Tag Archives: Popular Culture

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.


18th-century-esque

Next weekend is the first-ever Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall, commemorating Leslie’s Retreat, Salem’s opening act of the American Revolution, as well as the spirit of resistance over time and in our own time. Its organizers are encouraging, but not demanding, period dress so I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have a magic closet on the third floor full of evening dresses from the late 50s and early 60s that I rely on for all formal occasions, but I think this event calls for something different. It’s too late to go the custom reproduction route and I detest cheap costumes. About a decade ago, I commissioned a period gown (and stays!!! which were actually more expensive than the gown) for a ball marking the 200th anniversary of the Salem Athenaeum: I just assumed I would wear this regency gown for the Resistance Ball but when I took it out, put it on, and pranced around in it the other night I realized it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late, too Jane Austen, not enough Abigail Adams. So now I’m at a loss as to what to wear.

Resistance Ball

If I had realized my mistake sooner I probably would have ordered a dress or a robe à l’Anglaise from one of the amazing seamstresses out there: I have an old silk petticoat that would suffice. I particularly like the silk jacket below, but putting together an outfit around that little number would take time and considerable money, not just for the jacket, but for all the underpinnings: it’s all about the silhouette in historical clothing. With my time constraints, I’m thinking about the basic design elements of late eighteenth-century fashions—corsetry, cinching, embellishment, neckline, silhouette–and seeing if I can come up with something “18th-century-esque” for next week. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as the Versace corset dress from the 90s below, but I definitely want an updated eighteenth-century look.

18th century jacket

18th century ish 2

There is lots of inspiration out there because of the combined aesthetic influence of Hamilton and Outlander: polyvore sets abound! American Revolutionary women have never been singled out for their sartorial style, but their near-contemporary across the Atlantic, Marie Antoinette, seems to have a fashion moment every twenty years or so. Now, however, the Schuyler sisters and Clare Fraser rule. There are lessons for updating in the strategies of the costume designers of both productions. Hamilton designer Paul Tazwell seems to focus on color, and notes that “in keeping the overall design as contemporary feeling as possible while still in the silhouette of the 18th century, I kept the detailing as simple as possible so that it didn’t feel too decorative and fussy. I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me”. Outlander designer Terry Dresbach (who maintains a beautiful blog with many insights into her process) is dealing with a time-traveler, so a bit of adaptation is required: a 1940s Dior jacket that Clare might have worn in her 20th century life is transported to the eighteenth century along with her, and both are altered in the process!

Hamilton Girls

outlander-christian-dior-exclusive-designHamilton’s Schuyler sisters on stage, dressed by Paul Tazwell; the Dior inspiration for Outlander’s “time-traveling” jacket by Terry Dresbach.

Thinking about both the essentials of eighteenth-century style and their adaptation, I browsed around for hours (what a rabbit hole!) and put together a working digital inspiration board. Pinned mostly from ebay and various designer archives, these are the dresses that seem to represent the look I’m going after best. Moving around the board clockwise, we have a very editorial look by Jean Paul Gaultier, a detail of a really beautiful Prada black taffeta gown, an Azzedine Alaia wedding ensemble (for some reason this screams 18th century to me!), a Zac Posen dress, a Carolina Herrera gown, and Dita von Teese in a Vivienne Westwood toile dress complete with panniers. Even if I could find one of these pieces, I couldn’t afford them, but they got me thinking in different directions about bodices, bows, draping, and toile…….what about a toile dress? Too day/summery? It would have to be the right toile, and the right style–too late for that now.

Resistance collage

Of all the designers above, it is clearly Vivienne Westwood who has been the most immersed in and influenced by the eighteenth century over her long career. She’s amazing at focusing in on the key elements and bringing a new artistic sensibility to them. The poster for the big present/past fashion moment several years ago, Le XVIIIeme au goût du jour (The 18th Century Back In Fashion) exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, features (half of) her bold dress on its poster, and two years ago her eighteenth-century-esque clothes were exhibited in situ at the newly restored Danson House in London (lately seen in the television series Taboo). Westwood’s “Sunday” day dress from a few years back looks to me like the perfect distillation of eighteenth-century style, but it’s really too informal for a ball and I can’t find one anyway.

Resistance collage 2

18th century Westwood Cut From the Past Danson House 2015 A Vivienne Westwood corset at Danson House.

So that’s where I am now, pretty much nowhere, although I can just raid my third-floor closet and wear classic vintage formal. I’m trying to remember what my now-vintage Laura Ashley dresses, which I think are still at my parents’ house up in Maine, look like, though I seem to recall they are more nineteenth-century-esque than eighteenth-century-esque. And very puffy sleeves: all wrong.


March of…….

I’m interested in the concepts and visualizations of march or marching on this first day of March, 2017 and trying to divorce the term from its predominantly military and political references. I’m tired of the march on and more interested in the march ofwho or what else is marching besides soldiers and activists? As I browsed through my favorite databases of museum and library collections and auction archives a few trends emerged, though it took some time to cull out all the military marches and marches on Washington, past and present. The third most popular use of the concept of marching has to do with time and/or progress: up until the middle of the twentieth century the “march of time” inevitably means progress–after that it’s not all that certain. Beyond time, the word is used to highlight certain social campaigns (the March of Dimes) or trends, often on sheet music or editorial cartoons. Then there are various whimsical marches that are more representative of artistic expression than any larger commentary. Animals are often marching, and after 2005, of course, it’s all about the March of the Penguins.

march-of-intellect-smithsonian

march-of-the-dawn-of-the-century

march-of-time-collage

One of several satirical prints showcasing future long-distance travel entitled The March of Intellect (“Lord how this world improves as we grow older”) published by T. McLean, London, 1828-30, and Dawn of the Century March & Two-Step, 1900, also featuring the “march” of technology, Smithsonian Institution Collections. By the middle of the twentieth century, the newsreel series The March of Time was much more realistic than idealistic. Also from the Smithsonian: I LOVE the 1928 print by artist and illustrator Robert Lawson (1892-1957) entitled The March of Progress below:  the gleaming modern buildings of the rising New York City skyline loom above sad fairy-tale characters exiting the scene (Central Park), led by a lone wolf: there’s no room for whimsy in 1920s New York!

marchofprogress-lawsonRobert Lawson, The March of Progress, 1928.

Forcing someone to march in line is an easy and effective way to constrain/tame/demean and mimic them–a visual device that is very apparent in Henri Gustave Jossot’s famous anti-clerical caricature from 1902:  the “Geese”. This image pairs very nicely with that of another French artist, René Magritte’s Le Marché des Snobs sheet-music cover from 1924, coming up in an auction of vintage posters at Swann Auction Gallery later this month. Another Swann lot, Rodolph Bresdin’s  Le Marché aux Parasols, illustrates that “marching” doesn’t necessarily have to be strident, purposeful, good or bad, just (somewhat) active.

march-of-the-geese

M28491-1 001

M30930-22 001

Henri Gustave Jossot, The Geese, from L’Assiette au Beurre, 17 May 1902; René Magritte, Marche des Snobs. Sheet music, 1924; Rodolphe Bresdin Le Marché  aux Parasols, 1866, Swann Auction Galleries.


%d bloggers like this: