Runaway Scavenger Hunt

In researching the lives of indentured and enslaved women during the 18th century, I’m trying to rebuild their communities, to better understand their lives. See my article Had on When She Went Away . . .’: Expanding the Usefulness of Garment Data in American Runaway Advertisements 1750–90 through Database Analysis.

A nineteenth century building at 34 Front Street that replaced the building where Mary Cawlfield worked. RL Fifield 2010.

So when Dr. V and I spent the weekend in Philadelphia, I devised a runaway scavenger hunt. I love Old City Philadelphia. It’s the 18th century layered over with later commercial enterprises, giving a sort of Soho feeling to this part of town, plus good food and the National Park Service. What more could you want?

Much of the traffic in indentured servants was through Philadelphia. Indentured servants were hardly found in New England in the late 18th century, Maryland took in convicts, and most of the South had switched to slave labor by the time of my study. Most of the information in the Runaway Clothing Database focuses on Philadelphia. I took a map of Philadelphia’s Old City, and started to plot where servants lived as listed in their runaway advertisement. Then Mr. V and I went to photograph what stands there today.

The Pennsylvania Packet, and General Advertiser; Date: 07-15-1784. American Antiquarian Society America’s Historical Newspapers.

Have some fun discovering the old Philadelphia community with online mapping resources I’ve listed in this blog post, Historic Philadelphia Mapping Resources.

What Urban Living Means to Your Refrigerator

I thought readers might enjoy a photograph of my refrigerator. You’ll notice it looks more like the one you had in college (except with more vegetables), than the “American-style” refrigerator you have now (that’s how they are known in Europe – my half height fridge is more common in Europe). You’ll also notice that I have no freezer.

Newly renovated urban kitchen, 2009. My fridge is opposite the cupboard next to the stove.

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I cooked as if I was feeding a family of four with chest freezer in the garage. I now cook like a city person: shop every day on the way home from work. I pay more for smaller portions. I get bent out of shape when Agata & Valentina resizes their vinegar bottles so they have a larger footprint and take up more room in the cupboard.

The result is that I eat fresher and lighter. I probably cook a bit more. But the extra counter space in my 24 sq. foot kitchen is worth my small fridge.

A city fridge.  Small bottles and fridge dishes count. That’s a homemade pizza hiding under the foil, causing fridge max-out. RL Fifield 2012.

Liquor Shopping in 18th Century New York

With all the cocktail goings-on currently, it’s worth a look back toward the 18th century processes being rediscovered and further riffed upon today. New York’s Vaux Hall Gardens were once located near Astor Place.

New York Journal. March 9, 1775. American Antiquarian Society. America’s Historical Newspapers.


I did find this recipe for Royal Usquebaugh at Historic

You must take Raisins stoned two Pounds, Figs sliced half a Pound, Cinnamon two Ounces and a half, Nutmegs one ounce, cloves half an Ounce, Mace half an Ounce, Liquorice three Ounces, Saffron half an ounce; bruise the Spices, slice the Liquorice, etc. and pull the Saffron in Pieces, and infuse them all in a Gallon of the best Brandy for seven or eight Days, ‘till the whole Virtues be extractedfrom them; then filter them, putting thereto a Quart of Canary wine, and half a Dram of Essence of Ambergrease, and 12 Leaves of Gold broken in Pieces, which reserve for Use.

From: The Whole Duty of a Woman (London: 1737).


Hold the Tulle: I’m Anti-Princess

Manhattan is a special place, no doubt. I live on the Upper East Side in Yorkville, a formerly German and Czech community. I jokingly refer to the far east neighborhood as the “suburbs of Manhattan.” It’s not a scene. There are lots of families and doorman buildings, as well as a lot of tenements. I live by a school, so mornings are marked by a stampede of kids Mr. V and I ford on our way to work. I’m always stunned by the amount of tutus ported by the younger female set.

I vote we abolish the P-word. Pink backpacks are marked “Princess.” T-shirts are marked “I’m a Birthday Princess.” And dress that used to be acceptable only at home while playing dress-up or on stage is now street wear.  Perhaps the argument against sparkly leotards, pink sequins, and chiffon skirts wasn’t worth the argument that morning. Perhaps the family ran out of time changing clothes before going out the door.

Don’t get me wrong – I myself had a powder blue tutu. But it stayed in the house, along with makeup until I was 12 (still early!) and my mom’s silver high heels. They were for play. In order to boost up girls, we’ve chosen the wrong image. So often we approach girls by commenting on their appearance, instead of letting them know that we value their minds.

I recently read Lisa Bloom’s article about how to  talk to little girls. When starting a conversation, don’t say “how pretty you look!” or “what a nice dress.” That immediately indicates to the girl that her value is related to her appearance and the material goods she wears. Try something like “what’s your favorite class at school,” “show me your favorite toy,” or “what book are you reading right now?”

Would you ever approach a little boy and comment on his appearance, saying “how pretty/rugged/tough you look?”

Lego advertisement, 1981.

Lego advertisement, 1981.

Wanderlust Wednesday: San Francisco

The Cable Car Power House. RL Fifield, 2009.

San Francisco is the city where I started to learn to look, compose, and photograph. I feel the town’s scruffiness when I’m there – I still think that the mother lode gold discovery is still expected any day. I suppose the gold rush came more in the form of Silicon Valley, but the city still has turn of the century striver flavor. Maybe it’s all that SRO history (see post here).

At the Teahouse in Golden Gate Park. Some turn of the century throwback. RL Fifield, 2004.


A perfect day in San Francisco for me is to cover as much ground as possible. I once went to the Tenderloin for breakfast in a Vietnamese diner, to the Asian Art Museum, into Japantown, down into the Mission District, up over the hill into Castro, onto Muni and then to a bus into Haight-Ashbury, and into Golden Gate Park, before catching a red eye back to the east coast. I find slivers of neighborhoods where I didn’t expect them. Self-discovery is imminent.  The first time I visited on my own, I was falling in love; the second time I visited, I was falling out. It’s appropriate for a town of boom and bust.


Tenderloin. RL Fifield, 2004.

From my notes:

Then I was on the run again, to the Asian Art Museum, past the hoardes of homeless & their counterparts, the shiftless. Shadows of crop circles past. “Hey bright eyes” “Hey, excuse me lady. I like your motorcycle (that was about my boots). “Hey beautiful.”  But a nice farmer’s market has sprung up there. Then over to the cable car line & up to the Cable Car Museum. The huge cranking gears pumping the cables through the channels of the Nob Hill/Chinatown/Russian Hill streets, humming & singing at 9.5 mph from under the ground. I trudged up 2 steep hills to the bus on Sacremento, the California 1, out to get to the Golden Gate and my last goal. The Presidio. It was about 5pm then. Beauty at the bridge, then hooked the free shuttle, which is not scenic, all the time, swinging through the realistic barracks for families of the 1960s, where I’m sure all is heard between neighbors thorugh the warping worn plywood. But then boom, through the grand old central area on the bay of the 1890s, rot and revival occurring in tandem. Hooked the 29 Bus which resulted in a repeat tour of many areas, but then along Curissy Field, where a black lab rolled rapturously on her back in that sea of grass on the water.

And then everybody on the bus! South of the Presidio, three aging Chinese ladies smiled at me for contributing my seat, for which she offered to hold my heavy-looking bag on her knee.


Transportation Tuesday: Amtrak Fiction

I’ve been working on a short story for years about a friendship slipping into an unfamiliar place. One of these days I’ll fish it out of the muck. In my book (ha), trains are good places for writing, and good places to write about. I don’t feel the same way about airplanes, where you enter a sort of stasis between points A and B. This introductory portion was inspired by the Northeast Corridor, the stretch of rail between New York and DC.

            A jolt over the old join in the rail dislodged the book from my hand. It was useless, that book, this attempt to read. I let it go; I did not pick it up. Such blowing litter in my mind, bits of tweed and scraping leaves.  I stared out the train window, a scene anemic in the pale autumn sunshine, each image sliding by me a story of epic loss.  Nine rails withered into four, and overhead, brittle wires dangled over abandoned boxcars. Concrete shards littered the dirt. Such sparkling abandonment by those workers, the capital, the ideas; they were now gone, and I didn’t see them coming back. What had we looked like when we were new? It was  likely that we had never been new. The trash, the litter of peoples’ lives. The view was exquisite; I sat there open-mouthed, gaping and fixed, like I was watching porn. The yogurt cups, the motor oil containers, empty cigarette packs, the split second decisions to push things away, to chuck them onto the rail. Things left to deteriorate. Fortunate is the one to recognize their own deteriorations prior to collision with them. Do such people exist? 

The train was picking up speed.

Finally: Tomato Sandwich Time

Yesterday morning, I took advantage of Mr. V’s need for extra zzzs to get some early morning errands done. The Upper East Side has always been a bit barren when it comes to farmers markets. I’m fortunate that the very small one is located just a few blocks from my house on 82nd street at St. Stephen of Hungary church.

It was around 7:45 am. I love the city at this hour, when it belongs to runners, workers, and dog walkers.  The farmers market vendors were just finishing getting set up. I spent around $20 and got a dozen eggs, a box of incredible tomatoes (zebra green, some stripey red, some yellow), a beet, potatoes, zucchini, corn, cilantro, cucumbers, and a green pepper. Summer salads coming my way.

I had stopped by Orwasher’s earlier for their excellent iced coffee and a loaf of their white bread – like no white bread I grew up with. I usually would buy something more creative, but I had tomato sandwiches in mind. So here’s my breakfast: tomato sandwich with mayo, salt, and pepper.

Tomato sandwich – mayo, salt and pepper. Bread by Orwashers – on 78th street between 1st and 2nd since 1910. The cutting board is also neat – recycled plastic with by-products from linen production in the plastic: Architec  EcoSmart Polyflax cutting board.

Eadweard Muybridge – Gridded on my mind

I wrote those words “gridded on my mind” years ago in a short story, the protagonist describing herself as the antagonist’s Eadweard Muybridge, preserving him in her memory, serving as his stop-gap photographer.

Eadweard Muybridge. Funny name. The sequences of images a precursor to video.

Muybridge came to prominence when he captured the motion of a horse in 1872, proving that all four feet of the horse leave the ground mid-gallop, when the feet are tucked under the horse. I’ve always loved Muybridge photos. I adore seeing the dress of that era come alive again. The motion captured seems like it should have sound, the thwacking of a tennis ball, the tapping feet of a walking man, galloping hooves. Imagine walking into his studio, looking at the grid in front of which you would soon pose.

Check out Freeze Frame, a web feature on Eadweard Muybridge from the National Museum of American History here, or the staggering The Compleat Muybridge – Stephen Herbert writes a fun blog.

COLLOTYPE, Smithsonian Institution

Wanderlust Wednesday: Hagerstown

Hagerstown? Where’s that?

I recently attended a living history event at Fort Frederick State Park in Big Pool, Maryland. Restaurants are few and far between in western Maryland, but one of my favorites anywhere is the Schmankerl Stube in Hagerstown. I convinced friends to give it a try. Charlie Sekula is the Stube’s wonderful host, greeting guests at the door. His regionally-clad waitstaff are trained for two weeks before they are allowed to wait on guests. They are formal and polite, each using the same hand gestures to point to selections on the tray of housemade desserts.

RL Fifield 2012.

Beyond Schmankerl Stube, I had no prior impressions of Hagerstown. I remembered it as one of many slumped western Maryland towns, ones that had been important in the 19th century, but struggling to find momentum now. Entering town from the outlet mall on the highway, past the 1950s high school where I used to participate in marching band competitions is hardly Hagerstown’s best side. The passenger train station sits back from the rails. Many a storefront is waiting for a tenant. Cars sling by on I-70 and I-81, which intersect just miles from the center of town.



Rolling into town for dinner, I scratched my head. The ranks of early 19th century dwellings march up to a rolling main street with great early 20th century architecture. The dark storefronts are interspersed with restaurants full of people. Potomac street is home to The Maryland Theatre, a 1300 seat venue designed in 1915 by Andrew Lamb, who also designed one of the Madison Square Gardens in NYC. Hunky houses of the late 19th century sit around a lush park, home to the Washington County Museum of Art. This isn’t the Hagerstown I remembered. Hagerstown is seventy miles from both Baltimore and Washington DC, so it’s less likely to be a commuter town, like it’s more elegant, eastern cousin Frederick. But who knows – Frederick, the site of the second passenger station in America in 1832 won back train service in 2001. Perhaps Hagerstown could too.