Sunday, May 28, 2017

Remembering the Soldiers Who Didn't Die in Combat

Sunday, May 28, 2017
Susan reporting,

Unlike many who live in the Philadelphia area, I haven't spent this weekend - the official kick-off to summer - "down the shore." Instead I returned to the still-new Museum of the American Revolution, one of my favorite places in the city. To my surprise, I had plenty of company. The museum was very crowded with families, a fine and heartening sight to a Nerdy History Person. There's never been a more urgent time in American history to learn about our country's founding, and how the responsibilities that were granted to citizens in 1776 are equally important for us today.

Part of the Museum's observation of the Memorial Day weekend was a quiet reminder that not all those who gave their lives for the Revolution did so in battle. Only a few blocks away from the Museum is the site of a mass grave where Continental soldiers were buried by the British then occupying the city. In 1777, John Adams described his visit to the site in a letter to his wife Abigail:

"I have spent an Hour, this Morning, in the Congregation of the dead. I took a Walk into the Potters Field, a burying Ground between the new stone Prison, and the Hospital, and I never in my whole Life was affected with so much Melancholly. The Graves of the soldiers, who have been buryed, in this Ground, from the Hospital and bettering House, during the Course of the last Summer, Fall, and Winter, dead of the small Pox, and Camp Diseases, are enough to make the Heart of stone to melt away. The Sexton told me, that upwards of two Thousand soldiers had been buried there, and by the Appearance of the Graves, and Trenches, it is most probably to me, he speaks within Bounds....Disease has Destroyed Ten Men for Us, where the Sword of the Enemy has killed one."

Adams was right. While the actual figures for the war are difficult to pin down today, it's estimated that approximately 8,000 Continental soldiers were killed in battle between 1775-1783, while another 17,000 died from diseases such as small pox, typhus, dysentery, and typhoid, often as British prisoners of war in the notoriously unhealthy prison ships.

Today the site of the potter's field lies beneath Washington Square, a tidy, tree-shaded park filled with babies in strollers and well-behaved dogs. In return for a small donation, the Museum offered visitors red and white carnations to take to the Square and place at the small monument honoring the thousands of unknown soldiers and sailors buried there. I did; that's my carnation in the photo above. I was surprised that there weren't any others, but it was early in the day, and I also suspect that other flowers were probably carried off by children unaware of the significance of their prizes.

No matter. As I stood before the marker, I thought of those long-ago men and boys and likely a few women, too, and of the families and sweethearts who never knew what became of them, beyond that they never returned home. Perhaps there was no "glory" to their deaths, whatever that may mean. Yet still they made the greatest sacrifice possible so that, 240 years later, this place could be a peaceful park filled with children. A single carnation doesn't begin to be enough thanks, does it?

John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1777, from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to see the entire original letter plus a transcript.
Above: Monument to the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Washington Square, Philadelphia. Photograph ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Breakfast Links: Week of May 21, 2017

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• The education of women: in 1735, this article argued that women were more "adapted" for learning than men.
Brown Bess: musket or mistress?
George Washington's presidential desk, now inside NYC's city hall.
• For fans of Marie-Antoinette: twenty-five essential travel destinations.
Image: Delightful piggy rattle from Cyprus, C3rdBC.
• What "colonial kitchens" say about America.
Mary Anning, the "greatest fossilist the world ever knew," born this week in 1799.
• The ultimate list of wonderfully specific museums.
Image: Notable telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1959.
• "Would you mind imprisoning my wife?": infamous letters from the archives of the Bastille.
• The startlingly modern photographs of 19thc pioneers David Hill and Robert Adamson.
• A brief history of hearing aids.
• Defying convention and marrying for love in the 15thc: Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford and Countess Rivers.
Image: Martha Washington's 1797 response to Abigail Adams' request for advice on being First Lady.
• The ten best paintings of lace.
• The Leicester Square panorama, opened in May, 1793, gave Londoners their first taste of virtual reality.
• Beautiful miniature books worth straining your eyesight to see.
• Exploring the long-gone streets of old London.
• From high style architecture to the humblest of houses: surveying America's built environment.
• A walking tour of 1767 New York City, using 18thc maps.
• A documented interracial marriage in Georgian England.
• Not history, but we these librarians are true warriors in their neighborhood.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection

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.

If you received this post via email, you may be seeing a black box or empty space where the video should be. Please click here to view the video.

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.
 
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