Saturday, December 17, 2016
Christmas dinner in Boston was a mighty affair!
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, a bunch of cousins—even a few great-uncles (one in particular who was a lawyer; he was slightly on the shady side and smoked little cigarettes—my grandmother ran around after him holding a tiny silver tray just in case he wavered, spilled his ash).
I remember dressing up: little white socks with scalloped top edges and what we used to call Mary Jane shoes—black patent leather with a strap over the instep – dreadful things, but fancy enough for small children (they were named for Buster Brown’s sweetheart in the old comic series!).
I had a crinoline and a taffeta dress, too – it itched like fury, but it was gorgeous – it changed color whenever the fabric moved. I was fascinated by that color-changing bit.
I had a matching ribbon for a headband.
The dining room had two big windows along the outside wall; on the inside wall, opposite the windows, there were two doors into the hallway. There was a pantry, too, off one end—a magical space full of various sets of china; dinner plates and luncheon plates and butter and dessert plates; cups and bowls; drawers of silver (all wrapped in maroon or gray flannel protectors); all manner and kind of table accessories!
The table itself?
A centerpiece, of course; candles and place settings: Two forks (salad fork, dinner fork), two knives (salad and meat) and a couple of spoons (teaspoon, soup spoon). (“Work from the outside in,” my mother coached us.)
Sometimes a desert fork and spoon placed horizontally above the dinner plate, one pointing left, one pointing right.
Little bread plate to the left, with a bread knife across; silver salts with blue glass insides and tiny little spoons—oh, how I loved those tiny silver spoons; I imagined little people scooping salt from them.
And the biggest napkins I’d ever seen – blazing white, with my grandmother’s initials in the corner (VMH); not a stain on them, although I can’t imagine how that happened—probably due to Annie Sagan’s hard work in the laundry room downstairs.
And the glassware!
Crystal wine glasses with a tapered rim, a shaped stem and full bowl, with cut starburst and ivy pattern…after dinner my father would set all the glasses in a row, wet his finger and run it around the rims of the bowls, make the glassware sing!
It was magic to me back then; it is magic to me now.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
…and we’ve had our first snow here in Maine!
A few inches fell the other day. It was barely enough to shovel, but shovel we did—the sound of neighbors working at sweeping their cars and clearing their drives and walkways is nearly musical to me.
I took a break, stood at the end of my driveway and just listened.
Although I choose to ignore the religious trappings and crass commercialism that dominate our lives at this time of year, I still find promise in a few traditions from my childhood—a very few, to be sure, but ones that give me small pleasure.
And speaking of “promise,” here’s one kept: another shot of the wonderful calendar I found for this year.
Here’s the snowman.
He’s refreshingly traditional!
He’s got a black top hat (with a bright red band), coal buttons and a carrot nose; he’s got a scarf, knotted jauntily around his non-existent neck!
When I was little, we used to stick tree branches in his sides to make arms; the little twigs at the ends made fantastic fingers! We never had a top hat, but used instead one of my father’s fedoras or the real bomber hat he wore during his stint flying for the US Navy during WWII—an old, fur-lined, moth-eaten horror that resembled a dead rodent; my mother threatened to throw it away for years.
She never did, though; she knew what was important.
I opened the little door for December 8 right after I took the picture of the snowman: here’s the inside.
Those eight tiny reindeer: “Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen; Comet, Cupid, Donder, Blitzen…” (If you’re from Boston, by the way, those names are second to those of Robert McCloskey’s famous ducklings: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack).
On Christmas Eve, we used to leave a bowl of dog kibble for those reindeer, right next to Santa’s Budweiser and Ritz crackers with cheese—my father always told us that Santa liked stopping at our house better than any other house in Maine, thanks to our creative snack offerings!
He was right, I’m sure.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
I’m a lapsed everything these days.
I’ve lapsed to the point of having an atheist sticker slapped on the backside of my Toyota Yaris.
There’s no coming back from that.
