Monthly Archives: January 2013

Paste Paper and Poison

I spent last Saturday morning at the Salem Athenaeum helping to choose this year’s candidates for our adopt-a-book program,very gently examining amazing books from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were first-edition volumes by such diverse and esteemed authors as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (of course) and Jack London to examine, but surprisingly the works which really captured my fancy were lesser-know works on guns, robbers, and poison. Don’t be concerned; I have my reasons.

I was captivated by the Athenaeum’s copy of the classic eighteenth-century artillery manual, John Müller’s Treatise of Artillery (first published in 1768 and in America in 1779) not because of its subject matter but its bindingThis manual was not covered in leather but rather in less costly paste paper, a process devised by sixteenth-century bookbinders where a colored paste is brushed onto wet paper and then carved, combed, brushed, etc. with a variety of tools to create patterns and designs. The cover of Müller’s Treatise struck me not only as beautiful, but also rather modern.

Mullers Treatise

Paste Paper Cover 1779

Paste Paper Muller 2

Obviously the cover is a little worse for wear as it was made in 1779, and officers and soldiers carried this book around with them during the Revolutionary War, but I think the design is amazing. I’ve got a new obsession, as this is an art which is alive and well as you can see by these examples here, here, and elsewhere.

Paste Paper on Etsy

Paste Paper Book

Henry Fielding’s Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil (1751) did interest me because of its content rather than its presentation, which was rather pedestrian.  I did not know that the novelist was such an advocate for law and order and justice (he was also a magistrate), and his analysis of the causes of escalating crime in mid-eighteenth-century England (which you can read for yourself here) was interesting, particularly the last part where he discusses (and blames) the spectacle of public executions.

Fielding 1

Fielding 2

The last book that really stood out, among the array that was before me, is another eighteenth-century text:  Richard Mead’s Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays, first published in 1702 and then reprinted several times over the century (you can read the second edition here).  I don’t really work on or with the eighteenth century very much, which might be one reason these books are capturing my curiosity. Dr. Mead was a pretty eminent London physician, who counted King George II among his patients, as you can see on the title page below. The essays cover the usual suspects associated with poison and then some:  the viper, tarantula, and “mad dog”, poisonous minerals and plants, opium, and “venomous exhalations from the earth:  poisonous airs and waters” (assorted noxious fumes). I suppose the “mechanical” in the title refers to the empirical methodology of Dr. Mead; he does refer to various experiments (on pigeons and dogs) but he also seems to rely a lot on ancient unverified information.  This was surprising to me–I thought the Scientific Revolution had triumphed in the eighteenth century.

Mead Poisons

I loved the illustrations of poisonous insects in the back of the book, and as this post seems to be crying out for a skull-and-crossbones image, I am concluding with an illustration from a 1742 printed eulogy for Peter Faneuil (of Faneuil Hall in Boston fame), yet another unassuming volume in the Athenaeum’s collection.

Mead 2

Faneul Funeral Oration


Winter Wear in the 1640s

Like much of the country, it’s been really cold here in Massachusetts over the past week:  starkly beautiful in that mid-winter way, but freezing cold. Every day I forsake one of my fashionable wool coats for a shapeless parka, which depresses me, as I’m a bit of a coat hound (I think this is in my blood: my Italian great-grandfather came over at age 13 and became a designer of what everyone tells me were the most beautiful ladies’ coats). There is plenty of current advice about how to look good while bundled up but I also like to look at the fashion plates of one of my favorite artists, the Bohemian etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)  for comparison, if not inspiration. Hollar’s costumed women were probably idealistically dressed, but they are nonetheless charming.

Hollar Winter

Wenceslaus Hollar, “Winter” Dress, 1643-44.  Courtesy of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar was a professional etcher and printmaker with nearly 3,000 prints to his credit. He escaped war-torn central Europe and came to England in 1636 under the patronage of the “Collector” Earl of Arundel, but also pursued his own projects, including series of prints such as this which he sold individually and in sets. The inscription below this fashionable London lady reads: “The cold, not cruelty makes her wear/In Winter, furs and Wild beasts hair/For a smoother skin at night,/Embrace her with more delight.”   The first couplet strikes me as an uncharacteristically modern sentiment to be expressed in the fur-crazy seventeenth century, and the second as rather racy! I must say that this seventeenth-century lady does not look that dissimilar from some of the New Yorkers captured by Bill Cunningham in this week’s  “Antifreeze/On the Street” Times column.

Besides his seasonal series, Hollar produced two other sets of prints of ladies’ contemporary costumes, both available in their entirety at the University of Toronto’s extraordinary digital collectionOrnatus Muliebris Anglicanus, or The Several Habits of English Women (1640) and Theatrum Mulierum and Aula Veneris (1643). Below is another bundled-up English lady from the former, and Scottish, Spanish, Flemish and Bohemian ladies from the latter.

Hollar_k_1673_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1828_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1805_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1735_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1706_0001-1-0

Muffs, muffs, and more muffs!

I am not a fur-wearer, but I can still appreciate Hollar’s amazing depictions of muffs, the must-have accessory of the seventeenth-century noblewoman (and men too).  They were a relatively recent import to England from the Continent, first referenced as “snuffskyns” in Elizabeth’s time, and Hollar apparently admired them so much he often did away with the wearer and just etched the muff–with such precision that you can almost feel the fur.

Hollar_k_1884_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1885_0001-1-0
Hollar_k_1886_0001-1-0

It is interesting to see what a difference a century (or so) makes:  in the later eighteenth century, British caricaturists would regularly mock muffs as an extravagant French accessory, the very symbol of sartorial excess. In Hollar’s time, however (certainly a more Puritan-ical era), they appear to objects above reproach!

Muff January 1786 Victoria & Albert

Inigo Barlow, Les Incommodités de Janvier’, etching published by Hannah Humphrey, London, 1786.  Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Wonder on Display

I’ve been wondering about wonder for much of my academic career, and particularly interested in its transformation from a spiritual concept to a secular one, from a manifestation of God’s will to an awe-inspiring curiosity or construction. I’ve already written about wondrous weather here, and of course witchcraft, most definitely a wonder of the early modern world, is something I can never abandon for long given my context.  But perhaps the most direct way to approach wonder is through the wunderkammer, the “rooms of wonder” or “cabinets of curiosities” assembled in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by gentlemen of learning and leisure. These private collections are the forerunners of public museums, and the focus of a current exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City entitled “Rooms of Wonder:  from Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899″, which runs through the end of next week. This exhibition follows the Smithsonian’s “The Great American Hall of Wonders” exhibit from last year pretty closely, so it appears that wonder is having a moment.

780px-RitrattoMuseoFerranteImperato

Wonder Peale 1822

From cabinet of curiosity to museum:  iconic images from two exhibitions.  From 1599, an engraving of the wunderkammer of Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato in DellHistoria Naturale (Naples 1599), and from 1822, Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in his Museum, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection), 1878.

As you can see, wonder was first connected to the natural world and only later became associated with human creations, artistic and otherwise. Imperato has an alligator on the ceiling of his room, and in his self-portrait, Peale is revealing his own natural history collection, which became America’s first public museum. Before the eighteenth century, cabinets of curiosity were encyclopedic in nature, with the goals of “capturing” nature and creating a worldly microcosm in one or more rooms. Specialization was not a goal, and so they appear to us rather random, a somewhat controlled chaos, or maybe it’s just the prominent and interesting displays of mummified alligators (or crocodiles?), which seem to be the must-have object in any cabinet of curiosity. In any case, many of the early modern images of wunderkammer show people really marveling at the wonders on display. People are part of the picture.

Wonder Basilius Besler

Engraved title page of Basilius Besler’s Continuatio rariorum et aspectu dignorum varii generis (Nuremberg 1622).

With the collections of the John Tradescents, father and son, we see a combination of natural and created wonders, or “rarities”, which became the basis of a family museum in greater London called “the Ark” which drew a steady stream of marveling visitors in the mid-seventeenth century. One such visitor, a German traveler named George Christoph Stirn, made this report in 1638:

“In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard there lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them. In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright colored birds from India, a number of things changed into stone, amongst others a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape’s head, a cheese, etc; all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, pictures in perspective of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, who are shown, as in nature, on a polished steel mirror when this is held against the middle of the picture, a little box in which a landscape is seen in perspective, pictures from the church of S. Sophia in Constantinople copied by a Jew into a book, two cups of rinocerode, a cup of an E. Indian alcedo which is a kind of unicorn, many Turkish and other foreign shoes and boots, a sea parrot, a toad-fish, an elk’s hoof with three claws, a bat as large as a pigeon, a human bone weighing 42 lbs., Indian arrows such as are used by the executioners in the West Indies- when a man is condemned to death, they lay open his back with them and he dies of it, an instrument used by the Jews in circumcision, some very light wood from Africa, the robe of the King of Virginia, a few goblets of agate, a girdle such as the Turks wear in Jerusalem, the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone, a large magnet stone, a S. Francis in wax under glass, as also a S. Jerome, the Pater Noster of Pope Gregory XV, pipes from the East and West Indies, a stone found in the West Indies in the water, whereon are graven Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a beautiful present from the Duke of Buckingham, which was of gold and diamonds affixed to a feather by which the four elements were signified, Isidor’s MS of de natura hominis, a scourge with which Charles V is said to have scourged himself, a hat band of snake bones…….”

Now this is a collection that almost defies description, and one which would surely challenge any system of categorization or classification! The elder John Tradescent has risen to wealth and prominence as a gardener to the landed gentry, and so his early collecting interests were primarily botanical, but both his travels and that of his son gradually expanded their interests and their collection, which was cataloged in 1656 under the title Musaeum Tradescantianum and later (1683) became the basis of Britain’s first public museum, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

tradescant-tp500x754

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, several forces combined to push serious collecting more toward the public sphere: the development of taxonomic systems, the Enlightenment drive to educate and elucidate, urbanization, and the burgeoning “commercialization of leisure”. Certainly some quirky private collections continued to be assembled, but the trend was definitely towards the institutional. Here in America, natural history museums popped up all along the east coast, from the Charleston Museum to Peale’s Museum to the Peabody Academy of Science established here in Salem in 1869:  the forerunner of the Peabody Museum and today’s Peabody Essex Museum.

1869_PeabodyAcademy_ofScience_Salem_FrankLesliesIllustratedNewspaper_Sept4

Wonder on Display Peabody Museum of Salem 1910

Illustration of the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 4, 1869 / James M. Lindgren. “That Every Mariner May Possess the History of the World”: A Cabinet for the East India Marine Society of Salem. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1995); Detroit Publishing Co. photography, 1910, Library of Congress.

I do wonder if the institutionalization of wonder (and pretty much everything else about our modern world) has lessened our capacity to marvel, or maybe it has increased it. I’m just not sure. Fortunately, however, the more whimsical wonder of  early modern cabinets of curiosities has survived over the last century in the work of artists like Joseph Cornell and Massachusetts’ own Rosamond Purcell, who quite literally recreated the collection of a seventeenth-century Danish medical professor Ole Worm for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Harvard University’s Science Center.  Indeed, an influential art gallery in Italy includes the instillation of wonder in its mission statement:  Wunderkammern adopts the inspiring principle of those homonymous collections of scientific curiosities and extraordinary objects that used to be gathered together in Renaissance Europe by rulers and aristocrats, merchants and early practitioners of science. Like those historical cabinets of wonders, precursors to museums, WK explores how suchamazementis manifested within todays artistic discourse.

worm_1

worm2

An illustration of the  Museum Wormianum of Ole Worm (Leiden, 1655), and Rosamond Purcell’s installation. Photo by Dennis W. Purcell.

Appendix:  Bring wonder home with these three great books; they are bibliographic cabinets of curiosities!

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Cabinets of Wonder Christine Davenne Abrams 2012

Natural Curiosities 2

Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (which seems to have been mined intensively by interior designers over the past decade) (Taschen, 2001); Cabinets of Wonder by Christine Davenne (Abrams, 2012); Alfred Russell Wallace’s Natural Curiosities (Parkstone Press, 2011).


Teaching with Tentacles

I’m back at school for the Spring semester with the typical four-course teaching load, including a modern world history course that I have not taught for some time. So it is time to refresh my arsenal of Powerpoint presentations and maps. An interesting map can quickly catch a college student’s attention as easily as it does a blog reader, and after perusing my various digital collections a bit, I realized that I might be able to teach world history almost exclusively through octopus maps! Or at least nineteenth- and twentieth-century history: the creature does not seem to have been used as a metaphorical device before 1870. I searched in vain for a map or caricature depicting Napoleon as an octopus but could not find one, which is incredulous:  few rulers deserve an octopus map to represent their regimes more than the little Corsican!  There’s nothing too terribly original about this post: octopus maps have captured the attention of several bloggers before me (also see here), but I can’t resist putting my own take out there.

1870 marks a turning point in European and world history with the unification of Germany (as well as Italy):  Europe was now “filled out” and further territorial ambitions could only be satisfied by global imperialism and/or war.  The maps from this time forward reflect this jingoism and fear, but anthropomorphic satire dulls the edge. One of the first major octopus maps, Fred Rose’s “Serio-Comic War Map For The Year 1877” shows Russia as the octopus-aggressor rather than Germany, even though the Crimean War had revealed the severe weaknesses of the Russian Empire (this is reflected on the map below by wound on one of the octopus’ tentacles–that which is located in the proximity of the Crimea). From the British perspective that this map represents, it’s a bit early to portray Germany as the aggressor, and so Russia becomes either the ferocious bear or the reaching octopus.

Octopus Map 1877

F.W. Rose, “A Serio-Comic Map of the Year 1877”, London:  G.W. Bacon & Co., British Library; (an earlier Dutch map at the University of Amsterdam upon which this map is based is identical except for the wounded tentacle).

A later Rose map, even more obviously depicting the British perspective, is “John Bull and his Friends” from 1900 in which John Bull (Great Britain) faces a continent full of hostile, disinterested, or preoccupied “friends” and an even more threatening octopus-Russia, reaching out in all directions. On the eve of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), a Japanese take on the Serio-Comic map shifts the focus decidedly eastward and portrays Russia as the “black octopus”. And for a completely contrary view, a Japanese print self-identifies with the octopus after the war commenced with the Battle of Port Arthur.

Octopus Map 1900

japan propaganda map 1904

Octopus Japan 1904 Port Arthur

F.W. Rose, “John Bull and his Friends:  a Serio-Comic Map of Europe”, London: G.W. Bacon & Co., 1900; K. Ohara, “A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia”, 1904; “Tako no asirai”, The Japanese Octopus of Port Arthur, 1904,  Library of Congress.

In addition to aggression and domination, whether threatened or realized, the octopus is just the perfect symbol, visual metaphor, avatar of imperialism, and the period between 1870 and 1914 was the golden age of the “new” imperialism, in which Europeans divided up the world, eager to get their piece before Britain gobbled it all up. Consequently there are probably more images portraying John Bull as the octopus rather than John Bull confronting the octopus, like this famous American cartoon, which was published in Punch in 1882.

Devilfish map

Anonymous American cartoon, “The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters”, 1882:  John Bull makes a grab for Egypt, initiating the “Scramble for Africa”.

The octopus was not just used externally to criticize an opposing or competitive nation’s policies but also internally on a partisan basis, particularly in America and Britain. This particular sea creature can symbolize greed just as well as territorial expansion, and this was a gilded age as well as an age of imperialism. Consequently we see octopuses portraying greedy capitalistic monopolists  and associated special interests, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, Puck magazine illustrator Udo Keppler used the octopus to characterize Standard Oil in 1904 and President Wilson’s fight for “business freedom” a decade later, while in Britain its use was more literally land-based:  as a Socialist critique of urban “landlordism” around London just prior to World War I, and to depict urban sprawl from a traditional planning perspective.

Octopus Keppler Puck 1904

Octopus Keppler Puck 1914

Octopus Landlordism

Octopus and England 1928

Udo Keppler octopus illustrations for Puck magazine, 1904 & 1914, Library of Congress; W. B. Northrup’s “Landlordism” postcard and book cover of Clough Williams-Ellis’s England and the Octopus (1928), British Library.

As the octopus was a well-recognized symbol of aggression by the time that World War I broke out, it was only natural that it would appear on several anti-Germany maps.  The English and French maps below, from 1915 and 1917 respectively, both single out Prussian aggression, an indication that the militaristic reputation of the new Germany’s northernmost region was still relevant, and the second one (“war is the national industry of Prussia”) is explicitly racist, with its German “hun” looming very large indeed.

