When I visit my brother in the Hudson River Valley I head for downtown Rhinebeck and one of my favorite shops, Paper Trail, as soon as it is politely possible: this is a destination shop. It’s not only the merchandise, it‘s the merchandising, and the paper creations that are in the windows and scattered about the store. Every time I go there there’s always a dress or two, shoes, and other works of art that make this shop a gallery. This time, there was a beautiful paper wedding dress (with butterfly back) in the window, fashioned by local paper couturier Linda Filley of upcycled materials. And much more inside: Filley’s “windblown girl” dress made of recycled craft paper and shoes, paper chandeliers, flowers, birdhouses, map art, and even not-so-mundane cards.
Tag Archives: ephemera
In central and northern Europe the closing days of April and commencement of Spring converge on Walpurgisnacht, a bonfire festival based on both pagan and Christian traditions. On the eve of May 1, the canonization day of Saint Walpurga, an English Christian nun and missionary based in southern Germany in the eighth century (and presumably was so named to replace a pre-Christian harvest goddess also named Walpurga), witches gather to fly off to the highest mountain (in the case of Germany, Brocken Mountain in the Harz mountain range) to pay homage to the Devil with a night-long bacchanalian celebration. Newly-empowered and inspired, they fly back to society, on broomsticks or goats, to continue their demonic service.
Fireworks over the Rhine on Walpurgisnacht, 2012, and Hermann Hendrich’s vision, 1901.
Like Halloween, exactly six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a perfect example of early medieval assimilation, in which a saint’s day is grafted onto an existing “calendar” and there is a clash of evil and good, or perhaps a last hurrah for evil before good prevails in the merry new month of May. Evil is always very, very close–but the actual ritual by which the witch enters into the pact with the devil–described and perceived as in inverse Sabbath–happens far away, in a remote place that one could only access through flight. As I wrote about in an earlier post, fears about a conspiratorial demonic force intensified in the sixteenth century along with the Reformation, resulting in over 100,000 trials for witchcraft in the early modern era. Two hundred years later, after the Devil had lost much of his power, he was revived by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic and tragic Faust (1808-1831), with its vivid scenes of Walpurgis Night.
Title page of the 1908 Hayward/Hutchinson translation of Goethe’s Faust, with illustrations of Walpurgis Night by Willy Pogany.
Goethe, along with his near-contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and a host of other authors and artists, was both reflection and inspiration for an intensifying interest in German folklore in the nineteenth century. Witches became more fanciful than fearful; even if it was with or for the devil, they still danced. Given its long association with the witches’ sabbaths, the Brocken and its adjacent Hexentanzplatz (a plateau long referred to as the “witches’ dancing floor”) became popular tourist destinations. A hilltop hotel on the Hexentanzplatz drew a steady stream of visitors from 1870 on, and the addition of an open-air theater and the Walpurgishalle, a museum dedicated to Goethe and Walpurgis Night, increased their number after the turn of the century. The Hexentanzplatz became a place where everybody could come to dance, on the eve of St. Walpurga’s Day, Beltane, May Day, or simply Spring.
The focus is clearly on the Hexentanzplatz hotel in postcards from the 1890s and 1911 (along with the now-naked witches); a century later the more generic Wulpurgisnacht is celebrated in Meissen (photo by Tobi_2008@ Flikr).
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1594
April 23 is a big day for Anglophiles, marking the birth (and death) of William Shakespeare and the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England. I have never really understood how St. George became the patron saint of England, so I’m going with Shakespeare. And as I’m not a literary scholar, I’m going for scraps, bit of ephemera that were quite the rage in the nineteenth century, when scrap-booking became a popular leisure activity, and scrap screens began appearing in parlors on both sides of the Atlantic.
There’s nothing particularly novel about pasting images in a book or on a wall, but printing and paper technologies in the nineteenth century commercialized the activity, like everything else. Scraps for sale first appeared as black and white engravings at the beginning of the century, and by the latter half they were colored by chromolithography, embossed, die-cut and sold as sheets at the local stationer. Mrs. Carlyle’s screen above is made of more “found” examples, but many people seem to have preferred the more glossy materials that could be found at the shop. In the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, there are some wonderful scraps of Shakespearean characters, vividly bringing them to life for those that could not see them on the stage. Sigmund Hildesheimer & Company’s Characters from Shakespeare. A Series of Twelve Relief Scraps depicted characters played by popular actors, and were sold in packs costing one shilling in the 1890s. My favorites are below: Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and the two “princes in the tower”, Ophelia and Hamlet, and Cromwell and Wolsey from Henry VIII.
Shakespearean Scraps by Siegmund Hildesheimer & Co., c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
I have been feeling a bit run down lately, which I attributed first to the typical murky New England spring weather and secondly to the end-of-semester rush, or some combination thereof. Then I realized it wasn’t just fatigue but also a certain sadness, brought on by the fact that I have been lecturing about assassinations all week. Teaching takes its toll! By coincidence, I was covering eras of extreme violence in two of my courses: a survey of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an introduction to European history. In the former, we’re in the midst of the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, while in the latter we’re in the later nineteenth-century Belle Époque, which wasn’t all that belle if you ask me. So in just the last week, I’ve referenced the assassinations of William I of Orange, leader of the Protestant opposition in the Dutch Revolt against Spain (1584), the French kings Henri III (1589) and Henri IV (1610), as well as (jumping forward three centuries) Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881), U.S. President James Garfield (1881), President Carnot of France (1894), Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain (1897), Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) and President William McKinley of the United States (1901). And then I woke up this morning to realize that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865–the icing on the cake.
A pretty somber week indeed, but also an opportunity to explore the comparative natures of early modern and modern assassinations. I know the earlier era so much better, so it is easier for me to comprehend the religious environment that created the motivations and rationales for violent acts. This was a civil holy war between Christianity, and both sides were absolutely certain of the rightness and urgency of their cause. Nevertheless, in an age of divine-right rule, these assassinations were still shocking, particularly that of William of Orange, the first leader to be killed by a handgun.
An 18th century image of William of Silent’s assassination, and variant covers of Lisa Jardine’s 2005 book: The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. German broadside illustration of the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, British Museum.
As alarming as these murders were and are, it is the modern assassinations that I find even more chilling; even though they were targeting single individuals, they were seldom personal but rather acts of public relations–the propaganda of the deed. Their frequency is equally chilling: in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone the leaders of nearly every western European nation were struck down, along with poor Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, stabbed in the chest with a nail file while she was walking down a Geneva promenade accompanied only by her maid. Clearly no on was safe, and that was the central message that “organized” anarchism meant to convey.
Aroused! Puck Magazine illustration with lady law and order preparing to slay the anarchist snake and President Carnot’s body lying in state, 1894; the front page of the San Francisco Call for September 11, 1898, reporting the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, both Library of Congress.
I wanted to follow up my Post Office post with one featuring the art of letters, but I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these images: these are not examples of typographic art, as they feature script rather than print, or ephemeral art, because I’m including works of art which feature letters as well as a few letters that I believe rise to an artistic level. I looked up “scriptural art”, but that category seems to be reserved for religious works, and scribal art for calligraphy. So that leaves me with the rather bland title “the art of letters”.*** It happens that some of my favorite images have a focus on reading or writing letters, or present an assemblage of writing materials, or a scrap of paper, with writing, that makes us wonder what’s going on here? what does that letter say? The letter is a great device to draw us into the painting: we want to read it! Look at the note in the hand of this Victorian governess in Richard Redgrave’s 1844 painting: it–or rather her reaction to its contents–has separated her from the “lighter” children under her watch. The painting was exhibited with the quotation “She sees no kind domestic visage here”, indicating that the letter brought memories of a missed home at best, and news of a death in her family at worst.
