Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Every Christmas Card I Write...

Card from CCRS Grade 7A, 1923
The Alice contains many treasures, but if I had to pick a favorite, it just might be the greeting card collection. Assembled in nine enormous albums are the greeting cards that Alice and William Miner received between 1909 and 1925. There are Easter cards and Thanksgiving cards, but most of them are Christmas cards. This delightful collection gives us a window into the popular styles and themes of holiday cards in the early twentieth century. In addition, there is an album dedicated to the handmade cards and letters that the Miners received from students at Chazy Central Rural School in the 1920s. The museum archives also holds a number of examples of the elaborate Christmas cards that the Miners sent from Heart’s Delight Farm each year. The effort that Alice and William put into preserving these cards shows how much they valued these expressions of good wishes.


Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but we can trace their origins to holiday customs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Tradesmen sent new year’s greetings to their customers, and it was traditional to send holiday letters to family and friends at this time—by the 1830s it was possible to buy decorative stationery just for this purpose. Schoolboys made “Christmas pieces” on special paper printed with holiday borders to demonstrate their penmanship skills to their parents and visitors to their schools. Valentine’s Day cards also were common by the 1830s, and indeed many early Christmas cards simply reproduced the floral motifs of Valentine’s greetings.






The first Christmas card combined expressions of
holiday cheer with images of charitable giving.
Though it’s generally difficult to place a precise date on ephemeral holiday traditions, historians are fairly confident in saying that the first commercially produced Christmas card was made in London in 1843. In that year Henry Cole (who had played an important role in introducing the penny post to England in 1840) commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card, which was lithographically printed and then hand-colored by professional colorist William Mason. The cards (which were actually unfolded sheets of paper) sold for one shilling each—quite expensive by 1840s standards—but the idea quickly caught on.

Louis Prang (1824-1909)
The Christmas card tradition spread to the United States by the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that they became really popular. This was due almost entirely to the work of Louis Prang, “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Prang was born in Breslau, Silesia (now Poland) and learned the trade of printing and dyeing fabrics from his father, a textile manufacturer. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States and established a business in Boston, printing business cards, advertisements, and other ephemera. 

Prang returned to Europe in 1864 to study the newest techniques in printing, and came back to the U.S. prepared to introduce chromolithography. While lithographs were printed in black and white and had to be colored by hand (like Cole’s Christmas card), chromolithography produced a full-color image. This was a difficult and labor-intensive process, and Prang considered his chromolithographs to be true works of art. 


Elihu Vedder’s prize-winning card, 1881,
from the collection of the New-York
Historical Society
Prang produced his first Christmas cards in 1875, and they were an immediate success. Between 1880 and 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of up to $1000 to the first place winner. Esteemed artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge served as judges. Prang’s cards, with their meticulous printing techniques and aura of fine art, dominated the Christmas card market until the 1890s, when inexpensive postcards from Germany began flooding the American market. Prang got out of the card business and focused on producing art supplies and educational materials, but his designs set the standards for Christmas cards well into the 20th century.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s online exhibit, American History Through Christmas Cards, has a wonderful selection of 19th and 20th century cards that you can browse.

Information about Louis Prang comes from the New-York Historical Society Library’s blog.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Have a Colonial Christmas

Over the past few weeks, as we’ve been preparing for the holiday season here at the Alice, one of the questions that’s frequently come up is “What was a colonial Christmas like?” This is a really tricky question to answer for a number of reasons. For one, “colonial” as a term encompasses more than 150 years of history, a large geographical range, and many religious and ethnic variations. Christmas in a 17th-century New England village would have looked very different from Christmas on an 18th-century Virginia plantation. Second, there are very few contemporary historical sources that describe what Christmas was like in North America—most of what historians think about colonial Christmases is based on the assumption that they followed English customs.


Many Americans first saw a Christmas
tree in this illustration of Queen Victoria
and her family, published in Godey’s
Lady’s Book
in 1850.
One thing we can say for certain is that many of the things we associate with Christmas today—trees, gifts, Santa Claus, cards—were not introduced in the United States until the 1830s at the earliest, and didn't become common until later. The image of an “old-fashioned” Christmas that many of us probably have is very much a product of the 19th century. That was when Christmas became the family- and child-oriented holiday it is now—and it should also be noted that it didn’t take long for people to start complaining about the commercialization of the holiday, either.

In the 17th and 18th century, Christmas was for some people a religious holiday that should be observed solemnly in church and quietly at home. In Puritan New England Christmas was not celebrated at all, and in fact was outlawed between 1659 and 1681. Puritans objected to Christmas because they felt that the commemoration of Christ’s birth on December 25 had no scriptural basis, and because of the holiday’s association with Catholic customs. The Puritan opposition to Christmas as a time of feasting, drinking, gambling, and general merriment suggests that for many people, the winter holiday served as an excuse for revelry during the darkest days of the year.

The centerpiece of “Christmas in the Country,” as depicted in this
18th-century print, was a large bowl of punch.
For those who celebrated Christmas, December 25 was just the first day of a nearly two-week festive season that extended until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. During this period, people might attend special dinners, parties, or balls, and pay extended visits to family and friends. Having plenty of good food and drink available for guests was important, but there do not seem to have been particular foods that were associated with Christmas. 

In some places, a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to organize and encourage revelry and even mild disobedience. Christmas was a brief season during which normal rules and routines were overturned, when servants could demand gifts from masters and peasants demand drink from the local gentry, as in the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” So although Christmas wasn’t yet a truly gift-oriented holiday, there was a certain kind of non-reciprocal gift-giving that was expected during the season. On Boxing Day (December 26, St. Stephen’s Day), parents and masters gave presents (usually food, clothing, or money) to their children, servants, slaves, or apprentices. 

Another 18th-century depiction of holiday festivities.
Decorating indoors with greenery—holly, boxwood, fir, mistletoe—is a midwinter tradition that long predates Christianity. These pagan customs were later reappropriated by the Church and given Christian symbolism. An English poem of the 1770s gives us an idea of how greenery was used to decorate:


From every hedge is pluck’d by eager hands
The holy-branch with prickly leaves replete,
And fraught with berries of a crimson hue;
Which, torn asunder from its parent trunk,
Is straight way taken to the neighboring towns;
Where windows, mantels, candlesticks, 
and shelves,
Quarts, pints, decanters, pipkins, basons, jugs,
And other articles of household ware,

The verdant garb confess.


So, in decorating the Alice for the holidays, we’ve had to use our imagination a bit. We have used mostly natural elements for decoration—greenery, fruit, berries, nuts. And we do have a Christmas tree, which we’ve decorated with a combination of glass and homemade paper ornaments, like this cornucopia—perfect for holding candy or other treats!

If you’d like to make some 19th century-inspired holiday decorations, please join us on Saturday, December 13, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. The crafts are best suited for children ages 5 and up, but all are welcome to pay a visit to see the Alice dressed up for the holidays and have some treats!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New York State History Month: A Pilgrimage to Niagara Falls

The final stop on our trip through New York on transferware brings us to the western part of the state. These pieces from the Alice’s collection feature two great marvels of the early 19th century: the Erie Canal, a man-made technological triumph, and Niagara Falls, a natural wonder of sublime beauty. It was the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 that for the first time allowed large numbers of Americans to visit the Falls, and made Niagara the premier tourist attraction of the age.

Ralph Stevenson, Erie Canal at Buffalo
 This plate, manufactured by Ralph Stevenson between 1830 and 1840, is one of many ceramic items produced in the 1820s and 1830s featuring towns and other scenes along the Erie Canal. This one depicts the canal’s end at Buffalo, showing both canal boats and sailing ships on Lake Erie. 

By connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal revolutionized the transportation of goods and people. American farmers had started exporting food crops to Europe on a large scale during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). However, even as international exports increased, it remained very expensive to transport goods within the United States. In 1816, $9 could move one ton of goods across the Atlantic, but only 30 miles across land. The construction of the Erie Canal, which began in 1817 and launched a canal-building boom, would change all that. Now farmers who had previously grown crops for their own families began growing for the market. They earned cash and purchased goods they had previously made themselves—or gone without. 

Canals were accompanied by other improvements in transportation—the continuing development of steamboats, new roads offering swift stagecoach service, and, by the 1830s, railroads. New York City, as the port of entry to the Hudson River, secured its position as the largest and most economically important city in the nation. The flourishing steamboat industry turned St. Louis and Cincinnati into centers of trade, and Chicago would ultimately become the railroad hub of the Great Lakes region.

