1900s

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

The Lady is a Vamp

The rise and fall of "vampire" Despina Davidovitch Storch was big news in 1918. The Washington Times ran an 11 part series about her. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Washington has always been a town that likes gossip and scandal. So, it’s probably not a surprise that turn-of-the-century Washingtonians were quite interested in vampire stories. You see, back then, “vampire” was a term for a dark, seductive woman who lured men into her poisonous embrace, sucked him dry of wealth and left him debauched and ruined – a femme fatale of the most frightening and glamorous sort.

An independent and sexual woman with power over men? Yikes! If the newspapers saw a chance to embellish an account of a ‘real vampire’, boy did they go for it.

How Teddy Roosevelt Brought Art to Washington

Artist James McNeill Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his portrait, Whistler’s Mother, but to Washingtonians, there is another work that captures the imagination.

Tucked away in a corner of the Freer Gallery, Whistler’s “Peacock Room” beckons people with its distinct lure. Victorian gas lamps, gilded patterns of gold, and Chinese pottery all come together to create quite a spectacle. This is not just a normal art exhibit, however. It's more of a story.

The Tight Laced Ladies of Washington

Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.

The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.

Houdini Escapes Newest and Strongest D.C. Jail in 1906

This past Saturday, as part of the Urban Photography Series, I went on a tour of the neighborhood of Park View, hosted by The Historical Society of Washington. As we meandered down Georgia Avenue, I snuck off to the right down Park Road NW to indulge my curiosity on something I had read.

I came to the Tenth Precinct Police Station just a little way down the street and pondered again the story of a crafty escape artist who managed to break out of a jail cell in less than 20 minutes. Got any guesses on who the trickster was?

Even Washington D.C. couldn’t hold Harry Houdini, the original handcuff king. On New Years Day in 1906, the infamous Houdini broke out of what was said to be the strongest and toughest jail in the city.

Mary Custis Lee Challenges Streetcar Segregation

111 years ago today, Mary Custis Lee was arrested on an Alexandria streetcar for sitting in the section reserved for black patrons. As the daughter of Robert E. Lee, the General of the Confederate Army, the incident caused quite a stir within the community.

On her way to visit a friend, and being burdened with many large bags, Miss Lee chose to sit near the rear of the car in order to easily exit upon arriving at her destination. Shortly after she sat down the conductor Thomas Chauncey “explained the Virginia law on the subject, but being ignorant of the existence of the law herself, and also being loth [sic] to move her baggage, she protested.” At that time, Chauncey let her stay seated.[1]

The District's Claim to the Daiquiri

Though it may not really feel like it when you go outside lately, spring is almost here. It won't be long before people all over the DMV are sipping drinks by the pool. Pina coladas... mojitos... and, of course, everyone's favorite homegrown cocktail, the daiquiri.

Ummm...?

Okay, okay, the daiquiri is not truly a Washington creation -- it was first mixed in Cuba -- but it has a strong early connection to the District. So, we have some basis to claim it. Read on!

The Langley Aerodrome

Nowaways nearly everyone knows that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the “First in Flight,” but that wasn’t always the case. A local scientist almost knocked them out of the history books... twice. In 1903 a team under the direction of Smithsonian Institute Secretary Samuel Langley attempted a manned flight of a motor-powered airplane from a houseboat in the Potomac River. If successful, it would be the world’s first flying machine.

The flight was a spectacular failure, but for 30 years the Smithsonian recognized Langley's Aerodrome -- and not the Wright Brothers' flyer -- as the world's first manned aircraft capable of flight. Needless to say, Orville and Wilbur were not pleased.