Richard Redgrave, The Governess (1844), Victoria & Albert Museum, London
My very favorite letter painting doesn’t really delve into the emotional aspects of letters and their reception, but rather it presents us with a trompe l’oeil display of printed and writing materials: an early modern bulletin board! This is a very ephemeral painting in several ways: the newspapers and almanac represent the “news” of Queen Anne’s accession in 1702, as does the medal representing her grandfather, Charles I. The painter has included his “signature” on the folded sheet in the center. I love trompe l’oeil in general, but this particular painting has captivated me since the first time I laid eyes on it several years ago; I think that George Tooker’s 1953 painting, The Letter Box, is its perfect companion piece.
Edward Collier (Collyer), Trompe L’Oeil with Writing Materials, c. 1702, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; George Tooker, The Letter Box, 1953, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Moving back to my period, I noticed a while ago that the Tudor court painter Hans Holbein the Younger often included scraps of paper with writing, tucked into a book, laying on a table, or even posted to the wall, in a number of his portraits. The well-known portrait of Thomas Cromwell (of whom I am a fan) is a good example, as is the amazing portrait of Georg Gisze, a German merchant stationed in London (like Holbein). I think the use of written and writing materials is a bit more straightforward here: Cromwell wants to present himself as a pious public servant and a master of the (written) law, while Gisze is an equally-earnest man of business who holds in his hand a letter from his brother, back home.
Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1532-33, Frick Museum; and Portrait of Georg Gisze, 1532, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
I’m including a few actual letters in this post, both because I spent quite a bit of time searching through the digital collection of the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian for my last post and because many of the letter “covers” in this collection do rise to the level of art, in my humble opinion. The range is incredible, encompassing patriotic examples from all the American wars, letters from the prisoners of those wars which were delivered in specially-marked envelopes, and letters delivered by planes, trains, and zeppelins. These covers are also a way to look at print and script together. This first envelope, from my own collection, was issued by the Locke Regulator Company of Salem in 1899 (as you can see by the postmark), and then there’s a letter from a Union prisoner of war from 1864 and a letter carried out of Paris by balloon in 1871.
Covers from 1864 & 1871, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
These letters look like likely candidates for a John Derian decoupage tray to me: that man loves his fonts and scripts! But letters moved to the foreground in the decorative arts a while ago, as exemplified by the beautiful silver cigarette case below, “postmarked” in 1903. I wish we could bring these cases back (with an alternative use), and while we’re at it, letters too!
John Derian “Sample Script” decoupage tray; Silver cigarette case by Albert Barker, Ltd., London, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
***EPISTOLARY Art!!! As recommended by Secret Gardener, who has one of the most beautiful blogs out there.
The fundamental challenges facing the U.S. Postal Service as an agency are beginning to trickle down to our local post office buildings, creating ripple-effect challenges for preservationists across the country. The New York Times ran an article last week highlighting the issue (with great comments), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed “Historic Post Office Buildings” on its Most Endangered List last year. Apparently the agency has identified nearly 3,700 buildings as likely candidates for closure, about 200 are soon to go on sale, and eleven are on the market right now. There are several concerns from the preservation perspective: not only do these buildings serve as community centers, but that they are often the most architecturally significant structure in many towns. And like so many federal buildings, many post offices are also surviving legacies of the New Deal policies designed to put Americans back to work during the Depression. The adaptive reuse of these buildings is the logical answer, but that is always a tricky business, and even if the exteriors of those buildings with landmark status are preserved historic interiors remain threatened: murals, marble, and metals could be ripped out and sold to the highest bidder.
Three photographs of the 1915 Renaissance Revival Berkeley, California Post Office, on the short list for closure: interior murals of by Suzanne Scheuer, exterior, and protester Josh Kornbluth in character as Benjamin Franklin, the first Postmaster General. Jim Wilson/New York Times.
I checked out several of the post offices that are on the market now (on this great blog) and was immediately drawn to two in particular: another Renaissance Revival building in Gulfport, Mississippi and the beautiful Greek Revival post office in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. The DC building has been sold to a developer who is apparently going to adapt it for office space while retaining the post office on the first floor; this deal seems to have been years in the making and illustrates just how difficult the redevelopment process can be.
The Gulfport, Mississippi Post Office today and shortly after its construction in 1910, postcard courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; the Georgetown Post Office, built in 1858, and a 1856 rendering by architect Ammi B. Young, Library of Congress.
I must admit that I have never really appreciated Salem’s Post Office, which I walk by nearly every day with little more than a passing glance. It is a classic WPA project, designed by local architect Philip Horton Smith and constructed in 1932-33 in the Colonial Revival style. It definitely has presence, but I always thought it was a bit boring, until I recently started noticing the details, inside and out: there certainly is a lot of marble and bronze in there, and the tables and radiator grates–even the mailboxes–are really lovely, as I now can see. To emphasize its centrality–as well as its connection to the outside world–this building was sited right across from Salem’s grand and gothic railroad station, whose destruction in 1954 is lamented to this day.
The Salem Post Office today and in the 1940s, downstairs interior and mailboxes, the former Post Office in Salem, adapted for reuse as shops in the 1930s and still serving in that capacity.
Until relatively recently, a friend and near-neighbor of mine operated a horse and carriage business here in Salem, catering to the tourists and brides and grooms; in fact she transported my new husband and myself from the church to the House of the Seven Gables for our reception several years ago. She and her husband have now moved to Maine, where I hope they enjoy peace and quiet and land, but I’m going to miss the sight of her in her formal driving attire and the sound of her horse’s hooves clattering down the street. There really is no better sound to take you back, while you’re sitting in your double parlor on your Duncan Phyfish sofa! Maybe another carriage (or two) will come to town, but I suspect this is a business which looks a lot more romantic than it actually is.
It is increasingly difficult for me to be romantic about cars; in fact, the older I get, the more I wish they would all go away. Of course that is easy for me to say, indeed very easy for me to say, as I live in a small city which is connected to other cities by rail, and I walk to work. So I really could do without a car, but of course I don’t. But when I look at certain historic images of Salem, particularly art and ephemera as opposed to photographs (which show the grittier reality of streets filled with horses), I always think I want to live in that world, a world without cars. The painting that conjures up this world most directly for me shows a man driving a rather dashing horse and carriage (accompanied by an almost equally dashing dog) through the vacant, spotless streets of Salem with no encumbrances in sight. It’s a mid-nineteenth century view that hardly presents reality, and so all the more evocative of days gone by; it also reminds me of a trade card I have from a bit later in the century.
Samuel Chamberlain in Market Square, Salem. 1855-60 (pastel on paper). American School (19th century), Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.
Period representations of Salem streets, as opposed to photographs, seem to show horses either dashing about, like those above, or standing still, like the drawing of an apothecary shop below. Again: spotless streets and a loyal dog, in this case standing by. The charming drawing below of James Emerton’s apothecary shop at 123 Essex Street was rendered by his brother William Henry Emmerton (I have no idea why they spelled their names differently, but they did), who was a prominent architect working in Salem, Providence, and Portland, Maine. (According to his family history, Materials towards a Genealogy of the Emmerton Family, William would fall prey to the newest transportation technology in 1871, when, coming to spend Sunday with his family, who were on a summer visit to Salem, he was one of the ill-fated occupants of the last car in the accommodation train at Revere, when it was ‘telescoped’ by the engine of the express train overtaking it. Though not mangled in the collision, he received such injuries from the steam that he survived, mostly unconscious, but a few hours.) The published advertisement for James Emerton’s shop follows, along with a circa 1900 postcard of the buildings of the old Essex Institute which shows the actual building (in the background, with the awnings, now all gone) and images of more Essex Street businesses in the 1850s.
William Henry Emmerton, Apothecary shop of James Emerton in Salem, c. 1850 (pen & ink and sepia wash on paper), Peabody Essex Museum; advertisements from the 1851 and 1857 Salem Directory.
The more I examined the romanticized images of Salem streets scenes with horse-drawn carriages in my digital files, the more I realized that most of them were from the 1850s, the decade by which most of Massachusetts had been linked together with railroad tracks. Clearly there was an emerging awareness of how the “iron horse” was going to change town and country, but it was far too soon to envision the coming of the car.
Horse and train meet in Salem: Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1851.
For me (so far), blogging is a remarkably easy, even effortless activity; every post comes from 1) a walk or a drive; 2) a glance at the calendar; 3) reading–either for pleasure or class preparation; 4) looking at art-again, either for pleasure or class prep; and 5) stumbling around the web. Since I do all of these things daily blog posts naturally follow, without much consternation. But there is one more source of inspiration that is a bit less immediate: my digital folders of things (images, articles, news items) that catch my interest but are so singular that they don’t really call to mind some larger topical theme–even one sufficient for a fleeting post. Most of these items have no context, but if you keep collecting them, patterns emerge.
A good case in point is my rather bulging (if digital files could, in fact, bulge) file which I have labeled “Fading Salem”. In this file are a number of items and articles from national periodicals about how far Salem has fallen from the glorious heights of its commercial ascendency at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These items all date from the period 1850-1914: the end date does not refer to the beginning of World War I (as it would for the rest of the world) but rather to the Great Salem Fire. There are references to crime and poverty, general malaise (one item is even titled “Dull Salem”) and the faded grandeur of “old Salem”. As the century turns, there is definitely an emphasis on the latter: rather than looking at Salem as in decline, a succession of observers note how well-preserved it is, and how it serves as a bastion of tradition in a rapidly-changing world. There is one article that captures this transition perfectly, written and illustrated by a Canadian-born artist named Charles Henry White and published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in June of 1908. White (1878-1918) traveled around the country sketching and writing little impressions of a host of American cities for Harper’s in the first decade of the twentieth century; before he came to Salem he had produced articles on New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Charleston, Richmond, New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia, and his view of Washington D.C., “Queer Folk at the Capital”, came a year after his “Salem” article. Just before the war broke out, he was off to Europe, where he eventually died in 1918 at age 40.
White starts out with the traditional late-nineteenth century impression of Salem: As you center Derby Street on your way to the Custom House, where, in more prosperous times, the main current of the commercial life of the city ebbed and flowed, making the streets ring with the cheerful din of business activity, and reach the deserted quays, you feel not unlike a stranger who has wandered into an abandoned theater and walks alone across the stage, picking his way gingerly through the tattered scenery, long after generations of actors who made the place echo with their laughter have departed.
Frankly, his writing is a little dramatic for me but I do like his accompanying illustrations.
C.H. White, “Deserted Quays once Redolent with Foreign Spices”, 1908.
As he strolls around town, it does not take long for White to discover a more charming Salem. Just a step away from the rotting wharves, he finds himself continually stumbling across eloquent reminders of past splendor in the numerous old mansions of former Salem merchants, still marshalled in broken line, looking seaward, with their graceful porticos tufted with ivy, fluttering in the clear sunlight……and he goes on and on: the streets, spanned by titanic elms, become cathedral naves; and through the lofty arch of whispering foliage steal at infrequent intervals into the cool depths below shafts of limpid sunlight, sifting across the splendid rows of Colonial mansions….and I could go on and on quoting him, but you get the general idea. And again, I think his etchings are more eloquent.
C.H. White, views of Chestnut and Essex Streets, Salem, 1908.
