Tag Archives: history

Random Thoughts on History and the Past

Our recent trip to Pennsylvania included a lot of history, which is the top consideration whenever we plan a trip. I’m lucky that my husband is also interested in the past, as it makes for an agreeable itinerary for both of us.  The primary reason for the trip was so I could attend the regional Costume Society of America symposium in Shippensburg, PA, but when we realized how close Philadelphia was, we decided to add a few days to the trip and visit the city.

Much of what is now referred to as the Old City is owned publicly and is administered by the National Park Service. A large part of this is the Independence Hall complex, seen above. In the center is what was the old Pennsylvania State House, and it was there that the Continental Congress met to discuss and sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where eleven years later the Constitutional Convention was held.

To the right is Congress Hall, where the Congress of the United States met after the government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and behind the trees on the left is where the Supreme Court met.  In a building to the right of where I took this photo is where the Liberty Bell is now housed.

I always find the juxtaposition of modern buildings and historical ones interesting. Philadelphia is a modern city, and that is left from colonial and early Federal days is scattered  throughout the Old City. The house in which Dolly Madison lived with her first husband survives, but the house that was George Washington’s Presidential residence does not. You can visit Betsy Ross’s house, but not Ben Franklin’s.

Both Washington’s house and Franklin’s are represented as “ghost houses”, where frames made of white pipes show where the houses would be if they had survived. It’s hard to believe that the President’s residence was torn down, but look at the photo above and you can see the big yard in front of Independence Hall. Years ago this lawn was full of homes and businesses. Washington’s house was located on this lawn.

This is the Thomas Bond House, which now houses an inn, and which is where we stayed. To the left is a parking garage, to the right a paved park, and beyond that, an apartment building. The paved park is the site of the home of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony.

It is useful in such a situation to be able to imagine the missing buildings, and to see this house as part of a street of similar ones.

Thankfully, such a street still exists. It’s Elfreth’s Alley, where the houses all date from 1720 to 1830. It is literally in the shadow of  Interstate 95 and is just off a busy modern street, but all that is forgotten when walking this alley. So how did it survive? It became home to poor immigrants, and was rediscovered in 1934 when preservation efforts began. If you look at cities where a lot of old buildings survive, you’ll see that poverty is often the reason.

And while it’s a shame that so much of historic Philadelphia was lost, the real story might be that it is amazing that so much still exists. For comparison, how many pre-1830 buildings are still standing in New York City. The answer is very few.

I found this visit to Colonial Philadelphia to be oddly comforting in our stressful political climate. It was a great reminder that the figures of the past were not perfect beings, but they were still able to create a democracy that has lasted 230 years. They enslaved people, even Franklin (who later argued against slavery). They gave women no say in the proceedings, and when Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal…” he meant all white men.

In a time when we seem to be going backward in our progress as human beings, this serves as a reminder of how far we have come since 1776. It also helps to remember that history, like fashion, is not linear. I think the best example of this is our recent elections. Total control is no longer in the hands of one political philosophy, but is now shared with those of different views. If you study how our Constitution was written, you’ll see that our country has never agreed on every issue, but it is necessary that all voices be heard.

But enough of that – let’s look at signs of fashion history. We spotted this sign just down from the Betsy Ross House, but it is not a hoop skirt factory, but an apartment building. At one time this was an industrial building, but I’m unsure if hoops were ever made there.

When traveling, don’t forget to look up.  This building on Market Street is no longer a seller of trunks and bags, but one can imagine what it must have been like one hundred years ago.

At the site of an old public house, A Man Full of Trouble must have been referring to the hatbox she is carrying.

On the way home we stopped in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which is most known for the raid of abolitionist John Brown. Again, the National Park Service has a big presence, and it interprets not only the raid, but also the town of Harpers Ferry as it was in the nineteenth century.

I had been wanting to visit Harpers Ferry since college, when one of my professors declared that everyone in the town had one leg a bit shorter than the other from walking on the hilly streets. I actually can’t confirm that is true.

Part of the town is level, and runs along the Shenandoah River. This has been restored to look as the town did in the nineteenth century. Not knowing this, I got all excited when I saw the shop windows full of antique merchandise. As it turned out, it was just an illusion.

Still, it was fun peering into a general mercantile of the time.

The best interpreted store was an actual men’s haberdashery, Philip Frankel & Co.

Due to it being off-season, there were few rangers about to tell about the buildings, but the park has done a decent job of posting information for those willing to take the time to read.

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under Road Trip, Viewpoint

Exploring The Charleston Museum

I always love a great fashion exhibition, but it’s also fun to look for traces of clothing and textile history in places that are not “fashion” museums.  Because the clothes we wear and the business of making textiles and clothing is so intertwined with our lives, one can find fashion exhibited in almost any museum.  That’s especially true in places like the Carolinas where cotton production and cloth manufacture are important to the economy.

A recent visit to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, proved to be  full of stuff of interest to the fashion historian.  The Charleston Museum has a gallery dedicated to textiles, but the other exhibits have textile history as well.  One of the main galleries is a sort of Carolina Lowcountry timeline, starting with Native American culture, and then working its way to the present.

One thing I found to be particularly interesting in the telling of the the story of slavery is how the museum focuses on the culture of the enslaved Africans, rather than on the issue of slavery.  There are some artifacts that do make it clear that enslaved persons were considered to be property, but much of what you see is like the baskets above.  Today, many descendants of these people still make and sell these sweetgrass baskets, and so the basket weavers are a familiar sight in Charleston on the streets and in the market.  It is an object that visitors to the city can relate to, and it shows how the skill of making them dates back to slavery.

Southern museums and museum houses that date to the antebellum period (before the American Civil War) are often criticized for their glossing over of slavery.  Personally, I’ve been to a lot of museums and plantations in the South, and I’ve never had an experience where I left being shaken by how the site interpreted slavery.  This is not to be taken as a criticism of The Charleston Museum, as they only have so much space and as a general history and culture museum, perhaps the task is best left to another institution.  I will say that I could have done with fewer Civil War era guns, and more in depth coverage of human issues.

The photo at the top is of a cotton bale.  Cotton bales were large and heavy and represent a lot of human labor.  They also have on display a cotton gin (or engine), the machine that allowed cotton production to flourish, and with it, slavery.

Of course, the big event in Charleston was the Civil War, and in particular, the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  There is a large section on the war and lots of guns.  Whoever thinks the South was short on arms during the war has never visited a Southern museum.  There are enough surviving Civil War rifles scattered across the South to arm General Lee’s army.

But as we know, history is not just the battles fought.  History gets interesting when we start to see events as happening to people.  And the Charleston Museum does an excellent job of presenting life along with the battles.

Alongside the guns and uniforms, you will also see the clothing of women and children.

There are also displays of the tools used in textile and clothing making in the home and workshop, though the floating flax wheel (upper left) and yarn winder (upper right) are a bit odd.

Click to enlarge

I loved these little sewing accouterments, especially the pincushion encased in a carved walnut shell.

Click for details

My favorite object has to be this peddler’s trunk.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for an isolated farm family when a traveling salesman showed up at their door with this trunk of treasures.

Another section of the museum is a throw-back to the early days of its history.  The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and opened to the public in 1824. In those days museums were more like cabinets of curiosity than the well organized and mission statemented institutions of today.  As such, many of the oldest artifacts have nothing at all to do with the history, culture, or natural history of the region.

This mummy was acquired in 1893 by museum director and curator Gabriel Manigault.  The sarcophagus was added in the 1920s.  These are the sort of miscellaneous objects that collectors prized.  The interesting thing about this exhibit is that it is telling the history of the museum more than it is telling about the Charleston region.

Click

There is also a children’s area in the museum, with lots of hands-on activities, but also with artifacts that tell about the lives of children in Charleston.

There is also a stuffed polar bear, but I somehow neglected to get a photo.  What do polar bears have to do with South Carolina?  Absolutely nothing.

 

12 Comments

Filed under Museums

Currently Reading: All the Best Rubbish by Ivor Noël Hume

When I was a freshman in college I discovered history.  I’d always liked reading about the past, but for the first time I became really excited about it.  I was all ready to major in American literature when I was thrown into the core program at my small, public university.  All freshmen were required to take a year of “humanities” classes which consisted of history, sociology, literature and writing.  My teacher of the first term was a history professor, and he approached the curriculum through the study of history, incorporating the literature of the era along with other social studies.  I was hooked.

