Category Archives: Fashion

The Victorian Debut

The process of achieving a societal debut in the late nineteenth century was one in which eighteen-year-olds got their first taste of all the splendour that money could buy.

1894 deb

Yet at the same time, the coming out process was one that was as constricting as it was exhilarating. The art of coming out was demanding, an experience that was rigorous to a degree the privileged debutante had not previously experienced. The world of the “fashionables” might be exceedingly comfortable, but it was also fraught with potential dangers of social missteps, especially when it comes to expectations for adolescent girls as they approached maturity.

1851 deb

The culture of the a debutante first originated in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the second half of the 16th century, when she began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria created the ritual we think of today, with girls dressed in white and the official bow called a “curtsey.” It soon spread to America.

In Victorian days, young girls were kept closely guarded at home throughout their adolescence.

minturn girls

Their debut indicated that they were now officially allowed to come out from under their parents’ close guardianship and begin the rituals of courtship. Not only that, though, they were being ushered into a new status as ladies, on a par with some of the notable creatures of the age.

adelaide frick

The grand dames of society banded together when a girl reached what was considered a marriagable age to help usher her into a new social status. The rituals of this transition were female-centric, self-absorbed.


There was certainly some power in the process for women, as they created and enforced the rules. But the learning curve for the debutante was steep and it was easy to make mistakes.

There was shopping for a proper wardrobe, to begin with. Godey’s magazine was the Vogue of the day; girls and women perused it to order items to suit their more grown-up status.

Godey's 1867New dresses were a requisite.

1873 NY Fashions

Not only fancy gowns, but “everyday” items.

1870 everyday dresses

New hats were a vital fashion component.


Dance lessons ensured that the debutante would be able to hold her own with the worthies of the day when she was “out” and socializing. Complex steps posed difficulties and required hours of practice, usually at special schools.

Late afternoon teas  and luncheons in private dwellings brought the debutante together with society ladies she was meant to impress. Throughout, lessons were imparted from mothers to daughters, warnings about indecorous behavior, inappropriate dress. It was all about learning the proper way to act.

A crucial part of the process was the ritualized social visit known as calling. Everyone knew that formal calls were to take place for precisely 15 minutes between 3 and 5:00. One woman would drop her card at another’s house to let her know when she would be at home to receive visitors. The card had her name inscribed upon it, and the debutante’s name would be added to it. It wasn’t unknown to keep a visiting list of over 500 names.


Then came the ball. A grand reception that brought together a group of debutantes with young men their age and other, more mature members of high society, it took place at some point over the winter months. The coming out ball was commonly held in a public venue like Delmonico’s restaurant, the most swellegant spot of the age, located on 26th Street opposite Madison Park, which had the facilities to accomodate a large number of guests.


The fashions were extraordinary. The finest gowns came from Worth in Paris.

1861 Worth and Bobergh gown

A French manual from the 1880s described societal expectations for women’s formal dress:

For the ladies, a light-coloured gown with a décolleté revealing the shoulders and arms, very long gloves and light pumps. They must carry in one hand a fan made from ivory or mother-of-pearl and also have their dance card. Many ladies prefer, as do I, a bodice in a shallow square-cut or heart-shape to a very décolleté gown . Sometimes the exposed neckline and tops of the arms are covered with gauze or tulle.


The hair must be put up, preferably with jewels.


The fan was indispensable element of ladies’ finery– closed, open or fluttering, it could reveal a refusal, interest or excitement.


While married women could dress themselves in brightly colored gowns, lavish hairdos and gaudy accessories, young ladies being presented to society had to dress modestly. White symbolized their purity.


One former debutante recalled the gown she wore, made of

white chiffon over white satin and with the huge puffed sleeves of the period. From the left shoulder to the right side of the waist there was a white velvet ribbon about three inches wide, ending in a knot at the shoulder. There was a bunch of white heather by the knot and some more around the skirt, about half way up. The skirt was down on the floor, was very full and had a small train, enough to have to be held up when dancing, and enough to make a modern dancer wild.

In terms of their attire, men were the backdrop to the ladies’ finery. They were to wear a black tailcoat with white tie, black trousers and polished shoes. It was both exciting and terrifying for girls to experience the male gaze in the pressure cooker of the ballroom.

Brooding guy

It could be uncomfortable.  Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciusness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her

the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.

At the ball, ladies awaited the invitation of a gentleman to dance, but he was supposed to note her recognition before approaching her. The chaperone, usually the mother, hovered nearby. Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.

ball 1860s

Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.

Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.


The cotillion, or german, was a regular feature, and involved a kind of parade of set figures, gestures and steps, all well rehearsed in advanced. Dancing would take place until midnight, when a supper would be served, then the cotillion would resume.

The debutante’s symbolic responsibilities crescendoed at the ball. She stood to the side of her mother as guests entered so that she could be presented to her elders. Here she was, finally, the product of her culture’s teachings. She stood at the precipice of a new role, one that was the inherent goal of the coming out process: to marry brilliantly and embark upon a lovely family.

gilded age family

She was moving from the societal constrictions of her father’s house to her husband’s house, with a brief, glorious moment in between as a model debutante.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Savage Girl

The Mansions of Fifth Avenue

[I will be adding essays in upcoming days under the Savage Girl tab on this site. Here is the first.]

It took two hundred years for the well to do of Manhattan to migrate uptown from the foot of the island to frontier of 59th Street, and even then they weren’t completely sure that living so far uptown was the proper thing to do.

In the beginning, in the mid-seventeenth century, when settlement began, wealthy residents of New Amsterdam kept neat homes of brick and wood.

nieuw amsterdam

The only residence approaching grandeur was White Hall, the English name for the house Peter Stuyvesant built at the southern tip of the island, with its stunning view of New York Harbor.

White Hall

In those early days, before Fifth Avenue had been laid out, a fashionable address for the wealthy meant Bowling Green, after which people who could afford it moved up Broadway through Murray and Chambers Streets, on to Washington Square.

Until the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 cut regular streets through the city (155 cross streets and 12 Avenues) the start of Fifth Avenue was farmland, as was almost almost all the property north of Canal Street. The name Fifth Avenue appeared for the first time on the Commissioners’ map. No one imagined that the thoroughfare would one day stretch six-and-a-half miles up the island. But the street was spacious and straight, and Manhattanites began to build townhouses along it; within two decades church steeples rose on either side of the street, Belgian blocks were laid for paving, and New Yorkers had begun to promenade along its length. In 1828, the city opened Washington Square at Eighth street at the base of Fifth Avenue, a tract that had been used since 1797 as a potter’s field. Gracious homes went up around the square.


In 1825 the new gas lamps came in south of 14th street; by 1847 they extended up to 18th street. Now lower Fifth Avenue became the fashionable locus of New York. One of the first of the home builders was Henry Brevoort, who inherited all the farmland around from his father and built a luxurious five-bedroom house with iconic columns and lilacs and rose of sharon blooming in the front yard behind an iron fence. The house stood until 1925.

brevoort house april 1925 nypl

Other fine homes followed, surrounded with yards and gardens, backed by stables. The ambience was quietly fancy, unprepossessing.


In 1851 a study found that below 23rd Street on Fifth there were still 32 vacant lots, and fifteen others were described as “now building” No matter. When Delmonico’s, New York’s premier restaurant, opened in a shipowner’s home at 14th and 5th it was clear the neighborhood had arrived.


The custom of the leisurely promenade continued, and with it the practice of making calls. Fifth Avenue was a social place.

1872 fifth avenue promenade 1872

The move of peoples’ homes uptown was unstoppable if somewhat slow paced. For one thing, the street was still being built. Fifth Avenue did not cut through to 23rd St  until 1837, and it was still surrounded largely by countryside, crisscrossed with streams and studded by ponds. Fifth Avenue was surprisingly rural. Stagecoaches stopped at a tavern on 23 Street called Madison Cottage. Cows wandered in front of that day’s incarnation of Grand Central Station.

grandcentralcows 18702

The city’s livestock market took place nearby, and cowboys drove herds of cattle through what we think of now as midtown.

Then handsome houses, some sheathed in brownstone, began to rise. The New York Herald named 200 of the city’s most important men in 1851, and half of them lived north of 14 Street. Madison Square was now becoming the center of the city’s professional class. Fashionable clubs opened there, the Union in 1855, followed by the Athanaeum, the Manhattan, the Lotos and others, along with refined academies for young ladies.

The first tycoons to make the move were William B. Astor, Jr. and his brother John Jacob III. Thirty-fourth street was a good distance uptown from where the family had traditionally settled, down around Lafayette Street. The Astor houses, separated by a garden, were relatively modest, brickfaced, with rustic columns. Nearby stood the mansion of Samuel B. Townsend, “the Sarsparilla King,” and on the same site after his death the grandiose, 55-room marble palace of Alexander Turney Stewart and his wife Cornelia, built in the late 1860s.


Stewart’s department store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets landed him among the wealthiest Americans, and ushered in a new age of lavish consumption.

The die was cast. In the next two decades Fifth Avenue up to 42nd Street became an almost unbroken parade of handsome brownstone mansions on 25×100 foot lots, not as large as the Stewart house but occupied by well-to-do, successful New Yorkers and incorporating all the trimmings, from gas lights to running water to fully equipped bathrooms. Chocolate in color, brownstone was quarried in New Jersey and cut into sheets that were applied as a façade to wood, for a uniform appearance that some found grand and others dull.


Strolling along the avenue was extended upwards when James Renwick designed the gargantuan Croton Reservoir (also referred to as the Murray Hilll Distributing Reservoir) at 42nd Street in 1842, and ran a promenade along the top rim of its forty-one- and-a-half foot high slanted walls. The walkway became a hit society destination. You could get an ice cream afterward across the street at Croton Cottage.

currier & ives print of croton reservoir

North of the reservoir stretched the undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863,  facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.

valentine's manuel 1858, 5 ave s from 63 st

Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.

