Wanderlust Wednesday – By the Side of the Road

To sleep in your car – completely American? Or not normal?

I was listening to Here’s the Thing, Alec Baldwin’s excellent radio program. I’m not much of a culture vulture for a New York City resident. I live here for pretty much the same reason as a lot of people do: it’s close to work, and I like the texture of the city. I bemoan occasionally that I don’t take full advantage of all the city has to offer, but in reality, who really does? Here’s the Thing interviews people I probably wouldn’t otherwise pay much attention to (with my head buried in 18th century newspapers and manuscripts during much of my spare time). And while I was cooking on Saturday night, I listened to the podcast of Baldwin’s interview with Josh Fox, a film maker best known for Gasland, a documentary about fracking in the upper Delaware Valley.

During one portion of the program, Fox advanced that it was a completely American thing to do to sleep in one’s car – he did a lot of this while interviewing people for his film. Baldwin vehemently disagreed. I thought that amusing, seeing as the road trip novel is such an American construct. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon? Jack Kerouac? Travels with Charley by Steinbeck (although read this New York Times article from 2011 by Charles McGrath about libertarian Bill Steigerwald’s investigation and challenge to the veracity of Steinbeck’s account)?   Both Steinbeck and Least Heat Moon fitted out vehicles with beds, Steinbeck dubbing his truck camper Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse.  When it’s time to get some shut-eye, pull it off the road – home is where you make it. What is RV culture but sleeping in your albeit giant car? Going back further to the Lincoln Highway heydays of the 1920s, many auto travelers would just pull off and camp by the side of the road at the edge of a farm field. Today, such actions would bring charges of trespassing and vagrancy. What about wagons crossing the prairie?

Road trip rule #1: get coffee in university towns - it's better. The Electric Brew, Goshen, IN, 2005.

Road trip rule #1: get coffee in university towns – it’s better. The Electric Brew, Goshen, IN, 2005.

I’ve never slept in my car while traveling (I have crashed in Ms. C’s car on occasion at a reenactment). There’s a difference between being a man alone on the road, and a woman alone on the road. In 2005, Mrs. G and I caught plenty of stares as two women traveling through small towns on the Lincoln Highway. A risk of violence and social changes over the last 60 years has lessened the legitimacy of making your bed in your conveyance. The rise of the controlled motorway and the chain motel spell out how society thinks you should move from place to place and where you should sleep while doing it (and how much you should be able to pay to do so). But that doesn’t lessen the fact that lots of people sleep in their cars (visible at any highway rest stop) and trucks (long-distance truckers have often innovative efficiency apartments just behind the wheel). That has basis in a great American tradition of motion and exploration.

Transit Tuesday – Where Vintage is Just Fine

It’s one of my first memories of Rome after sleeping off my first bout of European jet lag: opening my Stazione Termini hotel room shutters to find a rather ancient streetcar below.

Decay has a different meaning in Europe. I thought about this on my recent trip to France. Driving through country towns south of the Loire valley, it is evidently okay that walls crack and stucco spalls. I saw some rather appallingly non-maintained collections in chateaux (dusty and scale-spalling Chinese fighting fish, caught in the 18th century!). And in cities where streetcar systems have remained in use since their inception, old streetcars continue to make due. Perhaps this isn’t always convenient, but you can’t argue that the gorgeous photo of the Cleveland-built Peter Witt streetcar running on a Milan street wouldn’t look quite as nice with the Czech cars Washington DC is buying for their resurrected streetcar program (would it be so awful – $$$- to rebuild some PCCs to run in DC for fun?). Peter Witt cars – so named for their designer, a Cleveland Street Railway commissioner – were built from 1914 until the mid-1930s. Milan purchased over 500 of them, and still run 200 of them today. You can ride decommissioned Milan Peter Witts on the historic Market Street Railway streetcar line in San Francisco, along with a number of other fun historic streetcars.

So, Cleveland, when you finally get around to rebuilding your streetcar system, how about some restored Peter Witts? A girl can dream – and evidently, so can other people. See this recently-launched website on the modern Cleveland streetcar movement.

Museum Monday – A Young Patron Gets Critical

This was too good not to share.

I work at a large NYC art institution (you can figure out which one). We welcome guests from the neighborhood, across the country, and around the world.

I was walking through the gallery on Friday when a four-year-old girl decidedly exclaimed:

“There is nothing in this museum! Nothing! Boring! Boring! Boring!”


Perhaps she needed to participate in an age-appropriate gallery activity. Maybe she needed a nap. Maybe it wasn’t Disney World. Or maybe, we can hope, museums will grow on her over the next few years.

My friend Ms. H queried on her Facebook page “What was your first art crush?” after reading a New York Times article on a series by critics describing their first cultural crush. (I answered Frank Lloyd Wright when I was 15 – drama, drama, drama). While I frequently went to history museums, science centers, and historic sites in my childhood, I didn’t enter an art museum until I was 16. It was a high school field trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and to the National Cathedral. I distinctly remember what I bought in the NGA gift shop that day: two prints, one of Degas’s ballet dancer pastels, the other a woodblock print of Edward Munch’s The Scream – pretty early 1990s mainstream fare and so quaint back then when we had to buy prints and postcards to obtain images! I had a landlord in New Jersey (a 30 minute trip on bus from mid-town Manhattan) who had never visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some people will never approach cultural venues. So kudos to mom for bringing the small art critic into the museum, and here’s to hoping she comes back soon – and finds something not boring! boring! boring!

Digging in the Archives: Philadelphia City Archives

Nothing like a little research day on my birthday.

Quarter Session Docket, June 1, 1767. Philadelphia City Archives.

Quarter Session Docket, June 1, 1767. Philadelphia City Archives.

During my stay at Winterthur, I popped up to the Philadelphia City Archives. This is made super simple from Wilmington by taking SEPTA. The archives are located a block from 30th Street Station. My goal was to find some court cases involving runaway or otherwise errant servants. I set myself up with the Quarter Session Docket, in which cases reviewed every 3 months were listed. Instead of having a named plaintiff, “the King” or, after July 1776, “the Commonwealth” was listed as plaintiff. The most common cases were Felonies (theft), Disorderly House (brothel), Tippling House (unlicensed tavern), and Assault & Battery, performed often by both men and women. I reviewed the cases from the 1760s through the early 1790s.

Some additional interesting finds were manumissions of the enslaved, the passing back and forth of poor between townships, and the petition of servants to be released from their indentures or apprenticeships due to ill treatment, or in the case of one girl, because her mistress was found to be running a bawdy house. I didn’t discover the routine processing of captures of runaway servants through the courts, only a few mentions of requiring runaways to work additional months in order to make up for the time they were away during their elopements. Perhaps these arrangements entered the courts less often where women were concerned.

The Archives reading room is a utilitarian space with about four tables from 1972, mismatched chairs, and a “Now Serving” clock that constantly reads 253. It’s hard to work within the confines of a 8.5 hour research day, with such resources for 18th century research to be had.

Reading Room at the Philadelphia City Archives.

Reading Room at the Philadelphia City Archives.

Mexican Ice Cream in Kennett Square, PA

I usually think of mushrooms when I think of Kennett Square. This corner of Pennsylvania is known for growing famous fungus. Check out any tub of mushrooms you buy at the grocery store and they usually read West Grove, Avondale, or Kennett Square, PA.

Happily, there is another reason to go over to Kennett Square, and fellow Winterthur residents Tom G. and Giovanna U. accompanied me over to La Michoacana, a Mexican ice cream shop on State Street. Choosing flavors here is tough – if you are more “rocky road” oriented, those flavors are available. But the fun is in trying different flavors, like corn ice cream sprinkled with cinnamon. Other flavors on offer included avocado, mamey (a sweet and custardy fruit with an intense pink color – like Pepto), and shredded cheese (which I did not try). They also make sundaes and a range of their own popsicles, from plaintain to papaya. Alas, the limits of the human stomach.

I chose corn and coffee ice creams, and the man behind the counter said that the coffee ice cream was made with Mexican coffee, so it had a kick. Great combination! Although they have embraced the local economy with their mushroom popsicle – I love mushrooms and adventurous eating, but I think I would be hard-pressed to select that flavor with the joy that generally accompanies a visit to the ice cream parlor.

Museum Monday – Chester County Historical Society

Chester County Historical Society.

In addition to Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library, Wednesday also took me to the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, Pennsylvania. This is local history at its best – and very well-supported.

CCHS has a complex in West Chester’s downtown. It combines a healthy amount of public programming space with permanent galleries for decorative arts and local history and space for special exhibitions.

Silhouette of Ellis Chandlee.

Silhouette of Ellis Chandlee.

While my main goal for visiting was to meet with their collections manager and to see a few costume items, I was thrilled to see the ranks of tall case clocks when I arrived, remembering that clocks made by my 5th and 6th great-grandfathers, Ellis and Benjamin Chandlee, Jr., are in the collection. The collection also includes a surveyor’s compass by Ellis Chandlee, which I hadn’t realized. The Chandlees were a Quaker family from West Nottingham, a town now part of Maryland.

My days at the Historical Society of Carroll County, Maryland, gave me a sincere appreciation for local historical societies. The volunteers are really vested. The genealogists keep the library afloat. The Collections Committee of the board doesn’t just discuss acquisitions and loans; they assemble shelving, stitch accession labels on costume and textiles, and clean storage areas. The combination of professional staff and can-do volunteers warms the cockles of my local history heart.

Clock made by Benjamin Chandlee Jr. in the collection of the Chester County Historical Society, c. 1760.

Clock made by Benjamin Chandlee Jr. in the collection of the Chester County Historical Society, c. 1760. RL Fifield.

Digging in the Archives: Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library

My time here at Winterthur is wrapping up. I took yesterday to visit two incredible local institutions, the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and the Chester County Historical Society. I only wish I had more time, but as any researcher knows, one can really collect information, photos of documents, and references until you are blue in the face. Until you really analyze and share what you have in a lasting way (not just a “I saw a document somewhere, if I remember correctly” kind of way), your work doesn’t mean much. So today and tomorrow are writing days.

It was kind of funny visiting Swarthmore College. School is out, so the campus was mostly deserted, except for day campers for the Chester Children’s Choir and prospective students on admissions tours. I wended my way through the unmarked buildings (right! most buildings on this campus of 50 or so buildings have no signs) and found the library by chance, because it had been left off the first campus map I consulted. But I found the very helpful staff of the Friends Historical Library just inside the door of McCabe Library, as well as several student assistants who were working on descriptions and transcriptions of archival material. Nothing like a captive student population for labor needs at a college-based archive or museum.

I was there to see a short gown with a block-printed lining, as well as a scrapbook of fabrics assembled by Rachel Griscom in 1872. Several of the fabrics had 18th century family provenances, but she also preserved cloth which she identified as being worn by enslaved people near Winchester, Virginia. The samples were certainly 19th century, but it was an interesting item. During my visit, one of the librarians walked in with a surveyor’s chain (also in the collection) and quizzed the student workers, “What’s this?” He was preparing a number of materials for Surveyors Rendezvous (I kid you not, this is the name of the event hosted by several mid-Atlantic surveying professional organizations).  The Friends Historical Society has a quirky and valuable collection for 18th and 19th century regional research and very accommodating staff.


Wanderlust Wednesday – The Charcoal Pit

One benefit of being at Winterthur this month is my proximity to The Charcoal Pit on Route 202. This commercial stretch is somewhat at odds with the posh ribbon of nearby Route 52, which travels by private schools, manicured shopping strips, and preserved historic districts. Route 202, in comparison, is crowded, strung with traffic lights, and offers pretty much every large retail concern currently on offer in the US. Here and there are glimpses of old neon from the naissance of the auto age.

Since 1955, The Charcoal Pit has been serving cheeseburgers, bbq, and colossal ice cream sundaes named after local high schools. I met my Uncle D. there – he’s been coming here since the 1970s – this is the original have it your way. They grind their own beef each day, have a house-made relish, great pickles, and the vanilla milkshakes come out in their mixer cans. “You might just want to drink it out of the can,” the waitress advised, “rather than trying to dump it into the glass.”

A Squeal of Delight at the Indianapolis Museum of Art: Miniature Dresses


RL Fifield.

I attended the American Institute for Conservation’s Annual Meeting in Indianapolis at the end of May. The opening reception was on a steamy night at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). While the reception was welcoming, it was difficult for the conference attendees to fully forget during these festivities that IMA had just decimated several senior conservation staff positions, part 21 positions lost during recent restructuring.

However, as I worked my way through a jubilant exhibition of African dress and masquerade costume in the textile galleries, I turned a corner and was greeted with several tiny white cotton dresses, telling the story of dress history from 1775 to 1968. And, to the titillation and confusion of many of the preservation professionals in attendance, you could touch them. Visitors, in fact, were invited to pull up their skirts and investigate the underpinnings used to create the period silhouettes.

The display was fun, and beautiful.

Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Indianapolis Museum of Art. RL Fifield.

Wanderlust Wednesday – The Market at Loches

Dr. V, Jeremy Witteveen, (of Le Cafe Witteveen), and Tina Serafini and I all decamped to France in June. Our cheery, sunny French vacation was mostly cloudy and frequently chilling during an unusually cold and rainy summer. No matter! We explored the country side south of the Loire Valley, making the tiny hamlet of Beaumont-Village and my friend Ms. B’s parents’ house our base of operations (you can rent it at airbnb). In this corner of France, every view is beautiful.

Nearby, the medieval town of Loches has a famous Saturday market, which winds through the crooked old streets. A few pics from our trip to Loches.

A charred cake you break open to eat.

A charred cake you break open to eat. RL Fifield.

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Lovely, lovely tripe. RL Fifield.

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Radishes are beautiful. I wish I liked them more. I like the French practice of eating them with butter and salt. Truthfully, I think I’m just more into the butter. RL Fifield.

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Gorgeous flowers everywhere. RL Fifield.