Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year Cakes

I must say, I didn't expect them to be crunchy.

In honor of the New Year (and just in time to serve on January 1), I finally got around to testing out Eliza Leslie's New York Cakes recipe, which she claims are quite similar to New Year's Cakes.

The recipe, being quite old, needed some interpretation and substitution. I also hunted about in various places for a corroborating description of said cakes, which oddly enough, I found with little trouble. My final preparation was to purchase an intricate cookie mold from a Pennsylvania Dutch wood carver I found on the Internet: srwhitecarving.com.

The flavors (nutmeg, cinnamon, rosewater, and caraway seeds) are a bit jarring to the modern palate and the cakes are barely sweet; it has taken me a day or so to find them rather pleasant after all. As I mentioned at first, the texture was definitely a surprise. I had thought they would be very similar to German Springerle -- they certainly are in appearance -- but instead of being cakey, they have a definitely biscuit-like crunch. The insides are flaky and break apart in layers.

Here is the description of New Year's Cakes I found. You'll note that it is from Buffalo, not New York City, but according to Godey's in January 1847, writing about New Year's calling, "A custom obtains in the city of New York - and we believe to a considerable extent throughout the state..." so I think that we may fairly attribute Buffalo's general attitudes on New Year's Day to the rest of New York.

There must be many younger men and women who well remember Van Velsor's New Year's cakes. I had almost said that New Year's was ushered in by these famous confections for their popularity in Buffalo was almost universal. They were of various shapes and sizes, some being eighteen or twenty inches across, and from three quarters to an inch in thickness; the smaller ones were about half an inch thick. They were heart-shaped, or in the form of stars, spheres or diamond-shaped, with flowers, baskets of fruit, cornucopias, birds, etc., stamped on the upper side in very distinct relief. They were redolent with caraway seeds, and fond papas quite generally stopped on their way home on New Year's Eve, to purchase the expected New Year's cake.
New Year's Day In The '3o's, Collected Essays from the Buffalo Historical Society edited by Frank H. Severance, 1905

Elsewhere in the essay quoted above, the authoress actually mentions her family's dependence on Miss Leslie's cookbook, making it even more apropos that I should be working from the following recipe. How often does one find such synchronicity in historic research?

From Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie 1817 (1840 edition)

NEW YORK COOKIES. --Take a half-pint or a tumbler full of cold water, and mix it with half a pound of powdered white sugar. Sift three pounds of flour into a large pan, and cut up in it a pound of butter; rub the butter very fine into the flour. Add a grated nutmeg, and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, with a wine glass of rose water. Work in the sugar, and make the whole into a stiff dough, adding, if necessary, a little cold water. Dissolve a tea-spoonful of pearl-ash in just enough of warm water to cover it, and mix it in at the last. Take the lump of dough out of the pan, and knead it on the paste-board till it becomes quite light. Then roll it out rather more than half an inch thick, and cut it into square cakes with a jagging iron or with a sharp knife. Stamp the surface of each with a cake print. Lay them in buttered pans, and bake them of a light brown in a brisk oven.

They are similar to what are called New Year's cakes, and will keep two or three weeks.

In mixing the dough, you may add three table-spoonfuls of caraway seeds.


Rubbing in the butter -- I had to use the salad bowl to hold all 12 cups of flour.


My first challenge was to change the ingredient amounts into modern measurements. A half-pint water was easy. I used the weights on the sugar and flour packages, along with their servings per container to calculate how many cups of each (1 cup sugar, 12 cups flour) I needed. I had no idea how much an entire nutmeg would be once it was ground, so I grated one fresh. Like the water, butter and cinnamon needed no translation. I discovered that a wine glass held a bit more than a cup of water, but as I was nervous about making the dough too wet, I added the rosewater in parts, first 1/2 a cup, then the other 3/4 of a cup.




I had to replace some ingredients that are no longer available. The powdered sugar nearly had me tricked. Without thinking, I initially planned to use confectioner's sugar. Just in time, I remembered that it was not pure sugar -- it's actually a mix of finely ground sugar and cornstarch. Instead, I dashed out to the store for superfine, or caster, sugar. I imagine that it might be quite similar to what Miss Leslie thought of a powdered sugar, back in the days when you had to grind your sugar off a loaf.

The pearlash was a problem as well. I have not been able to find any commercial source of this early leavening (used until the middle of the 19th century, when the first baking powder was invented -- that's a whole other blog post). I did discover directions for making it, but lacking both a wood burning fireplace and the courage to feed distilled hardwood ashes to my friends and family, I decided to substitute baking soda.


Here is the flour/butter mixture with all the spices added.

Kneading was fun, and the dough did actually become quite light.

Rolling out, stamping, and cutting the cookies was very laborious. It took me nearly 2 hours to produce 80 cookies. Since I only had a single mold, I had to press (very hard) each cookie and cut around it with the 'jagging' knife individually. I began by rolling the dough nearly 3/4 of an inch thick, but discovered that it took far too long to bake them through. I discovered that if I rolled the dough on the thin side, it would contract once I cut out the oval and become nearly 1/2 an inch thick.

I tried baking them first at 425, for a 'brisk oven', but they seemed to burn on the outside before cooking through. So I lowered it to somewhere between 375 and 400. It took about 15 minutes for each batch to develop the called for 'light brown' color.

When fresh out of the oven, they were soft and flaky, like butter biscuits. After cooling, they began to harden, and now, a day old, they are very hard indeed. Not unpleasant though. We shall see how they fare with the guests tomorrow! Perhaps their pedigree will help ingratiate them with a 2009 audience.

Happy New Year to one and all!

ANOTHER YEAR! another year,
Is borne by Time away;
Nor pauses yet his swift career,
Nor tire his wing, nor makes me here
E'en one short hour's delay. -
But hurries on, and round and round,
The wheel of life is sped;
Unnoted oft, until rebound
Upon the ear, the startling sound,
Another year has fled!
Who ever said, 'tis New Year's day ,
With unmixed care or glee?
For hope still points the future gay,
And memory o'er the past will stray,
With sorrowing constancy.
Yet blest if they here behold
The grave of well-spent days'
The joy of gratitude that told
The tear, in patient trust that rolled -
The christian's hallowed bays.
Another year! so swift it flew,
We scarce had marked it ours;
Ere, fading from our backward view,
'Tis but the past our eyes pursue;
Eternity's long hours!
'Tis New Year's day , the coming year
All blank before us lies;
Oh! may no blot or stain appear,
To mar its history written here,
When published in the skies!
'Tis New Year's day ! how oft have I,
While yet a simple child,
Made it the goal from whence to try,
That race to run, which to the sky
Can guide through Time's dark wild.
The sky, that home of quiet rest,
When Life's poor dream is o'er,
Where spirits mingle with the blest,
And sorrow, in the aching breast,
Shall reign, shall reign no more!

Weekly Advocate, January 1837

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Half Done is Well Begun

Grey stockings: one down, one to go.

I'm using fingering weight wool this time, instead of lace, and it seems to work up quite well (not to mention MUCH faster). The result isn't nearly as cloud-like, but I think it's closer to the gauge intended by the original pattern. Also, I'm working it over three needles this time instead of four, as I read that stockings are knit with four needles (three for the stitches, one for knitting) and doilies with five. I guess it's to help manage the decreases and heel shaping.

Next up, the second grey stocking. And then there is the red yarn...and then the white silk blend.

P.S. I'm going to give in and buy some machine knitted stockings online. I found a few sites that sell them at various prices/qualities. And someday, maybe, I'll find someone with a working 19th-century stocking frame -- and bribe them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

'Twas a Few Days After Christmas

If a poem can see 186 Christmases come and go without a lessening of its appeal, you know it is a classic. When Clement Clarke Moore penned it as a Christmas gift for his children in 1822, it was called "A Visit from St. Nicholas." In 1851, it's title was changed to "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."


Considering its ubiquitous popularity, I will presume that you have already read the work (or at least can find the text elsewhere) and will not attempt to reproduce said lines here. Instead, let us take into consideration where Mr. Moore found his inspiration for the jolly old elf, depicted above in an early illustration.

Can it be mere coincidence that the 1821 (just a year before Mr. Moore's poem was reportedly written, though it was not published until 1823) edition of Washington Irving's History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Dietrich Knickerbocker, in which St. Nicholas (Irving's designated patron saint of New York) is described as:
. . . equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.

. . . riding over the tops of trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children . . . And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.

And a few pages later, the same book expands further on the predilections of St. Nicholas:

At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.

We are told, in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches-pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass, he never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year, when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of patriarchs, confining his presents to children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.




Clement Clarke Moore
I most emphatically do not wish to imply that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at Columbia University and landowner whose estate, Chelsea, lent its name to the Manhattan neighborhood that grew up around it, was a plagiarist. It is merely meant to suggest that we might all do well to read a little more Washington Irving.
And perhaps it is also worth looking back occasionally at the way our cultural icons developed. For instance, in the early 1850s, a decade or so before Thomas Nast crystallized the image of Santa Claus with his illustrations for Harpers, P. T. Barnum was using this poster to promote Jenny Lind's American tour. The caption reads:
SANTA CLAUS AND JENNY LIND.
I'm a jolly old man--I ride in the wind;
The lady behind me is Miss Jenny Lind;
The horse that we ride is a broomstick, you see --
Oh! this is the horse for Miss Jenny and me.



P.S. In the interest of fair scholarship, let me reveal here and now that I first heard about the apparent connection between Moore's poem and Irving's satire in a book on the history of Christmas (I have misplaced the title and cannot look for it at present I am afraid). In the course of writing this post, I am indebted to Mr. Seth T. Kaller for the article on his website that confirmed my memory and supplied the date of Irving's second edition.



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Upon the Midnight Clear

Those happy chimes!
like fairy laughter!
How deliciously they carol !
What sounds to my soul,
like "peace on earth; good-will to men!"
Godey's Lady's Book, 1855
Long before I knew its lineage, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" was my favorite Christmas carol. Imagine my joy to learn that it is thought to be the first 'American' carol, written in the late 1840s. According to Wikipedia, its author was Edmund Sears, pastor of a Unitarian church in Massachusetts. It goes on to say that the melody was provided by one Richard Storrs Willis.
And here, according again to Wikipedia (can you tell I'm too taken up with holiday preparations to put much time in on research?) are the original and complete words:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King.
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The bless├Ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing
load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the
wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Murder Most Mediocre

"The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis."

- Edgar Allen Poe

Oh what a bitter cup! I was prepared for a rare treat when I finally took up a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" this week, but was severely disappointed to discover that my modern literary palette is too coarse for such cautious morbidity. I was expecting something truly macabre and sensational, but instead found only a foreshadowing of my old friend, Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Mr. Holmes.

I suppose I must put this one down to the effect of the 167 intervening years between the story's 1841 publication in Graham's American Monthly Magazine (where Poe was an editor) and today. Perhaps if I had read it then, when the analytical detective was a novel invention, I would have been impressed. But after years of Conan Doyle, Christie, Hammett (though his detectives were not exactly on the same model I suppose), and other 'modern' mystery writers, I simply could not find anything to entrance me in Poe's simple yarn.

This engraving of Mr. Poe was published by Graham's in 1845.

Initial reception of the story was quite favorable, and critics hailed the author as inventive. You see, they had never read Dr. Watson's account of Sherlock Holmes and "the Speckled Band."

In my own defense, I feel I was given false expectations by the illustration on the cover of my book (Harry Clarke, 1919), as well as this other (Aubrey Beardsley, 1890s):


Ever undaunted, I do plan to peruse an 1848 volume of Graham's that I just found on Google Books the next time I have a few spare hours and feel like staring at a screen. . .

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mostly Stockings

Thanks to a very mid-19th century sounding case of the sniffles, I had a bit of extra time to knit this weekend, and so have finished my husband's non-19th century sweater vest more quickly than expected.

Additional news from the knitting front includes the arrival by post of my latest yarn supply from knitpicks.com (I know it's very un-1850s to admit ordering yarn from a website, but what else can one do these days?). The colored balls are Peruvian wool, the undyed skein is a wool and silk blend. All are fingering weight and intended for railway stockings.



I must admit I begin to have doubts about how many reasonably well-to-do urban women knitted their own stockings in the 1850s. According to Godey's Lady's Book in March, 1847:

The knitting of the family stockings has, to be sure, been in a great measure superseded by the cheapness of the manufactured article. Still, the warmest and most lasting stockings are those knit by hand. We know several elderly ladies who now do the work of charity with their knitting needles, furnishing many pairs of strong, substantial stockings for the poor.
Clearly there was considerable availability of very fine manufactured product at a price that made it unattractive for many women to make or wear 'homespun' stockings. Most fashionable seem to be silk stockings, decorated with embroidered 'clocks' or even beads, according to one article. I have seen a pair of stockings from the 1870s matching this general description. They are of very finely knitted silk -- clearly done by machine -- their ornament being in the form of a monogram. They are figured (shaped to the leg by decreases and increases) and reach over the knee. I imagine that many stockings from the middle of the 19th century followed this pattern.

It seems that knitted stockings -- credited to Spain -- have been in demand ever since the mid 1500s when they began to replace cloth hose. It did not take long for someone to invent a machine to replace the extensive human labor involved. The frame was not immediately embraced, for fear of putting hand knitters out of work, but growing demand ensured its eventual adoption. Again, from Godey's Lady's Book, June, 1853:


HISTORY OF STOCKINGS.

WE are told that Henry II. of France was the first who wore silk stockings, at his sister's wedding to the Duke of Savoy, in 1509. Howell, in his "History of the World," says that, in 1550, Queen Elizabeth was presented with a pair of black silk knit stockings by her silkwoman, Mrs. Montague, and she never wore cloth ones any more. He also adds that Henry VIII. wore ordinarily cloth hose, except there came from Spain, by great chance, a pair of silk-stockings. His son, King Edward VI., was presented with a pair of long Spanish silk stockings by Sir Thomas Gresham. Hence it would seem that the invention of knit stockings originally came from Spain. Anderson tells us— others relate— that one William Rider, an apprentice on London Bridge, seeing at the house of an Italian merchant a pair of knit stockings, from Mantua, took the hint, and made a pair exactly like them, which he presented to the Earl of Pembroke, and that they were the first of that kind worn in England. There have been various opinions with respect to the original invention of the stocking-frame; but it is now generally acknowledged that it was invented in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the year 1589, by William Lee, M.A., of St. John's College in Cambridge, a native of Woodborough, near Nottingham. In the "London Magazine," vol. iv. p. 337, we are told that this gentleman was expelled the University for marrying contrary to the statutes of the College. Being thus rejected, and ignorant of any other means of subsistence, he was reduced to the necessity of living upon what his wife could earn by knitting of stockings, which gave a spur to his invention; and by curiously observing the working of the needles in knitting, he formed in his mind the model of the frame, which proved of such advantage to that branch of our manufactures. Mr. Lee went to France, and for want of patronage there and in England, died of a broken heart, at Paris. The Framework Knitters' Company was incorporated by Charles II., 1663. In their hall is the portrait of Lee, pointing to one of the iron frames, and discoursing with a woman, who is knitting with needles and her fingers.


One of the ways that women contributed to the 18th-century American revolution was by foregoing European manufactured clothing and creating 'homespun' wardrobes for their families. This included a re adoption of the hand knit stocking. Not to imply that that cozy woolen article ever went completely out of favor in deference to its machine made counterpart. Merely that by the 1850s (and likely well before) it was not a la mode to encase one's calf in coarse wool if silk was available, nor was it considered a good use of an active woman's time to knit such intricate articles. Children and the elderly knitted stockings where bought ones were too dear or could not be had easily or in sufficient number. Of course there were many proponents of handmade stockings as better fitting, warmer, longer lasting, etc. Still, increasing improvements in their manufacture continued to make inroads on hand knitting.

This of course applies mainly to women's legwear. Many patterns of socks and stockings for men, and children especially, are given in the pages of Godey's (and one may presume in the pages of comparable publications) throughout the 1850s. Directions for knitting women's stockings are included in The Workwoman's Guide of 1840 (originally published earlier), and also in a number of issues of Weldon's Practical Needlework (published by a thread company in the 1870s to reintroduce lower and middle class British women to dying needlearts).

The only women's stocking pattern that I have yet found in Godey's around mid century is the aforementioned railway stocking pattern from 1861. Perhaps it was presumed that women knew as much as they needed to about knitting stockings and the railway stocking happened to be print worthy by virtue of novelty. But is it not a pretty coincidence that this simple (yet lacy), time saving pattern for hand knitting something that most women were accustomed to buy ready made was published just in time for the country to again go to war (when access to manufactured goods would be disrupted)?

Regardless of strict accuracy, I plan to continue my knitting of railway stockings in red and grey wool, and white silk. While it may have been more likely for a woman of my means to buy her stockings already made, I challenge you to find a stocking counter still in New York City, let alone one that carries figured knee-high clocked silk stockings at a reasonable price. Now if I could only convince my husband to let me build a stocking frame in our apartment...

**On another note that might interest my husband, legend claimed that the inventor of the stocking frame did so because he was tired of trying to attract his wife's attention while she sat knitting. In 1847, British painter Alfred Elmore imagined the scene in an oft-engraved painting entitled "Rev Lee Inventing the Stocking Frame" (the image below is of the engraving, also by Elmore).


Monday, December 8, 2008

In Which I am Waylaid

This weekend, I took advantage of a few idle hours to clean and organize my needlework supplies. Yardage, skeins, notions, trims, and tools of every shape and purpose occupy three shelves of a closet, the top of one large bookcase, and many odd spots around our studio.

During the course of my work, I discovered a few half-finished projects, including a sweater begun five or six years ago for my husband and put aside when I ran out of yarn to complete the sleeves. I tried at first to purchase more, willing to sacrifice continuity of dye lot, but discovered that the particular ply was no longer being manufactured. It seems to have been some marginal British weight, somewhere between DK and worsted, and the reason I obtained it for such a pittance in the first place was because it was soon going off market. After discarding the idea of purchasing slightly thinner yarn and knitting with one and a half strands, I hid the sweater.

Coming upon an almost finished project of this magnitude, I could not resist the temptation to take it out and see what I might do to salvage all the time and work. Running my fingers over the neat stitches, arrayed like so many little soldiers in row upon row, I remembered the triumph I felt upon learning to knit, pearl, and rib with the yarn looped over my left forefinger during the course of this sweater. I thought about the textured pattern I had carefully chosen from my book to replace the garish cables called for in the design.

It took very little persuasion to convince my husband that he would be just as happy with a sweater vest, thereby eliminating my need for more yarn. I unravelled what had been done of the sleeves, and have been using it knit on the collar and arm binding. I am sewing it up without blocking as I do not have a table large enough to accommodate the pieces. I plan to join the stitches carefully; with any luck, I will do it right and not discover later after it is washed that I have sewn off the grain.

In the meantime, I have sadly neglected my other work. Ah well. Knitting is a skill that ought to be nurtured, according to Miss Amanda Hess, author of The Little Girl's Own Book, 1834:

The favorite employment of our grandmothers ought not to be forgotten. It enables one to be useful in the discipline of life, when they can no longer be actively useful, and it is a never failing amusement. I never knew an old lady ignorant of it, who did not deeply regret she had never learned. Independent of these considerations, a little girl ought to know how to do EVERYTHING; it may not always be a necessity for her to sew and knit -- but she should KNOW HOW.
Perhaps Ogden Nash expressed my husband's sentiments more accurately when he said:

Life will teach you many things, chief of which is that every man who talks to himself isn't necessarily out of his wits;
He may have a wife who knits.
Probably only he and his Maker
Know how many evenings he has spent trying to raise a conservation while his beloved created sweaters by the acre.
Ah, my inquiring offspring, you must learn that life can be very bitter,
But never quite so much so as when trying to pry a word out of a knitter.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Bridge Sublime

It seems as if in one were cast
The present and the imaged past;
Spanning, as with a bridge sublime,
That fearful lapse of human time;
That gulf, unfathomably spread
Between the living and the dead.

Thomas Love Peacock
Newark Abbey, August, 1842
with a reminiscence of August, 1807


There is a theory of historical reenactment which calls for participants to not only assume the costume, custom, and occasionally characters of people from the past, but to also recreate their world view by studying the literature, science, etc. of the time. In this way they prepare themselves to respond (or at least attempt to do so) to any situation in the manner that the person they are representing might have done.

The limitations of this plan are obvious of course, but it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive invented to date. And it certainly pays due homage to the importance of material records -- be they written, drawn, recorded, etc. -- in communicating beyond our own generation. Washington Irving phrased it far better than I ever could in his word picture "Westminster Abbey" from "The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon," 1819:

Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure; but the intercourse between the author and his fellow men is ever new, active and immediate. He has lived for them more than for himself; he has sacrificed surrounding enjoyments, and shut himself up from the delights of social life, that he might the more intimately commune with distant minds and distant ages. Well may the world cherish his renown; for it has been purchased, not by deeds of violence and blood, but by the diligent dispensation of pleasure. Well may posterity be grateful to his memory; for he has left it an inheritance, not of empty names and sounding actions, but whole treasures of wisdom, bright gems of thought, and golden veins of language.

Reading that, I begin to think I've been wasting my time with all this knitting. (I must admit here that I just purchased enough yarn for three more pairs of stockings.) Perhaps I should drop my needles in favor of a pen...

On the other hand, perhaps my fondness for reading old books comes from the same source as my penchant for old clothes. When I read a novel or a poem written 150 years ago, I feel somehow closer to not only the writer but to all the others who have read and understood it over the years. When I puzzle through the 1852 instructions for a chemise, I feel a kindred spirit with the many women -- now long dead -- who bent their needles at this very project before me.

Today, a friend who has no interest in sewing, and who prefers the Beat Poets to my musty tomes, pointed out that music is yet another sublime bridge to the distant past. Be it symphonic, operatic, or even a country aire cannibalized by Aaron Copeland, music indeed hath charms to send the modern breast back 150 years. I must resolve to remember this hint in the hopes of enticing more people into appreciation of the 1850s.

God bless Stephen Foster.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Well Stockinged

I'm pleased to report, thanks to weeks of frantic knitting, that my first pair of stockings is completed; never again shall my legs be chilled, or less than historically accurate, when I wear 19th-century clothing. It's rather a surprise to me still that I undertook such a project, having always planned to purchase modern "thigh-high" stockings rather than waste the time on such a gargantuan effort.

I was finally tempted by a pattern published in Godey's, 1861. Its appeal lay largely in its relative ease, being merely an abbreviated tube partially unraveled to give it length, shaping, and a pretty openwork pattern.

THE RAILWAY STOCKING . TO BE WORKED
IN COTTON THREAD OR WORSTED.

CAST on the needles as many stitches as would be required for an ordinary stocking for a child. Knit it once around, then rib it until an inch long, then bind off. Take up the stitches and commence knitting straight around plain stocking stitch until you have a finger and a half done; then knit once around, dropping every other stitch off the needle; then stretch out the stocking ; and the stitches will run down until it reaches the ribbed piece, and no farther, forming a beautiful open worked stocking . Having kept the remaining stitches on the needles, finish off the toe by knitting straight around, narrowing every time on each needle. It will shape itself on the leg, and will be sufficiently long, as it only requires two fingers in length for a lady's
stocking .

A combination of foolish ambition and a desire to start right away without waiting for a new shipment of yarn convinced me that it would be a good idea to knit them in a heathered brown lace weight merino wool that happened to be lying about my apartment. I used a set of 5 double pointed pins in modern size 00.

I was a bit worried over length at first. Partly because I know that my legs are rather long, especially by mid-19th century standards, and partly because I was not sure if the stockings should reach over my knee. In the illustration accompanying the pattern, they do not cover the knee. I have seen references to the great garter debate pitting over-the-kneers 'gainst under-the-kneers, but I could not remember where. So I decided to see what The Workwoman's Guide (1840) had to say:
STOCKINGS.

Knit stockings are considered so much better than woven ones for wear, that it is advisable for all servants, cottagers and labourers invariably to adopt them, as the former will last out three or more of the woven, which are more suitable for the higher classes.

The children of the poor should always be taught to knit, and each member of a family ought to have a stocking in hand to take up at idle moments, by which means many pairs might be completed in the year. It is difficult to make very correct scales for different sized knit stockings, as so much depends on the quality of the worsted and of the pins, as also on the knitter, as some persons work much slacker than others, so that two stockings knit with the same pins and worsted, may be of very different sizes when knit by different persons.

The following proportion for a general rule is good, and may prove useful, though to tolerably experienced knitters, it is recommended to procure a pair of stockings that fit very well, and to knit others like them, which can easily be done by means of constantly measuring and comparing them with the pattern.

GENERAL PROPORTIONS FOR STOCKINGS. PLATE 21. FIG. 21.

Ascertain the proper breadth of the stocking. From the top to the bend of the knee is one square, or the length of the breadth. From the bend of the knee to the beginning of the calf is one square or breadth. From the beginning to the end of the calf, is one square or breadth. (See note.*) •
I suppose most of that is quaint and colorful rather than useful to the question at hand, but the final paragraph helped me quite a lot. As you can see, the top breadth is clearly meant to be taken above the bend in the knee, assuring me that stockings, at least in 1840, often covered that portion of the leg. They were also quite figured, with many complicated formulas for decreasing, making me very thankful for my tube stocking pattern.

(Perhaps the change in length has something to do with the universal introduction of drawers around mid century...but that is merely speculation!)
After testing a ribbed band that turned out to be far too large, I settled on 116 stitches divided between four needles. I was particularly curious to see how much the knitted fabric expanded after every other stitch was unravelled. My guess was a 3 to 1 increase, and I was very nearly right. Having decided to make them over-the-knee, I knitted 11 inches (2 inches extra) before dropping the stitches and narrowing for the toe.

Here are more pictures of my stockings in various stages of progress:

11 inches long and ready to drop half the stitches.


Stretching out to unravel the dropped stitches.
Finished and worn with garters.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Order of the Garters

It's hard to relive the 1850s in slacks, let alone skinny jeans. Researching, and occasionally recreating, historic fashion has long been one of my favorite hobbies. As you might guess, lately I've been focusing on the middle of the 19th century.

Having spent the last year or so reading issues of Godey's Lady's Book and poring over The Workwoman's Guide, I'm finally ready to start sewing, knitting, crocheting, etc. It seemed a good idea to begin from the inside out, since 19th-century undergarments have a great deal to do with the way the rest of the clothing fits.

My first official project (remind me to show you some of my earlier slapdash 19th-century efforts when I'm in a self-effacing mood) was stocking and garters. Knitting is more space economical than sewing and therefore more suited to a studio apartment.

I tackled the garters first, having already knitted a pair for a friend from the pattern accompanying this illustration, as seen in Godey's June 1862 issue:


Since this particular pair was billed as "NEW STYLE OF GARTER" and I am interested in the previous decade, I figured it might be as well to find an earlier reference. Here's what the Workwoman's Guide, c. 1840, had to say on the subject:

GARTERS.
PLATE 21. FIG. 23.

These are chiefly worn by females, and are merely narrow strips of knitting, of three quarters of a yard long, and a nail, more or less, wide. They are made of worsted, cotton, or soft wool ; the latter is most elastic and pleasant. For garters, set on from twelve to twenty, or even thirty stitches, according to the fineness of the material. Knit backwards and forwards till of the proper length, when fasten off. Some persons prefer a loop at the end ; for which purpose, when near the end, divide the stitches equally upon two pins, and knit each pin about ten ribs, after which connect them together by binding them in fastening off. Garters arc sometimes knit by putting the material, which is fine, twice round the pin at every stitch, letting the pin be very thick. Garters are sometimes ribbed, at others knit, in a succession of squares of different patterns.

I used some leftover fingering wool as it seemed to achieve the correct gauge. By combining generalities from the earlier source with some of the later pattern, this is what I came up with:


The only problem with foot/leg wear -- you have to make two! More soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Those Honest Days of Yore

"They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it; and they bring with them the flavour of those honest days of yore, in which, perhaps with equal fallacy, I am apt to think the world was more homebred, social, and joyous, than at present!"

-- Washington Irving, 1820

One of the great consolations for life in the present is the splendid vantage point it affords for eulogizing the past. Hindsight claims the privilege of selectivity; it casts a silvery glow over the things we choose to remember, and tactfully obscures those points that interfere with nostalgia.

How many of us, when conforming to modernity becomes onerous, have turned a longing eye to this watercolor vision of yesteryear? What would we not give to return to those harmonious days of sincere affection, beautiful dwellings, and verdant nature -- when men and women rose with the sun and retired after a well-ordered day of joyful labor to an ivy-covered cottage?

Delusional? Perhaps. But our race has earned the right to make its own version of the past -- earned it by enduring all the present days that once were. The gift history brings is the ability to speak to future generations, through oral tradition and written record; to transmit that which is best of ourselves and of our times so that it may be saved, and the rest, like a pain that has subsided, blessedly forgotten.

The past, like a fine wine, benefits from aging, that it may mellow and take on the elusive flavor we are seeking. 150 years seems a decent interval for the cellar. And there is no one left living to tell us what we do not wish to hear. Won't you join me in reliving the best of the 1850s? I chose New York City because that is where I am now -- it's enough to transmute time without worrying about place. Besides, I have a feeling New York City was (as some feel it is now) the place to be in 1850...