Category Archives: Art

Wonderful Characters

It’s the time of year when literary critics tote up the outstanding reads of the previous year, as well as some of the failures. I’m never into ranking books, though I might at some point on this site share a few of those that really knocked me out in recent months. For now, I thought I’d recommend — strongly recommend — something you won’t find on any of the 2013 best books lists. Yet there’s nothing else remotely as charming as a title issued in 1869 in London under the byline of one J.C. Hotten.

title

The Book of Wonderful Characters, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Remarkable and Eccentric Persons in All Ages and Countries, now digitized, was the fruit of many years of enterprise for Hotten, who had begun publishing illustrated books about remarkable persons in 1788 and continued through the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Clark-The-English-Posture-Master-And-Uncle-Boris

More than 40 years after his death this volume was republished. Engravings illustrate some truly amazing characters, like a woman who lived upon the smell of flowers and a man who died at the age of 152.

pig face

Hotten begins “With a few Words upon Pig-faced Ladies,” then goes on to an “extraordinary Stone Eater” with a detour for fire eaters and knife swallowers. I think you might be glad to make the acquaintance of the Vain Dwarf or the Man Who Crucified Himself. Or a particularly creepy ghost.

ghostWe all still like to creep out, I think, we just do it via TV and movies rather than encyclopedic illustrated weirdfests. Maybe some genius will rise to the occasion and we’ll see a book like this in 2014.

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Mirror on the Wall

It was a tiny room in the middle of the vast museum. An intimate space.

We had already paid obeisance to the Neapolitan Christmas Tree, the eighteenth-century confection that materializes each year in the courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

tree

We had admired the intricate architecture of huts and sheepfolds leading up to the manger, finding ourselves in the swim of holiday museumgoers, amid the echo of chirping camera shutters under the towering ceiling. This was, as usual, an event – for forty years the terra cotta creche figurines have been set up here around the spruce, the gift of one collector, Loretta Hines Howard, who worked on assembling new configurations each year  along with her daughter, who since her mother’s death prepares the tree with her own daughter. It’s the world’s most heavenly dollhouse.

jesus

Now we were drifting. It was Boxing Day, and I felt I’d been whisked away on vacation to a foreign country, there was so little English being spoken by the crowds all around.

Wandering at the Met without a timetable, without any responsibilities. What will you discover?

6 Le Bonheur du jour ou Les Graces  la modeBarbier

This time, a tiny room, one filled with an exhibit devoted to our devotion to our good looks. Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table told the story of how we’ve organized the notion of the toilette over the many thousands of centuries, beginning, long before dressing tables proper, with ancient boxes. One, here, fashioned of terra cotta, one of ivory, one woven of basket reeds.

basket box

Most amazing, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom box of cedar and ebony – survived, I guess, in the dryness of the desert – the Cosmetic Box of the Cupbearer Kemeni, embellished by a picture of Kemeni himself presenting ointment to the Pharaoh Amenemhat IV. Twenty thousand years old.

1.-Cosmetic-box-of-the-Cupbearer-Kemeni

Inside were the cosmetics and salves and balms and oils the king would lavish on himself before heading out into the world to lead his people.

The exhibit featured a faded drawing by Chippendale himself of a Chippendale piece, from when the toilette evolved from a box to a table. Then it evolved again, to a table with a box, preferably a golden, bejeweled necessaire filled with miniature, personal grooming tools.

vanity box

We saw a young lady, one Mademoisellle Marsollier, holding such a box, getting ready to employ its implements – or perhaps she had just employed them, she looked so freshened up. That she and her mother were draped in fabric has something to do with the fact that the man of the household was an important textile merchant.

painting

Another kind of box entirely, a wig cabinet from 1685, had been crafted of oak, walnut, ebony, pewter, mother of pearl, horn, paint, and silver, with parts simulated to resemble tortoiseshell.

wig box

A gentleman would stash his brushes, combs, perfumed powder and pins inside. Other containers, works of art in themselves, held makeup – a lot of thought went into the packaging of kohl, which diluted with water was also used as a bug repellent.

kohl containers

What I felt most drawn to were the mirrors. The idea that we were looking into a mirror looked into by so many other faces over the centuries.

G J Mirror

Historic personages, like Madame de Pompadour, presiding over her deluxe expandable vanity. Madame de Pompadour’s servants, looking over her shoulders as they styled her fantastic locks. Or mirrored furniture that is really sculpture, designed by artists such as Armand-Albert Rateau in 1925. Armand-Albert Rateau 1925

Or Duncan Phyfe at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even the names of the woods he used are beautiful: satinwood, kingwood, mahogany, yellow poplar.

Duncan Phyfe

Or representing all of modernity, with the mirror tucked away neatly inside, like Raymond Lowey did it in 1969.

Loewy

But the more discreet hand mirrors impressed me more. Ancient, carved, heavy. Before silvered glass, mirrors were made of polished bronze, silver and iron. The one displayed from twelfth-century China could double as a serious doorstop.

