Monday, November 25, 2013

Celebrating a Mid-19th Century Thanksgiving

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead— ZAP!!!----You suddenly find yourself transported through time...and you realize you are now in November of 1863, and Thanksgiving is nigh! 
Just what is that strange apparition in the sky? Could it be some sort of time-space continuum?

What to do...? What to do...? 
First, a few fun facts to get you pepared, then we'll get into the celebration itself.
So let's begin with President Abraham Lincoln's association with Thanksgiving:
This fall harvest festival had been celebrated mainly in New England on different dates in different states. But Sarah Josepha Hale, a pro Union magazine editor (and author of the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,') urged President Lincoln, through a letter she wrote, to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. The letter convinced him to support legislation establishing a day of Thanks as a national holiday, and on October 3, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed:
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

(Understand that President George Washington gave the new Nation its first Thanksgiving Proclamation back on October 3, 1789 and set aside the date of November 26 as the 'official' date of celebration. More on that HERE...)
Corn shocks guide you up to the farm house...
Thanksgiving is the one national American holiday set aside solely for giving thanks to God for the abundance He has given us. The notations by William Bradford and Edward Winslow - who were there back in 1621 - state as such, as do the original proclamations by the U.S. Congress in 1782, the various proclamations Washington made during his presidency, as well as others made by John Adams, James Madison, and, as noted above, Abraham Lincoln.
And that was how our ancestors celebrated this blessed day.
Fall Harvest Time Bounty
That being said, let us continue on our 1863 Thanksgiving celebration. 
With the harvest in, the end of November was, for many farmers, a special season of feasting, and for those who lived during that time, the holiday had much more preparation than the modern last-minute-run-to-the-grocery-store-to-get-everything-you-need-for-Thanksgiving-dinner
In fact, some of the preparation didn't have much to do with the meal at all.
The general droving season ended by the end of November. The roads, by this late autumn period, were usually dry, making them perfect to drive cattle to market (hence the name 'droving' - they brought the cattle to market in droves). A cloud of dust and a thunder of animal noises heralded the approach of a driven herd as much as five miles away. The money made from the cattle was plentiful, and thus, helped to ensure a bountiful feast.
And, if you read my posting on autumn life in the 19th century, you will know that early spring and late fall on the farm were the times for soap-making. But since soap was made mostly from grease and fat, November's butchering-time made autumn the more popular season for the chore.

Butchering was a task for a true craftsman while others watched and learned and helped wherever they could.

Rendering lard to make soap. The odor is anything but pleasant!
Additionally, the posting above speaks on candle-making, which was done mainly in late November as well, for it had to be cold enough for quick hardening and followed close after 'killing time.' (It was usually animal waste fat that made candle tallow.)
November was also chestnut time, and boys from all over would head toward their nearest chestnut tree to collect the treats to be roasted over an open fire. Because of the ever-popular modern Christmas carol, "The Christmas Song - Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire", we tend to think of chestnuts as a Christmas delight. But that was for the warmer climates. Those in the Northern, Midwestern and New England states generally ate them closer to Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day you’ll want to be awake by five o’clock in the morning to get the range going good and hot, for it must last the rest of the day. And it takes an hour or longer for it to heat properly. 
Also, rooms not normally used were opened and heated, and fires had to be started if the day was particularly cold. As Harriet Beecher Stowe noted: "The best room, on this occasion, was thrown wide open, and its habitual coldness was warmed by the burning down of a great stack of hickory logs, which had been heaped up unsparingly since morning."
The 'best room' in the farm house - the formal parlor.
Preparing food in the 19th century was not simply a matter of making ingredients palatable. It also required a staggering arrange of skills such as plucking feathers from fowl, butchering animals large and small, making bread, milking, making cheese, grinding corn and preparing the other vegetables, chopping kindling, keeping a fire burning indefinitely, adjusting the burners and temperature of the stove...
This tom certainly was lucky this year. We'll see about next year...

Now, you do know how to test the stove for the correct temperature, right?
No?
Well, this is how it was explained to me: you test the cooking/baking temperature by putting your hand in the oven.
Yes, you read it right.
If you put your hand inside the oven and you can keep it there without too much discomfort, it is not nearly hot enough for anything. But, if you can keep it in only a short time, maybe to the count of six or seven, well then you have a good baking fire. But, if you cannot keep your hand inside the oven for more than a moment – in and out quickly - now you have a good fire for frying. There are also the flues and dampers to help control the temperature. 
The stove must be good and hot to cook all of the food for the Thanksgiving Holiday!
If you do happen to want to bake, throw a log into the firebox. It will give a longer, more even heat. If you want to fry up a meal, that’s where these smaller bits of wood come in handy to make a hot fire quickly. 
The larger the piece of wood, the more even your heat will be.
The oil lamp provides much needed light as the cooking begins
All hands are needed in the food preparation. The work seems never ending for these ladies.
Meals, including harvest meals, were built around ingredients in either fresh or preserved form on the farm or in the shops in the nearest town. And any part of the meal that could be prepared the night before was put in order, that there might be "as little manual labor in store for the day of the feast as possible, and only a few hands might be detained from attending church." (an anonymous note from 1842).

And even though the day's busiest activities were based around this 'feast,' the daily chores still had to be done: animals still needed to be fed and cows milked. 
A farmer's work is never done...
  
...and neither is the work for the women of the house; there's nary an extra spot available on the stove for another pot. They have been cooking like the Dickens!

Let's take a few minutes to hear the sights and sounds of an 1880s Thanksgiving (click the picture to watch the video):


Finally, the food is done and ready to be served: roasted blue slate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fried sauerkraut, carrots, white bread, mashed squash, two types of pickles, canned peaches, cranberries, and, somewhere out of the picture is a mincemeat pie and a pumpkin pie.
The centerpiece, of course, is the roasted turkey. Unlike modern turkeys with mostly white meat, the domestic turkey breeds of the 19th century, such as the Blue Slate turkey here, were lean and provided far less white meat. You also will not brine the turkey; you will instead lard it with bacon and slowly roast it in the oven.

The dining room would normally be the room where the family would eat. However, the Firestone Farm is a historic home, therefore only allowing for food to be eaten in the busy kitchen. But normally, only the finest "napery and ware" would be used on such an occasion.
It's difficult to have patience while awaiting such a feast as this!
 
The food was all piled together in jovial abundance upon the table.
And as soon as the blessing was said, the family enjoyed a feast like no other!

Preparing the mince meat pie for baking
In it goes!
The pumpkin pie fresh out of the oven. 
 
Thanksgiving dinner may be over, but there was no time for sitting just yet - dishes had to be done. "Can someone please go out to the pump and get clean water for me?"

The ladies of the house were plum wore out after all of their hard work making and cooking the fine Thanksgiving meal.

 After the great meal was eaten, it was time to enjoy the company that had assembled from near and far. Though some women remained in the kitchen to organize the leftovers and begin the dishwashing and a few of the men slipped out to do their evening barn chores, this after dinner period was a time for 'frolicking,' Fires were built up and candles and oil lamps were lit as the evening darkness fell. Toasts, songs, and games were carried out. 
Some families were lucky enough to have a pump organ to entertain the aunts and uncles who visited upon this special day
(and I was lucky enough to hear the organ played this day!).
Blindman's bluff and hunt the slipper were two such games for children, while quieter games more suitable for adults were played by the older family members. If there was snow, a sleigh ride was almost a given.
Speaking of sleigh rides, a Christmas carol that certainly has its roots in Thanksgiving was written by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857. In 1859, the title was revised to "Jingle Bells." Even though it is now associated with Christmas, it was actually originally written to be sung for Thanksgiving. Remember - before it became a national holiday, Thanksgiving was celebrated at different times in the fall months, so the harvest feast could had been celebrated later in the autumn when the snow had already fallen.
Original sheet music.
Many folks believe that the jingle bells heard during the snowy season are for Christmas because of this ever-popular song. That is truly not the case: jingle bells were put on sleighs for safety reasons. The horse's clip-clopping usually heard along the roads are muffled greatly by the snow-covered ground of late fall and winter, and the head covering the folks wore also muffled the sound of the on-coming beasts and carriages, making the pedestrian pert-near deaf. This could be a dangerous situation, except for the higher-pitched sounds of the jingle bells warning the pedestrian to move out of the way. Just as horns are required on the modern day motor vehicles, bells were once a must for snow-covered travel on sleighs. "Keeping to the Right" upon hearing the jingling of a sleigh was the rule then as it is for automobiles today. 
The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse's bells.
It didn't take long, however, for this secular ditty to join the growing myriad of carols for Christmas.
(By the way, "Over the River and Through the Woods" from 1844 was also written for Thanksgiving. This, too, is a 'sleighing song' - "The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through white and drifted snow.") 
Some family members enjoyed a quiet respite in the sitting room before the evening's affairs

The opportunity to spend time with these fine people was a great one for me, and I certainly appreciate the kindness I was shown.

Although it seems as if much has changed for the Thanksgiving holiday from the 19th century to our modern times, it really hasn't. Oh, sure, the preparations have diminished greatly in the last 150 years, but the general gaiety of the day was basically the same then as it is now (unless you're one of those people who like to go shopping on that day!). 
I enjoyed researching for this post to help us (especially living historians) to understand - and possibly even recreate - a Thanksgiving during the mid-19th century, and I hope this posting took you away from our modern times, even if only for a short while. 
By the way, not too long ago I researched and wrote about a colonial-18th century Thanksgiving, and if you are interested, please click HERE.


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I have to give a major THANK YOU to my friends (and they are my friends!) who work at Firestone Farm inside Greenfield Village where each photo in this post was taken. The presenters put up with my continual excursions there, camera in tow, getting in their way, asking questions, and getting them to pose for my incessant picture taking.  And yet, never do they make me feel as if I'm a pest - on the contrary, they have this tendency to make me feel as welcome as ever.
You all are the BEST (and since most of you also work at the other homes in the Village, I can say that)!

Other information in this posting came directly from numerous sources, including:
Living History Magazine from Greenfield Village 
Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane
Our Own Snug Fireside by Jane C. Nylander
This internet source (general overview)
This internet source (Washington)
This internet source (1782 Congress)
This internet source (Adams & Madison)
and
This internet source (Lincoln)

Oh! and click HERE to learn a bit about Thanksgiving celebrations of the colonial period, including the infamous one that took place in 1621 in Plymouth

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Epilogue:
I recently read on various internet sites where the U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving is becoming popular in London, England. One British article stated, in part, that the locals could "sample the truly authentic US thanksgiving cuisine...with turkey, pumpkin pie, and sweet potato mash, with a choice of dishes at each course."

Another advertised:

Celebrate Thanksgiving in London with American food and fun!

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

In Britain, while it's not an official holiday, lots of American expats and tourists, as well as their friends and relatives, like to mark the occasion by coming together to eat a traditional Thanksgiving feast. 

Festive food for Thanksgiving includes turkey, pumpkin pie, chowder and anything with an American theme.

Thanksgiving menus are available on the day from lots of London hotels, pubs, and restaurants. 

Another said this
Thanksgiving isn't a celebration in the UK - the nearest equivalent is Harvest Festival where we give our thanks for food and the years' harvest. With so many Americans living in the UK and the close alliance this country feels for its American cousins, Thanksgiving in the UK is certainly gaining momentum.
A surprising number of restaurants around the country serve a Thanksgiving dinner and there are a number of festivals taking place. If you prefer to stay at home and prepare dinner yourself, here are some recipes and info to help you on your way to Thanksgiving in the UK.

And the last one I pulled (though there are plenty more) I found to be the most historically interesting:
A Pilgrims' UK Thanksgiving in Plymouth, England
In what looks suspiciously like an attack of "Come back, all is forgiven", the people of Plymouth, in Devon, England, hold Thanksgiving celebrations to commemorate their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage.
The event seemed to fade away for a while but a group of enthusiasts revived it. Even the Plymouth Lord Mayor is involved in the planning and the new Plymouth Waterfront Manager also joined in to keep this event going. In 2013, the event will take on a new look with a Thanksgiving Weekend Festival from November 28 to December 31 along the Plymouth Barbican - the waterfront area from which the Mayflower sailed.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
















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Monday, November 18, 2013

President Lincoln at Gettysburg: First-Hand Accounts

 We have read and heard many times over of President Abraham Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 in the new National Soldiers Cemetery in the small town of Gettysburg. But many have not heard of the excitement that occurred the night before and the morning of the famous speech; of how the folks in town reacted and celebrated such an occasion as having a Presidential visit. Especially after the horror that took place just a few months before.
What you are about to read comes directly from the book, "Gettysburg Remembers President Lincoln: Eyewitness Accounts of November 1863" by Linda Giberson Black. I highly recommend you purchasing it for what I have here is only a snippet of what is written in this wonderful collection:

The train depot on Carlisle Street
At about dusk on Wednesday, November 18, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln's festively decorated train arrived at the railroad depot on Carlisle Street. From there he moved to the home of David Wills.
Gettysburg was a lively place that evening. Many of the visitors who thronged the streets were still seeking lodging. Military bands played patriotic music by torchlight, stirring the crowds. Numerous people openly enjoyed alcoholic refreshments. A large crowd gathered outside the Wills home.
"Thousands of persons were in the square anxious to see and hear the Chief Executive of the nation," Michael Colver wrote.
Many in the crowd began to call for Lincoln to come out and make a speech. At last, Lincoln decided that he could no longer ignore the pleas to appear. When he went to the window to wave, the crowd cheered. Not satisfied with this brief glimpse, the people continued to call for a speech. "When he did appear, never did mortal have a more enthusiastic greeting," J. Howard Wert noted.
"Hurrah for Old Abe!" shouted some as their hats were flung in the air. "We are coming Father Abraham," was the chorus of other enthusiasts. "God Bless our President! God save our President!"
Lincoln began to speak in the high-pitched voice that always carried so well to the audience.
"I appear before you fellow citizens merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make," he declared, drawing laughter. "In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things," he added.
"If you can help it!" someone in the crowd shouted.
"It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all," the good-natured Lincoln replied, making the people laugh again. "Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further." And back he went into the Wills house.

The David Wills Home - Lincoln's stayed in the room marked with the bunting
 Many of the home owners in  Gettysburg had unexpected company that night due to the overwhelming throngs of out of towners clamoring to hear the President's speech. Kate McCreary said, "They slept on the floor of the parlor; had comforters and pillows for beds. The family slept on the third floor that night."

On the momentous Thursday morning morning of November 19, 1863, Gettysburg sprang to life early.  Much to the relief of everyone, the weather was good.
"It was one of those very few November days in our climate that are adapted for open-air audiences and open-air speakers," wrote eyewitness Henry Eyster Jacobs. "The sun shone brightly: the air was almost balmy."
Gettysburg was bursting at the seems. Visitors poured into town.. The local newspaper, The Compiler, noted: "The streets swarmed with people from all sections of the Union, the number variously estimated at from twenty to forty thousand. Every available spot on the principal streets was occupied. The throng of ladies and gentlemen, the large turnout of military in their best trim, the flags floating in the breeze at innumerable points - all contributed to the making up of a picture of rare and exciting interest."
W.C. Storrick walked to town with his father that morning: "The streets were rife with people. The bands were playing and I was delighted with the music which was the best I had ever heard."
At ten o'clock, the scheduled starting time for the procession, President Lincoln, wearing a black suit, stovepipe hat with mourning band, and white gauntlets, stood in the doorway of the Wills house.
Storrick remembered, "I was surprised and I might say awed by his great height, his black hair and beard, his dark complexion, his head covered with a tall silk hat. I thought he was the tallest man I had ever seen and I fancy I can still see him as he appeared to me on that day."
Lincoln was greeted by cheers as he walked between to lines of soldiers to the reddish-brown horse that had been selected to be his mount. However, the steed was too small for him. Henry Holloway recalled, "After he had mounted the animal, Mr. Lincoln's feet were near the ground. The spectacle was humorous, and no one seemed more conscious of it than himself. If there had been an accident, he certainly would not have had far to fall."
At about eleven o'clock, the procession to the Soldiers' National Cemetery was finally ready to start. "The band began to play and Mr. Lincoln's horse became excited and pranced around quite lively. It seemed to amuse the President, and then that sober, sad-faced man actually smiled," remembered Liberty Holloway.
The Shriver home on Baltimore Street as it looked in 1863
The proud color guard led the way down Baltimore Street. Next came the Marine Band, playing a stirring march. The rest of the military participants followed in their best attire, presenting an impressive sight.
Accompanied by numerous dignitaries such as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and others, Lincoln appeared next in the procession. Despite the solemn purpose of the parade, many of the spectators who lined Baltimore Street greeted the President with cheers. Lincoln's face became illuminated with smiles and he bowed continually to acknowledge the cheers.
Annie Skelly was only seven at the time. "I remember vividly of a man who lifted me up to see Lincoln. He would turn from side to side looking at the people on either side when he passed. He looked rather odd on such a small horse."
This painting gives the reader a fine impression of what Gettysburg's Baltimore Street may have looked like on the morning of November 19, 1863

To the new cemetery Lincoln and the parade participants went, along with over twenty thousand cheering supporters, to hear what, perhaps, became the most famous speech given by a President in American history.
But not every citizen joined in the festivities of that 19th day of November. In her diary, Sallie Meyers wrote, "Went up the street and saw the procession going out to the cemetery and then came home to work. Saw the President and a great many distinguished men but had little time to look at them."
The head of the procession turned at the Emmitsburg Road and began to enter the Soldier's National Cemetery by way of Taneytown Road.
Soldiers formed lines to provide him with a clear passage to the wooden stage.
The program organized for that day by Wills and his committee included:
Music, by Birgfeld's Band
Prayer, by Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D.
Music, by the Marine Band
Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett 
Music, Hymn composed by B.B. French, Esq.
Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States
Dirge, sung by Choir selected for the occasion
Benediction, by Reverand H.L. Baugher 

 Although the stage was just three feet high, thousands of on-lookers immediately noticed when the tall Lincoln first appeared on the stand. The crowd grew quiet, and men removed their hats. "The reception was one of respect and profound silence," J. Howard Wert recalled.
Somewhere in the crowd, Elizabeth Thorn waited for the ceremony to begin. She lived at the nearby Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse with her elderly parents and three young sons...and had taken over her husband's job as cemetery superintendent while he was off fighting in the war. A few months earlier, directly after the great battle that took place in her town she, while six months pregnant, had taken it upon herself to bury over 100 Federal dead. So on this day Mrs. Thorn had brought her two eldest sons to see the ceremony with her. "She wanted us to see the President," George Thorn recalled.
Due to the solemn nature of the occasion, the dedication was supposed to begin with a dirge, and the bands played somber musical selections to help set the mood for the ceremony.

While it is Lincoln's short speech that has gone down in history as one of the finest examples of English public oratory, it was Everett's two-hour oration that was slated to be the "Gettysburg address" that day. His now seldom-read 13,607-word oration began:
"Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy."
And ended two hours later with:
"But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg."
Lengthy dedication addresses like Everett's were common at cemeteries in this era.  
At last the President was introduced.The large crowd applauded with great enthusiasm. Wearing his glasses, Lincoln stepped in front of the stage. Charles Young wrote: "I remember distinctly his grave and solemn appearance as he faced the audience. And Henry Eyster said, "As he stood for a moment before the crowd, he thrilled them by his very presence."
George Thorn, son of Elizabeth, mentioned, "We were admonished (by our mother) to listen carefully, as this was the great man of our country."
As Lincoln spoke he had "One hand on each side of his manuscript (and) spoke in a most deliberate manner, and with such a forceful and articulate expression that he could be heard by all of that immense throng," Philip Bikle recalled. "There was no gesture except with both hands up and down, grasping the manuscript which he did not seem to need, as he looked at it so seldom."
Several newspapers noted that the speech was interrupted by applause five times.
There are still disagreements about some of Lincoln's exact phrases, the following is generally accepted as the official version of the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Many newspapers reported that the audience applauded heartily at the end of his short speech. Some observers remembered that the crowd even gave Lincoln three cheers. But others, such as William Tipton, remembered differently: "(There had been) slight applause" at the end of the speech. Daniel Skelly agreed and pointed out that many in the crowd had loved who died for the Union cause: "Could there be much applause from such an audience?"
The trip back into town was not as large but the spectators were still enthusiastic.
For Lincoln, the rest of the day was filled with a luncheon, more greetings of the public, a visit to the Presbyterian Church with local citizen hero, John Burns, and then finally, at around seven o'clock, to the train station where he and his entourage left for Washington City.
Josephine Forney Roedel, recorded in her diary: "The great day is over and I am glad I have been here. Everything passed off very pleasantly and scarcely one drunken man was to be seen. Such homage I never saw or imagined could be shown to any one person as the people bestow upon Lincoln. The very mention of his name brings forth shouts of applause. No doubt he will be the next President, even his enemies acknowledge him to be an honest man."


And there you have it. 
I believe by reading these first-hand accounts one can be transported back in time to witness this two-day historic occasion that took place 150 years ago, and, once again, Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries are alive, and the festivities have begun all over again...










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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ragged Victorians - "The Great Unwashed"

Back in the day when a shilling was a weeks wages, when even the 'Pure' (Dogs Dung) was a valuable source of income, poor Victorian 'street' people were living by whatever means they could. No homes, no income and no benefit system for support. Thieving, cheating, prostitution and even child selling, were sometimes the only options these unfortunate souls had. Working the most degrading jobs in the world, in the drains, the sewers, cesspits and mortuaries for little or scant reward. 
~from The Ragged Victorian web site~

The Ragged Victorians - 'The great unwashed'

I very recently discovered a unique group of reenactors from England, and I was so impressed by their quality and authenticity that I felt the need to write a posting about them.
I encourage my readers who are fans of history, living history, and reenacting to read on to meet these living historians whose portrayal of 19th century London's poor takes the hobby to an entirely new level.
But first, to understand why they chose this particular era and class of people, a little history lesson (with loads of photos!):

No, this isn't a scene from a movie or a play; these are 'great unwashed' living historians in a posed photo to promote their reenacting of the wretched poor on the streets of 19th century London

The world of reenacting and living history certainly has changed over the last decade or so. No longer is it strictly about wars and battles or even of specific historical events. For instance, the way I reenact is a good example of what I mean by this; my time-travels back to the era of the American Civil War have little to do with the war itself. More often than not I, instead, concentrate on showing the everyday life by way of the work, fun, and hardships of those who lived through that era, presenting life as it was once lived by the average *northern* American citizen in a 1st person immersion manner.
Yes, I do speak of the War, but in a way that accents my daily life presentation; I have presented myself as a Postmaster and thus I speak of the importance of mail sent from home to the soldiers fighting the battles hundreds of miles away. Many of those letters contained news of the homefront, allowing the military recipient to read of the goings on of their family and of their home town's activities. The study the original letters is what helps us here in the 21st century understand, on a more personal level, the lives of our ancestors and to utilize that information in our living history.
During my presentations I also speak of my life as a farmer, a stage coach stop owner, and even of what it was like to travel great distances in a carriage and spend time at a tavern stop.
Authors from the past can help greatly as well. Without the revisionist opinion of the future 'historians' pushing their agendas, I found that reading the books written at the time can also bring the past to life on a number of different levels. For instance, many people became more aware of the living conditions of the poor people in London, England through the very popular writings of Charles Dickens. In such novels and novelettes as "Oliver Twist" and "A Christmas Carol," Dickens opened widely the eyes of many to the plight of the ragged poor living on the streets of London, Manchester, and other major cities in England. And through his works we here in the 21st century have a very clear image of the lives he describes so well in a historical sense. In other words, what Dickens wrote for his contemporary audience is now a social history lesson.
But it was another man who took the time to search out and actually gave a sort of immortality to these 'great unwashed,' and his name was Henry Mayhew.
Mayhew was born in 1812 in London and, similar to Dickens (who was born the same year), became quite the champion for the poor. After witnessing the impact of a cholera outbreak in England in 1849 where an estimated 13,000 Londoners died, Mayhew wrote an article for the Morning Chronicle newspaper on the impact of cholera on the working class. It was during this time when he fully realized the awful conditions in which the laboring classes lived and convinced his editor to allow him to carry out an investigation on the subject.
 
He observed, documented and described the state of working people in London, and interviewed - literally interviewed - beggars, street-entertainers (such as Punch and Judy men), market traders, prostitutes, laborers, sweatshop workers, even down to the “midlarks” who searched the stinking mud on the banks of the River Thames for wood, metal, rope and coal from passing ships, and the "pure-finders" who gathered dog faeces to sell to tanners. He described their clothes, how and where they lived, their entertainments and customs, and made detailed estimates of the numbers and incomes of those practicing each trade.
The articles in the Morning Chronicle received a lot of attention, and not all was positive. The Economist, a weekly financial and commercial journal, attacked the publication of such material that it believed was "unthinkingly increasing the enormous funds already profusely destined to charitable purposes, adding to the number of virtual paupers, and encouraging a reliance on public sympathy for help instead on self-exertion."
However, Douglas Jerrold, a Mayhew contemporary who was concerned with social reform, wrote to a friend in February, 1850: "Do you read the Morning Chronicle? Do you devour those Marvellous  revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us - us, in our smug respectability. To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, the tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the other, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on. And when we see the spires of pleasant churches pointing to Heaven, and are told - paying thousands to Bishops for the glad intelligence - that we are Christians!. The cant of this country is enough to poison the atmosphere."
In general, however, Henry Mayhew and the Morning Chronicle were widely praised for this year long series, and in 1851 Mayhew collected the articles and put them into book-form called 'London Labour and the London Poor.'
Mayhew's own descriptions are so wonderfully vibrant in these books that he does make mid-19th century London come to life.


So, with his words as our guide, let's imagine that you and I are walking through those dirty old streets of London where...
The pavement and the road are crowded with purchasers and street-sellers. 
The housewife in her thick shawl, with the market-basket on her arm, walks slowly on, stopping now to look at the stall of caps, and now to cheapen a bunch of greens.

Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between the people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. 
Then the tumult of the thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering: “So-old again,” roars one. “Chestnuts all‘ot, a penny a score,” bawls another.
“An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking,” squeaks a boy. “Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy-- bu-u-uy!” cries the butcher. “Half-quire of paper for a penny,” bellows the street stationer. “An ‘aypenny a lot ing-uns.” “Twopence a pound grapes.” “Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.” “Who‘ll buy a bonnet for fourpence?” “Pick ‘em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.” “Now‘s your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.” “Here‘s ha‘p‘orths,” shouts the perambulating confectioner. 
 “Come and look at ‘em! here‘s toasters!” bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork.
  “Penny a lot, fine russets,” calls the apple woman: 
and so the Babel goes on.

And that's our lead in to meet a group of seasoned living historians based in the southern half of England who formed a new, rather unique organization known as The Ragged Victorians - The Great Unwashed. I have not had the pleasure of actually meeting any of the members in person, for they live in England and I am in Michigan, but I did conduct a sort of 'on-line' interview with one of the founding members known as Slogger Rose (or 'Rosie' to the more friendly gentlemen), and she graciously answered my questions and permitted me to use the photographs from their Facebook page and website to accent this posting (that's her in the photo on the left).
Formed in July of 2013, they do their "utmost to replicate the clothes, hardware and mannerisms of the time." They become, as their website states, the 'rag n bone' man, fish sellers, coster girls, pie sellers, match girl, prostitutes, drunks, convicts, thugs, boot cleaners, sweeps, petty thieves, black smith, school teacher, 
urchins, pick pockets, crippled beggar just to name but a 
few, all being kept honest by the constant patrol of our peeler.'
 
(Peeler, by the way, was the slang term for a policeman. Prime Minister Robert Peel, in 1829, helped create the modern concept of the police force, hence the name "Peeler." A second fun-fact is the term 'bobbie', which is another English slang word for the police, and that also came from Peel by way of his Christian name.)

The Ragged Victorians have around a dozen members, including a few children, as well as a number of prospective future members that are on their 'guest list.' Rosie said that "all have all been re-enacting the Victorian period in one form or another for many years. Whether it was amongst American Civil War enthusiasts, Westerners or just messing about with friends, we’d been dabbling with civilian middle and lower class life for quite some time."
She said that they had spoken of forming a living history group portraying the ragged poor for some time, but the opportunity didn't take hold until they felt the time was right to "take the plunge to set up a group that was to focus entirely on Victorian England in the 1840/50s."  
Extensive research of the era took precedence, and they commenced to study the far less affluent class of people that tend to get fleeting mentions in our modern interpretation of history.

Again, from their website:
The 'Ragged Victorians' enter into the lives of these poor unfortunate souls, dressing in the clothes of the time, using the language, the goods and the currency. Portraying as near to life as possible the hardships they endured.  

And this is where they came up with the name, 'The Ragged Victorians – The great unwashed': from the fact that "the more affluent classes of the time often referred to these unfortunate people as "ragged" or indeed "the great unwashed." 
Obviously this was due to the ripped and ram-shackled clothing they wore and the dirt that covered them.
Not just anyone can become a member of this living history group, by the way. They have a strict recruitment policy in place, "but that’s only to protect the high standards of what we’re trying to achieve and ensures the group’s harmonies are kept balanced."


The members of The Ragged Victorians attend events that mainly take place south of the midlands of England and are "extremely varied, whether we’re in the streets, bringing atmosphere to Victorian markets and fayres, in an open air museum bringing buildings to life, or at a multi-period field event, making the most of prize fights and the side show. We love mingling amongst the public watching them recoil from our unhealthy complexions and doleful stares. Any event or location that wants to enhance their visitor’s Victorian experience is considered."


Most of the members are able to do 1st person, often slipping into it to enhance their character's persona.
As Slogger Rose explains, "We all have a clear view of the direction we want the group to go in and we’ve every confidence that we will be (and can be), the most period correct living history group reenacting the early Victorian period in the UK.
 We want to remove the veil of romanticism that has been placed over the era and give well over-due credit to the majority of the population, struggling to survive brutal conditions. We offer a range of scenarios which include street life with patrolling peelers (policemen), prize fights and side show, all geared up to educate and entertain, young and old alike."

Would you like to experience how wonderfully the Ragged Victorians do their 1st person impression? Though this clip is not from their group, it gives an idea of what to expect if you happen to run into one of them: 
(From You Tube - "This video is based on an actual interview made in the nineteenth century by Henry Mayhew of a sprout girl in London. It highlights the low level of education of the working person in that era.
This extract was taken from a TV series called 'Voices of Victorian London' which was on in 1996 and was acted by Sara Stephens"):


I so admire this sort of dedication to authentic living history.
Upon reading the notes Slogger Rose sent to me for this posting I feel that she and I have the same outlook on historical reenacting: "Progressive reenactment is, understandably, not for everyone and can be quite intimidating," she said, "but for those who do decide to take the plunge, the rewards are plentiful."
Haven't I been saying that?
This is what I strive for as the civilian coordinator for the unit I belong to, the 21st Michigan. Some of our members are at this level while others are working their way up to it.
But we're heading in the right direction - - - - - 
Dear Miss Rose, my hat is off and I bow to you!

Many MANY thanks to Slogger Rose for all of her wonderful input and information, and for allowing me the use of these fantastic photos, every one of which is of the Ragged Victorian reenactors and all of which were taken by photographers Nick Allen, Pat Jacobs, Jim Monk, Dave Phillips and Stuart Lambeth!


Besides the information I received from The Ragged Victorian website and Slogger Rose, I also lifted small portions of this posting from Wikipedia and from the biography of Henry Mayhew on the Spartacus Educational site.

I do have a small list of movies pertaining to this era in England's history that I would like to share with you here. Just click the links for further information.
These are my particular favorites:
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield
Victoria and Albert   
Ghosts of Dickens Past
And  the various versions of "A Christmas Carol"
Yes, yes, I know it's nearly all Dickens, but that's what I have in my collection! I apologize that I don't have more than this on the list. 
I purposely did not include any of the Jane Austen movies, by the way, for The Ragged Victorians are of a little later period in time.

And, just so's we understands each other, 'ere's a bit on money...old English money:
2 farthings = 1 halfpenny
2 halfpence = 1 penny (1d)
3 pence = 1 thruppence (3d)
6 pence = 1 sixpence (a 'tanner') (6d)
12 pence = 1 shilling (a bob) (1s)
2 shillings = 1 florin ( a 'two bob bit') (2s)
2 shillings and 6 pence = 1 half crown (2s 6d)
5 shillings = 1 Crown (5s) 
~ ~ ~ ~

On a personal genealogical note:
I've always been fond of my English heritage, and that heritage runs deep; I've been able to get comfortably back (meaning without question) all the way to the mid-1600's and continue on into the early 1700's when my Shrigley ancestors came over to America and settled in Quaker-friendly Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Another English line of mine, which I can comfortably get back to the mid-1700's, immigrated to North America in the 1870's, and it's this group of ancestors that I am most familiar with.
I am not descended from wealthy people. In fact, quite the opposite: William and Mary Anne Raby, my 3rd great grandparents, were agricultural laborers (farmers) who lived and worked on the land owned by a lord. This was in the community of Geddington in Northamptonshire.

The agricultural laborers such as the Raby’s lived very rough lives. They were not seen as romantic figures, but were noticed as “shambling, slouching, boorish, degraded creatures, improvident, reckless, and always on the watch for what they could get out of the gentry (an upper class person).” This comes from the book, Victorian People by Gillian Avery. 
The ‘ag labs’ workday was not eight hours long as we know today, but was from before sun up ‘til after sun down of strenuous labor, seven days a week. Monica Rayne authored a book called Geddington As It Was, which describes every day life of those who lived in my ancestors home town during the time they lived there, writes, "12 hours a day, six days a week, starting 6:00 am or earlier of hard, physical work. What was known as the 'eight hour bell' was rung at four in the morning, at noon, and at 8:00 at night to give the various laborers notice of the hour to begin their day, when to have dinner, and when to go to bed. (This) out door farm life was physically demanding, but not necessarily equally heavy all year round.”  
The entire Raby family would work together in completing the daily farming chores. My 3rd great grandfather worked out in the fields, harrowing, plowing, planting, weeding, hoeing, tending the animals, digging ditches, and more. 3rd great grandmother, Mary Anne also would have spent her fair share of time out in the fields at William’s side, along with concerning herself with the poultry yard and dairy, as well as keeping house and feeding the family. Mary Anne may have even earned a little extra money by knitting or braiding straw for hat making.
The children’s chores would have included weaving straw, pulling weeds, picking rocks out of the fields, feeding the hens, and scaring crows and birds. This besides their home chores.
Young girls were also expected to work along side of their mother in a variety of handicrafts and household duties. Likewise, young boys with their fathers.

Could this be my
3rd great grandmother, Mary Anne Raby?
An interesting perspective on the dialect of the English language spoken by the ag labs in the area where my ancestors lived again comes from Ms. Avery’s book: “It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages.” As for the tough language spoken by all of these poor farm workers, including women, she continues, “The foul language is due to the fact that from early childhood they have been employed in the fields. It wears them out in body and makes them brutes in soul and in manners.”

It's no matter that my ancestors were not wealthy or famous; the description above shows us that they were not very different from the poor that The Ragged Victorians so wonderfully imitate. This fact gives me a deep source of pride for these common laborers, for they survived through the worst of it and continue to survive through their descendents.

~ ~ ~ ~

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. When I found out about this assemblage of living historians, I became very excited! I suppose to me it was just so cool to see a reenacting group doing something that not only shows the every day life of a class of people one rarely thinks of, but seeing the members go to such extremes in authenticity to do so!
And, due to my own heritage, I feel I can relate to an extent.
Now that's cool!
Not that I would be able to join them or anything since I live in the Midwest of the U.S. (though if I ever did move to England you can bet they'd be the first group I'd search out - 'course, I'd have to learn the language dialect, though, wouldn't I?).

I'd like to end this posting with a few more excellent photographs of The Ragged Victorians - The great unwashed. Enjoy!





















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