Map of the Niagara region from
The Northern Traveller, 1831
The revolution in transportation made tourism possible. The development of urban commercial centers created a population of prosperous middle-class Americans with the means to travel. Tourists could travel with relative comfort and safety, and there was a growing body of travel literature that told people how to be tourists and what they should look for. For most of the first half of the 19th century, Niagara Falls was the place to go. Indeed, it took on an almost sacred status, with some visitors referring to themselves as “pilgrims.”

Travel to Niagara from places outside Canada had been difficult through most of the 18th century, because it involved crossing through the territory of the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy. In the early 1800s, there was not much in the way of accommodation for those travelers who did make it—just a small village at Lewiston, with slightly more on the Canadian side. The disruptions of the War of 1812 also hindered growth in the area. 

The first tourist guidebook
published in the U.S.
However, the War of 1812 also decisively settled the boundary between the United States and Canada, which allowed for rapid expansion of trade. The powerful Indian nations of the region were displaced, and emigrants, businessmen, and tourists began to flood westward.  Even before construction began on the Erie Canal, there were enough travelers along the route between Albany and Buffalo to create an infrastructure of roads, stagecoach routes, and inns. And indeed, long before the canal was complete, its construction led to huge improvements along the route, as roads, bridges, and ferries were needed to transport workers and supplies.

The development of Niagara as a tourist destination was also closely linked to the Hudson Valley. As noted in my previous post, the Hudson Valley became a tourist spot in the 1810s. As travel and facilities in the valley improved, access to destinations beyond the valley improved as well. The Hudson Valley, Saratoga Springs, the Erie Canal, Niagara, Montreal, Quebec, and Boston all became linked in a standard tourist itinerary known as the “Fashionable Tour.”

Enoch Wood, Niagara from the American Side
Niagara’s first genteel tourist hotel, built by William Forsyth, opened in 1822. Within a decade, Niagara Falls had become such a common destination among tourists that it was already something of a cliché. Visitors came to the falls already having seen and read countless depictions and descriptions of them—perhaps on a piece of transferware like this platter made by Enoch Wood. They knew they were supposed to feel overwhelmed by the grandeur of the experience, but many found themselves disappointed by the reality. Besides, it was hard to appreciate nature with so many other tourists around, not to mention the souvenir-sellers, entertainers, tour guides, and hucksters of
Niagara Falls from under the Table Rock
John Hill after William James Bennett, 1829-30
various types that surrounded the falls.


Still, many visitors did find that Niagara lived up to, or even surpassed, their expectations. The English writer Frances Trollope, who was highly critical of the United States in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), had only praise for Niagara Falls:

“Wonder, terror, and delight completely overwhelmed me. I wept with a strange mixture of pleasure and pain, and certainly was, for a time, too violently affected in the physique to be capable of much pleasure; but when this emotion of the senses subsided, and I had recovered some degree of composure, my enjoyment was very great indeed. To say that I was not disappointed is but a weak expression to convey the surprise and astonishment which this long dreamed of scene produced.”

Two excellent sources on the history of early American tourism are John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)

If you’re interested in the later history of Niagara Falls as a tourist destination, check out Karen Dubinsky, The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls (Rutgers University Press, 1999).

Much more on the Erie Canal can be found at eriecanal.org

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New York State History Month: Picturesque Views of the Hudson River Valley

Picturesque Views, ca. 1829-1836
The plates and platters featured in this week’s journey through New York State on transferware are part of the “Picturesque Views” series by James Clews (who brought us Lafayette’s landing last week). These three pieces depict towns on the Hudson River: West Point (sepia), Newburgh (blue), and Fishkill (black). The source for all the “picturesque views” (twenty in all) is a series of prints engraved by John Hill after watercolors by William Guy Wall, called the Hudson River Port Folio, issued between 1821 and 1825.

Clews, Near Fishkill, Hudson River


William Guy Wall was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1792 and came to the United States in 1818. He studied art with John Rubens Smith, and in the summer of 1820, the two took a trip up the Hudson River, reaching as far north as Luzerne. In 1821, a prospectus appeared in newspapers in major American cities, offering readers the chance to subscribe to the Hudson River Port Folio, “containing twenty-four views of the north river, selected by W. G. Wall, during a tour in the summer of 1820, and painted by him in his best manner, and with a faithful attention to nature. To be engraved by J. R. Smith, in aquatint, in a manner peculiarly adapted to represent highly finished drawings.”


W. G. Wall, View Near Fishkill
The Port Folio was to be issued in six volumes of four prints each, “carefully coloured under the immediate inspection of Mr. Wall.” The prints would be enhanced by descriptions of the scenes, written by the novelist John Agg, who had accompanied Wall and Smith on their tour. Whenever possible, “this literary accompaniment will be enriched with historical narrative, so that the scene and chronicle of glorious achievement will be transmitted, side by side, to posterity.”


Clews, West Point, Hudson River


Smith began the engraving process, but was soon replaced on the project by John Hill, a London-born engraver who had achieved fame for his work on Joshua Shaw’s Picturesque Views of American Scenery, the first large-format color-plate book printed in America (1820). The sixth number of the Port Folio was never produced, making a total of five parts with four prints each, issued once per year. Each number cost $16.00, making it well beyond the reach of most Americans—indeed, it’s likely that many more people would have been familiar with Wall’s views through their reproduction on ceramics than through the original prints.


W. G. Wall, West Point
The Hudson River had played an important role in American life since colonial days, when it supported the fur trade and brought grain and timber to New York City. In 1807, water transportation was dramatically changed when Robert Fulton introduced the first steamboat, the North River (popularly known as the Clermont), which could make the trip from New York to Albany in 36 hours. Then, when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes, river traffic experienced a second boom.


Clews, Newburgh, Hudson River



W. G. Wall, Newburg
In the 1820s, the Hudson River became a destination for tourists from both the United States and Europe. Visitors traveled on it en route to Saratoga Springs, the Adirondacks, and Niagara Falls, but it was also a destination in its own right. The resort hotels of the Catskills and the Revolutionary War sites around West Point were popular tourist spots, but the biggest draw was the region’s natural scenery. The sight of majestic mountains as backdrops to the bustling and prosperous river towns was particularly pleasing to 19th-century viewers. All of Wall’s views combined elements of civilization and commerce (sawmills, steamboats, wagons, churches) with natural wonders like mountains and waterfalls.


Many artists and writers found themselves drawn to the Hudson River as they searched for ways to create a new cultural identity for the nation. The role that the river had played in New York’s unique Dutch history, the Revolutionary War, and the opening of the Erie Canal, all provided exciting subjects for historians and writers of fiction like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. The English artist Thomas Cole traveled by steamship up the Hudson River in 1825 and painted his first Catskill Mountain landscapes. Cole and the other artists who were inspired by the natural beauty of the region came to be known as the Hudson River School. Like Wall (who might really be seen as the pioneer in this area), these artists tended to juxtapose the pastoral beauty of the cultivated landscape with more rugged, sublime manifestations of nature. Hudson River School artists also saw the hand of God in nature, and believed that the beauty of the American landscape was a sign of divine favor.

For the final leg of our journey through New York State, we’ll be visiting another natural wonder—Niagara Falls—and a man-made marvel—the Erie Canal.


Sources:

Philip J. Weimerskirch, “Two Great Illustrated Books about the Hudson River: William Guy Wall’s Hudson River Port Folio and Jacques Gérard Milbert’s Itinéraire pittoresque du fleuve Hudson,” in Adirondack Prints and Printmakers: The Call of the Wild.

Ellouise Baker Larsen, American Historical Views on Staffordshire China, 3rd. edition (Dover Publications, 1975)

A Hudson River Portfolio, a New York Public Library online exhibit





Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New York State History Month: New York City Scenes on Transferware

Did you know that November is New York State History Month? To mark this occasion, Alice News will be highlighting pieces of transferware from the Alice’s collection that feature New York’s history and scenery. We’ll start in New York City, then move into the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains, and end our journey out west in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Patriotic Americans in the years after the War of 1812 could choose from a wide variety of ceramics that depicted national heroes, military victories, public buildings, scenery, and important happenings, such as the opening of the Erie Canal. Most of these pieces were made in England, in the Staffordshire District. The potteries used the transfer process to create these American commemoratives. The design would be engraved on a copper plate, much like those used for making paper engravings. The plate was used to print the pattern on tissue paper, then the tissue paper transferred the wet ink to the ceramic surface. The ceramic was then fired in a low temperature kiln to fix the pattern. This method was a much less costly alternative to hand-painting, making these ceramics accessible to a wide range of Americans.


J. and W. Ridgway, New York City Hall
Our first piece is a dinner plate that shows New York’s City Hall. This plate is part of a series illustrating the “Beauties of America,” made by the English pottery company of John and William Ridgway. John Ridgway came to the United States in 1822, and traveled throughout the eastern states in search of suitable views of major American cities, as well as to establish business relationships with American ceramic merchants. Ridgway selected 22 buildings, including almshouses, hospitals, churches, and banks, to feature on a wide range of tableware—tureens, platters, gravy boats, tea sets, dinner plates, soup bowls, even a baby’s bathtub!



Ridgway chose just two New York places for the Beauties of America: the Almshouse (later Bellevue Hospital) and City Hall. The building depicted here was actually New York’s third City Hall. The first one was built by the Dutch in the 17th century on Pearl Street, the second in 1700 on Wall and Nassau Streets. That building was renamed Federal Hall when New York became the capital of the United States in 1789. The City Council chose the site for a new City Hall on the old Common at the northern limits of the city, and held a competition to design a new building in 1802. The prize was awarded to Joseph-François Mangin and John McComb, Jr. Disagreements over the design and costs, labor disputes, and a yellow fever outbreak delayed construction, but the building finally opened officially in 1812. 


City Hall in 1919
City Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Parks Service historian Charles E. Shedd, Jr., in his report for the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, summed up its importance:

“Since its completion in 1811, New York City Hall has been the heartbeat of the bustling seaport which became the capital of the Free World. The Hall has watched American armies passing in review, going to battle or coming home from the Nation’s wars, from 1812 to Korea. For more than a century and a half it has greeted the great of this and other nations; Lafayette and Lindbergh, Garibaldi and Eisenhower; and it has welcomed to these shores the humble and unknown. Before it have passed generations of immigrants, trudging toward their new homes in the teeming city or in the cities, farms, and plains which stretched westward to the Pacific. The Hall tells the colorful and significant story of civic administration in an American metropolis and preserves the deeds of good men and bad who shaped the American political tradition: DeWitt Clinton, father of the Erie Canal; ‘Boss’ Tweed, the evil genius of machine politics, and the able and flamboyant ‘Little Flower,’ Fiorello La Guardia, among scores of others no less memorable.”


James and Ralph Clews, Landing of Gen. Lafayette
Shedd’s mention of Lafayette brings us to our second item: Pieces depicting General Lafayette’s arrival at Castle Garden on August 16, 1824, made by James and Ralph Clews. I’ve chosen a platter as illustration so you can get a good look at the image; the Alice’s collection includes a pitcher, large washbasin, and a plate. It’s hard to express just how important Lafayette’s visit was, and how absolutely wild Americans were about him. Lafayette was the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War—he had first come to the colonies as a 19-year-old, and now, almost 40 years later, he was back. 1824 was also a presidential election year, and the first one in which none of the members of the old Revolutionary generation was a candidate. During this time of change, Americans joyfully looked back to the heroes of the Revolutionary era.


Lafayette as a young lieutenant general, 1791
Lafayette traveled to the U.S. on the American merchant vessel Cadmus, along with his son, George Washington Lafayette, and secretary, Auguste Levasseur. When the ship arrived in New York Harbor, it was met by two steamboats, the Chancellor Livingston and the Robert Fulton, and escorted with great fanfare to Castle Garden.

Castle Garden had originally been built as a fort, known as the West Battery, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Troops were stationed there during the War of 1812, though it saw no action. It was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815, in honor of New York State’s first governor, George Clinton. However, the army abandoned it in 1821, and by the time of Lafayette’s visit, it had become a place of public amusement, offering concerts, a beer garden, and other entertainments.

