Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The (elegant brass) Christmas Box--Anno 1914

Whenever possible, I like to use images and objects in teaching. They can provide insights into specific aspects of life in the past in the past or simply help to make tangible a world that can seem irredeemably distant and alien to students.

One of the favorite objects in my collection is this one. It's not terribly rare (you can still find them fairly easily, and they don't cost a fortune), but it is special.

hinged embossed brass box, 37 x 125 mm (click to enlarge)
The Imperial War Museum calls this brass box, created as a Christmas gift for British troops in1914, "one of the most enduring mementos of the First World War."

In the center, enclosed in a circle within a wreath, is a profile of Britain's Princess Mary facing left, flanked by the cursive initial "M." Above, center, in a cartouche in the decorative border, the words "Imperium Britannicum" (British Empire) set over a garlanded sword. Below, center, a cartouche with the words "Christmas 1914." flanked by the bows of warships.

The names of the major allies, France and Russia, are set within circles over tripods of banners at left and right, respectively. In the four corner cartouches, diagonally facing the center of the lid, are the names of the other allies. Clockwise: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro, and Servia (sic).

The story is as intriguing as the box is beautiful. The War Museum, which holds the documentary and material record of the undertaking, provides the fullest recounting on its website, but here are the essentials.

'every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front'

The story began in the early months of the war, when Britain's Princess Mary (Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary; 1897-1965), daughter of King George V, wanted to do something to honor and cheer the troops.

The undertaking proved far more complex than anyone had anticipated, and indeed, can serve as an illustration, on a microcosmic scale, of the challenges of morale-building efforts and industrial activity in the era of nascent total war. Virtually every aspect of the project, from concept, funding, and contents, to manufacturing and distribution, had to be modified.

Although the Princess's original plan had been to make a true personal gift from her own resources, it soon became apparent that a public effort and fundraising appeal were required, so in October, she wrote:
I want you now to help me to send a Christmas present from the whole of the nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front. I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war. Could there be anything more likely to hearten them in their struggle than a present received straight from home on Christmas Day?
The gift was to consist of the hinged and embossed brass box, "one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and photograph [of the Princess]." The Executive Committee then decided to produce several variant versions for those for whom the smoking-oriented contents might be inappropriate. For the non-smokers, "a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes" took the place of the tobacco and related products. Nurses at the front received chocolate instead. As for the Colonial troops: "The Gurkhas were to receive the same gift as the British troops; Sikhs the box filled with sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the Christmas card; all other Indian troops, the box with a packet of cigarettes and sugar candy, a tin box of spices and the card."

the smoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
the nonsmoker's version (Imperial War Museum)
The fundraising campaign was so successful--bringing in nearly £ 163,000, most of it from small donations--that it allowed for boxes to be given to all troops, but this proved to be a mixed blessing, given the sheer number of recipients, estimated at some 2.6 million. The Executive Committee thereupon decided to do a sort of triage, aiming to reach recipients in Class A--essentially, the Navy, frontline troops, nurses, prisoners and internees, and families of the deceased--by Christmas, and those in Classes B (British, Colonial, and Indian troops outside the UK), and C (troops within the UK borders) later on. Because these latter were distributed after Christmas, the card proffered New Year's greetings instead.

As it happened, just fabricating the box proved more than challenge enough. The manufacturers were not eager to take on the task in the first place, but the largest problem consisted in the shortage of appropriate brass metal, even after the Committee was forced to intervene and supply it directly. In the event, there proved to be enough for the Christmas issue, but the Committee struggled to find the remainder, even turning to American sources. Nice bit of historical trivia: most of the US shipment was aboard the Lusitania, famously torpedoed by the Germans in 1915.

426,724 boxes were distributed by Christmas 1914. This meant that 1,803,147 still had to reach the other two classes, a daunting number that prompted the Committee to streamline things yet again by settling upon a uniform gift consisting of only the box, New Year's card, and pencil. After the final accounting was done in 1919, the surplus went to Queen Mary's Maternity Home, which aided the wives and newborns of men in the service.

* * *

One of the things that is so fascinating about the rise of the web and social media in museum and historical work is the possibility for dialogue, among members of the public, and between the public and professionals. There is a nice representative collection of responses--from Massachusetts and the UK to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India--on the web page of the box from Museum Victoria in Australia. Some of the commenters knew what the box was, some were learning for the first time about this mysterious object that they had in their homes. One collector and writer used the opportunity to add to his knowledge base prior to issuing a new publication. One of the most intriguing and laconic posts seems to come from a British soldier who found one in an abandoned house in the course of the current war in Afghanistan.

This sort of engagement (though presumably lacking the direct personal connection) is what I hope to bring out when I show the box in class. One can begin the conversation via any one of multiple avenues:
The striking elegance of the design and quality of the product, for example. Do they reflect a soon-to-be antiquated aesthetic?
What of the relationship between monarchy, state, and public? How do the texts and images of the box feature in the construction of a patriotic ideal?

Are students surprised to see Japan featured on the box? Why?

What do the design of the box, along with the production and distribution problems, tell us about expectations of the course of the war? Were the initiators of the project naive?

What do the contents such as tobacco and writing products tell us about the culture of the era and the daily life, hopes, and fears of the soldier in the trenches?

And what about the substitution of spices and sweets in the boxes destined for Indian troops? How did the Empire understand cultural diversity and pluralism? Why has the significant presence of Colonial forces failed to become part of our popular image of the war? (1, 2)
And then there is the now-fabled "Christmas Truce" of 1914 in which the soldiers of the opposing sides climbed out of their trenches, and for a day, at least, met face to face as friends rather than foes. Among the gifts they exchanged were cigarettes. What if this box was there? What if this box could talk?

Merry Christmas, Amherst! From Rejection to Grudging Acceptance

On Christmas Day a century before Amherst became a town, Mass Moments tells us:
in 1659, a law was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring a five-shilling fine from anyone caught "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way." Christmas Day was deemed by the Puritans to be a time of seasonal excess with no Biblical authority. The law was repealed in 1681 along with several other laws, under pressure from the government in London. It was not until 1856 that Christmas Day became a state holiday in Massachusetts. For two centuries preceding that date, the observance of Christmas — or lack thereof — represented a cultural tug of war between Puritan ideals and British tradition. 
The celebration of Christmas was thus slow to establish itself in Congregationalist Amherst, as well. In fact, when Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law Susan decorated her house ("The Evergreens") ever so modestly with a few wreaths, it caused something of a scandal, and the townsfolk began to whisper about popery.

wreath on the door of the 1856 Evergreens
The Emily Dickinson Museum has for some time been decorating the 1856 Evergreens in this fashion, but this year, it launched a special new holiday tour, devoted to explaining the evolution of Christmas habits in Amherst and the Dickinson households in the nineteenth century. Christmas is past, and I am behind schedule, but I may yet post about it because the question of Christmas decorations and historical accuracy is one that vexes many a house museum at this time of year and poses an interesting theoretical and practical question for curators and program directors.

In the meantime, greetings of the season!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Wishing You All a Very Merry Christmas!

To my friends and readers who celebrate Christmas: wishing you a joyous holiday! And of course, greetings of the season to all!

vignette: putti rejoicing, from Das neue Testament unsers HErrn und Heylands JEsu Christi, verdeutschet durch D. Martin Luther...
 (Tübingen, drukts und verlegts Wilhelm Heinrich Schramm, 1794)

More on this book and the embellishment of 18th-century Protestant German bibles.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Amherst Woman During Prohibition Era: George Washington was NOT a drunk!

What curious, serendipitous finds one makes when doing research. A week ago, we marked the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Not long before that, I came across a perfect illustration of how American attitudes about drinking have changed since the Colonial situation described in the last post.
 "Local D.A.R. Woman Defends U.S. Ideals.
 Writes Paper Denying That George Washington was 'a Drinking Man'"
Is that one subject or two? readers could be excused for wondering as they picked up the Springfield newspaper in 1930.

The news was that the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution had asked the head of the Amherst chapter to send copies of her paper on cultural conflicts and American ideals to the state and national headquarters. Her point, it seems, was openness to change, provided it occurred within the framework of our founding system: to avoid "letting down the bars to strange and foreign ideas and ideals" and "see to it that the constitution is not wrecked by the addition of weakening amendments." "The American," she said, does not hesitate to change methods if by so doing he can better conditions, but he does hold fast to the fundamentals upon which his country is founded."

A liberal defense of traditional freedoms? Conservative "strict constructionism"? It can be hard to tell from such fragments. For example, many of us now associate the D.A.R. of that period with the notorious refusal to allow African-American singer Marianne Anderson to perform in its Constitution Hall in 1939, and indeed, Amherst itself was hardly free of nativism and racist behavior. However, the author's biography suggests greater complexity.

Estella Adaline Eastman Harris (1880-1974) was a resident of my own North Amherst who married carpenter Charles Dickinson Harris (1877-1955) in 1904. Neither went to college, but clearly, she had intellectual ambitions. She was also proud of her ancestors, who included not only the Pilgrim Roger Eastman and her Revolutionary forebears, but also the great abolitionist Zebina Eastman (1815-83), one of the founders the Republican Party in Illinois, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Consul in Bristol (1861-69).

The Liquor is the Lede?

"Foreign ideas" and challenges to the Constitutional order must have been among the pressing concerns in the political and economic crisis of the 1930s, but, curiously, the article led with the liquor, explaining that the essay "describes the attempts to discredit the great men of American history, especially George Washington, saying he was 'a drinking man.'" We don't get to the Constitution and Monroe Doctrine until more than halfway through.

The article quotes Mrs. Harris as saying:
In the olden days it was the commonly accepted custom to use liquors. As we know, many of the churches were raised to the accompaniment of strong drink. So why endeavor to dim the luster of a great man's life by accusing him of doing something that everyone at that time accepted as correct. Even in those days, he was rated as temperate.
This could of course take us into the intellectual and moral morass of historicist relativism. After all, slavery was also something that (almost) "everyone at that time accepted as correct." And when she wrote, the DAR itself practiced racial discrimination. That said, her point is quite accurate, and the subject of the previous post.

As Corin Hirsch (@latesupper) explained in her Amherst Historical Society lecture last month, everyone in Colonial America, from churchmen to Founding Fathers, drank like a sailor on leave all year 'round (and often all day). Implicitly agreeing with Mrs. Harris, she said:
  • George Washington "was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic,"  "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter." He also became one of the nation's leading distillers of whiskey. 
  • As for Ben Franklin, he was "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." 
W. J. Rorabaugh'sThe Alcoholic Republic, (Oxford, 1981), which she used in her research, confirms Mrs. Harris's view that, when it came to heavy drinking, at least, there was no wall of separation between church and state:
New York Governor Georg Clinton honored the French ambassador with a dinner at which 120 guests downed 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch. Even in staid New England the upper classes continued to imbibe; at one Congregational minister's ordination in 1793, the celebrants consumed dozens of bottles of hard cider, wine, sherry, cherry brandy, and Jamaica rum. (48)
Ms. Hirsch provides some specific numbers: "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy."

Lots of Liquor at Raisings. High Church?

Speaking of the church: It is said that when the horse teams brought in the granite for the foundations of our own North Amherst Church, Oliver ("Landlord") Dickinson, who had financed much of the project, rode all the way into town from Pelham atop one such load of stone, moved by drink to boisterous song. And when the church was finally dedicated, Carpenter and Morehouse tell us in their classic history of the town, "The raising was made a gala occasion, liquor being generously provided and consumed, the expenses being met by contributions."

Dickinson was a tavernkeeper, for like every good New England town, Amherst had its share of taverns. The reason this institution was so popular, as both they and Hirsch explain, is because the "public house," as the name implies, was not just a source of food, drink, and lodging, but also a social center: for meetings, discussion, reading of periodicals, even convening of court. Take the Baggs Tavern (1818 ff.), for example.

source: Wikimedia Commons

In the words of Carpenter and Morehouse:
In 1828, it was the headquarters of the democratic party in town, where caucuses were held and the politicians gathered in the bar-room of an evening to discuss the state of the country. It was famous for the excellence of the liquors served over its bar and the royal good times that were enjoyed by those who loved the liquors, not wisely but too well. It was a favorite gathering place for the old stage-drivers, who found its toddy and its flip a powerful antidote against winter's cold and summer's heat.
The Amherst branch of the D.A.R., to which Mrs. Harris belonged, is the Mary Mattoon chapter, named after the wife of a local patriot. (With characteristic inflation, we generally refer to him as "General Mattoon," but that title came late in life when he led the Massachusetts Militia; during the Revolution, he was a mere lieutenant.)

As it happens, this chapter, founded in 1894, met and now once again meets at the eighteenth-century Simeon Strong House, which was also since 1916 the home of the Amherst Historical Society, where Corin Hirsch demonstrated her Colonial bartending skills last month.

The Cider House. It Rules!

When Simeon Strong--theologian, Tory, and then respected jurist in the new republic--died in 1805 with an estate worth approximately $ 10,000, he was among the ten richest men in Amherst. A glance at his probate inventory provides some hints at the culture of drink among the upper class. It lists, for example,
  • 1 pair fluted decanters (valued at 2.50)
  • 2 pair plain decanters (2.00)
  • 2 pair round-bottomed decanters (.75), and 
  • 1 pair decanter stands (1.25). 
This, in addition to:
  • 16 wine glasses (best sort) (worth 4--)
  • 9 wine glasses (worth .90)
  • 14 tumblers (worth 1.75)
  • 5 pint tumblers (worth .62)
  • 10 tumblers and 2 small glass canns ["cans" were small, straight-sided drinking vessels] (@10, worth 1.00), and 
  • 2 one-quart tumblers (@ .33)
Among the items that his second wife brought to the marriage was a china punch bowl, once again, a luxury item (1.00: equivalent to four chamber pots--or a volume of Foster's Crown Law Reports--in case you were wondering).

At the same time, we are able to discern tastes that crossed class lines. Hirsch tells us that the hard cider "was an almost uniquely New England drink," and Timothy Dwight's account of his travels (1796-1815) described it as "the common drink of all its inhabitants, the rich and poor alike." John Adams found it "mortifying beyond all expression that we Americans should exceed all other eight millions of people on the globe . . . in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance"--and nonetheless downed a tankard of hard cider at his daily breakfast (yes, breakfast), which speaks volumes about the cultural gap between that era and ours.

In Strong's probate inventory, we thus find 13 barrels of cider, 28 empty cider barrels, 5 old cider barrels, and 1 barrel of old cider. The typical New England farmer, we are told, produced about 10 (50-gallon) barrels per year. According to Hirsch, "By the mid-1700s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week," which explains her verdict, "Early Americans imbibed hard cider with gusto."

You see how everything comes full circle?

Today, although our drinking habits and mores have changed, cider has been undergoing a revival. Our Pioneer Valley cider business, too, is growing: its products are sold at the Amherst farmers market, the All Things Local Cooperative, and an annual festival dedicated to the juice of the apple.

One is strongly tempted to conclude that Mrs. Harris took much of her argument from Carpenter and Morehouse. They write, somewhat apologetically, before launching into a discussion of the rise of temperance movements:
the drinking habits of the earlier residents of Amherst . . . . were not peculiar, merely following the fashion of their times. It is almost impossible, in later times and under changed conditions, to write of the liquor problem as it existed in the closing years of the 18th and the opening years of the 19th centuries, without doing something of an injustice to those who upheld a system which has since come to be looked upon as pernicious and degrading. The part that liquor then bore in social, business and community life was honored if not honorable. Total abstinence from liquor, while not unknown, was looked upon as an eccentricity rather than a virtue. The minister drank liquor with his deacons, the lawyer with his clients, the doctor with his patients. A 'raising' without the presence of liquor was unknown; ministers drank flip at ecclesiastical councils and ordinations; hardly a trade was made at the village without 'something to wash it down.' . . . Drunkenness, while not encouraged, was tolerated, carrying with it no special disgrace.
Like it or not, heavy drinking was among "the fundamentals upon which [t]his country is founded." As the late historian Eugen Weber wrote, the decent folk in the Anglo-American world of that era were drunk all the time, dead drunk most of the time, and apparently none the worse for it except in the long run, and perhaps not even then. Mrs. Harris--whose drinking habits we do not know (though she lived to the ripe old age of 93)--might not have put it quite that way to the prim dames of the DAR, but her point was the same.



updated images

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Before It Was Safe to Drink the Water: Amherst Historical Society Teaches You How to Drink Like a Colonist

The annual meeting of the Amherst Historical Society typically includes a guest lecture. This year, at the suggestion of visiting curator Marianne Curling, we combined the talk (at the Jones Library) with a subsequent event (at the History Museum next door) that was at once demonstration, experience, and fundraiser. As the description put it, "Before it was safe to drink the water, tipples at breakfast, lunch, tea time and dinner were the norm in Colonial New England, and low-alcohol hard cider was sometimes a part of even children’s lives." Who would not be intrigued?

Our guest speaker was Corin Hirsch (@latesupper), author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer, who has been presenting her first book to considerable acclaim elsewhere in the region and beyond. (Here's a podcast from my tweep @marianpl over at Fieldstone Common.)

Ms. Hirsch, humbly describing herself as a foodie rather than a historian and characterizing her book as "a romp" rather than a "scholarly" work, was an engaging speaker who took the audience on a sort of guided tour of the region's early drinking habits. The book is divided into four parts: Why They Drank, Where They Drank, What They Drank, and How They Drank, though the latter two overlap as part 4 consists of recipes with descriptions. The lecture began with the "Why" and "Where" but focused on the "What," conducting us from drink to drink in a manner that also roughly followed chronology.

It began with Hogarth's famed etchings of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street," to illustrate the contemporary views on dangerous (foreign, newfangled) vs. healthful (traditional, national) drinking habits. Although the social and medical consequences of gin-drinking among the poor became a cause for concern, steady consumption of other forms of alcohol was simply a normal way of life. As Ms. Hirsch reminded us (and many of us know), the Pilgrims and Puritans were plenty fond of their drink. In fact, one of the reasons the Pilgrims finally picked a settlement site in 1620 was because their beer supply was running low. The Mayflower had also carried hard spirits and probably wine. By the time the newcomers celebrated that first Thanksgiving in 1621, they had already brewed their own beer.


Although beer-brewing was an almost universal practice in English farms and villages, it was not without its challenges in America. Hops grew well: the first plant was imported in 1628, Ms. Hirsch explained. But growing good barley for the malt was more difficult in the North American climate, so the colonists used any substance that was handy to produce the necessary sugars: potato, pumpkin (yes, pumpkin ale is nothing new)--even berries, birch bark, maple syrup, or spruce tips; the latter imparted a favored hop-like bitterness to the brew.


Hard cider was also ubiquitous: the value of traditional apple varieties lay in their suitability for long winter storage--and production of alcohol. And even the wild varieties, which made for poor eating, served perfectly well as a source of fermentable juice. (It was not for nothing that Leominster native Johnny Appleseed was later so popular.) As historians of early America and material culture can tell you, John Adams knocked back a pint (the equivalent of two pints of typical modern beer, Ms. Hirsch explains) at breakfast every day. Children drank a weak version--and sometimes even the strong stuff. And we were none the worse for it. Sometimes it even led to victory (or at least did not prevent it).

