Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday Video: Maj. Sullivan Ballou's Final Letter to His Wife, 1861

Friday, May 26, 2017

Susan reporting,

It's hard to believe that Ken Burns's monumental documentary, "The Civil War", is now nearly thirty years old. Debuting in 1990, it captured the tragedy of the American Civil War with words, music, and images that many of us still haven't forgotten.

This is one of the most memorable segments: the final letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote home to his wife Sarah. Ballou served with the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, and like many of the war's soldiers on both sides, he'd left behind not only a wife and sons, but also a prospering career. He had been a respected lawyer and was House Speaker in the Rhode Island legislature when he enlisted to defend his country and his beliefs. This letter was never mailed, but was found in his belongings after he died from injuries after the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861. Ballou was 32 at the time of his death; Sarah was only 24, and never remarried. His words to her are eloquent and achingly beautiful, and so full of love that it hurts.

This weekend we mark Memorial Day in the United States. I hope that, in the middle of the picnics, sales, and pool openings for the holiday weekend, you'll pause for a moment and think of Major Ballou and all the other soldiers, from every war, who have made such sacrifices for us. More than ever, it's a message we need to remember, especially in an era where the world seems more unsure by the day.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Dressing to Look Slender in 1924

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Loretta reports:

No doubt a great many women can relate to the issue of slenderness, whose definition seems to have shrunk (pound-wise, that is) over the years.

It seemed to me that this must have been an especially sore spot in the 1920s, when the fashion was for a boyish figure, instead of the emphasis  only a decade or so earlier on curvaceousness. I gained some insight when I came upon a 1920s book on the Internet Archive whose introduction details the author's frustrations with weight gain, dieting, and trying to look good in fashionable clothing.

“I left [my doctor’s] office crestfallen and disappointed, thinking that if he only knew how much the heavy woman wants to appear thin enough to wear smart clothes, if he could only know how she actually longs for the lovely things that fashion creates for the slender types, he would be more sympathetic.”

But the doctor wasn’t, and friends and family were rather shockingly blunt about her weight gain. And so, author Jane Warren Wells decided “If I could not safely reduce, I would at least give the appearance of having reduced. If I could not actually take off thirty pounds, I would make myself look thirty pounds lighter in the eyes of others.”

The result was the book, Dress and Look Slender.

I’ve clipped for your perusal the pages on colors, but the entire book is quite interesting. As well as offering insight into the mindset of a 1920s lady who liked to look elegant & stylish, it offers useful hints as well as commentary many of us can relate to, nearly 100 years later. Her last tip (on page 185) works, I think, for any era.

Slenderizing with color

Slenderizing with color

Fashion image from La Gazette du Bon Ton 1922

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

For the Longest of Voyages, a Gentleman's Sea Chest that Does It All, c1794

Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Susan reporting,

American travelers today are accustomed both to convenience and speed. A journey to the other side of the world can be accomplished in a day, with as much luxury as the budget allows.

But in the late 18thc, international travel was neither easy, fast, nor luxurious, especially for Americans who wished to engage in the lucrative trade with India. All such journeys were made under sail. Voyages that began in Boston or Salem would continue across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then across the Indian Ocean. The length of a voyage depended on winds, storms, seasons, the captain and crew, and a great deal of luck.

For example, Benjamin Carpenter left Boston on December 24, 1789 (Christmas Eve!), and did not arrive in Madras until August 16, 1790, after nearly eight months at sea. Dudley Pickman Salem was more fortunate; his voyage from Salem, MA to Madras in 1799-1800 took only 111 days.*

There were plenty of perils, too, including shipwrecks, illness, accidents, and pirates. If those were avoided, passengers still faced a repetitive and limited menu, lack of exercise, homesickness, and boredom. Even for an affluent traveler, quarters were cramped, often little more than a closet-sized cabin. The best (sometimes only) company would be books, which, like everything else, would have been carefully chosen with space at such a premium.

All of which leads to the ingenious mahogany sea chest shown here, now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Benjamin Joy (c1755/57-1828) was a merchant from Newburyport, MA. Experienced in trading with India (he was one of the rare Americans at the time who had also lived in India), Joy was appointed United State Consul to Calcutta and other Indian ports by President George Washington in November, 1792. According to the chest's placard:

"Joy arrived in Calcutta in April 1794, where the British East India Company refused to recognized him as Consul, but permitted him to reside there as a 'commercial agent.' This marked the beginning of America's official relationship with India.

"Portable chests like this were indispensable on long sea voyages. This chest provides a felt-covered desk, secure compartments to hold inks and other liquids, more compartments for brushes and a sewing kit, drawers, a mirror, washbasin, chamber pot, and even a bidet."

The chest is a marvel of efficiency masquerading as an elegant piece of gentleman's furniture. Curator Anne Bentley demonstrated its various quick-change functions, and even over two hundred years after its creation, every drawer and compartment still fits snugly and perfectly into place. Meant for a tiny shipboard cabin, the chest would have made the most of the limited space. It's the Swiss Army knife of furnishings.

The origins of the chest are now unknown, but it's believed to have been made not in Salem, but in India, in preparation for the voyage home. Perhaps Mr. Joy used all that time on the outbound voyage to decide exactly what was required (and what he was lacking), and from uncomfortable experience was able to have the cabinetmaker create the perfect sea chest. Necessity can often be not only the mother of invention, but splendid design as well.

There is a similar chest in the collection of the Adams National Historic Park that belonged to another diplomat and frequent traveler, John Quincy Adams; his is referred to as a "traveling chest." Beyond that, however, the MHS staff isn't aware of any other surviving examples. If you know of another (no matter its origin), please leave a comment, and I'll pass it along.

* This information comes from another of our wonderful friends of the blog, Dane Morrison, author of True Yankees: Americans, the South Seas, and the Discovery of National Identity, 1784-1844, Johns Hopkins Press. Follow his blog here.

Many thanks to Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art and Artifacts, Massachusetts Historical Society, for her assistance with this post. 

Sea chest, maker unknown [India?], 1790s. Massachusetts Historical Society. 
Photographs ©2017 by Susan Holloway Scott.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Who Really Invented Potato Chips?

Monday, May 22, 2017
Loretta reports:

You find out the darndest things in the darndest places. I recently found a clipping stuck in my trusty computer-side notebook, from a “Violet Days” comic strip by Chris Monroe that appeared in Funny Times of May 2016. In it she pointed out a myth about the creation of potato chips (that would be crisps, to British readers). Naturally, I had to investigate.

I started, as anybody would, by Googling “potato chips origin.” And there, as is the case with many myths, one finds numerous sites citing a tale that happens not to be supported by historical evidence. Several sites declare one George Crum as the inventor, in 1853, and there’s a long, charming story—which very often is a clue to a historical myth—of his inventing them by accident, due to aggravation by an annoying customer.

In fact, a recipe appeared as early as 1817 in Dr. William Kitchiner's Apicius Redivivus; or, the Cook’s Oracle. In other words, our Regency heroes and heroines might have had a bad potato chip habit, just like some of us who shall remain nameless who write this blog post.
Potato Chip Recipe 1817

As Ms. Monroe pointed out in her comic, the recipe also appeared in The Virginia House-Wife in 1827, and Shilling Cookery for the People by Alexis Soyer in 1845, and continued to appear in edition after edition of the Cook’s Oracle. If you compare the clippings from the earlier and later editions of the Cook’s Oracle, you’ll notice a slight change in method, which allowed for even thinner, crispier crisps. You’ll also notice lard, which will cause many readers to grimace. Again, there’s some misinformation about lard. For one thing, it shouldn’t be confused with the vegetable shortening that comes in those familiar cans. Well, familiar to those of us who grew up in the last century. For another, it turns out to be not nearly as unhealthy as had been assumed for decades. And it does make superior pastry, among other delights.
Potato Chips Recipe 1831

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Breakfast Links: Week of May 14, 2017

Saturday, May 20, 2017
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• The secret, scandalous life of the English country house.
• From a 19thc grocery shelf: the phenomenal promises of Hostetter's Bitters.
• The many reinventions of Winchester Castle's great hall.
Dress up: what we lost in the casual revolution.
• Online exhibition: Charlotte Bronte: ten letters and a fictional fantasy.
Orreries in time of war.
• In 1928, five African American women began a 250 mile cycling journey from Washington, DC to New York.
Video: The Queen Victoria Statue, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
• When the South Bronx was the 18thc mini-kingdom of the Morris family, self-made American aristocrats.
• Ten dangers of Georgian London.
• The mysterious death of 1920s movie star Thelma Todd.
• Charles Hamilton Houston: the man who killed Jim Crow.
Image: An early 17thc Dutch barmaid, from the AlbumAmicorum of Michael van Meer.
'Lovers Leap' in Derbyshire.
• One of George Washington's spies, Nathan Hale, taught in this one-room schoolhouse.
• Five pioneering women behind the camera during World War Two.
• The letters between Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse Fanny Cornforth are now online to read.
Video: New York State wants us all to plan an Equal Rights summer road trip, and we're totally on board.
• Splash it on: a brief history of aftershave.
• Child labor exposed: the photographic legacy of Lewis Hine.
• The dramatic life and mysterious death of Theodosia Burr, Aaron Burr's only surviving legitimate child.
• Dorothy Wordsworth: writer, sister, and amanuensis.
• Identity of a young girl buried 140 years ago in San Francisco finally discovered.
Just for fun: Jane Eyre, the emails.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection
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