Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Studying History

An article in the New York Times today summarized a debate surrounding Britain’s history curriculum. Eminent historians, the likes of David Cannadine, David Starkey, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Niall Ferguson, are weighing in on how history should be taught to young Britons.  

This article evoked for me a moment to pause and consider why I study history. What I appreciate most about the study of such a finicky thing is that it is constantly changing. How so, you may ask, since historical events that occurred in the past cannot be changed?  What we can change is how we examine the past and what perspective or interpretation is used for that examination.

To quote Mr. Cannadine:

“History is supposed to teach people perspective and proportion polarized around a set of entrenched positions: those who stress the importance of historical knowledge — facts — over historical skills, those who want a narrative of national greatness versus a warts-and-all portrait of the past, and those who want to focus on the country you’re in rather than our relationship with the broader world.”

The study of history needs to include the facts, the recitation of the kings and queens of England or the dates of wars, but it can, and in my opinion should, strive beyond the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ to the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. It is in delving into the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ that moves the study of history beyond just the dates of a monarch or a war to considering the deeper meaning of the subject. It is in that quest for meaning that we diverge in how to study history because it means something different for each person.

Each time I sit down to examine a subject, it will be a different experience than the time before. I am approaching the topic in a different time and space and therefore I bring a different perspective to examining the topic in that moment. There is no true way to uncover the mystery of the past. There is no singular truth but many truths to discover. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Is In a Title?

I’m currently reading Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt, and every time I speak about the book, I wonder what that title means. So to the Internets I ventured!  

The phrase ‘as meat loves salt’ seems to have originated in the English fairy tale “Cap O’ Rushes.” To summarize the story:


A wealthy man has three daughters and asks each one how much they love him. First two daughters respond accordingly with answers such as ‘as much as the world’ and ‘as much as life’ while the third states she loves her father ‘much as meat loves salt’. She is cast out, dresses in rushes, and becomes a scullery maid in a great estate. The plotline proceeds much like “Cinderella” with a ball, which the third daughter attends dressed up in finery and catches the attention of the estate owner’s son, who of course falls madly in love with her and marries her. At the wedding feast, the daughter, now bride, orders that the food be prepared without salt. All the dishes were tasteless and awful. Her father attends the wedding feast as a guest not knowing that his own daughter was the bride. He finally realizes what his daughter had meant when she declared her love to him ‘as meat loves salt’. The bride revels herself as his daughter and hurrah for happy ending.


The full “Cap O’ Rushes” can be read here. The story was published in 1890 by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales.

 Since discovering the provenance of ‘as meat loves salt’, I’ve become fascinated by the depth of devotion and complexity the phrase conveys and how it is portrayed in this novel. As Meat Loves Salt is as intriguing a book as the phrase it is named after. I found myself suddenly enthralled with the plot and characters and before I knew it, 300 pages into the complex passionate actions of the characters. Set in the 1640’s, the historical framework seamlessly supports the story that you forget you are reading a historical novel and settle in to enjoy the intimate scenery McCann has woven on the page.

I will not say much more because in this instance because the less you know before reading the better.



Monday, October 3, 2011

Rights for Women!

In my travels in upstate New York, I passed through Seneca Falls where, in 1848, the Women’s Rights Convention occurred on July 19 and 20 in the Wesleyan Chapel. The church was known as a haven for antislavery activity, political rallies, and free speech events.

Elizabeth Cady StantonLucretia MottMartha Wright, and Mary Ann M'Clintock met in the home of Jane Hunt in Waterloo, New York to plan the First Women's Rights Convention. This was the first meeting to be held for the purpose of discussing the “social, civil, and religious conditions and the rights of woman.” It was the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States. 

At the time the convention was held, women were not equal to men in the law, church, or government. They could not vote, hold elective office, attend college, or earn a living wage. If married, they could not make legal contracts, divorce, or gain custody of their children. These hindrances on a woman's person and actions dictated the path of her life and, in the broader perspective, effected the structure of politics and economies, society and culture. 

The Report of the Woman's Rights Convention, a copy of the minutes from the 1848 meeting, was circulated at local and national women's rights conventions. (The text of the report can be read here.) 

