Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

Last Czars ss 2

It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


“Salem” Houses, 20th-century Style

There are two deep rabbit holes around which I must tread very, very carefully, or hours will be lost instantly: the Biodiversity Heritage and Building Technology Heritage digital libraries housed at the Internet Archive. One leads me through a never-ending cascade of flora and fauna; the other through the built environment–or prospective built environment, I should say, as many of its sources are building plans and catalogs. Just yesterday, when it started to snow and afternoon classes were cancelled, I thought to myself, let me just pop in there and see if I can find some inspiration for interior shutter knobs, and hours later I emerged with no knobs but lots of images of “Salem houses” instead. So here they are in chronological order: you will no doubt conclude, as I did, that “Salem” style loses its meaning over the twentieth century: the last house is from 1963, and it is difficult to see how it was inspired by Salem. Well, now that I’m looking at them altogether, it’s difficult to see how Salem was inspirational at all, except perhaps for a brief spell in the 1930s. House parts stick to their Salem inspiration, as there are plenty of mid-century “colonial” mantels, doors, and windows inspired by the craftsmen of “Old Salem”, but houses seem to break free of any connection to classical Salem influences: just look at the 1949 “Sam’l McIntire”! The concept of Salem seems to retain some currency throughout the century, but what it really means in terms of design or construction is anyone’s guess.

 

Salem Houses Herbert C. Chivers 1903 (2)

Salem Houses Aladdin 1915

Salem Houses 1915 collage

Salem Houses 1929 PicMonkey Image

Salem Houses 1933 PicMonkey Image

Salem Colonial 1933

Salem Houses 1936 Sears

Salem Houses Sears 2

Sam McIntire 1949

Salem Houses 1954

Salem Houses Collier-Barnett Co._0029 1963

“Salem Cottage” from St. Louis architect Herbert Chivers’ Artistic Homes, 1903; Aladdin Houses, 1915; the first “Readi-cut” Salem model, 1915; a “bungalow with the pleasing lines of the Colonial type” in The Book of 100 Homes, 1929; the reproduction “Pequot House” was included in the Ladies Home Journal House Pattern Catalogue of 1933, the same year that “a Salem Colonial” was published in Samuel Glaser’s Designs for 60 small homes from $2,000 to $10,000 : showing how to build, buy and finance a small home; two Sears “Salem” houses from 1936 and 1940; The “Sam’l McIntire” from the Warm Morning Small Homes plan book for 1949; Bennett Homes, 1954; a Salem “rambler” from There’s a Miles Home in your Future” book from the Collier-Barnett Co., 1963.


My Top Ten Books for 2018

I don’t believe that I’ve posted on books that I’ve read, or am reading, or want to read in quite some time: it seems like this whole past year has been consumed by the dislocation of our local history rather than more pleasurable pursuits! In years past, I always rounded up what I read–even before I started blogging—as a form of reflection, and December is obviously the best time for that. This year was odd not only because of the PEM problem, but also because I’ve been on sabbatical this fall and am writing my own book—so I’ve been reading primary sources and very specialized scholarly texts for the most part, not the sort of books that are going to rate inclusion in a top ten list aimed at a general audience. On weekends and at night I worked through a more entertaining stack by my bedside. I’ve always been a content reader even when I’m not reading for work: some history outside my period, lots of natural history, all sorts of books about books, and books about art and various types of design. I like to read about food in historical or cultural contexts, but I don’t really like to cook. I like to read about beverages in historical and cultural context as well, and I do like to mix drinks (and drink them). Not much fiction, and the occasional guide depending on what’s going on in my life. The first three books on this list intersect with my professional and private interests a bit, the rest are just representative of my varied interests, and the last book is a work of fiction, and one of the best books I read all year.

Books Pasta

Books Hawfinch

Books catalogue-of-shipwrecked-books-9781982111397_xlg

Books

My book is actually based on Renaissance handbooks, but not handbooks as specialized, and as beautiful, as the one reproduced, in its first English translation, in Pasta for Nightingales, an Italian orinthological study by Pietro Olina produced in 1622 with watercolor illustrations produced for the Paper Museum” of the Roman collector and scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo. The text features all sorts of charming contemporary ways to relate to birds, including a chickpea pasta recipe for nightingales. This is just the kind of intersection—of folklore and emerging “science”— that I’m hoping to capture in my book. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee, tells the story of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, and his thirty-year quest to assemble–and organize–the largest private library in Europe, a collection that sadly went to waste after his death. It’s not just Colón’s constant purchasing of books from all over Europe that makes this book interesting, but also his efforts to catalog them: their problem looks slight in comparison to ours, but Renaissance Europeans actually suffered (a bit) from “information overload” in the first decades of print. I’ve always learned a lot from Theodore Rabb—in graduate school and throughout my career–and the essays in Why Does Michelangelo Matter? address one of my key teaching goals: the integration of the visual arts into historical analysis. Jumping back and then forward in time: ancient history is not my favorite era, much less the horrible twentieth century, but I love Mary Beard and I wanted to read something about the Great War in this centennial year of its end, so I’ve got The Roman Triumph and Jörn Leonhard’s Pandora’s BoxA History of the First World War on my list.

Book Collage

I am including Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, about the devastating destruction by fire of the Los Angeles Angeles Public Library in 1986 in particular and the impact of libraries on public and private lives in general, on my list even though I haven’t read it. It just seems appropriate for this year when I was obsessed with the loss of a library (and she is such a good writer): it’s nearing the top of my bedside stack. My food book this year (so far) is Dan Stone’s The Food Explorer, which is really about a botanist bureaucrat who transformed the American diet through his discoveries in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On to drink: I’m including a mixology book because it’s been a difficult year: gin is my spirit of choice and I’m always looking for the perfect gin and lemon drink, and Gin Made me Do It helped me to refine one. I really am a material girl at heart, and an anglophile, and I live in a townhouse, so Ros Byam Shaw’s’s Perfect English Townhouse, showcasing 14 stunning homes, is perfect for me. Finally, my last pick: Francis Spufford’s amazing novel of colonial New York City: Golden Hill. Rarely do I read fiction, even rarer still, historical fiction: essentially I have to know the author to indulge in that genre. But, much like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, this book just submerged me into into its time and setting. I devoured it: you will too, I bet.

Library

Food Explorer

Books Gin

Perfect Collage.jpg

Golden Hill


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


%d bloggers like this: