Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Charm of Chimney Sweeps

It is somewhat difficult to comprehend how chimney sweeps–soot-covered, often very young boys who were virtually enslaved to climb up and down narrow flues, brush in hand–could be transformed into good luck charms in the later nineteenth century, but if you examine more than a handful of vintage New Year’s postcards, especially those from central and northern Europe, you will see them there, along with four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, mushrooms, pigs, and occasionally cats. Only in the British and American traditions do you see Father Time, and the infant new year, and numbers, and because Germany was so dominant in the greeting card industry at the turn of the last century their Schornsteinfeger turn up on cards made for those markets as well.  I understand the whole sweeping out the old year message, as well as the basic assurance of a clean chimney (especially now, with my new ones rising!) but that’s about all. The dissonance between the grim reality of one of the dirtiest jobs anywhere, anytime and its artistic representation on greeting cards from the 1880s onward is pretty glaring, as sweeps are depicted in elegant art nouveau compositions, as well as more commercial creations, as laughing, clean children of both genders. And then of course there is the sexy chimney sweep, again of either gender, with the masculine variety usually corrupting (dirtying) some naive chambermaid, and the feminine variety distinguished by her (lack of, form-fitting) dress. The only things that identify all these sweeps as such are their ever-present ladders and/or brushes.

Chimney Sweep Art Nouveau Card

Chimney Sweep MFA Card

Chimney Sweep Gnomes Card

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Austrian New Year’s Postcards, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As you can see from the images below, the angelic (whitewashed) little chimney sweeper sweeping in the New Year became a bit standardized in the 1910s and 1920s, and if the text message wasn’t enough, the addition of other good luck symbols–and even the very American champagne bottle–drove home the message. The very distinctive red-and-white-spotted “red fly” mushrooms (amanita muscaria) are ever-present on New Year’s postcards, even those that don’t feature chimney sweeps, and once again, I’m not precisely sure why. This species of mushroom is credited with both poisonous and hallucinogenic qualities, neither of which translate into good luck (or maybe it is good luck if you don’t eat them), but they were also used as insecticides in some parts of Europe I believe, so maybe there is another “clearing out” connection. Later in the twentieth century, both the chimney sweeps and the toadstools get a bit more abstract and a bit less cute, but they’re still there.

Chimney Sweeps Postcards

Chimney Sweep Skating Scenep

Chimney Sweep Estonian 1960 Playles Card

A Selection of New Year’s Postcards from the teens and 1920s available here; Skating scene sourced here; an Estonian card from the later 1950s from here.

The Lucky Chimney Sweep tradition varies quite a bit as you move westward in Europe: I couldn’t really find much of a trace in France and in Great Britain it is more associated with the occasion of weddings than the New Year. I have found several sweep motifs among the New Year’s postcards of Britain’s most prolific publisher, Raphael Tuck & Sons, but they were manufactured in Austria:  I imagine a somewhat confused British audience. Given all the horrific stories about the “climbing boys” in Britain, including the well-publicized death of a 12-year-old boy named George Brewster in 1875 which led to the passage of a Parliamentary bill prohibiting the use of such “apprentices” in the same year, it’s hard to see how chimney sweeps could be considered charmed or charming (even with the innocuous images below). John Leighton’s depiction of a shivering and suffering sweep (perhaps from the dreaded Chimney Sweeps’ cancer or “soot wart” though that generally appeared later in life) on a doctor’s doorstep, packaged with what can only be the sarcastic greeting A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, is a more realistic sign of the times.

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Chimney Sweep Cat Tuck

Raphael Tuck & Sons postcards at TuckDB; John Leighton’s Chimney Sweep, c. 1850, at Wellcome Library Images.


Books for my Winter Break

Late December and January is a key reading time for me: I’ve been teaching a lot in the summers over the past few years and I can seldom read much during the semester, so the next three weeks or so are really crucial to my instinct and ability to consume information for both work and pleasure. I compile a list all year long and this week I start working through it. Often I will read a book a day, but if a particular text doesn’t really capture my attention I will set it aside for later–usually bedtime–and pick up a new one. I want to be absorbed in what I am reading, and if I’m not–if the book is too dry or too abstract or too much of a choppy reference work–I will still finish it, but incrementally. Consequently there’s quite a stack of books beside my bed at this time of year. Only occasionally do I delve into fiction: I wish I could read more stories because their ability to absorb is potentially greater than nonfiction works, but I don’t really care for contemporary characterizations and historical novels often annoy me. That leaves the classics, and I really should put more on my list–something besides Austen and Poe and the usual suspects. But this is what I have for this year.

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Books Empire of Cotton Cover

Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen is definitely a reference work but I saw the companion exhibition at the Boston Public Library and the maps are endlessly interesting and I want them for myself! Plus, this is a work in which the narrative is based on the maps rather than using maps as mere illustrations of the narrative. Another “pick-up” book, but one that I know I will pick up often, is Caroline Seebohm’s Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, with photographs by Curtice Taylor. Andrea Wulf writes accessible books about the history of science and horticulture: The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (a rather ambitious title) is her latest. I’ve got to get back in my world history game, and commodity history does that better than anything, so Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. A Global History is on my list.

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Books to refresh my courses: I’m sure I will enjoy them, but I also need to read them, as I’ve got an undergraduate Tudor-Stuart course to teach next semester and a graduate Elizabethan course in the summer. Two books by Peter Elmer–I’ve always been interested in Valentine Greatrakes, if only for his name.

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Strange Business Cover

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NEWLY DISCOVERED FAIRY TALES!!! I don’t think I need to say any more about this book’s appeal. I love books about the art MARKET, so these two look very interesting to me–I’ve already started James Hamilton’s Strange Business and it has hooked me. I really like books about art thefts and forgeries too–please forward suggestions if you have them. And finally, below, a Bloomsbury-ish trio: one of the few novels I did read in this past year was Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister about the complicated relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in the midst of the Bloomsbury set. It made me curious about these interesting and rather self-indulgent people, who were so amazingly fluid in terms of sexuality, morals, and creative expression: are they worth more of my time? (Dorothy Parker is said to have quipped, “Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles”) I think so, for now, so I’m going to start with Jane Dunn’s Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. A Very Close Conspiracy and then move on to several books by Vanessa’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson: Among the Bohemians. Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 and  (with her father Quentin Bell) Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden.

Christmas without Stockings

Our stockings were hung on the mantle with care but I wore no stockings with my Christmas dress:  it was far too hot! It was 69 degrees by my last observation, the warmest Christmas in greater Boston since 1932. That’s a bit deceptive though, as I did a little research (weather history–now there’s a rabbit hole!) and found that Christmases in the high 50s/low 60s degree range were not all that uncommon in the twentieth century. There were windows open throughout the house, I was cooking with the back door open, we had drinks and appetizers out in the backyard. People wanted to spend time outside, so the usual mid-afternoon Christmas feast was pushed up to evening, along with the presents. So many thoughtful ones, including a cocktail shaker shaped like a 1950s rocket from my stepson and a necklace with a propeller charm from my husband—and new chimneys, of course. The only low point of the day was a jammed (by me, and too many potato peelings) garbage disposal, for the third year in a row. Like clockwork.

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Christmas 2015: out back and front, a green and misty morning giving way to sun, oysters outside, Bette Davis’s adorable hat in The Man who came to Dinner (1942), too sunny for Christmas dinner!


Chimneys, Mantles & Mice

I just finished sweeping up the last bits of mortar and plaster dust in the house, the consequences of some oddly-timed house projects: a major rebuilding of two of our towering chimneys and some minor plastering and painting in our central hallway. So after I clean myself up, I’ll be ready for the Christmas festivities! I hope that wherever you are, things are a bit more peaceful, and less dusty–and if it is your preference (it certainly is mine), colder: we are expected to hit 7o degrees on this Christmas Eve, 2015. What an odd year, weather-wise, with Snowmaggedon in February and Christmas in July in December–such extremes are portents of the future, I fear. Before everything gets messed up again, I took some pictures of both inside and outside, decorations and scaffolding. We have a great tree this year, if I do say so myself, but as I find it impossible to photograph Christmas trees I’m not sure you will be able to appreciate its glory. You’ll have to trust me. My mantle decorations are the usual excessive winter wonderland installations. I was inspired this year by two particular creatures: an Asiatic dormouse in the form of an Asian export soup tureen dated 1760 I spotted at the Peabody Essex Museum and a Christmas card featuring a drypoint etching of a rabbit by the artist Bruce North from 1996. Nice mice are hard to find though, and the combination of mice and rabbits made my double parlor look a bit nursery-ish, so I mixed it up a bit with foxes and of course, deer.

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Christmas Inspiration

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Christmas Play

The invention of Christmas as not only a religious and social holiday but also as family time over the course of the nineteenth century meant that people had to find things to do while at home for stretches of time. Imagine what we now call “the Holidays” spent in the company of our extended families with no telephones, televisions, or computers and you can can quickly grasp the need for some form of distraction, occupation, or Christmas “merriment”: songs, tales, but above all, games. The Victorians were great entertainers and also avid consumers of board games, first for educational and later for entertainment purposes, so it only makes sense that they would develop parlor games which were specifically focused on their favorite holiday. The first Christmas game I found actually pre-dated Victoria herself:  Christmas circles : or amusement for the new year. A new game designed to entertain a numerous party, featuring a board of concentric circles consisting of Christmas objects and characters, dates from about 1825. There are tokens but no apparent rules, and in the center of the board said objects and characters are “staged”, suggesting a pantomime at home. This is a London-made game, and given the British propensity for pantomines at holiday time, a domestic version makes sense. Just a few decades later, Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime (As it was, is, and will be…to be played at home) brought pantomimes into the parlor, though accessible illustrations of stock characters.

Christmas Circles VandA

Christmas Pantomines 1849

Pantomimes Harvard

Christmas pantomimes never really caught on on this side of the Atlantic, and I don’t think a Christmas dinner party game called The Feast of Reason. A Christmas Dinner Party Puzzle did either, as I have been able to locate only two copies, one in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum and one which sold to a private buyer at auction a few years ago. Both were published by the Salem firm C. M Whipple and A.A. Smith in 1865, after a charming drawing by the artist William Emmerton (featuring marginalia that looks like a medieval manuscript) and lithography by the J.H. Bufford firm. There are multiple riddles for each course, and I have yet to figure out even one. Later in the century, another Salem producer, Parker Brothers, manufactured several games for Christmas time, including The Santa Claus Game and The Night before Christmas.

Feast of Reason BA

Feast of Reason 2p

Christmas Games Santa Claus Parker Brothers

Christmas Games Parker Brothers 1896 BGG

As the Parker Brothers’ games illustrate, by the twentieth century Christmas games seem to have evolved into children’s games primarily, rather than family or parlor games. There are a few exceptions, but there seems to be a holiday segregation of sorts, with the children preoccupied with gaming and gifts and the adults occupied elsewhere (purchasing, preparing, drinking?). At least everyone comes back together for the feast, followed by a little Crackers merriment, always over in Britain and increasingly over here.

Christmas Game 12 Days

Christmas Crackers V and A

Christmas games:  Christmas Circles, c. 1825, The Twelve Days of Christmas, c. 1950, and Batger’s Crackers, 1920s-30s, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection; Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime, Harvard University; The Feast of Reason, c. 1865, Boston Athenaeum, Parker Brothers’ Santa Claus games, 1890s, National Museum of Play, ©The Strong.


Dancing towards Christmas

A week of events and grading: there is no why to make the latter look enticing or even interesting (though admittedly there is much less of it now that I’m chair, one of the few benefits of that position) so I’ll focus on the former. Over the past week we went to an “audience-driven” theatrical event at the Peabody Essex Museum‘s Gardner-Pingree House, the PEM’s monthly PM evening, themed as “Wassail” for December, and the annual Hamilton Hall Holiday (Christmas) Dance. The first event, All at Once upon a Time, was very special. I must admit that I signed up for it simply so I could spend an hour in the Gardner-Pingree, arguably Salem finest Federal house and Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. It wasn’t every expensive: I would have been willing to spend much, much more simply to stare at those mantels and moldings for an hour. But the experience, for lack of a better word, carried me away from the material world, at least for a bit. The creation of Giselle Ty, a freelance opera and theater director based in London and New York, All at Once consisted of a small cast of seven or eight interacting with an “audience” of fifteen people, engaging in various activities, sketches and performances throughout the house–indeed on every floor. We were led through the house and enticed to listen, observe, read, write, dance, drum, and throughout it all, wonder. Ty is really after wonder, an increasingly rare commodity in this know-everything-instantly information age. The house looked magical, and because none of us were allowed to have phones or cameras I will entice you to click over to see some of John Andrews’ beautiful pictures at his Flikr photostream: he has allowed me to use a couple below but you should see more. Everyone’s experience is a bit different during this happening, so here’s mine:  I listened to a tale of trees in the front parlor, wrote a few lines of poetry in the dining room, unraveled and danced with a ballerina in a second-floor bedroom, and then watched a monkey and bear dance up on the third floor, after which we all danced with all of the cast. Then downstairs through the kitchen (with a Rumford Roaster!!!) to where we began. Later in the week, the PEM’s Wassail included traditional music (including the fifteenth-century Boars Head Carol) and dancing, and provided another opportunity to view the exhibition of  Native Fashion Now. The week was capped off by the Hamilton Hall Christmas (Holiday) Dance, preceded by a lovely pre-dinner party by one of the Dance’s patronesses at another one of Salem’s elegant Federal houses. I’m feeling very fortunate this morning, and still trying dust off some of the silver glitter in which I doused myself last night!

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Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

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Dancing Hamilton Hall

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The Week’s Festivities: photographs of Gabrielle Ty’s All at Once Upon a Time at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Gardner-Pingree House courtesy of John Andrews of Creative Salem and Social Palates photography; Morris Dancers at PEM’s Wassail and formal attire from Native Fashion Now; fabulous skirt at a fabulous pre-Christmas Dance dinner party and the Christmas (Holiday) Dance at Hamilton Hall. I can never capture the actual dancing!

 


Seeing Red

It’s finals week and getting reading for Christmas week so please excuse a few short posts. My house is not quite ready yet, but the rest of Salem is draped in red. No white Christmas this year for sure–we’ve had several 60 degree days this month and the forecast looks brown, even green, as the warm weather has resulted in some startling regrowth out there–much of my garden looks like it is still alive! I know you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Hamilton Hall here, as it’s right next door and a site of constant activity and attraction for me, but I popped in to see it decorated for the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance but I’m still going to call it the Christmas Dance) this weekend. It looks lovely, better empty really though I do love the Dance.

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Downtown: Santa getting ready to ride, beautiful red berries in the Derby House garden, red door on Mall Street; next door at Hamilton Hall, exterior and interior.


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