Monday, April 25, 2011

Showing Laura Ingalls Wilder Around

I really loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was growing up.  I used to imagine that she came to visit the late 20th century and I was charged with showing her around. Why she would want or even need to be shown my particular slice of the century--the outskirts of Redmond, the height of gentrifying Northwestern suburbia, with your tour guide, a book-aholic only-child with an already well-developed affinity for public broadcasting and history books (my grandma always said I was "born old," like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. It only reinforces the point that I knew that reference even as a 10 year old)--was unimportant. All that mattered was that I loved Laura's life and her story so I liked to imagine what would happen if she was dropped into my world like I was in hers through her stories.
Laura! Welcome to Redmond!

First stop, television. Then the car. If we were lucky, I might have been able to convince my dad to drive us to the airport. "Remember all those long weeks in your wagon moving to a new place?" I'd say.  I played "Oregon Trail." I knew the dangers of wagon travel: people were always falling out and drowning, or getting bit by snakes. "We have flying wagons now. You'd be on the banks of Plum Creek in no time."

I also imagined myself in her world. The dugout house in Minnesota held particular appeal. I couldn't believe people could actually live in a hillside with walls made of dirt. I once tried to dig my own house in the side of a mound of topsoil my parents got to build flower beds. Let's just say it didn't quite work out.

I had a very vivid historical imagination.

In grad school, I met a woman from Japan who chose the University of Wisconsin history program, in part, because of its relative nearness to Pepin, Wisconsin, aka Little House in the Big Woods. She told me that people in Japan loved Laura and they especially loved the 1970s and 1980s television show. When she told her parents she had chosen Wisconsin for school, the only thing they knew about Wisconsin was that Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived here. A good enough reason as any for choosing a school, right? Once, my friend even dressed up as Laura and went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder festival in Pepin. She was concerned that she might look foolish--a Japanese woman in her 30s wearing braids and a bonnet--but instead she found people who loved Laura just as much as she did.

There's just something about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wendy McClure has even written a book about the enduring appeal of Laura called  The Wilder Life.

Despite all the love for Laura, I'm probably the only one who saw herself as Laura's tour guide to the future.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hydropathy in the Family

I drink a lot of water every day. And I walk a lot, everywhere in fact, many, many, many miles a day. So when I first started reading about hydropathy, I could easily see myself fitting right in with the hydropaths. They instructed patients to drink at least 12 glasses of water (actually "tumblers") a day and to walk as far as possible between treatments. One guy, James Wilson, took the advice to drink a lot of water a little overboard--he drank more than thirty glasses before breakfast while staying at the original hydropathy institute in Grafenberg, Germany. When he started his own water cure in England, he gave everyone glasses so they could follow his lead.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one with hydropathic sympathies in the family. On a recent trip to visit my parents, I discovered that my great-grandmother graduated from the Kellberg Institute for Hygiene, Massage, and Medical Gymnastics in Chicago with a specialty in water-therapeutics. She was a 20th century hydropath! No wonder I love all this medical history!

Medical gymnastics is what we would think of as just exercising today. It was the use of physical exercise as a therapy to restore or stay healthy. The medical and health benefits of exercising don't need to be justified today, but until the 20th century, many people were not sure that exercise wasn't harmful, especially to women.

From my very limited initial research, it appears that the Kellberg Institute was founded by Swedish immigrants (my great-grandmother was also a Swedish immigrant to Chicago). This makes sense as the Swedes had been particularly interested in the use of gymnastics for health since the early 19th century. They used gymnastics to improve the physical fitness of the general public in schools, in the military and as a medical healing process. 
Medical gymnastics in action

Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish gymnastic system in the early 19th century. He was a fencing master, and with his son Hjalmer, he developed a program of functional physical gymnastics training. They founded the Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm in 1813 to provide training for teachers and members of the military. Ling's Swedish gymnastics programs had four parts: medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic. Training involved the correct performance of prescribed gymnastic movements under the watchful eye of a trainer.

Other European countries followed Sweden's lead and instituted gymnastics programs to aid physical healing and to promote health from the early 19th century onward. This was likely the program taught at the Kellberg Institute to graduates like my great-grandmother.  

By the 20th century, hydropathy in its original form had virtually disappeared, morphed into an overall system of hygiene and exercise that would be quite recognizable as the keys to good health today: exercise, a sensible diet, plenty of sleep, and lots of water. 

Monday, April 4, 2011


The 2010 documentary "How to Start Your Own Country" explores what happens when people decide to declare their little piece of the earth (or in the case of The Principality of Sealand, a platform six miles off the coast of Britain) an independent country. The film raises fascinating questions about what makes a country a country, a question you may have never thought to ask (I hadn't). What's perhaps most surprising is that even the United Nations doesn't have a clear idea of what constitutes a legitimate country--they can't even say for certain how many countries there are in the world: who considers what legitimate is highly variable it turns out. The Czech Republic, for example, doesn't recognize Lichtenstein as a country and yet Lichtenstein is a member of the U.N. so does that make it a country or not?

The film made me think of my longstanding interest in utopias. Most utopias are communities, not countries. I wonder why someone chooses a community rather than a country to make the world anew? Sure, it's easier to start a utopian community. You don't have to print new money or establish any of the other public services and supports like a telephone system, post office, or financial system. But it's also harder to subvert the existing social, cultural, and economic order, which many utopias, especially in the 19th century sought to do. It's hard to break free of something you are dependent on, which must be part of the great appeal of micronations.

I was pleased to learn that Wisconsin has a micronation. It's called Talossa and it's located in Milwaukee. This isn't Wisconsin's first micronation, though.

In 1847, a breakaway Mormon leader named James Strang established a kingdom with himself as ruler (of course) on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. This was in the years before the Latter Day Saints had moved to Utah. After the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1844, Strang produced a document (that he forged) claiming that he had been selected by Smith to be his successor. The community split on the question of who to follow: Strang or Brigham Young. The majority followed Young but a group took Strang's word for it and followed him to Wisconsin. They first founded a colony called Voree near Burlington, Wisconsin, and later established a kingdom on Beaver Island. It was there, on July 8, 1850, that Strang had himself crowned king, the only man in American history to have achieved that title. 

Attacks and in-fighting doomed Strang's kingdom, however, and Strang himself was assassinated in 1856. The community soon broke up, ending an early chapter in Wisconsin micronation history.