Still, there are shreds of my childhood that come soaring back to me at this time of year, and I’ve learned to hold them dear: the brass angels that flew in a circle above the lighted candles and rang little bells as they passed by; the snowflake patterns we cut from folded pieces of paper and taped to the front windows of our house; the smell of spruce cuttings; the branches of bright blood-red winterberries arranged in a floor vase in our front hall.
And advent calendars.
I remember the ritual each December morning: searching for the little numbers on the little doors, lifting the flap and opening it wide to find a small surprise within.
It was part of the magic.
I saw this one in our local indie bookstore.
It’s a farm scene: red barn, two-storied farmhouse with green garlands wrapped around the porch pillars; it’s chock-a-block full of children on sleds and skis and toboggans and flying saucers (remember those?); there are wreaths hanging on doors and silos and fenceposts; there’s a cat on the porch, a dog on the steps and a squirrel in a tree; warm light pours out of all the windows.
There’s Santa in a sleigh (and his little door is No. 24, of course!).
But my favorite part is the lower right corner.
A rail fence; two cows—one Jersey, one a small Holstein—three sheep; a manger full of bright yellow hay; that trio of geese (the Magi?) parading across the drive; that bright red cardinal on the fence post.
They’re all looking in the same direction, they’re all waiting…
Saturday, September 3, 2016
It started out in the 1700s as a small trading post, but by 1809 it was known as the Brunswick Cotton Manufacturing Company. The mill, powered by the Androscoggin River and the falls at Pejepscot, made yarn for textile manufacturing.
It changed its name a few times as it expanded—Maine Cotton and Woolen Factory, Warumbo Company, and, finally, Cabot Manufacturing Company. In the 1930s, more than 1,000 people worked in this mill, running the machinery that produced textiles.
In the mid-1950s, when I was a child living in the area, it was the Verney Mill, and both textiles and shoes were manufactured there, pulling power from the river, dumping waste back in; I remember to this day the smell of the river, the sight of yellow-brown riverfoam on the front lawn of our house on days the wind was right.
And I remember the rumble and thump of the machinery and shake of the sidewalks whenever you walked by; the feeling went through your shoes and into your feet, right up to your knees.
It was dreadful.
I had friends whose parents worked in the mill, first- and second-shift parents (sometimes one on each shift just to make sure one parent could be home most of the time: I didn’t appreciate that sacrifice until I was much older). Somebody’s mother told me once that, during WWI and WWII, there were three shifts of workers: That mill ran all day and all night; children were awakened in the morning by one parent, put to bed by the other parent, and watched over by grandparents or neighbors while their parents slept.
Everything’s different now.
The river is clean (we even have fish again!) and the building itself has been renovated; floors have been refinished, walls painted, windows replaced. There are shops and artists’ studios and restaurants—even a farmers’ market in the winter, a high-end antique business and a gigantic flea market all year round!
But sometimes, when the light is just right and I find myself in one of the lower level hallways, I can still hear the rumble, feel the shake and rattle of that machinery.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
…gently down the stream.
This isn’t a stream.
This is Linnekin Bay, East Boothbay, Maine in the summer of 1900 or so, and the two boys in the dinghy are my great uncles. I think it’s Richard and Allen, although I can’t be sure—they all look pretty much the same in the summer outfits: shirts, pants, crusher hats and rubber-soled shoes.
There’s an old dock in the background and seaweed-covered rocks in the fore; I can tell that it’s low tide. The ground slopes up from the rocks and I can barely see the bottom of a house in the background; now, one hundred years later, after too much erosion, there’s a seawall along the shore there.
I think this photo was taken in front of what was called the Red Cottage—it was where the Gould family went each summer to get out of the smothering heat of the Boston area—later on, after my grandfather married, they summered in her family home just down the road.
My guess is that this little rowboat is the one they used to run back and forth between the shoreline and the family sailboat, moored out in deeper water—Allen’s weight has left the bow high and the aft end very close to the Atlantic! I’ve got lots of photos of them in the sailboat (they’re wearing shirts and ties in some of them, for goodness’ sake!).
Hope yours is going well, and that you’ve got secure oarlocks to get you through!
Saturday, June 11, 2016
More than one hundred years ago, The Gang assembled for a group shot on the public dock in East Boothbay, Maine; they all summered in cottages strung along the shores of Murray Hill overlooking Linekin Bay, all learned to swim in those freezing waters, all spent lazy high-tide afternoons diving and jumping off the public dock, keeping cool.
Two of those young men in the back row are relatives of mine--the last two on the right are my great-uncles, Richard and Allen. And I’m pretty sure that one of the boys in the front row is my great-uncle Prescott, although I can’t tell which one. Furthermore, I'll bet the photo was taken by my grandfather, who should be in the picture...but isn't.
The two women? I’m not sure. The one on the far left might be Jessie Gould (a cousin)—I’m basing that guess on the gold bracelet she’s wearing on her left arm (I have one, too; given to me by my father on my twenty-first birthday)—but the one on the right is totally unknown.
But look at the swimwear!
My grandfather told me once that those bathing suits were made of wool.
I can’t imagine.
He said the “itch factor” was sky-high—not while they were in the water, but when they were out—and they spent most of their time trying not to scratch in inappropriate places!
I love the pale, skinny legs and the combination of brown forearms and white upper arms—the boys obviously rolled their shirtsleeves in the summer…
And look at Richard’s striped number! Clearly, the height of men’s fashion in the early 1900s. Allen’s wearing white bottoms, which might be another fashion trend.
I can’t imagine my great-grandmother going for that bit of foolishness!
Saturday, June 4, 2016
Stream, gristmill, undershot (or overshot) waterwheel…it’s a standard here in New England; has been fodder for painters and photographers—even poets and lyricists—for more than a century.
This postcard was mailed in Athens, Maine on September 16, 1914:
Hello Clarence. I almost forgot your birthday was so near we got home all right Aunt Nancy Spoffard come here yesterday & to day Grampa & I carried her out to Skowhegan she is real smart. Now see how good a boy you can be the whole year with love & good wishes for many returns of the day.
Friday, May 13, 2016
One of my favorite possessions is a lovely compartmen-talized tray from a newspaper printer’s type cabinet; each tray is a single wooden drawer from a chest that held a variety of typefaces in a variety of sizes used to set type for both news copy and advertising.
There used to be separate trays—or cases—for capital letters and regular letters (which is why we call them upper and lower case letters today), but that meant two drawers for each size of a particular font; a combined case like this became popular in the 1800s (this shot shows only two of the three sections of the tray).
Just as the “qwerty” layout of your keyboard is designed to make typing more efficient, so too were the compartments in a type tray designed for the convenience of the typesetter—the most frequently used letters were set in boxes in the center of the tray while the others were located on the edges and in the corners.
Numbers and oddball symbols ($, @, + and %, for instance) were in the top boxes of the compartments, lower case letters were on the left side of the drawer, upper case on the right.
Punctuation compartments were not always designated—many typesetters placed them in their own preferred locations.
This tray holds an incomplete set of Bodoni bold type—one of the most commonly used typefaces in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly because it is so easy to read.
Giambattista Bodoni, the designer, was born in Italy in 1740. His father was a printer, so he grew up in the trade; he apprenticed at the
and later became a well-known typecutter, engraver and printer. Vatican
In 1798, he designed this typeface—a font that blended the thicker lines of older typefaces with the finer, thinner ones of newer designs.
Bodoni gains its gracefulness from a balance between those thick and thin strokes of the letters. If designed well, books typeset in Bodoni can produce that same graceful loveliness on an entire page, especially when the letters have some space between them, which keeps the lines smooth and easy to read.
Many of us read schoolbooks set in Bodoni (easy to read, remember?) and its broad face makes for a quick read on posters and advertising boards.
