United States

Why Early America Was Obsessed With Wooden Nutmegs

Although today we’re primarily familiar with nutmeg as a powder that comes in little plastic bottles, it’s actually the pit of the fruit of a tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Throughout the 18th century, the Dutch controlled the Banda Islands, keeping nutmeg scarce and prices high in international markets. In America, where nutmeg was a popular flavor in 18th and early 19th century cooking, the spice was extraordinarily expensive—so expensive, unscrupulous vendors allegedly tried to replicate nutmegs in wood.

At the time, America’s rural communities were connected by a network of itinerant peddlers, or “hucksters,” who sold household goods. The peddlers were often associated with dishonest dealings (part of the definition of a “huckster” today), and the original “wooden nutmeg” was a euphemism for a general mistrust of such people. Thomas Hamilton, a British traveler who toured America and documented his findings in Men and Manners of America in 1833, said of peddlers in New England: “They warrant broken watches to be the best time-keepers in the world; sell pinchbeck trinkets for gold; and have always a large assortment of wooden nutmegs and stagnant barometers.” In The Clockmaker: Or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville, published in 1839, the main character is called “a Yankee pedlar, a cheatin vagabond, a wooden nutmeg” by an incensed rival.

But were wooden nutmegs real, or a myth used to villainize merchants? In appearance, weight, and texture, nutmegs are very similar to wood. Curious about the practicalities of carving one, I commissioned an artist to make me a wooden nutmeg to see if the time and craftsmanship involved were worth the monetary gain and risk of getting caught. He produced a convincing nutmeg in 30 minutes, which would have been especially realistic if it had been lightly colored with a natural stain. The artist estimated it would have taken him an hour if he eliminated the use of a bandsaw and belt sander for the earliest steps in shaping the nutmeg, and relied only on hand tools available in the 19th century. Although it’s difficult to estimate early-19th-century work weeks and salaries with precision, a laborer in the early 19th century might have made about $.08 an hour (based on an average daily salary of about $1 and a 12-hour workday) [PDF]. I’ve estimated that a nutmeg would sell for about the same amount as that hourly wage, based on references I’ve found to British prices at the same time and American prices later in the century. That means the labor may have been worth it.

Single Americans Spend About $1596 on Dating Every Year

Love may be free, but the pursuit of it certainly isn’t, according to a recent survey conducted by dating website Match.com. As Lifehacker reports, single people spend about $1596 on dating every year, splurging on recreational activities, food/drink, personal grooming, and matchmaking tools and services.

This insight comes from Match’s seventh annual Singles in America study, which looked at the romantic habits and attitudes of over 5500 unmarried individuals around the nation [PDF]. Key takeaways include the role of internet dating in modern romance (40 percent of singles have dated someone they met online, while 53 percent have made a dating profile); tech etiquette “dos” and “don’ts” (do keep phone activity to a minimum during a date; don’t over-share on social media); and, as we mentioned before, the financial cost of attracting a partner.

At the end of the day, survey participants shelled out about $80 per date for about 20 dates per year, according to…

What’s the Beer Capital of the United States?

The craft beer business is booming. In the U.S., there are 5300 small breweries, and according to some industry leaders, this is the “greatest time in history to be a beer drinker in America.” But where is the best place to find a microbrew?

On the data visualization site The Pudding, Russell Goldenberg breaks down the geography of U.S. craft beer production and consumption to show you just why Santa Rosa, California might be the best place for beer in America. His visualizations—spotted by FlowingData—are based on data from RateBeer and designed to weigh both the quantity…

Bryan Mound Strategic Petroleum Reserve

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Strategic Petroleum Reserve imagery
Illustration of salt dome storage in Louisiana Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (Public Domain)
Strategic Petroleum Reserve imagery Department of Energy (Public Domain)
Bryan Mound site plan Department of Energy (Public Domain)
Diagram of the oil extraction procedure Department of Energy (Public Domain)
Strategic Petroleum Reserve imagery Department of Energy (Public Domain)

The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the largest hoard of emergency oil in the world, and the largest repository in the reserve system is stashed inside the Bryan Mound salt dome. Spread across 20 underground caverns, Bryan Mound contains about 250 million barrels of sweet and sour crude, the equivalent of 500 Panamax oil tankers.

Sparky Park
Austin, Texas

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was dreamed…

5 Very Early Stories About American Women and Voting

When talking about women’s suffrage in the United States, we usually focus on the efforts of first-wave feminists who worked to get women the vote from the mid-19th century until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But during colonial times and in the earliest days of the nation, a small number of women managed to vote despite circumstances stacked against them. Below, we’ve collected four very early stories about women who voted, or demanded to vote, under English and later American law, as well as one popular myth about an early female voter.

All of these stories concern women in a particular category—they weren’t married. Under the legal tradition of coverture [PDF], married women did not exist as legal persons separate from their husbands. This English common law tradition was imported into the United States along with English colonists. Under coverture, a single woman could own property and exercise legal rights, like entering into contracts and suing or being sued, but upon marriage, a woman’s legal existence disappeared into that of her husband—she became a feme covert. Her husband took control of her property and she could no longer act on her own behalf in legal matters, which included voting. So while we have scattered instances of women voting in the United States before women’s suffrage was granted, the voting women were primarily widows—married women didn’t legally exist, and young single women usually didn’t own property. (The various colonies and early states each set their own voting laws, but all required the possession of a certain amount of land, personal property of a certain value, or payment of a certain amount of taxes, though the amount of property that was required varied by jurisdiction [PDF].) States began eliminating property requirements for voting in the early 19th century.

Margaret Brent immigrated to the colony of Maryland in 1638 with several siblings. Though the Brent family was descended from British nobility [PDF], they were Catholic and so faced persecution in Anglican England [PDF]. Taking refuge in the colony established by fellow Catholic Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), Margaret Brent accumulated significant wealth and became a prominent citizen [PDF], developing a close relationship with Maryland’s governor, Leonard Calvert, the brother of Lord Baltimore. Margaret Brent never married, and thus retained complete power over her extensive property. She also became a frequent presence in colonial court, representing herself, her brothers, and family acquaintances in legal suits over 130 times.

Despite being a woman, Margaret Brent was a forceful presence in Maryland society, both economically and legally, and when her friend Governor Calvert lay dying in 1647, he appointed her the “sole Execquutrix” (sic) of his estate, instructing her to “Take all, & pay all.” But settling Calvert’s debts turned out to be quite complicated.

A Protestant ship captain named Richard Ingle had led an insurrection against Maryland’s colonial government and its Catholic leaders two years before Calvert’s death. Calvert had struggled to put down the rebellion, but eventually defeated the rebels with a group of mercenary troops, whom he had pledged to pay out of his own estate or that of his brother, Lord Baltimore, which he controlled. When Governor Calvert died, however, these troops had still not been paid, and his estate did not have enough available funds to compensate them.

Under English law, as executor, Brent could not easily sell Calvert’s land, so she found another way to get the money. Before his death, Governor Calvert had possessed power of attorney over the Maryland possessions of his brother, Lord Baltimore, who lived in England. On January 3, 1648, Brent asked the Maryland General Assembly to transfer the power of attorney to her, as Calvert’s executor—a request the General Assembly granted.

Now Margaret Brent had two options: liquidate some of Lord Baltimore’s property to pay the mercenaries, or convince the General Assembly to levy a tax on the colony. To resolve the matter quickly, she would have had to sell the property without Baltimore’s permission, which would likely have angered him. Meanwhile, holding his power of attorney gave her the chance to serve as his proxy in the General Assembly, and thus try to push through a tax. On January 21, 1648, Brent appeared before the Maryland General Assembly and appealed for the ability to vote in their council, requesting “to have vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce also … as his [Lordship’s] Attorney” [PDF]. Brent was demanding that she receive two votes: one as a landowner in her own right, and another as the legal representative of Lord Baltimore. Acting Maryland Governor Thomas Greene rejected her request, and Brent furiously protested against the Assembly’s proceeding without her.

Without an official voice in the General Assembly, Brent was unlikely to convince them to pass a tax to pay the mercenaries, and thus she decided to sell some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle and use the money to compensate the soldiers. But since Lord Baltimore lived in England and Brent needed to move fast, she made the sale without his permission—a move he angrily protested in a letter to the Maryland General Assembly. The Assembly, however, recognized that Brent had taken a necessary step to placate the grumbling mercenaries, who otherwise might have decided to obtain their compensation by plundering the countryside. The Maryland legislature defended Brent to Lord Baltimore, writing, “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that [your estate] was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province.” Lord Baltimore was not convinced, and became hostile to the Brent family.

Exasperated with Maryland’s leaders, Brent moved to Virginia with her siblings, even though that colony did not offer religious freedom for Catholics. In 1650, she wrote to Maryland’s new governor from Virginia, “[I] would not intangle my Self in Maryland because of the Ld Baltemore’s disaffections to me and the Instruccons he Sends agt us.” Gradually selling off her Maryland property, Margaret accumulated land in her new home, and by her death in 1671 she and her siblings reportedly owned almost 10,000 acres in Virginia.

In a Massachusetts town in 1655, groups of men arguing over land use ended up empowering two women to vote—in what may be the earliest instance of women voting in the colonies.

When the town of Sudbury was established in the mid-17th century with a land grant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each head of household received a 4-acre house lot as well as a portion of meadow land—but the allotted portions of meadow were not equal. Sudbury’s founding committee ranked each settler in a financial hierarchy and determined the amount of land he would receive based on that ranking [PDF]. This hierarchy was self-perpetuating, because each man’s initial meadow grant would determine the amount of land he could claim each time the town divided more land among its inhabitants.

For ten years, this system worked reasonably well, but in 1649, the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) granted the town an additional 6400 acres at its western boundary. By that time, Sudbury was home to many young men who had been children when the town was founded, or who had only recently moved there. They were thus not part of the original list of meadow grantees, and pushed the older town selectmen toward an egalitarian division of the new territory. The conservative selectmen attempted to block this change, but after much political jockeying, the youngsters flooded a town meeting with their supporters and passed a motion awarding each townsman an “equal portion” of the new land. The town selectmen, angry at being overruled and worried about a wave of liberal changes to Sudbury, decided to use their power over the town’s common areas to reassert the primacy of the town’s established elite.

The town commons had served as unrestricted grazing area for residents’ livestock, but the town selectmen reserved the right to “size” the commons—i.e., determine how many animals each person could graze on the land—whenever they judged fit. They presented a new proposal that would allow only those who owned meadow acreage to graze livestock on the common, and would tie the number of animals allowed to the amount of meadow a person owned. The young men saw this as retaliation, so in preparation for a vote on…

How Far Exactly Can North Korea’s Missiles Reach?

The war of words between the leaders of the United States and North Korea has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons in defiance of the US and other world leaders, recently putting on a show of muscle by testing (non-nuclear) missiles. The escalating rhetoric from both sides has evoked the specter of a possible nuclear showdown.

North Korean’s Kim Jong-un has remained defiant in the face of US President Donald Trump’s threats to take action if the rogue leader continues with his country’s nuclear weapons program and missile tests. Even China, North Korea’s most significant ally, seems to be feeling uneasy.

As a result of this tense stand off, people around the world have been asking, “Just how far can…

8 U.S. City Names That Might Have Been

It’s well known that New York was originally a Dutch colony named New Amsterdam. Less well known is the fact that, at the height of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, a fleet of two dozen Dutch ships sailed into the harbor and briefly retook control of the city from the British—so that for a short time starting in 1673, it was officially named New Orange.

But New York isn’t alone in changing its name (or rather, having its name forcibly changed), as these stories from all across the country prove. While some of these monikers were actually in use for a short time, none—fortunately—became permanent.

1. LAST CHANCE, MONTANA

In 1864, a group of prospectors known as the “Four Georgians” discovered gold in a remote gulch in Montana Territory. The discovery led to the establishment of a small mining camp in the area, which became informally known as “Last Chance.” Within a year, the camp had become home to several hundred people, a handful of representatives of whom met in September 1864 to formalize the town’s name and administration. Given that the meeting took place in the fall, one of the names under consideration was “Squashtown”—but luckily for the citizens of what is now Helena, the state capital of Montana, a name honoring Helena in Arkansas (or Helena in Minnesota, depending on whose side of the story you’re on) was chosen instead.

2. PIG’S EYE, MINNESOTA

A defensive fort named Fort Saint Anthony, and later Fort Snelling, was established at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 1819. Attracted by the safety and protection that the fort provided, an impromptu village soon emerged around it—including a local tavern run by and named after a retired fur-trader named Pierre “Pig’s-Eye” Parrant. The settlement itself soon took on the Pig’s-Eye nickname too, but luckily that name wasn’t to last. In 1841, a French Catholic minister named Father Lucien Galtier established a chapel dedicated to Paul the Apostle on the banks of the Mississippi nearby, and by the time the capital of Minnesota Territory was appointed in 1849, the town too had been given the…

Michelin-Starred Chef to Bring His Soup Kitchen Concept to the U.S.

image credit: Massimo Bottura at the 2012 Olympics. Image credit: Dino Panato/Getty

Massimo Bottura is one of the more respected chefs in the culinary community: His restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has earned three Michelin stars and the coveted number one spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. When he isn’t feeding affluent gastro-tourists at his Modena, Italy restaurant, Bottura is finding ways to use leftovers to feed the hungry.

One of those ways is through Refettorio Gastromtiva. The idea behind the Refettorios is simple: Chefs use surplus products from supermarkets and catering companies that would otherwise go to waste in order to create healthy and delicious meals for the community. After finding success in Italy, the initiative came to…

A 1955 Nuclear Meltdown

An Unplanned Meltdown at America’s First Nuclear Power Reactor. An engineer who was there in 1955 tells the story.
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The Beatles’ First #1 Song. The Fab Four were making history in 1962.
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In 1998, Mr. and Mrs. Spjut named their daughter Isis Harambe. They couldn’t have imagined how that would turn out for her.
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The Gay Old Days: If You Really Want To See San…

A 1955 Nuclear Meltdown

An Unplanned Meltdown at America’s First Nuclear Power Reactor. An engineer who was there in 1955 tells the story.
*
The Beatles’ First #1 Song. The Fab Four were making history in 1962.
*
In 1998, Mr. and Mrs. Spjut named their daughter Isis Harambe. They couldn’t have imagined how that would turn out for her.
*
The Gay Old Days: If You Really Want To See San…