Monthly Archives: December 2012

New Year’s in New Jersey

This post is going to be a study in contrasts. We’re on the northern New Jersey shore visiting my husband’s family, hearing storm stories and seeing lots of storm damage. Superstorm Sandy is very much in evidence, two months after its arrival. Some areas in this region emerged relatively unscathed, while others were hit hard:  two cases in point are Allenhurst, where my husband’s family home is located, and Sea Bright, where our niece lives. These boroughs are located just a few miles from each other on the shore, but their present environments could not be more different.

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Crossing over into New  Jersey on the George Washington Bridge on a stormy day.

Allenburst is a wealthy little enclave right next to the storied Asbury Park. The train to New York runs right through its little village center, offering wealthy urban dwellers an escape from the sweltering city a century ago and a relatively easy commute now. In some ways Allenhurst reminds me of my hometown, York Harbor, Maine, which also developed as a summer community, but there are notable differences:  the village is laid out in a grid pattern, the architecture is on steroids, and of course, this being the Jersey shore, there is a boardwalk.  The cabanas of the Allenhurst beach club (they build these private clubs right on the beach here; I don’t really understand how that can happen on a supposedly-public beach, but there it is) were washed away by Sandy, and a little section of its boardwalk, but I couldn’t find much more serious damage in evidence. The houses of Allenhurst, are stately: grand Victorians, Tudors, lots of Spanish-styled, tiled-roofed mansions from the teens and twenties. From my New England perspective, I notice an absence of the simple Shingle style, and the presence of lots and lots of stucco. I am sparing you the huge tacky modern houses that have been built right on the ocean; the more charming houses are on the side streets of Allenhurst.

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Shots of Allenburst:  an oceanside mansion and  “smaller” houses along the side streets, one closed-off street section, pink iron deer!

Traveling up the coast to Sea Bright through Long Branch I stopped by the Church of the Presidents, which is undergoing a major renovation. Seven Gilded Age presidents, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson, vacationed in this area and attended this church; James Garfield died just across the way after several months of suffering after he was shot in the early summer of 1881.

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You can see piles of wood and sand and boarded-up houses along this road, although major development has occurred in this area and the large multi-story buildings (which have wiped out any trace of those associated with the seven presidents) look like they could withstand any storm, but maybe not.

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Among the melee, these column sections certainly give one a “fall of the Roman Empire” feeling–not quite sure where they came from.

And then to Sea Bright, a barrier beach town that was really devastated and remains so. Displaced residents, boarded-up storefronts, condemned buildings, and what many say is an unrecognizable beach constitute the aftermath of Sandy, but also a very vibrant spirit focused on recovery. The municipal government seems very responsive, there’s been all forms of outside help, and an organization called Sea Bright Rising seems poised to will that to happen in the New Year.

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Sea Bright, New Jersey, two months after Sandy: the pictures speak for themselves except for the last one, which is of an island in the Shrewsbury River behind the borough, where all the boats from a nearby mainland marina ended up.

Best Bedside Books 2012

Well, it’s the time of year for lists, lots of lists:  best and worst, most important, so on and so forth, lists of ten things that characterize the passing year in one way or another. I’ll do my part with a best books list, with a qualification:  these are titles that were published in 2012 which I consider to be essential for bedtime reading, or bedtime reference, to be more precise. I do like to read in bed before I sleep, but I drop off quite rapidly, so I need a quick hit of compelling information, and/or some visual stimulation, before I’m gone. I’ve given up fiction altogether for this purpose, and I never read any sort of academic history later at night:  my bedside books need to be “dippable”; I will pick up one or the other from the stack–too tall for the bedside table–and dip into it every other night or so, in order to see or learn something before I fall asleep (books that do not perform these services leave the stack rather quickly). Several amazing natural histories were published this year which are perfect for this purpose, so I’ll start with them.

Natural Histories cover

Natural Histories. Extraordinary Selections from the Rare Book Archive of the American Museum of Natural History Library. Edited by Tom Baione.  Sterling Signature, 2012.

Nothing fascinates me more than the merger of art and science and this first book illustrates that historical merger in an extraordinary way. It is the ultimate gift and coffee table book, as it comprises a collection of historical sources relating to every branch of natural history from anthropology to zoology, succinct yet substantive contextual essays, and lots of images, as well as frame-ready prints, but it is also incredibly informative and inspirational. Similar in its historical range and the compelling nature of its images is the National Library of Medicine’s Hidden Treasure, and rather more whimsical (yet still empirical) is Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings.  A 21st Century Bestiary. These books are just visual feasts, and I also learn something every time I pick them up.

Hidden Treasure


Hidden Treasure:  the National Library of Medicine.  Edited by Michael Sappol.  Blast Books, 2012; The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson.  Granta Books, 2012.

I’ve been interested in folklore for quite some time, and an amazing new edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published this year: this bicentennial edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm was edited and annotated by Maria Tatar, Chair of the Program in Mythology and Culture at Harvard.  It really is a definitive edition, and also includes many classic illustrations.  There’s nothing better than reading Grimm fairy tales before you fall asleep:  food for dreams!


The Bicentennial Edition of the Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar.  W.W. Norton, 2012.

I always have architecture and design books in my bedside stack, also good for dreaming, and the ones I purchased this year are American Decoration by Thomas Jayne and London Hidden Interiors by Phillip Davies.  Their titles are self-explanatory. I love Jayne’s traditional style, and with its 180 properties and 1200 photographs, Hidden Interiors is positively encyclopedic.

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American Decoration:  A Sense of Place, by Thomas Jayne. Monacelli Press, 2012. London Hidden Interiors, Phillip Davies. An English Heritage Book, Atlantic Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

Both art history and history texts seldom function well as bedside books, as they require a bit more sustained concentration. If they are far removed from my academic interests, sometimes I can make them work out of sheer ignorance/ interest and curiosity (or if they have relatively short chapters!)  Right now I have two books in these categories by my bed, both very recently published:  Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art, which is the companion volume to the exhibition that’s on right now at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Todd Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, which presents a narrative of the American Revolution through contemporary newspaper reports, including several from the Salem Gazette.



Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art. Yale University Press, 2012; Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War. Before it was History, it was News.  Sourcebooks, 2012.

Salem is a “walkable city”, and I think more places in car-obsessed America should be walkable cities, which is why I purchased urban planner Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. I’m learning a lot from this book, but I do think it is better read in the daytime rather than just before bed. And last but not least, a perfect bedside book that my brother just gave me for Christmas:  Simon Garfield’s Just My Type. A Book about Fonts. This was actually published in 2010, but I also have another Garfield book that was published this year, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, (Gotham) so together they can fill out my top ten list.  Typography and cartography: two very interesting, yet contained topics.  Perfect for end-of-day reading.

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Jeff Speck, Walkable City. How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; Simon Garfield, Just my Type. A Book about Fonts. Gotham reprint, 2012.

Christmas Casting

In the medieval era and slightly after, Christmas was often the time for making predictions for the coming year, rather than on New Year’s Day. Weather predictions were common, and also more varied prognostications, based on what day of the week Christmas fell. The predictions based on a Christmas Tuesday are not particularly cheery, I must admit, but then neither are they overwhelmingly optimistic for Christmases that fell on the other days of the week.  Here’s the Middle English verse from British Library Harley Manuscript 2252, the commonplace book (an often-miscellaneous journal of very random sayings and bits of information, kind of like a blog!), of London merchant John Colyns, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, with my hasty translation. It’s been a while since I have tangled with Middle English so there may be some lapses here, but I think I got the gist of this verse.

Yf Crystemas day on Tuysday be, That yere shall dyen wemen plenté; And that wynter wex grete marvaylys; Shyppys shalbe in grete perylles; That yere shall kynges and lordes be slayne, And myche hothyr pepylle agayne heym. A drye somer that yere shalbe; Alle that be borne ther in many se, They shalbe stronge and covethowse. Yf thou stele awghte, thou lesyste thi lyfe; Thou shalte dye throwe swerde or knyfe; But and thow fall seke, sertayne, Thou shalte turne to lyfe agayne.

If Christmas Day be on a Tuesday, many women will die that year; and that winter will see great marvels; Ships shall be in great perils; That year kings and lords shall be slain, And many other people against them. That year will have a dry summer; All that are born in that year shall be strong and covetous. Whoever steals, shall lose his life by sword or knife; But if one falls sick, they shall become well.

Well at least it ends on a somewhat optimistic note!

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Ships and people in peril a century later:  The Wonders of this Windie Weather, London, 1613. STC 25949.


Christmas with Barbara

I love classic films, so naturally my favorite television channel is Turner Classic Movies:  I often have it on in the background when I’m home, as you never know what–or who–might turn up!  This month, I have to admit that it’s been on even more than usual, as December’s “Star of the Month” is Barbara Stanwyck, my very favorite movie star.  No one comes close to Barbara in her ability to fill the screen and capture her audience’s attention, in my opinion; certainly no actor or actress in the present (a time when movie stars seem much smaller), and perhaps only Cary Grant and Bette Davis in the past. I love everything about Barbara:  her toughness and her vulnerability, her flexibility, her stature, her walk, her ability to sit a horse, her little cropped jackets, her obvious professionalism. There is a sense of inner “simmering” in her that I find captivating, and I think she chose her roles very well. I find even her early 1930s movies–in which she seems to be playing the same downtrodden character again and again–watchable, but she really comes into her own in the 1940s, when she became the highest paid woman in America.

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Miss Stanwyck at the height of her power and popularity, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Two of my favorite Stanwyck films happen to be Christmas movies: Remember the Night (1940) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). For as long as I can remember, I have generally watched both at least once during the holiday season, but this particular month I seem to be watching them again and again, so many times that I almost feel like I’m having Christmas with Barbara!



I think most people have heard of or seen Christmas in Connecticut, and it is certainly a wonderful film with a charming Barbara (and a great supporting cast), but she is even more endearing in Remember the Night.  This movie, the first of what I think were three pairings with Fred MacMurray, shows the actress in transition from her 1930s vulnerability to her 1940s confidence:  she is both sad and funny, tough and vulnerable, skittish and resolute. MacMurray plays a New York City Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes Stanwyck’s shoplifter character in a Christmas Eve trial:  when he realizes 1) that the joyful jury will let her off in a collective display of Christmas spirit; and 2) that she is a fellow Hoosier, he postpones the trial until the New Year, bails her out of jail, and offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays as he is heading home himself (you have to suspend some  judgement here). On the way west, back to the country, they have various escapades and encounters that bring them closer together. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when they arrive at her childhood home and face her dreadful mother; Fred will not let her stay there and he whisks her away to his own mother, the polar-opposite perfect mom, played, of course, by Beulah Bondi, Mrs. Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life!  On the farm, they celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way and fall in love, always knowing that they’re going to have to go back to the big city, and the big trial, after the holidays. And they do: neither compromises their principles or their admiration for one another and so the “resolution” of the film provides a nice contrast to more predictable Christmas fare, including Christmas in Connecticut.


Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray look over their scripts with director Mitchell Leisen in this behind-the-scenes shot, TCM Archives.

Actually, as I write this, I am realizing that there is a major similarity between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut:  in both films a very urban Barbara has got to go to the country and experience an “old-fashioned” Christmas (complete with country dances in both films) in order to find herself. In Christmas, Barbara plays a Martha Stewart-like character named Elizabeth Lane who writes a monthly column about her bucolic married life in Connecticut, including elaborate menus for perfect home-cooked meals. The problem, which doesn’t become a problem until her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) forces her to entertain a war hero named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays, is that Elizabeth Lane is actually a single “career woman” who lives in a New York City apartment and relies on local restauranteur Felix Bassenak (a perfect S.Z. Sakall) for both her daily sustenance and recipes for her column. She cooks up a scheme with her editor, Felix, and her long-suffering architect beau (Reginald Gardner), whom she promises to marry in exchange for his perfect Connecticut country house, which becomes the setting for their deception. The house is so perfect, with its vaulted ceilings, picture window, and huge stone fireplace, that it is almost a character in the film. In crystalline Connecticut, many situations ensue, involving babies, a cow named Mecushla (there’s a big cow scene in Remember the Night as well), flapjacks, a horse-drawn sleigh, and rocking chairs, and in the midst of all this Elizabeth/Barbara and her war hero fall in love. It is 1945, it is Christmas, and all is well.

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Barbara in my bedroom:  facing her architect fiancé (“when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about plumbing”), facing the war hero seconds later, and in her perfect little cropped Christmas jacket.

Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky. The Latin word refers to the “stoppage” of the sun, as it appears to hover at this low point for several days, and certainly this was recognized as an important time, both before and after the coming of Christianity. Indeed, the solstice often appears on medieval calendars as a “red-letter day”, so important that it was written in red ink. As you can see on this December psalter calendar, the only two red-letter days are those when the sun moves into Capricorn and the winter solstice.  Even the nativity–Christmas Day–is written in black ink.

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This calendar also illustrates another convention of medieval Christianity:  the overlay of Christian holidays (holy days) on pagan ritual days. The Winter Solstice is recognized as the winter solstice, but also as the day of St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, who first doubted the resurrection of Christ and later compensated for this doubt by spreading the good news far and white, certainly outside the Roman Empire, perhaps as far as India. My casual survey of a sampling of psalters from the twelfth century on revealed that St. Thomas gradually replaced the solstice as a red-letter day, but medieval scribes still recognized the importance of the waxing, waning, and “hovering” sun in other ways and texts. The sun seems to get more vivid with the centuries, and even becomes quite humanistic with the Renaissance!

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British Library MSS Arundel 60 (after 1073) and Royal 17 E VII (14th century:  God creating the sun and the moon); Here come the sun:  Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 14 (late 15th century) and BL MS Sloane 1171 (sixteenth century).

The Winter Solstice returns to modern calendars, sometimes with St. Thomas and sometimes not, and achieves recognition as a natural day in the seasonal year.  There’s something both reverent and hopeful about the day, as we know that the trend towards more darkness will be gradually reversed in the coming days and months.

Solstice Kate Greenaway 1891

Winter Solstice 1971 by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

In typical traditional fashion, Kate Greenaway sticks with St. Thomas’s Day in her 1892 Almanac (NYPL Digital Gallery), while British modern artist Barbara Hepworth depicts the Winter Solstice in a more graphic way (Tate Museum, 1971).

Red Christmas

Even before I read a nice little article yesterday on how the holidays obtained their color themes, I was already planning to focus on red:  it’s been a dreary week and I needed a little cheering up. The red that we now associate with Christmas comes from an amalgamation of historical and cultural forces:  iconic images of St. Nicholas of Myra wearing red robes, holly berries and the apple props of medieval mystery plays, the Victorian poinsettia craze, the colorful depictions of Santa Claus by nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coco-Cola Santa Claus of the early twentieth century. I’ve already covered Saint Nicholas in a lengthy post a week or so ago, so this perspective is going to be structural. Here are some of my favorite red houses, tastefully decorated for the season in typical understated New England fashion. I’m starting up north, in my hometown of York, Maine, where I happened to be last week before our weather turned dreadfully dreary, and then I’ll work my way home to Salem via Newburyport.

Two of the Historic House Museums of Old York:  the 1719 Old Gaol (Jail) and the 1754 Jefferds Tavern. As you can see, the gaol is situated on a little hill that overlooks York Village below. There is a large new barn-like structure attached to the tavern which I dont really care for (despite the fact that it is named after my wonderful high school guidance counselor) so Im showing a vantage point that excludes it.

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Heading south, I stopped in Newburyport–a city of white houses for the most part–and found two adorable colonial sideshingled houses on side streets in the south end.

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Back in Salem, where there are not a lot of red houses, really. But there is venerable Red’s Sandwich Shop downtown, and the Manning house in North Salem, which was once in the midst of one of the most famous orchard nurseries in Massachusetts. This was the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, a famous “pomologist” (an expert in the cultivation of fruit trees) and according to the sign, also a stagecoach agent–news to me. The last picture in this group is a rare red Greek Revival on Essex Street: you seldom see a house in this style painted red, as they are meant to mimic stone. From these pictures it appears we like our red houses with white trim in Salem.

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Finally, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s c. 1750 birthplace, moved to its present location adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables on the harbor in 1958 from downtown. A rather gnarly tree seems to be threatening it! And last but not least, a wonderful old (fishing?) shack on the other side of the Gables: a little worse for wear maybe, but still red and picturesque–it does seem to be crying out for a wreath at this time of year.

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Trees in the House

I was intent and inspired to have a rather spare Christmas tree this year, but once again we have a huge and furry white pine (I think I incorrectly called last year’s tree a Scotch pine) tree, over nine feet tall, that just eats ornaments.  Oh well, the house probably calls for such a display, in contrast to the more minimalist Scandinavian looks, featuring branches and twigs more so than trees, that I collected in a pile of tear sheets. I particularly like this beautiful Toronto house, owned and decorated by designer Ingrid Oomen, that is featured in this month’s issue of Canadian House and Home.

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I don’t know why the second scan came out so grainy–sorry. These minimalist tree branches go so well with this decor, and they could really be maintained all year round, minus the ornaments. I also like this simple display from Country Living, counterposed with the more traditional tree in the adjoining room.

Tree in the House Country Living

I have not managed to go the overly-creative or minimalist route this year.  The Christmas season is always a little frustrating for me, as I have high decorating hopes and not much time, with lots of papers and exams to correct and grades to turn in. I have a few little live trees around the house, like this one on the dining room mantle next to my new deer from Wisteria, and then the big tree in the front parlor (which I am showing you in both undecorated and decorated states so you can see what a monster it is). It doesn’t matter how many ornaments or garlands you put on this tree, it still looks essentially green.

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Two of my favorite historical images of Christmas trees: Eastman Johnson’s Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864) and a print of President Roosevelt’s children showing him their closeted Christmas tree in 1903:  he was an avid environmentalist and would not have one in the house (or so he proclaimed).

Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family Eastman Johnson 1864

Tree Roosevelt 1903 WH Hist Assoc

Eastman Johnson, Chistmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864), Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Roosevelt children show the President their tree, 1903, White House Historical Association.

Wassail and Shrub

I’m making two traditional drinks for the holidays this year:  wassail for a gathering and shrub for gifts. Both drinks go way back, how far no one really knows. Wassail was both a drink and an activity, first referenced in the cider-producing parts of England where harvest revelers would dance about sprinkling the trees with a particularly potent vintage so that the next year’s harvest would be abundant: Robert Herrick wrote Wassaile the trees that they may beare / You many a plum and many a peare/For more or lesse fruits they will bring / As you do give them Wassailing in the seventeenth century. At some point, Wassail and Wassailing also came to refer to a more general custom of a drink/drinking to one’s health (the Middle English waes hael roughly translates to “be hale” or “be well”), and more specifically to Christmas cheer and well-wishing:  wassailing seems to merge with caroling to create a custom of extending celebratory hospitality to one’s friends and neighbors during the holiday season. The great revival (or creation?) of Christmas traditions in the Victorian era brought forth not only trees but also wassailing; the “traditional” Here We Come a-Wassailing carol that we are all so familiar with actually dates from the mid-nineteenth century.

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An English wassail bowl from the later seventeenth century, Victoria & Albert Museum, and a “Merry Christmas” image from the major illustrator of Dickens’ works, Hablot Knight Brown (also know as “Phiz”). Father Christmas holds the wassail cup among other Christmas traditions of “merrie olde England”:  plum pudding, roast beef, mistletoe. I’m not sure why so many spirits (“bogies” and the snapdragon) are in the picture, nor do I know what “twelfth cake” is–yet!) British Museum, c. 1860.

It was a bit difficult to narrow down the variant recipes for the wassail drink; they seem to fall into spiced ale, spiced cider, and spiced wine categories with rum even appearing in a few.  The most traditional recipes feature stewed and mottled apples and/or eggs to create a thick  frothiness that makes the drink resemble “lambswool”, its early designation. I’m not going that route, as I find that texture (and eggs in general) rather repellant. I think I’m going to go for a simple wine and fruit juice recipe from the Williamsburg Cookbook.  And sadly, I do not have one of those multi-handled wassail bowls like the one from the V & A above; a simple punchbowl will have to do.

Shrub is probably even more ancient than wassail drinks; it derives from the necessity of preserving fruit long after the harvest over. Fruit is combined first with sugar and then with vinegar to create a syrup that can last indefinitely and mix with anything.  My hunch is that shrub was one of those things discovered (or rediscovered) by Europeans as a result of their encounters during and after the Crusades, as its name derives from the Arabic sharab (syrup; drink) and sugar was introduced into the European diet (and consciousness!) at that time too. Refrigeration did away with shrub, but I think it is currently experiencing a revival: there are several commercial manufacturers, including Tait Farm, from which I bought my first bottle.  But it’s easy enough to make, and there are 2 major processes:  hot and cold.  Using heat, you macerate whatever fruit you prefer (berries are best), add sugar and a bit of water, and boil up a syrup.  Once it has cooled, you add vinegar–whatever kind you like (I generally use apple cider or some type of flavored vinegar rather than white).  Leave it for a while, then strain, and then you have a fermented concoction which you can add to seltzer, lemonade, or alcohol (gin,vodka, and rum all work well with shrub). Without heat, the fruit and sugar combine to create a syrup-like mixture anyway, which you then add to the cider. Shrub is both tart and sweet, and you can keep it in the refrigerator for quite a while. A very pleasant way to drink your vinegar!


Shrub Bottle Ticket Elizabeth Morley V and A

Shrub Bottle Ticket Enameled Copper 1770 V and A

Tait Farm shrubs, and two shrub bottle tickets from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London: the silver ticket was made by Elizabeth Morley in London around 1794-95, and the enameled copper ticket dates from 1770.

Colonial Chocolate

Salem can lay claim to at least one candy title–Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, established in 1806, claims to be “America’s oldest candy company” and is still manufacturing the gibralters and black jacks that established its reputation. But the other day I came across a trade card in a digital archive which I thought could lead to another title for our fair city:  oldest commercial chocolate manufacturer.  The card (which gets no bigger, sorry) advertises the business of Gideon Foster, Chocolate Manufacturer, and dates from 1780–the same year that the famous Walter Baker & Co., Ltd. chocolate company was founded in Dorchester Lower Mills.  Perhaps Foster beat out Baker by a few months!

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Advertising Chocolate, 1780-1829. Baker images courtesy The Dorchester Atheneum.

Alas, I don’t think Salem can claim the chocolate title, for two reasons.  The Baker Company can be dated even earlier than 1780, to when Walter Baker, a Boston physician, established a partnership in 1765 with English chocolatier John Hannon. When Hannon departed for Europe in 1780, never to return, Baker continued to run the company under his sole ownership, and it expanded dramatically through the nineteenth century under his heirs and the twentieth century under the successive ownership of  General and Kraft Foods (leaving Foster’s little company in the dust!)  The other reason is that while Gideon Foster is associating himself with the commercial mecca of Salem,on his trade card, his chocolate mill was actually located in the nearby village of South Danvers, now Peabody; in fact, Foster’s well-preserved Federal house serves as the headquarters of the Peabody Historical Society.

That matter settled, I still have my questions. Why were these two prominent men so focused on the production of chocolate during the Revolutionary War?  Wasn’t chocolate a rather trivial pursuit at this particular time? Foster was General Gideon Foster, hero of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, later at Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston, but back in Peabody making chocolate by 1780:  was chocolate manufacture a matter of national necessity?  Probably not, but it was definitely a substantive commodity in the eighteenth century, viewed as nutritional, medicinal, and sustaining–almost like food. But it was also a beverage (we are generally talking about drinking chocolate at this time; candy bars come later) that some thought had the potential to replace the almighty tea. Thomas Jefferson certainly thought so; in a 1785 letter to John Adams he predicted that “Chocolate. … By getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America…”

Here in Salem, and in the present, my favorite source for chocolate is the decades-old Harbor Sweets, where I started my Christmas shopping today (with less than two weeks to go–classes complete, papers and final exams to grade!)  Even if you don’t have chocolate on your list, this is a great place to go for its Santa’s workshop ambiance, as well as the free samples.

Chocolate Harbor Sweets

Arctic Animals

I had an arctic weekend. It wasn’t particularly cold here in Salem (rather the opposite), but since I was in a Santa Claus frame of mind, I thought I’d follow up my St. Nicholas post with a historical look at the North Pole, and that led to full immersion in the Arctic. This northern orientation (and two great books: Robert McGhee’s Imagining the Arctic:  the Human History of the Arctic World; Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time:  Ice and the English Imagination) gave me new insights into lots of things, but for the sake of imagery, I’m going to go for arctic animals:  great white beasts of the frozen north.

Before they set out to explore all the unknown corners of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans had lots of ideas about the North which had been passed down from ancient geographical writers like Pytheas, Strabo and Pliny the Elder. The typical Renaissance endeavor involved the engagement, verification and/or dismissal of classical knowledge and for the Arctic, nothing was more influential than the posthumous publication of Gerhard Mercator’s world map, which portrayed the North Pole as a magnetic black rock surrounded by a clearly-marked Northwest Passage. In England, this inspired the erection of “arctic poles” all over the country and Martin Frobisher’s three voyages, from 1576-78, to Meta Incognito (the “unknown limits”; really southern Baffin Island, though Frobisher claimed the entire Arctic for England).


Gerhard Mercator, “Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio”, from his posthumously published atlas, Atlantis pars altera. Enlarged fascimile, Historic Collection, Princeton University: part of a Princeton digital exhibition, Of Maps and Men.  In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage.

Imagine the surprise (or perhaps the expectation) when Frobisher’s men found a unicorn washed up on a Baffin Island beach, or rather a “Sea Unicorn”, as they referred to the creature. This fabled creature seemed to confirm that they were somewhere special, and previously elusive. From this first discovery, northern fish and fauna were always described and depicted as especially monstrous, especially large, especially white.  From narwhals to polar bears, from foxes to hares, these were almost-otherworldly creatures.  The Frobisher “Sea Unicorn” is pictured below, from George Best’s account of the second voyage, followed by two relatively modern caricatures of really large Arctic creatures.

Arctic Sea Unicorn

Arctic Hare 1890s Smithsonian


Anonymous drawing of a BIG arctic hare, c. 1890, Smithsonian Institution, and Charles Sidney Raleigh, “Chilly Observation”, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Arctic Hare (Lepus articus) is the largest North American rabbit, but it’s not that big! And of course it’s the same for the polar bear:  these images convey a sense of the (literal) diminution of man in the vast, frozen Arctic.  I’m quite taken with the hare, so much so that I even “adopted” one through the World Wildlife Fund (I figured that polar bears have more advocates). They are grey in the summer, but apparently turn into white fuzzy balls in the arctic winter.

Arctic Hare

Arctic Hair Greenpeace Ad

Arctic hares in their natural habitat; South African Greenpeace “white is the new green” ad, 2010.

For an Arctic animal in scale, there is no better image than William Bradford’s An Arctic Summer:  Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871) with what looks like an arctic fox walking along the ice undisturbed or unaware of the nearby ship. Yet man is still humbled–isn’t that a piece of a wreck on the shore?  Bradford was a Massachusetts artist whose work, based on his own observations while on an 1869 polar expedition, figured heavily in the Peabody Essex exhibit Journey to the Ends of the Earth:  Painting the Polar Landscape a couple of years ago. More of Bradford’s paintings, as well as amazing photographs from his illustrated book, The Arctic Region:  Illustrated with Photographs taken on an Expedition to Greenland can be found at the Clark Art Institute.

Arctic Bradford

Arctic Fox

William Bradford, An Arctic Summer:  Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art; cast earthenware Arctic fox, Hornsea Pottery Co., 1956, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

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