Walking toward the Wagner Free Institute of Science near Temple University in Philadelphia in October, I was a little nervous. My friend Hannah and I thought we were going to go back in time and never return.
Why the concern, you ask?
We attended an annual magic lantern slide salon, of course. You can think of magic lanterns as the pre-cursor to slide carousels, projectors, and perhaps even motion pictures. When they first became popular in the eighteenth century, magic lanterns projected their scenes on glass onto walls or other backgrounds using an artificial light source. In the nineteenth century, as the Brooklyn Museum explained, the slides and the machine provided a way for lots of people to learn from the new photographic medium. (Not all slides are of photographs, though.) Modern machines, like the one we saw at the festival, are electrified. The projector we saw holds two glass slides at a time that are swapped out manually. The Wagner was an exciting place to attend such a salon, as the auditorium dates to 1865 and has hosted many a magic lantern presentation.
I learned a lot from this event. Quite frankly, I thought the presentation would be more transformative (see reference to concern about going back in time). But in fact, the visual experience of seeing the slides merely echoed projector or slide carousel presentations. The images did appear more crisp than what contemporary projectors seem to be capable of reproducing. What I found most interesting was the breadth of lantern slide collections in the region and how underutilized they are as archival sources. There may be good reason for this. If you ever handle these slides, you sense immediately how fragile they are. You drop it, it breaks (speaking from experience at an antique mall last year).
But that did not stop these archivists from institutions as varied as the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Philadelphia Museum of Art from generously bringing their fragile collections to the Wagner and putting on a show. Some archivists used historic scripts. Others created wholly contemporary interpretations of old slides. Some mixed the two. We learned about how workers at the Stetson hat manufactory, which was based in Philadelphia, made its famous hat. We took a tour through the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we all cooed over a basket of baby lions born at the Philadelphia Zoo.
The festival was part of Archives Month Philly. Looking forward to more fun events next year, even if we do not go back in time or confront magic. This was, after all, held at an Institute of Science.
George Washington (1732-1799) is famously inscrutable. And yet I found him, hanging on the wall at the Powel House (b. 1765) in Philadelphia. Rather, I found his shadow in the form of a silhouette, pencil lines and all. On the reserve, the silhouette reads, “General Washington, a bad likeness.”
This “bad” likeness breathes life into the Powel House’s withdrawing room but also into Washington. Samuel Powel (1738-1793), Philadelphia mayor from 1775-1776 and 1789-1790, made the portrait himself, in 1787. Known as a hollow-cut silhouette, Powel crafted it by tracing Washington’s shadow on a light-colored substrate, cutting away the outline, and backing it with blue paper after socializing over tea with Washington’s brother John (1736-1787) and none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).
Fun among friends. What’s more personal than that?
My original purpose for visiting the Powel House was to check out an example of a Philadelphia “ballroom” that probably inspired party rooms like the one at my beloved George Read House in New Castle, Delaware. It was great to see this comparable space in person and to get a sense of what Read was likely trying to replicate or imitate in his New Castle Home.
To my delight, I found much more than some nice rooms at the Powel house. I also found George Washington.
Watching intently as the workshop leaders shuffled hot embers from the front to the back of the hearth at an introductory hearth cooking workshop I took at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum yesterday, I wondered whether I would have a chance to probe and prod meat again as it simmered and stewed over the fire. The first time I wielded a spatula was earlier that morning when I was directed to flip the meatballs. After accomplishing that mission, I stepped back to help chop and mix up turnips, onions, parsley, and butter. Lots of butter.
As a historian of the material culture of everyday life of early America, I spend a lot of time in museum collections and archives. As a result, I know how all this stuff works in theory. I’ve read countless historic recipes and walked past more hearths in historic houses (usually over-accessorized) that I can count. I’ve also seen cooking over a fire demonstrated in a variety of reputable historic sites and houses.
I love my work.
But I registered for the workshop to expand how I learn about and interpret the past. In other words, to bring my interpretative powers up to the next level, I knew I needed to get some time in front of the fire and to dedicate more time overall doing living history. When I say “living history,” I mean what museum and cultural heritage professionals refer to as practicing or enacting activities of the past (such as sewing, fighting, or just passing time at home), often wearing clothing from that period also. Some better-known historic sites that incorporate living history into their visitor experience include Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, but there are plenty more fine examples out there. As living history professionals and hobbyists and experimental archaeologists (or any teacher, really) will tell you, doing is knowing. And I want to do more doing.
I wanted to learn if you really could cook a chicken over hot coals in time to have it for dinner (yes!) and how to manipulate the cooking equipment to make food cook faster or slower (it’s complicated).
Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015
But I also learned things that will add subtlety to my understanding of the past I probably could not have learned any other way. I learned, for instance, that when you bend over a pot you have to battle your own shadow to see inside whether the lamb is still red. I learned what food tastes like if you get it too close to the embers. I also learned why any sort of warming plate, tray, or cabinet you find in any number of museum collections would have been desirable given how darn cold once warm and toasty chicken gets if it’s been sitting to the side of the hearth while you’ve been baking potato rolls, sautéing mushrooms, and roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a tin reflector oven.
I did something! I know more now.
What I didn’t expect to learn was how much of a twenty-first century person I really am. But that’s exactly what happened. As I was minding the lamb in the small cauldron, flipping it periodically to sear it before we threw it into a pot with veggies to make a stew, I accidentally catapulted a chunk of lamb into the fiery embers.
My heart stopped.
“Oh, no!” I gasped with genuine worry as I watched the cube of lamb become a red fireball, indistinguishable from the surrounding coals.
I panicked, just like I do at home when I drop something on a stove burner. I looked around desperately for help. How would I get a burning piece of meat out of the fire? It’s going to smell terribly! Won’t it set off a fire alarm?
I was surprised that in the midst of my horror, everyone was standing calmly behind me. Most were chuckling.
Of course they were. We already have a fire. A big one. In the hearth. I wasn’t making it any worse.
“We’ll just scoop it up,” the Marsha Houston the instructor explained. “Don’t worry about it!”
Right. We’ll just scoop it up. Of course!
I apologized profusely. But I don’t think I was really apologizing for losing a nice piece of meat or even for Marsha having to move it aside. I think I was apologizing for caring so much. In this context, dropping a piece of meat onto a cooking surface wasn’t a big deal. In the space of just a few moments, I had found the gap between my pre-industrial self and my twenty-first century self. And it was a large one. Yes, doing is knowing.
In my experience, the UNESCO people tend to make good choices. Indeed, it’s not every day you get to tour a complex of buildings where craftsmen, thinkers, and family worked and lived from the sixteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. (According to the UNESCO nomination, there would have been about 140 other individuals and/or businesses in Antwerp’s print trades in the mid-sixteenth century.) Christopher Plantin served as the House’s “master” from 1555-1589, and his son-in-law Jan I Moretus served as master from 1589-1610. See the UNESCO nomination for more on the other Plantin House masters. Shortly after the firm printed its last book in 1866, the site became a museum. Visitors have been enchanted by it ever since, and you don’t have to have completed a PhD exam field in print culture and history of the book to appreciate this museum’s ability to transport visitors to another time and place.
Plantin-Moretus has a lot going for it, including very comprehensive business archives and galleries. (Unfortunately, we were too exhausted by the end of the workshop-house tour to enjoy the galleries properly.) It’s difficult to summarize why I liked the museum so much–why, at the expense of sounding a bit dramatic, I feel like I left my soul there. First, the Museum retains a workshop full of the family’s printing presses (including the two oldest extant in the world), type, and other tools.
It also boasts the multi-room library of several generations of humanists (a fancy term for people interested in natural rather than supernatural concerns and whose intellectual interests spanned multiple disciplines).
These material survivals virtually tell the story of the site and the people who lived and worked there themselves. Perhaps I feel so taken with the place because I really felt the presence of the people who had used the objects and spaces there. Sure, the things I want to see more of in house museums and workspace period rooms–like dirt and disorder–weren’t there. But it’s hard not to imagine a journeyman moving about the print shop managing apprentices when just about all the tools he used (including sunlight streaming through the tall windows) are staring you in the face.
The Museum offers a great audio tour too that provides visitors with succinct discussions that enhance rather than detract from the already dense sensory experience. I particularly enjoyed going into some detail about the gilt leather wallpaper (much of it reproduced since gilt leather is difficult to preserve) this prosperous family installed throughout the workshop-house, a luxury that was a speciality of craftsmen in nearby Mechelen. The audio guide really made you take a close look.
And yet the interpretation of only one bedchamber and what seems to be a reproduced kitchen (a room that, according to the guidebook, was a wash house in Plantin’s lifetime) spurred questions about domestic life and work at the site. My curiosity was only heightened when I read in the visitor guide that two of Plantin’s daughters (Margaretha and Martina) married their father’s “most important assistants,” thereby cementing their importance as consorts and also business partners. That says a lot about how permeable the walls and doors here really were.
Perhaps I feel like I left my soul there since past inhabitants most certainly left theirs there too.
En route to our hotel the first night we spent in Brussels, Belgium, this past June, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of a store window despite the fact that I was more than ready to hit the sack after surviving our marathon day of trans-Atlantic travel and touring. It didn’t take long for Tyler to realize why I was so engrossed. There, in the middle of Brussels, a Bandagiste (or a store that sells orthopedic and related supplies) displayed a mix of historic and contemporary examples of objects that feature (along with their users) prominently in my dissertation. From crutches to wheelchairs, the Bandagiste had it all, beckoning prospective customers (and one historian) in one of the busiest parts of Brussels.
Tyler and I planned to visit specific sites in Belgium and the UK on our trip, but I hadn’t really picked out any disability-related stuff to see.
It turns out it didn’t matter, because it found me.
