Posts Tagged 'history'

Reading: Martha Washington : an American Life

Yorktown was on every American’s lips. Rather than stay at home in her sorrow [over her son Jack’s death], Martha decided to go with her husband for the comfort of his presence. This trip was a reprise of 1775, with escorts, addresses, and cheering crowds. Philadelphia, as usual, outdid every place in its welcome. In addition to the usual celebratory illumination of lanterns and candles placed on windowsills, large transparent paintings, lit from behind, covered many windows like glowing shades. Patriotic and allegorical themes ran riot.” — Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: an American Life.

How different Philadelphia is later, during the yellow fever epidemic that began in July 1793.

Follow Martha Dandridge from her first marriage to Daniel Custis, and then to her second marriage to George Washington, after she was through mourning her first husband. Martha burned most of her letters, so many of the records of her life are second hand and not in her words. But the author does manage to paint a picture of a woman who wasn’t afraid to follow her husband to Valley Forge, who traveled to see family and didn’t let the tragedy of losing family and friends to war and death keep her in despair so long as George was still alive.

Even though I thought I “knew” Martha Washington from the children’s history books, and 12th grade history class, this was a gently surprising book with blended families against the backdrop of history, without sugarcoating some things that current Americans might like to forget. Lovely library find, and thin enough to read on the beach during the last brief days of summer.

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The power of needleworkers – December 1

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for Civil Disobedience when she refused to give her seat to a white passenger in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. She was employed as a seamstress/tailor’s assistant, and along with her husband, she was active in the NAACP. After the boycott that ensued, Ms. Parks lost her place of employment.

When Ms. Parks was asked to give up her seat on the bus, she was actually sewing a dress for herself. The Smithsonian Institute has the dress in its collection (link here). How many of us would have given way to an order to move or else the police would be called? I like to think some of her resolve came not just from training in peaceful protest, but also the knowledge of how many times her needlework had been interrupted before. She was quoted as saying “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

December 1 is also World AIDS day. In San Francisco, in November of 1985, the idea of the AIDS quilt was born, to give names to the people who might have died in obscurity and to give us an idea of the impact of the disease. Today, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is still growing, with panels made by 100,000 friends and family members. By June 2012, exhibits showing the quilt raised $4,000,000 to fund direct services to people living with AIDS. Gay rights activist Cleve Jones had a powerful idea that keeps growing. Over 94,000 names are on the quilt now. There are 40 International Affiliates outside of the US of the NAMES Project.

Oh say can you see

Fireworks over Baltimore, Star Spangled Banner 200 years

Yes… we did. We went to a local park, stood out in a field in the dark, and watched as the fireworks display went off in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, as well as right by the fort (there were 5 places where fireworks were being set off in the Chesapeake). It looked like the War of 1812 was starting all over again. But last weekend was the celebration for Francis Scott Key’s famous words after the famous bombardment of Fort McHenry. The fireworks included a spectacular set of fireworks that made up the image of our flag in the sky.

Hurrah for 200 years! Music and video still live on a local news station here. (BTW: if I ever get the chance of seeing Guy Fawkes day in the UK, I will snap photos and be very excited.)

Prepping for the Roosevelts

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns focuses on the Roosevelt family, the presidencies, and the family loyalties (and lack of same) that defined them — from Teddy Roosevelt (26th president) to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd president). To gear up for this, I’ve begun reading a biography called Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, by Stacy A. Cordery. It’s a page turner. From the wild times of Teddy Roosevelt’s first daughter, Alice, to her marriage (with tribute from foreign dignitaries [Kaiser Wilhelm sent a bracelet with a diamond-ringed miniature of himself] and ordinary Americans caught up in the excitement [a hogshead of popcorn, bales of hay, a railway car full of coal from the United Mine Workers of America]) to her role as independent woman and political power broker.

Through the years, many children have lived in the White House, but only a few got married while their fathers were in office. Alice was modern, always in the news, and a trendsetter, with Gibson Girl style. I’ll be honest — it’s more interesting than I expected. Scandal, infidelity, and the search for publicity before any of our modern divas were born.

Jogging into a gilded past

One of the benefits of living in a small, but relatively old city, is the way neighborhoods built in different eras retain their character. In Philadelphia, you can get on the el and be in almost any kind of neighborhood in a very short time (modern, from the 1920s, or even back into the 1700s). Boston and Chicago have the same fluidity between time periods, and a visitor can wonder what era of architecture they’re looking at.

Here at Church and Graveyard, one can jog in one direction, and wind up in a neighborhood with houses from the 1930s and maybe a little bit older. If you jog in the other direction, you wind up in a neighborhood with ornamental fountains, fancy houses from the 1930s, and manicured lawns. Tonight, as I did my post-Thanksgiving run/stagger, I decided to go around one of the ornamental fountains where the carp are in the summer. The last of the sun was setting, the fountains were frozen and reflecting the darkening sky, and I passed a stone house with a beautiful room with windows on three sides. It had a golden harp set up in the front window, with a black baby grand piano behind it. I could just imagine the glittering party planned there, complete with a caterer, glittering candles, and a small recital.

And then I jogged/walked back up the hill, and was back in my normal wooden house from the 1800s (that would look better with new paint and shutters, I admit). It’s fun to look at other peoples’ glittery lives from a distance, even if it’s only in books. I love my house, and my quiet Thanksgiving celebrations, although now I’m craving harp music to listen to. Happy Thanksgiving from the corner of Church and Graveyard. I hope yours was a happy celebration, with only a small bit of travel to get to Grandma’s house. If you’re not in the USA, and want to know what all the fuss about the food is about, here’s a recipe for sweet potato pie (actually an NPR piece about a chef who learned to make his Nana’s pie recipe), pumpkin pie, and my favorite: roast turkey (basted every 20 minutes with a sauce made of lingonberry jam, port, and butter) and stuffing (I normally use one from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, preferably not one with sausage).

Making sense of the past

Things I’m thinking about….

Because I’ve been dunked in the current national fascination with the Civil War (thank you, Ken Burns, for the documentary), I’ve been following discussions about how to make sense of it all.  I’m intrigued by this essay on Civil War perspectives, with potential readings to learn more: Edward L. Ayers, Making Sense of the Civil War. I’ve tried reading Geraldine Brooks’ book, March, but couldn’t “get into it”. I have read the Red Badge of Courage, and frankly — I just can’t do it ever again. But the Imagined Civil War by Alice Fahs and Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier both sound interesting. The University of North Carolina Press has a feature where you can read a bit of Fahs’ book here: http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-1574.html. I enjoyed the quotes in the first chapter, talking about a shift in the demands of people for daily newspapers and their dismay at due to blockades in the south that stopped shipments of books and periodicals from the north.

Reading habits changed dramatically with the onset of war, a fact that numerous observers noted both north and south. Newspapers suddenly became an urgent necessity of life, with readers eagerly gathering at bulletin boards outside newspaper offices in order to read the news as soon as it was printed. (p. 19, Fahs)

Today’s red-faced confession: When I heard about North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, I avoided it like the plague. All I could think was that it was on the US Civil War, and memories of an oral exam (with tiny tents and soldiers on a map of Gettysburg) in 7th grade. I still can’t remember all the different placements of units in Gettysburg, even with help from the History Animated website (a brilliant website with animations of battles). Those of you who have read the book or seen the BBC series know how far off I was.

Coco Chanel and the reinvention of fake into costume jewelry

“Wealthy women wereImage now buying essentially the same synthetic trinkets at Saks Fifth Avenue that blue-collar women were ordering by catalog on the cheap. The end result was a dramatic leveling of the social playing field.

‘Now that Woolworth’s has gotten out its own version of the plain gold or silver necklet,’ joked Lois Long, young working women no longer had to ‘mourn that the tin rings around Heinz pickle jars are not bigger.’

‘Today,’ wrote one observer, ‘both the parlor maid and the debutante wear ornaments which may be classified roughly as ‘attention getters’…”

Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. Crown Publishers, New York. 2006.

A lovely, big book filled with the exploits of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Clara Bow, Lois Long, Colleen Moore, and the “New Woman”. I hadn’t expected the information about the Klan, or the information on what happened after the Crash, and people went on with their lives. It’s fluffy, it’s gossipy, and a lovely diversion during our heatwave.

I’m sorry, can’t find any of my pictures of costume jewelry, so, perhaps caviar on toast points will evoke the Roaring 20s?


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