Tag Archives: ephemera

Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


Under the Spell of the Poppies

Back to World War I remembrance; I can’t help myself: I’m under the spell of the poppies–not real poppies (which I really don’t care for all that much) or the intoxicating poppies alluded to in the captivating Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster below, but the thousands of ceramic poppies that are now literally spilling out of the Tower of London in remembrance of British lives lost during the Great War. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the vision of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, opened yesterday–the day on which Britain entered the war–and will expand over the fall, until there are 888,246 flowers in total, one for each soldier from Britain and its empire killed during the war. The final porcelain poppy will be “planted” on November 11, Remembrance Day, a day which has long been symbolized by the poppies of Flanders fields. The images of this installation are so striking that I can’t wait to see the real thing; I’m planning on heading over to the UK in October, which should be just in time.

Poppies oz Cincinnatti

Poppies at Tower

Poppies Tower

Poppies close up

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Strobridge Wizard of Oz poster, Virtual Library/Public Library of Cincinnatti and Hamilton County; photographs of Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, Historic Royal Palaces; Christopher Nevinson, A Front Line near St Quentin (1918), Manchester City Galleries; The Tower of London Remembers/#TowerPoppies


The Shape of War

I am still a bit preoccupied with the ongoing World War I commemoration, even though it’s obviously going to go on for some time and I’m up in Maine on vacation: pretty pictures to follow, but for today images that (while colorful!) could certainly not be called pretty. I was clicking around the vast British Library site devoted to the Great War, which is incredibly resourceful in myriad ways, when I came upon some of the wartime images of the Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). I sort of knew about him–but not really: his name conjured up distant images of the iconic “black square” painting which is quite simply a black square and little else. He was actually an artist who worked in several mediums and experimented with different depictive approaches, most prominently a Cubist-inspired geometric abstraction which was labeled “Suprematism”. He clearly loved shapes. I naively thought of him as simply a Russian Revolutionary artist, but in fact he was born in Ukraine to Polish parents and his work was suppressed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. I have not idea what his identity was, but his World War I posters are very decidedly anti-German and immediately accessible: by merging the folkloric and the geometric–and using a bright, simplistic palette–he was able to make some pretty powerful statements, which were published as posters and postcards. World War I is known for its strident and sophisticated (but not subtle!) propaganda, another form of warfare itself, and Malevich’s images are great examples: they represent the shape of war but also of things to come.

Malevich Just Look

Look, Just Look, the Vistula is Near (1914); ©  Kazimir Malevich.

Malevich Butcher

The Butcher came along to Lodz, We said “My good Sir” (1914) © Kazimir Malevich. A depiction of the Russian victory–and defense of Warsaw– at the Battle of Lodz in the Fall of 1914.

Malevich Wilhelm

(Kaiser) Wilhelm’s Merry-Go-Round (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Allies

Our French allies have a cart full of dead Germans, and our English brothers – a whole basket too (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Boom

What a Boom, What a Blast (1915); National Library of Australia.

All images, except the last, at the British Library World War One site. Malevich is having a moment, and an exhibition: “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art”.

 

 

 


The Great War Remembered

With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:

M29589-30 001

M28269-31 001

M29589-5 001

M29140-2 001

M29027-9012 001

M29589-15 001

M29589-3 001

1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.

One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 


Paper Shadows

When I found the hand shadow trade card for Salem furrier T.N. Covell below I thought I had stumbled onto something unique, but it turns out that shadowgraphy, ombromanie, or “Ombres Chinoises” was just another Victorian fad, like phrenology, penny farthings, and mesmerism. It didn’t take long to find other examples, and other “animals”: the seal led to search for other shadow cards made in Boston and elsewhere, and the offerings of John Bufford, who was a very serious lithographer and businessman. So here we have a late nineteenth-century variation on the silhouette: more whimsical than documentary and more commercial than personal. An ephemeral art, as (electric) light was already too bright when it appeared, and very reflective of a much simpler time!

Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows 2

Paper Shadows 3

Paper Shadows 4 Chatterbox

PicMonkey Collage

Victorian hand shadow trade cards and the December 15, 1869 edition of Chatterbox, Library of Congress; Illustrations from the Ombres chinoises, guignol, marionnettes, par Émile Lagarde , 1900, Bibliothèque nationale de France


Very Common Coltsfoot

A shout out today for a very common, definitely invasive, and relatively ugly plant: Tussilago farfara, better known as Coltsfoot. The Coltsfoot in my garden is a holdover from the days when I would only have ancient medicinal herbs rather than pretty herbaceous hybrids: they were all rather unattractive so they didn’t last long, though I have incorporated some of the more manageable ones into my perennial beds. I have been unsuccessful at ridding the garden of Coltsfoot so I learned to live with it–and now I rather like it! (A good life lesson). It’s a ancient shade herb that flourishes in any setting–as you can see from the pictures below, it’s growing out of the bricks. It flowers very early in the spring–even in late winter in Britain I think–with a yellow dandelion-type flower, and after that it’s just low-lying leaves that will spread everywhere. I rip most of it out every two weeks or so and then it comes back. I will say that it is a very neat plant despite its tendency to spread. It’s a nice shade groundcover, if you watch it carefully. It never turns brown or wilts; it just wants to take over the garden (world). Coltsfoot is included in all of the classical, medieval, and early modern herbals as a “cough dispeller” (it is often referred to as “coughwort”) and a cure for any and all ailments of the lung, which are improved by smoking its leaves. I wonder if it could serve as a tobacco alternative? Many of the artistic depictions of Coltsfoot—medieval and modern–get it wrong, as the straggly flowers and rather more attractive (hoof-shaped?) leaves never appear at the same time: this was very confusing to the ancients, who portrayed it as two different plants.

Coltsfoot BL

Coltsfoot 1788

Coltsfoot Floral Fantasy Crane

Coltsfoot Poster VA

Coltsfoot tablecloth

Coltsfoot 017

Coltsfoot 021

Coltsfoot and Marshmallow in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Tractatus de herbis; De Simplici Medicina; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai), c. 1280-1310; Coltsfoot in the Botanica Pharmaceutica, 1788, Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy in an English Garden, 1899, on a 1930s London Transport poster (Victoria & Albert Museum) and a vintage Swedish tablecloth (from Etsy seller annchristinljungberg), and in my garden.


Salem Harbor, Rediscovered

I strive to feature primarily pretty pictures of Salem (except, perhaps, for Halloween season), so there have been no images of one of Salem’s most prominent landmarks: the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal-fired electric power plant which has been looming over the city since 1951. But not for much longer: in 2012 the plant’s owner, Dominion, announced plans to shut it down due to growing public and legal pressures that included a citizens’ suit against the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Last year Dominion sold the plant to the New Jersey–based Footprint Power, which announced its intentions to convert part of it into a natural gas facility set to go online in 2016. The plant went off-line at the end of last month, and now its gray towers–sadly my marker for home when I’m out on Route 128, will soon be taken down. Of course a natural gas-powered plant takes up a lot less space than a coal-powered one (the old plant is located on 65 waterfront acres, but apparently the new plant only needs 25) , so there will be a lot of redevelopment on its prominent site–redevelopment that will no doubt take advantage of the harbor views, rather than obliterate them. We already have our ferry to Boston, water taxis are commencing this summer, and apparently cruise ships are coming: after a half-century of neglecting the Harbor that made Salem, we appear to be rediscovering it.

Artistic depictions of Salem Harbor parallel, or reflect, its commercial history: up to about 1920 or so, there are first realistic and then more romanticized images of its wharves and ships–after that, the artists seem to withdraw, or go completely sentimental–but I’m sure that we’ll see some interesting views going forward.

Salem Harbor 1796-001

Salem Harbor Plate

Salem Harbor Fitz Hugh Lane

Salem Harbor Head

Salem Harbor Prendergast-001

Salem Harbor DL

Salem Harbor Scene

Engraving of a busy Salem Harbor, 1796, for the Salem Marine Society membership certificate; Wedgwood Creamware Plate, c. 1803, Northeast Auctions; Fitz Hugh Lane, Salem Harbor, 1853, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Head of Salem Harbor, from Julian Hawthorne’s article, “Hawthorne and Salem”, The Century 28 (May 1884); Maurice Prendergast, Salem Harbor no.1, c. 1920-23, Colby College Museum of Art; Daniel Low mail-order catalog for 1946-47; a harbor-side installation appears poised to take down the towers, this past weekend.


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