Category Archives: History

What to do with my Woad?

I tended to my garden intensively for the first time this spring yesterday: late, I know, but the end of the academic year is just too busy for me to engage in anything beyond department business. I did a bit of raking and snipping earlier on, but yesterday was the very first day that I really got my hands dirty:  very satisfying. The weather has been absolutely beautiful here; if anything, it’s a bit dry, but I feel terrible complaining when other parts of the country are experiencing either drastic drought or flooding! There are definitely some losses out there: lots of veronica, bee balm, St. John’s Wort, avens. I have two less lady’s slippers than last year and only one jack-in-the-pulpit, but I’m happy that these extra-special plants appeared at all. The side border that runs along Hamilton Hall is absolute perfection if I do say so myself: I am totally in love with the front line of lady’s mantle and sweet cicely. Another plant that looks particularly good this year is epimedium or barrenwort–sometimes also called bishop’s hat. What a great plant: dry shade, little maintenance, neat and tidy! As you can tell from this rambling list of plants, I tend to go for old-fashioned plants and herbs in particular: my garden preferences, like so much of my life, are based on history and curiosity more than anything else. I like to mix old herbs and modern perennials together, and the contrasting combinations are often a bit…….odd. But such is the result when you choose a plant for its heritage rather than its appearance. I’ve got a conundrum now as I brought some woad back my favorite herb farm (The Herb Farmacy, Salisbury, Massachusetts). For the sake of heritage, I had to have this ancient dyeing plant, but does it really belong in my small urban garden? It’s not particularly attractive, a biennial to boot, and blue is my least favorite color.

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The obligatory May lady’s slippers picture; epimedium, espaliered yew, sweet cicely, unplanted woad. Below, John White’s “ancient” woad-stained Pict warriors, from Thomas Harriot’s briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588) and the British Museum. Despite the claims of Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s a lot of doubt among historians as to whether or not the ancient inhabitants of Britain really stained themselves blue with woad in preparation for battle: just ONE reason why every medievalist I know detests Braveheart!

Woad Stained Pict Warriors John White BM


Shaking Quaker Pudding

I don’t know if you noticed the photograph of old recipes on the kitchen table in the Ropes Mansion in my last post: no worries, I’ll put it in this one. At the bottom of one piece of paper is the beginning of a recipe for “Shaking Quaker Pudding”–only the beginning, unfortunately, which set me off on a strange quest. As a descendant of a Shaker (I know–Shakers were/are celibate–how can they have descendants? Well, after he had had his family, my great-great-great? grandfather Calver sold everything at auction over in England and departed for New Lebanon, New York in the nineteenth century: we have the auction poster to prove it) I knew immediately that the reference was to the Shakers, who have developed quite a foodie reputation over the past few years, in addition to their long-established renown for furniture, seeds and herbal tonics. I thought it would be easy to find the rest of the recipe but when I first googled “Shaker Pudding” I came up with Jello Shake-a-Pudding! I can’t imagine anything less Shaker-ish, really. Then I found a British pudding called “Shaker Quaker” Pudding, but it did not start out with the “stone raisins”  line of the Ropes recipe. Finally I found the entire Shaking Quaker recipe, in Mrs. J. Chadwick’s Home Cookery: A Collection of Tried Receipts, Both Foreign and Domestic (1853). So here it is:

Shaking Quaker Pudding Chadwick

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and bake for half an hour!

The digitized version of Mrs. Chadwick’s cookbook cut off the recipe as well, but fortunately I found another source. All this work for a raisin custard bread pudding (the Shaker Quaker puddings seem to omit the bread) which I doubt I will ever make (unless I add lots of rum or bourbon). However, I did discover several recipes that did tempt me, especially “Shaker Lemon Pie”, apparently a favorite of Martha Stewart’s. And the pudding shaker.

Shaker Products

The delicious-looking Shaker Lemon Pie–made with thin lemon slices–is from the blog Love & Flour.


Ropes Mansion Refresh

I’ve been anticipating the reopening of the Ropes Mansion for some time so it was with great excitement that I crossed the threshold yesterday for the first time in a decade or so: the house was shuttered for restoration after an accidental fire in 2009 and I remember it being a bit tired even before that. Not now: refreshed was the word that came into my mind almost as soon as I set foot in the front hall. It’s not just the new paint and paper (and absolutely beautiful carpets): it feels like the house’s spirit has been renewed. Most appropriately, the interpretation focuses on the Ropes family, who donated the house–as a Memorial— to the Peabody Essex Museum (then Essex Institute) in 1907, almost as much as the interior architectural features. Their possessions are all around you as you walk through the rooms: their china, their pictures, their books, their trunks, their own memorials. There are touches of modern whimsy in several of the rooms which added to the overall feeling of renewal, and details, details, details, galore. I think I’ll have to go back again and again: it’s open every weekend this summer from noon until 4pm.

The house was built in 1727 but extensively remodeled in the 1890s, so it feels (to my untrained eye) almost like a perfect blend of the Colonial and the Colonial Revival. This was most apparent on the first floor: as you walk front to back you move forward in time–from 1727 (or more precisely 1830, the date of the Asher Benjamin-influenced entrance) to the perfectly-preserved 1894 kitchen, with all its “new” equipment. Two dining rooms on the right–or I suppose a breakfast room and dining room decorated in a later 19th-century style–and on the left a double parlor with an amazing front-to-back fireplace. I’ve always loved this room, and when I walked into it yesterday it instantly reminded me of one of my favorite architectural drawings: Arthur Little’s sketch of the parlor of the long-lost Benjamin Pickman house further up Essex Street, from his (now-reissued by Historic New England) 1878 book Early New England Interiors. And for cupboard connoisseurs, the first floor of the Ropes Mansion is heaven, with fully-stocked butler’s and kitchen pantries and dining-room china cabinet.

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Pickman House Parlor Arthur Little Early New England Interiors

The Benjamin Pickman House Parlor by Arthur Little, Old New England Interiors, 1878. Courtesy of Historic New England.

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The second floor of the Ropes Mansion is even more intimately interpreted than the first, with one side of the house devoted to lavishly-recreated bedrooms and the other side to displays of possessions, some quite touching: I was struck particularly by a leather fire bucket (after all, this was a family, and this is a house, that experienced three major fires: besides the 2009 fire, there was a fire during the 1894 restoration and most tragically Abigail Pickman Ropes died in 1839 after her dress caught fire on this very floor–the posthumous portrait of Abigail by Charles Osgood is also on view) as well as a lovely watercolor memorial wreath dedicated to the memory of Abigail’s niece, Elizabeth Ropes Orne, who died of consumption at age 24 in 1842 (see her own sketches here). The bedrooms with their canopy beds are lovely: one rather ghostly and/or innocent, the other displaying a much more vibrant reproduction textile, and there is a fully-outfitted bathroom in the 1894 back of the house, just as “modern” as the kitchen below. Altogether a beautiful house bearing testimony to lives lived: the best kind of memorial.

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Ropes Mansion Salem Marine Society

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Ropes Memorial

A true Ropes Memorial: watercolor memorial wreath for Elizabeth Ropes Orne by her former teacher, Eliza B. Davis, who presented it to Elizabeth’s mother Sally in 1851. Elizabeth’s signature, presumably from a letter, is in the center. 


On the Trail of Twinflowers

Given that today marks the birthday of one of the most important naturalists in world history, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, also know as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus), the so-called “Pliny of the North”, “Flower King”, “Second Adam”, and perhaps most objectively “Father of Taxonomy”, I thought if would feature his namesake favorite flower, Linnaea borealis, more commonly known as the twinflower. I’ve been searching for this plant for my own garden for some time, but it has remained elusive. Linnaeus didn’t discover this rather humble plant, a native of the northern regions of his ancestral Sweden, but almost as soon as he gained fame and titles for his work he adopted it as his personal emblem. His constant commemoration, in Sweden and elsewhere, often encompasses the twinflower–first among all of the other specimens he classified in his groundbreaking system of binomial nomenclature.

Twinflower and Linnaeus Sculpture

Bust of Linnaeus with twinflowers, Dictionnaire pittoresque dhistoire naturelle et des phénomènes de la nature (1833-1839); Portraits of Linnaeus, twinflowers in hand, by Martin Hoffman (Wellcome Library) and Mrs. Anderson (1858; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).

In tribute to Linnaeus, the linnaea borealis is the national flower of Sweden, and so it can be found everywhere: on fabrics, pottery, calendars, and cocktail napkins. All of those things are available over here too, and the plants apparently, but I just can’t find one. I know they will grow here in Massachusetts, I’ve picked out a lovely little place among the woodland plants in the back of my garden, but it remains linnaea-less. The long Memorial Day weekend is always a big nursery/gardening time for me, so I’ll try, try again, but I don’t have much hope: I might have to be satisfied with material substitutes. Anyway, on this appropriately beautiful May day, a toast to Carl Linnaeus, without whom we would all be wandering around in a very chaotic world of nature, and to his beloved twinflower!

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Twinflower

Linnaea Borealis Felted

Linnaea Borealis China

ASDA photograph of twinflowers by Allison Brown; teaching slide from the Annals of Botany, “Limited mate availability decreases reproductive success of fragmented populations of Linnaea borealis, a rare, clonal selfincompatible plant” (maybe this explains my problem! Limited mate availability! Self-incompatible!); felted twinflowers on Art thats Felt; a portfolio of Linnaea Borealis porcelain from Hackefors and Svaneholm.


Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

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Lawn Dice

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Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.


Three Hancocks

If I were to participate in the Outings public art project featured in my last post, the image that I would convey from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum to the streets of Salem would be a small mezzotint of John Hancock made by Salem engraver-silversmith Joseph Hiller after a John Singleton Copley painting from the early 1770s. There are actually two of these Hiller prints extant (at least), and I would love to see them side by side (I guess I can!). The Peabody Essex print is actually the second state: the Shepard Fairey-ish image in the collection of the National Museum of American History is an earlier impression. The Hiller prints were made about 1775, after Hancock has assumed the role of President of the Continental Congress, as is a third print after Copley rendered by the British engraver William Smith: the smuggler patriot was now famous on both sides of the Atlantic. I think there is an interesting comparison to be made here: the close-up, unframed impressions of the American Hiller are more intimate and immediate than Smith’s version, even though the latter’s techniques seem to have stood the test of time a bit better.

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Joseph Hiller (1746–1814) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775. Inscribed lower left border “Jos. Hiller fecit.” Mezzotint with watercolor, 9-7/8 x 7-7/8 inches. Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; and The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Museum of American History; William Smith (1750-1825?) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Portrait Gallery.

I think I’m drawn to these images because Hancock has always been one of my favorite founding fathers: certainly the one with whom I had the earliest and most immediate connection because of his still-standing wharf and warehouse in my hometown. Later on, when I moved to Massachusetts and became interested in preservation issues, the images and story of his martyred mansion became the cautionary tale. And I must admit that his portrayal by the British actor Rafe Spall was just about the only thing that kept me watching the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries a few months ago.

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Two more Hancocks. The source: John Singleton Copley’s portrait, c. 1770-72, Massachusetts Historical Society; a Salem-printed broadside from the end of Hancock’s term as president of the Continental Congress and “the first year of American Independence”, National Portrait Gallery.


The ABCs of Slavery

I’ve always been a hunter and gatherer of old stuff, and the first “collection” I assembled while still in my early 20s was of nineteenth-century pearlware children’s plates, primarily ABC and nursery plates intended for instruction and edification: I had quite a few of Franklin’s Maxims, a few domestic scenes, animals, and lots of Robinson Crusoe: I still have the latter, one elephant plate, and a fortune-telling scene, but I sold off the rest a decade or so, along with all of my transferware. When I was hunting around for these little plates, I remember seeing some that were a bit political, and wondering: why would children care about free trade? But slavery was a far more passionate and accessible topic, and quite a few abolitionist ABC plates appeared in the mid nineteenth-century, especially after the production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These plates were produced primarily in Britain for the northern American market, and the Staffordshire potteries had the dual motivation of meeting (and perhaps creating) demand in America while presenting themselves as morally superior to their cousins across the Atlantic: there is an amazing transfer-printed jug in the collection of the Winterthur Museum which advertises all the available patterns along with one scene in which showing “Britannia Protecting the Africans”. The British were so very clever at catering to both sides in the struggle over slavery in America: preaching to the North while buying cotton from the South! The Winterthur collection also contains an anti-slavery ABC plate based on the work of Mary Belson Elliot, “blending sound Christian principles with cheerful cultivation”, and a popular children’s mug first sold at the 1846 Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair, along with the wonderful Anti-Slavery Alphabet produced by the Townsend sisters.

Anti-slavery plate Winterthur Collection

Anti-slavery Mug Winterthur Collection

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters A and B

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters M and N

From the Winterthur Museum Collections:  Staffordshire pearlware jug made by Christopher Whitehead, c. 1817-1819, ABC plate, c. 1800-1830, and child’s mug, c. 1795-1865; Pages from the Anti-Slavery Alphabet of Philadelphia sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend, 1846.

The particular plate that returned my attention to ABC plates in general and anti-slavery ABC products in particular is a lot in the upcoming Memorial Day Auction at Northeast Auctions: “Gathering Cotton”. This is a Staffordshire plate as well, but produced later than the Winterthur pieces (between 1850 and 1865) and its meaning/purpose is far less straightforward:  I can’t tell if it’s for or against slavery! With children front and center, I assume it is anti-, but it projects a far less strident message than other plates that were produced at this time, primarily based on  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with scenes such as “The Buyer and Seller of the Human Article” and  “Uncle Tom Whipped to Death” depicted. Once the Civil War began, the messaging of ABC plates became even more straightforward, with simple depictions of Union generals produced, of course, in Great Britain.

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ABC Plate Human Article

ABC Uncle Tom plate

General McClellan Plate Cowan's Auctions

“Gathering Cotton” and other mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire ABC plates, from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Decorative Arts Database, referenced in two great articles: Louise L. Stevenson’s “Virtue Displayed: the Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here), and Jill Weitzman Fenichell’s “Fragile Lessons: Ceramic and Porcelain Representations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here). “The Arrival of General McClellan” Staffordshire ABC plate, Cowan’s Auctions.


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