Pulp Pictures: the erotic art of Margaret Brundage

Laura Macfehin takes a look at the startling art of Pulp illustrator Margaret Brundage.

Margaret Brundage’s art caused shock and consternation in her lifetime, as well as selling countless magazines of fantasy literature and inspiring artists like Frank Frazetti.  She also campaigned for free love, free speech and civil rights in a lifetime that encompassed an ongoing art practise and a commitment to a bohemian lifestyle.


Sweet Home Chicago

She was born Margaret Hedda Johnson on December 9th 1900.  She was raised mainly by her mother and grandmother, both devout Christian Scientists, after her father died.  She attended McKinley High School in Chicago alongside Walt Disney (she graduated; he didn’t).

Upon graduating High School she immediately got work providing fashion illustrations for Chicago newspapers, and she continued her education at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where Walt Disney was again a fellow student (Disney later said that he had approached Brundage with a view for her providing design work for the animated feature Snow White, but that the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles precluded her involvement).  She did not graduate and later said it was due to her poor lettering skills, but she soon found a publisher for her work in the form of Weird Tales magazine.40136495_2073509642902297_5293789948673248270_n

Weird Tales

Weird Tales was established in the early twenties as a pulp magazine that focussed on pulp stories in the fantasy and horror genre.  They were early publishers of writers who would later become cult favourites like H.P Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn.  In the Cthulu mythos was first presented to readers in its pages with The Call of Cthulu being published in 1928.  Other genre classics such as Conan the Barbarian and the occult detective Jules de Grandin were also introduced to the public through Weird Tales.


Brundage had already illustrated covers for pulp publications like Oriental Stories when she had her work accepted by Weird Tales.  Her vivid style, featuring highly eroticised female characters were an immediate hit with the consumers of pulp fiction.  Not all the authors concurred, some complaining that her covers had nothing do with the stories featured inside, but others, like Seabury Quinn were enthusiastic about her art and even began including scenes in their stories that they thought could play into her style of illustration.

36-01,WT Brudage

Bohemian Life

During the prohibition years, and at the same time as undertaking illustration work Brundage had also found employment at the infamous bohemian speakeasy The Dill Pickle Club, and it was there she met her husband Myron ‘Slim’ Brundage; a hobo/house painter who was heavily involved in radical politics.

Together they would have one child, Kerlynn.  Their politics and attraction to each other were strong but their marriage had a lot of stressors– largely his drinking and womanising; and they divorced in 1939.  Kerlynn was raised as Margaret had been, largely by his mother and grandmother.



Deviant Art

In the late 1930s Weird Tales and other pulp publications came under a lot of scrutiny for their cover art.  Bylaws were passed in some cities limiting what could be displayed on newsstands.  Brundage had always published as ‘M. Brundage’ leaving her gender undisclosed, but in attempt to assuage critics Weird Tales now revealed that their cover artist was a woman.


The affect of this disclosure was quite the opposite.  That these pictures had been produced by a woman was largely received as proving more deviance rather than less for under the perceived notions of femininity it was an outrageous that such images could be conceived of by a female.


Rumours that lasted for years arose around Brundage– including that she used her own daughter as a model.  This being fuelled perhaps by the double fantasy that there existed in life a woman such as those featured in the pictures and that her deviancy included some sort of incestuous bent.


At this time Weird Tales underwent a change of ownership, moving its publishing to New York.  The controversy surrounding Brundage’s sex had thrown a bit of a pall over her work for Weird Tales, but this move was largely its death knell.  Brundage worked almost exclusively in pastels on illustration board, a medium that did not travel well, and the New York publishers therefore looked for other illustrators to provide their cover art.

Brundage continued to produce fantasy art in pastels, as well as oils and pen over the rest of her lifetime, although she never found a regular publisher again.  Today her work is highly collectible and has been published in several coffee table books celebrating her unique and uncanny style.  She also continued to raise her son and be heavily involved in radical politics until her death in 1976.

5 Incredible Things People Have Believed About Bananas (that are almost mostly completely untrue)

Laura peels back the layers of banana myth and legend.

If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time over the last year you may have seen ‘warnings’ over the dangers of eating eggs and bananas together.  This hoax, which seems to originated in Bangalore, claimed that the combination makes a ‘fatal poison’ in the stomach, which was responsible for the death of a young man foolhardy enough to consume both in one sitting.

Of course anyone who has enjoyed a nice slice of banana cake is living testimony to the fact that this combo is not dangerous– but this did not stop many people from worrying about the possibility.

As silly as this might sound to some, it is only the latest in a long line of strange, interesting and sometimes down right ridiculous beliefs people have held about bananas.


Adam and Eve and the Banana

Although early on artists started depicting the fruit that tempted Eve as being an apple, scholars have long debated whether this was in fact correct.  Many point to the latin word ‘malum’ which can be translated as both ‘evil’ and ‘apple’ as starting the confusion.  In opposition to the apple (which many point out wouldn’t have been known to the writers of the Old Testament) many have put forth the banana in its place.

Anderson (Mrs), active 1858; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Later Carl von Linne

Carl Linnaeus, the famous taxonomist and botanist was a firm believer in the banana as fruit of knowledge theory; noting that bananas grow at the right height and that banana leaves make better clothing for humans who just been made self-conscious through forbidden snacks.

Linnaeus even named bananas Musa Sapentium, from the latin term for wise, and Mussa Paradissiaca (banana of paradise).

Of course Linnaeus was pretty keen on bananas in general, which may have coloured his thinking.  He was the first person to successfully grow a banana plant in Holland, and believed they could provide cures for everything from prostate problems to coughs and angry feelings.

I can’t help but think that the phallic look of the banana had some impact of this theory of the banana-as-the-fruit-of-knowledge.  Some point to Gen. 1:27-29 where God tells Adam and Eve they can eat any fruit that has seeds in it as proof the fruit of knowledge wasn’t an apple, but of course, bananas in their natural state also have seeds.

If we are going to give the Garden of Eden an earthly location and fix the fruit of knowledge as something that still grows here, my money is still on the fig, which is more historically accurate and itself a pretty sexy fruit.


Mine Eyes!

The potential sexiness of the banana was something that troubled a portion of Victorian England.  While bananas were a very popular snack in Victorian England, synonymous with having fun and good times, one group of mainly ladies believed that the provocative shape of bananas was so dangerous that the mere sight of a banana could immediately produce undesirable and illicit behaviours in the viewer.


Subsequently, they wanted bananas banned in order to protect the morals of the population.  No such ban was ever seriously considered, but the anti-banana feeling was enough that one fruit company at least put out a series of postcards showing ‘decent’ women eating bananas in an attempt to depict bananas as part of a morally healthy lifestyle.


There is no evidence as to what effect seeing virtuous women eating bananas might have had on an unruly Victorian libido, but the sale and consumption of bananas continued anyway.

Ba jiao gui

Banana Ghosts

Considering that bananas are a staple of diets in many parts of the world, it is not surprising that they have made their way into many legends and folklore around the world, making for some banana beliefs that are far more established than those crazy Victorian fads.

One of my favourites is the Nang Tani of Thailand.  She is a sort of ‘lady of the wood’ type character, a beautiful, greenish female spirit who is said to haunt the groves of wild banana there.

She is generally a gentle spirit, reminding people of the sanctity of nature, and providing shelter for monks and other travellers.  One group that really gets her goat though are men who have wronged women, and if one of them breaks off a wild banana they can expect a nasty reprisal.


The Sloop John B..anana

Given how notoriously superstitious sailors are it is perhaps to be expected that bananas should also be given this treatment by sea-faring folk.  Some locate the origin of the ‘maritime banana curse’ with the unlucky encounters sailors had with poisonous spiders or snakes that had hitched a ride on early banana cargoes, or the fact that the ethylene produced by the bananas caused other fruit around them to spoil faster.

Whatever the reason, bananas are now considered unlucky by many sailors and fisherfolk, and a banana on board can be blamed for everything from a poor catch to foul weather.  So keep your bananas out of your tackle box if you want a good number of bites.



Smoke em’ if you’ve got em’

Hands up who wasn’t told at some point in their lives that you could get high from smoking banana peels?

Apparently this rather silly idea caught on in the1960s when people made the connection between the effects of LSD and serotonin on the brain and the fact that bananas too have serotonin in them ( actually the levels of seratonin in bananas is too small to cross the blood-brain barrier).

It spread quickly due to the fact that many people wanted to get high and also had no money, so the ‘a-peel’ of smoking bananas was obvious (no I’m not sorry).

mellow yellow

The flames were fed by the synchronistic release of folksinger Donovan’s single ‘Mellow Yellow’ which contained the lyrics “Electrical banana / Is gonna be a sudden craze / Electrical banana / Is bound to be the very next phase” .  Donovan later definitively stated that those lyrics were about a yellow vibrator and not about smoking banana peels.


Still the myth persisted, despite the empirical evidence of anyone who tried it that smoking any part of a banana could not get you high.  Part of its endurance can be put down to the fact that William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook (1971) included in his cult tome what was in fact a hoax recipe printed in the Berkeley Barb in 1967 which purported to explain how to extract ‘bananadine’– the psychoactive element in bananas.

More than anything this myth, like some of the other strange ideas about bananas seem to stick around because bananas themselves have a hold on our imaginations. Mainly because they look funny and taste good.

Something old, Something strange…

In this edition of Believe It Or Not Laura Macfehin looks into the strange superstitions surrounding wedding dresses!

Recently I was lucky enough to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread.

I had been a little nervous that the plot might be a bit Pygmalion-ish (which is one of my all time most hated storylines) but it wasn’t, thank goodness.

Instead it was an obsessively beautiful fever dream set inside a fictional and chilly couture house in 1950s London.

There was, obviously, lots of sewing which was great for me, as sewing is one of my favourite things to do/watch/think about.


Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

Wedding dresses play a central role in the story (as they do in real life couture houses), and the couturier, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, tells his new muse of some of the superstitions surrounding them.

In particular he tells of how his terrible nanny wouldn’t help him sew a wedding dress for his mother for fear that she would not then marry herself, and of how young models don’t wish to model them in case they marry a bald man.

These stories got me thinking of some of the weird superstitions I had heard around wedding dresses, a garment that has been loaded up with some fairly heavy symbology over the years.


Seamstresses prepare a wedding dress fit for a Princess in Phantom Thread

Oh no she didn’t!

First, let us do a little low-key myth-busting.  No- Queen Victoria did not ‘invent’ the white wedding dress as some people put about.  Although she certainly gave it a boost in the popularity stakes white wedding dresses were around before Victoria tied the knot with her cousin Albert (this is just talking about the Western European tradition of bridal wear, because of course Shinto brides have been wearing white for centuries).

She chose white because she wanted to make a feature of the Honiton lace that swathed the otherwise quite subdued satin gown, and support British cottage industries which were suffering at the time. Her gown was hugely influential and the Devon lace-makers certainly benefitted from her choice.


Queen Vic in her wedding dress

She was not the first royal to marry in white.  A couple of decades earlier Princess Charlotte had married in a stunning regency gown of silver and white.


Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding dress

And as many (including historical novelist Loretta Chase here) have pointed out- white wedding dresses were already quite in vogue; as these ladies magazine fashion plates from the 1830s demonstrate.



Which brings us to our second bit of myth-busting (or perhaps it is more like myth-tweaking? Anyway).  And that is addressing the idea that the symbolism of white as equalling chastity is an ancient one.  The reason aristocracy (and those wealthy enough to imitate them) had traditionally chosen white was because it is so impractical.  Most women throughout history (and even up until the end of the 1940s) married in their ‘best’ frock.

Even if they had a new dress or suit for the occasion (and sometimes employers would foot the bill or provide a hand-me-down of good quality) it was generally expected by most women that they would get more than one days wear out of their wedding outfit.

In the days before dry cleaners a white silk gown was the height of luxury, because it said to the observer I can afford to wear something new that I never expect to wear again.


A 1950s bride and groom

Historically blue had been the colour that signalled ‘purity’ and innocence-hence Our Lady’s blue garb.  The Late Victorians (wouldn’t you know it) were the ones who got caught up on the virginal brides thing and made the link between chastity and wearing white.

Certainly until the 1950s it remained common to marry in whatever colour you fancied (within some limits as we will see).

It perhaps not a surprise that in the 1950s, a time when both consumerism and gender conformity both spiked, there was a huge uptake on the notion of a white wedding dress as a one-wear garment.


Colour me lucky

Although marrying in a colour other than white was not unusual, that is not to say the were no superstitions around colour choice!

In Scotland, green was considered so unlucky it was not only banned from the bridal party but also from guests and even wedding decor.  As the following rhyme shows there could be repercussions for brides flighty enough to go with their own taste over folklore.

Married in White, you have chosen right,

Married in Grey, you will go far away,

Married in Black, you will wish yourself back,

Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,

Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,

Married in Blue, you will always be true,

Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,

Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,

Married in Brown, you will live in the town,

Married in Pink, you spirit will sink.

Different fabrics have different superstitious connotations as well.  In most traditions silk is lucky, satin unlucky and velvet will result in poverty!
It is not surprising that so much superstition should surround weddings.  In a time before divorces were attainable and property rights for women largely nil, there was a lot riding on making a decent marriage.  Brides really needed luck to be on their side.

I should be so lucky

This is where some of the weirder superstitions come in.  Although I scream inside to write it, it has long been held lucky in English folklore to find a spider inside your wedding dress (one would hope before the frock goes over your head).  This probably dates back to Roman times– the Romans considered spiders very lucky and used to carry spider charms around with them to aid in business transactions.


Old postcard with a good luck spider

In other animal related luck– if a bride should find a cat eating from her left shoe a week before she is married then that is also hugely lucky.  And, you know, really probable without any highly involved orchestration.

The Evil Eye

Other superstitions built into the choosing and constructing of wedding clothes tend to be more about diverting bad luck.  Much of this is seems to come from people’s paranoia around hubristic displays of good fortune or happiness in public, with a little bit of not counting your chickens thrown in for good measure.

The wedding veil is a good example of this.  Although some point to the veil’s utility in keeping the bride’s face a surprise in arranged marriages, it actually has an older and more talismanic function, which was to ward off the evil eye from jealous onlookers or angry gods.


This 1960s bride easily deflects bad hoodoo with her nifty shoulder-length veil

In the not counting your chickens basket it has been considered unlucky to complete your outfit too far ahead of time.  Ideally the last stitches should be sewn (by the bride’s mother) just before she walks down the aisle.  Some dressmakers still leave a little bit of hem unstitched for this purpose.

When it comes to the construction of wedding dresses there is a whole bevy of superstitions.  Some (possibly dressmakers looking to protect their business) say that it is unlucky for a woman to sew her own wedding dress, and that every stitch she sews will be a tear she sheds in the marriage.





In the seamstress’s workshop

Within the couturier’s workshop there are plenty more superstitions that come into play with the sewing of wedding dresses.  A common one is for unwed seamstresses to sew a hair of their’s into a seam of the dress.  This is meant to ensure they will marry themselves.  Sometimes, to secure the bride’s good luck, they may sew in a hair from the head of seamstress who is happily married.  In other shops they may sew in a good luck charm, like a small cardboard horseshoe or a piece of blue ribbon into the hem or waist stay of a gown.