I’ve always found it magical, the idea of life before mirrors as we know them now. Peering into a pool of water and seeing a rippling reflection, like Narcissus. Gazing into the eyes of Cupbearer Kemeni to powder your nose. The surfaces of hanging mirrors that have crackled are beautiful to me. As is the idea of having nothing to see of yourself but a faint, soft-focus, burnished image in metal. When I was growing up, my family had an ancient hand mirror in the house, a 300 year old Japanese work of art, bronze with a bamboo-bound handle.

japanese fan

You could see your image exactly as you wished to appear. There was a lot of that in a tiny room yesterday in a vast museum.

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From the Chimney With Care

They’re waiting. Waiting in plain sight, hung from the chimney with care, assembled of felt and yarn and sparkles. Everyone in the house for the holidays is an adult now, but still we hang our stockings.

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The practice of hanging a Christmas stocking… why hang a sock to collect treats, or put out a shoe as people do it in some cultures? I’ve never found a satisfactory answer, but I always associate it with the idea that your dog always wants to chew up your shoe, because he loves you and that’s the part of you that smells most like you.

O beseeching

He knows not what he does. That’s what I’ve always heard. So Santa is looking to find the part of you that is most you when he tracks down the stocking you hang with care.

1900 stocking

Auntie, my mother’s aunt, made her converted sweet potato shed in Greenfield, Tennessee into a cozy home. She had a tiny room that never failed to impress me with its huge stash of craft materials, from buttons to calico to giant skeins of acrylic yarn.

auntie-copy

Auntie knitted, she made lace, she crocheted, she sewed. She was simply a craft adept. And she loved kids, though she never had any of her own, referring to her home economics students at Dresden High School as my children. My Christmas stocking and those of my brothers were Auntie’s creations.

auntie stocking

Last year I learned to knit a sock. I thought I could use it as a Christmas stocking if it ever got long enough. It didn’t. It was orange anyway. Luckily I still have my old beauty from Auntie.

snoman

For some reason people have competed over the years to set a record for the biggest Christmas stocking. That seems odd to me, as a Christmas stocking is by nature pleasantly ordinary of stature, somewhat roomier than an actual sock that fits your foot but no larger as that would be somehow… greedy. One time recently The Children’s Society in London organized a stocking of 6,000 squares of red knitting, as long as three doubledecker buses. I hear that it weighed the equivalent of five reindeer and bulged with with toys for the poor.

Christmas_Full_Stockings_Tidbits_Freebie

If you have a stocking that is yours and has always been yours, you are lucky. A personal stocking. Gil’s stocking reverted back to him somewhere along the way, emerging out of the Wisconsin Christmas Box, perhaps when someone noticed he was on the verge of entering a second childhood and needed all the treats he could get. He also inherited the Christmas ornaments his mother made for him, one for every year of his young life. Most of them seem to be assembled of toothpicks in some form or another.

gil ornament

Gil was the youngest of five, and that made it important that the old lady brought in to produce his stocking should knit the letters of his name in a bold block print around the top edge. He wanted his fair share of candy on Christmas morning.

gil stocking

Gil remembers the fascination he felt for the tiny plastic gewgaws that decorated his stocking.

gil stocking cu

The little drummer boy with his big sisters in this 1890 shot could actually be Gil.

1890-xmas

Maud must have been around three when I decided to make her a personalized stocking. I remember carefully picking out the supplies at a crafts store near her grandparents’ house, where we were staying for the holidays. With enough glue, red, white and green felt and some pompoms would surely make something. And it did.

maud stocking

For some reason a curious mouse found its way onto the toe – maybe I was thinking of the Nutcracker.  The stocking had hearts and bow-tied presents and glitter, plus the letters of her name, all the trimmings my little sprite would want to see hanging near the fireplace. The girl herself looked all grown up. It was as if I was looking into the future. The stocking, I knew, would be a keeper.

hope your stocking

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A Grimm Tale

Recently I checked out my reader reviews for The Orphanmaster – not always a good thing for a writer to do, but Amazon makes it so easy – and after the wonderful, wonderful, wonderfuls I was stopped short by this extremely erudite criticism: Yick. One of my readers actually had to put the book down and erase it from her e-reader, she was so offended by the novel’s instances of violence and depravity.

Alright, you got me. Loving, brave Blandine and valiant, dashing Drummond and adorable little Sabine aren’t the only beings in the story. There are bogeymen lurking in the New Amsterdam shadows, crouching in the forest, maybe even hiding somewhere in your house, perhaps inside the groot kamer itself.

O-Master P-Back Cover

No one in The Orphanmaster is entirely safe. It’s our job (through the actions of the characters we adopt as our totems) to crush those towering monsters and let the light shine in for another day. There’s a crack in everything, wrote Leonard Cohen, That’s how the light gets in.

Why do some writers, like me, want to show the monsters, expose them, and crush them? Why are some people drawn to a TV gorefest like The Walking Dead? I know I am. Monsters are with us at the core of our psyches. A lot of viewers are eating up the NBC prime time show Grimm, which puts a procedural spin on nailing fairy-tale creatures.

grimm

It’s actually amazing that we manage to find anything remotely more interesting to tell stories about.

Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. This literary landmark, originally titled Children’s and Household Tales, first appeared in Germany on December 20th, 1812 – just in time for Christmas shoppers, right?

Grimm's_Kinder-_und_Hausmärchen,_Erster_Theil_(1812).cover

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were not the first to publish fairy tales, but their versions enshrined the “folk” aspect of the material – the down and dirty part, the cruelty, the yick factor. The brothers went out to the countryside and collected folk tales from peasants, unsanitized, terrifying and utterly compelling.

Arthur-Rackham-Grimm-Fairy-Tales

Many of the details in the original versions of the stories were more ghastly than those we recognize from Disney – for one minor example, in the Grimms’ Cinderella, two heavenly doves help the heroine get dressed for the big ball in a gold dress and slippers – then fly down to peck out the eyeballs of the evil stepsisters.

Cinderella-(Cinderella_III)

Yick. But brilliant. The tales have found their way into 160 languages in the last 200 years. A recent translation of 50 of them by children’s writer Philip Pullman manages to be as elegant as it is gory. As far as I know, there is no witika in Grimm, no towering, green-skinned, long-fanged, cannabilistic spirit of the woods such as the being that torments 1663 Manhattan in The Orphanmaster.

wendigo_char_c1

Yick. Yum.

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Desert Desperados

My favorite blogger-in-arms Peter Zimmerman is tall, lean, sun-loving and more than occasionally prickly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So I knew that when he wanted to write about the saguaro there would be no better perspective on the cactus.

pic1Hard to believe [he writes] that it’s been 43 years since I saw my first saguaro. I was twelve years old at the time that the Zimmerman family took a whirlwind trip “out West.” We flew to Colorado Springs and, in a packed rental car, by way of the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and Santa Barbara, ended up in L.A., where we took in a Supremes concert at Disneyland!

They don’t call it a Cereus giganteus for nothing. Saguaros can grow as tall as 70 feet.
bird1(woodpecker)
Saguaros have a relatively long life span. They may grow their first side arm at anywhere from 50 to 75 years of age (some lives to be 150 years old), but some never grow one at all. A saguaro without arms is called a spear.
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The rare crested saguaro is perhaps the result of a genetic mutation, or lightning, or freezing weather. Scientists don’t know.
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As a result of their formidable height, it’s very hard to take a picture of a saguaro bloom, located on the top of this stately if comical-looking cactus. Plus they tend to bloom at night.
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I once spent the better half of an afternoon driving the mountainous loop road at Saguaro National Monument, trying in vain to take a picture of a bloom. Try shooting down on a 30-foot-tall plant. I mean, cereus-ly. But elsewhere, I succeeded!
saguaro in bloom
Saguaros are pollinated by bats, primarily the lesser long-nosed variety.
They come in all shapes and forms.
allshapes
Like other cacti, saguaros are water hoarders. Whenever it rains, they soak up the rainwater. The cactus will visibly expand. It conserves the water and slowly consumes it.
Sag. Natl park3

The Tohono O’odham tribes celebrate the beginning of their summer growing season with a ceremony using a fermented drink made from the bright red fruit to summon rains, vital for the crops.

indians
They used the ribs — the skeleton — for building houses. The Seri people of northwestern Mexico used the plant which they call mojépe for a number of purposes.Birds live inside holes in saguaros.
bird3(owelet)
The saguaro has appeared in many Westerns, especially at Monument Valley. Commercially, the saguaro’s silhouette is found on the label of Old El Paso brand products. Old-timey cartoonist Reg Manning made his bread and butter drawing pictures of cacti.manning

His most famous book is What Kind of Cactus Izzat?

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Ever Abustle

What exactly was the Victorian bustle, and why did it become a fashion staple?

1885_lmi

In Savage Girl, the main character follows a trajectory of fashion changes, from a threadbare shift to simple girlish day dresses to glamorous evening wear, including what is generally thought to be the ball gown of the century. She is not limited by a budget, so she can indulge in the most spectacular attire available, with outfits like the fashion plates that follow. When I wrote about Savage Girl, these inspired me.

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The bustle, the structured, extended back of the dress, derived from the hoop skirt, or cage crinoline, which derived from the padded petticoat of the mid-19th century.

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All of these materialized out of  earlier attempts to widen the bell of the skirt. Panniers, for example. Made of linen and baleen, they sat at the waist and held suspended tapes of cane, metal or whalebone that gave the dress an exaggerated shape.

panniers

A set of panniers was also handy if you needed to rest your tea cup for a second to blow your nose.

panniers dress

Panniers grew trendy in the middle of the 18th century. It was said that people had to have the doorframes in their houses enlarged so that women could make their way from room to room.

There were many flouncy permutations of the skirt between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, most having to do with how many layers of petticoats you could afford – or manage to carry as you made your ladylike way along.

Consuelo_Vanderbilt3

With a bustle, a contraption of horsehair and metal did the heavy lifting. The bodice would be delicate and would end at the close-fitted waist. The voluminous fabric of the skirt might be pulled up in back with a large decorative bow. Eventually the bodice extended down in the form-fitting style known as the cuirasse.

cuirasse

Another variant, the polonaise, cascaded down the back in ruffles,

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Trimmings were crucial, the gaudier the better. Nineteenth century men made fortunes off of selling ribbons.

1875-3A lot of these decorations were arranged on a horizontal axis. Petticoats helped lift the train off the muck of New York streets. Imagine threading your way across a busy avenue filled ankle deep in horse manure.

But why, why the bustle? Where did it come from, this emphasis on a ladylike woman’s posterior?

One phenomenon not long before the bustle’s popularity that I find interesting is that of the Hottentot Venus, a South African slave named Saartjie Baartman who was taken from her home and displayed at London and Paris freak shows from 1810 to 1815.

hottentot3

People were wild for her, paying two shillings apiece to gaze upon her steatopygian form in wonder. Wild, she was called, savage. Hers was a tragic story; five years after her arrival in Europe, she died.

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But it wasn’t long after her whirlwind tour that the bustle came in a la mode for decidedly un-Hottentot ladies.

The accentuation of the inherently rounded female form goes back many centuries. Consider these upper paleolithic carvings.

venusfigs upper paleolithic

In the Cyclades, a group of thirty small islands that encircle the sacred island of Delos in the southwestern Aegean figurines survive that show a similar profile.

cycladic venus figure 4,000 bc

I am sure the female models upon whom these marble figurines were based never saw a dress of any kind, let alone a crinoline or a ball gown.

bustle

But look at the simplest Cycladic sculpture and tell me you can’t imagine it a Victorian dressmaker’s dummy. It wouldn’t even need a horsehair bustle.

Cycladic 1

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The Calico War

A dispatch from guest post-er Peter Zimmerman.

In the 1840s, a band of Calico Indians wrought havoc in Delaware County and probably enjoyed doing so. They were based in the sleepy hamlet of Bovina Center, New York, where I lived last summer for a spell, as well the neighboring communities of Roxbury, Andes, and Kortright. About ten miles east of Delhi, it’s been described as a happy alternative to congestion and screeching traffic.

Bovina LEANING FOREST

The name Bovina was suggested by one General Erastus Root, who noted the area’s fitness for grazing.

Today, I’d venture a guess that there are more dairy cows than human inhabitants.

 Bovina today 2

The Calico Indians were known to be flamboyant dressers. Typically they wore calico longshirts belted at the waist, red flannel pantaloons, sheepskin masks with a fringe around the neck, and coarse animal hair for a beard. The masks were ornamented with fabric flowers, faded blue ribbons, mesh over the eye holes, and goatees, sideburns, and eyebrows made from fur.

 Calico 1

At the pow-wow among the grotesque
The chief wore a striped calico young lady’s dress…

Other variations: horns of leather, wolf-like snouts, plumes of horse hair, tassels hanging from pointed ears, and “hard fierce animal-like mouths.” When on the warpath, they blew tin horns, brandished knives, and carried pitchforks and clubs.

Calico 3

The thing is, the Calico Indians were not the Delaware or the Lenape. In fact, they weren’t Native Americans at all. Rather, the group was comprised of farmers, many in their teens, who, inspired by the Boston Tea Party, were protesting the patroonship system, created in the 1660s when the Dutch ruled New York.  Similar to sharecroppers, they were fighting for the right to buy their own land. According to Henry Christman’s Tin Horns and Calico, “a few families, intricately intermarried, controlled the destinies of three hundred thousand people and ruled in almost kingly splendor near two million acres of land.”

Calico 2

Known as the Anti-Rent War, this all took place for a few years in the 1840s, and in the end, the farmers won: the State of New York abolished “all feudal tenures of every description, with all their incidents,” declaring that “no lease or grant of agricultural land for a longer period than 12 years hereafter made, in which shall be reserved any rent or services of any kind, shall be valid.”

Although the Calico Indians certainly looked nothing like the Delaware or Lenape, their fierce loyalty and ability to subsume their individuality to work and think as a group were very tribe-like.

Oddly enough, no one has ever found any of these clothes and gear, which begs the question, is it all just a big hoax?

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Bit by Bit

Stitch after stitch. The easiest in knitting is the knit stitch, worked over and over, row after row, dignified by its pattern name the garter stitch. Time honored and simple, it’s the foundation of sweaters and scarves all around the world. I man the couch (woman the couch?), man up (woman up?) to knit stitch after stitch, a surprise length of comfort for someone who deserves every form of it.

garter

Song after song. Pandora seems to have decided that Ella, Aretha and Etta, with a sprinkling of Emmy Lou Harris, are the mainstays of my acoustic pantheon. Which is fine, as long as Etta James sings Just a Little Bit.

I don’t want much,

I just want a little bit

I don’t want it all babe

I just want a little bit

Just a teeny weeny bit, just a itty bitty bit of your love

Flake by flake. The snowstorm hits. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches, wrote E.E. Cummings. That’s the twisted magic of a white winter, after all, the stuff is so impersonal, impervious, and yet we extrapolate all soft and fuzzy feelings from it. Since I was a child I’ve made snow cream: put out a pot and collect the clean flakes, then mix the white stuff with milk, sugar and vanilla for a wintry treat that’s better than ice cream, especially if you’re a red-cheeked little kid.

Tweet by tweet. You stretch your brain a little and it keeps you young. That’s how it is with me and Twitter, which I’ve been dipping a toe into and coming up sometimes with a sparkly pedicure and sometimes a crab bite. Stephen King just opened a Twitter account, got twenty thousand followers instantly. “On Twitter at last,” he offered, not fully utilizing his 140 characters, “and can’t think of a thing to say. Some writer I turned out to be.” But it all comes down less to what you have to say than to the links, one by one, you make with other people. So follow me. Or at least tweet at me, @jeanczimmerman. And while you’re at it, tweet at Stephen.

Note by note. So much of publishing books is about the relationships with people you have along the way – writers and editors, writers and bookstore people. As an author you’re a cog in a bigger, complicated machine, one whose purpose is to put great books in the hands of eager readers. So I’m writing little remember-me’s to all the friendly, supportive booksellers I met while touring with The Orphanmaster. Letting people know about Savage Girl, that it’s coming out in March, and to look for it. Feral children have always fascinated me, I’m telling booksellers.

feral child

– but in NYC, in a world of Gilded Age opulence? An irresistable mashup.

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I hope you fall for my Savage Girl, I’m telling my bookseller friends.

And little by little. The bones in my left foot are healing but won’t withstand an ounce of pressure or weight. It’s a good place to be, my couch, with my foot on a pillow, Etta on the box, a rollerball pen in my hand, knitting bag by my side, a fire in the hearth and a curtain of snow out the window. Bit by bit we move along, and today that’s just about right.

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To the Lighthouse

Recently I visited the Saugerties Lighthouse, a time-worn red brick structure that has stood just off the shore of the Hudson at the mouth of Esopus Creek since 1869. It replaced the original fire-decimated one built in 1835 — engraved by William Wade, who produced a remarkable picture of the length of the Hudson from New York to Albany.

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Its grand days past, its light automated, the Saugerties Lighthouse fell into disuse in the 1950s but was restored and put on the National Register of Historical Places in 1979. In 1990 it was officially recommissioned with a solar-powered beacon.

Saugerties Lighthouse

Most amazing, it’s the only lighthouse along the river that also serves as a bed and breakfast. If you’re lucky enough to book a spot, you can fall asleep listening to the Hudson’s waves slap against the structure’s massive, circular stone base.

When we visited, we wound down half a mile along the shore, through wetlands and over wooden bridges, to get to the jetty that led out to the lighthouse. Water chestnut pods lay at our feet in abundance, drifts of them. like the black and spiny ectoskeletons of tiny prehistoric monsters,.

chestnut

It was a damp day, chilly and foggy. The river spread out all around.

misty Hudson

I used to live along the same stretch of river as the lighthouse, a half hour further south, in Ulster Park. In the middle of an apple orchard. The farmer who owned the trees favored McIntosh apples but there were a few stretches of the storied Ida Reds, a deep crimson on the outside with snow-white meat. As good in the hand as they were for the pie. The arthritic limbs of the trees were probably forty or fifty years old and stood massed in winter under a hush of snow that was a kind of bookend to the white pink blossoms of early spring. The Hudson Valley had been a majestic apple growing region for hundreds of years.

idared

We would walk down a winding hill along River Road to the beach on the Hudson and collect water chestnut pods, strewn here across the mud flats as they cover the beach at Saugerties. It was said that the bay at Esopus once was meadow, grazed by cows. Cows in the river. Imagine. There was a lighthouse, the Esopus Lighthouse, that was distinguished by the image of a cat in one window.

These lighthouses are concrete evidence of a much different time on the river. They guarded against wrecks when Kingston became a bustling riverport in the nineteenth century. Kingston had its own lighthouse since 1837; one of its first keepers was a woman named Catherine Murdock. She stayed in service for 50 years.

RONDOUT

In 1826, lighthouses started going up along the river. Eventually there were 14. Today, conservationists have preserved seven. The most famous perhaps, featured in a children’s book, is the little red lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge, which was deactivated when the blazing lights of the span made it superfluous in 1947 but can still be visited. Farther north are the 1883 Lighthouse at Sleepy Hollow, the oldest one, at Stony Point, the Esopus Lighthouse and the one at the Rondout in Kingston. The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse farther north has been guiding ships safely since 1874. Its fog bell is one of the last remaining on the river.

lighthouse reflection

I wass mostly silent at Saugerties Lighthouse when we visited. The tides tossed up mysterious objects.

beachcomber Pete

Sometimes you can find a kind of conglomerate of pulverized shells (probably clam) and mud that hardens into a rock, similar to what is called coquina on the beaches of St. Augustine, Florida, that the Spanish built forts out of.

coquina

If you get to stay overnight at the Saugerties Lighthouse, you can do some beachcombing after your coffee in the morning.

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Of Hand Muffs and Weather Masks

Wenceslas Hollar, the finest etcher and printmaker of the seventeenth century, had a thing about fur hand muffs. He had nearly 3,000 prints to his credit, having fled war-torn central Europe for England in 1636 under the patronage of the Earl of Arundel.

sun expelling mask

The extremely fashionable London lady in Hollar’s “Winter” Dress from 1643-44, in the collection of the British Museum, sports a voluptuous muff and is draped in furs besides, but perhaps the most curious thing about her is her facial accoutrement. Beneath the image runs the legend:

The cold, not cruelty makes her wear

In Winter, furs and Wild beasts hair

For a smoother skin at night,

Embrace her with more delight.

She wears what was called a sun-expelling mask, intended to protect her “smoother skin” from the elements.

In America, Dutch settler Adriaen Van der Donck deemed the lustrous coat of the black bear “proper for muffs.”

Fox or mink would do as well.

Another sun expelling mask.

sun expelling 2

In The Orphanmaster, Blandine and Drummond stand on the New Bridge overlooking the East River one frosty morning, each of them with their hands shoved into their muffs – fashionable men made them part of their wardrobes just as women did.

Another woman by Hollar, without mask, looks as though she is wearing her overwarm muff inside.

another hollar muff

Hollar was so infatuated with fur hand muffs that he frequently made them the sleek stars of his work, leaving human subjects out in the cold. These are just a few. The University of Toronto has more in an in-depth Hollar digital collection.

hollar muff

Wouldn’t you like to stick your cold hands in one of these?

hollar muffs 1

Piles of luxurious fur.

hollar muffs 2

Hollar was in London during the Great Fire of 1666. His scenes of the city after the conflagration are amazing. His skills were all the more incredible given an infirmity — Hollar was almost blind in one eye. You feel in these images though that as important to him was his sense of touch.

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Some Odd Fellows

A guest post from writer Peter Zimmerman:
A couple of weeks ago I moved into an old brick building circa 1880.
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It’s in one of those little sleepy Hudson River valley towns not far from where Rip Van Winkle dozed off…….
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It turns out that it used to be an Odd Fellows Hall. Over the past 16 months I have lived in four different houses and apartments, in three different counties — and it feels like the Odd Fellows have been following me around, wherever I go!
Apparently the Odd Fellows used to meet in the fourth floor of the building. Having often worn the lampshade on my head, I’d like to become an Odd Fellow, officially, but Jerry says they’re not accepting new members.
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Many of the Odd Fellows are literally dying out. Hardly any of them are my side of 80.
This fraternal organization has existed since 14th-century England — some date it back to the Sixth Century. It spread to America in the 1700s. Like the better-known Elks, Moose, and Masons, they have many secret beliefs and customs. Aside from just being Odd Fellows, their primary purpose is raising money for various charities.
Here’s one of their “degree charts.”
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The Order is also known as “The Three Link Fraternity”, referring to the Order’s “Triple Links” logo – three links contain the letters F, L and T, (Friendship, Love and Truth).
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You can buy antique Odd Fellows clothing and gear from eBay, some of it for surprisingly cheap.
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A ceremonial collar…
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… and ceremonial club
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A belt watch.
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Spiked helmet hat.
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A fraternal mask.
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The name “Odd Fellows” arose because, in England’s smaller towns and villages, there were too few Fellows in the same trade to form a local Guild. The Fellows from a number of trades therefore joined together to form a local Guild of Fellows from an assortment of different trades, the Odd Fellows.
Famous Odd Fellows have included King George IV, Winston Churchill, Levi and Matilda Stanley — King and Queen of the Gypsies — and George Harrison’s and Ringo Starr’s fathers.

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Hudson River Haunts and Hustlings

For my whole life I’ve lived up and down the Hudson River, in Hastings, in Ulster Park, in Ossining. New York City crouches on its shoreline, and I lived there for twenty years. The Hudson happens to be my favorite river in the world – although to be precise it is an estuary.

I’ve written about its history, in both nonfiction and fiction — about the rubble-stone house of Margaret Hardenbroeck, in Yonkers, about Blandine berry-picking on a Manhattan bluff, and other people whose lives I placed against this magical backdrop. But I haven’t just told stories about a place. I’ve lived it.

I was thinking about some of the things I’ve actually done along the Hudson’s reaches. What helped me in my imaginings. How the Hudson Valley has informed my life.

I’ve taken a canoe out through ancient marshes at the river’s edge. Had picnics along its shores. Dined in fine restaurants. Rode a bike. Collected beach glass.

sea-glass-on-the-beach

Kissed. Thrown sticks for a swimming dog. Gone swimming myself. Taken the train, that glorious route down the river’s eastern flank. Snoozed on that train and missed my stop.

Watched fisherman pull out catfish. Careened along the Henry Hudson Parkway above the river in a series of second-hand cars. Visited a yacht house in winter, warmed by a wood stove. Hitched a ride on a tugboat.

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Walked the George Washington Bridge–it sways terrifically. Learned to hula hoop.

Peter hula

Heard blasting rock and roll concerts on ancient piers. Wandered a factory ruin from the nineteenth century. Did I mention throwing a stick for the best cattle dog in America?

Sugar

Saw fireworks explode up from every little Catskills town down the river’s length one Fourth of July. We sat on an escarpment far, far above the river coursing below.

As an adolescent, I read classic books in a library overlooking the water.

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Later, bought paperbacks at library sales. Talked about my own books in library all-purpose rooms.

Watched my three-year-old get gleefully wet under a sprinkler at a city park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Devoured garlicky Dominican mofungo at a lunch counter a block from the water in Sleepy Hollow.

Hiked the Breakneck Ridge Trail, which rises 1,250 feet in a three-quarter mile stretch and hovers over the river as it winds. Experienced vertigo and rapture at one and the same time.

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Admired thousands of sunsets.

Praised the mighty Palisades. Daydreamed. Considered the water’s surface, olive green, deep black, cobalt, covered in crashed-together ice floes. Seen eagles ride the ice floes (an untruth – I’ve always wanted to, it’s in my bucket, but I never have managed it).

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Admired art on walls with river views. Experienced the unicorn tapestries, in awe. Taught children to make art. Touched cattails. Bought hanging plants from Garden Club ladies. Watched my teenager kill it in soccer games on a field watched over by the Palisades. Stood on the porch of Washington Irving’s stucco cottage, Sunnyside, imagining the 1840s river the way he must have seen it, appalled when the railroad went through.

sunnyside_and_hudson-300x225Skipped stones, clumsily. Never could master that. Threw a stick for a dog. Considered the white-tailed deer swimming across to New Jersey – diaries describe the phenomenon in the seventeenth century. A long time back, but a drop in the bucket for the old, bountiful Hudson.

What have you done along the Hudson–or your own personal favorite river? Leave a comment, will you?

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The Spirit of Electricity

I finally saw “The Spirit of Electricity,” the costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II at an outrageous fancy dress party she gave with her railroad tycoon husband that was one of the highlights of the Gilded Age in New York City. Textiles perish, and you don’t often get to see the famous gowns of the past. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always going to be a static image on a photo card, fetching but more than a little cracked.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Born Alva Erskine Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt orchestrated the ball in 1883 to christen the new lodgings erected for the couple at 1 West 57th Street. Theirs was the largest house ever built in Manhattan. In staging one of the most elaborate balls of the time, Alva assured the Vanderbilt family a perpetual place on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s social elite.

The New York Times covered the party perhaps less objectively than it would today. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years,” read the article that ran the day after, on March 27th. “Since the announcement that it would take place…scarcely anything else has been talked about. It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head. It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observance of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts.”

In advance of the evening, quadrilles were relentlessly practiced, costumes were tailored, quantities of hair powder were  laid in. The party was a showstopper. The Times reporter exclaimed about the “garden in the forest” where guests took their supper, and the phalanx of cops that kept gawkers at bay outside the mansion as carriages began to arrive after 10:30 or so. We have no pictures of the hordes with their noses pressed up against the windows, but the fashionables inside had their images captured for posterity by society photographers.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard

Each guest’s getup was wilder than the next.

Mr. Isaac Bell

Jesters, Romams, Mary Antoinette, the Four Seasons – it was a motley group.

Mrs. Arthur Paget

I thought that the souvenir photos were all that remained of the event.

Then I visited Gilded New York, an exhibit that is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The show includes the decorative arts, some paintings and some fashion. Yes, the end of the nineteenth century is big in Manhattan at the moment, with this enterprise and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at the New-York Historical Society. If you are a fan of ostentation, now is the time to put aside workaday worries and immerse yourself in a level of excess that is hard to fathom today.

The items on display were those that would have figured big in ball culture. Images of the grand Fifth Avenue houses set the stage, most long torn down, commissioned for the new industrial elites. By 1892, 27% of the nation’s millionaires lived in New York City, more than 1,100 of them.

Many of their mansions, like the Vanderbilt house, had a castle-like, European flavor. The structure where the 1883 ball took place was a model for the immense confection inhabited by the Delegate family in Savage Girl.

Vanderbilt home

With their newfound wealth, the millionaires bought jewelry at Tiffany, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But they also went to Tiffany for other accessories, like this card case made of frog leather in 1900.

frog case

They had a taste for the over the top, like a decanter and cup fabricated of Murano Glass.

Murano glass

Long kid gloves were a necessity for a ball-going lady.

kid gloves

When they were feeling rustic they might show off a different style of ware, say the one decorated with an alligator, snake and lizard – this one belonged to Montana copper baron William Clark, one of the Fifth Avenue denizens.

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All, it seemed, was glossy, elegant, costly. You can read the plush lifestyle in the portraiture, like the depiction of Helen Virginia Sands at age 19, shortly before her marriage to a successful Wall Street trader.

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What I found most affecting, though, was the golden silk gown, “The Spirit of Electricity,” here in front of me, for real. It had emerged from the black-and-white photo card. Heavily embroidered in beaten gilt, it had silver tinsel filaments that lifted like small wings above the shoulders. Imported, of course, from Worth in Paris.

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That’s a Herter Company jewelry cabinet in the background, for you Herter furniture fans. The dress survived because it was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter Countess Laszlo Szechenyi (neé Gladys Vanderbilt).

More affecting, even, the yellow silk stockings and pumps that Alva wore with the fancy gown.

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This opulence of the distant past was real, something I could almost touch.

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Victorians Striking a Maternal Pose

The photos published in The Guardian today haunt me.

A series of Victorian babies, each one posed against a fabric-draped… mother. They’re from a new book called The Hidden Mother by Linda Fregni Nagler, which archives 1,002 photographs, daguerreotypes and tintypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards.

Mother and baby portrait

As a reporter describes it, the requirements of primitive photography mandated extra care in posing children: “A 19th-century parent would have to dress the baby in a starchy gown, transport it and perhaps its siblings to the nearest photographer’s studio as early in the morning as possible, climb several flights of stairs to the skylit attic, arrange the family group against the studio backdrop, get everyone to remain completely still for 30 seconds or so, part with a large chunk of money, and then wait several days for the copies to be finished, before sending them round to family and friends as calling cards, or pasting them into albums.”

Mother and baby portrait

Sound difficult? With long exposure times, the only way to get the baby to hold still was for the mother to grip it in her hands.

Mother and baby portrait

Apparently photography was becoming an acceptable profession for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. The pictures captured by female photographers were no cheerier than those taken by men. Laughing messed with the shutter speed. A dose of opium often did the trick in keeping the subject still if dulled.

You have to wonder about the woman concealed beneath the textile. Was the mother shushing her baby, cooing to it, singing lullabyes? It must have been stuffy in her confinement, and she had no idea what the outcome would be. But she was fierce in her dedication to getting an image of her infant, a keepsake, the face and form of her beloved. Miraculously two dimensional. And always quiet and still.

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Thank You for Reading

I am thankful.

This is a post about this blog.

At Thanksgiving, in a lot of families, a blessing is performed before the turkey comes on in its golden, crispy glory. The blessing consists of going around the table with every guest sharing some thing they are especially grateful for. On the occasions I’ve taken part in this ritual, I’ve sometimes had to squelch the urge to say something slightly comical or snarky. I don’t know why, perhaps because the whole thing seemed so self serious. Real thanks seem quieter, more internal, perhaps.

Now, with a few days before us until we’ll be stuffed with stuffing, with a clear head, I want to be serious.

I am grateful, deeply grateful, to those of you who read this blog.

When people ask what my site is all about, I say different things. It’s called Blog Cabin, and it’s about living in a circa 1800 home in a thoroughly modern world, and the time travel that allows for. Sometimes I call it a personal magazine. A diary. A cultural commentary. It’s about the past as a living, breathing entity. All about history and art and nature and literature… An author blog, as I have one novel about to come out and one just in the rearview.

What it really is, is playtime. Writing books, of course, is hard work. (If you’re doing it right.) Writing this blog has given me a chance to dabble in the things that absorb me in my book writing life, but on a more finite scale, with pleasure at the foremost – yes, history and art and nature and literature and… a pogo stick championship?

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It was hot July and the contestants soared. You could taste the adrenaline.

Writing for you has given me a reason to go on adventures that you might not take, even if you had the chance. Or perhaps you would, like my search for an infant saguaro cactus at a botanical garden in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a beaming guide, but you couldn’t get there that day.

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I’ve taken myself to a Victorian waltz class and tea.

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To a Broadway disco-play, and to a euphoria-inducing Brahms recital. And to a dramatic dance performance en plein air, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

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I’ve plumbed the depths of the 20-something psyche, because I have a young adult close to my heart. Instagramming is their life.

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They’re fascinating animals, as are husbands, and mine hitchhikes along with me from time to time.

As are dogs. Mine is inscrutable, but adds flavor to the mix.

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And writers.  I’ve loved writing about Gertrude Stein.

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I’ve shared many favorite recipes, like the one for Marcella Hazan’s braised pork in milk.

Observed motorcycle pirates on the loose in NYC. With some history about pirates intertwined, of course.

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A rowdy pig festival in upstate New York.

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Explored a local farm on an enchanted evening, just as dusk fell.

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Learned about the power of graffiti at the late, great 5Pointz. Got my leg cast tagged there, too.

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And witnessed the unlikely beauties of slime mold in a pristine nature preserve.

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It’s been my pleasure to gather these treasures and offer them to you, and your great generosity has been receiving them from me. So thank you. I’m looking forward to many more adventures.

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