Friday, May 6, 2016
That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw this lovely old shepherd cradling one of his lambs…and although I knew that “by hook or by crook” means “by any way possible,” I had no idea what shepherds actually used crooks for; a crook looked like a pretty worthless implement to me.
Boy, was I wrong.
Turns out, their purpose is threefold: shepherds uses crooks to carry newborn lambs back to their rightful mothers when confusion reigns in the lambing pen (they cannot touch the lambs themselves, or the mothers will reject the babies due to the scent of humans); they use the blunt end of the crook to prod sheep along the way whenever they are driving them; they hook strays around the leg or neck to drag them back into the fold where they belong.
My trusty 1902 Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog had a shepherd’s hook for sale—a metal one that fit snugly over a pole (you supplied the pole).
The Montana Shepherds’ Crook was “the best and strongest crook that has ever been placed on the market.” It consisted of a pear-shaped loop with rounded curves on the inside to prevent hurting the sheep. Thousands (they say) were in use in the United States.
A mere seventy-three cents.
And there was, of course, a Bo-Peep Crook, which was the same as a Montana, but lighter.
For the ladies, I guess; for the shepherdesses.
There was more equipment, too: three different styles of shears—the Western, the Eastern, and the Celebrated Burgon & Ball’s (each in three different lengths of blade); two equally disgusting jars of salve (for those “worrisome nicks”); there was fleece detergent and a sheep dip (for “vermin”).
The best item, though, was the Montana Special Sheep Shearing Machine, “…considered one of the best by a great many of the large sheep growers throughout the United States and Australia.” It had a large wheel, mounted on a solid post; an enclosed gear in a fixed frame that ran the cutters.
So, one man turned the wheel, the other sheared the sheep; they got the job done, all right – by hook or by crook!
Friday, April 15, 2016
Remember SLR cameras?
And remember contact sheets?
Seems like light years ago, but I still have a few buried in a cardboard box in my upstairs closet; this is a four-shot strip from a contact sheet made nearly fifty years ago.
I am twenty-two years old; a long-haired hippie with a gold ankle bracelet (I no longer have all that hair, but I still have the ankle bracelet) and a handsome boyfriend (I still have him in my life, too) who took these shots in, roughly, 1968.
The strip is faded, for sure, and it curls along both long sides.
It’s hard to tell what’s what:
The first shot is of me and one of my dogs, a total mutt named Ron; he had a good chunk of yellow lab in him, but the yellow was nearly white and so he simply disappears into the background. There’s a coffee cup in the foreground by my arm, and, in my upraised right hand, a Winston filtered cigarette;
The second is interesting (on the reverse of this shot, David wrote “legs,” which might give you an idea of what was on his mind in 1968); my gold bracelet is on my left wrist (it still is); it’s one of the few photographs of me that illustrates the presence of Native American DNA that showed up in my genetic testing;
In the third, I seem to be trying to stand on my head (‘nuff said); and the fourth has some kind of bizarre shading effect—half my face is light; the other dark. Beats me…
Maybe it wasn’t a Winston I was smoking—after all, it was the 60s!
Thursday, March 10, 2016
It’s a rainy day here in Maine, a perfect day to do a little flea marketing (I am not at all sure that “flea marketing” is an acceptable verb form, but I’m determined to use it all the same…).
Most of the time, my marketing is totally aimless—a mindless wander through the place with stops whenever I see something that catches my eye—but this time, I actually had something specific in mind.
Used photo albums.
I’ve got a lot of loose photos, most of them dating back before the 1950s, and I’ve needed some old albums in which to store them.
This morning, I found two of them; brought them home.
The next phase, of course, was spreading out all those old photos; sorting them by date (as best I could because, of course, my parents and grandparents never wrote anything helpful on the back—no dates, no names, no locations…nothing).
So I spent lots of time today trying to identify great aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins—even a third cousin; lots of family dogs and various backyards, hedges and gardens; grand automobiles, including my father’s white MGB with red leather seats; my parents’ Lark station wagon (one of the industry’s colossal mistakes) and my grandmother’s 1938 roadster which, according to family lore, was a screaming bright yellow; she had a legendary lead foot and sped all over Boston in it.
And I found this picture of my grandmother herself at some kind of lawn event: cocktail party, wedding…something like that…
…the sunlight is spilling down over her face and shoulders; shadows fall over her hands and arms. She’s holding what looks to be a cordial glass, or a small wine glass or champagne flute…
…she’s wearing a lovely flowered dress; she’s got a delicate chain around her neck, her dressy watch at her wrist, and the most important accessory of the time…
…a fabulous hat!
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Four, fourfold, 4-H, four-footed, four-hand, Four Horsemen (of the you-know-what), four-in-hand, four-letter word, four-star, four-wheeler…
…the list goes on and on.
But this formidable foursome is a special grouping: behold four members of the 1937 varsity basketball team at the May School, 270 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts (now the Brimmer and May School of Chestnut Hill).
Top two: Peggy Breed and Edith Fisher; bottom two: M. Harcourt and my mother, Martha Howell.
There were twenty-seven members of the Class of 1937; these four were the powerhouses of their basketball team, although the term “powerhouse” probably meant something entirely different back in those days—no powerhouses would wear collars like that!
My mother’s May School yearbook is one of my favorite possessions: a slim, beautifully bound yearbook that gave me a new vision of my mother…
...in the Class Vote (senior superlatives), she was chosen Most Animated, Funniest and Noisiest (none of which is news to me).
I’m surprised she’s not grinning in this basketball photo; her senior picture, too, is an amazingly demure image of her, recognizing, I am sure, the seriousness of graduation back then.
But the write-up beneath her picture tells a truer story:
Hats off to Haffy! What would we do without her laughing and whistling in Latin class? If she weren’t around, we should have no one to tell our new jokes or riddles to, since she will always laugh for us, while the rest of our blasé class merely stares at our efforts. Haffy has been with us four years; and although timid at first, she certainly has snapped out of it. Her table manners at school, however, have not passed the kindergarten stage. Water and a spoon are a constant temptation that cannot be resisted. For all her hilarity, she comes out with swell marks and is one of the most conscientious members...
Her major weakness, according to her classmates, was her terrible color combinations.
Again, no surprise there—she favored terrible color combinations well into her nineties!
But here she is in 1937, part of a sports foursome: a senior in high school, eighteen years old and on her way to Smith College…
I might have liked her back then; we might have been friends.
Friday, January 29, 2016
I’ve got five old mail order catalogues—one from Montgomery Ward, one from Charles Williams Stores, and three from Sears, Roebuck & Company—the oldest from 1902, the newest from 1938.
I use them all the time for reference. They’ve all got fabulous illustrations, current prices; they transport me back in time.
The other day, I was looking at kitchen equipment (pots, pans, utensils, gadgets, soap dishes, dishracks, etc.) to get a more accurate sense of a late 1920s kitchen -- and was surprised to see bird cages smack in the middle of the kraut cutters, sausage stuffers, and food choppers.
Bird cages? I thought. Bird cages in the kitchen equipment section?
What’s with that?
So I checked four catalogues: two Sears, the Charles Williams and the Montgomery Ward…all of them have bird cages in the kitchen section!
The 1930 Sears catalogue has three floor cages in with the Sanitary Kitchen Cans and the mop wringers: the Singever, the Aristocrat and the Duplex. The Singever (don’t you love that name?) has a spring-mounted perch for some simulated tree branch action; the Duplex can be used as a floor-mounted or a table-top cage.
Prices run from $3.98 to $5.35.
Montgomery Ward’s 1929 catalogue tucks the bird cages in with the canning and bottling supplies, washboards and washtubs.
One cage, the Sturdy Footed Cage, comes in three colors: all bright brass with either red trim, green trim or blue trim!
And has “perches, swings, unbreakable cups, tassel and wire mesh seedguard…”
The cage is $2.75; the stand is an additional $2.65.
Last, but by no means least, Charles Williams Stores comes in with a selection of cages beneath the fruit and vegetable presses, the potato mashers and the waffle irons: A fancy white enameled cage with colored lining; a “handsomely japanned” with two perches, swing and two feed cups; a new style “oblong” cage with or without guard.
Anyway, back to the conundrum: Why were all the cages in the kitchen sections of the mail order catalogues?
When I looked in the 1930 Sears catalogue, I found the answer: an oblong block of display art featuring a housewife wiping her dishes; a bird cage (with canary) suspended in the kitchen window.
“The Canary Bird,” the copy reads. “Our Ever Cheerful Companion”
The kitchen: the warmest room in the house and the center of activity!
Saturday, January 23, 2016
I’ve got lots of old family photographs—they’re in boxes, folders, old clasp envelopes; some are even pasted neatly in leather-covered photograph albums, thanks (mostly) to my paternal grandmother, who was an Organizer of the Highest Order.
Sometimes the Sepia Saturday prompt photo sends me scurrying off in search of a specific photo; those are easy blogs to write and post.
But sometimes my response is not so specific; sometimes I chew on the topic for days, trying to figure out what, exactly, in the prompt photo is gnawing at me, scratching for my attention.
I needed four days, but I figured it out, finally.
It’s the model sailboat…
…consider, please, the Good Ship Venus, shown here in East Boothbay, Maine in the very early 1900s.
This was the boat the Gould boys—the brothers Gardner, Richard, Allen, Prescott and Howard—sailed during their summer vacations, during the dog days of August away from the stifling heat of Boston and in the cool waters of Linekin Bay.
I’ve got several photos of Venus, each with two or three boys on board, but none taken close enough to distinguish individual faces…I’m pretty sure one is my great uncle Allen—something about the cut of his hair, the shape of his head—but I can’t be certain.
But the boat itself is very much like the model in the Sepia Saturday prompt! It’s similarly proportioned, has the same lovely lines, the same rigging.
Just a little bigger.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.
--Benjamin Franklin King, The Pessimist
Nothing to wear, indeed!
Just look at these 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. clothes for young boys: Wash suits of linen, sateen and chambray; striped and boxed waists (shirts) of linen lawn, percale, India and French linen…a veritable shopper’s delight of fashion!
Sailor suits were all the rage, and here’s a spiffy blue and white Pencil Striped Percale Wash Suit, made from an “extra heavy narrow blue and white striped percale,” with large sailor collar of blue sateen and a “white duck shield and monogram in the center.”
All this for 75 cents.
Or here’s another sailor suit, with a large collar “trimmed with a neat pattern of insertion” and a “cord effect pique shield.” The cuffs of the waist and pants (at the knees) have white pearl buttons and shaped sleeves. “A most handsome summer suit,” it reads.
This one’s selling for $1.00.
Some of these suits were made from “crash,” a cheaper fabric made from undyed yarns. Linen was used for the warp yarn, while the jute was woven in for filler – these suits were coarser, rougher; they probably itched like fury!
Suits of this crash fabric were, however, much cheaper—an entire suit might sell for only 35 cents.
Older boys had more sophisticated choices—a military style cut that was a step up from the sailor motif. “One of the handsomest white waists you can possibly get no matter what price you pay,” reads the copy for this white linen lawn waist. It had a Bedford cord effect, and was “trimmed with heavy ball pearl buttons and double cuffs.”
A steal at $1.00.
But here’s my favorite waist (and my favorite model): a Little Lord Fauntleroy number made from white lawn (linen) with “large sailor collar, neatly embroidered” and double cuffs.
I can’t believe any self-respecting boy would ever parade around in this number…it’s flouncy and fluffy and totally inappropriate for a game of Fox and Chase, or Base Ball, or Halley Over, or Hoops…
…but it’s only 50 cents.
I think I’d rather go naked.