Sunday, December 18, 2016

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part VI: Heckling and Spinning

In my ongoing experiment in making linen from seed to fabric (about which you can read here), I've run rather behind (two growing seasons, in fact). But I've finally found the time to heckle and spin my linen into something resembling yarn!

John Wily, the author of the 1765 Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax, describes in detail how to make a heckle, the wooden-based, iron-toothed comb that you use to strip flax of remaining "hards," or pieces of non-fibrous core of the stalks. For the most refined flax production, Wily says, get yourself a graduate set of heckles, because you can work down to smaller teeth and thus finer flax fibers. "But," he concludes, "many People have only one, of a middle Size," (43).

Living as I do in 2016, and I have a much easier recourse to the internet than to a blacksmith capable of making the the 176 tapered, 4-inch long, steel teeth that Wily says you need to make a heckle. So I bought an antique one. It dates to the nineteenth century, and it's clearly seen some use.

Wily says to take a bunch of your flax, shake it to loosen it, wrap it around a couple fingers, and "fling the other Ends of the Flax on the Points of the Heckle Teeth." Do this enough times, and what you end up with is "the longest of the Flax," which "will make very good Thread," (45).

The problem, I discovered, was that if your initial twist of flax is too big (mine were), you end up hopelessly fouling both the twist and the heckle. Moreover, I suspect that my previous scutching/swingling had left many more hards than Wily would have liked, which also contributed to the mess.

Most importantly, I discovered, you need to keep your twist of flax well in hand, because as soon as I set it down and began to try to pick through it, the neat bunch of fibers transformed itself into a bird's nest.

I was rather crestfallen at the results. Bertie the cat was rather crestfallen to be trapped indoors.

What I ended up with was one small twist of pretty decent flax. As you can see from the picture below, as I heckled the flax, the lengths of my fibers decreased because I was breaking more and more of them as I worked them through the heckle's teeth.

Bertie inspects the flax.

I also salvaged a wad of "tow," the shorter, bird's nest fibers. Over a couple nights, I managed to pick most of the hards out of the tow wad so that I ended up with a softball-sized, puffy ball of tow. 

Tow before I removed the hards (visible here as lighter-colored splinters).

I took these rather underwhelming materials to a friend, Heather Hansen, who is an accomplished spinner and knitter. Luckily for me, Heather has a flax wheel and the knowledge to operate it. Lucky because, I'll be honest, the spinning part of this process is what I find most confusing, even now that I've done it with Heather.

In theory, spinning makes sense. You just twist the fibers together like a very tiny rope, and this tension holds them together. But in practice, spinning flax on a wheel is like playing a drumset (I've never played a drum set, but I can barely rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time, so you get where this is going). You power the wheel with foot peddles, the wheel spins and engages with various mechanisms, and you manipulate the raw flax with your hands so that it is gradually spun and sucked up onto a revolving spool. Even with Heather's patient tutelage, I found the my hands and feet were often out of sync. I ended up spinning too fast, creating something that looked far more like twine than thread, or breaking the yarn.

Luckily for me, Heather was able to produce a more continuous thread (I contributed by operating the foot peddles). Even with my tow ball, which I had neglected to card as Wily instructed. He recommended processing tow with cards, the same sort of toothed paddles used for processing wool, in order to gather up and align short flax fibers. In fact, Heather, perhaps because she is more familiar with spinning wool, found it easier tow work with the ball of tow fibers than with the finer bunch of flax.

Our result is clearly much heavier than the yarns that early Americans would have wanted for weaving fine linen textiles, but it's still within the realm of possibility for use in things like upholstery webbing.

All told, we ended up with 236 inches (19.66 feet) of tow-based thread and 388 inches (32.33 feet) of finer linen thread. A better heckler could almost certainly have salvaged more fiber from my bird's nests, and a practiced flax spinner could have spun far finer threads and thus produced much more.

But for what it's worth, my 52 feet of yarn is the product of my eight square feet of mediocre soil, planted at the seed ratio Wily recommended in 1765 (which, when reduced down from acres, means two teaspoons of seed per eight square feet). If we assume that average for a whole acre of flax planted in 1765, based on the math I did when I planted back in 2014, we get a result of 278830.5 feet of linen yarn, or a remarkable 52.8 miles! And that's certainly on the far low end of what you could produce with an acre of flax.

So just how much finished textile can 52 feet of coarse linen thread produce? To find out, I need to boil my thread and weave it. Why boiling, you ask? Stay tuned to find out.

Monday, September 19, 2016

An Early American Slop Shop, Now in Full Color

Last year, I published an article on slop shops and the ready-made clothing they offered in early America, and I included the only two known images of early American slop shops. One of these, drawn by tinsmith William Chappel and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows a New York City streetscape in the early nineteenth century. Using Chappel's location description, I was able to identify this shop as that of Jacob Abrahams, who owned a clothing store on Water Street in 1813.

When I published my article, Chappel's image was only available in black-and-white. I'm delighted that you can now view it - and Chappel's many other fascinating paintings - in full color and stunning detail as part of the Met's Open Access for Scholarly Content program.

The detail below captures the garment variety, cloth color, and display techniques of a slops-seller like Abrahams. Chappell even delineated the tiny buttons of the trousers and coats hanging from Abrahams's storefront. He drew the shop years after 1813 and as background to a gruesome dog-catching scene, but Abrahams's store clearly left an impression on Chappel, who remembered how important slop shops once were to American waterfront communities.

Detail, William P. Chapel, "The Dog Killer," from The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 54.90.513.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Perfect Souvenir

Stopping dead in my tracks, I stared at the ground where a small object had caught my eye. Wedged beside a root in the narrow jungle path sat a dusty grey sphere the size of a marble. Picking it up, I could feel the solid weight of a two-hundred-year-old .75-caliber lead musket ball settle into my palm. Long ago, some idle soldier whittled large gashes into the bullet while passing time in a far-flung post of the British Empire.

Fort Shirley, or what’s left of it, sits between two large hills known as the Cabrits on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Once upon a time, Dominica was a booming sugar colony of the British Empire. But by 1854, the fort had outlived its strategic importance, and Britain abandoned it. It took another century for Dominicans to achieve full independence. Today, the island is in the midst of reinventing itself as a natural and cultural haven, and it seems like an anachronism among its Caribbean neighbors, without the cruise ships, duty-free shops, and mass tourism of other places. I arrived there as a guest scholar and crewmember aboard a Sea Education Association sailing school vessel, the Corwith Cramer, after an Atlantic crossing in late 2014. Shortly after we made landfall, I hiked up to the site of Fort Shirley.

The Cabrits, Dominica, 2014. The restored portion of Fort Shirley is visible midway up the hill on the left. Photo by Jeffrey Schell.

For some years, historian Dr. Lennox Honeychurch has directed a small museum and an ongoing restoration project at Fort Shirley. But most of the fort, including the ruins of dozens of stone buildings, remains deep in the jungle. I studied historical archaeology as an undergraduate and worked briefly as an archaeologist, so as I hiked around the overgrown portions of the site I noticed dozens of pieces of Chinese porcelain, British stoneware, and American earthenware scattered on the surface. I picked up a few ceramic fragments, scrutinizing them and imagining what sorts of plates and bowls and cups they were once part of, and then carefully replaced them on the ground. It was only when I found the musket ball that I thought about taking a piece of Fort Shirley home with me.

A handful of the more remarkable sherds on the surface at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014.

