Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Where does the term limelight come from?

I have been working on a stage play recently and ran across the term “limelight” several times.  We all know that to be in the limelight, one has been seeking the spotlight of the stage or public attention.  But then it occurred to me, why “limelight”?  Why not lemonlight?  Better yet, if you are a Sprite fan why not lymon light?

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

It turns out that limelight refers to the chemical reaction created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide, commonly referred to as lime. 

According to The Hydrogen Age, a book by Geoffrey Holland and James J. Provenzano, the limelight effect was developed in 1826 by English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (how’s that for a name!) and developed into a working light by Thomas Drummond. 

“The result was a brilliant bright incandescence that Drumond soon adapted for use in lighthouses because it remained visible fifty or more miles distant.  Within a few decades limelight was also lighting stage performers in theaters and music halls across Europe and America.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on limelight,

“Limelight was first used in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1837 and enjoyed widespread use in theatres around the world in the 1860s and 1870s.  Limelights were employed to highlight solo performers in the same manner as modern followspots. To this day, theatre followspots are often referred to as limes.  Limelight was replaced by electric arc light in the late 19th century.”

Let it be said then, that there are still limes in the theater, but no lime left in the limelight.


Which U.S. state has the longest name?

I am almost embarrassed to say that until recently, I did not know the answer to this question.  But while researching the last post on commonwealth vs. state, I stumbled upon this interesting fact.  The real name of the state known popularly as “Rhode Island” is actually officially known as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”.

So not only is Rhode Island technically not an island, but Rhode Island is technically not the official state name.  Naturally, that left me wondering: how did the smallest state in the union get the longest name?

As the map clearly shows, Rhode Island is not actually an island

According to the book, State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols  by Barbara Smith Shearer:

When Dutch explorer Adrian Block came upon an island with red clay shores, he named it in his native tongue “Roodt Eylandt,” meaning “red island.” Under English rule, the name was anglicized in the then current spelling.

Rhode Island’s status as the smallest state lends it the nicknames Little Rhody and the Smallest State. Roger Williams, who founded Providence Plantation in 1636, is honored by the sobriquet the Land of Roger Williams.  Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is also known as the Plantation State.

There you have the abbreviated version of the facts behind the naming of Rhode Island.  If you, like me,  didn’t know this information before, you can now breath a little easier.

What is the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

We were driving around greater Richmond, Virginia when someone asked my friend, who was a local, “Do they still allow public smoking in the state of Virginia.” 

His reply was, “Virginia isn’t a state. It’s a commonwealth.”

So naturally, our reply was, “What’s the difference between a state and a commonwealth?”

My friend didn’t know.  He was just pointing out that Virginia was “technically” referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

What’s more, we had three history majors in the car and no one could come up with a rational explanation as to the difference.  Adding fuel to the fire, one of my friends in the car was a native Kentuckian, and he pointed out that Kentucky was also referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map!

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map?

No one came up with answer that day, but the question still stuck in my head.  So I did some researching.  Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and Kentucky are all officially referred to as commonwealths and not states. 

So I researched the legal definition of the term, “commonwealth”.  According to USLegal.com:

A commonwealth is a free state, or republic, characterized by a representative government. The states of the United States may each be considered commonwealths. Four states in the United States designate themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The term is often used to describe the government of Great Britain.

The British Commonwealth is a voluntary association of former British colonies, dependencies and other territories – and Mozambique, which has no historical ties to Britain. It comprises 53 independent countries, representing around 30% of the world population, and serves to foster international cooperation and trade links between people around the world.

So it was that simple.  Legally in America, a state is commonwealth and a commonwealth is a state.  The two terms are interchangeable. 


If you happen to live in the American territories of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or the Commonwealth of Northern Marina Islands, than it seems different rules apply and commonwealth is not considered a state, per se.  According to the commonwealth entry in Wikipedia, “In the terminology of the United States insular areas, a Commonwealth is a type of organized but unincorporated dependent territory.”  So to sum up, sometimes a commonwealth is not a commonwealth and sometimes it is.  But in America, a state is always a state.

Incidentally, in February 2009 the Virginia Legislature passed a ban on smoking in most of the “commonwealth’s” bars and restaurants.

Quoth the Raven: Why Is There An Edger Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia?

If you are like me, than the city most closely associated with the literary figure Edgar Allan Poe is Baltimore, Maryland. Poe spent his final days in Baltimore and died under mysterious circumstances. Here is an account of his death by his cousin, Neilson Poe, reprinted in the book Edgar Allan Poe, by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Shawn Rosenheim:

“The [Baltimore] newspapers, in announcing his death, have only told a truth, which we may weep over & deplore, but cannot change. He died on Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, at the Washington Medical College, where had been since the Wednesday preceding. At what time he arrived in this city, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain. It appears that, on Wednesday, he was seen & recognised at one of the places of election in old town, and that his condition was such as to render it necessary to send him to the college, where he was tenderly nursed until the time of his death . . . . He lies alongside his ancestors in the Presbyterian burying ground on Green Street—.”

So perhaps, because he is buried in Baltimore and much of his extended Poe family was from Baltimore, he is most closely associated with that town.

Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised then to find that there was also a Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, which I attended on a recent trip to the city. In my personal historical research I knew that he had strong ties to the city, but was not sure how well-known that fact was. According to the museum, the Allan family, who were tobacco merchants, lived in Richmond. His first job was at the Southern Literary Messenger and he attended the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond and also gave a lecture in the city shortly before his death.

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond.  Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond. Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

I was disappointed, however, that there was no reference in the museum to the near duel in 1848 that Poe almost had with John Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, which I wrote about in my book, Pistols, Politics and the Press.  This, in my mind, helps cement Poe as a Richmond literary figure.  The near duel was over public comments made by Daniel regarding the growing relationship between family friend, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Poe. Infuriated, Poe sought to challenge Daniel to a duel over the controversy. According to some eyewitness accounts, Daniel, an expert duelist, called Poe’s bluff. He sent for Poe, who was apparently drunk, to meet him in his office at the Examiner. When Poe arrived, Daniel displayed two very large pistols on his desk and told him that instead of getting the police involved, that they should indeed settle the dispute with a duel. Poe apparently sobered up quickly and the situation was peacefully resolved.

A review of the two-volume works of Edgar Allan Poe, written by Daniel in the March 1850 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger, probably sums up popular opinion of the writer in Richmond at the time of his death:

“These half told tales and broken poems are the only records of a wild, hard life; and all that is left of a real genius, — genius in the true sense of the word, unmistakeable and original. No other American has half the chance of a remembrance in the history of literature. Edgar Poe’s reputation will rest in a very small minority of the compositions in these two volumes. Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad. The majority of his prose writings are the children of want and dyspepsia, of printer’s devils and of blue devils. Had he the power of applying his creative faculties—as have had the Miltons, the Shakespeares and all the other demiugi—he would have been a very great man.”

In short, even though he was a literary master, those who knew him never thought he worked up to his true potential. Some critics are never satisfied.

A Brief History of the Triangle as Solo Musical Instrument

I was chatting with my musician friend in a great café called Le Petite Triangle (said with a haughty French accent) when the subject turned to the triangle as a musical instrument. Since retiring from the saxophone in twelfth grade, I had been trying to find that secret shortcut to musical stardom. Could I be a solo trianglist?


My friend, who is a classically trained violinist, quickly dismissed the validity of the triangle exclaiming, “It’s part of the percussion section.” Of course, he meant that if I ever wanted to classically master the triangle as an instrument, I would have to become a percussionist. However, almost in the same breath he suggested that the triangle did have a type of tonal complexity that should not be taken lightly and could be quite demanding to master.


All jokes aside, that did get me thinking about the viability of the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be more than a novelty? More than an Ed Grimley punchline? Were there musicians out there who took on the musical discipline of the triangle as seriously as Yo Yo Ma with the cello? If so, were the parts even available for them to play in an orchestral setting?


Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

According to James Blades, author of Percussion Instruments and their History, the triangle in its ancient form had rings strung to the lower bar.


Yet the first mention we find of a triangle in tenth-century manuscript, is of an instrument without rings. A triangle without rings is depicted in the King Wenceslaus IV Bible (late fourteenth century) and again on a mid-fifteenth-century window in the Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s, Warwick. This latter triangle with its open corner has a curiously modern appearance, except that at the top angle the steel bar is twisted into a loop through which the thumb of the performer (an angel) passes.


Blades continued:


Like its ancestor the sistrum, the triangle was clearly used for religious ceremonies, quite widely in mediaeval churches judging from the frequency and virulence of the denunciations launched against them, and the necessity every few years to issue another edict prohibiting them. The triangle occurs more often than any other instrument except the cymbals in paintings of Bacchic processions and similar occasions, and angels will often be seen singing and playing a triangle at the same time.


So the triangle has a long and prestigious musical history. However, what of the triangle in its modern form, consisting of a rod of steel, open and slightly curved at one corner and meant to be struck with a steel stick or wooden handle? This was the instrument associated with the masters such as Mozart or Beethoven


According to the book, Modern Music and Musicians, “Beethoven, Mozart and many of classical as well as modern composers, have made use of this little instrument in some of their works. [The composer] Weber has used it prominently Gypsy music, as, for example, in his ‘Preciosa.’”


But in most classical musical pieces, the triangle was relegated to the background. I wanted to know if there was a composer that might utilize the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be possible?


In my research, I discovered that Franz Lizt composed a piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, which featured the triangle as a solo instrument in the third movement. At last, I had found it, proof that the triangle should be taken seriously. It’s nickname, in fact, is called “the triangle concerto.”


So, armed with this information, I took my discovery to my musician friend. I exclaimed, “Liszt! Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 features the triangle on solo!” He looked at me unimpressed and replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve played that.”


Still no respect, the journey continues.


A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Chef Boyardee

 When I tell people that Chef Boyardee started his multi-million dollar spaghetti-in-a-can business empire in Cleveland, the reaction I usually get is: “Chef Boyardee was a real person?”

