Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How to Have a Colonial Christmas, Once More

In honor of the holiday season, we’re revisiting this post from last year on Christmas in the colonial period.

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!

We hope that all of our readers have a very happy holiday season. Best wishes for the new year, and we’ll be back with more tales from the collection in 2016!

Friday, December 4, 2015

William H. Miner, Amateur Photographer

Horses at Heart’s Delight Farm pose for the camera
One of the highlights of the Heart’s Delight Farm Heritage Exhibit is the display of photographs of life and work on the farm ca. 1910. These beautiful photos, which bring Heart’s Delight Farm to life, are just some of the hundreds of photographs that exist of William Miner’s various enterprises. Professional photographers produced albums and booklets that documented the farm, Chazy Central Rural School, Physicians Hospital, the Alice, and the Kent Delord House; these were supplemented by informal snapshots taken by William and his friends. Not surprisingly, given his interest in new technology, William took up photography more or less as soon as it became accessible to the amateur. And, as I’ve recently learned, he had his work shown at one of the first major exhibits of amateur photography, the Eastman Photographic Exhibition held in January 1898 at the National Academy of Design in New York.

Kodak advertisement, 1889
Eastman Kodak was the largest producer of cameras and photographic accessories in the United States, and indeed the company that had made photography a popular pastime. In 1888 George Eastman introduced the first Kodak camera, which came preloaded with a roll of film that produced 100 circular photos, 2.5 inches in diameter. Photography no longer required bulky cameras, glass plates, or darkroom apparatus. As the company’s famous slogan proclaimed, “You press the button—we do the rest.” Over the years, Eastman produced ever smaller, simpler, and less expensive cameras—the pocket Kodak in 1895; the Brownie in 1900. Naturally, the company was interested in promoting photography as a popular hobby, but the National Academy show aimed to prove that it was an art form as well.

A very bad digital version of a scan of a
microfilmed edition of Godey’s Magazine. 
William Miner’s photograph captured the Administration Building at the 1893 Chicago World‘s Fair at night, its electric lights ablaze and reflected in the lagoon below. He won a prize of $25.00 in the category of contact prints taken with a timed exposure. In an article in Godey’s Magazine on the show, author Marmaduke Humphrey said of William’s photo that “the light reflections on the water arouse suspicions that the plate has been doctored—or should we say artistically bettered—to prove the photographer’s control over his work.” As Humphrey quite bluntly stated, if you claimed that photography was not an art, “you do not know what you are talking about.” The photographer controlled composition and lighting; he “can select, omit, heighten, or diminish values, choose his own tones, give an individuality to his work, and accomplish almost any of the general effects of the arts that work in only one color.” In short, it is “a fine art.”

The extensive technical displays at the 1898 exhibition, which demonstrated the effects of various papers and developers on photographic prints, suggest that although Kodak made it easy for anyone to take snapshots, there were still plenty of people who were interested in exploring the finer points of photography. Like William Miner, they experimented with various ways of manipulating negatives and prints to get the artistic effects they sought. 

Electricity Building, showing competing
exhibits by Westinghouse and General Electric
The Columbian Exposition was the first world’s fair to make extensive use of electricity in its exhibits, and it was the place that many Americans got their first exposure to electricity in action. In addition to the thousands of electric light bulbs that illuminated the structures and grounds, there was an entire Electricity Building that exhibited motors, generators, transformers, and other equipment, along with examples of appliances that ran on electricity. 

The Chicago World’s Fair was also the first to use photography for promotional purposes. In addition to the images produced by official photographers Charles Arnold and William Henry Jackson, other entrepreneurs were licensed to publish their own photos of the fair. Add to that the many individual visitors who brought their own Kodaks, and the fair must have been one of the most thoroughly documented events in the world up to that point.

William Miner’s contribution to the Eastman exhibit, which brought together the World’s Fair, electricity, and photography, seems to perfectly embody the spirit of the 1890s. The way that it combines up-to-date technology with aesthetics is also typical of William Miner, who consistently strove to unite the useful and the beautiful.

For more on the Eastman Photographic Exhibition, see this article from The Photo-Beacon (March 1898), which includes some reproductions of photos in the show (though not William’s, unfortunately).

P.S. Did you know that if you are a resident of New York State you are eligible to obtain a New York Public Library card, and that with the card you can access many online databases? This how I found the article in Godey’s Magazine, which is in the American Periodicals (1740-1940) database.