J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“Meat became available to the masses”

The 21 Nov 2001 issue of the New Yorker, with the theme of food, includes an article (not freely available online) about historians at Hampton Court Palace in London recreating a dinner served to George III and his family on 6 Feb 1789. The king was just recovering from his earliest bout of madness, and that day was the first time that his attendants let him resume using a knife and fork.

Along the way reporter Lauren Collins says:
During the Georgian era [in England], meat became available to the masses. Farmers learned to produce fodder (turnips, swedes, and clover) that could sustain their cattle through the winter. The average ox sold at Smithfield Market in 1710 weighed three hundred and seventy pounds; by 1795, it had reached eight hundred. . . .

Seafood was plentiful, too: an account book shows that thirteen varieties, from salmon to smelts, were requisitioned in a month at [the royal palace at] Kew. A barrel of oysters cost five shillings. Cod was ordered “crimped”—the fishmonger would score it to the bone, while it was still alive, to give it a firmer flesh.

For reasons of hygiene as well as of fashion, the Georgians mistrusted raw fruits and vegetables. Cucumbers, lettuce, and celery were served stewed. Tomatoes—known as “apples of love”—had been in England since the sixteenth century, but people didn't start eating them until around 1800.

Still, the Georgian palate was sophisticated, especially in its marriage of sweet and savory flavors, evident in such delicacies as pistachio ice cream. The grocery list for Kew in February, 1789, includes hams (379 1/4 pounds), anchovies, “vermicelly,” “Paramazan cheese,” isinglass (gelatinized dried fish bladder, for clarifying beer), and sago (the pith of palm stems, for milk puddings). Many Georgian dishes would strike contemporary taste buds as almost Christmassy.
The American diet was probably plainer, but ample. Observers agreed that the common American was in better health than the equivalent European. The lower population density meant less disease, and the more equal distribution of wealth and greater demand for labor meant more people could enjoy adequate daily nutrition.

For studies of what early New Englanders ate, I recommend the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife volume Foodways in the Northeast.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tea Party Time Coming Closer

Tickets for the annual reenactment of the meeting at Old South Meeting House that led up to the Boston Tea Party are on sale now. The sales site says:
By December 16, 1773, all the fuss about tea in Boston had come to a boil. Three ships loaded with tea sat anchored in Boston harbor. The Patriots were determined to prevent the tea on these ships from being landed on American soil, because if it were, a tax would be due upon it.

This is where you join the party! Come take on the role of Patriot or Loyalist in this spirited reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. Hear from the likes of John Hancock, the richest man in Boston; Francis Rotch, owner of the ship Dartmouth; famed orator and doctor Joseph Warren; and notorious rabble rouser Samuel Adams.
Note the stereotypical treatment of Samuel Adams as a troublemaker, despite the fact that we’re supposed to admire what he notoriously roused the rabble to do. Longtime Boston 1775 readers know that I occasionally grouse about misrepresentations of Samuel Adams as an unreasonable troublemaker. But only occasionally.

This year the event is co-sponsored by the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum; that nascent institution’s website says it’s a bit over 200 days from opening. That gives its staff plenty of time to improve its presentation about David Kinnison.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dig at the Durant-Kendrick Homestead

Yesterday’s Boston Globe included a regional story on an archeological dig in Newton, at the Durant-Kendrick Homestead.

I’d never heard of this site. Growing up in Newton, as my friend Jack Riccardi has said, means you learn on school field trips that the Jackson Homestead is the center of U.S. history, perhaps followed by Independence Hall and the White House. But Historic Newton, guardian of the Jackson Homestead, also spearheaded the study of the Durant-Kendrick site.

Of the main house there, the Globe states:
The circa-1730s structure is endowed with centuries of history.

For starters, Edward Durant III - whose father built the house, which originally sat on 97 acres along with several outbuildings and barns - was involved in numerous town committees that responded to national issues when the Colonies were on the verge of the Revolutionary War, according to the research of independent scholar Mary Fuhrer.

The Kenrick family, who took over ownership in 1790, operated the largest plant nursery in New England from the site, according to [Historic Newton director Cynthia S.] Stone. They had around 200 species of pear trees, and varieties of apples, flowers, berries, and ornamental trees. They sold plants to people throughout the country, changing the landscape of the United States, Stone said. . . .

Throughout this process, their biggest discovery was the sunken dairy, with its brick floors and walls. It was likely used in the late 18th or early 19th century for processing milk into butter or cheese, Beranek said, then was filled in during the 1850s with construction rubble and trash.
The project is headed by Christa M. Beranek of the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The artifacts are now being analyzed, and there are plans for a report and an exhibit at Historic Newton.

I find that Edward Durant’s floor stencils from around 1780 have inspired some modern decorating products.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

“All this commotion about the Bell”

In his short book The Liberty Bell, Gary B. Nash quotes from a reminiscence by William Linn which he could credit only to “Unidentified source from Independence National Historical Park files.”

Google Books let me find Linn’s statement at greater length in The Liberty Bell: Its History, Associations and Home, a booklet compiled by E. R. Gudehus and published by the city of Philadelphia in 1915.

The full recollection was:
All this commotion about the Bell makes me think of my boyhood days, when we would go down to the old Bell and, with paving stones, try to knock off a piece of it.

If the Bell would break at all, it would have broken then, when these boys hammered it with pieces of iron and stones trying to get a piece off.

For nearly a hundred years no one had paid any particular attention to the Bell. Then came the Centennial, when the worship began, although it had hung in the Hall for years. That was done, no doubt, to save it, or the boys would have broken it all up.
There was an attorney named William Linn in Philadelphia active in Republican politics in the late 1800s. He died on 22 Nov 1922, according to the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger. The 24 November Reading Eagle stated that he had been a Civil War officer and “more than 70 years of age.” In the following year, Linn’s widow sent the Public Ledger a manuscript of his reminiscences of old Philadelphia. So I’m thinking that man’s probably the source of this anecdote, and it refers to the period around 1850.

As Nash shows, the bell was just becoming famous then because Abolitionists adopted it as a symbol of freedom and author George Lippard had linked it fictionally to the Declaration of Independence. But people hadn’t yet accepted the value of preserving something old for everyone, as opposed to trying to take a souvenir of it for oneself. In 1852 the city moved the bell from a little-visited upper floor of Independence Hall to the ground floor—though I can’t tell whether that meant boys had less of a chance to pound on it, or more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The United States Eagle as It First Appeared

This is Charles Thomson’s sketch of how he pictured the Great Seal of the United States in June 1782. The Continental Congress had asked him, as its longtime secretary, to offer some suggestions. Drawing on the discussions of previous committees, Thomson submitted this written proposal:
On a field Chevrons composed of seven pieces on one side & six on the other, joined together at the top in such wise that each of the six bears against or is supported by & supports two of the opposite side the pieces of the chevrons on each side alternate red & white. The shield born on the breast of an American Eagle on the wing & rising proper. In the dexter talon of the Eagle an Olive branch & in the sinister a bundle of Arrows. Over the head of the Eagle a Constellation of Stars surrounded with bright rays and at a little distance clouds.
The Congress’s seal committee made some changes to the eagle’s wings and the stripes on the shield, resulting in the following design. (Remember that it’s reversed when the seal is used to emboss a document.)
Kind of scrawny by modern standards, wasn’t it? More images and history at GreatSeal.com.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Franklin: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen”

As long as I was writing about Benjamin Franklin and turkeys, I thought I’d look into the oft-repeated statement that he preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as a symbol of the new republic.

That came from a letter to his daughter, Sally Bache, written from France on 26 Jan 1784. Franklin had just received news of the Society of the Cincinnati, and he didn’t really care for it. Most of his letter was about “the absurdity of descending honors.” As for the Cincinnati “ribbands and medals,” Franklin called them “tolerably done,” but then went on to repeat other people’s criticisms.

One of those complaints concerned the eagle that formed the basis of the medal. (The example shown here belonged to Gen. Henry Knox.) Franklin reported, “Others object to the Bald Eagle as looking too much like a Dindon or Turkey.” Derived from “d’Inde” or “from the Indies,” “dindon” was the French word for “turkey.”

Thoughts of eagles and turkeys launched Franklin into a comparison of their symbolic qualities:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy.

Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country. . . .

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours. He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Franklin’s understanding of bald eagle behavior left a lot to be desired, according to that bird’s fans. But he liked drawing political lessons from an animal’s supposed habits, as in this letter about rattlesnakes (probably).

While people often quote Franklin’s words in regard to the Great Seal of the United States, he wasn’t discussing that depiction of the eagle. He’d made other suggestions about a U.S. seal back when he was a member of the Continental Congress, but never wrote publicly about the design eventually adopted. This family letter wasn’t published until decades after his death.

I’m therefore inclined to think Franklin offered his turkey suggestion mostly as a joke, like his proposal of daylight saving time the same year.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dr. Franklin’s Turkey Hotline

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin was deep in his investigation of electricity. He told a correspondent at the Royal Society in London that he planned to try killing a turkey with [what we’d now call] the static charge from two big glass jars.

On 25 December, Franklin wrote to his brother John in Boston describing the result of that experiment:
Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro’ my own Arms & Body, by receiving the fire from the united Top Wires with one hand, while the other held a Chain connected with the outsides of both Jars.

The Company present (whose talking to me, & to one another I suppose occasioned my Inattention to what I was about) Say that the flash was very great & the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor felt heard the other; nor did I feel the Stroke on my hand, tho’ I afterwards found it raised a round swelling where the fire enter’d as big as half a Pistol Bullet by which you may judge of the Quickness of the Electrical Fire which by this Instance seems to be greater than that of Sound Light & animal Motion Sensation.

What I can remember of the matter is, that I was about to try whether the Bottles or Jars were fully charged, by the Strength & Length of the stream issuing to my hand, as I comonly used to do, & which I might Safely enough have done if I had not held the chain in ye. other hand; I then felt what I know not how well to describe; a universal Blow thrôout my whole Body from head to foot which seem’d within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick Shaking of my body which gradually remitting, my sense as gradually return’d, & then I thôt the Bottles must be discharged but could not conceive how, till at last I Perceived the Chain in my hand, and Recollected what I had been About to do:

that part of my hand & fingers which held the Chain was left white as tho’ the Blood had been Driven Out, and Remained so 8 or 10 Minutes After, feeling like Dead flesh, and I had a Numbness in my Arms and the back of my Neck, which Continued till the Next Morning, but wore off. Nothing remains now of this shock but a Soreness in my breast Bone, which feels as if it had been Bruised. I did not fall but suppose I should have been knocked down, if I had received the Stroke in my head. The whole was over in less than a minute.
Franklin wanted his brother to warn young James Bowdoin, whom he had just sent a bunch of electrical writings, about this possible danger. The letter survives in the Bowdoin Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society; you can see it here.

Undaunted, Franklin returned to his experiments and sent a full report to the Royal Society, where it was lost but not before being summarized for its Philosophical Transactions:
He made first several experiments on fowls, and found, that 2 large thin glass jars gilt, holding each about 6 gallons, were sufficient, when fully charged, to kill common hens outright; but the turkeys, though thrown into violent convulsions, and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour. However, having added three other such to the former two, though not fully charged, he killed a turkey of about ten pounds weight, and believes that they would have killed a much larger. He conceited, as himself says, that the birds killed in this manner eat uncommonly tender.
Those experiments led Franklin becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1756.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Speechless in the face of its errors of fact”

In a discussion of sources and previous studies on page 297 of Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, C. S. Manegold wrote:

By contrast, the almost bizarre piece, “An ‘Animadversion’ upon a ‘Complaint’ against ‘the Petition’ of Belinda, an African Slave,” by Vincent Carretta, published in Early American Literature in 1997, left me literally speechless in the face of its errors of fact (he posits that Isaac Royall was “an American invention” cooked up as a “slur against the avariciousness, Jewishness, and royalist sympathies of the ‘master’”). I can only say here, what was he thinking?
In fact, those phrases come from a previous paper by E. W. Pitcher that Carretta was quoting and refuting. Carretta’s two-page communication in the journal explained that Royall was a well-documented Medford slaveholder, and that Belinda’s original petition is preserved in the Massachusetts state archives. He stated, “The written account of Belinda’s petition [that the previous author doubted] is almost certainly fictionalized, but that does not render Belinda and her petition fictions.”

Criticizing someone for saying something he was actually quoting to debunk—that’s the sort of thing Mitt Romney does. Except I think Manegold made an honest mistake.

In fact, the previous paper was itself a response to an earlier paper by Joanne Braxton and Sharon M. Harris, so there were multiple levels to keep straight. For the record, this posting is my response to Manegold’s response to Carretta’s response to Pitcher’s response to Braxton and Harris.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

More Pelham Miniatures—Or Are They?

Miniatures that Henry Pelham painted while he lived in America are very rare. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has one of Stephen Hooper; correspondence between Pelham and Hooper confirms that the artist produced such a miniature.

During the war, Pelham left Massachusetts for Ireland. The National Gallery of Ireland has a miniature Pelham painted in 1779 of Lewis Farley Johnston, a little boy who grew up to be a judge.

I suspect that Pelham’s relationship to his celebrated half-brother John Singleton Copley has made people eager to attribute more miniatures to him. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston says this image of Peter Chardon, Jr. (1738-1766) was painted by Pelham in “about 1760”—but Henry was only eleven years old that year. (Perhaps he painted it from a 1760 Copley portrait after Chardon’s death.)