Once upon a time, long, long ago I myself got married dear reader!  I was lucky enough to have my mother sew my dress for me (she also sewed the dresses for my beautiful best-women) so I avoided the tears that would have come from sewing it myself, but I did sew a red velvet wrap to go around my shoulders.  Perhaps the fact that I was still sewing it the night before the wedding mitigated the terribly unlucky red velvet!

Scan 6

My mum fitting me for my wedding dress while my sister offers encouragement

Scan 7

Me sewing my wrap the night before the wedding

So far we’ve stayed married for coming up to eighteen years, so the D.I.Y approach can’t be too unlucky.

Scan 8

My parents and I on my wedding day

How about you?  Did you or would you sew your own wedding dress?  Do you have any family superstitions or cultural traditions around wedding clothes?  I’d love to hear about them!

New Zealand’s Most Haunted Hotels

In part three of Believe It Or Not Laura Macfehin dials up some ghoulish room service in five of New Zealand’s haunted hotels!

Hotels seem to collect ghost stories like boy scouts around a campfire; maybe because like that campfire in the darkness they give hotels an added frisson that makes the stay that little bit more interesting.

With all the comings and goings and associated drama that takes place within their walls it is not surprising that they might hold on to some extra energy– or that some guests simply refuse to check out.  New Zealand hotels are no exception– here are five that are considered our most haunted.

The Masonic


The Masonic Hotel in Napier is a gorgeous Art Deco structure- part of the city-wide rebuild after the 1931 earthquake that gave Napier its special character and draws visitors from all over the globe today.  This present incarnation is in fact the third Masonic to stand in this spot– the first being a three-storey Victorian building that went up in the 1860s and was destroyed in a fire at the end of the nineteenth century.

It was rebuilt in 1897 as one of the grandest and most up to date hotels in the country until the earthquake that laid low so much of Napier in 1931.  In 1932 it was rebuilt for the third time- the Art Deco design by Wellington architect W. J. Prowse is what still stands today.

Perhaps this turbulent history is part of the reason the Masonic has a reputation for being ‘unsettled’ in a paranormal sense too!  As well as the fire and earthquakes the Masonic has seen its share of human upsets– the usual hotel casualties both natural and less so– including the death of a Maori chief in a bathtub and of a regular patron in an elevator.

Staff and guests alike report unexplained lights and music, lights that turn on by themselves, spooky whispers and cold spots.  Still if you are willing to risk a chance encounter with a ghost the Masonic is the perfect place to do it while enjoying some unique architectural history!

Check it out here


The Masonic Hotel is an important part of Napier’s art deco heritage

The Chateau Tongariro


Tongariro National Park was given by Paramount Chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku Te HeuHeu Tukino IV to the people of New Zealand in 1887, in order to protect the sacred peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.  In 1925 a new road opened up the area to visitors and The Chateau was built to cater to these visitors’ needs.

Like the Masonic it has had a vibrant history.  It was a government-run hostel which saw a lot of action during the ‘roaring’ twenties and thirties, then it was temporarily sequestered as a women’s asylum in the 1940s after a severe earthquake damaged the Porirua Hospital.  Towards the end of the second world war it was used for the recuperation of returned serviceman before opening to the public again.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the ‘unusual’ happenings at the hotel are linked to its use as an asylum and convalescence home for World War Two airmen.  Staff believe that a nurse named Charlotte who died there still continues her rounds and is particularly fond of room 308.

Guests and staff have reported seeing objects move by themselves, doors lock and unlock on their own and taps turn on in empty bathrooms.  This spooky reputation does not deter guests though– it would take a lot more to put people off such comfortable hotel in such a stunner of a setting. 

Check it out for yourself here

skiing chateau

Skiing from the front doors of the Chateau, NZ Herald 23 July 1931

The Riccarton Racecourse Hotel


The Riccarton Racecourse Hotel leapt into the headlines and the national consciousness in the early thirties when the proprietor Donald Fraser was shot to death in his upstairs bedroom by unknown assailants.  The murder had the appearance of a (perhaps contract) execution with two loaded shotgun barrels being emptied into the sleeping man’s chest.

Despite the fact that Fraser had made many enemies through his quick temper over the years the investigation baffled detectives and to this day the case remains unsolved.

The Victorian built Racecourse Hotel and Motorlodge still offers affordable accommodation to this day, conveniently set- as the name suggests- adjacent to the Riccarton Racecourse.

Be aware though- despite having been dispatched in such an efficient manner in 1933 Donald Fraser does not seem to have departed entirely from the place.  There have been numerous reports of encounters with him roaming the corridors– perhaps looking for rowdy punters to toss– or perhaps searching for his killer? 

You can check it out here

The Vulcan Hotel St Bathans

vulcan hotel

The Vulcan Hotel in St Bathans is a mud-brick building dating from 1882 — although like the Masonic a previous wooden hotel stood in the same spot before being destroyed by fire.  Although now a quiet place in its mining heyday St Bathans was home to some two thousand miners as well as farmers, families and those entrepreneurs supplying the infrastructure to support their endeavours.

It may appear that all that is left of this ‘wild west’ time is the seemingly placid man-made Blue Lake and some Victorian architecture, but many claim some of the town’s more interesting characters stayed around long after the mines closed.

The spirits of long gone miners are said to rise from the depths of Blue lake at night, which is also said to also hold the restless spirit of a barmaid who drowned herself there.  The most famous haint in the place though is a resident of room one of the Vulcan Hotel.

There have many reports over the years of disturbing visits by a female spectre who sits on the chests of men and attempts to throttle them.  She has also been seen reclining on a chaise in the hotel, and apparently has no problem with lady guests who come to stay.  Legend has it that she was a prostitute known as ‘The Rose’ who was strangled by a john on the premises. 

If you are game to step back in time in Central Otago you can check it out here


The Waitomo Caves Hotel

waitomo lodge

Set in the tiny tourist village of Waitomo in the strange and beautiful King Country region of the North Island The Waitomo Caves Hotel is both New Zealand’s most haunted hotel and one of my favourite places on earth!

Originally built in 1902 on the site of British fort ‘Waitomo House’ was taken over by the government in 1905 and renamed as a Government Hostel (as The Chateau would be also).  The limestone cave system with its underground waterways and glowworms has continued to bring in tourists ever since, and the hotel added an art deco wing in 1928.


The Waitomo Caves Hotel as it stands today, showing the 1920s wing

The bloody history and the limestone cave system might be enough to ensure an ‘active’ site, but The Waitomo Hotel has legends of its own.  A Maori Princess is said to walk the halls and moan, and young boy killed in the kitchens can be heard giggling.  Many strange incidents have been reported over the years.

Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro credits his stay at the hotel for inspiring a particularly bloody scene in Crimson Peak involving a bath tub.  I have had my own far less gruesome experiences there– there is a former matron who continues to keep an eye on the place!

Despite recent renovations the hotel maintains much of its character and charm and ghosties aside I can whole-heartedly recommend it as a unique place and catch up with some reading or check out some glowworms. 

Find out for yourself here

Waitomo guides

Early Waitomo Caves guides

That’s my round-up of some of New Zealand’s most haunted hotels.  Have I missed any doozies?  Have you got a ghost story to add?  Let me know!

10 top podcasts to put in your ears!

Laura Macfehin listens in and reports back from the land of podcasting.

If you’re not already familiar with podcasts you might ask “What the heck are they and why is that annoying guy at work always talking about them?”

Put simply, podcasts are free audio programmes that you can download and listen to whenever you want.  It’s like the radio, but you are your own station manager. 

Podcasting has taken off in a huge way over the last few years and it is possible to find a podcast on any subject you might be interested in (if there really isn’t one out there catering to your tastes you should be making a podcast). 

Podcasts can be found on platforms like iTunes or Spotify, or directly from the website of individual podcasts.  There are some production houses that specifically make podcasts  (like Panoply, Radiotopia, Parcast, Gimlet Media) and these have a baseline standard of production values that is quite high, and often podcasts of a similar vein so if you like one from a certain production house you might like their other ones too. 

There are also thousands of independent podcasters whose skills and resources vary considerably but amongst whom are some real gems!  I like podcasts because there are times when I can’t be reading or watching documentaries (like when I am cooking or sewing) but I don’t want to stop cramming information into my head.  I find it relaxing and allaying of loneliness to hear people talk about stuff, or to be told stories– especially when I don’t have to have clothes on or respond politely to have that company.

So what I have I been listening to?


The first podcast I ever followed was rather unsurprisingly Real Ghost Stories Online—and I found it on YouTube. Ex-radio DJ Tony Brueski had put together calls from the Halloween specials he had done on the radio. He asked people to call in with new stories and eventually he was putting out a show a day (with an extra one on the weekends for subscribers). Sort of like paranormal talkback radio the show is addictive if you enjoy human nature as much as ghost stories—which I do—I find hearing what scares people and how they turn that into a story as fascinating as the stories themselves! (Plus there are literally hundreds of episodes available now so it is definitely bingeable). It’s a little bit cheesy but Tony and his wife Jenny take all stories at face value and are very respectful in their treatment of callers and their stories.


Knock Once for Yes is a much newer paranormal podcast—again hosted by a couple—this time English pair Lil and Fitz. They also read listener’s real ghost stories, and relate their own but they also provide what they describe as ‘paranormal postcards’ which are very charming segments featuring haunted sites in Britain that they have visited. They give a run down of the place’s haunted history and describe their visit. Very pleasant listening if you enjoy ghosts plus stately homes!


The drama!

Audio drama is one of the ways in which podcasts are stretching the boundaries and at the same time harking back to early days of radio. There are two main forms of audio drama in podcasting at the moment—there is straight fiction where the drama is presented much in the way a serial radio play would have been in the past, and there is the faux documentary style where the podcaster presents fictional content as if it were factual. My tastes, as you may have noticed, run to the creepy so most of my fave dramas are in this direction also—see Tanis, The Black Tapes, Limetown, et al. My two favourites of the last year have been Ghosts in the Burbs and The Magnus Archives.


Liz Sower‘s Ghosts in the Burbs presents a series of stories highlighting the darker side of preppy Massachusetts town Wellesley. Stories that are told to her by yoga going moms on their way to pick up their children from desirable schools and real estate guys and ladies who sit on charitable boards. Sower’s lighthearted but deft skewering of this social strata only makes the chills when they arrive that much chillier—and boy do they arrive! This is a podcast that I listen to immediately when a new episode drops and selfishly offer regular prayers for Sower’s continued health and productivity.


The Magnus Archives presents a chilling story weekly, in the form of testimonial being archived on tape detailing a strange or paranormal occurrence. Jonathan Simms writes and presents each story as the head archivist of the titular institute, helped by a cast of supporting players.  Singularly they are some of the best spooky stories I have heard in recent years– taken together they provide even greater thrills as an overarching mystery is revealed…

Historically Speaking

Nerds like me love information—especially that information that has only a tangential relevance to our current lives. That is one of the reasons history podcasts are so important to me—the other being that without them I could not treat my friends and family to tidbits of this semi-relevant knowledge on a regular basis. They love it when I say “I heard a podcast that was sort of about that the other day…”


Illustration for the episode on the Historical Roots for Holiday Treats on Stuffed You Missed in History Class

My favourite history podcast is Stuff You Missed in History Class. The charming hosts Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey provide concise episodes on things and people who are often overlooked in ‘mainstream’ history—including the stories of marginalised and yet significant folks and true accounts of episodes you might have thought you knew about already. Their delight in history and the research that uncovers these stories is infectious and their writing and presentation is respectful to both subject and listener. Highly recommended.


Artwork by Julienne Alexander for the episode on Carry A. Nation

My other favourite history podcast is Criminal. What’s that you say? That sounds more like a true crime podcast than a history podcast? That is because Criminal really defies categorisation, but it feels to me more like a history podcast with other elements involved. The mellifluously voiced Phoebe Judge (fun fact- Judge has my cat Watson’s favourite podcast voice) presents stories which hover around the central concept of criminality—sometimes this means old, cold or sensational crimes and sometimes it means stories focussing more on the concept of legality or stories that touch on social or personal issues created by criminal justice systems.  It is always fascinating, well researched and presented and the one that I listen to immediately when a new episode comes out.


The history of Tinsel Town and its inhabitants is a pretty common fascination and I am certainly not immune.  For my money the two best podcasters on the subject are Karina Longworth and Adam Roche.

You Must Remember This is Longworth’s contribution and I truly believe everybody with any kind of interest in film should listen in.  Each season has a different theme– she covers the lives of actors, writers and studios with an unsurpassed depth of research and a feel for the subject matter that borders on the uncanny.  Her take on history eschews regular tropes and eviscerates the uncritically accepted version of events, so even if you think you know the subject matter well Longworth is sure to bring something fresh to your ears.


Karina Longworth of You Must Remember This

The Secret History of Hollywood is film buff Roche’s generous gift to a most undeserving world.  Essentially some of the best texts put together about subjects like Alfred Hitchcock, Val Lewton, The Warner Brothers, James Cagney and more; Roche brings these stories to life with his beautiful storytelling and sound design.  This is the podcast if you want to be swept away to another time and place, with outrageous characters, their very human foibles and the contribution they made to film history.  If you don’t tear up listening to these you are a concrete shell of a humanoid.  You don’t have to take my word for it though– Mark Gatiss is such a fan he even lent his voice to the most recent season on famed auteur producer Val Lewton!


Chit Chat

This is the genre perhaps best exemplified by pioneer This American Life– true life stories revealed in a self-reflexive manner by the podcaster.  Or as a university professor in one episode of Heavyweight dismissively describes them– ‘chit-chat’ podcasts.  My two recent favourites in this genre are both relatively new– two seasons a piece and have a similar premise– people exploring something from their pasts that has always bugged them.  In Heavyweight Canadian New Yorker Jonathan Goldstein examines everything from his own lapsed Judaism to his friend Gregor’s beef with musician Moby (yes they do travel to L.A. but you’ll have to listen to see whether they actually meet up with Moby or not).  Goldstein is very funny, the episodes are a little bit poignant but mainly very funny and seem to fit in perfectly with the length of time it takes me to make dinner.


Family Ghosts despite its name is not a paranormal show– in a similar vein to Heavyweight it investigates questions that have niggled away at people, but in this case focussing on a family figure who has always been something of a mystery.  Sam Dingman and his subjects examine jewellery smuggling grandmothers, missing siblings, and uncles with double lives in this very compelling podcast.  If you are at all worried that your family might be a little unusual in its weirdness this is the podcast that will put those fears to rest!

family ghosts

These 10 are just the tippy top of the podcast iceberg– I am always excited to hear about podcasts I might not have discovered so if you are a podcast fan please let me know what you listen to!



The Case of the Hauraki Sea Serpent

You have likely heard of cryptids such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil.  But what if I told you there were similar strange beasts lurking in your own back yard?  Deep in the bush of the Coromandel Peninsula, beneath the apparently placid waters of the Hauraki Gulf, stalking the desolate hills of the Southland High Country?  In this first post on the crazy cryptids of New Zealand I look at the startling Case of the Hauraki Sea Serpent. 

