Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Washington's Tent on "Enfilade" and the 38th Voyage

I was delighted to contribute a reflective essay on the First Oval Office Project to the scholarly blog "Enfilade" recently. The post, which emerged from a panel at the recent American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, is only a small part of what Enfilade has to offer.

38th Voyage

I'm also excited to announce that I'll be part of Mystic Seaport's "38th Voyage" this summer. The Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, is the only wooden whaleship still afloat. This summer, she will depart on the 38th voyage of her long history, along the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Participants in the various legs of this cruise, the "38th Voyagers," are undertaking a variety of projects focusing on marine life, the history of whaling, shipboard activities, artwork, and many other subjects. My small part of this project involves sailing for a night and a day aboard the Morgan between New London, Connecticut, and Newport, Rhode Island. Even a brief time aboard the ship opens up opportunities to test assumptions about life at sea. For me, that means thinking about how clothing impacts work aboard ships, a subject connected to my longstanding interest in ready-made and work clothing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I'm working on an understudied component of sailor clothing, protective outer garments. Sailors aboard the Morgan and other whaleships hoped jackets and hats made from painted, oiled, or rubberized cloth would keep them a bit drier in rainstorms. If all goes well, I'll construct reproductions of some sample garments for members of the Morgan's contemporary crew to test this summer. I'm looking forward to finding out how certain waterproofing formulations work, how garments affect kinesthetics and shipboard movement, what 2014 sailors wear to stay dry, and what they think about their forebears' options. Stay tuned for more on this project!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part I

I'm not making a linen tent this summer (studying for my qualifying exams will keep me busy enough), but I wanted to undertake a more manageable experimental archaeology project, growing flax in the eighteenth-century manner. I started with John Wily's Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax. There are certainly other works discussing the techniques of flax growing. This one has the advantage of having been printed in Williamsburg, Virginia, and reprinted in facsimile by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In short, this was a book Americans used around the time of the Revolution to grow flax, and one which I could hold in my hand and take out to the field.

"Flax should be sowed promiscuously (as Wheat or Oats, &c.) but somewhat thicker," wrote Wily.
Eighteenth-century farmers debated the proper amount of seed necessary for wheat and oats. Contemporaneous sources recommended, depending on the region and season, two, three, or even four bushels of wheat seed per acre, and something like the same for oats. Nevertheless, Wily recommended sowing only 1 to 1 1/2 bushels of flax seed per acre. The thicker the crop, he said, the thinner the flax stalks, which meant finer fibers and (eventually) finer thread.

I had 2 teaspoons of flax seed from an heirloom seed house. That means math, the sort of math not necessary for farmers in the 1760s. But here I was, with much less than a bushel and a half of flax seed and much less than an acre to plant. There are, apparently, 7149.5 teaspoons per bushel, and so you'd need  10724.25 (7149.5 x 1.5) teaspoons to plant an acre at 1 1/2 bushels per acre. That means I had 2/10724.25 or 1/5362.125 of an acre of seed. An acre (43,560 square feet) divided by 5362.125 is 8.1. It turned out (and there are other ways of ciphering it) that I had enough seed to plant about eight square feet of flax, 1765 style.

Enough flax seeds to plant eight square feet.

My dirt was far from the "fine rich mellow Soil" recommended by Wily, and I didn't grow tobacco or any other weed-discouraging crop last year. Wily warns that weeds can choke out young flax plants. I don't have a plow to run through the ground "two or three Times" in March or a "Tooth Harrow" to use afterwards. Anyway, I did my best, with a hoe, to get the ground "as level, and... as fine, as possible," and I topdressed my flax patch with some composted soil.

Flax seeds on the surface, before mixing with the soil.

Wily recommended sowing flax between mid-March and mid-April, and I planted mine on April 6th. He also suggested going over the planted field with that tooth harrow or "a larger Quantity of scragged Brush dragged after a Horse or Ox, to cover or mix the Seed with the Earth." To "scrag" is to rough something up, so I mixed the flax seed with the soil by hands after I sowed my eight square feet of flax. After that, I left the seeds to their own devices. Stay tuned for an update.

My flax patch.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gems from the Regimental Books of the 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry (1862-1865)

A few weeks ago, I took a day trip down to Washington, D.C., to pick up a printing press. That's a long story in itself, and one I'll save for a later post. But, I also spent some time at the National Archives doing research. Among other things, I pulled the regimental and company books of the 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, a unit in the Union army during the Civil War. Company A (approximately one hundred men) of this regiment was composed in part of men from my home town, Traverse City, Michigan, and dubbed by locals the "Lakeshore Tigers."

This exceptional cased tintype, sold by Cowan's Auctions, shows a federal soldier holding a hand-tinted red apple next to his knapsack with unusual stenciling indicating his membership in Company A of the 26th Michigan Infantry.

This personal connection and my own research interests prompted me to take a quick look at the books of this regiment, now held as part of Record Group 94 at the Archives and which comprise four volumes:
  • A volume containing a list of officers, a descriptive list of enlisted men, consolidated morning reports (daily numerical counts of soldiers present) recorded between April 29, 1863, and November 3, 1864, and the regimental order book (in which clerks copied army orders with some bearing on the unit)
  • A volume containing descriptive rolls and details remarks on the men in Companies A-K
  •  A volume of company orders (similar to the regimental order books, but bearing on the company level) for Companies A, D, and F, and rosters of Company F from the fall of 1862
  • A volume of morning reports for Companies A-K from April 1864 through May 1865
Although most of these records consist of rather dry statistical data and various rosters, announcements of promotions and demotions, and brief notes about desertions, disease, and casualties, interspersed among this paperwork are intriguing details about life in this Union regiment. I wanted to record and discuss some of them here, because they show how uniform regulations and commanders' wishes often butted up against the idiosyncrasies and personal tastes of private soldiers in the Civil War. Most the orders below came from regimental and division commanders, the men whose decisions about the minutiae of uniforms and accoutrements most impacted the individual soldier. In the following transcriptions, I have left spelling intact but altered punctuation and accompanying capitalization in a few places for readability. 

In camp near Alexandria, Virginia, on April 12th, 1863, the regiment prepared for a summer of marching:

"1st Captains will at one make requisitions for one Shelter Tent for each Commissioned Officer, and one for every Two Non-Commissioned Officers and Private needed for their Companies.
2nd Officers baggage will be limited to blankets, a small Valise or carpet bag and reasonable mess-kit,
3nd All extra baggage, Arms, and Private baggage, will be neatly packed and marked and turned over to Quarter-Master."

Civil War shelter tents consisted of two canvas pieces, buttoned together along the ridge, and sheltered two men. This image is from John Billings's Hardtack and Coffee and is from here.

An original Civil War carpet bag possibly carried a New Hampshire soldier, from here.

Similar concerns about weighty baggage persisted in April 1864, even though  26th and other regiments in the First Division, Second Corps were veteran marchers by then. The First Division headquarters still felt it necessary to issue a general order (number 104)  regarding marching that month. As recorded in the 26th's order books, it read:

"Comd'g Officers should see that the Surplus clothing of the me is sent to the rear under Par. 1. Gen Order No. 17, A of P. It is the old clothing rather than the new, which should be sent to the rear each man being provided with a new suit to begin the summer campaigne with, each man should be allowed to carry in addition to the suit he wears, only a change of under clothes, a woolen and Rubber Blanket an extra pair of shoes, and a few of under light articles as can be carried without materialy increasing his burden.
"In view of the fact that much of the falling out from exhastion on a march is owning to heavy Knapsacks. The Provost Guard of the Division will be instructed that when a man falls out of the ranks upon plea of exhaustion his Knapsack will be searched and all extra woolen Garments of heavy articles not authorized by orders will be thrown away upon the Spot. The name of the Commanding Officer of the Company who allowed such overloading of Knapsacks to which the belongs will be taken and reported to the Brigade Commander for his Action. This Order will be read three times at the head of each Company, and thoroughly brought to the notice of the any Commanding Officers will take care to have on hand a sufficient number of Shelter tents to fill places (when the Army moves) of the worthless ones now covering the wooden huts."

That same April, in 1864, the First Division reminded its various constituent regiments that "Men who leave the ranks to attend the calls of nature must leave their guns with their Comrades. Company Commanders may allow a sufficient number of men to leave the ranks with the canteen of the company to search for Watter. Three or four men will be enough to fill the canteens of a company. The Men will leave their guns with their Comrades. No man must be found out of the ranks with his gun or a single Canteen."

The 26th's regimental orders also offer interesting insights into how the men were supposed to carry their equipment. Commanding the regiment on January 14, 1865, Major Nathan Church instructed the soldiers to appear for an inspection with their knapsacks "carefully packed, over coats neatly rolled and strapped on the Knapsack, Canteens and Haversacks on the left side the Canteen over the Haversack." On April 19, 1865, Church prepared the men for another inspection, instructing that "Knapsacks will be neatly packed with woolen blankets rolled inside of the rubber and strapped on the Knapsacks, and in the absence of Woolen blankets, Great coats will used." Again he felt the need to remind the men that "Haversacks and Canteens will be worn on the left side, canteen over the Haversack." This last part is especially interesting, because every image with which I'm familiar shows soldiers wearing their canteens over their haversacks (see the modern photos below). If this was the universal practice, why prescribe it at all? I'm unaware of any images of or any other documentation for soldiers wearing their canteens under their haversacks. Because of the size and shape of these accoutrements, such an arrangement would seem uncomfortable, pressing the hard round metal canteen into the hip, and would also make the canteen difficult to access for drinking and refilling because it would be wedged under the haversack. And yet, Church's reminder indicates that even at the very end of the war, some men must have been wearing their accoutrements this way, necessitating the specific order.

As for other aspects of the soldiers' appearance and uniforms, a few hints appear in the orders. On December 23rd, 1862, a circular from the "First Provisional Brigade," Union Mills, Virginia, copied into the order books of the regiment reads:

"In answer to inquiries made at these headquarters how to were accoutrements of the men and to insure uniformity the following will be observed. The coats jackets or blouses will be at all times buttons and hooked and only the cap as precibed worn. No citizens hat or [unclear] covering etc. will be endured. The pantaloons and over coats light blue. Men in possesion of dark blue pants will will wear them only in camp. As regards the dark blue over coats of the 128th N.Y.V. and the black ones of the 29th N.Y.V. an exchange must be affected to given them either to Musicians and Sergeants or to the flanking companies. Enlisted men will under no condition be allowed to carry pistols or knives on their belts. To Regiments not haveing shoulder belts to support their cartridge boxes it would be suggested to make requisition for them. Every soldier leaving camp for leave of Absence or going to head-quarters or to a superior officer will wear always his side arms."

The order continues, and I'll break it down to better illustrate the distinctions it mentions (click on the modern photos for larger views):

"The haver Sack will be worn under the belts hanging on the left side so far back upon the hip that it can hardly be seen when standing before the man. The canteen over it.) In Regiments haveing the Shoulder belts.}"

Two views of the prescribed arrangement of accoutrements. Technically, I messed up a bit - the haversack strap should be underneath the cartridge box shoulder strap. Oops.

"Those without shoulder belts will wear the canteen on the right side) also back upon the hip for guard mount parade & review. Upon marches it will hang over all the belts so as to be convenient for use."

Although soldiers seem to have preferred carrying their canteens over their haversacks, this arrangement places it on the right side because the cartridge box, now connected to the waist belt rather than a shoulder belt (the box is constructed to accommodate either setup), sits closer to the center of the back. The cartridge box could weigh quite a bit, with forty rounds of lead bullets and powder, but soldiers did sometimes remove the shoulder strap in favor of this means of carrying it. 

"The shoulder belt with cartridge box will hang from the left shoulder to the right hip the box as far back as posible and the cartridge box ought never to be drawn the waist belt when carried on the shoulder belt."

So, NOT like this. Why a soldier would do this eludes me. It does help distribute the weight of the cartridge box between two straps, the belt and the shoulder strap, but it also means that to remove it you have to first undo the waist belt (with its other hanging accoutrements) and then pull the shoulder strap over your head while it dangles everything else. Again, however, this prescriptive order instructs against something only because it was obviously a problem.

"There ought to be a distance of an inch or two between the upper edge of the cartridge box and the lower edge of the waist belt. The waist belt to be sufficiently tight so as to hold the before on it. The latter will set in the same position as above designated vice touching the right waist button on the back."

A view of the cartridge box sitting under and below the waist belt.

"The waist belt plate to cover the 9th button. The bayonett frog to be behind the left hip. The cap box close to the waist belt plate [buckle] and on the right of the latter."

This front view shows the arrangement detailed above, although in this case depicts a four-button sack coat instead of a nine-button uniform coat. The bayonet "frog" is the leather throat piece, strung on the belt, which connects to the leather socket-like bayonet scabbard.

"The Knapsack above all ( and no breast straps to be worn optional on the Knapsack slings. Great coats when not worn to be folded under the flap. Blanket wraped in the india Rubber one neatly foled on the top of the Knap sack. Commanders of Regiments and companies will require their Noncommissioned officers to wear badges of their Ranks."

Albert H. Davis, Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry. In this image from the Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress, Davis wears a full set of accoutrements, including a knapsack (although his blanket is not rolled in an "india Rubber" one, issued for use as a groundcloth and rain protection, as described above). His haversack and canteen hang quite low, indicating that he hasn't done much marching yet, and he wears a regulation uniform coat, complete with decorative brass shoulder "scales." Keep in mind that this image is reversed from life, meaning we are actually viewing his left side.

The men of the 26th apparently had dress ("frock") coats like the one worn by Davis above, in February, 1865, when Major Church instructed them to wear them when on guard duty, along with white gloves. Nevertheless, the commanders of the 26th struggled to maintain uniformity among their troops. Major Lemuel Saviers reminded the regiment on April 16th, 1864, that "All Officers and men of this Regiment will be required to wear, either in Camp or on duty, the uniform Clothing prescribed by Regulations."

A good composite illustration of Library of Congress photographs showing soldiers on guard duty wearing regulation uniform ("frock") coats and white gloves, from this article.

Although the 26th was complimented on April 21, 1864, for "the prompt manner in which they have they handle their pieces [guns] during the drill in the manuel and for their Steadiness while in the ranks on Parade," other aspects of their appearance sometimes raised concerns. On January 12, 1865, the regiment was cited for violating certain paragraphs of the army regulations (you can read them in their entirety here): 100 (grooming and hair), 125 (requiring men detailed as officers' servant to still dress and drill as soldiers), 255 (saluting while carrying arms), 256 (saluting when not under arms), and 257 (saluting when an officer approaches a sitting or standing soldier). Hair continued to be an issue for the 26th, and Major Church called attention to paragraph 100, "requiring the hair to be kept short and beard neatly trimmed," on January 14, 1865. Again, on the 16th, he instructed company commanders to "cause the evil complained of to be remedied at once." 

Given the variety of hair styles among soldiers, one wonders just how unkempt the men of the 26th had become by early 1865. Would this typical but unidentified man (tintype from eBay), for instance, have passed inspection or not?

One last, humorous anecdote. On March 11th, 1863, Major Lemuel Saviers issued a stern warning, explaining the punishments that would be meted out to any man who did not "make proper use of the sinks [latrines]" or was "caught committing any nuisance on the parade ground of the immediate vicinity of the Camp." He concluded with this rebuke:

"Common decency would require men to make a more proper use of the sinks and not allow reports to be going to Army Hdqrs that the men of this Regt do not know what a sink is made for."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Experimental Archaeology: Early American Whirligigs and Whizzers

It's been a snowy winter here in Delaware, leaving lots of time for reading, research, and working on small projects. After so many snow days and road problems, I've been thinking about how people entertained themselves indoors in the past. Among other things, I wondered about the toy "whirligigs" and "whizzers" found at early American archaeological sites. Here's an example from Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, for instance. It's a pretty simple toy, requiring only a string and a pierced, weighty object. When twisted and held taught, the object quickly spins back and forth.

Whirligig as applied to this type of toy was in use by the seventeenth century, according to the OED, and this type of artifact is common in eighteenth-century contexts, according to Ivor Noel Hume (A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, 1970, 320-321) and others. I think the term "whizzer," although common among archaeologists and the public, may be anachronistic, as I've been unable to locate its origin or a period reference.

I was wondering in particular why some are round and others have teeth around their edges. So, I got to work with a few basic tools - a knife, a plain file, and a rat tail file for smoothing out the cut holes. For my whirligigs, I used some old (reproduction) Revolutionary War British army buttons.

Tools and raw material (pewter button) atop a page from Lynn L. M. Evans's Keys to the Past: Archaeological Treasures of Mackinac (2003, 41) showing an original whirligig and an illustration of one in use.

It takes less than half an hour to turn a pewter button into a toothed whirligig. That involves filing off the shank, piercing holes by twisting a knife around in a precise spot, and filing the teeth around the edge. The pewter buttons I used are harder than lead, so original whirligigs made from repurposed lead cloth bale seals or flattened musket balls would have been even faster to make. 

I made four whirligigs, each with minor variations, to test whether any particular type worked better or made a louder noise. I assumed the teeth had something to with the noise factor.

Some experimental whirligigs.

I had expected these toys to whine or hum when spun. In fact, the toothed ones actually only make a fine rushing sound (a whizzing sound, in fact). The one without teeth is silent when spun, except for the sound of the string twisting (which is actually relatively noisy). I can't discern any difference in sound between the fine-toothed and coarse-toothed examples. The one in which I drilled holes far apart (at the bottom of the above image) also works, but it's harder to start and keep spinning than the others. Some excavated whirligigs have a third, central hole, but I'm still at a loss to explain that. I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has an idea. In the mean time, I'll be playing with these entrancing little toys.


After reading this and mastering the whirligig herself, the ever-astute Nicole Belolan asked what it was about the whirligigs that made them "fun." She speculated that it has more to do with the unique physical sensation of the tensing and loosening string than with any sight or sound. We live in a world filled with visual and auditory entertainment, and toys that entertain us through the sense of touch are relatively uncommon, at least once we move beyond infancy. Nicole also speculated about whether early American children might have competed to see who could keep their whirligig going the longest, as their hands and arms grew tired from the work, in the same way that more recent children compete at dribbling balls or spinning hula hoops.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hands of Tentmakers

On the very last day of my summer involvement with the First Oval Office Project, I took photographs of our remaining crew's hands and quizzed each of them about what they had noticed after three months of full-time sewing. As with so many other dimensions of this undertaking, witnessing how our bodies reacted to the work was a prime example of experimental archaeology in action. I now know, for instance, what it feels like to sit tailor fashion, cross-legged, for most of a work day, and how, by the end of many such days, I usually began to slouch to one side, perhaps the result of my back muscles giving out more on the left side of my scoliatic spine. I noticed how, in the midst of a long seam, I could almost drift off into a doze while still sewing. All of us observed changes in our hands brought on by regular, if not unremitting, hand-sewing.

I'm posting the photographs and notes below without much editing or commentary. I don't mean to fetishize craftspeople's hands. That's been done before and, I'll admit, sometimes with significant artistic accomplishment. In this case, I hope these photographs will be more intriguing and useful from a scholarly standpoint. I believe they may be of some interest to those seeking to understand historical labor, the history of the body, and the impact of a very specific type of physical activity on the human form. You can read more about the First Oval Office Project on this blog or the facebook page, and it almost goes without saying that our hands are not perfect doppelgangers of those of the tentmakers of 1777. After all, most of us grew up eating wholesome food and avoiding much manual labor. We generally enjoy a lifestyle that is remarkably kind to our hands compared to those of most past ages. But, at the very least, this data provides some hint of how hand-sewing affects the body and also of the many idiosyncrasies in technique that existed in our shop, as they certainly did in the shops of the Revolution.

Gwendolyn Basala (Right-Handed)
Gwendolyn has been sewing for over a decade, including professional work in theater and living history costuming. Although she developed calluses on her right hand in this previous, primarily machine-sewing work, it was only with this project that she noticed many pricks and minor calluses on her left hand, a result of regular contact with needle tips.

Mark Hutter (Right-Handed)
When Mark first started sewing years ago, he had carpal tunnel symptoms until he learned to relax the tension in his hands when sewing. Now, he notices a stronger pinch in his right thumb, index, and middle fingers than in his left. He has a permanent flat callus on the tip of his right index finger and a small ridge from writing and seating a thimble on his right middle finger. He keeps his thumb and index finger nails a bit longer for picking up pins and needles, and notices that when he's working regularly on a project, his nail growth speeds up significantly.

Brendan Menz (Left-Handed/Ambidextrous)
Brendan, who also works in leather and can sew with both hands, has calluses on his index and middle finger tips, as well as on the top tips of his thumbs. His index and middle fingers grew in thickness over the summer. 

Joseph Privott (Left-Handed)
Joseph, who works in many media, noticed a few old calluses returning this summer, including one on the tip of his left index finger, from rubbing against the needle, and pricks on his right thumb and forefinger. Like most of the crew, he does not typically wear a thimble, resulting in a small gouged pocket in his left middle finger. On this particular day, his hands were somewhat stained from blackberries and featured traditional tattoos

Tyler Putman (Right-Handed)
As for me, I noticed calluses developing on the thumb-side tips of my right index and middle fingers soon after the project began. Around the same time, I had some minor issues with wrist pain. You can see the distinctive green tarnish on my right middle finger from my brass thimble. Among other things, my right thumb and index finger are noticeably larger than those on my left hand, but it's hard to say whether this was a result of the sewing of this summer. I'll have to look closely in a year to see if they've atrophied at all. 

Michael Ramsey (Right-Handed)
Michael has previous sewing experience and noticed calluses on right thumb tip and right forefinger tip. His right middle finger has less of a callus since he began using a thimble in mid-summer. Michael noticed minor wrist issues and his feet falling asleep after sitting cross-legged for too long. As can be seen in the last photograph, Michael's right index finger ended up substantially larger than his left.

Nicole Rudolph (Right-Handed)
A shoemaker and seamstress, Nicole has a slice on her right thumb from her cordwaining work. She noticed that the inside of her right middle finger went numb after using the large shears repeatedly. She has calluses on her right middle finger, on her left index and middle fingers from repeated pricking, and on her right pinky finger from pulling thread. She found that tentmaking required less strength than shoemaking, but also noticed that both her arms had grown larger over the past six months.