On a train from Bruges to Brussels, for instance, I overheard one woman explain to her travel companions that there is a rail worker at one of the stops she frequents who is notorious for grumbling about providing the moveable ramp that links the platform to the train for her wheelchair. She also recounted how a friend’s commute lengthened by a half hour recently because the station he used was no longer accessible. Their anecdotes were endless. And during the remainder of our trip abroad, the insights kept coming.
The amputated limb became a focal point for many likenesses made of Nelson even after he died from wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. Check out this late ninteenth-century decanter below, for instance. It was difficult to choose which artifact to include here. Nelson adorned a lot of stuff, suggesting how much people liked having him around. Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the American context.
Getting better acquainted with Nelson suddenly made Desire seem less unusual (but not less unique).
And so in honor of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Americans With Disabilities Act, here are some of my recent #disabilitystories (the social media “hashtag” for today) from abroad. My encounters with disability history and material culture on our recent trip started with that Bandagiste but did not end with Nelson. More importantly, they won’t end back in the States, either. I can’t wait to dive back into the archives today, on the lookout for hard-to-find but oh-so-fascinating early American #DisabilityStories.
When I decided to include a one-day workshop (1.5 hours) on paleography (the fancy word for the study of handwriting) in my World History II survey last summer, I thought my students might never make it through the session (not for lack of smarts but lack of interest – this was, after all, a survey course many students take to fulfill general education requirements). The handwriting is impossible to read, they would say. Why are we doing this, they would ask, explaining that they had never learned how to write in cursive in the first place. (To my surprise, it turned out that most had learned cursive in school, making me wonder to what extent it might be a myth that students don’t learn how to write in cursive anymore). With another group of students, this very well could have happened. But in this instance, it seemed to work. Here’s how.
I wanted my students to get some experience reading historic handwriting. I also wanted them to learn some content associated with the course. Before holding the workshop during one of our regularly scheduled classes, I asked the students to take a look at three examples of historic handwriting in Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American Handwriting (1998).
I chose one from the late nineteenth century, the early nineteenth century, and the mid-eighteenth century. Each sample comes with a transcription, and I tasked the students with simply giving it a try. (This was one of just a few optional reading assignments for the semester). Those who completed it genuinely seemed to get something out of it. One student noted it took them one go to get the words and a second to get the content. They quickly learned the tricks seasoned historians use when they encounter a new hand: matching known letters to similar unknown letters, reading and rereading to get accustomed to comprehending the hand and the syntax, and reading aloud to get the meaning. Armed with this experience, I thought they’d be primed for the workshop.
When they arrived the day of the workshop, I gave them a brief lecture on the so-called Canton Trade System, or the vibrant and sometimes contentious trade between China and the West from about 1750-1840.
We talked about the exchange of silk and spices, silver and lacquered furniture, opium (which ultimately led to the end of the Canton trade, a subject we broached in a later class), and tea. I even brought in some nineteenth-century Canton porcelain from my own collection to make this all a little more concrete.
Then, I gave them ample time to transcribe a letter (in groups) written by Delaware merchant John Latimer (1793-1865) (always helps to make local connections) to a business associate about trading specific commodities in Canton. I had the students take a look at a scanned version of the letter on large-sized computer screens with zoom capability in a lab on campus.
The letter, which I had identified after spending a glorious day trolling the Downs collection at the Winterthur Library and which had been scanned by a Winterthur librarian, was a hit. The students made it through nearly every word, struggling almost exclusively with the most arcane words (such as supercargo, or the person who served as the the ship’s owner’s representative) and syntax. They really gained an appreciation for the intricacies of what trade involved in the early nineteenth century–from how merchants communicated (lots of hand-written letters, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate) to what merchants had to know about preferences for certain commodities to deciding whether to trade with cash or goods.
And while they learned from the letter itself about trade and globalization (a major course theme), the letter also spurred additional questions–many more than did the average lecture-discussion. How did English-speaking Americans communicate with the Chinese, they wondered. Why was insurance such a concern? And what remains the same today about trade with China and other countries around the world? Learning through doing definitely seemed to inspire deeper thinking.
I didn’t know whether this workshop would work in the end, but I’m glad I took the risk. Despite their initial trepidation, I think the students enjoyed it too. And the next time they encounter old-fashioned manuscript writing (whether it’s that of their bosses or that of a historic diary), hopefully they’ll recall some of the skills they learned that day…and why an insect called cochineal was so valuable.
The Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library has several collections related to the Canton System. I’d like to extend special thanks to Jeanne Solensky for assisting me with identification of these collections and for scanning a handful of documents for the class. In addition to the Latimer Family Collection, see also Fol 153, an 1804 sea journal that provides insight into how to deal with specific Chinese merchants. For other examples, search “China trade” in WinterCat.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) partnered to make an excellent online learning module called the Rise & Fall of the Canton Trade System. If I hadn’t done a paleography workshop addressing the CTS, I would have assigned parts of this website for reading homework.