The Declaration of Sentiments was presented at the Women's Rights Convention. Based on the Declaration of Independence, it stated that "all men and women are created equal" and demanded equal rights for women and the right to vote. The Wesleyan Chapel, a National Historical Park, displays the entire Declaration of Sentiments in as a monument to this moment in history that changed everything everyone had ever known. 


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

History Through Glass

On my recent vacation to the Finger Lakes District in Upstate New York, I had the opportunity to spend a morning at the Corning Museum of Glass. In addition to beautiful artistic pieces, the Museum houses more than 45,000 pieces tracing 3,500 years of glassmaking history. After traveling through the galleries displaying glass of the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, I found my way to the glass objects from the Baroque to late Victorian periods. There were many examples of English lead glass and chalk glass, which were two improvements to glassmaking in the 17th century.

As I traveled along this timeline, I was fascinated to observe how society and culture across civilizations could be tracked by these artifacts. Early glassmakers used a variety of techniques to shape and decorate vessels, jewelry and sculptures. In the later periods, glass was used to make medallions, furniture, chandeliers and an even an entire mechanical glass theater!

From the Corning Museum Exhibits:

Beibly glass - "The Beilby family painted much of the colorless enameled glass that was made in England during and after the 1760s. William Beilby (1740-1819) and his sister Mary (1749-1797) enameled glasses wiht floral motifs, landscapes, and pictures of architectural ruins. The most famous of their glasses are goblets bearing the royal coats of arms. These goblets mark the birth of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) in 1762."

"Tea and coffee were imported into Europe in the ealry 1600s. They were first taken as medicines. Both beverages were usually served in porcelain or stoneware cups, but glass cups were sometimes used in the 18th century. Tea is still sipped from glasses in eastern Europe today. The Comte de Mirabeau, a French Revolutionary statesman, said, 'Tea and coffee have been more effective in containing the vice of drunkenness than all the teachings of the moralists and the learning of the Enlightenment.' "



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Exploring the "Fingers"...

...That is the Finger Lake District in New York, the 11 skinny blue streaks carved by glaciers that meander through the middle part of the state. The region is a pastoral patchwork of lakefront villages, grand Victorian homes, farms, and forests.

A Brief History of the Region

The Finger Lakes region was a central part of the Native American tribe the Iroquis tribes' homeland. As one of the most powerful nations during colonial times, the Iroquois were able to prevent European colonization of the Finger Lakes region for almost two hundred years after first contact. The American Revolutionary War divided the Iroquis tribes as some sided with the British and others with the Americans. The Iroquis' hold over the region was effectively broken in the late 1770s by skirmishes between British-allied Iroquis and American frontier settlers.

On the Itinerary

In addition to touring the small towns, old mansions, cycling, swimming and kayaking in the lakes, I will visit the birthplace of the women's suffrage movement at the Women's Rights National Historical Park (http://www.nps.gov/wori/index.htm), which is located in Seneca Falls and includes the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Wesleyan Chapel where she held the first convention on women's rights in 1848.

And there is no stopping me from going to the Corning Museum of Glass, which houses one of the best collections of art and historical glass with more than 45,000 glass objects, spanning 3,500 years of glassmaking history (http://www.cmog.org/default.aspx). Conceived of as an accredited educational institution and founded in 1950 by the Corning Glass Works, the Museum is a non-profit institution that preserves and expands the world's understanding of glass.


Pictures and more details of the vacation and ensuing activites to come!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Room of One's Own

Apologies for the lack of blog posts in the past two months. I've switched jobs and so with all my efforts directed at "life" there has been little time for "play." Until now! 

I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit "Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," which depicts interiors with windows by 19th-century European artists. The show explores the open window as a favored concept of Romantic painters. The pieces span from the early 1800s to the 1860s. (To place these works into historical context, parts of Europe were recovering from the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars while in others there were liberal revolts that gave rise to the age of nationalism.)

There were many pieces in this exhibit that struck me as incredibly intimate and thought-provoking for a variety of reasons:


1. Caspar Daniel Fredrich's "Woman at the Window", 1822

There is such a deep intimacy to witnessing this peaceful moment. I feel as though I have just walked into this room where this woman is standing and am afraid to interrupt her. Yet, I'm utterly enthralled with watching her watch something outside. She is leaning forward and slightly turned to get a better look out of the window. What does she see? Is she expecting someone or is there something happening outside? In addition to my curiosity of what is drawing her attention, I enjoy the green palatte of this piece (better seen in person than on a screen) and the complimentary hues of her green dress, the green walls and shutters, and the lighter shades of green seen through the window.



2. Adolph Menzel's "Sleeping Seamstress by the Window"

This sweet little image is of the artist's sister. She was too busy working to pose for him, but he was lucky and captured her at an opportune time of unguardedness when she drifted off to sleep. The theme of intimacy of this show is epitimozed in this work because what is more serene and private than that of a sleeping form? I imagine that she was too busy to pose for her brother because she has too much work to do, and in working so hard she has exhausted herself. So she takes a brief reprieve to put her work down and shut her eyes in the warm sun of this day.


As an alternative to the pieces that allow us a peek into private moments, there are those that allow you to almost step into the scene and take a place in the moment the artist has chosen to depict:


3. Caspar Daniel Fredrich's "View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Left", 1805-06

This is the river Elbe from Friedrich's studio in Dresden. This piece is more than simply showing the perspective of the Elbe from the room. It is a juxtaposition of the near view of the window and wall and the far view of outside the window as well as the balance between the dark interior and the bright outdoors. This simple work is a metaphor for the Romantic's unfulfilled longing for possibilities; of what is beyond the window, what is beyond the confines of his life, what he hopes for, what he wants, what he portrays on the confined space of his canvas within the confined space of his studio.


4. Carl Ludwig Kaaz's "View from Grassi's Villa toward the Plauensche Grande near Dresden," 1807

This piece surprisingly is my favorite. I felt a true sense of realism.  As I approached it on the wall, I simultaneously felt as if I was approaching the window. I was transported to Dresden, looking out on this quiet serene countryside, feeling the breeze, and hearing the rustling of the trees. By stepping into the artist's world, I became not a viewer of this work but its subject. I imagined that the artist is standing behind me capturing me as I peer out the window because something caught my attention and drew it away from my book, which I've set down on the window sill.  In that instance I felt like Fredrich's "Woman at the Window" in which a private moment is captured before it disappears. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning - A Moral Duty

It is officially (and finally!) spring, which necessitates the "spring cleaning" frenzies. In my research for last week's post about kitchen's in a Victorian middle-class house, I discovered the genesis of our spring cleaning habits. (An excerpt from 1872 from The Manufacturer and Builder, a "practical journal of industrial progress.")

During the time when houses, and kitchens, ran on coal for heating and cooking, the main reason for spring cleaning was to remove the winter dirt produced by coal, oil, gas, and candles. Also with the longer daylight hours and warmer weather, the need for the constant fires in every room diminished. The servants had more time without the daily cleaning of grates and caring for fires. 

Rather than fight the dirt and dust produced by these fuels, people adapted to its presence with some inventive tools and practices: 

  • latches to both street doors and inner doors had small plates or curtains fitted over the keyhole to keep out dirt
  • plants on window sills trapped dust as it flew in
  • muslin was nailed across windows to stop the soot or windows only opened at the top to limit the amount of soot and dirt that came in
  • tablecloths were laid on tables just before meals. If they were kept out all day, dust settled from the fires, quickly making the tablecloths dingy

Thankfully we do not have coal-burning stoves and fires, oil and gas lamps, and dripping candles to clean up and care for. But it still is a common practice to throw open the windows, shake out the rugs, flip the mattresses, and air out the house after the long winter months. And there are plenty of advice books, magazines, and articles to inform and 'guide' the modern housewife on what to do and how to do it. (see any Martha Stewart article in any spring publication). Even in the nineteenth century there was a publishing market that targeted the mistresses of houses to maintain order and cleanliness within the home.

Our Homes, an advice book from 1881 by Shirley Foster Murphy stated: "If once we commence a war against dirt, we can never lay down our arms and say, 'now the enemy is conquered.'...Women - mistresses of households, domestic servants - are the soldiers who are deputed by society to engage in this war against dirt."

The war against dirt wasn't just for reasons of hygiene but also carried the banner of status. The status symbol moved from the act of possessing objects, as it was easier to own more with the rise of the mass production of products, to the expensive and time-consuming obsession with keeping clean. In addition to her physical duty, it became the housewives' moral imperative to keep a respectable house. A house many not be any cleaner than it was before, but the air of respectability indicated that it was a decent household. And a clean house was a moral house and thus reflected the clean and moral people who lived within.


Source: Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, Judith Flanders

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cooking with the Victorians

I thoroughly enjoy cooking. Not only do I love to eat good food, I love to prepare good food. Recently I have reflected on the ease with which I can create a culinary masterpiece in a short amount of time and how difficult it must have been to cook in an age when ovens were run on coal (and had to be large enough to cook meals for the mid-Victorian family, which might contain a dozen people!)  Today, our kitchens serve almost as a multi-purpose room...storing food, preparing food, cooking, cleaning of food and dishes, and eating. But in the Victorian house, the kitchen held one purpose only - cookery. 

Essential functions of what we consider 'cooking' were kept separate. Food storage, preparation, and dishwashing were carried out, respectively, in the storeroom and larder, and the scullery:

  • Scullery - food preparation that was messy, such as cleaning fish, preparing vegetables; scouring pots and pans
  • Pantry - storing china and glass (and silver if there was any), washing and polishing china, glass, and silver
  • Larder - storing fresh-food
  • Storeroom - for dried goods and cleaning equipment

Fascinatingly, in the "ideal Victorian home," each separate room had a different type of sink:

  • Scullery - a sink, and maybe two, for cleaning food and washing pots
  • Pantry - sink was of wood lined with lead to prevent the glass and crockery from chipping
  • Storeroom - lead-lined wood sink and maybe a lead-lined slop sink (where chamber pots were emptied)

A Victorian advice book on housekeeping in 1872, called The Modern Householder, provided a comprehensive list of the necessities for a kitchen to fulfill the functions to cook and clean:

Open range, fender, fire irons, 1 deal table, deal bracket to be fastened to wall and let down when wanted, wooden chair, floor canvas, coarse canvas to lay before the fire when cooking, wooden tub for washing glass and china, large earthenware pan for washing plates, small zinc basin for washing hands, 2 washing-tubs, clothesline, clotheshorse, yellow bowl for mixing dough, wooden salt box to hang up, small coffee mill, plate rack, 
knife board, 
large brown 
earthenware pan for bread, 
small wooden flour kit, 3 flat irons, an Italian iron, iron stand, old blanket for ironing on, 2 tin candlesticks, snuffers, extinguishers, 2 blacking brushes,1 scrubbing brush,
1 carpet broom, 
1 short handled broom, 
cinder sifter, 
bucket, patent digester {akin to a pressure cooker}, tea kettle, 
toasting fork, 
bread grater  
bottle jack (a screen can be made with the clothes horse covered with sheets), {a spit for roasting meat set up in front of the fire of the open range}, set of skewers, 
meat chopper, 
block-tin butter saucepan, 
3 iron saucepans, 
1 iron boiling pot, 
1 fish kettle, 
1 flour dredger, a sifter
,1 frying pan, 
1 hanging gridiron ,
salt and pepper boxes, 
rolling pin and pasteboard, 
12 patty pans, 1 larger tin pan, pair of scales, 
baking dish.

*I included a note or two in parenthesis for items that may not be familiar to some. For more definitions on kitchen and household equipment from the 19th century, I recommend a website called "Old and Interesting: History of domestic paraphernalia." 

A few items are familiar to the modern day reader, such as a number of saucepans and baking dishes. But what is surprising is the number of duplicated items. The important thing was to keep the house clean. Therefore, specific items were required for specific functions, which is why there are four different types of washing bowls, four types of irons, and the different kinds of brushes. 

As fascinating at it is to relive the past when it comes to cooking and antique tools, I think I prefer my modern kitchen, modern appliances, and modern tools. With that, I'm off to cook! 


Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic LIfe in Victorian England

Website - Old and Interesting: History of domestic paraphernalia/Kitchen Antiques - http://www.oldandinteresting.com/kitchen-antiques.aspx

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Leap Forward in a Non-Leap Year

As a leapling (one who is born on February 29th), I do not have a birthday this year. And it is on this "off" years that I did some research to remember why we even have Leap Years as part of our calendar.

So first, defintions... a leap year occurs when an extra day (the 29th) is added to Februrary every four years. This was done, according to this very interesting article from National Geographic, "to keep the modern calendar in line with the celestial cycles that frame it."

For centuries, many cultures around the world have added extra days to their calendars to round out the discrepancy of the earth orbiting the sun every 365.242 days. The Julian calendar had a glitch that drifted the year off by ten days, which resulted in annual events and holidays landing out of the seasons with which the celebrations were intended. Pope Gregory XIII addressed this off-kilter situation in 1582 by introducing his calendar which instituted the addition of a day in Februrary every four years. 

Folklore was created to explain leap years. One such is the legend that women could propose marriage to men only on leap years. If the ladies' offer of her hand in marriage was declined, she was compensated in the form of money or finery, such as a silk dress or a fine pair of gloves. The details of these urban myths cannot be substantiated by historical documentation however "proof" of the legend exists. In my research of these myths on Google, I came across a number of delightfully cartoonish postcards:

I'm sorry to say ladies that you will need to wait until next year to send one of these cards to your fellow as the next Leap Year isn't until 2012. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sacrifices in the Advancement of Public Health

I have been reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I've copied a summary of the book below from the author's website. I could not eloquently explain the complex and intricate plot that Ms. Skloot delivers to us with great skill: 

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.

We take for granted the remarkable events that had to occur for us to be able to live healthy lives in environments that do not threaten our existence. We are able to walk down clean streets that are not swamped in sewage and garbage. If we catch a cold or have a headache, we can pop into our local drugstores for a few pills to ease our symptoms until our immune systems can battle the foreign invaders and return us to health. 


But, there are faces and life stories behind the scientific discoveries that have made advances in our health and medical knowledge and allowed our lives to be cleaner and healthier. Henrietta Lacks' illness and the resulting events that unfurled are unfortunate for her and for her family. However, the ordeal that she and her family experienced is not the first intersection of public health and sexual politics. Ms. Lacks was one of many women who suffered because she was a woman in a patriarchal society and who sacrificed more than just her cells for the good of public health

The Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts were first passed in 1864, amended in 1866, 1868, and 1869, and ultimately repealed in 1886. These parliamentary acts were an attempt to regulate prostitution in British garrison towns so as to control the spread of venereal diseases, referred to as "contagious diseases" at the time. With these acts, British law enshrined the belief and practice that women were a source of contamination. 

The CD Acts defined any woman detained by the police within an area of garrison towns as a common prostitute, regardless if they were innocent mothers, sisters, or daughters of a garrisoned man. Any woman arrested was charged as a prostitute and was forced to comply and undergo a horrific and intrusive medical examination. If she refused, she was imprisoned. 

Though the CD Acts meant to contain the spread of venereal disease for very serious and vital public health reasons, they instead created a crime by their observance. Whether the women victimized by these laws were in fact prostitutes or were innocent, women were targeted and persecuted because they were women.  No attempt was made to regulate the spread of disease by penalizing the men who paid for sex. The working-class women who performed this kind of work as a result of economic circumstances were "fallen women" whose sins were greater than the man's. 

The abuses caused by the CD Acts and the debates that resulted and ultimately led to their repeal were powerful catalysts for the Women's Movement. 

The Victorians by A.N. Wilson


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Wish I May, I Wish I Might...

With the new year upon us, it causes one to think of the wishes, hopes, and resolutions for the year ahead. Some wish to lose weight. Some resolve to eat better. Some hope for a change in their circumstances - a new job, a new house, a new {insert want or need}. At the heart of these explorations is a search into identity - who we think we are or should be or want to be seen as. 

In November 2010, historian Simon Schama published in The Guardian his vision of how and why history should be taught in schools. In this article, he states that history is not a measure to merely calm or please arguments and misfortunes. "It's exactly because history is, by definition, a bone of contention that the arguments it generates resist national self-congratulation."

The Greek word historia meant and was used as "inquiry."  The "father of history" Herodotus traveled and wrote about the people and places he saw examining the cultures and legends of regions he ventured through. So, according to Schama, the inquiry into a nation's history "is not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us."  The investigation and analysis of history is integral to the self-examination of who we are today.

I am preoccupied with this inquiry into the past to better understand today. Who are we and why? What is the impact of this political incident or that economic event on the culture and society of a peoples? How did it all coalesce into a nation and a national identity? 

As an anglophile, I've chosen to delve in to British history to explore these questions. I hope to consider these weighty inquiries in this forum throughout the coming year. Answers may not be found and further questions may result, but the conversation will begin.