Transit Tuesday: Maryland *facepalm*

OK, we all know it, I’m obnoxiously devoted to my home state. So when I read current “transit” news about Maryland transportation officials meeting with Frederick County Commissioners(1 November 2013), I was disappointed to read that it was all about widening I-70 and I-270. Ever since governments intentionally participated in the trashing of public investment in transportation in favor of the automobile, future funding that prefers interstates makes me yawn. Not only do we preferentially fund highway projects at incredibly staggering costs, we then have to make personal investments in the purchase and upkeep of automobiles in order to take advantage of the system our own tax dollars built.

Perhaps its my own fault for necessarily assuming that “transit” = “mass transit.” Anyone who has attempted to commute through the Frederick County I-70/I-270 corridors knows its a nightmare. The Maryland transportation budget structure is the largest it has ever been at $14.5 billion. And yet, they couldn’t fund a single train platform at the MARC Point of Rocks station in the next 6 years. State Senator David Brinkley was quoted as saying, “I just want to see 270 fixed in my lifetime…It might be that tolling is the way to fix that.” What about increased train service and/or rail to reduce capacity? When is there going to be a rail line between Frederick and Baltimore, a particularly sticky commute? MDOT has prioritized spending $80 million dollars on an US 15/Monocacy Blvd interchange (read: access to commercial corridors) and pat themselves on the back for spending $155,000 on 3 piddly buses. Give me a break.

Why are we falling behind as a nation? Because the bulk of us are sitting behind the wheel getting pissed off and losing hours of productivity, or preparation time for productivity. Attempts to recapture the time in a meaningful way might include listening to books, but I think most people are just trying to survive. You could be on a train, thinking, writing, talking (low voices please), preparing for the day.

Set Your Shift Sleeves in the Wrong Way? A Runaway Advertisement

Ever get that lovely hand-stitched shift near completion, and then realize:

“Crap. I put the shift sleeves in the wrong way.”

Out comes the seam ripper and it feels like your best-looking stitches ever are screaming as the blade slices them away. After a few other choice words escape your lips, the shift goes hurtling into the work bag. You rediscover it 3 months later, and you can’t remember why you didn’t finish it.

Margaret Tonner’s shift sleeves were probably set in with the flat felled seam allowances facing outward. I think many of us can commiserate – how often have you felt like slapping that cuff on that wrong-set in sleeve, and just getting onto a more interesting sewing project? In her master’s eyes, the mistake on her shift sleeve was apparent enough to list it as an identifying marker for her recapture in this runaway ad from 1765.

October 17, 1765
The Pennsylvania Gazette 

RUN away, on the 28th of September last, from the Subscriber,
living in Lampeter Township, Lancaster County, a Dutch Servant
Girl, named Margaret Tonner, about 22 Years of Age, of a dark
Complexion, thick and chunkey made; had on, and took with her,
a striped Lincey Petticoat, one shirt Gown of Ditto, the
Sleeves of the Shift she wore were wrong set in, speaks pretty
good English, and supposed she stole and took with her a
grey Horse, about 10 Years old, carries well, travels, trots
and runs well, blue Cloth Saddle, about half worn, and a
Snaffel Bridle, with a Tape Browband; it is supposed there was
a Man went in Company with her, that formerly lived in
Lancaster, named George ‑‑‑‑, of French Extraction, as he
absconded at the same time, and it was known they were
acquainted. Whoever takes up and secures said Servant and
brings her to her Master, or confines her in any of his
MajestyGoals, so that she may be had again, shall have
forty Shillings Reward, with the Horse and Saddle, or Twenty
Shillings of either of them, with reasonable Charges, paid by


Pennsylvania Chronicle. 2/8/1768.

Pennsylvania Chronicle. 2/8/1768.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Montresor

Could the US have a program of “The Most Beautiful Villages” as France does?

Dr. V and I, and friends Jeremy W. of Le Cafe Witteveen and the lovely Tina S., spent about a week in the Indre et Loire, a stone’s throw from Montresor, named one of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages” in France. And it is breathtaking.

The village below the chateau.

The village below the chateau. RL Fifield.

There are ancient cottages connected by small green paths and streams, best visible from the gardens atop a rocky promontory where the Chateau de Montresor sits. Owned by a Polish count, the fragments of 15th century chateau are surrounded by late 19th/early 20th tangles of gardens and views of undulating roofs of the houses far below.

We tried to get a meal – the beginning of a long running joke. The Cafe in Montresor only serves dinner on Friday. Other restaurants in Beaumont advertised being “Open” but were never open. But I did get a regional potato galette at the boulangerie, located one street behind the Cafe and across from the ancient Montresor market. It was a good thing I did, as the next day she went on les vacances.

Market building at Montresor.

Market building at Montresor. RL Fifield.

Our merry band had a good time discerning French cuts of meat in the local superette at the gas station. But that’s what a good trip does – takes you out of your comfort zone at the most basic level, and builds you back up again.

And So It Goes: The Fall Crunch

September and October have been full of professional commitments. For those readers not familiar with museum work, this is often the busiest time for the installation of exhibitions that will be reviewed during the Fall season (January being another peak exhibition changing season). Pair that with courier trips (trips in which a museum staff member accompanies objects to another museum for installation) to other museums changing their exhibitions, and you have a full schedule.

Many heritage professional organizations also have conferences in the fall, so I’ve been on the lecture circuit as well. On September 20, I spent less than 24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama. I served as part of a panel at the American Association of State and Local History annual meeting about supporting collection care in institutions. My particular angle was strategies for raising visibility for collection care among administration and colleagues. Read more about previous presentations here.

October 11 found me lecturing about getting institutional buy-in for emergency preparedness at cultural institutions. (Let’s face it folks: you can have the best ideas in the world for emergency preparedness and response, but unless administration supports you and enforces application of the program, nothing is going to happen. Getting buy-in is the first step in every new program). Alliance for Response NYC partnered with the Association for Preservation Technology. I had some wonderful fellow lecturers, including Rob Waller from Protect Heritage Corp, who discussed risk assessment for heritage sites, and Luca Nassi of the Italian Fire Brigade, who talked about amazing collaboration between first responders and Italian cultural heritage staff to preserve damaged heritage sites in the wake of the L’Aquila Earthquake in 2009.

I finished up my current speaking obligations on Tuesday, October 22, at Colonial Williamsburg at the Threads of Feeling Symposium, where I discussed rediscovering personalizing elements of dress among the 18th century working class through my study of 1000 18th century newspaper runaway advertisements. (see this post for more information about the project – check the servants category on my blog for further pieces on the project).

I am honored to be included in all the projects above – I enjoy getting the word out there. Now – I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving!


Oyster Shuckers

I used to hate oysters. Typically, tidewater Marylanders pat oysters in cracker meal, fry them, and if you need a condiment, slather on some tomato ketchup. Churches in the area used to have fried oyster and ham suppers, though the increasing costs of oysters have certainly limited how many of those signs you drive by in the Maryland countryside. I equated fried oysters to a bit of breaded tire. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and enjoyed the briny sweet slide of a fresh oyster down my throat that I realized oysters were a dream.

Oyster Shuckers. Baltimore, Maryland. Library of Congress.


I’ve never shucked my own oyster, but have a great respect to those seafood packers who deftly disassemble oysters and crabs so that those of us removed by a degree from our tidewater heritage only have to buy a “pint of selects” (oysters) or a “pound of backfin” (crab). The National Oyster Shucking Competition is held in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. But I find historic images of oyster shuckers really compelling, especially when you see the rows of skirts and children that indicate the primary workforce for this industry. What you can’t see in the historic images is the long-held belief that oysters should only be consumed during R-months: September through April. These women may have struggled to open wet oysters in the damp Maryland winter and tried to avoid accidentally running the oyster knife into their numbed hands. That would mean a loss of livelihood.

I find this early 19th century image of an oyster shucker equally compelling, both in the strength of her forearms and the piles of tubs surrounding her as she fixes plates of oysters for her establishment’s customers. In this “Oysters Fresh Every Day” print, the quality of the oysters focuses on her, the printed handkerchief and necklace that indicates her personal quality, the white apron indicating her cleanliness, and her readiness to deftly prepare the establishment’s wares on demand. One hundred years later, the women in the Library of Congress image are preparing oysters for commercial sale. The sweet meats and juices wouldn’t be served on the half shell, but instead would be poured into paint can-like tins and sold at the market, an example of separation of people from food sources that occurred over the 19th century.

British Museum. Banks,63*.42

Wanderlust Wednesday – Rehoboth Beach

Dr. V came down to Delaware while I was spending the month as a research fellow at Winterthur (see some posts on my time there here and here). We decided on a day trip down to Rehoboth Beach for some throwback beach fun. Dr. V, Puerto Rican born and raised, generally makes fun of mainlander concepts of beach. “You have coast, not beach.”

I’m not a beach person. I don’t like laying out in the sun. I wear a swimsuit about twice a year. It had been over 30 years since my last trip to Rehoboth Beach with my grandparents to see my grandmother’s aunt. All I remember of her was her claw foot bathtub in a sagging Victorian cottage typical of Rehoboth. I remembered going to The Avenue restaurant in the 1970s, a wood-paneled joint complete with cigarette vending machine which fascinated my five-year-old self. On this trip, I didn’t have any expectations except for some kitsch and salt air.

And yet we had a great time. The drive down reminded me a lot of my childhood, passing farm market stands and crab decks. Some lolling under the beach umbrella to the sound of the waves, remembering how to jump over or dive through waves and not get ground into the sand, beach tchotchkes and skee ball, the big “Dolly’s” taffy sign perched on the store at the entry to the boardwalk (somehow much smaller than I remember as a kid).  Don’t buy Grotto pizza on the Boardwalk – it’s tiny, more expensive than a New York slice at $3, and tastes like it came out of a Chef Boyardee box – remember the crust mix, canned sauce, and powdered cheese? On a lark we went to Dogfish Head’s restaurant (we were parked at that end of town and wanted to make a quick getaway afterward). That was a joke – they make great beer, but the food was pointless. I think they expect people to drink so much they won’t notice. If you want good food at a brewery, go to Iron Hill.

The people watching is supreme. Veteran beach bums, kids building legendary sand forts (at least to themselves, and that’s what counts), four pasty women in bikinis and goggles holding hands tiptoeing into the water, teens that really should seek a little more coverage (which gave me an interesting perspective on my own teenage past – eek).

We relaxed so much, I didn’t take hardly any photos. The point about the beach is to not think too hard about it.


RL Fifield, 2013.


Catering to Clients in an 18th Century Philadelphia Shop

I spent July at a Research Fellowship at Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden. This mainly meant identifying manuscripts and object collections that might have something to tell me about my research topic: working women’s dress, as illuminated through the study of newspaper runaway advertisements. Read more about the project here, and an article on the work here. My goal now is to study more about the supply of garments to indentured and enslaved servant women, through purchase, gift, and theft.

I’m currently delving into the order books of the Wister family, Philadelphia merchants descended from German immigrants Johannes Caspar and Anna Katherine Wister. The collection is extensive, but I’m focusing on these veritable letter copy books of the orders sent to different merchants. What’s particularly great about this collection is the detail captured in these orders, in which the firm indicates what sort of goods will sell best in Philadelphia. In the 1760s, the books include descriptive lists of fabrics they wish to order, while in the 1770s, the firm relies increasingly on pattern books, listing  pattern numbers of fabrics they wish to order. It’s especially fun as you gain greater vocabulary for how the Wisters and their contemporaries described certain types of objects.

Here are a few objects that they ordered – I’ve selected them just on the basis of my own fun. Whereas they frequently use abbreviations for words such as piece, yard, color, cotton, shagrine, and so forth, I’ve spelled out the words here for ease of reading.

From David Barclay, 12/6/1762: “8 pieces printed Calicoe 2 Colors Shagrine ground some with blue.”

From Benjamin & John Bower, 6/26/1764 (2 of their firm’s swatch books are preserved, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one at Winterthur): On ordering linen check, “Let those Checks be fair clear figures, not muddled.”

Order to Welch W & Starten, 11/20/1764: For sleeve buttons,  “24 Gros hard white metal Dollar pattern links… Send no pewter ones by any means.”

Order to Nathaniel Springall, 6/17/1765: Upon ordering copper brown and blue camblets of 1/ to 1/8 in price (these are inexpensive textiles),  “send not one piece darker than the enclosed pattern.”

Order to Edward Lloyd, 8/11/1763: “brass shut tops Thimbles” as opposed to open top thimbles.




Wanderlust Wednesday – Taormina

A few photos from a trip to Taormina, Sicily. It was early March and nearly desolate of tourists: perfect.

Vegetation on the way to the amphitheater.

Vegetation on the way to the amphitheater. RL Fifield.

Amphitheater, Taormina. 2007.

Amphitheater, Taormina. 2007. RL Fifield.

Overlooking town from the beautiful park.

Overlooking town from the beautiful park. RL Fifield.

Doorbell, Taormina.

Doorbell, Taormina. RL Fifield.





Museum Monday: Museum-Hater

Do we say “museums are not for everyone” and leave it at that? Or should we have meetings this Monday morning to figure out how our institutions can address visitors with the same opinion as James Durston, senior Producer for CNN Travel, who wrote “Why I hate museums” last Thursday?

I generally avoid reading comments on websites, finding them usually to be full of trolls, drivel, and poor manners. The most volatile comments mostly accused Durston of being culturally ignorant and poorly educated, suggesting he stay home and watch Honey Boo-Boo, youtube, etc. But the majority of comments discussed preservation, education, audience, fundraising, and so forth as champions of museums rushed to rebut his declaration. Even Railway Preservation News was a-chatter regarding railroad museums, which can look like rusting piles of metal on token pieces of rail, awaiting their turn at restoration (Thanks Mr. I. for bringing this to my attention).

Durston’s main beef appeared to be with art museums, declaring them “graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things.” He argues not that museums are shiftless, indicating the scientific museums drive research and discovery, but that they do not connect to their audiences. My difficulty with Durston’s often-whiny approach in the “article” (I wouldn’t say it was exhaustively researched, though he did reach out to Ford Bell, President of the American Alliance of Museums with a few questions), is that while he wants museums to engage audiences in new ways, he doesn’t give any examples of what he wants to see or do. In the comments section, when he is chastised for aimless whining, he washes his hands neatly by saying that he’s not a museum professional, you figure it out.

I do agree with him that many museums target a kid audience, who look like they are having fun, while adults are bored out of the gourds. The 90 million school students who visit museums annually are a primary audience. But museums were founded to educate everyone, especially during eras when education was not easily available to working classes. The Metropolitan Museum’s of Art much-abused “suggested donation” policy ($25, but pay what you can) was instituted not for the stingy to argue with the cashier until they get into the most encyclopedic museum in the world for 25c., but so that no person would be turned away due to their economic standing.

But more concerning is that the targeting of exhibits and label texts to an under-10 audience bores everyone, including the under 10 set. Kids of the 1970s, remember when you went to a museum or historic site and had to struggle to understand something? Maybe you tried to read it, maybe you ran around the gallery instead, but learning is based on striving to understand new concepts. I particularly have a bone to pick with science museums catering mostly to school-age audiences. With the rise of ignorance and religious evangelism against science and technology demonstrated daily among politicians in this country, it is evident that continued education targeted to spark the interest of adults is in order.

In the comments, Durston finally suggested he liked the approach of the Singapore Zoo, letting non-dangerous animals roam the park freely. It’s a mind-bender for a museum professional to connect what he finds successful in a zoo and how that can be applied to an art museum. I know he’s not alone. I went on a trip to Rome and Sicily in 2007 facilitated by a chemistry professor from my college. He dismissed museums as an attraction worth seeing, along with eating (we were in Italy!!) and shopping. If every gallery requires an interpreter to speak to you about the objects, a music or dance performance, an activity station where people try painting or weaving, or an interactive touch-screen with a quiz, no museum can meet that demand. As the importance of discovery declines in our culture, so does the funding of our cultural institutions that pays for education programs.

So if you have a problem with museums, give. Volunteer. Advocate. Get involved.

What to Put on Your Pancakes in Maryland?

I think about it every time I make pancakes, but I don’t think I’ve tasted it in twenty years. No matter, I still remember the taste of King Syrup on pancakes, with sausage, served by my grandmother.

King Syrup is a mid-Atlantic combination of corn and sugar syrups created by the Mangels-Herold Company in Baltimore in 1901. Would you ever put Karo Syrup on your pancakes? No way. But King Syrup is different.  At my parents’ house in Westminster, Maryland,  we ate Log Cabin and Mrs. Butterworths, somehow more modern in taste than the King Syrup we ate on hotcakes at Mom Mom Mom and Pop Pop’s in Havre de Grace. (I don’t think I ate maple syrup habitually until I moved to Boston after grad school). Breakfast was either bacon and eggs, or pancakes and sausage. (although before I was around, my grandfather was known to eat more eyebrow-raising/foodie-esque fried shad roe and pork brains). King Syrup was often used throughout the 20th century in the mid-Atlantic to make Shoo Fly pie, a Pennsylvania German dessert that’s like pecan pie without the pecans, with a spiced crumb topping. There was also the inexplicably named King Po-T-Rik, a more molasses-y version, that some folks put on biscuits. My grandfather kept hardware in old King Syrup cans after they were emptied.

King Syrup isn’t made in Baltimore anymore, but was purchased by Carriage House Companies in Georgia.