Category Archives: Culture

Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

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Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

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“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

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Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

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House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

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Pastry Castles

There is much focus on food and drink during December, of course, and today I’m thinking about “pastry castles”, an early form, perhaps, of our own American gingerbread houses? The British Library recently digitized one of the oldest English cookbooks (which is actually a cook-scroll), the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016), and the recipe for “chastletes” is a conspicuous entry. The Forme of Cury ( a Middle English title for “method of cookery” having nothing to do with England’s current national dish) was written by the chefs of Richard II’s kitchen in the later fourteenth century, and includes recipes for both “common” and “curious” foods, and “for all manner of states, both high and low”. One assumes that the pastry castles, which are a curious mix of sweet and savory in typical late medieval fashion, were produced for the former.

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Forme of Cury scroll and recipe for pastry castles, BL Add MS 5016; a feast featuring a “chastlete” in a late-medieval Bruges manuscript, BL Royal MS. 15 D I.    

Here is the recipe for chastletes in its original Middle English:  Take and make a foyle of gode past with a roller of a foot brode. & lyngur by cumpas. make iiii Coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rolleres þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn Arme. of vi ynche depnesse. make þe gretust in þe myddell. fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde. & fasten þee oþere foure in euery syde. kerue out keyntlich kyrnels above in þe manere of bataiwyng and drye hem harde in an Ovene. oþer in þe Sunne. In þe myddel Coffyn do a fars of Pork with gode Pork & ayrenn rawe wiþ salt. & colour it wiþ safroun and do in anoþer Creme of Almandes. and helde it in anoþer creme of Cowe mylke with ayrenn. colour it with saundres. anoþur manur. Fars of Fygur. of raysouns. of Apples. of Peeres. & holde it in broun. anoþer manere. do fars as to frytours blanched. and colour it with grene. put þis to þe ovene & bake it wel. & serue it forth with ew ardaunt.

The “Coffyns” refer to the pastry shell, encasing the savory mixture of pork, saffron (amazingly dear at the time!), almonds, raisins, apples and pears—mincemeat essentially. The entire form was not made of “bread”, consequently it’s difficult to make the link between these constructions and our own modern gingerbread houses, which seem to have more modern, continental origins, although Elizabeth I purportedly instructed her cooks to make gingerbread men and women in the recognizable forms of her courtiers and guests. I think we’re talking about multiple lines of food cultural evolution here—pies, cakes, ginger, ginger cakes, breads, and houses–and perhaps I shouldn’t mix them up except under the label of “architectural pastry constructions”.  If I could make my own pastry castle, which I would fill with cake and not mincemeat, I would certainly recreate one of Elizabeth’s very favorite castles, Nonsuch Palace, built by her father in the last years of his reign. This is well beyond my baking abilities, but wow, just imagine such a structure!

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Two views of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel–the second was just acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum.


St. Andrew’s Cross

I’ve been writing posts on various saints days over the years and yesterday I realized I had never posted about St. Andrew on his feast day, a notable omission both in general and for me, in particular, as I was fortunate to spend my junior year at St. Andrew’s University, and the town remains one of my very favorite places on earth. Though I think most people associate St. Andrew exclusively with Scotland, he is venerated widely: in much of eastern Europe, in the Caribbean and even South America. Andrew was the first Apostle, the brother of Peter, and an ardent missionary: it is said that he continued to spread the gospel during much of his crucifixion, on an x-shaped cross forever associated with his name: the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross. Such a powerful symbol of assertion, both against a field of blue as the Scottish flag, or as the southern cross on the Confederate flag. The connotations of the former are all positive as compared with the latter, of course, and St. Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2006.

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st-andrews-the-saltire-flag Late medieval manuscript images of St. Andrew from the British and St. Andrew’s University Libraries; Juan Correa de Vivar, Crucifixion of St. Andrew, c. 1540, University of St. Andrew’s Special Collections; the saltire unfurled.

Scotland’s claim to St. Andrew has always struck me as a little convoluted, but it became official, and lasting, with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a letter written by the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII asking for recognition of the country’s independence and acknowledgment of Robert the Bruce as its rightful king. Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” incorporated the esteemed St. Andrew as part of its plea, for “The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.”  Another very powerful assertion, as St. Andrew certainly outranked the emerging patron saint George of Scotland’s perennial enemy, England. Combined with a classical origins story, language, literature, Presbyterianism, the “auld alliance” with France, and myriad other claims and customs, St. Andrew helped Scotland preserve a very distinct national identity even after it became part of Great Britain. And then, in that golden age of romantic nationalism that was the nineteenth century, the Saint and his cross seem to be emblazoned on all forms of material culture associated with Scotland, transforming him into a more secular patron and ensuring his survival into the modern age.

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The symbolic British Empire in glass, c. 1840: stained glass panels by C.E. Gwilt representing St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. George of England; a Minton tile, c. 1875; Walter Crane’s “National” wallpaper, 1890s, all collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; St. Andrew’s Day 2013 in Edinburgh.


Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

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Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

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