Archive for the ‘Colonial America’ Category

New Years in Maryland Not What it Used to Be

Friday, January 1st, 2016

chestertownNew Year’s Day is often considered a day of change, but there was one year that the change was a bit bigger than usual for Great Britain and her colonies. The change had nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions and the fact that eleven days went missing had nothing to do with excessive drinking on the part of King George or anyone else. It was a calendar correction, like shifting to daylight savings time in hyper-drive.

Most of Europe, and therefore most European colonies, had been using the Gregorian calendar since 1582. But because this new calendar was the creation of a Roman Catholic pontiff, proudly Protestant Great Britain ignored the change and continued to use the Julian calendar developed during the reign of Julius Caesar. Under the Julian calendar, each year was about eleven minutes longer than a solar year. While this doesn’t sound like much, over the course of the centuries it added up. The vernal equinox was occurring in real life about 10 days before it showed up on the calendar. Something had to be done. (more…)

Here Comes Anti-Claus

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Have you seen the previews for the movie Krampus? These days we don’t tend to think of monsters during the Christmas season, but back before we had the option of watching Elf or A Christmas Story on TV every night, we humans satisfied our need for entertainment by sharing Christmas stories around the fire. There is an ancient tradition of telling “winter tales” that included fantastic or paranormal elements inspired by our fears of the dark.Kate Dolan writes about the Christmas demon

My favorite figure from these tales is the Belznickel, a figure from Germanic legend that is very much like Krampus. They’re the opposite of St. Nicholas. Where the saintly Nick rewards children who’ve been good, the Belznickel does the opposite – he punishes the bad.

With whips and chains.

That could make for a very scary Christmas if you’ve been bad. (more…)

The Dubious History of Jump Rope

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I thought I would combine my favorite subject—history—with the subject of my latest book—jump rope—and write a blog about the history of jump rope. However, I should warn you that I could make up just about anything in this blog and you’d be hard pressed to prove me wrong. It turns out there’s little real evidence about the history of skipping rope.K.D. Hays discusses the history of jump rope
The Jump Rope Institute speculates that the sport began in Egypt where skilled athletes jumped over vines.

The International Rope Skipping Federation says that jump rope originated in ancient China where ropemakers played at game called Hundred Rope Jumping as part of their New Year’s celebrations. (The Traditional Chinese Game League confirms this – more or less. They say jumping rope was called “jumping 100 threads” because a rope circling through the air looked like it had been split into 100 separate ropes. But most of their discussion of the “tradition” involves a Chinese Jump Rope which is a large elastic loop that is nothing like a “western” jump rope.)
The National Double Dutch League suggests that the style of jumping known as Double Dutch, where long ropes are turned toward each other while one person jumps in the middle, originates with ancient Phoenician rope makers. (more…)

Wax On

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Most Americans have heard of Madam Marie Tussaud and her famous wax museums.  What is unfair is that most of us have not heard of Patience Lovell Wright and her wax museums.  She started the trend of sculpting wax figures of famous people in New York, took her traveling wax figure exhibit to London in 1772, and became so popular that the King and Queen of England posed for her.

William in Wax at Westminster, creeping people out for over 200 years

William in Wax at Westminster, creeping people out for over 200 years

Ben Franklin introduced her into society and it was said that she later repaid the favor by smuggling British secrets back to the colonies, hidden inside her wax figures. (more…)

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part III: Apples

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Today we usually think of apple cider as a wholesome children’s drink, but for most of the past thousand years, cider often contained as much alcohol as beer.  Thanks to wild yeast present in the air, the natural sugar in apple juice begins to ferment (turn to alcohol) within a few days after the juice is pressed from the apples and it will continue to ferment until something (such as cold temperature) is introduced to stop the  process.Kate Dolan explores the history of hard cider  Before the days of widespread refrigeration, sweet or non-alcoholic apple cider had a very short shelf life.  But hard cider would last long enough to bottle and store for a year or more.

Evidence suggests that the English were turning the juice of crab apples sweetened with honey into intoxicating beverages even before the Norman conquerors brought over sweeter apple varieties from France and forced the natives to grow them.  (more…)

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part II:  Beer  

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Actually, the title of this article is misleading because the article explains how the Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly get drunk on the beer they brewed. Most of them, anyway. That’s because most of them brewed “small beer.”

Kate Dolan tries English porter

Porter – George Washington’s favorite beer

Small beer didn’t come in short glasses and it didn’t have anything to do with people being shorter in “the old days.”After all,  George Washington was six-two.  And though small beer was lower in alcohol content and therefore lower in calories, small beer was not brewed because the Founding Fathers wanted that  “tastes great, less filling” alternative.

George Washington and others brewed small beer as a common household drink for servants, children, and anyone who was thirsty. It was a safe alternative to water which may or may not have been contaminated.  And it wasn’t the alcohol that killed the germs, it was the process of boiling the water. Most small beer probably had little more than 1% alcohol content.

Washington’s recipe for small beer, written in his diary while he was serving in the Virginia Militia, is probably the most famous. After boiling hops in water for three hours, the brewer adds three gallons of molasses and then some yeast. And that’s it. Doesn’t sound much like beer as we know it.

And that’s because it isn’t.

Beer is typically made from malted barley or wheat, water and hops. But barley did not initially grow well in American soil, malted grains were not plentiful in the American colonies and the process of malting was not something easily accomplished on the kitchen table at home. So Americans made beer out of other things unless they could afford to import barley or set up a malthouse.  A malthouse is a facility for malting grain, which has to be dried, soaked, sprouted and quickly dried again before it can be used to brew beer. Incidentally, Samuel Adams, who has his pictures on more varieties of beer than all other colonial Americans combined, was made a partner in his father’s malthouse after he used up all the money he’d been given to start his own business. There’s no evidence that he actually brewed beer.

Kate Dolan enjoys Beer Street

In 1751, William Hogarth produced his “Beer Street” print to encourage people to stay healthy by drinking more beer. It makes sense when you realize that the campaign was directed to a population that swilling gin at an alarming rate. Beer has less alcohol and is a good source of several nutrients. “Breakfast in a can” as we used to say in college.

Washington may have brewed beer, but as noted earlier, it was used more like Gatorade than Budweiser. However, our first president ordered great quantities of beer for Mount Vernon from Philadelphia and was especially fond of a porter made by English immigrant Robert Hare. He typically ordered “a gross” of bottles at a time which is equal to twelve cases. When he became president, his staff started ordering three gross at a time for Washington to enjoy while Congress was in recess. Porter is a very dark, rich beer made from brown malt. It was marketed in various strengths from “plain” to “stout.” The “stout” variety remains popular today in beers such as Guiness, but most brewers today use a black malt rather than a brown malt that was used in Washington’s time.

Thomas Jefferson was also fond of beer but he took his interest further. In his retirement years, he planned and built a malthouse and brewhouse at Monticello. Not surprisingly, he researched and experimented extensively. The resulting ale he produced was good enough that his friends and neighbors were soon begging for “the recipe.” But he claimed somewhat disdainfully that he used no recipe and doubted that anyone could learn to malt and brew just by reading about it. He did offer to let his friends send a servant to watch the brewing process and return as needed “to perfect himself.”

Because beer was so difficult to brew well at home and expensive to import, many early Americans turned to a “lower class,” easier alternative: hard cider. And that’s what we will look at next.

It’s now time for me to do some taste test-research… (See the photo above. “Deep Six” porter by Heavy Seas Brewery. Research is a demanding business.)


How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part I – The Holidays

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

The founding fathers look pretty proper and straitlaced when they’re stamped on the front of legal currency, but these guys knew how to party. Or at least, they knew how to drink. And many of them knew how to mix drinks, brew beer, distill spirits, and how to make money doing it.

In the spirit of the season, or maybe just because I felt like I needed precedence, I’m going to see what they drank. We’ll start with the holidays.Kate Dolan writes about wassail

Today we think of the holidays primarily as Thanksgiving, Christmas (+Hannukah or Kwansaa if you’re being politically correct) and New Year’s (with an extension into football playoff season if you live in a city where the team is doing well). It was different in colonial days. (more…)

Scary tails for Halloween

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Halloween decorations often include rats – all fake, fortunately. While I love the “Dead Mouse Theater” commercials, I don’t think I’d want to see Dead Rat Theater, at least not up close. Those long slimy-looking tails creep me out. And I’m not alone – rats are almost universally feared and hated.Kate Dolan does not like rat tails

So I can’t say I was too excited when the itinerant rat-catcher at Jerusalem Mill proposed to marry to my sixteen-year-old daughter. On the other hand, she likes to hang around with laundry thieves, so I suppose she could do worse.

The rat catcher, “Silas Moore,” was a reenactor at the Colonial Craftstman Weekend portraying a profession that has changed but not disappeared. (more…)

Consider the Fork

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

It would have been very easy to set the table in the early 1600s. Guests wore their own knives to the table, and forks were only used as cooking tools in the kitchen, so they would not be laid out on the table either.

Except in Italy. At about that time, an English visitor to Italy observed the natives using a device “not used in any other country” and that was “a little fork” which the Italians used to hold meat in place while it was cut. Kate Dolan discusses the history of fork usageThe visitor, Thomas Coryate, soon adopted this fashion himself and when he returned to England his friends including poets Ben Jonson and John Donne made fun of him for his fork habit. Another poet announced a few years later that they “need no forks to make hay with our mouths to throw meat into them.”  Real men did not use forks. (more…)

Sightseeing from the bar stool

Friday, July 11th, 2014

“I’m at the Historical Society,” I texted my husband during our recent trip to New York. “At the bar.”

I probably didn’t need to tell him either of those things. In a city of over eight million people, where else would I be?  The New-York Historical Society was closed during my last two visits to the city, so this was my first chance to check it out. I planned to take the 3:00 tour and before that I spent the intervening hour and half walking through Central Park in orthopaedic shoes that turned out to not be orthopaedic enough. My feet hurt. I needed to rest somewhere before the tour. And I could sightsee from my bar stool. Why not?Kate Dolan's photo of the Beekman carriage

It turns out the Caffè Storico restaurant and bar is just one of many features to recommend about the NY society. The high-ceilinged space, decorated with shelves of heirloom china, manages to feel airy and refreshing but also homey and comfortable. The bar features a good selection of craft beers and wines and an amiable staff. And though it was hard to drag myself away, I found that the friendliness continued over to the staff at the welcome desk and the tour guides. As it turned out, I got a private tour because no one else arrived at 3:00. This left me free to ask lots of questions. I took pages and pages of notes, most of which would bore the pants off anyone reading this, so I won’t be repeating them here.

The tour began with the exhibits in the lobby. My favorite was “History Under Your Feet” where guests are invited to look through holes in the floor to view artifacts once buried beneath the city streets. Many of the paintings in the lobby depict scenes of New York history during the colonial period. While viewing a painting showing patriots pulling down a statue of George III astride a horse, my guide explained that the statue was melted down into musket balls, but the tail was found years later in a swamp on property that had been owned by a loyalist family at the time. That they were able to salvage something from the horse’s hindquarters is just one of those nice little circumstances of history, since many people no doubt equated the king with just that part of a horse’s anatomy. The guide also pointed out a transparency painting, a form of art with which I was not familiar but that was popular in the 18th and19th Centuries. These paintings  were designed to be illuminated from behind at close quarters, and since the only method of illumination at the time would have been an open flame, not many of these paintings survived.

Another rare 18th Century piece on display in the Society is the Beekman carriage which dates to about 1770. It’s in immaculate condition and one of only three surviving carriages of the period anywhere in the U.S. I think very often I imagine my characters riding in elegant coaches like this when they would not have been doing anything of the sort. I guess the modern equivalent would be having all my characters traveling in Hummer limousines. Not very realistic.

So back to the tour. The Society displays an amazing array of Tiffany lamps. My tour guide told me most of the soldering was done by women known as the Tiffany girls, and even most of the designs were created by a women named Clara Driscoll. When you think of the fashions in vogue at the time these lamps were put together, with women wearing voluminous skirts and giant sleeves, it’s a wonder that they could get close enough to the glass to actually work on it.

My favorite part of the society was the Luce Center where the tour ended. It’s basically like looking in the attic at all the different types of artifacts collected and donated over the year. Not everything is labeled, so I had to make a guess at the details surrounding the use of some of the artifacts. It was a bit frustrating, but I’d rather see it on display and not labeled than have it sitting in a box somewhere out of view. My only problem was that part of the collection was illuminated by motion activated lights. So if I stood still to read a description, the light would turn out. I was constantly waving my arms around to get the exhibit to light up again and after a while, I felt like a student at Hogwarts (except that I was so good I didn’t even need a wand to produce light). Unfortunately I see that the Society’s website says the Luce Center just closed and won’t open again until 2016. Hopefully they will fix the lighting, but keep most of the collection on display. It would be a shame to hide it away again.

After the tour, I visited a special exhibit on my own. The exhibit, “Facades,” consisted of a collection of photos taken over a number of years by Bill Cunningham. He photographed women wearing clothes from different time periods as they posed by city landmarks and neighborhoods of the same time period. The action and costume detail in the photos was quite striking, but occasionally ruined by 1960s mod makeup.

The New-York Historical Society never makes anyone’s top ten list of things to see in New York, and it’s not as good as the Tenement Museum or The Ellis Island Museum. But the latter is closed due to storm damage and the former can be viewed only during specific tours. So for a history nut in the mood to wander and explore, the New-York Historical Society offers a pretty good way to spend an afternoon in the city.