Unlike fictional product icons such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, who were invented for marketing purposes, Chef Boyardee, whose real name was Hector Boiardi, was indeed an actual person.

Born in Italy in 1897, Boiardi came to America with the assistance of his brother, who worked in the hotel business.

According to foodreference.com, Boiardi was a hit in the American kitchen from the very start:

Three years later [after coming to Cleveland] he opened his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, where his spaghetti sauce was so popular, he was soon selling it in milk bottles for his customers to take home. He was soon producing the sauce in an adjacent building, expanded to include dry pasta and packets of cheese to go with the sauce.

Donna Gabbacia, author of We Are What We Eat, adds further insight:

He decided to can and distribute his sauce, initially packaging it with dry spaghetti and a packet of grated cheese, through his own business Chef Boiardi Food Products Company. Boiardi changed the name of his company (and its product) to Boyardee in the 1930s, mainly to ease pronunciation by non-Italians, as he sought a regional, cross-over market of multi-ethnic consumers. By the late 1930s, Boiardi was successfully selling canned spaghetti to A&P stores and reaching a national market. Boiardi even became a supplier to the U.S. army during World War II, further building a taste for Chef Boyardee among returning GIs.

Boiardi eventually sold his company to a large conglomerate that turned his idea into a multi-billion dollar business that is today owned by Con/Agra. He died in Parma, Ohio in 1985, an icon of American processed food and Italian-American pop culture.

It was the latter that inspired me to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place in order to pay homage. Since he died in Parma, I assumed that he was interred in a Parma-area cemetery. But after careful research, I discovered that he was in fact interred in a Cleveland suburb on the completely opposite side of town in Chardon’s All Souls Cemetery.

Enlisting a friend, we both set out on a countryside excursion in search of the Boiardi mausoleum. After finding our way through several winding roads in the middle of nowhere, we arrived at All Souls Cemetery.

Since we knew it was a mausoleum, we thought that it would stand out in a sea of grave markers and thus be easy to locate.  However, we soon discovered that was not the case.  We had to ask for directions.  Fortunately I had jotted down the cemetery office number on a post-it note just in case. 

Phone call to the staff office: “Good afternoon.  Can you please tell me where Chef Boyardee is interred?”

“One moment,” she replied, “Lot 23 in the Crucifixion Mausoleum under the name Hector Boiardi.”


The grave marker of Chef Boyardee

And so my friend and I made our way to the mausoleum and there he was, placed beside his wife, Helen. After a brief moment of silence and some personal reflection on the legacy of Chef Boyardee, my friend and I said arrivederci to the man, the mausoleum and All Souls. Both of us knowing that we would never look at a can of spaghetti and meatballs in quite the same way ever again.

A Word about SPAM…

With much of President Obama’s early history connected to Hawaii, it has brought to light the state’s unique association with a certain food item: SPAM. 


Yes that is correct, I am not referring to the White House’s new Internet agenda but rather the precooked meat product manufactured by Hormel Foods.  According to SPAM’s official Web site, www.spam.com, over 7 billion cans of the processed meat have been sold worldwide since the food’s introduction in 1937.  Furthermore, most statistics generally agree that Hawaii has the highest SPAM consumption rate per capita in the world. In an online article for Via, a AAA’s traveler’s companion, Constance Hale wrote, “Fiftieth staters consume nearly 6 million cans a year, or almost six cans for every man, woman, and child.  Some call the gelatinous pink pork ‘Hawaii’s soul food.’”


But what is SPAM and why is it so popular in Hawaii?  According to Rachel Laudan in The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, the Hormel Company set out to design a canned meat that was neither tough nor bland. 


To beat the toughness, they ground pork up finely; to give it savor, they spiced it up with salt, sugar, and a variety of other flavorings.  They held a competition for a catchy name: in 1937, a certain Keith Daugneau submitted the winning entry—SPAM (spiced ham)—and walked off with the $100 prize. SPAM  joined and then overtook sardines, luncheon meat, corned beef, and Vienna sausages as a favorite.  All keep well, are quick and easy to prepare, can be stretched with vegetables, and taste good with rice.  In World War II, when offshore fishing was prohibited, SPAM helped fill the gap. 


In fact, because it is vacuum sealed and thus requires no refrigeration, SPAM became very popular with the troops stationed in Hawaii during WWII.  They in turn, introduced it to the island population and it stuck.  Hormel refers to the product on their Web site as, “meat, with a pause button.” 


It is such a signature food for Hawaii that a yearly event in Waikiki, called “SPAM JAM”, attracted approximately 20,000 people in 2008.  In fact, the canned meat is so popular that McDonald’s restaurants in Hawaii carry SPAM products.


One of the favorite ways of eating SPAM is in a sushi-like form called Musubi.  Time magazine reported that when President Obama was golfing in Oahu during the holidays, he stopped for two hot dogs, two sodas and two SPAM musubis.  Peter K. Yamashita, the general manager of the golf course, was quoted in the magazine saying, “You know he’s a local boy if he’s eating Spam Musubi.” 


Incidentally, the runner-ups for SPAM consumption per capita were the territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.   




Musubi: SPAM Chic

Musubi: SPAM Chic