The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 21, 2007

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.



February 2, 2007

Review:Matteson’s Tugboats of New York

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Review: Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History by George Matteson. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

George Matteson spent decades on the waterfront of New York and knows the towing business from hawser to spreadsheet—and he’s researched the development of the harbor’s workboats with the eye of experience. His book guides you effortlessly into the world of tugboating, showing you the ropes (pun intended) with the ease of a master. You can’t help but respect him for both his undoubtedly hard-won insider’s view of a gritty profession and his spare, pointed, informative prose. You might say he guides the reader through a century-and-a-half of maritime history like the seasoned seaman he is.

According to Matteson, tugboating is an especially non-routine business, in that “each tow is different, each requires special attention to rigging and maneuver” (2). Working in New York Harbor presents additional complexities; the Hudson River is officially designated as a fjord, having been cut by glaciers rather than by flowing melt from upstate, and in it salt water and fresh mix throughout. “The rise and fall in the harbor is about five and one-half feet,” Matteson reports, unlike other east coast harbors with rises of three or less ( 6). While the harbor is protected by islands and hooks of land spread down through Brooklyn and New Jersey, it can also be a cauldron of whipping cross-currents.

In the early days, two streams of maritime business filled New York harbor: ocean-going ships from other US ports and abroad and the river traffic of passengers and goods to-ing and fro-ing from all the river towns up the Hudson River to Albany. Especially after the opening of the canal system to transport goods back and forth across NY State to the Great Lakes and down into the coal country of Pennsylvania, NY harbor became a locus of shipping and passenger activity.

At first, steam ferries, diverted from their primary assignments, handled the job of towing sailing vessels into berth. Towboats began to be specialized as passengers and freight customers demanded reliable service. Gradually, river and harbor freight movement shifted to barges when it became obvious that tugboats could move unpowered loads more efficiently through more diverse conditions than they could tow loaded sailing sloops. Throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, hundreds of tugboats swarmed though the harbor in New York endlessly performing the daily work of commerce.

Tugboats of New York is in “coffee-table” format with dozens of photographs of working tugs and harbor scenes drawn from the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other archives. Boats make great subjects, of course, being sculptural and statuesque, and NY provides a dramatic textured background. The author’s photo choices portray both the scenic and the work-a-day shipping world, and beneath each photo, Matteson’s lengthy captions explain details only a mariner would notice.

Towing involves great seamanship and acumen on the part of boat captains and crew. Matteson’s crystal descriptions of such strategies as towing “on the hawser,” “shifting,” and “gate towing” make you comprehend the craft involved; in fact, you feel you could do it on the basis of his instructions (and you almost wish you could). But you also realize the depth of practice involved in success in this trade.

In describing “shifting,” for example, Matteson writes that “moving one or a number of barges within a tightly congested ship or work site requires a level of delicacy and precision far greater than that required for other towing assignments. . . . Each barge may be destined for a different customer, so the order of eventual delivery must be reflected in the order that each is added to the tow, the first to be dropped off needs to be the last added to the tow. . . . To open up a raft of barges, extract one or several, and close the raft back up in the fewest possible moves is a distinct skill at which some tug captains excel and others do not” (74-75).

A reader comes to realize that the tasks on board are performed in a state of almost mystic cooperation: “Key to success in shifting work is a skilled captain and crew who have worked together long enough for each to anticipate the actions of the other. In the days when engine room orders were conveyed by the use of bells, the deckhands working out on the barges could usually keep track of the tug’s intentions by careful listening. . . . A highly polished crew can perform the most complicated maneuvers in near complete silence, each knowing exactly what to do and often using only hand signals.”

He continues, “Railroad shifting tugs averaged 566 bell commands from pilothouse to engine room in an eight-hour shift. During a close-in shifting operation the rate of bell signals transmitted from pilothouse to engine room might read six per minute, and a period of such intense activity might last an hour or more. The likelihood of a miscue at some point in this process, sending tug and barge off at the wrong speed or direction, is inevitable, and many costly accidents and time-consuming snarls have been the result.” When engine technology so that the pilothouse directly controlled the engine, towing and the job of shifting became immensely easier. Matteson concludes, “The development of twin-screw propulsion adapted for pilothouse control of the engines further simplified the work of shifting such that the old captains of single-screw bell boats would say that, nowadays, anybody can do it.”

My interest in Matteson’s book, of course, is that it captures what the job was like for my tug captain ancestors, Capt. Quimby and the two Capt. Burgers, who all worked, not New York Harbor, but Brooklyn Harbor. To a great extent, of course, these are the same places and share the same history. But Matteson’s book focuses on Manhattan’s shipping industry, and so there is almost no mention of onshore conditions or companies in Brooklyn (except those that grew and became Manhattan companies). My captains were operating during a period of intense growth in harbor activity. Matteson provides the astonishing statistics: “The dollar value of manufactured goods produced in Manhattan and Brooklyn went from 105 million in 1850 to 194 million in 1870 and just over a billion in 1890. . . . The [city’s] population skyrocketed from 650,000 in 1850 to 1, 360,000 in 1870 and 2, 350,000 in 1890.”

Describing the intensity of the need for tugboats in what may have been towing golden’s hour, he continues: “In 1896, there were 4,460 arrivals of vessels from overseas and 10,229 from U.S. coastal ports. There were 4,736 steamers, and the rest were sailing vessels, including 8,353 coasting schooners.”

Beyond assisting ships, tugs also moved huge amounts of goods. “Vast quantities of stone, block ice, and brick came down the Hudson, so much sand was barged into the city from the north shore of Long Island that local observers wondered if the island would disappear entirely into the maw of New York City.” And what went out is even more astonishing: “Cellar dirt, the debris from the excavation of building foundations; dredge spoil, the mud and silt produced by the maintenance and steady enlargement of harbor facilities; garbage; ashes; horse manure (about four hundred tons per day), and dead horses (about two hundred per day) all left the city by barge for disposal offshore or at the rendering plants . . .” (84).

The return of boats from the civil war and the magnetism of NY caused an eventual glut of tugboats in the harbor, according to Matteson, by the late 1880s (just when my family captains would have been operating). “The majority of boats [at that time] were owned by partnerships, often comprising captain, engineer, family members, and associates. Because the captain and engineer owners of a small tug could not simultaneously run the boat and run the business, the securing and scheduling of individual jobs and the subsequent payment for these jobs was ordinarily handled by a towing agent, usually with offices along the Manhattan waterfront“ (91-92).

The end of the nineteenth century saw what Matteson calls a “sea change’” in the business of towing, with many of the older operators selling out. Many original boat operators were, of course, approaching retirement age after a long career as tugboat pioneers. The overabundance of tugs drove prices down. Also, the press to upgrade to propeller power drove some of the traditionalists away, to retirement or the slower life of tugboating on one of the canals or lakes. Finally, the era of corporatization had arrived, and tugboating was becoming a professionalized business field. “Tugboating at the end of the nineteenth century was leaving behind its entrepreneurial beginnings and settling into the character of a mature service industry where success is more dependent on office discipline than on wheelhouse daring” (94).

Matteson recounts the story of the Luckenbach towing company, prominent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and interesting to me because the immigrant Lewis Luckenbach was reared in Rondout, NY, and started his first business there. His first tug was, in fact, called the Blue Stone. He proceeded by retrofitting schooners as barges, with marginal sailing capacity to be used only in extremis. Luckenbach saw early the profitability of venturing out on the high seas to transport goods and get away from the intense rivalry for business in the harbor itself.

In addition to compiling the history of shipping in New York, Tugboats of New York uncovers the details of seamanship and celebrates the practical art involved in commonplace work. Every detail of the book is pristine: the photographs, the design, the clarity of explication, the easy but professional tone, all, in fact, modeling the attention to detail and the fanatical competence that is required to work at sea–qualities often obscured by the supposed ordinariness of the labor that weaves the complex materiality of our civilization.

October 16, 2006

Review: Picturesque Ulster

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Review: Picturesque Ulster Richard Lionel De Lisser, 1896-1905. © 1968 C.E. Dornbusch. Republished, Saugerties: Hope Farm Press, 1998.

This is both a wonderful and supremely odd book by our current standards. Its history explains its character: the facsimile available today brings together eight smaller books written for the tourists who began flocking to Ulster County in the latter nineteenth century. Part guidebook, part photo-documentary, the compendium covers its subject in great detail, more detail than today’s tourists would appreciate unless the subject was Renaissance Italy or some such. But for a reader willing to work for the privilege of being transported back 110 years, the book is a treasure trove.

Yet, it presents obstacles. The author, or “artist,” is Richard Lionel De Lisser, whose crisp photographs of Ulster County scenes form the heart of the book and the premise for his essayistic “rambles” through the area.

His pictures document Kingston and other towns in great detail. Yet, they are always from a certain distance and most are clinical: passersby are absent, for the most part, and stillness reigns. Yet the coverage of buildings and neighborhoods is priceless; there are places where De Lisser literally goes up one side of a street and down the next, discussing what is known of each property. Every single photo is captioned. Another photographer supplied some photos of buildings no longer extant at De Lisser’s time.

It is the layout that frustrates the most. The pictures are arranged stylishly on the pages but they are not numbered, referenced or coordinated with the text. The picture of a building under discussion might be found numerous but untold pages prior.

Even more head-slapping for a twenty-first century reader is the interweaving of the main text by De Lisser with topical essays he commissioned by contemporary experts. You are reading along about the First Dutch Church of Kingston and turn the page to find a separate in-depth essay on the subject but no indication of where you might pick up the next word of the sentence you have been reading. The Table of Contents does indicate the leaps and bounds of De Lisser’s text through the book, but it is never comfortable navigating your way. And, the text blocks are crowded: sans paragraphs, the text indicates topic changes by strings of dingbats.

At the turn of the century, Ulster County’s tourist region was to the north: Woodstock, Saugerties . . . the mountains and untouched backwoods. This volume covers only northern Ulster County, the parts most appealing to the audience of tourists that De Lisser hoped would buy the eight booklets. As the editor of the first reissued facsimile (1968), Alf Evers, points out, the author ignored “those sides of life in Ulster which might offend the audience he had in mind—that was why he touched lightly on the lives of Ulster’s urban poor who lacked the picturesqueness readers of the 1890s found in backwoods poverty . . . “ Hence, the book skims over the harder part of life and the more common people and occupations are little rendered.

Evers also indicates that a second companion volume was intended for the southern part of the county but it was never done.

This is most unfortunate, of course, for my needs. De Lisser covers Kingston and Rondout in great detail, but he put off the work-a-day towns and hamlets across the river for another, never-to-be-realized, time. Port Ewen, Fly Mountain, Sleightsburg, Rifton, St. Remy . . . so close yet quite forgotten in “Picturesque Ulster.”

When De Lisser recounts the history of churches in Kingston and Rondout, he supplies details I have been craving. As a genealogical researcher, I want a sense of when the various denominations started holding services in Kingston and Esopus. Only with that knowledge can one determine whether any church records are missing or incomplete. Since I have reviewed quite a few microfilms of Esopus area church records, I even recognized some of the information recounted in the narrative part of the text.

Having a go at antique volumes like this is part of being a responsible researcher . . . although not the easiest reading, it helps fill in the background of a crucial family homeland. It also conveys the sense of self and locality held by the people of Kingston in the 1890s. So I’ll be plowing on through the rest of the essays pertinent to Kingston and Rondout.

September 2, 2006

Review: The Promised Land by John J. Vrooman (6-27-06)

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 3:51 pm

I found this historical novel, written in 1958, in a used-book sale somewhere, perhaps even a local garage sale. I am so happy I bothered with it. It’s not exactly best-seller material, even for 1958; one might even say it plods. Its subtitle says it all: “The Story of the Palatine Emigration from their Rhineland homes to the Hudson and Schoharie Valleys” (the Schoharie flows into the Mohawk west of Schenectady, NY). The book transforms some minor chapters in the history of Europe and the settlement of the colonies into a melodrama, one that nevertheless humanizes otherwise remote goings-on. The book’s chapter-by-chapter bibliography at the end assures that the events are historically accurate. (“Minor liberties have been taken with characters lifted from the pages of history. But names and genealogies, as well as dates, are substantiallly correct,” Vrooman writes at the start of the bibliography.) The author is himself a descendent of early New York settlers (albeit Dutch not Palatine), and he includes Adam Vrooman, presumably an actual historic person, as a minor character in the novel.

Early chapters convey the European background by introducing characters suffering the brutality of Louis XIV’s campaign to re-Catholicize France and Germany. French refugees come together with German Lutherans to make the trek to America, after an offer from the Queen of England to pay their way to settle in British colonies. The sheer arduousness of long-distance travel in those days is shocking to a modern reader: truly, only the toughest could have endured the trip up the Rhine on a log raft, months of confinement in ad hoc camps at each stop along the way, constant exposure to the elements and near-starvation, and relentless uncertainty about the future. The trip, much of spent stalled in various refugee camps, takes ten months to the coast of America, and then nearly another ten before the band arrives at their destination, the Schoharie Valley. All the while, the emigrants live in the most primitive conditions, building log huts and homes with their axes, roofing with thatch and sod, sleeping in bunks or on the ground in close quarters, eating weeds from the forest, corn grown from scavenged seed, and hand-out grain from the Patroon. Clothes fall to rags, disease overcomes hundreds, and Indians both provide kindly tips on survival and attack when piqued.

The novel shows a texture of life not so different from today’s. Decisions of all kinds involve government approval or registration; funding large-scale events and projects is difficult, and the have-nots suffer at every turn. Official promises are not always kept; trade and land and commerce of all kinds is monitored and regulated by the government. Naively, one might assume people came over to America on boats and struck out for the wilderness, then put up a fence in a place they liked and called the land theirs. But in reality, land had to be negotiated away from Indian owners, and then a patent acquired from the governor. Surveyors surveyed, boundaries were set, patents dispensed, deeds signed, over a period of months. All was made more complicated when language barriers had to be overcome: Germans needed translators; Americans of all sorts had to learn Indian languages or rely on bilingual natives.

And the expenditure of national funds for the settlement of the new continent was not without controversy. Those remaining in England begrudged the expense. The lower classes literally waged war on the refugees stalled in London; the middle classes and the pious practiced charity on them. Someone had to pay the doctors who accompanied the voyages and recompense their expenses for supplies. Extorting funding from the emigrants was difficult: few had the right skills in the right place to produce material of value for the crown.

Oddly, for a novel about an emigration inspired by the need for religious freedom, there is sparse religiosity in the book. There is an occasional and seeming brief impromptu prayer session; the travelers notice the existence of churches wherever they go; major life events have a minister to baptize, pronounce vows, or sanctify the dead. But the quest is really for life: a life without the threat of attack and destruction by imperialist neighboring states, a life lived in peace. As religious difference was seemingly a premise on which imperialism could be practiced in Europe, freedom of conscience is more a background than a motivator as the characters struggle to find a place to live in peace.

Genealogical note: When I took a look at Henry Z. Jones’s books on the Palatine immigration in NY, I was startled to see the name of Conrad Weiser and other characters from this book. I shouldn’t have been: Vrooman did his research; Weiser actually was significant enough to have quite a bit of research done on him which Vrooman had access to. Seeing my Burchhardt-Burger relatives on the lists in Jones’s books where Vrooman’s characters also appear confirmed my enthusiam for Vrooman’s work. It appears, though, that my ancestors did not take part in the same drama of settling the Schoarie valley as did the characters in this book; instead, they seem to have stayed in the Albany area and then moved south to Ulster and Dutchess counties.

July 26, 2006

Review: New York State Bluestone

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Dennis Conors, et. al. New York State Bluestone. New Paltz, 2005.

Turns out, lots of people love New York bluestone.

“There is something so appealing, so magnetic, so charismatic.,” write the authors of Bluestone. “People do love it despite the fact that the stones are often heaved and uneven. After all, most of it was laid down about 150 years ago, and yet is beauty and function remain. To touch it and walk on it, you feel its age, its strength. In the dead of winter it soaks up and retains the heat of the sun. In summer it is cool on your feet” (5). They are speaking here of bluestone laid in slabs as sidewalk, but it is true of the irregular flagstone used for terraces and walkways as well.

The authors concede that its appeal is “something of a mystery. It’s just stone after all. A kind of sandstone, they say, not that common, mainly available . . . in Ulster County and beyond in a certain narrow range on a geological map” (3).

This small pamphlet both celebrates this unique stone and explains its history. A collection of brief essays interspersed with a few wonderful historical photographs, the book may possibly be a SUNY New Paltz student production: the graphic advisor is a faculty member. But the publication information is scant.

For the most part the book is well-written and elegant in its design; however, the several essays were not reconciled as to facts before publication: there are some small contradictions that distract from a reader’s flow through the information. Nevertheless, the book serves as a basic introduction to the bluestone industry in Ulster.

Commercial quarrying of bluestone began about 1830, perhaps “at Coeyman’s” in Albany County, and soon, perhaps in 1832, Ulster county’s first quarry opened, with Saugerties seeming the spot. West Hurley, Woodstock, and Hurley are all mentioned as sites of important quarries.

As many as 10,000 people were employed in the industry at its peak: top men, who cleared the soil down to the level of the stone; stone cutters and quarrymen who cut out the blocks; plus workers to raise the stone, cut it, load it, and transport it for shipment down to the towns and cities where it was used. And it was hazardous work, as is all mining; managing the movement of huge slabs of stone presented many dangers, and bluestone miners suffered from a lung disease analogous to black lung as a result of breathing the stone dust.

The industry was one of the several forces that transformed the Kingston area in the mid-nineteenth century. “In 1825, and for some years subsequent, there was no road along Rondout Creek from Twaalfskill in either direction, neither to the Strand (Rondout), nor to Eddyville in the other course” (19). “Before 1825, Rondout (now downtown Kingston) was farmland with a nearby dock for several Hudson River sloops that carried local produce” (11). The Delaware and Hudson Canal opened just as bluestone mining began in earnest, and soon, bluestone became ”a substantial part of [Kingston’s] commercial and residential buildings, and the Rondout Creek had become the largest distribution point for bluestone” (11).

But after not too long, Rosendale cement and Hudson River brick became more popular as building materials—newer, cheaper, and certainly easier to transport. The bluestone industry declined so that by 1902 bluestone production required only 150 men.

The pamphlet concludes with a brief bibliography, including a couple of books that focus on this stone. You have to ponder: how many rocks beside this unique, dense sandstone, formed about 375 million years ago in the Devonian era, have had their biographies written?

July 24, 2006

Review:The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County

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Myron S. Teller, The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County. Ulster County Historical Society, 1959, rept. 1974; 2001.

I looked through this book before the Hurley stone house tour, concentrating on things I would likely see, such as doors and windows, and not catching many of the details of construction. On Stone House Day, though, I quickly got a case of information overload: docent-chat about owners and property history, furnishings and décor, and particular features of each individual home meant I didn’t focus well on the architecture or the craft, that is, on the work of stone masons and carpenters. Rereading Teller’s work, I long to revisit, this time with book in hand.

Teller, an architect and advisor to Ulster stone-house owners (he died shortly after the first edition was published), provides a spare but complete technical description of stone house architecture. After a short overview of the historical circumstances leading to the profusion of stone houses in the early Hudson Valley, he analyzes their components: floor beams, floors, roofs, frames, doors, windows, roofs, and the fireplace and oven. Teller refers frequently to particular homes as examples (another feature that makes me wish I had had the book with me), and the book has more pages of drawings, elevations, and plates than of text.

In documenting the precision and craft necessary to construct a house of stone, Teller reveals the sophistication of seventeenth-century engineering. The houses are not that different in construction from a twentieth-century stone house (although in the twenty-first, pre-fab, plastics, metals, and composites replace many natural materials). What is different is the sheer labor required to quarry and move stone, cut and trim logs, saw planks and plane floors, create nails and iron hardware, and more. This is not a book about construction but about functional design. Still, a reader can glean the monumental labor necessary to create each house.

He explains that stone houses were at first merely “one large square room enclosed with stone walls 2 feet thick” (1), in which the family cooked, ate, slept, and did all their “living,” a fact that testifies to the difficulty of putting up a house of stone. Even so, in the earliest ones there’s a cellar formed by extending the foundations six feet below grade, and an attic made by building walls up four feet above the room’s ceiling. (Both were crucial, for one stored grain and the other provisions.) Hardly stone heaps, these came to be called “story-and-a-half” houses.

Walls were made of “native limestone available from near-by ridges and low hills, where it lay near the surface and was easy to quarry.” This was mixed with “what they called ‘Field Stone’ . . . rooted out or dropped . . . by the early glaciers” (3). Teller meant no irony, of course, but “easy to quarry” is a relative term. (Hear the sledge hammers ringing.)

Building a wall, stone on stone, was methodically done: “when built in[to] the wall, [the stones] were always laid to rest on their natural base, [the masons] selecting a straight or smoother side to show on outside of wall.” (3) Nothing quick and dirty here.

A cement of lime and sand, with hair as a binder, “was used to point up the outside joints in walls which served to prevent the rains from washing out the clay mortar and saved the building from ruin” (4). Lime was scarce and costly, and so masons used a cruder mortar of clay and straw to hold the inner walls together. No ripping open a bag of insta-mix concrete—back then, it was all home-brew.

Floor beams were logs of oak, flattened on the top side if not all, and “usually peeled of the bark.” Other beams were “squared with the broad axe and adze, a processed called ‘hand-rived’” (4).

Floors were planks of pine or other white wood, “cut with the rip saw which operated by hand up and down” and “hand planed” (4). The boards between the main room and attic were planed on both sides.

You need to say these phrases again: “peeled of the bark,” “squared with the broad axe and adze,” “hand-rived,” “cut with the rip saw . . . by hand up and down.” Sounds positively biblical.

Grooves in the plank edges allowed the planks to be fit closely together (just like the flooring in the house my father build for his family in the 1950s), and the planks were “secured to the beams with hand made wrought iron nails,” if available, or, especially in the early days, wooden pegs. Iron was at such a premium that sometimes a disused frame building would be burned down to recover the nails (4). A hell of a way to recycle.

Every such detail that Teller recounts conveys the forethought, the craft, and the sheer hard work to make a house of stone. As he writes himself, the first settlements were of wood, “as it took considerable labor and time to build [in stone]. . . . The first task was to clear and prepare land for cultivation and provide for living” (1). Then the permanent houses were crafted.

Soon enough, walled villages of stone houses, such as the Stockade built in Kingston after 1658, became necessary to protect against Indian attacks—stone houses becoming, as it were, our continent’s first exercise in “homeland security” (if you ignore the irony that it was the Indians’ homeland and not the Europeans’). Teller explains, “This combination one-room home provided only with cellar and 1st floor entrance and three or four small windows closed with heavy batten doors and shutters was also their fort to protect them” (2).

But after threats subsided, settlers continued to build in stone, up through the early 1800s, so that, as you drive certain old roads “bordering the foothills and edging the broad fertile valley, you come on these picturesque houses near the road and overlooking their fields” (1). Teller’s description is almost fifty years old, and the houses endure still, and endure as residences: most remain in private hands and cannot normally be visited. But we have Teller’s book to give us an x-ray view.

June 15, 2006

English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 10:59 am

English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930
Patricia E. Malcolmson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986. 220 pp.

This is a scholarly study of English laundry women in a time period during which two of my own ancestors washed clothes in America. During these eighty years, Malcolmson says, the occupation changed greatly, from a predominantly manual task to a mechanized one, and from an individual or family enterprise to a more professionalized one. In Britain, the history ultimately dovetails with those of unionization and women’s rights.

The situation of British laundresses must to some extent parallel the washerwoman’s situation in the U.S, especially in the early years. There seems to be no such parallel study of American washerwomen; this book is published by the University of Illinois Press as part of series of studies of labor history, and the author is a health care administrator in Ontario, Canada.

The background chapters (Chapter 1: “Hand Laundry and the Family Economy”; Chapter 2: “Regulating the Trade”) are especially rich in details of the work life and personal life of nineteenth-century laundresses.

For one thing, Malcolmson details the process of doing the linen, demonstrating the arduousness, even the brutality, of the work, as well as defining the craft of what is sometimes considered mindless labor.

The laundress did more than wash. (Perhaps this is one reason why Malcolmson uses laundresses to the exclusion of washerwomenlaundress suggests a person who oversees laundry from soiled bundle to wearable garments, whereas washerwoman conveys just the washing.) Laundresses who worked at home essentially converted their dwellings to a factory for part of the week, for getting the laundry up took days. In fact, the sheer disruptiveness of home washing was precisely why wash was sent out by all who could afford it.

Although we associate laundry with a weekly pattern, by the nineteenth-century it was considered prestigious to own clothing enough to put off laundering for several weeks, again because of the rigmarole it involved. Malcolmson quotes a “well-known chronicle of English rural life” by Flora Thompson in which it is said of the town postmistress in the 1890s that she

kept to the old middle class custom of one huge washing every six weeks. In her girlhood it would have been thought poor looking to have had a weekly or fortnightly washday. The better off a family was, the more changes of linen its members were supposed to possess, and the less frequent the washday (24).

