Inside the Tolstoy Family Reunion

Leo Tolstoy tells a story about a boy who kept eating cucumbers that grew larger and larger, to the delight of his grandchildren Ilya Andreevich and Sophia Andreevna (Sonia). Sonia grew up to be the director of the museum. During the German occupation, she evacuated the house's contents to Siberia for protective safekeeping.

 
It was almost closing time in the Leo Tolstoy House-Museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate. I stood in the bedroom of my great-great-grandmother, Sophia Andreevna, Leo Tolstoy’s wife. I was named after Sophia, who was also known as Sonia. It was the last day of my weeklong stay at the estate. In the past 16 years, I had been in this room at least eight times. I had seen before the small paintings and black-and-white photographs of family members lining the walls; a talented amateur photographer in the early days of the medium, Sophia had taken them herself. Her dressing table gave the impression that it had just been organized, as if Sophia herself had recently sat there, perhaps before leaving on a trip. Small decorated jars, a handheld mirror, and a bristle hairbrush were lined up perfectly, and nearby, an open suitcase held hand-stitched fabric.

The sound of a Chopin duet echoed from the adjacent dining hall, or salon, where portraits of family ancestors hung on the walls and 20 descendants of the Tolstoys were gathered for a small, private concert. I went into the room to listen more closely. Chopin was one of Leo’s favorite composers, and is also one of mine. This salon was the heart of the family home for entertaining guests and where they often gathered to stage plays, play charades in costume, and make music together on the same grand piano being played today. Leo and Sonia loved to play four-handed pieces by Schumann and Brahms, among others. The whole family was very musical, several played the guitar, and of course all played the piano. In fact, Sergei Lvovich, Leo and Sonia’s oldest son, became a well-known musician and composer. They were especially fond of folk songs and gypsy singing, and Sonia's sister Tanya—the prototype for Natasha Rostova in War and Peace—had a beautiful voice. She sang for family and guests regularly. In the corner stood a chess table where Leo enjoyed challenging his friends and family.

I had seen all this before, and yet it felt different this time. I was suddenly overtaken with feelings of warmth and intimacy that brought tears to my eyes. The house had always felt like a museum … but now, I felt a closeness. Perhaps it was the music. Or perhaps it was because I was in a family embrace.

Welcome to the Tolstoy Family Reunion.

Some of Tolstoy's descendants gather next to the family home, now a museum, at Yasnaya Polyana in 2012.

 
I am one of Lev (Leo) Nikolaevitch Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughters. According to our family tree, I am number 196 of the nearly 400 direct descendants of Leo, almost 300 of whom are still alive. A small book about the museum-estate includes a list of Leo Tolstoy’s descendants, where Leo is number one, his eldest child Sergei Lvovich is number two, and so on. We are all catalogued under our generation ranging from children all of the way through great-great-great-great grandchildren. Over the years, revolutions and wars have spread us across the globe, and we now live in Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the U.S., Uruguay, and of course Russia, among other countries. Since 2000, biannual family reunions have been held at Yasnaya Polyana (located in the Tula region, about 124 miles south of Moscow), preserved as it had been when still a home at the time of Tolstoy's death in 1910. The reunion was first organized by Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, then director of the Leo Tolstoy Museum-Estate Yasnaya Polyana and now cultural advisor to President Vladimir Putin. Like many others here, he is my cousin. The current director is Ekaterina Tolstaya, Vladimir’s wife. Vladimir envisioned the reunion as an opportunity to bring the descendants of Leo together, continuing the connectedness of family heritage the writer so honored.

This August, more than 90 family members and friends from 13 nations gathered at Yasnaya Polyana for a weeklong family reunion filled with activities, tours, and lively communal dinners, both celebrating old traditions and making new ones. At breakfast on the first day, I spotted Georg Tolstoy, an engineer from Sweden. I was overjoyed to see him again after 16 years. We greeted each other as old friends. Some descendants are in contact often; Georg and his fellow Swedes, for example, are the largest branch of the family, and they have a Tolstoy association that holds meetings. Others only see each other on Facebook, Instagram, or at the reunions.