The M.F.A. also has a couple of miniatures attributed to Copley that show Henry Pelham as a grown man—or they show Copley’s brother-in-law Jonathan Clarke instead. Or maybe Pelham painted Clarke.

In 2007, Freeman’s sold the miniature of Jeremiah Kahler shown above as Pelham’s work. That auction house also said that Kahler was born in Hull and “lost at sea before 1830.” In fact, according to records of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, Kahler was born in Germany and “died at Boston, Feb. 2d, 1829, aged 86, extremely poor.” Period newspapers confirm both the date and the poverty.

I went looking for information on when Kahler arrived in New England. The earliest record I found of him dates from 1784, when he subscribed along with over two hundred other businessmen to improve Boston Common. The Massachusetts General Court naturalized him in November 1788 under the name Jeremiah Joachim/Joakim Khaler, which implies, but doesn’t prove, that Kahler had not been established in Massachusetts before independence. That act identified the merchant as “late a subject of the King of Denmark”; perhaps Kahler had come to Boston from the Danish West Indies.

The first newspaper advertisement I found from Kahler appeared in the Columbian Centinel in 1793. The next year he married Hannah Spear (1765-1845), and he was active in many business and charitable societies around the turn of the century. Kahler’s translations from German newspapers for the Boston press were reprinted all along the Atlantic seaboard, and he was the connection between Bostonians and Prof. Christoph Daniel Ebeling of Hamburg.

For Pelham to have painted this miniature, Kahler would have had to arrive in America before March 1776, when the artist left with the British military. It’s conceivable that the two men crossed paths somewhere else. But it seems most likely that this miniature was created by another, less interesting artist.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Little Portrait from a Little Brother

After John Singleton Copley’s portrait-painting career took off in the early 1770s, he stopped painting so many miniatures. His younger half-brother Henry Pelham took on that task.

Skinner Auctioneers just sold one of the miniatures that Pelham made from his older brother’s full-sized work, showing merchant Adam Babcock (1740-1817, at left). Babcock was the son of Joshua Babcock, a Rhode Island physician, Chief Judge, and Assembly Speaker [hey, the place was even smaller then]. The elder Babcock went on to sign the state’s declaration of independence from Britain, issued two months before the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence.

The auction house says Adam Babcock was from Boston, and indeed he died there, but at the time of those portraits he was based in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the plaintiff in a long lawsuit over a 13s. pair of leather breeches, described starting here.

The auctioneer notes that the gold case of this miniature looks just like one from Paul Revere’s workshop, which is interesting given the big argument Pelham and Revere had in early 1770.

TOMORROW: Sniffing out more Pelham miniatures.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Drummers Beating

In the eighteenth-century British army, drummers had the duty of whipping men convicted in courts-martial. This became a political issue when troops was stationed in Boston in 1768-1770.

From 1759 to 1843, His Majesty’s 29th Regiment had black drummers. Adm. Edward Boscawen bought the first batch of those musicians at Guadaloupe and gave them to his brother, the regiment’s colonel. At least three of those original men were still with the regiment in 1775.

When the 29th was sent to Boston in 1768, locals were surprised to see black soldiers whipping white ones. Within a week of the troops’ arrival, the 6 October Boston Evening-Post reported:
In the Morning nine or ten Soldiers of Colonel [Maurice] Carr’s Regiment for sundry Misdemeanors, were severely whipt on the Common. To behold Britons scourged by Negro Drummers, was a new and very disagreeable Spectacle!
Whigs played up this inversion in one of their one-sided dispatches to newspapers in colonies to the south about life in occupied Boston. In February 1769, however, they also reported that a black drummer was himself whipped because he “had adventur’d to beat time at a concert of music.”

The Continental Army was mostly modeled after the British army, and the drummers’ punitive responsibilities was one of the customs carried over. However, Americans drummers were more likely to be teenagers than those in the royal ranks.

That also caused a stir, as recalled by Israel Trask, an eleven-year-old boy who had accompanied his father to the siege of Boston. Recalling the spring of 1775, he said:
It was here I witnessed for the first time public punishment inflicted in the regiment. Five or six soldiers were condemned to be flogged for the crime, I believe, of being concerned in the mutiny at Boston. This incident was impressed on my memory with increased force from the interest made to exonerate Major [Ezra] Putnam’s son from his share of the duty of applying the cat to the naked backs of the criminals that fell to him as a drummer in the regiment. A year or two older than myself, he was, however, obliged to submit and take his share of the unpleasant duty with his colleagues.
Drummer Ezra Putnam, Jr., was actually sixteen years old. After the war he and his family moved out to the Ohio Territory, and in January 1791 he died in what became known as “the Big Bottom Massacre.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dublin Seminar 2012 on Dubliners and Other Irish

Next year’s Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, to be held in Deerfield, Massachusetts, on 22-24 June 2012, will be on the topic of “The Irish in New England.”

The call for papers says:
The Seminar is now accepting proposals for papers on the historical Irish presence in New England. The topic includes direct Irish immigrants and their descendants—Catholic and Protestant; North and South; Gaelic Irish, Hiberno-Norman or Old English, English settlers, Ulster-Scots or Scotch-Irish; as well as secondary migrants through Great Britain and British North America (Canada, the Maritimes, Newfoundland).

From the trickle of Irish settlers among the mariners, merchants, farmers, and fisherman, and the servants in the colonial period to the expanding traffic in the early nineteenth century to the flood tide of famine refugees in the 1840s and later, Irish men and women brought customs and beliefs that have had an indelible impact on New England life.

Topics for papers might include the Irish language; the revival of traditional music, dancing, and storytelling; Irish foodways; linen production; male laborers and female servants; and the larger issues of discrimination and class conflict. Other topics might be employment in railroad and canal construction, textile and shoe manufacturing; labor organization; spectator sports; shantytowns, urban enclaves; rural settlements such as the farming community of Benedicta, Maine; charitable, fraternal and religious organizations such as the 1737 Charitable Irish Society in Boston.

The Seminar encourages papers that reflect original research, especially those based primarily on underused resources such as letters and diaries, vital records, federal and state censuses, naturalization records, newspapers, portraits, prints and photographs, business and banking records, material culture, oral histories, and autobiographies.
To submit a proposal for this conference, download this form, complete it, and return it with the requested information to the seminar’s director.

I’m thinking of proposing a paper on the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. One was definitely Irish, and almost all of them had Irish names. Their ethnic and likely religious background was one more reason they were so unwelcome in Boston in 1768-1770.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Harvard Preoccupied

Yesterday I went to Harvard’s Houghton Library to look at an entry in the journals of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To be precise, I went to see if the poet’s brother had transcribed one word correctly when he published those journals.

I’ve researched at Houghton before [starting when I was about ten—long story], but not for a few years, so I needed a Special Collections card from the Library Privileges Office.

The only problem was that Harvard Yard is closed to outsiders, the university administration’s response to the small “Occupy Harvard” movement. A person needs a Harvard identification card to get into the Yard, even if he’s there to pick up a Harvard identification card.

I phoned ahead to the Library Privileges Office to ask how they’re handling that paradox. A friendly fellow told me to tell the police officers at the gate that I wanted to go to the Library Privileges Office in the Widener building. Depending on the individual officer’s priorities, he or she would either send me on to the office or escort me there.

Unfortunately, word of that arrangement hadn’t reached all the officers. In fact, I found that only one person per gate was aware of it. And the only gate where it’s supposed to apply is the Widener Gate. After multiple inquiries, an officer told me to go straight into the back door of Widener and speak to the security guard. The security guard then told me to go straight out of the building again and around to its front.

But by then, you see, I’d broached the special police line. I could go anywhere in the Yard. But all I wanted was my card, and I still had the regular library security process to navigate. I went up the big steps, filled out the form, sat for the photo, got my card, and headed to Houghton.

So it’s possible for outsiders to visit the university for research—it may just take more polite persistence than usual. My particular experience yesterday might have been shaped by the cold rain, making the police officers reluctant to leave the awnings set up for their protection to escort me anywhere. On the other hand, I probably earned some brownie points by helping the gents at Widener gate hoist their awning up high enough for a van to drive underneath. It’s a weird situation, and everyone’s probably improvising as we go along. (I never saw the protesters.)

As for Longfellow’s journal, his handwriting is ambiguous; brother Sam didn’t make an obvious error. However, from other sources I feel confident that the poet received a visit not from “Mrs. Vassal” but from “Mr. [Darby] Vassal.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Quick Online Visit to Williamsburg

As long as I’m talking podcasts, I must mention Colonial Williamsburg’s “Past and Present” series. I believe this is still the only podcast regularly devoted to the Revolutionary period. (If anyone knows of another, please tell me.)

These conversations are only about ten minutes, so they don’t go into great depth. But there is breadth. Most of the interviews are about life in eighteenth-century Williamsburg or notables from that time, but other podcasts delve into the challenges of running that monumental living-history museum and investigations into other periods of Virginia history. Each podcast also comes with an online transcript for review.

The first host I heard was Lloyd Dobyns, who sounds like a classic television journalist because he was one. The current host is Harmony Hunter, also a writer and editor for the Colonial Williamsburg website. Both ask the basic questions that visitors might well have.

Also available at history.org is the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. The latest issue has a disappointing article on the Boston Tea Party by the museum’s renowned and retired archeologist Ivor Noël Hume. Its recounting of North America’s tea protests of 1773-74 is incomplete and in some details inaccurate. It mentions none of the fine books devoted to the Tea Party such as Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots, Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution, and Benjamin Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party.

Better to look at the “New in the Collection” page, which this month features a portrait of Isaac Barré by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Barré was badly wounded in the right cheek during the Battle of Québec, and Horace Walpole said that gave him “a peculiar distortion on one side of his face, which it seems was a bullet lodged loosely in his cheek, and which gave a savage glare to one eye.” But Reynolds seems to have smoothed out Barré’s features and actually cast his other cheek into shadow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Our Time and the Industrial Revolution

My favorite podcast is In Our Times with Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4. In each episode Bragg, a peculiarly British combination of broadcast host and novelist, sits down with three academics to discuss some topic from history, culture, science, or philosophy. The archives of the podcast stretch back over a decade, to when the show was half an hour instead of forty-five minutes—which must have meant even more reminders from Bragg to hurry along.

The History section of the website has a show on “Washington and the American Revolution.” Many more episodes cover elements of the British Empire in the eighteenth century: “The Enclosure Movement,” “Women and Enlightenment Science,” “The Jacobite Rebellion,” “Edmund Burke,” “The East India Company,” “Electrickery,” “The Sublime,” and so on. There are also a lot of shows on aspects of the classical world, which helped to shape that culture.

But I’m also pleased to hear about topics only remotely connected to the stuff of Boston 1775, especially those I don’t know anything about. Right now my MP3 player includes files on Shinto, Delacroix, and the siege of Tenochtitian. I don’t feel I have time to read books on such topics, but I can fill a subway ride listening to an erudite chat about them.

One of the liveliest conversations in the bunch comes in the first of two shows on “The Industrial Revolution.” Bragg usually voices the understanding of an exceedingly well read amateur. One of his guests is anxious to dissuade him of the notion that there was something special about the British (or the Scottish) in spearheading that technological change. The main difference was coal, she says—northern Britain simply had more coal than France did. Self-congratulatory harrumphing about British ingenuity verges on “racism.” Bragg bites back at that, but can’t argue with the data on coal supplies.

I thought back to that show while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker. He notes the coal theory, but then points to this April 2011 paper by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, summarizing it like this:
They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

In 1779, Samuel Crompton, a retiring genius from Lancashire, invented the spinning mule, which made possible the mechanization of cotton manufacture. Yet England’s real advantage was that it had Henry Stones, of Horwich, who added metal rollers to the mule; and James Hargreaves, of Tottington, who figured out how to smooth the acceleration and deceleration of the spinning wheel; and William Kelly, of Glasgow, who worked out how to add water power to the draw stroke; and John Kennedy, of Manchester, who adapted the wheel to turn out fine counts; and, finally, Richard Roberts, also of Manchester, a master of precision machine tooling—and the tweaker’s tweaker. He created the “automatic” spinning mule: an exacting, high-speed, reliable rethinking of Crompton’s original creation.
I immediately wanted to know what Melvyn Bragg and his guests thought of the theory. Is it old-fashioned harrumphing in new language, or a clever application of new sociological thinking? Not that any discussion will settle the question (we can’t experiment with history, after all), but it’s always healthy to look at old ideas in new ways.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

“To petition the Government for a redress of grievances”

The part of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment that we forget most easily comes at the end: “the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The White House website now has a whole section inviting citizen petitions, called “We the People.” Individuals can sign in to create a petition or endorse one already posted.

And what do we the people care most about, based on the largest number of signatories to a single petition? As of yesterday, by a small margin, it’s:
“Crack down on puppy mills.”

That’s followed by cracking down on the T.S.A., not cracking down on hemp producers, and not cracking down on drugs in general. In fact, a lot of these petitions involve marijuana.

One of the more popular asks to end the Electoral College, a change that Boston 1775 has long supported. We must note, however, that amending the Constitution requires action by Congress and the states, not the executive branch.

Similarly, the White House is not where one should go to change the law of New York or overturn a Supreme Court decision.

Some petitions that appear to be properly directed also appear less than compelling. More than 12,000 people have asked the government to “formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.”

