Moon, Monsters, and Hope

harvest_moon-_7916064846By Phil Sangwell from United Kingdom (Harvest moon.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday Morning Musings:

I gaze at the Harvest Moon

from my kitchen door.

Glorious, golden, and full,

she hums a message of hope,

and winks at me from the star-lit sea.

 

She appears, full moon

just before the autumnal equinox

gleaming and glowing for farmers’ gleaning,

giving them light in the darkness.

 

She’s a moon for lovers,

and for lunatics and werewolves, too.

Do you see them walking through the streets of Soho?

Lon Chaney and the queen? Aaooooooo!

 

Was it the call of the moon that brought to Whitechapel

a demon, a golem, a monster, a man

who ripped and mutilated bodies

and then vanished in the dark? Vanished in time?

 

We think monsters walk only in the night,

hiding in the shadows,

hiding under beds,

but some appear in daylight, too,

disguised as men.

They were there when the ovens glowed red hot,

the ovens that worked full-time, day and night

and yet people still deny they existed,

these extermination factories

though the stench of death rose in the air

and ashes drifted like snow.

 

And monsters are here now still, spreading hatred

spreading lies, burying truth like old bones,

denial, the métier of despotic regimes

We see the movie, Demon,

my husband and I

a Polish wedding goes horribly wrong,

the groom possessed by a dybbuk,

a Jewish woman who lived in the town

(I did say horribly wrong.)

A nightmare of a wedding,

but it goes on,

the guests getting drunker and wilder,

the bride’s parents denying anything is wrong,

until her father says,

“We must forget what we didn’t see here.”

Ghosts of the past haunt people and nations.

 

And so it goes,

bury the bones, bury the truth

but the truth is out there,

so I’ve heard,

and history is bound to be repeated.

But bones can be dug up,

And truth can be recovered.

 

After the movie, we see a wedding party

they are smiling and taking photos,

to remember the moment, the joy,

a record of a golden day.

At Independence Mall,

love glowing, love growing

in the cradle of liberty.

 

And so, we strive, we try.

Men have reached the moon

and ships have sailed past it.

We seek to tell other beings we are here

here on this pale blue dot,

the third planet from our sun.

Our golden record,

gold like our sun,

gold like the Harvest Moon,

is journeying, telling our story.

It carries the music of Berry and Bach,

bagpipes and flutes, a mother’s kiss, a baby’s cry,

the sounds of love, the sounds of creativity.

 

 

So shine on Harvest Moon,

way up in the sky,

Hum your song, do your magic.

Down here, we love and we kill,

We’re angels and demons,

We’re romantics and scientists

We’re human, fallible and strong.

We live in hope.

the_sounds_of_earth_record_cover_-_gpn-2000-001978-1

By NASA/JPL (The Sounds of Earth Record Cover) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

This week my husband and I watched the season finale of Season 4 of Ripper Street, a British show about police detectives in 19th century London in the area of Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper once lurked. This season, the show focused on Jewish characters who had fled Russian pogroms. Some in the neighborhood believed there was a golem attacking people there.

 

Yesterday we saw the movie, Demon (d. Marcin Wrona, 2015), released in U.S. September 2016. You can see a trailer and reviews here.

 

On the radio show, Science Friday this past week, there was a segment on the Golden Record. They are also asking for suggestions from listeners of what they would include in a new golden record.

According to legend, werewolves turn from their human form to wolves at the full moon. “Werewolves of London” is a song by Warren Zevon.

The Water is Wide, but It Connects Us All

Monday Morning Musings:

“The water understands

Civilization well”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Water”

There’s a spin instructor

At my gym.

She sometimes lifts her water bottle

And says, “community drink.”

When she says that

I picture a group of people

In a smoky old tavern

Passing around a mug of ale.

History brain.

And as soon as I think “history brain,”

Referring to myself

You understand,

I begin to ponder drinking in

Revolutionary Era America.

At the City Tavern

In Philadelphia

The bill for “55 Gentlemans Dinner & Fruit”

In September 1787

Went mainly for alcohol.

Madera, Claret, Porter, and Beer,

And don’t forget the “7 Large Bowels of Punch.”*

George Washington

Had a distillery at Mount Vernon,

The largest one in North America

At that time.

His hogs were fed the slops.

No waste on the farm.

Perhaps his neighbors

Drank to his health

With the whiskey

They bought from him.

Eighteenth-century toasting

At the table could be an ordeal.

With each guest toasting the health

Of everyone there

And on

And on

Till they could toast no more.

But perhaps it was better

Than drinking water in the city.

Dr. Benjamin Rush once

Lauded the murky water

Of an urban well,

Saying that its mineral waters

Could cure a host of conditions

From flatulence to rheumatism.

But it turned out its peculiar scent and taste

Was due to its connection to a privy.

Ooops.

I guess the doctor is not always right.

Well, well.

There’s a scene in A Town Like Alice

Where an Englishwoman

Returns to a village

In Malaya,

A place where she lived and toiled

During the war

After the Japanese took control

And force-marched her with

Other women and children

Over hundreds of miles.

She had money after the war,

An inheritance,

I think,

And so she goes back

To ask the headman of the village

To let the women have a well.

A small thing

But huge to them.

The scene has stayed in my mind

After all these years.

And I think about how in many parts of the world

Women and children are at risk every day

Because they must fetch the water used for

Cooking,

Drinking,

And washing

From miles away.

They can be assaulted

Or kidnapped

Or killed.

And women in some places

Do not have sanitary facilities

During their monthly periods

And so they cannot go to school

Or to work.

Water.

Those of us who have it

Take for granted that we can turn on a spigot

And there it will be.

And I just realized we haven’t seen

The Walking Dead survivors boiling water

To drink

Not that I remember anyway,

I could be wrong.

But then I guess if you’re already

Infected with a zombie virus

It doesn’t matter much

About the water.

Water from faucets,

Wells, springs, and rivers,

The Amazon,

The Nile,

The Thames,

The Tiber,

The Ganges,

And the Delaware

That flows not far

From my door.

The Delaware River from Red Bank Battlefield

The Delaware River from Red Bank Battlefield

All giving rise to cities

And civilizations.

And the oceans–

The magnificence of whales

Killed to supply people with

Oil for lights and corset stays.

The tides call to them

And to us.

I think about my four-year-old daughter

Twirling and jumping on the beach,

Sheer delight at seeing the ocean

For the first time.

Then the day both girls

Were terrified by a storm

That arose suddenly

On that same beach

As if Poseidon himself

Had awakened–

But was not very happy.

Nothing like a grouchy god.

Air and water blended

Into a mist,

The sand whipped us

In tiny, stinging pellets

As the wind howled

And the waves crashed.

And then just as quickly,

All was once again calm.

Water

And life.

Playful otters

Who cavort in rivers

And salmon that swim upstream

To spawn.

Fanciful beings who

Live between water and land,

Selkies,

Mermaids,

The Lady of the Lake,

And Nessie, too.

We build bridges over troubled waters.

And we sing in the rain.

We paint water lilies

And glance at reflections,

Illusions

And ripples

Time passing

On the water.

I'm fascinated by reflections on the water. Knight Park

I’m fascinated by reflections on the water.
Knight Park

IMG_2962

We humans spend nine months

In a fluid-filled sac,

Emerging from the womb

To gasp, breathe,

And let out that first cry

Announcing,

“I am here.”

Like our ancestors

Who surfaced from the sea

To build a life on land.

But still,

The water calls.

Spinning thoughts

As I pedal

And the wheels turn.

Connections,

Community,

Though the water is wide.

Raise your glass.

Drink.

IMG_2963

Sources:

* “Entertainment of George Washington at City Tavern, Philadelphia, September 1787

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/citytavern/

Merril D. Smith, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2015).

A Town Like Alice (miniseries 1981 with Helen Morse, Bryan Brown, and Gordon Jackson) based on Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel.

There are so many versions of the folk song, “The Water is Wide.” Here is James Taylor singing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opfEk_Yoksk

Look Around You

Monday Morning Musings:

I saw a van

With the name “Otis”

Neatly labeled on its side.

I thought of elevators.

Of course,

Who wouldn’t?

When our daughters were young,

They noticed the elevators

At my mother’s apartment house

Were made by Otis.

The elevators at my father’s

Were made by another company.

How often do adults observe

Such things?

To us,

The elevators

Were merely useful technology.

To them,

The elevators were different and

Distinct personalities

Leading to new worlds

And adventures.

So many things adults

Never notice

Or pass by

Because they’re commonplace.

I used to sit on the floor

When my children were young,

To glimpse things from their angle,

To anticipate what might be appealing

Or interesting

To their young minds.

Curiosity must be in our genes,

I mean all Earth’s creatures.

Who hasn’t seen an animal explore

What is in that box, bag,

Or hole in the ground?

But humans want to go further.

My husband and I went to the movies.

No, that’s not so far,

But we saw The Martian,

Matt Damon with wry comments

And prodigious feats of memory

Is in survivor mode on Mars.

The Hitchhiker’s Hike to the Galaxy

Says to always carry a towel.

But Matt Damon has potatoes.

And I think about

How ancient peoples

Learned to cultivate the

Toxic tubers.

And make them palatable.

They were grown and

Eaten by the Incas,

Then brought to Spain

By conquerors

Who saw

What they wanted to see,

Who believed they were

In a New World,

When it was merely

New to them.

But they did see potatoes,

Gold of another sort

Becoming a source of fuel for

“The Old World”

Helping to feed

Its people,

And allowing its nations to grow,

While those of the new

Were destroyed

By the conquerors,

Men and microbes.

But exchanges go both ways.

After a time,

The blight traveled, too,

To destroy potatoes in Europe,

And

In Ireland,

Sending more immigrants

From old world

To new.

And helping a

Young nation grow,

At a cost though,

There always is.

Matt Damon’s character

Attempts to conquer

A world that is truly

New–

To humans, anyway.

But it’s a vast universe,

So who knows?

And I wonder about

cross-contamination,

But that’s for another time.

We learn from the movie

That a knowledge of botany

Is important.

So is being able to remember

Past studies,

And to realize

That it often

Takes many minds

To solve a problem.

The movie has fun with music, too,

And I’m reminded of real-life astronaut

Commander Chris Hadfield

Performing “Space Oddity”

Aboard the International Space Station–

One of my most favorite videos ever.

(It’s just possible I’ve watched it over and over.)

Although Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

Remains my ultimate astronaut hero.

What do you mean he’s not real?

Of course he is,

Smart and confident enough

To realize

A child,

Or an alien life form

Might see what others

Do not,

And that “exploring new worlds”

Does mean seeking out

But not conquering.

And music is important

On the Enterprise

And literature

And art

Because these are things that

Make us human.

And our creativity

Enhances our thinking

And ability to solve problems,

Which is important,

Especially if you are ever

Stranded

And left for dead

On an uninhabited planet,

Or anywhere else

For that matter.

I think the lesson,

If there is a lesson

To life,

Is never to stop observing,

To sometimes view things

From a child’s perspective,

And to look at things

In new ways,

And to value your friends

So they will do the utmost

To rescue you

If you are ever marooned,

And to pay attention to every

Little thing–

Because it might save you some day–

And of course,

To bring

Potatoes,

And perhaps a towel.

IMG_2945

“Look at the moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure.”

–Thorton Wilde, Our Town

“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.”

–Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Chris Hadfield sings David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station. Well worth watching.

This Smithsonian Magazine article gives a brief history of the potato.

Shifting Gears

“Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.”

–Charles M. Schultz

“Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings.”

–C.D. Jackson

I take indoor cycling classes at a local gym several times a week, a fact you may not know about me. I also take other gym classes, such as bootcamp and Zumba because I’m crazy trying to stay healthy. You probably don’t care about my exercise habits. Fair enough. It’s not an exciting subject, but keep on reading anyway. There is a point, and it has to do with gears. Well, with shifting them.

