The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 21, 2007

Tug Sinking: What it was like

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 11:53 am


This photo is undated and unsourced, but it appears to be taken along a river. The area seems to be a river-town, built up along the water’s edge. If you look in the left hand side behind the boat, you can see, very faintly, that buildings edge the opposite bank for quite some distance. Across the water, the area seems flooded, and the water is pretty high in the foreground as well.

The boat itself looks pretty basic. It seems to be of wood and there appear to be no railings. It’s so shallow it looks almost raft-like. My guess would put it early in tug history, perhaps the 1870s, although the event pictured here might be quite a bit later.


Review: Henry R. Stiles on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Basin

Filed under: Archetypes,Reviews — by WWG @ 10:15 am

I’ve been reading around in a history of Brooklyn by Henry R. Stiles.* Volume III of his 1870 book describes the contemporary city. My current interest is the waterfront, covered in Part III of Chapter XII, “Docks and Commerce.” This is a book I happened on somewhere, and I notice it is not in the bibliography at the back of George Matteson’s book on New York tugboats. It may, thus, provide somewhat of a supplement to that book’s coverage of the Manhattan tug scene.

Early on, Stiles makes two points that seem contradictory. On the one hand, he reports that “no city in the union, possessing the natural facilities and extent of waterfront, is so poorly provided with public docks as Brooklyn” (573). On the other, just a page later, Stiles emphasizes that “a comparison between the docks and warehouses of New York and those of Brooklyn is highly favorable to the latter” (574). (New York and Brooklyn were still separate cities in 1870, so by “New York” he means Manhattan.) New York’s waterfront was owned by the city, and had become dilapidated and antiquated; there was no protection from the weather nor a way to recapture the inevitable leakages of cargo. It was, furthermore, he notes, “exposed to the depredations of dock-thieves” (573). Finallly, the routes leading away from the docks were in sorry shape, and goods, once landed, took many more days to arrive at their destinations.

In Brooklyn, to the contrary, the waterfront had been in private hands since the early days, when the city failed to act on an offer from the owners of the shore land to sell it because of one negative vote by one Joseph Moser. “Since that time, private parties have been allowed to take possession of every foot of available waterfront” (374). It was, then, in public wharves that Brooklyn was lacking. Astonishingly, “along its thirteen miles of waterfront,” Stiles reported, “there are scarcely a dozen pubic docks” (574), all small and inconvenient. The story of the Brooklyn docks is a story of private enterprise making the best of a fortuitous situation.

The Brooklyn docks were elevated above the waterline and not swamped, as happened in NY. They were in excellent repair and clean, “so that every pound of sweepings and leakages can be saved” (574). In Brooklyn, the warehouses were right on the docks, saving the cost and time of transportation that was so arduous in NY, and out-shipment was much easier because the ships could load right from the warehouses. Stiles notes, that at the “overcrowded docks of New York, . . . work, not infrequently, has to cease at noon, because the pier is covered and the men have fairly blocked themselves in” (575).

I am interested in the Atlantic basin because Capt. James’s tug laid up there according to several maritime reports, and, of course, it was there the tug was docked when it sank. The Atlantic basin was in the twelfth ward. Stiles notes, “through the whole lower portion of the 12th ward, streets are rapidly being extended and graded, sunken lots and disease-breeding pools of stagnant water are being filled in . . . The sheds and shanties of squatter pioneers are rapidly disappearing before the advance of new buildings of brick and stones, and imposing churches, school-houses, factories, warehouses and dwellings have already been erected. . . . The hum of machinery and the evidence of industry and activity are unceasing, and this section of city already possesses sufficient material in population, property, manufactures, schools, churches and other requisites to constitute a tolerable municipality by itself” (582).

Stiles elaborates the history of the Atlantic dock in a footnote extending across several pages—a format which often puts the juice of a matter in a subsidiary position to his main-text cataloguing of the components of his contemporary Brooklyn.

The Atlantic wharves, he says, were planned to resemble the Liverpool docks. The basin itself was shallow at low-tide and the area surrounding it, in 1841, so rural that cows would stand in the water to cool themselves. Viewed from downtown Brooklyn, it appeared that the cows had waded across Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island, which is close offshore from the basin, and that they did so was an urban myth of the time. To make the basin useful, it had to be excavated “by steam dredging machinery, a tedious and expensive process, which has been going on from the commencement of the work until this time” (576), progressively increasing the size of the ships that could use the docks. In Stiles’s day, “over a hundred large vessels drawing twenty feet of water at low tide can lie with ease and comfort within the secure walls of this dock” (576).

In fact, the basin was an astonishing construction: “The access to the basin is midway through a line of warehouses half a mile in extent, by an entrance two hundred feet wide, passable at all stages of the tide by any class of vessels; differing in this respect from the Liverpool docks which are accessible at high tide only, and then closed by gates to retain the water to keep the vessels afloust during the ebb tide, the fall of water in the river Mersey leaving the docks inland when the tide is out” (576).

We think of ourselves as modern, but we have as a people, a civilization, been “modern” and technological for a very long time now. Stiles describes the warehouses ringing the basin as built on secure foundations, of granite and brick to four stories, with nine “first-class” steam-powered grain elevators, “some of which exceed anything of kind in this or any other country”{ (576). He explains, “These elevators will, under ordinary operation, discharge a canal boat loaded with eight thousand bushels of grain in three hours, elevating, cleaning, weighing, and distributing, to a point four hundred feet from whence it took it, by one process of machinery” (576).

He notes that as many as 130 sea-going vessels have fit in the basin at one time, and at another, over 600 canal boats loaded with grain alongside 50 sea-going ships (576-7). The basin was, he says, “the commercial point of the city of Brooklyn” (577).

These wharves were at the outer reaches of swampy low-lands, Stiles reports, and quickly speculators bought up the land and filled it in, flattened the hills, and built several thousand houses. This is the area now called Red Hook, I think. I notice on the map that the streets where my family mariners lived, Sackett, President, and Degraw, are only a few blocks away from the basin.

Stiles details the specifics of how the Atlantic docks were built, from the incorporation of the Atlantic Dock company, through a petition to the state legislature, in 1840, through the application to the legislature for a bill to permit altering the official waterline set down in 1836, the contracting for the work, the completion of the first docks in 1844, to the decision and contracting to erect the first steam elevator in the NY metro area in 1846-47. Some have a halcyon view of the nineteenth century, as a time when actions were more direct and free enterprise was truly “free,” but Stiles’ narrative shows that the web of business regulation, government oversight, and the law of contracts was very much part of the economic scene then as now.

The Atlantic Basin was, it seems, only the beginning of massive development of the Brooklyn waterfront. In the 1850s, planning began for the Erie and Brooklyn basins, erected ‘round the bend of Red Hook, and at the time of Stiles’s publication, still in progress.

The Atlantic basin, then, by the 1880s and later, was the old docks, smaller (at 40 acres of water, compared to 60 for the Erie), less commodious, and less modern. Just the place for a one-tug company to lay up its ageing boat.

* Stiles, Henry R. History of the City of Brooklyn N.Y., Volume III. “Published by Subscription,” 1870. Facsimile Reprint. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1993. Paper.

The picture here is of the John H. Cordts in New York Harbor; it’s dated 1909, and its provenance is unknown. It’s not from Stiles’s book; it’s an old photo in my collection. The writing on the cabin says Shortland . . . Harbour Transportion Co.


September 25, 2006

Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da Dumb

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 9:41 am

Here’s an image of my ancestor I found on the web: the often republished music for the Irish Washerwoman fronted with this enticing depiction of herself.

You have to give the illustrator points for wit: the play with the clothespin silhouette, the contrast of the gigantic and the teensy, the irony of the gal’s heft and energy and what one might call her galumphing grace.


The unspoken question of why a rollicking reel got named after a menial house servant is answered by the stereotype:

She’s Irish! Hence, lunatic energy. Her dress is green (though a check not a plaid–a bit of artistic license there). She’s in bloomers and high button boots, befitting her birth in a deeply backward enclave. And, coup de grace, the gal hoists the shamrock, a pea-sized emblem of her essence, in a daft gesture of triumph.

Then, of course, she’s plain, begorrah, with a face like a potato and a squashed whorl of hair. And isn’t she the load of bricks to be leapin’ and stompin’ round the place? She’s set the ratty cur to yapping, thrown over the stool, and, sure’n, when you just look at her, you hear it: Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da, Dah-da-da . . . .

Yeah, yeah, it’s only a cartoon from the ‘40s, I know. And, actually, by that time there weren’t any more “Irish washerwomen,” certainly not ones armed with a washboard and peggy. Your cleaning lady, if you hired one, put the laundry in the electric machine and wrung it out between the rollers. So at the time of the publication of this sheet music, the lady was an anachronism, as signaled by her bloomers.

And of course, the rationale for the title of the jig is lost in the mists of time.

But I would propose that the jig alludes not to Irish air-headedness (or to having a little nip after breakfast), but the reality of getting clothes laundered in bygone days. Confronted with a hundred sodden pounds of filthy clothes in a big tub, you got in there with your bare feet and slogged around. You surely didn’t put your arms in the stew of sweat and grime or break your back dragging wet woolens and every-day clothes up and down a washboard.

So is that clear, now?

Have I exonerated my granny yet?

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.

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.

Blog at