Tag Archives: Guest Post

Looking to the Past in an Uncertain Present: Paula Becker on Betty MacDonald’s “The Plague and I”

Like many people struggling to understand our present moment, and to prepare for what is coming, I’ve turned, this week, to books, to history.

Life can change quickly, both then and now. Take Mary McCarthy’s straightforward description of boarding a Minneapolis-bound train in Seattle with her parents and three younger brothers during the 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic: “Waving good-bye in the Seattle depot, we had not known that we carried the flu into our drawing rooms…but, one after another, we had been struck down as the train proceeded eastward” (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). McCarthy’s parents died shortly after the stricken family was carried from the train. I’ve reread Katherine Anne Porter’s devastating “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” This short story spells out the reality that while individuals may survive pandemics, these diseases irrevocably alter our society. I keep thinking of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s picture book, which matter-of-factly describes the burning of a little boy’s favorite toy due to its contamination during his confinement with scarlet fever.

More cheerfully, I’ve also turned, as I usually do sooner or later, to Betty MacDonald. Betty’s follow up to her worldwide best selling first autobiographical book, The Egg and I, was The Plague and I, a tartly poignant recounting of her battle with and recovery from tuberculosis in a pre-antibiotic-era King County, Washington sanatorium. When Betty was admitted to Firland (called The Pines in Plague), tuberculosis was endemic worldwide. Betty’s was one of nearly two thousand cases diagnosed in Seattle in 1938. Tuberculosis still strikes today.

Firland patients lived in almost complete isolation from society, and—as much as was possible in shared rooms—from one another. The cure was mainly resting, supine, without talking or even reading. Difficult as the experience was for her, Betty’s memoir crackles with her trademark humor: “Being sent to an institution, be it penal, mental or tuberculous, is no game of Parcheesi, and not knowing when, or if, you’ll get out doesn’t make it any easier. At least a criminal knows what his sentence is.”

Despite Firland’s rigid rules governing patient interaction, living in close quarters meant coming to know her roommates’ strengths and weaknesses. “From my stay at The Pines,” Betty MacDonald explained, “I learned that a stiff test for friendship is: ‘Would she be pleasant to have t.b. with?'” Of the many women Betty roomed with during her time at Firland, her favorite was a young Japanese-American woman named Kazuko Monica Itoi. Kazi appears in Plague under the pseudonym “Kimi.” “Unfortunately,” Betty added, “too many people, when you try separating them from their material possessions and any and all activity, turn out to be like cheap golf balls. You unwind and unwind but you never get to the pure rubber core because there isn’t any. When I started unwinding Kimi I found that under her beautiful covering she was mostly core.” This friendship endured through the two women’s recovery and hospital discharge, and Kazi’s internment in Minidoka War Relocation Camp during World War II. At the height of her own success, Betty encouraged Kazi (by then married and using the name Monica Sone) to write about her experiences. The result, Nisei Daughter, provides an understanding of yet another form of isolation.

Betty and Monica’s accounts of isolation were on my mind as I maintained my now-prescribed six feet of social distance from fellow neighbors circling the path atop the lidded-over Maple Leaf Reservoir in north Seattle. We ventured from our homes this sunny day, smiling encouragement to one another while shunning contact. Isolation is different now, softened somewhat by podcasts, audio books, and streaming video. We have our social media, alternately comforting or alarming, depending on who you follow. I try to apply Betty’s standard in making that choice: look for someone who is mostly core.

I’ve not been subject to true quarantine, as I will be if Covid-19 touches me directly. I can still walk the spookily empty streets and circle the track, all the while keeping my distance. I am living a little of what Betty learned during her quarantine: health is not a given. Friendship runs deep, even when friends have been moved down the hall or aren’t allowed to visit you. Community sustains, and it is up to us to find ours even when aspects of our lives are constrained. Life, all of it, needs to be noticed. It must be deeply noticed.


Paula Becker is the author of the biography Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I and the memoir A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction.

Our city, our pets: Guest post from ‘The City Is More Than Human’ author Frederick L. Brown

Today we are featuring an illustrated guest post on the history of our favorite furry and feathered friends by The City Is More Than Human: An Animal History of Seattle author Frederick L. Brown. Brown was recently awarded the 2017 Virginia Marie Folkins Award from AKCHO (Association of King County Historical Organizations) for his book, published last fall, and also delivered the 2017 Denny Lecture at MOHAI.

Read on to learn more about the role pets have played in Seattle’s urban history!

Credit: Christy Avery

Dogs are rarely seen reading urban history – the bright-eyed fellow pictured above notwithstanding – but dogs have played a vital role in urban history. Over the last century, their numbers have increased dramatically. One rough estimate is that their population has increased from five thousand in 1905 to 150,000 today. The working dog is not absent from the city today: from guide dogs, to guard dogs, to dogs in police K9 units. Yet, the role of pure companion, with no expectation of work, predominates. Many of us couldn’t imagine urban life without our furry friends.

Credit: MOHAI, SHS12890

A century ago, dogs were friends to be sure, but also as guard-dogs, hunting dogs, ratters, and workers at other tasks. Often, the role of work and play blended. For instance, the dogs in the front row of this 1898 image of McVay Mill, in Ballard, may have blended roles as mascots, pets, and watchdogs. One newspaper ad from 1921 captured the mixing of roles: “Police Dog puppies. The most intelligent and faithful companion, excellent as watchdog and ideal as pet for children.”

Credit: MOHAI, 1974.5923.46; photo by McBride Anderson

Other dogs had a role as pure companions a century ago. Here for example, Priscilla Grace Treat cuddles her dog, around 1920. Seattleites had deep connections of love and friendship with their dogs. For instance, one family wrote of their German shepherd in 1935, “He is treated as a member of the family and with a laugh takes the rocking chair, when he feels like sitting in it.”

Credit: Frederick L. Brown

Cats generally have better things to do than read urban history, making this curious girl from the Central District hard to explain. But they too have been woven into the city’s history, since its founding. Cats’ urban role has perhaps undergone an even greater transformation than that of dogs. Before the widespread use of cat litter in the 1940s, it was considered unsanitary for them to spend much time indoors.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Hester 10587; photograph by Wilhelm Hester

A century ago, most cats had a working role killing mice and rats, in private homes and in businesses. They had an important role in any business storing, selling, or transporting food that might attract mice and rats. They hunted rodents on docks and ships and, many believed, afforded sailors good luck, making them honored members of ships’ crews, as their presence in numerous crew portraits attests. Here, the crew of the British vessel Penthesilea sits on the deck in a Puget Sound port in 1904. A crew member in the back row holds a cat.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Warner 3107 (detail)

Although cats typically had working roles in the early twentieth century, people also enjoyed them for other reasons. At the Warner residence in Seattle around 1900, a man and woman smile and watch a kitten.

Credit: Frederick L. Brown

Backyard chickens have become popular in recent years. Some refer to the pleasures of seeing chicken curiosity and their lively exploration of backyards (and even the occasional historical monograph) as “Chicken Television.” In the late 1990s, the Tilth Alliance found soaring interest in its backyard chicken classes. For some city-dwellers, these increasingly popular creatures are “pets with benefits” – the benefits being eggs.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, KHL195; photo by Ambrose Kiehl

A century ago, backyard chickens were not primarily pets. They were a vital source of eggs, and also meat, to urban dwellers. Yet the daily act of feeding chickens allowed human connection, and children  especially, often saw them as pets. Here Miriam Kiehl holds a chicken for a portrait at Fort Lawton in 1899.

Credit: MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Photograph Collection, 1986.5.4202.3

Yet, as The City Is More Than Human explores, chickens illustrate the paradoxes of urban pet-keeping. Backyard chickens have remained in the city, and yet increasing numbers of chickens live in large-scale operations far from the city. This battery for laying hens in Woodinville in 1935 was one step along that journey to greater and greater industrialization.

For every one backyard urban chicken today, there are thousands of chickens in faraway industrial-scale farms that provide meat and eggs to Seattleites. Some of the chickens, indeed, provide the meat that feeds urban cats and dogs. That moment of great connection and caring, when we feed our cats and dogs, is also a moment where we generally are ignorant of the lives of those faraway creatures. So, as we think about the wonderful place of urban pets in our lives, let’s also remember those faraway animals that are integral to urban life and urban pet-keeping.

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Frederick L. Brown holds a PhD in history from the University of Washington and works on a contract basis as a historian for the National Park Service.

Furry Attractions: Polar Bears in the Zoo

International Polar Bear Day, which falls every year on February 27, raises awareness about the conservation status of polar bears in a warming Arctic. In this guest post, Ice Bear author Michael Engelhard shares this photo essay about the history of polar bears kept in zoos.

In the western hemisphere, polar bears have lived in our midst since the Middle Ages, a result of our fascination with these charismatic carnivores. From their very beginnings as cultural institutions, zoos have tried to balance entertainment and education. Today, with climate change and habitat loss from development threatening the polar bear’s natural habitat, many have added conservation to their mission, with captive breeding programs and scientific research. This gallery offers a brief stroll through zoos past and present, a glimpse at how we have kept and presented the Arctic White Bear.

fig-01

Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

The menagerie in the Tower of London, one of Europe’s oldest and longest-operating zoos, in an illustration from 1808. Already in 1252, Henry III of England kept a muzzled and chained polar bear there, which was allowed to catch fish and frolic about in the Thames.

fig-02

Courtesy of E. K. Duncan.

Polito’s Royal Menagerie at the Exeter ’Change in London, 1812. A collection of exotic animals owned by Stephen Polito, a touring showman in Georgian England of Italian descent who had come from his own country to find fortune in London and the provinces. The artist Edwin Landseer came here to study and paint polar bears “true to life.” Continue reading