BIKE TIRES

There are no actual gears on the indoor cycling bikes, but there is a knob or lever that changes the resistance. In the cycling classes, the instructors exhort us to raise the resistance (“Strong is the new skinny!”), and then sometimes to lower it (a bit) so we can sprint (“Break away! Break away from the pack.” “Let it go” OR—“Strong, but fast. Make sure you have some control.”). The idea is to mimic—to some extent—an outdoor ride with both hills and flat surfaces. The ride is more challenging when riders climb and jump, as well as sprint, and it is also more fun. (Fun on some days being a relative term.) During these cycling classes, riders must consciously turn the knob or move the lever to change the resistance and adjust positions. It becomes almost automatic, but not quite. After all, it’s hard not to notice if the resistance is up so high that you can’t turn the pedals, or if there is suddenly no resistance. Or if the pedals suddenly fly off the bike. Ooops! Nope, never seen that happen. Well, not more than 3 or 4 times. So, I’m sure big name gym, there’s no need to replace the bikes yet. It’s only been about 7 years, and what’s a pedal or two?

Sorry, got off on a rant there when I a really wanted to talk about was switching gears. You know, like on a bike—if you rode a bike that had gears. And pedals.

Most of us metaphorically switch gears throughout our days. We switch from talking to family or friends to interacting with co-workers, customers, or patients. Language, demeanor, and tasks all change. Sometimes we work against resistance, challenging ourselves to climb hills of indifference or scale the steep grades of drudgery. If we’re fortunate we sprint to the finish of a project. Ride completed. Woo hoo!

Hundreds of times throughout each day, our brains switch gears. We concentrate at various intensities and focus on a variety of tasks. We multi-task.

If you drive a car with an automatic transmission, like I do, you don’t think about switching gears while you drive. But you probably think about other things while you’re driving, even while you’re watching the road and singing along to the song on the radio. Most of the time, as we go about our daily life, we don’t think about how we switch gears either. We automatically switch our roles from parent to co-worker or from daughter to mentor.

Most writers work on different types of projects. Even bestselling novelists might take time from working on that next big novel to compose an op-ed piece, some poetry, or even something bigger, like a screenplay. Writers are familiar with switching gears as they move to or back and forth between various writing and editing projects. I was struck by the variety of topics I researched and wrote about for different projects this past week. As I worked on captioning the illustrations for my World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia and read through the copyedited manuscript (still working on that, folks), I was immersed in the American Revolution. There I was lost in the battle at Lexington and Concord for a time, or thinking about clothing and its care, or pondering the fate of soldiers who died or were disabled. Then I was researching topics for test writing: bridge barriers, sustainable green roofs, and color trend forecasting. Then I had a meeting to discuss food history, scholarship, and nutrition with a friend for a possible new project.

So these were some of the topics I researched and/or wrote about as part of my professional life. But, of course, in switching gears to my personal life, I read about, discussed, and experienced many more. For instance, there was a memorable family dinner discussion on The Diary of Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and poetry. Then there was THAT episode on Grey’s Anatomy this past week that had my daughter and me crying.

We need to be flexible in life. We have to be ready to shift gears when necessary—when pedals fly off of a bike, when projects get delayed, and when the cat steals the chicken from the roasting pan in the kitchen. (Umm. . .yes, it’s possible that might have happened here once.) But we also have to be ready with the landing gear for our amazing ideas. It’s all well and good to have a brilliant idea for a book, but it doesn’t get written and published without work. The ideas may soar, but you have to find a way to make them land, too.

Then again, sometimes life gets too crazy, and you need to just put the gear in neutral, sit down, eat chocolate, and watch Grey’s Anatomy. I lie. I always need to take some time during the day to eat chocolate.

