Category Archives: Culture

From Cure-all to Confection

The amalgamated Holidays officially kick in this week, so it’s time to think about festive things to eat and drink. Last year at this time, I seemed preoccupied with the latter, but now I’m thinking about food. I came across my grandmother’s recipe for molasses cookies–very thin, crispy and buttery, my absolute favorite, and started wondering about the principal ingredient. There must have been tons of it here in Salem in the nineteenth century, as it was the key ingredient in rum production and there were so many distilleries here. I know that molasses was imported into New England from the West Indies in the colonial era, but it think there were domestic refineries in the nineteenth century: was it produced in Salem? If so, where? Molasses-making is a messy business: was Salem ever in danger of experiencing its own version of the disastrous 1919 Great Molasses Flood in Boston? And what about consumption (besides rum): molasses does seem to have been much more in demand a century or so ago than now: why? There are so many recipes out there–for Black Jacks, still produced by America’s oldest candy shop, Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie right here in Salem, as well as for another local molasses creation, Anadama bread, not to mention Indian Pudding, Boston baked beans and Boston brown bread. Molasses seems to be as characteristically New England  or “Boston” as the Red Sox. Then the English historian in me kicked in and I confronted the age-old question:  what’s the difference between molasses and treacle? Then the sixteenth-century historian in me kicked in, and I wondered what was the connection between molasses and the root of that old English word treacle, theriac, which was sold as a powerful panacea across early modern Europe. And just like that, my mind had wandered/wondered from cookies and candy to plague cures.

maryjane-directmailer

Advertisement for the famous Mary Jane molasses and peanut butter candy, made first by the Charles N. Miller Company in Boston in 1914  and later by the New England Confectionery Company (Necco).

The migration of medieval medical recipes into the culinary sphere was not always a straightforward process, but it’s best to proceed from the past rather than the other way around. Theriac was an ancient electuary (medicinal paste) used first and foremost as an antidote to venomous snake bites. In the classic case of fighting fire with fire, The flesh of the snakes themselves was an essential ingredient, along with lots of others–64 in all in the classic Galenic recipe. In the course of the Renaissance, theriac was compounded to various formulas and came to be regarded as a universal antidote and panacea, with that produced in Venice generally regarded as the most effective, and the most expensive, naturally. As poison was associated with plague in the late medieval medical mentality, so theriac became the key plague antidote and consequently its preparation was serious business: under official supervision to ensure the proper process and correct composition.

Theriac Hortus Sanitatis 1491

V0010760 An apothecary publically preparing the drug theriac, under t

L0057175 Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641

Theriac preparation from snakes (the origins of snake oil???) from the Hortus Sanitatis of Jacob Meydenbach, Mainz, 1491; woodcut illustration by Hieronymus Brunschwig of a physician supervising the manufacture of theriac by an apothecary, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis, 1512, and seventeenth-century Italian majolica theriac jar, Wellcome Library.

Despite its (undeserved) reputation for efficacy, Venetian theriac could not crowd out the market in plague cures and regional recipes began to develop. In England, there were several major developments in the use and perception of theriac over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in typical English fashion, the foreign word had long been anglicized as “treacle”, and  “Venetian Treacle” became an ingredient in variant plague cures and preservatives, rather than the exclusive antidote at about the same time that the London College of Pharmacists ruled that treacle need not contain snakes, and treacle (sans Venetian) started appearing in both medicinal and culinary recipes. Everything really changed–or came together–in the course of the seventeenth century, an era that was characterized by many, many recipes for “treacle water” as well as increasing imports of refined sugar from the West Indies, along with its by-products. These sweeter syrups, collectively called treacle, began to replace honey in the medicinal “London Treacle”, at about the same time that they started to appear as key ingredients in recipes for gingerbread, tarts, and puddings. So treacle comes to mean any syrup made during the sugar-refining process: black treacle, golden syrup, blackstrap, and molasses–all of which were relatively cheap ways to sweeten your plague water or your pudding. There were also treacle “lozenges” that soothed the throat and provided a bit of “sweatmeat” at the same time, and a recipe for gingerbread cakes that closely resembles that for my grandmother’s molasses cookies.

Treacle Water 1660

PicMonkey Collage

Treacles

A mid-17th century recipe for Treacle water containing Venice Treacle and less exotic ingredients, Wellcome Library Manuscripts; recipes from Mary Kettilby’s Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in cookery, physick, and surgery: for the use of all good wives, tender mothers, and careful nurses (1714–Thick Gingerbread) and Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1747–Gingerbread Cakes); The two British treacles: plain treacle or “golden syrup” and “black treacle”, the closest approximation of American molasses.

 


Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?

SuperHerosFlamands_Batman_RGB1998_011

superheroes-robin_3111213k

SuperHerosFlamands_Catwoman_RGB1998_014

superheroes-wonder_3111209k

superheroes-superm_3111212k

Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

 

 


Architectural Alphabets

Architecture and Alphabets: two of my favorite things, together. I’ve been meaning to post some images from Jean Baptiste de Pian’s clever alphabet ever since I discovered it a year or so ago, but just never got to it. There’s already some images and admirers out there, but I’ll add more. The lithographs below, part of a series of 26, were actually created and colored by Leopold Müller in 1842 after paintings by Pian. The series is very rare and valuable: one set sold for over $32,000 at a Christies’ auction last year, and another is currently available at Bromer Booksellers for $65,000. Apparently a facsimile edition was published in 1973 but I can’t find it anywhere. As you can see in the images below (which I have taken from the Christies’ listing), the letters are not just affixed to the structures but rather an integral part of them.

Architectural Alphabet 1842

Architectural Alphabet F

Architectural Alphabet U 1842

As impressive as they are, Pian/Müller’s letters are not completely original conceptions: just a few years earlier the Italian artist and theater designer Antonio Basoli had published his own, predominately classical,architectural alphabet, Alfabeto Pittorico, comprised of 24 letters and an ampersand. Basoli’s Alphabet, as it came to be known, is rare today as well, though apparently not quite so rare as that which it might have inspired: it fetched $15,000 at the same 2013 Christies’ auction. Before Basoli, there was the plan-based architectural alphabet of the German architect Johann David Steingruber, published in 1773. Viewed individually, I don’t think Steingruber’s letters are as impressive as the more consolidated forms of Pian/Müller and Basoli, but collectively (as in this canvas by Ballard Designs from a few years back) they pack a punch.

Alphabetical Alphabet Basoli

Architectural Alphabet Z

steingruber1

steingruber6

Steingruber Ballard Designs

Scans of Basoli & Steingruber at the venerable blog Giornale Nuovo, a feast of information and images.

The architectural alphabet looks like a seventeenth-century invention to me: a direct consequence of the rebirth of classicism and the emergence and development of the printing arts in the centuries before. But I think I’ll move up (back) to our own time, where the architectural alphabet still survives, indeed thrives! Two great examples: Federico Babino’s alphabet of architects, cleverly titled Archibet (he also builds an Archibet City), and the (less integrative but more whimsical) Architectural Alphabet of Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams.

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_A-01

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_Z-01

zega and dams


Mapping the Twentieth Century

In the recent tradition of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects and Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in 12 Maps, the British Library published A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps last month, and my copy arrived in the mail yesterday. The book consists of 110 maps actually, compiled for the most part from the Library’s vast map collection by Tim Bryers and Tom Harper. The maps are arranged chronologically and presented with detailed introductions: the end result is a perfect book. It occurred to me while browsing through it last night that the physical book is the preferable vehicle for the presentation of maps: they require close reading, although I suppose the zooming abilities of a Kindle would be helpful too. As I’ve written here time and time again, whether discussing maps in the form of animals, or hearts, or featuring octopuses bent on world domination, maps are an essential teaching tools, and this new book contains some great material. Though I do disagree slightly with Bryers’ and Harper’s thesis that the twentieth century is the map century: in terms of sheer cartographic impact, I would place my bet on the sixteenth.

Maps cover

Map London Underground BL

Map Dogs 1914

Map Blitz 1940

Map April Fool 1977

Map Orwell 1984

Selections from A History of the World in 100 Maps: London Underground Map, 1908 (20+ years before the iconic map was created in the 1930s); Hark, Hark! The Dogs do Bark map by Johnson, Riddle & Co., 1914; secret Luftwaffe map of London at the beginning of the Blitz, 1940–with places marked for bombing and avoidance; Artwork for the Guardian’s article on the fictional islands of San Serriffe, published on April Fool’s Day in 1977; “The World of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, published in 1984.

 


Monopoly Pieces

I have quicksilver materialistic urges: what I want now are Monopoly pieces, or rather artistically-enhanced versions thereof. There is a Salem source of this desire, and it is a timely one: Parker Brothers of Salem acquired one of the key patents they needed  to produce their version of Monopoly on this day in 1935, and it was an immediate blockbuster, perhaps (or in spite of) the ongoing Depression. Parker Brothers’ long residency in Salem (1883-1991) is no doubt due in large part to the success of this ultra-American game. It was apparently rushed into production even though Parker Brothers president George Parker had low expectations: a series of boxes from 1935 bear the inscriptions “patent applied for” and “patent pending”. Inside are wooden houses and hotels and the original dark-iron tokens: the iron, racing car, thimble, shoe, top hat and battleship (the Scottie dog and wheelbarrow were added in the early 1950s).

Monopoly Box Patent Pending 1935

1935 Patent Pending Monopoly Box: Source.

And that’s the other reason why I’m craving Monopoly pieces now:  my favorite token was always the iron, and it has recently been cast out of the game, replaced by a cat. I’m a cat lover as well, but the new token just doesn’t have the texture of that old iron: thankfully my Monopoly game is pretty vintage, and thus iron-clad. And when a little tiny metal token just won’t do, several artists have been inspired enough by the game–and its iconic pieces–to create bigger and bolder versions. I want all of these creations by Stuart Whitton, which are hand-drawn on vintage postcards, but I think they’re long gone.

Monopoly Iron Whitton

Monopoly Racing Car Whitton PC

Monopoly Racing Car 2 Whitton

Monopoly Shoe Whitton PC

Monopoly Whitton dog PC

Stuart Whitton’s drawings of “infamous” Monopoly pieces at Behance and stuartwhitton.co.uk.

Since I’m particularly fond of the retired iron, I did find a more attainable object: a pewteresque replica: not very subtle, and far less artistic, but BIG. But where to put it? It screams doorstop to me, but when I went in search of a place, I found not one, not two, but THREE old 19th century irons propped up against doors on my third floor. I don’t think I need one more, even if it has an air of Monopoly about it.

Monopoly Iron Doorstop

 

 

 


Mums for Mourning

The holiday Halloween evolved from pre-Christian traditions as well as the Christian days for remembrance, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is today. Remembrance in general, and mourning in particular, were a bit more active in the medieval era than the present but still it is interesting how reflection was transformed into celebration! Mourning, as both a state of mind and an act, is of course universal, transcending time and place, but there are many distinctive and divergent mourning customs, and since its expressions seem to be in season now (as reflected by the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Morning Attire and The Art of Mourning at the new Morbid Anatomy Museum, as well as the exhibition from a few years ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, which you can still view online), I thought I would examine just one: the use of chrysanthemums. While the omnipresent autumn plants seems to sit on every stoop and front porch throughout New England, they are used to decorate graves in France and other countries on the European continent and elsewhere (predominately but not always yellow mums in France, white mums are traditional funereal emblems in China), and are as much a natural symbol for mourning as the weeping willow was in nineteenth-century America. You won’t see any mums on the Met’s dresses or the Anglo-American jewelry in the MHS exhibition, but they figure very prominently in French memorial depictions from the same era–and after.

Mums for Mourning 2 MET

Mums Toussaint-Emile-Friant

Mums for Mourning 3 NYPL

Mums for Morning MET shadow print

Mums for Mouring NBC News

“The Cemetery of Père Lachaise,” after John James Chalon, 1822; Emile Friant, La Toussaint, 1888, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Daniel Hernandez cover for Figaro illustré, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Adolf de Meyer, The Shadows on the Wall (“Chyrsanthemums”), 1906, Silver Print Photograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a French cemetery in November 2013, NBC News.

 

 

 


Scary Vegetables

In honor of Halloween and the ongoing harvest season, as well as my continuous fascination with anthropomorphism, today I have a portfolio of images which I have labeled “scary vegetables”, some of which are scary because of the human-like characteristics assigned to them (in both the mandrake and pumpkin-head traditions) and others which are simply scary. I’ve featured this topic before, but this variation is a bit more creepy and much more focused on vegetables in general and root vegetables in particular. There’s nothing particularly modern about these images: the aforementioned mandrake with its humanoid roots was a medieval forerunner, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s whimsical portraits definitely made plants-in-human-form the embodiment of grotesque in the Renaissance and influenced surrealistic expressions centuries later. Some plants are scary just on their own–especially their roots–but others require a bit of artistic embellishment. I’m not quite sure why Diego Rivera’s radishes are so very menacing, but they certainly are!

Scary Plants Blood Root p

Scary Vegetables Kirby

PicMonkey Collage

Scary Turnipp

Scary Vegetables diegorivera_1947

Scary Vegetables Etsy Dewey

Scary Vegetables Horner

Sources of Scary Vegetables:  Bloodroot from Bigelow’s American Medical Botany, 1817; Turnip, Radish & Parsnip “Roots” from Kirbys Wonderful and eccentric museum; or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters, 1820; C.J. Grant colored lithographs/”advertisements” for Morrison’s vegetable pills, 1831, Wellcome Library; an old postcard from my collection, c. 1910-30?; Diego Rivera’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1947, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City; “Tragedy 29: Turnip Seeds” print by BenjaminDewey;”Look Pa” print by CathyHorner.

 

 

 


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