We each trace our line back to one of six (out of 13) Tolstoy children who had children themselves. I am of the Mikhailovich line—Leo’s youngest son Michael was my great-grandfather. During the reunions we look for little numbers on our badges that indicate where we are in line from Leo. We find our names and faces on the huge family tree that fills up an entire wall of the museum’s hotel lobby. And we often play the genetics game: who has the Tolstoy eyes, smile, and walk—and hopefully not the Tolstoy nose, which was large and somewhat potato-shaped.

Leo and Sophia surrounded by eight of their children

 
The Tolstoy family home is now the main museum on the property; it is surprisingly small and simple, and does not appear particularly grand or elegant. Rooms meander off each other. The walls are densely packed with photographs and pictures. The house would evolve often with the use changing depending on how many children were living there at any time. It is hard to imagine where all the many children slept when the family was in full assembly. After Tolstoy made some money publishing War and Peace, he built an addition, including the salon, which was more formal and had parquet floors, unlike the rest of the house. The kitchen is separate, located behind the main house adjacent to one of the many orchards. Next to the house, there is a beautiful flower and herb garden, which Sonia tended to herself.  

There are many other buildings on the estate, including the Volkonsky House, a more formal structure where Sonia's sisters usually stayed. Today it holds offices and a reception center. Across the way, a rustic stable houses horses and a riding school. Nearby there are forests and meadows. We explore these grounds on foot, horseback, or bicycle. A small one-horse wagon was commandeered to drive the elderly relatives around.

Oskar Lundeberg, a great-great grandson of Leo's from Sweden, and two others take the easier route to tour the nearly 1200-acre grounds.

These get-togethers are incredibly raucous events, filled with bellows and laughs across giant communal tables set up outside for al fresco dining. We come together as family to share stories over food and (lots of) wine. We sing birthday songs in five languages (in fact, we celebrated two during this last reunion). In the daytime, we practice flower weaving in the gardens, throw pots of “live” black clay and take Russian lessons. We play traditional games in the yard by the Yasnaya Polyana Cultural Center, including gorodki, a game similar to bowling or horseshoes that was a favorite pastime of Leo Tolstoy’s children. Of course soccer makes its way into activities almost every day. During the competitions, my team, The Lazy Sportsmen, lived up to the low expectations of our name, to the dismay of the more aggressive Caviar & Champagne team, which thought we didn’t put up much of a challenge.

During the 2016 reunion, Andrey Tolstoy was in heated competition against Ivan Lysakov during a bout of veselye starti, a relay race. One leg of the race involves running with water. Lively family games were very popular among Leo Tolstoy and his children. Image credit: courtesy of Anastasia Vladimirovna Tolstaya

 
But while the reunion is a bona fide good time, it’s also a lot more than that. "The first reunion literally turned my ‘consciousness upside down,’ as they say in Russian,” recalls Anastasia Tolstoy, Vladimir’s daughter. “Prior to then, I had known only a close circle of family and a few Tolstoys abroad. Everyone else was just a collection of names and numbers in the book detailing our family tree. In 2000, that tree was brought to life, and the colorfulness of the Tolstoy descendants was reawakened. We become a force to be reckoned with that goes beyond the renowned Russian writer, but back to centuries of illustrious ancestors with daring, history-making deeds.”

I do not have centuries of space here to describe those deeds, but to sum it up briefly: Historically, the Tolstoys have been known for their wild nature, intelligence, and creativity, with a very long legacy woven throughout Russian high society in politics, literature, and the fine arts. We can trace our lineage back to the original Tolstoy, a Lithuanian nobleman named Indris who came to Russia in the 1300s. The name “Tolstoy” actually translates to “The Fat One,” so I can only assume he had a little girth to him.

Lena Alekhina, press manager for the museum, says that the reunions are very important to the culture of Yasnaya Polyana because “the idea of a Russian estate is meaningless without the family. It is then just a place. Whereas here this estate can be what it is intended to be: a big house for a big family of many generations.”

The Museum-Estate stands on protected land and is open year-round, attracting more than 200,000 tourists and Tolstoy aficionados alike. It is host to an incredible panoply of cultural programs, including folklore workshops, locally developed crafts and Russian language classes for children and adults, a scholarship program for children in the arts, environmental protection assemblies, and conferences for writers from many countries. This educational focus is in tune with Leo’s life. He opened an informal school for the children in the area, taught by all his children. His daughter Alexandra also opened a formal school as part of the museum in the 1920s. Yasnaya Polyana, now with more than 400 employees, has expanded this dedication to learning, Russia's people and the land, further bringing the Tolstoy spirit and philosophies to life.

Some tourists are excited by the family reunion, even asking for our autographs as we explore the grounds. It can be a little embarrassing: As my Tiotia (aunt) Masha says, “I didn’t write the books!”

This sheet is kept in the Coachman’s House, a traditional Russian-style peasant house located on the property. Tolstoy family members are asked to sign the sheet. Their signatures are then stitched in colorful threads for permanence.

 
Sure, you have been meaning to set aside a year (or more) to finally read War and Peace or oohed over the costumes in the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, but how much do you really know about the author who penned those tomes?

Count Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He was prolific, writing many novels, plays, and essays (not to mention hundreds of letters) which continue to inspire worldwide. The many volumes of his journal alone, used to meticulously document every detail of his life—the good, bad, and the ugly—provided fodder for his work. He had theories on absolutely everything and let his opinion be vehemently known on religion (he believed in God but was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901 for his very liberal and protestant ideas), politics (he was not a fan of the monarchy and denounced his own noble standing), human rights (he corresponded with many activists around the globe, including Mahatma Ghandi and the American activist and reformer Jane Addams, who put up Leo’s daughter Alexandra in Chicago when she moved to the US in the late 1920s), and family (beginning with his own children).

Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 (or August 28 by the Julian calendar, which Russia discarded in 1918) on a comfortably worn leather couch that still resides in his study in the main house. A fertile seat, the couch welcomed all of his siblings, and Sonia had many of her children there too. And yet when asked exactly where on the property he was born, Tolstoy would take his guest into the garden and point about three meters up a tree, declaring, “Oh, right about there.”

The couch upon which Leo, his siblings, and some of his children were born. It sits in his study upstairs in the main house at Yasnaya Polyana. He kept manuscripts for his books in the drawers, which no one was allowed to access except him.

 
He wasn’t lying. The house he was born in had once stood in that spot but had been carted away years before, leaving only the wings, which were adapted to become the house that stands there now. It was rumored that he had lost the very large formal house in a card game. Leo had been quite wild in his youth.

Yasnaya Polyana, which literally means “Bright Meadow,” was originally a 3700-acre estate belonging to Prince Nikolai Volkonsky, Leo’s maternal grandfather. It passed to Tolstoy in 1847, at which time he sold off the edge of the property, leaving a mere 1186 acres. He moved there in 1856, after finishing service in the army, and lived on the property for the remainder of his life. He also had a house in Moscow but preferred the open land and being among the peasants in the village surrounding Yasnaya. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed physical labor, working alongside the peasants in the fields. In their 48 years on the estate together, Leo and Sophia developed the natural contours of the parks with native flora to create beautiful spaces. They planted apple orchards with more than 60 varieties, evergreen forests, and flower gardens. The paths were deliberately designed to inspire creativity and allow thoughts to flow during their daily walks.

Every inch of land on Yasnaya Polyana is linked to meaning and a tale. Not far from the house, an orangerie—originally built by his parents—offered exotic fruit and a tropical haven during the bitter winters. Sonia loved the escape it provided, but Leo hated tending to this popular nobleman’s hobby (though he admitted it was meditative) and was not disappointed when it burned down.

For both Catarina Hjort Tolstoy, a PE teacher and painter from Sweden, and Kristina Johlige Tolstoy, a sculptor in Germany, their favorite Leo story is one known by the family as “The Green Stick,” which is closely tied to the land and Leo’s philosophy. When he was a boy, Leo’s older brother Nicholas told him that the secret to healing the world’s ills was carved on a green stick, which would only be revealed when one joined the “Brotherhood of the Ants.” Nicholas said the stick was buried on the estate at the edge of the Zakaz Forest. The Green Stick became a symbol of his lifelong search for love and peace. In the end, he was laid to rest at the supposed location of the mythical stick, thus having the secrets of goodness and peace revealed to him, in a manner of speaking.

Another view of the house

Tolstoy’s interests were voracious and spanned hundreds of topics. At Yasnaya Polyana, he entertained many musicians, writers, and artists from around the world, including Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, and the composer A.G. Rubenstein. He spent days on end sitting for portraits by well-known artists like Ilya Repin. He corresponded with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Edison, who gifted him a phonograph, on which the family recorded Leo's voice. Visitors and pilgrims flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, with many staying for months, much to the irritation of Sonia. Photographs, letters, and trinkets from his evolving interests and tastes fill the study in the house. But most impressive is the library that is a big part of the entire house. It contains nearly 10,500 titles in about 27 languages. Tolstoy spoke German and French fluently, and eventually taught himself 13 languages, including English, Hebrew, Tartar, Arabic, and ancient Greek; he wanted to be able to read texts in their original languages. Many of the books are dog-eared with his personal notes and thoughts scribbled in the margins.

This typewriter sits in the well-lit “Remington Room," which overlooks a yard and orchard. It was used to retype Tolstoy’s handwritten manuscripts. Tolstoy liked to come here to read, correct proofs, and pour over some of the 50,000 letters he received, which are preserved in the archive today.

 
While living at Yasnaya Polyana, Sonia carefully documented every single belonging in the house, down to even the smallest items in the drawers and under the bed. She knew the estate had an important destiny. During the reunions, my cousin Fekla Tolstaya, a broadcast host/producer and journalist in Russia, has entertained children by asking them to crawl under the beds and see what they can find there. My grandfather, Vladimir Mikhailovich Tolstoy, remembers staying in a room with many arches that was once used as a meat pantry. Huge hams had hung from the arches on hooks. My grandfather and his brothers would climb up to the ceiling, attach ropes to the hooks, and swing across the room, shouting, "I'm a ham, I'm a ham!"

Truly amazing is that the museum has been sustained in such a remarkable condition over time. In fact, during World War II the Nazis occupied the house for 45 days. They trashed it and set it on fire on their way out. Miraculously, villagers saw the plumes of smoke and rescued the home. And all of those belongings Sophia so painstakingly documented? Before the Germans arrived, they had been evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia to wait out the war. They were eventually brought back to the estate to help restore it to its former glory.

I asked Grégoire Tolstoï, an event producer from Belgium, his perception of the gathering. A fellow member of Team Lazy Sportsmen, Grégoire and I had spent a lot of the reunion not winning races together. A first-time attendee, Grégoire harkens from an older branch of the Tolstoy family. The Leo Tolstoys are a large clan, but the legacy is 700 years deep and much larger than Leo. “I was stunned by the fact that many have an artistic passion or occupation, which was emphasized in my immediate family,” Tolstoï told me. “But I see it is more of a characteristic. What a wonderful surprise.”

I had a similar insight about the Tolstoys. It is striking that for hundreds of years we share the same occupations from generation to generation, in the fine arts, music, human rights, politics, international affairs, and of course literature. It is amazing to see how many people are walking in these footsteps: visual artists and actors, politicians, philanthropists and peacemakers, journalists and writers, television personalities and linguists. In speaking to reunion attendees, I find that their excitement about the boisterous event is always underscored by a deeper connection to each other and our common ancestors.

Great-great granddaughter Jana Benetkova, from the Czech Republic, weaves flowers, a traditional folk craft, during the 2012 reunion.

 
“The first time I came to Yasnaya Polyana, I collected daisies and intended to make a piece with them,” Kristina, the sculptor, shared with me in the meadow by the stables. “It was there that I learned that Sophia created artwork out of pressed flowers and plants. Learning this and reading her diaries, I felt so much more connected to her. In honor of this discovery, I dedicated a work to her titled ‘Seeing More’.”

My mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, says that she was overwhelmed when she saw Sophia’s small paintings of mushrooms hanging in her bedroom. Collecting mushrooms has been an abiding hobby of my mother's, and she too likes to paint little pictures of mushrooms as gifts for friends and relatives.

Sophia's room, filled with small paintings and dominated by an icon of Jesus. Sophia was deeply religious, and today all of the guides who work in the house enter this room at the beginning of each day and venerate the icon, just as she did.

 
Life for Leo Tolstoy did not end in 1910 with his death from pneumonia. Many of his children remained committed to the family heritage, including writing several books about their extraordinary lives, such as Tolstoy, A Life of My Father, by Alexandra Tolstaya. Alexandra, the youngest daughter, also helped convert Yasnaya Polyana into the museum, which opened on June 10, 1921. When Stalin's oppression paralyzed her work, she moved to the United States in 1929, eventually starting the Tolstoy Foundation, which sponsored thousands of Russian refugees to come to America during and after World War II, including Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and my mother.

Today, some of Tolstoy’s descendants are inspired by his ideas to move Russia in a new direction. “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken,” Leo wrote. In this spirit, Daniil Tolstoy, a great-grandson of Leo, is starting the first organic farm in Russia, just outside of Yasnaya Polyana. Called “Nasledie Tolstogo” (Наследие Толстого, or Tolstoy’s Heritage), the concept originated during a previous family reunion when Daniil visited Nikolskoye-Vyazemskoye, a country estate that belonged to Tolstoy’s great-grandfather. There he found gorgeous fields filled with rich black soil laying fallow. He anticipates beginning to plant this spring using new technology and techniques for sustainable farming. He hopes to develop products under a unique brand and eventually establish an organic agriculture school on the property to educate young Russians about sustainable farming.

Nina Gorkovenko, director of the estate's Coachman's House, holds a traditional tea ceremony every day. The honey served with the tea is from an apiary located in one of the estate’s orchards.

 
Others are committed to both maintaining and modernizing Leo's legacy. Fekla Tolstaya, a great-great granddaughter of his, has been extraordinarily active in bringing Leo Tolstoy into the 21st century. Tolstaya told The Guardian that at the end of his life Tolstoy did not want money for his work, but instead wanted to give his work to the public: “It was important for us to make it free for all people across the world. It is his will.” Among these initiatives is All of Tolstoy in One Click, an effort to digitize the entire 90-plus volume collection of Tolstoy’s writings, making them available on e-readers, iPads, and smartphones. This effort required massive crowdsourcing. In 2013, thousands of volunteers from 49 countries answered the call to arms to proofread 46,800 pages of already scanned works. They completed the project in just 14 days.

In December 2015, Fekla organized a four-day marathon reading of all four volumes of War and Peace, which Tolstoy wrote at Yasnaya Polyana and published in 1869. Some 1300 readers from 30 cities around the world took part, including actors, sports stars, politicians, and even cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who read from the International Space Station. The event was live-streamed online and broadcast live on Russian TV.

Next, Fekla plans to collaborate with several academic institutions, including Moscow State University and Harvard University, to create the “Tolstoy Digital Universe.” This online encyclopedia of the writer’s literary heritage will allow users to have, right at their fingertips, access to Tolstoy’s texts, quotes, correspondence, etc. In addition, she hopes to digitize the more than 5000 manuscript pages of War and Peace, giving us a behind-the-cover look at the incredible development of this literary masterpiece.

Leo Tolstoy's selfie from 1862. In the upper left corner, he wrote Sam sebya snyal, which means “shot by me.” At lower left corner he wrote an abbreviated version of his name: “Gr. L.N. Tolstoy,” for “Graf Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy.” Graf means "Count." Image credit: courtesy of Anastasia Vladimirovna Tolstaya

 
When the Chopin concert was over, I exited the house with my cousins. We gathered in the yard for a family picture, just as Leo and Sonia did quite often with their children. I adore looking at photos of them enjoying afternoon tea in the garden and pointing out my great-grandfather among the siblings. I think Sonia would have enjoyed these family reunions for their liveliness and feelings of love and closeness. As for me, I am newly inspired to delve further into my family history and eventually write that book that I’ve been planning for ages.

Special thanks to my mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, who is the most incredible oral historian and keeper of stories for many of our extended family.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the author and her relatives.

15 Uplifting Facts About the Wright Brothers

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before they built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, and controllable aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two ordinary brothers from the Midwest who possessed nothing more than natural talent, ambition, and imagination. In honor of National Aviation Day, here are 15 uplifting facts about the siblings who made human flight possible.

1. A TOY PIQUED THEIR PASSION.

From an early age, Wilbur and Orville Wright were fascinated by flight. They attribute their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy their father brought back from his travels in France. Fashioned from a stick, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made. Nevertheless, it galvanized their quest to someday make their very own flying machine.

2. THEIR GENIUS WAS GENETIC.

While they were inspired by their father’s toy, the Wright brothers inherited their mechanical savvy from their mother, Susan Koerner Wright. She could reportedly make anything, be it a sled or another toy, by hand.

3. THEY WERE PROUD MIDWESTERNERS.

The Wright brothers spent their formative years in Dayton, Ohio. Later in life, Wilbur said his advice for those seeking success would be to “pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

4. THEY NEVER GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL.

While the Wright brothers were undoubtedly bright, neither of them ever earned his high school diploma. Wilbur became reclusive after suffering a bad hockey injury, and Orville dropped out of school.

5. THEY ONCE PUBLISHED A NEWSPAPER.

Before they were inventors, the Wright brothers were newspaper publishers. When he was 15 years old, Orville launched his own print shop from behind his house and he and Wilber began publishing The West Side News, a small-town neighborhood paper. It eventually became profitable, and Orville moved the fledgling publication to a rented space downtown. In due time, Orville and Wilbur ceased producing The West Side News—which they’d renamed The Evening Item—to focus on other projects.

6. THEY MADE A FORAY INTO THE BICYCLE BUSINESS.

One of these projects was a bike store called the Wright Cycle Company, where Wilbur and Orville fixed clients’ bicycles and sold their own designs. The fledgling business grew into a profitable enterprise, which eventually helped the Wright brothers fund their flight designs.

7. THEY WERE AUTODIDACTS.

The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in flight peaked after they witnessed a successive series of aeronautical milestones: the gliding flights of German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the flying of an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and the glider test flights of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute. By 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote to the Smithsonian, asking them to send him literature on aeronatics. He was convinced, he wrote, “that human flight is possible and practical.” Once he received the books, he and Orville began studying the science of flight.

8. THEY CHOSE TO FLY IN KITTY HAWK BECAUSE IT PROVIDED WIND, SOFT SAND, AND PRIVACY.

The Wright brothers began building prototypes and eventually traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1902 to test a full-size, two-winged glider with a moveable rudder. They chose this location thanks in part to their correspondence with Octave Chanute, who advised them in a letter to select a windy place with soft grounds. It was also private, which allowed them to launch their aircrafts with little public interference.

9. THEY ACHIEVED FOUR SUCCESSFUL FLIGHTS WITH THEIR FIRST AIRPLANE DESIGN.

The Wright brothers started testing various wing designs and spent the next few years perfecting their evolving vision for a heavier-than-air flying machine. In the winter of 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their final model, the 1903 Wright Flyer. On December 17, they finally achieved a milestone: four brief flights, one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet.

10. THE 1903 WRIGHT FLYER NEVER TOOK TO THE SKIES AGAIN…

Before the brothers could embark on their final flight, a heavy wind caused the plane to flip several times. Because of the resulting damage, it never flew again. It eventually found a permanent home in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum—even though Orville originally refused to donate it to the institution because it claimed that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own aircraft experiment was the first machine capable of sustained free flight.

11. …BUT A PIECE OF IT DID GO TO THE MOON.

An astronaut paid homage to the Wright brothers by carrying both a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Flyer’s left wing and a piece of its wooden propeller inside his spacesuit.

12. THE PRESS INITIALLY IGNORED THE KITTY HAWK FLIGHTS.

Despite their monumental achievement, the Dayton Journal didn’t think the Wright brothers’ short flights were important enough to cover. The Virginia Pilot ended up catching wind of the story, however, and they printed an error-ridden account that was picked up by several other papers. Eventually, the Dayton Journal wrote up an official—and accurate—story.

13. THE BROTHERS SHARED A CLOSE BOND...

Although the Wright brothers weren’t twins, they certainly lived like they were. They worked side by side six days a week, and shared the same residence, meals, and bank account. They also enjoyed mutual interests, like music and cooking. Neither brother ever married, either. Orville said it was Wilbur’s job, as the older sibling, to get hitched first. Meanwhile, Wilbur said he “had no time for a wife.” In any case, the two became successful businessmen, scoring aviation contracts both domestically and abroad.

14. …BUT WERE OPPOSITES IN MANY WAYS.

Although they were much alike, each Wright brother was his own person. As the older brother, Wilbur was more serious and taciturn. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and was generally consumed by his thoughts. Meanwhile, Orville was positive, upbeat, and talkative, although very bashful in public. While Wilbur spearheaded the brothers’ business endeavors, they wouldn’t have been possible without Orville’s mechanical—and entrepreneurial—savvy.

15. OHIO AND NORTH CAROLINA FIGHT OVER THEIR LEGACY.

Since the Wright brothers split their experiments between Ohio and North Carolina, both states claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio calls itself the "Birthplace of Aviation,” although the nickname also stems from the fact that two famed astronauts hail from there as well. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s license plates are emblazoned with the words “First In Flight.”

This article originally ran in 2015.

12 Facts About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was never able to cast a vote legally, though she helped secure that right for women across America. As the philosopher of the women’s rights movement in 19th-century America, she expressed what she felt regardless of what others might think. Read on for more facts about one of the most important women in history.

1. HER FATHER WISHED SHE HAD BEEN A BOY.

Cady Stanton’s father, Daniel Cady, served in Congress and the New York State Assembly, and was a New York Supreme Court judge. He and his wife Margaret had 11 children; five daughters, including Elizabeth, and one son would survive to adulthood. When her brother Eleazar died at age 20, Elizabeth’s father allegedly said to her, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!”

That may have been her father’s way of lamenting the hardships she would suffer as a woman, but Elizabeth responded by throwing herself into studying Greek, chess, and horse riding, vowing “to make her father happy by being all a son could have been,” Lori D. Ginzberg writes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. Daniel Cady did encourage his bright and self-confident daughter when she was upset that laws could not help one of his female clients: “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators,” he told her. “If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.”

2. A PREACHER ACTUALLY SCARED THE BEJESUS OUT OF HER.

Even as a young person, Elizabeth bristled against her family’s Presbyterian beliefs. In 1831, as a required part of her lessons at the Troy Female Seminary, she attended a revival at which noted evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spoke. She found his ideas about sin so alarming that she had to take time off from school to recover. Ultimately, she rejected organized Christianity’s dependence on fear, and later came to view religion as at odds with her work in the feminist movement.

3. SHE SPENT HER HONEYMOON AT AN ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION.

In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a prominent abolitionist who was active in the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the wedding, the new couple headed to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Henry was a delegate and Elizabeth was forced with other female attendees into the back of the lecture hall [PDF]. There she met feminist Lucretia Mott, who shared her support for women’s and African Americans' rights.

4. CADY STANTON ATTENDED AN EPIC TEA PARTY …

When you think of an important tea party, the Boston event probably springs to mind—but there was at least one other tea-related confab that was just as historic.

On July 9, 1848, Cady Stanton and three other women—Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock—were invited to the Waterloo, New York home of Jane Hunt, a wealthy Quaker dedicated to social reform. During the gathering, they discussed how women weren’t allowed to vote or own property and why the Quaker religion avoided getting involved with women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. The decision to create an organized meeting to advocate women’s equality was decided right then and there, though who came up with the idea is not known.

5. ... WHICH LED TO THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION IN AMERICA.

Cady Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues announced “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Ten days after the tea party, more than 300 people attended the event (also known as the Seneca Falls convention). The first day, July 19, was planned as an all-women discussion, and July 20 was open to the public.

Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” for the occasion, a discourse based on the Declaration of Independence describing the oppression of women and the rights to which they were entitled. It began with these famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence had almost identical wording except for the “and women” part.) Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration. Seneca Falls launched annual conventions to advocate women’s rights, and was the start of the long battle that eventually earned women the right to vote.

6. CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY WERE BFFS.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and they quickly became an unstoppable pair. In their shared goal of achieving women’s equality, Anthony handled the campaigning and speeches, while Cady Stanton did the lion’s share of the writing from her home in Seneca Falls. While Anthony objected to Cady Stanton allowing her role as a mother to interfere with her reform work, she also helped her take care of the seven Stanton children. Cady Stanton said of Anthony:

“In the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains."

Together, they formed the anti-slavery Women’s Loyal National League and published the first three of six volumes of History of Woman Suffrage.

7. SHE OPPOSED THE 15th AMENDMENT.

Cady Stanton and Anthony also founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 in response to the proposed 15th Amendment. According to Ginzberg, feminists faced a choice after the Civil War, when Congress debated suffrage for emancipated slaves. “There was a battle among abolitionists—of which Stanton counted herself—between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans,” Ginzberg told NPR. “Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and—historians have argued about this ever since—not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men.” The 15th Amendment, giving men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. Women did not end up achieving the franchise until 1920.

8. SHE RAN FOR CONGRESS.

Women could run for public office even though they couldn’t vote, a situation that Cady Stanton sought to challenge. She ran for the U.S. House of Representatives—the first woman to do so—as an independent representing New York in 1866. She knew that she was treading new ground when she announced she was running. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support, but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy,” she explained in a letter. She received only 24 votes of the 12,000 cast, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no women could vote—but her audacious campaign likely inspired others. Six years later Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president. It wasn’t until 1916 that a woman, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to Congress.

9. SHE WROTE A BESTSELLING CRITIQUE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Her 1895 book The Woman’s Bible, which criticized the ways religion portrayed women as less than men, drove a wedge between Stanton and the women’s movement. Cady Stanton argued that the Bible taught “the subjection and degradation of woman” and that equality demanded a revision of its lessons. Anthony felt it was more important to welcome people of all religious beliefs into the fight for suffrage. Thanks to the controversy, the book became a bestseller.

10. SHE BELIEVED BIKES WOULD LIBERATE WOMEN.

As the 1970s feminist slogan goes, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” In Cady Stanton’s day, a bike made it so that a woman wouldn’t need a man, at least when it came to transportation. Biking had become popular by the 1890s, and was strongly associated with the modern woman of the latter part of the 19th century, liberated from stuffy social and marital expectations. At 80, Stanton told The American Wheelman magazine that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect [and] self-reliance,” eventually leading to women’s suffrage. Both she and Susan B. Anthony have been credited with saying “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” They could see beyond the convenience of getting from point A to point B: Bikes symbolized a new freedom for women.

11. SHE TRIED TO DONATE HER BRAIN TO SCIENCE.

Cady Stanton died in 1902, just before turning 87. Susan B. Anthony was heartsick. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told The New York Times’s obituary writer.

But Cady Stanton had tried to ensure that she would still help women’s causes after her own death. Her friend Helen Gardener, a fellow suffragist, had convinced her to donate her brain to Cornell University so scientists would have an eminent female brain to compare with those of eminent men. Stanton had told her family of her plan, and Gardener announced her wishes publicly. Gardener said Cady Stanton “felt that a brain like hers would be useful for all time in the record it would give the world, for the first time—the scientific record of a thinker among women,” Kimberly A. Hamlin writes in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Cady Stanton’s family, however, refused to believe she had agreed to the plan, and the brain was buried with the rest of her in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

12. SHE WILL APPEAR ON THE $10 BILL IN 2020.

The 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote, celebrates its centennial in 2020. To commemorate the anniversary, a new $10 bill will be issued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul on the back—the first time in more than 100 years that a female portrait has been featured on paper money. (Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.) You can also expect to see Cady Stanton and Anthony memorialized in a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park that will be known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument. Amazingly, the suffrage pioneers are the first two women to be honored with statues in Central Park, and only the fourth and fifth American women represented by public statues in any NYC park.

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