Wanderlust Wednesday: Back to Arizona

Arizona is a strange place for me. I dry out – after a week back on the east coast, I still feel parched. I’m covered in dust brought to me by breezes that don’t stop. The noise of NYC rings in my ears, only broken by coyotes that cross my Uncle B’s ranch at night. The Border Patrol stops your car so a dog can sniff the trunk. The land is scattered with ruined concerns and cheap housing, and yet you pass the occasional gallery, winery, pilates studio. There’s no cell phone reception at the ranch – a 20 minute hike up a road that honors a town that disappeared around 1920 is required to connect. Arizonans from around the area crawl by on ATVs, dubbed “Good Lifers” by my rancher great uncle.

Still, it’s beautiful country, especially as the sun sets.

A Century Plant at Dusk. RL Fifield

A Century Plant at Dusk. RL Fifield

Museum Monday: Maryland State Archives in 2013

The stepped structure of the Maryland State Archives on Rowe Blvd, Annapolis.

For a building built in 1984, I think the Maryland State Archives inspires. Maybe it strikes a chord with me akin to the library buildings of my childhood. Unlike it’s colonial and colonial revival ancestors further down Rowe Blvd in the heart of Annapolis, the building lacks quoins, pedimented doorways, and mullioned windows. After Registration, you enter the reference/research area, a vaulted space warmed with wood, into which the sun occasionally shines. People are busy at work at computers, and the very friendly and competent archives staff has limitless patience for your questions (even if your fellow researchers behind you in line do not).

Of course, I don’t know how the collections storage is. I’ve got my own HVAC system to relate to, so I’ll stay blissfully unaware of theirs – except to say, it’s awfully cold in there. Bring a sweater.

I was there a couple of Saturdays ago looking up some Harford County family records (Bowmans, Baylesses, Coles, Mahans, Gilberts, Ruffs) as well as beginning some investigations into what records there might be of interest to my runaways indentured and enslaved servant project (read my article on the project here) like Anne Arundel County Convict Records 1771-75 and the AA County Judgement Records, revealing all the supposed sins of the colonial county. There was the usual assortment of genies (genealogists), a kid looking up a newspaper article with his family for a school project getting a first-rate one-on-one class on the history of Maryland newspapers from one of the archivists, and lots of happy women wanting copies of their divorce decrees.

I’ve been an intermittent patron at the MDSA over the last 15 years. I’ve used it to perform research on Smithsonian dress collections, to do family research, and now to work on my runaway project. Each time I arrive, something has changed. When I arrived this time, I noticed that the ever popular and buzzing microfilm rooms were dark. The website still mentions that researchers will use microfilm printers, what they don’t mention is that much of the microfilm has been digitized and is available at slow and ancient terminals still running Netscape.

Also, it doesn’t mention that not all the microfilm has been digitized, and that patrons must wait to have the microfilm digitized before viewing it. This process generally takes an hour, but is not available during Saturday research hours. It is forcing the digitization of collections, but at the expense of the researcher. Speaking about expense to the researcher, there’s no way for you to take home a copy of data you find except by paying $1 per printed sheet. No USB download available, no email capability. I saw one desperate soul photographing his computer monitor. I dropped $70 for a 7 hour research day. It’s unfortunate, especially as the digitized copies are not from the original paper source material, but from scratched microfilm. I’m fully sympathetic to institutions trying to meet user needs on limited budgets, but this is expensive for access to public records.

Thankfully, I had more than my hands full collecting documents and came away with some great things. Here’s a family will I snagged for Elizabeth Botts, my 5th great grandmother, from the Aberdeen/Deer Creek area of Harford County, Maryland, who died in 1807. I particularly like her textile gifts, including a calico bed quilt and calico counterpane.

Elizabeth Botts 1805/1807

[The clerk misspelled Botts “Boots” throughout, but it is signed and later witnessed using the spelling “Botts”]

In the Name of God Amen I Elizabeth Boots, widow of John Boots, of Harford County and the State of Maryland be very weak in body but of perfect sound mind and memory and knowing that it is appointed for all once to die do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following to wit

First of all I recommend my body to the ground to be buried in a decent and Christian like manner and as to what it hath pleased God to bless me with in this life after my just debts and funeral charges be paid I give and bequeath unto my beloved Daughter Sarah Stephenson one new Callico bed quilt to her and her Hers forever and no more,

Secondly I will and bequeath unto my beloved daughter Nancy Hughes one Callico counterpain to her and her heirs forever and no more.

Thirdly I give and bequeath unto my beloved son Isaac Boots the sum of five shillings to be paid him before the following division be made to him and his heirs for ever and no more.

Fourthly I give and bequeath unto my beloved sons James and John Boots and my beloved Daughter Aberiller Boots the remaining part of my Estate to be Equally divided between them except the two plow mares, my bed and furniture and my Silver Tablespoons which I will unto my beloved son John Boots and my Silver Teaspoons which I will unto my beloved daughter Aberiller Boots to them and their heirs forever which I do order in and by this my will to be taken but before any division be made and then the remainder to be Equally Divided between my two sons James and John Boots and my Daughter Aberiller Boots as before named share and share alike to them and theirs forever.

Fifthly and lastly I give and bequeath unto my two children above named John & Aberiller Boots all my part of my beloved son’s Estate who is deceased, to be Equally Divided between them ? alike to them and their heirs forever Hereby revoking and? all former wills by me heretofore made satisfying and conforming this as my last will and testament. In Witness whereof I have more unto set my hand and affixed my seal this Day of September 3 in the year of our lord Eighteen hundred five. 
Elisabeth Botts

Harford County the 5th day of March 1807 then came James Botts who possessed the within last will and testament of Elizabeth Botts late of Harford County deceased and made oath on the holy evangels of Almighty God that he Received the same from John Botts and that it is the true and whole last will and testament of the said deceased that hath will and testament of the said deceased that hath come to his hands and possession and that he doth not know of any other.

Museum Monday: Tyvek Pillows for Object Transport

Tyvek pillows with (back to front) Ethafoam crumb, polypropylene bead, and glass sand filling. RL Fifield, 2012.

Tyvek pillows with (back to front) Ethafoam crumb, polypropylene bead, and glass sand filling. RL Fifield, 2012.

Never use sad, crumpled up pieces of tissue again for object transport! Switch to Tyvek pillows.

While this isn’t a new idea, I assembled at least fifty of these in the last couple of years. I work with ethnographic sculpture, much of which has experienced insect damage prior to its collection by museums. They have fragile surfaces of ritually applied materials. Their shapes can be difficult to support. Tyvek pillows can be made in various shapes and sizes and different fillings to provide adjustable support as you examine objects, transport them within your museum, and for storage.

I have used polyethylene foam (Ethafoam) crumb, polypropylene beads, and glass sand to fill the Tyvek sleeves. All of these materials are appropriate for permanent storage (the Tyvek must be washed). The different fillings are useful depending on whether you want to weight or cushion the object. The only skill needed is basic machine sewing techniques. I make the weighted versions with double sleeves and tight stitching to reduce the risk of losing the filling.


Tyvek Softwrap
Ethafoam Crystal (University Products), or polypropylene beads or glass sand (from doll suppliers)
Sewing Thread


Sewing Machine
Scissors or Utility Knife
A Scoop


  1. WASHING:    Wash Soft Tyvek in a washing machine with free/clear detergent. Rinse twice. Drape the Tyvek Softwrap over clean non-upholstered chairs or a laundry rack. NOTE: Do not use the dryer to dry wet Tyvek as it will melt.
  2. CUTTING:     Determine the size and shape of pillow you wish to make. Flat rectangles are good padding art when resting on tables. Small rectangles can be used for padding within boxes. Snakes and bolsters are also useful shapes. Cut the shapes from the dried Tyvek.
  3. STITCHING:  Tyvek has two different surfaces: one slick (the right side), the other soft and grabby (the wrong side). Place right side to right side and stitch all but one side of the Tyvek pillow. Use a small stitch, as Ethafoam crumb dust can empty through larger stitches. Turn pillow right side out. NOTE: set up an assembly line and stitch up many of the Tyvek cases at once. Make two for each pillow for added strength.
  4. FILLING: Do not do this in a “clean” space, such as your storeroom. Use a scoop to ladle the Ethafoam crumb (or PPE beads/glass sand) into the pillow case to reduce dust. Fill to your ideal capacity. Do not overfill – the idea is to create a malleable shape that can conform to whatever object you are working with. The soft inner surface of the pillow case will prevent the Ethafoam crumb from shifting around too much.
  5. CLOSING: After you have filled the pillow to your liking, fold in the cut edges and topstitch on the sewing machine. NOTE: this can be difficult with bolster shaped pillows, but can be done and is more effective and stronger than a hand-stitched finish.
  6. CLEANING: Use a microfiber cloth to pick up and surface dirt off the Tyvek pillow surface.


Preserving the Rhythm of City Streets: Upper West Side Special Enhanced Commercial District

What’s great about New York City? People on the streets.

In June 2012, the NYC Department of City Planning enacted zoning that requires new commercial development to fit within maximum frontage limits in the Upper West Side shopping districts along Broadway, Columbus, Amsterdam, and its cross streets.  They claim that the density of residences and limited commercial space within the neighborhood makes this zoning plan ideal on the UWS. But I think it’s a plan that works for more than just the UWS. On the Upper East Side, compare Lexington Avenue in the 70s versus 1st Avenue in the 70s. Lexington Avenue is full of small stores, where a one block walk will take you past ten concerns, on just one side of the street. There’s a vibrancy in the flowers, pizza, bodega electronics, shoes, the stairway into the subway, the coffee shop offered in that short stretch of street. But on 1st Avenue, you might have to walk past Duane Reade for part of the block and D’Agostino grocery store for the other half. Meh. It isn’t as vibrant, and it creates spaces that Mom and Pop/independent stores could never hope to fill.

