Malice Domestic 2017 begins this week in Bethesda, Maryland. I always enjoy this conference. This time I will be serving on a panel of Historical mystery writers (naturally).
Besides all the other tasks involved in keeping house, wives also kept the house clean. As much as they were able – the standards of cleanliness were lower than ours. (I think women of the the past, both recent and long ago, would be stunned by the clorox infused wipes we use.) But there were no vacumn cleaners then, only brooms and they were mostly twigs or broom grass tied to a pole. The Shakers again invented a machine that tied on the straw for a more modern broom – and their brooms were highly prized.
But I digress.
The brooms had to be used to sweep the dirt and the floors were scrubbed on hands and knees with the harsh soap I mentioned earlier. What about carpets? Yes, they were swept. But every Spring well – run households had an annual and dreaded Spring Cleaning. All carpets were taken and beaten thoroughly to rid them of the accumulated dust, dirt and other unsavory objects.
Floors and windows, if the house had them, were washed and bedding was aired. Anything silver was polished, and not with the handy silver wipes either. Elbow grease was the common technique. Curtains were washed and rehung.
Children were impressed into helping and more affluent women hired help, usually unmarried girls from around the neighborhood. Spring cleaning usually took several days and contemporary accounts, especially from husbands, express frustration and annoyance at the disruption.
But the lot of women, and the work expected of them, was improving. See next week’s blog.
I am giving away ten copies of Death of a Dyer, my second Will Rees mystery on Goodreads.
In this book, Rees returns to his hometown and tries to settle down. Lydia accompanies him as his housekeeper -both are not sure where their feelings might take them. David also returns home although he and his father are still at odds.
Rees has been home for only a short time when he is asked to look into the murder of a childhood friend.
After George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with England, France was furious. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the US would not pay back the loans France had extended during the American Revolution. They argued that the loans were from the King and now that France was a Republic the loans were null and void.
In 1798 France began engaging in ‘hostile’ actions: i.e. rejecting American envoys and capturing American ships. These actions unleashed a wave of anti-French sentiment. It was feared there would be a war with France, “Millions for defense and not one cent for tribute” became the rallying cry.
This leads me to the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the summer of 1798 by the Congress dominated Federalist (like our current Republicans). It became harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed the President (Adams at this point who was also a Federalist) to imprison or deport non-citizens who were considered dangerous, and criminalized making critical statements about the federal government (this was the Sedition Act). The Federalists claimed this was to prevent anarchy.
The Republican-Democrats rose up in opposition, particularly the Republican-Democrat run newspapers. Under the new law many of the editors were imprisoned and fined.
James Thomas Callender called the Adams administration “a continual tempest of malignant passions” and the President a ‘repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor”. He was sentenced to nine months in jail and fined $200.00.
Benjamin Franklin Bache called the President “the blind, bald, crippled, toothless querulous Adams” of nepotism and monarchial ambition.
Many aliens fled the country. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, hoping to prevent the worst effects of the new laws, prepared a resolution declaring them null and void and giving the States the right to refuse to follow these laws. (This was done in secret and seems somewhat treasonous to me. Anyway, the resolution prepared by Jefferson and Madison ended up being important during the Civil War when the argument of States Rights gave the South a legal reason for secession – and also showing the importance of consequences. But I digress.)
There was tremendous opposition to the laws. Jefferson repealed some of them during his presidency and pardoned all who had been jailed under the law. Congress paid their fines. In fact, there was so much opposition, there were more Republican-Democratic editors afterward than before, in a kind of referendum on repression.
The law against seditious libel (calling a President blind and ambitious) was repealed and the during the following years the Supreme Court decided the it was in direct opposition to the First Amendment.
Several parts of the law, however, such as the sections relating to Alien Enemies, were NOT repealed. During WWII, FDR used the law to send Japanese descendants (62% who were citizens) to the internment camps. As late as 1947 Ellis Island continued to hold ethnic Germans.
These laws have not been repealed even now and Trump could use them, as he promised to do in 2015, to expel or imprison Muslims.
I don’t know why people think History is boring. Discouraging, maybe, because we fight the same battles over and over, but to me history always has lessons that reflect upon the present.
We take so many Christmas customs for granted that we almost assume that they have always been enjoyed. Not so. A visit to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, reveals a village decorated with candles and evergreen boughs. Where are the trees splendid with glittering ornaments? Where are the Christmas cards?
From its early days, Christians celebrated the Nativity. The giving of presents, the decoration of the houses with evergreens, the suspension of enmity and the proclamation of peace were all features of the festival right from the beginning. (That is, with some interruptions. The Puritans thought the celebrations took away from the worship of God and banned all jollity.) Some of the customs common during this period aren’t so familiar to us now. The Lord of Misrule? What does that even mean? ( The Lord of Misrule was usually a servant or a slave who presided over the Christmas revels. He had the power to make anyone do anything during the season. )The switching of masters and servants ?
It is true some of our traditions have roots stretching back to antiquity. Caroling, for example, has been a feature of the season since the middle ages. Wreaths also have a long history. The Etruscans used wreaths, a tradition that continued into Ancient Greece and Rome. The different plants symbolized different virtues. Oak leaves meant wisdom. Laurel leaves were used to crown winners. Our evergreen wreaths are constructed of evergreens to represent everlasting life. The Advent wreath, with its white candles, was first used by Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century.
What about the hanging of stockings?
Well, this tradition has a long history. According to some historians, this is a custom that stretches all the way back to Odin. Children put out their boots filled with food for Odin’s horse to eat and Odin would reward them with gifts or candy. Like so many pagan customs, the practice was adopted and Christianized. Hanging stockings became connected with Saint Nicholas.
So, let’s talk about Old Saint Nick, known in the US as Santa Claus.
The modern Santa Claus grew out of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop, as well as the German Christkind and the Dutch Sinterklaus. Christmas had been personified -made into a person – as early as the fifteenth century but the modern Santa Claus in his red suit is a nineteenth century creation that has been added onto over the years. Now even several reindeer have names, courtesy of the poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A visit from Saint Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore. The Santa Claus so beloved of today’s children had not been invented yet.
Other nineteenth century inventions include the Tree, the lights on the tree and Christmas cards, Although known in England before Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, it did not achieve its popularity until the Queen adopted it. Like so many British customs, this one crossed the Atlantic. Our Christmas lights are descended from the candles used to decorate the tree in Christian homes in early modern Germany. And the first commercial Christmas cards were not created until 1843. And that was in England. Cards did not cross the Atlantic until 1874.
Nutcracker dolls were known as early as the seventeenth century but were not connected to Christmas until later.
So Will Rees and his family would not have been familiar with most of the customs we think of as essential to the Celebration of the holiday. And more customs continue to be created. In my family, the holiday is not complete without a showing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
When I was a child my mother told me and my brothers stories of Paul Bunyon and his big blue ox Babe. Re was a giant, as was his ox, and they had many adventures. There is even a statue to him in Bangor, Maine.
In my childhood mind, he ranked right up there with Batman and Spiderman. Human, yes, but with extraordinary powers.
When I was researching my latest book, however, I discovered that Paul Bunyon represented a certain truth about the early American experience: the loggers or lumber men. In Maine, logging camps were set up in the woods and the massive trees were cut down with nothing more than human sweat and axes. Lumber was important for building, yes, but this was also the era of sailing ships and tall masts were a requirement.
In the spring the loggers would ‘drive’ the logs down one of the many rivers to Falmouth. The lumber drive would end in Falmouth with a celebration. (I’ll bet. Talk about dangerous work!)
If by chance you should visit Maine, you can see the art of log rolling on the road between Ellsworth and Acadia.
The recent election was acrimonious and ugly. People have unfriended erstwhile friends or just simply stopped talking with them. While there may be unusual facets to this election, those in the past were not nice or gentle. I am including a section from my new book: The Devil’s Cold Dish, where I describe some of the unfortunate aftereffects of politics. Now this was in 1797 and I wrote this in 2014, so the emotional tenor is based solely on my research.
Turning her gaze to Rees, Jerusha said, “Your cheek is bleeding.”
“Yes, it is,” Rees agreed.
“Fetch me a bowl, Abby,” Lydia said. “And put some warm water in it, please.” She urged Rees into the side room and into a chair, despite his protests. “What happened?”
“Oh, Tom McIntyre had another customer. Mr. Drummond, a gentleman from Virginia by his accent. One of those land speculators. He was holding forth on George Washington and why he should have been impeached. I don’t know why people can’t leave the man alone.” With last fall’s election, John Adams had won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson the vice presidency. Washington had gone into retirement, a battered, aging lion.
“Was Mr. Drummond the one who did this?” She gestured to the cut upon his cheek.
“No,” Rees said. Drummond had already left when the argument exploded.
“I suppose you had to speak up,” Lydia said, her voice dropping with disappointment. “I love your sense of justice but I do wish you didn’t feel the need to fight every battle.” A former Shaker, she abhorred violence. Besides, she worried about the consequences, especially now after the serious injury to Sam.
Rees knew how she felt. He was trying to curb his temper, mostly because he wanted Lydia and his adopted children to be happy in Dugard. But so far he’d broken every promise to do better that he’d made to himself.
“We wouldn’t have a country without the president’s leadership during the War for Independence,” Rees said, hearing the defensiveness in his voice. After fighting under General Washington during the War for Independence, Rees would hear no criticism of the man who’d become the first president. Those who hadn’t fought, or who had only belonged to the Continental Army between planting and harvest, could not possibly understand what Washington had achieved.
Rees hesitated, fighting the urge to justify himself, but finally bursting into speech. “Mac and that Drummond fellow both favor Jefferson and the French. Drummond said that President Washington’s actions during the Jay affair smacked of treason. And when I said that the president had done his very best and that if anyone was guilty of treason it was John Jay, Mac said that the problem was that General Washington was a tired, senile old man.” He stopped talking.
When McIntyre had called Washington senile, Rees’s temper had risen and he had pushed the smaller man with all his strength. Since Mac probably weighed barely more than nine stone, he flew backward into the side of the mill. Flour from his clothing rose up at the impact, filling the air with a fine dust. That was when Zadoc Ward, Mac’s cousin, jumped on Rees and began pummeling him. Rees had already had a previous fight with the belligerent black-haired fellow who was usually found in the center of every brawl. Rees had caught Ward bullying Sam in the tavern and would have knocked him down if Constable Caldwell hadn’t broken up the fight and sent Rees on his way.
Rees permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. At the mill, he’d put down Ward like the mad dog he was. But by then Mac’s eldest son, Elijah, and some of the other mill employees had arrived. They’d grabbed Rees. In the ensuing altercation, Ward, who was looking for revenge, had hit Rees in the face and sent him crashing to the ground in his turn. But Rees had bloodied a few noses before that. He didn’t want to admit to Lydia that he had participated in the brawl just like a schoolboy, but he suspected she already knew. She frowned anxiously.
“Well, you can hardly blame Mr. McIntyre for his unhappiness,” she said, turning Rees’s face up to the light. “The British have continued capturing American ships. Wasn’t his brother impressed by the British into their navy? Anyway, it’s not only the French who were, and still are, angry about Mr. Jay’s treaty. You were the one who told me he was burned in effigy all up and down the coast. And that the cry was ‘Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay and damn everyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay.’”
“Yes,” Rees admitted with some reluctance.
“And now, with the Bank of England withholding payments to American vendors, Mr. McIntyre might go broke and lose his mill.”
“But none of this was President Washington’s fault,” Rees argued. “He has always striven for fairness. To be neutral in all things. Personally, I blame Mr. Hamilton.”
“I’m certain Mr. Jefferson bears some of the responsibility,” Lydia said in an acerbic tone. “He is so pro-French.” Rees wished he didn’t agree. Although he concurred with many of Jefferson’s Republican ideals, the vice president was pro-French and a slaveholder besides. And Rees could not forgive Jefferson for turning on Washington and criticizing him. “Discussing politics is never wise,” Lydia continued. “You know better. Passions run so high. And I see your argument resulted in fisticuffs.”
“Mr. McIntyre struck me first,” Rees said as Lydia dabbed at the cut above his eyebrow. The hot water stung and he grunted involuntarily. “You know how emotional he is.” Mac had spent his life quivering in outrage over something or other, and for all his small size he had been embroiled in as many battles as Rees. But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, Rees was beginning to wonder why Mac had been so eager to quarrel with him. They’d always been friends. Yet Mac had been, well, almost hostile.
“He can’t weigh much more than one hundred twenty or so pounds soaking wet,” Lydia added in a reproachful tone.
“I know. This,” he gestured to the cut, “came from his cousin, Zadoc Ward.” In fact Ward would have continued the fight, but Elijah had held him back. “I knocked him down, though,” Rees said in some satisfaction. Lydia did not speak for several seconds, although she gave his wound an extra hard wipe.
My Mother always said never discuss politics or religion. Failing a neutral topic, fall back on the weather. I find that advice hard to take – I’m sure it was just as difficult to follow it in the past as well.