It wasn’t enough that I was studying history in class, so I went in search of other things to fuel my interest.  I can’t remember how I came to pick up this book by historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, but I suspect it was a happy accident from repeated browsing at the newly opened B. Dalton bookstore in Asheville.  But however I came to own the book, I quickly fell under the spell of the “Pleasures and Perils” of collecting.  For a while my greatest ambition in life was to go mud-larking on the banks of the Thames, as the author made it sound so appealing.

But my life took a different turn, and instead of becoming a mud-larker, I became a teacher.  And I had not picked up this book for thirty-five years.

Recently I was moving furniture around and in doing so was moving books to a new bookcase.  I ran across my much-loved copy of All the Best Rubbish, and was reminded of what it had meant to me all those years ago.  As a result, I put it in the reading queue.

To my surprise, the book seems to have had a lasting influence on my collecting.  Ivor Noël Hume is not only a renowned archaeologist, he is also a collector, and the book, while it tells much about his job at Colonial Williamsburg, is mainly about the things he found over the years and what he learned from them.  The main take-away is this: The most expensive artifacts are not always the most valuable in terms of history.  Simple, everyday objects are most often the ones that can teach us the most about the past.  And while Noël Hume’s examples were often ceramics and glass, the same can be said for clothing.

Collecting only the best and rarest may be satisfying to the egotist or to the person needing aesthetic stimuli to get him through the misery of life in a world of mediocrity, but it does nothing for anyone wanting to know what it was like to live in other centuries.

Another valuable lesson is that value is subjective, and is more often than not, based on opinion.  Something that is thought to be ugly becomes less so when there are lots of dollar signs attached to the item.

Even though this book was published over forty years ago, so much of it will strike a chord with modern collectors:

The collector…has the residue of a lifetime for research and the acquisition of keys to doors beyond which lie journeys, adventures, and dramas that are not uniquely his own.

After all, it it not just the owning of objects, but the history that we can learn from these objects that is important.

UPDATE:

I could not resist adding a photo of this 18th century engraving, as the woman on the left and I share a name.  My grandmother was Elizabeth Adams (but was called Lizzie) and I was named for her, being Sharon Elizabeth Adams. I never knew the original Lizzie as she died the year before my birth, but by all accounts she was a kind and generous woman, with not a trace of larceny in her heart!

12 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Currently Reading, Viewpoint

Glenn Lowry Mill Campfire Girls, 1920s

I read a notice about a “summer camp fair” where parents can go and talk to representatives from all the area camps.  It seems a bit odd considering that almost all the clientele of these camps are flat-landers.  But anyway it reminded me of some pages from a photo album that I bought several years ago.

The photos were of a group of Camp Fire Girls, and there was also a printed article about their time camping and hiking in Western North Carolina.  Also included was a little song or chant:

I sort of assumed that the name of the camp was Glenn-Lowry, but I’d never heard of a camp by that name in this region, and a search turned up nothing.   In reading the article it mentioned “Whitmire girls” and that is where I got lucky.  As it turns out, these girls were from Whitmire, South Carolina, and they were all associated with the Glenn-Lowry Mill that was located there.

The idea of camping as recreation  in the US arose a generation or so after people who were pioneers and moving into new territory pretty much had to spend their traveling nights camping.  What had once been a hardship was now thought to be a fun way to escape the city and modern life.  In many ways it was a pursuit for the middle class and the wealthy, as the poor factory workers had neither the time nor the money for extended leisure.

But things were different in some mill towns, and it seems that Whitmire was one of the lucky ones.  The wife of the owner, Evelyn Coleman who was from Asheville, worked to develop educational and recreational resources for the workers and their families.  The company ran a YMCA, a bowling alley, and a skating rink.  There were baseball teams and clubs for the kids and for the mothers.  And in the early years, there was a group of Camp Fire Girls.

On this occasion, the girls were camping at Camp Minnehaha, which is located about ten miles southeast of Asheville, near the little town of Batcave.  From there they traveled around the region, taking day hikes to some of the most popular spots – Mount Pisgah, Chimney Rock and Blowing Rock.  It must have been a very big adventure for girls living in a small South Carolina cotton mill town.

9 Comments

Filed under Camping and Hiking

1940s Graff Bathing Suit

I bought this bathing suit some years ago.  According to the seller it was once the property of actress June Allyson, but she had no concrete proof of that provenance, and despite looking at hundreds of photos of Allyson, I’ve never spotted it on her.  But no matter.  I’d have bought the suit regardless.

In the late 1930s swimsuit makers were finally addressing the problems associated with using wool as the fiber of swimsuits.  Men’s swimwear had long been made of wool knit, and in the late 1910s women began wearing knit suits as well.  There were lots of problems with these wool knit suits.  They fit when dry, but sagged and stretched when wet.  They were scratchy.  And they were prone to embarrassing holes.

In the mid 1930s the fit issues were addressed when Lastex was added to the wool.  Lastex is a specially produced yarn that has an elastic core.  It held the shape of the wool, even when wet.  Lastex was soon used with other fibers, and a rayon blend that looked like satin became popular for swimwear.

At the same time, manufacturers began to turn to woven cotton as a swimsuit material.  It was not as flexible as knit fabrics, but not everyone who puts on a bathing suit is wanting to swim.  Sometimes a wearer just wanted to look attractive at the beach or around the pool.

Yes, I’d say this suit was more for sunning than for swimming.  It is lined in a white cotton knit which would hug the body when in the water, and provide the necessary coverage under the pleated shorts.   It buttons up the back, and the straps can be tied, as I’ve shown, or they can be crossed and snapped at the waist.

Graff was one of the lesser known Hollywood sportswear brands.  They continued in business through the 1970s .  How about that cacti motif?

As pretty and colorful as this bathing suit is, it also holds interest as a record of the easy acceptance of racial and cultural stereotypes.  Spend any time looking at magazines, movies, or even textiles from the 1940s and you will see how prevalent all types of stereotyping were.

I think sometimes we look at the past with rose-colored glasses, that we romanticize the past, thinking it was really a simpler time.  And perhaps in some ways it was, but perhaps not so much so if you were of a racial minority or were a woman.

While it is still easy today to find examples of ads and media that perpetuate all kinds of stereotypes ( former VP Dick Cheney cracking hillbilly jokes, the objectification of women in music videos, the Chief Wahoo mascot) at least there are conversations that are addressing these issues.   In the 1940s, a famous actress could have worn this and not an eye would have been batted.  Today, I post photos of it, and know I can’t just ignore the images without talking about them.  I hope this shows some progress in human understanding.

10 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Novelty Prints, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

The 1930s Travel Trailer Camping Craze

The 1930s saw the rise of an odd phenomena considering the the world was in the grips of an  economic disaster.  In 1930 Arthur Sherman started manufacturing travel trailers.  You would think that the Great Depression was a poor time to start a business, but Sherman’s Covered Wagon Company was wildly successful.

People had been auto camping for years, and saw it as an economic alternative to traditional travel where there were train fares and hotel bills.   Times might have been tough, but people saw camping as a way to continue travel.  Many travel trailers were homemade, and even a  manufactured one could be bought for as little as $300 (about $4700 today).  Trailers were sold by the thousands.

The press was partially responsible for the trailer boom.  Magazines from Popular Mechanics to Woman’s Home Companion heaped praise upon the benefits of trailer camping.   Bouyed by all the hype, the trailer companies over-produced in 1937, which led to disaster for many of them, including Covered Wagon.   The market was saturated, and the slow economic recovery was halted by a series of strikes in the auto industry.  Many of the companies barely made it to 1942, when the US military began buying travel trailers to use as military housing.

At the same time, many trailer owners were forced to park them for the duration, forming trailer parks that were more like permanent addresses.  And after the war, many young families turned to travel trailers in an effort to find housing.  Trailers were still built as a travel home, but just barely.  This was shown in the  1953  Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez comedy, The Long, Long Trailer.  By the next year companies started making the trailers wider – 10 feet, and it soon became obvious that the trailer industry was diverging.   Travel trailers remained small, but house trailers, or mobile homes grew and grew.

Considering how many of these were made in the 1930s, they are not commonly seen today.  I know where a couple of them are parked, and I’m betting they have been there since the 1940s.   Most of the vintage travel trailers we see today are from the late 1950s and newer.  To learn more about vintage travel trailers, there is a great book, Ready to Roll, by Arrol Geller and Douglas Keister.

Today’s illustrations are from a 1936 Covered Wagon catalog.

Here’s an old post I did with an inside view of a 1940s trailer.

And finally, a not-to-be-missed photo essay from Life magazine.

14 Comments

Filed under Camping and Hiking, Vintage Travel