So while you’re thinking great ideas, multi-tasking, and being a superwoman or superman, here’s a super easy chocolate treat to make. I made it this week. You can pretend it’s healthy because there’s fruit involved. And nuts, too, if you want. I’ll pretend it’s an actual recipe, when it’s only melting chocolate and dipping in fruit. Or whatever. You can make these fancier by piping white chocolate or coating them in nuts, but really, you know you just want an excuse to eat chocolate. So keep it simple. It’s still super. I suggest making these when no one is around so you can lick the chocolate off your fingers and from the bowl–when you’re finished I mean, not while you’re making them! Practice good hygiene, kids. Enjoying these treats with a glass of red wine is optional, but highly recommended. Also, chocolate covered fruit does not really keep—so you have to eat it within a day or so. Oh, the tragedy.

Super-Easy Chocolate Covered Strawberries or Other Stuff

Ingredients:

Good quality chocolate

Fruit, nuts, espresso beans

I used about half a bag of Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. You could use a bar of chocolate, but this is really easy. It’s 60% cacao, so it counts as dark chocolate, but it has enough fat to melt and coat the fruit. You could use semi-sweet, but really, use bittersweet. I covered about 6-7 strawberries, a bunch of blueberries, and some almonds. If you want to make more, just remember that the chocolate cools and gets hard quickly, so sometimes it’s better to make more in two batches.

Also, make sure the fruit is dry before dipping it into the chocolate, or the chocolate won’t stick.

Method:

Place chocolate in a microwave safe bowl. It should take between 1-2 minutes to melt the chocolate, depending on the amount of chocolate and your microwave. Don’t overheat it. The chocolate will cool quickly, so dip fruit into it right away and place on wax paper to harden. Yeah, that’s it. It takes about 10 minutes to do, but it looks impressive, and it tastes great. It’s chocolate–shift your gear to bliss.

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

A Stab at Pie, or Life’s Constants

Monday Morning Musings

Saturday was Pi Day, Sunday was the Ides of March, and tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. What do these things have in common? Through food and art, my husband and I paid homage—of a sort–to all of them this weekend.

Confession: math was almost my least favorite subject in school. I can’t remember numbers, and I tend to skip over the graphs, charts, and number parts of any article I read. But I do know that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. (Gosh, I hope that’s right.) It’s a constant—that is, it’s fixed and doesn’t change, the opposite of variable. (In case anyone is interested, my favorite episode of the TV series Lost was the episode called “The Constant,” in which we learn that Penny is Desmond’s constant throughout time—and a constant is apparently necessary when time traveling.) Pi is also an infinite number 3.1415. . . .

Here in the US, March 14 is sometimes written as 3/14 (month, day). With the year added, it becomes 3/14/15, so this year Pi Day was extra special.

Pi Day was not a thing when I was growing up. I don’t remember anyone mentioning it or celebrating it, so I decided to look into when Pi Day started.

It turns out that although pi has been know for thousands of years, Pi Day was not invented until 1988 when physicist Larry Shaw of San Francisco’s Exploratorium created it. I found several great articles about Pi Day. This one by astronomer Phil Plait for Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog is a wonderful post of Pi facts, including some myth-busting information. OK, it’s possible I skipped some of the real math in it, but it was still interesting.

Danica McKellar’s Youtube video on pi and Pi Day is also great fun.

So I was going to bake pies on Friday for Pi Eve for my husband, the high school math teacher—because math and pie. If we can have Pi Day, then why not Pi Day Eve? However, it turned out my husband had a school event that night, so I didn’t bake a pie then. We also had plans on Saturday. One of these plans was to see a performance of Macbeth at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. (If you’re in the area, it was an exciting and well-staged production, a display of sight and sound. Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth was particularly good.) Modern western theater had its inception in the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks, who as I mentioned above, also most likely first calculated pi. And pies were eaten in the time William Shakespeare. So pi is linked to Shakespeare through pie. Or pi is linked to theater. Either way. Are you following me? Anyway, the pies of Shakespeare’s time were often meat pies. Sometimes the pie crusts, called coffins, were merely shells to hold the meat fillings.* William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, set in eleventh-century Scotland, and he also wrote the play, Julius Caesar, which includes the soothsayer’s line “Beware the ides of March.” Both plays involve tyrants, nation building, and stabbings. Lots of stabbing, lots of blood, and death. Well, they’re tragedies, after all. (See ancient Greek drama.) Pies appear in Hamlet and gruesomely in Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a banquet, which may or may not have featured pies.

