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May 2024
1min read

One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago

The July issue of the learned North American Review included an acerbic essay on fashion history by one Charles W. Brewster. The apparel of the ancient Egyptians, wrote Brewster, was “certainly distinguished by bad taste, but there was a harmony in its badness.” By the fifteenth century “costumes became still more fanciful and grotesque.” Brewster was scarcely more tolerant of the sartorial idiosyncrasies of his own time: “All antiquity boasted nothing in the way of head-gear so absurd as the hats of the present day. . . . One great reason why Americans stoop so much, is, that, living in a country where high winds prevail, they are obliged to walk stooping half the time, to prevent the wind’s blowing their hats off.”

The Great United States Exploring Expedition set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, on August 18 under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes. With six vessels and 440 men, the Wilkes Expedition would in the course of four years circle the globe, survey 280 islands, map 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest, and confirm the existence of Antarctica, surviving perils ranging from brutal polar storms to Fiji cannibals.

Wilkes himself was a harsh and arrogant commander. He had little use for the civilian “scientifics” on board, and he continually suspected his officers of conspiracy. When his promotion to captain failed to come through by the time the expedition departed, he promoted himself: once at sea, he appeared on deck in a captain’s uniform. The expedition’s return in 1842 was marked not by fanfare but by a volley of court-martial charges between Wilkes and members of his crew.

Despite such peccadilloes, the Wilkes Expedition managed to bring back thousands of zoological and botanical specimens, native artifacts, and a wealth of important scientific findings. Expedition scientists conducted geological surveys that helped formulate early theories of continental drift, as well as pathbreaking studies in anthropology and oceanography. Important astronomical observations were made from the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and nautical charts prepared by Wilkes himself were in use as late as World War II.

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