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Journalist Jennie June Was "Having It All" in the 19th Century

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Striking a happy balance between work and home has been a struggle for women for decades. Long before “having it all” permeated acclaimed sitcoms like 30 Rock and just about every women's magazine, it was the groundbreaking reality of journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, better known to her readers as Jennie June.

Jane Cunningham was born in England in 1829, but she grew up in the United States after her family emigrated in 1841. As a child, she ravenously ripped through the books in the library of her Unitarian preacher father. She also dipped her toe into journalism by volunteering on the semi-monthly newspaper her brother's ministry published in Massachusetts. After her father died in 1854, she boldly moved to New York City to seek work in the newspaper business under the pseudonym Jennie June. 

June faced a steep climb. The publishing industry was incredibly sexist, with editors effectively barring women from writing anything but “soft” news intended for female audiences. Unruffled, June leveraged one article in The New York Tribune into a column for Noah's Weekly Messenger called "Parlor and Side-walk Gossip." The column took off, and by 1857 papers as far away as New Orleans were printing June’s work, making her one of the first—if not the first—female journalists to be nationally syndicated.

Jumping Out of Hoops 

By the 1860s, she began writing for women's magazines like Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashions, Demorest's Monthly Magazine, Home-Maker Magazine, and The Cycle (which she founded). Within these pages, June ignored fashion magazines’ standard of celebrating traditional looks and spurning innovation. Instead, she used her platform to promote clothes that were both fashionable and functional. Her column "Talks With Women" suggested more "healthful" dress. June harbored a special hatred for bloomers, support hoops, and skirts that dragged on the ground, and favored cord corsets over whalebone ones. 

June columns championing practical clothes resonated with readers, and before long, other fashion writers were quoting her views. She was doing more than just talking, though—June’s position as Demorest’s chief staff writer enabled her to put savvier fashions in women’s reach. The title offered a pullout dress pattern with each issue, which allowed June to give 19th century American woman the tools they needed to reshape their wardrobes.

Written Pep Talks

June wanted to inspire women to change more than how they dressed. Her “Talks with Women" series pushed other issues close to June's heart, including success stories of accomplished women, the importance of women in the workplace, women’s access to education, equal pay, and their value in the home. The talks were a hit with readers and newsstand owners—The American Bookseller praised them as “sprightly and sensible.” In 1864, she collected her columns for the book Jennie Juneiana: Talks on Women's Topics. The intro gives some sense of her warmth and wit:

Dear Friend: Do not be angry that I have presumed to give you these simple thoughts in the pretentious form of a book. It was not my fault: I was told to do so, and I did it, - exactly how or why I cannot tell. I think I should not have done so, however, if I had not been conscious that, poor as they are, and written, some in sorrow, some in pain, and all in the hurry and excitement of a busy newspaper life, they contain nothing which can do any harm, and some things which may do a little good; that they are at least true, as the expression of thought, feeling and conviction; and from the very nature of the circumstances which produced them, may contain words which will go straight to the locked recesses of some woman’s heart, as others have to mine.

A Balancing Act

Amid her "busy newspaper lifestyle," June was also a devoted mother and proud homemaker. By 1877, she was her family’s sole breadwinner after a quarrel with his employers and eventual declining health forced her husband to stop working. For June, "having it all" required careful planning. She devoted the first three hours of her day to her children and household chores. By noon, she'd be in her office, where her husband and children knew not to disturb her as she worked through the wee hours of the night.

That is, unless she and Mr. Croly had plans to socialize with their famous friends, a group that included Louisa May Alcott, Alice and Phoebe Cary, and Oscar Wilde. To that entertaining end, June gladly shared recipes with her readers in the form of magazines as well as Jennie June's American Cookery Book, which notably contained Susan B. Anthony's preferred method of making Apple Tapioca Pudding.

Surprisingly, June did not share Anthony's passion for women’s suffrage. Although June was outspoken on gender equality in her writing, she shied away from pushing for voting rights, which may have helped make June a forgotten figure of early feminism. Historians have suspected that June felt other issues—like access to work and education—were more pressing matters for women. Once those goals were achieved, she believed, "All the rest will follow."

Building a Movement

On top of her storied journalism career, June also founded a series of women's clubs where issues of gender equality could be discussed within a strong community. She called the first Women’s Parliament in 1856 and the second in 1869. After June and fellow female journalists were barred from a talk Charles Dickens was giving in New York in 1868, she created her most famous club, Sorosis, which sought “collective elevation and advancement.” The rise of similar groups across the U.S. urged June to found the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1890. In her book The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America, she succinctly explained their origins and importance: "The woman has been the one isolated fact in the universe. The outlook upon the world, the means of education, the opportunities for advancement, had all been denied her.”

June thought the social connection and support system these clubs could provide would be a cure to this sense of isolation and powerlessness. Her efforts earned June the nickname Mother of Women's Clubs. Meanwhile, her expertise and acclaim as America's best-known female journalist helped her pioneer another profession when Rutgers University made her the first woman to teach journalism at the college level.

June worked in journalism and within her clubs until a fall at 69 forced her to slow down for the last three years of her life. Her 1901 New York Times obituary hailed June as the “first American newspaper woman,” and in 1994 June’s tireless advocacy for all women earned her enshrinement in the National Women's Hall of Fame. Whether women chose a path in education, homemaking, employment, or all of the above, the important thing for Jennie June was that they were able to choose. 

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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