Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Pipe Kiln Waster and Imperfection

I've long been attracted to antique ceramics that exhibit accidental signs of their production. Aesthetic flaws that might take away from decorative value are what draw me to old pottery. As Nicole can testify, I pick up and flip over old stoneware crocks at the antique shops we visit to look for these things. I love misshapen crocks, pieces of other pottery adhered to finished ones, scars from the small clay "furniture" used to stack things in a kiln, and "turkey droppings" of excess glaze. Sometimes you can detect the streaks and impressions of the potter's hands and even individual fingerprints. Old bricks occasional feature animal footprints from creatures that got into a brickyard as things were drying. Dramatic kiln failures, unsuitable for sale, were called "wasters," and discarded at the kiln sites themselves.

    Kiln Waster, 1640-1660, Musueum no. C.10-2005  Clay brick with footprint of a cat paws, Ur 2112 BC – 2004 BCE
Examples of turkey droppings, a potter's fingerprint, a 16th-century Dutch kiln waster, and a 4000-year-old tile with a cat footprint from Ruby Lane, Ebay, the V&A, and here.

What could be more interesting than these little material signatures of some past failure? I far prefer flawed objects to perfect ones. And sometimes it's not accidental. Navajo rug weavers deliberately introduce flaws into their work. Japanese culture values wabi-sabi, an acceptance of natural imperfection. That sort of acceptance is not a strength of "Western" cultures, even if many people believe that perfection is best left to God.

Detail of Navajo textile
A "spiritline" in a Navajo rug that Western eyes might read as an unacceptable imperfection. From the Smithsonian Museum of American History, here.

My most moving experience during a recent class I took on historic window restoration was when the craftsman leading the workshop was examining a century-old plate glass window and detected, in the awkward streak of glass on top of the pane's surface, evidence of an accident during production. "This is an amazing piece of glass," he said, staring into the pane, "See that streak, that odd blob? Someone messed up. That's someone in the shop tripping and accidentally throwing a bit of glass onto this finished pane." You could almost hear the echoes of a glassblower cursing his clumsiness across a century of time.

Since seeing it on my colleague Brenda Hornsby Heindl's blog in 2013, I've also coveted a particularly sculptural failure she acquired, a fused waster of mid-nineteenth century pipe heads uncovered on a kiln site in Ohio. This accident could hardly be more artistic, to my eye, if someone had tried to create it on purpose.

I was in Gettysburg this past weekend when, in one of the town's innumerable relic shops, I came across a small example of a similar accident, this one from the 1860s kiln of John Taber of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Taber was a prolific potter who produced distinctive redware clay pipe heads (smoked by inserting a reed stem into a socket next to the bowl) which have been found on archaeological sites across the country. In the late twentieth century, it seems that someone (not an archaeologist) dug Taber's kiln site. Many of the recovered pipe heads have subsequently made it onto the antiques market. The dealer I visited had a number of intact pipe heads, but what caught my eye was a waster: two heads that had collapsed and fused together.

Normally I don't buy "dug" materials. You can find plenty of things in antique shops that have been excavated by people for fun from battlefields, privy pits, and homestead sites. Without any written documents or records, and with none of the attention to detail that professional archaeologists deploy to capture information about the past through the buried records, these individuals effectively loot our collective heritage for fun and profit. Purchasing dug items encourages the ongoing excavation of similar things.

In this case, however, I couldn't resist an ethical compromise. It's unfortunate that whoever dug Taber's kiln site doesn't seem to have left any record of what they found. But in this small artifact, we can see the shadow of an accident that happened 150 years ago. It reminds me that things rarely end up as we intend. It reminds us to look for the beauty in the imperfect. No good for smoking - no good for most anything in 1865 - this bit of trash, it turns out, is quite good for thinking.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"Continental" Jackets

Around June 24 or 25, 1777, John Mills, a swarthy, twenty-year-old New Jersey native deserted from George Ross’s company of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment. Mills was one of thousands of Revolutionary War deserters. What made him unique, at least among runaway ads for these sorts of soldiers, was one of his garments. Two advertisements appeared from Mills that summer, both in the Pennsylvania Packet. One noted his “white Continental jacket” and the second “a white Continental under ditto [jacket].”

These are the only references to a “Continental jacket/underjacket” I’ve encountered, and Captain George Ross certainly meant some sort of waistcoat (that's what these words usually referred to). But what made it Continental? Was it unique in its cut, material, or buttons? Perhaps it was one of the short-cut, belted waistcoats that were becoming popular among American soldiers. Or perhaps it was something else entirely, whether some peculiar uniform or a more mundane garment with a label unique to Ross’s vocabulary. Without more evidence, it’s impossible to say. If you’ve ever seen another reference to such a garment, I’d love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Introducing Will, Grace, and World War One

In 2015, in the process of cleaning out the estate of a family friend, my parents came across a nondescript brown paper grocery bag headed for the trash. It contained the letters and paperwork of a Michigan couple named William and Grace Foote. In 1918, Will shipped out for France with the Y.M.C.A. Over the next year, he sent home dozens of letters that his wife Grace carefully preserved. Those letters tell stories of everyday life in France, of petty quarrels and minor ambitions, and of a world war.

You can follow these stories, day by day, a century after they happened, at Will, Grace, and World War One.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Dismantling 239 Chestnut Street

Demolition is mostly only dramatic at the start. The final fate of 239 Chesnut Street, as I wrote about earlier this year at "Hidden City Philadelphia" and on this blog, began with a bang and a dramatic fire on February 18 and ended with a whimper that is still faintly audible. After a month of investigations and stabilizations (and a laser scan of the building's façade, in the hope that it might someday be replaced), work crews began disassembling the building in March. 

Now, for the first time since 1852, only empty space fills the lot at 239 Chestnut Street. What comes next depends, as usual, on money. The revival of the neighborhood means that sooner or later someone other than nature will pay to fill the vacuum here. I hope that will come with an effort to learn more about this space and its place in Philadelphia's history. Right across the street, archaeologists working on the same sub-basement level as what remains undisturbed at 239 Chestnut Street made a series of amazing discoveries in 2014-2016 ahead of the construction of the Museum of the American Revolution. 

The silver lining waiting here - if we care enough to ensure it is gleaned - is a chance we never would have had otherwise, to look beneath what was once 239 Chestnut Street before it becomes 239 Chestnut Street again.

February 20, 2018

February 20, 2018

March 29, 2018

April 9, 2018

April 11, 2018

April 13, 2018

April 13, 2018

April 13, 2018

April 15, 2018

May 3, 2018

May 3, 2018

May 3, 2018

May 23, 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part VIII: Weaving and Conclusion

Four summers and a thousand years ago, to paraphrase a line from the 1975 film The Man Who Would be King, I planted a garden in the yard of the Cooch House outside Newark, Delaware. It proved a welcome distraction as I worked my way through several hundred books in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams. In that garden I planted a small patch of flax, with the goal of using John Wily's 1765 Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax as a guide to see flax seed all the way to woven linen.

It wasn't the first or the last time I grew flax; I also planted it on the Winterthur estate in 2010 and at a University of Delaware community garden in 2016. But so far it's the only time I've managed to actually actually make linen. Nicole and I retted, heckled, spun, and wove flax into linen over the course of four years, two states, and three homes. That's a pace that would make any eighteenth-century farmer laugh, but luckily my agricultural pursuits thus far have been purely avocational.

When I last checked in about this project in March of 2017, my yarns were bucked and ready for weaving. "The weaving of Linen I suppose I need say little about," wrote John Wily somewhat unhelpfully, "as it is wove in the plain Way." Without enough linen yarn to warp a large loom (or, for that matter, without a large loom to warp), I instead borrowed a friend's small tape loom, used to weave narrow trims and ribbons ("tapes") and got to work one day this spring.

The tape loom warped and ready for weaving to begin.

The tape as it nears completions.

I used about half of my stock of yarn, and weaving it into a strip was a quick job. Almost before I knew it, I had a 13"-long piece of half-inch linen tape. By a rough estimate, I think I have enough extra yarn that I could weave about twice that, meaning that my eight-square-foot patch of ground, planted at a 1765 seed density, yielded about 13 square inches of linen. I wouldn't take that as a conclusive insight into the productivity of linen in the eighteenth century. Most importantly, the yarns I spun were large and clumsy, meaning I generated far less yarn length than a skilled spinner would have.

Details of the woven tape.

Wily discussed bleaching (whitening linen) in a bit more detail than weaving, though he was honest about the limits of his knowledge: "This process I must confess I never saw performed." I decided not to bleach my linen, mostly for aesthetic reasons. My tape looks pleasingly natural and, anyway, people didn't always bleach their linen in the eighteenth century, either. Anyone with ambitions to do so only needs a grassy yard, some soft cow dung, a bit of lye, and some sour milk.

That meant I had finished making linen, long after my comprehensive exams and on the other end of a trans-Atlantic voyage, a wedding, two moves, nine cat rescues, a new job, and four years. John Wily didn't offer much insights into all those other steps, but they were part of my own process nonetheless.

In 1769, a few years after he published his book, John Wily wrote to the Virginia Gazette, still advocating for the domestic production of cloth in the face of British oppression. More than anything, it is the charming nature of his humility that reaches out across two hundred and fifty years. "To conclude," he wrote at the end of his letter, "I must beg leave to inform the readers I am but a poor Buckskin, with a slender education; therefore hope no one will be offended at this poor unpolished piece, but kindly accept of it as my honest endeavors herein to serve my country."

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Two Fires on Chestnut Street

A piece I wrote for "Hidden City Philadelphia" is live over at their site for those interested in historic structures, Old City Philadelphia, and the fragility of our built environment:


And in case you want to learn more, the source material for this article can be found in:

The Daily Age (Philadelphia, PA), March 1, 1864

The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, March 8, May 20, and May 24, 1872

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), July 10, 1852, and March 18, 1872

Public Ledger Almanac, 1883 (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1882)

Ken Finkel, "The Jayne Building: Chestnut Street's Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda," The PhillyHistory Blog, November 11, 2013, https://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2013/11/the-jayne-building-chestnut-streets-woulda-coulda-shoulda/

Richard Webster, "Chestnut Street Study Area," Historic American Buildings Survey, before 1976, http://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/pa/pa1100/pa1149/data/pa1149data.pdf.

Winston Weisman, “Philadelphia Functionalism and Sullivan,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 20, no. 1 (March 1961), 14.

Monday, February 26, 2018

More from the Wreck of the Mast Ship St. George

Longtime readers of this blog or new visitors may have seen my post (which originated on Nicole's blog) four years ago about cloth-covered buttons from the 1764 wreck of the British mast ship St. George near Hampton, New Hampshire.

From The New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle, December 7, 1764.

Just recently, a descendant of Christopher Toppan, who oversaw the salvage of the wreck in the winter of 1764-1765, contacted me to say that she had in her possession similar buttons. Even more remarkably, Lori Cotter and her cousin Michael Toppan also have a document detailing payments made by Christopher Toppan to townspeople for salvage work on "The St. George, Mastship lost on Hampton Beach." The document, and its association with surviving buttons, finally proves the identity of the ship, its connection to Toppan, and the story of the buttons, things that remained uncertain when I last wrote. 

But perhaps even more remarkably, Lori also shared images of two original packages of buttons. Based on the handwriting and paper, they are a remarkably rare-thing: eighteenth-century packaging material. It's possible these were assembled as the wreck's cargo was salvaged, but I suspect that they are actually the buttons' original shipping containers. In that case, they were assembled after the buttons were completed in England in 1764. Then the packages (containing large quantities of 7 1/2 and 9 1/2 dozen buttons, distinguished between larger "Coat" and smaller "Waiscoat" sizes) were probably placed in a crate or bale for transatlantic shipment. As far as I know, these may be the only eighteenth-century packages of imported buttons that exist. Thanks to Lori and her family for so carefully preserving them and sharing their story. You can read more about the early history of Hampton in a book Lori transcribed from an ancestor's records, available here.