The "Stone-Fence"--a blend of hard cider and rum--seems to have inspir(it)ed Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys prior to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. As Ms. Hirsch puts it in her book, "Drunk, hung over or just a combination of the two, they found a slumbering guard to Ticonderoga, and the American militiamen claimed their first victory of the war."


By contrast, the wine trade was slow to develop. Despite high hopes occasioned by the prevalence of wild grapes (the east coast was the fabled Viking Vinland, after all), European varieties suitable for making fine wines did poorly in the climate of both New England and Virginia. This did not stop the colonists from making wine from wild grapes (and, well, almost anything and everything that would ferment) for personal consumption, but wines of quality remained an imported good for the elite, which gave it an undemocratic taint in the Revolutionary era and beyond. That, too, did not stop the greatest of the Revolutionary leaders from indulging their taste for it. In the book, Ms. Hirsch aptly characterizes Thomas Jefferson as "perhaps the most famous colonial oenophile," and Ben Franklin as "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." And as for Washington, "He was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic." In the book, she calls him "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter" as well as a failed vintner and very successful distiller.

Rum etc.

For then there was the hard stuff. Every schoolchild is (or was, or should be) familiar with the notorious "triangle" or "triangular" "trade" involving the circulation of captive Africans, Caribbean sugar or molasses, and New England rum. Although distillation of whiskey began in the early seventeenth century, it became the quintessential American and frontier drink only when the Revolution interrupted the rum trade.

It was ironic, Ms. Hirsch noted, that, in 1794, George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion that arose in opposition to the new federal tax on spirits, and then went on to become a distiller himself (of course he paid his tax). Between 1797 and 1799, his production rose from 600 to 11,000 gallons, making him one of the leading producers in the country.
During the question-and-answer session, former Jones Library Trustee and (before that) Washington litigator Sarah McKee recalled having seen George Washington's original still--confiscated during the charade of Prohibition--in the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) museum near her place of work in the nation's capital. This got me curious, of course. I had been to most major Washington museums (though not that one) as well as Mount Vernon in the past few years. The old still now appears in the collections of the Smithsonian. As for Mount Vernon and the ATF, they have made their peace, for the latter granted the former a permit to conduct distilling in 2001. The site, several miles away from the mansion, near a good source of water, was excavated between 1999 and 2006, and reconstructed from 2007-9. And, nota bene: if your timing is right, you can still buy its new product.

Ancestors of the Cocktail

Many popular Colonial drinks were also mixtures involving some elements of the above. Each often had several variants, depending on one's taste and the availability of the ingredients.

Among the most famous (and most misunderstood; we all read pirate tales as kids, right?) is grog: essentially, a dilution of rum including water, citrus, and a sweetener.

Syllabub might consist of "cider blended with cream, rum and sugar, although wine could be used in place of the cider."

Flip was "a blend of beer; rum; a sweetener such as molasses, sugar or dried pumpkin; and occasionally eggs and cream." (Ms. Hirsch recommends a light brown ale rather than a porter or other darker brew). It could be expensive: in at least one town, it cost more than a night's accommodation. I myself have always admired the large glasses in which it was traditionally prepared or served.

flip glass from the collections of Historic Deerfield
It also made history. As Ms. Hirsch tells it: the Minutemen of Lexington dutifully assembled when the first alarm was sounded in the wee hours back in 1775, but after they were dismissed at around 2 a.m., some eighty of them repaired to the Buckman Tavern (rather than their homes), where they continued to drink flip until they stumbled out to confront the British regulars toward daybreak. As more than one commentator has noted, the guns were not the only things that were loaded on that famed April Morning.

Punch--derived from the Hindi "panch," or five--referring to the number of ingredients (which varied considerably) was, in Ms. Hirsch's words, "quite a democratic drink in a way." It was meant to be shared communally, after all. It was thus a serious business and once again confounds simplistic stereotypes of religious Christians. As the book notes, "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy." Not exactly your stereotypical evangelical buzzkills. I'd wager that the congregants of Amherst's First Church (separate story on that institution to follow) could come nowhere near that achievement nowadays, for more than one reason.

As Ms. Hirsch explained, "Drinking in America really exploded after the [Revolutionary] War."

Per capita consumption for every person over the age of 15 amounted to 5 gallons of spirits, 34 gallons of beer, and 1 gallon of wine. Today, by contrast, the US has the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the developed world. Even at a respectable 14th place in beer consumption (20.4 gallons), for example, we lag well behind not only our forebears, but also the second- and third-place Germans and Austrians (28 and 28.5 gallons, respectively), and the world-leading Czechs at 39.3. But our founding fathers would have earned us a clear second place.

Oh, yes, the infamous, intriguing and appropriately named "Rattle-Skull" consisted of a pint of porter or other dark beer, along with rum, brandy, sherry, and (optional) lime juice and nutmeg. As Ms. Hirsch noted, you probably wouldn't want to drive home after one of these, which go down with surprising ease.

