Vernacular: Puddle Ducks

I love the word vernacular. You can stuff all that’s particular to a specific region into the term. Can’t explain it any other way? It must be vernacular.

New York Puddle Ducks. Mallards in Central Park. RL Fifield 2013.

New York Puddle Ducks. Mallards in Central Park. RL Fifield 2013.

Puddle duck is the term my grandfather used to describe mallard ducks. In so many community ponds, mallards are the only ducks bobbing on the surface. I grew up as part of a tidewater Maryland family. My grandfather carved approximately 1,500 duck and goose decoys during his life. Of all of these ducks, the most storied were the canvasbacks. They were the stuff of New York high dining and haute cuisine. But in my life, I’ve only seen canvasback ducks once or twice. Mallards, or puddle ducks, are what we see most often.

My grandfather, born in 1918 and passed in 2002, marked it up to accelerated development along the waterfront. Our ancestral seat, Havre de Grace, Maryland, transformed in my lifetime from being a marshy waterfront to lined with condominiums and marinas. Pop Pop explained that migratory birds like celery grass. Polluted waters and developments along the water’s edge decimated the natural stands of celery grass, providing less refuge and nourishment for the migrating birds.

Pop Pop took up decoy carving after his marriage in 1946. I grew up with Bald Pates (Widgeons), Red Heads, Blue Bills (all vernacular names for ducks with more formal scientific names), Wood Ducks, Black Ducks, and so forth. I’ve never seen any of them in the feather, but maybe once. The hundreds of ducks in the basement and the shed were all wood.

Puddle ducks like enclosed bodies of water. Perhaps they are a little more flexible than their open-water counterparts. So when the American public thinks “duck,” it’s more often that mallards and white ducks with orange beaks come to mind. AFLAC.

When I peer over the edge of a bridge and I see anything other than mallards these days, I smile. Kudos to environmental efforts that welcome back the variety that once was.

SL Bowman signing a decoy during an auction of his works, RL Fifield October 2001.

SL Bowman “Pop Pop” signing a decoy during an auction of his works, RL Fifield October 2001.


A Late Tribute to The Silver Spoon

It’s been 7 years since The Silver Spoon, the Italian bible of cooking, was translated into English. I remember hearing a segment on the cookbook on NPR when it arrived on American shores. Somehow I missed opportunities to check it out of the library, and never quite wanted to dedicate the Manhattan real estate to purchasing the tome. I finally hauled home a copy from the New York Society Library (NYSL) last Thursday. See my post on my favorite New York library here.

The NYSL has old fashioned stacks, and up on Stack 11, I had been peering through books about railroad station design (alas, I did not bring home a book on the destruction of Pennsylvania Station – too depressing). Around the corner, I found the tome of The Silver Spoon. I didn’t have an extra bag to haul it and the 4 other books I wanted. I knew I’d get a little prod from the lady at the front desk to take a bag from them. They rightly want to protect their books.

Feeling strong, I lugged my finds down to the desk. “Do you want a bag?” she asked. The book is nearly 3 inches thick.

The very organization of the book is beautiful. Graphic block letters proclaim various challenges:  Barquettes! Rice Salads! Sweetbreads! Quail! Charlottes! My 2005 self, listening to the NPR segment on The Silver Spoon, remembers the commentator remarking that Americans would be hesitant to try a number of the foods presented in the Italian book. It was four years before my trip to St. John in London, two years before my first trip to Paris. The American palate has expanded by leaps and bounds in the last seven years, and all of the recipes now seem possible.  I love a cookbook that has sections for specific vegetables, and not just the 1950s American supermarket variety vegetable. Buck’s Horn Plantain! Cardoon! Chestnuts! Salsify! Pumpkin! (Mozzarella Pumpkin Sandwich anyone? I don’t even like winter squash, but I’d try it with that tang of parmesan). Unlike my saccharine American cookbooks, only a sliver, 115 pages out of 1,263, of The Silver Spoon is dedicated to desserts. That suits my savory tooth to a T.


Transit Tuesday: The Walking City

Colleagues of mine were up from DC this week for the Alliance for Response NYC program “Community-Based Recovery After Superstorm Sandy” (see the post here). One of them exclaimed “this is New York! look at everyone walking along the streets!”

New York didn’t used to have a monopoly on street life. Certainly, my city lends itself to walking. The tight space forces us to live more closely together, further drawn together by our renowned subways, busses, and trains to closely connected cities. A car is a detriment to daily life, as the ritual of alternate side parking (a method of getting people to move their cars so the street may be cleaned) means sitting in your car every evening until you can find a good space to leave it for a couple of days. Transit helps our city be liveable – and it used to help other cities too.

My family is from Havre de Grace, Maryland. While Maryland’s smallest city (yup, it’s a city) sits on the heavily used Northeast Corridor, it hasn’t been served by rail in at least fifty years. The only signs of a station at Havre de Grace are two pads by the Northeast Corridor tracks. Recently, a mural was painted on the remaining foundation of the B&O depot, off Juniata street. There are certainly issues with having a station there: there are only two tracks crossing the Susquehanna there so local service would gum up the express service the NE Corridor begs for and Aberdeen and Perryville have MARC commuter stops and are close by. But the only way to currently enter Havre de Grace is by car. Your time in Havre de Grace is regularly punctuated by the sound of over 100 trains daily sliding across the rails on the Susquehanna River Bridge. None of them stop at Havre de Grace.

Whether you go for Jane Jacobs or not, train service to a town like Havre de Grace with large amounts of historic residential stock in town and a sizeable Main Street next to the railroad would benefit highly from the foot-bound waves of commuters walking to their homes, rather than driving by. The walking commuter easily stops into a shop front; he doesn’t need a parking space. Havre de Grace has had some revitalization in the past couple of decades. Once a mob haven and race track town, now the town hosts a marina, b&bs, a few good restaurants, and antique stores. But the liveable city has amenities for residents close at hand. Imagine getting off the train station, stopping in a small grocery store on the way to your house. Lose the parking lot. Lose the five minute walk across the store to get a jug of milk. Be on your way more quickly.

Yeah, yeah, I’m thinking with my New York brain. I shop small, almost every day, on my way home from the museum. But if walking is healthier for our bodies, our communities, and our environment, why not facilitate that?

I think we know auto/oil cronies’ answers to that.


Museum Monday: The Discussion After the Storm – Alliance for Response NYC

On January 11, Alliance for Response NYC hosted “Community Based Recovery After Superstorm Sandy.” Alliance for Response is a national program of Heritage Preservation and the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, co-sponsored by FEMA and Heritage Preservation. See my post on Alliance for Response here.

Alliance for Response breakout session, January 11, 2013, at The Rubin Museum.

Alliance for Response breakout session, January 11, 2013, at The Rubin Museum.

Approximately sixty participants joined together at The Rubin Museum of Art learn from each other’s recovery experiences and identify areas for future training and development. Speakers from Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, The Noguchi Museum, and Martha Graham Dance outlined how they met the challenges of storm surge flooding. The subsequent breakout session asked participants to identify what information and training they wish they had, and how the community could do better in the future to work together during regional emergencies.

One pitfall we can fall into is the idea that recovery takes a week or two. A desire for normalcy causes us to sprint toward the imagined goal and “we’re done!” But this is unrealistic, and many around the area have settled into a year’s worth or more of recovery activity. At this time, another danger is making hasty decisions that jeopardize overall recovery goals, leading to more damage.

Cultural emergency preparedness efforts have traditionally focused on collecting institutions like museums, libraries, and archives. Hurricane Sandy reminded us in a new way that emergency preparedness needs to focus on arts organizations beyond collecting institutions, especially after heavy flooding in Chelsea, downtown, and Brooklyn.

For resources for planning right now, visit Heritage Preservation’s website, and download the ERS app free at the App Store.

Travel By Design: Painted Advertisements

How did you used to make money off your barn or shed? Allow a hand painted sign to advertise on the side. Here are a few from the road…along with some derivative works for fun.

West of York PA

West of York PA, on the Lincoln Highway. RL Fifield 2005

West of Cashtown Mail Pouch Barn

It’s a Two-Fer. A barn between Gettysburg and Cashtown, Pennsylvania on the Lincoln Highway advertises for both Mail Pouch Tobacco and the Totem Pole Playhouse. RL Fifield, 2005.


OH East of Gomer 2

More a collection of metal signs than an intentional advertisement, this shed in Gomer, OH on the Lincoln Highway gets high marks for its Mail Pouch sign and derivative style. RL Fifield, 2005.


Westminster MD Sherwood Distillery

An advertisement for the former business inside, this site is the former home of Westminster, Maryland’s Sherwood Rye Distillery. A bottle of Sherwood Rye is preserved in the collections of the Historical Society of Carroll County. RL Fifield, 2005.

Museum Monday: Who Makes Collections Care Happen?

Who Makes Collections Care Happen?

Easy. Technicians dust artwork. But that’s a little simplistic view of both the work of  a valuable, skilled technician, and collections care.

Conservators make collections care happen! They study scientific reasons for deterioration and design and perform treatments to stabilize structure, consolidate painted surfaces, and prepare objects for loan and exhibit. They must care for collections! Conservators are certainly part of caring for collections. Their research can be the reason why behind environmental monitoring, pollutants mitigation, and choosing the right materials for storage. But while lots of conservators do get involved in daily care of collections (ipm, cleaning, etc.) many conservators spend their time treating damage that could have been prevented. I remember this phrase from grad school: conservation is what happens when preservation fails. Many would argue that statement is false, but it points to the different understandings of the words we throw around on a daily basis in our industry.

Okay. How about everybody makes collections care happen? That’s true too – everyone in a museum has a responsibility toward collections care. Eating in a specified area and throwing food trash in a marked, regularly emptied bin limits pests’ food sources. Asking an inquisitive visitor “please don’t touch” in the gallery – and telling them the conservation reasons why – helps extend the message of preservation. 

But that’s not exactly what I’m getting at.

RL Fifield taking a light reading.

RL Fifield taking a light reading.

There is a lot more to collection care than dusting and fixing objects. Collection care covers the range of activities that preserves the intellectual and physical value of collections over time. This includes storeroom management, integrated pest management, working with facilities and construction to develop appropriate environments, selecting appropriate materials for storage, managing projects involving collections to make sure decisions do not affect the stability of the objects, developing emergency protocols, assessing and mitigating risks to the collections, as well as handling paperwork and performing documentation that secures an institution’s title to the work, safeguards our knowledge about a work, and makes that work and its information accessible to researchers and other users. Conservators don’t do all that (thought many private practice conservators advising small institutions may get into these areas). Technicians don’t do all that.

So – who makes collection care happen?

If you go to any doctor, you (let’s hope) receive a set of services that should not vary widely from practitioner to practitioner. From museum to museum, that’s not the case. For a start, museums are all different, house different collections, and have a variation of staffing levels. At the small town historical society, the curator might perform collection care. At the big city art museum, a conservator, collection manager (see my post on What is a Collections Manager?), or preservation officer might oversee  and assess preventive collection care activities for the entire museum. At museums in between, a registrar might do these activities.  There’s no one-title-fits-all. Collection care practitioners have a variety of titles, an ever-increasing amorphous mush ranging from collection care specialists, collections managers, registrars, collection coordinators, preservation officers, manager for collections, directors of collections. Some have on-the-job training. Many have masters or doctoral degrees. Many have additional training after they graduated. Can you define correctly what any person with one of these titles do, without asking them? From museum to museum, the answer is NO.

(this is hardly a comprehensive list, and does not even try to add in the title of curator, which has long been used/abused/extended/distended and applied to many a museum job – the University of St. Andrews has an Operations and Projects Curator!)

RL Fifield dusts artwork using a hake brush and a Nilfisk HEPA Back Vacuum.

Part of the problem is that collection care isn’t assigned the same importance at all institutions, and don’t worry, I’m not so naive that I’m shocked by that. Concerned conservators who believe we need to do more to counter the damage before it occurs have been working on this since the 1980s. Collections Management and Collection Care training been offered through Museum Studies programs increased through the 1990s as preventive conservation was given more clout.  See this article by my professor and former Chair of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History, SI which discusses the rise of preventive conservation and collection care training. Another good quote ( another missive from another of my professors, Cathy Hawks, from another source): you can’t treat authenticity. But what happens to the people who go through those Museum Studies programs of varying quality (see my post on that problem here)?

They apply for jobs of varying titles. It might mean they are sitting at a desk all day, or it might require they have hand skills, know what to do with a drill, and can lift 50 lbs. They might report to a Curator, Collections Manager, Conservator, Registrar, or other staff member. They have staggeringly different job descriptions. And if you do get a permanent position (not always a given in these days of contractual arrangements, temporary grant positions, and soft money), what’s next?

