Where Credit is Due: Osbourn Dorsey


Who’s the most famous person of all time? Who else is near the top of the list? How do you quantify fame anyway? Is it all about the amount of people who recognize a celebrity’s name, or do we need to take into consideration other factors, like how well-liked the famous person is, or how much information most people know about them? How do we compare historical figures to contemporary figures?

There are a number of “most famous people” or “most influential people” lists out there. This website, which is essentially a continuation of a 2013 book on the topic, ranks people according to an algorithm that takes several factors into consideration. This user-generated list is also interesting to browse. Although Jesus is at the top of both lists, and the classical Greek philosophers fare pretty well on both, the similarities pretty much end there.

It’s also worth noting that “most famous” and “most influential” are not the same thing. I think that we tend to assume that two things are pretty closely correlated, at least as far as historical figures go, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Sure, the most famous historical figures are famous specifically because they did things that shaped the course of history. But there are other people who aren’t household names even though their inventions, ideas, or accomplishments have had an impact on our everyday lives. So, just for the fun of it, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of blog posts to write about these forgotten figures.

I’m starting with someone so obscure that I can’t even find a Wikipedia article about him. To find any sort of biographical information, I’ve had to resort to census records, city directories, and slave emancipation documents. The inventor in question was born a slave, freed at the age of eight months, and didn’t show up on many documents and records after that. But at the age of sixteen, he invented a very common and handy device that you probably use every day: the doorknob.

Osbourn Dorsey was probably born in September 1861. His mother’s name was Christina Dorsey and he had two older siblings, Mary and Levi. We know this from the Washington DC slave emancipation records from April 1862, where he is listed as “Osbourn Dorsey- son of the above named Christina- Aged about eight months- ordinary size- dark complexion.” For the record, Mary was six years old and also “ordinary size” while Levi was four and “large in stature”. The children’s father is not mentioned. Mary Peter, the Dorseys’ former owner, submitted a petition for compensation after they were freed. Evidently, Mary Peter had no slaves other than Christina Dorsey and her three children. They had previously belonged to a family by the last name of Washington, but after Ann Washington died, Mary Peter acquired the Dorseys in April 1861, prior to Osbourn’s birth. Mary asked for $1350 in compensation for the freeing of her four slaves.

We next see Osbourn Dorsey in the 1870 census, although it lists him as being eleven years old, which must have been an error. The other members of the household were his parents, (the father’s name is Levi) a “domestic servant” named Barbara, and three siblings: Mary, Levi, and a younger sister named Cecilia. According to the 1880 census, 18-year-old Osbourn worked for a butcher and lived with his parents, sister, brother, and brother-in-law named Isaac Williams. Cecilia is not listed.

DoorknobThe salient part of this story came shortly before that 1880 census. On December 10, 1878, patent #210,764 was issued to Osbourn Dorsey of Washington DC, who had “invented certain new and useful improvements in door holding devices”. The diagrams and written description are clearly recognizable as what we now call a doorknob. (Although it has more parts; it involves a rod that extends horizontally between the doorknob and the doorframe.) There are two very important things to note here. One is the surprising fact that doorknobs have only been around for a little over 140 years. The other is that the doorknob was invented by someone named Dorsey, which is hilarious. It was my favorite fun fact for months; I have annoyed many people with this knowledge.

The name Osbourn Dorsey does show up in city directories and a couple censuses. Actually, it shows up a little too often; it would appear that there were at least three Osbourn Dorseys living in Washington DC in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Because of that, it has to be acknowledged that it’s possible that I’ve been looking at the wrong Osbourn Dorsey. The inventor of the doorknob was definitely not the Osbourn Dorsey who was born in 1878 and was incarcerated as of the 1900 census.

But it could have been the Osbourn Dorsey who was born around 1830, worked as a janitor, had a wife named Rachel who died prior to 1910, and had either two or three children. It appears that he had two daughters named Cora and Christy, but that his household also included a boy named William Smith who later married Christy. However, neither the 1870 nor 1880 census records specified that William’s last name was not Dorsey or that he was not the son of the head of the household.

As a side note, if you Google the name Osbourn Dorsey, you might find a picture that has been posted in various places with his name, but that is incorrect. It’s actually of James Meredith, a civil rights activist who was more than sixty years younger than Dorsey.

I’m just going with the Osbourn Dorsey born in 1861 because that the estimated birth year that I saw on a couple websites that may not be entirely reliable. Also, the city directories from 1907 to 1910 list this Osbourn Dorsey as an engineer, so it makes sense to speculate that he’s the one who had patented a significant invention. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything to indicate when Osbourn the Engineer died, or whether he had a wife and children. Also, I find it interesting that these two Osbourn Dorseys never seem to be listed in the same city directory. Yet they can’t actually be the same person; they both show up in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, and the older Osbourn Dorsey was an adult by the year 1870.

Maybe someday, someone will find an old diary or some letters that will clear up this mystery, or maybe someone will figure it out just by poring through these same records more thoroughly than I have. (To be honest, I have spent way too much time on this. It’s a little ridiculous.) If you know more than I do, please share your information in the comments. But as things stand now, we know very little about this brilliant inventor who changed the world by revolutionizing the way we open and close doors.

Happy Leap Day!

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February-29th-CalendarOnce upon a time, there was no such thing as the month of February. Februarius, as it was originally called, was invented around 700 BC by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. The month was named for Februa, a festival of purification probably originating from Sabine culture. (The Sabines were one of many tribes that lived in ancient Italy) Februa fell on February 15. Even then, February had 28 days, although most months had an odd number of days because that was believed to be lucky.

Because the calendar was 355 days, which is not the exact same length as the solar year, it was necessary to sometimes add a month between February and March, known as the mensis intercalaris. (As a side note, Plutarch, a famous writer in the first century, referred to the intercalary month as Mercedonius.) Years with that extra month would be 377 or 378 days. But the system had its shortcomings. Evidently, the decision about which years needed an extra month was often made for political reasons, allowing political officials to stay in office for an extra month. And the common people didn’t necessarily know ahead of time, with the result that it was hard to keep track of the date. Clearly, calendar reform was in order.

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in the year now known as 46 B.C. That particular year is called the Year of Confusion because he made the year 445 days long in order to put all the seasons back where they belong in the calendar. Then, in 45 B.C., things were back on track with a 365-day year. Even then, there was such as thing as leap day, owing to the fact that the Earth actually takes about 365.25 days to orbit the sun. But “about” isn’t good enough. Every year, a discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds was added.

By 1582, this discrepancy had added up so much that Pope Gregory XIII solved it by deleting ten days during October. It was also Pope Gregory XIII who determined that February was the month to gain an extra day during leap year. He was even responsible for the terms “leap year” and “leap day”.  In order to keep that discrepancy from continuing to occur, leap day no longer occurs in years ending with 00 unless they are divisible by 400. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 was not and 2100 will not be. This results in leap years occurring at the right frequency to keep the average length of the year accurate… almost. The Gregorian calendar still has an extra 26 seconds per year.

February 29 St BrigidBecause of its infrequency, a number of legends and customs have arisen around leap day. According to Irish legend, St. Brigid and St. Patrick agreed that on leap day, women can propose to men. In some parts of Europe in the middle ages, if a man refuses a woman’s proposal on leap day, he must buy her twelve pairs of gloves to hide the embarrassment of her lack of an engagement ring. In Scotland, it is supposedly unlucky to be born on leap day, and in Greece, it is unlucky to get married on leap day, or even in a leap year.

Whatever you do to celebrate this extra day in the calendar, have a happy leap day!

A History of Santa Claus


My favorite holiday has always been Christmas, and I think I’m in the majority in that regard. The ubiquity of Christmas decorations and Christmas music testifies to that. If you live in Western culture and you’ve ever gone shopping, driven through downtown streets, watched television, or turned on a radio in the month of December, you know exactly what I mean. Christmas-related symbols such as the nativity scene, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, are universally recognizable, if not quite universally used.

Miracle on 34thA relatively recent Pew survey says that 96% of American Christians and 81% of American non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Many of those Christmas-celebrating non-Christians argue that Christmas isn’t a specifically Christian holiday, since it has its origins in pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. And they’re not wrong. Although Christmas is a religious event celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual date of Christmas Day and some of our favorite Christmas traditions are secular. I personally find it important to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas, but I am not opposed to following and enjoying the non-religious cultural traditions associated with Christmas. The most prominent of those traditions are those associated with Santa Claus. For the fun of it, and in observance of Saint Nicholas’s Day yesterday (December 6) I decided to do a little research on Santa’s history. This is what I found.

Santa’s Name

Saint NicholasThe name Santa Claus, which was first used in 1773, is a variant on Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, who was known in his own lifetime as Nikolaos of Myra. Nikolaos was born on March 15, 270 AD, to a well-off Christian Greek family living in a region of the Roman Empire that is part of modern Turkey. He was a bishop who is best known for his role in the First Council of Nicaea. There, he and other church leaders rejected the heresy of Arius, who taught that God the Son (that is, Jesus) is a creation of God the Father, rather than being co-eternal with God the Father as stated in the Nicene Creed. Legend has it that Nikolaos punched Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea.

He also was known for giving gifts in secret. Supposedly, he would throw toys into children’s windows and leave coins in children’s shoes, which much later gave rise to the idea of Christmas stockings. The most famous story of the saint’s generosity tells of Nikolaos throwing purses full of gold into the house of a poor man who could not afford the dowries for his three daughters. Originally, the story stated that he threw the gold in through the window, but later versions referred to a chimney, although chimneys as we know them didn’t actually exist until the 13th century. In some tellings, Nikolaos tossed loose coins rather than a whole purse down the chimney, and they landed in the daughters’ stockings.

Saint Nicholas forensics

A modern forensic reconstruction of what Saint Nicholas probably looked like, based upon his heritage

After his death in 343, it became traditional to observe Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6 by giving gifts. (For the record, Saint Nicholas’ life and death preceded the split between denominations and the establishment of the canonization process used by the Roman Catholic church.) It is believed that it was the sixteenth-century Reformation that transferred holiday gift-giving from early December to Christmas, largely at Martin Luther’s suggestion, in order to put the emphasis of the celebrations on Jesus. In fact, Santa’s alternate name, Kris Kringle, actually comes from the German Kristkindl, (“Christ Child”) which refers to Jesus himself.

Although Saint Nicholas was not by any means forgotten by history, his legacy was best preserved and his saint’s day most enthusiastically celebrated in Holland. St. Nicholas’s Day never was widely celebrated in America, yet St. Nicholas himself became a significant figure in American folklore in the early nineteenth century. The founding of the New York Historical Society sparked an interest in New York City’s largely Dutch heritage. Washington Irving’s humorous story Knickerbocker’s History of New York, written in 1809, followed by the New York Historical Society’s St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, brought St. Nicholas legends to the forefront of American Christmas traditions. Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a Dutch stereotype, while the New York Historical Society went for historical accuracy.

Santa’s Beard


This is either Odin, Santa Claus, or Gandalf.

Nikolaos of Myra is usually pictured with a beard, as was typical of men of Greek heritage. Since he lived to be 73 years old, it is safe to say that his beard was white for at least part of his life. However, folklorists note that many aspects of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, actually come from Norse mythology.

In particular, Santa is inspired by Jul, a persona assumed by the god Odin, also known as Woden. It is from Jul’s name that we get the words Yule and Yuletide, which was a pagan winter festival celebrated in much of Europe that later became blended with Christmas. Like Saint Nicholas, Odin was associated with gift-giving, and his gifts often came into people’s houses via the smokehole in the roof. The western European image of Father Christmas is a blend of the Saxon pagan figure of King Winter and the Viking depiction of Jul. Both Odin and King Winter  are always depicted with a long white beard. The round belly also comes from Odin and/or Thor. Stay tuned, there’s more on Odin coming later.

Santa’s Red Suit

This one is actually not so mysterious. The real Saint Nicholas’s bishop robe really was red. The white fur trim came from Father Christmas, who was originally the French, Christianized version of King Winter, but later found his way back into English culture. (An ancient British precursor to Father Christmas, who was actually associated with springtime, wore a green cloak, and the Norse character Jul/Odin usually wore blue.)

Merry Old Santa Claus

Merry Old Santa Claus

Essentially, Santa’s attire as we know it today is a blend of Saint Nicholas’s and Father Christmas’s costumes, but throughout history, Santa’s suit has appeared in many variations. Artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was key to the codification of Santa’s appearance, especially thanks to his 1881 drawing “Merry Old Santa Claus” for Harper’s Weekly. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover artwork from the 1920s was also significant. And once Coca Cola started using Santa Claus in advertisements in the early 1930s, Santa’s appearance was basically set in stone.

Flying Reindeer

Stories of Saint Nicholas often depict him riding a white horse, while Odin was said to ride an eight-legged gray horse named Sleipnir. However, Santa’s mode of transportation probably was inherited from Thor, who rode in a flying chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr. (“Teeth-barer” and “teeth-grinder”) Since reindeer really were domesticated and used for pulling sleighs in eighteenth-century Scandinavia, and since non-Scandinavians came to view reindeer as mysterious creatures of the far North, it makes sense that TNight before Christmashor’s flying goats evolved into Santa’s flying reindeer.

