United States Trivia (Non-Presidential) Your History Teacher Never Taught You – Part 2

When was Christmas illegal in America? Which state did Congress forget to officially add to the Union for 150 years? Here are some more facts about our country you may not know.

Al Capone’s true crime. Al Capone, one of the most famous American criminals of all time, spent most of the 1920s smuggling illegal alcohol and murdering his enemies. But the crime that finally got him caught and sent to prison in 1931 was… tax evasion. A 1927 Supreme Court ruling declared that bootleggers had to pay income tax began Capone’s downfall. At first, he pled guilty, thinking he would only receive a short sentence. When the judge told him that wasn’t true, he agreed to go to trial. He lost, and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.

Alcatraz Prison’s only escapees. Thirty-six different people tried to escape from Alcatraz during its 29-years as a federal prison. Most of them either died during the attempt or were caught. But in 1962 three criminals vanished from the prison. They made a raft out of stolen raincoats, left dummy heads in their beds (Ferris Bueller-style), and escaped by climbing through a ventilator, according to the FBI investigation. Although pieces of their raft were found, the three men themselves were not. The FBI turned the case over to the U.S. Marshals Service in 1979. The Marshals Service is technically still on the case, though it’s all but certain that the men are no longer still alive (even if they did survive their escape).

Christmas was illegal?! Because of Christmas’s roots as an ancient pagan holiday, the early American Puritans didn’t originally take too kindly to it. They believed that religion should be very solemn, so the carol-singing, booze-drinking Christmas celebrations didn’t sit well with them. The Parliament of England, largely composed of Puritans, made the holiday illegal in the 1600s, and the North American Puritans in New England followed suit. The law stuck as the New England colonies evolved into the United States. The first state to actively legalize Christmas was Alabama, and it wasn’t until 1836! Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, but it was still illegal in some states. It wasn’t until 1907 that Christmas was legal in all of the United States (looking at you, Oklahoma).

Ohio, the forgotten state. Ohio was the 17th state added to the United States… or was it? Though Congress approved Ohio’s request for statehood in 1803, they forgot to officially ratify the state constitution. It wasn’t until 150 years later that Ohio representative George H. Bender made a move to make his state “official.” Congress voted to retroactively ratify the state constitution so that its official date of statehood remained March 1, 1803. But if you want to consider 1953 its year of admission, that would make it the 48th state.

The largest state in America. Alaska is 429 times the size of the smallest state, Rhode Island, in terms of area. Even more impressive, its coastline is longer than the coastlines of all 49 other states combined. However, Rhode Island has the larger population of the two – by more than 300,000 people. Rhode Island is also the state with the longest official name: “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

So, there you have it, some history you may not have known.

This blog was adapted from an article by Meghan Jones in rd.com.


United States Trivia (Non-Presidential) Your History Teacher Never Taught You – Part 1

What was the first capital of the United States? Was the tomato put on trial? Here are some more facts (non-Presidential) about our country you may not know. 

The first capital of the United States. Washington, D.C. didn’t become the nation’s capital until 1790. The first city to hold the title was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when the First Continental Congress met there in 1774. In the 16 years between then and 1790, a total of seven – yes, seven – other cities held the title. Some, like Baltimore, Maryland, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, only held the title very briefly as the Continental Congress moved around to avoid the British. York, Pennsylvania was the nation’s capital during the winter of 1777-78, while the British occupied Philadelphia and Washington’s army was quartered at Valley Forge. New York was the last pre-D.C. city to hold the title. Congress met there for about four years, and George Washington himself was inaugurated as president there, even though he’s the president Washington, D.C. is named after.

Who really started the Boston Tea Party? Which of the Founding Fathers was responsible for the most famous tea-dumping in history? Well, the tea-tossing was initiated by the anti-taxation group the Sons of Liberty. According to History.com, Samuel Adams led the charge.

How Mount Rushmore got its name. This most famous of American landmarks didn’t get its name from the mountain it’s built on. Nor is it named after the man who sculpted it (“Mount Borglum” doesn’t have the best ring to it, no offense) or any of the people depicted on it. Its namesake? A New York lawyer. In 1884, an attorney named Charles Edward Rushmore visited the Black Hills area to verify some legal titles. According to the National Parks website, Rushmore asked a local guide what the name of the mountain was. The guide replied, “We will name it now, and name it Rushmore.” And somehow, that name stuck. What seems like an off-hand comment to please an out-of-towner ended up giving the monument its permanent name.

Other countries that don’t use the metric system. Despite what you might believe, the USA is not the only country that doesn’t use the metric system. There are three: America, Myanmar, and Liberia. Liberia, located in western Africa, commonly uses United States customary units. Myanmar (formerly Burma), located in southeast Asia, uses the traditional system of Burmese measurements. However, Myanmar has been in the process of moving to the metric system since 2013. The United States? Not so much.

The trial of the tomato. Though the many health benefits of tomatoes are widely known today, a mere two hundred years ago there was a widespread belief that they were poisonous. Though they were wildly popular in Mexico and much of Europe, a tomato scare hit England (and subsequently its colonies) when a surgeon named John Gerard wrote a book called The Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597. In the book, he claimed that tomatoes were deadly because they contained a chemical called tomatine (which is true, but it’s not nearly enough to make them poisonous). Thanks to Gerard’s mostly bogus book, much of England and the USA remained tomato-shy for the next 200 years. Finally, in 1820, a man named Robert Johnson staged a “tomato trial” on the steps of a New Jersey courthouse. He ate a full basket of tomatoes and did not die.

Stay tuned to for Part 2!

This blog was adapted from an article by Meghan Jones in rd.com.


United States Presidential Trivia Your History Teachers Never Taught You

Here are some facts about or involving our country’s Presidents you may not know.

The first president born in a hospital. Jimmy Carter, our 39th president, was the first to be born in a hospital, in 1924. Not all of Carter’s successors were born in hospitals; post-Carter presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush were not. Meanwhile, seven previous presidents, including Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, were born in log cabins, meaning more U.S. presidents have been born in log cabins than hospitals.

The number of U.S. presidents who were only children. Zero! Every single U.S. president has had, at the very least, a half-sibling. The four U.S. presidents who had half-siblings, but not full siblings, were Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. The president with the most siblings was James Buchanan, the 15th president, who had six sisters and four brothers.

The only U.S. president to never marry. James Buchanan, the 15th president, remained unmarried not only throughout his entire presidency but also throughout his entire life, the only U.S. president to do either of those things. His niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, served as his first lady. Buchanan was not the only bachelor elected to office however. Grover Cleveland, the 22nd president, was unmarried when he was elected, but he got married while in office. Before that, his first lady was his sister.

The first president to declare war. Our fourth president, James Madison, became the first U.S. president to declare war. He signed a declaration of war against the British on June 18, 1812, officially beginning the War of 1812. It would be more than 30 years until the next official declaration of war: 1846, when James K. Polk began the Mexican-American War.

The first national monument. The American Antiquities Act, enacted in 1906, established the protection of “natural and cultural resources” in the United States, paving the way for national monuments and parks. President Theodore Roosevelt wasted no time in proclaiming four national monuments in that same year. The first of those was Devils Tower in Wyoming. This massive column of igneous rock attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.

The first national park. The first official national park is Yellowstone in Wyoming, established by President Grant in 1872. The difference between a national monument and a national park, by the way, is that parks are set aside by Congress for their scenic or natural significance, while monuments can have historic or scientific significance of any kind, and are created via executive order. Buildings and ruins, for instance, can be monuments, but not parks.

Be sure to look for our United States Trivia (Non-Presidential) Your History Teacher Never Taught You – Parts 1 and 2!

This blog was adapted from an article by Meghan Jones in rd.com.