Most professional archaeologists argue that all artifacts should remain untouched and in place – in situ – until someone can conduct scientific excavations and capture the precise spatial and temporal relationships of objects in the ground. But many archaeological sites have been disturbed by natural and man-made events. Artifacts, especially ones on the surface, can end up quite a distance from the spot where someone discarded them years ago. Some scholars believe that casual surface collecting has its benefits. The preeminent historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume felt no compunction over pocketing sherds from sites on the islands of St. Eustatius and St. Lucia to compare with those he excavated in Virginia (see his books Martin's Hundred and If These Pots Could Talk). Other people, billing themselves as amateur archaeologists, metal-detectorists, and treasure hunters, advocate for even more aggressive collecting. What good is an artifact above or below the ground surface, they ask? This musket ball, they would point out, was just one of thousands likely scattered around Fort Shirley. And a natural disaster or greedy treasure-seekers could destroy this site long before any professional archaeologist arrives.

Ruins and cannon at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014

And so I paused, hand halfway to my pocket, wondering whether I could justify taking this musket ball home as a souvenir. Twice in the past few years during visits to London, I happily “mudlarked” along the tidal shore of the River Thames, collecting ancient bits of pottery, clay pipe stems, and broken glass. I still use these artifacts for teaching, and I didn’t worry about collecting them because the Thames is an undeniably disturbed site, jumbled by centuries of tidal flow, construction, and demolition. In fact, the Museum of London encourages mudlarks to report spectacular finds and reserves the legal right to acquire such objects for the their public collection.

Thames artifacts, 2010

But Fort Shirley was archaeologically pristine. And this one piece of Dominica’s history was part of something much greater than a single musket ball. It was part of the cultural patrimony of a place where I was just a visitor. As a historian and archaeologist, I'm a steward of our collective inheritance. In this place, every bit of pottery and shard of metal was a sentence in a grand story waiting for an author. This small artifact – and its part of that story – didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to any one person, really. It belonged to Dominica, and to all of us.

I tucked the musket ball back under its root, where it had rested for two centuries, and watched as the steady rainfall covered it again with dark Dominican soil.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Transcription as Translation

I've been thinking a lot about translation recently, in part because of a fortuitous international conversation about an object in a Japanese museum's collection. But I've also been involved in a less obvious form of translation. Last winter, I completed a contract project with the USS Constitution Museum (Boston). Meanwhile, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with reenactors for my dissertation research. Both of these projects involved a lot of transcription. Or, cast in another light, translation.

For the USS Constitution Museum project, I transcribed all the surviving logs from that ship for the War of 1812 period (1812-1815). Ships' logs were functional documents in which officers tracked weather, movement, supplies, and events. The data they contain is very valuable from a historical standpoint, telling us much about how ships functioned. Ships'  logs betray little emotion and less of the personal side of life at sea than other sources. But among the courses and currents and wind directions and latitude and longitudes and barrels of pork and boxes of cheese in the Constitution's logs are occasional, remarkable narrative passages. There are hints of personalities, notes about both dedicated and reluctant sailors, records of long days and nights far from land, and traces of lives and deaths that played out at sea and in port. 

Sometimes I laughed out loud when reading the logs. On August 18, 1812, the Constitution sighted a sail and made chase. The vessel she pursued, presumably thinking the Constitution was a British ship, attempted to escape. When she caught up, the Constitution "found her to be the Private Brig of War Decatur of Salem, Captain Nichols of 100 Men, and 14 Guns 12 of which she threw overboard during the chace." The poor brig Decatur was so anxious to escape from what she thought was a powerful British ship that her crew frantically pitched their heavy cannons over the side to lighten their load.

Years later, on February 25, 1815, the Constitution was hosting captured officers from HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The prisoners from these ships were well-behaved, the log-keeper wrote, "except some of the British officers of whom this ship’s ward room officers complained, that they did not conduct themselves below, like gentlemen, being in their language indecent, vulgar, and abusive to each other." So much for polite decorum.

The Constitution, Cyane, and Levant, from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The Constitution's log-keepers were not writing in type, as I am now. They wrote by hand, in ink, and although they mostly wrote in crisp, legible script, converting their writing into type is, at base, an act of translation. Like all translation, it is full of interpretive decisions. Is that mark a comma or a period? Did they even make that distinction when they wrote it, or was it just a dash of the pen that signified a sentence break? Is that letter capitalized or not? Is that number an 8 or a 9? 

These might seem like obsessive, antiquarian questions, but they are not. Periods and commas change sentence meanings (as in the famous elementary school lesson of "Let's eat, grandma" versus "Let's eat grandma"). Whether letters are capitalized or not impacts how we read (and how people in 1812 read) their importance, RIGHT? And the difference between 800 gallons of water and 900 gallons of water could mean life or death on a ship at sea, and its record can impact how we understand the choices the Constitution's officers made about how long they could stay at sea. 

Translators make choices. And so, knowing full well the weighty consequences, I sometimes had to make my best guess regarding both the action of the writer (whether a particular mark he made was long enough to be considered a comma) and his intention (whether he intended that comma to end a sentence or separate a clause). 

When it comes to oral histories like those I've been conducting, transcription is no easier. People don't speak many of the parts of speech we include in writing. There are rules about how to use commas, dashes, and slashes when we use the language we call writing. But as for the language we call speaking, things get trickier. Was that a comma I just heard in your sentence, or a period? Or rather, was that a comma I just heard in your sentence? Or a question mark? When you transcribe what someone says, you introduce new parts and new meanings. 

Just like I had to make decisions about the Constitution's logs, I had to make decisions about what people had said to me. The difference between a spoken "because" and a shortened, spoken "'cause" is infuriatingly miniscule. When I'm converting speech into writing, how much emphasis did someone have to place on a word for it to qualify for italicization? How do you even write out the noises people make when they crunch filler words like "you know" into something that we hear and understand just fine but that realistically sounds something like "unuh"? As a transcriber, you have to make decisions that may have bigger implications than you might think. Century-old transcriptions that attempted to mimic the dialects, for example, of African Americas, seem to us today both mildly racist and infantilizing. How I transcribed the words of my speakers determines whether readers might view them as polished and precise or sloppy and casual. 

As a historian, I work with words a lot. Normally, I'd tell you I only speak and read one: English. But when you think about it, that's far too simple. I can never hear the spoken voices of the Constitution's officers in 1812. I read their words in a written language. And when I listen to a recording, I hear and assert all sorts of meanings that might never appear had the speaker written those same words. As a transcriber, I translate these languages, and no translation is perfect. As a historian, I take these languages and interpret them again, into new stories. And what a challenge that turns out to be.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Reenacting: An Annotated Bibliography

Note: The material below is a shortened version of the introduction to my bibliography of studies of war reenacting, which you can download here.

In the course of writing the part of my dissertation that examines historical reenacting and the experience of war, I embarked on a survey of the books, articles, theses, and dissertations people have written about reenacting. I was quite surprised just how much was out there and how almost every new source I read produced a handful of other new-to-me works buried in its bibliography. I was especially surprised that I had heard of so little of this literature. I have that in common with a lot of people who’ve written about reenacting. Many of them mention the apparent lack of scholarship on the subject.

My ignorance of the volume of reenacting studies is significant because as a reenactor and a professional historian, it's both my avocation and my job to know what's been published on subjects that interest me. I think I’m usually pretty good at that. But it’s harder to realize what’s been published about reenacting compared to other subjects because the authors come from so many different disciplines – anthropology, sociology, performance studies, costume studies, history, English, journalism, public policy, leisure studies, marketing, and so on – and that their work has often ended up in obscure, discipline-bound places, as graduate theses and dissertations, or in niche academic journals.

That some of this work is so little known is unfortunate for two reasons. First, a lot of it is quite good. But second, and more importantly, it means that the very subject of these studies - reenactors - have almost no idea how much has been written about them. They know about newspaper articles and a few journalistic books that more often than not belittle and deride their hobby, but I think most are entirely unaware that scholars have devoted so much time and energy to studying their motivations, attitudes, clothes, and performances. That's a shame, because in my experience, reenactors are as interested in learning more about themselves - their culture, their history - as any group of people.

To help right this wrong, I've assembled an annotated bibliography of works on reenacting. It includes includes all the material in both popular and academic printed sources that I've found on historical reenacting, which I define as the costumed recreation of historical events and times as a hobby. This includes war reenacting, buckskinning, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. 

I left out a number of source genres that would nevertheless interest reenactors and non-reenactor readers. These include most newspaper articles (except substantial ones that do more than briefly discuss a particular reenactment or reenacting in general); television shows and episodes (an excellent bibliography of which can be found in Christopher Bates’s dissertation, available here); reenactor guidebooks and articles in reenactor periodicals (though these also merit a wider audience); and websites (too numerous and ephemeral). The best online collection of work by and about Civil War reenactors is author Wes Clark’s “Jonah World,” here. I have also left off works that focus exclusively on professional living history interpretation rather than reenacting as a hobby. The terms are often used interchangeably, but readers interested in living history in the sense of professional costumed interpretation used at historic sites should check out the bibliographies collected by the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums here.  

This bibliography will continue to be a working document, and so if you know of any sources that I've missed, I would love to hear about them! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What We Actually Know About Petticoat Trousers (alias Slops, alias Skilts, alias Petticoat Breeches)

Some projects languish for a while, waiting for your attention. Such was the case with an old pair of "slops" that I made in 2005. Back then, I constructed them somewhat clumsily and used cotton thread not suitable for the period of living history I use them for (say 1750-1800). When I finally got around to reconstructing them using linen thread recently, I started to wonder what we actually know about these things. Most reenactors call them "slops." But, as it turns out, almost no one did in the eighteenth century.

The author wearing his "slops" at left, with Gwendolyn Basala and Michael McCarty

In the 1799 image below is pretty typical. What we might call "slops" are the thing the guy is wearing that looks something like a white kilt. It's hard to tell in this image, but they're actually two very wide legs attached to a waistband. "Slops" are the sort of garment we associate with sailors and pirates, and you may have seen then being worn by a reenactor, a living historian, or a film extra.

"No. 4, Cook," Thomas Rowlandson, 1799, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In the the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "slops" actually meant all sorts of clothing, not just this type of garment. I wrote a thesis and published an article about "slops" in general, the sort of ready-made garments (coats, jackets, trousers, and so on) sold to and worn by sailors and working men. The Museum of London owns a set of early slops, perhaps worn by a mariner, that includes a shirt and pair of baggy breeches. Their provenance is unclear and they are difficult to date with so few comparable extant garments. There are certainly images of sailors wearing similar clothing in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, some prints of which you can see here. Breeches of this type, the forerunners of later sailor garments, relate directly to the baggy breeches worn by men of all sorts in the seventeenth century.

Shirt and breeches, 1600-1700, from the Museum of London.

By the late eighteenth century, when men of all social levels were wearing tight, knee-length breeches, baggier protective legwear seems to have been used exclusively by sailors, becoming somewhat inseparable from the image of seamen as they appeared in popular media. You can see such garments in sketches, popular prints, and paintings.

"Man Selling Stockings," Paul Sandby, circa 1759, from Kitty Kalash (see also John Styles, Dress of the People [2007], 172). 

"A Sailor Miss Taken," Thomas Rowlandson and G. M. Woodward, 1801, from the Lewis Walpole Library.

"Watson and the Shark," John Singleton Copley, 1778, from the National Gallery of Art.

The only extant example that survives from the period between 1750 and 1815 is fragmentary, recovered recovered from the 1785 shipwreck of the British vessel General Carleton (you can download the report and see an image of one of the fragments here).

There are precious few documentary references to these garments. Copley's painting is the most detailed evidence we have, in fact, for their construction and use. Notice the pleating, for example, and the fact that the sailor is wearing them as a protective garment over regular breeches.

We don't know a lot about these garments. We don't even know what to call them.

Famed eighteenth-century dictionary writer Samuel Johnson defined slops as "Trowsers; open breeches" (here). But I've yet to see "slops" used in a period document to refer specifically to this type of garment rather than ready-made clothing in general. The term "skilts," also a somewhat common label for this garment among maritime reenactors, didn't appear in print until the 1840s (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

So what did people call these things?

I had thought for some time that they used "petticoat breeches," a term for an earlier type of legwear, but when I recently went searching in period sources, I couldn't find any instances of it in descriptions from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Terms like "sailor trousers" appeared frequently in print, but they most often seem to mean a particular cut of trousers (or even ankle-length trousers in general, often associated with sailors in the earlier part of this period when most men still wore knee-length breeches). As Ike points out in the comment below, it's very possible that "trowsers" meant both ankle-length pants and knee-length "slops." The only instances I've come up wit that definitely refer to the latter are a handful of period references to "petticoat trowsers." Still, I think these instances do probably refer to the type of knee-length garment that appears in visual sources.

Servant and former privateer James Wickrey, who ran away from his master in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1749 was wearing "petticoat trowsers, half worn" (The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 8, 1749).

Servant Matthew Case wore, among other garments, "Petticoat Trowsers" in New Jersey in 1765. (The Pennsylvania Gazette, February 21, 1765).

An enslaved man, "who commonly call[s] himself Robert Heart amongst his own Colour" but whom his master called only Bob, had "a Pair of Petticoat Ozenbrigs Trowsers" when he ran away from Cecil County, Maryland, late in 1765 (The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 5, 1765).

John Hilt, a Dutch brick maker who skipped bail in Philadelphia in 1766 with "Cloathing much like a Sailor... and frequently wears Petticoat or Sailors Trowsers in the season." (The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 3, 1766).

Detail, "My Poll and My Partner Joe," Isaac Cruikshank, 1799, from the Lewis Walpole Library.

The two British criminals in the links offered by Ike in his comment below were both sailors who wore "trowsers" over breeches. But only James Wickrey among the individuals listed above had any other type of legwear noted (in his case, leather breeches).Were others wearing something underneath their petticoat trousers, like the sailor in Watson and the Shark, or did they wear nothing else at all besides shirttails? Were petticoat trousers really as common among early nineteenth-century sailors, men who might have chosen more fashionable ankle-length trousers, as satires would have us believe? Did anyone use the feminine idea of petticoats to deride wearers of petticoat trousers? They may have been baggy partly because of the shape of earlier breeches styles that inspired them and partly so they could fit over other garments. But they didn't have to be as baggy and skirt-like as they were. How did fashion and function interact when it came to petticoat trousers? Did more men than just bricklayer John Hilt adopt them as a sort of affectation, mimicking real sailors? Did they fall out of favor because men began to wear ankle-legth trousers instead of breeches, or for some other reason?

Mysteries remain for curious researchers. Let me know if you find any answers! I'm still not sure petticoat trousers was the only phrase people used to describe these garments, or that there aren't mentions of "slops" in this specific sense or some other term people used to refer to them lurking in period documents. But I do know that the words we choose to describe the past matter. John Hilt didn't wear skilts or slops. He wore petticoat trousers. If we're not careful, we might end up talking about people like him using words they wouldn't even understand.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Unanswered Questions at the Wyckoff House Museum

Last weekend, Nicole and I took a trip up to Brooklyn, New York, to hunt for a wedding band. But along the way, we stopped at two historic houses, the Old Stone House in Washington Park and the Wyckoff House, farther east. We had read that the Wyckoff was hosting a "Free Family Day," and there's nothing that says grad-students-about-to-get-married like "free." So, with no family in tow to excuse our visit, we found our way there.

The Wyckoff House is a remarkable survival. Built about 1652, it is the oldest building in the boroughs of New York City but also the entire state. Like many houses, it was modified, repurposed, and eventually sold out of the family (eight generations after its construction). For most of the twentieth century, it was neglected, until it finally ended up as a gas station storage shed after the Second World War. Some years later, a descendant of the family happened to take an interest in it, galvanizing other relatives to fund its purchase, restoration, and donation to the City of New York. Today, you can tour several rooms of the house, each furnished in the style of a different historical period.

The Wyckoff House, from Open House New York.

And tour we did. Our leader was undeniably knowledgable, informative, and exceptionally poised when faced with a full tour group that included several distracted children. Our tour was meticulous and logical. We began in a kitchen space, the oldest portion of the house, evocative of the sort of one-room kitchen-bedroom-parlor-workspace in which many early New Yorkers lived. We talked about Dutch building techniques and seventeenth-century cooking equipment. In the next room, an eighteenth-century addition, we discussed the conspicuous consumption evoked by ceramics displayed in a wall cupboard. We ended in another room, where the guide showed us photographs from the twentieth century of the surrounding neighborhood and the delapidated house as it appeared in the 1970s before its restoration. The tour ended, and we were released to the grounds.

Your standard historic house tour. Chronological, explanatory, site-specific. A model followed by most other historic houses.

But something about this one made me realize just how many missed opportunities lurked in a half hour inside the Wyckoff House, or inside most old houses for that matter.

Part of what got me thinking about missed opportunities was our remarkable tour group. It included an African-American family with three children, the mother of whom taught special needs students at an elementary school just down the road; a white mother with her young daughter; a South American family whose adult son had visited the house several times before and was now bringing his parents and siblings, for whom he carefully translated the guide's remarks; and us, two white graduate history students from Delaware. Why does this matter? Because it's a far more racially and ethnically diverse group than I've seen in most other tours I've gone on. And yet we didn't talk at all about New York's history of race relations. Did Pieter Claesen (later Wykhof/Wyckoff) own slaves? Did his neighbors? How did this part of Brooklyn, Canarsie, go from being a Dutch agricultural center to and African-American neighborhood? What better place to talk about demographics, enslavement, emancipation, and even white flight?

The Wyckoff House is doing something right, even if it's just by the accident of its location, in a diverse part of Brooklyn. But our tour guide never asked us about ourselves. And what stories we might have told. Why would a South American bring his entire visiting family to the house of a seventeenth-century Dutch New Yorker? What was it about this place that he found so compelling? Was it that Pieter Claesen himself was an immigrant to New York? Or was it that for this man, this house symbolized something else about the past or present of the place where he lived? What better place to talk about immigration in all its historic and contemporary incarnations than the home of one of New York's earliest European immigrants?

Pieter Claesen came to New York as an indentured servant, we were told. Nicole and I knew automatically what this meant, but most visitors wouldn't. How in the world did someone manage to come to New York in the seventeenth century, having literally sold themselves into a period of servanthood, and then, in the space of only fifteen years, manage to acquire substantial acreage in Brooklyn? Was this sort of upward mobility common or rare in this period? What does it say about New York's history of hopeful aspiration? What does it say about false promises? What does it say about the history of social class in America? What better place to talk about what New Yorkers, native and adopted, hope to achieve in their lifetimes?

And speaking of natives, where were the previous residents of the property? Yes, Pieter Claesen and his wife, according to the museum's website, "acquired a farm" here in 1652. But this place was more than vacant land. For thousands of years, as you can read about at the Manahatta/Welikia Project, Native Americans had lived, worked, worshipped, and died on the land that would become New York. What happened to them? They certainly didn't just disappear or go quietly into the night. As historian Russell Shorto has traced, early Dutch settlement in New York was made all the more complicated by peaceful and violent interactions with the original New Yorkers, Native Americans. But these people, whose homes had been on the Wyckoff property for centuries before Pieter Claesen ever owned it, didn't get a mention on our tour. What happened to them? What did people like Claesen think about Indians, and what did Indians think about them? What better place to talk about cultural contact, interethnic exchange, and the mysteries of prehistory?

The Wyckoff Parlor, from Not Intent on Arriving.

And then there was the size of our group. We had something like fifteen visitors. And as we stood in what had once been the only room of a seventeenth-century house, the docent dutifully pointed to a linen bed ticking in the corner and explained that everyone - seventeen residents at one point - also slept in this room at night. Here we were, standing in the middle of a room with nearly that many people. Why not have us all lie down for a moment? Why not give it a try, and see - feel - what it was like to lay down in a room with that many people? What better place to talk about changes in living arrangements, personal space, and comfort than a room that was once home to as many living, breathing humans as stood in that tour group?

As we moved into another room, our guide pointed out the back window, explaining that the topography of the site itself had changed substantially since the seventeenth century. Where we looked out now on a steep embankment leading up to a street and a scrap yard, Pieter Claesen would have seen a wide expanse of flat salt marsh. But in the twentieth century, (in)famous city planner Robert Moses instigated a series of construction projects that included, among other things, filling in bottomland in the neighboring to facilitate construction. By some happy accident, this infill tapers off just out the back door of the Wyckoff House. But on our tour, that fact was simply that - a fact. But who was Robert Moses? What did his choices have to do with his ideas about politics, the city, and race (on the latter, see Robert Caro and Langdon Winner, and Bernward Gorges)? This place was very nearly buried by the vision of one New Yorker. What better place to talk about the city's complicated rural and urban history and its equally complicated future?

As we left the house, I was reminded again about its location. Today, the Wyckoff museum sits on less than an acre of land in a busy and relatively gritty section of Brooklyn. Rowhouses, a scrap yard, a used tire dealer, and other small businesses are now its neighbors. The prevalence of Caribbean restaurants and accents suggests that this neighborhood is no less made up of new New Yorkers than it was in the 1650s. But the Wyckoff House is physically, almost painfully, segregated from the rest of Canarsie by a tall iron fence.

The Wyckoff House, from Yelp.

As someone who has worked in and loves museums, I understand this. The house has little security, and it would be much harder to close and lock its shutters at night than it is to lock a large iron gate. What if someone smashed a window, lit a fire, spray-painted graffiti on its walls? All of these are very real risks. So the house sits in an oasis of grass, surrounded by a protective fence.

But this is perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of all. The Wyckoff House has literally walled itself off from its community. Instead of presenting itself as a welcoming, receptive, open member of the neighborhood, it is instead a fortress of capital-h History, accessible only to those with the time or inclination to pay a small fee, take a short tour, and look at an old house.

Museums should be in the business of tearing down fences. And I mean that in two ways. We should be removing the barriers between the present and the past and between people like me and the South American man on our tour. Both of us came to see an old house. Surely we have other things in common.

But also literally. Imagine a Wyckoff House that instead of being surrounded by a  fence was simply on open land. What a valuable commodity in Brooklyn. Let people actually use the few picnic tables that now sit neglected inside the fence line. Instead of wide expanses of barren, unused grass, why not plant a field of wheat or corn? The property, according to the museum, includes "1.5 acres of some of the last remaining farmland in Brooklyn." Why not farm it, actually make it farmland, even if in a small way? Imagine how strange, how thought-provoking, how bizarre a passing pedestrian would find a field of oats growing in Brooklyn. Certainly more thought-provoking than grass. 

The Wyckoff House is doing as well as can be expected from a small house museum. They host school groups, family days, and a country fair. They are working with what I'm sure is a shoestring budget, a skeleton staff, and a community with many other concerns besides historic preservation. Many of the things I've said about their tour in particular are applicable to any number of other historic houses across the country.

Too often, though, we forget that our job as public historians is not really to explain architecture or herb gardens or furniture styles. Our job is to take down fences and ask uncomfortable questions, using the past as a starting point. It's dangerous. People might argue with you. They might tear up your planted field. They might leave litter. They might deface a building. But others might just stop to read a sign or look at this beautiful old house and wonder, even if for just a moment, where it came from. What happened in this place? Who lived here? How did this house survive? What was New York like back then? What is it like now? What will it be like in another three hundred years?

Aren't those questions worth the risk?