Museum Monday: The London Transport Museum

Transit Tuesday is moving on in on Museum Monday.

London Transport Museum. Old Metropolitan Railway Car. Photo: RL Fifield 2010.

If I didn’t live in New York City, I would live in London. It feels like home. And for fans of transit, the London Transport Museum is an excellent time. In the city that invented modern urban transit, a plethora of equipment, signage, photos, and groovy wax mannequins in the old flower market building in Covent Garden just has to be good.

In the suburban automobile era, it’s hard for people to remember why transit was so important. Even those who remember from school that transit allowed city dwellers to move away from where they worked, the fine points are often forgotten. The thick filth of horses and humans mixed with refuse in the streets. Water sources contaminated by people living in close proximity to slaughterhouses, fish markets, and each other. City streets paralyzed with people struggling to push forward from Point A to Point B. Diseases frolicking easily among people living in close quarters.

RL Fifield 2010.

The cavernous market building is perfect for the LTM’s collection of omnibuses, railway cars, buses, and control equipment.  I basically tuned out when the era of the combustion engine commenced. Red double decker London buses may look cool, but they stink, and mostly sit still in traffic.

Check out the LTM’s online collections as well. Their posters are searchable by date, theme, artist, and color. There is also an online museum to visit, if London feels far away.





The Historic Fabric of Philadelphia: James E. Taylor’s Sketchbook

James E. Taylor. Photo: National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

James E. Taylor. Photo: National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Using Winterthur’s online collections resources last night, I stumbled onto James E. Taylor’s sketchbook of historic buildings in Philadelphia. A newspaper illustrator, Taylor sketched historic buildings in Philadelphia’s Old City area in 1861, just before most of the structures in the 57 pages of drawings were demolished. Many of the buildings are from the 18th century, and indicate the organic growth of the area. The sketches are a treasure of visual information about the fabric of 18th century Philadelphia and 19th century commerce.

My research into the culture of indentured and enslaved women (see my article here, as well as previous posts on the project here, here, here, and here) makes this a fascinating resource. By locating where their masters lived, I can illustrate through Taylor’s sketches more about the environment of the women I study. For example, the first connection I made was with a drawing of eighteenth century houses at the corner of Fourth and Arch. Margaret Davis, who ran away on July 27, 1785, lived with George Reinhart, at “Fourth St. above Arch St. opposite German Church.” According to the interactive map at the Lutheran church was on the southwest corner, across Arch Street from this clump of buildings (although project director Gordon Lloyd indicates that there is some doubt as to the precise location of the original church at this corner).

While nearby Elfreth’s Alley preserves the texture of 18th century Philadelphia, viewing these sketches makes me think how much richer the fabric of Old City would be if more of these structures had been saved for adaptive reuse, how much greater the draw for visitors and scholars. Progress is progress: these parts of the city have been rebuilt once or twice since these structures were lost. Living in New York, a city with limited area for building, increases the risk of demolition to low rise structures. New York seems to have arisen out of the Gilded Age, because so much of its historic fabric prior to that has been lost through development. But richness of space enlivens – compare walking into a 1930s Art Deco post office with walking into a 1960s courthouse or a Walmart Store. Think about your environment, and how it helps define your sense of place.

Check out the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance while you are at it.

Photo: Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. James E. Taylor sketchbook, 1861. Folio 268, p. 46.

See an interactive zoom version of the drawing at Winterthur’s website by clicking below.



Wanderlust Wednesday: The Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania

Beer. Mmmm.

Recently, my friend Ms McC and I travelled to Maryland for a eighteenth century event at Fort Frederick State Park (see my posts on nearby Hagerstown and the CCC Museum at Fort Fred). Being like-minded in our love for the American experience, we targeted Pottsville, Pennsylvania as our stop-off point: home to Yuengling Beer since 1831. They claim the title of “America’s Oldest Brewery.” Check out the history of American ale and beer making via the New York Historical Society’s exhibition Beer Here and my post on the exhibition.

Yuengling Brewery, Pottsville, PA. RL Fifield, 2012.

While I wouldn’t call Yuengling craft beer  (Saturday afternoon took us to The Pony Bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with Chicago-based Mr. W and Ms. S – wonderful American craft beer mecca that coincidentally opened their 2nd branch three blocks from our home), it is good beer, and a great story. Their Pottsville operation is hardly their major producer today (their large plant is in Tampa), the physical fabric of the building tells the story of enterprise, early American industrial architecture, Prohibition, and, well, beer.

I found Pottsville to be much bigger than I expected. I wasn’t there long enough to understand the town fully, but it had a downtown district of some heft and a great expanse of neighborhoods filled with buildings harking from various parts of the 19th century. My ever-vigilant transit eye noted that their central train line was defunct. SEPTA assumed these non-electrified lines, formerly operated by the Reading Railroad, and discontinued all diesel engine service in 1981. The funds were diverted into – you got it – highway funding. The rail lines and bridges have deteriorated from 30 years of reduced use. Nothing brings on downtown atrophy like the loss of rail commuters and transportation analysts can’t hard avoid the truth that no replacement bus line will do: a train passenger is not a bus passenger. (same for streetcars!) Note Frederick, Maryland – it was a pit in the 1980s; reinstated rail service in 2001 brought in Washington D.C. commuters, and fueled much re-energizing of that town through the aughts. Pottsville can be brought back. Also, check out the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers blog.

OK – back to beer.

Yuengling Ice Cream calls out for purpose across the street from Yuengling Brewery. Great building laying fallow. RL Fifield, 2012.

The Yuengling brewery building from the late 1830s juts forward from a steep hill above the business district at 501 Mahantongo St (the original building was lost to fire). From that central historical building, Yuengling pieced on additions as their operation grew. Their hillside location was intentional – a series of burrowed caves beneath provided climate controlled storage well before the era of HVAC. During Prohibition, the Feds sealed most of the caves, and Yuengling squeaked by like many brewers, making root beer and ice cream.

The free tours through the complex take you through the caves, past brewing equipment, and past the Rube Goldberg beauty of a 1950s bottling machine, clinking bottles along toward their destination. And of course, you get to enjoy beer at the end of the tour.

If you are a hard core craft brew fan and Yuengling is a bit too “The Man” for you, then go to enjoy a bit of American industrial industry.

Old bottling equipment in use at Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville. Incredible noise and ingenuity – love these machines. RL Fifield 2012.

Transportation Tuesday: Two Loves Collide – Historic Preservation, Transportation, and the Susquehanna River Bridge

Sorry for the pun.

Photo: r25 Productions. Flowers by Amanda’s in Havre de Grace.

Since I was a little girl, driving into Havre de Grace meant curving around the high stone embankment to the right and passing under the hulking iron bridge that carries the Pennsylvania Railroad over the Susquehanna: it’s been doing so since 1906. That bridge says Havre de Grace to me like little else; so much so that some of our wedding photos are in front of it.


Rendering of the new bridge at Havre de Grace. Photo: Amtrak.

Amtrak’s Vision for the Northeast Corridor document outlines future plans to provide improved service from Boston to DC, and beyond. With increased ridership over the past decade, the two-track bottleneck over the Susquehanna is slowing things down. I’m hoping what I see in the image (left) is the old bridge standing behind the new, each carrying two tracks a piece. Still, what on either bank of the river would have to make way for construction of such a bridge and its increased trackage? Long a site of ferries, canals, and bridges of varying incarnations, the 1906 bridge is hardly the first (check out the double decker bridge that sat beside it until the 1940s in a postcard here). It’s evident that rail is the quickest way to move up and down the east coast, especially as airport delays lengthen, and the railroads replace old track with concrete ties and seamless rail. It used to take me 3.5 hours to get from NYP to BAL – now it only takes 2.5.

It’s a big change at the site of repeated big change throughout our country’s history. It needs to be done – it needs to be done sensibly.

P.W. & B. Bridge. The bridge was demolished during the 1940s. Illustration in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, Dec. 22, 1866, p. 217 [Public domain]

Writing Fiction – Business Trips Aren’t a Loss

Business travel breeds ideas. My business trips involve some off days, waiting around at my destination, combined with really long stretches of being “on.” Combine that with jet lag, and ideas that I’ve stowed away in the corners of my gray matter seep out into my consciousness. They’re prodded by new experiences and strange juxtapositions. It seems to be the perfect environment for the underbelly dwellers of my brain to percolate to the top.

Recently, I was in Germany, and as I roamed the streets of Dusseldorf and Cologne and thought of a few acquaintances, I began to construct a story. I thought at first it would be a novel, as that first crash of thought nearly overwhelms. But as I wrote, and the pattern emerged, the tale became a short story.

It’s based around one hundred days of a woman passing a shut-in man’s window. They are unknown to each other. I wonder as I write if there will be a hundred days that she passes by. Perhaps there will only be seventy two, or fifty eight, though logically, to me now, there should be one hundred. Here are the first three days.

It was the breeze. A bird sailed down from the roof of my building, down toward the street, in pursuit of an insect, a delicious, necessary morsel. I heard the wing pushing through the air, the shadow interrupting the sunlight. Maybe the air sweetened just a little, sending dandelion fluff past my cheek.  For whatever reason, I looked up.

I saw her moving along the sidewalk, across the street from my building. She started at point A, at the left, and moved to point B, at the right, the white skirt of her dress the last thing to snap upward before the window frame erased her.

I had no intention of looking again. I sit here every morning. Sometimes I look at the street. There is little to see at this hour, the rolled down doors of the two small restaurants which attract yelling youth in heels and gelled hair after 10pm, the cleaners, and the bodega. People are walking to work, toward the subway. She is walking to work, toward the subway. A large bag is slung over her other shoulder, the one I do not see. Her hair blows back, revealing one glowing earring. I do not know if it is silver, or something else. She is too quickly gone.

Rain dims the morning. The people on the sidewalk are mushrooms, vividly colored. I tried some at one time, in a house in Germany. I doubt I will be able to distinguish her from other people this morning. Many women wear flowing skirts now. They are back. I think I know the roll of her hips, the extension of her fingers as they hang slack from her arm, swinging with her walk. And there she is. I have recognized her, and I will recognize her. 

Farewell Tomatoes

Last weekend, I pushed it. I bought two tomatoes at the local farmer’s market on 67th street. New York state tomatoes are okay (they aren’t tidewater Maryland tomatoes, alas), and I thought I’d have just one more shot at a tomato sandwich. But the cold must have gotten to them: they were mealy inside, just like I’d bought Florida fresh market tomatoes at the supermarket in January (which I don’t do). It’s like eating pink styrofoam.

When the weather settles into the cool, there are a few tricks for the not quite ripe. Place the pink-hued tomatoes in a paper bag on a warm windowsill, and let them ripen via ethylene, produced by the tomato itself. Green tomatoes can be fried, pickled, or turned into pie (tastes like apple!).

The season is waning, and while our foremothers coaxed their kitchen gardens all winter long (read my post on the winter garden here), here is a recipe for Green Tomato Pickle from Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen by Jane Grant Gilmore Howard, published originally in 1881.

Green Tomato Pickle

One peck of green tomatoes. Lay them in salt and water for one day, then take them out and wash and slice them. Put them in a skillet with half a gallon of vinegar, one cupful of white mustard seed, half a cupful of ground black pepper, half a cupful of ground ginger, quarter of a cupful of cayenne pepper, quarter of a cupful of cloves. A saucerful of sliced horse-radish and one of sliced onion. Stew all together and pot it.

“Green tomato pickle” by Pauline Mak is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Eating Alone

One of many meals I’ve eaten while dining alone. Dusseldorf. RL Fifield, 2012.

I can travel a fair amount for my job. Anyone who travels on business has eaten alone in a restaurant. Some cringe. I don’t. Evening finds me in a restaurant, not eating grocery store finds in my hotel room.

That doesn’t mean that our society gets it. Asking for a table for one can elicit various reactions from the host – they’ve just found themselves down 50% at a table for two. A woman dining alone might also be seated at an inferior spot, thinking that she is embarrassed by her solitude. When waitstaff might ask me if I’d like to sit in a dark corner, next to the waitstaff station, or adjacent to the kitchen door, I refuse. Usually by the time I order, they know I mean business.

I definitely get stares. In Stockholm, I ate at The Pelikan – and incredible beer hall and local cooking establishment. I had an anchovy salad on brown bread, huge pork knuckle with three mustards and mashed swedes (nyuk nyuk) and two beers. Pity I can’t understand Swedish; I saw stares and murmuring from at least two other tables.