Others plead, “Allow Seriously Backlogged EB2/EB3 Beneficiaries with Their I-140 Approved to File I-485 and Apply for EAD & AP.” That has a whiff of a special interest, wouldn’t you say?

At least one petition rhetorically reaches back to the Founders. “Recognize the contribution of Flemish Americans to the establishment and settlement of America” states:
George Washington is a direct descendant of the Count of Flanders and Benjamin Franklin, the Roosevelts, Lord Baltimore (the founder of Maryland), a dozen signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Jay (the 1st Chief Justice) and many others have Flemish ancestors.
(That’s mainly because William the Conqueror married a daughter of the Count of Flanders in the eleventh century and allied with that region; there are more than twice as many years between that event and Washington’s birth than between his birth and today.)

White House staffers have posted only ten responses so far. Unsurprisingly, they restate the administration’s policy positions or explain why it can’t take positions on matters pending in courts. On 4 November, Jon G. of Michigan replied by petitioning, “We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition,” saying that would have a higher chance of success.

But perhaps the quality of response depends on the quality of ideas that We the People propose.

Monday, November 14, 2011

“Making History” at Boston College through 11 December

I became curious about the discovery of the Ribchester Parade Helmet after visiting an exhibit now at the McMullen Museum inside Devlin Hall at Boston College. Called “Making History,” it consists mainly of material from the Society of Antiquaries in London.

Founded in 1707 and receiving a royal charter in 1751, the Society of Antiquaries provided a center for the systematic study of Britain’s past. In essence, it was Enlightenment thinking applied to history.

Among the society’s early work on display in Chestnut Hill are:
  • A 1785 reproduction of a painting of the coronation of Edward VI, showing a broad sweep of London at the time. This was useful since the original painting burned up in 1793.
  • Careful drawings of the great Stonehenge collapse of 1797.
  • A Bronze Age shield and a crucifix found on Bosworth Field, both found around 1778.
  • A drawing of that Ribchester Helmet, found in 1796.
  • A painting commissioned from young artist J. M. W. Turner in 1793 to record the look of the St. Augustine’s Gate at Canterbury. At the time the building was a brewery.
Among the items on display that helped influence American history are a copy of John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, which named this region, and a copy of the Magna Carta dating from some time after 1225.

The Antiquaries were on the forefront of historical preservation. Not many people in eighteenth-century Britain and America valued keeping buildings or artifacts around just because they were old if they could be useful some other way.

And the item displayed at the top of this posting? That’s a late-1700s ballot box from the Society. A member put his [naturally] hand into the hole and dropped a ball to the left or right to vote “YEA” or “NO.” The ball dropped into one of the two drawers at the bottom to be counted later.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Walton, accidental archeologist

On 3 Aug 1796, the Blackburn Mail, a newspaper of Lancashire County, England, reported:
A few days ago some ancient figures etc. were discovered in a scar on the Ribble side near Ribchester, a few miles from this place, about 9 feet below the surface of the earth. The river had washed part of them there, which induced the persons who discovered them to dig up the earth, where they found a metal helmet or cap-a-pie, embellished with a number of small figures of men on horseback, with swords in their hands…
The person who first discovered those “ancient figures” was thirteen-year-old John Walton. His father, a clogmaker, went back (presumably bringing John to point out the spot and help with the digging) and unearthed several more Roman artifacts.

About a year and a half later, the Waltons’ sold their discoveries to Charles Townley, a local collector. He put another description of their discovery in a letter to the Society of Antiquaries in London:
These ancient remains, composed chiefly of bronze, were found during the summer of 1796, at Ribchester, the ancient [settlement of] Coccium of the itinerary of Antoninus, situated upon the banks of the river Ribble, in the county of Lancaster, by the son of one Joseph Walton, in a hollow that had been made in the waste land at the side of the road leading to the church, and near the bend of the river. The boy, about thirteen years old, being at play in that hollow, rubbed accidently upon the helmet at the depth of about nine feet from the surface of the ground. When the helmet was extracted the other articles were found with it, deposited in a heap of red sand, which formed a cube of three feet. . . .

These are all the circumstances, relative to this discovery, which I could collect from the before-mentioned Joseph Walton, the person who dug these antiquities out of the ground, and sold them to me on December 8th, 1797.
Another local antiquarian, the Rev. T. D. Whitaker, later described also seeing “a sphinx of bronze” that might have been attached to the top of the helmet. But, he said, John Walton’s cousins had lost it before the family sold the collection.

Now called the “Ribchester parade helmet” and the “Ribchester treasure,” the surviving artifacts are in the British Museum, with replicas in a town museum near the find. John Walton’s name didn’t appear in nineteenth-century accounts, but surfaces (without citation) in modern tellings, like this P.D.F. download from the South Ribble Primary Schools.

(Despite the early newspaper report, the Ribchester Parish Council suggests that the treasure was “more likely to have been found behind one of the cottages opposite the primary school.” That might be based on a late description of the find quoted in this P.D.F. download without a source, suggesting that John Walton was digging near his home rather than exploring the Ribble riverbank.)

TOMORROW: A glimpse of the Ribchester treasure at Boston College.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ebenezer Mackintosh, Captain of the South Enders

Pope Night is turning out very long this year. Some Boston 1775 readers thought yesterday’s description of the Fifth of November celebration in 1765 put too much emphasis on upper-class gentlemen manipulating the crowds. But I can read the same events the other way as well: the crowds manipulating the elite. Or perhaps both groups got what they wanted together.

There are many more sources from the genteel class than from the working class, of course. Rich men of all political persuasions wrote about the “mob” with distaste. Friends of the royal government blamed riots on secret Whig instigators. Whigs blamed the same events on oppressive laws spurring entirely foreseeable anger from the lower sort. No one recorded much about what workingmen themselves thought, how they organized, and what they hoped to accomplish.

Alfred F. Young’s “Ebenezer Mackintosh: Boston’s Captain General of the Liberty Tree,” an essay published earlier this year in Revolutionary Founders, collects what we know about the most prominent working-class political figure in pre-Revolutionary Boston.

Mackintosh, a twenty-seven-year-old shoemaker, was the captain of the South End gang in 1764. It looks like the youth of that part of Boston chose him for that post, along with some unnamed lieutenants, but we have no idea how. The South Enders won that year’s Pope Night brawl, but a young boy was killed, town officials tried to seize the wagons, and North End captain Henry Swift lay in a coma for days.

In March 1765 Mackintosh, Swift, and others were indicted for rioting, with a stern lecture from Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson. Yet the same month, Bostonians elected Mackintosh as a Sealer of Leather, one of the town’s many inspectors. So clearly he was still popular, and commanded some respect from the men who could vote in town meeting.

