Yours Sincerely 2017

April 2017

Lisa and I have just spent a couple of days in the largest medieval city in the world. The medina in Fez in Morocco is contained within an ancient wall in the center of the modern city. Seventy thousand people live and work in the medina. There are no cars, trucks or motor bikes: Everything moves on foot – whether human or donkey. There are just shy of 10,000 streets there, most less than six feet wide, though some of the major thoroughfares may be as wide as eight feet! No street runs in a straight line for more than about 50 yards.

Most of the building in the medina was done in the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, and very little has changed since. There are many similarities with English and European medieval cities, but there’s one glaring difference: All the houses face inward around hidden courtyards, and present only their backs to the street. Consequently, the streets are lined with blank walls: But the doors through into the courtyards obviously had great social and architectural significance, so the doorways are magnificent, showy structures.

No map, no GPS, can save you from getting lost in the medina. We had booked dinner in a restaurant about five minutes’ walk from the yard where we were staying, a beautifully restored and modernized seventeenth-century house around a courtyard filled with tropical plants and tinkling water. The restaurant sent a guide to take us there. We concentrated hard on the route we took, and thought we could find our way back home on our own. The restaurant was far too polite to call us stupid Americans to our faces: Instead, when we walked out onto the street after dinner, an elderly man in a long black cloak carrying a candle-lantern appeared in front of us and silently led us back to our ryad. Following a black-cloaked man with a lantern through dark, narrow streets was a truly medieval experience. Walking home from a restaurant in Ipswich can’t (ahem) hold a candle to it!

Like a medieval town in England, the souks, the market areas of the medina, grouped similar trades together. All the shops were tiny and specialist, so in a line of butchers you found shops selling goat, lamb, rabbit (alive), chickens (also alive) and camel. (I’ve included a picture of that particular shop, thinking it might whet your appetite.)

One of the clothing streets had a dozen or more shops selling men’s or women’s clothing – all of the men’s underwear was American (Diesel was particularly popular) and most of the men’s outerwear was western, but all of the women’s clothes were traditional Arab. Make of that what you will. But the point that struck us was that each tiny shop had at least a couple of vendors in it: There were probably 30 or 40 people to sell the number clothes that one, or at most two, “associates” would be expected to sell in an American store.

The souks gave us a glimpse into a different economy: Small scale, sustainable and non-competitive. I think that English medieval markets must have worked on a similar principle – bring what you have, sell enough to keep body and soul together, and be satisfied with that. The four or five lamb butchers, for example, showed no signs of competing for customers – clearly, over time, the market forces (to use a capitalist term) had settled on four or five lamb butchers as a sustainable number, where eight or ten would have been too many: The result was no competition for customers. So there was no sign of an avid entrepreneur wanting to “scale up” and consolidate all the lamb butchers into one.

The ethos behind it reminded me a bit of men in seventeenth-century New England; their correspondence and journals show that their desire was to “secure a competence” – to earn enough to give their families a comfortable life, but not more than that. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, we begin to see evidence of the desire to become rich, really rich.

Our lantern-bearing guide back from the restaurant was another example of a small scale economy. His lantern provided just enough light, but only just. He showed no desire to shed light on a larger area of the street than we actually needed to see, and had no chance of becoming the Uber of the medieval medina.

Now I mustn’t get too romantic about a human scaled, almost subsistence, economy that operated on the principle of just-enough, instead of as-much-as-possible. But walking behind a dim lantern instead of down a dimly lit street did inspire thoughts about how we live now that I might not otherwise have had.


March 2017

It’s not often that a major purchase in 1762 turns into a major headache in 2017. But that is what happened with the First Church’s clock in Ipswich.

The First Church (uppercase C: the institution) built its first church (lowercase c: the building) in 1634, the year that Ipswich was founded. The church stood on the highest point in town and was the town’s first public building – besides being a house of worship, it also served as a meeting house and even as a fortress guarding against French or Indian attacks.

This first church lasted only a dozen years. In 1646, the Church decided it needed a better church, so it built the second church — which lasted all of 50 years. Then it, too, was torn down to make way for the third First Church that, in 1749, was replaced by the fourth First Church (all this seems weird to me: I grew up in England where churches were built of stone and were expected to last for eternity. In Ipswich, England, by way of contrast, the parish church was built in the 1350s and is still going strong.)

By the middle of the eighteenth century, a modern town needed a public clock. People needed to organize their businesses and activities on a common schedule: A public clock signals the beginning of scheduling – without which life today would be impossible. Before then, the church bell had been rung every day at 5 a.m., noon and 9 p.m., which at least did something to keep people within a common timeframe. A town clock had become a necessity, but there were no capable American clockmakers at the time, so the Ipswich clock had to be ordered from England. The maker is not recorded, but construction and stylistic details suggest it was John Hawting of Oxford.

As the parish records tell us, “A clock purchased by subscription was landed in Ipswich May 29, 1762. The Parish on May 31st voted their readiness to receive it into the steeple of this meeting house and September 16, 1762 they voted to be at the charge of putting it up there.”

Then in 1846 (here comes another church), the First Church built the fifth church and relocated the clock into the new steeple where it continued to keep the town clicking along like (ahem!) clockwork. And then – calamity! In June, 1965, the church was destroyed by lightning and the clock reduced to a jumble of cogwheels lying in the ashes. Parishioners gathered them up, put them in a box and promptly forgot about them.

Fifty years later, a tower clock expert comes on the scene. Donn Lathrop heard about the pile of clock parts, inspected them and volunteered to take them to his Vermont workshop and put them back together again. And he did just that. Today the clock is back in town in full working order and probably more accurate than at any time in its history – it loses just one minute in 24 hours.

And here’s the problem. There’s no question of the clock’s importance: It’s the first town clock and it’s one of the earliest in New England. But it’s huge. It’s around eight feet high and six feet wide. It can’t be fitted into the tower of the sixth church (are you still keeping count?) and for the time being it’s sitting in a hallway outside the pastor’s office. The Town Hall can’t find room to display it, nor can the Ipswich Museum.

Coincidently this month, I wrote in “In My Opinion” about the imaginative richness when an antique is in its original place. Just like the cupboard and the walking cane that I described, we have the antique and we have its original place, but here we can’t put them back together! We’re all trying to figure out just what is the best thing to do with an eight-foot tall homeless clock. If you have any ideas, we’d love to hear from you.

February 2017

Your’s Sincerely

John Fiske

It was the provenance that got me first, and then the casters. I had received an email from a woman who wanted to donate three chairs to the Ipswich Museum. We have a lot of chairs, many of them pretty nondescript, so I hardly bounced up and down with excitement at the news. But reading on, I learned that she was a descendent of the Lummus family, and according to her family history, the chairs had originally been in the Lummus House on High Street, here in Ipswich.

When I went to meet her and look at the chairs, she showed me a coin silver spoon she owned inscribed “JH Lummus Sept 3, 1842” (probably a christening spoon) and she outlined the genealogical research she had done on her family. It all seemed entirely credible to me. I stress this because too many oral family histories are based more on wish-fulfillment than on fact: “My grandmother used to say that it belonged to her great-grandfather who had brought it over on the Mayflower…”

Anyway, the chairs were interesting and the strong Ipswich provenance meant that we leapt to accept the donation. Our mission is to preserve and display the material heritage of Ipswich, and the Lummus chairs are among the very few items in our collection where we can identify the actual house where they lived. A homecoming of a rare sort.

All antiques tell us stories, but I get particularly turned on by ones that ask me questions and challenge me to figure out the story. That’s exactly what the casters on one of the chairs did. It’s uncommon to find casters on the front feet of side chairs, so why were they there? And, equally important, were they original or were they later additions?

The screws holding the casters were handmade in the eighteenth century, which told me precisely nothing about whether the casters were original or not. Without the casters, the seat would have been exactly horizontal: With them, the front of the seat was one and a half inches higher than the rear. Seats often tilted backward, but this would be a steeper tilt than usual. Contrarily, side stretchers are usually parallel to the floor, and these tilted backward, but only by half an inch, which means that without the casters they would have tilted forward – a virtually unheard of design feature. Angle of seat rail says one thing, angle of stretcher says another: Who’s telling the truth? A fun conundrum!

The undersides of the front feet give us the answer. Their front edges, or toes, were well worn, in fact, very worn compared to the rear legs. Usually with chairs the rear legs show more wear than the front because they carry more of the weight. This excessive wear on the toes was most likely caused when the sitter leant forward to pull the chair forward, as when sitting at a table. Pulling the chair under the table must have been more of a problem than usual, because the sitter was unable to ease her weight upward as she pulled inward (try it, you’ll see what I mean). So she wore down the toes, until the casters were fitted to help her.

This Queen Anne chair, I conclude, belonged to an elderly or infirm woman in the Lummus family sometime between 1725 and 1750 and, what’s more, she had a thoughtful son who fitted the casters to make life easier for his ailing mother. Doesn’t that warm the cockles of your heart, as my grandmother used to say?

January 2017

Yours Sincerely – January 2017

John Fiske

A couple of days after hearing a fascinating talk on first settlement farming by my friend Peter Cook (see “In My Opinion”), I was sitting in the kitchen talking with Lisa while she made the Thanksgiving stuffing. Two key ingredients were pork sausage and apple: Watching her stir them into the mix took me right back to Peter Cook’s talk.

Almost as a throwaway anecdote Peter had told us that first period pigs were allowed to root around under the apple trees, where they scarfed down the windfalls and the rotten fruit. This, of course, was in the fall, and the fall was also the time for slaughtering the animals who could not be kept over the winter. So the swine, as they were called then, that were slaughtered in the fall had an apple-y sort of taste, and the good housewives of early New England were skillful enough cooks to enhance this taste with applesauce. And we’ve eaten pork and applesauce together ever since: Our 2016 Thanksgiving stuffing goes back a very long way.

We’d bought the pork sausage from the farm where the pigs had been raised (no pig-factory pork if we can avoid it) and the apples had come from the same farm’s orchards. I don’t know if the pigs had actually been rooting around under the apple trees – I hope so, but I suppose that would be too much authenticity to expect!

Peter and his wife Nancy run a pre-industrial farm in Maine, just an hour north of us. Part of their plan is to recreate, as far as possible, the crops and animals of a colonial farm. After a lot of research into pig history and pig genetics, Peter has come close to reproducing the sort of medieval swine that the first farmers brought over from England – I don’t know the full details, but it involved breeding with Appalachian razor-backs which are, apparently, the closest living relatives of medieval swine.

The apples on Peter and Nancy’s farm are all heritage species with lovely names such as Cox’s orange pippin – I particularly remember that one because my grandmother had a couple of trees mixed in with her Lord Suffields (good cookers and keepers, but not eaters) and Blenheim oranges (good cookers and eaters but not keepers). But the Cox’s orange pippins were her favorite – mine too, small to medium size, crisp, crunchy and sweet, and good for eating, cooking and keeping. Just about the perfect apple.

Then along came the European Common Market which decreed that the traditional English apples did not meet its standards of size, color and tastelessness. The old apples had to go. I’m glad that my grandmother died in time to miss that. Over here, we have supermarkets that perform the same function – so most Americans believe that all apples are exactly the same size, color and texture, with nary a blemish on their skins. Oh, I forgot the tastelessness – a very important criterion.

Peter and Nancy’s aim is not to produce commercial quantities of medieval swine and heritage apples, but to keep our early history alive. That’s good enough for me. I’m sure that no cooking column in a glossy magazine will ever recommend their products – but I do hope that one day I might have a chance to taste the pork and applesauce that my forebears did, nearly four centuries ago. I’ll eat it sitting on a first period chair at a first period table in a room lit by firelight and candles, and I will be one heck of a happy camper!


Yours Sincerely 2016

December 2016

Yours Sincerely

John Fiske

Two days ago, the Massachusetts Turnpike changed to electronic tolling only – a fact that will interest almost nobody except me, because I drive the Pike regularly between my home in Ipswich and the NEAJ offices in Palmer. But it did get me thinking about roads.

The Pike’s symbol, a Puritan Hat, had led me to hope that there was a nice early road lurking beneath its high-speed surface, but no luck: The Mass Pike is part of the Eisenhower Interstate system, and opened in 1965, not 1665 when that hat was in fashion. Before 1965, the road that mattered was the Boston Post Road, and that does have a history. The Boston Post Road carried the mail between New York and Boston, and opened in 1673 with a rider carrying “two port-mantles crammed with letters, sundry goods and bags.” It was the first postal route in the country. In 1691 it was extended to Portsmouth, N.H.

But it wasn’t actually a single route and even in 1673, it wasn’t new. The Lower Post Road ran from New York to Hartford, and the Upper Post Road from Hartford to Boston, but somewhere in the middle, there was a stretch known as the Middle Post Road (no records appear to exist) that was described in 1694 by a traveler from Hartford as “very rocky, bushy, in many places miry: but tho our road was bad and long, being counted about 50 miles, yet we came to Woodstock about 8 of ye clock.”

The Upper Post Road leading out of Boston was known as the Pequot Path, made and used by Native Americans long before the first settlement. The Pequot Path connected with other Native American paths that together formed the basis of the Boston Post Road. Some were as narrow as 18 inches, and even the wide ones were only 24 inches wide – the native Americans moved along them in, well, “Indian file.” Some local stretches were widened to take an ox cart, but it wasn’t until the coming of the stage coach in 1783 that it became something that we might recognize as a road.

Long before the Post Road, every town in the colony had been required by law to maintain its own local roads. Infrastructure was as important then as it is today, and it was certainly taken better care of. Here in Ipswich, we appointed four “road-surveyors” in 1640 and gave them the authority to demand a day’s labor, as needed, from any man over the age of 14: “For every day’s default, the forfeit is in Summer 3s. 4d., in Winter 2s. 6d; for defect of a team each day is in Summer 13s. 4d., in Winter 10s.” (a “team” was an ox-cart and driver.) These forfeits might have seemed a tad punitive: In 1639 the Massachusetts General Court ruled that “Carpenters, joyners, bricklayers, sawyers and thatchers might not take above 2s. a day, nor shall any man give more under penalty of 10s. to taker and giver.” A day’s forfeit was way above a day’s wages! As an aside here, it is worth noting that today we legislate the minimum wage: in 1639, when there was more to do than workers to do it, it was the maximum wage that needed legislative control.

But it seems that some roads were maintained by paid labor hired by grantees, such as John Lee who, in 1640, was empowered to sell the hay growing along “Chebacco waye to Labour-in-vain Creeke” to pay for its maintenance. Similarly, the town voted that “The highway to Chebacco beneath Heart-break Hill forever be repayred by the benefit of the grasse yearly growing upon the same.” The boundaries of the roads were only loosely delineated, if at all, and what the surveyors surveyed was not the cartography of the road, but the measures needed to maintain it.

Almost all the travel was by foot, although the occasional ox-drawn, two-wheeled tumbril was to be seen. It’s easy to imagine that some ill-will may have been generated by pedestrians trying to avoid the muddiest parts of the road and the grantee who wanted to keep the grassy edges as clean as possible for his hay crop.

Anyway, it all seems a long way from my zipping under the cameras that automatically charge my EZ Pass account. But at least many of the electronic gantries are powered by solar panels – a faint echo perhaps of the hay growing along the road that paid for its maintenance. Green energy has a long history.

November 2016

Yours Sincerely – November 2016

John Fiske

I love it when an antique gives you one of those “Aha!” moments. I had one recently, quite a big one. A friend, Kerry Mackin, and I had driven up to Bowdoin College in Maine to get a good look at the four pieces of furniture in their art museum that had been made in the Dennis shop right here in Ipswich, round about 1670. Kerry and I are both members of the Ipswich Museum and we’re both very proud of the two Dennis chests in the museum’s collection, one by Thomas Dennis Senior and the other by one of his sons, Thomas or John. We are one of the few museums (perhaps even the only one) where visitors can see father-and-son Dennis chests side by side (allow me some bragging rights here!).

Anyway, as we entered the Bowdoin gallery my eye fell on the two largest pieces – a wainscot chair and a chest. I knew the chair well from photographs (it’s one of Dennis’ masterworks and is very famous), but I’d never seen the chest before. “Aha!” I looked again: “Aha!”

“Aha!” because the chest shared many Dennis features with our Dennis Jr. chest. Both were decorated with a mixture of applied geometric moldings and carving. Chests made around 1700 usually had one or the other, but rarely both. As a result, there’s always been a little doubt niggling away in the back of our minds that the carving on our Dennis Jr. chest may have been a later enhancement. But here was another Dennis chest whose top and bottom rails were carved but with the rest of its front decorated with applied geometric moldings.

Excited and moving at what my aging body thinks is high speed, I zoomed in for a closer look. Another “Aha!” The carving on the rails was virtually identical to the carving on our chest. The carved motifs on both chests are known as “foliated S-curves” and variants of it are quite common in seventeenth-century English and, to a lesser extent, American work. In fact, I must have seen hundreds of examples of it on chests, boxes, chairs and cupboards. Dennis Sr. of course had apprenticed in England before immigrating, and he brought his ingrained sense of English style with him.

When you get even closer, the similarities between the Bowdoin and the Ipswich carvings become even more convincing. Two sorts of cutting tool are used in this style of carving: V-tools and U-gouges. The V-tool is used to incise grooves, and the U-gouge is used in two ways: Used horizontally it takes out the background and used vertically it outlines the design. The outlines of the leaves and veins on each chest were cut with vertical strokes by three different U-gouges and the veins and longer curves were cut freehand with a V-tool.

The U-gouges had three different diameters. The smallest diameter gouge cut the circles at the end of each S-curve – struck three or four times to complete the circle. The mid-diameter gouge was used to cut the outside of the leaves curling around the circle. And then the largest diameter gouge was used to outline the larger leaves. And the same diameter U-gouges were used on each chest. In fact, I’ll go further and say that it was the same gouges that cut the pattern on each.

And then came the final fact authenticating the carving on the Ipswich chest: The Bowdoin chest had been donated to the museum by a member of the Dennis family that had owned it ever since it was first carried out of the Dennis shop in Ipswich. Surely this comes as close as you can ever get to a guarantee that the carving on our chest is original.

A mystery cleared up, “Aha!” moments that warmed my blood and a few hours in a car chatting with a good friend. Antiquing really is a good way to spend your time.


October 2016

Yours Sincerely – October 2016

John Fiske

ysoct-1We had to replace our fence recently. I’d patched and staked the old post and rail fence for years, until it reached the point where I just couldn’t keep the poor old thing upright any longer. So we replaced it with a paled fence (or “picket fence” in today’s language).

Fencing has always been important in Ipswich. In 1635, the year after the town was incorporated, the town ruled that “All House lotts within the Town are to be fenced by the first of May and such as fail shall pay 2.s pr rodd beside the payne of doing it.”

In 1653, the General Court of Massachusetts detailed the specifications of a good fence: “…it is hereby ordered that all the sd. fences shall be made of pales well nailed or pinned, or of five rails well fitted, or of stone wall three and a half feet high at least, or with a good ditch three or four feet wide, with a good bank and 2 rayles, or a good hedge, or such as is equivalent, upon the banke, all and every one of wch kindes shall be made sufficiently to defend, and keep out Swyne and all sorts of cattle.”

Our new fence is “made of pales well nailed or pinned” so it’s historically acceptable, but we have to admit that it does look ultra-neat and tidy. The paled fence around the Ipswich Museum’s replica 1657 house is more historically accurate, but I don’t think our neighbors would have liked us to have erected one like it. The way we use our fence is historically off the mark, too: Its main use is to keep the dog in, not “to keep out Swyne and all sorts of cattle.” Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a single swyne ambling down Water Street since we moved here.

Our paled fence may be a modernized variant, but the crumbling post and rail fence that it replaced would not have passed muster even when it was new: It had only three rails — and they weren’t all that well fitted either. Actually, I don’t think that many modern fences would meet the 1653 standards: I haven’t seen a single one with five rails, and only a few with four – and they’re mostly around expensive horse properties.

In 1653, though, fences were meant to keep animals out, not in, so they needed rails close together and close to the ground to exclude dogs, piglets and chickens. Dogs were particularly adept at breaking through fences to get at peoples’ gardens, which were typically fertilized with rotten fish – an obvious doggy delicacy – so any dogs roaming the streets of Ispwich were required by law to have one leg tied up to prevent them digging under the fences and into the fish.

Pigs were a nuisance, too. Each day, the adult swine were driven beyond the town boundary fences by swineherds, but, “small pigs as are pigged after the 1st of February shall have liberty to be about the Town, not being liable to pay any damage in house lots or gardens…” These pigs had to be ringed, to make it painful for them to push into the earth with their snouts, and they also had to wear yokes that protruded a couple of feet beyond their necks so that they couldn’t push through narrow gaps or half-open gates.

In general, it seems that house lots were fenced with palings, and meadow or planting lots with post and rails. In 1635, for example, Daniel Denison was granted “a house lott near the Mill, containge about two acres, which he hath paled in, and built a house upon it.” Robert Tarule, author of The Artisan of Ipswich, has calculated that Denison’s fence would have needed 2,500 pales, 1,250 feet of rails and 160 posts (a five-rail fence required about 60% of the timber needed for a paled fence). Almost as many trees were used for fencing as for housing.

Our little fence pales (no pun intended) in comparison, but I still enjoy the feeling that it would have passed the scrutiny of any of the town’s “fence viewers” – an office created in 1639.

One difference does stand out, however: In the seventeenth century we would have been required by law to erect a fence. In the twenty-first century we were required by law to get permission even to replace one. Because our fence was less than six feet high, we did not actually need planning permission (small mercy), but because it was close to the river, the Conservation Commission did have to give us the okay – a process that took eight weeks of hard bureaucratic labor, not to mention the goodly chunk of a tree that provided all the paper.

But it’s all done now. As Lisa and I sit on the front porch on a summer evening, waiting for the new cedar of our new fence to weather and mellow, it’s nice to think of early Ipswich as a thoroughly fenced town whose bustling streets were filled with three-legged dogs hopping along among ringed and yoked piglets. Ah, those were the days.


September 2016

Yours Sincerely – September 2016


If you look at the Fitz Henry Lane painting in “In My Opinion,” (detail shown here) you’ll see six men straining to push a boat into the water. Our boat is about the same size, and I can launch it all on my own (ssh, I use a car and trailer). Life today really is easier than it was 150 years ago.

There can be no more dramatic example of that than the experience of Howard Blackburn. In the winter of 1883 he and his dory mate, Tom Welch, were fishing from the schooner Grace L. Fears. Dories were row boats with a crew of two who fished by hand and transferred their catch to the schooner (which typically had six to ten dories fishing from it). In Lane’s painting you can see a dory pulled up just out of the water. The Grace L. Fears once brought 50 tons of halibut home to Gloucester, a record at the time.

Anyway, a fierce storm blew up, separating Blackburn and Welch from the schooner, which soon disappeared from sight. Knowing that his hands were going to freeze and become useless, Blackburn bound them to the handles of his oars, and started rowing in the direction, he hoped, of Newfoundland. Five days later, without food, water or sleep, Blackburn reached land. Welch had died on the second day.

The Newfoundland family who took him in did everything they could for him, but frostbite took all of Blackburn’s fingers and both his thumbs to the first joint. No doctor was involved: apparently, his necrotic fingers simply dropped off, one by one.

On his return home, the good folk of Gloucester treated him as a hero (no argument from me) and opened a subscription that was enough to set him up with a saloon. But saloon-keeping must have seemed tame, for in 1897 Blackburn caught “gold fever” and organized an expedition to the Klondike. Of course he sailed there, going all the way round Cape Horn. Sadly, he did not make his fortune and came home disappointed to Gloucester.

But Blackburn was a restless landlubber; it seems that a couple of years on land was all that he could bear. So in 1899 he sailed single-handed and fingerless from Gloucester to England in 62 days. Then two years later, he crossed the Atlantic again, but this time to Portugal in 39 days.

In the Cape Ann Museum, there is a dory, identical to the one in Lane’s painting, and just like the one that Blackburn and Welch would have fished from. Look at my photograph of it, and imagine rowing it for five days without a break in the freezing north Atlantic winter. There’s also a large photograph of Howard Blackburn, snappily dressed and modestly hiding his absence of fingers. (If you are more interested in his life on land than on the ocean, you can still drink a beer in Howard’s Tavern on Main Street, though it now goes under the name “Halibut Point Restaurant.”)

You can take the man out of the boat, but you can’t take the boat out of the man. I’ve been in and out of boats for most of my life, but I couldn’t be further from Howard Blackburn. Today, our little boat is an important part of our summer (summer only, please note) and the most adventurous thing we do is to head out with a couple of friends for a cocktail cruise late on a summer’s afternoon (cold white wine and nibbles, and an Ipswich Ale if you want it). We’re also a long way from Blackburn’s time – what we do for pleasure today was work then – think boating, gardening, photography. Thankfully, our cocktail cruise is powered by an outboard not by me with oars, if it’s cold we don’t go and if we hit trouble, we have a cell phone…

John Fiske


August 2016

Yours Sincerely

YSAug-1As I stuck my thermometer into the thick slab of pork on our charcoal grill, I was immediately reminded of Ruth Goodwin. Ruth is the sort of historian I love; she lives history, she doesn’t just write about it.

When she bakes in a seventeenth-century oven, we experience exactly how a seventeenth-century housewife made her bread and pies and custards. The oven was three feet in diameter with a perfectly domed roof. Ruth lights a pile of small twigs in the center of the floor and keeps feeding the fire as she watches the flames. At first they rise up in a column then they begin to spread out around the dome and down the sides in an even sheet of flame. Then the exhaust gases, which had escaped as smoke, get sucked back into the fire: The fire gets hotter and the smoke disappears. The flames gradually change from spiky orange to lazy blue and now, some 45 minutes later, the oven is almost hot enough for baking.

To test the heat Ruth can throw a handful of flour at the roof of the oven – if it sparks on contact the temperature will be at its highest. But generally, she says, she prefers to use her hand to check the pattern of heat outside the oven door – how far the heat spreads and whether there’s a big difference between higher up and lower down. As she says, there’s a surprisingly sharp line between fairly hot and “ouch!” It makes my thermometer seem boring and, horror of horrors, I even use an oven glove!

Working very quickly so as to conserve the heat, Ruth scrapes out the ash, cleans the floor of the oven with a wet mop and puts in the first batch of bread. She plugs the opening with a wooden door that has been soaking in a bucket of water and seals it with a roll of flour-and-water paste.

In 45 minutes the bread is baked. The temperature of the oven has fallen, but is now just right for pies, small buns and cakes, so she removes the bread and replaces it with pies and cakes. An hour later, they too are cooked and the remaining heat is just enough to set custards and to give biscuits their second baking.

Three oven-loads of food from a small fire of twigs – not bad.

The early ovens of stone, brick or clay were usually free standing, were often built outside and were often communal – they baked too much for a single household so neighbors came together to bake. Later, as the seventeenth century turned into the eighteenth, smaller, so-called “beehive” ovens were built into the stone hearths indoors. They provided for the household only, and were obviously more convenient, but Ruth clearly prefers the three-foot dome to an 18-inch beehive.

In towns, much of the baking was done by professional bakers. In early New England, the price of a commercially made loaf was kept constant and the weight of each loaf varied with the price of grain. In 1650, for instance, New Haven directed that when wheat was six and one-half shillings a bushel, the one-penny white loaf should weigh six ounces.

I tried to find a recipe for seventeenth-century bread so that I could share it with you, but all the ones I found were so similar to modern ones that I saw little point in copying them. Our ovens may have changed, the skill needed to bake may have decreased, but our bread is still something that we have in common with our forebears.

Though I do think I’ll continue to use my thermometer, and not my hand. “Ouch!” seems an unnecessary measure of doneness.

John Fiske

Reference: Ruth Goodwin (2015), How to be a Tudor, New York, Liveright Publishing


July 2016

YSJuly-2I’d thought of two openings for this column, and as I can’t decide between them, I’m giving you both.

First: “Recycle, reuse and repurpose have been buzzwords in a vibrant sector of the antiques market for some time now. But, as antiques continually teach us, there’s nothing new under the sun…”

Second: “One of the first questions we ask of an antique is its date. A bar in Bury St. Edmunds, England, gave Lisa and me a plethora of answers: It was a retro-1960s bar built in the early 2000s in the cellar of a sixteenth-century inn that had been made using stones from an eleventh-century Abbey.”

The Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds was mostly built between 1050 and 1150, though its sacred roots go back to 869, when Edmund, King of East Anglia, was martyred by the “Great Heathen Army of Danes” (what a great name to stick them with!).

By 1327, the Abbey had become so wealthy, and so domineering that it seriously ticked off the citizens of the town who mounted a “Great Riot” and destroyed parts of it. The monks immediately rebuilt it. Then in 1539, King Henry VIII “dissolved” the monastery, forcing the monks to move elsewhere and leaving it empty. Instantly, it became the richest source of building materials that anyone could imagine.

Now let’s step back a bit. Bury St. Edmunds is in East Anglia, the next town to Ipswich (where my mother’s family comes from – Lisa and I were there for a family wedding). East Anglia has a rich clay soil, but the only stone there is flint, which comes in fist-sized chunks – not a great building material, though East Anglians did build with it. Structurally the Abbey itself was built of flint and mortar but it was then faced with dressed limestone, possibly from the Cotswolds on the other side of the country. Imagine hundreds of tons of limestone being floated in small barges down the Thames, through London, up the East Coast, up the River Stour to Ipswich and then up its tributary, the River Lark, that actually flows through the grounds of the Abbey. Then it all had to be dressed by skilled masons who also had to be imported. No wonder dressed limestone was so highly valued that hardly a piece remains among the Abbey ruins today.

We can be pretty certain that arches of this dressed limestone were reused to make the cellars of the Angel, a Tudor coaching inn that appears to have been built at about the time that the Abbey was dissolved.

My slightly offbeat mind finds it appropriate that parts of an eleventh-century abbey should house a bar in the 2000s: The Abbey contained three breweries. It needed them, because each monk was entitled to eight pints of beer a day! Talk about thirsting after righteousness.

The bar was furnished in a kitschy style that mocked the seriousness of the stone arches. To some it might have seemed an irreverent decoration, but to my mind, those thousand-year-old arches were so powerful that nothing could diminish them.

Reusing, repurposing, mixing dates into a numerical alphabet soup – yes please, do whatever you want just as long as I can end my day with a cocktail in a bar like this.

June 2016

YSJune16Antiques that bleat – now there’s a category of antiques that I bet you’ve never thought of. But Strawbery Banke in Portsmoth, N.H. held an exhibition recently in which they were given pride of place, along with antiques that honked, mooed and chirped. Called “Barnyard Spring,” it was an exhibition of heritage breeds of farm animals held under a big tent on the museum’s grounds. Each breed was represented by mothers and newly born offspring. The kids loved it, and so did Lisa and I.

I asked Peter Cook, a long-time friend who had curated the exhibition, which was the most historic breed on view. Unhesitatingly he pointed to the Jacob sheep, but then hesitated and pointed to the Soay (pronounced “say”) sheep as well. “I dunno,” he said, “take your pick.”

Of course, with flesh and blood antiques we have to rethink our notions of age and dating. Those Jacob lambs, for instance, were either three days old or three thousand years old, or both. They were named after Jacob, son of Isaac, who was the first recorded breeder of livestock. The Jacobs we were looking at may have been the direct descendants of the Old Testament sheep, possibly the sort that some famous shepherds watched by night, and that became the basis of so many Biblical metaphors.

I asked Peter how we could be sure that these were actually the “same” sheep. The answer reminded me of how country antiques, such as those from the Connecticut River Valley, retain a distinct “look” that identifies their unique qualities. Jacob sheep came from isolated, often poor, areas: They were perfectly adapted to their environment, and in these conditions there was little risk of stray interbreeding and no reason for planned interbreeding to make the breed “better.” The Soay sheep illustrated the principle even more clearly. They were from the Isle of Soay (year-round population: three) in the Hebrides, the string of islands off the North West coast of Scotland. Soays were perfectly adapted to life on wet, windswept, treeless islands, so there was no Darwinian, or other, reason for them to evolve over the thousands of years of their existence. (Lisa and I are just about to leave for a vacation in the Hebrides, and I’m sure a future “Yours Sincerely” will come out of our trip! Stay tuned.)

In so many ways, these ancient sheep are like country antiques, particularly in the way they stand in vital contradiction to the mass production that dominates so much of our lives. You’ll never get Jacob or Soay lamb chops wrapped in plastic on your supermarket meat counter: Supermarkets want meat from animals that have been scientifically bred into meat-making machines whose products are designed for mass market appeal.

On our last vacation, Lisa and I spent an enjoyable evening with a New Zealand beef farmer called, appropriately, Angus. He bought day-old male calves from dairy farmers, fed them a diet that had been precisely formulated by, wait for it, MacDonalds, and slaughtered them at exactly the age/weight that MacDonalds required. They then became burgers that tasted exactly the same all over the world. In practice, Angus told us, these MacDonalized animals had very little taste, so judicious bits of fat and other animal parts were mixed in with their meat to produce the perfect, globalized burger.

Look again at those Soay sheep from a Hebridean island and list all the ways you can think of in which they differ from a MacDonalized calf. Now look at a Connecticut River Valley armchair and list all the ways that it differs from one made by IKEA. Now compare the two lists. Get my point?

I should also point out that they complement each other: The armchair would have been inside the farmhouse, and the heritage pigs, cattle sheep and poultry outside.

Those who are more scientific than I (not a high bar) applaud heritage farmers for maintaining the biodiversity of the planet in the belief that biodiversity is a vital ingredient of a healthy future. If the only beef animals were MacDonalized, the argument goes, we’d be facing a tasteless, sterile future. I’m a big believer in biodiversity too, but I’m looking at food for the imagination. If the only armchairs available were those made by IKEA, my argument goes, we’d also be facing a tasteless, sterile future. In a world of mass production, we really, really need the Isle of Soay and the Connecticut River Valley.

John Fiske

May 2016

YSMay16Ruth Goodman is my sort of historian. She doesn’t take showers. Hey, before you jump to conclusions, let me explain. In not bathing, Goodman was merely following doctor’s orders. In 1547, Thomas Moulton, in his book This is the Myrrour or Glasse of Health, ordered: “Use no baths or stoves; nor swet too much, for all openenth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloode.”

Tudor doctors knew that infections drifted in the air and could soak into the body when its pores were open. They knew, too, that the body produced its own filth which could be reabsorbed and “infecte the bloode.” Good health required maintaining the skin as an impenetrable barrier with all its pores tightly closed.

There may not have been much that a wellness-orientated Tudor could have done to avoid “venomous ayre,” but she could combat the filth of her own body. The Tudors devised a rigorous regime of hygiene, particularly about underwear. Dirty clothes touching the body posed a serious health risk.
No wool, leather or silk should lie next to the skin, because they were difficult to keep clean and thus held the filth against the body. Linen was the ideal material for underwear, for linen absorbed bodily secretions and was easy to wash. So shirts, smocks, under-breeches and hose were all made of linen and were changed at least daily, and sometimes more often.

Linen allowed the Tudors to keep perfectly clean without doing anything as risky as opening the pores. In his 1534 book, The Castel of Helth, Sir Thomas Elyot recommended that each morning “a man should rubbe the body with a course linen clothe, first softely and easily, and after to increase more and more, to a hard and swyfte rubbinge, until the fleshe do swelle, and be somewhat ruddy…” Then he dressed his somewhat ruddy body in scrupulously laundered linen, and set himself up to go through the day as fresh as a sprig of lavender.

Not content to read about Tudor hygiene, Ruth Goodman practiced it. For more than three months, she followed Moulton’s advice against bathing (or showering), all the time living a normal life in modern society. No one noticed. She wore a fine linen smock under a modern blouse and skirt, and linen hose beneath a pair of opaque tights. She obeyed Elyot and rubbed herself with a linen cloth each evening and she dressed with a clean smock and hose daily. After three months she concluded, “I remained remarkably smell-free – even my feet. My skin also stayed in good condition – better than usual, in fact.”

On another occasion, while she was making a film on Tudor life for the BBC, she followed the same regime for six months. The same result.

I thank you, Ruth Goodman. Your research has cleared a problem that has floated in and out of my mind for the last 50 years. Like most other people, I’d assumed that because the Tudors and Elizabethans rarely bathed, the bodily odors in an average house must have been close to life-threatening. This led me to wonder why it was that Shakespeare could write the most sensuous love poetry in the English language without ever mentioning that his beloved stank like a chicken farm. It was because she didn’t. Now I’m just waiting for the TV commercial that promotes natural linen over chemical cosmetics. Dream on!

Reference: Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor, a Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, Liveright Publishing, London and New York, 2015.

John Fiske

April 2016

YSApril16I think many people are, like me, fascinated by early photographs, especially if they are of places we know or, better yet, live in. I got a big dose of photo-fascination recently when I was scrolling through the Dow cyanotypes in the MFA in Boston. Arthur Wesley Dow was Ipswich’s most famous artist. Cyanotype was an early method of printing photographs that gave them a blue tint. When he wasn’t painting landscapes, Dow was photographing them: He loved experimenting with the medium.

Fortunately for Lisa and me, Dow lived directly across the river. Water is always a good subject for photographic experiments, so Dow frequently scrambled down the bank from his front door to capture images of the ever-changing river. And often, lucky us, our house turned up in the background.

By about 1900, when Dow was taking his photographs, our house had had nineteenth-century extensions to one side and the rear. But the river frontage remained much as it was when it was built in 1725 (except for the white paint, a nineteenth-century fashion). What has changed, however, are the buildings on either side of it. They’ve disappeared. They were commercial buildings, clam shacks, small workshops and a large boat-building shop. All gone, but the residential house remains.

Like all artists, Dow loved boats. To be efficient a boat has to be beautiful: Beautiful lines are what the water and the wind demand. Most of the boats he photographed were the working dories used for fishing or transporting cargo up the river from the wharf. Dow was photographing the river toward the end of its long life as the commercial artery of Ipswich – a hard-working river of calloused hands and bent backs. But he also caught the birth of the new river – a river where landlubbers could use a dory for relaxation and pleasure, as in the second photograph.

Our house has undergone a similar transformation to that of the river. It began as the home of the Clark family of tanners, and we assume that subsequent owners chose it because of its commercial location. They certainly did not choose it because of the beauty of its surroundings, because its neighborhood was one of “ill repute,” as were many dock- and river-front areas.

But as the river changed, so did the people along its banks. They no longer worked on the river, but enjoyed its peace and beauty. So all the commercial buildings have gone, while the ones they want to live in have survived.

Dow’s photographs document that moment around the turn of the last century when the old river was ending and the new river just beginning. And right at the pivot point stands our house, swinging from a 250-year past to an indefinite future (it is in the Architectural Preservation District, so it can never be demolished like the buildings that once surrounded it).

History is always a mix of continuity and change: Our house has lived continuously from the early past to the unforeseeable future: Everything around it, however, has changed – except for the two tides that ebb and flow every day right in front of it.

John Fiske

March 2016

ysmarch16I love chairs, I always have. Partly it’s because they are so sculptural and artful. They can be three-dimensional artworks – the elemental form of their backs is like a blank canvas. And good chair-makers treated it like one. Backs and crest rails were the most visible parts of chairs, so that’s where the maker devoted his artistry.

Of course chairs are useful, but they also serve, just like paintings, to decorate a room or a hallway. And then, if you have an extra guest, the “decoration” can become immediately functional again, whereas a painting cannot.
Like any artist, the chair-maker followed the conventions of his time – you can always date a chair or a painting by the stylistic elements that it shares with others of its period. But within these conventions, there’s a lot of room for individual creativity. Mundane chairs conform closely to the conventions of their time; great chairs push them to their limits.

Chairs are also the most human of antiques. We come into intimate bodily contact with them in a way that we don’t with any other category of antiques. The names we give to the parts of a chair tell us how “human” they are: back, arms, seat, ears, foot, ankle, knee… A description of a chair can make it sound just like your great aunt: Spoon back, upholstered seat, knuckle arms, splayed legs…Oops, I mustn’t go any further down that road.

All these chair thoughts pushed themselves into my mind because I’m curating an exhibition of chairs drawn from the Ipswich Museum’s collection. Like most house museums’ our collection is random. It grew haphazardly as townspeople donated chairs that they wanted to get rid of or, sometimes, that they were proud of.  There was no strategic buying to fill holes in the collection as in a metropolitan museum. What we have is what we got.

But that’s no bad thing. In some ways the randomness gives us a better insight into the domestic rooms of colonial Ipswich – this is what people happened to have. I’m always keen to promote the history of humble folk, because most history is of the best and the brightest – who, by definition are always a minority, if a disproportionately influential one.

Ipswich, of course, had its best and brightest, and we have one of their chairs in the exhibition. The town is fortunate to have been the home of the Gaines family, who were important chair-makers in town for three generations and nearly 100 years, beginning in the 1670s. The most famous of them, John Gaines III, moved up the coast to Portsmouth where the shipping trade was better for exporting his chairs – they were in high demand from Boston to Washington. But he made many chairs in Ipswich before he moved, so we count him as one of us.

We’re lucky to be able to display the social span of Gaines’ chairs. In the “Best” category is one of the most imaginatively original chairs that he ever made and we’re pretty certain he made it here in Ipswich – it descended to us through the Appletons, one of the “best” families in town. It’s the star of the show, but it’ll be even more significant because we’ll be able to put it in the context of a pair of Gaines’ “Better” chairs, the ones the family made for the “better” folk. And then, alongside them, we’ll show a “Good” chair, the sort of chair that the regular townspeople would have owned.

The chairs reflect both the social span of the town and the artistry of the Gaines family. The “best” chair shows the most individual creativity: John Gaines III is the only man who could have imagined it. The “good” could have been made by almost any competent chair-maker, there’s nothing particularly individual about it, but it is still a good chair. And in the middle, the crest rail of the “better” chair has the sort of zing to it that makes it a Gaines.

But let’s not forget that while the design of the chairs might reflect differences of wealth and status, what really defines a chair is the human body, one thing that we all have in common. The chairs tell us that despite all the differences of wealth and status, we are still fundamentally the same.

Yup, I like chairs.

John Fiske

February 2016

YSFeb16Just before Christmas, Lisa and I were in a garden store buying evergreen garlands and wreaths. I was being hubbily helpful – i.e. I was the good husband agreeing that this wreath was definitely better than that one, and that that garland would look great over our overmantel.

But then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed some boxes labeled “Fatwood.” If you read me regularly, you’ll know that I’m not one who thinks that history should be confined to the past – the more of it that we can coax into the present, the better we’ll all be. I thought that fatwood was something whose day had long passed, but those fatwood boxes were lined up on the shelf just like any other commodity. Maybe I’m a deficient shopper, but I’d never seen fatwood for sale. I’m sure that many of you will have difficulty keeping the smirk off your faces at my deficiency.

Perhaps I’d never seen fatwood for sale, but I had read about it, and I knew the antiques that were made to hold it. They’re called “poormen” which is an English corruption of the Scottish term “puirmen” which means exactly the same, poor men. Fatwood is splints of resinous pine, preferably from the stump of a felled tree, because that was where the resin was most concentrated. Local blacksmiths made wrought iron puirmen that used a spring to hold the splint in a slot. Growing up in England, I’d never seen a puirman (even if I’d have pronounced it “poorman”) because England had no native pine trees – the only native evergreen tree in England is a yew tree which does have messy resin, but I don’t think it splits well into splints.

I assume they were called puirmen because the splints provided free lighting for the crofts of the poor. Most puirmen also had a candle socket, which I assumed was used to shed light on special occasions using a much more expensive candle.

We have two or three puirmen in the house because they qualify as good-things-to-look-at. But now I could actually try them out; I could use them as well as look at them; I could bring a tiny splinter of history to life. You can sense my enthusiasm. So I put a piece of fatwood into the holder and, cheating a bit, struck a match. The fatwood ignited instantly, and within seconds had produced a flame six inches long. It gave off ten times the light of a candle! What was all this nonsense about fatwood lighting poor crofts while candles lit the mansions of the wealthy? It made no sense to me.
Then the fatwood went out. Just like that.

What had happened was that the flame had consumed all but the core of the top two inches of the splint, but had not crept downward to find new fuel, as I assume it was meant to do. So I re-lit the splint about three inches below the top, and got an even bigger flame. This burned steadily inward, giving off a wonderful light, but I could not get it to burn downward below my ignition point. So, after a few minutes, it, too, went out.

All puirmen are designed to hold the splint vertically, unlike rushnips which hold the rush at about 45 degrees, at which angle it keeps burning steadily although, compared to fatwood, very ineffectively – rush lights give off almost no light. Try them sometime.

So, taking a leaf out of the rushnip’s book (how’s that for a metaphor!), I tried holding a splint at 45 degrees in my hand. It gave off a good flame, though not quite as large as when vertical, and it did burn downward slightly. But to keep it alight I had to rotate it every now and again. I’m sure that was wrong: I’ve never seen a rotating puirman.

There’s a trick here, one that Scottish crofters knew and that I don’t: It lies quietly buried in Scottish history. Winston Churchill once said (misquoting Santanaya), “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Well, I failed to learn from history, and I wish, I really wish, that I’d been doomed to repeat it.

John Fiske

January 2016

YSJan16After a Thanksgiving houseful, when it seemed that every corner was occupied with chattering relatives, I found a bit of peace and quiet. A favorite chair, the dog resting his head on my foot, a book on my lap and Lisa across the room deep in her crossword – just what I needed. My book was a lively account of trials held in the mid-seventeenth century in the New Haven Colony, and went under the intriguing title, The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity – you’ll have to read it to find out why.

As I was reading through the juicy details of presumed witchcraft, poorly made shoes and frisky sexual encounters (there were a lot of them in New Haven), it slowly dawned on me that almost every trial depended on gossip to establish what had actually happened. What she or he had seen or heard, what she or he told others what they had seen or heard, what others had heard about something that others had seen or heard: There was an endless network of gossip from whom no-one was free: Its endpoint was generally the ears of the magistrates. Today we have surveillance cameras everywhere: Then they had the eyes and ears of every neighbor – I suspect that our cameras are nowhere nearly as efficient. Very little went unnoticed in early New Haven.

Ninety percent of gossip, then or now, is about peoples’ failings, the things they shouldn’t have done or said. Gossip is a way of enforcing social norms: Behind it lays a communal sense of the way that people ought to behave.

In 1646, for example, Elizabeth Smith, late servant to Mrs. Leach, told the New Haven court that she heard a Mrs. Brewster “loud in conference” with Mrs. Leach, Mrs. Eaton and Mrs. Moore. Finding the “conference” to be of interest, Elizabeth called another servant, Job Hall, to listen with her because he “could better remember the particulars of such a conference than herself.”

What they heard ended up in court, where their gossip was organized into 12 different “miscarriages.” One was a sermon by the minister, John Davenport, in which he preached that persons “could not have salvation without coming into the church.” Mrs. Brewster was not, apparently, a member of the church, and complained that as she listened to the sermon, “her stomach wombled as when she bred child.” In the “conference” overheard by Elizabeth, Mrs. Brewster reported that she was “sermon sick” and had told her son to “make waste paper” of her notes on the sermon. All this was reported to the court, and Mrs. Brewster’s explanation of her words “gave no satisfaction to the court.”

There doesn’t seem to be any specific law that the gossipers broke: What they did was commit “several miscarriages of a public nature” that violated an unwritten norm – the minister’s word shall not be questioned. And it should certainly not be questioned by women, one of whom “spoke uncomely for her sex and age.”

It seems that good order in a small society depended in large part upon people reporting their neighbors, or particularly their employers, to the Puritan authorities for any presumed “miscarriage,” whether of speech or action. I have to doubt that a high tech security video system would have done a better job – if, of course, you want to call that sort of a job “better.”

Here in Ipswich, our own famous joiner Thomas Dennis was reported by his apprentice for felling more oak trees than the six for which the select board had granted him a permit in 1671. The case dragged on for a long time, but Dennis was fined ten shillings for each of the improperly felled trees, of which half went to his accuser. Ipswich followed the colony-wide practice of awarding half of any fines imposed to the accuser. The book doesn’t say if New Haven did as well. Hmmm…

When Elizabeth Smith and Job Hall reported the improper “conference” of their social betters, were they motivated by a sense of what was right, by a sense of class-based revenge that saw an opportunity and took it, or by the hope of pecuniary gain?

I suppose we’ll never know, but I can assure you that the gossip or conferences of our family in every corner of our house at Thanksgiving were absolutely nothing like that.

Yours Sincerely 2015

December 2015

YSDec15One of the things I like most about Christmas (sometimes in my more Grinch-like moments I think it’s the only thing) is the food and the drink. I’m also prone to bouts of nostalgia, and Christmas is a time for that. I love looking back to the English Christmas dinners around my grandmother’s table. In my American family, we eat a very different dinner, but that’s because America and England have different histories and therefore different traditions.

So Lisa indulges me: She allows me to import a little bit of Olde England into our Christmas festivities. On the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in England) we invite friends to join us for an evening of Christmas desserts, the star of which is always Christmas Pudding. We also include mince pies, stilton cheese and port, just for fun, but it’s really all about the pud. OK, our main aim is to indulge my Anglo-nostalgia, but if we also happen to show our Yankee friends what they’d otherwise be missing, so much the better (forgive my upsurge of culinary patriotism).

We hold the party after Christmas because in the England in which I grew up, Christmas began on Christmas Eve and ended on the twelfth night. My grandmother, who was closely related to a dragon, was adamant that not a single sign of Christmas should appear in the house before the 24th and not a single sign should remain after January 5th.

Traditionally in England, then, parties and merriment took place during the twelve days of Christmas, now usually abbreviated to the week between Christmas and the New Year. Boxing Day, the beginning of the party season, was the day when the family gave “boxes” to those who had served them well during the year; in the big houses this included the servants, but for the rest of us it was the mail man, the garbage man, the milk man, the coal man, the newspaper boy… people who made life easier and who didn’t always get explicit recognition. The “boxes” were once actual boxes of goodies, but by my boyhood they had become envelopes containing one-pound or ten-shilling notes.

But I’m getting away from where I started and where I’m most happy: Food. Christmas food was not only delicious, but most of it was unique to Christmas, and all of it had a history. Food and history on the same plate – Yummm.
The origins of Christmas Pudding have long been lost. The first printed recipes appeared in the seventeenth century, but they had been handed down orally for centuries before that. My grandmother always used the recipe that had come from her mother and from her mother before her and from…you get the picture. Most mothers had their own family recipes.

Basically the pudding was a mix of as many dried fruits and berries as possible, all spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, mace and who knows what else. It was a true winter pudding – an efficient and tasty way of preserving autumn’s fruits and berries. This dry mixture of fruits and spices was bound together by suet, egg and molasses and then dosed with brandy. The whole concoction was simmered for hours and kept in the larder for at least a month and often six – sometimes even for a full year. The brandy ensured that it matured well and melded all its tastes together into wonderfully sweet and spicy mouthfuls.

One tradition says that the pudding was made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, and that every member of the family had to stir it from East to West to represent the journey of the Magi. I’m not sure that our puddings had exactly 13 ingredients, but I do remember us all standing around the kitchen table in September stirring the sweet, heavy mix and licking our fingers that somehow always managed to dip into it (East to West? Perhaps, but if so, only by chance.) All that 13-ingredients-stuff must have been just another attempt of the early Roman church to Christianize a pagan festival.

Just before the final stir of the pudding, my father would ceremoniously pour the brandy in – no more finger licking after that. He’d also drop a silver sixpence into the mix: Whoever found it in his portion on Christmas Day was assured of wealth and good luck in the coming year.
Somehow it always ended up on my plate, and I was much too excited to harbor any suspicions about how it got there.

When we served the pudding, we stuck a bit of holly in it, doused it in brandy, turned out the lights and brought it to the table in flames. (The holly stood for rebirth, the flames for the return of the sun – important parts of pre-Christian mid-winter festivals.) We do the same now at our Christmas dessert party, but the brandy never seems to flame as brightly as it did in my youth, and once, horror of horrors, the flames went out as I was carrying it from the kitchen.

That would never have happened in the good old days – things were always perfect then, even if they’re flawed now. That’s nostalgia for you. Ahhhh yes…

John Fiske

November 2015

YSNov-15Crawling down Route 1 toward Boston, I was playing pull-ahead-fall-behind with two huge concrete trucks in the lane on my right. Their barrels were churning as slowly as the traffic was moving. It was nearly raining. Gloomy all around.

It was tough to remember that only two days previously four of us were having breakfast on a long, deserted beach. Our boat was anchored in the shallow water and the sun was creeping steadily up from the horizon. Behind us were grass-covered sand dunes, roped off to keep humans away from the plovers and other waders that nested there. In front of us was Plum Island Sound, and just south of it was the start of the historic shipping lane between Ipswich and Boston.

We were nibbling on homemade blueberry scones, a frittata and fruit salad. As far removed from the traffic-sodden gloom on Route 1 as we could possibly get. And yet, in a sense, we weren’t. A few yards along the beach from us, the ribs and prow of an old boat were sticking up out of the sand. She was about 70 feet long, broad beamed and, although we couldn’t see it, flat bottomed. She was a sand barge, the Edward S. Eveleth, who had lain there since October 1922. When she was still alive, she’d been the equivalent of those concrete trucks on Route 1, hauling sand to the construction industry in Boston – a seven-hour sail with a fair wind.

Sand barges were run onto the beach at half-tide when the tide was ebbing. The crew would lay stout planks from their gunwales down to beach and set to work with wheelbarrows to fill the barge with sand. Then the high tide would lift her off the beach, they’d raise the sail and head off for Boston. After a century of progress, we now have concrete trucks on Route 1. Oh well…
The Edward S. Eveleth was ill-fated. It appears that her skipper was a bit greedy and made her too heavy for the tide to raise her up. There’d been a storm out at sea, and the heavy rollers worked her deeper and deeper into the beach so that by the next high tide, she had become immoveable.
And there she lies today, in exactly the position in which she’d been beached a century ago. If you close your eyes on a moonlit night you can still hear the squeak of the wheelbarrows being pushed up the planks. Yes, you can, I’ve tried it.

Of course, we could never take ship loads of sand from a beach today, though Captain Charley, an Ipswich sander for 50 years, said that there was more sand on the beach when he retired than there was when he started in the 1840s.
Nature is always moving sand, picking it up here and dumping it there. Two weeks after our breakfast along the beach from the Edward S. Eveleth, she had disappeared again, all except for two or three inches of her prow which still just poked above the surface of the beach.

Yes, sand moves, but if it goes to Boston and gets set in concrete, it never comes back. Cities are like that, aren’t they?

John Fiske

October 2015

YSOct-15We were sitting around the patio table late on a hot Sunday afternoon. “We” was a pretty special group: It included my daughter Lucy, her partner, Anne, and Perry, their 14-year old son. They had just arrived from Australia and they’re staying until after the New Year. Lucky ole me! Perry has enrolled in Cambridge Rindge and Latin, a high school where he is on the football squad. And coach is thinking of playing him at wide receiver. Good on him!

We’d just returned from a boat ride around the salt marshes (nothing like them in Australia) and up the Parker River, a relaxing two-hour jaunt. The sun had been hot out there, and my beer was going down a treat.

“What’s that?” Perry asked, pointing to the reproduction medieval stoneware mug I was drinking from. I told him and explained why beer was so important in the Middle Ages. “That’s interesting,” he said.

“Everything comes from something else,” said Anne, doing her maternal educator bit. Perry thought for a moment, and I could see his teenage brain searching for a way to contradict his Mom. “Even that cup?” he asked. (Lucy and Anne were drinking tea, Australia’s favorite drink after beer.)

“Oh yes,” I said, and explained that teacups and teapots had emerged more than a thousand years ago in China. “And you know,” I went on, “they look almost exactly the same today as they did then. The Chinese got it absolutely right first time, and nobody has ever been able to do it better.” “That’s interesting,” he said.

Now, if you’ve ever spent time around 14-year-old boys, you’ll know that getting one to say “that’s interesting” twice in the same conversation is a comparable achievement to Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Perry is a decent, middle-of-the-pack student, but not academically inclined: Being wide receiver is far more important than being top of the class. Yet he found some interest in little snippets of information from Medieval Europe and ancient China.

All antiques lovers deplore the fact that history has just about disappeared from our school curriculums. But I bet that if there were a course in medieval history, the teacher wouldn’t spend a moment on beer and the stoneware mugs they drank it from. And the same would go for teapots in a course on the history of Ancient China. Does this mean that we teach the wrong sort of history, if we teach it at all?

Or was Perry’s interest piqued because the mug (reproduction) and the cup (modern equivalent) were being used as part of our normal lives? Is the history that adds interest to normal life the sort of history that provokes a 14-year-old to say “That’s interesting?” Or, even simpler still, is it the idea that the things of everyday life have a history, that the things of everyday life can tell history, not just of themselves but of the peoples who have used them?

One of the many interesting essays in the British Museum’s book, The History of the World in a Thousand Objects, is the one on a credit card. For starters it is interesting that something as ordinary as a credit card can be collected in a museum as important as the British Museum, and then what the card tells us about the history of business transactions is totally fascinating.

History is ordinary; history is everywhere; everything has a history; this is interesting history. Instead of bemoaning the lack of history in our schools, let us in the antiques business teach a history that schools can’t teach – interesting history.
There are tens of thousands of us having hundreds of thousands if conversations with customers all over the country. If every conversation includes a bit of interesting history we might get more people interested in antiques again. Will Perry ever buy an antique when he grows up? Who knows, but at least he’s expressed an interest.

John Fiske

September 2015

YSSept-15Even at first glance, this fourteenth-century coffer looks remarkable, but neither the first, nor even the second, glance can show us why it is literally one of a kind.

It was dug out from the trunk of an elm tree (obviously the lid is recent) and it was the oldest piece of furniture we saw on our trip to southwestern France. There are a few surviving English dug-out coffers of the same period, mostly in, or from, churches. This one, however, was in a private house – if a medieval chateau can be thought of as either a house or private. It was shown to us by the current, 96-year-old owner of the Chateau Cenevières, which had been purchased by one of his ancestors in the eighteenth century, but dated back to the eleventh.

What makes the coffer unique, the owner told us (and I’m certainly not disputing him), is that the interior is divided lengthwise into two halves, so that it is actually two long narrow dug-outs. It was used to store the huge quantities of salt needed to support a household and garrison of a chateau of that size. Salt was a necessity and it was very expensive: It was a perfect commodity to be taxed, and so it was.

Originally, this double dug-out sat in front of a stone wall that contained a long, shallow niche exactly the size of the coffer and half its depth. When the tax assessor arrived, all but a small amount of salt was shoveled into the rear compartment and the coffer was pushed back into the niche, so that the taxman could see only the front compartment with its tiny amount of salt. A bit like an offshore bank account and the IRS: Evasion is as old as taxation.

Salt yielded such good taxes (I don’t think these cunning coffers were common) because it was necessary, ubiquitous and expensive. When human beings began to settle down and grow crops, the natural salt in their diets dropped dramatically (animal flesh contained plenty of salt, so hunting peoples were just fine). Salt was also a food preservative, and thus freed people from the seasonal availability of food. It has been said that civilization depends, at least in part, upon salt. New England certainly does: Salt cod was the first major money-maker of the new colony.

Yet today we think of salt as a bad thing – the cause of high blood pressure, heart attacks and our widespread addiction to bad, fatty, industrialized food. Salad, of course, is a good thing today, but you’ll have noticed the word sal in it: Yes it derives from herba salata, the Roman name for a dish of raw vegetables with a brine dressing.

Today’s opinion of salt is a huge change from the times when good people were called “the salt of the earth”; when Roman soldiers who performed particularly well were said to be “worth their salt”; and when they were paid a large enough salary (sal being Latin for salt) to enable them to buy as much salt as they needed. Venice became rich because it had a monopoly of salt production, and further inland, Salzburg (literally “salt town”) throve on some of the earliest salt mines in Europe.

Yes, we humans have always loved and needed salt. Today, dieticians are beginning to question if salt is actually as bad for us as we’ve been led to believe. Perhaps soon we’ll no longer need to hide our salt from the diet police, as the owner of Chateau Cenevières had to hide his from the taxman.

John Fiske

August 2015

YSAug15YSAug216I’m starting with a puzzle for you this month. Look at this portrait of a lady, and then at this house in the tiny French town of Montaren. What connects them? OK, they’re both from the seventeenth century, but I’m looking for a closer connection than that. If I throw in an old Chinese proverb, it may or may not help. Anyway, here it is, “With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”

We all know that needlework of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was incredibly fine. In this fine, meticulously-detailed work, silk was the thread of choice: It took color beautifully, it was strong and long-wearing and it was the finest thread of all. Nothing new in any of this.

But on our recent vacation in southwestern France, Lisa and I learnt something about silk production in France that we’d never heard before. We were staying in Montaren, a tiny town in Languedoc. It was a medieval town built on a small hill that was almost exactly circular. Halfway up the hill was what we might crassly call a “ring road.” Actually, it was a narrow stone street, flanked by stone houses that opened directly onto it – no sidewalks here – and in some places two cars could actually pass, provided they pulled in their wing mirrors. It was the only drivable road in town, it very nearly encircled the hill, and where it ended was the only place to park.

The house we were staying in was actually built over the un-drivable section, so we had to park and walk the last 50 yards or so, just as everyone had done for 500 or more years. The twenty-first-century roller bags that we pulled behind us were a jarring anachronism, as was that horrible noise they make when dragged over rough flagstones. But it was still a pleasing feeling to be walking along a street that went under somebody’s house and where walking was the only possibility.

But back to the town itself. On the highest point stood the church and a small chateau, and clustered closely around them were the more prosperous houses, including the one we were walking to, all within the “ring road.” On the outer side of the road were the houses of the workers, less easily defended in case of an attack. But that’s not the point here. Many of these houses were three stories high with a door on the first floor, a large, shuttered window on the second and a small, glazed window on the third. They were one room wide, and the first floor probably had a room at the back.

And now we can answer the puzzle: In the seventeenth century, the tiny town of Montaren established a thriving cottage industry producing silk. And this house, and others just like it, was where the silk was produced. And the lady, who is actually Nell Gwyn, painted by Lely, is wearing a silk gown.

The silk workers lived and worked on the first floor of the house – cooking, sleeping and spinning – there can’t have been a square inch to spare. The second floor was where the silkworms lived and worked – eating and spinning. The shutter was originally hinged at the top, so it kept out most of the light, while allowing a little air to enter. On the third floor grew the mulberry bushes, whose leaves fed the silkworms.

I don’t know who first got the idea of producing silk in this little town (talk about thinking outside the box) and I don’t know how large this cottage industry was, though I’m sure it hardly made a dent in the huge business of importing silk in caravans along the Silk Road from China and later by sea from “India” – as the whole of the Orient was called then. But it was an early example of the local counteracting the global.
And, like all local economies, it did produce a distinctive way of living, a distinctive architecture and, according to our hostess, it gave Montaren a period of prosperity and peace – at a time when those were qualities devoutly to be wished for. I like the idea of local producers working against their international competitors, whether it’s tomatoes, cheese or, as here, silk.

John Fiske

July 2016

YSJuly15“Do you celebrate the Fourth over there, too?” You’d be surprised how often I’m asked that question. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a bit mischievous, I’ll answer, “Of course, but we call it ‘Good Riddance Day.’” At other times I point out as gently as possible that, self-deprecating as we Brits are, we are hardly likely to celebrate the worst defeat in our military history since the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Normally, I bemoan the lack of any sense of history, but in this case, I celebrate it. As a British-American, I’m delighted that the anti-Englishness inherent in Independence Day has faded away to almost nothing.

Actually, up here in New England, Englishness can be a positive. I’ve lost count of how many Americans tell me how much they love my accent! Again, if I’m feeling a bit mischievous, I’ll tell them how much I like theirs: Just occasionally I’ll get the response that makes me smile – “Oh,” they say, “but I haven’t got one.”

New Englanders who have visited old England are keen to tell me how much they loved it, and how nice the English are. Their only grumble is that the English drive on the wrong side of the road. No, I tell them with a gentle smile, the English drive on the right side of the road (the left): It’s the Americans who drive on the wrong side (the right.) Way back in the mists of history, I explain, when two people met on a forest path or a moorland track, each would move to the left so that they kept their sword arm toward the other as they passed by. Just in case… But I do like to imagine angry British motorists negotiating their narrow lanes and streets brandishing their swords out of the driver’s window. A very British form of road rage, don’t you think?

I’ve not the slightest idea why the early settlers, almost all of whom were English, decided to walk and ride on the wrong side of the road. But they did. And Americans have been stuck on the wrong side ever since!

And that reminds me of one adaptation to my new country that I have not yet made successfully: I still occasionally pull the car keys out of my pocket and try to get in the passenger door – not that often, but just enough to make me feel stupid.

Another adaptation, one that I’ve made more successfully, is holding my fork in my right hand when I eat, even if this means laying my knife down and moving my fork from one hand to the other. In England I was taught never, ever to hold the fork in my right hand, and, to complicate matters further, to always hold it upside down – upside down from an American perspective, of course.

The English began using dinner forks a couple of generations before they became common over here. Americans used a spoon for anything that couldn’t be speared on the point of the knife. So I wonder if the English used their forks in a way that imitated fingers picking up a morsel of dinner, and Americans used them in a way that imitated spoons? It’s a fun theory, even though there’s not shred of evidence to back it up!

As a British-American, I use my fork either way up, in the left or the right hand, being British or American – whatever is the more convenient. Disclosure: Lisa tells me that I always default to the English way!

Still, Independence Day is a good day for me to think about both sides of my hyphenated identity. And if the worst things that divide Brits and Yanks are our accents, the side of the road we drive on and how we hold our forks, then I don’t think we’ve got much to worry about. Long may that state of affairs continue.

John Fiske

June 2016
Ipswich Mills, the dam is partially visible on the left. Incidentally, the building with the tall chimney in the left foreground now houses our antiques shop. Courtesy

Ipswich Mills, the dam is partially visible on the left. Incidentally, the building with the tall chimney in the left foreground now houses our antiques shop. Courtesy

For all the talk these days about using renewable energy, our little town appears to be taking a step back. We’re talking about removing a dam that, for a century and a half, powered the mills that enabled Ipswich to participate in the industrial revolution and that changed the nature of the town for ever.

Since the town was first settled, there have always been mills on the Ipswich River. In the 1640s the selectmen ordered a grist mill to be built so that the townsfolk could rely upon a steady supply of flour. This was quickly followed by a saw mill – the town and well nigh everything in it was made of wood and a saw pit was way too slow. These mills were built at the Lower Falls where the river narrows and drops: There is still some underwater stonework that channeled the water to the water wheels, but no traces of the buildings remain. In their place is a small pocket park, Saw Mill Point, with a historical marker and a beautiful view.

But these mills were for the town: Their flour and lumber was all used in the town. The industrial mills that were built in the early nineteenth century were for “export,” their products, mainly textiles, were sold nationally, even internationally. The “local” mills were run by local people, but the large industrial mills required far more hands than the town could supply, so workers came from Greece, Canada, Portugal, Russia, Italy and almost overnight Ipswich was changed from being an English settlement to a European one. And industrial mills needed a larger dam, upstream where the river was wider.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Ipswich had developed cottage industries of lace-making and hosiery knitting. The hosiery business, at least, was quickly industrialized, and during the Civil War the mill manufactured 55,000 pairs of army socks and woolen goods to the value of $135,000.

Alongside the hosiery business, a cotton mill was started up: In 1832 it had 3,000 spindles and 260 looms. It spun Nos. 30 and 32 yarn, used 80,000 lbs. of cotton, and made 450,000 yards of cloth annually. Ipswich was quite the textile town. The last gasp of the textile business was in WWII, when the mills produced proximity fuses (whatever they were) for bombs.

Now, in a perfect sign of industrial change, the mill buildings house EBSCO, the largest electronic publisher in the nation.
As chair of the Historical Commission, I’m on the committee that is looking into removing the dam. Most everyone else is an engineer or a biological scientist. But the dam is a historical structure, and the Historical Commission will have to give permission for its removal, if, indeed, that is what the committee ends up recommending.

So I’m in a dilemma: I’m deeply committed to preserving whatever historical structures we have left, but I’m also deeply committed to preserving nature. Restoring the natural course of the river through the salt marshes to Plum Island Sound to the ocean seems to me to be a good thing, and I think the fish, shad, herring and ale-wife, would agree with me. Of course, the dam has a fish ladder, but the fish don’t like using it all that much: Some do, but many don’t. They’d prefer an uninterrupted swim upstream to spawn.

The structures that I care most passionately about preserving are those that have a past, a present and a future. People still live in seventeenth-century houses; the Ipswich Mills still house an industry. But the dam does nothing for the present or for the future. The function for which it was built no longer exists and will not return, so it has no excuse for continuing to impede the flow of water and of fish. It has a past only, and its past may well be told better by a historical marker than by the dam itself – I can hardly believe I’m saying this, because normally I believe that the richest history by far is the history written in buildings and artifacts, not in words (whether in a book or on a marker).

Good restoration takes an antique, a historic house, or even a river, back to what it originally was. This may, for example, involve taking out the fittings that transformed a seventeenth-century chest into a 1920’s cocktail cabinet. Or it may involve taking a dam out of a river. Yup, I think I’m on the side of restoring the river.

John Fiske

May 2015

YSMay-15What use is a beat-up old spoon like this? It would be no good asking a silver collector – it is so far below “collector grade” that he would probably advise melting it down for its silver. And that is just what Dennis Knight prevented: He bought the spoon to save it from the next batch of silver melt. Good for Dennis, I agreed with him wholeheartedly when he gave me his opinion that no antique, however worn, should be destroyed. As the old banality has it, “They’re just not making ‘em anymore.”

But having rescued it from the furnace, Dennis was then faced with the question what to do with it. In its day, it had been a good coin silver spoon, made by Abel Moulton in Newburyport, just two towns north of Ipswich, in about 1810 or soon after.

Dennis is one of our readers, and I had helped him place a spoon once owned by Mary Whipple into the Whipple House collection (see “Yours Sincerely,” March, 2015). He wondered if I could help with this spoon. So I asked the curator and educator at the Ipswich Museum, and they jumped at the chance.

What they wanted it for was precisely what would make a collector reject it – its “beatupedness.” Its condition made it ideal for the museum’s program with first graders – they could handle it, and pass it from one grubby hand to another without any fear of harming it.

And as they handled it, the spoon could tell them quite a story.

It could tell them that it had been made by hand locally (see the makers’ mark on the back), very different from their spoons at home which, I’m willing to bet, had been mass-produced at the other end of the world. It would be interesting to ask them what they thought about a time when things were made in the town where they were used, and where the customer probably knew the maker personally. The spoon was made just as handcraftsmanship was being ousted by industrialization, and I’d like to know what they thought about the difference between living with handmade things and with manufactured things.

I’d also like to hear what they thought about how worn it was. I’d wonder if they had anything at home that was still in use and that was as badly (well?) worn. Was this spoon so worn because its owner was too poor to replace it (remember it’s made of solid silver)? Or was it because at that time people kept using things as long as they were usable and didn’t replace them just because they looked old and worn? I’d like kids to think about keeping things as long as possible in contrast to replacing them as soon as possible. Could they imagine living in a house where almost everything looked old and well used? And where everyone thought that that was the sensible thing to do?

The spoon is engraved on the handle “WW to MW.” Was it a gift from a father to one of his children? Or from a husband to his wife? Have they, I would ask my first-graders, or has anyone in their family, ever received a gift permanently inscribed like this – very different from a throw-away Christmas gift tag? I’d like to hear why they thought WW had engraved his gift like this. Was it because every time MW used the spoon, he or she would think of WW and of the relationship between them (for some reason my gut tells me it was father-daughter)? Is the concept of enshrining a family relationship too abstract for them to grasp? I dunno.

And overall, I’d like to think that hearing the spoon tell them about how people used to live then would provoke them to ask some questions about how we live now.

And hey, darn it! Why confine those questions to kids? I can think of plenty of grown-ups I’d like to prod into asking them.

John Fiske

April 2015

YSApril-15Three thoughtful gentlemen from the American Society of Civil Engineers came to the February meeting of the Ipswich Historical Commission. They plan to designate our Choate Bridge as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, because, as they say, “[It] is the oldest documented two-span masonry arch bridge in the United States.” Of course, we already knew that, but it’s nice to have it officially recognized. By happy coincidence, 2015 is near enough the 250th anniversary of the Choate Bridge – it was actually built in 1764. The ASCE’s previous awards include San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s George Washington Bridge. So we’re in good company. Actually, on second thought, I should put that the other way round, now they are in good company. Read on and you’ll see why.

For two and a half centuries the Choate Bridge has carried all the traffic up and down the main coastal road between Boston and Portsmouth. In 1838 it needed to be widened to two lanes. The newer Route 1 and the newer still I 95 now take much of the traffic, but the Choate Bridge still handles more than 20,000 vehicles a day. It carries everything on the road, from bicycles to 18-wheelers, from pedestrians to houses (in 1927 the Whipple House was taken across it to its new site on South Green).

In 1989 (225 years after it was built) the bridge was renovated for the first and only time; it is now, we assume, well set for the next couple of centuries. I bet it’ll be in good shape on its 500th anniversary. Hang on to that thought while I point out that modern steel bridges like those on our interstates have an expected lifespan of about 75 years. Hmm, point taken. No wonder the ASCE wants to honor our bridge.

In its day, the Choate Bridge was as huge an engineering breakthrough as the Golden Gate Bridge; at least, in New England it was. There had been a wooden bridge over the Ipswich River since the early 1640s, but wooden bridges need upkeep, and Essex County was fed up with the costs involved. So they commissioned their treasurer, Colonel John Choate, to come up with a better bridge, and the one he came up with was a stone bridge with arches built on the keystone principle.

Now New England was (and still is) timber country, and timber does not do well with curved arches. The townsfolk of 1764 hardly ever saw a curved arch – if they saw one at all: All doorways, windows and, of course, bridges were flat-topped. So, predictably, they were skeptical that a keystone arch could hold up. But John Choate was not to be dissuaded, and in six months he built the new bridge for a cost of £1,000 – which seems like good going to me.

On the day of the grand opening, the skepticism still ran deep. The townsfolk were convinced that the stones would go tumbling into the river as soon as the trestles and scaffolding were removed. Passions ran dangerously high, and, as an undated issue of the Boston Post reported, “Col. Choate was the object upon which the surcharged feelings of the people were directed, culminating in a threat that his life would pay for it if the bridge collapsed…Relays of swift horses were established, so the story runs, sufficient to carry him out of the county, and on the morning of the opening of the bridge, instead of proudly viewing the vindication of his faith, he was forced to sit in the saddle armed with pistols, surrounded by friends, awaiting the possibility of a summons to fly.

Instead came the cheering cry of success, and when the bridge had been crossed and recrossed without the slightest hint of giving way, the crowd marched to where Choate was and with the greatest show of honor led him to witness his triumph.”

It’s a dramatic story, even if somewhat improbable: surely Choate had greater faith than that in his design! We note that the Boston Post was founded in 1831, long after the opening of the bridge, and plenty long enough for a local legend to have grown into “historical truth.”

When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937 its 4,200 foot central span was the longest single span in the world. At a mere 80 feet, 6 inches, the two arches of the Choate Bridge can hardly compete. The George Washington Bridge is the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world, and our 20,000+ vehicles a day can’t compete with that, not that I think we’d want to. But our little, homey Choate Bridge does everything we need it too, just as it has for 250 years.
And just as it will continue to do when its larger, more famous siblings have been rebuilt a couple of times, and whose original structures are no more than flakes of rust floating down the river. They can’t compete with that.

John Fiske

March 2015

YSMarch-15One of the many pleasures of being the editor of a widely read magazine is that lots of people know me, even though I don’t know them. They sometimes approach me as a friend, asking me for a bit of help or advice. That gives me a nice feeling.

So I was delighted to receive an email recently from a collector of nineteenth-century silver. He owns a silver spoon made by Jeffrey Lang, of Salem, Mass. (1707-58), that is inscribed on the back of the handle, “Mary Whipple, born 29 of Oct, 1745.” As I have mentioned the Whipple House in Ipswich in a number of my writings, he thought that I should at least know of the existence of the spoon. He had no intention of disposing of it in the near future, but that didn’t stop my blood speeding up with the thought that one day, at least, Mary Whipple’s spoon might end up where it started, in the Whipple House that her great-grandfather had built nearly 100 years before.

So I hotfooted it over to the museum (well, actually lukewarm is about as fast as my feet will go these days) and showed the pictures to Katherine Chaison, the museum’s co-director and senior curator. She was as excited as I. A back-and-forth on e-mail, and our grins were even wider: The owner will be happy to lend the spoon to the Whipple House.

We actually have very few objects owned by the Whipples in the Whipple house. In the nineteenth century, the house passed out of the family and became a boarding house for workers in the mills on the Ipswich River. It was abused and neglected, and would not have survived but for the efforts of Thomas Franklin Waters (the founder of the Ipswich Historical Society which became the Ipswich Museum) who organized a group of townsfolk to buy it, restore it and move it to its current location at the southern entrance to the town.

The Whipple House now contains wonderful artifacts made in Ipswich or Essex County from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, but sadly, very few of them have a Whipple provenance.  The history of the Whipples has to be told materially in the house itself and verbally by the docents who lead the tours.

Mary’s spoon tells a much more intimate history. As an antiques dealer, I can’t tell you how many times people look at something in our shop or show booth and exclaim wistfully, “If only it could talk, what stories it could tell.” People yearn for stories that are told by objects, for they are quite different from stories told in words.

The words on Mary’s spoon help, of course, but think of the difference between my telling you that, “Mary Whipple was born on October 29, 1745,” and passing you her very own spoon so that you can read the same words on it. What matters is that the words are on the spoon, and nowhere else: What matters is that to read them you have to hold the spoon in your hand, just as Mary did.

These words-on-a-spoon tell us more than what they actually say: They tell us that the spoon was almost certainly a christening gift. Giving a spoon at a christening is an English tradition that runs from at least the sixteenth century to the twentieth (I still have my christening spoon tucked away somewhere). And for a member of a prominent family, the spoon was always silver. Mary came from two of the most important families in town: Her father was a Whipple, her mother an Appleton, so her spoon just had to be silver. Mary Whipple was, literally, “born with a silver spoon in her mouth.” And look, here it is.

Look at the wear on the bowl – Mary used that spoon for most of her life. Look at the pattern of the wear – Mary was right-handed. And now imagine the spoon that Mary used in the very room in the very house where she used it. Imagine the hundreds (thousands?) of bowls of potage or soup, of plates of pie and custard that she dipped that spoon into as she sat with her family in the parlor just to the right of the front door.

The words-on-a-spoon bring Mary to life in a way that words in a book cannot. Artifacts like the Whipple spoon and the Whipple House put history squarely in its place, and that is different from putting it in a book or even, I’m afraid, in a magazine like this. History in its place is in a place that we, too, can enter and share with those who have lived in it centuries before us. It’s a history that we can feel part of, and that’s the sort of history that gives me the shivers. Enjoy reading about the spoon here, but do come and experience the-spoon-in-its-place: You’ll notice the difference.

John Fiske

February 2016
The fence “made of pales well nailed or pinned” around the replica Alexander Knight House, 1657, in Ipswich.

The fence “made of pales well nailed or pinned” around the replica Alexander Knight House, 1657, in Ipswich.

I was banging a couple of metal stakes into the ground in an attempt to make our post and rail fence strong enough to last another winter. “That should do it,” I thought giving myself a mental pat on the back. But then, oh dear, one of those durned bits of seventeenth-century trivia jumped into my mind and took the grin off my face.

My fence would have been illegal in early Ipswich: Today its three rails keep the dog in the yard with no problem, but in 1653 our town ordered “that all the sd. fences shall be made of pales well nailed or pinned, or of five rails well fitted… all and every one of wch kindes shall be made sufficiently to defend, and keep out Swyne and all sorts of cattle.”

Fences were a big deal in those days: In January, 1637, only four years after the town had been incorporated, the town meeting “…voted that a generall fence shall be made from the end of the Towne to Egypt River with a sufficient fence, and also from the East end of the Towne in the way of Jefery’s neck . . . This fence to be fenced by y* first day of June next.” What the townsfolk had voted for was a fence nearly three miles long that encircled the entire town north of the Ipswich River. A shorter fence, about two miles long, was later erected south of the river. Ipswich was entirely fenced in.

And then within this boundary fence, every piece of property had to be fenced as well, “be it house lot or planting lot or meddow, be it lesser or greater quantity…” The case of Daniel Denison gives us an insight into what these fence laws entailed: In 1635 he was granted “a house lott near the Mill, containge about two acres, which he hath paled in, and built a house upon it.”

Robert Tarule has calculated what was involved: Pales were set into a shallow trench and nailed to rails fastened to posts about 8 feet apart. Each foot of fence required two pales, so Denison’s fence required 2,500 pales, 1,250 feet of rails and 160 posts. I wonder which took the more timber – the house or the fence? A five-rail fence, incidentally, required about 60 percent of the timber needed for a paled fence.

We’re getting a picture, then, of a very well-fenced town: Ipswich was encircled by a five-mile, five-rail fence. All cultivated land within it, “planting lot or meddow,” was also fenced and then each house lot had to be fenced as well, probably with palings. In its first decade, Tarule has calculated, the town consumed several hundred acres of forest for fencing alone.

And all this, you might wonder, just to keep the swine and cattle in? Oh no, it was to keep them out! Unlike today, fencing kept animals out, not in.

During the day, from April until November, cattle and swine were driven outside the boundary fence to forage in the common lands and woods beyond it. In 1652 William Clarke was a swine herd whose job was “to drive them out to their feed in the Commons, being all ringed, between seven and eight of the clock, to have 12 shillings per week, six pence for every head.” One of the cowherds was Wm. Fellows who had to drive the cows out “before the sunne be half an hour high, and not to bring them home before half an hour before sunset.”

Young animals were apparently not driven out, “…such small pigs as are pigged after the 1st of February shall have liberty to be about the Town … until 16 August next.” These piglets were obviously a nuisance, for in 1645 the town ruled that no hogs should run in the streets or commons without being yoked and ringed. The nose rings had twitches in to make it too painful for the hogs to root around and force their way under fences. The yokes around their necks prevented them from pushing through small gaps, such as ones between pales in a fence. Any dogs roaming the streets had to have one leg tied up, so that they could not dig in peoples’ gardens (which were fertilized with rotten fish – apparently top of the menu for the dogs of the day. Our, admittedly spoiled, golden retriever would not have been interested.)

So we have a lively picture of the streets of Ipswich, thoroughly fenced and bustling with people while three-legged dogs hopped around their ankles, and small yoked and ringed hogs rooted around trying to push themselves under and through fences into gardens and possibly even into kitchen doors. Never a dull moment.

Yup, I can see why my decaying three-rail fence would have been illegal in the Ipswich of 350 years ago. Even yoked and ringed, a hog would have had no problem pushing through it. But today, there are no laws regulating my fence, I can erect whatever sort I want, or even go without one altogether. But then today, I’m an individual property owner: Early Ipswich was a community, and its laws were designed to make communal life run more smoothly for the benefit of all. Is progress always forward?

Reference: Robert Tarule, The Artisan of Ipswich; Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England, John Hopkins University Press, 2004.

John Fiske

January 2015
Computer rendering of how the sculpture would look on North Green.

Computer rendering of how the
sculpture would look on North Green.

I’m on the horns of a dilemma, and if you visualize a dilemma as a big, strong ox, you’ll realize how uncomfortable a position I’m in. I’m a member of our town’s Historical Commission and of its Public Art Committee.

My dilemma is the result of a stunningly beautiful sculpture. It’s a 14-foot high, bronze tree growing out from rocks and whose leaves evolve into birds taking flight. To me, it epitomizes Ipswich – rooted in the past while flying into the future. A generous citizen wants to donate it to the town as its first piece of public art, though with a small plaque nearby memorializing his late wife and her tireless efforts to promote beauty, education and the arts in Ipswich.

But, and here come the horns: The Public Art Committee wants it on North Green, and the Ipswich Historical Commission doesn’t.

A bit of background here: The North Green is at the center of town, rising steeply from the main thoroughfare, so a sculpture on it would be in the most visible spot in Ipswich, which is why the PAC wants it there. But the North Green is also the spot that embodies the town’s settlement in 1633 and the early history of its community, which is why the IHC disagrees.

A historic marker on the green calls it “the center of colonial Ipswich and one of the most significant sites of 17th century Massachusetts.” At the highest point of the green stands the First Church. Next to it is a historical marker recording how, on this spot in 1687, the citizens of Ipswich gathered around the Rev. John Wise, pastor of the First Church, to pledge their refusal to pay English taxes, and it was here that the famously insurgent words were first uttered, “No taxation without representation.” Ipswich staged the first tax revolt in American history – hence the town’s motto, “The Birthplace of American Independence.”

Also on the top of the green was the courthouse, the communal pound for straying animals and the communal jail for straying people. In the winter of 1662, incidentally, a prisoner got too cold, so he pulled up the floorboards and fled – Ipswich has the first recorded jail break in American history as well as the first recorded tax revolt. I’m afraid it’s not equally proud of its two firsts. A pity – after all, they’re both efforts to gain independence!
Apart from the First Church, the green has never been built on. But it does house six memorials. The largest, almost as visually striking as the First Church when seen from below, is a tall obelisk “erected by the Town of Ipswich in memory of her brave and lamented sons who gave their lives to their country in the war for union and liberty, 1861 – 1865.” It was erected in 1871 and is inscribed with the names of those who died. The five other memorials are smaller, often just plaques on low boulders: They memorialize the soldiers and sailors of the American Revolution, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and those who died in other conflicts. They are memorials of community sacrifice.

When I’m on the Historical Commission I agree fully that the North Green is, and always has been, the center of the community of Ipswich, and to have a sculpture there, however beautiful, that commemorates an individual, however worthy, is simply inappropriate. Its size, larger than all but the obelisk, would irreversibly modify the centuries-old nature of the green.

But when I’m sitting on the Public Art Committee I agree that the centrality of the North Green makes it the ideal site for the first piece of public art in Ipswich; that it’s a beautiful site for a beautiful sculpture; that the aesthetic pleasure the sculpture will give to townsfolk and visitors alike can only be increased by giving it high visibility; and, finally, that the sculpture will say that Ipswich looks to its future as well as its past.

History versus aesthetics. I love both. There’s not enough of either in today’s world. Hence my big dilemma. Help me, you dear and thoughtful readers, which side would you come down on?

John Fiske

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