Monthly Archives: December 2012

New Year’s in New Jersey

This post is going to be a study in contrasts. We’re on the northern New Jersey shore visiting my husband’s family, hearing storm stories and seeing lots of storm damage. Superstorm Sandy is very much in evidence, two months after its arrival. Some areas in this region emerged relatively unscathed, while others were hit hard:  two cases in point are Allenhurst, where my husband’s family home is located, and Sea Bright, where our niece lives. These boroughs are located just a few miles from each other on the shore, but their present environments could not be more different.

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Crossing over into New  Jersey on the George Washington Bridge on a stormy day.

Allenburst is a wealthy little enclave right next to the storied Asbury Park. The train to New York runs right through its little village center, offering wealthy urban dwellers an escape from the sweltering city a century ago and a relatively easy commute now. In some ways Allenhurst reminds me of my hometown, York Harbor, Maine, which also developed as a summer community, but there are notable differences:  the village is laid out in a grid pattern, the architecture is on steroids, and of course, this being the Jersey shore, there is a boardwalk.  The cabanas of the Allenhurst beach club (they build these private clubs right on the beach here; I don’t really understand how that can happen on a supposedly-public beach, but there it is) were washed away by Sandy, and a little section of its boardwalk, but I couldn’t find much more serious damage in evidence. The houses of Allenhurst, are stately: grand Victorians, Tudors, lots of Spanish-styled, tiled-roofed mansions from the teens and twenties. From my New England perspective, I notice an absence of the simple Shingle style, and the presence of lots and lots of stucco. I am sparing you the huge tacky modern houses that have been built right on the ocean; the more charming houses are on the side streets of Allenhurst.

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Shots of Allenburst:  an oceanside mansion and  “smaller” houses along the side streets, one closed-off street section, pink iron deer!

Traveling up the coast to Sea Bright through Long Branch I stopped by the Church of the Presidents, which is undergoing a major renovation. Seven Gilded Age presidents, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson, vacationed in this area and attended this church; James Garfield died just across the way after several months of suffering after he was shot in the early summer of 1881.

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You can see piles of wood and sand and boarded-up houses along this road, although major development has occurred in this area and the large multi-story buildings (which have wiped out any trace of those associated with the seven presidents) look like they could withstand any storm, but maybe not.

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Among the melee, these column sections certainly give one a “fall of the Roman Empire” feeling–not quite sure where they came from.

And then to Sea Bright, a barrier beach town that was really devastated and remains so. Displaced residents, boarded-up storefronts, condemned buildings, and what many say is an unrecognizable beach constitute the aftermath of Sandy, but also a very vibrant spirit focused on recovery. The municipal government seems very responsive, there’s been all forms of outside help, and an organization called Sea Bright Rising seems poised to will that to happen in the New Year.

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Sea Bright, New Jersey, two months after Sandy: the pictures speak for themselves except for the last one, which is of an island in the Shrewsbury River behind the borough, where all the boats from a nearby mainland marina ended up.


Best Bedside Books 2012

Well, it’s the time of year for lists, lots of lists:  best and worst, most important, so on and so forth, lists of ten things that characterize the passing year in one way or another. I’ll do my part with a best books list, with a qualification:  these are titles that were published in 2012 which I consider to be essential for bedtime reading, or bedtime reference, to be more precise. I do like to read in bed before I sleep, but I drop off quite rapidly, so I need a quick hit of compelling information, and/or some visual stimulation, before I’m gone. I’ve given up fiction altogether for this purpose, and I never read any sort of academic history later at night:  my bedside books need to be “dippable”; I will pick up one or the other from the stack–too tall for the bedside table–and dip into it every other night or so, in order to see or learn something before I fall asleep (books that do not perform these services leave the stack rather quickly). Several amazing natural histories were published this year which are perfect for this purpose, so I’ll start with them.

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Natural Histories. Extraordinary Selections from the Rare Book Archive of the American Museum of Natural History Library. Edited by Tom Baione.  Sterling Signature, 2012.

Nothing fascinates me more than the merger of art and science and this first book illustrates that historical merger in an extraordinary way. It is the ultimate gift and coffee table book, as it comprises a collection of historical sources relating to every branch of natural history from anthropology to zoology, succinct yet substantive contextual essays, and lots of images, as well as frame-ready prints, but it is also incredibly informative and inspirational. Similar in its historical range and the compelling nature of its images is the National Library of Medicine’s Hidden Treasure, and rather more whimsical (yet still empirical) is Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  A 21st Century Bestiary. These books are just visual feasts, and I also learn something every time I pick them up.

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Hidden Treasure:  the National Library of Medicine.  Edited by Michael Sappol.  Blast Books, 2012; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson.  Granta Books, 2012.

I’ve been interested in folklore for quite some time, and an amazing new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published this year: this bicentennial edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm was edited and annotated by Maria Tatar, Chair of the Program in Mythology and Culture at Harvard.  It really is a definitive edition, and also includes many classic illustrations.  There’s nothing better than reading Grimm fairy tales before you fall asleep:  food for dreams!

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The Bicentennial Edition of the Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar.  W.W. Norton, 2012.

I always have architecture and design books in my bedside stack, also good for dreaming, and the ones I purchased this year are American Decoration by Thomas Jayne and London Hidden Interiors by Phillip Davies.  Their titles are self-explanatory. I love Jayne’s traditional style, and with its 180 properties and 1200 photographs, Hidden Interiors is positively encyclopedic.

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American Decoration:  A Sense of Place, by Thomas Jayne. Monacelli Press, 2012. London Hidden Interiors, Phillip Davies. An English Heritage Book, Atlantic Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Both art history and history texts seldom function well as bedside books, as they require a bit more sustained concentration. If they are far removed from my academic interests, sometimes I can make them work out of sheer ignorance/ interest and curiosity (or if they have relatively short chapters!)  Right now I have two books in these categories by my bed, both very recently published:  Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art, which is the companion volume to the exhibition that’s on right now at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Todd Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, which presents a narrative of the American Revolution through contemporary newspaper reports, including several from the Salem Gazette.

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Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art. Yale University Press, 2012; Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Before it was History, it was News.  Sourcebooks, 2012.

Salem is a “walkable city”, and I think more places in car-obsessed America should be walkable cities, which is why I purchased urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. I’m learning a lot from this book, but I do think it is better read in the daytime rather than just before bed. And last but not least, a perfect bedside book that my brother just gave me for Christmas:  Simon Garfield’s Just My Type. A Book about Fonts. This was actually published in 2010, but I also have another Garfield book that was published this year, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, (Gotham) so together they can fill out my top ten list.  Typography and cartography: two very interesting, yet contained topics.  Perfect for end-of-day reading.

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Jeff Speck, Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; Simon Garfield, Just my Type. A Book about Fonts. Gotham reprint, 2012.


Christmas Casting

In the medieval era and slightly after, Christmas was often the time for making predictions for the coming year, rather than on New Year’s Day. Weather predictions were common, and also more varied prognostications, based on what day of the week Christmas fell. The predictions based on a Christmas Tuesday are not particularly cheery, I must admit, but then neither are they overwhelmingly optimistic for Christmases that fell on the other days of the week.  Here’s the Middle English verse from British Library Harley Manuscript 2252, the commonplace book (an often-miscellaneous journal of very random sayings and bits of information, kind of like a blog!), of London merchant John Colyns, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, with my hasty translation. It’s been a while since I have tangled with Middle English so there may be some lapses here, but I think I got the gist of this verse.

Yf Crystemas day on Tuysday be, That yere shall dyen wemen plenté; And that wynter wex grete marvaylys; Shyppys shalbe in grete perylles; That yere shall kynges and lordes be slayne, And myche hothyr pepylle agayne heym. A drye somer that yere shalbe; Alle that be borne ther in many se, They shalbe stronge and covethowse. Yf thou stele awghte, thou lesyste thi lyfe; Thou shalte dye throwe swerde or knyfe; But and thow fall seke, sertayne, Thou shalte turne to lyfe agayne.

If Christmas Day be on a Tuesday, many women will die that year; and that winter will see great marvels; Ships shall be in great perils; That year kings and lords shall be slain, And many other people against them. That year will have a dry summer; All that are born in that year shall be strong and covetous. Whoever steals, shall lose his life by sword or knife; But if one falls sick, they shall become well.

Well at least it ends on a somewhat optimistic note!

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Ships and people in peril a century later:  The Wonders of this Windie Weather, London, 1613. STC 25949.


         


Christmas with Barbara

I love classic films, so naturally my favorite television channel is Turner Classic Movies:  I often have it on in the background when I’m home, as you never know what–or who–might turn up!  This month, I have to admit that it’s been on even more than usual, as December’s “Star of the Month” is Barbara Stanwyck, my very favorite movie star.  No one comes close to Barbara in her ability to fill the screen and capture her audience’s attention, in my opinion; certainly no actor or actress in the present (a time when movie stars seem much smaller), and perhaps only Cary Grant and Bette Davis in the past. I love everything about Barbara:  her toughness and her vulnerability, her flexibility, her stature, her walk, her ability to sit a horse, her little cropped jackets, her obvious professionalism. There is a sense of inner “simmering” in her that I find captivating, and I think she chose her roles very well. I find even her early 1930s movies–in which she seems to be playing the same downtrodden character again and again–watchable, but she really comes into her own in the 1940s, when she became the highest paid woman in America.

