11 Things You Might Not Know About Helen Keller

Helen Keller sitting, holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920
Helen Keller sitting, holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920
Los Angeles Times, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even if you’ve watched The Miracle Worker a handful of times, you probably still have a sizable gap in knowledge about Helen Keller’s life. History’s most famous deaf-blind person was an inspiring author and activist, a vaudeville performer, a close friend of Mark Twain, and a world traveler investigated by the FBI for her political views. Here are 10 things you might not know about Helen Keller.

1. Helen Keller became deaf and blind when she was 19 months old.

Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. When she was 19 months old, an unknown illness caused her to lose her hearing and sight. The Keller family lived fairly modestly, as they lost part of their wealth during the Civil War (Helen's father, Arthur H. Keller, served in the Confederate Army). After the war, he bought and became editor of The North Alabamian, a weekly local newspaper.

2. Helen Keller was friends with Alexander Graham Bell.

Keller and Bell.Popular Science Monthly Volume 63, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Keller was 6 years old, her parents took her to Julian John Chisolm, Professor of Diseases of the Eye and Ear at the University of Maryland. The renowned physician recommended that Keller see Alexander Graham Bell. Because Bell’s wife was deaf, the inventor founded schools for the Deaf (as well as their teachers) and was involved with teaching deaf children. Following Bell’s suggestion, Keller’s parents enrolled her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, through which she met her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Bell mentored Sullivan and was friends with both her and Keller until his death in 1922.

3. Helen Keller was also good friends with Mark Twain.

In 1895, as a teenager, Keller met Twain at a lunch in New York. Later, she wrote that he “treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties.” Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller, and eventually the two bonded over their political views and mutual admiration for each other. She recognized the author by his scent, as he often reeked of tobacco. Twain convinced the industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to help pay for Keller’s education, and was also the first person to call Sullivan a miracle worker. Twain even gave Keller a blurb for her 1903 autobiography, which she wrote at age 22.

4. Helen Keller fell in love with her secretary.

In 1916, at 36 years old, Keller fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter in his late twenties. Fagan was working as Keller's temporary secretary while Sullivan was sick. The couple secretly got engaged and even took out a marriage license before Keller’s family found out and forbade the marriage. Keller regretted that she never married, reportedly remarking, “If I could see, I would marry first of all.”

5. Helen Keller was a member of the Socialist Party of America.

Keller joined the Socialist party in 1909.The Century Magazine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Keller focused a big part of her life on politics. She belonged to the Socialist Party of America, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and was investigated by the FBI because of her far-left views. Keller also supported industrial workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, and birth control, and she wrote essays about her socialist views and admiration of Vladimir Lenin.

6. Helen Keller was a vaudevillian “eighth wonder of the world.”

Keller and Sullivan made a career in writing and lectures, but this still didn’t earn them a viable income. So for four years in the 1920s, they hit the vaudeville circuit. Keller would speak about her life, Sullivan would translate, and audiences could ask questions as part of a Q&A. They traveled from town to town, and Keller was billed as “the brightest star of happiness and optimism” and “the eighth wonder of the world.”

7. Helen Keller’s image (with Braille) is on U.S. currency.

Keller’s image is on the Alabama state quarter (part of the 50 state quarters program). She appears as an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, holding a book (Keller died at age 87 in 1968). Introduced in March 2003, the words “Helen Keller” are on the quarter in the Latin alphabet and in braille.

8. Helen Keller traveled the world to advocate for people with disabilities.

Keller was a major globetrotter. She traveled to 39 countries, from the UK to Japan to Syria. During her travels, Keller met with presidents, prime ministers, and other government leaders to advocate for educating blind people, deaf people, and people with disabilities. In 1952, during her visit to the Middle East, she gave lectures at medical schools, visited schools for disabled students, and met with organizations that helped blind people.

Keller wrote about her experiences in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, emphasizing the kindness of the locals and the majesty of the places. As she wrote: “It was more wonderful than I had dreamed for us to travel through semi-legendary lands … I could still feel something of the old picturesqueness, the poetry, the oriental atmosphere and the spirit of prophecy, and I was fascinated by the power of the Moslem religion.”

9. Helen Keller introduced the Akita dog to the U.S.

An Akita rests at Keller's feet.Archives New Zealand, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the 1930s, Keller toured Japan to give speeches and visit schools, and was met with incredible warmth and reverence. A Japanese police officer gave her an Akita dog named Kamikaze-Go as a present, and she fell in love with him. She became the first person to bring the dog breed to the U.S. Sadly, Kamikaze-Go died shortly after Keller’s return to the States, so Japan’s government gifted her another Akita from the same litter. In 1948, a few years after World War II ended, Keller visited Japan again to meet with the war's disabled veterans in military hospitals.

10. Helen Keller lived to be 87 years old.

Keller died of natural causes on June 1, 1968 in Easton, Connecticut. According to Winifred Corbally, her companion after Sullivan’s death, she “drifted off in her sleep.”

11. Helen Keller’s life story inspired a Bollywood film.

Released in 2005, the Bollywood film Black is about a young deaf-blind girl named Michelle, her relationship with her teacher, and how she deals with her inability to hear and see. Inspired by Keller’s life, Black’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, read her autobiography and visited The Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind before writing and directing the film. It premiered at the Cannes Festival, and won both lead actors Indian Filmfare awards.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Florence’s Plague-Era Wine Windows Are Back in Business

A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.
A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.

Many bars and restaurants have started selling takeout cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to stay in business—and keep customers safe—during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, 17th-century Florentines are surely applauding from their front-row seats in the afterlife.

As Insider reports, a number of buildings in Florence had been constructed with small “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, through which vendors sold wine directly to less affluent customers. When the city suffered an outbreak of plague in the 1630s, business owners recognized the value of these windows as a way to serve people without spreading germs. They even exchanged money on a metal tray that was sanitized with vinegar.

Wine not?sailko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Things eventually went back to normal, and the windows slowly fell out of fashion altogether as commerce laws evolved. This year, however, they’ve made a comeback. According to Food & Wine, there are currently at least four in operation around Florence. Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi is using its window to deliver wine and cocktails, for example, and the Vivoli ice cream shop, a go-to dessert spot since 1929, is handing out sweet scoops and coffee through its formerly dormant aperture.

Apart from the recent resurgence of interest, the wine windows often go unnoticed by tourists drawn to the grandeur of attractions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Florence Cathedral. So in 2015, locals Matteo Faglia, Diletta Corsini, and Mary Christine Forrest established the Wine Window Association to generate some buzz. In addition to researching the history of the windows, they also keep a running list of all the ones they know of. Florence has roughly 150, and there are another 100 or so in other parts of Tuscany.

They’re hoping to affix a plaque near each window to promote their stories and discourage people from defacing them. And if you want to support their work, you can even become a member of the organization for €25 (about $29).

[h/t Insider]