Historical Oddities

History is full of oddities that will surprise, confuse, enlighten, and entertain you.

These oddities range from pirates who stole textile ingredients to racist laws against tipping. Other historical oddities we will examine include Hitler’s favorite movie. It starred an actor known as an all-American hero and glorified the British Army.

Some Oddities of History include:

The Dye Pirates 

During the 16th Century one of the world’s most valuable substances was cochineal, a bright-red dye made from a Mexican insect.

Cochineal was in demand throughout Europe because it was the brightest red dye on the market, Virginia Postrel writes in The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. Cochineal was an important commodity that helped finance the Spanish Empire.

Demand for the dye was so high that the sailing of the cochineal fleet from Mexico was big news. One group that showed enormous interest in the cochineal fleet was the privateers, English pirates who had the official blessing of Queen Elizabeth I.

The privateers were raiding the Spanish Fleet to undermine Spain’s international trade and empire. The cochineal fleet was a prime target for the privateers.

For instance, Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite privateer captured 27 tons of cochineal in 1597. On page 129 of The Fabric of Civilization Postrel notes that in a portrait, Devereux wears a “rich scarlet robe, no doubt died with New World red.”

Today, Cochineal is often used to color food and beverages. In 2012, Business Insider reported Starbucks was using cochineal to color Frappuccinos. Other products dyed with cochineal include frozen meat, frozen fish, yogurt, ice cream, energy drinks, alcohol, candy, syrups, chewing gum, canned soup, jelly, jam, ketchup, and canned fruits.

Racist Laws against Tipping?

Today some American writers label tipping a racist practice because tips became popular in the 19th Century when many blacks worked as waiters and Pullman Porters.

However, in the early 20th Century racists banned tipping to keep blacks down. To explain, seven states passed anti-tipping laws before 1915, NPR reports. Five of the anti-tipping states; Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Arkansas, were Southern States with Jim Crow laws.

Anti-tipping laws were racist because tipping empowered black people. Racist legislators were angry because white people were giving African Americans cash tips.

The idea of white people giving cash to blacks horrified many early 20th Century Americans. In 1907, The New York Times complained tipping forced white people “to convert themselves into fountains playing quarters upon the circumambient Africans.”

In addition, some tipped jobs; such as Pullman Porte,r allowed blacks to climb the social ladder something that racists hated. Blacks who worked as Pullman Porters; stewards on luxury trains, could travel the country, collect cash tips, and interact with wealthy whites. Moreover, jobs such as Pullman Porter allowed blacks to leave the South and escape sharecropping.

Another reason racists hated tipping was that white people had to act like blacks; to be servile, to get tips. Hence, tipping created a sort of racial equality which irked bigots.

Interestingly, anti-tipping laws died in court challenges. In fact, the US Supreme Court ruled that employees have a Constitutional right to tips in 1942.

The battle over tipping in America continues to this day. Today many Americans oppose tipping because they think tips as undermine the minimum wage.

Hitler’s Favorite Gary Cooper Movie

Today movie buffs revere Gary Cooper as a symbol of American values. Perversely, Cooper starred in one of Adolph Hitler’s favorite movies.

The film was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer which glorified the British Army’s occupation of India. IMBd claims Hitler viewed the movie at least three times. Cooper, the son of English immigrants who was born in Montana and attended boarding school in England, was the star of Lives.

When it came out, writers criticized Lives for glorifying the British Empire, Wikipedia notes. For example, Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote The Lives of a Bengal Lancer “glorified the British Empire better than any film produced in Britain for that purpose.”

British diplomat Sir Ivone Augustine Kirkpatrick; who visited Hitler at his Berchtesgaden mountain retreat, reports that The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was one of the Fuhrer’s favorite movies. Hitler allegedly told Kirkpatrick he liked the film “because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That was how a superior race must behave and the film was a compulsory viewing for the S.S.”

Predictably, the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda labeled The Lives of a Bengal Lancer “an artistically valuable movie.” However, Hitler’s closet ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was not a fan of Lives.

Italy’s fascist government banned The Lives of a Bengal Lancer as pro-British propaganda. Nationalist Chinese authorities had a similar opinion of the film. On 24 April 1935 Daily Variety reported that Chinese censors banned Lives because it “depicts the British downtrodding of Oriental races.”

Hitler’s admiration for the British Empire is bizarre because British troops almost cost the future Fuhrer his eyesight in World War I. On 14 October 1918 a British gas attack blinded Corporal Adolph Hitler near Yrpes, Belgium.

Hitler, an Austrian draft dodger, fought the British while serving in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment of the Imperial German Army. However, Corporal Hitler blamed Germany’s hidden enemies (Jews) rather than the British for the German Empire’s World War I defeat. Thus, Hitler disparaged the real-life British heroes of World War I while admiring the imaginary British heroes in an American movie.

Gary Cooper became a symbol of traditional American values for playing squeaky clean All-American heroes in films such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Pride of the Yankees, Sergeant York, and High Noon. Cooper and Sidney Poitier star in the most films (five each) on the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.”

Cooper won Best Actor Academy Awards for his performances in Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952). Hitler’s reaction to Sergeant York in which Cooper plays Alvin C. York; the US Army sniper famed for killing over 20 German soldiers in World War I, is unknown.

Notably, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer rarely appears in the many tributes to Cooper as a symbol of American values.

The oddities of history are strange indeed.