Castle Garden was the site of one of the massive public receptions held for General Lafayette during his American tour. The author of the book Memoirs of General Lafayette, published in 1824, described the occasion:

“The most splendid scene exhibited in this proud city, was the fete at Castle-garden. This was an evening party and ball, at which six thousand ladies and gentlemen were present. It was the most brilliant and magnificent scene ever witnessed in the United States. Castle-garden lies at a very short distance from Battery-street, which is a spacious and elegant promenade, on the south westerly part of the city. It was formerly a fort and is about one hundred and seventy feet in diameter, of a circular or elliptical form. It has lately become a place of great resort in the warm season of the year. Every thing which labor and expence, art and taste could effect was done to render it convenient, showy and elegant. An awning covered the whole area of the garden, suspended at an altitude of seventy-five feet; the columns which supported the dome were highly ornamented, and lighted by an immense cut glass chandelier, with thirteen smaller ones appended.


Perhaps some of the ladies at the fete wore
commemorative gloves like this pair in the Alice’s collection.
“The General, made his appearance about 10 o’clock, when the dance and the song was at an end. The military band struck up a grand march, and the Guest was conducted through a column of ladies and gentlemen to a splendid pavilion. Not a word was spoken of gratulation—so profound, and respectful, and intellectual was the interest which his presence excited....In front of the pavilion was a triumphal arch, of about 90 feet span, adorned with laurel, oak, and festoons, based upon pillars of cannon fifteen feet high.—A bust of Washington, supported by a golden eagle, was placed over the arch as the presiding deity. Within the arch was a symbolic painting nearly 25 feet square, exhibiting a scroll inscribed to Fayette, with the words:—‘Honored be the faithful Patriot.’

“Soon after the General entered, the painting just alluded to was slowly raised, which exhibited to the audience a beautiful transparency, representing La Grange, the mansion of La Fayette. The effect was as complete as the view was unexpected and imposing. Another subdued clap of admiration followed this tasteful and appropriate and highly interesting display.”


Castle Garden in its Aquarium days, early 1900s
Though this was undoubtedly a highlight of its existence, Castle Garden went on to have a long and varied life. In 1855, it became the Emigrant Landing Depot, New York State’s first immigrant processing facility, and served this purpose until Ellis Island opened in 1890. Over 8 million immigrants (and maybe as many as 12 million) passed through Castle Garden. Between 1896 and 1941, it was the site of the New York City Aquarium. It was designated a national monument in 1946, and is once again known as Castle Clinton.

If you are interested in learning more about American historical Staffordshire, Patriotic America, a site created by the Transferware Collectors Club, Winterthur Museum, and Historic New England, is a great place to start!






Friday, October 31, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft and the Colonial Revival

Today’s Halloween-themed post is brought to you by guest blogger Joshua Beatty. Joshua is a historian of colonial America and a librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, and an aficionado of unspeakable eldritch horrors. You can read more of his writing here.



He was in the changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham, with its clustering gambrel roofs that sway and sag over attics where witches hid from the King’s men in the dark, olden years of the Province. Nor was any spot in that city more steeped in macabre memory than the gable room which harboured him – for it was this house and this room which had likewise harboured old Keziah Mason, whose flight from Salem Gaol at the last no one was ever able to explain.— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House”
H. P. Lovecraft in 1934
Today is Halloween, a day which we associate with ghosts and goblins and all manner of frightful things — including, yes, witches. Few have written so vividly about such horrors as H. P. Lovecraft. But what isn’t as well known is the common interest he shared with Alice Miner – that of America’s colonial era.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He lived in that city for most of his life, and he loved nothing more than the colonial buildings that in the early twentieth century still dominated much of the city. “I am above all scenic and architectural in my tastes” he explained to a friend. And with an exuberance he reserved for landscape and architecture, a Lovecraft stand-in returning after a long journey in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” described it thus:
At the high square where Broad, Weybosset, and Empire Streets join, he saw before and below him in the fire of sunset the pleasant, remembered houses and domes and steeples of the old town; and his head swam curiously as the vehicle rolled down to the terminal behind the Biltmore, bringing into view the great dome and soft, roof-pierced greenery of the ancient hill across the river, and the tall colonial spire of the First Baptist Church limned pink in the magic evening against the fresh springtime verdure of its precipitous background.


First Baptist Church, early 20th c.
Lovecraft did not confine his interest in colonial landscapes to Providence. He traveled widely up and down the eastern half of the North American continent, from Key West in the south all the way to Quebec City in the north and as far west as New Orleans and Cleveland. Lovecraft was constantly writing on these trips. Letters to friends and travelogues both contained detailed descriptions and histories and even sketches of the architecture he viewed. These writings culminated in a 75,000-word opus on a single city, “A Description of the Town of Quebeck in New-France, Lately added to his Britannick Majesty’s Dominions.”


That title, with its purposefully archaic grammar and spelling, reflects Lovecraft’s wish to insert himself into the times and places he so romanticized. Unsurprisingly, then, Lovecraft strongly approved of the efforts to restore colonial buildings that took place throughout the Colonial Revival period. On a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, he concluded “I must revisit Williamsburg when the restorations are compleat, perhaps two to five years hence. It will then form, without doubt, one of the most impressive evocations of the colonial past that America can display.”


Map of Arkham, Massachusetts, the fictional town where
Lovecraft set many of his tales
Lovecraft’s passion for colonial architecture would hardly be relevant to Halloween, were it not that those same colonial buildings were integral parts of his horror stories. Where the horror writers of the nineteenth century, from Shelley to Poe, used Gothic architecture to evoke an atmosphere of fear and gloom, Lovecraft used instead the familiar landscapes of his own New England.
The Crowninshield House in “The Thing on the Doorstep”
was modeled on this house in Salem.
One can’t read Lovecraft’s work without being shocked by his virulent racism. This racism was often symbolized in his work by architecture. The upright descendents of English settlers make their homes in stately colonial mansions or sturdy, well-kept farmhouses. In contrast, African-Americans, American Indians, or the “decayed branches” of white colonial families live in decrepit shacks or tenement houses.
The “Witch House” in Salem, home of Judge Jonathan
Corwin in the 17th century.


Yet the worst situation of all was when when a good colonial house was occupied by inferior peoples. In “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” the seventeenth-century building of the title has been rented to a motley collection of Italians, Poles, and even French-Canadians. When a college student with an old English colonial name, Walter Gilman, becomes fascinated by “the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah’s persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets,… about the childish cries heard near May-Eve, and Hallowmass” and takes a room, the tropes of horror fiction already suggest the ending.
Sources:
Evans, Timothy H. “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft.” Journal of Folklore Research 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 99–135.
Lovecraft, H. P. Collected Essays, Volume 4: Travel. Edited by S. T Joshi. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2005.


Guides to visiting places that appear in Lovecraft’s work (if you dare):




Friday, October 24, 2014

“In the Brave Days of Old”: Wallace Nutting’s Colonial America

“In the Brave Days of Old”
In the Miner Room on the third floor of the Alice, there are two photographs that look like they could have been taken in the Museum. One shows a woman descending an elegant staircase, and the other a woman stirring a pot over an open fire. Both photos are the work of Wallace Nutting, the man who perhaps did more than any other individual to popularize the Colonial Revival. Nutting’s vision of “Old America,” transmitted through historic homes, reproduction furniture, and most of all, photography, shaped the way Americans in the early 20th century envisioned the colonial past.
“The Elaborate Dinner”

Wallace Nutting was born in 1861 in Rockbottom, Massachusetts and enrolled at Harvard in 1883. During the summers he worked in hotels at various popular resorts in New England—Campobello Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket—that he would later return to as a photographer. After graduating from Harvard, he went on to Hartford Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in pulpits around New England.

In the early 1900s, however, Nutting began to suffer from neurasthenia--a disease peculiar to the Victorian era, characterized by fatigue, anxiety, and weakness, and thought to be caused by the stresses and strains of modern urban life. He left the church for good in 1904, and he and his wife, Mariet, purchased a derelict farm in Southbury, Connecticut. Nutting had been a dedicated amateur photographer since his college days, and photography was in fact often recommended as therapy for neurasthenia, because it combined artistic pursuit with healthful outdoor activity. He now turned to photography as a means of supplementing his income.
One of the many versions of “Cherry Blossoms”

The subjects of Nutting’s photos were almost exclusively rural, and rarely showed any indications of modernity. Pastoral fields of cows, country lanes, blossoming trees, and old barns were some of his favorite subjects. These scenes of an unspecified but clearly pre-industrial era were enormously appealing to middle-class urban dwellers.

