You Never Know . . . .

png-fortune-tellerThe beginning of a new year is traditionally a time for predictions. But, as we have recently seen, predicting future events can be a risky business. The following poem speaks to the matter. It is a variation of “Da bienes Fortuna” by Luis Gongora, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare. I call it a version rather than a translation because I have brought it up to date. I write of boys stealing cars, for instance, where Gongora writes of boys stealing “egges” but the message is the same.



Life will never go

according to the epistles,

Expecting whistles, flutes,

Expecting flutes, it’s whistles.


There seems to be no plan

but merely new digressions.

The state awards a man

both honors and possessions.

So then he spouts confessions

and joins the destitute.

Expecting a flute, a whistle.

Expecting a whistle, a flute.


Sometimes the way it goes,

a guy begins to tell . . .

His wife breaks in and crows,

“I’m pregnant!” “Hey, that’s swell!”

They celebrate, what the hell,

Ignoring his dismissal.

Expecting a whistle, a flute.

Expecting a flute, a whistle.


You see kids go to jail

because they stole a ride,

while men who work wholesale

in fields like homicide

are feted far and wide

and wear expensive suits.

Expecting flutes, it’s whistles

Expecting whistles, flutes.


Since predictions are so unreliable, I offer instead a hope: May 2017 be a year of pleasant surprises.

 Poem from Did You See This? Poems to Provoke the Politically Correct by Herbert Knapp


Filed under Poetry

Small Talk, New Year’s Day, 1861

new-years-greetingWhen I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he  recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:

“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .

“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .

“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.

“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year's Day

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year’s Day

“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.


New Year's Day, New York City, 1868. Harper's Weekly, January 4, 1868

New Year’s Day, New York City, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, January 4, 1868

“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.

“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”


Antique stereopticon

Antique stereopticon

For more from An Old Merchant’s House go here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.





Filed under Conservation, Historic House Museums, Holidays, New York City

A Time for Giving—Then and Now

These days almost every mail brings an appeal from a worthy charitable organization, warning us that there are only a few days left in the year to make sure our gift will qualify for a tax deduction on our 2016 return.

The cynic might claim that people need the incentive of a tax deduction to be persuaded to share their wealth with those less fortunate. But the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season has been around long before there was an income tax. As rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein pointed out in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, giving has long been regarded as a “healing counterpoint to the darker sides of human nature.”  In the decade of the 1850s, receipts of the nation’s churches and voluntary Protestant societies were greater than the receipts of the federal government!

In her recent blog post, my friend Annie Haddad discusses one of the organizations supported by the Seabury Tredwells, a wealthy New York merchant family, I confess I was somewhat surprised by the choice of charities and amazed that it was founded very early—1823—by a woman and administered entirely by women. Curious? Read the post here.

Because we can’t possibly give to all who ask for our help. many of us simply choose a favorite charity and concentrate our giving. My charity of choice is Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 pediatric hospitals in North America that provides state-of-the-art treatment for orthopaedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, burns, and cleft lip/palette, regardless of the family’s ability to pay. They are also involved in research and in training physicians and therapists. The scope of their work is really remarkable.

As a child, I was hospitalized for months to correct an orthopedic problem. It was not a Shriners Hospital, but this medical intervention kept me from a lifetime of disability. I have therefore, a deep appreciation of this wonderful organization that transforms children’s lives. You can read more about it here. mlk

Shriners Hospitals for Children

Shriners Hospitals for Children transforms children’s lives





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Filed under Medicine, Merchant's House

Merry Christmas from Mary and Herb



December 22, 2016 · 10:49 am

Countdown to Christmas

atmAs December’s days grow darker                                        HWK

and presents remain unbought,

it’s plainer every day what counts

is the cost and not the thought.

From Cartoons and Comments, a forthcoming volume of poetry by Herb Knapp.

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Countdown to Christmas —A New York Visit, 155 Years Ago Today

wards-christmas-visitDecember 17, 1861                                                                         HWK

John Ward wrote in his diary:

Visit to friends in Scarborough, the Meades. We dined at 5:00 and stayed in the evening. Barry amused the children very much with a slight ventriloquism making the youngest’s doll speak, and making Santa Claus speak from the chimney—a man from the furnace.



Filed under Holidays

Countdown to Christmas—You Don’t Need a Computer to Write a Really Good Christmas Story


christmas-carol“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,1843


Filed under Holidays