Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Waistcoat with Stockings for Sleeves

I can't remember when I first came across a description of a waistcoat "with stocking sleeves" in an eighteenth-century source, but I know I was immediately intrigued. Men did wear some knit garments in the late eighteenth century, including breeches and coats made from frame-knit material sometimes called "stocking web," but I'd never heard of knit sleeves. As it turns out, people made stocking sleeves not from new knit yardage but from old stockings. A handful of runaway advertisements published in the years around the American Revolution indicate that creative individuals cut the feet off worn-out stockings and sewed them into the armscyes of waistcoats as makeshift (and warm) sleeves.

Don Hagist wrote a brief article in The Brigade Dispatch: Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution (Spring 2005) and included this interesting 1777 expedient from the orderly book of the British 49th Regiment of Foot:

"Sir Henry Calder desires A Return may be given in of the No. of Caps wanting in each Company The Men are not to wear their Hatts or Coats on any Account; they are to put Sleves to their Waistcoats out of Old Stockings, or Such other Stuff they can procure."

No original such garments, civilian or military, survive. I'm aware of only one period image depicting one. Johan Joseph Zoffany's 1772 portrait of London optician John Cuff and an assistant shows two men wearing distinctive waistcoat sleeves. The man on the viewer's right wears stocking sleeves, identifiable by their contrasting color, the darker binding at the wrist (sewn on to prevent the cut knit from unravelling), and the texture you'd expect from a knit sleeve section.

From the Royal Collection Trust, here.

Detail published in Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life (London: Royal Collection Publications, 2009), 122.

I'm not the first person to try recreating a waistcoat with stocking sleeves. Jay Howlett at Williamsburg wears one regularly, and here's a blog post about one made by another reenactor. But I was curious how this sort of garment was assembled and what it felt like to wear. In recreating a stocking-sleeved waistcoat, I chose similarly blue stockings and a white flannel body. Flannel was a common material for waistcoats and underwaistcoats, and numerous runaway ads mention sleeves whose color contrasted with the jacket body, probably because such garments resulted from the combination of old waistcoats and worn-out stockings, with color matching less of a concern. The body of my jacket matches the dimensions of one recovered from the 1785 wreck of the General Carleton (you may remember I wrote about sewing a copy of this jacket here).

Image of my waistcoat with stocking sleeves. You'll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses, I'm sure.

My waistcoat is indeed warm. The stockings I had to use were for a smaller man than I, and so they they fit my arms more snugly and end higher on the forearm than my own stockings might (at least without being taken in and thus tightened for sleeve use). Where my sleeves end, you can see the same sort of tape binding the wrists as in Zoffany's painting. This is the sort of garment that someone used to the loose clothing of 2015 really feels when they're wearing it. It gives you a sense of how the fit of clothing, whether loose or tight, shapes the body, supporting or hindering certain postures and actions.

Optician John Cuff's use of such sleeves was probably more related to a sensitivity to cold that came with age and historical heating methods. But I've run into two hints that stocking sleeves may have been part of the occupational clothing of weavers, at least in the nineteenth century. In fiction stories from 1825 and 1863, respectively, weavers wore blue-stained aprons (a strange detail I can't explain) and stocking sleeves: "wearing his stocking-sleeves on his arms" (The Hull Advertiser, and Exchange Gazette, November 4, 1825), and "a pair of stocking sleeves drawn over his otherwise bare arms" (The Saturday Press, December 5, 1863). Unrelated to weaving or runaways, stocking sleeves also appeared in two notes on play costuming in 1826 and 1835.

Stocking sleeves even made a much later appearance during the lean years of Britain amid the Second World War. "Sometimes, too," wrote a columnist documenting the make-do solutions of wartime women, "they convert the legs of the boys' wool stockings into sleeves for a jersey which has 'gone' at the elbows," (Somerset County Herald & Taunton Courier, February 12, 1944).

But the most numerous and detailed accounts of stocking sleeves come from American and British newspapers. Using databases, I've located ten American  and five British descriptions of stocking-sleeved garments dating between 1765 and 1829. Certainly more eluded my keyword searches and lurk in undigitized newspapers. I've provided full quotations and citations below for those who may be interested in more detail. In short, they suggest that the people who turned worn-out stockings into sleeves attached them to garments known as jackets, waistcoats, vests, coats, and even "a kind of hunting shirt" (for more on hunting shirts, see Neal Hurst's work here) with little regard for matching sleeve and body color.

The American runaway ads also indicate that stocking-sleeved jackets were a regional garment. All of them appear in advertisements for runaways from the Mid-Atlantic, from Westfield, New Jersey, west of New York City, to Culpeper, Virginia. I don't mean to discount confounding factors (such as the problematic nature of digital keyword searches; the higher number of newspapers and corresponding digitization in this region than in those farther south; and perhaps a higher number of runaways than in New England), but these still can't account for why I couldn't find any examples in digitized sources from New England or the South.

Instances of stocking sleeves with dates, plotted with Google Maps. Some locations are approximate, based on county given.

With the documentation and the sewing behind me, I'm just waiting for an appropriately cool living history event to really break in my stocking-sleeved waistcoat. I figure it needs a few miles and some good stains on it before it will look like the sort of "old flannel jacket" mentioned in the advertisements below. Until then, I'm quite ready for whatever winter has in store.

Thanks to Neal Hurst, Michael McCarty, Joseph Privott, and Nicole Belolan for discussions related to this research.

American Primary Descriptions of Stocking Sleeves (Sources: "America's Historical Newspapers" and "Accessible Archives," unless otherwise noted)

A servant butcher from Kent County, Maryland, "with stockings for sleeves to his jacket," (Pennsylvania Gazette, March 28, 1765).

A servant from Uwchland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, wearing a "blue and white striped jacket, with old blue stockings for sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, January 19, 1769).

A supposed servant from Culpeper, Virginia, wearing a "blue waistcoat with stockings for sleeves," (Virginia Gazette, March 22, 1770).

A slave from Westfield, New Jersey, wearing a "white woolen waistcoat with stocking sleeves," (The New Jersey Journal, May 10, 1770; page 14 here).

Two convict servants from Elk-Ridge, Maryland, wearing "an old flannel ditto [jacket], with black stocking sleeves" and "an old flannel ditto [jacket], with grey stocking sleeves," (Virginia Gazette, September 20, 1770).

A convict servant  from Langford Bay, Maryland, wearing "a brown vest, with stocking sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, April 4, 1771).

A servant from Charles Town, Maryland, wearing "a striped linsey ditto [jacket], with blue stocking sleeves," (Pennsylvania Gazette, December 23, 1772).

A servant from Brandywine Hundred, Delaware, wearing "an old blue cloth jacket, with stocking sleeves, of near the same colour," (Pennsylvania Gazette, August 2, 1775).

A servant from Chester County, Pennsylvania wearing a "light coloured cloth coat, with blue stockings for sleeves in it," (Pennsylvania Gazette, July 7, 1784).

A probable servant from York[town], Pennsylvania, wearing "a kind of hunting shirt with grey yarn stocking sleeves," (Carlisle Gazette, May 29, 1787), from here.

British Primary Descriptions of Stocking Sleeves (Source: "The British Newspaper Archive")

An apprentice currier of Southampton, wearing "a short Waistcoat, with the Leggings of a Pair of Blue Stockings for Sleeves," (The Hampshire Chronicle, March 22, 1773)

A man from Morcot, Rutland, "deranged in his intellects" wearing "a brown Fustian Jacket with Greased Stocking Sleeves," (Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury, June 6, 1800).

A murder victim of Straid, County Antrim, Ireland, wearing "a wylie-coat (flannel-waistcoat), into which witness had sewed the legs of worsted stockings, as sleeves to it, and put check buttons on it," (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, August 25, 1810).

A young runaway from Higham Ferrers wearing a "yellow striped Waistcoat, with cotton stocking Sleeves" (The Northampton Mercury, December 25, 1825

A Littlebury highway robber wearing "a waistcoat, with stocking legs for sleeves," slash "a waistcoat with stocking sleeves stitched into it," (Evening Mail, December 11, 1829).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Joseph Long's Slops: Ready-Made Clothing in Early America," in Winterthur Portfolio

I'm very happy to note that an article I wrote appears in the current issue of Winterthur Portfolio. Based in part on my master's thesis research, it examines the history of "slops" in early America. These ready-made garments clothed sailors and laborers in port cities. The production and marketing tactics of slops-sellers laid the groundwork for the birth and growth of the ready-made clothing industry in the mid-nineteenth century. You can download a copy of my article here. For some material I had to leave out, including the probate inventories of two Philadelphia slops-sellers and data on clothing production in use in the Philadelphia almshouse, you can read my thesis here.

Among the figures in my article is this image, one of only two known firsthand depictions of early American slop shops. It shows the shop of slops-seller Jacob Abrahams in New York City, circa 1813. Its publication in my article is the first time the shop owner and purpose have been identified

Among the figures in my article is this image, one of only two known firsthand depictions of early American slop shops. It shows the shop of slops-seller Jacob Abrahams in New York City, circa 1813. Its publication in my article is the first time the shop owner and purpose have been identified.

William P. Chappel, The Dog Killer, mid- to late nineteenth century. Oil on slate paper; H. 1⁄8", W. 1⁄4". (Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954, Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures, © Metropolitan Museum of Art; source, Art Resource, NY). Online here.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part V: Scutching/Swingling

In my ongoing experiment in making linen from seed to thread (about which you can read here), I've progressed through growing, harvesting, retting, and breaking. After breaking flax, early Americans moved on to "scutching" or "swingling" the plants to remove broken pieces of the woody cores from the fibrous bark of each stalk. 

John Wily explained that there were two methods for what he called swingling flax: "one is performed by a Wheel, the other with a wooden Knife, which is the common Method." (41)

You can watch a video about scutching wheels here (skip to about 3:00 to see the wheel in operation). Wily believed a wheel only made sense for larger producers, and for the rest of us he offered a very simple description of making a scutching board, the base upon which you rest the flax when striking it with a scutching knife:

     Get a Piece of Plank about 5 or 6 Inches wide, 1 Inch thick, and 3 Feet long; plane one Side of it a  
     little overlong, tenant one End of it in a Block about 14 Inches long and 10 wide, so that the said
     Plan may stand upright; then within 3 Inches of the Top saw it within one Inch of being through,
     then split off the sawed Part for the Flax to lodge on, and leave the other Part as a Guard to keep
     you from striking your Hand with the Knife. (42)

It takes a while to make sense of these directions, especially because most swinging boards I've seen have a piece cut out from the middle of the top of the board, as in Diderot's plate (Figs. 12-14; the objects around the lower right corner).

Diderot's flax tools, from "Sifting the Past".

But eventually I figured out that Wily meant to leave a higher portion one one side of the board. I later learned by experience that this portion should be on the side of your dominant hand. That's how it protects your other hand, holding a bunch of flax, from accidental strikes.

My scutching board with its extending protective piece on the upper left.

The scutching knife, Wily wrote, should be "almost in the Shape of a Dagger, the Blade to be about 16 or 17 Inches long, 2 and a Half broad, and 3 Quarters of an Inch thick at the Back" (42), but I varied a bit from his instructions. There are indeed scutching knives that look exactly like daggers. But I made one that resembled something more like a cricket bat or a fraternity paddle, based on Diderot's example in the plate above.

Rather than tenoning my board into a block, I simply seated it in the the ground and got to work. The idea behind scutching is simple: you're using the knife to strike and scrape what you don't want (chaff from the plant cores) from what you do (flax fibers). As artist Linton Park's 1885 painting illustrates, this was often a community event.

I was skeptical that such a simple process (scraping it with a piece of wood?) would have much effect on the flax, but it was in fact remarkably effective. Almost immediately, the roots and upper portions flew off the fibers.

Flax fibers (top) and chaff removed from stalks (bottom).

Although there are videos of more capable scutchers out there, here's my attempt.


I was, however, rather frustrated with how much fiber I was inadvertently scraping off along with the chaff, so after I had scutched all of the flax, I went back over what was left for another go. My final result was thus one bunch of quality flax and another with more tangled and chaffy fibers, the sort of coarse, short-fiber flax known, after further processing, as "tow."

Fine flax fibers (left) and tow flax (right).

With these fibers in hand, the next step in processing flax into linen is "heckling." That involves a rather sinister-looking tool, the heckle, that I'll discuss in my next post.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part IV: Breaking

You might remember that when we last left off with my rather quixotic project to turn a handful of flax seeds into linen fabric, I had finished "retting" the flax, breaking down the gummy substances in each stalk. Since then, I've passed my Ph.D. exams, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and failed to recreate historical waterproofing, among other things. My neglected flax sat in the pantry patiently through all of this.

Writing in 1765, John Wily offered two options for "breaking" flax, separating the woody core of each stalk from the fibrous, thread-destined bark. The first, and by my understanding the most common, was with a "brake," a simple machine that mashed a handful of stalks between its jaws. You can see a French brake as well as a variety of the other flax tools I'll mention in future posts in this plate from Denis Diderot's mid-eighteenth-century Encyclopédie.

Diderot's flax tools, from "Sifting the Past".

And if you're really interested in flax processing, check out this video on different types of flax brakes. Wily gave detailed instructions about building a brake, but I decided to try the other method he mentioned. It was less effective on a large scale, but its simplicity and an absence of historical study made it more appealing to me. 

Wily described breaking flax using "a Hand-Mall called Beatles," but he presumed that his reader was already familiar with the basic tools. Eventually, I figured out that by "mall" he almost certainly meant "maul," a large wooden hammer. But I have yet to find any surviving examples or images of flax beatles (though, apparently, beatle sometimes also referred to the scutching knife used in the step following breaking). The quest is complicated by the ubiquity of a certain British rock band in any internet keyword search.

Google: "Showing results instead for Lennon Beatle" 

Tyler: "NO! Linen beatle. LINEN BEATLE!"

Anyway, I finally went to town on my flax using a wooden mallet I had on hand. As Wily instructed, "lay it on some smooth solid Timber or Stone, and then take the Mall or Beatle in the right Hand, and begin at one End of the Handful and beat and turn it over until it is well mashed or broken..." (41, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of Wily's Treatise).

My makeshift beatle.

Half-broken flax, beatled on the right.

The woody core separating from the fibers.

I was rather nervous about this process, because it would be the real test as to whether I had retted my flax for the right amount of time last summer. Too few days, and the fibers would still be stuck to the cores. Too many, and the fibers would have begun to rot and would break short along with the rest of the stalks. But everything worked out quite nicely. As I was breaking the flax, you could hear the sounds change as I hammered each bunch and the stalks broke down. And the flax itself went from a depressing gray hue to a more (get ready for it) flaxen color.

Breaking is only the first step in refining the flax, but with a broken bunch in hand, I'm now ready to move on to the step called swingling or scutching. And I promise it won't take nine months to get there. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Whalemen and Waterproofing VI: On Graceful Failure

If I learned nothing else aboard the Corwith Cramer in 2014, it was how to fail gracefully. In everyday life, most of us have the luxury of stewing over our mistakes. You screw up at work, and it weighs on you for days. You get short-tempered with a friend, and you can't think about anything else.

On a ship, or at least the ships on which I've sailed, it's easy to make mistakes. And, boy, did I make a lot of them. I mistook halyards for downhauls, clove hitches for cow hitches, euphausiids for mysids, and, in one particularly embarrassing incident, the bunk of someone who had just fallen asleep for the bunk of someone I was supposed to wake up for a 3 AM watch change.

But at sea, things move very fast, and you have to account for your mistakes and move on quickly. A single day aboard the Cramer included five watch periods, so before you knew it, you had gone off watch, gotten a bite to eat and a nap, and come back on deck as if it was a whole new day and your mistakes long in the past. You learn, in short, to let your mistakes go, hoping that you can do better next time.

And so I thought it would be fitting to end this series on nineteenth-century maritime waterproofing techniques by discussing failure.

When I started this project, I had ambitions to recreate entire waterproof garments. But as I discussed in a previous post, many of the most intriguing period waterproofing recipes include toxic or unavailable ingredients. For a while, I considered attempting to recreate period paint- or oil-based waterproofings, but the more research I did, the more I realized that any such effort would include levels of compromise - regarding chemical ingredients, application techniques, and, not least of all, personal safety - that surpassed the payoff potential of such work. In a presentation at the New England regional conference of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums this past March, I discussed the potential of using the inaccurate processes behind creating things like waterproof garments as interpretive tools alongside traditional living history interpretation. I really believe that historic sites should be more transparent about the choices they make, even if these sometimes involve inaccurate reproduction techniques like machine sewing or synthetic paints.

But for now, this project involved just me and my home kitchen, and I realized I couldn't answer a lot of my research questions (how waterproof was white lead?) with experimental archaeology.

But I didn't want to complete this project having only produced blog posts, not physical things. I had, after all, found at least one recipe that seemed straightforward and safe. I discussed it in my previous post on tarpaulin hats, and if you'll recall, I left off just as I was about to combine various compounds into sealing wax, one of two key ingredients in the hat-waterproofing recipe.

Here's where things got a little hairy. And, I apologize, I didn't take the time to stop for photographs. In his Ten Thousand Recipes, Mackenzie never explains how to combine turpentine, shellac, colophony, and lampblack to create sealing wax, but I think it's a safe bet that it involved melting them together to form a homogenous block.

What I realized, after repeated experiments on the stove top and even in a small toaster oven, was that  rosin (or at least the rosin I was using) has a strikingly peculiar tendency to burn before it melts. This discovery led to a kitchen filled with acrid smoke and some frantic internet searches about the toxicity of colophony fumes. The best I could do, in the end, was produce a flaky wad of roughly combined "wax."

But I still hoped that this would be good enough for the waterproofing recipe. After all, it said to powderize the sealing wax, and figuring this would mix the ingredients even more, I dutifully ground up half an ounce (a pitiful fraction of the massive amount of "wax" I had produced). I placed it in two ounces of ethyl alcohol in a glass jar "near a fire" just as Mackenzie said. I waited. The liquid warmed up. But the wax refused to dissolve as he said it should. With no sand for the "sand heat" he mentioned, I put the jar in a small pot of hot water on the stove, a double boiler arrangement I figured was not unlike a sand heat. 

And I waited. 

But no matter how hot I got the jar, even up to the point when the alcohol began evaporating and then boiling (173.1° F, apparently), the "wax" refused to dissolve. At best, it seemed to get rather soft and give the concoction the general appearance of a jar of watered-down coffee grounds.

I tried giving the result a whirl, just in case I was missing something. But the result was not even close to the "beautiful gloss equal to new" Mackenzie promised. I was right. It still looked like watered-down coffee grounds.

Frustration crept over me. And that's not something you want creeping around a kitchen full of boiling water and semi-molten pine rosin.

But then I realized something. It's called experimental archaeology. And experiments fail. 

I don't know where the problem was - with one of my ingredients (the unmeltable rosin, perhaps?), with my technique (does a sand heat work alchemical miracles?), or with the recipe itself (didn't any of the many publishers test this recipe before they plagiarized it?) - but there was certainly a wrench in the works somewhere. This was a failure.

But I usually learn more from failures than successes. In this project, I learned all sorts of things. 

I read sources I'd never heard of before, handled rare examples of waterproof garments in museum collections, and corresponded with curators, chemists, and collectors who contributed pieces to this puzzle. 

I discovered that the world of nineteenth-century waterproofing was both simpler and more complex than our own. By all accounts, you could make a pretty decent raincoat in the fo'c's'le of a ship if you had some canvas and a bucket of paint. The modern raincoat I took on my ocean voyage in 2014 may be more waterproof than older ones, but creating it, much less understanding its chemical components, is well beyond my abilities. Not to mention that it's become nigh on impossible to locate once commonplace ingredients such as spermaceti, natural rubber, and spirits of wine.

In the course of working on this project, I had rare chances to find out exactly what it was like to get wet at sea, and I have a newfound understanding for why nineteenth-century sailors would have risked a bit of lead poisoning for that evasive element of human comfort, staying warm and dry. 

At sea, I learned that failure is inevitable. The men and women I sailed with whom I most admire owned up to their mistakes and did better the next time. I haven't quite figured out how to fail gracefully. I certainly would have preferred to conclude this project wearing a shiny, waterproof straw hat. But I'm learning. And I know that there will be lots of opportunities to practice.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Whalemen and Waterproofing V: Waterproof Hats

When I started thinking about historical waterproofing techniques as part of my participation in the Charles W. Morgan's "38th Voyage" last year (and writing blog posts under this label), I was keen to reproduce one of the ubiquitous "tarpaulin" hats worn by nineteenth-century sailors. I examined the waterproofed straw hat of sailor-author Richard Henry Dana at Mystic Seaport in 2014, and as I read through historic recipe books, I noticed that many mentioned hats as a common subject of waterproof treatments.

Detail of a sketch by Edward Haskell in his journal of the 1862 voyage of the merchant ship Tarquin, from Margaret S. Creighton, Dogwatch & Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century (Salem, MA: The Peabody Museum of Salem, 1982), 3.

At last year's Fort Frederick Market Fair, a gathering of craftsmen and vendors who make and sell reproductions of historical material culture, I found just the thing I was looking for on the back shelf in a tent crammed with bric a brac.

Here was an old straw hat, the sort of thing people described as "half worn" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, perfect for experimenting with a waterproofing recipe that I first encountered in Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes (1867; pg. 347). This particular recipe appears verbatim in a number of nineteenth-century recipe books, and I've been able to trace it back at least as far as 1814 (pg. 41):

"A Black Varnish for Old Straw or Chip Hats.
Take the best black sealing-wax, half an ounce; rectified spirit of wine, 2 oz.; powder the sealing-wax, and put it with the spirit of wine in a four ounce phial; digest them in a sand heat, or near a fire, till the wax is dissolved; lay it on warm with a fine soft hair-brush, before a fire, or in the sun. It gives a good stiffness to old straw hats, and a beautiful gloss equal to new, and resists wet."

This seems like a straightforward recipe until you begin to take it apart.

Let's start with "spirit of wine." That's pretty simple. Spirits are beverages that have been distilled, and spirit(s) of wine was the result of repeatedly distilling wine. Today, we call the same substance aqua vitae or, in its more pharmaceutical form, ethyl alcohol. Chemically, alcohol acts as a drying agent in this recipe, speeding and stabilizing the drying process. For this experiment, the closest I could get to true spirits of wine at an affordable price was store-bought ethyl alcohol, which has some other chemical additives.

And "the best black sealing-wax"? Well, that gets trickier, given that sealing wax is not as universal a descriptor as ethyl alcohol. Luckily, Mackenzie comes through for us again, on page 357, with a recipe for black sealing wax. I suspect this was also an older recipe, but I've been unable to find it in an earlier source.

"Venice turpentine, 4 1/2 oz.; shellac 9 oz.; colophony 1/2 oz.; lampblack mixed to a paste with oil of turpentine, q.s. [quantum satis/sufficit: a sufficient amount]"

What's all this mysterious stuff, then, and where can we find it today?

Venice turpentine is a solvent made, like all turpentines, by distilling tree resin, in this case that of the western larch. It's still used today by some painters and, more commonly, in the care of horses' hooves. My supply came from Hawthorne Products, who make actual resin-derived (versus synthetic) Venice turpentine.

Shellac is easy. The female lac bug, native to southern and southeastern Asia, excretes this substance as it forms protective tubes on the branches of trees. Once processed, shellac has a variety of uses, especially as a varnish and wood finish. Of course, Mackenzie doesn't specify whether he means dried, pure shellac or the liquified, alcohol-based product sold in most hardware stores. I decided to go with shellac flakes, a wide variety of which are offered on eBay for use in various crafts, because I suspect that's what Mackenzie meant, given that he included turpentine as a solvent.

And colophony? According to the OED, it's "The dark or amber-coloured resin obtained by distilling turpentine with water." Technically, resin/turpentine is what comes out of trees. Venice turpentine and other "spirits of turpentine" are the fluids that evaporate in the distillation process, leaving colophony/rosin. Rosin is used for a variety of purposes today, including in the treatment of string-instrument bows, and there are many varieties available on eBay. It's hard to say if the one I acquired was actually distilled, but I went for it.

Venice turpentine, shellac, colophony, and candles for making lampblack.

Lampblack, used as the pigment in this recipe for black sealing wax, is a fine soot, unburned material left over from some fires (as, in an eponymous example, the soot that forms inside an oil-burning lamp globe). It's quite easy to make, as this primitive skills page testifies. In essence, you capture the smoke and soot emitted from a burning flame on a smooth surface such as a metal or ceramic plate, and then carefully scrape off the black residue. Mackenzie himself described a method (pg. 328) for gathering lampblack from a tin funnel suspended over a lamp, and as we might expect by now his instructions are identical to a set that appeared in numerous recipe books as early as 1804.

Lampblack from a beeswax candle accreting on a spoon.

The more industrial setup I came up with to harvest lots of lampblack from the bottom of a pot over a candle.

Finally oil of turpentine is, according to the OED, "a volatile oil, contained in the wood, bark, leaves, and other parts of coniferous trees, and usually prepared by distilling crude turpentine." It sounds to me like this was a crude turpentine, filled with impurities. I wasn't able to find a source for definite oil of turpentine online (though various vendors online offer suspicious "turpentine oil" and "pine oil" products). So I decided to mix the lampblack paste using regular turpentine.

With all the ingredients prepared, I was ready to mix up my sealing wax, dissolve it in ethyl alcohol as Mackenzie instructed, and paint up my hat. Sounds simple, right?