Octopus Map 1915 University of Toronto

Octopus Map French 1917

The “Prussian Octopus” (1915; University of Toronto) and “La Guerre est l’industrie Nationale de la Prusse” (1917; Library of Congress).

There’s an easy transition to the propaganda maps of World War II,when both sides used octopuses to put forward their points of view. Hitler is obviously an easy octopus, as the title and cover of a prescient book published by a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly  in 1938–just before the Germans moved into Czechoslovakia–boldly asserted.  Henry C. Wolfe was trying to wake up the west and he used the octopus to do it.

Octopus German Wolfe

Once the war began, the very clever German propaganda machine issued an anti-British poster from the perspective of France, which they had occupied:  Winston Churchill as octopus reaches out toward French colonial possessions in Africa and the Middle East, echoing the imperial competition of the later nineteenth century. The bleeding tentacles–the amputations– indicate that Germany is preventing an English takeover of the French empire, even as it occupies France itself!

Octopus Map Churchill 1942 Vichy France

“Have Faith”: German anti-British propaganda poster, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

As you can imagine, when the real war is over and the Cold War commences, the octopus continues to flourish as a symbol of rampant (anti-American) capitalism and rampant (anti-Soviet) communism, as well as rampant consumerism, evangelical Christianity and Islam, and a host of other perceived threats. However, cephapodal cartography is not subtle, and I think it lost much of its resonance in the later twentieth-century world, after the very literal 1950s.

Octopus Red 1950

British Economic League anti-Communist pamphlet, Archives of the Trades Union Congress and Warwick University Cold War Archive.

Now octopuses are rather whimsical, rather than threatening. I superimposed one on a cropped frame of a beautiful 1771 map of Salem and its vicinity and found it charming rather than ominous:  what would they have been afraid of then?  Definitely redcoats and tax collectors.  What are we afraid of now?

Map of Salem enlarged


On Gossamer Gowns

As part of my own little Inauguration celebration, I’ve been looking at the Smithsonian’s collection of Inaugural ballgowns of our past and present First Ladies and one thing is clear: the lighter in color and more crystalline the fabric, the more timeless the dress. Nellie Taft, one of my very favorite First Ladies (think cherry trees, subtle support for the Suffragettes and attendance at the opposition Democratic National Convention to quell criticism of her husband) and the first to walk in the Inaugural Day parade alongside her husband and donate her ballgown to the Smithsonian, started the trend with her embellished white silk dress, and those First Ladies who chose more vibrant frocks pale by example. Certainly Mrs. Obama followed Mrs. Taft’s example with her 2009 Jason Wu gown–a century later.

Inaugural gown Nellie Taft 1909

Helen Taft                  53791/ 12858

Inaugural gown of M Obama

Mrs. Taft in her 1909 Inaugural ballgown (Library of Congress), and the gown in the Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibition, along with the Jason Wu gown worn by Mrs. Obama in 2009. Though Mrs. Taft’s dress has discolored with time, both dresses are made of white silk chiffon.

I don’t have any historical evidence, but it seems to me that two more fashionable First Ladies were mindful of Mrs. Taft’s example when they chose their Inaugural ballgowns:  Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Reagan, twenty years apart. Both ladies chose gowns that were creamy and embellished, regal and ethereal.

Inaugural Gown of Mrs. Kennedy

Inaugural gown of Mrs. Reagan

The Bergdorf Goodman gown of Mrs. Kennedy (1961) and the James Galanos gown of Mrs. Reagan (1981), Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

Two First Ladies who abandoned the Taft tradition for their first Inaugural balls and then reverted to form for their second galas were Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush. The fashion parallels seem striking with these two ladies!  Both picked lesser-known designers from their home states and bright partisan colors for their first Inaugural gowns–Democratic blue for Mrs. Clinton and Republican red for Mrs. Bush–and then chose more neutral gossamer gowns in gold and silver by Oscar de la Renta for their second balls, in 1997 and 2005, respectively, making them look above-the-fray, transcendent.

Inaugural Collage Clinton

Inaugural Collage Bush

Mrs. Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural gown was not really neutral, but rather (and of course) pink and with a distinct 1950s silhouette. Still, I think its 2000 rhinestones render it rather regal–and it is pale pink. I think it might be my favorite, even though it is not as timeless as the columns that came before and after.

Inaugural ballgown of Mrs. Eisenhower 1953

Mrs. Eisenhower’s Nettie Rosenstein Inaugural ballgown, 1953, Smithsonian Institution First Ladies Exhibition.

While looking for Mrs. Johnson’s Inaugural gown, I had a happy surprise.  Lady Bird wore a buttery yellow, very 1960s satin gown to the 1965 Inaugural ball, but four years earlier, just before President Kennedy’s Inauguration, she and her daughters posed in their gowns:  on the right, Lynda Bird Johnson is wearing my wedding dress:  the same Harvey Berin dress that I bought from a Boston vintage dealer years ago. It’s really fun to see it on her.

AP6101~2

Lady Bird Johnson with her daughters Luci Baines Johnson, left,  and Lynda Bird Johnson, right (in my dress!), 1961. Getty Images.

One last Inaugural gown:  this one worn by a mere guest rather than a First Lady. Actually, I don’t think the word mere is appropriate when referring to someone who wore this gown:  the “Four Leaf Clover” gown designed by Charles James for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. to wear to the 1953 Eisenhower Inaugural ball. Too conspicuous and architectural for a First Lady, perhaps, but WOW.

Inaugural Gown by Charles James 1953

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953.


Absinthe Accessories

Since its (re-) legalization a few years ago, I have somehow acquired three bottles of absinthe. I found them while I was cleaning out the liquor cabinet the other day, all largely untapped. I think I tried a few sips, and a few more cocktails, and then put all three bottles on the top shelf and forgot about them. Even though it comes in my favorite color green, is made of one of my favorite herbs (wormwood–which grows vigorously in my garden every summer), and I find its long history fascinating, I cannot seem to acquire a taste for la Fée Verte. Maybe it’s too strong for me, maybe I just haven’t found the right cocktail recipe (please forward if you have one), and maybe I just don’t have the right stuff: my tea strainer is clearly no substitute for an absinthe spoon, and my sherry glass can’t compete with the Pontarlier glass of the proper absinthe set-up. And then there are special fountains, decanters, seltzer bottles, sugar tongs, and saucers:  the Absinthe Ritual was quite a production.

Absinthe service

Absinthe Drinkers 1910

A contemporary absinthe service and the absinthe ritual in 1910:  photograph from the Virtual Absinthe Museum, a great site for all things absinthe.

I do like the slotted spoons:  they were made in many different designs and seem to be quite collectible. I’m sure most of them have been serving as pie knives for the last century or so. With the lifting of  the ban on absinthe and the diffusion of steampunk culture (which seems to give absinthe pride of place, right of there with gears and octopuses), new absinthe accessories are also being produced, including all manner of spoons.  The possibilities are endless.

Absinthe spoons

Green Fairy Absinthe Spoon Etsy

A selection of antique absinthe spoons from Absinthe Originals; Green Fairy Wing Absinthe Spoon by Etsy seller DangerAwesomeLasers.

The other type of absinthia (it is a word) that seems to be very collectible are images. Obviously the café paintings produced by nearly every French Belle Epoque artist are out of reach, but there was also a lot of more ephemeral absinthe art produced in the period as well:  posters, photographs, cards. I particularly like the posters produced around 1910, when a fierce debate was being waged over the Green Fairy. Advocates for and against the prohibition of absinthe put out very compelling images, like these posters below. In the first one, published by A.H. Gantner is Switzerland in 1910, a menacing man representing the coalition of religion and medicine (strange to have faith and science on one side!) is literally skewering the green fairy and Swiss freedom at the same time. That was the central pro-Absinthe argument at the time:  temperance is anti-freedom, not just freedom to drink absinthe, but civil liberties in general. Five years after absinthe was banned in Switzerland, France followed suit, and an Audino poster from 1915 presented the Green Fairy as Joan of Arc, burning at the stake while her ghostly Swiss sister looked on. In the last image, an advertisement for a 1913 film titled Absinthe produced by the Gem Motion Picture Company in New York, an absinthe addict stares at the evil substance, mesmerized.

L0030543 An evil man, representing medicine and religion (?), gloats

Absinthe Suppression in France 1915

L0038329 An absinthe addict eyeing three glasses on a table;

Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London.

Well I think I’ve gone off on a tangent:  the suppression of absinthe is another subject altogether, really, as is its early history, before the nineteenth century, when it was perceived as medicinally beneficial rather than addictive and destructive (as well as pleasurable).  I’m talking about stuff today. Though I haven’t acquired a taste for absinthe, I do like its smell (and color), especially as contained in my candle from Witch City Wicks.

Absinthe candle


Salem Murder Mystery

For some time I’ve been curious about the death of a patent-holding, pioneering Salem photographer named George K. Proctor in 1882:  I’m not sure whether he died by his own hand, or that of his wife, so while his death might not have been murder, it remains a mystery to me (and I could not resist the dramatic title).

First a little about his life. Proctor operated what looks like a successful photography business here in Salem from the early 1860s until his death. Part of his success was no doubt due to his marketing techniques, and part due to the process for which he received a patent (no. 83,545) in 1868 for an artificially-lighted, oval-shaped photographic room which allowed photographs to be taken with a 15-second exposure, day or night. His studio on Essex Street produced tintypes and stereoviews upon commission and for sale, including this charming portrait of an anonymous woman, captured early in Proctor’s career (and at the very beginning of the Civil War).

Proctor 1861

Proctor 1861 back

G.K. Proctor, Anonymous Woman, 1861, Salem, Massachusetts.  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The instant I saw this image I wanted to know more about this woman, and the man who captured her on film. Sadly, I haven’t been able to turn up anything on her, and just a bit more on Proctor. He was a prolific photographer (or photographist, as he is sometimes called) so many of his images survive, but most of the literary and documentary evidence of his life is primarily concerned with his death. Before I get into that, a few more of his images, which do seem to fall into two categories:  the tintype portraits like that of the woman with the Mona Lisa smile above, and stereoviews of scenes that he captured while traveling around the region in his special photographic van and marketed in collections entitled “Views of Salem and Vicinity” and  “American Views”.  The Chestnut Street header at the top of my blog is a Proctor view, as are those below, all from the Dennis collection of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Proctor Essex Street

Proctor Students

Proctor Funeral Car NYPD

Essex Street, Salem, unidentified students (and their teacher?) on the steps of their unidentified school, and the interior of a Peabody funeral car, 1870s stereoviews by G.K. Proctor, NYPL Digital Gallery.

With this last (strange) image providing some sort of segue, I’ll turn to the circumstances of his death in 1882. Mr. Proctor was found unconscious in the basement of his home (I’m not sure of the address:  according to the Salem Registers, he and his family seem to have moved between Endicott, Essex and Bridge Streets every two years or so but in 1882 they appear to have been living on Dodge Street) by his wife Sarah on the morning of July 27, 1882. She summoned the authorities, who confirmed that he was dead. From that point on, I followed the story in the New York Times, which was much more forthcoming than the local papers. The original judgment of natural causes quickly turned to suspicions of suicide and/or murder. And Mrs. Proctor quickly became the prime suspect.

Proctor NY TIMES 1882

And what did the District Attorney decide to do?  According to The New York Times, Sarah Proctor was arrested for the murder of her husband some two and a half years later. In a short article headlined Charged with her Husband published on February 2, 1885, the Times reported:

Proctor New York Times February 3 1885

So I expected to find a trial, but instead all I have found is a brief note in the 1886 Annual Report of the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons indicating that the case of Mrs. Proctor, indicted on charges of murdering her husband, was discharged by the state Attorney General. No details, no explanations as to why, no news of a longlost suicide note finally brought to light!  That same year, there was another legal action involving Sarah Proctor: a suit brought against her by her daughter Lilla (Proctor v. Proctor, 141 Mass. 160) referencing money rather than murder. Lilla, who was a minor, had nevertheless removed herself from her mother’s house (now in Beverly), moved in with her aunt in nearby Malden, and become engaged. There was an accusation that Sarah “was not maintaining an establishment or family home”, and several references to the “difficulties” that existed between mother and daughter, but basically what Lilla wanted was her promised inheritance, or one-third of Proctor’s estate, which was still under the control of Sarah and her fellow trustees. The judge ruled in Lilla’s favor, and there is no further mention of either of them in the legal records. I am left wondering why, and how, the charges against Sarah Proctor were dismissed, and what, or who, caused George K. Proctor’s death.

Appendix: see another charming Proctor tintype portrait here.


%d bloggers like this: