Category Archives: Culture

Considerations on Color

I teach what is commonly known as the “Scientific Revolution” in several of my courses, and I always endeavor to expose my students to the broad range of the “new science” in the seventeenth century as they tend to have a very narrow view of what this revolution entailed. We come to the topic from very different perspectives: for them, it’s all about the heliocentric universe (conception, proof, acceptance? I’m not sure which); for me, it’s about nothing less than a new conception of truth and a new methodology of inquiry. To demonstrate its truly revolutionary impact, I stress the universality of this methodology by exposing them to the range and variety of “ingenious pursuits”, encompassing everything from botany to medicine to chemistry to mechanics to navigation and from the theoretical to the practical. I’m a bit more interested in the latter–and that’s what I’m studying during this sabbatical–but sometimes it’s hard to separate the two approaches: a case in point is Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colourswhich was first published in 1664. Boyle is primarily known for his pioneering work in chemistry and physics, but his interests were varied: like his contemporary Isaac Newton, he also experimented with alchemy. As its title indicates, Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours consists of experiments and observations which “enquire seriously into the Nature of Colours, and assist in the investigation of it [them]”, and his empirical data consists of examples of craftsmen creating color, including the English dyers who had perfected the process of transforming a red acid extracted from the American cochineal insect into scarlet and crimson dyes: and voilà, Redcoats! (Well a bit later). It is these intersections of “science”, industry and art that really demonstrate the spirit of inquiry in the seventeenth century.

COnsiderations of Color

Wright, John Michael, 1617-1694; Mary Fairfax, Duchess of BuckinghamFirst edition of the Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour, 1664, Skinner Auctions; The Duchess of Buckingham with her crimson wrap, after 1659, York Museums Trust.

Just two years later, Robert Waller, another fellow of the Royal Society (which we should remember was very interested in technology as well as theoretical science) published a really cool color chart in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. As you can read below, Waller had seen a “table of simple colors” some years previous but was resolved to “give a more philosophical and useful one by the addition of some mixt colors”. The vocabulary is similar to that of medicines–simple and compound–and like materia medica, everything was composed from nature but man was starting to amplify the process of production—or creation.

Creating Colors Waller 2

Creating Color Waller

Color Chart 1686Robert Weller, Tabula colorum physiologica (Table of Physiological Colors), Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1666.

And then there is the remarkable Dutch manuscript brought to (internet) light by the book historian Erik Kwakkel a few years ago containing a “proto-Pantone” code of colors: the Treatise on Colors for Water Painting (1692) by A. Boogert. A single and singular copy forgotten and full of the most amazing colors and color compositions, this book set the design world on fire back in 2014—understandably so.

color-guide-960x731

Color Chart 1690sA. Boogert, Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale/Bibliothèque Méjanes, MS 1389 (1228). Photographs by Erik Kwakkel.


“The Beautifying Part of Physic”

I’m diving deep into early modern recipes this month, and as the term recipe was not reserved for the culinary realm during this time that means instructions for all sorts of things: health, hygiene, magic, preservation, and cosmetics, or the “beautifying part of physic” according to one of the first books devoted exclusively to made beauty: Johan Wecker’s Cosmeticks (1660). Wecker’s categorization of cosmetics was in alignment with the contemporary understanding of the body and its operation, best expressed by Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning earlier in the seventeenth century:  the knowledge that concerneth man’s body is divided as the good of man’s body is divided, unto which it referreth. The good of man’s body is of four kinds, Health, Beauty, Strength and Pleasure: so the knowledges are Medicine, or the art of Cure; art of Decoration, which is called Cosmetic; art of Activity, which is called Athletic; and art Voluptuary, which Tacitus truly calleth eruditus luxus [refined luxury?]. This subject of man’s body is of all other things in nature most susceptible of remedy; but then that remedy is most susceptible of error. What cosmetic remedies does Wecker offer? Here’s the title page and his own summary of its contents:

Cosmeticks

Cosmetics Contents

As you can read, this book offers a lot: all deformities of Nature corrected, age renewed, youth prolonged, the least impediment amended. I am wondering if it was “promised to the world” by the prominent physician Nicholas Culpepper; I assume that’s just an advertising ploy. The egalitarian pitch (every one may be his own apothecary) is contradicted by many of the valuable ingredients of the recipes within, but there are also some very simple recipes with basic ingredients—essentially there are hierarchies of recipes for the same goal: whiter skin, smoother skin, spot-free skin, fairer hair, more hair in some places, less in others, a sweeter-smelling body. Women should have rose-water on hand at all times, and lots of lemons, the occasional pineapple, and be prepared to devote many eggs to their beauty regimens.

Cosmetics collage

A few skin-whitening recipes are above, with reference in one to the legendary ceruse, the white-lead concoction which all of my students think Queen Elizabeth I slathered on her face every single day to hide her smallpox scars and project majesty and Virgin Mary-ness, thanks to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). We don’t have a lot of evidence for this cosmetic fable (see here), and I can’t find recipes for ceruse in any of the likely seventeenth-century texts, perhaps because it was purchased as a ready-made commodity (especially the preferred Venetian variety), or it was too much of a target for the anti-paint Puritans. I did find a Royal Society recipe of sorts (more like an industrial process) in a charming twentieth-century book about the history of cosmetics, Neville Williams’ Powder and Paint. A History of the Englishwoman’s Toilet, Elizabeth I—Elizabeth II (1957), but most of the cosmetic creams referenced in seventeenth-century recipe books featured the less-dangerous and -expensive “bear’s grease”(or that of any animal, but usually pigs) rather than ceruse. The marvellous Hannah Woolley’s skin waters, ointments and creams echo those of Wecker: even though some of her recipes are equally elaborate, it seems that “beautifying” is more about pampering (and removing) than paint (and adorning). Don’t get me started on patches–they are a whole other story.

Cosmetics Williams

Woolley 1685.jpgBeinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

A recipe for an excellent “Pomatum”, to clear the Skin, from Hannah Woolley’s The accomplish’d ladies delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery : containing I, The art of preserving and candying … II, The physical cabinet, or, Excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery, together with some rare beautifying waters … and also … The art of angling. III, The compleat cooks guide ((1685).

Wash Barrows-grease, or [pig] Lard often-times in May-dew that hath been Clarified in the Sun, till it be exceeding white, then take Marsh-mallow-Roots, scraping off the out-sides, make thin slices of them, set them to macerate in a Balneo, and scum it well till it be Clarified, and will come to rope, then strain it, and put now and then a spoonfull of May-dew therein, beating it till it be through cold in often change of May-dew; then throw away that Dew, and put in a Glass, covering it with May-dew, and so keep it for your Use.


Remarkable Roots

Fair warning: this blog is going into a very random phase, even more random than usual. Normally around this time of year I would have some sort of Labor Day or “Back to School” post, but as I have just started a sabbatical I am unaccountable to any calendar but that of my own projects–of which I have several. I might post on these occasionally, or I might use the blog to take a break from scholarship. Faithful readers know how I feel about Salem’s ever-intensifying Haunted Happenings, so know not to count on me for any October coverage: last year I got out of town for six straight weekends from September to November and that worked very well for my piece of mind. That’s the standard advice offered to anyone who is critical of Halloween in Salem—embrace it or leave town; you know what you were getting into–but in my case it is actually good advice! Fortunately my study is way up on the third floor of our house–and in back, overlooking the garden rather than the street–so when I’m not traveling I can hide away, far from the maddening crowds. So that’s the setting for the next few months, and I’m not sure what I’ll come up with for this space/place. Today is a good case in point: I was looking into the medical use of several plants in the sixteenth century, including artemisia and byrony, and found myself among the digitized manuscripts of the British Library. One manuscript in particular, Giovanni Cadamosto’s Herbal with accompanying treatises on food, poisons, remedies, and the properties of stones (MS Harley 3736; late 15th or early 16th century) provided me with a little escape/break, mostly because of the amazing roots of several of the plants illustrated within.

Scary Root Antora

Scary Roots Brionia

Scary Roots Colstanga

Scary Roots Corrola P

Scary Roots Dragonhead

Scary Roots F

Scary Roots Jordana

Scary Roots Mandrake

Scary Roots M

Scary Roots Morsb Serpen

Scary Roots Polma chi

I am familiar with this manuscript, but I never realized just how many fantastic roots it contained: suddenly that’s all I could see! We all know about that of the magical Mandrake, of course, but that’s just one of eleven by my count. Anthropomorphism always interests me, but in this case it’s a bit perplexing, as this text represents a more realistic Renaissance attempt to draw from nature rather than just relying on traditional motifs. These roots contradict that naturalism, but then again we’re in that transitional time, when a bit (or more) of whimsy could be retained. I’m still working on the plant identifications: “Antora” might by a yellow variety of aconitum or monkshood, “Dragontea” might be dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, and “Palma Christi” must be the castor bean plant, which went by that common designation.


Watered Down

Salem is such a foodie/libations town now; I’m surprised there is so little culinary history served up. With countless restaurants, several bakeries and food shops, one brewery and another on the way, a cidery and distillery—all very busy—you would think there would be an ongoing audience for deep dives into the historical production and distribution of foodstuffs and beverages, but the only serious purveyors of such presentations (with ample samples!) are Salem Food Tours, and their affiliated attraction, the Salem Spirits Trolley, which runs in October. Good for them, but I think there’s room for more food-and-drink history, because Salem is not just a foodie town now; it always has been. The Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a brewing-themed event this week for which several area brewers have produced beverages based on the Museum’s collections: but only those collections that are right here in Salem so that’s not much to go on—the results must be somewhat watered-down if historical inspiration is the objective. A few trips up to the almighty Collection Center in Rowley and its encased Phillips Library would reveal more sources and more inspiration: here are some avenues of exploration that look particularly promising:

Women Brewers & Tavern-Keepers: there seem to have been quite a few in Salem!  One old Salem source that is quoted in all of the books about early American taverns and libations (quite a large genre) is a bill presented to the Parish Committee of the East Church for “Punch, Flip, Sangrey, etc.” by Abigail Brown, Tavern Keeper in 1767, and when Katherine Clarke inherited the Ship’s Tavern, one of Salem’s first, from her husband in 1645 she was licensed to keep it as long as she found a “fit man yt is godlie to manage the business”. Hannah Lemon Beadle also became the keeper of her family’s tavern on Essex Street following her husband’s death a bit later in the seventeenth-century, before it became the site of Witch Trial interrogations in 1692. 10 boxes of inn, tavern & retail licenses will yield lots of more information about just who was selling what.

Salem Spirits

Beadle's Tavern New England Magazine, 1892.

Spruce Beer. Logic tells me that Salem would have been a big producer of Colonial North America’s major contribution to the global world of beer, spruce beer, which compensated for shortages of both barley and hops in the New World and at the same time was recognized as a cure for scurvy. It was increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Dr. Bentley refers to it in his diary, and Jane Austen in her letters. It’s generally referred to as a home or “family” brew, however, so I supposed it was not produced commercially. I think there were alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and it seems to have been particularly popular in the summer. Here is General Jeffrey Amherst’s (of smallpox infamy) recipe:

Salem Spirits Spruce Beer

And here is Amelia Simmons’ recipe, with hops, from American Cookery (1796): it is notable that this is the only beverage recipe in the acclaimed “first” truly American cookbook:

Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissol|ved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bot|tle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.

What’s in the mix? I suspect that a lot of brewing was home-based so it might be in the “black box” which historians cannot open, but the Phillips Library has manuscript and printed recipe collections which might yield some interesting intructions for all sorts of beverages. The most comprehensive of the latter seem to be Joseph Coppinger’s American Practical Brewer and Tanner (1815) and MacKenzie’s five thousand receipts in all the useful and domestic arts: constituting a complete practical library … : a new American, from the latest London edition (1829), but there are “small beer” recipes in many contemporary cookbooks. Beer is seldom advertised before the later nineteenth-century: I looked through the Salem Gazette and found every single beverage BUT beer referenced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, although Mr. Ropes (below) was always in the market for barley!

Salem Spirits American Practical Brewer

Salem Spirits Mackenzie's 5000 Reciepts Phillips

Spirit collage

There are more references to beer when it is mixed with something else: as in flip (which Abigail Brown furnished to the East Church Parish Council), the famous and “terrible” Salem drink Whistle Belly Vengeance, Bogus or Calibogus (spruce beer with rum), and Rattle-Skull ( dark rum and/or brandy and beer). Rum improved everything, of course, including cider (Stone-Wall or Stone-Fence).

Where are all the Tavern signs? I’ve got to admit that I’m as much, or more,  interested in the material culture of taverns as the consumption–especially tavern signs. Salem tavern licenses were granted with the requirement that “there be sett up in some inoffensive sign obvious ways for direction to strangers”, and apparently signs for The Sun and the Bunch of Grapes once existed in the collections of the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, but all I can find are Washington Hotel signs at present: as you can imagine, Washington taverns and hostelries were as common in every American town as Washington streets in the nineteenth century.

Washington collagePeabody Essex Museum and Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach and Tavern Days (1900).


A Displaced Doorway

It’s August, so we’re coming up on the day a year ago when the Peabody Essex Museum quite suddenly closed the doors of its temporary Phillips Library facility in Peabody and issued an ominous and mysterious statement that the Library would be opening up in a “new location” in the spring. In December, the Museum announced admitted that this new permanent location would be the town of Rowley, where it had purchased a utilitarian structure to house its amalgamated “Collection Center” (why is it not Collections Center—just not indiscriminate enough?) And just like that, Salem’s oldest and most comprehensive archive was gone, along with the very special library that had housed it for well over a century. The Collection Center Library, which I cannot bear to call the Phillips, is now open and able to accomodate 14 researchers in what is by all accounts (I haven’t been there yet, but I fear I will have to at some point) a massive structure, yet another indication that this facility was built to house material objects rather than texts: the announcement of its opening featured a curator examining a Chinese object. I’m quite aware that the PEM requires a vast amount of space to house its vast collections: I just don’t understand why this space could not have been found in Salem or why the Library had to be assimilated within it. Through this whole saga, I’ve talked to many people who have been just as upset over the removal of objects from Salem as texts: the assorted Americana and maritime memorials of the former Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. For me, it’s always been exclusively about paper. But just the other day, someone took a picture of the crated doorway of the Gideon Tucker House, being readied for its departure to Rowley I presume, and I started to think about the loss of material culture for the first time when I went over to see it for myself.

Gideon Tucker Doorway 2

Gideon Tucker Doorway

I guess I should be glad that this doorway still exists and is still—or has been–in Salem, as it is a long-admired example of Samuel McIntire’s work; indeed when students from MIT’s pioneering architectural school came to Salem in the summer of 1895 to measure and draw its storied buildings, their professor Eleazer B. Homer identified the elliptical doorway of the Gideon Tucker House (also called the Tucker-Rice House) as the “best-proportioned” in the city. We have photographs of the doorway in situ, but most images of it date from after 1896, when the Tucker house was acquired by the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society and transformed into an institutional headquarters. By 1910 the famous doorway had been removed and donated to the Essex Institute, which eventually affixed it to the rear of Plummer Hall. I’m not sure when it was removed and placed in storage: Bryant Tolles refers to its relocated situation in his Architecture in Salem (1970) but the doorway of the “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street is affixed to the rear of Plummer at present–and has been for some time.  Across Essex Street, the Gideon Tucker house was further “denatured” by the addition of commercial storefronts in the mid-twentieth century, but fortunately rehabilitated for residences under the supervision of Newburyport architect Jonathan Woodman in the 1980s, at which time it acquired its reproduction entrance.

Tucker collage

Gideon TUcker Brickbuilder 1915

Gideon Tucker NYPLDG

Gideon Tucker PC

gideon-tucker-house-with-commercial-storefront

Gideon Tucker todayThe Gideon Tucker Doorway and House (1804): Frank Cousins photographs from the 1890s; the Brickbuilder, January 1924; New York Public Library Digital Gallery, n.d.; Essex Institute postcard, MACRIS (1979) and present.

The Essex Institute garden must have been a very interesting place to visit in the midst of the twentieth century with its eclectic mix of houses and house parts assembled by George Francis Dow: in addition to the Tucker Doorway, there was a McIntire cupola from the Pickman/Derby/Rogers/Brookhouse Mansion which was demolished in 1915. It was infested with beetles and destroyed in the 1970s, and only its eagle survives. I am grateful that this beautiful doorway has not met a similar fate, along with all the architectural fragments in the PEM’s collections, but the removal from the cultural context which created them makes me anxious for their future significance—and meaning.

Napoleon “Eh bien, Messieurs! deux millions”: Napoleon displaying the treasures of Italy—in France, 1797, Library of Congress.


Beautiful but Deadly

In support of the summer-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, better known as the House of the Seven Gables, Salem State has offered up a Hawthorne film series in partnership with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and this week our last film will be shown: Twice-Told Tales (1963). Since we started with The House of the Seven Gables (1940), it will be interesting to see Vincent Price, who played Clifford in that film in a rather straightforward fashion, in what I assume will be his more characteristic over-the-top style. He plays key characters in all three stories of this anthology film, and Dr. Rappaccini himself in the central story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, which just happens to be my favorite Hawthorne short story (it was actually first published in book form in Mosses from an Old Manse rather than Twice Told Tales, but I’m sure this was of no concern to Hollywood). Rappaccini’s Daughter is the favorite Hawthorne tale of many, and it has inspired many visual and literary impressions and adaptations—particularly in the last decade or so. Its allegory makes it endlessly captivating for successive generations, but I think its most recent popularity is due to its rather macabre storyline: the transformation of a young beautiful woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and in doing so becomes both immune but also a poisonous vessel herself is Gothic in the extreme.

Poison Garden Jessie Willcox SmithJesse Willcox Smith, 1900

My particular fascination is the paradox of beauty and toxicity in nature. How can plants as beautiful as monkshood and foxglove be deadly? I have neither in my garden at present, but my very first garden at this house was comprised entirely of plants used in the medieval and early modern eras as plague cures. It did not last long, as most of these plants were really unattractive and I didn’t have quite enough sun for them anyway, so I dug it up and dispersed the more attractive plants in a more conventional flower garden. My favorite survivor of the “plague garden” is rue, a beautiful and ethereal blue-ish gray shrub with yellow flowers that I just sheared off yesterday, with not a care in the world for the potential harm that its leaves could have caused to my skin. How could the “Herb of Grace” cause harm? Obviously it’s not the plant itself but ignorance of its “attributes”; it’s not the medicine but the dose. It’s not nature; it’s man (or woman).

Poisonous Rue 3

Poisonous Rue 2 Cadamosto

Poisonous Actea RubraMy newly-shorn rue and its illustration in my favorite Renaissance herbal, that of Giovanni Cadamosto (late 15th Century, British Library MS Harley 3736); A much more OBVIOUS poisonous plant in my garden, baneberry or Actaea Rubra: beware of those berries!

Even more paradoxical than a poisonous plant is a poisonous garden, as gardens are supposed to be places of rest, relaxation, wonder and contemplation: sanctuaries where one can find refuge from the busy (and threatening) world outside. Rappaccini’s Daughter is set in Padua, so I believe that Hawthorne was likely influenced by its famous Botanical Garden, established in 1545 and still thriving with over 7000 plant varieties including a collection of poisonous plants, “which are also in the medicinal plants sector because in suitable quantities they can be used to treat illness and diseases”. Also didactic, but a bit more menacing, is the Duchess of Northumbria’s Poison Garden in Alnwick, England, which features more than 100 lethal plants, several of which are in cages, all just part of a much larger botanical attraction and experience. The Duchess wanted to pique the curiosity of children in horticulture, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her estate “starred” as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. She also produced a series of books for children titled The Poison Diaries, the first of which has absolutely amazing illustrations by Colin Stimpson of venomous plants “in character”. Scary, but not nearly as scary as the Poison Tree which “stole” into William Blake’s garden, his own creation.

poison04

Poisonous Diaries 2

Poison Tree BlakeAlnwick’s Poison Garden; a Colin Stimpson illustration from the Poison Diaries; William Blake’s Poison Tree from Songs of Experience, 1794, British Museum.


Salem Film Fest 2018

It is that time of year again: time for the annual Salem Film Fest, now in its eleventh year and very firmly established on the cultural calendar. Over the years, it has been very inspiring to see the festival’s growth: in terms of participation, attendance, offerings and impact. The care taken with curation is always very apparent to me: resulting in a nice balance of films with themes that are global and local, environmental and material, very serious and a bit more whimsical. One of the first films I saw at the festival was Grown in Detroit, way back in 2011: this was an interesting window into the urban crisis playing itself out in Detroit at the time and this year’s Beauty and Ruin offers another by focusing on the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, which some thought might provide a solution to the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. I’m really looking forward to this film: as most of you know, the sanctity (and proximity) of a community’s treasures are important to me, and this film will be playing in PEM’s lovely Morse Auditorium!

FilmFest

FilmFest2 Stills and scenes of Detroit past and present in Beauty and Ruin.

I have a friend who oversaw the recent Skinner auction of items from Avis and Eugene Robinson’s collection of African American history (and also this beautiful–but troubling—catalog), so I’m also interested in seeing Black Memorabilia, which examines “the subculture around the collectibles and antiques that serve as reminders of America’s troubled racial past and present”. And speaking of subcultures, I might go for Mermaids, in which a select group of individuals idolize, identify and occasionally “become” sirens of the sea. In keeping (somewhat) with the marine theme, the South Korean film Old Marine Boy about a daring North Korean deep-sea diver in the South, looks amazing. On a very different note, I’m kind of interested in seeing Rodents of Unusual Sizeabout the enormous orange-toothed swamp rats (nutria) which have infested the waters of Louisiana post-Katrina and oil spills, but I’m not quite sure I want to spend so much time with these odious creatures on the big screen.

Mermaids Film

Old Marine Boy

Rodents2Scenes from Mermaids, the Old Marine Boy, and the poster for Rodents of Unusual Size.


%d bloggers like this: