Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fine Arts Any Day: Vermeer's Lacemaker

The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer, 1669-70.

In you are in England or heading that way, you have 15 days to see the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge of Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Vermeer's Lacemaker, which is on loan to the Fitzwilliam from The Louvre. Surrounding this masterpiece of an artisan rapt in concentration as she creates an object of beauty are paintings by both Vermeer and other artists of the 17th-century Golden Age of Dutch painting. The exhibition, as discussed in a wonderful podcast by its curator Betsy Wieseman, has been designed to probe the Dutch portrayal of that edge where private and public spaces meet, the secrets found in the private space, and the silence of women, especially, as with the lacemaker, when they are at work.

There are paintings of women in all kinds of stances and activities. A young girl eavesdrops as an older woman reprimands a young boy, a woman writes a letter with an engaging smile at the artist (now us), a woman sits with her back to us but her face is present in a mirror so we can see her secret-not-so-secret expression, an elderly woman with her back to us leans over to look out the window at the pale face of a child, a woman stands poised right at the edge of the private space looking down the street while her maid and a child are walking in the inner courtyard. These are some of the images painted by the Dutch artists of this period in their celebration of the sacrosanct domestic space that their national bourgeoisie carved out for their homes--drawing the line against the public space that homes used to be in the time of the Middle Ages.

For Vermeer, this celebration of private space was also a celebration of the soul. His portrayals of women in domesticity are transformed into great art through his painting of space here on earth unified and transformed by God's celestial light.

Although I have not been able to view this exhibition, I am grateful for the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University for organizing it. You can read more about Dutch interior space here and here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Finally It Was Christmas!

Finally it was Christmas, and in a whirlwind my daughter and I decorated the house and prepared a Christmas dinner. Aside from multiple food and tree disasters (reminding us that all's well that ends well), it was a real pleasure to prepare a Christmas dinner--the kind you eat only once a year--and feast with good friends in an atmosphere saturated with golden candlelight. In my mind I kept thinking of the candlelit Christmas dinnner John Keats had with the family of Fanny Braune, in Bright Star.

And God Bless You, Everyone!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1475

Our Hope, Our Strength, Our Joy!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: Winter in Pennsylvania

For Curious Acorn...

Near New Hope

Here are paintings by Fern Isabel Coppedge, a painter of southeastern Pennsylvania, who lived from 1883 to 1951. According to her online biography, snow scenes were her favorite subject. "The residents of Bucks County often saw Fern I. Coppedge traipsing through the snow, draped in her bearskin coat with her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, seeking the perfect scene to paint." To me, she captures the stillness of winter snow and the quiet veil of eternity it gives us a glimmer of.

Here are more of her winter scene paintings.

Hillside Village

The Hill Road

Mountain Creek

Bucks County Scene

I hope to report more about Mrs. Coppedge in the new year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Restraining Myself in Advent

(Compliments of Anxious Moments)

Here in the great season of Advent I am trying to observe this time of penitence. This means to understand that the Christmas season does not begin until Christmas Eve, lasting through Epiphany to January 6--the 12 days of Christmas. In the meantime, we scrub our hearts and our homes as preparation for the birth of Christ. Since I do my Christmas shopping all year long, I do not have to join the commercialized Christmas frenzy. Inside I have an Advent wreath and candles. And instead of preemptive rejoicing and stringing white lights along the bushes in the front yard, as in other years, I have placed only the candles in the windows--a traditional signal of welcoming to the Lord, the true Light in the darkness. On December 24, I will string my lights outside and trim the tree. I can hardly wait...for Christmas.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Saint Columba Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, 1455.

Luke 1:26 to 38

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Autumn Gold by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus

Standing on a hill overlooking the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art with banner showing Rembrandt's Supper at Emmaus, part of the exhibition of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. Standing right under the banner, one sees a long set of stairs that meet the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with a view of the boulevard to City Hall.

Today I went to see the exhibition of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Breaking with centuries of tradition, Rembrandt began to paint Christ on the basis of studies of living Jewish models, who it is believed may have lived in Rembrandt's own neighborhood, to which many Ashkenazi Jews came in 1648 from Eastern Europe. The Netherlands had opened its doors to Jews. Nora Hamerman has written a fascinating review of the exhibition.