On Sunday, the Ides of March, we went out again. This time, to see the movie, ’71, about an English soldier who gets left behind during a skirmish in Belfast in 1971. It was an intense movie, heart-pounding intense, but very good. As my husband and I agreed, the action took place in Belfast at a particular time and place, and that situation was unique. Nonetheless, many of the themes were universal and could apply to wartime settings during any period in history. As it is set in Northern Ireland, I told my husband it was our St. Patrick movie, albeit a grim one. There was a stabbing in the movie, too.

In ancient Greece, ancient Rome, eleventh-century Scotland, and 1970s Belfast, people celebrated and ate, as do we. It is a constant. As living beings, we must eat to live. Sometimes we eat pie. As humans we are also compelled to create works of art to express our emotions in music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual art. We also have the physical brains and the imagination to make abstract leaps, to think about math and science.

I baked my Pi Day pie (Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie) on Sunday the 15th of March, the Ides of March. At dinner we had zucchini, which I had “spiralized”. The ancient Romans would not have zucchini or tomatoes, but they did have olive oil and garlic. (Top it with slivered Parmesan.) And zucchini is green, so there you go. Pi Day, Ides of March, and St. Patrick’s Day—connected through history, food, and art.

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Perhaps my reasoning is circular, but it ends in pie. Sometimes we all need a bit of sweetness in our lives. That’s a constant. Enjoy!

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Crust:

I used Mark Bittman’s “Sweet Piecrust” (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). Here’s a simplified version:

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (about 5 oz.)

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

8 Tbsp. butter, cut into about 8 pieces

3 Tbsp ice water, plus more if necessary (I always need a bit more).

Combine dry ingredients in food processor, pulse once or twice to mix. Add butter and process just until the butter is mixed into the dry ingredients. It should look like cornmeal. Bittman says about 10 seconds. I usually pulse it off and on. I keep the mixture in the food processor and add the water. Process only until the mixture begins to come together. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. It can be made several days in advance or frozen.

Roll and press into pie pan. I just now noticed he says to refrigerate the piecrust for about an hour before filling. Ooops. Well, I’ve never done that, and it seems to be fine.

Filling:

Apples: I used 4 large apples and 1 smaller one, peeled and sliced thinly. My food processor blade worked well for this.

¾ cup, more less to taste, dried cranberries

¼ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. ginger

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Butter to dot top (I’m not sure if this is necessary or not. The recipe I looked at used 4 Tbsp. I used about 11/2. I think you can eliminate it, if you want to reduce the fat a bit.)

Crumb Topping:

¾ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

5 Tbsp. butter

½ cup ground nuts (I planned to use walnuts, but I already had almonds ground. Yup, that’s how I do things.)

Combine filling ingredients together in a large bowl. My apples were very bland, adjust spices and sugar to your own tastes and needs. You should have enough to mound into a pie plate.

Combine crumb topping ingredients. I used my fingers to blend the butter in. Cover top of pie with the topping.

Bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the top gets too brown, cover it loosely with foil. The pie should be bubbling when it’s ready.

*For a history of pie, see Janet Clarkson, Pie: A Global History(London: Reakton Books, 2009).

I also discuss pie in my History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Airing Out Some [Thoughts On] Laundry

“I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don’t have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?”

–Anonymous

Laundry: a chore that most likely everyone reading this blog has performed, probably numerous times. I’ve been reading and writing about washing clothes in mid-18th century America this past week for my forthcoming World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, and suddenly everywhere I turn there are laundry references—the latest episode of the TV show, Fargo; the gym friend’s remark about having a pile of ironing to do (My response? I think we have an iron somewhere in the house.), and of course the never-ending piles of dirty clothes that my husband and I manage to accrue. I’m not certain how two people can accumulate so much, but somehow there it is.