To give an idea what the surroundings were like, consider Madison Avenue, a block over from Fifth, as it made its way north from 55th Street around this time.

ne from mad and 55

A thirty-acre farm owned by the prosperous Lenox family dominated the neighborhood, with a stolid white tenant farmhouse located between 71 and 72 near Fifth Avenue. Cows grazed nearby and market crops grew in rows. Lying on the outskirts of town this far north were slaughterhouses, stockyards and tanneries, enterprises fashionable downtown did not want near their homes. The Lenox Library, a handsome block-long structure designed by star-architect Richard Morris Hunt, went up in 1875 at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street, an outpost of civilization.

As of 1865, the city was moving uptown.


New Yorkers took the air on Fifth Avenue, promenading as always with vigor. The Easter Parade was only one opportunity to admire and be admired.

1870 fifth-avenue-new-york-in-c-1870-from-american-pictures-published-by-the-religious-tract

But while the upper tens (the equivalent of today’s “one percent”) of New York built their urban villas and stolid townhouses to the south, wide open stretches of the boulevard north of 60th Street still seemed off limits for luxury development. At the time of Savage Girl, 1875, more than 340 private residences had been constructed up to 59th Street but none above.

The lack of elegant homes didn’t mean people didn’t live there. Those precincts had long been settled by African Americans and German and Irish squatters who occupied shanty towns where the principle businesses were bone boiling, glue, soap and candlemaking. Eventually they were  eliminated from the area both by the development of Central Park and rising real estate prices.

 by Ralph Albert Blakelock

Edith Wharton remembered the area as dominated at that time by “the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene.” North of the site I gave the Delegate house, it was still this old, bucolic, rough-hewn New York landscape, unrefined, undeveloped, not yet buried in the smooth cement of the new. Central Park, built in the 1860s and opened officially in 1873, made inroads in “civilizing” the neighborhood; but it still seemed too much like a savage wilderness for the upper crust to build there.

There were a few exceptions, wealthy home builders that for their own reasons decided to go above 42nd Street. Robber baron Jay Gould built a residence on the corner of 47th and Fifth in 1870. The infamous Madame Restell and her husband moved in at the northeast corner of 52nd and Fifth in 1864. But mansions towered over shacks.

Mary Mason Jones, a distant relation of Edith Wharton’s – personified in The Age of Innocence by Mrs. Manson Mingott — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had had the first bathtub in New York installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. Five homes were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

Marble Row, built 58th and 5th 1870

By the time the fictional Delegates settled into their house in the early 1870s, the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street was still quiet, devoid of built structures, undiscovered by Knickerbocker Society. The Delegates were pioneers. I decided to situate them there because the choice makes them outliers, risk takers, iconoclasts in a society they see as conformist. I wanted to show them as the first to build a grand residence there, one that would outshine all the others in the city.

Eventually, Fifth Avenue upwards of 59th Street would be lined with mansions that were even more extravagant than the homes built in the avenue’s lower reaches. When people passed, they would gape at at the welter of materials and styles, the polished marble, dramatic gables and steep-hipped roofs, puncuated by balustrades and moats and massive chimney stacks. Whether architects hewed to the gleaming white symmetries of the Beaux-Arts or the swagger of the Moorish fortress or the period’s beloved French Renaissance design idiom, their creations lorded it over the somber-faced brownstones of the cross streets.

I couldn’t resist borrowing from some of the later residential masterworks to design the Delegate house, even though they would not be erected for a few more years. The various Vanderbilt homes offered the kind of opulence I felt the Delegates would emulate. After inheriting an estate of nearly 100 million dollars from their shipping-and-railroad-magnate father, the Vanderbilt descendents put on a grand architectural show. William Henry Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s eldest son, built triple houses for himself and his daughters between Fifty First and Fifty third Streets. William K. Vanderbuilt, William Henry’s son, had Richard Morris Hunt design him the mansion at the northwest corner of 52nd Street that was the setting for a famous fancy-dress ball of 1883.

Wm K. Vanderbilt House-the Petit Chateau

I was especially impressed by the mansion Cornelius Vanderbilt II put up at 58th Street and 5th Avenue in 1883,  the largest private residence ever built in New York City. A full block long, designed by George B. Post, it stood sentry until 1927, as one mansion after another followed it up the avenue.


Actually, I’m being slightly inaccurate. For the record, in the early 1870s one house did stand on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street, above the 59th Street divide, just across the street from the still forbidding Park. A narrow townhouse circa 1871, it was built speculatively built by one Runyon Martin, hardly a mogul. It didn’t last long.

The Delegates knocked it down to put up their turreted, mulberry-colored, block-long twin palaces.


Filed under Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

The Dressmaker’s Studio

I pay a visit to the dressmaker. Not just any dressmaker. A time machine artist. A bespoke 21st century fashion designer with the soul of a Victorian seamstress. Cynthia Ivey Abitz is her name, and the clothes she designs are magical.

Gil knew I wanted one of her garments, a sweeping, floating coat called the Hambledon duster. He knew because I begged for one, having been tipped off to Ivey Abitz’s existence by an artistic friend. He had no choice, he gave me a gift certificate for Christmas, and I saved up the getting of it like a stocking candy that was too good to eat right away.

ivey abitz dress 1

I decided to visit the Ivey Abitz studio, which she keeps on a cross street in the shadow of St. John the Divine, just above Manhattan’s Central Park. I wanted to feel the leather, as they say in the car-selling business, before deciding on the fabric of my coat. For every one of the hundreds of designs available, the client chooses the material.


A fluffy quartet of small cats and dogs share the cozy, sun-filled place, which is crowded with the eccentrically beautiful clothing that has earned her a reputation among the eccentrically beautiful. “Antique inspired garments relevant for everyday modern life,” is how Ivey Abitz describes her designs. I would say they have a patina you can’t find on the Macy’s sales rack, where I am usually  inclined to find my wardrobe.

On the Ivey Abitz web site there is a more elaborate manifesto: The collection “gives a nod to the past and present… It’s anti-generic garb. It’s an aesthetic. It embraces certain classic and vintage design elements and gives them life in the present. It’s a celebration of life by getting dressed in something rare and special every day. It’s a state of mind. It’s regalia for everyday life.”

ivey abitz dress 2

Cynthia, Cynthia, you had me at “nod to the past and present.”

On my visit, the designer bustles around, smoothing, fluffing, brushing away loose threads. I will come home and find loose threads all over me. The hazards of visiting the dressmaker, poor me.

Cyn w frock

How did she arrive at this unique aesthetic? Ivey Abitz remembers a family friend’s collection of antique clothing she happened to see when she was a kid of around eight, dressed in her summer attire of shorts and tee shirt, and saying to herself, Why doesn’t everybody dress like that? She grew up in Michigan farm country and spent her summers on Lake Huron, where she still has a cottage with her husband Josh Ivey Abitz, her partner in the business.

Cynthia and Joshua

The two partnered as magazine photographers before they went into fashion but the outfits she designed and wore to shoots attracted more attention than the pictures. The couple have been coming to New York since 2001, and moved to the city full-time in 2008 to be closer to their beloved seamstresses and fabric makers.

Pretty pretty pretty. Everything here is pretty. A pretty way of displaying fabric swatches.

wood shoes

Yellow checks on a dress – we call them frocks here, though — that seem so simple yet are so lovely.


Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? floats into my mind, the sad last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Yes, well, what is the matter with pretty thinking? Here in the dressmaker’s studio are silken coats that make you want to go up and nestle your face in them.

beaut shirt

The garments come with stories. A shirt I am infatuated with, featuring a delicate flutter about its raw edges, was inspired by Ivey Abitz’s grandmother, who encouraged her to be a dreamer. Another piece took its inspiration from a favorite childhood dog.

Everything is hand tailored and in some cases is handwoven. Ivey Abitz shows me a jacket fresh in from the tailor, not yet blocked, made of a deep rust-colored hand-loomed wool thread. Luscious.

When I ask her if she has a favorite garment she gently rebuffs me, saying that would be like choosing a favorite child. What she does suggest is that when people get to mix and match the designs and fabrics they prefer, they fall in love with their clothes. “They garden, play with children and grandchildren, go to the symphony, sleep in them… everything,” the dressmaker tells me.

I know that when I put on my duster of black and white checked taffeta, I’m never going to take it off.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

The Burger of My Dreams

I am finally enough recovered from roiling bloat to write about the hamburger I consumed the other night.

DB Bistro Moderne stands on 44th Street in Times Square, on a block that is distinguished by the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club and the swanky hostelry attached to the restaurant called the City Club Hotel. The Algonquin, with its always-crowded, ever-literary lobby and comfy cocktail chairs, one of my very favorite places in New York, is right next door.


We were celebrating Valentine’s Day early, knowing we were up for a snow pounding that might keep us in the day itself.

For years, we’d heard about a burger. A mythic burger, a burger for those of hearty appetites and gourmet tastebuds. In 2001 Daniel Boulud introduced the thing for an unseemly 27 dollars, but that only made people want it more.


Now the price has risen to $32, roughly twice what we pay for dinner at our favorite ramen joint.

hot and delish

What the hey, it was faux Valentine’s Day. We arrived, we settled in among the blonde New York princesses with gaudy Chanel necklaces and thousand-dollar leather jackets, we ordered a non-alcoholic beer. The bread, studded with olives, went down fine. An arugula and frisee salad with a lemony dressing and lots of almonds tasted better than it sounded.

But what about the burger?

retro_vintage_kitsch_kids_eating_hamburgers_burger_sticker-r5733afe1d44b4938bfeb118e16c8bbd6_v9waf_8byvr_512How would that be? This burger, you see, is no ordinary burger, but a giant softball of ground sirloin embedded with strips of brisket, a chunk of foie gras and a soupcon of black truffle.


It’s a long way way from the simple but tasty culinary icon that Wimpy loved.


How did we get from there to here?

I have learned that the Mongol Army under Genghis Kahn would stuff filets of meat (sometimes beef, sometimes lamb) under their saddles as they rode so that it would crumble and cook in time for lunch.


