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William Shakespeare’s Father: Official Ale-Taster of Stratford-upon-Avon

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Today William Shakespeare’s life is discussed and debated almost as much as his plays and poems are—so much so, in fact, that a handful of his biographical tidbits (like the fact he left his wife their “second best bed”) have long since become general knowledge. But the lives of all the other members of Shakespeare’s family remain relatively little known—including the fact that William’s father, John, was once appointed official ale-taster of Stratford-upon-Avon. 

John Shakespeare was born in Snitterfield, a small village in Warwickshire, England, sometime around 1530. The Catholic son of a local farmer, he moved to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon in 1551 to open a store selling the wheat, wool, leather and other commodities produced on his father’s farm. His relationship with his future wife, Mary Arden (William’s mother), was probably already well established by the time John moved to Stratford; although it’s unclear when the couple first met, the Shakespeares had long used the Arden family’s land to graze their livestock, so it’s presumed that John and Mary had known each other most of their lives. Given that the Ardens were wealthy and aristocratic, however, it’s likely that Mary’s family would not have been too happy about her relationship with John, but they were nevertheless married in 1557. 

Despite being relatively poorly educated and unable to write (he used a drawing of a pair of compasses as his signature), John was reportedly an accomplished craftsman and an ambitious businessman, so that by the time he and Mary married he had already expanded his business in Stratford to begin trading in handmade gloves and high-quality leather, owned two houses, and, according to some records, had even begun operating as a moneylender. With his business now flourishing—and no doubt buoyed by Mary’s family’s connections to the aristocracy—the Shakespeares soon became one of Stratford’s foremost families, and John was appointed to one of the most important public offices in the town: official ale-taster. 

It might seem like a bizarre job (or a brilliant one, for that matter) today, but in Elizabethan England ale-tasting—or “conning,” as it was also known—was an important and highly-respected occupation. Since Medieval times, towns across England had appointed official “conners” to test the strength and quality of all locally-brewed ale to ensure that it was sold for a fair price, and would therefore raise an appropriate amount of taxable revenue. The job ultimately carried a considerable amount of responsibility—conners were required to swear an oath, and were given the power to lower the price of ale they deemed to be of poor quality, and to report breweries that were sub-standard or engaged in fraudulent, underhanded practices.

Not all the beer the conners tasted would have passed the test, however, and in the days before preservatives and strict hygiene rules, beer would frequently spoil, making the job of tasting it not always the most pleasant (nor the safest) of tasks. What’s more, as if being obliged by oath to take a mouthful of spoiled ale wasn't bad enough, according to at least one account of the job the sugar content of ale was originally tested by pouring some of it out onto a wooden bench and sitting in it while wearing leather breeches—as the ale was warmed by the conner’s behind, it would become sticky and adhere to the leather, with the ale containing the most sugar producing the stickiest puddle (although this technique is thankfully now thought to be apocryphal). 

John Shakespeare was appointed official ale-taster of Stratford in 1556, around the time of his and Mary’s marriage. It’s not known how long he held the post, but it was the first of many high-ranking positions he went on to hold in the town: he was made a borough constable (essentially an early policeman) in 1558; he became an affeeror, responsible for doling out penalties for crimes not on the statute books, the following year; by 1561 he was borough chamberlain; in 1565 he was made alderman; and, in 1571, Chief Alderman. 

John’s rise from the son of a tenant farmer to Chief Alderman of Stratford understandably changed his family’s prospects—as alderman, his children were granted a free grammar school education, so that when William was born in 1564 he was guaranteed the best education available to him—but unfortunately, John’s success soon came to an end. For reasons that remain unclear (but likely involve the increasing persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England), from the late 1570s onwards the Shakespeares began experiencing a period of steep decline, both professionally and personally. John’s application for a family coat of arms was mysteriously declined, and growing financial troubles led to him being fined for failing to show up to a court hearing in 1580 and he was eventually stripped of all his civic duties. Anne Shakespeare, the family’s seventh child, died in 1579 at just 7, and in 1582 the family undoubtedly became the subject of local scandal when 18-year-old William brought home 27-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was three months pregnant with his child; the pair were promptly married, and Anne gave birth to Susanna Shakespeare, William’s eldest child, the following year. 

Despite the scandal, however, it was William’s success as a playwright in London that eventually improved his family’s fortunes—two years after his theatrical troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed for Elizabeth I, John was finally granted his coat of arms, and, although he never returned to public office, his business eventually began to recover. He died in 1601, at about the age of 70.

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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