Tag Archives: ephemera

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.

 


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.

 

 

 


FDR and the Salem Witches

While combing through the digital archives of national newspapers in search of allegorical and political references to the Salem witch trials, I found the perfect little story for this “closing” week of Salem’s never-ending Halloween season and the upcoming election: a notice in the New York Times for a Roosevelt campaign rally to be held on Gallows Hill in Salem on Halloween, 1932, during which several witches would be hung in effigy. I am not making this up: here’s a clip of the article, in its still- distinctive Times font, from October 23, 1932:

Roosevelt and Witches NYT

Where do I begin? How could this POSSIBLY have seemed like a good idea??? I know this is Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, but he’s still an experienced politician at this point. What about the line “inasmuch as the executioners are to be part of a Democratic rally, the witches will represent things Republican”? Did the Democrats really want to paint themselves as executioners with Republicans as their victims?  What about the visuals? Was FDR going to look on with that broad smile? Certainly it is Campaign 101 to never let the candidate be in close proximity to a gallows–especially one with hanging effigies. I know it was the depths of the Depression and bread and circuses and all that, but what an odd use of the word “pageant”! And last but not least, Gallows Hill was where the accused witches were hung in 1692, not 1690.

Fortunately for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this event never happened: it got rained out, by one of those fierce Halloween storms similar to those that we’ve experienced over these past few years. Roosevelt, in the midst of a frenetic campaign swing through New England, stopped in Salem on Halloween anyway and gave a speech before a crowd of 5000 supporters in the Salem Armory, publicly expressing his regret that he couldn’t have gone up to Gallows Hill (frankly, this would have been difficult for him, given his disability, even without the rain and mud–again, it just wasn’t a good idea). Stories from the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe from the following day (November 1) fill in the details. In the latter, the candidate’s son James called the Salem crowd “wonderful” and said that both he and his father were sorry that the weather had prevented the hanging in effigy of the three witches, “Depression, Privilege, and Bunk”, on Gallows Hill.  In the Herald, the Governor reveals himself to be under the spell of confusion which maintains that Salem’s accused witches were burned rather than hung. Nevertheless, just a week later he was elected our 32nd president, for the first time.

  PicMonkey Collage

The newspaper coverage of Roosevelt’s Halloween visit to Salem: images from the Boston Globe, and text from the Boston Herald, both November 1, 1932. Impossible to think of even a politician braving Salem’s Halloween crowds today!


From Bewitched to Bewitching

In my constant yet intermittent pursuit to chart Salem’s course from global, glorious port to Witch City, I am now focused on the moment (which may be a decade or more) when the 1692 Witch Trials ceased being something to be ashamed of and began being a “trademark” of sorts, a calling card, something light and even fanciful rather than something that was dark, dark, dark. After this transitional moment, the path was clearly paved toward collective capitalization: Salem was released to embrace its past–and profit from it. There’s more research to do, but I now think that this moment came in the mid-nineteenth century, in the 1840s, to be somewhat more specific. You’ve got to capture such a transition in expressions of popular culture: Nathaniel Hawthorne and his burgeoning ancestral guilt just won’t do–so that’s why I have been looking in more ephemeral publications, and there are some very interesting little stories in the newspapers of that decade which clearly indicate the shift from shame to celebration. I particularly like a series of stories which represent an interchange between New Hampshire and Salem newspaper editors in which the former are poking at, and the latter embracing, Salem’s seventeenth-century past in a very “modern” way.

Bewitched 1843 Salem Register

Bewitched 1845 NH

The Salem Register, Oct. 9, 1843 & the New Hampshire Sentinel, July 30, 1845.

This first story represents an attitude that is a far cry from the previous remorseful century: mocking an isolated case of “witchcraft” in Hollis, New Hampshire, the editor of the Salem Gazette offers to “investigate” the matter thoroughly, and even hang the supposed “witch” on the same old hill where her predecessors suffered. So cavalier! Both stories convey a sense of bewitching as a captivating quality that is far more alluring than demonic. And from this time and place, we’re off to Witch City.

Bewitcher 1884

Thomas & Fancer, She’s a Bewitcher, 1884; Library of Congress.

 

 


My Dear Girl

I am absolutely charmed by the physical appearance of a recently-preserved “lost” letter from Paul Revere to his wife Rachel dated a few weeks after his famous April 1775 ride. Its existence has been known for some time, and it was published as a transcription in Elbridge Henry Goss’s Life of Colonial Paul Revere (1891), but the actual document had been presumed lost until very recently, when a box was donated to the Paul Revere House in Boston which included the letter, in a long-folded condition that showed its age. Now digitized and preserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center and returned to the house to which it was first delivered, the letter is a visible symbol of the power of primary sources: it is one thing to know what a document says, it’s quite another to see the author’s handwriting. It’s much more intimate (and powerful), especially if the expression includes an endearment like “My Dear Girl” and proceeds to details like a request for linens and stockings. At the end of the letter Revere includes a note to his son, informing him that “It is now in your power to be serviceable to me, your Mother, and your self” and signing off  “Your loving Father, PR.”

Revere Letter

Reveres

Revere House 1930s

The Letter at the Northeast Document Conservation Center website, where you can see a sequence of images illustrating the preservation process; Paul and Rachel Revere and two 1930s images of their house: an etching by W. Harry Smith, Smithsonian Institution, and a linoleum engraving by Stanley Scott for the Federal Art Project, Boston Public Library.


Dancing Witches, Disciplined

Everything is seasonal, and for those of us that live in Salem the Witching Season begins on October 1st. You can feel everyone getting ready, getting on guard, as our city turns into Witch City. Tomorrow night is the grand Haunted Happenings parade, sponsored by the Salem Chamber of Commerce, of course. The carnivalesque atmosphere is apparently good for business, so we’re all supposed to forget that we are trading on a tragedy. I can never do that, so I’m kind of annoying to be around in October: this is my fair warning for new readers not yet exposed to my October rants. Despite the fact that I disdain absolutely everything about Halloween in Salem, I do like all the other seasons, and I also have an intellectual interest in the creation of Witch City, which definitely took some time–at least a century, maybe more. I’ve explored many of the contributing ingredients here before (including witch spoons, German witches, witch postcards, witch plates, and the Witch House), but there is a lot more that can be added to the mix. Casting witches in a celebratory environment is really nothing new: in the late medieval and the early modern periods they were stereotypically depicted in a hedonistic way: partying and dancing and whirling in wild abandon. One of the most graphic texts on early modern witchcraft, Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608) presents dancing as a key ritual of demonic homage, as do many other contemporary texts. Witches dance with the Devil.

Witch Dance Guazzo

Witches Dance 1720 Wellcome Library

Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, 1608; Wellcome Library woodcut illustration, 1720.

Most people stopped believing in witchcraft in the nineteenth century but yet still witches danced, in more of an entertaining (as opposed to threatening) way. The best example of the “romantic” dancing witch is of course Niccolò Paganini’s Le streghe (‘Witches’ Dance’), composed about 1813. The subject matter, combine with  Paganini’s seemingly “unnatural” skills on stage, created another variation on the Dance with the Devil:  perhaps his virtuosity was the result of a Faustian pact!  When the Witches’ Dance was published in the middle of the century, Paganini actually assumes the traditional position of the Devil on several sheet music covers. The popularity of Paganini and his Witches’ Dance inspired many variations on the theme, musical and otherwise, including one by Salem’s famed band leader, Jean Marie Missud (1852-1941), the (very) long-time director of the Salem Cadet Band: March of the Salem Witches (1896).  Appropriately for Salem, which by that time had marshaled witchcraft as a marketing tool, and for the March’s commissioner, the Winslow Lewis Commandery, Knights Templar, Salem witches marched rather than danced to this particular tune.

Witch Dance Paganini

Witch Dance Paganini 2

Witch Dance 1909

Salem Witches

Witches March Music JMM

The Celebrated Witches’ Dance transcribed for the Piana Forte by Wm. Vincent Wallace, William Hall and Son, New York, 1852, Library of Congress; J. DeLancey, Witches’ Dance. Grand Galop de Concert, 1909, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Jean M. Missud, “March of the Salem Witches” Sheet Music, Journal of Antiques and Collectibles and Digital Library of America.

 

 


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

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,224 other followers

%d bloggers like this: