Holy Hat!

This week, the ladies who lunch gathered at the Conservatory Garden in Central Park for the 33rd annual “Hat Lunch,” a benefit  that supports the upkeep of the park.  Extravagant and sometimes eccentric hats provided the fun. The ladies provided the support: $3.5 million to help keep Central Park  beautiful. While the hats were extraordinary, I daresay few of them were as over the top as the hats fashionable women of the Edwardian era wore regularly. Here is Herb’s Great Aunt Nettie Wilson, the family’s  favorite daughter, decked out in a wonderful example. The photograph dates to around 1907. We still have the gold watch; the hat has not survived. Auntie's_Hat  Of course the hat was only part of a fashionable outfit. The dress typically sported a high stiff collar, a “puffed pigeon” chest, a tight waist, and a  jutting rear end. The skirt swept the floor. Edwardian winter fashions 1907 And then there was the Great World War, and the fashionable silhouette underwent a dramatic transformation. By the 1920s it had assumed a more sensible verticality and exposed the legs. Devotees of Downton Abby know the look well.  0k9k3hlje1owxf

The

The “S curve” corset”

Two pieces are better than one!

Two pieces are better than one!

Women tossed away the corset that had viciously cinched their waist, pushed their breasts up, and poked out their behinds in favor of two more friendly undergarments: the bra and the girdle. Some of the younger modern women, the ones who were skinny to begin with, even decided to forego the bra and the girdle and roll their stockings below the knee. And the hat that had threatened to take off in a high wind was replaced by the head-hugging cloche. Oh, what  relief it was!

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A May Day Memory

I have a very wonderful memory of a long-ago May Day in the 1940s. My mother and I were staying with my grandmother in Lansing, Kansas, a tiny town at the time, notable only because it was the home of the Kansas State Penetentiary, where my grandfather had been quartermaster for many years. He had suffered a stroke and my grandmother needed the help of my mother to care for him. So she and I left my father in Kansas City and settled in with my grandmother for what was to be a stay of a few months.

Life in Lansing was very different from that in the big city! I was enrolled in the elementary school and much to my amazement suddenly achieved an unfamiliar status as the most popular girl in the class, owing to my big-city resume.

I didn’t know there was anything special about May Day, but late that afternoon the doorbell rang repeatedly. When I answered, there was no one there, only a series of paper cones filled with wild flowers  which had been hung on the doorknob by anonymous admirers. I can honestly say it was one of the best days of my life.

1901 —May Day in Central Park, Maurice Prendergast.American artist 1858-1924

1901 —May Day in Central Park, Maurice Prendergast.American artist 1858-1924

The celebration of May Day seems to have been a pagan religious custom. Later secular versions included dancing around a May Pole and the leaving of May baskets, a custom that so enhanced my childhood self esteem.

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Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print (and to our amazement has been translated into Chinese) we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park

Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know!

oil by HerbKnapp

Oil by HerbKnapp

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A Nation in Mourning, Three Perspectives: The Historian, The Diarist, The Poet

President Lincoln On the morning of April 15, 1865, just six days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln died from a wound inflicted by an assassin’s bullet the night before as he sat in the Presidential booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington. In New York City, the Seabury Tredwell family had been in deep mourning for over a month, having lost the family patriarch on March 7.  From a Distance— The Historian, An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-64, March, 2012

The private grief of the Tredwell family was enveloped and intensified by an outpouring of national sorrow. On April 24, Lincoln’s funeral cortege reached New York City, and over a million New Yorkers watched and wept as a team of six gray horses pulled the class-sided hearse from the dock on the Hudson River to City Hall, now draped with a banner reading “The Nation Mourns.” It was the end of an era. . . .The Federal Republic was giving way to a more centralized nation. Thirty-five thousand miles of railroad had been constructed, telegraph lines had crossed the continent, and the final effort to link the United States to Europe with the transatlantic cable was about to be succeed.

In the Moment—The Diarist. The Diary of Julia Lay, Saturday, April 15, 1965

A special edition of The New York Herald announces the dreadful news.

A special edition of The New York Herald announces the dreadful news.

This morning the sad and mournful intelligence of the death of our beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, who was shot last evening burst upon this city like a thunderbolt. Every face was  pale and many a tear shed for his loss. I walked down the Fourth Avenue and through Broadway below Stewarts with Georgie who could scarcely keep back the tears as we looked first on one flag half mast and draped, then at another. Everywhere flags were edged with black and looped up with crape. Places of business were closed throughout the city in respect of him whom we all so much esteemed.  

Upon Reflection,The Poet—”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman, Summer 1865

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

If you are in New York, don’t miss the exhibit “All Broadway is Black With Mourning” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death and funeral of Abraham Lincoln at The Merchant’s House Museum, until June 29, The Seabury Tredwell home, virtually unchanged since those sad days, will take you back to the time when the City mourned for its fallen leader.

And on Sunday, April 26 at 6 p.m. a unique multi media presentation including a concert by the Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society featuring music composed in 1865 and an illustrated lecture about the assassination, the aftermath, and the funeral train that carried Lincoln to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Details on the Merchant’s House web site.

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Some Things Never Change Because They’re Perfect Just the Way They Are

The coming of spring is one of those things. The crocus, spring’s first flower, spied and photographed by my friend David Livingston in Greenwich Village.

The crocus returns.

The crocus returns.

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,

and all the season of snows and sins,

The days dividing lover and lover,

The light that loses, the night that wins,

And frosts are slain and flowers begotten

And in green underwood and cover,

Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

                             Algernon Charles Swinburne

                              Atlanta in Calydon 1865

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See The City Change in a Way You’ve Not Seen it Before

Just grab and drag the green bar. You’re going to like this.

http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2015/03/31/8_lost_gems_of_new_yorks_gilded_age_what_replaced_them.php#more

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The Historic House Tells It Like It Was

Front parlor, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Front parlor, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

To feel the world of the nineteenth century in our bones, it’s necessary to find a place that can take us there. Such places are rare. Without question, in New York City, the most authentic domestic nineteenth-century place is the Merchant’s House Museum. 

From the introduction to the forthcoming Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House by Mary Knapp

http://a002-vod.nyc.gov/html/recent.php?id=2842&pn=1%20

If you can’t visit this wonderful place in person, this documentary by BluePrint New York City, which aired on New York stations last week, is the next best thing. Just click on the link above to view.

Front hall and stairway, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Front hall and stairway, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Of all the ways we have of connecting to the past, as far as I’m concerned, the historic house museum trumps all others when it comes to understanding life in a place and time beyond memory. It’s here we can come closest to the people who went before us. These are the very walls that enclosed them. Here they stood before the fire. Here are the mirrors that reflected their movements in the parlor. This is the stair they climbed on their way to bed.

When we tune in to the height of the ceilings, the nearness of the walls, the path we travel from room to room, the narrowness of a passageway or the lack or presence of natural light, we begin to understand what daily life was like for those who lived there long ago.

One house that serves us particularly well in our attempt at understanding is the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City. I say that not because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my involvement with the Museum, but because this house is unique.  Only one family, The Seabury Tredwells, lived there for almost 100 years. They moved in in 1835; the baby born in the  house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom  in 1933.  So there is one continuous storyline; no confusing amalgamation of different families’  ghosts.  They came, and they stayed—for almost a century.This was their home, and most importantly, these are their things. They quit buying new furniture somewhere around midcentury. And that’s not all! There are 40 gowns worn by the Tredwell women that go on exhibit on a rotating basis as well as personal objects like books and needlework and fans and children’s homework.

The House underwent a structural restoration in the 1970s that is unparalleled for authenticity. For example, when it was necessary  to remove the floorboards in the kitchen to address a problem of water infiltration, the original boards were carefully numbered and their placement indicated on a diagram so that they could be replaced just the way they were. When the House was reroofed, original slate tiles were reused where possible. The parlor draperies and carpet are exact reproductions of the originals. Today, when walls need repainting, the original colors are matched as determined by the latest scientific methods of paint analysis.

Finally, the serendipitous floor plan makes it possible for us to actually enter the rooms and feel the space around us.  We can never come closer to the nineteenth century than we do here.

http://merchantshouse.org

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