Don’t bring your newspaper, a book, or your iPhone to dinner. Dinner is about food, not reading. I sat next to a Canadian woman at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. We both chose to dine well, and alone. She leaned over to me and pointed out a woman sitting crammed close to the end of the bar, picking at a salad and hiding behind her newspaper. “Isn’t that sad? Why would she come here, choose a boring salad, and not look around her?” (read more about my Stockholm trip here)

The waitstaff are programmed to think the independent diner wants to be served quickly and leave before you’ve been completely mortified by the experience of eating by yourself. Set the pace from the beginning.

  • Spend a good deal of time with the menu. Enjoy not only selecting something for yourself to enjoy, but getting a feel for the restaurant by understanding what they offer.
  • Order what’s local or unfamiliar to you. Don’t just eat to refuel, eat to learn.
  • Look at your fellow diners. They are watching you, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t watch them. This is especially appealing to writers.
  • Spend longer talking to the waitstaff about the restaurant and the food. Not having to rush back to your conversation with a dining partner frees you up for a more exploratory, engaged, kind of dining experience – especially if you are a foodie. (Of course, I’m less successful at this in foreign countries where I don’t speak the language!)

I saw this in play at St. John in Clerkenwell. As I demonstrated my inquisitiveness (by ordering the bone marrow and parsley salad and the tripe in white wine and bacon) the waitstaff spoke more to me about what was going on at the restaurant and spent more time with me picking out wine and dessert.



Wanderlust Wednesday: Seattle

Seattle. RL Fifield, 2012.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

Brilliant sun and a cloudless sky marked my days in Seattle. Like San Francisco and Vancouver (see my post here), Seattle has that feeling that the gold rush just went bust. Yes, it is a highly successful town, but there’s something seedy about it – the SROs, seedy hotels, wanderers.

Pike Place Market was full of tourists. I found Piroshky, Piroshky, a Russian pastry place, where I could have a more savory breakfast, picking a sauerkraut, cabbage, carrot, and onion stuffed piroshky from among the heady goodness on offer. But beyond the market, I’m not sure where the tourists went.

Beauty emerging from behind the dropped ceiling. RL Fifield 2012.

I wandered to the train station, surprisingly getting two for one. The 1906 King Street Station, out of which Amtrak’s Cascades, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight trains operate, was getting a much needed makeover. Inside the waiting room, acoustical tiles had been removed from the dropped ceiling frame, revealing the incredible plaster work above. I exited the station, staring at a building across the street that indicated a transit past. Union Station, built in 1911, houses a grand swoop of a main hall, as well as the offices of Sound Transit, the commuter service. No trains have called there since 1971. I love that – trains don’t stop somewhere, they call.

The decommissioned Union Station. RL Fifield, 2012.

Thankfully, friendly folks at the Seattle Art Museum took those of us working there under their wing, and I got to see more of Seattle. We went up to Capitol Hill (just a ruse, it was named Capitol Hill to lure the Capitol building there, but alas, it didn’t happen) to a bar with an alien art show (complete with interactive abuction lighting foot pedal!!) and to Cafe Presse, French and fabulous.

Transit Tuesday: Rail – Stories of Our Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Call me a dreamer. A romantic. Impractical. Head in the clouds. One of those city folk (that’s hilarious, you should see where I grew up).

Trains will become more important, even necessary, in the near future for transportation.

Hogwarts Express at Universal Studios. RL Fifield, 2012.

I recently visited Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure with Dr. V. By far, the most busy part of the park was the Harry Potter section, with it’s wobbly roofs, token castle, and shops selling magic wands. And next to the entrance to the Dueling Dragons roller coasters was the Hogwarts Express. A succession of park-goers lined up for their photograph with the steam engine. Some of the most popular trains currently appear to be rooted in fantasy, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and the Polar Express.

The real train station in Orlando. Former Seaboard Coast Line station, 1926 and present Amtrak station. RL Fifield 2012.

But how many families direct their kids’ fascination with trains into taking a trip via Amtrak? Why do we continue to be fascinated with technology first successful in 1804 and perfected by the streamliners of the early 20th century? We don’t seem to feel the same way about stagecoaches. The truth is that when I geek out about trains in front of many people, they say that they would take the train to commute, if it serviced their town.

Trains are not just a viable current option for commuters travelling into cities. Automobiles, while starring in the American Dream along with the two chickens in every pot, haven’t been keeping up their end of the bargain. The car has been the excuse for the crafting of diffuse sprawl of suburbs and industrial parks that require cars for workers and residents to reach them for over seventy years. The atrophy of public transportation under the era of the automobile has left people with few options now that the cost of gasoline has reached nearly $4 a gallon.Traffic jams that double travel time on Sunday evenings in the Washington area. The bottleneck at the GWB. Crumbling roads. Health crises because Americans spend more time behind the wheel rather than walking. The car isn’t quite the goose laying golden eggs anymore.

Conservatives, especially those linked to oil and automotive interests, have little to gain by supporting public transportation. They themselves don’t need it, nor do many of their buddies. They initiated the takeover of public transportation by getting in bed with General Motors Bus Division in the 1930s, sending many public-funded streetcar systems to the dump so they could be replaced with busses (read more here and here). George Will noted in a frankly batty commentary that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” (Newsweek, “High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains,” Feb. 27, 2011). Whereas Will sees groups of people riding together to be socialist, I in turn see the forced requirement to purchase an automobile in order to enjoy many public works projects (such as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, before the public transit option was saved) to be worse. Even if you don’t buy a vehicle, your taxes still have to pay for that bridge you can’t use. I saw George Will arriving at Union Station in DC a few years back – I’m pretty sure he didn’t arrive on Bolt Bus.

Chris Christie cancelled the ARC tunnel, a new set of tunnels that would increase capacity above the two old Pennsylvania Station tunnels built in 1910. Right after the cancellation, I was riding on the NJ Turnpike (which I do rarely), and saw a reason for the cancellation: thousands of trees lay felled beside the roadway as part of a widening project. When signal failures caused delays last week into and out of New York City, passengers griped at Amtrak, who controls repairs to the trackage. But their blame is misplaced. Conservative politicians stonewall not only investment in public transportation, but in job-creating infrastructure improvements. They wring their hands to create jobs, but not if it is for public transportation, which leads to nose wrinkling. Amtrak notes a 44% increase in ridership (press release here) from FY 2002 to FY 2011, as well as record monthly records this year. Commuter rail around the nation has done the same. As ridership swells on trains around the area, the government must fund upgrades to the infrastructure of the public’s selected form of transportation. Airlines are shrinking by the day, and as fuel costs soar, they are collapsing under their own weight (not unlike the end of the privatized railroads – what’s next?). Towns cut off from regional air and rail service will be limited to people reaching them by car. And as gas prices rise, it will take more and more of a reason for people to make that effort. Talk about atrophy.

I don’t work in transportation, nor am I one of those loveable geeks that can recognize a 4-8-2 Baldwin Mountain Locomotive. I was born after the creation of Amtrak. I did not grow up next to a railyard, waving at the engineers. I’m not an economic historian, nor am I a transportation analyst. But I am a user and know that for the country to be successful, we need to be able to get around. And I LIKE taking the train. I do other things. I am productive – time on the train is hardly ever wasted. I am not spending that time driving badly, tiredly, or distractedly, like many fellow drivers.

Ridership is surging. The people have spoken, with their train tickets.

PHoto: Old Chester



Museum Monday: Some Humor, and Some Food for Thought

I think I heard about this study on the Registrar’s Committee of the American Alliance of Museum’s listserve, a very long time ago. If anyone knows the source, please comment below – I’d love to give credit where it is due.

Edvard Munch. The Scream. National Gallery of Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

A museum professional did a survey of murder mysteries set in museums. They tallied which staff members were most likely to be the victim of the crime, and by what means they were offed. Directors and security guards turned out to be those most likely to snuff it. Curators occasionally were the target of mummies. Conservators usually bought it by falling into pools of acid (and you conservators know how museums love to keep open vats of acid handy). And it turned out that registrars and collections managers always lived to see another day. Why?

Because nobody knows we exist. And that’s a problem.

While not everything that goes on behind the scenes at a museum is share-worthy with our public, our visitors and supporters feel more engaged when they get to glimpse behind the velvet curtain. Gallery talks, programs, and online features can be used to share the acrobatics used to keep a museum going. In turn, demonstrating a need for support in those areas can only happen if you let people know you need help. So let’s speak up – advocate for the development of a “nuts and bolts” tour at your institution. Highlight on your website how big objects get moved – don’t tell me that some art-loving engineer won’t be fascinated.

Just for fun, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Murder Mystery app.