Well, about that...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Appomattox at 150

I spent three days last week at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park as part of a group of volunteers demonstrating Civil War drill and discussing army life with visitors. Since getting back to the twenty-first-century, I've been thinking a lot about what drew so many people to an out-of-the-way corner of Virginia for the anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Entertaining some young visitors to Appomattox, April 2015.

The anniversary of the surrender, April 9th, was a rainy Thursday, but the park still received thousands of visitors. For some, the attraction was genetic. They had an ancestor "in the war," as they inevitably put it, maybe even one who was there at Appomattox 150 years ago. There were descendants of Ulysses S. Grant and of A.P. Hill, a Confederate general killed only a few days before the surrender. Many more visitors traced their lineage to common soldiers, North and South.

One older visitor stopped me in the street in front of the McLean house, where the surrender took place. "Are you a federal officer?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm portraying a second lieutenant." "Well," he paused, "I'd like you to fill out my parole." With shaking hands, he held out a slip of paper, one of the reproduction parole sheets the Park Service had been printing and distributing all day. I asked him to spell his name and wrote it in the blank space. The form also asked for a company and regiment affiliation. He didn't hesitate when I asked him, so deeply did he feel a connection with a particular historical unit. "Company K," he said, "47th Virginia Infantry."

Many people came not because of any particular ancestor, but because the war has exerted some longstanding hold on their psyches. One middle-aged man remembered growing up around the 100th anniversary of the war. "I've been waiting fifty years for this!" he said. I met people from Connecticut and Tennessee who had spent countless hours on the road to be at Appomattox on April 9th. I spoke with one man from Maine, where he is a docent at a museum built by Civil War veterans. For all their different reasons, people came to stand on this particular, unremarkable patch of ground on an unremarkable Thursday in 2015. And they came in far greater numbers than I expected. Thousands watched as the actor portraying Lee exited the McLean house in midafternoon.

Lee. Win McNamee/Getty Images from here.

As the Lee actor mounted his horse and rode slowly down the lane, between rows of visitors, an older woman behind me leaned forward to stare. She grabbed her husband's arm and spoke with hushed reverence. "Isn't he magnificent?"

And, as humorous as this seemed at the time, I have to admit that it was true. He was magnificent. He was everything we imagine of Lee, stately and serene, even in defeat.

It is my experience that there are two types of Civil War enthusiasts: Lee people and Grant people. Which man we find more compelling says at least as much about us as about them. The two heroes are so different, and perhaps that's what makes their meeting at Appomattox so compelling. The Southern patrician, poised and inscrutable, meets the Northern victor, mud-spattered and casual. Here we have the two great American heroic archetypes: the honorable knight and the self-made cowboy.

Grant and Lee. Autumn Parry, from here.

The reality is more complicated and wonderfully ambiguous. Was Lee such a marble man, or a base hypocrite? Was Grant a salt-of-the-earth military genius, or merely a lucky drunk?

That is, I think, why so many people find the Civil War so fascinating. Nostalgic minds can find all the honor, nobility, and grace they want. They can find stories of good and evil, the triumph of righteousness and the tragedy of the Lost Cause. And those of us more inclined to skepticism can find equally compelling complexities and contradictions at the heart of the story. The real Lee and Grant, after all, are at least as interesting as their mythological versions.

The day after the surrender anniversary, a ceremony recreated the final act of the Army of Northern Virginia, the stacking of arms. As the Confederate reenactors slowly arranged their muskets in pyramidal stacks and piled up their cartridge boxes and bayonets in heaps below, their color-bearers passed ragged banners over the ranks so that each man could grasp the flags one last time before the final surrender. As they marched away, I noticed that many had real tears streaming down their faces.

A Confederate color-bearer passes a flag over a line of troops at Appomattox. Autumn Parry, from here.

This was not melodramatic acting. I've worked with reenactors for years. Deep down and despite the name, most are terrible actors. No, these were genuine emotions, felt by men of 2015 reliving the bittersweet final moments of the war.

The Civil War is at the core of our national creation myth. But we can each make our own myth. When Americans imagine the stately Lee meeting the disheveled Grant in the McLean house, they can see it as a moment of loss or of victory. It was both, after all. And either way, it was a fork in our national road. We struggled mightily over the basic ideas of our society. Appomattox was where we finally settled, or at least began to answer, questions about democracy and slavery, merit and aristocracy, and the shape of our society and nation.

That's why this place matters to so many people.