The next month brought news of the Stamp Act, scheduled to take effect at the start of November. Boston was the site of America’s first public protest against that law, carried out by a large crowd in the South End on 14 Aug 1765. With Ebenezer Mackintosh as a very visible leader, that protest used the same sort of effigies as on Pope Night. The elm hanging over the proceedings was later dubbed “Liberty Tree,” and Mackintosh became its “Captain General,” a term borrowed from the militia.

Behind the scenes, it looks like the Loyall Nine, a group of young merchants and luxury craftsmen, did much of the preparation for that protest. Records also show that two days before it Samuel Adams had sworn out a warrant for unpaid taxes against Mackintosh and his partner; later, Adams apparently dropped that matter. Was that because Mackintosh had kept the violence under control and directed against the property of Stamp Act agent Andrew Oliver?

On 26 August, a more spontaneous crowd sacked Hutchinson’s house in the North End. That’s a very murky affair, made murkier by Hutchinson’s conspiracy theories. Mackintosh was arrested for the riot, then let go on the grounds that there would be worse trouble if he were locked up. No one preserved evidence that Mackintosh was actually involved, but by then many officials perceived him as controlling the Boston crowd.

That fall, protests against the Stamp Act spread up and down the Atlantic coast. In Massachusetts it became clear that Oliver wouldn’t be able to collect the new tax, and that judges and other officials would proceed without requiring stamped paper. With that struggle going his way, and legal threats still hanging over him, Mackintosh had an incentive to help keep Boston peaceful. At the same time, his South End gang constituency was probably looking forward to their Pope Night celebrations.

Yesterday’s posting said that town leaders convinced the South End and North End gangs to forgo their traditional brawl on 5 Nov 1765 by supplying a festive banquet instead. In fact, gentlemen paid for large quantities of food and drink three times that fall:

  • In late October, the two “richest men in town”—perhaps John Hancock and John Rowe—hosted two hundred workingmen at a tavern, with Mackintosh and Swift at the head table.
  • On Pope Night, there were refreshments for all under Liberty Tree as the gangs rolled their wagons around peacefully.
  • There was another formal dinner a week after the holiday, filling five rooms.

Furthermore, merchants gave the Pope Night officers new blue and red uniforms, hats, and canes. The young men first wore those in a public march on 1 November, the day the Stamp Act was to take effect. Mackintosh walked alongside William Brattle, general of the Massachusetts militia and Council member. A gentleman and a shoemaker, South Enders and North Enders, Pope Night officers and militia units—Bostonians thus showed their unified opposition to the Stamps. If Pope Night was all about having fun while showing off one’s patriotism, those parades and banquets accomplished the same thing without anyone getting bashed on the head.

Mackintosh wasn’t just getting a few meals and a fancy coat, furthermore. He was also getting a seat at the political table, a show of respect from gentlemen. There’s some evidence Mackintosh did have a wider political consciousness; he named his first son after a famous Corsican rebel. But we don’t have any sense of his platform, or how he might have differed on issues with the town’s rich merchants and employers. Was he a puppet, or a puppeteer, or just another actor in a complex process?

Supporters of the royal government and officials in London continued to worry about Mackintosh until the start of the war. Back in Boston, he was never prominent after 1766. Debt, the death of his wife, and possibly drink caught up with him. Mackintosh took his children to Haverhill, New Hampshire, in 1774.

More genteel men such as Dr. Thomas Young and merchant William Molineux became the Whigs’ street leaders. Members of the Loyall Nine, such as Thomas Crafts, rose to more high political offices. As for the crowds, they continued to act on their own, sometimes supporting Whig positions and sometimes defying pleas from Whig leaders. Even Mackintosh couldn’t really control everyone.

Friday, November 11, 2011

“The 5th of November happily disappointed ones fears”

Back on the Fifth of November, while Boston 1775 embarked on a pop-culture journey to the twenty-first century, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive blog shared an account of Pope Night in Boston in 1765.

It came from the young merchant and future Loyalist Isaac Winslow (1743-1793), who wrote:
The 5th of November happily disappointed ones fears, a union was formed between the South and North, by the mediation of the principal gentlemen of the town

[The Pope effigies] paraded the Streets together, all day, and after burning them at the close of it, all was quiet in the evening. There were no disguises of visages, but the two leaders, [Ebenezer] M’cIntosh of the South, and [Henry] Swift of the North, (the same who was so badly wounded last year[)], were dress’d out in a very gay manner
That year’s Pope Night was unusual. In 1764 a morning tussle between North End and South End gangs with their big wagons had accidentally killed a young boy. Town officials tried to confiscate the wagons and effigies, but the gangs brought them out again at the end of the day and proceeded to their usual brawl. That evidently left one of the gang leaders seriously hurt (a detail I hadn’t read before).

Furthermore, in the late summer of 1765 Boston had been roiled by protests against the Stamp Act, culminating in a riot that nearly destroyed Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s North End mansion. The town’s political leaders were determined not to let the Fifth of November revelry get out of hand. That would have damaged not only local property but Boston’s reputation elsewhere.

Whig gentlemen bribed and cajoled the gangs into acting peacefully. By promising the young men a banquet, they made collecting money through the traditional processions unnecessary. Then the men called on the youths to channel their energy into a dignified patriotic parade against the Stamp Act rather than a battle against each other. That worked for 1765, and the next few Pope Nights in Boston were relatively peaceful as well.

The quotation above comes from a family history called the “Winslow Family Memorial”; researchers can download Robert Newsom’s transcription of it in PDF form from the M.H.S. website.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A New Political Meaning for Guy Fawkes’s Face

In May 2006, two months after Warner Bros. released its film adaptation of V for Vendetta, someone posted to the irreverent website 4chan a series of cartoons showing a stick figure called Epic Fail Guy picking a Guy Fawkes mask out of a trash can. Why he does that is not clear. What this was supposed to mean is not clear. But Epic Fail Guy, with and without the mask, remained a popular icon on the site.

In January 2008, a group of computer hackers who often posted on 4chan got upset that the Church of Scientology was trying to remove embarrassing videos from the web. Announcing themselves as a loose organization called Anonymous, they launched “Project Chanology,” an attack on that church. The next month, some participants in that protest appeared on Canadian television and on picket lines wearing Guy Fawkes masks, as the photo above shows and the Boston Globe reported.

According to some sources, those masks were supposed to signal that Scientology is an “epic fail,” or was headed for a “Year of Epic Fail.” Few people outside of 4chan were acquainted with Epic Fail Guy, however. Therefore, most observers probably read those masks as symbols of a more general anti-authoritarian sentiment. Either way, there’s a fair amount of irony in the representation of a religious zealot being used to protest a religion.

From those protests, the Guy Fawkes mask was picked up by participants in Occupy Wall Street and similar protests around the world. But not just any such mask—the design from the V for Vendetta movie has now become the standard Guy Fawkes mask, eclipsing other images of the historical figure. Both creators of the original V for Vendetta comic, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, have applauded the use of their anarchist icon in such political protests.

And that brings yet more irony: the more readily available V for Vendetta mask is a licensed product of Time Warner (though I have no doubt there are also knock-offs on the market). Thus, the product of a big business is being used to protest the corruptions of big business.

Obviously, the symbolism of Guy Fawkes has evolved over the years, just as Americans have shifted around and reinterpreted the traditions of the Fifth of November since the 1700s. Yet all the different versions share some element of upending the current order—possibly just for a night of misrule, possibly in fundamental ways. That was part of colonial New England’s Pope Night processions, part of Lloyd’s smirking character design, and part of the recent political protests against entrenched power.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Time Warner’s V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, began to appear in the British comics magazine Warrior in 1982. Like other British comics magazines, in each issue Warrior published short installments of several different ongoing stories, and V for Vendetta became one of the most popular.

Moore and Lloyd had agreed on what was then a radically new style of comics storytelling: no thought balloons, no explanatory captions, no sound effects. V for Vendetta also had an unmistakable political edge, though set in a future, post-apocalyptic Britain.

Without the backing of a big established firm, Warrior was never a solid financial success, and it ran into legal disputes as well. The magazine stopped publishing in 1985, leaving V for Vendetta only 80% complete.

By that time the American publisher DC Comics had hired Moore to write scripts for some of its famous characters, starting with Swamp Thing and moving on to Superman (“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”), Batman (The Killing Joke), Robin (“For the Man Who Has Everything”), and the Green Lanterns (“Mogo Doesn’t Socialize”). His 1986-87 series with Dave Gibbons, Watchmen, would help to push superhero comics to a new level of sophistication.

DC put in the best bid to finish up publishing V for Vendetta. Its art was originally black and white, but Lloyd added color for the American market. The entire story appeared in ten comic books in 1988-89, and then in a collected volume that’s still in print. That very British, anti-authoritarian story with a Guy Fawkes mask as its iconic image thus became one of the assets of DC’s parent corporation, Time Warner.

In 2006 Warner Bros., another division of the same corporation, released a movie version of V for Vendetta. As in the comics, the character V wore a Guy Fawkes mask in every scene. Production designer Owen Paterson, art director Stephan Gessler, and director James McTeigue created that mask based on Lloyd’s drawings. The result was another corporate asset.

The mask actually proved to be a problem. The first actor cast as V quit because he couldn’t stand wearing it all day. Furthermore, while the unchanging face looks neat on the printed page, we expect movies to, well, move. The filmmakers struggled to record some emotion for that character through Hugo Weaving’s line readings, sound, lighting, and other visual effects.

Warner Bros. sent out Guy Fawkes masks to promote V for Vendetta, and licensed Halloween costumes and other products based on its character design. The movie was a moderate success. Moore and the book’s strongest fans saw plenty to complain about, of course; among their issues was how Hollywood had watered down the comics’ anarchist political message. Still, a movie about a heroic terrorist in 2006 had to carry a whiff of subversion.

TOMORROW: A return to politics through the web.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Moore and Lloyd’s Vendetta

In 1981, the writer Alan Moore and the artist David Lloyd began planning a comics series called V for Vendetta. It was a commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which Britain has become a dictatorship. A rebel named V tries to undermine the regime through terror, his face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

In a 1983 essay about the development of V for Vendetta, Moore quoted a letter from Lloyd:
Re. The script; While I was writing this, I had this idea about the hero. . . . I was thinking, why don't we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier mache masks in a cape and conical hat? He’d look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!
An interview in George Khoury’s True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the U.K. quotes Lloyd’s recollection:
Guy Fawkes…was one of the great anarchists of history; he wanted to create disorder from which a new order would arise. Just as V plotted to do. It was just a suggestion I made to Alan ’cos it tied in to everything he wanted to do with the character and it had the theatricality he preferred. At the time it was agreed on, there were no Guy Fawkes masks around—it not being November, when the festivity around the character takes place—so I imagined one, which had a spooky smile that always seems part of even the meanest Guy Fawkes masks I’ve ever seen. It worked.
Later, Moore reported, “Dave sent designs for the V character which were perfect apart from the fact that Dave had got the shape of the hat wrong.” Lloyd probably first drew the sort of conical cap seen on many traditional Guy Fawkes effigies. The finished character wears the tall-crowned, broad-brimmed hat standard in the early 1600s, which has more dignity.

The result wasn’t exactly like any Guy Fawkes masks from before 1981, it seems to me. Rather, it was the melding of Lloyd’s memory of those masks and what he and Moore wished their character to represent. And their V for Vendetta started to establish a new political meaning for the mask.

To begin with, the historical Guy Fawkes wasn’t an “anarchist.” He was a zealot who wasn’t above using violence to support his version of religion. (Of course, so were James I and many members of the Parliament that Fawkes and his co-conspirators wanted to destroy.) The “new order” Fawkes hoped to create would have been much like the old order, with a monarch, noblemen, bishops, and so on; they simply would have been English Catholics instead of English Protestants.

On the other hand, by the 1700s Guy Fawkes had come to be associated with a type of anarchy: the boisterous misrule of the Fifth of November celebrations. Only on that day in colonial New England were apprentices allowed to parade through the streets and demand money from gentlemen. Only on that day in Victorian England were boys expected to play with firecrackers and bonfires.

My articles on Pope Night argue that youths got license to run riot on 5 November precisely because they were showing loyalty to the royal Protestant order by lampooning and burning Guy Fawkes or the Pope. The festivity was a celebration of the existing order disguised as disorder—or perhaps the other way ’round.

For Moore and Lloyd, attracted to the idea of anarchy, the real Fawkes’s plans meant less than his methods—blowing up the whole government—and the misrule he’d come to represent. By making V their (anti)hero, they were attacking the existing order.

TOMORROW: And that’s not the end of the irony.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Processions of the Guys

Here are a bunch of pictures of Guy Fawkes’ Day published in Britain in the 1800s, or the early 1900s at the latest. They all show boys carrying an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a chair, as the pseudonymous Peter Parley described in 1845.

The Fawkes effigy always carries a lantern, and usually a bundle of straw. In most cases he’s smoking a pipe (or even two). Those details refer to how he was captured preparing to set fire to barrels of gunpowder under Parliament in 1605.
Sometimes the effigy wears a conical hat, in one case an elaborate one. Those recall the caricatured mitre placed on the Pope effigy in New England’s pre-Revolutionary celebrations of the fifth of November. But it seems to be an all-purpose emblem of ridicule rather than a specific style. According to some verbal descriptions, some effigies wore cocked hats to appear antique.
One of these pictures shows the boys carrying the effigy wearing masks of their own. We know from people’s recollections that dressing up like that was a standard part of the celebration.
What’s not standard, however, is the look of Guy Fawkes. Generally he looks like Mr. Punch (or perhaps a Punch mask provided a convenient face for him). Often he has a mustache; sometimes not. Sometimes he wears a dark cape; often not. The iconography of a Guy Fawkes effigy was still in flux.
TOMORROW: So where did today’s standardized “Guy Fawkes mask” come from?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

“Guy Fawkes, dressed up in an odd fashion with a mask for a face”

During the Revolutionary War, Americans discarded the idea of celebrating the deliverance of the British king and Parliament from being blown up on 5 Nov 1605. For a while folks converted that sort of festivity into a different sort of celebration: reviling Benedict Arnold instead, enjoying general mummery, and renaming the holiday as “Pork Night.” Finally we commercialized it as Halloween.

