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The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

Those Magnificent Ladies in Their Flying Machines

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The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

In the early days of human flight, a new word entered our lexicon: "aviatrix," the female version of "aviator." These women were true pioneers, although if you asked them, they would probably tell you they were just adventurous and loved flying -same as the men who took to the air in those days. Or even today, for that matter. But for a woman to drive one of the newfangled flying machines in the early 20th century took a can-do attitude that wasn't normally encouraged in women.

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

Elise Raymonde Deroche was the first woman to receive a pilot's license. She was not a baroness, but a French plumber's daughter who became a stage actress under the name Raymonde de Laroche. In 1908, she was smitten with the idea of flying when she saw an exhibition by the Wright Brothers. Immediately, de Laroche began taking flying lessons from airplane builder Charles Voisin. His plane could only hold one person, so her first actual flying lesson was a solo flight, on October 22, 1909. There is some evidence that she was not the first female to fly solo, but she is definitely the first to earn a license. The newsletter of the Royal Aero Club referred to her as a "Baroness" in its report of her feat. Raymonde de Laroche never objected to the title, which stuck to her for life.

Raymonde de Laroche flew in exhibitions and races, but was denied the opportunity to fly in World War I. After the war, she was determined to become a test pilot. She got the job in 1919. In her first test flight, in which she was co-pilot, the plane took a nose dive and both Raymonde de Laroche and the pilot were killed instantly.

Blanche Stuart Scott

Born in 1885, Blanche Scott was an adventurer before she became a pilot. Scott was the second woman ever to drive an automobile coast to coat, from California to New York, in 1910. At the end of her stunt, she took her first flying lesson from pilot Jerome Fanciulli.

To prevent her aircraft from gaining enough speed to become airborne while taxiing on her own, Curtiss inserted block of wood behind the throttle pedal. However, "something happened" on September 2, and Scott managed to fly to an altitude of forty feet in the air.

The Aeronautical Society of America denied Scott the title of "first U.S. female aviator" because her solo flight was not intentional. However, Scott went on to become an accomplished pilot. She joined an exhibition team and performed daredevil stunts, and also went on to work as a test pilot for Glenn Martin aircraft (which eventually became Lockheed-Martin). Scott retired from professional flying in 1916, and became a Hollywood script writer.

Bessica Raiche

Bessica Raiche stood out from the crowd. Born in 1875, she entered the 20th century driving an automobile, wearing bloomers, and eventually practicing medicine as both a dentist and an obstetrician. She and her husband, Frenchman Francois Raiche, were fascinated by aviation and decided to build their own airplane in their backyard in Mineola, New York. They designated Bessica to be the test pilot, because she weighed less than Francois. With no training or experience, she took off for the plane's first short flight on September 16, 1910. In fact, Raiche made five flights that day -and would have flown more, if the plane hadn't crashed. Since she is the first documented woman to fly solo deliberately, Raiche was certified by the Aeronautical Society of America as the first U.S. female aviator. She and Francois went on to build more airplanes, making improvements on each one.

Hélène Dutrieu

Hélène Dutrieu was born in 1877 in Belgium, and by age 20 she was a professional stunt cyclist and champion racer on both automobiles and motorcycles. But that wasn't enough- Dutrieu also learned to fly, and was the fourth woman in the world to earn a license, in 1910. She became one of the first female professional pilots, breaking records and performing in air shows. To put her accomplishment in perspective, she caused a bit of a scandal when it became known that she did not wear a corset while flying. But that still wasn't enough. During World War I, Dutrieu drove an ambulance and worked her way up to director of a military hospital. After the war, she went into journalism and worked to promote the role of women in aviation.

Ruth Law

Born in 1887, Ruth Bancroft Law received her pilot's license in 1912 and began a career as a stunt pilot. Law was very competitive, always trying to outrace, outfly, or do a more dangerous stunt than the next pilot. In 1916, she announced her intention to break the distance record by flying from Chicago to the New York state line, a distance of 590 miles. Few took her seriously. When she tried to buy a plane large enough to carry the necessary fuel, the manufacturer refused, saying a woman couldn't do it (and besides, they were busy building planes for the war). So Law had to make do with a smaller, older Curtis biplane. She outfitted it with an extra gas tank, but she still had to use both her hands for controls, which meant juggling navigation maps as best as she could.

On November 19, 1916, Law took off from Chicago in very cold weather, fighting high winds. There were a couple of close calls along the way, as she encountered fog and high mountains. Law ran out of gas before reaching New York state, and glided in powerless for the last few miles. But she made it, and set a new world non-stop distance record.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was born the tenth of thirteen children to sharecroppers in the tiny town of Atlanta, Texas. She had to move away from the family to attend high school, but could only afford one year of tuition. At 23, she went to Chicago and became a manicurist. But as she followed the progress of World War I, she dreamed of flying an airplane. No one would teach a black woman to fly, so she went to France in 1920 to take an aviation course at the Somme, sponsored by the Chicago weekly newspaper The Defender. She was the only woman in her class to receive a pilot's license, but even more, she was the first black American woman to gain a license, and the first person of African American descent to hold an international pilot's license.

Coleman's dream was to open her own school for aviators, but first she had to establish her own flying career. Back in the U.S., she still could not find anyone to train her in the skills she would need for barnstorming shows, the most lucrative of civilian aviation careers at the time. So she returned to Europe for more training in 1922. When she began headlining air shows with her daredevil maneuvers, she gained the respect of men and women, black and white. Coleman became know as "Queen Bess." In addition to flying, she gave lectures on aviation and performed educational exhibition flights. And she saved her money for her school. But it was not to be. On April 30, 1926, she was testing out a plane she had recently purchased, with mechanic William Wills piloting. Coleman was not wearing a seatbelt, as she wanted to check out the vantage point from which she was scheduled to parachute the next day. The engine jammed, the plane shook, and Coleman fell out, plummeting to her death. She was 34 years old.

Pancho Barnes

Photograph: The San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.

Florence Leontine Lowe was born in 1901 to a wealthy family who raised her in high society. She took riding and ballet lessons, but she was particularly drawn to the interests of her grandfather, legendary Civil War balloonist Thaddeus Lowe. He took Florence to her first aviation show in 1910, and told her one day she would have her own flying machine.

Florence's family arranged her marriage to minister C. Ranken Barnes in 1921. She had a son, but was never happy as a housewife, and felt that she had to compete for the minister's attention. She and the minister separated and were divorced a few years later. This freed Florence, nicknamed "Pancho" by her friends, for the adventures she craved. In 1928, Pancho took flying lessons and passed her solo test after only six hours of instruction. Very few women achieved pilot's licenses at the time, and Pancho's was signed by Orville Wright. She immediately took to barnstorming, performing in air shows and competing in air races. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart's world women's speed record by flying at over 196 miles per hour! Pancho then turned to Hollywood, where she became a stunt pilot in several movies. She also founded a union for stunt pilots, the Associated Motion Picture Pilots

In 1935, Barnes bought 180 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, near Muroc Field, now a part of Edwards Air Force Base. She opened The Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch with a hotel, restaurant, nightclub, and a working farm. Barnes arranged for the expanding air base to give her leftover food which she fed to her pigs, which she would then sell to the Air Force. The nightclub became a favorite hangout for pilots, including Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, and the test pilots who went on to become the Mercury astronauts. You might recall Pancho and her nightclub as it was portrayed in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. She was also the subject of a 2009 PBS documentary, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho Barnes died of breast cancer in 1975.

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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