A Tip for Spring Cleaning – The Servant’s Directory, Improved, 1762


For those of you who are scrubbing floors this weekend and taking down cobwebs from those hard to reach places, a morsel of knowledge from Hannah Glasse’s The Servants Directory, Improved, 1762:


The House-Maid.

Be up very early in a morning, as indeed you are first wanted; lace on your stays, and pin your things very tight about you, or you never can do work well. Be sure always to have very clean feet, that you may not dirty your rooms, and learn to walk softly, that you may not disturb the family. (p. 11)



Lacing on a reproduction pair of 18th century stays.

As a costume historian, I find this passage revealing about the dress of working class women working in English households. It notes the possible tendency towards slovenliness on the part of the house-maid early in the morning. Her first duty was to clean the hearths and lay the fires, which was not a very clean job. But it also indicates that servant women were more likely to own and wear stays than not. It does not entreat the servant to procure stays, but assumes she already has stays and maybe she leaves them off for her early chores.

So, as you go about your spring cleaning men and women, be sure to dress properly. What, you don’t own stays?

Thoughts on the Winter Garden

Manhattan Tomato Harvest, 2011.

I come from a gardening family, and at this time of year, I’m biding my time until garden season. My great grandfather was listed in the 1930 Census as “Superintendent” for an “Orchard Farm.” This was Mt. Pleasant Orchard on Chapel Road, which began in 1757 and was recently destroyed by development in 2001. It has a beautiful view of the Chesapeake Bay. My grandfather’s garden had more square feet than the Cape Cod house he built in 1947. Pulling out the rototiller is a spring tradition for my parents. Even I try to eke out a meager harvest from flower pots on my Manhattan window sill. Our family suppers during the spring and summer have always been supplemented by the garden: tomatoes (of course), yellow crookneck squash, corn, asparagus, rhubarb, lettuces, onions, garlic, a staggering array of hot peppers, lima beans (of which I shelled many as a kid), herbs and lots of raspberries for jam making. Generally, gardening for us only occurs from May until September. By then, my mother has had enough. But gardening used to be a year-round activity, not just for the temperate seasons.

My thought is that winter gardening is too much work for the modern age. Gardening became less of a necessity and more of a pastime, something pleasant to do. Before freezing and canning had been invented, gardens were tended year round. Instead of a weekend pursuit, women huffed on their frozen fingers as they transplanted cabbage roots from their protected beds to the kitchen garden in February, trying to get fresh vegetables back into their family’s diets as soon as possible.

A Treatise on Gardening, 1793. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. To read more, click here.


From A Treatise on Gardening, Richmond, Virginia, 1793, p. 58:


Cover your Endive with brush, cover Celery, and every thing else that needs shelter, if the weather will admit turn over your ground that is trenched, in order to mellow it, and pulverize it – Whatever will prevent delay and enable you to begin spading in February, should be done this month.”




Freezing allowed summer vegetables to be available year round. So if those flavors are preferred, then winter squash and greens are no longer necessary, especially if you don’t like them. In 2005, the German Institute for Food Research in Potsdam revealed that some of us have a gene that makes eating those winter vegetables palatable, whereas others can’t stand the phenylthiocarbamid (PTC) and propylthiouracil (PROP) found in bitter vegetables. And as Dr. V says, when I cook cabbage, cauliflower, etc., I smell green goodness, but all he smells is sulfur. However, Dr. V hails from Puerto Rico, where the only green vegetable appears to be avocado.

Perhaps Marylanders lost their appreciation for winter vegetables over the 19th century. Many cookbooks and gardening manuals from the 18th century contained seasonal information. The British Housewife, written by Martha Bradley in 1756 organized its material by month, and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse offered Bills of Fare to highlight each month’s best ingredients. By the time Jane Grant Gilmore Howard published Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen in 1873, this seasonal reference had been lost. Certainly, seasonal work is implied, such as with the preparation of pickles and sweetmeats. But in the section on Vegetables, both summer squashes and tomatoes butt up against cabbage and cauliflower, without any thought as to when they might be prepared. And nary a winter squash or hardy green appears. For those who would label Maryland a southern state, think again.

By the time I was enjoying my grandfather’s garden in the early 1980s, the yield was solid summer: tomatoes, yellow squash, lima beans, corn, and a lovely row of red raspberries. I’m by no means an expert, or even intermediate gardener. I know how to set up a garden, but that’s it. But with the new interest in that which is home grown, locavores are relearning winter gardening. Check out one site here. Much winter gardening requires the use of frames, covers, and banking plants with mulch – just as it did in the 18th century.


Stack Lurker: Some Love for Libraries

In late 2009, I was on the dating circuit. Via Match.com and OKCupid, I was meeting a couple of new potential beaus each week. To one, I mentioned that I loved libraries and that I had just been in one that evening. He scoffed, and said “oh, how adorable! Really?” Check, please.

Books on the Shelf at the NY Society Library. 

Perhaps it’s the smell of congregating books, the hush provided by the volumes aligned on shelves, the stranger you startle out of their reverie as you turn the corner into their aisle. A current favorite library of mine is the New York Society Library. One of the few subscription libraries left, the NYSL dates back to 1754. I adore the fact that in the stacks, you can find books from the nineteenth century sitting next to one published in 2012. They don’t issue library cards; you give your last name when you enter, and after a while, they just recognize you. They have several great rooms in which to read and write; all the same, I love bouncing from shelf to shelf in the ten floors of stacks. I never know what I’m going to check out.

The stairs I fell down as a teenager are just visible on the left edge of this image. Brown County Library Central branch.

When I was thirteen, I was living in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area. My family lived in DePere, a few miles south of Green Bay proper. It was a treat to go to the downtown Brown County Library. I actually fell down the stairs because I was carrying too many books on my way to the circulation desk. When you are in a library, the world’s your oyster. You might think you know yourself walking into a library, but you might just be a little different when you come out. Sure, much can be had on today’s mobile devices or online. But downloads are isolated, individual acts. Libraries were and are assembled for the community, to foster knowledge and forward progress.

Sit for a moment in the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. I love my iPad, but to know this research room was built for everyone takes all.

New York Public Library Rose Reading Room. Photo: Wikipedia.

New York Public Library Rose Reading Room. Photo: Wikipedia.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Balyeat’s Coffee Shop

Balyeat’s Coffee Shop. RL Fifield photo, 2005.

Gas was 99 cents a gallon in the Midwest in May of 2005. Driving east across the Indiana state line, my friend Mrs. G and I entered Van Wert, Ohio.

There, beckoning to us in hot neon:

Balyeat’s Coffee Shop
Young Fried Chicken
Day and Night


Balyeat’s counter, with the pie cabinet on the right. RL Fifield photo, 2005.

It was around 10am and we’d had a rather unsatisfying diner breakfast in Fort Worth. But I went in to grab a cup of coffee all the same and check out the interior. Balyeat’s was founded in 1924 to accommodate the swarms of Lincoln Highway travelers that passed its door. Today, it hosts mostly locals. The waitress lists what’s good today;  you can ask for a menu if you like. The 1970s renovations are unfortunate, but after traveling for a few days, Mrs. G and I got savvy to the fact that you have to discern those restaurants cooking from scratch, and those that use pre-prepared food service. This place is the real deal.  Read this article about Balyeat’s and its owner, Dale Davies, from the Toledo Blade. And then try to resist your new-found pie craving.


Transit Tuesday: The Train Station

Travel by Train, Denver Colorado. RL Fifield photo, 2007.

Bumping around the Internet, I came upon this group of images of North American train stations. Some I recognized, while others were from towns I have never considered. As I looked at the first photos, more photos kept loading, until there were hundreds. Frame ones with gingerbread. Adobe ones. Victorian ones. Richardsonian Romanesque ones.  Art Deco ones. Lost beauties and sterile Amtrak replacements c. 1975. Every town reached by rail used to have some sort of structure for the arrival of friends, businessmen, and people starting again. The rail station used to fall into the same category of civic structures as city hall. Their design and ornament was meant to inspire the curious, to anoint that experience of choosing a destination, buying a ticket, and climbing aboard to points far flung.

Aberdeen, Maryland Baltimore & Ohio train station, possibly designed by Frank Furness, c. 1885. Photo: DanTD, Wikimedia Commons.

Aberdeen, Maryland Baltimore & Ohio train station, possibly designed by Frank Furness, c. 1885. Photo: DanTD, Wikimedia Commons.

Many a sad train station rots by the rail. For years, the Historical Society of Harford County has been trying to save the Baltimore & Ohio station in Aberdeen, Maryland. Not an architectural gem by any means, the station is not exceptional, except to people within the town. It is a material remnant of imagination outside the perimeter of their everyday experience. The train station evokes adventure more than a zippy car ever could. Whereas cars became personal mechanisms to leave one’s familiar sphere, the railroad station was a civic investment. It was a access point for all, both for engagement with the new, and departure from what had been.

Many stations have been destroyed for real estate development and parking lots. Resourceful people have recovered, restored, and turned some stations into restaurants or antique shops. Others sit silently next to a rusted and vacant rail. Without the potential of travel, I feel there is  loss of excitement in those old stations. They can’t compare to the sagging awning which rattles when the engine pushes by, the cars slow, and the door opens for you.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Preserved, rather than active. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell via VisualHunt / CC BY

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Preserved, rather than active. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell via VisualHunt / CC BY

Remedy for the Western Breakfast

Photo credit: phil.lees via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: phil.lees via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I hate breakfast. Sweet, pasty, blech. This doesn’t mean I don’t like to eat when I first arise, because I do. Hating breakfast isn’t a recent phase; I’ve been rebelling against modern western breakfast fare since I was thirteen. Cereal with too many grams of sugar. Oatmeal. Bread and butter. Pancakes and sausage. Eggs and bacon. Croissants. Some of it I eat for convenience. I don’t like going out for breakfast – I feel it’s a waste of good money. I wish Mexican, Indian, or sushi restaurants in my neighborhood were open for breakfast. Sure, pancakes can taste great, but compared to what most of the world eats for breakfast, it’s sissy food.

I had a fourth grade teacher named Nancy Southworth at Mechanicsville Elementary. She acted as our drill sergeant, calling us all by last names. But she told us that she didn’t care what we ate for breakfast as long as we got a balanced meal. “You can eat cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza! As long as you cover the four food groups!” Perhaps there are other downsides to the above selections, but she got us thinking outside the box.

Breakfast didn’t always used to be so sad. Here’s the breakfast menu for Baltimore’s Barnum City Hotel. It’s rather protein rich, but I’d take oysters, tripe, and fish balls for breakfast. Note the breakfast wines at the bottom of the page. Breakfast was a full blown meal.

Or try the breakfast Sheila Lukins enjoyed in Morocco: “chilled fresh orange and grapefruit juices and a choice of yogurts. Baskets of muffins, croissants, and pains au chocolat…harira, the national soup of Morocco, made with lamb, lentils, chickpeas, and vegetables…dried dates… thin honey-combed pancakes drizzled with fresh honey and melted butter…khlii aux oeufs [which are] baked eggs surrounded by … sun-dried lamb cured with garlic, coriander, oil, and vinegar” (All Around the World Cookbook, page 19). Phew, perhaps a bit much. But that Moroccan breakfast runs circles around buttered toast.

My Japanese breakfast, with hijiki seaweed, avocado, broccoli, carrot, and salmon on rice, via Hipstamatic.

My current fav is what I call Japanese breakfast. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare has long recommended the consumption of 30 different foods each day.  In Japan, soup, rice, fish, vegetables, and tea are eaten for breakfast. I’ve mashed this together, placing a layer of sushi rice in a bowl and then doling out different vegetables and cooked salmon on top. A little soy sauce and it’s ready to go. I chop the vegetables and cook the rice ahead and store it in the fridge. In the morning, I heat up the rice by placing some in a colander and dumping a little hot water over it from the tea kettle. I love the clean flavors in the morning and it’s filling enough to hold you until lunch. And besides, if you don’t eat vegetables at breakfast, how will you catch up with the rest of your five servings throughout the rest of the day?

Living History: The Befuddlement of Historic Costuming

At the Carroll County Farm Museum (please forgive the inauthentic parasol). 1995.

You may have been to Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg, or Plimouth Plantation. Staff at these sites use authentic costuming in order to educate the public about the past. Clothing is the first thing visitors notice; they know when they see the bonnet, the skirts, etc. that they can ask you a question that will help orient them to the experience.

The first garment I ever made was an ugly green and pink skirt with an elasticized waistband. The second garment was this 1836 gown, using this pattern from Past Patterns.

The first garment I ever made was an ugly green and pink skirt with an elasticized waistband. The second garment was this 1836 gown, using this pattern from Past Patterns.

My first museum experience was at the living history site Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. We presented first person interpretation, which means that staff interpreters  speak to you as a person living in 1836. In my role as fourteen-year-old Sarah Wilcox, I would profess not to know what airplanes and microwaves are. Sarah, who was an actual person, moved to Fort Howard in Green Bay to live with her uncle, a surgeon, after her parents died in the Detroit cholera epidemic in 1832. As an aside, I do not necessarily like first person interpretation – I feel that unless it’s a scheduled program, that it can confuse visitors, or leave them feeling alienated or unwelcome.  I much prefer to talk about what they are experiencing, using my historic clothing as a prop.

Needless to say, period clothing looks strange to those visitors with only a vague notion about history and looking for something fun to do on the weekend with their children. It prompts them to ask questions not necessarily appropriate in public. “How do you go to the bathroom in that?” “What do you have under there [skirts]?” “How do you take care of, you know [insert hand gesture referring to menstruation].”

Sleeve puffs, MFA Boston, 59.697a, b.

Sleeve puffs, MFA Boston, 59.697a, b.

They touch you. In the 1830s, women held out the large leg o’ mutton sleeves with ruffled or down-filled sleeve puffs worn underneath their gowns. Seeing as not all of the staff had sleeve puffs, sometimes we resorted to newspaper for special events, such as the wedding we recreated. Of course, a visitor walked right up and started to squeeze my sleeves. “What do you have in there?” At another site, I even had an elderly woman pulling up my hoop skirt, wanting to see what was underneath. She didn’t stop to ask. I became a full-life fashion doll, turn me over and see what’s underneath. I enjoy discussing what I’m wearing – it makes a good segue into discussions about the textile industry and women’s history.

But good manners are always in order.

It’s Friday! Do “The Baltimore”

While I think the city of Baltimore had little to do with inspiring the creation of this dance tune by Fred Rich and the Hotel Astor Orchestra, this 1928 ditty is well equipped to send us into the weekend. Click here to dance The Baltimore!

Brooklyn Museum Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.1364a–c.

Digging Up My Ancestors

Click here for the first post on the Cole Cemetery relocation.

My mother and I were standing in the Target parking lot in Aberdeen one cool and sunny Saturday morning in April 2010. We weren’t there to shop for hair dye. Instead, representatives of Merritt Properties LLC  led us down a steep embankment into the woods next door.  Tripping through winter-bare vines, we passed a worn campsite, indicated by charred earth and crushed tin cans. Alongside was a path through the woods, which then widened into a rutted muddy road. An old, weathered telephone pole indicated the farm that used to be located here. Then we saw the mound.

Cole family cemetery mound, Aberdeen, MD, 2010. RL Fifield photo.

Twenty-five feet in the air, up in the trees, people were milling about. Title searches show that our family  owned this land from 1757 until 1947. A gravel operation then purchased the property, stripping everything around the cemetery, leaving the mound. ATVs had used the cemetery as a jump, marring the mound with thick ruts. The idea our family had a burial mound was rather thrilling.  Climbing up to the top, I could see my great great grandparents’ house from the 1860s sitting nearby, just beyond the edge of the woods.

Gibb Archaeological Consulting and Volunteers, Cole Cemetery site, Aberdeen, MD, 2010. RL Fifield photo.




Jim Gibb and his associates were hard at work up on the mound. His presence was the result of rounds of intense telephone calls with the developers, as we worked to understand each other and reach an agreement for an archaeologist to recover the remains, rather than the local funeral home. I was unsure what sort of atmosphere would prevail at the exhumation.

Surprisingly, we found a party. Not only were the archaeologists present, but local historical club members, Aberdeen Proving Ground historians, and local Harford Community College were all helping to recover my family members. It was all hands on deck to help transport the Cole family away from the construction site.

The team works on the grave of Elizabeth Gilbert. RL Fifield photo.

Jim is dry repartee defined, and he teased me for not pitching in. I couldn’t. I stood there the whole day, paralyzed and gaping, waiting to see what else would be unearthed. The one time I tried to help store a textile fragment, I dropped it (and as the joke goes, “I work in a museum”). I thought maybe we’d stay for a couple of hours and leave, but I should have known better.

Nobody likes to disturb people at rest needlessly, but I felt that it was more appropriate to relocate my family down the road to a cemetery where their children and grandchildren were buried, rather than protect their graves in situ as part of an office complex.

The archaeologists studied the ground, looking for changes in the soil to determine how many graves there were and where to dig. Then came the shovels, the trowels, the sticks, and brushes. Wood, textile fragments, glass, metal coffin handles, bone, glass buttons, and even a vulcanized rubber comb that had held my 4th great grandmother’s hair in place all emerged from those pits. Even if the human remains had completely decomposed, as most of the children had done, there were at least rootmats that had grown around where the skulls had been. It was incredible to see how earth, water, and organisms dissolve our remains. I held part of my 4th great grandmother’s femur in my hand; it was as light as pumice.

Coffin hardware decorated with a neoclassical urn. GAC photo.

By the end of the weekend, either the bodies or other materials had been exhumed from the graves of six people: my 4th great grandparents James Cole and Elizabeth Gilbert, another young woman, an eleven year old, a six year old, and an infant. We had them, but we knew little about them, beyond some census data.

Next stop: The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.


Click here and here for the next installments.

Road Trip: Bad Art in Motels

On my 2005 Lincoln Highway trip, I was careful to photograph the art hanging in each of my motel rooms. Mrs. G and I tried to get the true flavor of the road by staying in locally owned motor courts. In Geneva, IL, an Indian family ran a trucker motel from the 1960s, complete with blue vinyl furniture in the office. A Vietnam Vet owned the Fort Wayne, IN motel where we paid $36  for our room. The mattresses had plastic covers and the traffic upstairs continued all night. We splurged $75 the next night for a Best Western in Wooster, OH to recover. And so forth.

Art from a $36/night motel in Ft Wayne, IN. The picture is blurry because I had to get out of there.

Motel operator horror vacui must compel the profession to fill that spot above the bed. There is always something in that spot, part of the formula in creating the home away from home. I assume it’s part of the hotelier creed, and that there is a tabbed section in their catalogs  with preframed prints to slap on the walls. Instant ambiance.

A sampling  of the mass-produced floral and landscape art meant to evoke a vague sense of place, found in motels of the Midwest.

$79/night gets you some partridge. Wooster OH Best Western, 2005.