The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 20, 2006

Two Visuals

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 10:13 am

I want to look at two depictions of women doing wash.

One, by Edouard Manet, is in the collection of the Barnes Museum near Philadelphia.


This washerwoman lives in the country, in the midst of the beauties of nature. She wears a luscious blue dress, a ruffle at the sleeve, its folds covering her well-fed frame. She stands above a wooden tub, and squeezes water from a small wad of clothing. Her hands are white and plump.

The wooden chair holding her tub seems planted in the field, part of nature. Its arching legs and back catch the light and suggest a nearby home of some elegance. The laundered clothes hang peacefully in the shadow of trees. A baby steadies herself by the tub; her blonde curls spill out below a straw hat perched comically on her head. She basks in the peaceful gaze of her mother. In the foreground, there are two pink roses, one in full blossom, the other smaller, a visual echo of the mother and daughter.

The painting is pure poetry to us today, sweet as candy. But when it was painted, it was refused by the by the Salon de Paris because its subject was too prosaic and naturalistic. And, of course its impressionistic technique was considered disturbing, even radical. (Wikipedia)

Le Linge was painted in 1875, about the time Jeannette Quimby Burger was washing clothes in Esopus, New York

Here’s another image of a washerwoman. This is a photo, taken in the mid-1800s, in England.


This is also a mother and children, but it is set indoors. The washerwoman hunches over a tub, her fists locked on the clothes. We can hardly see her face; instead, we relate to the arch of her back, the pistons of her arms.

Her tub is on a chair, wooden, braced against a wall. Her back is to her children; they are arrayed around her, but seem forgotten. Her little son sits behind her, staring downward, his hands around a cup, wearing a coat too big for him. His sisters play on the floor; one is covered in mud, as if the wash water has slopped everywhere. The floor is probably dirt. The irony is painful: while her mother cleans, the girl gets filthy.

Of course, this is in England, not New York. It’s from mid-century, before Jeannette became a single mother. So maybe it has nothing to do with the life of my great-great-grandmother.


The Irish Washerwoman

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 9:03 am

More than just a bit of a tune that you can’t get out of your head, The Irish Washerwoman is a dance, too.

Picture this: a British fan of Michael Flatley reports that he practices the Irish Washerwoman’s Jig in the billiards room of his private “banker’s” club:

Starting on the right:
Hop front 1 2 3 4, hop back 1 2 3 4,
hop front 1 2 3 4, hop back 1 2 3 4,
hop front 1 2 3 4, hop back 1 2 3 4
kick (r) and back (r) and back (l) 2 3 4
repeat on the left [I should hope so]

The dance is either Scottish or French.

The Bransle les Lavandieres is a mimed bransle (pronounced brawl), done in couples or a circle of dancers. The dance gets its name from the dancers clapping their hands to “make a noise like the women beating the washing on the banks of the Seine.” There is also “finger shaking” in the dance tabulation: one partner shakes a finger at the other, who stands hands on hips, and later the roles reverse.

But this is the French version.

The Scottish version depicts an Irish washerwoman who is angry with children (Irish brats!) who have just pulled down her wash and flung it in the mud. She stamps her feet and shakes her fist and hops up and down in rage.

She’s a figure of hilarity.

Two Thin Coats

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:43 am

My dad taught me how to paint a room. Brush it on, even, stroking in all directions. Soak it into the cracks with a tamping motion. Not much to it: decent tools, taking care, a bit of technique. As with all these supposedly manual tasks, the quality of attention matters most.

Roller technique’s pretty much the same. Go all ways, not just up and down. I can still hear the roller on wallboard, the sound of stickiness, a tacky whoosh as the paint laid on, and the small echo from behind the wall.

He said: Don’t slop it on thick. Do two thin coats, covers better that way.

I think of Cornelius, now, too, when I work: a stone mason. There came his daughter and a granddaughter between my dad and him, not so much distance at all. He worked with his hands: a man who had technique, tools, know-how. He built his house; my dad built ours. When his house needed painting, he did it. When I do these ordinary tasks, I think of them, the ancestors, who did them too.

Why Brooklyn?

Filed under: Clothesline — by WWG @ 8:43 am

Someone said to me recently: they did it backwards. Meaning: people usually move from the city to the country. And I have no answer. Why did so many Burgers move from Esopus to Brooklyn? Four of the nine siblings, and possibly more. And why did Jeannette stay in Port Ewen? Why did she not move in with one of her children, as so many grandmothers did?

March 17, 2006

Think of an Irish Jig

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 8:35 am

The tune that’s playing in your head right now is The Washerwoman Reel. Who knows why?

You can check it out at:

March 16, 2006

Wiki on Laundry

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 11:13 am

The Wikipedia entry for Laundry shows a couple doing the wash together:


“Man and Woman Washing Linen in a Brook” by William Henry Pyne, Microcosm, 1806.

It makes laundry almost romantic.

Who needs a Whirlpool?

Filed under: Uncategorized — by WWG @ 10:36 am

Ashira, you can do without an in-unit washer and dryer. Here’s a suggestion from Wikipedia:

Alternatively, one can use a car as agitator. If clothes are put in a water-tight container, with soap or detergent, and the container is placed in the trunk of a car or the bed of a pick-up truck, a few hours of stop-and-start driving or a stretch of bumpy road will agitate nicely. The clothes may then be rinsed and dried. This method is said to be used by some ranchers in the Western part of the United States.

March 10, 2006

Corn’s Bones

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:24 am

Why is a grave such a powerful thing? More than any other fact, a grave transcription places your ancestor on the planet, in a specific place and time. The paper records can be more informative, but for the sheer kick, a grave is about as good as it gets.

And of course, a grave can be a family affair: connections and relationships are etched in stone.

I was surprised to find Burgers (well, Bergers, Burgars, and Burgers) buried in New Paltz.* It’s a bit off the Burger hub in Esopus. The index at the end of the record showed several graves of interest, however. One plot, in section A, presumably the oldest part, gave me that genealogist’s knock upside the head.

Each plot listing is headed by the name of the last interred:

Burgar, Hannah J. [d.] 2-2-1910

Then the names of those in the plot:

Cornelius Burgar, b. 1812, d. 1899
H.W. Hannah Jane Benjamin, b. 1840, d. Walden, bur. 9-7-1910

“H.W.” means His Wife. Cornelius married again—a much younger woman. Jannette was 19 when he married her, and Hannah must have been about the same.

It is him. The birth date is a match. Oh, I’ll do more searching, verify, triangulate the data, but I pretty much know, it’s him.

*“New Paltz Rural Cemetery Records 1860-1962,” indexed by Ruth P. Heidgerd, New Paltz, NY 1962. Item 8 on Family Resarch Center Film roll 0930133.

The Census: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:41 am

You think you’re done with the census. You can move on. You have the outlines, decade by decade. It’s time to write away for certificates, read the church records in the Family Research Center, do something else.

But you know what? The census keeps on giving. You look back over it, and something jumps out, something thing you didn’t think was important. Suddenly, one detail glows neon. It screams a piece of the story you were missing, a piece that fits in perfectly. Or—the detail impels you around a vicious sharp turn to a new view of scenery that you’d seen a dozen times before.

Take Jannette. Finding her in the census was a challenge all the way through. Her name is never the same, and then there are the transcription errors in the index. But I did find her, decade after decade, and the narrative was: Married young, nine children, widowed with eight of the brood at home in 1860. By the next census, all but two are launched; in 1880, the youngest boy has stayed with her. I soon find her grave, showing her death came shortly after that census.

A sad tale, a rough life. The 1880 census was the first to include marital status, and eventually, returning to the page to check details, I saw it: in the box it said, not “W,” but “D”. A flowing, elegant, curlicued, “D” for “divorced.”

I hadn’t even tried to find Cornelius after 1860. He was dead. I looked for his name in the cemetery. I figured eventually he’d turn up.

And now he had: as a scoundrel. Leaving his wife with a huge brood, a woman impoverished: a washerwoman, damn it, in her fifties. Leaving a great-great-granddaughter with a sour taste in her mouth, 150 years later, and with a bitter task: to dig him out of the census from 1860 on.

On the other hand, the case of William R.’s missing wife was the kind of puzzle you solve with a piece that’s been sitting right in front of you.

I could trace William (b. 1856) pretty well: although recorded in Esopus with his mom Jannette in 1880, he was also listed in Brooklyn that year, and he and his two kids, William R., Jr., and Catherine, turned up in the 1900 census living with his sister Josie. In 1910 he’s widowed, and I’d assumed he lost his wife during that blank twenty years. I despaired of finding out anything about her. Eventually, I realized I’d been too hasty; the 1900 census had William R. listed as “M” not “W.” If she was alive in 1900, where was she?

Just last night I was looking at the census records of the other sibling who moved to Brooklyn—that would be (Elisha) James—and I realized that in 1900, in his three-generation household (James and his wife and their son Alvah and his wife and children) were two other women, tagged on at the end. One, Louisa Cunningham, listed as “grandmother,” seems likely to be the mother of Alvah’s wife and hence “grandmother” to those children. The other was Catherine Burger, sister-in-law, born in 1861.

Hello, Mrs. William R. Burger.

March 7, 2006

Family History Center: The Wheels Go ‘Round and ‘Round

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 9:32 pm

I started at 9:40 this morning: inserted the film reel, snapped the light on, turned the handle. The film was labeled “Methodist Church Kripplebush,” which refers to an area west of Esopus, NY, but the first items on it were for Reformed Churches in Dutchess County. What the hell. My main quarry died in Esopus, but I don’t know where in New York State she was born. I turned the wheel, turned and turned, noted names that echoed my families or those married in. Notes and notes, marriages, baptisms, turning the wheel. Around me conversations, more than usual, machines being fixed, searchers learning to use the scanner, chit chat chit chat. I’m turning the wheel, making notes, and page after page goes by.

I shift my legs, realizing my left has been crossed over the right at the ankle for so long it feels stuck. But I’m reading, still reading, turning the wheel, pages go by.

I’m lucky today; the first register is typed. The data is from the 1700s, but someone typed it up. The second, not so lucky, it’s a manuscript, but a transcription. Someone with a beautiful hand has made a fair copy of the church records, and even adds little notes when things are illegible or contradictory. I’m reading Dutch names, very Dutch, Van this and Van that, and then, gradually, in the second list, the names start to shift: Williams, Johnson, Green, Griggs, the English are taking over.

I’m thirsty. The gal next to me gets up and goes to the scanner, and I reach in to my bag for my water bottle. I don’t know if it’s allowed to drink in the reading room, but it’s all shadowy and dim, and probably nobody cares. The films are above our heads projecting down; the reader tables are laminated.

I think I should check what time it is. I pull up my sweater sleeve, and see it’s 12:30. Three hours have passed. I’m still consumed; one hour left till closing, and this record is endless . . . I turn the wheel, a genealogy mouse, spinning and spinning, getting, maybe, somewhere.

Here’s what I found:

Re the Quimby clan:

1783, April 6 Levi Quimby and his wife Elener Willsie brought Jane, b. Jan . 28, for baptism.

1787, June 21, Levi Quimby and Elenor Quimby are sponsors at the baptism of Elenor, daughter of John Wilsie and Susannah Brus [?].

On the same date, Joseph Smith and Hannah Buis [?] baptize their son John.

1791, April 23, Teunis Wilsie and Cornelia Wilsie are sponsors for Cordelia, the daughter of Gerardus Lewis and Fryirtje [?] Van Klenk.

1792, May 20, Abraham Van Keuren and Petronella Wiltsie baptize their daughter Jeanny, b. April 2.

Additional references to Wilsies: Abr. Wilsie and Seletie Lucky baptize Rebecca in 1793; Abr. Van Keuren and Nelly Wiltsie baptize Sarah in 1797. Abraham Willsie and Salatje Lucky baptize Samuel in 1798. John Willsie and Rebecca Gulilan baptize William in 1810. [Note: in Ulster County records I have found a Betsy Quinby married to a Philip Van Keuren.]

Additional references to Bruns/ Bruis [?]: 1793 Simeon Pels and Elizabth Bruns baptize Mary.

Re the Burgers:

1791, Isaac Burgan [?] and Anna Waldron baptize John, b. Sept. 1790. No sponsors.

1795, Feb. 1. Jacob Burger and Ann Maria Barus [?] baptize Abraham, b. Nov. 20, 1794. No sponsors.

1797, Jan. 7. Jacob K. Burger and Ann Maria Barus baptize Jacob, b. Dec. 19, 1796. No sponsors.

At this point, however, I cannot say that either Levi or Jacob are actually related to me.

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