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, 
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height; 
And far away into the sickly light, 
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The Kraken (1830) Alfred Tennyson

In the 1870s the Coromandel peninsula was abuzz with activity.  Gold had been discovered in 1867 and Kauri timber and gum were still in high demand. Despite this the area was still relatively inaccessible by land. The Hauraki plains were still difficult to travel being largely swamp, and there was no road-link between Auckland and Thames until 1930, after the building over the Kopu bridge in 1928 made such a thing possible. Until as late as the 1940s coastal shipping was really the main source of transport and commerce between big town Auckland and the smaller settlements along the peninsula.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091125-10-5

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091125-10-5

Steamer ships took passengers and goods between Auckland and Thames daily. The trip took a route through the Hauraki Gulf, past Motukorea (Browns Island) and on to the Coromandel.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 855-2'

Thames Wharf  1900s Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 855-2

The Leviathan

This routine journey was what was expected when the steamer Durham set out on a calm day in  February of 1878.  The Captain was in his cabin, but many passengers were on deck when there was a rather extraordinary break in the routine. As Mr A. Forde Matthews reported it to the Auckland Star

“At about three-quarters of a mile distant from the steamer we were greatly surprised at the appearance of a leviathan head, shaped like that of an eel, or, as some remarked, like a seal.  The monster reared its mighty form out of the sea to about 30ft. perpendicular height, remaining erect several seconds and then dashed its head forward into the water, creating a disturbance therein like the plunge of a ship downwards, and parting the sea in large foaming waves.  Then after a short time, and before we could recover from our astonishment, the stupendous animal rose again, and brought its head down in the same manner described and this for twelve or fifteen times in succession, as if the creature had been attacked, and was in great pain– at least that was the general opinion expressed.”

Mr A. Forde Matthews appears to have been a man of reasonable probity (he went on to hold various local council positions and the like), and there was quite a crowd of passengers who witnessed this with him.  But perhaps these folks were simply unaccustomed to marine life and what they saw was an amateur interpretation of the everyday?  Luckily for us the crew were also paying attention.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18910829-318-1

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18910829-318-1

Captain Somerville speaks

A reporter from the Star sought out the captain of the Durham, and he gave a statement to which he was prepared to testify to under oath.  Unlike the passengers Captain Somerville was a man with substantial experience with coastal shipping.  He had this to say

“I was engaged at dinner in my cabin, when the mate called out to me to come and look at what he thought was a whale.  The vessel was then passing Brown’s Island.  On going on deck I saw a large monster which I thought was a common spouting black-fish, but on looking closely I found this was not the case.  It had a head like an immense eel, with a pair of flanges which looked very much like ears; the neck and part of the body were out of the water, and reached about 30ft. in the air.  The color [sic] of the whole body was jet black, and the body appeared to be 10ft. in diameter.  I believe the monster had lost itself, and got in water too shallow to allow it to swim.”

Captain Somerville saw the creature dashing the water with its head and neck and had time to run back to the cabin for his telescope.

“On examining the monster more closely (I) was convinced that it was neither a black-fish nor a threshing whale, as I am too well acquainted with these fish not to know the difference… If it had struck the stern of the vessel when beating water with the upper portion of its body, the blow would certainly have shattered it to pieces.”

The Auckland Star concluded that there were too many witnesses who concurred to be in any doubt of the facts of the case.  They did not, however hazard a guess as to what or who the creature may have been.  So what was it?


Aerial view showing Motukorea (Brown’s Island) where the beast was seen


Aotearoa has a strong mythology involving beings who dwell in water– the Taniwha.  Could this have been what the people aboard the Durham that day encountered?  Although taniwha are sometimes described as monsters, most of their direct interactions with people seem to be in the form of something more familiar like an octopus or a dolphin.  The most well-known taniwha of the Hauraki region is Ureia, who is sometimes said to live in Tikapa (Firth of Thames), and has been seen in the form of a whale passing by Pt Erin on numerous occasions.  Could Motukorea have a taniwha of its own?  It seems to me that the kind of behaviour the mystery creature displayed could only be explained in taniwha terms if it was either a warning to the people of some danger or showing some displeasure– perhaps at a lack of respect shown by the frequent steamers going by.  The island was at that time under the ownership still of Sir Logan Campbell— could the taniwha have been expressing a dislike for the ‘father of Auckland’?  Seeing as there weren’t any near or present dangers to the boat and nothing changed subsequently with regard to shipping lanes or island ownership and the ‘monster’ didn’t appear again, it seems unlikely to be have been a taniwha action in this case.  But if not taniwha then who or what?


This carving of Ureia is in the Hotunui meeting house- formerly in Thames but now on display in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.


Some people believe Nessie to in be a living relic of a lost age—they argue that the lake monster is in fact a supposedly extinct plesiosaur. There are many logical counter-arguments to this idea in Nessie’s case, but could New Zealand waters possibly hold a similar pre-historic creature? Enter the Taniwhasaurus—a mosasaur from the Late Cretaceous period whose fossil was first found in the South Island in 1874. Mosasaurs were a type of marine reptiles who frolicked in our oceans until around 66 million years ago when they joined in with mass-extinction event that wiped out about three-quarters of the earth’s plant and animal species. Could a couple have hung around? They kind of look right and match up size wise—I’ll let you decide what the likelihood of our sea serpent being a dinosaur is.


Taniwhasaurus–  a mosasaur of the Late Cretaceous period

Consider the Squid

By far my favourite contender for the  Hauraki Sea Serpent’s crown is not a serpent at all– it is a Giant Squid.  The Giant Squid (not to be confused with the Colossal Squid) can grow to 13 m (43 ft) for females and 10 m (33 ft) for males from the posterior fins to the tip of the two long tentacles.  Those two long tentacles have ‘clubs’ on the ends of them, which in shape could resemble an eel or seal like head.  Imagine, if you will, giant squid, partially submerged, flailing its long tentacle around and dashing it against the surface of the water.  It has (as Captain Somerville surmised) gotten in too shallow water and is finding the oxygen and light levels uncomfortable– hence its thrashing around.  The long tentacle with its club might be mistaken for a neck and head, while its partially submerged mantle could look like the body of a larger creature.


It would not be the first time squid have been associated with sea monsters– The Kraken mentioned up top in the poem by Tennyson was based on a mythological cephlapod, as was the famous Cthulu of Lovecraft’s mythos.  Squid have also been used as an explanation/debunking of a sea monster before.  “But wait, Laura,” I hear you cry “what on earth would a deep-sea creature like a giant squid be doing in the relative shallows around Motukorea?”  I am so glad you asked!  The answer to that may come somewhat ironically in the dismissal of the story by another steamer captain.  On March the 8th it was reported that the captain of the Tamaki dismissed the claims of Captain Somerville and his passengers, saying that the creature was a sperm whale, that he passed close enough by to be sure of it.  Personally I don’t believe Captain Somerville would have misidentified a sperm whale– but if there was one in the vicinity it actually gives credence to the possibility of a giant squid.  Sperm Whales are the number one predator of giant squid– I think it is perfectly reasonable that one may have chased the other from the depths to the surface of the Hauraki waters, and that what those lucky folk upon the Durham saw that day was part of the long fabled battle between Squid and Whale.


Whale with a squid in its mouth

But what do you think?  Was it a squid or a sperm whale?  A taniwha or a taniwhasaurus?  Or was it something else?  Let me know your theories!  Let me see your sea monster art!  Have any of you had encounters with something strange beneath the sparkling waters of the Hauraki Gulf?  And stay tuned for more tales of crazy cryptids in your own back yard!

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101215-10-6

 Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101215-10-6

The Astounding History of the world’s most famous Super-Heroine!

Laura Macfehin brings you up to speed on the polyamorous, feminist and BDSM heavy back story of the most successful female comic book character of all time.


“In your satin tights! Fighting for our rights! And the old Red, White and Blue!”

So proclaimed the impossibly funky intro to the 1970s New Adventures of Wonder Woman starring ex-beauty-queen Lynda Carter. This was the incarnation that I was first exposed to and I loved for all the usual reasons kids love superheroes; she was strong, beautiful and she had adventures.  At the time I was not cognizant of the fact that the programme was meant to be set in the 1940s – I didn’t know where or when she came from– just that she could do really big jumps and deflect bullets with her jewellery.  And also that she was somehow outside of time and space – she was super and therefore eternal.


Introducing… Wonder Woman!

On paper Wonder Woman had sped into popular consciousness in the early 1940s, flying her invisible plane to a top spot in popularity just behind Superman and Batman. Since then the public has seen her not just battle super villains, but also be banned, tamed, divested and reinvested with her superpowers, reclaimed as a feminist icon and dismissed as a pawn of the CIA. And all the while the secrets of her origins her possibly the wildest story of all. Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s latest work The Secret History of Wonder Woman explores the sometimes seamy, always fascinating secret history of America’s favourite super-heroine.

secret history of wonder woman

William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator was literally a master of deception. He invented the first lie detector, a machine he continued to peddle to everyone from the War department to Hollywood studios for the rest of his working life. This interest in obfuscation had a palpable parallel in his personal life, in which he maintained a polyamorous relationship with two women, with whom he had four children. All seven lived together in a family set up which would be considered somewhat unconventional today and in the first half of the 20th century required some out-and-out lying to protect.  As a backdrop for creating a comic book character with the dual identities of Wonder Woman and Diana Prince it would turn out to be perfect.


You and me and Olive makes three

Marston was already married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston when he met Olive Byrne, a student at Yale where he was teaching psychology.  Byrne was a radical young woman with an Eton crop and large heavy bangles on both wrists; Marston gave her the best marks she received at college and the two became inseparable. The Marston’s had previously lived with another woman, so the scenario William proposed was not completely out of the blue. Elizabeth agreed with the proviso that Olive be the one to stay home and keep house while she continued to work in the city. It was a set up that continued through the rest of their lives, with Elizabeth being the most consistent breadwinner, Olive raising the children and William being free to pursue he various academic pursuits. The two women continued to live together until their deaths, outlasting their husband by several decades.


Family portrait with Marston surrounded by his children.  Elizabeth stands behind him and Olive is seated on the right.

The two women formed the basis not only for their rather bohemian home life but also for one of the most lasting cultural icons of the 20th century. Marston had been interested in the potential of comics after seeing the rapid rise of their popularity in the 1930’s. An ardent feminist from the 19th century suffragette mould, he believed a superhero could promote the values he felt were lacking in the world — equality between the sexes being the chief of these. Elizabeth, looking at the profusion of superheroes in newsprint insisted the new superhero be a heroine. Olive Byrne provided the physical blueprint for the comic book heroine, right down to the large silver bracelets which are able to deflect bullets, but the philosophy for Amazonian princess also fell right out of her family tree. You see, Olive had rather a famous aunt. In fact she owed her life to that aunt who not only delivered her into the world but rescued her from the snow drift her drunk father threw her into only a few hours later.


Olive Byrne’s aunt, Margaret Sanger

The most dangerous woman in America

Margaret Sanger was indeed on of the most famous women in the world (some would have said infamous) in her heyday. In the early years of the 20th century she was prosecuted for indecency after the publication of her book ‘Family Limitation’ which detailed how to obtain and use contraception, and jailed along with her sister Ethel after they opened a free clinic in New York distributing contraception and birth control advice. Her sister Ethel went on hunger strike and was the first woman to be force-fed in the United States. Sanger was a socialist and a feminist whose books underpinned what would become Wonder Woman’s ideology to such a degree that when a new writer was hired to write the strip Olive handed her a copy of Sanger’s ‘Woman and the New Race’ telling her it contained everything she needed to know about the super-heroine.


Tie me up, tie me down

As well as the strong feminist and socialist leanings of early Wonder Woman (“Suffering Sappho!” was one of her favourite catchphrases as she encouraged young shop girls to strike) there was another marked characteristic to the comic strips that was hard to ignore. With her spike heel red boots and tendency to be chained up in just about every adventure it would hard not to think that her creator had more than a passing interest in BDSM, and in fact he certainly did. He, Elizabeth and Olive had all belonged to radical groups interested in different sexualities and he continued to be a keen advocate for what he described as ‘love subjugation’. Thus Wonder Woman spends half her time breaking the shackles imposed on herself and other women and the other half tying people up (the lasso of truth must surely be the most succinct expression of Marston’s two hobbies).


After Marston relinquished control of Wonder Woman she went through the cycle of breaking down and reinvention common to many superheroes during the twentieth century.  The 1950s saw her tamed by Steve Trevor and the 1960s saw her briefly stripped of her powers all together.  She was held up as an icon during second wave feminism, only to be shot down as perpetuating sexist ideas of femininity.

Kristy Guevarra-Flanagan’s documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines shows how central to cultural iconography Wonder Woman remains, whether she is being re-contextualised in Riot Grrrl zines or cosplayed at ComicCon she remains immediately identifiable and ready to defend and empower. The new blockbuster coming out next week will see her finally get the same cinematic treatment as her DC pals Superman and Batman, although what Marston, Elizabeth and Olive with their anti-war beliefs would have thought about a literal poster-girl for the Israeli Defence Forces playing the super-heroine I am not sure. It is fitting that as with much of women’s history Wonder Woman’s story was all but lost due to close links to an unorthodoxy within the home; to the static between family and national politics. One thing is for sure, in the current climate we have never been in more need of either Wonder Woman herself or of the research that has unearthed her true identity.


How old is your bra?

Love them or hate them– the bra is something most woman wear everyday.  But when did we start doing this, and why?  How old are our bras and why did a garment that can sometimes seem like a torture device actually start off as part of women’s emancipation?  Laura Macfehin looks at bras and traces their sometimes surprising pedigree.


Greeks and Romans

When asking the question “just how old are our bras?” some historians have been tempted back into the ancient world by frescoes showing Roman gals gadding about in breast bands and loincloths. I’m going to cavalierly dismiss this breast get-up (otherwise known as a strophium, fascia, fasciola, taenia, or mamillare) as a forerunner to what we wear now because a) they only really wore them when exercising, and b) it was pretty much just a length of fabric wrapped round to contain the bust while tossing balls about. Greek ladies may have tightened their belts under their busts to prop up their bosoms up but again I don’t think this really counts as a bra-type bra. So due diligence to antiquity done—when did we start wearing bras?

ancient roman underwear

Roman lady challenges the viewer — “come at me– I’ve got my strophium on and my twirly thing”

From about the 16th century onwards, it became increasingly the thing to encase oneself in some sort of undergarment that held the body in place and created whatever shape was considered desirable at the time. Corsets changed depending the silhouette that was demanded by fashion at the time and the materials that were available, but they all generally involved boning of some kind and lacing. They were also all in one piece—that is they encompassed everything from the bust down to the waist or hips in one garment.

(c) National Trust, Tredegar House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Blanche Parry, possibly by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.  She demonstrates the type of Elizabethan fashions that required stiff underpinnings.

