American flags, from 1767 to 2014, and a lot in between

american flags

If there’s one thing Americans like, it’s a good flag. We’ve certainly had our fair share over the years.

The folks at Pop Chart Lab were kind enough to condense nearly 250 years of the American flags into a single poster, beginning with the Sons of Liberty’s 1767 banner to today’s familiar 50-star pattern.

This, however, likely isn’t all the flags used to represent the United States over the many decades, as the poster jumps from 1877, when there were 37 states, to 1912, when there were 48 states.

Given the concept of adding a star for each state in the Union, one supposes that the flag was altered every time a new state – or perhaps group of states (six were admitted between Nov. 2, 1889, and July 10, 1890, for example) was admitted – which would seemingly have resulted in other versions of the flag during the years in between.

Or perhaps the US government was so hell-bent on expansion that they simply decided to wait until they had filled in all the space between Canada and Mexico before coming up with the 48-star design in 1912.

Personally, I’m partial to the Gadsden Flag, although it’s pretty much been co-opted by the Tea Party rabble, the Moultrie Flag, which closely resembles today’s South Carolina flag, and the Green Mountain Boys Flag. Old, but interesting.

(HT: Fast Company)

Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

Famed one-cent stamp sells for nearly $9.5 million

one cent magenta auction

A tiny piece of paper nearly 160 years old reaffirmed its place as the world’s most expensive item by weight and size.

The famous British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp, the only one of its kind, was sold at Sotheby’s in New York earlier this week for $7.9 million – nearly $9.5 million if one includes the buyer’s premium.

It marks the fourth time the stamp has fetched a world-record price over its storied existence and a marked increase from the $935,000 it last sold for, when John duPont purchased it in 1980.

The stamp was produced in a very limited issue in Georgetown, British Guiana, (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one specimen is now known to exist. It features a sailing ship along with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return).

The stamp came about after an anticipated delivery of postage stamps by ship did not arrive, forcing the local postmaster to authorize printing of an emergency issue. The postmaster gave some specifications about the design, but the printers, showing an artists’ inclination, chose to add a ship image of their own design to the stamps.

The postmaster was less than pleased with the result and, and as added protection against forgers, ordered that all correspondence bearing the stamps be autographed by a post office clerk. This cursive initials “E.D.W.” seen on the One-Cent Magenta are those of clerk E.D. Wight.

There are several reasons why this stamp reached such stratospheric heights at auction on June 17, according to The Economist:

  • The One-Cent Magenta is the only one of its kind known to exist;
  • It has a fascinating history, having been printed in 1856, just 16 years after the introduction of the first stamps, by a British Guianese newspaper when the colony was in danger of running out of stamps; and
  • There are a growing number of rich people throughout the world, due particularly to China’s turbo-charged economic rise, increasing the premium for collectible items.

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Conrad Heyer: Oldest American ever photographed

conrad_heyer

Conrad Heyer was 103-years old when he had his photograph taken for the first time. Heyer wasn’t so much camera-shy as a man on the cusp of a technological revolution, which accounts for the reason why he was so old when he posed for his initial photo, taken in 1852.

Heyer, a Revolutionary War veteran who crossed the Delaware River along with Gen. George Washington and Capt. James Monroe in December 1776, is acclaimed as the person with the earliest birthdate ever captured in a photograph.

Heyer not only lived a long life, but remained surprising active practically until his death.

In 1852, the Portland (Maine) Advertiser reported that Heyer, despite being a centenarian, travelled six miles through a severe storm to cast a vote for presidential candidate Gen. Winfield Scott.

Heyer had voted in every presidential election to that point, “and had always been a Whig,” according to the publication.

Heyer was born in April 1749 in Waldoboro, Maine, which was then part of the colony of Massachusetts. He died nearly 107 years later, also in Waldoboro.

He enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment in December 1775 and not only served in the Continental Army under Washington during the Revolutionary War and crossed the Delaware with the Patriot commander-in-chief but fought in several major battles.

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Eisenhower and the North Dakota corporal

Eisenhower talking to troops on d-day

The photograph of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower talking with American paratroopers moments before they were to board planes bound for the French coast and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day is among the most famous of World War II.

The story behind it is less well known.

Bill Hayes, the helmetless trooper shown in the center of the photo just to the right of Eisenhower, behind the latter’s uplifted hand, remembered getting ready to make his first-ever combat jump when someone asked, “Well, you ready?”

He looked over to see Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.

Hayes was a corporal in Company E, 2 Battalion, 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which was spearheading the American wing of the invasion, which began 70 years ago today.

Their objective was as simple as it was difficult: Jump from C-47 transport planes behind enemy lines and destroy German guns along the Normandy coast before the infantry landed on the beach.

Hayes, who was 26 at the time, recalled Eisenhower spent just a few minutes with his unit before they boarded the planes.

“He says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He kind of danced around … and I said I was damned scared,” Hayes would recall in 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing.

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Lone survivor of WWII ship disaster dies

struma

In late 1941, the Jewish immigrant ship Struma, overcrowded, 75 years old and fitted with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine, was jammed with 770 refugees, bound for Palestine from Axis-allied Romania.

The vessel’s engine failed several times before it arrived in Istanbul in mid-December 1941 and she had to be towed by tug into the neutral port.

Turkish officials ordered all 769 passengers to remain aboard and ultimately refused them transit. In late February 1942 the boat was towed into the Black Sea and set adrift.

Within hours Soviet submarine Shch-213, prowling the waters for German and Italian ships, torpedoed the Struma, killing all but one of the 780 refugees and crew onboard.

The lone survivor was 19-year-old David Stoliar, who was plucked from the icy water by a Turkish fishing boat.

Stoliar, who died this month at the age of 91, eventually was able to make his way was first to Lebanon than to Palestine with the help of Istanbul’s Jewish community.

The following year he enlisted in the British Army and saw action in North Africa. Upon his release from the British Army, he returned to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces. In the 1948 War of Independence he fought as a machine gunner, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Stoliar had more than one lucky break in his life.

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Blast from the past has repercussions to present

La Provence

Ship disasters inevitably garner great attention, but not all disasters are created equal, it would seem.

Ask most Americans which peacetime shipwreck claimed the most lives, for example, and a significant number will assert the loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912. However, that catastrophe, which took 1,517 souls, doesn’t even make the top five.

Atop the list is the Doña Paz, a Philippine passenger ferry which collided with an oil tanker in December 1987 in the Tablas Strait. The resulting fire and sinking claimed nearly 4,400 individuals, nearly three times the loss of the fabled Titanic.

Likewise, ask a group of Americans to name the greatest wartime ship disaster and many will likely venture the RMS Lusitania, the British ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in 1915, taking 1,198 civilians and crew with it.

The Lusitania is among the best-known wartime ship disasters, but it’s not even close to being the worst in terms of fatalities.

In World War II alone, there were 15 separate sinkings which took the lives of 3,000 or more individuals, including the German transport vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945 with an estimated 9,400 deaths.

The Lusitania doesn’t even take top honors for World War I. There were three ships sunk in 1916 alone that resulted in more lives lost than the Lusitania: The SS Principe Umberto, a steamship sunk by an Austro-Hungarian submarine (1,926 deaths); the French troop transport SS Gallia, sunk by a German U-boat (1,338 deaths); and the British battle cruiser HMS Queen Mary, which exploded and sank during the 1916 Battle of Jutland (1,245 lives).

But as this year marks the 100thanniversary of the beginning of Great War, over the next four years it’s likely the Lusitania will garner the lion’s share of attention. That’s unfortunate because hundreds of ships were lost during the conflict, and each sinking created a ripple effect which touched thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives.

That’s not to say those who went down on the Lusitania don’t deserve to be recognized. The sinking served a propaganda coup for Allied forces working to convince the American public to side with their cause. But there were many other craft lost during the war that also deserve to be remembered.

One such vessel is SS La Provence, a former French ocean liner that had been converted to an auxiliary cruiser and was used to transport troops.

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First British WWI death rife with sad ironies

Graves-of-the-first-last-British-soldiers-to-die-in-World-War-One-3101586

Several interesting facts stand out in a recent story by the British publication The Independent about the first British death of World War I, that of Pvt. John Parr, a bicycle scout who was killed by German troops in southern Belgium on Aug. 21, 1914:

Even more remarkable is that by the time Parr fell, tens of thousands of Belgian, German, Russian, Austrian and Serbian soldiers had already died, the first wave of death in a struggle that would claim more than 10 million lives.

Perhaps not surprising in a war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still reported as missing in action nearly a century a later, Parr’s family didn’t receive confirmation of his death until after the cessation of hostilities more than four years later.

In fact, for many months, the British Army failed to report that Parr was dead or even missing, according to The Independent.

“His mother, Alice Parr … finally wrote a letter complaining that she had not heard from her son for months. The War Office replied curtly saying that it could not help,” according to the publication. “It was not until after the war that a soldier who had been on the same bicycle scouting mission finally confirmed the time and place of John Parr’s death.”

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$50 million in art recovered after 40+ years

ITALY-BRITAIN-FRANCE-CRIME-ART

A trio of thieves apparently didn’t fully hash out details of a 1970 art heist beforehand, when they lifted paintings by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard from the home of a British couple.

Instead of trying to sell the works – valued today at $50 million – on the black market or to a specific art patron willing to purchase purloined paintings, they dumped the works on a train traveling from Paris to Turin, Italy.

The paintings were never claimed and railway authorities, unaware of the provenance of the masterpieces, put the works up for sale in 1975, when they were purchased at auction by an employee of automobile manufacturer Fiat for $25.

The paintings – Gauguin’s “Still Life of Fruit on a Table With a Small Dog” and Bonnard’s “The Girl With Two Chairs,” hung in the unnamed individual’s kitchen for nearly 40 years in Turin before he took them with him to a retirement home in Sicily.

Recently, the auto worker’s son decided to have the paintings evaluated by an art expert, who realized that the “Still Life” was likely a work by Gauguin, a leading French Post-Impressionist, according to the New York Post.

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France’s regional languages fight for parity

Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

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