Culture · Industrial Revolution · Technology

Little Things Mean a Lot

Here’s how two specific products of the Industrial Revolution affected the way we live our lives and how we feel about what we do.

When electricity was brought into the home it enabled the darkness to be dispelled with the flick of a switch. Along with the invention of the light bulb, came the introduction of electric lamps. Not only did the replacement of the smelly messy whale oil with a light bulb give us more time to do what we wanted to do, it meant that the lamps now moved to the wall where they could attach to the outlets. This meant that gradually the center table lost its usefulness as a place where the family gathered around a single light source to listen to one person (usually the father) read and where they talked to each other and interacted face to face.

Researchers examining Civil War diaries are struck by the literary quality of the letters sent home by uneducated young men. The reason, of course, is that they absorbed the rules of writing by hearing well-constructed sentences read aloud night after night.

Now with the lamps beside a chair near the outlet, family members could privately pursue their own interests.

The light bulb made electric lamps possible

Then there was running water and city sewer systems, which brought the toilet inside the house. Heretofore going to the toilet was hardly a secret because the outhouse was always located as far from the house as possible. Women could be clearly seen making their way to the outhouse. (Imagine poor women having to deal with a hoop skirt and ankle length skirts using a 3-holer. Also they no doubt suffered some pretty uncomfortable moments trying to “hold it” at a party. Medical literature of the time indicates they even suffered medical consequences at times because they delayed having bowel movements for days.)

With the toilet inside, toilets could be strategically located behind several closed doors, and going to the toilet became more of a private event. (Women actually crocheted toilet lid covers to block the noise of someone putting the seat down.) This attitude persists to this day as architects design homes with the bathroom behind several closed doors and as far as possible from the public rooms where one entertains guests.


The morphing of the calling card

My new calling card

My new business cards just arrived! Actually they are a dual purpose business/calling card. The business I am hoping to promote is my blog: But my personal information is also included. (I’ve asked my IT guy to block out my personal information in the illustration in case some dangerous lurkers on the internet should want to use it for nefarious purposes. You never know.)

In the 19th century, both men and women had calling cards, but women practiced an obligatory custom in which the calling card played the central role.

Her card simply showed her name. Proper etiquette of the time demanded that a married woman be known by her husband’s name so, for instance, mine would read Mrs. Herbert Knapp. In case she had an unmarried daughter her name would also be printed on her card. More than one unmarried daughter? Separate card for each one. And because men had an interest in maintaining relationships with the socially elite, she also carried her husband’s cards which she left in the hall receiver for the gentleman of the house (it being improper for a woman to call on a man.)

Calls were to be made from ten to eleven in the morning and each lasted from ten to fifteen minutes. Essential to the practice was the calling card on which one’s name was engraved in italics.

Complicating matters was the fact that she could just leave a card with the servant who answered the door. 

Once a call was made, the person had to return the call and then that call had to be returned and so on . . . and on. In addition to these routine calls, one was required to call after having been entertained at a dinner party, on the occasion of a death in the family, and to extend congratulations for any number of reasons.

A personal call carried more weight than a call where only a card was left and required that a personal call be made in return. But in effect, if both parties were willing, cards could call upon cards in perpetuity. However, etiquette demanded that these cards be delivered personally.

Immediately upon marriage, the bride and groom sent around cards with both of their names. Thus the bride was able to establish her own calling circle.

Ceremonial calls had to be returned within three days, a dinner party call within a day or two when it was preferable to call in person, and the day after being entertained, when a card only would suffice. Calls of congratulations (a personal call) and bereavement (card only) were to be made about a week after the event. 

Subject matter deemed suitable for discussion was limited. Women were advised not to bring up subjects requiring deep thought, one’s own affairs, disease, and money.

A newly married woman in her twenties could look forward to forty or fifty years of calling. She would raise her children, see them married, become a grandmother, grow old and stout, and through it all be borne back and forth in her carriage, climb the stoop, and leave ten minutes later having had the same insipid conversation she had the last time she called.

Women hated the custom. Edith Wharton called it “an onerous duty.” Yet none of them seems to have considered just not doing it.

Books · Culture · Library and libraries

The Good Old Days

The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Did you ever wonder how we managed to do research before scroll and point? Well, here’s how: This is something I wrote in 1992, describing what went on in the NY Public Library. 

On the third floor there is a rotunda with murals on floor and ceilings. From there you go into a big room where the librarians are behind a large counter. These people are amazing. They seem to know EVERYTHING about how to find information. Whatever you want to know they can tell you where to look for it.

Of course, sometimes you can find what you want by yourself. Along three walls of this room are black books which contain photocopies of all the index cards of books published before 1971. Across the room are computers where you can look up anything published after 1971.

After you find the call number you fill out a slip and give it to a clerk at this little desk who gives you a tag with a number on it and puts the call slip in a pneumatic tube which sends it to the basement where all the books are. Then you move onto the huge reading room and wait for your number to light up on a board. When it does you go to the counter give them your number and get your book.

They don’t let you check anything out of this library so you have to take your book to one of the reading tables and read it (and take notes) there.

In other words, we moved our butts. First of all we had to get to the library, probably by subway, we talked to other people asking for information, we used our imaginations as we searched for the book holding the right card; we moved across the room, we held books in our hands; we opened them and closed them, we paid attention. We could take a break to get something to eat from the vendors in Bryant Park, the backyard of the library, but that involved its own complicated routine which I can’t remember. 

And we enjoyed it! It felt good to be engaged with life. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment after a successful afternoon at the library that I don’t seem to feel after sitting and scrolling. Is the new way better? There’s an easy way to answer that question. Are the books being written today as a result of our research better than the books being published then? The answer is clearly no. We tend to think that we are constantly moving forward in a positive direction and that whatever is new is better. Sometimes new ways are better, but not always. 


Friendly Letter

Herbert Knapp, “The Importance of Touch”

Everywhere I look nowadays, I see something that makes me think it should be put in archival storage; things are changing so rapidly. The latest example is the friendly letter. I can’t tell you how many mid-19th century diaries I’ve read (before the age of the telephone) where women kept track on the flyleaf of when and to whom they received letters, and the mail was delivered twice a day.

Much to my amazement, this week I actually received two friendly letters in my mail! The friendly letter does not tell anything newsworthy that has happened; rather it talks about what is happening. It is not a thank you, not an expression of sympathy, not an announcement of a surprise. I suspect most people would feel foolish writing one and puzzled receiving one. I can’t say what prompted my correspondents to write one other than a desire to “keep in touch.” And touching is what it is all about. It’s why we shake hands; why we hug, why we pat on the back, why newborn babies latch on to their mama’s breast.

Today I’m afraid many of us are more accustomed to touching our phones than each other. I understand that those in the know are predicting that AI will someday make it possible to read the activity of each other’s brains on our computer. God help us. 

If you’re too far away to reach out and physically touch someone, the friendly letter is the next best thing.

Architecture · Conservation · Monuments and Memorials · Restoration

Through George Washington’s Eyes

Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church's interior
Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church’s interior

When we were in Philadelphia several years ago, we visited Christ Church, an historic building where George Washington worshipped. We were able to sit in Washington’s pew, and as I sat there my gaze was directed to the clerestory windows near the roof line. As I looked through one of the windows, it occurred to me that I was seeing what George Washington saw! No doubt the windows had been painted over the years, but they hadn’t changed, and the view outside the window certainly hadn’t changed. 

This realization was a mind-blowing experience for me. I tried to think of other places where this kind of experience would be available. One I immediately thought of was Jasper Cropsey’s front porch. Cropsey was one of the landscape artists of the Hudson River school.  Ever Rest, his home, has been preserved in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where many of his paintings of the Hudson River are on display, and you can sit on his front porch and observe what he saw that inspired the pictures of the Hudson River that are on display inside.

There are, of course, many restored historic buildings where an attempt has been made to recreate the original, but the restorers’ hand inevitably introduces a false note. For instance, great pains are taken to preserve the additions they have made (plastic runners over the carpet, no sitting on the chairs) so one misses the normal wear and tear that is common in a home.

So keep your eyes open, be alert for any opportunity that presents itself, and take advantage of it. You will be glad you did! And let me know about it!