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,

Richard Webster, "Chestnut Street Study Area," Historic American Buildings Survey, before 1976,

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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Arch Street Bones Project

This could be a long blog post. I have a lot of things to say about the surprise discovery of the remains of the historic burial ground of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, uncovered during a construction project on Arch Street last fall. As an archaeological site, the burial ground was partially destroyed by construction equipment operating there. It was only through the intervention of some dedicated (volunteer) archaeologists that any real archaeology was completed at all, and that work was speedy and only a few steps ahead of the backhoes. I could easily lament the rather shameful disengagement of various local and state agencies who claimed they lacked jurisdiction over human remains and/or the site.

And we could certainly discuss the lack of any real enforcement mechanism for the cultural heritage guidelines Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have on the books. I have strong feelings about how a city that prides itself on its cultural heritage simultaneously ignores the rampant destruction of archaeological resources on private land (often despite the laudable advocacy of organizations such as the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum). In 2014, for example, a site at the corner of Third and Market that included a number of eighteenth-century foundations, privies, and wells was destroyed and looted by private collectors. All legal. All to the great detriment of each of us, because each of us owns the legacy of the people, many anonymous, enslaved, and forgotten, whose only traces are things like broken bits of pottery thrown down a well and the human bones that lie buried under our feet. These are artifacts that can tell profound stories about our ancestors.

Photo by Evi Numen, from

But I want to get right to the point. Now that the eighteenth-century human remains found on Arch Street - over seventy individuals and many more fragmentary bits - are above ground, they are in urgent need of proper storage, conservation, and analysis. However you feel about the conditions of their recovery, we can probably all agree that the least we can do for the people who were buried on Arch Street - and for ourselves, because of all the things we can learn about our predecessors from studying their bones - is restore some sense of individuality and humanity to their remains. Thanks to the dedication of a few key volunteers, the Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and other institutions, this work has begun. It needs your support.

Take a minute to consider the Arch Street Bones Project, the crowdsourced funding campaign to support the urgent needs of this collection. You might be surprised at how much we will learn about the past.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part VII: Bucking

Once you have spun and hanked (wound into coils) your flax yarns, wrote John Wily in 1765, they should be "boiled in Water and Ashes, to make it soft and pliable, that it may weave the closer and tighter together" (49).

Wily was frustratingly vague here, but other sources help flesh out his meaning. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, defined "buck" as laundry, laundry water, and the act of laundering. So one could presumably buck your buck in buck. But more specifically, bucking was the first step in softening and bleaching flax for linen. A 1766 volume described in detail how flax yarns were bucked  by soaking them in water and treating them with lye (s.v. "Buck" and "Bleach"). One 1809 source even suggested boiling flax in seawater, unslaked lime, and potash before spinning it (265-266).

In 1765, a "lye" (a derivative of "alkali") was a very basic (versus acidic) solution. The most common household lye was rendered from potash. In short, water was passed through wood ashes (ashes in a pot) and a filtering medium. People used what trickled out for a variety of purposes, especially soap. Or, in the case of some farmers, softening and bleaching flax.

But, unlike other sources, Wily doesn't say to use lye or potash. He just says ashes. So, I experimented with these instructions alone. As far as ratios go, I decided to go with a source from 1769. Granted, it's talking about the treatment of grain to avoid fungal infections. But it's the closest I've found to an actual ratio: "Make some lye, such as is used for linen, in a bucking-tub, putting four pounds of water to every pound of ashes," (s.v. "Burnt-grain"). But instead of steeping the ashes in water to make lye, as these instructions suggest, I simply used the 4:1 weight ratio as the basis for otherwise following Wily's instructions.

That is, after I imposed on a friend to collect a bag of ashes from his wood stove (the handoff of this bag, of course, generated a number of tasteless jokes about drug deals and grandmother's ashes).

"You should boil it," wrote Wily," until you see it begin to lint, that is, when you see a Lint or Fuzz rise on the thread" (49).

Vague again, you Wily bastard (see what I did there?). More experimenting was in order.

After doing a small test to make sure that my linen wouldn't simply disintegrate, Nicole helped me dutifully measure out the appropriate amounts of water and ashes.

We prepared four small hanks: a control, one boiled for five minutes, one for ten, and one for twenty.

Three of the miniature flax hanks before boiling.
The problem, we instantly realized, was that it was impossible to see anything in the ashy water. I had assumed Wily meant you would be watching your flax while it was submerged, but clearly he wanted you to fish it out periodically to examine it. But even when we fished the linen out, it was hopelessly dingy and clotted with small bits of charcoal, making it impossible to see any linting. So we went with the timer method, even if it's anachronistic. This was an experiment, after all.

I was skeptical whether the ash had many any difference when we first removed the flax hanks from the water. But lo and behold, after I washed them clean and let them dry overnight, they did indeed show stark changes.

Each of our three tests showed that increasing the boiling time both softened the flax and significantly lightened its color. Wily never mentioned color changes, but that helps explain why bucking was a first step in bleaching flax to a pure white color.

I wish I had prepared a few more miniature hanks and really let them cook. I suspect a half hour would be about ideal under my stovetop conditions, but who knows what an hour or two would do? At some point, of course, the flax threads would begin to break down and the hanks would disintegrate, but I suspect that would take quite some time. People boiled linen textiles when they laundered them, after all, and they didn't disintegrate.

With my bucking experiment over, there is only one final step in this long saga of my journey from flax to linen: weaving. And that's a story for another day.

Thanks to Joseph Privott and Mark Hutter for their insights on bucking, Matt Mickletz for his ashes, and Nicole Belolan for her able assistance in all things.

Volumes linked above:

Temple Henry Croker, et al., The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences... (London: Printed for the Authors, 1766).

Evert Duyckinck, Valuable Secrets in Arts, Traces, &c... (New York: Published by Evert Duyckinck, 1809).

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language... (London: W. Strahan, 1755).

A Society of Gentlemen, Members of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, The Complete Farmer... (London: R. Baldwin et al., 1769).