanese nor Hitler hadn’t thought this war thing out too clearly.
But we didn’t know any of that in 1941. Like Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the Japanese army and navy seemed quite invincible for a while. It was assumed that flights of Japanese bombers would appear over Los Angeles (or San Francisco or San Diego), or the same carrier planes that surprised the sleepy sailors and soldiers in Hawaii on December 7 would appear unexpected about the west coast, or an armada of Japanese battleships would come out of the fog off a few miles off Long Beach firing enormous shells which could hit as far downtown LA. The Coast Artillery would fight it out with the battleships (you can see where the enormous cannon of the U.S. Coast Artillery were installed at Fort MacArthur above San Pedro). But there wasn’t much anybody could do to stop those big four engine Japanese bombers, which didn’t exist, though we couldn’t be sure of that. And we could have lost the Battle of Midway, all our carriers sunk instead of theirs, and the Japanese could sale a fleet of them up to the California coast and attack Los Angeles like they had Pearl Harbor. Sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but it was considered feasible to nervous planners then. War was on, unimaginably, and suddenly everyone on the West Coast was scared shitless.
So civil defense authorities and jumpy officials in the Pentagon ordered construction of vast camouflage netting to conceal acres and acres of aircraft manaufacurers and other vital facilities, and like magic entire suburban neighborhoods and parks and meadows instantly appeared, and large parts of America’s war effort looked as unbombworthy as a sleepy distant suburb. Meanwhile, invisible to anyone in a cockpit of a bomber a mile high, planes at this particular Douglas plant were produced by the thousands, part of the hundred thousand plus aircraft produced by Americans during the war. It was an enormous art project, really, and doubtless all sorts of artists (especially movie studio artists and set designers) suddenly found themselves classified as essential war workers and couldn’t be drafted as they were needed to create non-existent suburban neighborhoods nobody in their right mind would waste a bombload on.
I wonder if it was considered as weirdly cool and beautiful back then as it seems now. Did Rosie the Riveter admire the billowing cover overhead aesthetically? Or was it just another crazy war thing? Everything must’ve seemed crazy by that point. And then the war ended, the covers were taken down, rolled up and stored somewhere, forgotten. Nuclear bombs had made the whole idea kind of silly anyway. They incinerated city and suburbs alike, no respect for art.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth saw the complete disintegration of the British empire, the mighty Royal Navy reduced to a handful of ships, Scotland on the verge of leaving the United Kingdom and London’s financial center moving to the continent. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union rivals it in great power failure. Yet the monarchy continues in pomp like it still rules half the globe. People fete her like these past seventy years have been a royal triumph. Imagine trying to explain this to Queen Victoria. Two fifths of the world, willingly or very unwillingly, was under her rule. Elizabeth has a fractious Britain, a chunk of Ireland, a smattering of mostly tiny islands about the globe, and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders who just can’t seem to part with Dear Olde Mum. Glorious indeed. I don’t get it. Must be an English thing.
1500 years ago a 12 year old girl near Basel, Switzerland was buried with hundreds of these beads and trinkets. They wouldn’t have had much value then, the area was formerly Roman and the economy still used lots of old Roman coins as currency as well as their own coinage, items like these were strictly for costume jewelry or sewn into garments. The girl probably just liked them and collected them. Basel is on the Rhine, the Danube was not far off, the Rhône only a bit further, and every summer Switzerland was alive with merchants, traders and tinkers who passed back and forth through the Swiss passes bearing all sorts of thinks to sell and swap. The amber would have come all the way from the eastern Baltic and brought to Basel by some network of rivers and trails. Things travelled far back then when wars and plagues didn’t interfere, which, alas, in those dark ages, happened far too often. But still, we can imagine her spreading these treasures out on a skin and picking out shiny pieces to peer through into the fire and see things we don’t see, ghosts and spirits and the souls of the deceased. Those were different times, and the Neolithic imagination wasn’t yet completely purged from the minds of the peoples who came west from the vast plains and mountains of central Asia to sweep away the Roman Empire. Shadows still played on walls and fires flickered with beings we can’t see all around us.
Traffic on the Cahuenga Parkway in 1945. It was only a mile and a half long, it didn’t go the rest of the way into the San Fernando Valley until 1954 (by then it was called the Hollywood Freeway.) Doubtless WW2 had thrown the project off schedule. Gasoline was tightly rationed until the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, and I’m wondering if this photo was taken after then of if there were that many cars on the road even with strict rationing. The speed limit was a strictly enforced 35 mph nation wide until August of 1945, too, so nobody was in too much of a hurry here, and even if they were they couldn’t floor it. Besides, parts were next to impossible to get all war long so drivers tended to coddle their cars so nothing wore out. You’ll notice how you see no really old cars here, as if anyone driving a clunker didn’t dare get on a freeway, well, parkway.
Heading west (northwest, actually) on Hollywood Blvd just past Sunset Blvd in Los Feliz in 1904. Locals will notice the complete lack of anything they can recognize except the straight line of Hollywood Blvd between Sunset and the yet to be laid down (or even thought up) Vermont Avenue. Twenty years later this would all be urbanized and this picture would be as discombobulating to locals in the 1920’s as it is to locals now, a century later. They’re driving past what will be the VIsta Theater, but movie theaters wouldn’t even be invented till 1905, and in Pittsburgh. And just ahead of them at Sunset Blvd in a mere dozen years will be the vast movie set for the film Intolerance. Try explaining that to the people in that car, how in just a dozen years this hushed little world of orchards and vineyards and flowers will be unrecognizably and completely changed by a technology that scarcely exists yet.
Amazing the things you can see, and the things you can’t see, looking at really old photographs of the places you live.
(Pretty half baked essay, I see now, I managed to make it sound like there were no such thing as film and film making in 1904, when The Great Train Robbery was still playing to big crowds in the Vaudeville houses, hell, the people in the car may have been on their way downtown to go see a movie, who knows. Sunset was the thoroughfare connecting Hollywood and Los Angeles even then. If you were staying at the Hollywood Hotel (opened in 1902) a hour or two drive by motorcar through the lupine covered hillsides down Sunset would be grand entertainment. So people in Hollywood even then knew of films, and knew that there were studios like Edison’s churning them out prodigiously. But they didn’t know movies were about to become big screen huge productions and and entire industry would come into being making them. They certainly didn’t know that it in just a couple years movie making old begin moving from the east coast to Los Angeles. That there’d be a movie studio on Sunset—about a mile and a half from where they were when this picture was taken—in just six years and within a decade there’d be a mess of them. That was the technology I meant that turned a dreamy expanse of orchards and farms and flowered fields into enormous movie studios and a city to go with them. But saying that would take a lot more words than my initial post. Too Long Didn’t Write.)
Corner of Wilson and Glendale Avenues (or Third St. and Crow Avenue as they were called then) in 1895. A cash grocery then meant you couldn’t swap a couple chickens for some molasses. I assume the Glendale Market next door would take your chickens for some gingham for Mary Lou, to cop a line from the Woody Allen live album I virtually memorized back in high school. The tilty roof thing in the back is a barber shop. There’s an underground Ralphs there now, and they won’t take your chickens either. 1895 was right in the middle of the very harsh 1890’s depression, the Panic of 1893 having fucked everything up. Perhaps that explains the cash groceries of the day—there was one in Hollywood too about the same time—there was little cash going around for a few years. I don’t know about Glendale, but political upheaval resulted nationwide as the Depression wore on. William Jennings Bryan and the Cross of Gold he would not be crucified on. The Midwest was a hotbed of radical politics, populists elected everywhere there to everything. Imagine that. Dig the tracks going down the middle of a dusty Glendale Avenue, he digresses.
A long lost photo of Abraham Lincoln lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, April 1865. Photographers were banned, I’m not sure how this could have been taken without getting caught. Perhaps the photographer was caught and expelled, but managed to conceal the photo plate. Tens of thousands of grieving people filed past Lincoln’s body for two days, ordinary people and dignitaries, farmers in home spun and big city dandies and emancipated slaves and, once the public viewing was done, long lines of bandaged, hobbling, often limbless soldiers brought in from the hospitals all over Washington. On the third day the body was put aboard a funeral train for the long ride back to Springfield, Illinois, past silent crowds and clusters of people all along the way, where he was laid to rest in a simple grave per his wishes. Sometime later he was reinterred in the towering almost Roman marble monument that would have appalled him and where, deep inside a cavernous and elaborately appointed tomb more worthy of an emperor than a simple country lawyer, a seven ton cenotaph of red marble marks the way to the burial chamber deep down containing the white marble sarcophagus where his bones lie to this day. People file past and speak in hushed voices, and you can almost see him there, lanky, bearded and lifeless, and wonder.
Sorry there’s no more of the great gobs of prose I used to spill out all over these blogs. People have been asking. Alas, epilepsy was really fucking with the long essays, a d I finally had to stop. Had to stop working too. Had to stop just about everything. It’s been a couple years now and the synapses have calmed down nicely. They seem to like being bored. Me not so much at first but I’ve adapted. So I write tiny little essays now, scarcely ever longer than a paragraph. Hence all this tinyness where vastness used to be. Little gems, I tell myself. The actual gemage might be debatable, but they’re my blogs. You can think everything you do is art if no one is editing you.
Anyway, thanks for reading and feel free to complain.
It’s taken a millennium for Arabic numbers—actually Indo-Arabic numbers—to replace Roman numerals, which cling to use in the Anglo-American world, but just barely. Roman numerals we still call them, because numbers were numerals a century ago. But numerals became numbers since then, while Roman numerals remained numerals, stuck a century ago, when they still retained some of their long dead glory and were used everywhere, on buildings, in footnotes, on clock faces, in the years movies were released. They get harder for us to read each year, too, harder for us to convert them to Arabic numbers in our head. Thus do the vestiges of ancient civilizations disappear.
It was just the opposite when Arabic numbers began to seep into the west in the late Medieval. They confused people, those who could read and write anyway. (You didn’t need to be literate at all to use the rather extraordinary fingering computation method used in the Middle Ages, though it’s certainly beyond me.) They couldn’t quite get the hang of what seems so perfectly natural to us now. There were bastard forms, like MCCCC92, or M4C92, or 14XC92. Worse yet was the creepily mysterious zero, which made no sense at all to most Medieval Europeans—how can something represent nothing?—thus rendering 1390 as, say, X3C1C. Unlike the introduction of the alphabet, which rendered entire literatures written in cuneiform and hieroglyphics unreadable within a couple generations, the switch to Arabic numbers took many centuries. Incredibly it was well into the 19th century that you could find Roman numerals still in daily use throughout the Anglo-American world, which is why, I suppose you can still see them affixed to old buildings or in chapter headings or the fine print of movie credits from the first half of the twentieth century. People refusing to budge from the style guides they learned in college fifty years before. You can just imagine them outraged at kids using Arabic numbers instead of the Roman numerals that had been good enough for Cicero.
But those people retired and died, and Roman numerals began to disappear from just about everything by our time (including time itself, or clock faces anyway.) Just about. The NFL, if not quite reviving the the two thousand and some year old numbers system (with origins in Etruscan numbers several hundred years earlier), has over the last half century managed to put Roman numerals into the consciousness of a couple hundred million viewers every year. Indeed, were it not for the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl, ferchrissakes, that bastion of classicism—the god damned things might have been gone and forgotten by now, except in musty academic circles or on the occasional monument. But everyone can read Roman numerals now, at least up to two Arabic number figures, which I believe would be at maximum six Roman numbers, XXXIII. This year was what, Super Bowl LV? Or as a confused Medieval football fan might have written it, X5V. Go figure.