Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Baseball Bearings

It’s high summer and high time for some baseball: of the ephemeral kind. The Library of Congress’s major summer exhibition, Baseball Americana, presents all sorts of compelling and colorful images of America’s pastime, but I want to add a few. The first two sections of the exhibition look particularly interesting to me–on the early game and the players–because I’ve always been curious how the “New York Game” beat out the “Massachusetts Game” (sometimes called Town Ball or the New England Game), which was basically a North American version of the rounders, a ball game that dates back to Tudor times. I think it would have been kind of cool if Massachusetts prevailed, if only because you could out someone by hitting them with a ball as they ran between the bases, but the New York game became “National” by the close of the Civil War.

Baseball collageThe Base Ball Player’s Pocket Companion. Boston: Mayhew and Baker, 1859.

And once everyone was playing by the same rules, baseball took off, leaving a trail of PAPER in the wake of its ascent: scorecards, scouting reports, sheet music, advertisements, drawings and photographs and lots and lots of baseball cards. All and more is in the exhibition, but I’m going to insert a few of my own favorite items here, from my parochial perspective of course. For example, Baseball Americana features an uncut sheet of the first baseball cards depicting players from the Washington Base Ball Club in various stilted poses in 1887, when tobacco companies first started tucking these slips of paper into their product. There is nothing more charming than early baseball cards, and such uncut sheets are very rare, but Historic New England has a similar image that is even older: of just one famous Boston Red Stocking Player, George Wright, posing in a slightly more naturalistic way as he illustrates the key baseball “attitudes” or stances, for an 1875 instructional pamphlet. And as you can see, these images are by Salem photographers Smith & Bousley, who operated a studio at 214 Essex Street.

Baseball Uncut sheet of Baseball Cards

Baseball George Wright

George Wright’s Book for 1875 containing record of the Boston Base Ball Club, with scores of base ball and cricket trip to England, and other items of interest, also, base ball attitudes, in twelve different styles, with an explanation of each. Hyde Park, Mass., printed at the Norfolk County Gazette Office, 1875; Historic New England.

Wright was quite the sportsman, in Boston and elsewhere, and he is also a Hall-of-Famer, so let’s stick with him—which is easy to do as he appears to be one of the first celebrity pitchmen in early baseball: featured in an 1871 cabinet card, and an 1874 advertisement for Red Stockings Cigars. I’ve also included a Red Stocking cigar label from 1874, just because I love it. You can also see images (and words!) of George and his equally-famous brother Harry “the original Wright Brothers”), along with other Red Stockings, in this million-dollar appraisal on Antiques Roadshow.

Baseball George Wright 1871

Baseball 1874-red-stockings-cigar-advertising-display-poster-george-wright REA Auctions

Baseball 1874-red-stockings-cigar-labelAll images from Robert Edward Auctions, a sports memorabilia collector’s dream.

The Library of Congress has a great collection of baseball sheet music so I’m surprised more of these items are not included in Baseball Americana, but then again its breadth encompasses the entire history of baseball while I seem to be stuck in the pre-World War I era. To be worthy of its title, Baseball Americana has to deal with segregation and free agency and moneyball, while I can just dwell on the grand old game if I like.

baseball songs collageBaseball Sheet Music covers, 1910-12, Library of Congress.


Ceremonial May

I woke up happy but exhausted this morning, having completed a marathon May week of graduate festivities: three dinners, our department retreat, and two commencement ceremonies (graduate and undergraduate) plus the usual end-of-the-semester chair business. I missed the Royal Wedding, but seem to be able to glean both the highlights and every little detail from the massive all-media coverage! It strikes me from both my academic and personal perspectives that May is a month for ceremonies: I was a May bride myself, despite that old superstitious saying (which Harry and Meghan also ignored): marry in the month of May, and you’ll surely rue the day. May makes sense for ceremonies, most of which require ceremonial garb: it’s warm enough to go coatless to show said garb off, but not too warm. That fresh spring green is everywhere, along with fragrant flowering, providing the perfect decorative setting for whatever you are celebrating or commemorating. Commencements and weddings are natural occasions for this time of year, but looking back through the seasonal year it seems that other celebrations were also planned for May: the big exposition openings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, royal coronations when possible, and several other unique events. The traditional May Day festivities of the first day of this merry month set the stage for more to come.

lookandlearn.com-U316696

Ceremonial May Prince+Harry+Marries+Ms+Meghan+Markle+Windsor+rhsxJVnjT0El

Ceremonial May SSU 1966

Cermonial May SSU

Ceremonial May SSU 2The Royal Wedding, the Marriage Ceremony in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 6 May 1882 (Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, actually married Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont on 27 April 1882, but it was May news a week later); yesterday’s wedding in St. George’s Chapel, WP pool photo; Graduation at Salem State College in 1966 (Salem State University Archives and Special Collections) and Salem State University yesterday.

Ceremonial May Great Exhibition

Ceremonial May Philadephia Centennial

Ceremonial May Golden Spike

Ceremonial May Coronation 1937

Ceremonial May Charles II

Photograph collection ca. 1860s-1960s

 Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria, 1 May 1851 by Henry Courtney Selous, Victoria & Albert Museum; opening of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876, Library of Congress; “Golden Spike” Ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S., May 10, 1896, Library of Congress; “Coronation Number” of the Illustrated London News commemorating George VI’s coronation in May of 1937; King Charles II’s coronation was in April of the 1660, but the traditional holiday marking both his succession and the restoration of the monarchy, “Oak Apple Day”, was celebrated on his birthday, May 29; Decoration Day in late May, Cuba, 1899—commemorating the lost soldiers of the Spanish American War, Smithsonian Institution.


Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


Bewitched Girls and Seafaring Boys

These days I don’t have much time to read fiction in general, and I tend to avoid novels set in Salem in particular, but I’m always on the lookout for later nineteenth and early twentieth-century novels with alluring covers as part of my ever-increasing, very random Salem collection of material objects. My interest is more cultural than literary, and two trends are immediately apparent when you examine a range of Salem titles dating from the first half of the twentieth century: the girls are somehow entangled in the Witch Trials, and the boys are off to sea. I can’t imagine a more distinct gender division–and while the accused/entrapped/bewitched girls continue into the later twentieth century and later, the seafaring boys disappear. Here we have a YA literary illustration of the rise and dominance of Witch City. I think it all starts with the 1842 publication of Ebeneezer Wheelwright’s The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692, which has recently been revisited, reissued and revealed: as source material for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. 

Salem fiction collage

And after Salem Belle: Ye Lyttle Salem Maid: a Story of Witchcraft (1898) by Pauline Bradford Mackie, Lucy Foster Madison’s Maid of Salem Town (1906), Dulcibel by Henry Peterson (1907), and Frederick Sterling’s A Fair Witch (1911), and others—most were popular and reprinted continuously in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This is a 1934 edition which illustrates the type of covers I crave almost perfectly.

Fictional Salem Maid of Salem Towne

One novel from this era that doesn’t quite fit into the endangered-Salem-maid category is Esther Forbes’ Mirror for Witches, which was first published in 1928 and was seldom out of print for the rest of the century. With its provocative woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings and its seventeenth-century “voice” (of a girl who witnessed her parents’ burning for witchcraft before she came to Salem), this tale is pretty graphic in more ways than one: the New York Times assessed it as a “strange, eerie book” and a “unique achievement”. It’s hard to believe that Forbes was also the author of Johnny Tremaine!

Mirror collage

Salem Fiction Mirror for Witches 1928

Plots get lot more modernly romantic as the twentieth century progresses, of course, resulting in novels like Mildred Reid’s The Devil’s Handmaidens (1951), in which Puritan maiden Hope Farrell is betrothed to a wealthy Salem magistrate when the object of her affection, handsome young sailor Dan Marston, is captured by slave traders on one of his annual voyages. When he returns eventually, she confesses her love for him but maintains that “a Godly maiden does not break a troth”, and heartbroken Dan yields to the wanton wiles of a certain Submit Tibby (I kid you not). Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose when the Salem Village girls start their fits, and Hope’s own mother is drawn into their net. It’s all there on the cover, how could I resist it? A least we have a little maritime history here. A romantic rivalry also fuels the plot of John Jenning’s The Salem Frigate (1946) which moves the setting up to the Salem’s golden age. The covers below (hardcover and paperback) are a little deceiving: we’re in the realm of men now.

Salem Fiction Devils

Salem Frigate collage

The realm of men (or boys) generally necessitates a wartime setting for Salem novels: the Salem Frigate was set primarily during the War of 1812, and a series of adventurous Salem boys books from earlier in the century featured the American Revolution: The Armed Ship America; or When we Sailed from Salem (1900) was part of James Otis’s Boy’s Own Series, A Patriot Lad of Old Salem (1925) was one volume in a series of Patriot Lads books written by Russell Gordon Carter. Mildred Flagg’s A Boy of Salem (1939), a companion to the author’s Plymouth Maid, is set in the time of seventeenth-century settlement, not that of the later trials. All these Salem boys have a great deal of freedom of mobility: they face the frontier and trials which are largely self-imposed, in stark contrast to those of their fictional female counterparts who were confined to the suffocating world of Salem, 1692.

boys fiction collage


Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

PEM Exhibitions 3

PEM Exhibitions 4

PEM Clyde

PEM Exhibition LinersPEM Exhibitions 7

PEM Exhibitions 5

PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

PEM Exhibitions 6

PEM Exhibitions 2

PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 

PEM EX CATS

PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.


Give me Mrs. Miniver

My husband, myself, and my stepson can rarely find a movie we all want to see together: the latter is 16 so of course all summer movies are made for him, but I can’t stand the bombastic computer-generated imagery and violence and the predictable scripts. When Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, we all wanted to see it and so went together last week: a rare occasion. We did not return home together, however, as I had to run out less than halfway through! It wasn’t that it was bad–it was actually riveting–but also just too painful for me to watch all those men on the beach, so exposed and so vulnerable. I knew the Armada was coming but I couldn’t wait for it.

Dunkirk film

Dunkirk real The film and the reality, June 1, 1940 ©Imperial War Museum, London

It’s ridiculous I know, but I think I prefer the Mrs. Miniver version of Dunkirk, in which the gentleman-architect Mr Miniver takes his pleasure craft (conveniently docked in front of his Hollywood-perfect expansive English cottage) out into the Channel and returns only slightly battered (and bearded) a few days later. During his absence, Mrs. Miniver battles a downed Nazi in their kitchen. She wins, of course, but the Director William Wyler gives him a speech intended to bolster the Allied effort (by the time the film was released in 1942, the United States had already entered the war, but during its production Wyler was concerned about American isolationism): We will bomb your cities…Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here! Combined with all other “inspirational” details in the film, including the bombing of the Miniver house, the heartbreaking death of their new daughter-in-law, and the village vicar’s closing sermon, it’s no wonder that Joseph Goebbels was afraid of it.

Mrs. Miniver 2

Mrs Miniver

It was acceptable to make propaganda films in the 1940s: today things must be as real as (technically) possible and sometimes that is unrelenting, at least for me: I fear my stepson is inured due to a steady diet of video games. I would like to see the Dunkirk miracle play out so I think I’ll have to steel myself to go back and see this film again, but in the meantime I’ll occupy myself with more distant records of this epic event, in paper and a paint. The Imperial War Museum in London has many photographs (including several of the Germans moving in after the evacuation), oral histories, and paintings of Dunkirk among its collections, although after I spent some (digital) time with these memorials I realized they weren’t that distant after all.

Dunkirk collage

Dunkirk 1940 IWM jpeg

Dunkirk painting 1940

Dunkirk Drawing IVW

Dunkirk abstractJune 3 headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times; a small fraction of the 200,000 British Expeditionary Forces who were evacuated (+140,000 French troops), ©IWM; Charles Ernest Cundall, The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305); “little ships” in Muirhead Bone’s The Return from Dunkirk; Arrival at Dover, 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 251); Rudolf A. HaywoodThe London Fire-Boat ‘Massey Shaw’ approaching Dunkirk at 11 pm on the 2nd June 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 248).


Victorian Slum Sightseers

Years ago I remember enjoying historical-reality series like The 1900 House, Frontier House, and Colonial House, but I’m not having quite the same response to the current representative of this genre, Victorian Slum House. Two shows in, I have spent most of my watching time trying to figure out what bothers me about the premise and the presentation, rather than enjoying the process of “historical” immersion. I’m usually a fan of creative approaches to history, and I think “historical empathy” is a worthy, if unattainable goal, but there’s something about this particular series that is troubling me. I thought I’d use this post to isolate my concerns.

Victorian Slum House Cover

I’m sure you can guess the premise even if you haven’t seen (or heard of) the show: several 21st-century British families of different composition are installed in a meticulously-recreated slum house in London’s East End (actually Stratford) to play out the working- and living-conditions of the 1860s through the 1910s each week in survival-of-the-fittest fashion. Among the families there are ties to the East End of the past and what appears to be a very earnest desire to “know” and “understand” their ancestors by living their lives for a few weeks. There have been very few pop-up historians so far, but nevertheless lots of historical information is put out there for context: the high price of food, the importance of piece-work, the constant in-migration into London leading to ever-increasing rents and density, mechanization, globalization and (in weeks to come) political empowerment. The cast talks about the filth all around them, and we see some of it, but we don’t see the darkness and we can’t smell the smells: the communal outhouse is shown only (so far) as a place where kippers were smoked.

Victorian Slum House

Victorian Slum House 8

Ultimately two very random references surfaced in my brain: one quite silly and the other more serious. Everyone does everything on their beds, together, so I was immediately reminded of all those scenes of the Bucket family home in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. More seriously, the impactful words of E.P. Thompson, written in the preface to his classic tome The Making of the English Working Class (1963), kept surfacing in my mind: his intent to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The enormous condescension of posterityThe English working class was rescued by a half-century of social historians, so now they are far more familiar and heroic to us, but perhaps another form of condescension has emerged in this age of history-as-entertainment: it’s more about us than it is about them.

Victorian Slum House 5

I do think the “cast” was earnest and well-intentioned, though rather craftily put-together by the producers: obviously the 21st-century bespoke tailor (above) was in the best position to succeed in the Victorian era: the administrative assistant, disabled professional golfer, and retired carpet-store salesman were not so well-equipped. And they threw an American in there too, who proclaims her interest in migration. Ultimately we’re only supposed to really experience “history” through these people, so we need to know what they are seeking. We know they have learned something when they shed tears: when they realize how hard their ancestors had to work or how close they are to the edge with no safety net beyond. These are the moments when we–the audience–are supposed to get it as well, as we put ourselves in their places. But the tears don’t last long, and are followed by smiles when the players admit they can go back to their comforts and devices. They are just historical tourists, and we are daytrippers.

Victorian Slum House 3

Victorian Slum House 7

Victorian Slum House 9

Scenes from Victorian Slum House watched from my comfortable parlor.


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