By John Copeland
Most of my friends and acquaintances know that I am a custodian of a host of little-known facts about the months of the year, holiday traditions and some observances that have been otherwise forgotten.
And you know what, in that respect, August is a bit unique, most of the time at least. In a standard year, there is no other month that begins on the same day of the week as August. In a leap year, however, August begins on the same day of the week as February.
In the northern hemisphere, August is considered the last month of summer. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the opposite of course, so it’s the last of the winter months.
August, like July, is named for a real person: Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Gaius Octavius Thurinus. When he became the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Octavius changed his name to Augustus. The Roman Senate decided that like Caesar, Augustus should be honored by having a month named after him. The month Sextillus (Sixth) was chosen for Augustus.
Not only did the Senate name the month after Augustus, but it decided that since Julius’s month, July, had 31 days, Augustus’s month should equal it: under Rome’s Julian calendar, the months alternated evenly between 30 and 31 days (with the exception of February), which made August 30 days long. So, instead of August having a mere 30 days, it was lengthened to 31, preventing anyone from claiming that Emperor Augustus was saddled with an inferior month.
To accommodate this change two calendrical adjustments were necessary:
1. The extra day needed to inflate the importance of August was taken from February, which originally had 29 days (30 in a leap year), and was now reduced to 28 days (29 in a leap year).
2. Since the months evenly alternated between 30 and 31 days, adding the extra day to August meant that July, August, and September would all have 31 days. So to avoid three long months in a row, the lengths of the last four months were switched around, giving us 30 days in September, April, June, and November.
Also, August is the only month without a “real” holiday. That doesn’t mean nothing has ever happened in August. It was a fateful month for the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. On August 24, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted near the city. The mountain spewed out great clouds of ash, smoke and pumice, which rained down on Pompeii’s citizens. Unfortunately for Pompeii, that wasn’t the end of it either — the volcano buried Pompeii under a thick carpet of volcanic ash 7 feet deep!
World War I started in August 1914. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. It is also the month that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the month Anne Frank was arrested, the month the first income tax was collected. But there is an event that occurred in August that changed dining forever. It was the Earl of Sandwich’s invention of the sandwich.
The Earl of Sandwich sounds like a mythical figure from British folklore, but he is in fact a very real person, John Montagu. He was born in 1718 and succeeded his grandfather as the Earl of Sandwich in 1729. During his life, he held various military and political offices. He also was a bit of a rake.
For several years Sandwich had as a mistress Fanny Murray, but he eventually married Dorothy Fane, by whom he had a son, John, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, who would eventually succeed him as the 5th Earl.
Sandwich’s first personal tragedy was his wife’s deteriorating health and eventual insanity. During his wife’s decline, Sandwich started an affair with the talented opera singer Martha Ray. During their relationship, Ray bore him at least five and perhaps as many as nine children. Tragedy struck the Earl again in April 1779 when Martha was murdered in the foyer of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden by a jealous suitor. Sandwich never recovered from his grief.
The modern sandwich is named after Lord Sandwich, but the exact circumstances of its invention and original use are still the subject of debate. According to legend, Sandwich was into many bad habits, including the Hellfire Club, and a very conversant gambler, the story goes, and he did not take the time to have a meal during his long hours playing at the card table. Consequently, he would ask his servants to bring him slices of meat between two slices of bread, a habit well known among his gambling friends. Other people, according to this account, began to order “the same as Sandwich!”, and thus the “sandwich” was born.
However it went down, historians know that his title, Earl of Sandwich, was associated with the food term “sandwich,” which became fashionable in England around this time.
In 1762, author and historian Edward Gibbon wrote in a diary entry that he observed “Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
So the next time you enjoy a sandwich, you can thank the Earl for his culinary contribution to our culture.