Sunday, April 15, 2018

Interpreting Our Ancestors' Early Photographs--1. The Scandinavians

I first posted this in January of 2015, discussing some vintage photographs of my Swedish and Norwegian ancestors--my father's side. I ended by saying that I would write another essay-- one dealing with my mother's Swiss-French side of the family, which settled in Tennessee long before the Civil War.  Never did get around to writing that post, but I'd better do it soon, because I'm hoping to put all my posts about antique photos and how to understand them into a book that will be called "Sepia Secrets/ The Story Behind the Photograph".

I’m a passionate collector of antique photographs—especially daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, which were introduced to the world by Louis Daguerre in France in August of 1839. 

In this day of “selfies” and smart-phone videos that share images of just about everything via the internet as soon as it happens, it’s hard to imagine the sensation caused by the first photographs—scientifically accurate portraits “written by the sun”.  A daguerreotype is an image produced on a silver-coated copper plate, which uses iodine and mercury to develop it.  For early daguerreotypes, you had to sit very still for many minutes, not smile or blink (your head often in a brace) and the fumes produced in the developing often made the photographer ill.  Even the touch of a feather on the sensitized silver plate would scar the image, so daguerreotypes had to be protected under glass and housed in a case that opens and closes like a book.

My favorite thing to do is to research the story behind an antique image—who (or what) is the subject?  When was the image taken?  What is the photographer trying to tell us?   While daguerreotype photography spread quickly around the world, (and nowhere was it more popular than in the United States), most people in the 1840’s and 1850’s, except for the famous or wealthy, would have only one image taken of themselves in their lifetime.  Often this would be a photo of a serious couple, seated side by side, soon after their wedding.  The photo was a sort of solemn, official record that they were married.  And if a child died, as so often happened, or an old grandfather who had fought in the Revolutionary War passed away, the daguerreotype photographer was quickly called to “save the shadow ere the substance fade”, as the photographers’ ads often put it. 

But the photographer could only do his job on a sunny day.  Usually the studio would be on a top floor of a walk-up under a skylight to capture the best light—because there were no electric lights.

While I have often researched and written essays about antique and historic photographs—(see the list of titles at right)—I have rarely written about my own family’s vintage photos, although I have them hanging on several walls of my house and look at them every day. I’m going to tell the stories behind some of my  antique photographs, so that you can get clues as to what to look for in your family photos from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  And I’m going to do it in two parts—first the stories of my father’s family; all of them Swedes and Norwegians, and then my mother’s family who were Swiss-French on the maternal side and Scotch-Irish on the other.

Here is a photograph of the family and house and possessions of Jorgen J. Odegaard, the man with the furry hat and bushy beard on the right.  He was born in 1856 in Norway and immigrated to the United States where he married another Norwegian immigrant, Oline Kaurstad in 1870. They first settled in Iowa, but with no money and no work, they headed for Minnesota (as did many Scandinavians) in search of free land in Santiago Township.  They settled near a swamp.

My father told me that Jorgen had the first pair of matched horses in the county.  You can see them tied up on the left.  In photographs of this era (1880’s) an itinerant photographer would come by, with his camera mounted on a tripod, knock on your door, and if you wanted a photograph, the family would be arranged in front of the house, with the most valued possessions in view.  This photo with the rare pair of horses is like a photo of a man leaning on his brand new sports car.  From the same period is a photo I have of the farmhouse I now live in.  The whole family and farm hands are standing in front of the barn and house with the prize bull tethered front and center and the ladies in their frilly hats and long dresses standing in front of the horse-drawn buggy.

The little girl in the white pinafore or apron above was Jorgen’s oldest child and my grandmother—Ida Odegard (the second “a” in Odegaard fell out somewhere). The baby in his mother’s arms is John who, I discovered on Google, “married in 1905 and then operated the first Ford agency in the area in 1912.  He offered free driving lessons with every sale, as no one knew how to operate motor vehicles.  He often accepted livestock, buggies and other items in lieu of cash.”

This photo of Jorgen’s family is not an original— it’s a simple photocopy which has no value as a photograph, but to me it’s priceless.

Compare it to this photo of the same family around 20 years later. This photo is an original and printed at the bottom is “Residence of J. O. Odegard, Santiago, Sherburne Co. Minnesota, June 7 1902”.  The little girl in the white pinafore in the previous photo is now the married lady sitting in a chair in a white dress, her hand touching her first of four sons—my uncle John Paulson.  She had married my grandfather, Par Paulson, who is seated at the far right. Her parents, Jorgen and Oline, who’s 45 in this photo, had nine children in all and the little girl toddler between her parents is a sibling to her married sister Ida. So the toddler on the left is the aunt to the toddler on the right—and she is the same age as her nephew. I’ve been told that the house in this photo is the same as the small shack in the first photo, but it has now been expanded to house the growing family (nine children!), adding a second floor and two chimneys and lots of space.

The wonderful names of Jorgen’s children are:  Ida, John, Mathilda, Edwin, Julius, Oscar, Olga, Alma, and Odin.

At the top of this post is a wedding photograph of my grandmother Ida Odegard, marrying my grandfather, Par Paulson, around 1899.  I have always thought that large floral bush on her head looked fairly ridiculous but I showed it to a friend from Norway and she told me that it is a traditional “Blomster Krans”.

The wedding photograph is a cabinet card –a photograph mounted on heavy cardboard-- which has been embossed in ornate silver script  “E. S. Hill, St. Cloud, Minn”. Cabinet cards, 4 inches by 5 ½ inches, were very popular from 1870 to about 1900. Photos of actors, politicians, freaks and famous people in this format were sold and collected in albums.

I knew my grandmother Ida well—she let me gather the eggs from her hen house and, after she beheaded a chicken every Sunday for dinner, we would de-feather it together.  I didn’t know until I was older that Ida was a very strong-minded and independent woman who shocked her family by marrying Par Paulson, a Swede instead of a Norwegian!, and then divorcing him after they had four sons. She moved with her college-age sons to Minneapolis where she opened a boarding house and became known for her apple pie. Then she married another Swede, John Erickson, who, like her first husband, was a mail carrier.  I adored John Erickson, my step-grandfather,  who taught me to shoot his rifle across the Mississippi River.  I only met my real grandfather, Par Paulson, once.  He was totally deaf.  To "talk" to him you had to write on a blackboard with chalk.

Here is my grandmother Ida holding a blonde cherub with sausage curls, a white dress and a bow in its hair.  That child is my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, born April 3, 1905.  It may seem shocking that he’s been dressed and groomed like a little girl, but back in the day, little boys and girls were dressed alike until about five or six years old. If you want some clues as to how to tell the boys and girls apart in vintage photographs check out the post I did called "Tots with Antique Toys--Boy or Girl?"

This photograph is printed on a nine-inch round tin plate embellished with beautiful flowers.  I’ve seen other, similar photos on tin, dating around the turn of the century, but I don’t know what they’re called.  (They’re not proper tintypes or ferrotypes—that’s another thing entirely.)  In tiny letters under the left corner of the photo is written “copyrighted 1908 by Crover MFG.”  My father would have been three years old in 1908.

In my next blog post I’ll share the stories and photos of my mother’s French-speaking ancestors, some pre-dating the civil war.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Children of Damascus--Again

 I visited Damascus twelve years ago--one of the holiest and most historic cities in the world, during an excursion from a cruise ship.  Entering the Umayyad Mosque, I was worried I'd find anti-American feelings, but all I found was families worshiping, playing, enjoying the day, and asking me to take photographs of their children.  They were completely welcoming and friendly and proud of their children.  I first posted the words and photos below on August 22, 2013 in mourning for the people I had met that day.  Now it's happened again--children suffocated with poison gas, lying in the street, foaming at the mouth, in a city just outside of Damascus.  I pray that someone, somehow, can make this stop and save the surviving children of Syria.

The beautiful babies and children, wrapped in their white shrouds, laid in a row in the street in front of a mosque, while a voice on a loudspeaker asks people to come forward and identify the bodies.  They seem to be sleeping, but they were choked to death with poison gas.  Their lives had barely begun when they were cut short...After seeing those photos in every newspaper today, it's impossible to think about, or write about, anything else.

I keep remembering the day, seven years ago, when I entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, worried by the anti-American slogans I'd seen in the marketplace, and found nothing but welcoming faces,  families playing and worshipping and just hanging out together peacefully.  And the proud parents who asked me to take photographs of them with their children--even though there was no way I could send them the photos.  And in the courtyard outside, the gaggle of young women who insisted on posing for me.  The little boy playing with his miniature car, and the little girl in a pink "Barbie" outfit.
I wonder where they are today--in a refugee camp or wrapped in a white shroud, lying in the street?

Remembering the children, I'm re-posting again the photos I took when their country was not enveloped in war.
                                              Scenes from Damascus

The first and only time I saw Damascus --March 3, 2006--I was fascinated with the capital and vowed to go back. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a mind-boggling mixture of Roman ruins, living Bible history and Muslim mosques.

I came as part of a group of about ten on a shore excursion from a small cruise ship.  Our guide took us to the old center of the city to see the Umayyad Mosque—one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world, and the fourth-holiest place in Islam.

 We walked through the covered bazaar to get there, but most of the shops were closed because it was a Friday.  I was getting a little nervous because I was told that the banners hanging overhead were full of anti-American rhetoric.

 Here is a photograph that shows the mixture of Roman ruins and one of the three minarets of the Mosque-- all in the same place.

 Before entering, the women in the group had to put on “special clothes”—a very unappealing heavy gray djellaba (Well, that’s what they call it in Morocco.)  I’m the one on the left in the sun glasses below.  You can see that the man in the red shirt didn’t have to change into more solemn clothing.

 The Umayyad Mosque is unbelievably large and rich in its mosaics and tiles and gilded decorations.  Everything that looks gold is gold, we learned.   In the time of its full glory, the mosque had the largest golden mosaic in the world.

 We entered the immense outer courtyard and found the families inside just hanging out-- children playing, old men sleeping, people washing their hands before prayers.

 Everyone regarded us with friendly curiosity, despite the anti-American slogans in the marketplace.  This man asked me to take a photo of him and his three children.

 Then we entered the vast covered prayer hall, and again, everything was casual.  A small white chapel with green windows is in the center, reportedly holding the head of John the Baptist. In the fourth century, after it housed a Roman temple to Jupiter, this site held a church to John the Baptist and was an important pilgrimage destination for Christians in the Byzantine era. Then the building was shared by Muslim and Christians alike.  But when the present mosque was built between 706 and 715, the church was demolished.

 But now, at the little chapel with the green windows, I was surprised to see Muslims praying and slipping money into it, presumably to honor John the Baptist.  (And one of the minarets in the Umayyad Mosque is called the  Minaret of Jesus because of a Muslim tradition that, on the day of judgment, this is where Jesus will appear.)

After we admired the golden mosaics in the interior, we moved on to a smaller outdoor courtyard with fountains where families were enjoying the fine weather. 

 These young women came over and asked me to photograph them, and of course I did, although we had no language in common and I had no way of sending the photos back to them.

This little boy was playing with his miniature car on the cover of a well.

And I was amused to see that the little girl with these black-clad women was dressed in a pink  outfit covered with the word "Barbie".

Now, when I read the reports nearly every day of massacres, suicide bombs, streets lined with the dead in Syria, including in Damascus—thousands killed so far and so many of them children—I remember the families I saw in the Mosque, all so hopeful and proud of their children, and I pray that the current bloodshed can be stopped before it claims any more innocent lives.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Greek Easter--The Drama Begins

I first posted this in April of 2010, when Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter happened to fall on the same day.  This year Greek Easter is celebrated a week later than Catholic Easter.  Why? Because Orthodox Easter has to happen after Passover.  So we usually get to buy our Easter goodies at half price.  But not the paschal lamb.  I've already ordered our lamb from Bahnan's, described below.   This blog post seems to be becoming an annual tradition, so I'd like to start today to wish Happy Easter  to all and to our Greek friends, Kahlo Pascha!

Next Friday is Good Friday on the Orthodox calendar and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also we can’t eat oil, so on Good Fridays we usually end up surviving on things like plain baked potatoes and peanut butter on crackers.

But the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” food ready for Holy Week, which starts on April 2 with "Clean Monday".  She's cooking up Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.

Next Thursday, April 5, will also mark the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we ordered from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign below, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

And they  have a café where, according to local Greeks, you can get the only authentic gyros for miles around.

Shopping at Bahnan’s is like a visit to the United Nations, but on Easter week it’s like several festivals rolled into one.

There is usually a considerable line of people waiting to get into the refrigerated back room to receive the lamb they had ordered and have it cut up to their specifications.   By Friday afternoon the line will be out the door.

I don’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which look the size of a small horse. (Our lamb will be very small—20 to 25 pounds.)

I usually escape before the butcher starts sawing,  but this process is still easier than some early Easters in Nick’s northern Greek village, when the adorable baby goats were tied to each house’s front door knob and my offspring loved petting them. Then I had to drag the children, (all three under age ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and blood ran in the street.

In the village on Easter Sunday you see spits outside every house, each one tended by the patriarch who is drinking homemade moonshine called Raki and having a good time. We sometimes do the lamb on the spit outside in Grafton, but not when Easter comes with weather this cold.

In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. She's about to make our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we will dye dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel, after we all return from the midnight church service,  when you challenge everyone – saying “Christ is risen” “Indeed he is risen”. Crack! And whoever’s egg comes out the winner gets the other guy’s egg.

On Holy Saturday, we will all go to church very early and without consuming as much as a drop of water beforehand. We line up to take communion and then are free for the first time in seven weeks to eat dairy (not meat. Not yet. But we are free to rush to the Pancake House where we traditionally stuff ourselves with high-calorie breakfast treats that have been forbidden for weeks.)

Then it’s back to church again at midnight.—for the dramatic Midnight Mass on Saturday night when the church is plunged into darkness and the priest comes out at the exact stroke of midnight with a single candle and announces ‘Christ is risen!” Then the flame passes from his candle to everyone else’s and the church fills with light as we sing the Resurrection hymn: “Christos anesti!” We try to keep our candles lit as we drive home to break the Lenten fast by cracking eggs and eating the delicate dill-and-egg-lemon soup called "mayeritsa" made by the Big Eleni out of the lamb's intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines, because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact two are vegetarians. And after my visits to pick up the lamb, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying spring weather. Here in Massachusetts, they're predicting snow in two days on everybody else's Easter.  So when the Greek Easter Bunny comes around on Sunday April 8, he will probably have to hide the Easter eggs inside instead of outside this year.  But the azaleas and the forsythia, as well as the crocuses, will be in bloom by then, so whether you're celebrating Passover or Easter this weekend or Orthodox Easter next Sunday, let me wish you  "Kalo Pascha!"  (And don't put away the snow shovels yet!)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Billionaire's Yacht "Guilty" , the Island of Hydra & Michael Jackson in Art

Four years ago today, on March 23, 2014, I republished this essay about modern art and a very strange yacht I saw on the island of Hydra--a  story I originally posted in 2010, thus scooping The New York Times by four years.

Today's (March 23, 2014) issue of the New York Times Style Magazine--Travel--has a cover story on the Island of Hydra, Greece, and especially the famous and eccentric yacht of Dakis Joannou, who is described by the Times as a "billionaire Greek art collector" and "one of the most famous men in this part of the Aegean".

Just wanted to point out that, if you are a "Rolling Crone" reader, you read all about this wild and crazy yacht and its owner nearly four years ago on this blog.  And, unlike the Times' author of  "Beyond the Sea",  Lawrence Osborne, I got the lead on the yacht and its owner from one of the donkey drivers on Hydra's harbor, who wait around to carry visitors' suitcases up the hill because there are no motorized vehicles on the island.

Hydra is one of our favorite islands, which we visit nearly every year--On one visit we found ourselves talking to a couple who turned out to be Leonard Cohen's former in-laws!

In case you missed the original post on the yacht "Guilty" on July 5, 2010, I'm re-posting it below.

Is it a Yacht or a Floating Museum?

When we were on the Greek island of Hydra recently, I saw a very peculiar-looking yacht dock in the harbor. I had never seen a boat of that shape and certainly not one decorated with what seemed to be pop art. Painted across the stern was the name “Guilty.” I thought it might be the ill-gotten prize of some hedge-fund manager who had been convicted of a white-collar crime, a la Bernie Madoff.

So I took some photos of the mysterious yacht and then asked the nearest donkey driver whose it was. (Those donkey drivers know everything because they stand around the harbor all day waiting for people to hire them to move suitcases and baggage up the hill to their hotel or destination. There are no vehicles on Hydra, only donkeys.)

He told me that the yacht belonged to a very rich Greek who owned two side- by-side houses up above the harbor. But he didn’t know his name.

When I walked back to the Hotel Leto, I typed the words “yacht” and “Guilty” into Google and learned that the peculiar sea craft belonged to a very influential Greek art collector named Dakis Ioannou (or “Joannou” – it depends on how you translate the Greek alphabet.)

I also learned that he had launched the yacht two years earlier, in Athens, at a party attended by the most important art dealers and contemporary artists of the day. The exterior of the yacht had been decorated by Ioannou’s friend, the artist Jeff Koons.

I wrote about Koons’ life-sized statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles a year ago, in a posting about how Michael Jackson’s death had inflated the price of Michael Jackson art.

I quoted from a New York Times article about Koons: ““His 1988 sculpture of Mr. Jackson with Bubbles was decorated with gold metallic paint and brought $5.6 million when it sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001. Larry Gagosian, the New York dealer who represents Mr. Koons, said on Wednesday that if one from the edition (he made three along with an artist’s proof) was to come up for sale now, it could make more than $20 million. ‘And that’s conservative,’ he added.”

Ioannou, who reportedly made his money in construction, is an extremely influential collector of works of modern art. I believe he owns 20 of Koons’ super-expensive sculptures. The masterpieces he chooses are often macabre and gory He said at the launching of his yacht, “ “These are dark times. The artists recognize that. We should, too.”

Although the exterior of the ship looks like a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon-painting, the Koons told Art Forum that it was based on a World War I camouflage pattern designed to confuse rather than hide.

The magazine reported: “The dizzying, chromatic graphics did make the unusually jutting planes of the ship, designed by architect Ivana Porfiri, hard to make out on the water. The touchy-feely interior was all mirror, silver leather, and dyed materials. ‘Isn’t it wonderful how you just want to touch everything on board?’ Koons asked, smiling. … The decor also included a lot of art… including wall paintings by David Shrigley, another by Albenda, and Guilty, an unusual text painting by Sarah Morris bought because, well, Joannou said, “I had to.” The yacht already had the name. “Guilty,” he said. “It just seemed right.”

Here is a photograph of the piece which now lives in the yacht along with a lot of other expensive works from his collection.

I have to say that, unlike Ioannou, I was not struck by an irresistible urge to buy this painting when I saw it—but then I really don’t understand much of the art that is currently fashionable.

After leaving Hydra, I picked up an airline magazine—I think it was on an Aegean plane—and learned that at the same moment, a collection of Ioannou’s art was being shown in New York at the New Museum. The exhibit was called “Skin Fruit” and was curated by—guess who?-- Jeff Koons. It included 100 works by “50 world-famous artists” from Ioannou’s private collection. According to the magazine, “It’s an exciting exploration of archetype symbols of genesis, evolution and human sexuality. …The exhibition tells the story of humanity’s beginnings. It’s like a fantastic universe imagined by Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and David Lynch, filled with twin towers of white chocolate, warped playground swings, androids and demons. Murals, paintings, installations, performance pieces, 3D pieces and live dramatized scenes of human passion make up a stunning display.”

Unfortunately, the exhibit in New York finished on June 20, so I won’t be able to see all the drama, but in the meantime I and the donkeys of Hydra enjoyed our accidental encounter with Mr. Ioannou’s yacht-as-modern art.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines in the U.S.--It All Started Here!

Time to re-post my annual Valentine's Day essay. I see that in today's New York Times there is a long article about Valentines, including two photographs of Esther Howland valentines--but no mention that she was living, and began making, Valentines in Worcester, MA!

 (I recently bought these English and German-made valentines at an auction--sadly, they are not from Howland or Taft.)

Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book “The Saga of Smiley”, printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.)

And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”

Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.

The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.

Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.

She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.

In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”

In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)

This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.

It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)

In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.

When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory

Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.

Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Royal Brides Part II—Diana’s Tiara and Victoria’s Secret


         Last week I posted about Queen Victoria’s revolutionary wedding dress, which broke with tradition in 1840 by being white and featuring, not a diamond crown, but simply a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair. I also included two photos and comments about the crowns worn by modern royal brides Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.  I posted a photo of Diana and wrote:  Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.”

            Turns out I was wrong.  As my sharp-eyed daughter Eleni pointed out, that was not a photo of Diana in the Lovers Knot tiara at her wedding, although it did become her favorite crown and the Queen did loan it to her for the wedding.  But at the last minute Diana decided to get married in the Spencer Family crown, shown here.

         According to People Magazine, “Like all good royal pieces, the Spencer Tiara is actually made up of other pieces of jewelry... The current version – which is constructed with diamonds shaped into tulips and stars surrounded by attractive scrolls – was probably finalized sometime in the ’30s. It has become a popular wedding tiara for the Spencer family: Diana’s sisters – Lady Sarah and Jane, Baroness Fellowes – both wore the sparkler for their wedding days and Victoria Lockwood, who was the first wife of Diana’s brother Charles, the current Earl of Spencer, wore it when she married into the famed aristocratic family in 1989 (when little Prince Harry served as a pageboy). However, Diana’s mother, Frances, did not wear the tiara when she married into the Spencer family in 1954.”

        Back to Victoria and her famous wedding dress, which featured a flounce of Honiton lace.  As a mark of support for the Honiton industry, Victoria insisted her daughters also order Honiton lace for their wedding dresses. She also wore her wedding lace sewed on to the dresses she wore to the christenings of her nine children and to the weddings of two of her children, her eldest daughter, Victoria, in 1858, and her youngest son, Leopold in 1882.

         Victoria’s youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Beatrice, was the only bride allowed to wear Victoria’s own veil of Honiton lace, because her mother knew how much she loved it.  Beatrice wore it as part of her wedding gown when she married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885. Her veil was crowned with a circlet of diamond stars, a marriage gift from her mother.  Here is Beatrice at her wedding.

         (I found out, while researching this post, that Beatrice was originally expected to marry Napoleon Eugene, the French Prince Imperial, whose murder during the Anglo-Zulu war in June of 1879 I have already written about in an earlier post called “The Prince Imperial—Murdered by Zulus”

         The telegram announcing the Prince Imperial’s death left Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice in tears.  According to Victoria's journal, "Dear Beatrice, crying very much as I did too, gave me the telegram ... It was dawning and little sleep did I get ... Beatrice is so distressed; everyone quite stunned."

         Later, when Beatrice fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg, she told her mother she had decided to marry him and the Queen stopped speaking to her for seven months, communicating only by written notes.  Victoria had always said that her youngest and favorite daughter should never marry, but stay by the Queen’s side as her companion.   Eventually Victoria was cajoled into accepting the engagement and consented to the marriage on the condition that Henry give up his German commitments and live permanently with Beatrice and the Queen.

 Twelve years earlier was the marriage of Victoria’s son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in Saint George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle in March of 1863.  This wedding produced a deluge of photographs of the future King and Queen.  Because the court was still in mourning for Prince Albert, ladies attending the wedding were restricted to wearing gray, lilac or mauve. The notoriously libertine eldest son of Victoria did not do a very good job of hiding his affairs—more than 50 by some estimates—which occurred both before and after the wedding.   In fact Victoria blamed Edward’s loose ways for the death of her adored husband.

 In September 1861, Edward was sent to Germany, supposedly to watch military maneuvers but actually in order to introduce him to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.   Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had already decided that they should marry. They met on 24 September thanks to his elder sister, Victoria, who had married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858.   Edward and Alexandra were friendly from the start; and marriage plans got underway.

From this time, Edward started earning his reputation as a playboy. He attended maneuvers in Ireland, and spent three nights with an actress Nellie Clifden, who hid with him in the camp.  Prince Albert, though ill, heard about his son’s adventure and went to visit Edward at Cambridge, to read him the riot act.  Just two weeks after the visit, Albert died, in December 1861.  Queen Victoria was inconsolable.  She wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life and she blamed Edward for his father's death.  She considered her son frivolous, indiscreet and irresponsible and wrote to her eldest daughter, "I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder."   

 (Edward’s many mistresses included actress Lillie Langtry; Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, who became Lady Randolph Churchill; actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Alice Keppel, who was the great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles—formerly mistress of Prince Charles and now his wife.)

Finally, here is Victoria’s secret, which I discovered while researching this post.  Today we like to think of Queen Victoria as being extremely prudish, but in fact, her marriage to Prince Albert was very passionate, and in 1843, she commissioned her favorite artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, to painting an intimate portrait of herself, “for Albert’s eyes only”.  The resulting painting, which Victoria wrote was “My darling Albert’s favourite picture” was kept in Albert’s private writing room, where only he could enjoy it.  After the death of the Queen, Buckingham Palace kept Victoria’s “secret picture” a secret, revealing it to the public for the first time in 1977.  

You may wonder why this painting was considered so intimate and erotic that no one was allowed to see it.  This is one more example of my oft-repeated statement that what we in the 21st century see when we look at an antique photograph or painting is far different from what contemporaries of the image saw.

The erotic element in Victoria’s secret painting is the hair (as well as the expanse of royal bosom shown.)  In Victorian days, a girl became a woman at 18 and began to wear her hair up, piled on top of her head, often in braids as Victoria did.  No one but her husband would be allowed to see her with her hair down and disheveled, draped over her shoulders. 

A woman’s long hair was one of the most erotic parts of her body in those days; witness the advertisements for hair products showing naked women with their floor-length hair protecting their modesty å la Lady Godiva. ( If you want to know more about  the history of “Older Women and Long Hair in the Olden Days”, check out my December 2010 blog post on the subject:  .  

By the way, the heart shaped pendant on a gold chain held a lock of Albert’s hair which Victoria wore “night and day” before their wedding. (Many times I’ve acquired a daguerreotype from the 1840’s and removed the image from the case or pendant ,to find a lock of the sitter’s hair inside.)


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Thoughts on Turning 70--Seven Years Later

(The photo shows my mother and myself in 1943)

The wonderful thing about having a bad memory--as I do--is that I had completely forgotten that I wrote and posted this  seven years ago, on the eve of turning 70.  Now I'm about to turn 77 and I re-read this with wonder as I realized that all my hopes for my crone-hood-- especially becoming a grandmother--have come true!  What a great birthday present!

When you turn 70, (as I do on Friday, Feb. 4) you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more.  Let’s face it, you’re wicked old.

In 1985 my mother died at 74 of cardiomyopathy and my father died at 80 not long after, but he spent his last years lost in dementia, which may or may not have been connected to his Parkinson’s disease. I think we all keep our parents’ ages at death in the back of our minds like a bad omen.  A male friend of mine was convinced that he’d die of heart disease at 62, like his father, and didn’t relax about this until he passed that milestone year.

I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and all sorts of accomplishments are still possible in your future.  But now I think that, for women, crone-hood – life after sixty—is the best time of one’s life.

If that is, you are lucky enough to have good health.  Two years ago I was collecting classmates’ bios for the book distributed at our 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota. I realized how many classmates had died (39 out of 331) and that many were struggling with serious illness.  Also a number of my friends have had their mobility compromised by hip or knee problems and other ailments.

I’ve been very lucky this far, which is something that I think about every day.

When I sit down in the morning with coffee and the newspapers, I’m profoundly glad that I don’t have to show up an office at 8 a.m. with five newspapers in my hand, then read them and mimeograph a news summary for my company’s management before ten a.m.  That was my first job in Manhattan, working for Lever Brothers.  Now all executives get their daily business news instantaneously on their I-phones or Blackberries or laptops.

I admit, I’ve become addicted to the computer, which I think is the most important innovation in my lifetime.

When my mother died in 1985, she had never touched a computer (although my father actually sold huge, hulking Univac computers to companies before he retired.) When she was pregnant with me—in 1940-41-- my mother spent the time compiling a book-sized family history of our ancestors, typing it up laboriously with lots of carbon copies, and distributing it to her eight siblings and eventually to her children.  Think how much easier that job would be today!

Another computer phenomenon is the social networks, especially Facebook, which many people consider invasive and dangerous.  But it has created a worldwide community which can share news and ideas and opinion instantly.

Consider this—on the first day of February, two young women who are among my “Facebook friends” each gave birth to a daughter—one in Omaha and one in Connecticut-- and they both announced it to the world on Facebook before they were wheeled out of the delivery room.  One even posted an album of photos of the baby, before and after the umbilical cord was cut.

Also, I’ve heard from friends with relatives who are soldiers in, say, Afghanistan, that an expectant dad in the military can watch his wife’s entire labor and delivery live on the computer (I guess through Skype.) This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. Of course if the dad didn’t have to go to war, that would be an even better thing.

Sometimes I imagine explaining things like this to my mother, who would have loved the internet.

The goal that motivates me to exercise on the stationary bike most days and go to Pilates lessons is the hope that I’ll stay alive and mobile long enough to be a grandmother. My friends become inarticulate when trying to explain how grandchildren can transform your life.

It seems to me that when women turn fifty, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday, but when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.

And when women enter crone-hood, they often channel the creative energy they used to spend on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering their talents to a philanthropy. They allow themselves to do what they always wanted, but never had time for. A friend of mine, a couple of years older than I am, went from wife, mother and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. A run-in with cancer slowed her down and she retired.  Now she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School so that, aged 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!)

I, too, went the “discover-your-passion-at-60” route and turned away from journalism (although I still do it) to re-discovering art, which was my major in college until I realized I could never earn a living at it.  So I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows and sold some paintings.

As long I can get around and handle my own luggage, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been and take lots of photographs (mostly of people) and then turn the photos into paintings.  Last month I wrote about a night spent watching sea turtles hatching on a beach in Nicaragua and heading into the sea.  I called it a “bucket list” experience.

Next week I’m off on another one.  My husband is giving me the birthday gift of a
culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, traveling around the state of Michoacan to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies.   Susana has a cooking school in Oaxaca (called Seasons of My Heart) and I’ve been on unforgettable tours with her, far, far off the beaten path to many parts of the country, but this is Susana’s first Butterfly tour and I know it’s going to be amazing

There are a lot more trips on my bucket list and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to make them, but, free of the drama, responsibility, worry and insecurity of youth, I’m entering my seventh decade with anticipation (and hope) that this will be the best one yet.