America’s own Hannah Glasse gave a recipe in her 1770 Art of Cookery that paired minced meat (cooked) and toast. Other cultures have long dined on meatballs, kissing cousins in a smaller ball of beef.

So the claim of the United States to inventing the burger has only a partial foundation in truth. Emigrants from Hamburg brought versions of minced steak to New York in the late nineteenth century, where they were served raw or lightly cooked in exclusive restaurants such as Delmonico’s, sometimes accompanied by a raw egg, and sometimes for breakfast.

delmonico's kitchen

The mechanical meat grinder, invented in the mid-1800s – mincing had earlier been done with a chisel – made mass production of ground beef possible. It’s thought that the hamburger in its present form originated as cheap eats at a county fair in Wisconsin, or Ohio – somewhere in the land where people needed sustenance to traverse the games, exhibits and rides. A slick of Heinz ketchup, patented in 1888, soon tagged along.

burger sign

On this night, our DB burgers landed in front of us with a thud, encased in a polished Parmesan bun, stuck through with wooden sticks and cut neatly in half. On full display were the slices of short rib and diseased goose liver, in lush cross section. A bite through the red of the beef released the flavors of fresh red onion, tomato jam and mustard. No Heinz 44 for this baby.

We could have eaten half but managed the whole. It was juicy, meaty, greasy, messy as a burger should be. But was it the best? Was it $32 worth of hamburger? When the bill arrived we told them that we’d gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

A Crinoline Cage

I found a wonderful lecture transcript and powerpoint on line for a talk titled “The Crinoline Cage.” The speaker, Lynda Nead, is an art history professor at the University of London. I’ve always wanted to find a piece that really goes into the history of crinolines and hoop skirts, and this is it. The accompanying images from the nineteenth century include cartoons from Punch, extracts from Dickens, letters from Victorian women and paintings by artists such as Franz Winterhalter, the painter of the Royal and Imperial Courts of Europe. They’re all wonderful, so check this out.


In the introduction to her remarks, Nead says this:

The middle of the nineteenth century was the great age of the crinoline. Dresses became bigger and more ornate; skirts grew wider and wider, devouring metres of fabric and decorated with flounces, fringes and ribbons. The style was facilitated by the development of the sewing machine and technological developments in textile production that introduced new machine-made light, gauzy fabrics, which supplemented the more established and expensive silks and taffetas and were suited to the purses of the middling classes. The key to this fashion, the frame for this confection of fabrics and ornament, was the hooped cage crinoline. Historians have been divided on whether the crinoline turned women into ‘exquisite slaves’ or was a sign of female assertiveness and subversion.


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Filed under Culture, Fashion, History, Home

In the Sky With Diamonds

The 60th anniversary of the Winter Antiques Show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory: the Diamond Jubilee. So it features special showings of diamonds, of course. And a lot of people are dripping with their own, too. One pouf-haired dowager in black stretch pants nearly blinds us with her sizable diamond pendant while scoping out the Tiffany Studio micromosaic table at the Associated Artists stall. In 1891, Tiffany designed things besides jewelry and lamps.


There are thousands upon thousands of match-head sized wood chips embedded in this decorative band that resembles cross-stitch, or snakeskin. Imagine the work that went into its intricacy. The table is the only one of its kind ever made, and with two matching chairs is priced today at 1.4 million dollars.

Going, going, gone, to the lady in the diamond dazzler.

There are a lot of things I love at the show. A small but powerful watercolor of a snarling but somehow jolly wolf circa 1800 gives me a welcome jolt of Savage Girl.

snarling wolf

There are girls here too, including one hand-sewn, winsome doll with brown velvet hair.


One baby Amazon in glossy marble.

baby amazon

I see a trio of ventriloquist dummies dating back to 1875. Oscar and Louise Shaffer, along with their musical troupe, toured the east coast throughout post-Civil War America. Oscar was the ventrioloquist. His three “friends” were Jerry Doyle, D Day and Sassafras Jones.


Louise Shaffer was billed as “the most versatile lady artist in America.” She was renowned for her cornet solos and banjo stylings.

Louise probably could have managed this enormous blue guitar, hand-crafted and reminiscent of Picasso’s famous Blue Period painting, The Old Guitarist..

blue guitar

I really like this chair, too. One of my favorites in the show.

worn chair

Now that’s what you call antique. The leather has received its share of buffing and burnishing by uncountable weary behinds.

At the Winter Antiques Show you can buy a quartet of really important geodes, if you have a couple large in your pocket.


We stand at a counter admiring diamond rings set with emeralds and rubies, next to a gentleman in tweeds examining a set of cufflinks displaying horses, a bargain at $1,400. I don’t ask the price of the rings. I have just been chastised by a guard for attempting to snap a picture of Queen Victoria’s tiara from 1840, ablaze with sapphires along with diamonds and prominently on display. There’s a shot on the show’s website, however.

