The 1880s

William Keckler
6 min readFeb 23, 2023
Eiffel Tower under construction (public domain)

1880 Panama Canal begins, possibly with a spoon as a joke. U.S. National Croquet League organizes in Philadelphia. (Philly croquet fans are rabid to this day.) First town to have its eyes all aglow with electric lighting is Wabash, Indiana. (And they’re still inventing the future there, today.) Édouard Manet paints A Bunch of Asparagus. Luckily for the genre of asparagus art, the still life store was out of apples and oranges that day. Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs pitches the first perfect game in MLB history, defeating the Cleveland Blues 1–0. Contemporary sports journalists reported the Blues were quite moody afterwards.

1881 Albert Einstein celebrates his second birthday but refuses to explain the universe just yet. First electric tram begins running in Berlin, much to the chagrin of feline Berliners. American Red Cross founded over a particularly nasty paper cut suffered by Clara Barton. Triple landslides bury Elm, Switzerland. Triple yodeling the likely cause. A meteor hits Odessa, Ukraine. Funny story: the meteor was actually trying to hit Odessa, Texas. Player piano patented, later causing numerous suicides of mediocre ragtime pianists forced to change careers over the next few decades and put their magic fingers to typewriters, which sound just horrible playing “Maple Leaf Rag.” Crazy-ass Guitreau shoots John Garfield over lasagna he would not share.

1882 P.T. Barnum buys Jumbo the elephant like a sizeist creep who never met a fat joke he didn’t like. Last bare-knuckle champion John Sullivan knocks out Paddy Ryan in a “sorry, not sorry” victory for Irish alcoholism. Richard Wagner completes Parsifal so that countless generations can enjoy ignoring it. “The Death of English Cricket” goes up in lamentations far and wide when some hearty Australian lads beat England by 7 runs. The post-game shared group shower with de rigeur meat-and-two-veg-ogling only increases the bitterness and enmity of the Victorian jocks of Limeyland. Roderick Edward Maclean attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria over her curt reply to some poetry he had tendered to Her Majesty. His pistol shot misses (the eighth unsuccessful assassination attempt by a schlub over four decades) as Victoria happened to be bending over to admire a particularly striking pug. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture debuts seventy years too late.

1883 The first vaudeville theater opens and titillates Bostonians to titters. The Brooklyn Bridge opens to traffic after fourteen years of men pounding things. New Yorkers continue to hear “phantom pounding” for several years. Krakatoa explodes in August after three months of simmering like so many six months relationships. The first regularly scheduled Orient Express departs Paris but fails to deliver up an enthralling homicide of a mysterious passenger. The last quagga dies at a zoo in Amsterdam, leading tearful millions to ask, “What’s a quagga?”

1884 Tanning process for leather patented by Augustus Schultz. His wife and daughters immediately begin overtanning. First volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, from A-Ant published. Educated people spend a lot of time talking about anarchy and aardvarks and amanuenses that year. On March 27th, the first long-distance phone call is placed, from Boston to New York. Boston sneakily attempts to place the call collect but New York tells the operator, “Fugettaboutit.” The conversation is predictably about sports, the weather and how uppity women are becoming “these days.” London’s debtor prison closes, inspiring the convicts previously imprisoned there to immediately invent 1) credit cards and 2) defaulting on credit cards.

1885 Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London. It is a great hit because there is no Twitter in 1885. A woman attempting to commit suicide by jumping from the 330 foot-high Clifton Suspension Bridge is saved by her tightly-laced corset (braced for impact) and billowing skirt (instant parachute). Take that, feminism. The Statue of Liberty arrives in New York Harbor, disassembled. The French were IKEA before IKEA. There are many more pieces than one would expect and unfortunately the instructions are in Chinese (a gag played by the French?) What’s worse, once Liberty is finally assembled, there are parts left over and nobody knows where they go on her. These are surreptitiously thrown in the harbor. Possibly, Liberty was meant to have a cool utility belt but, if so, it’s lost to history. The Reitwagen, the first internal combustion motorcycle, is patented by Daimler and Maybach. It looks more steampunk than you will ever be, even if you really want to be really steampunk and even if you have mechanical parts tattooed on your body.

1886 The Swedish Dress Reform Society is established with the intent of abolishing the corset and creating healthier alternatives in clothing for women. However, internal dissension soon leads to power struggles within the operation and The Corset Strikes Back as a retrograde Spanx wing of the society seizes power, setting the revolution back decades and an average of 1.5 inches in waist size. American pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton invents a carbonated beverage that will later become ‘Coca-Cola’. Pemberton was a Confederate Colonel who was wounded in the American Civil War and became addicted to morphine during his medical treatment. Pemberton wants to find a way to continue to enjoy the experience of addiction as a beverage and voila, Coca-Cola. The African kola nut jazzes up the soda with caffeine and helps to give people that energy kick they need for their 165 hour work week. Presumably, the Bolivian marching powder in the recipe doesn’t hurt either. The original proposed name is Confederate-Cola, but that doesn’t fly in the North. On the ides of May, 1886, Emily Dickinson dies while a fly is heard conspicuously buzzing.

1887 January 28: The largest snowflakes on record fall at Fort Keogh, Montana. They are 15 inches wide and 8 inches thick. Everyone is obviously quite drunk and full of lies in Montana this year. Snowflake drama queens. February 2: The first Groundhog Day is observed in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The groundhog predicts, “If you ever wake me up early from my hibernation again, I will harvest your face, then liver with my teeth.” Chester Greenwood patents earmuffs in the United States, a victory for both warmth and silliness. Construction of the Eiffel Tower starts in Paris, France. After an early disastrous attempt to construct the tower using Jenga blocks, the decision is made to switch to iron. L.L. Zamenhof introduces Esperanto to the world and neniu zorgas pri tiu ĉi stulta lingvo.*

1888 In West Orange, New Jersey, Eadweard Muybridge visits Thomas Edison, to discuss the possibility of sound film. Edison finds Muybridge’s tendency to break his bodily movements up into individual photographic frames rather distracting and asks him to leave. The Great Blizzard of 1888 begins at a Dairy Queen along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The first recorded evidence of death by a meteor is recorded in Iraq, a hit job millions of years in the making. The “assassin” was born millions of years before its victim. August 28 — The longest date in Roman numerals (XXVIII-VIII-MDCCCLXXXVIII) occurs. This fact will henceforth occupy cells in your brain that could have held valuable survival skills instead. You’re welcome.

1889 In June, Vincent van Gogh paints The Starry Night at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence by combining his paintbrushes and Spirograph set. The Nintendo Company is established in Japan to sell Hanafuda playing cards. It takes the company about a century to realize the real money is in Italian stereotypes, therapy-starved gorillas, Freudian toadstools and turtle shells used as homicidal weapons. Montana is admitted as the 41st U.S. state with the proviso that they promise to stop telling lies about kaiju-sized snowflakes. The first jukebox appears, at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. Unfortunately, most of the tunes are about whaling and death-by-mining, with a few sad songs about death by consumption and/or syphilis. Nothing danceable. On the plus side, there is one early heavy metal tune about Jack the Ripper. Raffaele Esposito’s Pizza Margherita, named after the queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, debuts. This is the original gangster, grandaddy pizza. You probably ate one of its descendants in the past week. Didn’t you? You dirty, dirty descendant-eater you.

*”nobody gives a shit.”

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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.