It wasn’t until 1821 that Santa’s reindeer make an appearance in a known literary source. (Although Irving’s aforementioned Knickerbocker’s History of New York refers to a flying wagon that Santa uses to deliver his gifts) The lines “Old Santeclaus with much delight/ His reindeer drives this frosty night/ O’er chimneytops and tracks of snow/ to bring his yearly gifts to you” appear in an anonymously authored booklet with the not-so-catchy title A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend.
The reindeer are first given names in the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas, originally published anonymously but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. (In recent decades, the poem has become better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) It’s worth noting that Donner and Blitzen were originally named Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning”, which calls Thor to mind. Rudolph was added in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on a story by Robert L. May.

Milk and Cookies for Santa

milk and cookiesThe feel-good tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa seems to stem back to a Norse custom of leaving hay out for Odin’s horse Sleipner during Yuletide, in case Odin would pass by that way while on a hunting trip. When those Norse stories blended with the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions, it became the saint’s horse who was supposed to eat the hay. It was also said that Santa Claus would snack on the apples and cookies that were used to decorate Christmas trees before ornaments caught on in the 1890s. (For the record, Christmas trees were a purely German phenomenon prior to Queen Victoria, who brought the tradition to England. When her family was photographed by a Christmas tree in 1846, Christmas trees instantaneously became popular in Great Britain and North America.) The modern version of Santa’s milk and cookies probably came about during the Great Depression, when parents used it as a way to teach their children a lesson about sharing.

Letters to Santa

There is one known letter to the actual Saint Nicholas from about 1200, which reads, “St. Nicholas, patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds.” Although that sounds surprisingly similar to modern-day letters to Santa, the idea didn’t really catch on for another few centuries.

letter to SantaIn the 1800s, some parents would write letters supposedly from Santa Claus, giving their children instructions about their behavior. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the famous poet, wrote in 1853, “You have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit. Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you, God is always near.”

It was only a matter of time before children thought to write letters back, especially since the postal system became faster and cheaper after the Civil War. Although some newspapers received and printed some of the letters, most of them were destroyed until 1913, when charity groups, volunteers, and even postal employees began responding to letters.

The Elves

Elves have played a role in European folklore for such a long time that it’s impossible to pinpoint the first elf stories. The nature of elves varies greatly depending upon the geographic context and time period of the source. They have been depicted as being similar to (or even synonymous with) fairies, demons, nymphs, gnomes, and dwarves. The idea of elves as miniature people with pointy ears, green clothes and hats,  and jolly dispositions comes from the Victorian era.

Knecht RuprechtSome seventeenth-century stories gave their versions of Santa Claus a sidekick, (although usually just one, rather than an entire race) such as the Scandinavian Tomte, Netherland’s Black Peter, or Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht, all of whom are less friendly and good-natured than the modern Christmas elves. Knecht Ruprecht, for example, was a fairly creepy figure who wore a brown robe with a pointed hood, walked with a limp, and beat children with a bag of ashes if they did not pray, which is probably the origin of the idea that bad children get coal in their stockings.

Santa Godeys

From Godey’s Lady’s Book

The elves really established themselves in Santa’s image in the nineteenth century. First, Moore’s 1823 poem called Santa himself “a right jolly old elf.” Then, in 1850, eighteen-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who would later write Little Women, wrote a long poem called “Christmas Elves”, although it was never published. Another poem, “The Wonders of Santa Claus” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1857, referred to elves “working with all their might”, and by the 1870s, the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book showed elves in their modern role, making toys for Santa Claus to deliver.

The North Pole

By the early 1800s, Santa Claus was associated with the far North, probably because it’s perpetually winter in that part of the world. The aforementioned artist Thomas Nast is credited with giving Santa Claus a home, as well as imagining Santa’s legendary workshop. At that time, explorers had not yet ventured to the North Pole, so that region had the added adventure of being steeped in mystery. In the 1920s, it was said that Santa actually lived in Finnish Lapland, because reindeer can’t graze at the North Pole, but popular culture has decided that it prefers the concept of Santa’s North Pole workshop.

Mrs. Claus

Santa_and_mrs_clausSanta’s wife is a relatively recent addition to Santa’s story. The first mention that such a person is supposed to exist was a short story written by James Rees in 1849. More details were added in subsequent stories and poems, most notably Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “Goody Santa Claus” from 1889. Goody was a title for the woman of the house that dated back to the middle ages, which is when Bates imagines Santa beginning his career. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Claus has appeared in many tellings of the Santa story, and is generally depicted as an elderly, heavyset, grandmotherly lady who loves to make Christmas cookies. Different versions of the story give her different first names.

And that, in a nutshell, is the history of Santa Claus legends. Some aspects of Santa’s story and image have continued to change; for example, Santa’s presence in malls and department stores was a new development in the 1930s, and the Elf on the Shelf practice is only ten years old. But some of the most interesting parts of the Santa Claus legend have been around for centuries.

In which I use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time googling things

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valentine's dayToday, my news feed on facebook and my dashboard on tumblr seem to be mainly composed of posts relating to four categories: 1) Expressions of affection for a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/other family member/best friend, etc. 2) Expressions of sadness  that the individual writing the post in question is “celebrating Valentine’s Day alone” 3) A statement that either praises the customs associated with Valentine’s Day or condemns the holiday as overrated/corny/stupid/commercialized, and then often goes on to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree, and  4) Philosophical musings about the definition of “Love”.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone on the internet say anything about Valentine. That word is generally used to refer to the type of card that people give or receive on Valentine’s Day, or to a person to whom one would give such a card. But the word Valentine is actually a name, and the holiday Valentine’s Day is named for a person named Valentine. So I decided that this would be a nice time to write a blog post about Valentine, but I had a little problem. You see, I know absolutely nothing about Valentine. (Except that he is presumably a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, because that is the likeliest explanation for why he has a day named after him, and why it is occasionally called “Saint Valentine’s Day”) So I have enlisted the help of Google and Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary in order to bring you some information about Valentine and the history of Valentine’s Day.

Saint ValentineThere are in fact multiple significant historical figures named Valentine, although the internet doesn’t seem to be quite sure how many. Three seems to be the most common suggestion, but I am finding references to what seems to be a lot more than three distinct people. One person named Valentinus was pope for forty days in the year 827, according to the biographical dictionary, which doesn’t give any other information about him. Another Valentinus was a second century Gnostic heretic. Then there were three Roman emperors by the name of Valentinian. The famous two Saint Valentines (who may or may not actually be the same person) were/was a Roman priest who was martyred by Claudius II in 269 and a bishop of Interamna, which is now called Terni. Thanks to Google maps, I now am capable of informing you that Terni is a province in central Italy, 106 kilometers away from Rome, and that if you were to drive from Rome to Terni, that route would have tolls. (Just a heads-up. You’re welcome.)

Saint Valentine’s association with romance seems to be mainly a thing of legend. One story that I saw online says that Valentine was in prison and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, thus beginning the customs associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the fact that we don’t even know how many different people this guy was, I find this story to be somewhat unreliable. But it is true that the list of things of which he is the patron saint includes “love” and “happy marriages”. I don’t know enough about the way the Roman Catholic canonization process works to know whether or not that might be a result of traditions that later became associated with his holiday.

Saint ValentineEvidently, the actual origin of the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day was a Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15, and it was a pagan festival of fertility, associated with the god of agriculture and with the legendary founders of Rome. When Rome became Christian, Lupercalia was outlawed because it was pagan, but when February 14 became a holiday in the late fifth century, it would seem that some of the pagan associations with that particular time of the year gradually became associated with the new holiday. Our idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday originates in medieval France and England. The oldest known Valentine’s Day card was made in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was to his wife, whose name was Bonne d’Armagnac, a piece of information that required an additional google search on my part. Charles wrote this valentine from the Tower of London, where he was in prison for being French and getting captured by the English in the Battle of Agincourt.

Esther A. Howland

Esther A. Howland

Valentine’s Day was commercialized by a woman named Esther A. Howland, who began making mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. One final google search reveals that Esther Howland lived from 1828 to 1904, although she retired in 1881, and that one of her contributions to the traditions of Valentine’s Day was putting red paper behind the white lacy part of a valentine.

The other really important Valentine’s Day tradition originated when someone once wrote a “recipe” for a cooking magazine that my mother used to get, which pointed out that if you combine un-jelled red jello with un-set pudding (both made from boxed mixes) and then put that combination in a pan and stick it in the refrigerator, then cut it with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, you get red jello-pudding hearts.

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland