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17 of Thomas Edison's Oldest Films

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Thomas Edison was a man of firsts. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that he built the first movie studio in 1893 (called the Black Maria, above). Stocked with a staff of fellow know-it-alls, Edison’s Company made nearly 1200 films. Here are some of Edison’s best oldies, from the first recording of a kiss to the greatest cat video on the internet.

1. Newark Athlete (1891)

Film doesn’t get much older than this! A young boy twirls two Indian Clubs in one of Edison’s earliest experimental film fragments.

2. Fred Ott’s Famous sneeze (1894)

Fred Ott was the jokester of Edison labs, so when Edison needed a model for his new Kinetograph, Ott was the perfect choice. Here, Ott sniffs a pinch of snuff and lets out the sneeze seen ‘round the world. It’s the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture.

3. Carmencita—The first woman on film (1894)

When Spanish dancer Carmencita brought her saucy act to Edison’s lab, she became the first woman ever to appear in front of a motion picture camera.

4. Annie Oakley Sharpshooting (1894)

"Little Sure Shot" Annie Oakley easily obliterated these targets in Edison’s studio. Oakley and Edison met when he visited the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, where she was performing as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

5. Sandow the Strong Man (1894)

Considered the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugene Sandow could flex some serious muscle.

6. Sioux Ghost Dance: The Native American Film Debut (1894)

Edison’s team was the first to record American Indians with a motion picture camera. Like Oakley, the Sioux here were part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

7. The World’s First Hand-Tinted Motion Picture (1895)

Broadway dancer Annabelle Moore caused a stir when people caught a peek above her knee in this colorful short. Scandalous!

8. The First Kiss for the Movie Cameras (1896)

Actors May Irwin and John Rice smooch for the camera, reenacting a scene from the musical The Widow Jones. It caused an uproar. Not only was it one of the first commercial films shown to the public, it was also the first to capture a kiss.

9. The Sutro Baths (1897)

When San Francisco’s Sutro baths opened in 1896, it was the largest indoor swimming complex in the world. It seems people weren’t on their best behavior there.  

10. Wreckage of the Battleship Maine (1898)

In February 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor and ignited the Spanish-American War. This footage by William Paley roves around the wreckage.

11. The First Ballgame on Film (1898)

Possibly the first recording of America’s pastime, ballplayers donning “Newark” jerseys chug to first base.

12. Street-side Acrobatics (1898)

Break dancing has been around longer than you think!

13. The World’s First Car Parade (1899)

The modern automobile was born in 1886, so it was only a matter of time before people started dedicating entire parades to them. Here, Edison’s team captures the first annual automobile parade in Manhattan.

14. What Happened on 23rd Street? (1901)

As trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, and dapper men amble down a dusty NYC street, a couple—two actors—walk to the camera and pause at an air vent. According to the Edison Company’s film catalog, “The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby.” You be the judge.

15. A Bustling Fish market (1903)

Health inspectors patrol this street market in the Lower East Side—once a hub for Jewish commerce—as peddlers and customers bicker. Can you imagine what they’re saying?

16. The Oldest Existing Footage of a Football Game: Princeton and Yale (1903)

Although 50,000 fans were in the New Haven stands, the visiting Tigers got the W, winning 11-6. The action starts at 2:13.

17. The Greatest Video of All-Time (1894)

Behold! The King of Cat videos!

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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