What’s ruined a lot of American cities? Creating mega stores that cater to the driving public (and wrecking historic buildings for parking lots) where small stores that contribute to vibrancy used to exist. And right now on the Upper East Side, that increasingly means big banks. What about this modern age of electronic banking requires 4,000 square foot stores in a pedestrian city?

Yet another freakin' bank. A pestilence of banks invades the Upper East Side. RL Fifield photo 2012.

Yet another freakin’ bank. A pestilence of banks invades the Upper East Side. RL Fifield photo 2012.

When I moved to the neighborhood in 2006, the corner of East 79th Street and 3rd Avenue housed nearly 10 vibrant business on it’s SE corner in late 19th century tenements. A bakery, dry cleaner, popular restaurant, poultry market, and thrift store were located there. For at least the last 4 years, its been a blighted construction site, and the ground floor is being arranged as a single commercial space. Time to reference Jane Jacob’s ballet of the streets (read an NYPL blog post on The Death and Life of Great American Cities here). Suburban dwellers who drive don’t think about what a single bank means to street life – it deadens that portion of the street after 9pm. The street becomes less safe.

There’s something to be said to returning to stores of human scale. After living in the city for many years – New York City, mind you – I’m often overwhelmed by the vastness and hubbub of a typical suburban Target store.


Transportation Tuesday: Pittsburgh Bridges

Thanks to reader Ms. S. for pointing out Pittsburgh’s distinction as the Bridge City. When I had suggested Cleveland as a contender (see my post on the bridges of Cleveland and the boat tour that highlights them) Ms S. quickly replied that Pittsburgh’s 3 rivers easily trounces Cleveland’s one. Add the mountainous terrain of western Pennsylvania, and its no wonder that Pittsburgh has over 400 bridges to its name. My brother Mr. F has always been a big fan of Pittsburgh and the 1877 Duquesne Incline, another technological marvel designed to help humans navigate the environment.

Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA dcu. Public domain.

My experience in downtown Pittsburgh is limited to a rush hour dalliance during our 2005 Lincoln Highway trip. My friend Mrs. G. and I were retracing the 1913 route (what was left of it) from Beaver Falls into Pittsburgh, and once we got into the city, our 1924 map was giving us a bit of trouble and we ended up on an interstate in rush hour. (Note: Lincoln Highway rules: interstates bad, dirt roads good!). I don’t even have any photographs of that part of the trip; Pittsburgh seemed to empty at 5pm. The coffee shop we stopped at had turned over its chairs on the tables and was counting up the change in the till.

The website Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, PA. There are several self-guided tours of bridges on the website and posts news about threatened historic bridges. It’s a nice tool for learning more about the Pittsburgh area built environment.

Scarlet Fever!

The house on Paradise Road, Aberdeen, Maryland.

The house on Paradise Road, Aberdeen, Maryland.

My grandfather, S. Lee Bowman, returned from World War II in 1946 to marry Gurnice Stephens of Mt. Pleasant Orchard, outside Havre de Grace. The first several weeks of their marriage were spent separately: as soon as they returned from a honeymoon in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my grandfather came down with scarlet fever. Quarantined in his mother’s home on Paradise Road outside Aberdeen, my grandmother spoke to him through the window.

About the same time that my grandfather was infected, penicillin was discovered as a treatment for the disease. Before antibiotics, infectious disease required seclusion within your house for several weeks. Bedding was destroyed (remember The Velveteen Rabbit?). Illness was scarring, could exact lasting damage such as loss of hearing, and was extremely risky for the caregivers around you. Vaccination dramatically reduced, if not eliminated, the risks of many quarantine-worthy illnesses. Read my post about vaccination here.

The History of Medicine Division. Prints and Photographs Collection Connecticut Health Office.

Post Offices for Sale

What is Westminster, Maryland’s claim to fame?

Westminster, Maryland’s RFD Historical Marker.

Besides being my childhood hometown, it was where county-wide Rural Free Delivery began on December 20, 1899. Mailboxes from the era are contained in both the collections of the Historical Society of Carroll County and the Carroll County Farm Museum. The historic Westminster Post Office on Main Street, in front of which the RFD Maryland Historical Commision marker stands, was vacated for a charmless mass-produced postal building on the outskirts of town in 1998. The 1934 structure dominated upper Main Street and even though it was purchased by a design firm in 2000, the activity the spot generated is now noticeably absent. Like many US Post Offices of the area, it spoke to the architecture surrounding it, and is just slightly different than its sisters in other towns.


Annapolis MD post office is potentially for sale. It’s quoins and cupola speak to the city’s 17th and 18th century architecture. Photo: Wikipedia.

The New York Times (March 7, 2013) wrote about the potential closure and sale of many historic post offices, including those in Princeton, Berkeley, Bethesda, and the Bronx. Those without protected status, such as the Virginia Beach post office, are at risk of being demolished for development. At the very least, the sale of post offices leads to diminished civic traffic, which can hurt those main streets that are already withered. One consequence of the closure of the downtown Westminster post office was that those with unstable living arrangements and no car lost their ability to reach their P.O. Box – it practically wrenched a piece of stability from those living on the edge. The new post office is not accessible on foot.

The mail isn’t what it used to be. I don’t need to get the mail on Saturday – every other day would be fine (of course, that means less employed mail carriers – who’s paying the price?). But let’s not destroy those gifts to the public in preserving the system. We cannot rebuild them.

Want to get involved? Check out NYU professor Steve Hutkins’s project Save the Post Office.

Transit Tuesday: Crinolines and Omnibuses

Crinoline. 1860-65. V & A Museum. T.150-1986.

It was the 1850s. Skirts were big. Transportation, not so much. Prior to elevated railways, streetcars, and subways, mass transit meant the omnibus, a horse-drawn wagon, often enclosed.

Crinolines (hoop skirts) gave lampoonists of the mid-19th century ample tongue-wagging material. Photographs were staged and prints distributed to make fun of the wide skirted fashion. Crowded public transportation just provided the perfect stage for denigration of the crinoline.



But anyone who’s actually worn a hoop skirt to work on a regular basis (I did for work in my early 20s) knows that they aren’t quite as difficult to manage as the 19th century press and modern brides make them out to be. I drove a manual pick-up truck in mine. The tipped rings collapse on each other when one sits. Yes, it provides extra width to the sides, but not so much to the front. Crinolines dangling from the sides of omnibuses in photographs are obviously a farce – no woman is going to dig under her dress in public for the crinoline’s buckle at her waist, and then reverse the process after disembarking the omnibus. Fishing the crinoline up between underpetticoat and overpetticoat and dress skirt is nearly impossible in the privacy of one’s bedroom, let alone a fetid nineteenth-century London street.

New York Public Library. Oct 2, 1858.

Museum Monday: Some Essential Tools

There was a thread on the Registrar’s Committee of the American Association of Museum’s list serve this week about the Ideal Registration Kit. By the end of the week, the whole discussion had become rather punchy and the list had grown to include a forklift (mind you, the tools were supposed to fit a small toolbox, or garden tool bag). But I enjoyed what tools colleagues had cobbled together for their work and there were some especially good ideas for head lamps. I’m  a collections manager, so I don’t need the battery of tools that a conservator would stock for performing treatments. But my work can include examination, handling objects for visitors, storage support making, and surface cleaning (who am I kidding? the tool I use the most in my career now is my computer – alas!).

Here are just a few of my basic essentials…

Microspatula. Good for picking up pages in old books, separating fringe on a textile for photography, threading twill tape through slits in board when making storage supports, you name it.


Kimberley-Clark Safeskin Purple Nitrile Powder Free Exam gloves. Read my post on getting rid of white cotton gloves for museum use and switching to nitrile here.

Kimberley-Clark Safeskin Purple Nitrile Powder Free Exam gloves. Read my post on getting rid of white cotton gloves for museum use and switching to nitrile here.










Mini Mag-Lite! I have New York black, but I like the blue color… Besides – it’s good to carry a flashlight for emergency egress purposes, especially if you work in a large building like I do.

Love my Leatherman. Great little snips, a sharp knife, decent pliers, and never be without a slot or Phillips screwdriver again.







Hake brushes. I like the long handled ones too, their bristles tend to be a bit stiffer than these. It depends on the surface of the object. I use these in conjunction with a Nilfisk HEPA Canister or Backpack Vacuum.


My Vaisala HM34 Humidity and Temperature meter. For when you co-workers swear it’s hot/cold/humid! Just kidding. I use the same tool my engineers do – it helps to get the whole team on the same page about the museum environment. Remember – any monitoring equipment is only as good as its last calibration.










I'm not kidding! My museum Blackberry has a camera on it, I can request things from other staff while I'm in the storeroom or gallery, or I can send myself notes to my email. It's a notepad, computer, and camera in one - and keeps me away from my desk longer! (but I personally use an iPhone - keep work and pleasure tech separate!)

I’m not kidding! My museum Blackberry has a camera on it, I can request things from other staff while I’m in the storeroom or gallery, or I can send myself notes to my email. It’s a notepad, computer, and camera in one – and keeps me away from my desk longer! (but I personally use an iPhone – keep work and pleasure tech separate!)