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Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online
Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online

11 of History's Most Notable Mothers-in-Law

Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online
Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online

It’s said that Aboriginal men have a strict policy when it comes to their mothers-in-law: They don’t look directly at them or address them in any way. It’s a tradition that has roots in the culture’s earliest days and probably has done more to ease familial tensions than any in history.

Of course, most families don't have any such traditions in place, leading to several instances of historical figures who have been influenced—or browbeaten—by their in-laws. Here are 11 examples.

1. SARA ROOSEVELT

Upon hearing her son—and future president—Franklin wanted to marry Eleanor, Sara Roosevelt tried to convince him to break it off. When that didn’t work, she coerced him into keeping it a secret for a year. Sara had a hand in every facet of his life, even ordering construction of a double townhouse after the wedding so that Franklin and Eleanor could live on one side and she could live on the other. Eleanor and Sara were often at odds, including how best to move forward after Franklin’s diagnosis of polio. When Sara died in 1941, Eleanor wrote that it was hard to have known someone for 36 years yet "feel no deep affection or sense of loss."

2. SOPHIE OF BAVARIA

Born in 1837, Sisi Wittelsbach became an empress by marrying Franz Joseph, a seeming promotion in life quality—were it not for her mother-in-law, Sophie. The Archduchess was also Sisi’s aunt and campaigned for her son to marry Sisi’s sister, Helene, instead. When that failed, she made a habit of correcting Sisi’s every move, including how best to mother her own children. Even her own son, Franz, was too laid-back for her liking; Sophie has become known as the "only man in Hofburg."

3. MARIE WOOLF

Welcoming the famed writer Virginia Woolf into her fold was something Marie Woolf had no reservations about, but the same wasn’t necessarily true of her new daughter-in-law. Although Marie admired Virginia's intelligence and considered her her favorite in-law, Virginia perceived Marie’s presence as a reminder of her own tumultuous upbringing that was marked by possessive relatives. "I felt the horror of family life, and the terrible threat to one’s liberty that I used to feel with father," she once wrote in her diary. "To be attached to her as daughter would be so cruel a fate that I can think of nothing worse."

4. MARIA CLEMM

Awkwardly, Clemm was both writer Edgar Allan Poe’s aunt and his mother-in-law: the shift in relations came when Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. (Poe was 27.) While Poe and Clemm were believed to have largely gotten along, she did create friction between her nephew and a friend of his named William Duane. Poe had borrowed a book belonging to Duane that Clemm subsequently sold, forcing Duane to track it down through third-party sellers. With the Poe clan unapologetic, Duane never spoke to them again. Following Poe’s death, Clemm reportedly burned a bunch of valuable correspondence that belonged to him.

5. BONA SFORZA

A woman of considerable influence in 16th century Poland and Lithuania, Bona Sforza prompted many of her son’s associates to tread lightly. When Sigismund II, the heir to the Polish throne, married Elizabeth of Austria, Sforza made her disdain for the bride known—and Elizabeth died two years later. Sigismund’s second wife also became ill and died a short time after exchanging vows. Although it's unlikely she had anything to do with the deaths of her daughters-in-law, Sigismund eventually grew very wary of his mother and saw her off to Warsaw, where she could presumably no longer interfere with his romantic relations.

6. CATHERINE DE MEDICI

When Mary, Queen of Scots was just 5, she was sent to live in France with her newly betrothed, the 4-year-old dauphin. Though her future mother-in-law, Queen of France Catherine de Medici, wasn't overly warm towards her, Mary was a court favorite and loved her time in France. However, just two years after her wedding at Notre Dame, an 18-year-old Mary, who had only been Queen Consort for 17 months, was widowed and subsequently shipped back to Scotland by Catherine. And despite accusations of murdering her second husband, Mary, Queen of Scots garnered a better reputation over the years than her former mother-in-law. The Medici matriarch had little use for human nuisances, being implicated in the killing of courtiers and orchestrating the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre that helped to suffocate the idea of Protestantism in France.

7. DOWAGER CIXI

Born in 1835, Dowager Cixi kept a firm grasp in China’s Qing Dynasty for half a century. For some time, her influence was directed through her son, Tongzhi, who became Emperor at the age of 5. When he married Xiaozhe 11 years later, an irritated Cixi guaranteed she would remain his primary influence by allegedly encouraging Tongzhi to keep concubines. Soon after Tongzhi died of smallpox (which is rumored to have actually been syphilis), Xiaozhe and her unborn son also passed away under suspicious circumstances—The New York Times reported at the time that "the circumstances of her death have aroused general suspicion … and there is but little attempt to conceal the belief that the fear of complications in case her expected child should be a son led to the sacrifice of her life." Without an heir, Cixi was able to retain her influence, leading some to speculate she had been responsible for their deaths.

8. ROSE KENNEDY

As the matriarch of the most famous political family in American history, Rose Kennedy was perceived a model of behavior for the women who married her sons. According to Jackie Kennedy, Rose did not fit the stereotype of the overbearing scold: She offered advice when asked but refused to burden Jackie with demands. After the assassination of JFK and Rose's husband Joe Kennedy’s stroke, Jackie said it was her relationship with Rose that helped keep her a symbol of strength while her grief was under a microscope.

9. YVONNE MACNAMARA

The discovery of a work-in-progress notebook once owned by acclaimed poet Dylan Thomas in 2014 shed some light on his relationship with mother-in-law Yvonne Macnamara. After marrying Caitlin Macnamara, Thomas was apparently under significant duress when in Yvonne's presence. He wrote: "I sit and hate my mother-in-law, glowering at her from corners." Her house, he said, "levels the intelligence." Adding credence to his opinion, it was considered a minor miracle his notebook was found at all: After finding it, Yvonne had ordered a servant to burn it.

10. MADGE GATES WALLACE

Following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman became President of the United States in 1945—and promptly equipped the White House with another domineering mother-in-law. Madge Gates Wallace, the mother of Truman’s wife, Bess, apparently didn’t hold the office in high regard, believing that her daughter was still too good for the most powerful man in the free world. When Truman ran opposite Thomas Dewey in 1948, Wallace told Truman she admired Dewey greatly.

11. PRINCESS ALICE OF BATTENBERG

Despite having been a royal her whole life (she was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and was married into the Greek royal family), Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, had little use for the pageantry that surrounded regality. She gave some of her jewels to be set into the engagement ring when Philip was betrothed to Princess Elizabeth, but when her daughter-in-law was crowned Queen in 1953, Alice attended the Westminster Abbey coronation wearing a wimple and habit. Alice largely stayed out of their business, rejecting their lavish bubble and devoting herself to helping the poor in Greece (for her earlier role in saving a Jewish family during World War II, she was declared one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," a high honor given by Israel to those who risked their own lives to save Jews during the war), and she even founded her own religious order of nuns before settling in with her family at Buckingham Palace for two years prior to her death in 1969.

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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