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Miss Stanwyck at the height of her power and popularity, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Two of my favorite Stanwyck films happen to be Christmas movies: Remember the Night (1940) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). For as long as I can remember, I have generally watched both at least once during the holiday season, but this particular month I seem to be watching them again and again, so many times that I almost feel like I’m having Christmas with Barbara!

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I think most people have heard of or seen Christmas in Connecticut, and it is certainly a wonderful film with a charming Barbara (and a great supporting cast), but she is even more endearing in Remember the Night.  This movie, the first of what I think were three pairings with Fred MacMurray, shows the actress in transition from her 1930s vulnerability to her 1940s confidence:  she is both sad and funny, tough and vulnerable, skittish and resolute. MacMurray plays a New York City Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes Stanwyck’s shoplifter character in a Christmas Eve trial:  when he realizes 1) that the joyful jury will let her off in a collective display of Christmas spirit; and 2) that she is a fellow Hoosier, he postpones the trial until the New Year, bails her out of jail, and offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays as he is heading home himself (you have to suspend some  judgement here). On the way west, back to the country, they have various escapades and encounters that bring them closer together. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when they arrive at her childhood home and face her dreadful mother; Fred will not let her stay there and he whisks her away to his own mother, the polar-opposite perfect mom, played, of course, by Beulah Bondi, Mrs. Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life!  On the farm, they celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way and fall in love, always knowing that they’re going to have to go back to the big city, and the big trial, after the holidays. And they do: neither compromises their principles or their admiration for one another and so the “resolution” of the film provides a nice contrast to more predictable Christmas fare, including Christmas in Connecticut.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray look over their scripts with director Mitchell Leisen in this behind-the-scenes shot, TCM Archives.

Actually, as I write this, I am realizing that there is a major similarity between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut:  in both films a very urban Barbara has got to go to the country and experience an “old-fashioned” Christmas (complete with country dances in both films) in order to find herself. In Christmas, Barbara plays a Martha Stewart-like character named Elizabeth Lane who writes a monthly column about her bucolic married life in Connecticut, including elaborate menus for perfect home-cooked meals. The problem, which doesn’t become a problem until her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) forces her to entertain a war hero named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays, is that Elizabeth Lane is actually a single “career woman” who lives in a New York City apartment and relies on local restauranteur Felix Bassenak (a perfect S.Z. Sakall) for both her daily sustenance and recipes for her column. She cooks up a scheme with her editor, Felix, and her long-suffering architect beau (Reginald Gardner), whom she promises to marry in exchange for his perfect Connecticut country house, which becomes the setting for their deception. The house is so perfect, with its vaulted ceilings, picture window, and huge stone fireplace, that it is almost a character in the film. In crystalline Connecticut, many situations ensue, involving babies, a cow named Mecushla (there’s a big cow scene in Remember the Night as well), flapjacks, a horse-drawn sleigh, and rocking chairs, and in the midst of all this Elizabeth/Barbara and her war hero fall in love. It is 1945, it is Christmas, and all is well.

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Barbara in my bedroom:  facing her architect fiancé (“when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about plumbing”), facing the war hero seconds later, and in her perfect little cropped Christmas jacket.


Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky. The Latin word refers to the “stoppage” of the sun, as it appears to hover at this low point for several days, and certainly this was recognized as an important time, both before and after the coming of Christianity. Indeed, the solstice often appears on medieval calendars as a “red-letter day”, so important that it was written in red ink. As you can see on this December psalter calendar, the only two red-letter days are those when the sun moves into Capricorn and the winter solstice.  Even the nativity–Christmas Day–is written in black ink.

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This calendar also illustrates another convention of medieval Christianity:  the overlay of Christian holidays (holy days) on pagan ritual days. The Winter Solstice is recognized as the winter solstice, but also as the day of St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, who first doubted the resurrection of Christ and later compensated for this doubt by spreading the good news far and white, certainly outside the Roman Empire, perhaps as far as India. My casual survey of a sampling of psalters from the twelfth century on revealed that St. Thomas gradually replaced the solstice as a red-letter day, but medieval scribes still recognized the importance of the waxing, waning, and “hovering” sun in other ways and texts. The sun seems to get more vivid with the centuries, and even becomes quite humanistic with the Renaissance!

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British Library MSS Arundel 60 (after 1073) and Royal 17 E VII (14th century:  God creating the sun and the moon); Here come the sun:  Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 14 (late 15th century) and BL MS Sloane 1171 (sixteenth century).

The Winter Solstice returns to modern calendars, sometimes with St. Thomas and sometimes not, and achieves recognition as a natural day in the seasonal year.  There’s something both reverent and hopeful about the day, as we know that the trend towards more darkness will be gradually reversed in the coming days and months.

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In typical traditional fashion, Kate Greenaway sticks with St. Thomas’s Day in her 1892 Almanac (NYPL Digital Gallery), while British modern artist Barbara Hepworth depicts the Winter Solstice in a more graphic way (Tate Museum, 1971).


Red Christmas

Even before I read a nice little article yesterday on how the holidays obtained their color themes, I was already planning to focus on red:  it’s been a dreary week and I needed a little cheering up. The red that we now associate with Christmas comes from an amalgamation of historical and cultural forces:  iconic images of St. Nicholas of Myra wearing red robes, holly berries and the apple props of medieval mystery plays, the Victorian poinsettia craze, the colorful depictions of Santa Claus by nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coco-Cola Santa Claus of the early twentieth century. I’ve already covered Saint Nicholas in a lengthy post a week or so ago, so this perspective is going to be structural. Here are some of my favorite red houses, tastefully decorated for the season in typical understated New England fashion. I’m starting up north, in my hometown of York, Maine, where I happened to be last week before our weather turned dreadfully dreary, and then I’ll work my way home to Salem via Newburyport.

Two of the Historic House Museums of Old York:  the 1719 Old Gaol (Jail) and the 1754 Jefferds Tavern. As you can see, the gaol is situated on a little hill that overlooks York Village below. There is a large new barn-like structure attached to the tavern which I dont really care for (despite the fact that it is named after my wonderful high school guidance counselor) so Im showing a vantage point that excludes it.

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Heading south, I stopped in Newburyport–a city of white houses for the most part–and found two adorable colonial side-shingled houses on side streets in the south end.

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Back in Salem, where there are not a lot of red houses, really. But there is venerable Red’s Sandwich Shop downtown, and the Manning house in North Salem, which was once in the midst of one of the most famous orchard nurseries in Massachusetts. This was the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, a famous “pomologist” (an expert in the cultivation of fruit trees) and according to the sign, also a stagecoach agent–news to me. The last picture in this group is a rare red Greek Revival on Essex Street: you seldom see a house in this style painted red, as they are meant to mimic stone. From these pictures it appears we like our red houses with white trim in Salem.

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Finally, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s c. 1750 birthplace, moved to its present location adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables on the harbor in 1958 from downtown. A rather gnarly tree seems to be threatening it! And last but not least, a wonderful old (fishing?) shack on the other side of the Gables: a little worse for wear maybe, but still red and picturesque–it does seem to be crying out for a wreath at this time of year.

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Trees in the House

I was intent and inspired to have a rather spare Christmas tree this year, but once again we have a huge and furry white pine (I think I incorrectly called last year’s tree a Scotch pine) tree, over nine feet tall, that just eats ornaments.  Oh well, the house probably calls for such a display, in contrast to the more minimalist Scandinavian looks, featuring branches and twigs more so than trees, that I collected in a pile of tear sheets. I particularly like this beautiful Toronto house, owned and decorated by designer Ingrid Oomen, that is featured in this month’s issue of Canadian House and Home.

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I don’t know why the second scan came out so grainy–sorry. These minimalist tree branches go so well with this decor, and they could really be maintained all year round, minus the ornaments. I also like this simple display from Country Living, counterposed with the more traditional tree in the adjoining room.

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I have not managed to go the overly-creative or minimalist route this year.  The Christmas season is always a little frustrating for me, as I have high decorating hopes and not much time, with lots of papers and exams to correct and grades to turn in. I have a few little live trees around the house, like this one on the dining room mantle next to my new deer from Wisteria, and then the big tree in the front parlor (which I am showing you in both undecorated and decorated states so you can see what a monster it is). It doesn’t matter how many ornaments or garlands you put on this tree, it still looks essentially green.

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Two of my favorite historical images of Christmas trees: Eastman Johnson’s Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864) and a print of President Roosevelt’s children showing him their closeted Christmas tree in 1903:  he was an avid environmentalist and would not have one in the house (or so he proclaimed).

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Eastman Johnson, Chistmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864), Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Roosevelt children show the President their tree, 1903, White House Historical Association.


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