Tag Archives: 19th Century

BBC America, “Copper”, and Haberdashery

26 Aug

Against my better judgement, I watched the season opener of BBC America’s Copper. The show is, as far as I can tell, about a rough and tumble detective named Kevin Corcoran in 1864 New York. I was wary to watch it because the commercials made it look like the BBC interpreted 19th century New York City (i.e. the biggest city/most urban area in the United States already by that time) as the Wild Wild West- muddy streets, wooden storefronts, and all. I did decide to watch it; however, because they lured me in with promises of a mid-episode sneak peak at the next season of Doctor Who (plus I’m weak to the wiles of historical fiction in any format). Despite their commercials, the characterization of 1864 New York City is not as bad as I anticipated. Id even go as far as to say that over, all the show is okay. But I have to say that my overriding thought while watching the show is: “OH MY GOSH- HATS!”

Haberdashery is such a lost art. I feel like great hats sneaked off the scene somewhere in the 60s, leaving Americans in particular in boring, bare-headed turmoil. Now I have to think about styling my hair every day, when I could have been gallivanting around in a fabulous hat. Not that I’d give up the internet, microwavable chicken nuggets, daily hot showers, or anything to to go back in time and live out my hat-wearing fantasies,  but still… I’m hoping that at some point, hats come back in fashion in a big way. Yes, Copper is mostly about men (and their bowlers, top hats, and assorted other headgear), but the “OMG HATS!” feeling is even stronger during this TV show than the feeling I get watching Downton Abbey or any incarnation of Masterpiece Theater. (Hrm…I’m getting the feeling that I’m more likely to experience the reification of haberdashery in Great Britain than I am in America.)

Perhaps I’m getting distracted from the point of the show by all of the hats (I am definitely getting distracted from the point of the show by the hats), but at least it keeps my mind off of the occasionally strange accents that pop up (yes, BBC America, I understand that NYC circa 1864 was a cultural and linguistic melting pot…no, I do not think that means all New Yorkers pronounced “about” like a native Vancouverite), and the logical inconsistencies that crop up in any TV show. (Police back then had, do now have, and will continue to have in the future, jurisdictions and districts. They do not just run around investigating crimes wherever they feel like. Also- they never miss a shot, ever? With a gun in 1864? Really? Seems unlikely, but hey, I’m no firearms expert.)

All that being said, I will probably continue to watch the show. And I encourage you to watch the show (although if you’re looking for historical New York City with a slightly lighter flare, I suggest New Amsterdam, starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is now in Game of Thrones, another quasi-historical/fictional show I enjoy.), because there are never enough historical-ish shows on television, at least for my taste anyways. I tend to love whatever BBC puts on air anyways, why should Copper be any different? As a warning, it’s a little dark, and probably inappropriate for children (more than just in the normal crime/detective show gore kind of way, since I think CSI, Bones, and NCIS are all appropriate for children. Copper is inappropriate in an on-screen violence, naked people, and prostitutes kind of way). Still, it features the excellent writing, zinging one-liners, good acting, and well-executed settings that are hallmarks of any BBC show.  Go for it!

P.S. In addition to the frequent “OMG HATS!” feeling, this show also elicits a well-earned “WOAHHHH, MUTTONCHOPS…” reaction as well. It is the 1860s…

P.P.S. You have to love the BBC for letting their writers use whatever vocabulary they want. Dumbing it down for the Americans? No way! Bring on the 19th century words!

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

28 Sep

Today’s person is a nutcase. I came across him while reading the book, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild (which I highly recommend).   He was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in the year 1841 (ahh, a good year). Sadly, neither his mom, Elizabeth Parry, nor anyone else in his family wanted to take care of him. As a result, he was sent to St. Asaph’s Union Workhouse (which reminds me or the Warner Brothers film Anastasia. That could not have been any fun).

Eventually he escaped this life by catching a ship to America, where he decided to completely change his life story. He changed his name to something you might recognize, Henry Morton Stanley (after his employer, who was named Henry Stanley) and started telling people he was an American. He made up lots of stories about himself that don’t check out at all.

Fun fact: Henry Morton Stanley (who we have established is Welsh by birth, and American by delusion) is one of the very few people who ended up seeing combat on both sides of the Civil War. He started out fighting for the Confederates and got caught and sent to prison by the Union soldiers. He was given the opportunity to get out of prison my agreeing to fight for the Union army, which he did. However, after not so much time in the service of the Union army, he deserted.

Through a series of events, he came to be a journalist and explorer (sometimes I wish I could go back a few centuries and be an explorer/academic/person of the times, but then I think about it and realize that if Iwent back in time, I would likely be involved in something like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire). Anyways, Henry Stanley Morton became a journalist, which gave him the opportunity to go abroad and send salacious stories back to the US newspapers.

Since he was really good at embellishing stories (which made him really popular with his newspaper editor back in New York) and already in Africa for some exploration, Stanley was in the right place at the right time when David Livingstone (British explorer in Africa) went missing somewhere in the African Continent. Hoping to snap up the first scoop, Stanley’s editor put him on the job in 1871.

As the story goes (reminder: Stanley wrote the story), Henry Morton Stanley saved the embattled Dr. Livingstone (hence his most famous quote that makes the title of this post) and brought him back to civilization. He wrote a book about his incredibly difficult and heroic adventure which was very, very popular. (Livingstone didn’t really get a chance to chime in with his own side of the story because he died shortly after his “rescue”… this has a strange way of happening a lot with anyone who might disagree with Stanley’s stories. Conspiracy?)

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Illustration for 1876 French Edition
After his now-famous journey, Stanley headed a number of other expeditions into Africa. For instance, he was responsible for the being the first (non-African) person to find the mouth of the Congo river and to traverse completely across Central Africa. Although his stories were widely read in the United States, not everyone liked him. He came under fire by some people for his blatant disregard for the African people he encounters (he likes to shoot them…a lot).
I think its probably difficult to come up with a good take-away message about Henry Morton Stanley. He was a pretty bad guy: he lied about pretty much everything, was responsible for a ton of deaths, and was an overall pretty rotten character. Yet, he was a fairly important historical figure with a solid impact on the way history went (he helped King Leopold II to get ahold of the Congo, which was definitely not good for Congolese people). And to make it worse, he was really successful as a journalist and explorer (both pretty sweet jobs). To conclude this post, I’ll add a picture that I think says a lot about crazy Henry Morton Stanley: