I am very, very anxious about the election and can think of little else. I have enough of a historian’s sensibility, of a human’s sensibility, to know that this is the most momentous election of my life. Of course there is little that I can do–other than donate and vote–so I have been appeasing my anxieties in my usual way: by reading about elections past. It has also helped me to read and listen to Boston College history professor HeatherCoxRichardson, who has been putting the current situation in a comprehensive historical context for months now: talk about commitment! I have learned a lot about American history during this whole blogging experience, but I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than the past ten years: the problem is, I’ve been looking for the comfort of we’ve been here before but I seem to be surmising that many aspects of our current situation are truly aberrant! Apart from the search for context, there is just something very interesting about the logistics and detritus of elections past: in this digital age, we don’t have enough electoral texture. So here are just a few items that caught by eye.
Early Election Ballots:I love browsing through the early election ballots at the AmericanAntiquarianSociety: if you don’t understand the Electoral College—they are rather clear illustrations: also of the evolving concept of the ticket. Plus it’s interesting to see the emergence and disappearance of various political parties.
Mass Appeal: I love this flyer for Nathaniel Prentice Banks (also from the American Antiquarian Society), who was running for a Massachusetts congressional seat in the election of 1852. I don’t know if you can read it all, but he is appealing to all different sorts of men—mechanics, young men, middle-aged men and veterans! Plus he courts the ladies, and exhorts them to “stir up” their men!
Voting by Mail: since 1864. Very American. Poll Book from the Smithsonian Institution.
Poll Taxes! Who knew?I associated poll taxes with the segregated South, but in fact, people had to pay them right here in Massachusetts, and in other states as well, right up to the ratification of the 24th amendment in 1964! Imagine paying to vote. Imagine being an active suffragist, working your whole life for the voting rights of women, all women, and even after enfranchisement this barrier is still there! There were a few snarky articles published in the Boston papers right after the ratification of the 19th amendment in which the theory was put out there that perhaps women wouldn’t want to vote as they would have to tell the poll tax assessor their true ages! Unbelievable!
A Salem Parade Flag.Just because it must have been fun to see election parades, which I assume must have brought people together, but perhaps not. 13-star flag used in 1896 Salem parade, Cowan’s Auctions.
Pinback Buttons! Never can get enough of these: most are Roosevelt and McKinley, 1900 & 1904, from the Smithsonian; the Citizen pin is from 1915-20 and the Ann Lewis Suffrage Collection. I love the sentiment of Vote as you please but please vote.
A flyer from Margaret Chase Smith’s presidential campaign, 1964 (Smithsonian Collection). Because Margaret Chase Smith. And that’s as close as I am getting to our present time.
I’m a bit late with this summer reading list: it’s August! And this list is more intentional than actual, so I’m not going to be able to give informed commentary on most of these books. I planned to read all of them, but as soon as the end-of-semester responsibilities were over, intensive gardening began. And as soon as intensive spring gardening ceased, family trips were taken. And then I returned home and BOOM: big book contract! So the last month has been all about writing rather than reading. Yet I have heard from many of you that you like my book lists, so I thought I would offer up one: I did choose these carefully, and many of them are sitting by my bedside, but I usually pass out before I can pick one up! I didn’t even have time to go back and look at my previous book lists but I bet there is a trend of increasing interest in historical fiction over the years: I used to be pretty snobby about that genre, but after reading several titles which were researched meticulously and crafted beautifully—enabling one to really plunge into the world in question—I have changed my tune. I think there are a few of these on this list: you’ll have to forward your assessments, and after my own book is finished I will either return to these books—or I won’t!
So let’s start with fiction. I am dying to read James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time, which is set in England and France during the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death, and the publication date of Emma Donoghue’s 1918 book was moved up to Corona time. Talk about plunging into the past: I read Andrew Miller’s previous historical novel, Pure, last year and was definitely plunged into the world of an eighteenth-century engineer in Paris; Free is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, and I really want to go there. I always want to go to sixteenth-century England, even into the somber Shakespeare household following the death of Hamnet, from the plague, of course. Big jump in terms of both chronology and topics: I’ve been reading my way through Evelyn Waugh and his era over the years, and I loved these new covers so purchased them for my bedside stack (I purchased Martin Green’s Children of the Sun a few years ago for some context and insights into this era, but have read it only in snippets so far). And another favorite era in fiction and fact: the Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is from the 1940s, Nadine Akkerman’s scholarly book on female spies in the seventeenth century is much more recent.
For the first time every, I think I have more fiction books than nonfiction—-probably because I’m all nonfiction all the time for by work: both writing and teaching. I don’t really have time to indulge my curiosity this year, but if I did, I would move Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown, about the medieval LewisChessmen, up to the top of my bedside stack: I’ve been curious about these guys forever. The other books are somewhat related to my book so I supposed I can categorize them as research: I’m writing about gardening and cooking right now, in my Chapter Three, so Floud’s and Dawson’s books are right by my side, offering some great insights and context supplementary to my primary sources. Newton is a little late for me, but I’ve got to read all about alchemy for my book as it creeps into several topics (medicine, beauty, even agriculture), so William R. Newman’s Newton the Alchemist will be illuminating, I’m sure.
Obviously statues have been in the news of late, so I thought I would tap into the national (and international) focus by looking at some of our country’s more notable monuments to women, either striving for the franchise or striving in general, for this week’s #salemsuffragesaturday post. It doesn’t matter what your political inclination is, everyone seems to agree that there are not enough statues of women anywhere and everywhere, and corrective measures are being taken, along with initiatives associated with this Suffrage Centennial year. The husband and wife team who constitute StatuesforEquality have established that statues of women represent less than 10% of public monuments in several American cities, and far less in most. In Salem we have only one statue to a woman: Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, situated in our city’s most historic square. She never accomplished anything (because she never actually existed) and her prominent situation and whimsical depiction mocks the real victims of the 1692 trials who were falsely branded “witches”, but nonetheless she is deemed worthy of monumental representation in Witch City. There are so many more women (real women) that deserve to be put a pedestal in Salem—that’s what this year has been all about for me.
Let’s turn to some more serious representations. Ever since it’s installation 15 years or so ago, the BostonWomen’s Memorial has been one of my favorite monuments: not only is it aesthetically pleasing and immediately engaging, but it represents a spectrum of women who shaped Boston’s history (as well as that of Massachusetts and the nation): Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone. These women are not just on pedestals (actually they have come off their pedestals) but depicted by sculptor Meredith Bergmann in the process of thought and activity, with their words accompanying them. Monumental women are in large part, active women, the feminine counterpart of all those masculine equestrian statues.
The Boston Women’s Memorial by Meredith Bergmann; photographs from her website.
Meredith Bergmann was also commissioned to create the most anticipated installation of this Suffrage Centennial Year: the Women’s Rights Pioneers Statue in Central Park in New York City, which will be unveiled on August 26, the date on which the ratification of the 19th Amendment was certified in 1920. This will be the park’s first statue honoring real women, and it also focuses on their activity: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are gathered around a table, intently focused on drafting a document. The statue had a controversial conception in that Truth was originally excluded, but public discussion and debate resulted in a more inclusive—and representative—monument.
Model and Mock-up of the first and final monument to the Women’s Rights Pioneers by Sculptor Meredith Bergmann, to be unveiled in Central Park on August 26, 2020.
As the state which ultimately ratified the 19th Amendment in August of 1920, Tennessee takes its suffragist history very seriously and has produced two notable monuments to the women who worked so hard to make it happen (because it’s really not all about a wavering state senator is it?) There is the Tennessee Woman’s Suffrage Memorial (2006) in Knoxville, depicting Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley, and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, and the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument (2016) in Nashville’s Centennial Park, featuring Dudley along with Abby Crawford Milton, J. Frankie Pierce, Sue Shelton White and Carrie Chapman Catt. Even more recently, the Commonwealth of Virginia—always the site of so much statue furor—dramatically increased its commemorative depictions of accomplished women with its Virginia Women’s Monument: Voices from the Garden initiative, honoring the “full scope” of women’s achievements with twelve representative statues.
The Knoxville and Nashville Suffrage statues—both by Tennessee sculptor Alan LeQuire—and the unveiling of seven statues of prominent Virginia women last fall: former Virginia First Lady Susan Allen points to a statue of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, and suffragist Adele Clark among the crowds (Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch).
I like the fact that so many of these monuments are collective, featuring women engaged with each other. Sometimes they are working, sometimes they are simply “conversing”—or meeting for the first time like one of the most famous Suffragist monuments, the “When (Susan B.) Anthony met (Elizabeth Cady) Stanton” statue in Seneca Falls, New York, portraying the moment when these two icons were introduced by Amelia Jenks Bloomer in 1851. My very favorite “conversation piece” is the lovely statue of two prominent Rochester, New York suffragists, Anthony and Frederick Douglass, having a cup of tea: I would love to have been a fly on the wall (or the bench) for that conversation!
The Anthony-Stanton-Bloomer statue (1998) by Ted Aub in Seneca Falls; Ira Srole’s “Let’s Have Tea” (2009) in Rochester.
The most official Suffrage statue of all, Adelaide Johnson’s “Portrait” monument to Anthony, Stanton, and Lucretia Mott completed (and dedicated) in 1921, is also a collective representation but the women don’t seem particularly engaged with each other: it’s not my favorite statue but that doesn’t mean I think it should have been hiddenaway for most of the twentieth century! The “unfinished” appearance of the work also engulfs the women in their “pedestal” rather than placing them on it, but rumor has it that Johnson was making room for at least one more prominent woman—perhaps the first female president—to be carved out of that raw marble in the back at some point in time. Clearly not 2020.
It wasn’t just Memorial Day: I feel like I’ve finally come to the end of a long string of obligations and am ready to focus on house, garden, reading, wandering about. We’re finally renovating our kitchen, so that will be a major focus for the next few months: I’ll do a “before” post next week, before nearly everything is torn out of that space, and then we’ll be able to celebrate the “after” later. The garden is looking good, although I fear it will turn into a construction zone. I do have a few last presentations—on Zoom of course–to give to several women’s organizations about the history of Salem women and the quest for suffrage. It is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, that that big anniversary is being overwhelmed by the pandemic, but I want to mark it in the best way I possibly can. As I was thinking about women’s history—and gardening at the same time—-I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history. Certainly this was not an original thought, but it nevertheless led me down various trails, and I ended up spending a rather blissful Memorial Day (after I gave a speech!) looking though the photographs of women photographers over the last century or so. This is just one small aspect of the intersection of women’s history/garden history: I’m going to explore more this summer.
When I’m interested in something, I’m generally interested in something in the past, and then I bring it forward, but this exploration started with two contemporary garden photographers whose work I had been admiring online and in a book I just received: the Luxembourg photographer Marianne Majerus and the American photographer Stacy Bass. The former is almost like a painter in the garden; likewise the latter is a master (mistress) of light.
Is there a tradition of women’s garden photography? I had to go back, following English and American lines (even though Majerus is from the Continent she was trained in England and seems to photograph a lot of English gardens!). Though not strictly a garden photographer, I explored the wonderful work of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger, and through Traeger’s portrait rediscovered the AMAZING Valerie Finnis, whom I identified primarily as the namesake of variant of artemisia before I dug a bit deeper: what an extraordinary plantswoman and photographer! Even though she was a serious botanist, gardening seems like such a social activity for Finnis: she like to photograph people in their gardens, and she was also very, very fashionable, like her subject below, Rhoda, Lady Birley. I’ve just ordered Ursula Buchan’s collection of Finnis’s photographs, Garden People, and I can’t wait to receive it.
Photographs by Tessa Traeger, including her marvelous portrait of Valerie Finnis in 2000, National Portrait Gallery. Garden People includes this amazing Valerie Finnis portrait of Rhoda, Lady Birley.
The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have several archival collections of women photographers, including those who specialized, or at least ventured into, garden photography: I love the dreamy mid-century images of Molly (Maida Babson) Adams (1918-2003) who photographed gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard over her 40+ year career. I did not identify the pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) with gardens before this little visual journey of mine, but they certainly constituted a sizable percentage of her impressive output.
Photographs by Molly Adams of gardens in Maine and Massachusetts, and Frances Benjamin Johnston of gardens in Virginia, Long Island, and Rhode Island, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress.
And I ended up with the charming photographs taken by another pioneering woman photographer, Etheldreda Laing (1872-1960), who experimented with the first color photography process—autochrome—by taking wonderful photographs of her daughters Janet and Iris at their home, Bury Knowle House in Oxford, over a succession of summers between 1908 and 1914: before-the-deluge images indeed! And also, I think, the female gaze.
The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.
A couple of years ago I complained about the lack of WPA murals in any of Salem’s public buildings: this struck me, as an impression and little else, as a lack of New Deal investment in Depression-era Salem. I’ve had time to survey the paper trail now and boy was I wrong: Salem benefited tremendously from the work of New Deal agencies, and not just in terms of its infrastructure but its culture as well. So this post will serve to set the record straight. I don’t think there is a Salem neighborhood that lacked a WPA project: there was work on different installations around Salem Harbor, at two Salem islands (Winter and Baker’s), downtown, in Forest River Park in South Salem and at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Salem. And so many agencies worked here, fanning out from a major field office in Barton Square with 300 Federal employees at first, and then a smaller office situated in a renovated Old Town Hall. Whether it mitigated the impact of the Great Depression effectively is another inquiry, but the Federal government certainly had a presence in Salem in the 1930s, and left its mark.
News clips from Works Progress Administration Bulletins, 1936-39, Boston Public Library; National Youth Administration Photos and Records, NARA.
Well of course parking lots, wharves, and cemetery plots were necessary and I think the timely renovation of Old Town Hall was key, but my favorite WPA agencies were those charged with more historical and cultural endeavors, most especially the Historical Records Survey (HRS) and the Historic Architectural Buildings Survey (HABS). Salem was fortunate in that it had a demonstrated commitment to the preservation of historic records and buildings, in the forms of the long-established Essex Institute and concurrent initiative to establish the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but the HRS was instrumental at documenting essential records of American history across the US at their most endangered moment. It was originally part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, but it spun off on its own and then became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, charged with compiling indexes to major genealogical sources such as vital statistics, cemetery internments, military records, and newspapers. The reports of the HRS are nothing short of heroic (Salem actually needs one now; I have no idea of the location or state of many of its public records) but little interesting items were also published in the 1930s, showing how historical research was interwoven into daily life. And as for HABS: is it impossible to underestimate the value of its photographs, measured drawings, and documented details of Salem’s built landscape, and with over 600 entries Salem was particularly favored by these dedicated professionals, working away in large field office in Boston.
HABS records, Library of Congress.
Another WPA cultural agency that seems to have been very active in Salem during the later 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project, which staged a succession of productions at the Empire Theatre on Esssex Street and several benefits around town—several premieres, no less. I can’t discern similar activity on the part of the Federal Art Project in Salem, though I suppose Salem artists could have exhibited at the Federal Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. As I was researching the FAP, I did learn that it was not the chief administrating agency of all of those lovely Post Office murals which started me off on my charge years ago, but rather the Fine Arts Department of the Treasury Department. Another cultural agency which was under the aegis of both the WPA and the Federal Art Project was the IndexofAmerican Design, which commissioned artists (over 400) to create watercolor illustrations (over 18,000) of intrinsically American decorative art objects, including several Salem items.
Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project Posters from the Library of Congress; Salem Index of American Art renderings from the collection at the National Gallery of Art.
Finally, I don’t think I can conclude this survey of the New Deal’s contributions to Salem’s physical and cultural landscape without a brief mention of the Massachusetts volume in the American Guide Series produced by the Federal Writers Project: Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People (1937). This book was a bit controversial in its time as it was one of the first American Guide books and it definitely revealed a pro-labor perspective in its first part, which introduces readers to the Massachusetts people and their institutions. It certainly reflects its time and its intent, but regardless, the second part of the book contains absolutely amazing walking and driving tours of Massachusetts cities and counties. I actually drive around with it in my car! There are several walking tours of Salem and they are much better than that stupid Red Line thing we have now; we should just arm all of our visitors with a copy of the WPA map to the city and they would be far better served.
I’ve been meaning to do a post on embroidery for a while. Needlecraft hardly seems new, or current, but I have students knitting in class, I follow a great twitter account (#womensart & also a great blog) which features amazing textile artists regularly, and the instagram hashtags #slowstitching and #needlepainting yield an abundance of extraordinary examples of embroidery art nearly every day. I think we’re in the midst of another “golden age” of embroidery—although I also think I’m late to this party, as usual (as this 2016 My Modern Met post will confirm). Certainly embroidery is not as central a part of society, or women’s lives, as it was during the early modern era when the Water Poet John Taylor published The Needles Excellency or the Federal era when Salem girls crafted samplers at Sarah Stivour’s famous school, but it is clearly a popular practice and a vibrant art form which often mixes traditional artistry with contemporary themes, in creations that are quite literally bursting out of the hoop.
Embroidery by the book and bursting outside of the book—and the frame— by Peruvian artist Ana TeresaBarboza.
ABOVE:More traditional pieces from Chloe Giordano: a pine marten and a fox. The Swedish textile artist Britta Margareta–Labba explores Sámi culture–and wildlife–in her creations; Moscow artist Roza Andreeva’s pieces are a bit more domesticated but no less intricate, and Lithuanian embroiderer AušraMerkelytė (@velvetmeadow) works with the hoop…and tulle, and dandelions, and Queen Anne’s Lace.
BELOW: just two of Paulina Bartnik’s embroidered birds at embirdery.com: she has also created a beautiful world on Instagram (@paulina.bart). And let’s go up in the air for the “aerial embroidery” of British artist Victoria Richards, depicting her Devon countryside in thread (I could teach the history of enclosure with these works!)
And finally, a few pieces by the popular and prolific New York artist Richard Saja, who takes his inspiration from traditional toile and then embellishes through embroidery to create completely new scenes: check out his blog Historically Inaccurate for much, much more. Always current: Love is Blind and George Washington.
One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.
Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Womenand theVote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Notbe Denied: Women Fightfor theVote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes forWomen: a Portraitof Persistence at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.
Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.
By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.
The Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.
The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.
The official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.
What are you wearing on New Year’s Eve? I’m still dealing with this bum leg, so it will likely be sweatpants for me, unfortunately, but I have to say that some version of “domestic attire” has been the norm for the last decade or so. I had much more festive New Year’s Eves when I was younger, but family celebrations at home seem to be the rule for now. I remember spending New Year’s in Rome when I was 20, dancing in some sort of tunnel wearing a dress I had just bought in Florence! There were lots of fancy country club/hotel parties later, but frankly those can be a boring. I don’t really need a fancy party, but I would like to be a bit better dressed. I did manage to hobble around Hamilton Hall at the annual Christmas Dance a few weeks ago in a drop-waisted sequin dress, so I already had that silhouette on my mind, but I decided to browse through some digital fashion collections to see what women might have been wearing a century ago as they ushered in the New Year—-the year they would become fully enfranchised citizens here in the US.
Fashion plate from La Moda Elegante Ilustrada, December 6, 1919, Fashion Institute of Technology; Georges Barbier’s “les belles Sauvagesses de 1920” from Le BonheurduJour, ou, LesGracesàlaMode, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Vogue covers and sketches from December 1919.
To my untrained eye, it looks like the “1920s silhouette” emerges immediately with 1920! Or maybe that’s just what I was looking for—and these lovely Lanvin dresses from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seem almost timeless. For more on the House of Lanvin’s long run, check out this cool online presentation. I think most people have heard of Lanvin, but what about Clara Becht and Jacqueline Kasselman, the designers of some very stylish evening ensembles in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art? I certainly hadn’t. With a very dynamic fashion periodical press in these days, I imagine that the practice of knocking off was already prevalent, so midwestern ladies could have “French” frocks for their big nights out. Whatever the source or inspiration for their evening dresses, women in 1920 did not confine themselves to the palette I am featuring here (for some reason): various shades of green and blue seem to have been popular, and there were also pops of universally-festive red. Happy New Year! I’ll see you on the other side.
House of Lanvin evening dresses, 1920, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lanvin advertisement in the Gazette du Bon Ton, fall, 1920; Dresses by Clara Becht and (2) Jacqueline Kasselman at the Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fashion plates of gowns by Jeanne Paquin and Madeleine Wallis with an American silk-satin dress from an unknown designer, Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet another “Robe du soir”, from the Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920.
The twentieth-century American artist Walter Ernest Tittle (1883-1966) was sought after on both sides of the Atlantic for his etchings, illustrations, and contemporary portraits. Among his diverse works are magazine covers, presidential portraits, and a whole series of drypoint “international dignatories” rendered in the 1920s, but also two slim volumes—advertised as “gift books”— in which he merged both original and historical texts and images to create a “lost” world of colonial holidays: The First Nantucket Tea Party (1907) and Colonial Holidays (1910).
These books are gorgeous, even though the images inside are a bit…….overwrought. I’m willing to leaf past some of the colorful colonial “belles” just so I can see Tittle’s fonts and illuminations: everything works together. As its subtitle reveals, Colonial Holidays is a compilation of historical references to Christmas and other holidays, embedded in Tittle’s gilded pages. He wishes the Puritans were more joyous in their celebrations, but “time brings change” and William Pynchon’s diary reveals some holiday merrymaking in Salem during the Revolutionary War. The new Assembly Room seems to have been very busy during the extended Christmas season with concerts and dances; “the elders shake their heads with, What are we coming to?” And so many sleds in the streets of Salem!
Tory that he is, Pynchon is not interested in George Washington’s Christmas, but patriot that he is, Tittle shows us Mount Vernon at Christmas—-no Valley Forge for his illuminated pages, but rather Christmas with the President and Mrs. Washington in 1795 and another reference to 1799–though Washington would have just died so certainly that was no festive occasion. The First Nantucket Tea Party does not have a Christmas setting perse but is also all about Colonial festivity, on the particular occasion of the return of Captain Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. from his “late long” voyage to China supplied with a chest of Chinese tea. Everyone is very excited about the tea, but for me it’s all about the amazing font used throughout the text. Merry Christmas!
I was researching the major tea importers and purveyors in Salem in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but another commodity kept popping up in the sources: turkey figs. I didn’t look at any customs records, but newspaper adverts both before and after the Revolution provide evidence of large imports of Turkey figs in Salem, and presumably a corresponding demand. I’m wondering if this is a by-product of what we now know was a very vibrant trade in fish and wine between Salem and the Iberian peninsula? It’s clear that figs were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, although some purveyors favored one utility over the other. The very entrepreneurial apothecary Philip Godfrid Kast, for example, who had prosperous businesses in Boston, Salem, and Haverhill, clearly marketed them as a medicine in the 1770s and 1780s (though it also looks like he is providing Salem cooks with many of the ingredients for a Christmas “figgy pudding”). This was nothing new to me—I’ve spent the last year reading early modern medical manuals for the book I’m working on and figs are always listed as one of the few “useful” fruits by Elizabethan authors—and the prescription of figs for various cough syrups and digestive tonics continued into the twentieth century. I presume New Englanders were eating lots of figs too but I can’t find any recipes in the early American cookbooks, and apparently Thomas Jefferson brought back a cutting of this particular variety, now called Brown Turkey Figs, only when he returned from Paris in 1789.
Philip Godfrid Kast’s advertisements for Turkey figs in the 1770s and his 1774 trade card, American Antiquarian Society; Figs for sale in Salem, 1804-1829.
Not only do I not know what is happening to all those cases of figs being sold in Salem in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; figs are also difficult to identify as a culinary commodity in English cooking before the twentieth century. The classic “figgy pudding” seldom has any figs in it as the word was just a synonym for “plum”, denoting any dried fruit. Figgy pudding originated as a steamed savory potage and evolved into its sweeter, more Dickensian ideal over the early modern era and into the nineteenth century. Of course the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it, and the recipe for figgy pudding of Queen Victoria’s own chef, Charles Francatelli, contains no figs at all. In America, fig cultivation seems to have become centered on the South and California (particularly the valley surrounding Fresno) and so growers marketed a variety of fig recipes, encompassing everything from ices to jams to whips to “pickles”, and the use of figs in syrups for coughs and constipation continued into the twentieth century.