Tag Archives: holidays

April Fish

Frankly I find fools a little scary (especially after they evolve from faithless to court jesters) and I’m not clever enough to pull off a tricky April Fool’s Day post, so I will just offer up some French fish for the day. For whatever reason—new calendar or perennial fish-hatching season–French-speaking parts of Europe (and Italy) have recognized the first of April as Le Poisson d’Avril for several centuries, and postcards past serve as cheerful evidence of this interesting cultural tradition. The recipient of an April Fool’s Day prank gets a paper fish pinned to his back, or a colorful card in the mail. And in the words of this first card, from 1906, if you receive it with a good heart, it will bring you luck. I’m craving lucklightheartedness, and color after March 2014, surely the longest and coldest month in the history of the world!

'If you receive it with a good heart, it will bring you luck', an April Fool's Day postcard, sent in 1906 (mixed media)

April Flower Fish card

April Fool's Day (coloured photo)

April Fish-001

April Fabric panel

April First Poisson cards from the first decade of the twentieth century and the Bridgeman Art Library; Fabric panel from Etsy seller Confectionique.

 


Stumped by Shamrocks

I was going to do a rather straightforward post on the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, but it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about this plant, but rather an age-old confusion about what it actually is/was. The history of the shamrock and its association with Ireland is misty and murky: if indeed St. Patrick plucked a tender three-leaved (trefoil) sprig of some sprawling plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity we don’t know what that plant was, nor do we know precisely what plants Elizabethan authors like Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser were referring to when they referenced the “wild” Irish eating shamrocks. The general consensus is that the word is derived from the gaelic seamróg, a diminutive form of seamair, meaning “clover”, but there is no botanical consensus that the shamrock is a clover variety: opinion seems to have been divided between various varieties of clover (trifolium) or wood sorrel (oxalis) for quite some time, with a weed called medic (medicago) mentioned occasionally as another candidate for the shamrock label. If you look at illustrations of the first two plants in one of the most lavishly illustrated medieval herbals, the Tractatus De Herbis (British Library MS Egerton 747), you can understand the confusion between these two look-alike, supposedly sacred plants.

Shamrock Egerton 747 Clover-001

Shamrock Egerton 747 Wood Sorrel-001

Clover (also called “Trinitas”) on the lower right and Wood Sorrel (also called “Alleluia”) on the upper left in BL MS. Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.

The other source of confusion, much more modern and almost-exclusively American, I think, is between the shamrock (whatever it is) and the four-leaf clover. Both might be clovers, but if you embrace the trinitarian nature of the former, you can’t also have the secular charm of the latter–or can you? Americans seem to want it both ways, and consequently they fashion a St. Patrick’s Day holiday that combines a bit of faith and fortune, and much, much, much more fortification.

Shamrocks PC 1-001

Shamrocks PC 2-001

Shamrocks PC 3-001

St. Patrick’s Day postcards c. 1906-11 from the New York Public Library’s collection: a trefoil shamrock, four-leaf clovers, and both on one card.

There is much less confusion about how the shamrock (whatever it is) became inextricably identified with Ireland: this was much more a Victorian development than a medieval or early modern one. In the visual culture of the Great Britain, the Irish shamrock looms large, along with the English rose and the Scottish thistle (and occasionally the Welsh leek). These symbols appear together on all sorts of items–textiles, pottery, wallpapers–as both official “Arms” of the United Kingdom, decorations for royal palaces and personas, and patriotic embellishment.

The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock. The Floral Badges of England, Scotland and Ireland

Shamrock Curtain Border 1850s-001

Shamrock Garland Voysey-001

James King design for the National Arms of Great Britain, c. 1890; Norris & Company silk curtain border design for Windsor Castle, 1850s; C.F.A. Voysey textile design with garland of Tudor roses, thistles and shamrocks, c. 1915, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

These integrative designs are interesting aesthetically and politically, but you can’t beat a single shamrock (whatever it is), especially if it is made up of diamonds! Paired, perhaps, with a companion four-leaf clover brooch for extra luck. But even if there are no sparkling stones, a bright green shamrock (like the holiday it has come to represent) represents hopefulness and gaiety in the often murky month of March.

PicMonkey Collage

March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff. 1906, March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff

Diamond shamrock brooch, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum; Art Deco platinum, diamond and jadeite clover brooch, c. 1935, Skinner Auctions; Ullman Manufacturing Co. calendar page for March, 1906.


Where Washington’s Ancestors Slept

For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home:  Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.

Sulgrave Manor WMF

Sulgrave Manor Detroit LC

Sulgrave Manor PC Blomfield

Sulgrave Poster Wilkinson

Sulgrave Manor wallpaper V and A and PRO

Sulgrave Manor Entrance pc

Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.


Presidents at Play

I was going to try to do a combined Presidents Day/Olympics post but our commanders in chief seem to prefer fishing, shooting, golf and tennis to winter sports: I found a few images of Vermonter Calvin Coolidge on skis, but on the snow-less White House lawn! We want our presidents to be sportsmen now, and so there are countless photographs of President Obama shooting hoops, President Bush (43) chopping wood, President Clinton running, President Bush (41) on his cigarette boat (an image I grew up with in southern Maine) and all of the above playing golf. Every twentieth century president seem to be an avid golfer with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, who considered golf a sissy sport. Teddy is often considered the transitional president by “presidential historians” (I hate that media made-up term): his aggressive and very public sportsmanship made it not only acceptable but nearly necessary for his successors to be as athletic and outdoorsy as possible. I think the President as Sportsman ideal precedes Teddy by about a decade, and is illustrated nicely by an 1892 New York Times Article which compares the two candidates in the forthcoming election on their “sporting tastes” (basically hunting and fishing).

Presidents as Sportsmen

This article (published on September 11, 1892) is quite hilarious, and for the most part praises the athletic pursuits of not only Cleveland and Harrison but also presidents past, with the exception (I think) of Andrew Jackson: There is no word to show that he ever fished, and it is highly improbable that he did so. Fishing is a pastime that requires patience, and if there was one quality in the world that Andrew Jackson did not possess it was the quality of patience. With shooting it was different. That is, killing violently, and Jackson must have found excitement in it.”  Two presidents in particular, John Quincy Adams and Chester A. Arthur, are singled out for their sportsmanship:  Adams is “the great swimming president” as well as “the great pedestrian president”, while Arthur is “one of the most thorough sportsmen that has ever been in the White House.” This is the view of 1892, but there is ample evidence that both presidents were criticized for their pastimes in their own times: Adams’ fondness for billiards was an issue in the 1828 election, and Arthur the Sportsmen was the object of constant caricature a half-century later.

Presidents at Play 1884 Arthur

Presidents at Play Arthur 1885 LC

Chester A. Arthur, the sportsman President, at bat in “The Great National Game”, 1884 (Macbrair & Sons) and “The Great National Fishing Match/The Result”, 1885 (Courier Lithograph Co.), Library of Congress.

After Arthur, and just before Roosevelt, it is President William Howard Taft who seems to have been portrayed most often as avid sportsman by the press: the sight of his imposing presence on the field–or on the slopes– must have been irresistible. Teddy’s exploits must have changed the perceptions of the presidency quite radically, in much the same way that JFK’s public passion for sport did later on:  for both men, sport was a matter of both policy and perceptions.

Presidents at Play Taft LC

Presidents at Play Taft Skies LC

Presidents at Play TR Puck

Presidents as Play


Hearts in Hand

For this St. Valentine’s Day I thought I would explore the heart in hand motif, which is probably familiar to most: there are countless items out there with this emblem, produced for or by the Shakers, the Order of the Odd Fellows, heartfelt lovers and/or mourners in the nineteenth century and a whole host of artisans and entrepreneurs more recently. It’s a captivating image, easily accessible and “read”, and highly decorative, but how did it emerge and evolve?

Hearts in Hand Am Folk Art Museum

Love Token, c. 1840-60, anonymous American artist, possibly from Connecticut, American Folk Art Museum.

Before the love token, declaring that hand and heart shall never part, or the fraternal staff, denoting “cheerful giving”, there was of course the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the object of intense veneration in medieval Europe. While the spiritual origins of today’s generic and secular symbol seem pretty clear to me, the road between past and present is not precisely a straight path. The image of the Sacred Heart is quite standardized in illuminated medieval manuscripts from the thirteenth century on: a heart, often flaming and always pierced, with attendant Crown of Thorns and the Five Wounds of Christ, wounds which were of course on his hands and feet. But there are evolving variations: the late medieval images below have already made the transition to a more worldly message, encompassing pity, love and charity.

Heart in Hand First

Heart in Hand Second

Princeton University Library MS Taylor 17, c. 1500.

Several of the most important medieval saints, including Augustine, Catherine of Siena and Bernardino of Siena, literally hold hearts in their hands as ever-attendant attributes: Augustine’s restless heart is guided by the Lord, and Catherine actually exchanges hearts with Christ. It seems to me that representations of these two saints humanize the heart somewhat, and late medieval romances contribute to that trend. You begin to see quite average people (well maybe not average, but certainly not saints) with hearts in hand. I suppose that the medieval-clothed Caesar is giving his heart to Rome.

Heart of Augustine

heart-catherine MET

Heart in Hand 3

Heart in Hand Via

St. Augustine with heart in hand, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland MS KB 76 F 2; Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging her Heart with Christ, after 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Arras Tapestry, Offering of a Heart, c. 1400-1410, Louvre Museum; Master of the Vitae Imperatorum, Illumination from Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 1433, Princeton University Library MS Kane 44.

The literal and the spiritual depictions of hearts in hand continue right through the Renaissance into the Reformation, eras of intense lay piety and scholarship. Nothing represents this better than the amazing painting by an anonymous Flemish master of a young man holding a heart-shaped book–he may or may not have been a member of a confraternity devoted to St. Augustine– but this focus on the word anticipates the Reformation, when John Calvin adopted the emblem of a flaming heart resting in a hand outstretched to God for his personal seal. So the Sacred Heart would survive the Reformation, in a way. The influences of classicism and realism affected the motif as well–so we also see hearts in real hands, and in that of Cupid, of course.

Heart Shaped Book

Heart Sincerity

Heart burning cupid ceiling

Master of the View of Sante Gudule, Young Man Holding a Book, c. 1485, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Carlo Dolci, Study for the figure of “Sincerity”, mid 17th century, British Museum; Francesco Mergolo, Design for a painted ceiling, 1770s, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.

And then we’re off: it’s a straight line from the delftware plate below, commemorating a marriage, to the sentimental tokens of today. The heart in hand motif loses its specific Christian meaning and comes to signify charity, friendship, love, benevolence, sentiment–much more general concepts. The Odd Fellows emblem appears not only on signs and banners, but on a myriad of more mundane items, including tools and flyswatters. Valentine’s Day become a holiday–with all that entails.

Heart in Hand Plate 1798 Delft Northeast

Heart Odd Fellows

Heart in Hand Folk Art

Heart in Hand Bonnie Cashin Gloves

Heart Warhol

Dutch Delftware marriage plate, 1798, Northeast Auctions; Heart in Hand, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, c. 1890 Museum Victoria; 19th century paper love token, Peggy McClard Antiques; “Heart in Your Hand” Gloves by Bonnie Cashin, 1974, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heart in Hand by Andy Warhol, 1954, Christies “Love” Auction.


New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is generally and literally about dismantling for me: taking down the elaborate holiday displays I assembled only weeks before on my eight fireplace mantels and all of the other decorations around the house. The tree is relatively easy compared to everything else, frankly, and as I write it’s out on the sidewalk awaiting its transport to Dead Horse Beach for the annual Christmas Tree bonfire this weekend. I’m an habitual seasonal decorator but now I’m wondering if I should reign in this instinct a bit….that’s certainly an attainable New Year’s resolution! In between bouts of dismantling I wasted copious amounts of time browsing the web for the perfect 2014 datebook because the one I bought at Target the other day is so devoid of any aesthetic whimsy that I fear I will not use it, and I need to: this is another area where my life has changed since becoming chair of my department–I now need to keep track of everyone’s dates and not just my own. As usual, I had Turner Classic Movies on in the background, and several movies distracted me from my dismantling mission as well, most notably the original (1968) Thomas Crown Affair. I had to figure out exactly where Steve McQueen lived on Beacon Hill in Boston (85 Mount Vernon Street–the 2nd Harrison Gray Otis house!!!) and examine each one of Faye Dunaway’s amazing outfits. And then, of course, I had to keep checking the weather reports as we have a big snowstorm bearing down on us: it looks like I will have several days inside to come up with some new displays for my mantels.

A day in the life: outside my bedroom window, the calm before the storm; a Christmas mantel before its dismantling; I love these little fabric trees from Quietude Quilts so I’m going to keep them up for a while; great Christmas presents: Wanderlust plates made in Rhode Island; Jessica Hische pocket planner; 85 Mount Vernon Street, Boston.

New Year 038

New Year 066

New Year 031

New Year 032

New Year 054

today-is-the-day-pocket-planner-570

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Father Time

I think I know how the personification of time evolved in western culture: as an amalgamation of the ancient winged Greek god Chronos and the scythe-wielding titan Cronos (either a deliberate mash-up or an alliterative mix-up), with a touch of the Roman god Saturn thrown in there, which explains the timing of Father Time’s appearance. But when I look at the first visual representations of this composite time figure in the sixteenth century, I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of post-plague grim reaper that was added to the mix as well. He is certainly not the gently-departing figure that we see on early twentieth-century New Year’s cards, but something/someone a bit more menacing, and vengeful. In the first sixteenth-century image below, he is wiping out cities and people, all the glory of the world. But from/at nearly the same time, the second contemporary image shows a “Father Time” that is more recognizable to us, more placid and representing “the past” (with his hourglass) across the table from a young man who personifies the future. I don’t think the placard (all is sufficient) is a message that we understand today, but the visual trope will become universal, as these two Puck covers from 1911 and 1912 illustrate. Like their sixteenth-century predecessor, these Father Times are well-accessorized, and giving way to their futures: airplanes and votes for women.

Father Time 1590 BM

Father Time 1555 BM

Father Time 1911 LOC

Father Time 1912 LOC

Crispijn de Passe the Elder, print from Deliciarum Juvenilum Libellus, c. 1590; Giulio Bonasone, print from the  Emblems of Achilles Bocchius, c. 1555, both British Museum; Puck Magazine covers from 1911 and 1912, Library of Congress.

Before Father Time’s image became standardized on the magazine covers and postcards of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a regular feature of watch- and clockmaker trade cards from a century earlier. In fact, I’m wondering if these trade cards didn’t play a key role in standardizing his image. These ephemeral Father Times make perfect sense; after all, clockmakers were, almost literally, selling time. Father Time as symbolic “spokesman” for this industry seems to be more prevalent in Britain than on this side of the Atlantic, but the trade card of a prominent Salem and Boston clockmaker and jeweler, Jabez Baldwin (which I featured in this earlier post) features him prominently.

Father Time Baldwin AAS

Father Time Bowen Watchmaker c 1810 BM

Father Time Ephemera BM

Early Nineteenth-century Trade Cards from the American Antiquarian Society (Baldwin) and the British Museum.

This last trade card, from the 1820s, really harkens back to the sixteenth century and shows both the association and dis-association of time and death: Father Time seems to be breaking away/vanquishing the grim reaper. With this grimness set aside, he is now free to become the benign figure of more recent representations. Most of the New Year’s postcards from a century before depict him as a fairly passive creature, but the wording of the last postcard below (on which he appears only as a presence, not a figure) conveys just a touch of that righteous tone from days gone by.

Father Time 1911

Father Time PC 1916

Father Time 1916


Scarlet Spirit

Well, the year is rapidly coming to an end, so I guess I’ll have to move on from my current obsession with ancient esoteric beverages. But first, one last drink for New Year’s Eve: alchermes (alternatively spelled alkermes), a scarlet red cordial with origins that are medieval, middle eastern, and medicinal. I was looking for something colorful to mix with champagne, and came up with this mysterious red elixir, although I doubt I’ll be able to find a bottle. Today, its most common use is in Italian pastries and the Italian variation on trifle, zuppa Inglese, but in the Renaissance it evolved from a herbal tonic for the heart to a secretive and fashionable cordial under the patronage of the Medici family in general and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, who introduced it to the court of France when she married the future King Henri II in 1533. Alchermes derived its name and its color from its most exotic ingredient, a tiny parasitic bug named kermes, which was later replaced by another red bug, cochineal. The presence of insects (along with gold leaf, crushed pearl, and ambergris) in the elixir doesn’t seem to have been too objectionable before the twentieth century, but thereafter artificial ingredients were substituted (I think). The venerable Dominican Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy is a major producer of Alchermes, which has been recognized and registered as a “traditional product” of Tuscany.

Alchermes 2 red elixir BL 15th C border

Alchermes Catherine Francois Clouet 1560 border

Alchermes V and A border

Alkermes SMN border 2

British Library Sloane MS 2560, central Europe, 15th century: an alchemical treatise illustrating the red elixir, a king or rosa rubea (red rose); Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Consort of France, as a new widow in 1560 by François Clouet; an 18th century pharmacy jar from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a bottle of Alkermes from the Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy.


What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Pudding Plate

Christmas Pudding Plate Card

Christmas Pudding Plate 2

Christmas Pudding Sauce

Christmas pudding Bowl

Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Smoking Bishop

It must be because I have traditional Christmas drinks on the brain, but for the first time a reference to smoking Bishop in one of the last lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol caught my attention when I saw a live musical version the other day. I could not count how many times I’ve seen this story on stage and screen, but I never really heard that term before. It came right at the end, after Scrooge has been reformed and is in the process of pledging his support to Bob Cratchit and his family:  “A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we’ll discuss your affairs this very afternoon, before this very fire, over a Christmas bowl of smoking Bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Smoking Bishop 1

Smoking Bishop 3

Smoking Bishop 2

Now at first I thought this name was yet another example of early modern English anti-Catholicism, or at the very least, an anti-establishment jab. The Puritans disliked the Anglican bishops in their own country just as much as Catholic bishops abroad. But it turns out the name is all about color: the mulled red wine, mixed with port and spices and roasted fruit, was also known as purple wine, a reference to the purple robes and sashes that bishops wore–and still do. Yet another variation on the Wassail–there appear to be countless.

Smoking Bishop 4

Illustrations from the 1911 edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by A.C. Michael, the 1915 edition by Arthur Rackham, and Scrooge and Cratchit drinking their Smoking Bishop before the fire by John Leech; Pope Francis greeting a succession of bishops at St. Peters.


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