The questions I’m asking now are:

1) How do we continue to advocate for collection care within our own institutions? I feel my forward thinking graduate program launched me like a torpedo in the late 1990s, into the realm of traditional museums, with an intent of wreaking preventive conservation on them. But it’s a slow and often disappointing climb to educate colleagues about why your work matters, especially when others seeing you dusting artwork (see my post on Dust). But today, even though I work in a very large institution, I don’t have any mentors doing the work I want. It can make it difficult to understand how I should develop myself as a professional. Many, many conservators, facilities, and other colleagues provide me with handy advice, but their role is very different from mine. Which brings me to…

2) What sort of mid-career training is appropriate for collections care practitioners? Lots of continuing studies training focuses on basic skills, like handling of textiles, or treatments, like protecting dyes/inks on textiles when they are washed by using cyclododecane (that may not be a good example).  Neither of these are appropriate for collections managers, who need more training in fundraising, advocacy, and preservation planning. We are having to bust down our own doors, and then write the curriculum. After we get that training and experience…

3) What sort of advancement opportunities should we be looking for, asking for, asking our administrations to develop? I wrote an article which discussed advancement: “Collections Care Specialists – A Legacy at Work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” article in Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, August 2005. Unlike Director of Collections (often a curatorial title, but not always in natural history collections), Chief Curator, Chair of Conservation etc., these senior positions have not yet been created for collections care practitioners. For those who want to be more involved in administration, this can lead to burn-out, turnover, and loss of talent to the museum field. Developing advancement opportunities for collection care practitioners requires institutional acceptance of collection care and preventive conservation as systems that work.

To sum up, caring for our collection care practitioners is like an investment in preventive health care: would you rather pay for your art to get a personal trainer, or do you want to pay for a conservator to treat it for heart disease, after the damage is done?



Turnips Anyone? How about Turnip Wine?

My first thought when intercepting this recipe from The British Housewife by Martha Bradley (1756) was “who would think to ferment turnips?” Followed by, if turnips, then why not some other vegetable? Fermentation in turnip wine is aided through the added sugar. I searched for other turnip wine recipes, all of which use similar proportions of sugar to turnip juice. Some leave out the brandy, but add fresh lemon and orange juice.  Check out this ode-to-turnips website, part of a series of websites from Yep, you read it here.

There are a number of “eat seasonally” resources online, and the UK has some great offerings, including , , and in North America, Lest you think growing season long past here’s a list of vegetables from a their peak now: broccoli, broccolini, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, celery root, collards, fennel, leeks, mache, potatoes (maincrop), pumpkin, rutabaga, salsify, sweet potatoes, sunchoke, and of course, turnips.

Let me know if anyone has tasted or made this.

The British Housewife, page 82.

The British Housewife, page 82.

Wanderlust Wednesday: A Few Views of Munich

Work took me to Germany in late 2012. I’ve already written about the food I ate, Christmas Markets, and train travel from Munich to Bonn on the ICE (click to read my posts). Here are a few nutty photos from around Munich. I’m looking forward to going back.

How I wished I arrived at Munich Airport. Carriage sitting on the path from terminal to train station at Munich Airport.

How I wished I arrived at Munich Airport. Carriage sitting on the path from terminal to train station at Munich Airport. RL Fifield, 2012.

How does this work? Bike Share near the Marienplatz, Munich. RL Fifield, 2012.

How does this work? Bike Share near the Marienplatz, Munich. RL Fifield, 2012.

Gargoyles at the Neues Rathaus, built between 1867 and 1908.

Gargoyles at the Neues Rathaus, built between 1867 and 1908.




Shifting Garment Styles, 1750-1790: What Research and Sketching Have in Common

Historical research is like sketching. You begin with a few pieces of data, allowing you to make some bold strokes on a piece of white paper. You identify what sorts of primary resources will improve that image, and it redirects those original lines, lending them further shape. You may find your original lines terrible and embarrassing. The exercise is  not to simply connect the dots, as there is still a lot of interpretation required on the artist’s/historian’s part to bring the clearer picture into view. Between the dots are infinite shades of gray, while each bit of data requires contemplation, acceptance, and often, discomfort on the part of the historian.

I roll over this analogy in my mind as I work with my study of 1,000 runaway indentured and enslaved women and their 6,000 garments, which I’ve cataloged in a database. See my Textile History article on the Runaway Clothing Database project and a post featuring repeat runaway Eleanor Farrell here.

Figure 6aOne of the aspects of the project is to better understand working women’s participation in the shift in fashion, 1750-1790. For decades, many working women were assumed to have worn shorter jackets and short gowns because they required less fabric and allowed the worker to labor more easily, without the skirts of the gown. Data from the Runaway Clothing Database indicates that the picture is more complex. We put down the broad brush, and pick up a smaller one to paint a more finely detail picture.


The data shows that for the whole period 1750-1790, gowns were worn in equal amounts to all other shorter garments. But when you compare 1750-60 with 1780-90, it becomes apparent that shorter garments become more popular with working women toward the end of the focus period.

Now for a parade of pie charts! As a reminder, the populations represented in this study are overwhelmingly mid-Atlantic, with a good showing from the South. Less than 5% of the samples are from New England (the area did not participate heavily in the indentured servant trade and suffered a labor shortage in the late 18th century). I’m not going to get into a discussion here about garment terminology, but do note that “gown (short)” indicates those garments described “short [modifier] gown,” such as “short red Gown.” Note that many shorter garments had different regional labels (wrappers, josies) even if they might have been the same bed gown-like garment. Please note, if you would like to use this data, please quote me and the Runaway Clothing Database. (it helps to talk to me too, if you want more info!)

Upper Body Garments, 1750-1790, from the Runaway Clothing Database. Rebecca Fifield.

Upper Body Garments, 1750-1790, from the Runaway Clothing Database. Rebecca Fifield. The “other” category contains a very few sacks, and josies, which were bed gown like garments worn primarily in New York.

Upper Body Garments 1750-1760. Note the higher prevalence of gowns compared to the 1750-1790 sample. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.

Upper Body Garments 1750-1760. Note the higher prevalence of gowns compared to the  overall1750-1790 sample. Also note how infrequently the term “short gown” is used. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.


Upper Body Garments 1780 to 1790. Note the significant shrinkage in the amount of gowns worn compared to short gowns and jackets. Interestingly, notice how bed gown as a term becomes less used. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.

Upper Body Garments 1780 to 1790. Note the significant shrinkage in the amount of gowns worn compared to short gowns and jackets. Interestingly, notice how bed gown as a term becomes less used, while the usage of the term “short gown” has increased 30% from the 1750-60 sample. Runaway Clothing Database, Rebecca Fifield.

While the two samples for 1750-60 and 1780-90 are small, they are somewhat similarly sized. Interestingly, comparing indentured and enslaved populations also provides contrasts that enhances what we know about the assignment of clothing to enslaved women. European servants wore more full length gowns, while African enslaved women wore almost 30% more jacket length garments.

This data can be analyzed infinitely, and as every historian knows, the variables and inconsistencies can drive you mad, but it’s a start to using that finer brush to study how working women made choices about their dress.

Spaces that Feed the Writing Brain

McSorley's. 2003.

McSorley’s. 2003.

I just finished Dwight Garner’s “A Critic’s Tour of Literary Manhattan” in The New York Times (December 14, 2012). I’m smitten. I like heady romps through the bars and bookshops where original things take place. I swoon for the places that have suckled and bolstered many a writing generation, and it was Garner’s mission to see how active the scene still is. Certainly, tripping over leagues of high-pitched cookie-cutter blow dry girls on their way to clubs can shake your literary faith in our great city. But those types are always with us, and the thinkers drink elsewhere.

Among Garner’s list of writer’s haunts included McSorley’s, KGB Bar (so restorative, Sunday night readings there), Batali’s Otto pizzeria (imagine!), and the hilariously named Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in the Lower East Side (wonder if San Juan-born Dr. V would deign to enter such a titled place).

I guess libraries were out of the running, as they don’t allow alcohol. Or any fluid, for that matter.

Even though my grandfather was functionally illiterate, my mother noted that he would have known who a writer like Steinbeck was. We have lost a lot of TV-time dedicated to current writers and musicians in the past to culture-killing reality TV shows. Leave it to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to highlight current thinkers and artists – let’s bring that back to mainstream. I don’t care who just cheated on whom and got sloppy drunk last night. I wonder if Hurricane Sandy happened a few years ago how that would have affected a show like Jersey Shore. Would it have been cancelled? Would the show’s producers have brought that reality to the show’s vapid viewers?

Read my related posts here on New York at Night and New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg ( eds. Marshall Berman and Brian Berger, University of Chicago Press, 2007).