Fortunately few of the stately mansions that White alludes to throughout his piece were swept away by the fire a few years later; but much later in the century the “titanic elms” were of course decimated by Dutch Elm Disease. So there is an aura of bittersweetness when one reads his words with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what was on the horizon for those trees, for Salem, for the world, and for White himself in five short years.
C.H. White, “Lower Salem” and “An Old Corner”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June, 1908.
She appears first in late medieval decks of cards, perhaps representing the biblical Judith or some contemporary Queen, and experiences a great expansion in her popularity in the nineteenth century, first with Charles Lamb’s poem, and then with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Now she is ingrained in our culture, certainly more so than any of the other queens in the pack. For this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d examine the evolving image of the Queen of Hearts, even though (to be honest) she’s not really the most romantic character.
A silver queen of hearts from an Augsburg deck, 1595-1600, after the French suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs had been standardized across Europe.
I know it seems like she’s been around forever, but the tart-baking queen does not appear in printed verse until the later eighteenth century, and a few decades later the English poet Charles Lamb published the King and Queen of Hearts: with the Rogueries of the Knave who stole the Queen’s Pies (1805) which really took her out of the pack. This is our most earnest Queen of Hearts, working hard to please her man, only to have her efforts foiled by that dastardly knave! Though this little story was not intended to be a nursery rhyme, it became one, primarily through the efforts of children’s book illustrators in the nineteenth century. A more elegant tart-baking Queen became the focus on one of Randolph Caldecott’s “Picture Books” in 1881, and the playing card Queen merges with the lyrical one in the “Nursery Rhyme” transformation deck from about the same time. And since she bakes, the Queen of Hearts was a perfect character for Victorian greeting cards celebrating hospitality and domesticity, at Christmas or throughout the year.
Title and first page from Charles Lamb’s King and Queen of Hearts (1805); Cover and illustrations from Randolph Caldecott’s Queen of Hearts (1881); Cobbler advertisement from 1890 (British Library); Prang of Boston Christmas Card from 1896; The Queen of Hearts card from the “Nursery Rhymes” deck, c. 1880.
The Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is impatient, scary, and of course judgmental, pointing in the iconic John Tenniel illustration and for at least a century afterwards. She doesn’t seem to be able to break free of that posture until after World War II, but even when she does, she is a formidable presence.
John Tenniel illustration from the first edition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1665); the Queen in a dramatic version of Alice adapted by Emily Prime Delafield (1897), and a rough drawing and finished illustration of the Queen by British illustrator Marvyn Peake for the 1954 edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Peake’s post-war Queen is more than formidable; she is menacing–especially the drawing on the left. He started his work on Alice right after he returned to Britain from war-torn Germany, where he had seen not only devastated cities but the newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, so clearly he had a darker vision than Tenniel and his immediate successors.
By about 1890, the Queen of Heats makes her appearance on a succession of mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards. She is at first rather recognizable, as in the first Raphael Tuck card below, and then rather more generic. That’s the impact of mass production in an age of insurgent democracy: everyone can be a Queen.
Then again, several very distinct personalities also took on the persona of the Queen of Hearts, including the “it” girl Evelyn Nesbit Shaw a century ago and Diana, Princess of Wales, more recently. Even though she doesn’t quite fit this theme, I have got to put Ginger Rogers in here as well, if only because she wore (in Carefree, 1938) the best Valentine’s Day dress, ever.
Evelyn Nesbit as the Queen of Hearts, Punch Magazine, 1904; a still from Carefree (1938) with Ginger Rogers in the iconic hearts and arrows dress.
The thought of Richard III’s re-interment ceremony got me thinking about the royal festivals of the early modern era, when every coronation, wedding, procession, visitation or funeral was projected to peers and the public via the new medium of print. The festival books that record (or make up) these events are great examples of “official history”, or propaganda. If it was logistically impossible for the “new” monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth century to project absolute authority, they could at least project magnificence, even, as in the case of Richard’s vanquisher, Henry VII, and his granddaughter Elizabeth I, in death.