We Can Love Both Natural and Man-Made Wonders

I’ve been seeing a lot of shared posts in light of the tragic fire at Notre Dame, with the premise of, “People care so much about an old, man-made building, but don’t mourn the loss of our natural planet”. To that, I say this:

I understand the idea behind posts like this, and I do wish that there was more public outcry and financial support when it comes to our natural planet. Obviously as someone who works in conservation and environmental education, I too feel a profound sense of grief over the loss of species and our wild places. Believe me, I have to crawl up out of that doom and gloom mentality on a daily basis.

But pitting one person’s empathetic response against another’s, spreading a message of “but what about this?!” or “why can’t you care about this over that?!” does nothing but alienate people and turn them away from your cause.

We are complex creatures. We are capable of understanding the beautiful, crucial web of a natural forest ecosystem, while also appreciating the art and intricacies and history of 13th century stained glass. You can love, and mourn, both.

Instead of lamenting about the perceived lack of care over your cause and demonizing people’s response to another, look for ways to ACTIVELY bring your issue to light and share your passion in a positive way. This is what I and so many others strive to do every day in teaching students, their families, and the public about the wonders of our natural world.

Seeing so many people pledge towards the rebuilding and rebirth of this historical, cultural monument only proves how much creating a lasting connection with something, whether man-made or natural, can lead to empathy and action.

Because in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.

Laura Soder

Environmental Educator

(Gently adapted from Laura’s original Facebook post)


Why School Buses Are Yellow

Have you ever wondered why school buses in the United States are yellow? Of course you have!

Well, back in April 1939, armed with a $5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Columbia University Teachers College professor Frank Cyr took a tour of ten states to gauge the extent of school transportation issues. He found that student transportation was in a sorry state – many students had no dependable way to get to school, and the ones who did often traveled in unsafe, unstandardized buses in the over 100,000 school districts that existed back then (in contrast to the roughly 13,000 that exist today). Bus color was one of the huge variations in school transportation that he saw.

Seeing a need to fix this system, Cyr organized a conference that would change the future of school buses forever. School officials and transportation specialists convened to set much-needed standards for buses, including for color, height, and width, as well as safety rules that hadn’t previously been set or that varied by state.

There were many different bus colors in the United States before this conference; several districts even planned to have red, white, and blue buses as a way of promoting patriotism among students. Cyr presented his new options to education officials, a reported “50 shades ranging from lemon yellow to deep orange-red.” The matter was settled quickly. Yellow, or “National School Bus Glossy Yellow,” as it is officially called by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was chosen for its high visibility and the way it emphasized the bold, black writing that would be on the side of each bus to denote its school district, important factors for vehicles that travel during early morning and late afternoon hours. Thirty-five states made the changes promptly, and every state was on board by 1974.

Dubbed the “father of the yellow school bus,” Frank Cyr has affected the life of anyone who ever rode a school bus or saw that familiar hue pulling up to your stop on a dusky morning.

If you live in the United States, the color of most school buses is not a pure yellow though (like the color of lemons). It’s not the same color as an orange either. The color of a school bus is yellow-orange. This color is a mixture of lemon yellow and orange … like the color of the fruit of a mango.

So why do we still refer to a school bus as yellow? Back in the 1930s in the U.S., school buses were pure yellow. Thus, the term “school bus yellow” came into the English language. Why yellow? The yellow family of colors gets your attention faster than any other color. People notice yellow objects first.

Even when you are looking straight ahead, you can see a yellow object that is not in front of you “in the corners of your eyes” much sooner than any other color, even red. Scientists have determined that lateral peripheral vision for detecting yellows is 1.24 times greater than for red.

Many experts also point out that colors such as yellow or greenish-yellow are more visible to the human eye under dimmer conditions compared to red. In fog or any kind of bad weather, drivers will still be able to see yellow vehicles fairly well.

Not only school buses, but also many earth-moving, road-building and other outdoor machines are yellow to prevent injury if someone accidentally run into one. Many accidents occur on farms and outdoors because the victim saw the moving object too late. If it’s yellow, you have a strong warning!

So, there you have it. School buses are “kinda yellow” in the United States so they are easier to see.

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Portions of this article originally appeared in rd.com.

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