Head of Christ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1648-50

This painting of the Head of Christ is relatively small and far more moving than any print or Internet version of it, because of Rembrandt's detailed brushwork, particularly around the eyes, which gets washed out in the prints. Through this detail, which distinguishes Rembrandt's Heads of Christ from those of his studio pupiles, the great Dutch painter portrays a Christ with the emotions of one who took upon himself the sins of the world.

Rembrandt placed a high importance on his studies of Christ's face, keeping two of his oil studies in his bedroom.

The exhibition ends in Philadelphia on October 30. But there is good news if you are in the Midwest. The exhibition, which collects Rembrandt's paintings, drawings, and prints from many museums, will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts from Sunday November 20, 2011, to Sunday February 12, 2012.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Small Town Life in America: Five Good Reads

(All paintings by Childe Hassam, 1859-1935)

The small town was long considered to be the backbone of America, but now small towns struggle to survive as our agricultural life is increasingly curtailed and young people move to the cities and their mega-environs seeking higher-paying jobs and greater opportunities. In my meandering journey to "read America" (having seen only its eastern seaboard), I have been reading novels that take place in small towns and in which the town plays a role, in part to understand what a small town is, as opposed to the suburbs that have so defined American life since the 1950s. Here are four of my favorite novels and one play about small town life from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.

Outskirts of East Gloucester, 1918

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1896

"After a first brief visit made two or three summers before..., a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all the mixture of remoteness and the childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a crowd of spectators, and the youngest portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town."

Main Street East Hampton, 1920

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, 1948

"To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War, is a much more delicate undertaking [than an archaeological dig]. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not kept up as well as they once were, they are still standing.... In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization."

Maxwell's book is a heart-breaking story of a marriage in the first decade of the 20th century in which the town itself wields a strong influence as the novel takes us across the tracks and to the town center. Maxwell paints all of his characters and their actions with a brush that is dipped in compassion but still pointed enough to go straight to the heart of the matter.

East Gloucester, End of the Trolley, 1895

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner, 1948

"If you got something outside the common run that's got to be done and cant wait, dont waste your time on the menfolks; they works on what your uncle calls the rules and the cases. Put the womens and the children at it; they works on the circumstances."

A young man, Chick Mallison, nephew of the town lawyer, and Miss Eunice Habersham go to work to clear an African-American, who has been hauled to jail and is in danger of being lynched, of charges of murdering a white man. Miss Habersham was a "kinless spinster of 70 living in the columned colonial house on the edge of town which had not been painted since her father died and had neither water nor electricity in it, with two Negro servants [a married couple].... Miss Habersham and the man [servant] raised chickens and vegetables and peddled them about town from the pickup truck."

November in Cos Cob, 1902

The next two should be read back to back, since the second awakens our affection and near-envy of the simplicity and community that give our ideas of small-town life a radiant ambiance, while the first takes a look at thwarted longings and nightmares.

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, 1919

"The old man had listed hundreds of truths in his book.... There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.... And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth became a falsehood."

Church in a New England Village, 1901

Our Town by Thornton Wilder, 1938

"Stage Manager: The name of the town is Grover's Corners, New Hampshire--just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes, longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn't it?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Revolutionary Road: First Step in an Exploration

A 1950s modern home interior.

Earlier this month I read the book Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1926-1992) and then watched the 2008 film of the same name starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. Richard Yates made his name with this book in 1961. A novelist whose novels resided far from the bestseller lists, Yates is being apprised anew, especially with the release of Revolutionary Road and the acknowledgement of their debt to him from more current writers such as Richard Ford.

Winslet, especially, and di Caprio put in fine performances as the central couple of the book, Frank and April Wheeler, who live the life of typical suburbanites: April is a housewife, there are two children, and Frank works in New York City for "Knox Business Machines." Frank, buried somewhere in the public relations or sales despartment, does not do his job well, sloughing off as much as he can out of boredom.

Frank and April Wheeler as played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet

Despite the cast's best efforts, the movie skips over the surface of the book. This is about all it can do, because Yates has written a real novel: we are privy to the inner-most thoughts of the characters, beyond what they say; we learn about April's childhood, which helps to explain why she is so uncomfortable with family life in the suburbs and also hear Frank's reminiscences of his father (who was earlier a salesman for Knox, although Frank never told him he also works for the company) and of his father's strong hands.

The back cover of the Vintage paperback edition advertises Revolutionary Road as "the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs." The novel, it claims, shows "how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves."

Really? Frank and April met at a party in Greenwich Village, she studying to be an actress, and he not doing much of anything but known to be an interesting talker, which trait sweeps April off her feet. There is no indication in the book that Frank was seriously preparing himself for an artistic career in any medium. The two have an affair, and April becomes pregnant. She wants to abort the child, but Frank successfully fights against and proceeds to get a job. They marry and move to the suburbs. This entire pre-episode is missing from the movie.

The young Richard Yates, authoring painful probes into the human condition of the times

April, now a housewife with two children, is restless. Her attempt to play the lead female role with a new community theater proves to be a disaster, and it is in the failure of this effort that the Wheelers come right up to the edge of the canyon that separates them in their marriage. Prompted by her dramatic failure, April insists that they pull up stakes and their children and move to Paris, where she will be a highly paid secretary and Frank will "find himself." It is never clear who is to take care of the children.

Frank reluctantly agrees, but soon the Wheelers run up against two obstacles: One of Frank's bits of off-hand writing has met with high-level company approvals, and there are offers to join a high-level promotional team, with higher pay and greater interest. Two, April is again and very unhappily pregnant. She proposes, again, abortion. Frank strongly fights against this, even to the point of accusing April of being crazy and needing psychiatric help because she does have natural motherly feeling (understandable given her orphaned childhood).

The message from the movie is that April is right--the suburbs are bleak and hopeless; there is no real life, only conformity. Conformity in the suburbs and conformity on the job--conformity which crushes true life. April declares (in the book) that "conventionality and morality are the same thing, aren't they?" But she has no real passion of her own, only a desperate desire to escape from what she perceives as self-suffocation. While Frank toys which such ideas, he not anymore serious about them than he is about his job or the woman he has a brief affair with in the office (after April tells him, in her rage over her dramatic failure, that he is no longer the man she loved and married, he is no longer a man). He does, however, like to attack suburbia and those who inhabit it as a way of exerting his own self-image as a superior, more serious being.

The Wheelers drink a lot, and so do their friends. Their children are entranced by TV. There is no religious faith.

Many families of the 1950s were headed by former GIs of World War II.

The book's center is the sharp knife-edge between the outlooks of these partners in a tortured relationship, although April's are so erratic and often so vicious, it is hard to sympathize with her. Yates never proffers a solution.

Yates also gives us the character of Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent who found the Wheelers their home on Revolutionary Road. Living with an older retired husband, she tries to befriend the Wheelers and wants them to help with her only son, a long-term patient at the local mental hospital. In a meeting with the Wheelers and the Givings' son, Mrs. Givings observed that they all seemed to be enjoying the afternoon, as was she: "the sound of their easy, nostalgic laughter filled her with pleasure, and so did the taste of her sherry, and so did the sherry-colored squares of sunset on the wall, each square alive with the nodding shadows of leaves and branches stirred by the wind"--a thought that comes to someone who is determined to make the best of it. Mrs. Givings, unlike the Wheelers, was also a hard worker.

It is noteworthy that for both Frank and his friend Sean Campbell, who lives next door with his family, their self-images of greatest potency and competence were wrapped up in their experiences as GIs in World War II. Perhaps these men were less discontent, because they had already experienced something they knew they could never achieve again. I don't know.

I am not recommending this book as a pleasurable read. (Read a good review of it at Booksnob and read a good review of the movie atLetters from a Hill Farm.) I read it because I am, in a snail-like pace, looking at thethe 1950s, through literature produced during the decade and soon thereafter. Yates was considered a chief chronicler of this era, along with John Updike, whom I have not yet read.

Although the 1950s is often indicated as the high point of the housewife, real life in the 50s, I believe, was far more fraught with psychological difficulties. It was during the 15 years after the World War II that the seeds of the 1960s cultural rebellion were sown. What was really going on inside the homes of America? I started thinking about this when I observed the startling differences between 1938's film Four Daughters and its 1954 remake Young at Heart.

If you know of books that explore the inner life of this era, I'd be very grateful for any recommendations. And if you have any thoughts on this era, from your own readings and experience, I would love to hear them, either through comments or email. Many thanks.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fine Arts Friday: A Painting for the Sartorialist

Afternoon in the Park by William Merritt Chase, 1879

(Click on the painting to see a larger version.)

American impressionist William Merritt Chase painted this portrait when he was 30 years old. Here we see a young lady in the park who may be watching an event, given her folding chair, or perhaps she is in an artificial setting contrived by the painter.

Whatever the circumstances, we see a quietly confident young woman meticulously and tastefully dressed. I don't know if her dress is high fashion for her time, but the principles of its assembly are timeless. It is hard to imagine that she wore such an outfit on the advisement of her mother; she wears her clothes as the possessor of her style.

The arms of the chair match the red in her hat, the flower on her bodice, her belt, and fan, but we can note that she had already perfectly matched these items herself in dressing and chosen a gold bracelet and necklace to offset the outfit's dominating warm pinks and red. We can also note that the white lace of the bodice and the cuffs beautifully frames the dark intensity of her hair, eyebrows, and her expression, which speaks of a relaxed but thinking woman.

Or, perhaps her outfit was assembled for her by the artist. Either way, we have sartorial elegance.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Creating Beauty in the Frontier Home

Inside of a Nebraska sod house

I am always moved when I read about the efforts of women to make their frontier homes comfortable and beautiful--with barely any materials to do so. From this effort comes the American tradition of scrap quilting, for instance. Here, Mrs. Grace Snyder describes how, as a new wife, she worked to make her house livable for herself and her cowboy husband:

All the time I was growing up, on the homestead and the other places we had lived, Mama had "made do" with the little or nothing she had on hand to fix up her homes. Now I found I could do the same. We didn't have a table for the living room, so I made one by driving two old broomsticks into the sod wall and laying a wide board across them. I covered the shelf with a pretty scarf and put the parlor lamp and the Bible on it and set my rocking chair beside it. With old blankets for padding and one of my quilts for a cover, I turned the old wire cot into a decent front-room couch.

For a spare bed in the empty middle room, I propped an old bedspring from the Squaw Creek shack on canned goods boxes, and covered the bed and boxes with the pretty quilt I had made that long, lonesome winter at Aufdengartens (a family she worked for earlier). There wasn't a closet or a chest of drawers in teh whole big house, but I made out with stacks of boxes, covered with pretty calico curtains. And when I had hemmed and hung curtains at all the deep windows, the house looked really nice.

Birdcage outside of a sod home. Many frontier women, including Grace Snyder's mother, had canaries or other birds in cages inside or right outside the home.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Is Civilization, Anyway?

Sculpture signifying grammar on the wall of the Chartres Cathedral.

The quote on the right-hand sidebar of Under the Gables reads: "Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of civilization depended upon their quality."

I firmly believe this, but it does beg the question: What is civilization?

In Chapter 4 of the 2009 book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong, there is one answer that sounds promising:

Civilization is the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas, and objects: it feeds and sustains love ('love' is the one-word version of the phrase 'high quality of relationship'). In genuine love we do not only have an appetite for and devotion to something or someone, but we also perceive what is good and loveable and recognize our own need to meet and engage with that.

The life-support system for love has two aspects. First, civilization seeks to find and protect the good things with which--potentially--we can form high-quality relationships. And second, civilization fosters and protects the qualities in us that allow us to love such things for the right reasons. The qualities that inspire love are: goodness, beauty, and truth. And when we love these qualities we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness, and taste....

Love is the antidote to fashion and gossip; for love spurns rapid change; it repudiates the language (and the inner attitude that fuels the words) of what is 'hot' or what is 'in.' Love spurns trivia--or, better, longs for what is real and substantial.

Mr. Armstrong's book explores the Athens branch that feeds into Western civilization, without exploring the contributions of the Jerusalem branch. Nevertheless, by placing love at the center of his definition, the door is open to a fuller definition that encompasses both, I hope.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Haute Couture Has Nothing Over Mrs. Grace Snyder

Flower Basket Petit Point Quilt by Grace Snyder, 1940

Grace McCance Snyder, the Nebraskan pioneer, started piecing quilts when she was only seven. Charged by her father with watching the cattle in the fields, she would lie or sit on the back of her favorite and sew all day. Through the next decades of her life, Mrs. Snyder made tens of quilts for her family and later in her life for exhibition. She became Nebraska's most famous quilter and was inducted into the Quilters' Hall of Fame in 1980 at the age of 98. Two of her quilts are on the list of the Twentieth Century's 100 Best American Quilts.

Section of the Petit Point quilt showing the needlepoint effect of the piecing.

Mrs. Snyder accomplished the Flower Basket Petit Point quilt in 16 months, basing her design on the pattern of a china plate produced by the Salem China Company of Ohio. In her design, she used a triangle for each stitch of the petit point to achieve a pointellist impression on the quilt's surface. It took Mrs. Snyder 87,875 tiny triangles, no bigger than a fingernail, and 5 miles of thread to sew to create the Petit-Point quilt!

Here are other samples of Mrs. Snyder's quilting.

A documentary segment has been produced about Mrs. Snyder's quilting, and her work and life were featured in the International Quilt Study Study Center and Museum of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

You may also want to see: Fashion and Quilting: Two Roads

Sunday, September 11, 2011

If I Could, I Would...

Evening dress, Chanel, 2011

If I could, I would support the haute couture, speaking of it here in its most narrow definition as the "creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques." Its literal translation is "high sewing."

In this narrow definition, today it involves only those few houses that are official, correspondent, and guest members of the French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Haute couture in itself is not a road that leads to riches. The standards for hand sewing, materials, and design for those with the ability and interest to buy unique pieces of the finest clothing in the world are kept extremely high. For instance, as Karl Lagerfeld explains in describing to an interviewer in the BBC production,The Secret World of Haute Couture , the feathers for his designed evening gown composed of embroidery in the bodice and feathers in the skirt, are specially produced on a farm in South Africa. In short, all pains are taken to render an article of the highest possible quality and all the fabrics are created and treated specially. For his 2011 fall-winter collection, the designer Valentino, reported the September Vogue, showed a "magnificent coat of hammered gold brocade ... which had the brilliant texture, almost a relief effect, of a Russian icon's surface, clocking in at 750 hours' worth of embroidery."

Chanel embroidered gossamer, 2011.

Such "high sewing" could become a lost art. Twenty years ago, a haute couture designer would fashion up to 160 different pieces of clothing for a collection; today the number hovers around 40. In the years after World War II, Parisian haute couture kept 46,000 embroiderers, lacemakers, and hand seamstresses busy in subcontracting ateliers. Today that number has dwindled to 4,500. The money lies in ready-wear, which are duller shadows of the original dress.

Despising ready-wear as a form of prostitution, the French designer Alix Gres, for example, died in penury and obscurity in 1993, after creating clothes for such non pareils as Jacqueline Kennedy. Madame Gres, as she was called, was a sculptor who turned to dress design in the 1940s. Taking inspiration from the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity, she molded a dress from one, uncut piece of cloth directly on the model, through pinning tiny pleat after pleat--with exquisitely graceful results.

A gown of white silk jersey by Madame Gres, 1958

For sure there are plenty of designer clothes that I find incomprehensible or dislike. That said, haute couture repesents the pinnacle of excellence in turning a two-dimensional object--in this case, the cloth--into a three dimensional object, the finished article of clothing, in a way that expresses both the designer's and the owner's ideas and sensibilities. Those who collect haute couture regard their purchase as an investment in a work of art, in the same way that a wealthy person collects original paintings. I can only imagine that if haute couture succumbs, the quality of all of our clothes, including those in the sales bins at our favorite department store, will slip irrevocably downward.

You may also want to see:
Welcome Back Lace!
In Praise of Sewing

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Home Economics Revival?

Home Economics Class--on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Today, for the most part, only private Christian schools have home economics as part of the curriculum.

Although couched in politically correct terms--as a means of fighting obesity--the revival of home economics classes as part of children's education was posited by Helen Zoe Veit in an article in the New York Times September 5. Veit feels compelled in her first sentence to acknowledge that such a proposal goes against the grain of feminism, stating this untruth right off the bat: "Nobody likes home economics."

The basis for Veit's proposal rings true though: "Reviving the program, and its original premises — that producing good, nutritious food is profoundly important, that it takes study and practice, and that it can and should be taught through the public school system — could help us in the fight against obesity and chronic disease today. The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically."

Who can argue with this, except those who feel that cooking, housework, cleaning, and other household tasks are inherently demeaning to women and should be performed by presumably paid (mostly female--oops!) servants.

Veit does admonish though that "today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking. Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook. Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis."

I believe she is right, as the effects of a diet of constantly eating restaurant food, take-out, and fast food quickly lead to body ballooning. Restaurants and processed food manufacturers have the incentive to lard their food with fats, sugar, and salt, because it is an easy pleasure for the palate and they want you to come back for more. That is not the basis for home cooking--you are already there! Here the goals are great nutrition and great taste at lower prices. Home economics classes can give both women and girls the basic rudiments of how and what to cook. Today Veit's proposal was seconded in the Food and Think blog of the Smithsonian magazine and noted by National Public Radio and The Atlantic.

Catharine Esther Beecher, who believed the education of women was crucial to the survival of the republic.

Home economics has a proud tradition among women in the United States and was first launched by Catharine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), whose Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) became the domestic bible for women in the settled areas of the United States. For Beecher the proper management of the home was intrinsic to the proper rearing and education of children.

Today, women of all ages can fruitfully turn to Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (1999). Mrs. Mendelson presents clear and exceedingly helpful discussions of everything from making a bed to nutrition. Offering thorough guidance and suggestions, she never lectures. This book is a great gift for any young woman starting out in her own home or apartment or for a bride.

Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts. She won her way to my heart when she reported that she had held many jobs in her life, including being an attorney, but found performing domestic duties in her home the most gratifying.

But back to home economics classes. In my high school, the girls took home economics, while the boys took shop. The boys always returned from shop to academic classes with a happy sense of accomplishment. Probably we girls less so. Home economics was not taught from the height of this topic down to gritty details, but was taught like First Aid 1: clear instructions only for the most vital things you need to know. It was assumed you already knew why you needed such a course; there was no motivational excitement on the part of the teacher. I think it could be a lot more fun. Nevertheless, I took great satisfaction in making a summer skirt, and the experience of making something wearable prompted me to sew many of my own clothes during my high school years.

Ms. Veit has my gratitude for bringing up such an audacious proposal as the revival of home economics as part of the curricula in public schools. I suspect though that for many, fighting obesity is merely the calling card for ideas of reviving home economics classes and good practices. Fast food and eating out is expensive and goes out of the budgetary ballpark in hard times. Now is the time to learn to cook!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Victorian Husbands and Wives

See the entire set at Retronaut compliments of Lisby.

I feel inspired to write a story for each couple, don't you?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Grace Snyder's No Time on My Hands

Grace McCance Snyder's autobiography, No Time on My Hands, written with her daughter, Nellie Snyder Yost, is the account of her pioneer life from 1885--when Grace is three years old and her family moves to Nebraska from settled Missouri--until 1962, a full 20 years before Grace Snyder died at the age of 100. I have read all of Laura Wilder's books of life on the prairie and other fictional and non-fictional accounts of pioneering women, but No Time on My Hands makes these accounts even more vivid and awe-inspiring because of the great detail that Grace shares about the work that she and her mother and sisters did at their sod homestead on the plains of Nebraska.

The book's title comes from Grace's paternal grandmother, Mrs. McCance, who was heard to say that "if there's one thing more'n another I simply can't abide, it's time on my hands." The elderly Mrs. McCance, as Grace's mother and Grace herself, were in a state of perpetual motion tending to the work on their farms and ranches. Grace and her grandmother thrived on work of all kinds; Grace's mother, of more fragile health, had long bouts of illness and a perpetual cough and her thin body seemed nearly crushed by the weight of her daily burdens. Nevertheless, she too lived to raise all of her children and see her great-grandchildren thrive.

The McCance Family. Grace's parents, Mr. and Mrs. McCance are standing together on the right. The six McCance children (there were eventually nine) are seated, with Grace third from the left. Grace's older sister Florry (second from left seated) died in childbirth.

As I read this 541-page book, I jotted down the different activities that these women routinely performed. Given that many of these tasks must be repeated daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly and also that calamities--primarily caused by extreme weather--posed constant disruptions to any routine, it is difficult to imagine how a woman would plan such a whirlwind of work as that performed in a well-managed homestead. Here is my list:

Creating and tending a vegetable garden (be prepared for heartbreak caused by hail or loose animals pummeling the garden to pulp)
Gathering cow chips for fuel
Berry gathering
Making jam
Drying corn Grinding corn for cornmeal
Churning butter
Curing meat
Making cheese
Preparing meals
Washing up the dishes and pots and pans after meals
Making yeast (boiling cornmeal and hop leaves to a thick mush and drying it in hard cakes, out of doors under cheesecloth in the summer and in the oven in winter) Baking bread
Making desserts with fruit and baking custards
Putting up (canning) fruits and vegetables for the winter and spring

Washing clothes
Making starch (smearing potato starch on a large piece of canvas and letting it dry, then peeling it off, and storing for use)
Hanging and gathering in clothes
Mending clothes--(a major activity, for example: During broomcorn harvesting, "each day the sharp stalks ripped their jacket sleeves to ravlings, and every evening Mama basted the backs of old overall legs to the sleeves, replacing the shredded patches she'd sewed on the night before.")
Making clothes--without patterns
Making quilts--Grace became a nationally known quilter--more on that later

Keeping a sod house clean (no mean feat)
Home decorating (curtains, etc.)

Breastfeeding babies
Watching young children
Homeschooling children

Feeding hens and chickens, goats, and cows, all of which contribute to putting food on the table
Milking the cows and/or goats

Killing snakes--one day a rattler got into the house and was sitting on the same blanket Grace's baby brother was on. Grace's mother killed the snake and then sought and found the den where it had come from and killed all 22 rattlesnakes therein.

Nursing the sick (Grace describes being at the bedside of a seriously ill person for days on end and also night and day)
Tending to and healing wounded or sick animals
Laying out the dead
Helping afflicted families

Even with this workload, Grace's mother found time to make delectable picnic food when the family went to town for the annual Fourth of July celebration, which, next to Christmas, was the biggest holiday. "Under the seats we carried a bag of grain for the mules and a tubful of picnic lunch--including

one of Mama's five-layer cakes, three white and two yellow, with custard filling between the layers and whipped cream, shredded coconut, and black walnut meats on the tops and sides.

Hands of a Farmwoman, photo by Russell Lee, 1936. "Grandma's hands were thin and brown and spotted, their soft, paper-dry skin crisscrossed with high, dark veins, and the fingers twisted and knotty, but she would look at them with grim satisfaction--anyone could see she'd never had any time on her hands."

Jessamyn West: "It's Making Something Beautiful"

In the Old House by Childe Hassam, 1914

Jessamyn West, the 20th-century author of The Friendly Persuasion and many other novels, snapped at a young feminist interviewer when asked if wanting to keep her home neat was an obstacle to writing because she was a woman. The interview, published in the book Women Writers of the West Coast (1983), took place on November 12, 1980. The exchange on order in the home went like this:

[Interviewer] Chapman said, "But you've written that, being a woman, you sometimes feel a certain sense of guilt that gets in the way of your writing. For instance, you wrote, 'I wish I could unlearn the need to straighten the house before writing.'..."

West countered: "Where is anything contradictory about wanting to sit down in the midst of something that is pleasing to the eye? Answer that, please!"

Chapman asked: "What about the fact that you didn't tell anyone you wanted to write until you were 26? You said you thought you were somewhat mad initially for having an urge to write, and I wonder if those feelings of responsibility for the house and the fear of admitting you wanted to be a writer are both tied to your being a woman."

West replied, "I don't tie them to either one. I had a sister, and I think a writer would be lucky if she could be born this way, who didn't give a damn if things are in a wild clutter. She wouldn't have been bothered if there were a pair of shoes on the mantle, but as it happens, I am not that way. I wouldn't feel happy writing until I took the shoes off the mantle and put them down where I thought they belonged. That is just a piece of my temperament. I don't understand the house not being orderly, because that's like painting a picture. It's making something beautiful. That is what I feel about straightening a house."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Village Life in America by Caroline Cowles Richards

Caroline Cowles Richards in 1860

Village Life in America is a name given to a diary written by one Caroline Cowles Richards, later Mrs. Edmund Clarke, from 1852, when Caroline was 10 years old, to 1872, when she is married and has a family. The writer lived in Canandaigua, New York, in the finger lakes region, with her maternal grandparents, Mrs. and Mrs. Thomas Beals, and her sister Anna, younger by four years. Caroline's mother had died, and their father had sent the girls to be raised by the Beals, as he pursued his career, remarried, and had a new family. He wrote to the girls often. Even with these paltry facts, we can note that the nuclear family was not so stable as we might think in yesteryear, as it was often torn asunder by death, and children may be sent to live with relatives rather than stay with a single parent. This is just one example of the richness of comparisons and insights into mid-19th-entury housekeeping, social mores, attitudes, child-rearing, and religious belief and practice that are to be gained from this slim and charming book.

The diary takes us through the Civil War. With a Puritan grandmother, Caroline had been well taught of the necessity to end slavery. She describes in detail the patriotic fervor that gripped the village upon the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which reached a fever pitch in the early days of the war; of the town's deep sadness at the loss of so many of its menfolk and sons; and its intense joy at the war's end followed only 10 days later by its shock and grief at the assassination of Lincoln.

As a historical record the diary is priceless. As a record of the coming to age of a young girl, it will leave voyeurs disappointed. Youthful perplexities are not subjects for discussion; Caroline says that she wanted to write down only the good things. Nevertheless, we are privileged to learn about daily life in the Beals household, as if we were walking through a museum of their house except they are still there and interacting right before our eyes.

First Congregational Church of Canandaigua, the center of social life for the Beals household, where they attended church, Sunday School, lectures, and meetings regularly each week.

Within the pages of the book we find a social fabric quite different from that of life today. The community revolves around its churches, and the household relies on written Scripture for the raising of children. Particularly, Grandmother Beals cites a verse or two from the Bible, it seems, at any point that she admonishes or reprimands her two granddaughters. For example, Caroline wrote in 1854:

I almost forgot that it was Sunday this morning and talked and laughed just as I do week days. Grandmother told me to write down this verse before I went to church so I would remember it: "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear than to offer the sacrifice of fools." I will remember it now, sure. My feet are all right any way with my new patten leather shoes on but I shall have to look out for my head… Grandmother always comes upstairs to get the candle and tuck us in before she goes to bed herself, and some nights we are sound asleep and do not hear her, but last night we only pretended to be asleep. She kneeled down by the bed and prayed aloud for us, that we might be good children and that she might have strength given to her from on high to guide us in the straight and narrow path which leads to .life eternal. Those were her very words. After she had gone downstairs we sat up in bed and talked about it and promised each other to be good, and crossed our hearts and "hoped to die" if we broke our promise. Then Anna was afraid we would die, but I told her I didn't believe we would be as good as that, so we kissed each other and went to sleep.

Grandmother Beals is especially fascinating because she is of Puritan stock and was born in the 18th century (1784). She tells the story of how as a little girl, "down in Connecticut in 1794, she was on her way to school one morning and she saw an Indian coming and was so afraid, but did not dare run for fear he would chase her. So she thought of the word sago, which means 'good morning,' and when she got up close to him she dropped a curtsy and said 'Sago,' and he just went right along and never touched her at all. She says she hopes we will always be polite to every one, even to strangers."

Grandmother Beals is a "good neighbor"--delivering food to families under duress, treating her two hired girls (who live in the household) well, and extending herself to African Americans. In one case, she invites to dinner a former slave woman, and Caroline is surprised to see that the grandmother has her eat in the dining room with the family.

Grandmother Beals was dearly loved and respected by her granddaughters:
I asked Grandmother to-day to write a verse for me to keep always and she wrote a good one: "To be happy and live long the three grand essentials are: Be busy, love somebody and have high aims." I think, from all I have noticed about her, that she has had this for her motto all her life and I don't think Anna and I can do very much better than to try and follow it too. Grandfather tells us sometimes, when she is not in the room, that the best thing we can do is to be just as near like Grandmother as we can possibly be.

Despite the determination of both grandparents to stay on the "straight and narrow path" to heaven, there is plenty of wit and humor in the Beals household. Anna is a jokester, but unless her jokes are sacriligious, she never seems to get in trouble for it. Here is an entry from 1858 that gives an idea of the ruefulness with which the family members thought of each other:

Frankie Richardson asked me to go with her to teach a class in the colored Sunday School on Chapel Street this afternoon. I asked Grandmother if I could go and she said she never noticed that I was particularly interested in the colored race and she said she thought I only wanted an excuse to get out for a walk Sunday afternoon. However, she said I could go just this once. When we got up as far as the Academy, Mr. Noah T. Clarke's brother [and Caroline's future husband], who is one of the teachers, came out and Frank said he led the singing at the Sunday School and she said she would give me an introduction to him, so he walked up with us and home again. Grandmother said that when she saw him opening the gate for me, she understood my zeal in missionary work. "The dear little lady," as we often call her, has always been noted for her keen discernment and wonderful sagacity and loses none of it as she advances in years. Some one asked Anna the other day if her Grandmother retained all her faculties and Anna said, "Yes, indeed, to an alarming degree."
I would love to post the entire diary, but no need, because you can read it right here. I recommend this fascinating book for all, but especially for girls aged 10 to old age.