The Lesser Miseries
Like a Kennebec eel, the lesser miseries are more slippery to grasp. The clarity of hindsight is no help at all when attempting to understand a lesser misery within a historically accurate context. This is the frame-of-reference problem that confronts all history lovers.
An object from the past that has survived to the present is an amazing thing, but it can only hint at a greater riddle: how did this object actually fit in the life of its user? A two-man cross-cut saw (above) seems back-breakingly laborious to a present day wood cutter, but the performance of such a saw would likely have astonished an ax-wielding 18th-century tree-feller.
It would be a rare teen-ager these days to have the patience for cross-stitch, but to assume it was a lesser misery is fraught with complications. Would the hours of needlework this sampler took in 1834 have been tedious for 17 year old Mary Barnes, or would she have thought it worthwhile? Was it an exercise to pass the time or a step to gaining recognition as an accomplished housekeeper? Was she happy to stay settled by the fire of a cold winter’s day, or anxious to be done and out romping with the new Spring foal? Quite possibly ‘yes’ to all of the above.
Let’s wallow in a few more miseries and see how uncomfortable it gets.
One man’s misery is another’s daily living; it is ever thus. Folks in the past just plain worked harder and longer than we do. I doubt they actually liked this, but when there is no choice, it is surprising what becomes bearable.
The daily caloric demands of hand work, whether shoveling lime, slinging laundry baskets, rowing to a trawl, furling a stiff sail, bucking cordwood, or pulling potatoes, were huge; there are few overweight people working in old photographs.
Ice loading gang
The wear and tear of artifacts reveals the wear and tear upon those that used them.
A group of five handsaws from the Blaisdell brothers, noted boatwrights of Bath and Woolwich on the Kennebec here. Note the differing widths of each saw’s tip end, and also the diminishing distance between the handle and the teeth at the grip end. The most pointed saws have been re-sharpened so many times that the blade metal is almost gone, evidence of many, many hours of use.
This may seem a misery to us who have lost the patience to keep our handsaws tuned up (what handsaws?), but a saw used with a set of freshly jointed, pointed, and set teeth is a forgotten pleasure.
A reaming iron, by human blows born, forged under a blacksmith’s hammer, and by human blows worn away, bent and mushroomed under the endless snapping taps of generations of caulker’s mallets.
This woodcarver’s mallet was not swung hard, but nonetheless worn down by an infinite number of simple repetitive strokes, directed by the artisan’s eye and delivered by his grip, year in and year out.
How many hours, days, years bent over a gunnel did it take a doryman to wear the grooves in this longline fairlead? How many fathoms of his trawl slid out though this, only to be reeled back in, over and over? The only thing worse than the ache from pulling in a line heavy with fish, was pulling in a line with none.
When set for use, this fairlead was tapped into a thole-pin hole on the dory’s rail; note the carved decorations. (Larger than life-size.)
The haphazard soldering and irregular seams of these humble tin cans reveal the misery endured by the human component of early industrial processing. Machines that stamped, cut, folded, rolled, seamed and crimped, whether hand-cranked or powered, brought uniformity to various stages of tin can fabrication. Unskilled labor became a critical cog in the care and feeding of each “labor-saving” device.
This new way of working meant new sources of cash and new roles for society’s ‘invisibles’ like women, children, African Americans, and other immigrants. But this new bondage to the machine, or having to act like one, often meant a grim pace and debilitating inhuman environment, whether making a can, or filling it, or tending a deafening loom, or pushing herring down the gutting line.
These ca. 1900 - 1916 cans still had to be pieced together and soldered by hand - an unskilled hand, a tired hand, an inattentive hand, a child’s hand - that happened to slip and let the hot lead run awry. And a hand that might have palmed a mere penny, if that, in payment for such piecework.
Varnish remover can
It is fair to say, I think, that the physical misery of discipline has diminished. The ‘school of hard knocks’, ‘out behind the woodshed’, the rap on the knuckles, the schoolmaster’s switch, the boxing of ears, the ‘tanning of hides’ – all were once much more permissible. Mariners were a particularly brutalized band; a long voyage aboard a hard ship with a domineering captain or merciless mate was a sailor’s particular hell. Equally, a surly, hung-over crew rounded up in a squalid port was liable to lay aloft only at the glint of a boatswain’s brass knuckles. (below)
Below is a rogue’s gallery of other little miseries associated with discipline aboard ship, though their ilk was at large along the waterfront, railway yards, logging camps, and wherever else hard cases collided with hard labor.
(above) Sand filled leather cosh; will not break bones.
(above and below) Historians blithely call these ‘starters’; a sailor likely called them a ‘pain-in-the-butt’.
(above) A pocket-size macramé cat o’nine tails, about a foot long.
(above) This and the top starter have steel golf ball-size spheres at the business end.
Between the dictates of fashion and the limitations of laundry technology, the lesser miseries associated with clothing from the past are many.
Circa 1910, collars were on people’s minds. The formalities of white-collar life for both men and women demanded collars that looked clean and freshly pressed, a dilemma when laundry was a lengthy and labor- intensive operation. Detachable collars had evolved, that could be cleaned separately and kept eternally stiffened with inserts, starching, or made of celluloid, an early plastic. Of course this meant the torment of how up-to-date one’s collar style was.
The brass projection soldered onto the lid of this small engraved metal box is indeed a collar stud, by which removable collars were attached to one’s shirt. Also sometimes made of wood, collar studs were invariably dropped to disappear under bureau or bedstead.
(above) Two versions of collar stiffener, one meant to be hidden, the other to show.
Blue-collar wear could also employ removable collars. (above) This denim work-shirt’s collar is still stiff and glossy with starch.
Speaking of starch, is there any washerwoman out there who would not call the starching of clothing a lesser misery?There are no washerwomen out there? I think I know why.
Starch was just one of many miseries associated with wash day. In this detail (above) from the label of a ca. 1877 Duryea’s Corn Product’s Refining Co. starch box, several laundering miseries can be seen: the scrubbing washboard; the ‘sad’ iron that was to be re-heated; the wood stove on which to heat it, all the wash water, and on which the starch had to be boiled to a useable consistency. Though society demanded fashionably stiff collars (and shirtwaists and cuffs and napkins and…), these toiling laundresses may actually have appreciated the troublesome starching, in that it absorbed sweat and dirt that would otherwise have been more stubbornly imbedded in the fabric.
By 1900, starch boxes were bragging that cooking the stuff was a thing of the past; it could simply be mixed into water right from the box. Better living though chemistry.
It is unclear that this 1905 box has anything to do with "celluloid" other than a hopeful marketing association with the trendy new plastic’s ever-stiff qualities.
CORSETS & OTHER CLADDING
The sigh of relief from any woman who removes her corset qualifies it as a lesser misery, though there were as many corset styles as there were degrees of torso constriction. Before the advent of girdles and brassieres in the 1920’s, the corset was a woman’s mainstay, as it were, of upper body support, with fashion and station dictating just how tight to lace the thing. The well-attired laundresses on the starch label above are likely wearing work-a-day corsets like this one, despite all the bending, lifting, and reaching required on a hot busy wash-day.
This fancier silk piece from a 1902 wedding ensemble is a corset of a different color. Unlike the plainer cotton number above, it has sewn-in stays or stiffeners. “Real Whalebone” is printed on the inside, though the stays may likely be made of the more springy baleen plate from the whale’s mouth strainer. And it was not meant for doing the laundry in.
The heavy wool men’s swimsuit above is a result of the odd mix of Victorian pursuit of physical vigor with Victorian modesty. While this garment would allow one to enter the heady new world of encountering the opposite sex strolling along the strand in similar bathing attire, the thrill would turn to chill after any actual immersion. There could have been little loitering, clad in the heavy clinging wool, and most likely a bath house, fish shack, or thicket nearby to politely shuck off such an ever-wet outfit, to return to the picnic in drier togs.
‘Long–johns’ have been scorned in these days of central heating, but were better appreciated in days when winter cold crept closer to the skin; which is not to say that these garments did not become miserable after a long winter of service. In this woman's version (above), note the tapering below the knees to fit into boots.
(below)The box for this women’s ‘union-suit’ makes it sound almost wearable.
(above)Not a misery themselves, but rather a solution greatly appreciated by one's laundress, these straw cuff protectors were slipped on over the wrists to keep billowing shirtsleeves protected from that greater of the lesser miseries, house cleaning.
The sparkling glass chimney of this oil lamp is that of an oil lamp that is not in use, like most museum artifacts. The pleasant glow it cast on the interior of a past vessel’s cabin (note the gimbaled bracket that allowed the lamp to remain upright despite the changing angle of the boat) would have readily dimmed without basic repetitive maintenance: wick properly trimmed, glass wiped clean of the inevitably accumulating lampblack, and the reservoir re-filled. Maybe not a misery, but a bit of a pain, when the nostalgia wears off.
Of course, to those in the guttering candlelight of the 18th-century, this oil lamp would have seemed miraculous, and well worth all the 'trouble'.
Recall as well that many of the skills and gear ancillary to the lesser miseries, that allowed our forbears to cope pretty handily with 'old-fashioned' stuff, have not been passed along. This nicely balanced kerosene storage can would have made tidy work of re-filling a string of lamps. The can pivots within the wooden frame with a light touch, to lower the narrow spout. When released, the spout swings back up.
This charming 1905 postcard of the moon disappearing over Portland harbor reveals why lamps were particularly fussed over by mariners. In a crowded dark harbor, various combinations of lantern placement and color would signal who was at anchor, and who was underway, who was towing, who was the towed, etc. A lamp gone out from neglect could, and did, have dire consequences.
A starboard running light from the big Percy & Small 6-master Alice M. Lawrence shows the complexity of this crucial equipment: the Fresnel lense to amplify the lamplight; the weather-tight inner mount that allows air in for the lamp to burn, but not be blown out in a gust; and the vent for the fumes and heat. The lamp’s reservoir had to be big enough to last the night.The Lawrence broke up on Tuckernuck Shoal in 1914, eight years after her Bath launch. Much of her rig and other gear, including her riding lights were salvaged and used in other vessels.
A three-holer seat, of clear pine, from 115 Bowery St., Bath, home of a Percy & Small shipyard worker, ca. 1910.
And so I have reached the bottom end of this miserable business.
Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall , Curator of Exhibits
Artifact Donors, in order of appearance:
bucksaw 66.1618 Sanford B. Nickerson
sampler 79.143.60 Burden Collection
saws 2004.034 Brad & Pam Cahill
reaming iron 70.174.13 Museum purchase
mallet 66.1498 Burden Collection
fairlead 94.87.37 Burden Collection
varnish can 2006.61.9 Burden Collection
sardine can 90.119.18 Burden Collection
lobster can 91.118.36 Burden Collection
Phenoid can 78.83.26 Burden Collection
brass knuckles 71.60.14 Fred Lord
cosh 72.77.8 Morris Smith
starter 72.77.9 Morris Smith
starter U69 Anonymous
starter 98.123.9 Philip Baker
Arrow collar poster 72.270.01 Mrs. Leon Vallaincourt
collar stiffeners 78.83.181 Burden Collection, 78.83.195 Burden Collection
denim shirt 93.90.36 Burden Collection
starch box 72.102.02 M/M Duane Fitzgerald
starch box 72.144.21 Dan Donovan
corset plain, 77.121.039 Burden Collection
corset fancy 79.116.32 Mrs. Larry W. Lindvall
swimsuit 79.41.6 Burden Collection
long underwear & box 18.104.22.168&.2 Mrs. L.M.C. Smith
cuff protectors 78.83.134 Burden Collection
gimbaled lamp 79.143.364 Burden Collection
oil dispenser 94.75 George Armstead
postcard 73.130 Allen Appletonship
lantern 2004.066.47 Burden Collection
3-holer seat 75.143.1 Donald R. Mank