Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wonderful Things of My Driving Life

I kept my minivan reasonably clean (Nicole might beg to differ on the definition of "reasonably"), but I needed to empty it entirely when I sold it last month. As I dug deeper into the various pockets and drawers of what seemed a veritable high chest on wheels, I began to realize that there were quite a lot of things in my car. Some I added over the years. Others ended up there seemingly of their own accord. I'd driven this car for five years, through three degrees, several jobs, two states of residence, and a period or two when it was the only  home base I had during short term gigs and temporary housing. I'm not saying I ever lived in it. But I probably could have.

The rear axle of my minivan took a beating during my move to Delaware, when the car was fully loaded.

I was midway through emptying the minivan when I came across two parking tickets from Tiffin, Ohio, dated 2010. I was attending Heidelberg College that year, and I lived on a street where territorial neighbors called the police on any car left parked on the curb for more than three days. Thankfully, I managed to get those tickets waived, and then I tucked them into my glove compartment and forgot about them. When I found them again, I paused.

What was I thinking? Here I was, a material culture scholar and lapsed archaeologist, about to purge a time capsule of artifacts and ephemera without even documenting it. This was practically the King Tut's tomb of twenty-first-century American automobility! Looking it over reminded me of the conversation between the two British Egyptologists who first peered into the dark sepulcher of King Tut.

"Can you see anything?" asked my inner Lord Carnarvon.

"Yes," responded my inner Howard Carter, "Wonderful things!"

Like King Tut's tomb, the contents of my car were not average or very reflective of my contemporaries. Most people I know (and I know some strange people) don't have embossed bricks, British regimental coat trim, or Sears, Roebuck catalogs in their cars. But to each his own, right?

Moreover, material culture scholars seek the unusual as often as we look for the normal and mundane. We ask how people, common or elite, strange or unremarkable, used things in their everyday lives. Wouldn't it be great to know what an eighteenth-century sailor, especially an abnormal one, carried in his sea chest? Or what a wealthy Philadelphian in the early republic stocked in her carriage? Sometimes we get glimpses of these accoutrements in historical documents such as probate inventories taken upon death, advertisements seeking the return of stolen goods, and insurance settlements. But most often, we have to fit together bits and pieces from archaeologists, archivists, and curators to guess what such people lived with and what these things meant.

Besides, even though the individual objects in my car were quite peculiar, I suspect that most of my contemporaries own many things (in their cars and their homes) that fall into the same basic categories. So I went about taking an inventory of just what sorts of things I had in my car and what these objects meant to me.

The complete contents my minivan at the time I sold it.

I had functional things and some things now obsolete. Road maps for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states and cities seemed pitiably defunct next to the Garman GPS I acquired a couple of years ago. I had a little bit of cash and a fair amount of coins, not to mention some Chinese money and a fake $20 bill from a board game. I had an EZ-Pass, an expired parking pass, a Mackinac Bridge commuter card, and gift cards for Starbucks, Panera Bread, and an oil change. Moisturizer, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, sunglasses, and spare glasses. A CD player with a cassette converter for the minivan's stereo system, a phone charger, and a set of spark plugs for a different car.


My minivan contained quite a few sentimental relics. I had the box of cassette tapes my father assembled about a quarter century ago that is a time capsule in itself. I had a small stuffed Santa Claus doll that my mom bought as a pity purchase at a yard sale (the sort of sale where the only way you can escape with your conscience intact is to spend a dollar on something) that had been with me through two cars (since he was left in the car we drove to that yard sale). I had a small strip of regimental "lace" trim from the uniform of the King's/8th Regiment, which we portrayed when I was a historical interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac. I had a strange faux-ivory hair comb and a bag of airline peanuts related to jokes I only hazily remember from college. I had an embossed brick I stole from the firepit behind that house in Tiffin. Wedged deep in a crack in the floor were a few antique buttons from a memorable trip to a country auction where I bought a box of buttons, put them on the backseat of the minivan, and later watched and listened as they flew everywhere when I slammed on my brakes to avoid a collision.


I had some things that even I will admit were quite weird. The canvas portion of a reproduction Civil War wall tent. The bases to a metal display system for art and antiques. Two strange wrought-iron hooks that were my first attempts at blacksmithing. A killer little piece of folk art a friend made back when Bluetooth phones first appeared that he dubbed a "fork phone." Thanks to the addition of a small wire loop, you could wear your fork around your ear and eat with it!


I had clothes. Hats, gloves, pants, t-shirts. And other essentials. Toilet paper, a towel, drop cloths, and plastic sheeting. Ropes, bungee cords, zip-ties, WD-40, tape. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I still carry far more snow emergency equipment out here in Delaware than necessary. Two folding shovels, two ice scrapers, candles, and hand warmers.


In case I got stuck somewhere in that rather unlikely mid-Atlantic blizzard, I carried a veritable toolbox: a hammer, a saw, knives, pliers, flashlights, and a roll-up first aid kit full enough to handle just about any emergency and including, among other things, fishing equipment, an outdoor thermometer, and a compass.

What did all these things mean?

On one hand, maybe I was just a slovenly car owner. But there was hardly any outright trash in my car. Most everything had a reason for being there, arcane though these reasons were.

The truth is, these things probably say even more about me than I can say about them. And the beauty of material culture is that you can come to your own conclusions about my things.

Here's one version, the scenario as I imagined it. My trusty minivan had finally found a snowbank too high to overcome. But not to worry. While I was eating my candle-roasted trout with my fork/phone and checking the temperature outside, I would be considering my next order from Sears, Roebuck, circa 1902. I could recline in one of two collapsible chairs under the canvas of a reproduction Civil War tent. Who cared when the snow cleared? I had a few granola bars, a wildflower identification book, and enough vintage Meat Loaf cassettes to last quite some time...

Wonderful things, indeed.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part III

"To know when your Flax is fit to gather," recommended John Wily of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, "you must observe the Leaves turning yellow, and the lower Ones dropping off the Stalks..." (33, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of John Wily's Treatise)

Sure enough, my flax showed signed of being "fit to gather" by early July, just about three months after I planted it and after a good growing season. So out Nicole and I went, on July 11th, to harvest the flax.

"The Method to gather your Flax is to pull it up by the Roots with one hand." (33)

"If the Seed is not full ripe, as it seldom all ripens together, you may let it lie in the Field two or three Days." (33)

Once farmers removed flax from the earth, the first step in harvesting every bit of useful material from the plants was to remove the seeds, which they could sell to special processors who extracted linseed (think linen+seed) oil, used for a variety or purposes including as a paint medium, from the seeds.

Flax Seeds

In order to remove the seeds from my flax plants, I needed a "Rippling Comb," for which Wily provides instructions: "Get a Piece of Plank about eighteen Inches long, three broad, and one thick; then have fourteen or fifteen teeth made of iron or steel, about six Inches long, in the Shape of a flooring Brad; then bore as many Holes lengthwise in the Plank as you have Teeth to put in it, letting the Teeth stand about a Quarter of an Inch apart." (33)

Someday, I'll get a truly authentic Rippling Comb. For now, lacking either a local blacksmith or my own forge, I went to my local hardware store and bought a box of the largest flooring brads I could find (essentially unchanged since 1765), a bit shorter than Wily's recommendation. Wily's directions seem almost foolproof, but I soon discovered two problems. First, my plank was inclined to split down the line of the brads even when I bored holes in advance of driving the brads in. I stopped short of Wily's fifteen teeth to prevent totally cracking my plank.

Rippling Comb

Second problem: teeth with spaces between them of 1/4" allowed my flax seeds to generally pass right through without pulling the seeds off the stalks when I did as Wily recommended: "take a Handful and strike it on the Teeth, and draw it through," (34). Either Wily meant that the teeth should be driven into the plank at 1/4" intervals (leaving only a narrow slit between the actual edges of each tooth) or flax plants in 1765 had slightly larger or more compact seed heads. This seems plausible, given that the flax I grew, marketed for flowers and seeds more than fiber, probably included more of these elements than you'd want if you were growing and breeding plants with an eye towards those that devoted the most energy to stalk (and thus fiber) production.

To counteract this problem, I had placed several of my teeth closer together, which allowed Nicole and I to quickly pull the seeds away from small handfuls of flax.






I'll get back to these seeds later. For now, it was time to ret my flax. Retting involves getting the flax plants wet for an extended period in order to break down the gummy substance that adheres the exterior bark (to be used for fiber) from the woody core of each stalk. You can discern the difference between the two parts when the flax is unretted, but you can't easily separate them.

Broken green flax

Although Wily provided instructions for retting flax by leaving it lying in dewy fields for several days or submerging it in standing water, he favored retting it in "a Stream of fresh running Water" for better cleansing the flax at a cool temperature (reducing the danger of over-retting and thus ruining your crop). Wily said to tie up your flax in "Sheaves, about the Size of a Sheaf of Wheat... with some good strong Bark, or Withe, for fear of its breaking loose in the Water," (35). The total product of my flax patch came out to something like as much as your typical wheat sheaf.


Tying a sheaf of flax with bark

I'm lucky enough to live near a "Stream of fresh running Water" as Wily suggested, and retting flax this way involves only two other tools: strong twine and a weight, in my case some rocks tied up in old stockings.


John Wily wanted to sound authoritative when he wrote his book, enough so that skeptical farmers might adopt flax for the potential cash crop he believed it was. But even Wily had to admit that "it is out of the Power of any Man to tell the exact Number of Days it will take to water or dew-rot Flax," (35). This was the riskiest part of flax production. A few hours too long in the water and you would overdo it, ending up with flax plants that, instead of producing long fibers suitable for spinning into fine and sturdy thread, had deteriorated too much and would produce only inferior, short, coarse fibers. 



Wily offered general instructions for how to tell if your flax had retted enough, and I dutifully walked down to the creek once or twice a day to remove a stalk or two, breaking them to see if they appeared "very rotten and tender" (35), as Wily described the finished goal. 

24 hours after retting began

48 hours after retting began

72 hours after retting began

Sure enough, after 72 hours in the river, the flax seemed to be quite rotten and, even more convincing given the interpretive room within Wily's description, I could see the long bark fibers easily sloughing off from the core of each stalk.

The real test will come later, when I move on to "breaking" the plants as the next step in processing the flax. Stay tuned for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part II

In 1765, John Wily recommended planting tobacco or another weed-discouraging crop the year before you planted your flax field. Any weeds that "come up with the Flax," he said, "will be very hurtful to it, unless picked out, which is very troublesome," (31). Luckily, after I planted my flax patch in April, I could afford to weed it by hand in lieu of any tobacco crop last year. I weeded my patch every couple weeks or so, but for the most part weeds didn't seem to be a big problem. To mimic eighteenth-century reliance on natural rainfall, I didn't water my patch at all. 

The images below give you a sense of what a flax season might have looked like two hundred years ago. You'll note that, initially, the plants actually didn't end up that thick and that there were a number of disconcerting blank patches of soil. This seemed less of a problem as the plants got taller and appeared crowded enough to encourage thin stems, as Wily recommended.

April 16th, plants 0.5-0.75" tall.

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May 5th, plants 1.5-3" tall.

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May 23rd, majority of plants 11.5-15" tall. I initially thought the plants were bent over because of a heavy storm the day before, but over the next month they seemed to do this regularly. I suspect it has to do with moisture content.

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June 7th, majority of plants 25-30" tall. I noticed the first blooms on the 6th, exactly two months after planting.

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June 9th, now in full bloom.

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June 28th, plants ranging between 26" and 37", with the majority around 35" tall. Notice that those on the edges of the patch, lacking the support of neighboring plants, are inclined to fall over.

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Here's the patch the day we harvested it, July 11th.

A few days before harvesting, I noticed half a dozen inch-long, fuzzy caterpillars in the patch. They seemed to only be eating the leaves. From what I can tell, they're Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillars. They got to my flax late enough that it didn't matter, but I wonder how much damage a large number might do if they hit the plants early in the season.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shoes and Rigs aboard the Charles W. Morgan

One of the first things I noticed about the professional sailors aboard the Charles W. Morgan during my leg of the 38th Voyage last month was the diversity of their clothing. This was nowhere more evident than in two particular parts of their wardrobes, their shoes and their "rigs," the leather holsters in which each sailor carries several tools. 

I suppose I had assumed that there must be some sort of agreed-upon standard for footwear, the best shoe for shipboard work. In fact, there were as many brands and styles as there were sailors aboard the Morgan. Aaron Gralnick told me that he adopted open shoes several years ago because "feet stink downstairs," and that he hates socks because they're just one more thing to put on when you have to get up and go quickly. The soles of these shoes, he finds, wear about about every two years. Nobody goes barefoot. Despite longstanding myths to the contrary, it seems that sailors in earlier periods also almost always wore shoes. You can read more about early U.S. Navy footwear here







Before boarding the Morgan, I'd never heard of a "rig" in the context these sailors use the term. Each crewmember wore a belt and a leather holster, in which they carried a knife and a marlinspike. As Aaron Gralnick told me, "My spike is a hammer, a finger, a spike, and a fid. My knife is for so much more than just cutting." Cassie Sleeper carries knife, a marlinspike, sometimes a flashlight or a spoon, and a whistle. "You don't want to find yourself in the water without a whistle," she said. She also has a pair of DeWalt clippers for cutting line in another leather holster. In the case of all of these tools, they are tethered to the belt or rig with a line long enough to allow easy use but not so long that, if dropped, the tool might hit and damage the deck. 

Rigs show individuality. Some people decorate their rig with embossed designs or elaborate stitching, and some ships have standard patterns new crewmen can use. Aaron had even heard stories of current sailors seeing someone wearing a certain style of rig and knowing which ship they'd come from.









Thanks to the crew of the Morgan for their hard work during our trip and for providing such fine examples of skilled professionals at work. It was great to watch them operate the ship and to see what they chose to wear while they did so.