By the 19th century (after a brief loosening up in the Georgian era) corsets had become marvels of engineering, providing a sort of exoskeleton within which Victorian women lived their heavily prescribed lives. Much has been made (and I think overplayed) of the potential hazards of these garments but it is certainly true that there were women who felt them to be irrational items of clothing that impeded women from living full lives. Although there had been a couple of gentlemen who had acquired patents for garments solely for the support of the breasts these tended to be stupid designs involving inflatable bits or cups made of steel mesh that looked like tea strainers. In 1876 Olivia P. Flynt, of Boston patented a bodice type garment to be worn instead of a corset which was specially adapted to ladies having large busts… thereby enabling beauty of form to be preserved without lacing or otherwise injuriously pressing or binding the body.   Unfortunately her bust improver didn’t take off, although it looks like it would have been quite comfortable.


Oliva P. Flynt’s ‘Bust Improver’ 1876

The Socialist Soutien

Herminie Cadolle was a Communard who had taken part in one of the first women’s movements—the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris. During the Paris commune of 1871 she cared for the wounded and became friends with insurrectionist Louise Michel. Afterwards she was imprisoned in Rouen for her role and served six months before being released. She continued her political activities however—becoming treasurer of the Socialist Revolutionary Committee which was set up to support deportees of the Commune. Eventually though there was too much heat on her in Paris and she moved to Argentina—setting up shop in Buenos Aires. It was here that she conceived of her emancipatory undergarment by essentially cutting a corset in half.


In 1889 Herminie Cadolle exhibited her new design of undergarments at The Great Exhibition. The “soutien-gorge” (literally ‘throat support’) was a two-piece undergarment to replace the corset thereby ending the constriction on a ladies organs. From 1905 she was selling the top half separately and in 1910 she set up the Parisian workshop which she left in the charge of her daughter Marie, and in which successive generations of Cardolle women have continued to produce lingerie.


The Crosby Show

Born Mary Phelps Jacob, Caresse Crosby is often credited as an inventor of the modern bra. She came from a privileged New York family with all that entailed, and so in 1910 found herself a debutante attending balls and generally appearing in society. One night she was dressing herself for a ball in a diaphanous evening gown she had bought several weeks earlier. Unfortunately at this time underwear in New York was not keeping pace with the new sheer fashions, and Crosby found that her regular whalebone corset and super tight corset cover showed at the top of the gown’s plunging neckline, poked through the delicate fabric and turned her ample bust into a mono-boob. Frustrated she called for a couple of hankies and a needle and thread and whipped up a bra that protected her modesty without destroying the dress.

1910s gowns

These gowns (that belonged to Queen Maude of Norway) shows type of delicate fabrics and low necklines that were popular in 1910

It was an immediate success with many girls requesting she make them one that very night. Crosby patented the ‘backless brassiere’ in 1914, maintaining that it was “well-adapted to women of different size” and was “so efficient that it may be worn by persons engaged in violent exercise like tennis.” I find it hard to imagine a couple of hankies helping me much while playing tennis, but then I am no longer 23. She later formed the Fashion Form Brassiere Company that produced her bras until 1922, when her second husband Harry Crosby, persuaded her to wrap it up and come to Europe with him instead (they didn’t really need the money).  She sold the patent for US$1500 to The Warner Brothers Corset Company who discontinued the style but went on to make over US$15 million dollars over the next three decades.

mpj bra

Young Mary Jacob Phelps and the bra she designed

Crosby would go on to have a very exciting life after bras– with husband Harry she set up Black Sun Press which published ex-pat writers in Paris– people like Hemingway and Lawrence.  After Harry died in scandalous suicide-pact/murder-suicide with a lover (the Crosby’s had had a very open marriage) she continued to run Black Sun Press, published her own poetry, married an alcoholic actor nineteen years her junior, flouted U.S anti-miscegenation laws with a relationship with famous fighter and Broadway Star Canada Lee, founded organisations like ‘Women Against War’ and ‘Citizens of the World’ and ran an artist’s colony in Rome.

Caresse Crosby and her whippet

Caresse Crosby in 1922 with her whippet Clytoris (yes you read that right)

Our cups runneth over


Ida Cohen Rosenthal

At the same time as Crosby was rigging up her hanky bra another New York woman and her husband were working on the next step in the evolution of the modern bra.  Ida Cohen Rosenthal was born in Russia, where she had studied Russian and worked as a seamstress.  When her and her husband William’s Socialist activities began began to draw the hostile attention of the police they decided to emigrate.  At first they settled in Hoboken, where they set up the dressmaking business that they would eventually move to Manhatten.  Here they combined forces with dressmaker Enid Bissett.  In the early 20s the prevailing flapper look called for a boyish chest and most brassieres were simple bandeau type affairs.  Bissett and the Rosenthals found that this did little to flatter many of their customers, so Bissett took one of the bandeaus apart and re-stitched it to better suit a fuller figure.  They tinkered with the design and eventually worked a system of cup sizes to accomodate A, B, C, and D cups.  These bras were originally given to customers as part of a dress purchase, but they became so requested as individual sales that the trio soon started to stock them as stand alone garments.  In 1930 the Maiden Form Brassiere Company was formed.


The cup sizes system proved so successful that other companies such as Warner’s was quick to adopt it, and the four different sizes were nicknamed egg-cup, tea-cup, coffee-cup and challenge-cup!  The Rosenthals continued to run Maidenform (as it became in 1960) which became famous for it’s newspaper and magazine advertising.  The “I dreamed” campaign was thought up by a New York ad-man in 1949 and continued for twenty-one years.

maidenform election

Ida Rosenthal ran the business side of Maidenform from 1930 until her stroke in 1966, traveling to promote their products and taking on a leadership role that was unusual for women at the time.  Today the business is run by her granddaughter Beatrice Coleman.

But wait, there’s more…

So that’s about it, right?  Apart from tinkering here and there– the bullet bra, underwires, the push-up–  our modern bras have continued in pretty much the same mould.  Which means we can trace their birth back to around the beginning of the twentieth century.  At least that is what everyone thought.  Then in 2008 some workers who were part of the reconstruction of Castle Lengberg in Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol found a hidden vault containing 2,722 textile fragments.  Among these were four amazingly modern looking bras.

Lengberg_longline bra_0

The remains of a medieval bra from Lengberg castle that bears a striking resemblance to a 1950s longline bra


Among the finds were these underpants which look a lot like a modern string bikini.

Until this find it was generally believed that medieval women across Europe wore only a chemise beneath their gowns to protect them from the dirt and oil of their medieval bodies.  Archaeologists and historians are still working to discover who might have worn this garments and whether they were part of everyday garb, but it definitely extends the family tree of our modern over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders by about five hundred years!

What are your thoughts on bras?  Love them leave them?  Modern or vintage?  And did you know they were so old?

For more on textile history and the Lengberg Castle find see Laura Ricketts’ article The Case of the Medieval Bras in Piecework November/December 2014

The Coney Island Baby who was almost King of the Jungle

Laura Macfehin looks back on body builder Joe Bonomo- how the son of a Candyman almost became the most famous ‘swinger’ of all time!

The Sweet Life


On a mild summer morning towards the end of the 19th century, a ship was steaming into New York. It had come from Istanbul and the decks were crowded with people keen to get a look at their new home. The harbour was crowded with other ships of all sizes and the sunlight sparkled on the water. Al and Esther Bonomo stood together in the breeze and shaded their eyes against the glare – with the rest of the passengers they craned their necks and stared at the imposing statue that loomed up as they passed Bedloe’s Island. There were oohs and aahs and a couple of whoops as they steamed passed. A thrill of inspiration ran through Al as he gazed at the copper giantess, holding aloft what appeared to be a monumental ice-cream.


Although later disabused of the notion that Liberty was welcoming them to the New World with frozen confectionery the inspiration stuck, and within a year the Bonomos were established on the Coney Island boardwalk with a stall selling ice-creams and homemade candy. On Christmas day in 1901 little Joe was born, and quickly became a fixture along with his parents in the carnival world of Coney Island. Despite having unlimited access to ice-cream and sweets the Brooklyn boy was a scrawny lad— often at the butt end of others jokes and earning himself the nickname ‘Toothpicks’. He kept to himself—exploring the world of sideshows and thrill rides with just his dog Babe for company.


“What’s the matter, kid?”

It was on one of these explorations that little Joe meet Ladislaw—a hulking Polish man who was in Coney Island with his strong man act. Ladislaw found Joe skulking round the back of the tent and asked the boy why he looked so glum. Joe replied that he was sick of being teased, and he wished he’d been born strong like Ladislaw.  Ladislaw chided him—“there’s nothing to it; being a big guy like me—anyone can do it. All it is eating the right foods and exercising your muscles”. Joe was fascinated—he got all the information he could from Ladislaw and from then on befriended every muscle man who came through Coney Island, even the world-famous Eugen Sandow.


Famous Strongman the magnificent Sandow (on the left) interferes with a dead tiger.

By high school he was a footballer and wrestler, and he had also managed to teach himself fencing, horse riding and ballroom dancing. He loved the glamour of the ballroom, but above all he was in love with motion pictures.

New Jersey Babylon


The Great Train Robbery (1903) filmed in the wilds of New Jersey and made by one of Edison’s employees was one of the first films to feature a plot.

At this time, New Jersey, not Hollywood was the centre of film production in America. Thomas Edison had set up his studio near his workshops in 1892 and from that time filmmakers had flocked to the area, setting up their own studios. As well as the proximity to technology New Jersey provided photogenic scenery and locales an a steady stream of talent just a ferry ride away from Broadway.  The previously sedate semi-rural New Jersey was over taken by film folk who churned out thousands of pictures for the new Nickelodeons that were springing up all over the country.


Charles Atlas in leopard print posing pants

In 1921 Joe Bonomo was encouraged by muscle man and founding father of the body-building universe Charles Atlas  to enter a star search competition looking for the ‘Modern Apollo’.  Maybe was there was magic in the leopard print loincloth Atlas lent him because Bonomo beat out thousands of other hopefuls.  The prize was a role opposite film star Hope Hampton.  Hampton, herself a competition winner was successful actress/producer who continued at the top her game until talkies came in.  The role Bonomo won was in ‘The Light in the Dark‘ a seven-reel melodrama featuring Hampton, Lon Chaney as a crook with a heart of gold and a hokey plot centred around the holy grail.

Annex - Hampton, Hope_03.jpg

Silent screen star Hope Hampton.  After she retired from movies she tried her hand at Opera singing before devoting herself to being a New York socialite.

Most films from this era were melted down after a week’s run and turned into new stock – The Light in the Dark has survived in a much abbreviated form as The Light of Faith because it was picked up for use in Religious Education classes –but it no longer has any trace of Bonomo in it.  He must have done okay in it though because from that time on Bonomo was in work constantly in the pictures.


Joe Bonomo in The Light in the Dark, with Hope Hampton and Lon Chaney

When the movie industry decamped to Hollywood seeking cheap land, sunshine and a continent-sized distance between them and the extremely litigious Edison, Bonomo went too.  His impressive physique and animated features made him a perfect fit for silent movies, and he starred in features like Eagle’s Nest and The Great Circus Mystery, as well as serials like The Chinatown Mysteries, Perils of the Wild and The Fighting Marines. He also doubled for actors like Lon Chaney, performing stunts in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other hugely successful films.  Days were spent leaping from rooftops, from moving cars, throwing punches and falling from windows.  In The Hunchback of Notre Dame he completed a rope stunt that had seen another stuntman badly burnt by lining his gloves and trousers with tinfoil.  At the end of work he showered off the plaster dust and danced the sprains away with partner Ethel.


Bonomo with actress Magaret Quimby in the adventure serial The Perils of the Wild


Bonomo holds another actor above his head in The Chinatown Mysteries

Tarzan that wasn’t

In the early 30s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer negotiated the rights to turn the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes into a motion picture.  Bonomo was considered a lock for the part– he had the athleticism, the good looks and he performed his own stunts.  There was one stumbling block– pictures now had sound and this Coney Island baby had a broad Brooklyn accent.  Like many actors of the era Bonomo scrambled to get voice lessons– trying get the necessary refinement for a leading man.  Burroughs was not impressed– Tarzan is meant to be an English lord after all.  In the end it didn’t matter.  Two accidents took Bonomo out of the running for this or any other role.


Bonomo leaps from balcony to flagpole in a stunt

In the first incident Bonomo had hit western star Buck Jones with a chair in a fight scene.  The Jones mis-timed his response and ended up with three broken ribs and a fractured back.  While not his fault the accident badly shook Bonomo’s confidence.  Then, while performing a car crash scene Bonomo broke a hip.  After being x-rayed it was found Bonomo had broken over 37 bones since arriving in Hollywood.  He was now un-insurable and therefore unhireable.  The role of Tarzan went to Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer, who went on to make a dozen films as the Lord of the Apes, perfecting the ‘yell’ that became synonymous with the character and then thirteen films as the Safari hero Jungle Jim.


One of Joe Bonomo’s last roles– as the ‘tigerman’– one of Dr Moreau’s ‘manimals’ in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Muscle by mail

Like many stars of the silent era, Joe Bonomo was out of work almost over night.  With his movie career behind him he married his dance partner Ethel and together with their baby daughter Joan they moved back to Coney Island, where Al Bonomo’s health had taken a turn for the worse.  Bonomo took over the family business, but his mind soon turned to a different area of revenue.  After all his early years on the boardwalk had taught him that you could hawk pretty much anything if you put your mind to it and came up with a good enough spiel.

At the height of his fame Bonomo had employed people to answer his fan mail, and one of the things he had sent out was a form letter outlining the steps needed to get a ‘new Apollo’ physique like his.  He now turned his mind to how he could market this plan, and in 1939 his first magazine Your Figure Beautiful was launched.  This publication featured diet and exercise plans, as well as advertisements for his mail-order courses which promised everything from a more beautiful bust to a completely new muscle-man physique.



Then (as now) his combination of quick-fix aspirational lifestyle advice and pictures of scantily clad models made these magazines very popular.  He also managed to include the importance of eating plenty of sweets for building muscle-tone– which tied in nicely with his family business selling the reasonably priced Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy!


From the 1940s on Bonomo also published ‘minis’– pocket-sized manuals on everything from being a good war-worker, to simplifying housework to looking taller.  These had gaudy loud covers and were sold on shop counters throughout the country.  In the sixties he included titles on the evils of drugs (Don’t Be A Dope!) and What I Know About Women-– which was 64 blank pages (har har).

When he died in 1978 he left behind a mixed legacy– on the one hand his publications have a pretty direct lineage to infomercials; possibly not the finest of human cultural excretions, and yet the publications themselves are beautifully composed odes to physical culture (and in particular the muscular male form) in full camp colour.  Not only that, but his stunt-work from the Twenties is breathtaking.  Who knows what could have been had his diction been more malleable (he was also a contender for the role of Anthony to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra)– but for now let us pop some candy in our mouths and say bravo Bonomo- the Brooklyn boy with the biceps!

For more info on Joe Bonomo try

The Strongman – Pictorial Autobiography of Joe Bonomo – 1973

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