vintage inkstand

words and images from the past

Seed Packet Illustrations

May 13, 2018


Vintage illustrations include those drawn for children’s books, works of art chosen carefully for the covers of magazines, and copies of flora and fauna hand-drawn from observation for encyclopedias and other reference books.

Some of the loveliest vintage art, for me, can be found on calendars, seed packets, and other, more utilitarian papers. As an amateur gardener, the month of May inspires me to visit gardening centers, plan out my beds, and dig my hands into the earth! This post is dedicated to seed packets and catalogs from long ago. Oh, how I would love to have some of these flowers for my own garden.

Adorning the following packet, graceful asters in heritage pinks and violets (and one fiery red bloom) curl towards the sun as the wind softly blows their petals.

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Via Wikimedia Commons By Maule, Wm. Henry (Firm) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

According to the Maule family website, William Henry Maule helped his father’s seed company become “renowned worldwide” (www.maulefamily.com). Maule created colorful catalogs and marketed them towards individuals, showing the importance of beautiful art in advertising.

Next, I have chosen a packet with blooms so deep, they can only be heirlooms (from 1894). These giant petunias, in deep reds, purples, and creamy whites, show off their ruffles. Note the lovely striped and multi-color effects of these beauties:

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Via Flickr from Manual of Everything for the Garden (1894)

The photo above reads:

“Peter Henderson and Co., New York. 1894. Petunias: Giants of California. Seeds of any of the above varieties 25c per packet. The collection her show each packet separately for $1.50.”

In his Manual for Everything in the Garden, Henderson cleverly disguised an annual seed catalog as a reference for gardeners, but it was a true guide, as well, with detailed descriptions and instructions for planting. I would have looked forward to this every year.

I have chosen the next graphic because it is a French seed packet, and I love its style:

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via The Old Design Shop (please go to her site for permission to share)

Dahlias, with their understated elegance, are my new love this year in my garden. They offer the delicacy and richness of roses, but without the thorns. The cream and deep wine roses in the following illustration are quite tempting for me, though:

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via The Graphics Fairy

I can imagine the white and red roses grown together (at 75c each). The Dingee and Conard Co. were a “primary grower of roses in America” in the early 1900’s and were also the first company to introduce miniature roses.

We just bought our home two years ago, moved in after the first growing season was over, and are still trying to uncover the garden, overgrown from years of neglect. Originally, someone planned the landscaping around our home meticulously, with shrubs (dozens of forsythias), flowering trees, perennials, stone paths, and an underground sprinkler system. As a result, we have named our house Forsythia Cottage.

So far, I have only added some lavender and bee balm until I see what blooms naturally. I  prefer carefree, airy plants and long for a cutting garden with a mix of French and English styles.

I leave you with a flower that grows quite well here in the Ozarks, even in our hard, rocky soil. I refer to these as spring Phlox or Dianthus, but in literature they are often known by the quaint name Sweet William:

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In literature, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a memory about Sweet William(s) in an article for the Missouri Ruralist in 1917:

“A window had been broken in the schoolhouse…and the pieces of glass lay scattered where they had fallen. Several little girls going to school for their first term had picked handfuls of Sweet Williams and were gathered near the windows. Someone discovered that the blossoms could be pulled from the stem and, by wetting their faces, could be stuck to the pieces of glass in whatever fashion they were arranged. They dried on the glass and would stay that way for hours and, looked at thru the glass, were very pretty. I was one of those little girls and tho I have forgotten what it was that I tried to learn out of a book that summer, I never have forgotten the beautiful wreaths and stars and other figures we made on the glass with the Sweet Williams.”

April, Cardinals, and Birthdays

April 29, 2018


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via Flickr by Swallowtail Garden Seeds

The late spring this year reminds me of childhood Aprils in Iowa, apple trees clothed in white blooms, warm grass beneath my feet, and the promise of warm days to come. Here in the Ozarks, spring often comes much earlier, woods coming alive in a parade of colour: redbuds, magnolias, and dogwoods (although not early this year).

April and Elizabeth von Arnim

References to April in literature abound. Elizabeth von Arnim refers to her oldest daughter as the April baby. This precocious five-year-old, born in the month of April, changes the story of Adam and Eve so that it ends happily, asks lots of questions about God, and wants to know what angels wear and if they are girls (Elizabeth and Her German Garden 66).

Elizabeth von Arnim also gave us one of the most iconic English holiday stories in The Enchanted April. The characters gain new perspective at the Italian seaside bursting with beauty in the month of April:

 “…the wisteria was tumbling over itself in the excess of life…[and] scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig trees, and peach trees, and cherry trees…in blossom…” (109).

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Vintage image of a Marigold c. 1887 via The Graphics Fairy

The Song of the Cardinal

The writer who gave us A Girl of the Limberlost seemed to have some sort of secret handshake with nature that allowed her to be a party to its mysteries. In truth, Gene Stratton-Porter had a keen gift of observation and immersed herself in woods, streams, and fields.

In her novelette The Song of the Cardinal (dedicated to her father), this naturalist and storyteller paints a picture of April in the northeastern United States:

“Thrusting aside the mold and leaves above them, spring beauties, hepaticas, and violets lifted tender golden-green heads. The sap was flowing, and leafless trees were covered with swelling buds…The catkins bloomed first; and then, in an incredibly short time, flags, rushes, and vines were like a sea of waving green…There was intoxication in the air” (published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1913).

April provides the backdrop as the Cardinal woos his mate.

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Illustration by Frederick William Frohawk 1887 via Flickr

Frederick William Frohawk, a British naturalist of the 19th century, shared Gene Stratton-Porter’s love for moths, birds, and butterflies. Like Audubon, Frohawk first observed and then sketched, painted, and colored everything from eggs and cocoons to feathers and shells.

In the above sketch, Frohawk captures the expressions of the lovebirds, including the pride of the male bird as described in The Song of the Cardinal.

Here, another pair of British birds, Redstarts, construct their nest in the month of April. Soft leaves serve as a frame to the gray female and the more colorful male:

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Illustration by Henrik Grönvold (d. 1940) from The Birds of Great Britain and Ireland

Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, and Birthdays

Illustrators and writers alike from past centuries seemed to view April as the true coming of spring, not as a month of pure rain and umbrellas. Charlotte Bronte, born in April of 1816, compared herself to her birth month, noting that like April, she was girl of many moods. Here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to her aunt while she was in Brussels:

Believe me, though I was born in the month of April, the month of cloud and sunshine…My spirits are unequal, and sometimes I speak vehemently, and sometimes I say nothing at all; but I have a steady regard for you, and if you will let the cloud and shower pass by, be sure the sun is behind, obscured, but still existing” (The Life of Charlotte Bronte: Volume I).

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A young Jane Eyre in an early 1897 edition via The British Library (Flickr)

I love the illustration above, by Edmund Henry Garrett, as it captures the heart of a writer, one who feels deeply, is a bit of a loner, and gets lost in her own world. Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre both claimed to be emotional (in a controlled way) and unable to move on from things easily, and it is easy to see that Bronte put some of herself in this character.

Shakespeare, another April baby, refers to his birth month as “lovely” in Sonnet 3 and personifies April in Sonnet 98:

“From you have I been absent in the spring,/When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,/Hath put on a spirit of youth in everything.”

Shakespeare describes April as colorful and youthful. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, proud-pied means “gorgeously variegated.” Whatever he may have meant by this, it seems that Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte both observed the many dimensions of April.

Like the writers above, Kate Greenaway described life, but in her own way, through pictures. In the Birthday Book for Children, this pictorial view of April is found at the end of the month. The daughter’s arms are flung with the freedom and light of springtime. All three are dressed in white gowns proclaiming that warmth is here to stay, and mother kisses baby while seeming to float as she strolls.

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Via Wiki Commons

April is nearly over, but it will leave its mark on us, with its unfurled leaves, days of drops and splats, dogwood blossoms, and many shades of greens, perhaps the very reason Elizabeth von Arnim chose to center an entire vacation around this month. April looks forward and brings inspiration to women from all seasons of life.

 

Snowy Vintage Illustrations

January 12, 2018


Even though January can be dark and cloudy and the weather unpredictable, it can also be breathtakingly beautiful, even in a vintage illustration!

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Winter Lady with Letter at The Graphics Fairy

Olive greens, browns, and deep reds remind us of robins, cardinals, holly, and evergreens, the bright spots of winter. Did you ever notice how you really see houses when they are highlighted by snow? Or how pines and spruces suddenly come into the foreground once the deciduous trees have lost their leaves?

Here,  an olive-clad mysterious lady with a basket, a fur muff, and a letter, shows us that she is carrying a secret. What is so important that she must brave the cold and snow to deliver its contents? Or has she just received important news?

The crusted snow mirrors the letter. Both have crisp, white exteriors, but secrets lie beneath.

I will probably always be an Iowa girl at heart, and the soft grasses peeking from beneath the snow make my heart skip a beat.

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Vintage Winter Bird Nest Label at The Graphics Fairy

This chirpy robin is saying something, and the vintage card would have allowed the sender to fill in her own message beneath…whatever she wanted the bird to say. Perhaps:  cozy up in your nest and stay warm this winter! Or maybe she is announcing the birth of some baby birds this coming spring or perhaps a human baby.

 

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In an old book illustration, a red-caped maiden entices a robin as it sits atop a bare branch. Gold and gray Victorian dresses, ice-covered branches, and a French garden wall frame the pretty little bird as it tries to decide if it should trust her. This illustration by L. E. Barker, found on the British Library’s collection of vintage images on flickr, is from a book of poetry published in 1853 (Poetry of the Year: Passages from the Poets).

It is almost as if this illustration is a closeup of the one above, showing us that for the robin in winter, the struggle is real! Oh, I want to bring it indoors, poor thing.

My parents feed these sweet birds all year long, but in the winter in Iowa, birdseed, shelter, and a heated birdbath are the difference between life and death. The image is by J. Hall from a book published in 1893 titled Nursery Songs.

 

 

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Image found at the Graphics Fairy

Soft greens surround a mademoiselle leaving a church service, who has caught the eye of a gray robin. “We are the same,” they seem to be saying to each other, “with our muted pink dresses and our covered heads…we may not be as fancy as others, but we are survivors!”

The bird and the girl stand out amidst soft snow and gray skies and are surrounded by branches and a latticed window that mimic the ribboned frame. I’m not sure what the purpose of this vintage image, but it may have been a simple Christmas card or maybe a calling card for the winter:  “I came by to see you.”

In this image, the beauty lies in the colors and textures of winter. Biting winds and stinging cold may make us long for spring, but we are so much more appreciative of small comforts and simple beauty.

I’m so glad images such as these continue to be available to us many years later. Happy January!

 

 

New Year’s, Bigfoot, and Lucy Maud Montgomery

January 9, 2018


I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.

Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.

New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.

A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:

TheNursery“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”

We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).

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Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:

“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”

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It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).

Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).

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Bavarian Cream from Lowney’s Cookbook, published 1908

By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.

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Eight Cousins (Alcott, published 1874)

This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:

“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).

According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.

In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”

This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):

“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).

The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.

Jc rankin at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dalhousie College in 1905:  JC Rankin at the English language Wikipedia (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I:  1889-1910: 151).

She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.

While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).

The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:

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Public Domain, from the British Library
Title – Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker (1885)

“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891

The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910:  71).

Happy New Year!

100 Years Ago this Month…December 1917

December 30, 2017


 

As a British woman mixes her Christmas pudding, her husband arrives with packages from other nations (including America) during World War I

“Christmas Pudding” (John Fergus O’Hea [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Christmas menu from 1917 promises: Cream of Celery Soup; Currant Jelly; Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing; Mashed Potatoes; Scalloped Onions; Tomato and Lettuce Salad with Mayonnaise; Plum Pudding; Cake; Mints; and Coffee. Christmas Pudding, whether in America, Canada, or Great Britain, completed the meal (with its raisins, real cream, and brandy).

Still, war constrained many in their feasting as sugar became a real luxury. Homemakers substituted fruit salads for cakes and sweet breads, and “Meatless Tuesday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” were encouraged. Home cooks made their pumpkin pies with molasses instead of sugar, and eggless recipes were shared in magazines and recipe booklets.

A Christmas card in 1917 may have looked something like this:

The Red Cross suggested Christmas “packets” be made and sent to our American soldiers overseas. Items recommended:  writing paper, playing cards, mechanical puzzles, tobacco, chewing gum, figs, dates, hard candy, and other small items all wrapped in a khaki handkerchief that the soldier could then use. This patriotic pamphlet also suggested an “electric torch,” a fancy name for a flashlight (“The American Red Cross Woman’s Bureau”).

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Puzzle of World War I warship (by Alf van Beem [Own work] [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Gifts on the homefront were practical:  toiletries, clothing, or hosiery.

According to Style: A Dry Goods Review catalog of 1917, popular toys that year included kiddie cars and tin toys such as mini warships. French, American, and Japanese dolls took the place of “banned” German dolls. No matter the gifts, Americans were encouraged to use Red Cross seals to send their Christmas cards:

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By Denune (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Although the United States had entered the Great War that year, Great Britain, France,  and Canada had been fighting since 1914. One of my favorite fictional characters, Rilla (Rilla of Ingleside), writes from the homefront in Canada:

“31 December 1917: Our fourth war Christmas is over. We are trying to gather up some courage wherewith to face another year of it” (L. M. Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside).

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As for books, best sellers of 1917 included Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H. G. Wells and The Worn Doorstep by Margaret Sherwood. Both convey the experiences of World War I from the homefront in England, the latter reading as if it is nonfiction, a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim.

H. G. Wells describes the Christmas of 1914 (through the eyes of the fictional Mr. Direck, a visiting American) as a time focused on the War, patriotism, and a general feeling of anxiety:

“Always before, Christmas had been a time of much gaiety and dressing up and prancing and two-stepping at the Dower House, but this year everything was too uncertain to allow of any gathering of guests…the Christmas tree was banned as too German, and it was discovered that Santa Claus had suddenly become Old Father Christmas again…” (Mr. Britling 280).

H. G. Wells from the book "Six Major Prophets" by Edwin Slosson

H. G. Wells from the book “Six Major Prophets” by Edwin Slosson

It seems that the American point-of-view gave Wells a chance to satirize both himself (or at least his type) and his own country. Similarly, Sherwood’s narrator views the British through the eyes of an American. Describing the lengthening days, she embraces the weather and the birds that bring her company:

“Winter is gentler here than at home, bringing at times enfolding grey mist and hours of rain; yet we have had many days of clear and sunny cold, and snow has fallen on the roof of the little red house…The English robin stays with us evidently throughout the winter; the rooks have not deserted; and we are visited daily by silver-winged gulls which come all the way from the sea for the food we put out” (The Worn Doorstep 141).

On a personal note, my family played a “game” at Christmas wherein we each were asked a personal question;  then, everyone in the room shared what they thought we would say, and we revealed our own answer at the end. After we had all done, we all told where we would live if we could live anywhere in the world.

Orange bricks, towers, and spires of "Hammerton College," Cambridge University (pixabay)

“Hammerton College,” Cambridge University (pixabay)

My mom spoke about old England and how the scholarly and Bible-focused universities had a feeling of home, a drawing she could not quite articulate. I think Margaret Sherwood expresses this so well in her search for a home in England, almost as though she had been in the room with us the other night:

“Everywhere, indoors and out, I am aware of forgotten chords of sympathy…In some way, by memory, by prophecy, all seems mine; the worn paths; the hollowed door-stones; the ruddy faces moving up and down the walled streets, and the quiet under the grass in the churchyard” (The Worn Doorstep 4).

So, another year closes.

“A Quiet Christmas”

December 25, 2017


A Quiet ChristmasLouisa May Alcott captures the feelings of Christmas like no other writer other than perhaps Dickens himself (and I think their styles are extremely compatible). Her gift for pathos, making her reader smile and laugh and cry, making us feel again as children feel, reminding us to think of others during the holidays, may have come from personal experience.

We can only imagine how L. Alcott and her sisters felt as younger children when money was very scarce in their household. I think she gives us glimpses of Christmases past in the settings and characters of her fictional stories and novels.

If, indeed, Alcott placed her own experiences in her stories, Christmases likely revolved around making garlands for the tree, putting on Christmas plays for neighbors, sledding, skating the river, cutting fresh greens, telling stories, singing, and having the family all together.

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“Bringing Home the Holly” by E. Stuart Hardy (Laugh and Play)

Has the writer put herself in the character Jill (Jack and Jill published 1880), a dark-haired energetic tomboy who insists on sledding down an ice-packed, dangerous hill with Jack? Perhaps Alcott said or thought these very words herself as a young girl:

“You boys think girls like little mean [average] coasts without any fun or danger in them, as if we couldn’t be brave and strong as well as you” (Jack and Jill 7).

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“On the Ice Hill” (Harper’s Young People 1879)

Alcott’s fictional Rose (Eight Cousins 229) exalts in receiving both skates and a sled for Christmas and gets “rosy” cheeks trying out her gifts. After dinner, the cousins dance a Scottish “jig” in terms so convincing, I feel the real L. M. Alcott must have been at least audience to such a performance.

 

An Old-Fashioned Girl’s Polly, too, prefers the jolly marches and “trots” with the boys over the graceful waltzes with young men at Fanny’s party two weeks before Christmas. We can only guess that energetic Louisa May Alcott felt the same as her young protagonist.

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“Christmas Roses” by Jane M. Dealy

 

Alcott often includes “garlands” and trees in her stories, especially those set at Christmas time. Sometimes the raw simplicity of nature gives the greatest joy, as when Sylvia, the protagonist of Moods, thrills to receive a sprig of holly from home at Christmas. It is easy to imagine this as a personal experience at one time or other in Alcott’s young life.

 

 

In another story by LMA, “A Country Christmas,” decorations involve a sort of indoor window box filled with “scarlet geraniums, Christmas roses, and white chrysanthemums” (Kitty’s Class Day and Other Stories). Again, it is roses and chrysanthemums that appear in Little Women. Might these have been the same kinds of flowers that seemed to be the Alcotts’ only enjoyment for Christmas in 1860?

“A quiet Christmas; no presents but apples and flowers. No merry-making; for Nan and May were gone, and Betty under the snow. But we are used to hard times, and, as Mother says, ‘while there is a famine in Kansas we mustn’t ask for sugar-plums'”  (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals 1889).

The setting seems more symbolic in the picture the Christmas spirit shows Effie in “A Christmas Dream and How it Came True”:

“Bells were ringing so merrily it was hard to keep from dancing. Green garlands hung on the walls, and every tree was a Christmas tree full of toys, and blazing with candles that never went out” (Lulu’s Library).

The above story is one that Alcott offered as a Christmas gift to the children who so loved her stories and were always begging for more from the busy writer. Later in the story, Effie gives out gifts to poor children, and we can almost taste the treats of Christmas:  “wreaths of popcorn, apples, oranges, horns of candy, and cakes of all sorts, from sugary hearts to gingerbread…”.

ChristmasEve

“Christmas Eve” by F. Florence Mason

Like Dickens, many of Alcott’s Christmas plots revolve around poor and even destitute characters who cannot afford to celebrate Christmas in any sort of monetary way. These are usually children or teenagers, and Alcott captures the feelings of a child who feels left out while the others around her have a more middle-class experience.

Older sister Tessa longs to give her younger brothers and sisters a happy Christmas (Alcott “Tessa’s Surprises”). With a “heavy heart,” the motherless child is quite aware that all of her “father’s earnings had to go for food, fire, and rent.” Here we see the independent and self-reliant spirit of Alcott’s Transcendentalist background come into play as the girl hatches a plan to earn some money by singing for pennies.  Tessa gives all she has to buy simple gifts of shoes, caps, and mittens for her siblings’ stockings. How often Alcott felt both the lack and the satisfaction of providing something for her family through work and God’s provision is conveyed in these simple stories for children.

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Christmas Day in the Evening by Charles M. Relyea (1910)

At the end of the story, a Christmas play is devised by one of the families for which Tessa sings. In real life, older sister Anna describes the Alcott sisters producing their own adaptation of a Dickens’ story in 1850. This idea of producing and acting in plays shows up in several stories, as the characters rummage through old dresses and cast-offs in attics for “costumes.”

Play-acting seems to have been a popular form of entertainment in many cultures during the 19th century. It is not so far-fetched, for how many families in our modern society watch movies at Christmas time? Through another form of storytelling, Lou’s gifts were richly used to entertain family, friends, and neighbors long before she became the famous writer Louisa May Alcott. Thanks to Anna Alcott Pratt (the real-life “Meg), a book of their plays is anthologized in Comic Tragedies (1893).

Holly

Louisa May Alcott helped us to see the longings of children at Christmas time, the sweetness of simple joys, and the blessings that can be found in even a “quiet Christmas.”

Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

 

 

This Month 100 Years Ago…

November 9, 2017


In October 2017, two of my grandparents weren’t born yet. The others were children. My great-grandparents were still very young…at least four of them were still in high school.

So much was happening in the world. World War I was raging, and America had only entered it about six months earlier. My Grandpa Great fought in this war at only 18 years old. I remember him singing, “It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go…” as his thoughts seemed to go back to this time in his life.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a revolution was taking place that would change the world, and not for the better, in my opinion. My sophomore class is reading Animal Farm, and it struck me that these events are now one hundred years old. How different it would all have been if only the provisional government had had a little forethought!

Here are some other highlights from 100 years ago:

Billie Burke, who would later play Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, was featured in the magazine Photoplay, having recently married Flo Ziegfield. Here she is in a feature story in October 1917:

Screenshot 2017-10-09 at 6.34.31 PM.png

 

The Chicago White Sox beat the New York Giants in the seven-game World Series of 1917. Here is a link to clips, or what we used to call footage, of the first game:

1917 World Series Game One

How formally everyone dressed, with umpires, coaches, and even spectators in suits, vests, and ties! Though not as lean or as in shape as today’s players, these early all-stars sure did have some raw talent.

Some classic books were published during this time, as well. I think if I had to choose my favorite Anne book, it would be this one published in 1917:

Anne'sHouseofDreams

In chapter ten, Anne visits the shore on a cool October evening:

“There had been an autumn storm of wind and rain, lasting for three days. Thunderous had been the crash of billows on the rocks, wild the white spray and spume that flew over the bar, troubled and misty and tempest-torn…now it was over, and the shore lay clean-washed after the storm…” (Montgomery 93-94)

She has a way of putting images and words together to express how I feel. This post is woefully late, but I am publishing it anyway!

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