Queen Victoria's tiara

Tiaras have always intrigued me. We think of them as belonging exclusively to princesses. There was a time, however, in the late nineteenth century, when the only thing that kept a woman from wearing one is if she couldn’t afford it. You didn’t have to be royal. According to one expert, “By 1894 nearly 100 tiaras could be counted among the possessions of New York’s social leaders.” That’s a lot of tiaras. If you were really well off you might have two or three to choose from when you went out to the ball. Tiffany could barely keep enough in the pipeline, churning out beauties like this 1894 piece assembled of gold, platinum and diamonds.


If you wore one, like Consuela Vanderbilt in 1902, you could imagine yourself to be royalty. She had an Alice in Wonderland neck and a trompe l’oeil waist.


Maybe that’s how that multi-faceted woman in the pouf-hair and leggings sees herself.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl

R.H. Macy’s Tattoo

We’ve arrived at Macy’s Herald Square to test out the mattresses. Outside in the rain, some typical New Yorkers loiter, including a beautiful bald woman in a gold lame miniskirt with scarification marks across her cheek. The aisles are thronged; New Yorkers love bargains and today is a big January sale day. Elevator up to the ninth floor, hike all the way down the way to the proper department, and beneath our feet the floor changes to deep, wide, richly varnished old boards. We have the space to ourselves, it seems, and the space around us here under the roof is high-ceilinged and grand.

The bed salesman deftly sells us on a Sealy at the same time as he clues us in to some Macy’s history. The founder, he tells us, Rowland H. Macy, was run out of Boston after a series of failed stores, then set up shop in 1858 in Manhattan in a brownstone on 14th Street and 6th Avenue with a dry goods store selling stockings, shoes and gloves, necessities of the time in New York City.

macy's shoes

No gold lame skirts at that point. First-day sales totaled $11.06. The eventual retail giant grew, in 1902 opening up at 34th Street and spreading to the full block it still occupies. The polished wood I hiked along was thronged with the ghosts of that time, when the flagship was so far uptown that it had to import downtown ladies and gentlemen via steam wagonette to get there. (Customers also rode the wooden escalators, vestigial early technology that appears unaccountably elegant to me today.) This picture dates to 1907.

Macy's 1907

That red star you see in all the store’s merchandising? That’s been in use from the beginning, a replica of R.H. Macy’s tattoo, a souvenir between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand from when he worked on a Nantucket whaling ship at the age of 15. A faded Harlem wall sign more than a hundred years old shows it still.


We came away from 34th Street with a little history and a decent bed for a young woman who is about to move into her first New York City apartment.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

The Hearth of the Matter

Oh, why am I out, seeking sushi sustenance, on the coldest day of the year?

Because I have a touch of cabin fever, and because Maud all but forcibly pulled me out, plunked me on my scooter, and got me to a hot bowl of miso soup at Okinawa nearby.


Living in the Cabin, even with central heating, we spend a lot of time in front of a fire stoked with very good hardwood. I can’t help but imagine the hearths of the past when New York was Dutch, when New Amsterdam was 15 streets and 2,000 residents. When a fire was the only heat source in a long, bitter winter.

1  1655 Manhattan View

Not much remains of that era’s built environment. But one impressive hearth specimen remains from the 1680s, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan in Yonkers, New York. Now known as Philipse Manor Hall, it was then the house  Margaret Hardenbroeck built. I wrote about her, her female descendants and her home, constructed of coursed rubblestone masonry in the then-wilderness, for my history The Women of the House. Hardenbroeck and her husband Frederick Philipse had negotiated for tens of thousands of acres with the local Lenape Indians.

17  PMH South Facade

In her new home’s first-flour room — seen here to the left — with its corner view of the river and the majestic Palisades, she installed a fireplace of bricks held together by plaster fortified with horsehair. It was huge, designed in the style of fireplaces of the day, so big a person could duck inside and see the clear cobalt heavens through the brick-framed top. A tongue of flagstone extended into the room, providing a generous space to prepare meals. A slightly more genteel version of her hearth can be seen at New York’s Van Cortlandt House– the oldest house in the Bronx — built some years later, in 1748.

van cortlandt house, nyc

Despite the heat that must have escaped up the chimney, the occupants of Hardenbroeck’s house, out in the woods, all by themselves, with no neighbors, no local tavern, no welcoming church, would surely stay warm.

How do you think the Dutch in America survived the cold winters? I asked Maud as we tucked into hot coffee.

Maud sips

They wore plenty of furs, she said.

Right. It didn’t hurt that Hardenbroeck made her living as a fur trader – one of the most successful of the age. This could be a likeness of her engaging in her business, beaver hat set squarely on her head.


She traveled from the island of Manhattan up the Hudson to Albany to acquire beaver pelts from Native American trappers and returned south to ship the furs off to Holland, sometimes traveling on board to keep an eye on her merchandise. She made a fortune, more than enough to build her solid Yonkers pied a terre and to clothe herself in furs as well. She was a crack businesswoman and I always liked to see her signature at the bottom of contracts.11 Margarets SignatureShe could definitely drape herself in all the furs she wanted to, like this well-cloaked London fashionista from the era, portrayed by Wenceslas Hollar. The mask is to keep her complexion fresh.


Something odd struck me about Hardenbroeck’s fireplace when I first saw it. Most Dutch hearths have a decorative surround of Delft tiles.