         When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a garden-style apartment complex. Laundry facilities were located in a separate building across the large parking lot from our apartment. Because it was not very convenient to carry the clothes over, especially if it was raining or snowing, we waited until we had nothing to wear—I bought us both extra underwear—and then my husband would load the bags and bags of our dirty clothing, towels, and sheets into his car and drive it across the lot. He was willing to sit there at odd hours feeding quarters into the machines, and then driving our clean laundry back to our apartment. (To be honest, it frightened me to sit there or even to go into that building alone.) One of our first purchases after moving into our next apartment (in a converted twin house) was a washer and dryer to go in the basement.

         My mom and dad’s first apartment in 1940s Philadelphia had a clothesline strung between the windows of two buildings. I’ve only seen these in movies. She had to cart the baby (my older brother) and dirty clothes to the Laundromat, bring the now wet clothes back, go up the four flights of stairs, finding a space for the baby carriage, and then hang out the clothes to dry. I know she was happy to finally have her own washer and dryer when they had their own house. I believe my father bought them for her as a surprise—to make her work easier—but I’m fairly certain he never touched the machines himself.

         Still, this was nothing compared to the problems of washing clothing and sheets in the eighteenth-century—or in areas today where there is no running water, a situation that is particularly dangerous for women. (Most of the world now knows that the two young Indian girls who were recently raped, murdered, and left hanging on a tree, left their home to relieve themselves in the fields because they had no toilet facilities. In many parts of the world, women have to travel long distances to haul water back to their homes, risking attacks during these journeys.)

         For Anglo-Americans of the eighteenth century, new ideas about gentility influenced laundry practices. The global economy was also a major factor in changing idea about cleanliness—one of the most important and frequently imported items to British North America was Irish linen. To be considered “genteel,” men and women had to have clean hands and faces, and snowy white shirts and cuffs. The rest of the body didn’t have to be immersed daily, or even yearly, for that matter, nor did silk or woolen gowns and coats have to be washed. The shifts and undergarments that touched the body were supposed to be washed regularly, as they were the garments that absorbed perspiration from the body. Bedding and table linen had to be washed as well to ensure the appearance of being genteel.*

         As the need to appear clean became more important, so did the regularity of washing clothes. Long Island farm wife, Mary Cooper complained about having to miss church meeting because she didn’t have clean clothing. In her diary, Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker also mentioned people missing meeting because they did not have clean clothing to wear there. What once had been a monthly, or even seasonal activity became a weekly ordeal by the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth-century. Monday often became the designated laundry day. Water had to be hauled and heated, irons had to be heated, and clothes dried, sometimes by draping it over bushes or on the grass. A rainy day could jeopardize the whole procedure. Laundry was hot, heavy, onerous work, and households that could afford to do so, hired laundresses. Wealthy slaveholders built separate laundry, or laundry-kitchen buildings, partly as a status symbol indicating they had large amounts of clothing to be washed and laborer to do it the task.

         Here are links to two photographs of washing days from the nineteenth-century. The first shows an advertisement for laundry soap with happy housewives hanging their clothes on a line. The second, undated, portrays the reality of doing laundry without running water or machines. The clothes are boiled in the kettle and spread over shrubs to dry. The women do not look happy.

         Undoubtedly laundry is a chore, although one that is not too burdensome in homes with running water, electricity or gas, and working appliances. The loss of any of those three items makes the process more difficult, if not impossible–until one goes to a public laundromat, the machines get repaired, or the power is restored. It is easy enough for me to throw a load of wash in the machine, and then go and do other things, like write a blog post. In the US, laundry is often a cultural reference or a topic for jokes. In one episode of the Gilmore Girls, for example, Lorelai meets her daughter’s headmaster for the first time while dressed in a ridiculous outfit because the rest of her clothes were dirty—it’s laundry day! We joke about the college students returning home with bundles of dirty laundry for mom to wash, and sometimes it’s true.

         Laundry has produced other slang terms and references—a “laundry list” of items, “dirty laundry,” as in gossip about private matters. A friend of mine used the phrase “folding laundry” as a euphemism for sex. Apparently “doing laundry” is also a slang term for sex.

         Have you ever thought this much about washing your clothing? Have you ever wanted to? Hmmm. . .don’t answer that. Do you have a good laundry-related story? Share it below.

*This is a very brief summary, of course. For more on cleanliness in early America, see, Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. For more on daily life during the era of the American Revolution, you’ll have to wait for my book!

For Elizabeth Drinker and Mary Cooper:

Elizabeth Forman Crane, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 vols., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.

Field Horne, ed. The Diary of Mary Cooper: Life on a Long Island Farm, 1768-1773. Oyster Bay, NY: Oyster Bay Historical Society, 1981.

 

Marriage and Growing Pains

[W]hen you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.  ~Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally

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Last night my husband and I attended a wedding. We have been friends with the groom’s parents for about thirty-five years. The bride was beautiful, the groom was handsome, and the couple were clearly very happy and in love. At the reception, we ate and ate, and then we ate some more. We danced and danced. People got drunk. There was some behind-the-scenes drama. In short, it was in many ways a typical American wedding celebration, but for the couple and their families it was a unique and extraordinary event in their lives.

Our older daughter will be getting married in about a year. Recently, she and her fiancée moved to a new apartment, and purchased, as she said “grownup furniture.”

Our younger daughter is starting her first grownup job next month. She will be living at home—at least for the next several months. She said it doesn’t bother her living with us, her parents, but she is eager to have her own place, as many of her friends now have. I can certainly understand this.

It amuses me when people make assertions about marriage and marriage customs based upon some mythical past. They describe the virginal bride dressed in white who married in her late teens or very early twenties in a church ceremony and who then stayed at home while her husband worked. This is a fairly recent trope. And of course it was only ever typical of some middle and upper class couples. Women have always worked, especially poor women and farmwomen. And does it surprise anyone that many brides have not been virgins on their wedding day? Yes, even in Puritan New England, although a couple could get in trouble if a baby arrived too soon after the wedding. (See Else Hambleton’s Daughters of Eve )Incidentally, marriage in 17th century New England was deemed a civil union, not a religious one—and divorce was legal.

As young adults many men and women lived apart from their families because of choice, economic need, and enslavement. Some couples lived together without being married (and of course, slaves could not legally marry). Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read lived as husband and wife for forty-four years without an actual marriage ceremony.  Deborah had been previously married to a man who deserted her. The couple’s household in Philadelphia in the 1730s included Benjamin’s illegitimate son, William.

When couples married in previous centuries they did not always move into their own home. Neither did they always live with one of their families, although these things occurred. It depended on time, place, and a variety of factors. Age of first marriage has also fluctuated over the centuries. For the children of late eighteenth-century Maine midwife Martha Ballard, weddings were simple affairs. After one such wedding, the bride continued to live with her family, while her new husband visited occasionally for the next month or so. During that time, the women made quilts and collected items the couple would need. It was only after that that the couple moved into their own space and “went to housekeeping.”

A few weeks ago, my husband and I drove past a group of houses set back from the road in their own small court. I remarked how nice it would be to live in a setting like that—we would have one house, our daughters and their significant others could have other houses, and my sisters and their families could each have houses. We would all have privacy, but we could just walk out our doors to visit one another. My husband looked at me in horror. Different dreams, I suppose. Ha!

My sisters and I have sometimes talked about how fun it would be to live in a setting like the one the grandparents have in the TV show Parenthood. Of course, we do not have the year-round lovely weather they seem to have there for the dinners the extended family enjoys.

I know my daughters will move on to next phases of their lives—as they should. At the same time, I will cherish the moments when they are here, and enjoy every one of those fleeting family moments. But really that family compound would be nice.

There is too much to discuss on marriage and divorce here. I discuss these subjects in more detail in Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord In Pennsylvania, 1730-1830, Women’s Roles in Seventeenth-Century America, and Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century America.