Boozing peaked around 1825, and the high point of the drinking culture also marked the birth of the temperance movement. Perhaps we have always oscillated between unhealthy extremes. As Ms. Hirsch writes in her book, "That American society could reach a nadir of drunkenness only a few decades before outlawing drinking altogether speaks to an all-or-naught national psychology."

After the lecture, many members of the audience adjourned to the neighboring c. 1750 Simeon Strong House, site of the Amherst History Museum, for hors d'oeuvres and a sampling of representative historical beverages:  Flip, made with ale, rum, molasses, a beaten egg and nutmeg; Syllabub, made with white wine, lemon juice, heavy cream, sugar, and nutmeg; a mulled wine, and hard cider from All Things Local.

Ms. Hirsch prepared and served some of the more complex beverages. Among the highlights: making flip the traditional way by plunging a red-hot poker into the pitcher of liquid. Admittedly, not all traditions can be observed due to the modern preservation policy and safety regulations in historic structures: we used a propane-fired barbecue a safe distance away from the house.

the final product: Corin Hirsch serves the flip
As guests sampled a half-dozen drinks, Hampshire College students Emma John and Deidre Kelly performed traditional songs. I happened to walk in as they were singing "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." First published in 1841, it seems to refer to the events of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It's a personal favorite of mine because I grew up with it: my father learned it while in the military in Scotland during World War II.

Appropriately enough, the portrait beneath which they are seated at the historic piano, on loan from the Heath Historical Society, reflects the shared musical interest of the Emerson family of Amherst (which owned this house) and their relatives to the east. Records describe the painting as "a family group which Dr. Emerson allowed a deaf and dumb travelling man to paint, out of pity for him." Scholars surmise that the painter was Augustus Fuller (b. 1812, Deerfield, d. 1872) and that the portrait was painted circa 1837.

The proverbial (to cite that awkward and oft-parodied phrase) "good time was had by all." So much so, in fact, that we hope to repeat the event in the future.

In the meantime, if you're tempted, you will enjoy Corin's essay on "5 Colonial-Era Drinks You Should Know" (from Seriouseats). But this is one of the few occasions on which it is wiser to give in to temptation. So, just buy the book: you know you want to. It will make a great holiday present.

Update: article link

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving Digestif (cheers and fears)

Thanksgiving became a regular national holiday only in 1863 when President Lincoln called upon the nation "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Some of his predecessors had, however, declared individual days of thanks at various times of the year. In the meantime, the autumn holiday was celebrated in New England (the Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1816). By the 1840s, the holiday was gaining currency elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, we find it mentioned in some of the earliest letters of Emily Dickinson. As it happens, the weather preceding the holiday in 1847 was much the same as it was here this week (except that then it rained rather than snowed). Writing from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her friend Abiah Root in January 1848, she recalled:
We all went home on Wednesday before Thanksgiving & a stormy day it was. . . . The storm did not at all subside that night, but in the morning I was waked by the glorious sun himself, staring full in my face. We went to church in the morning & listened to an excellent sermon from our own minister, Mr Colton. At noon we returned and had a nice dinner, which, you well know cannot be dispensed with on Thanksgiving day.
The combined historical origins of the festival and its institutionalization by Abraham Lincoln long made Thanksgiving a "Yankee holiday," an image that did not dissipate for several decades after the Civil War.

* * *

I subtitled this post "cheers and fears" because, this year, I seemed to detect more stress on the alcoholic beverages that best accompany the Thanksgiving repast--"a nice dinner," as Emily put it--as well as a few stories (maybe everyone is desperate for a new angle) that play up the dark side of the holiday--in jest, to be sure. Maybe it's all in my head, but that's as good an excuse as any.

Although the article explaining how best to pair wine with each Thanksgiving food is a perennial feature of the periodical press (and now online food and beverage sites), it seems that the cocktail is receiving new attention. We have pieces desperately trying to come up with clever new drinks (1, 2). (Turkey bouillon? Puréed potatoes? Dude! Seriously?) And we have pieces that poke fun at those pieces and call for simplicity and common sense (1, 2). Although I always appreciate any good recipe, I have to admit that I (unsurprisingly) incline toward the historical.

We know of course that the Pilgrims and their descendants drank a lot (even or especially at funerals), but theirs were the typical drinks of England and the evolving colonies: beer, wine, and spirits such as rum, or beverages including these as ingredients. (More on that in a coming post.)

For those seeking something more modern but still historical, there is a 1960s drink called the Thanksgiving Special, but it is in essence the same as the "Darb," which dates back to circa 1930 and is thus suitably historical. (1, 2, 3).

Moving a bit further back in time, I'd recommend the "Sangaree" (1, 2), which as Ted Haigh explains, is vaguely related to but not at all the same as "sangria." Traceable to the eighteenth century, when it evidently was a popular item in Caribbean whorehouses, it was made of some blend of alcohol (at first, red wine), water, sugar, and spices; it did not consistently include citrus.  A good modern version uses red wine and cognac.

And next time I give a big party, I'm certainly going to consider mixing up a bowl of USS Richmond Punch, named after a Union Civil War ship (1, 2). Ingredients for this one include rum, cognac, port, Grand Marnier, and champagne. Don't drink and sail (and don't even think about using one of those nine-inch smoothbores) if you've had one of these.


As for fears:

At Slate, legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick uses the famed White House holiday ritual to poke fun at the fuss over the recent White House executive action: Obama’s Thanksgiving Amnesty: Will the president’s turkey pardon start a wave of unauthorized poultry immigration?

With minds that must have been moving along in the same groove, the folks over at Destination America TV came up with a special on "When Turkeys Attack":

There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when predator becomes prey. Our nation's turkey population has grown from 300,000 to a staggering 7 million in only 70 years. It's become an epidemic that will ruffle anyone's feathers! Fearless, intelligent and territorial, turkeys are taking over, terrorizing unsuspecting, innocent townspeople all over the country. In this one-hour Thanksgiving special, we'll see personal video of turkey attacks and hear from the surviving victims.
Damned immigrants. It's actually pretty funny.

By contrast, here's what turkeys fear:

(This one is from The American Hysterical Society. Hat tip to my friends at the American Association for State and Local History [AASLH] discussion group.)

* * *

Here's what I fear: The ever greater encroachment of coercive commercialism upon our holidays.

It's not about some naive and idealistic lament for lost purity. Any historian should know better than that. Commerce and culture have long been intertwined. (Don't forget that Johannes Gutenberg began his entrepreneurial career hoping to make a killing by selling "holy mirrors" to pilgrims.) To portray the problem as one of corporate "greed," as is typically the case, is also misguided: that is to psychologize the problem and cast it in moralizing rather than structural terms.

There are two problems: the cultural and the ethical.

When I was a senior in college applying for various scholarships, I was asked in one interview in a swanky Chicago highrise, "What do you think of 'the attenuation of periodicity'?" Since I had to devote most of my relatively unsophisticated Midwestern brainpower to figuring out just what the hell the question even meant, I suppose my answer was not very good. (Spoiler: I did not get the scholarship.) Nowadays I could probably give a better answer. I teach my students that premodern times in Europe were characterized by dramatic swings of activity and temperament: we speak of the wild fluctuations of "feast and fast." Modern rhythms, by contrast, are much more flattened: we have few holidays and work most of the time (even the weekend is a relatively recent development). The advent of 24/7 service and shopping, though a benefit in many ways, has only accentuated this tendency.

As anyone of a certain age can tell you: it used to be that one did not see Christmas decorations and other signs of the holiday or its marketing until Advent, or at least, after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, it seems, they appear ever earlier. Beginning on Halloween, the Hallmark Channel (not that it is a measure of anything but itself) replaces its regular programs with Christmas programs.That's nearly two months of this tedious treacle.

Again, it's not only about commerce, as such, but about losing our sense of time. When the entire period from October through New Year's becomes one long and increasingly undifferentiated marketing season, we lose our sense of the distinctiveness of the holidays that define it, and perhaps of the seasons themselves. The purpose of holidays is, after all, to mark differences in time.

As for the ethical: as one who grew up in a region in which some combination of blue laws and custom kept almost all stores closed on Sundays, I am glad that we have moved beyond that particularistic religious restriction on citizens' activity in a secular republic (though--fun facts to know and tell--you still can't buy alcohol in Minnesota or a car in Wisconsin on a Sunday). Personally, I therefore also have little sympathy for European handwringing that the end of anachronistic store-closing laws endangers mom-and-pop stores (Germans call them Tante-Erna-Läden). Ironic, of course, to see supposed leftists defending capitalists. (1) There are more consumers than small capitalists, and when both partners in a marriage have to work, being able to shop in the evening or on Saturday afternoon is a de facto necessity. (2) The logic of the economic system, as the German socialists pointed out more than a century ago, is that the small owners will go under anyway. They will survive only to the extent that they can offer a distinctive benefit or value.

Conservatives love to trumpet that supposedly salvific Pilgrim switch from socialism to capitalism: As if the insane desire to buy more stuff on "Black Friday" (even the Brits--who don't celebrate Thanksgiving--have succumbed to the mania: with predictable results) were not bad enough, an increasing number of enterprises (not only large chains) are now opening on Thanksgiving day itself: which is to say, requiring the workers to show up rather than celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Staples, for example, decided to open its stores at 6:00 p.m.--as Adam Vaccaro of the Boston Globe quipped, "(because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like office supplies!)." In Massachusetts, our surviving blue laws keep the stores themselves closed, but the staff of the corporate headquarters still had to report for work.

Somehow, I do not think that this is what our "Pilgrim Forefathers" had in mind.

It's especially ironic, given that historical Thanksgivings were occasions whose very nature precluded the carrying on of ordinary activity. That's what I meant about time. The first such national proclamation, by the Continental Congress, in 1777, included the injunction to refrain not only from frivolous entertainments, but also from "servile labor."

So, no, the ethical issue is not mere "greed": it's not even clear that opening on Thanksgiving is profitable, as such, but the logic of competition pushes stores to stay open, and that in turn inexorably attracts more shoppers. In the process, workers are forced to give up one of the few universally observed national holidays; many federal holidays are marked only by public institutions, banks, and the like, rather than retailers. (Airports and related travel facilities may be a different matter, though it's a myth that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year.) As one analyst put it, retailers have created a "Catch-22" for themselves: "the more they do this Thanksgiving shopping thing, the more people will think it's normal, and then the retailers will have to open even if it's not profitable." And the workers will work and we will shop, and once again, we will have lost something of that precious feel of time--and rest.

Thanksgiving vs. "Franksgiving"

Of course, the seeds were planted long ago. In 1939, November had five Thursdays, and that seemed to mean a reduced Christmas shopping season, which, as NPR tells us, "worried large retailers who lobbied FDR to move up Thanskgiving. He did." Then, as now, presidential executive action was controversial: Republican Alf Landon denounced the President as a "Hitler." Many others simply mocked and sulked. And so, states where the progressives were in control celebrated the holiday on November 23, while conservative states rejected what came to be called "Franksgiving" and stuck with November 30. (a video here; can't embed it, for some reason).

Increasing numbers of people are now actively resisting the consumer binge of Black Friday. And then there's "Cyber Monday." Slate tells us it's "the dumbest fake holiday of the year," while Mashable, tongue-in-cheek, lauds its superiority to Black Friday. Still, we all need to buy things sometime, and the convenience and benefits of the online marketplace are not to be underestimated. But how do you know whether you really need something--or someone else really needs that gift?  Here's a handy flowchart, courtesy of Callie Enlow at Good magazine:

full image and story

Choose wisely.

[updates: correct edit posted; link added]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving History: From the Vaults

Nothing new this year.

For that matter, I suppose, I never have anything truly new to say about Thanksgiving: just my occasional musings based on old histories or new coverage in the media.

But that's the point, I suppose: Thanksgiving is the quintessential and universal American holiday. To be sure, July 4th is the official national holiday, but although it is far older, its rituals and practices are more variable: we celebrate in our mulitfarious ways, from barbecues to nothing in particular. By contrast, "The Thanksgiving dinner" (whatever its varied constituents) is the national norm and in that sense unique as a means of celebration transcending cultures, ethnicities, and faiths (taking into account of course, some modern resistance to the traditional political-historical narrative: 1, 2 ).

Because I've already posted a good many times on this favorite American holiday, I thought I would content myself with offering an overview of those earlier posts rather than introducing a new theme this year.

In addition, I'll upload the collected images to the tumblr for better viewing. [Update: okay, didn't happen. That's life, too.]

Amuse yourselves as best you can. Wishing all a pleasant holiday feast and extended weekend.

• 2008 The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece : focusing on food and fable as well as historiography: how the holiday came to assume its familiar form. Among my minor favorites are the mystery of the cranberry (pregnant insects?! wtf?) and Pilgrim drinking habits (a shot and a brew).

• 2009 Thanksgiving Day (Thanksgiving Again): brief piece with focus on historiography--contrasting historical approaches of the focus on material culture and the larger narrative (including the long-term consequences), exemplified by James and Patricia Deetz on the one hand and Nathaniel Philbrick, on the other (with links to a variety of topics, from the date of the holiday to presidential turkey pardons and the relation between poultry and dinosaurs).

• 2010 (a) The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet: a smorgasbord of topics, starting with foodways (eels and sweet potato) and moving on to the conservative canards about Pilgrims, socialism, and capitalism.

• 2010 (b) Thanksgiving Miscellany: e.g. never rocked to the Turkey Gobbler's Ball? Here's your chance.

• 2010 (c) (I must have been on a roll that year): 13 December 1621: The "Fortune" Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither "socialists" nor "capitalists")

Conservatives in recent years have for some reason decided to make much of a supposed contrast between the early failures of the Pilgrims under what is termed a "socialist" arrangement vs. their great successes once they abandoned this Obama-avant-la-lettre policy and threw themselves into the sluttish welcoming arms of free-market capitalism.

This is not my field, but one doesn't need to be a specialist--only to understand historical perspective and use of evidence--in order to see that this is bunk. As any historian worth his or her salt (a valuable commodity in Colonial days) can tell you, the whole notion of a struggle between "socialism" and "capitalism" in seventeenth-century America is unhistorical nonsense. And what is more, the Pilgrims and their descendants--before and after the supposed great transformation--intruded in the lives of citizens in a way that would be anathema to modern socialists and libertarians alike. Myth busted. QED.

• 2012 From the Vaults: Thanksgiving Retrospective (socialists, eels, eating pregnant insects, a shot and a brew, more): a less (an abbreviated version of what you have here).