Between 1905 and 1912, Nutting (with Mariet’s assistance) perfected a system for producing high-quality colored photographs on a large scale. The photos were printed using the platinotype process and then tinted with watercolors, following a model, by a carefully-trained staff of young women. Nutting produced his first catalog in around 1910; it depicted over 500 photos and noted that many more were available. Prices ranged from $1.25 for the smallest pieces (5” x 7”) up to $20.00 for the largest (20” x 40”)—well within the reach of most middle-class consumers.
A typical Nutting colonial vignette

While the outdoor views made up the bulk of the catalog, it was Nutting’s colonial interiors that were the most popular. By 1911 he was offering about 200 different interior scenes, which accounted for about a quarter of his total picture sales. Mariet Nutting had first suggested staging scenes with models—usually the young women who worked as colorists—to create “period vignettes.” 

Though Nutting was producing his photos in the age of the “new woman,” the suffragette, and the flapper, his pictures showed women in decidedly traditional roles. Either they were shown engaged in genteel leisure activities—reading, writing letters, drinking tea—or in productive (but still genteel) work—spinning, sewing, cooking. In a time when gender roles were rapidly changing, Nutting’s pictures offered a reassuring vision of the past.

In order to make sure that the settings in his photographs were authentic, Nutting began to collect furniture, rugs, costumes, and other items that could be used as props. Then, to ensure that he always had suitable backgrounds, he began to purchase the historic properties which eventually would become the Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses. The five houses, purchased and restored between 1914 and 1916, included the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut; the Wentworth Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the Hazen Garrison House in Haverhill, Massachusetts; the Cutler-Bartlett House in Newburyport, Massachusetts; and the Ironmaster’s House in Saugus, Massachusetts. 

17th-century cupboard made by Wallace Nutting
As a financial investment, the houses never lived up to Nutting’s hopes, because their opening coincided with the first World War and the imposition of gasoline rationing, which severely curtailed tourism. But they did help solidify his reputation as an expert on historic architecture and furnishings. Nutting also started to manufacture his own line of reproduction furniture in 1917. He considered the colonial-inspired pieces produced by the big companies to be “humbug furniture,” while his own pieces were worthy of being called the “antiques of tomorrow.” Nutting’s furniture was authentic in appearance, though his workers did use modern construction techniques and machinery.

In addition to all his other ventures, Wallace Nutting was a prolific writer and lecturer. In the 1920s he began writing travel guides, the States Beautiful series, that took readers on virtual tours (illustrated with his own photographs, of course) of the states of the eastern seaboard. He also bolstered his reputation as a furniture expert with three books on the history of American furniture: American Windsors (1917), Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1924), and Furniture Treasury (3 volumes; 1928 and 1933). Alice owned all of these books on furniture.


Photo by Wallace Nutting taken in the parlor of the Webb House.
Note that the murals depict two of Nutting’s other properties,
the Hazen Garrison House and the Saugus Iron Works.
Although Nutting was convinced of the superiority of the past, he nonetheless was a very modern businessman. Nutting employed an advertising agency beginning in the early 1920s, which produced print campaigns for magazines like Antiques. These advertisements were carefully targeted at middle-class customerspeople who did not have their own family heirlooms that “came over on the Mayflower” but liked to think of themselves as people who should have such fine items. All of his ventures were carefully planned to work together: the historic homes provided settings for his photographs; the books educated consumers about the furniture; and the photographs generated interest in the historic properties and the furniture. 

Above all else, Wallace Nutting saw himself as an educator, one with a very specific moral lesson to impart about the values of rural, pre-industrial America. That this idea owed as much to his imagination as it did to reality was unimportant. Nutting’s vision, combined with shrewd business tactics, tapped into a vein of nostalgia about the past and made him the foremost popularizer of the Colonial Revival in the early 20th century.


Sources:

Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta, Re-Creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).

Joyce P. Barendsen, “Wallace Nutting, an American Tastemaker: The Pictures and Beyond,” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 2/3 (July 1, 1983): 187–212.