Tag Archives: print culture

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!


Searching for a Spring Wine

May–my favorite month of the year, representing the end of the school year, high time for gardening, that perfect shade of soft spring green, my anniversary, and a kind of wistful merriment which is actually more academic than experiential–because I’m generally too busy in May to engage in such merriment. But I always feel like the need to find a celebratory drink to toast to the spring, and the summer to follow. The traditional beverage is May Wine (Maiwein), which I have made on several occasions: a sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff and a few other additions. My sweet woodruff has yet to really appear, much less bloom, so I don’t think that’s going to work this year. So I went backwards in time and beverage books looking for something new/old, beginning with George Edwin Roberts’ Cups and their Customs (1863), which has a fantastic title page but not much else.

Spring Wine Cups and Their Customs

Then I went way back to the sixteenth century and a favorite “receipt” book, Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell (parts one and two): here there are medicinal waters but nothing to accompany May merriment. In the Elizabethan age, that would be left to a host of imported wines, I think: malmsey, sack, claret, canary, brandy. Heavy, sweet wines which are not appropriate for Spring in any case. Jump forward to the mid-seventeenth century and a trio of popular “celebrity” cookbooks featuring the recipes of Charles I’s exiled and widowed Queen Henrietta Maria, ostensibly penned by her personal chef: The Queens Closet Opened. Being Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery, A Queen’s Delight; or, the Art of Preserving, Candying and Cookery, and The Compleat Cook, all first appearing in 1655. I looked through a later, lovely digitized edition of A Queen’s Delight at the Beinecke Library at Yale and found several fruity “country wines”: raspberry looks good, “water of time for the passion of the heart” interesting.

Queens Delight Yale Bodleian Cover

Queens Delight Yale Bodleain

Queens Delight Yale Bodleain 2

Queens Delight 5 Yale

Over the course of the seventeenth century, Englishmen (and women too, I assume) were realizing that their dependence on imported foreign wines was not in their personal or national interests and searching for domestic substitutes. A succession of tracts appeared encouraging the planting of orchards and providing recipes for cider, perry, and a host of fruit wines. One of the most influential of these publications was John Worlidge’s Vinetum Britannicum: Or, a Treatise of Cider, and Such other Wines and Drinks that are extracted from all manner of Fruits Growing in this Kingdom (1676). As its title page illustration suggests, this is a rather practical publication: I really don’t have the inclination to make cider but perhaps I could buy some and doctor it up?

Spring Wine Folger

Worlidge

So that idea brought me to one of my favorite modern books:  Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that create the World’s Great Drinks. Two of Stewart’s recipes could be candidates for my “toast to spring” drink: cider cup, an adapted version of medieval dépense made by combining hard cider with fruits and ginger beer (or ale), and Kir Normand, in which crème de cassis is mixed with cider. Or I could just pick up one of Salem’s own Far from the Tree ‘s seasonal ciders and leave it at that!

Drunken Botanist

Cider Collage

Buy Local; or Why invent the Wheel?


Lincoln’s Laboratory

I’ve been digging around in bins and folders for scraps of paper for as long as I can remember, and I do recall one item that caught my attention years ago: it was an envelope with a still-bright print of Abraham Lincoln depicted as some sort of wizardly chemist, an alchemist, I also recall thinking, in the midst of a rather wordy laboratory. It had a sticker marked $5 on it which struck me as quite steep at that time. Now I see that this same envelope fetched $2600 at a recent auction! The envelope, produced by the Salem stationery and publishing firm of G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith (1860-1875), has become a highly-coveted example of Civil War propaganda, and I clearly missed out.

Union Alchemist

Whipple and Smith were not only showing their colors; they were marketing a relatively new product: the envelope itself. Before 1851 U.S. postage was charged by the sheet, so people simply folded their letters with sealing wax and mailed them off. In that year a flat postage rate was introduced for mail under a half-ounce and traveling less than 3,000 miles, so protective “covers” were introduced, which became patriotic covers a decade later. More than 10,000 embellished envelopes were produced in the North during the Civil War, much less in the South. They became collectible items even during that time, as many survive unaddressed—like the one I saw some time ago and those below. I can see why the “Union Alchemist” envelope is coveted today: its image and message is a bit more intricate than the majority of pro-Union covers I have seen–many featuring Jefferson Davis swinging from a rope (actually he is there, in the upper left-hand corner, in a specimen jar, next to General Beauregard).

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Lincoln is writing prescriptions in a laboratory full of his distillations, including pure refined national elixir of liberty and metallic soap for erasing stains..for the southern market; he is not only the Great Emancipator (and the Great Distiller) but also the renowned rebel exterminator. It’s such a great image and item: what was I thinking years ago when I passed it by? I’ve found quite a few more in auction and historical archives, but none available, for $5 or $500: this is definitely one that got away, but I did catch a Salem octopus!

Lincoln Envelope Hakes Auctions

Lincoln's Laboratory PMA

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Union Alchemist 5 Cowans

Union Alchemist 8

Union Alchemist Bangor

Civil War Cover

Whipple & Smith’s “Lincoln’s Laboratory or the Union Alchemist” covers, from Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, The Helfand Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John A. McAllister Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Cowan’s Auctions, PBA Galleries, and the Bangor Historical Society.


Salem Lots

Several years ago, Bonhams Auctions held an auction of items from the Caren Archive, the largest private collection of American documents from the colonial era to the present. It was an extremely profitable event for all concerned, and so now there is a second sale coming up, and this one features several notable Salem items. The April 11 “Treasures from the Caren Archives II: How History Unfolds” auction comprises a wide variety of paper lots, among them one of the earliest English reports on the Salem Witch Trials, a 1777 financial document in which the Widow Sarah Putnam agreed to finance the Salem privateer Pluto during the American Revolution,  the “preliminaries of peace” negotiations that brought the Revolution to a close as reported by the Salem Gazette, Andrew Jackson’s 1834 State of the Union address, also reported in the Gazette, and a list of the Salem donors who contributed to William Henry Harrison’s successful presidential campaign in 1840.There’s also a great mezzotint image of Major-General Israel “Old Put” Putnam made in 1775 by Salem printer Joseph Hiller, based on a painting by Benjamin Blyth–very similar to the portrait of John Hancock this very pair produced in that same year.

Selling Salem 1693

Selling Salem Putnam 1795

Salem Gazette 1783 Preliminaries of Peace

Salem Gazette 1834

Selling Salem 1840

Salem Lots from the upcoming Bonhams Auction of items from the Caren Archive: Memoirs of the Present State of Europe, or the Monthly Account of Occurrences Ecclesiastical, Civil and Military. Vol II. No 1 [-12]. London: printed for Robert Clavel and Jonathan Robinson and Samuel Crouch, 1692-93;  BLYTH, BENJAMIN. 1746-1786. The Honble Israel Putnam Esqr. Major General of the United Forces of America. Salem, [MA]: printed by Joseph Hiller, [1775]; Salem Gazettes from 1783 and 1834; A handwritten list of 47 Whig subscribers offering to contribute funds to the campaign of William Henry Harrison, Salem, June 1840.

The two items that interest me the most are the 1693 London periodical and (oddly enough), the list of William Henry Harrison campaign donors. 1693 is very late in the history of the European Witch Hunt, and you would expect English reactions to the Salem trials to run along the lines of those backward, superstitious colonials, but this correspondent is not quite so condemnatory. He does however express the emerging enlightened mentality : In my opinion a Rational person, who is not Convinced of the Matter by his own Eyes, ought to suspend his judgment and to remain in a kind of Skepticism, until Experience shall receive farther illustrations from Experience. The Harrison document is interesting not because of the 47 names of Salem men listed (familiar prominent names) but because it sheds light on campaign finances in the mid-nineteenth century: the money went not to the production of hand-bills or newspaper advertising, but to defray the expenses of the Whig celebrations of the Fourth of July ensuing in addition to the cost of the collations…..” . Firecrackers and food (and drink), no doubt.


Miss Brooks Embellishes

I am featuring yet another new-to-me Salem artist today, Mary Mason Brooks (1860-1915), who worked primarily in watercolors over her career. Mary’s biography is spare: the obituary in the 1915 American Art Directory consists of only two brief lines: a painter in water colors, died September 20, 1915. She was born in Salem, Mass, studied in Rome and Paris; exhibited in New York and Boston, her home being in the latter city. I can fill in these lines a bit: she was born into an old and well-connected Salem family, grew up on Lafayette Street, and her father was the long-time Secretary of the Essex Institute who also published quite a few antiquarian pieces over his long career. After her training in Europe, Mary returned to Salem briefly and maintained a studio and school in the famous “Studio” at #2 Chestnut Street among her fellow Salem artists, but she was off to Boston and Jamestown, Rhode Island by her early 30s. She had both family and friends in Jamestown, located right over the bridge (then ferry!) from Newport, where an artists’ colony was emerging and where she eventually died, “suddenly”, at age 55. That’s about it for the written record on Mary Mason Brooks: her works are going to have to embellish her character for us. And there are many: it is apparent that Miss Brooks was no dilettante, but rather a professional, working artist. Most are watercolors: some European scenes, lots of flowers and trees, several structures, the occasional (appropriate for a Salem girl) ship. But the most charming–and in many ways most revealing–work of Miss Brooks that I could find is a book illustrated by her after its publication: a one-off edition of Eleanor Putnam’s Old Salem (1886 & 1899). This charming little book is a collection of previous-published Atlantic Monthly articles written by Harriet Leonora Vose Bates, who preferred to use the pseudonym of her ancestor Eleanor Putnam, published posthumously in two editions. It is basically a series of reminiscences about the stuff of old Salem—shops, schools, homes and things–which Miss Brooks illustrates in her special edition.

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem Collage2

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem Collage

I think it’s pretty gutsy to illustrate a book after its publication, and after its author’s death! And to sign your name right there on the title page! Miss Brooks probably thought her special edition would never see the light of day, but it made its way on to ebay, of all places, a century after her own death. I like the marginalia, which transforms a charming but mere book into something else entirely, but I also feel that I should present some of the artist’s more formal works which were represent her public oeuvre. They testify to a life well-lived, if short, in some beautiful places.

Mary Mason Brooks Salem Schooner

Brooks Garden Poppies

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Mary Mason Brooks watercolor Weston Historical Society

Watercolors by Mary Mason Brooks: Lumber Schooner; Garden of Poppies, Isles of Shoals; Three European Views, Skinner Auctions; and my favorite, a watercolor of the pool at Haleiwa, the Horace Sears Estate in Weston, Massachusetts, Weston Historical Society.


The Merry Boys of Christmas

One of the most dramatic examples of raucous Christmas revelry happened in Salem Village on Christmas Day, 1679 when four youths barged into the home of John Rowden and started singing loudly before the fire. After a few off-key tunes, they demanded compensation in the form of spirits: perry, in particular, as Rowden maintained a profitable pear orchard and was known to make a pleasing pear cider. According to the record of the subsequent trial: it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went”. Rowden and his wife were not pleased with the songs, or the demands, so they sent the young men away, but they quickly returned with a scrap of lead which they tried to pass off as coin to pay for their perry. The Rowdens rebuffed them again, and then all hell broke loose. According to Mr. Rowden’s testimony, The threw stones, bones, and other things against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.”  This was a case of Christmas wassailing gone bad, very bad, recounted by Stephen Nissenbaum in his wonderful book The Battle for Christmas as “The Salem Wassail” and a great example of why Puritans on both side of the Atlantic abhorred Christmas. Their power in both Parliament and the Massachusetts Bay Colony resulted in the great Christmas ban of the mid-17th century: from 1651 to 1660 in England and 1659 to 1681 in Massachusetts.

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The Vindication of Christmas, 1652, lamenting the prohibition of its “keeping” in England during the Interregnum.

There were three major reasons why the Puritans hated Christmas. Their insistence on scriptural authority cast doubt on its date, as nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Nativity occurred on December 25th. They could only conclude, very reasonably, that some ancient winter festival, the Roman Saturnalia or the Winter Solstice, had determined this date, and that the Christian Church had merely adopted and assimilated it: consequently Christmas was perceived as a pagan holiday with a Christian gloss. Given their mandate to purify the Church of all its non-scriptural “traditions” and Popish trappings, it became a conspicuous target. The third reason was primarily social: the Christmas that the Puritans targeted was “Old Christmas”, or “Merry Christmas”, which they saw principally as a prolonged season–Christmastide, which could stretch beyond the twelve days of Christmas to encompass all of December and January–of disorder, misrule, and excess. In Cotton Mather’s words, the “Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty….by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…..”.  By the time Mather  wrote this, “Old Christmas” had returned to England with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Salem seems a little behind the times in 1679 when those young men wassailed the Rowdens so crudely; indeed in that same year the government of Charles II begin requesting that the Massachusetts General Court repeal its anti-Christmas law. If the Rowden revelers had been a bit less rude (and much better singers) one wonders if they would have been let off as mere “merry boys of Christmas”, the subjects of a popular British ballad who cast off all constraints in their keeping of Christmas: these Holidays we’l briskly drink, all mirth we will devise, No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave mine’d Pies: Roast Beef and brave Plum-Porridge, our Loyal hearts to chear: Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas Beer!

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Keeping “Old” Christmas and the “Merry Boys of Christmas” broadside woodcut illustrations from 1680s; Christmas Carols return to Old England at about this time, but New England will have to wait a bit longer.

Dedicated to my friends at the Salem Historical Society and Creative Salem, big supporters of history AND revelry.


A Closer Look: Salem 1854

I’m following up on a post from a couple of years ago on urban “bird’s eye” maps from the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, which included a lithograph map of Salem from 1854 published by Endicott & Company and the Smith Brothers and based on an original aquatint by British born American artist John William Hill (1812-1879). I was impressed by this map at the time, but I didn’t really do it justice. Here’s what I said:  Here is a map that defies categorization:  it’s part panorama, part rendering.  The detail, perhaps a bit idealized, is amazing, especially if you view it with a zoom feature.  Yet the people are stick figures; it’s all about buildings and streets. Thanks to some close cropping by the folks at Princeton University’s Graphic Arts Collection blog, I now want to revise that view: Hill’s view of Salem in 1854 is far more humanistic than I thought. Now I’m more impressed than ever by this amazing artist, whose skills are on flagrant display in this map, and others. It’s that combination of aerial perspective and architectural detail that draws me in, very evident in the close-ups provided by Princeton.

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Lithograph map of Salem, Mass., 1854 by J. H. Colen after John William Hill (1812-1879). Published by the Smith Brothers, 59 Beekman Street, New York. Graphic Arts Collection, Firestone Library, Princeton University.

Yes, the people are still a bit stickish and it is certainly an idealistic impression, but the material world on display still draws you (at least me) in: 6 over 6 window panes, 8 over 8 window panes, dormers, chimneys, laundry on the line. This is a city that seems to be in transition in its orientation, from water to land, as a lot of effort seems to have been spent on those wide (clean! far more clean than they would have been in actuality) streets, home to a few stray carriages now but later to be clogged with cars. Hill’s depiction of Charleston from a few years earlier displays the alternate water-to-land perspective. Moving out of the realm of street view maps (but still encompassing people) is his beautiful watercolor of Boston Harbor, from the same era and the same collection at Princeton, and the stunning New York from Brooklyn Heights, which was issued in several variant genres in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Hill Charleston 1851

Hill Boston Harbor 1853

Hill NY from Brooklyn Heights 1850s

Bennett Hill Brooklyn Heights

John William Hill’s Charleston, 1851 (hand-colored lithograph, Historic Charleston Collection); Boston, 1853, Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University, and New York from Brooklyn Heights, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on deposit at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Aquatint with engraving and etching of the latter by William James Bennett, 1837, New York Public Library.


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