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Ransom Center

A Rose That Held a Princess's Secret

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Ransom Center

Princess Marthe Bibesco had it all—beauty, brains, and a long line of men dying to be her paramour. But what to get the aristocrat who has everything? For one of her lovers, the answer was not diamonds or priceless art, but rose petals.

The artifact you see above was discovered in Bibesco’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. There, you can learn much about both Bibesco, a Romanian princess who was a celebrated literary light in the early 20th century, and the aristocratic circles in which she traveled.

By all accounts, Bibesco was a ravishing beauty. But her appeal went deeper than that: She knew how to exercise influence through her enormous social circle, and embraced her role as socialite and power broker. “I am the needle through which pass the filaments and the strands of our disjointed Europe to be threaded together in a necklace,” she wrote, and indeed her alliances brought together royals and relatives from both sides of the Balkans.

Though she found a niche as an author and a huge social circle, Bibesco didn’t find happiness with her husband, a wealthy prince—and her cousin—whom she married when she was 17. But her married status didn’t keep her from assembling quite the collection of high-profile lovers.

Prince and Princess Bibesco wedding. Image credit: Ransom Center

One of them, French Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön, was serious about his love. But Bibesco was religious, and didn’t want to get a divorce. This left the prince heartbroken, but no less determined to express himself to his lover. He wrote her reams of love letters and, at one point in June 1911, even inscribed his amorous emotions on rose petals.

Bibesco pressed the flowers and saved them for the rest of her life. Many years later, conservators discovered them among her papers at the Ransom Center, where they’d landed after being purchased from antiquarian book dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. But unfurling century-old flowers presented a real challenge to the conservators tasked with documenting Bibesco’s life. During a conservation project in 2016, digital archivist Genevieve Pierce joined forces with a paper conservator, Jane Boyd, to figure out how to get the petals open. Instead of starting with the century-old flowers, they wrote in ink on other types of flowers, then pressed them and tried to open them to see if there was a way to do so without the petals disintegrating.

Eventually, they hit on a method: They put the two flowers in a humidification chamber, using a damp brush to humidify them even more. Finally, they coaxed the flowers open and looked at the messages hidden inside. They found something sweet: the names of the princess and her lover.

Princess Marthe Bibesco in 1929. Image credit: Getty Images

Today, the flower petals have been digitized for easier viewing and tucked into carefully created boxes designed to preserve them for another century. It’s easy to imagine the celebrated beauty opening her love letter, inhaling the flowers and their fervent message, then tucking them together in her belongings to return to during a private moment.

Did the relationship last? Alas, no. After a decade, she moved on. But not from affairs: She had many other relationships, some with famous men like Ramsay MacDonald, England’s first Labor Party prime minister. Flowers may withstand the test of time, but not every relationship does.

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National Museum of the United States Navy
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Show and Tell
The Craft That First Took Humans to the Deepest Part of the Ocean
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National Museum of the United States Navy

What do you do when you want to go to the lowest point on the surface of the Earth—a place so deep beneath the ocean it could crush you with its intense pressure? If you’re Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard, you build a bathyscaphe, of course.

The object above is Trieste, the first-ever craft to make it all the way to the Challenger Deep, the lowest place in the Mariana Trench (and thus the entire ocean), in 1960. The craft was designed by Piccard, an adventurous physicist, inventor, and explorer who had previously been known for his daring expeditions into the sky. In 1931, he had ascended almost 10 miles into the atmosphere in an airtight aluminum ball tucked into a hot air balloon, demolishing aircraft altitude records and making valuable observations about the behavior of cosmic rays.

But Piccard didn’t just want to go upward. He was also obsessed with going in the other direction: down into the oceans. To make such a feat possible, he invented the bathyscaphe, a kind of inverse of his hot air balloon ball. The concept—a self-propelled, submersible diving vessel—was an improvement on the bathysphere, a kind of deep-sea bubble lowered to the ocean with a cable, which had been invented by Americans William Beebe and Otis Barton in the late 1920s.

The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is so great it can crush submarines, not to mention lesser craft. To resist that pressure, the Trieste relied on a heavy steel crew cabin, as well as separate tanks filled with gasoline and air. The gasoline—which is lighter than water and does not compress under pressure like some other substances—helped the crew to maneuver and navigate. The air tanks, which would slowly fill with water while descending, helped the vessel to descend, and worked in concert with a system of cone-shaped containers filled with iron ballast. To ascend back up to the surface, magnets would release the iron ballast.

Piccard built his first bathyscaphes in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Trieste was the most ambitious of them all. The inventor supervised its building for the French Navy, which used it for several years. In 1958 the U.S. Office of Naval Research bought it for its riskiest trip yet—a descent to the world’s deepest place, the Mariana Trench.

Piccard, however, was in his seventies, and did not go along for the trip. He sent his son Jacques instead, along with an American Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh. Before completing Project Nekton, as it was called, the group did multiple test dives in Guam. Then the fateful day came: January 23, 1960. The hydronauts equipped themselves with chocolate bars and sonar hydrophones and headed down … and down … and down.

So what was there to see so far down in the ocean? Some pretty weird stuff, it turns out: sediment the hydronauts described as “diatomaceous ooze,” and bioluminescent creatures gleaming against the darkness. It took five hours to get the seven miles down and another three to get back up, but by the time Piccard and Walsh emerged, exhausted, they were heroes.

For years, nobody ever returned to the Challenger Deep, not until James Cameron managed a much-hyped solo dive there in 2012. But Piccard and Walsh were the first—and these days, the craft that took them to that mysterious place lives in the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, D.C. True to its famous form, it’s the museum’s most photographed artifact, and a reminder that sometimes the race to the bottom can be a good thing.

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A Sack Filled With an Enslaved Mother’s Love
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Middleton Place Foundation

The story of slavery in the United States is one of brutality, splintered families, and erasure. For many descendants of enslaved people, genealogies and other family histories can break down, severed by the missing links that resulted when families were broken up and sold to separate masters. An artifact in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture preserves a tiny attempt to fight back against that erasure. It’s known as “Ashley’s sack."

The unbleached cotton sack is the canvas for 56 words of embroidery—words with a tragic tale to tell. “My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina,” it reads. “It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always she never saw her again Ashley is my grandmother Ruth Middleton 1921.”

The story of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth was common among millions of enslaved African Americans. It's been estimated that one-quarter of all enslaved people who crossed the Atlantic were children, and 48 percent were put to work before they turned 7 years old. Though slaves did manage to form family units, those families were generally disregarded by masters, who viewed them as chattel. Thus, slaves always ran the risk of being separated from their families—even children as young as 9-year-old Ashley.

When the sack—incredibly rare to have survived both slavery and the centuries—was purchased at a flea market in Tennessee in 2007, its origins were murky. As the Associated Press reports, the woman who discovered the sack realized it was valuable, but decided not to sell it on eBay. After some online research, she determined that the sack might have been connected to Middleton Place, a South Carolina plantation that is now a National Historic Landmark and museum and where African Americans were once enslaved. Museum officials purchased the sack and put it on display.

Reactions to the powerful story told on the bag were immediate and complex. Some volunteers felt overwhelmed or uncomfortable discussing the object. “Some volunteer guides complained that the sack, and the powerful reactions it engendered, distracted from the core mission of the tour: to highlight the wealth, political leadership, and cosmopolitanism of the white Middletons,” writes anthropologist historian Mark Auslander.

Intrigued by the bag, Auslander set out on a quest to discover the identity of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth. He used slavery records as well as bank, court, and census data to research the women. But he faced a number of obstacles: slave records often involve mass sales of unnamed women and children, many records have been destroyed, and Rose was a very common name for enslaved women.

The name Ashley, however, was not. His answers aren't definitive, but Auslander did find intriguing evidence of a child named Ashley owned by a South Carolina planter named Robert Martin in the 1850s, who also owned a woman named Rose. Using 1920 census records, Auslander was also able to find an African-African woman named Ruth Middleton who had family roots in South Carolina, and who died in Philadelphia in 1988. Her possessions likely ended up being given away, which is how the sack found its way to the flea market, Auslander theorizes.

No matter how the bag got to that flea market, it's near-priceless evidence of what slavery did to families and what they suffered both together and apart. Middleton House lent the bag to the NMAAHC, where it—and its story—is now displayed across from a block used in slave auctions.

[h/t: KUOW]

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