Delft Tile 15

Staid Dutch burghers usually employed tilework in pure white or sober biblical allegories in safe shades of blue. Hardenbroeck’s, on the other hand, was framed by painted tiles that she might have found especially chic, with exotic pictures in a stylish minor-key tint called manganese that resembled the magenta-blue-brown of a fading bruise. Off shades called “sad” persisted as high fashion in the clothes of this period, denoting not necessarily gray or black but muddier earth tones, whether russet, plummy red, or the golden brown called ‘tawney.’ Even some pewter plates received the descriptor “sad-colored.”

Hardenbroeck chose a theme  with some Delft craftman’s cracked vision of the wilden of the New World: heavy-lidded hermaphrodites frolicking on animal feet, breasts bulging, carrying fruits that resembled ripe melons and accompanied by old-style griffins. These images reflected the era, which paired intensive high-seas exploration and scientific curiosity with tenacious ancient beliefs in monsters.

PMH Fireplace Tile

Artists and writers without firsthand knowledge of lands abroad still portrayed the scenery of America as crowded with Cyclopes and unicorns and other odd beasts, like those of Fortunio Liceti, who was sharing his creations with the world at around the same time.


The fanciful renderings on Hardenbroeck’s hearth tiles offer an ironic counterpoint to the house’s site, centered among the ghosts of ancient native villages whose all-too human inhabitants had perished of fevers, plagues and violence. New Amsterdam, where Hardenbroeck spent most of her time, was relatively cosmopolitan – for America. These were people, not only Dutch but a range of nationalities, who had braved all sorts of dangers to settle here, and now they lived clustered together in relative safety. They even bartered and socialized with the local Indians, when they weren’t making war on them.

But did the fur trader’s hearth fires keep her warm against the seventeenth century equivalent of our polar vortex? We have to assume they did. Folksy colonial historian Alice Morse Earle quoted a poem in one of her many books about the Dutch in Manhattan.

Shut in from all the world about,

We sat at the clean-winged hearth about,

Content to let the north wind roar

In baffled rage at pane and door,

While the red logs before us beat

The frost-line back with tropic heat;

And ever, when a louder blast

Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

The merrier up its roaring draught

The great throat of the chimney laughed,

The house dog on his paws outspread

Laid to the fire his drowsy head…

Hardenbroeck kept her up-river lodgings until her death in 1691, at the age of 54, and the house stayed in the family for a century after that, until the loyalist Philipses were driven off their estate after the Revolution, back to England. Hardenbroeck used the house at Yonkers throughout her career-intensive years as a stopover on her way to and from the fur fair at Albany, storing goods in a dry, paved cellar, no doubt happy to warm her hands by a blazing fire for a couple of days en route.

The sushi has arrived.


Cold fish on a cold day, how nice. We are fond of our fresh fish, here along the Hudson in the winter of 2014. No doubt, the Dutch denizens of New York also appreciated their seafood more than 300 years ago. After all, the harbor at New Amsterdam was stocked with foot-long oysters.


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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Ever Abustle

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Music, Nature, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

A Dollop of Trollope

During a single month in the fall of 1831, a 52-year-old woman named Frances Milton Trollope—Fanny—labored feverishly over a book in a rotting Middlesex farmhouse. She cherished the hope her work would somehow extract her and her family from the grip of poverty. She had no experience as an author. Nothing in her past gave any hint that her writing would do anything but sink unremarked into obscurity.

Instead, a miracle occurred. Domestic Manners of the Americans became an instant, runaway success, a travel book like no other.

trollope title page

Although the term “best seller” would not be coined for another half century, some authors were already experiencing strong sales and public acclaim. In Fanny’s day, the public measured literary accomplishment in how many editions a book went through and how fast those editions flew out a bookseller’s doors. Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron were the John Grisham, James Patterson and Stephen King of their time.


The reading public knew these authors and waited impatiently for their latest works, whereas Fanny Trollope was anything but a household name. So it was even more remarkable that Domestic Manners, by a wholly unknown author, went through four English and four American editions in the first year alone. Shops could not keep books stocked. Domestic Manners beguiled the reading public. Fanny Trollope suddenly found herself among the most well-known figures of the day, feted, celebrated and wealthier than she had ever known herself to be. In her first year as an author, she earned six hundred English pounds, over a hundred thousand dollars in today’s money.


Fanny Trollope has almost totally faded from the intellectual tapestry of this country’s history — for one thing she is overshadowed by her novelist son Anthony — but to my mind that makes her only the more fascinating.

Fanny’s Domestic Manners of the Americans captured the strange, sharp-cornered realities of the bold new Jacksonian landscape of the United States. Four-hundred-and-six pages long, divided into thirty-four brisk chapters, featuring twenty-four Hogarthian illustrations in pen and ink (done by a traveling companion/protector/lover), the book took readers from Cincinnati, a boom town on the western frontier, to the raw northeastern spectacle of Niagara Falls.


The author clearly hated aspects of what she had encountered in the new nation, the myriad social injustices, the denigration of women, the racism, the low taste, the filth. But Fanny Trollope loved the boundlessness of this fresh terrain. Its possibilities tantalized her, its contradictions stimulated her thinking. With this work, she opened a window upon an aspect of the United States that had never been treated before, certainly not by Tocqueville, her contemporary. For Fanny concerned herself with the everyday, the mundane, the overlooked details of American life. Readers loved getting a peek behind the supercilious, jingoistic façade to expose an earthier reality, its table manners, social niceties (and not-so-niceties), its mundane days and ways. Domestic Manners of the Americans was, beyond anything else, written with a female’s eye.

American ill.

During the course of her travels, Fanny’s shambolic entourage included her three hungry, ragamuffin children, two chronically unpaid servants and—much to the consternation of prudish observers—the French artist confederate who was her constant companion. Her arrival in Cumberland, say, a small outpost in the state of Maryland, or perhaps Wheeling, Virginia, or Washington, D.C., invariably injected a blast of the outlandish into struggling, hard-scrabble realms. The Trollope circus had come to town.

At the head of the troupe was Fanny herself, an eminently likeable but unlikely heroine, a crone Cinderella (fifty years, in that time period, qualified a woman for crone-dom), one who would play her own fairy godmother and totally transform her life. To strangers Fanny presented a strange, almost disturbing vision: a middle-aged woman with bad teeth, growing thinner by the minute via the vagaries of starvation, totally on her own, with nary a guiding male hand in evidence (a French artiste? Who—or what—was that?), loud, flamboyant, all over the place, rampaging across the rough and tumble world of the frontier.


Fanny Trollope took her place as the first among a troupe of European critics of the American scene. Other observers crossed the ocean around the same time as she did, men already possessed of fame, Tocqueville and, a little later, Dickens, making their tours, literary beetles crawling across the flank of the Republic, picking at its scabs, inspecting, interpreting, judging. Fanny, perhaps more than the others, got the details right.

When Fanny toured the U.S., one thing she hated (she also despised slavery, sexism and Andrew Jackson’s vanquishing of Native Americans from their homelands) was the manners of its menfolk. The men returned the favor. One gentleman described Fanny as “singularly unladylike,” labeling her “robust and masculine” and critiquing her long walks in the pouring rain or midday sun. She was, another noted, often sarcastic. After Trollope’s visit, a “trollope” came to mean any kind of behavior the writer had lampooned–for example, the widespread practice of gentlemen hocking streams of yellow tobacco juice in their elegant theater boxes, a particular bugaboo she had. I think we should bring the term back. Fanny was the original snark, and there’s a lot to be snarky about today.


Filed under Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

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.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster

Some Odd Fellows

A guest post from writer Peter Zimmerman:
A couple of weeks ago I moved into an old brick building circa 1880.
pic 1
It’s in one of those little sleepy Hudson River valley towns not far from where Rip Van Winkle dozed off…….
pic 2
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.
pic 3
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.”
pic 4
pic 5pic 6
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).
You can buy antique Odd Fellows clothing and gear from eBay, some of it for surprisingly cheap.
pic 7
A ceremonial collar…
pic 8
… and ceremonial club
pic 9
A belt watch.
pic 10
Spiked helmet hat.
pic 11
A fraternal mask.
pic 12
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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The Spirit of Sinterklass

The Orphanmaster offers a glimpse into Christmas on Manhattan,1660s-style. Or, since the preponderance of colonists hail from the Netherlands, a glimpse into Sinterklass, the Dutch festival of St. Nicholas, which arrives on December 6th. Because we’re talking about The Orphanmaster, everything in this particular holiday season is not all sugar cookies.

Here is a passage from the novel:

Sinterklass—Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—came to New Amsterdam in early December, arriving with a ship that sailed all the way from Patria laden with toys and other gifts. Children laid out their shoes on the hearth the night of December 5th. The next morning, they would find them filled with nuts, sweets and, for a fortunate few, gold coins.

Sinterklass himself rode slowly down the Broad Way and along Pearl Street on a stolid white mare, fairly gleaming in his long, draping robe, pearly beard and tall red bishop’s hat and mitre, brandishing a golden crosier with a curled top. He had apples for everyone, hard candy, frosted nuts.

Sint op het paard

But these treats were only a precursor to the grand feast celebrated the following day, December sixth, when wealthier colonists served roast goose and potatoes and kool slaw drenched in vinegar and melted butter. Sinterklass was the patron saint of children, doling out gifts to the well-behaved, though everyone got their fair share regardless of how naughty they had been.

Each child knew the story of the three little orphans during a terrible famine, how a malicious butcher lured them into his house, slaughtered and carved them up, then placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers, bringing the orphans magically back alive through the power of faith.

The spirit of the season ruled New Amsterdam between the Feast of Sinterklass on the sixth and Kerstydt, Christmas, on the twenty-fifth. Director general Peter Stuyvesant, who made clear his disgust with any drunken carousing during the holidays, yet made his Great House ablaze with candles and invited colonists in to dance in the entry hall.

But the mood this year was on the whole muted. Murder dampens the spirit…


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, Writing