Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Video: Lewis & Clark Epic Rap Battle

Friday, May 29, 2015
Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea
Loretta reports:

U.S. schoolchildren who learn about the Lewis & Clark expedition probably remember little except Sacagawea
—which is OK, with me, since it’s not certain the explorers could have made it without her. Many years after those history lessons, I read Stephen Ambrose’s  Undaunted Courage, and developed a proper appreciation for what theses people faced and what an extraordinary accomplishment this was.

The video is a rather more lighthearted take, with plenty of in-jokes for those familiar with the story—and/or Bill & Ted.

Image: Detail of "Lewis & Clark at Three Forks" by Edgar Samuel Paxson, mural in lobby of Montana House of Representatives.

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

Readers who receive our blog via email might see a rectangle, square, or nothing where the video ought to be.  To watch the video, please click on the title to this post.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Guess the Purpose of These 19thc. Bags

Thursday, May 28, 2015
Isabella reporting,

When I first spotted this assortment of simple little bags made from 19th c. printed cotton in A Colorful Folk: Pennsylvania Germans and the Art of Everyday Life, an exhibition currently on display at Winterthur Museum, I'd no idea what treasures they might once have held. Jewelry? Hairpins? Handkerchiefs? Or were they reticules, the small drawstring handbags popular at the time?

I should have guessed their purpose would be more prosaic, given the exhibition's theme. The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th-19th c. had an exuberant design sense, and often decorated the most everyday items - from kitchen towels to bread boxes and even the bag that held rags in the outhouse - with fanciful colors and motifs. Scraps of fabric from clothing was transformed into patchwork quilts, or stitched into humble little bags like these.

A closer look at the bags tells their purpose. Two of them, right, have neatly stitched tags with inked labels: Radish says one in careful penmanship, while the other is marked Pink dbl. Hollyhock. They're bags for collecting seeds from the garden and storing them over the winter for planting in the spring, an annual ritual (and an important one) for gardeners.

I like to imagine the housewife who prized her hollyhocks, and perhaps shared the blossoms and seeds only with dearest friends or family members. Perhaps she'd brought the original seeds with her when she'd emigrated to America, or they'd been specially purchased from a seed merchant during a rare trip to Philadelphia. She didn't just write "hollyhocks" on the label. They were "Pink Double Hollyhocks", if you please, and well worth their own special bag, as well as her pride.

Above: Seed bags, cotton and linen, Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1820-80. Winterthur Museum.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Crockford's Club in St. James's Street

Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Hazard Room at Crockford's
Loretta reports:

Crockford’s Club, No. 50 St. James’s Street, was a famous gaming house.* It’s played a role in my Dressmakers series—being practically next door to the fictional shop—as well as others of my books. It appears in many accounts of gaming and 19th century London history.  You can read a history of Crockford and the club here, and an architectural account here. The following explains its popularity.
There is one thing, and one only, to be said in favour of Mr. Crockford's enterprise, which is, that this establishment did away with the practice of gentlemen playing against each other for large sums. At Crockford's the game was one of Gentlemen versus Players, the players being always Mr. Crockford's officials at the French hazard table, and the sole object of his business was to win the money of his patrons. He had no other sources of profit; his establishment was an exclusive club with a very low subscription, and was open to such gentlemen only as could convince the committee of their eligibility. For their subscription, which was so small that members who did not gamble were accustomed to make a sort of offering of conscience money, by flinging a ten pound note on the play table at the end of the season, the best cookery and the finest wines in London were supplied to them gratis, and they had the companionship of the most fashionable male society of the day. Crockford was wise enough to leave all the social arrangements to a committee of gentlemen who conducted the ballots, elected and rejected whom they chose, and made entry to Crockford's as difficult as to White's or
Crockford's Club
Brooks's. The new club, in fact, at once took a tone similar to that of those aristocratic bodies, whose members were made eligible for election to Crockford's by one of its first rules. In exchange for the princely accommodation of his house, and such fare as was unobtainable at any other club in London for love or money, Crockford asked for nothing in return but that gentlemen should condescend to take a cast at his table at French hazard.
—William Biggs Boulton, The Amusements of Old London (1901)

*The building still stands.