In Britain, on the other hand, the Fifth of November became more institutionalized through the 1800s, and got called “Guy Fawkes’ Day.” The centerpiece of the celebration was the procession of “the guy”—an effigy of the luckless plotter discovered with gunpowder under Parliament—to a bonfire.

In 1845, Samuel G. Goodrich (shown above, courtesy of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society) wrote about this tradition under the name Peter Parley in his Tales about Great Britain:

Every party of boys has a figure called Guy Fawkes, dressed up in an odd fashion with a mask for a face. This figure is usually seated on a chair, and carried from house to house, the boys rapping at the doors and bidding the “good people remember, the fifth of November, for the gunpowder plot, should never be forgot.” Thus they collect money, which enables them to buy fireworks to be let off at night at their bonfires.
The major differences between those processions and the traditions recalled in New England is that the colonial youth called their effigy the Pope, and he sat on a wagon rather than a chair.

Masks were a standard part of the British celebration. Volume 2 of the Lancet, published in 1846, included a case study about a “Death from Fright.” A two-year-old girl had died after seeing “a little boy, in a red ‘Guy-Fawkes’ mask” peer through a sweet-shop window. The red mask represented a devil (or, as the little girl called it, a “Bogie”) rather than Fawkes himself.

In 1849-1850, the journalist Henry Mayhew conducted a bunch of interviews with working-class people in the British capital, later collected as London Labour and the London Poor: The London Street-Folk. That book had a long section on Guy Fawkes Day traditions. Here are quotations from various interviewees, showing how the celebrants used masks:
  • The Guy: “He had a large brimmed hat with a low crown in, and a wax mask. I always had wax ones. . . . The other figure was the devil. . . . He had a devil’s mask on, and I made him a pair of horns out of his head.”
  • “A fourpenny mask makes the [Guy Fawkes] face, and a proper cocked hat…”
  • “a pantomime mask, or one used to hand outside some masquerade costumier’s shop door.”
  • “then we put the mask on: it was a twopenny one—they’re a great deal cheaper than they used to be; you can get a very good one now for a penny—it had a great big nose, and it had two red horns, black eyebrows, and red cheeks. I like devils, they’re so ugly.”
  • One teenager remembered being a living guy about the age of seven: “Then I put on a black mask with a little red on the cheek, to make me look like a devil: it had horns, too. Always pick out a devil’s mask with horns: it looks fine, and frightens the people a’most.”
Thus, the term “Guy Fawkes mask” had come to mean two things: the mask for the Fawkes effigy itself, and masks of devils or other creatures that boys wore on Guy Fawkes’ Day.

TOMORROW: Visual representations.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Occupy King Street

The fifth of November,
As you well remember,
Was gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
But we might lose track of some details along the way.
For this Fifth of November—or “Pope Night,” as the holiday was called on pre-Revolutionary Boston broadsides—I’ve looked into how we got from the 1760s celebration pictured above to the “Guy Fawkes masks” used in today’s Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street movements.
I’ll start with a reminder that the Boston youth who circulated the broadside displaying the first picture had only a foggy memory of Guy Fawkes’s plot. They dated it to 1588 (the year of the Spanish Armada). There’s also no account of New Englanders parading with an effigy of Guy Fawkes. Boys on this side of the Atlantic preferred the Pope, the Devil, and the worst political enemies or scapegoats of the year. And of course the holiday became even more estranged from its roots after independence.

TOMORROW: What Guy Fawkes looked like in the 1800s.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Mill Dam, Mill Pond, Mill Creek, Mill Bridge

In 1643, thirteen years after the British settlement of Boston, the town granted land on the peninsula’s westerly side to a group of inhabitants on the condition that they erect a grist mill powered by the tide. The town also promised that it wouldn’t let any other mill be erected.

Those grantees built up a muddy causeway that Natives had used to cut across part of the Back Bay into a Mill Dam, creating the Mill Pond. The Mill Creek cut across the peninsula to connect the pond to the main harbor on the east side. Tides filled up the pond and then let its water run out. Later people built a windmill in the area as well.

There were two bridges over the Mill Creek, called “the draw bridge” and “the mill bridge.” (I don’t recall ever reading about the drawbridge being raised, but it might have been.) The creek defined the boundary of the North End.

In 1769, Boston’s selectmen determined that the heirs of the original grants had let the mills deteriorate. They therefore took over the property and assigned George Leonard to refurbish the mills and grind all the grain that the town owned. (Such practices should give pause to anyone who still thinks that early America had a laissez-faire economy.)

In the early 1800s the new Mill Pond Corporation filled in the pond with earth from Beacon Hill and Copp’s Hill. Soon that shallow area was dry land, to be developed as part of West Boston.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Tide Mill Conference in Kennebunkport, 18-19 Nov.

This is one of the more specialized historical events I’ve heard of this fall, and in that little way one of the most intriguing. Not that I plan to go—I just enjoy its existence.

The Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and the Tide Mill Institute will hold a conference on 18-19 November at the trust’s headquarters in Kennebunkport, Maine, where historians from Europe and North America will discuss the history of tide mills. The conference description says:
One presentation will lay out legal issues that affected early tide mills and confront those seeking to make use of tidal energy today. An open forum will allow Maine’s coastal historical societies to share information and to study the tide mills that existed in their back yards. Participants will also have the opportunity to hear about and see first-hand the current archaeological work being done by the Trust at its 1740s James Perkins tide mill site in Kennebunkport.
There will be an informal reception at the Trust’s headquarters on Friday evening, and registration starts on Saturday at 8:30 A.M. There’s a $20 conference fee, and the event is subsidized by a grant from the Maine Humanities Council. For more information, contact Bud Warren or Lisa Lassey.

The picture above, courtesy of the Tide Mill Institute, shows the Perkins tide mill in the early 1900s when it was a tea room. Built in 1794, the structure lasted exactly two centuries before burning down. Tide mills are preserved in some form in Revere and Quincy, Massachusetts.

Looking for pictures also led me to the Mills Archive Trust in Britain, which has extensive links to sites in that country.

TOMORROW: How tide mills helped to define colonial Boston.