Transit Tuesday: New York Penn Station

New York Penn Station, thy name is Melancholy.

New York's Pennsylvania Station. Lost, 1963. Photo credit: New York Public Library via / No known copyright restrictions

New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Lost, 1963. Photo credit: New York Public Library via / No known copyright restrictions

More than one website chronicles the beauty lost that was Penn Station, so I’ll skip the details about McKim, Mead, and White, Jane Jacobs, and Madison Square Garden. But every time I enter the dingy, low-ceilinged tunnels that make up the station today, it chills me to think we could lose such a landmark, such an effort, such resources. When you enter the Amtrak hall today, a few large photographs of the old station are tacked up on some pillars, as if that’s supposed to make passengers feel better. We could never build a civic structure again that looks like Penn Station. We just aren’t that kind of country any more.

A blurb about Penn Station from a short story I was writing:

Who were the men who deemed travel to be elegant in 1913, and who were the men who threw it all away 50 years later? To my mind these men were the same, throwing us and all around them away every day in a hardscrabble urge to earn, if not just grab all. Let us live with less, there is no gain in thrilling you, temporary citizens. I pushed through the people fighting for cabs, selling papers, begging for change. I passed people not paying attention at all, who had no place to be. Escalators conveyed our mob down into the fluorescent light. Forty years of black soot and doughnut grease had dulled all the surfaces and I squinted through the dingy air…People pushed and ebbed, swung to the right as others swelled, crashed, and receded, in the big blue gray station. It is modern, of clean lines, we shall have no more rapture at the masonry curlicue, Woman, there is money to be made here, we shall wear narrow ties and eschew sunlight in our public spaces. We will do these things in the dark. Waves spilled in behind me, and my time here was over, there was no place to stay, the undertow threatened. The big board called my name, and I complied.

Read Michael Kimmelman’s plea for Penn Station in The New York Times from  Feburary 8.

Museum Monday – The Empire Ranch Foundation, Sonoita, AZ

Santa Cruz County, Arizona. RL Fifield, 2009.


My great uncle started a cattle ranch near Sonoita, Arizona in 1952. Sonoita isn’t a town with one traffic light; it’s a town with no traffic lights. It’s located at the crossroads of AZ Routes 82 and 83  in Santa Cruz County, less than 35 miles from the border with Mexico.  After working as a truck driver in Maryland, an elk hunter in Wyoming, and running a chuck wagon-themed restaurant in California, he chose Sonoita for settling down.




About a mile from his ranch is  The Empire Ranch, a concern that operated from the 1860s until the 1980s. In 2000, 42,000 acres of the Empire Ranch were preserved as the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The Empire Ranch Foundation works with the Bureau of Land Management today to preserve the buildings and provide interpretive programming focused on area heritage.

Empire Ranch, University of Arizona, c. 1900.

Empire Ranch, University of Arizona, c. 1900.

Some of the  ranch buildings preserved by the Empire Ranch Foundation date to the 1870s. They offer tours of the grounds, as well as trail rides and western art shows.





We attended a festival with my great uncle in October 2009.  Music played, the Foundation gave house tours, riders roped in the ring, and there were plenty of beans to be had for lunch  – it was all a good time to this niece from back East. Perhaps I would be tempted to say “yeehaw!” But the old time locals would probably just smirk, and carry on. Learn more about Sonoita and local humor in Betty Barr’s book Around Sonoita. It’s dedicated to my great uncle, a local patron and historian.

Long live The Empire Ranch.

Music at The Empire Ranch, October 2009. RLF Photo.

Railroads: What’s Your Sign?

Cafe Witteveen (run by friend Jeremy W.) featured a website dedicated to the insignias of railroads long gone by. Honoring my Maryland roots, here’s a Baltimore & Ohio insignia from 1945:

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad insignia (1945). Photo:

This reminded me of a job Walker Evans did in 1956 for a Fortune Magazine article entitled “Before They Disappear.”  The film is housed in the Walker Evans Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of art, 1994.259.11.1-155. Interestingly, the Fortune article did not mean “before trains disappear,” but was focusing on older railroad insignias being replaced by mid-century commercial designers, “lurking near, T square poised.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walker Evans Archive, 1994.259.11.1.


Vaccination – for one, for everyone

Baron Jean Louis Alibert performing the vaccination against smallpox in the Chateau of Liancourt, Constant Desbordes, c. 1820. Musee de la Chartreuses.

The year is 2012. One of the greatest inventions to bolster human health – vaccinations – are a part of history. Scientists have spent over two hundred years creating vaccinations to prevent lethal and crippling diseases that threatened families, towns, countries, and continents. They are the reason we do not have to cross our fingers in the hope of living to a ripe old age.





Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Photo credit: isis325 via Visual hunt / CC BY

Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Photo credit: isis325 via Visual hunt / CC BY

Smallpox in 1796. Two hundred sixteen years ago.

Yellow Fever in 1937. Seventy-five years ago.

Polio in 1962. Fifty years ago.

Measles in 1963. Forty-nine years ago.

We’ve had the benefit of vaccinations that prevent crippling and mortal diseases for decades.

DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) was created in 1930. Eighty-two years ago. Today, a slightly altered form of the vaccination, DTaP, is administered.

So why are there 549 cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, in Washington State already reported for 2012 alone? ABC News reported this on March 28. At this point last year, only 88 cases had been diagnosed. Adults whose immunity waned after their childhood vaccinations are now at risk due to unvaccinated children. In turn, pregnant mothers who have pertussis can infect their newborns. This article reported that between 2004 and 2008, 83 percent of pertussis deaths were children under three months old.

Let’s talk about a different part of the DTaP vaccination: diphtheria.

Diphtheria is caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Its signatures are a gray/black membrane in the throat, swelling of lymph nodes and the neck. The bacteria releases toxins in the bloodstream that attack other organs, and can do significant damage to the heart.

On February 3, 1906, my great grandfather lost his twin brother, Cecil, and his infant son to diphtheria. The death certificate below notes that Cecil had suffered for 3 weeks, before the toxins associated with diphtheria caused his heart to stop. The infant, unnamed, was buried with him. The infant is only known through family history – it does not appear on Cecil’s death certificate or on his tombstone. We only know Cecil’s wife’s name because it was written on his death certificate. He died in his mother’s house near Havre de Grace.

Death certificate for James Cecil Bowman, 1906. Maryland State Archives.


When parents opt out of vaccination, they only risk their own children’s lives, but the lives of others within their community. Vaccination only works when everyone participates.  Prevention is always cheaper than treatment, especially when there is a great risk that treatment may not be enough, even in this modern age (10% of diphtheria cases result in death). My great great uncle died before vaccination was an option.




Trainscribbling – Moving and Writing.

Grand Central Terminal. RL Fifield photo.

When I leave the city, it’s either on a plane or a train. On a plane, you have little sense of forward travel once you’ve reached cruising altitude. Everyone channels sardine-ism for a number of hours, and the landscape below loses relevance and becomes a myth, of sorts. On a train, you hurtle through rapidly shifting landscapes of human scale. Each passing view brings you into a new space, posing new questions: Why was that factory abandoned? Why was the last town prosperous, and this town so poor? What sort of building did that foundation once support? The train pushes forward, taking your thoughts with it.

This is where I do some of my best work. I might be writing about the train ride itself, but more likely, I’m writing fiction, or working on 18th century servant research. Dialogue effortlessly pours onto the page between Philadelphia and Lancaster. The Northeast Corridor encourages what I call sprinting. I prefer pen and paper for this exercise: pour onto the page whatever enters the mind – don’t stop to think or censor yourself. Keep it to short bursts, then move on. Use the content later to stretch your writing muscle.

I do wanna railroad. Hoboken Station, 2011. RL Fifield photo.

I love the train for various reasons. I’m one less car on the road. You can get up when you get restless, and go for a walk. The Amtrak Cafe Car is somewhat lack-luster, but they serve Corona, in case your coach is overheated (just apply to forehead, then drink). And time that you would otherwise commit to driving to your destination is now your own. With that time, I’ve written things like this:

Northeast Corridor Postmodern

And that’s where I left you,
Under refinery sizzle, crouching
head to the rail and aching
hands to dry lips.

Nose grease on glass and waving
to the shrinking
Great big Ed dealing cars, gnat minions
pumping and squeak-wiping
Sharp creased white
trousers and bowties goodbye.
Trans-Am, or more likely trans-fat
Pork rinds crackling
wrapper, rattling in the car wind.

Antiquated hats take tickets and say
Yes, we know what they say
In the old movies, flickering up there
above this awkwardness.
Rails corkscrew into thickets
Past shimmerings of toxicity
Ingenuity, our bra strap,
pilled and graying, EMERGENCY
Mother shakes her head.
Telephone poles flung into marsh froth, sticks
Pick up, please
But we’ve wheedled newer toys.

Spicy mince bit but
Her funeral cake frosted quick
chemical pink and tasteless
Straining in old photos
Now fissures crack the bleached pavement
which held cars, which held people
Flaccid plaid armchairs,
stony stares in the TV light.

There, paint-choked ornament above
Fluorescent squint
the spongy platform
no lipstick smear, perfunctory
staring over your shoulder after
the SUVs that don’t wave hello.

Steel streams past the pinched yearning,
Fathers flick cigarettes into the street,
Roast beef cooling
the pursed lips of mothers
But we’re all hiding behind the shed
sneaking something strong
snickering wet mouths and ruffle crush
Dabbing at the red smear.

Now I’m hurtling southward,
Past hushed streets no longer suckling
Baggage, energy, Father, the mail
The train no longer stops here,
Town of my christening and
Broken glass in the afternoon sear.
That track-side is mine, swamp cabbage,
then sharp onion grass.

What’s on the Menu? at NYPL – Fun and Volunteerism for Foodies

For those of us into food history, the New York Public Library has a fondant of a project: online transcription of their menu collection. Repositories such as libraries and archives are trying to meet the demand for online access to collections, but it is imperative to do it in a meaningful way, based on your users’ needs and collection priorities. And of course, who are you going to get to do all the transcribing and data entry?

The Hotel St. Regis menu for October 23, 1905. NYPL What’s on the Menu? project.

Foodiness is consuming the nation. Therefore, a curious and somewhat informed population is primed to transcribe the NYPL’s 40,000 menus. Go to the website, pick a menu scanned by NYPL staff, such as the one from the Hotel St. Regis, October 23, 1905 at the left, and pick a line to transcribe, like Pompano Calcalaise, or Veloutine, Reine. (As a side note, Canvas-back Duck is listed as the most expensive item on the menu at $4.50. The hunting of this popular turn-of-the-century menu item was banned by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918.)

Start typing. Try to stop. There are other fun components to the site, including a blog, raw transcription data (if that’s your bent), and a dish list. Click on any dish, and you arrive at a list of sites at which you may look up the recipe. I searched Mosaique Cake, which I discovered is a  dessert of Turkish origins made of broken tea biscuits, suspended in a flourless chocolate cake.

An image of Mosaique Cake. The French spelling on the Hotel St. Regis menu should have been a clue. I found many more hits for the recipe as “Gateau Mosaique” than Mosaique Cake.

Yum. So as you see, a worthwhile pursuit. Thanks to the NYPL and the National Endowment for the Humanities for this project.



Wanderlust Wednesday: Paris

A cliché? Nah.

I found myself in Paris for three days with some euros and a dinner recommendation from my friend the Parisian, Ms. B. She directed me to a restaurant in the 14th arrondissement, out of the way, “real French” said the Frenchwoman. A woman in black oversaw the front counter. Behind her were two small dining rooms.

I speak enough French to order dinner in a restaurant, and make up for my lack of conversational French by smiling a lot. I ordered a Kir and was delighted by the plate of saucisson and olives that accompanied it.

An American arrived; this was certain. Like in New York, tourists are identified by their sweatshirts and tennis shoes. The restaurant atmosphere had been quiet. But then “I don’t like fish. Where’s the French onion soup?”

Some eyebrow raising shared among my fellow diners around the room. You hear that Parisians are rude, but I don’t feel that way. They are city people, quiet. Don’t try the Midwestern approach; it’s just not appropriate here.

Duck confit. A lemon tart so sour that pucker is unavoidable, balanced with just a bit of char. Not too sweet.

Empty chairs at a Metro station, Ligne 6.

Transit Tuesday : Hurray for the Streetcars of Toronto

510 Spadina in the rain, Toronto, October, 2012. RL Fifield photo.


During a short business trip to Toronto, I had the pleasure of getting around town on their streetcar system. Unlike American streetcar systems destroyed by the National City Lines/General Motors streetcar conspiracy, Toronto’s streetcar system is intact due to its location in Canada.

One rider asked “How do you learn to drive these things?”

I could hear the operator sunny reply: “Operate! There are bus drivers, and streetcar operators.”


Entrance to Trains – Toronto’s Union Station. RL Fifield photo.


I rode the streetcar down Spadina Avenue, to Toronto’s Union Station. There, the streetcar entered a tunnel, deposited passengers in the basement of the station, picked up new passengers, and went back out on its route. We approached a switch; the streetcar operator got out with a long metal pole to manually change the switch, before climbing back in and moving forward. This isn’t a heritage line mind you, it’s a major part of the Toronto Transportation Commission system. Excellent.

I missed a trip on the lauded 501 Queen Streetcar (named one of the top 10 trolley routes in the world by National Geographic) due to business. But I’ll be back. Read some heavier thoughts on Canadian transit ridership and market share  by Stephen Rees at his blog.

It’s Here! The 1940 Census

In April of 1940, there were just over 132 million Americans. Today, after the obligatory 72 year wait to protect the privacy of the living, the National Archives and Records Administration will open the records that documented the basic details of those people’s lives: the 1940 Census. Listen to the NPR program 1940 Census Release Is ‘Super Bowl for Genealogists.’

I’m looking forward to catching up with my family members in 1940. Here’s where I left them in the 1930 census.

The Bowman family in 1930.

Family history facts come from various places: death certificates, family legend, and so forth. But the census often reveals incredible facts you wouldn’t otherwise know, those facets that descendants forget. Here, I see that my great-grandparents lived near the Aberdeen Churchville and Bush Chapel Roads. They married when she was 23 and when he was 29.

So what will 1940 reveal? I know my great-grandfather succumbed to colon cancer in 1934, but how would the impact of his death on the family be reflected in the census? The 1940 census captures America after it has sustained years of depression. How were my grandfather, great uncle, and great aunt employed? An added perk to the 1940 census is that census takers inquired where people were living in 1935, sort of a semi-census, if you will. They are just one of the families I’ll be looking for tomorrow evening. Try it yourself here, the NARA website for the 1940 Census, at the New York Public Library, or at You can even watch the official ceremony opening the documents from 8:30am.

There is plenty of time to get acquainted with the 1940 census. We’ll have another ten year wait for the release of the 1950 census, brimming with baby boomers.

The Bowman family c. 1936.


Downton Abbey is Hot – Now for some real servants.

I fully expect Masterpiece Classic’s Downton Abbey to inspire the costume choices of many next Halloween (see my post on Downton Halloween costumes). Dr. V and I clung to the compelling story lines from above and below stairs every Sunday evening. We even rushed home from our Super Bowl party to stream that night’s episode online. For years, Halloween parties have often had a French maid character, but will people take cues from Anna the head housemaid, or Mr. Carson, the butler? More likely, Halloween celebrants will choose above stairs characters for their inspiration: the Dowager Countess, Lady Mary, and Lord Grantham.

Advertisement for Martha Carr. Pennsylvania Chronicle, February 8, 1768. RL Fifield Photo, Library of Congress collection.

As part of my research on 18thcentury working class clothing, I have been studying an altogether different kind of servant: the indentured and enslaved female servants who immigrated to the American colonies. Many of our ancestors came to the colonies this way, either by choice or capture. They served as house servants, assistants in their master’s businesses, and agricultural laborers. Most women servant immigrants had no specialized occupation or training, compared to their male counterparts. For the servant who decided to run away from the household, their master would post a newspaper advertisement for their capture. To help in their identification, the master would list the clothes the servant might be wearing, whether they belonged to the servant, or if the servant had stolen them upon her departure.

A chart showing the distribution of upper body garment data for enslaved women in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, 1750–1790. The other category includes garments such as wrappers, sacks, and waistcoats. The 0% reflects that the term “bed gown” was not used for garments worn by this population. Chart: RL Fifield

I created a database that now houses records for 1000 women and their 6000 garments.  Why? Anybody got a photograph from 1750? (for those not in the know, photography sprung from work done in the 1820s and 1830s). Poor and working women are the invisible population in history.  Unless they did something exceptional, such as runaway or commit a crime, most immigrating women of the lesser sort are not documented at all; their history is lost. This is especially true of enslaved women. Runaway advertisements document not only clothing, but also physical characteristics, habits, skills, and other information. I started on this journey to study clothing, and to discover, if possible, elements of choice and fashion among women of the lesser sort. This data can teach textile and economic historians a lot about trade at the time, and can inform living history programs. To study these women as a group is to recover their community, rather than considering these women as spot mentions, individuals without context.

New: see the full article online here. If it doesn’t come up, go to the home page and search again.