Images: T. J. Rawlins, The Hazard Room at Crockford's, 1837, courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. T. H. Shepherd, Crockford’s Club, Metropolitan Improvements; or London in the 19th Century 1827, via Internet Archive.

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

For Memorial Day: A Powerful Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1789

Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Isabella reporting,

The last Monday in May is America's Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the men and women who have given their lives for their country. It's also a day whose meaning too often is lost in the flurry of department store sales, parties, and the first long weekend of the summer.

This painting might be somber reminder of the day's true purpose. Painted by Joseph Wright of Derby around 1789, The Dead Soldier is a strong political statement about the real cost of war, no matter the century or the combatants.

A new widow buries her face with grief as she holds her dead husband's hand, bringing his fingers to touch those of his now-fatherless child. In the distance, the battle still continues, but the real drama is between these three, and it's heartbreaking. Most military paintings focus on the glory of generals and great victories, and are intended to stir patriotic feelings. This one instead shows the bleak aftermath of war for a common soldier, and the fact that the faces of both the woman and the man are hidden makes them stand in for all the now-forgotten soldiers and widows who suffered a similar fate. Only the baby turns towards the viewer. The woman's ruffled white cap, cast on the ground in despair, is an especially poignant note: a small, beribboned symbol of the girl her husband had loved, and of the life that was now over for them both.

At the time that Wright painted this, England had recently concluded an unpopular and costly civil war with the American colonies. There were few government provisions made for returning soldiers crippled by the war, or for soldier's widows and children. Many sank into deep poverty, falling into begging, prostitution, and crime to survive.

Clearly Wright had these issues in mind. He was inspired by a passage in the 1777 poem "The Country Justice" by John Langhorne, which asks for mercy and understanding for those driven to crime by poverty and indigence. While this is an unusually political painting for him (he's more often remembered for fashionable portraits, scientific scenes, and dramatically lit landscapes), it became his most popular work with the public from the time it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. There are multiple versions of the painting, and engravings of it were widely available in Britain and Europe well into the 19thc. Significantly it remained popular throughout the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

There are multiple modern interpretations of the painting. One scholar points to the classical inspiration of the figures, and another says it actually represents the moment that the wife at home receives word of the soldier's death. Others find it cloying and calculated, or concentrate on its unavoidable anti-war message.

But for me (and for many people in the 18thc. who responded so strongly to it), this powerful painting is about love, loss, and sacrifice: all things to consider and remember on Memorial Day.

Above: The Dead Soldier, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1789. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Peace Day

Monday, May 25, 2015
The Colors
Loretta reports:

From The Stars and Stripes, a Memorial Day poem* inspired by Siegfried Sassoon’s “Together.”
Friday, May 30, 1919
Memorial Day

“I shall forget him in the morning light;
And while we gallop on he will not speak;
But at the stable door he’ll say good-night.”
—Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-attack: And Other Poems

It isn’t quite the same as it used to be; the dark stallions, the pale faces, the black pomp of despair of civilian days. There’s a new feeling toward death, a better understanding. It is not longer strange and mysterious; it has moved among us; it has struck suddenly, mercifully, often.

We left him perhaps without a handshake when he piled into a camion and rolled away, or when we crawled out of the fox-hole he was just gone; or maybe we didn’t hear about it at all until long afterward because, Armywise, he had been transferred and we hadn’t.

And while we didn’t think about it then—things were happening mercifully fast and furious and we couldn’t think at all—now we have assembled our thoughts and decided what we were really fighting for, and so it all seems a part of the plan, loss as well as victory, death as sure as discharge.

So he will be with us, not in the busy rush of the life we’ll take up again, but quietly at the day’s end—living and real; for his going from us was unmarred by the harsh convention of civilian death, and quite cheerily, across the golden shadows, we’ll answer his good-night.

The Stars and Stripes, Friday, May 30, 1919

*Author unknown—unless you have some info on this.

Image: The Colors, from Memorial Day Peace Day Circular (Illinois. Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction), Department of Public Instruction, 1920

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