Of course, the “back-breaking aspects of laundry labor” (26) also impelled the more middle-class to hand out the work. Malcolmson writes:

So unpleasant was the task before piped and heated water and domestic appliances eased the burden that paying someone else to do the laundry was a top priority of many households when funds permitted . . .washing entailed a great deal of lifting and carrying, as well as . . . the extraordinarily heavy job of wringing out sodden linen (26).

The four days of laundering were often marathons, beginning predawn and stretching late; if the weather were rainy or the tub must be shared, the process was further elongated. The washing began on Monday, in keeping with the ancient tradition of the weekly cycle.

Beyond explaining how the wash was done, Malcolmson describes who did it.

Since the requisite skills were widespread and the basic equipment was readily acquired, it was a trade often turned to in adversity; indeed, contributing to the purchase of an item of laundry equipment, such as a mangle, was one of the neighborly strategies employed to help a widow support herself and her children (xiii).

The occupation was largely the province of older women, widows—or divorcees—as well as married ones who had income problems. Sometimes their husband’s work was seasonal, such as the building trades (mason, anyone?) or farming, or required absence, such as the army; other times, unemployment, illness or injury, drought or blight, or other conditions—drunkenness, gambling, laziness, irresponsibility—might prevent the husband from adequately supporting the family. Washing combined well with family life, while at the same time rendering it oppressive and complicated. But washerwomen got to keep their children, rather than placing them in orphanages, workhouses, or out as servants (36), and that was a plus, even though family life had to be shared with the ongoing messy sloppy laundry process, and was often brutally distorted by an absent or overworked mother. Malcolmson notes that because so much of this work was done alongside of marriage and family life, in the “background” despite it often being a family’s means of survival, it has gone unreported and unstudied (xiii).

The fact that lower-class physical labor was brutal is hardly news, but Malcolmson elaborates on the context and social effects of women taking on such work.

Marital life, for example, was often disrupted by a woman’s laundry work. Malcolmson writes, “In particular, the importance of a wife’s wage-labor in the family economy must have led inevitably to a blurring and sometimes a reversal of traditional marital roles. Working-class men normally dominated their households: they usually received a disproportionate share of food (often the only meat), clothing, and leisure—an allocation of resources that was justified by the family’s dependence on the man’s labor for their survival.” (39) (Malcolmson references an article by Laura Oren here.)

Malcolm continues, “The literature about the laundry trade is full of allegations from middle-class as well as a few working-class observers that some husbands felt little obligation—at least after they discovered the abundance of the opportunities for laundry work—to ‘take money ‘home’” (39). She cites a proverb from North Kensington, that “the best ironer gets the worst husband”; a clergyman’s comment that “to marry a laundress was a good as a fortune”; and an informant’s comment to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1909 that “it is well known amongst the poor that men move to North Kensington for the purpose of being kept by their wives.” A call for unionization stressed that “no class of women workers supported husbands more than the laundry- women did.” (39) Likewise, she says the men in Bath, Oxford, and Headington Quarry, all laundry centers, were reported to rely on their wives, so that in some places the “laundresses’ husband’ was almost a “recognized profession” (40).

At times, this situation was invoked to plead for higher wages and more human hours so that the lives of children dependent on laundresses would be improved. For others, however, the working wife was considered a cause of male degeneracy and emasculation.

Pragmatically, the necessity of a woman’s employment was part of the poor family’s survival; men and women often split the costs of the household, or spelled each other when work was seasonal or difficult to find. Cases of men assisting in the laundry work were hardly rare, and they often tended children and the house if the mother were not available. This paralleled the situation in which a wife helped out in her husband’s craft: “shoemaker’s wife,” Malcolmson notes, was as much an “occupational as a social designation” (40).

A laundress working at home would, in today’s parlance, be an entrepreneur. As such, she was typically not the delicate Victorian lady. The Royal Commission on Labour reported the comment that laundresses were “the most independent people on the face of the earth.” (As Malcolmson points out in a later chapter, this was not a compliment: women, especially servants, were supposed to be deferential (104).) They were likely to choose their own hours, to seek to work overtime to get more money, and to speak crudely and act assertively. Running a business required more than knowing how to iron a lace collar or having the back for heaving sodden linen about. The author cites the experiences of a laundress’ daughter cited in Kathleen Woodward’s book Jipping Street:

When we got to Mrs. Moody’s in Thames Street, we wedged our feet in the front door lest it be shut in our faces with out the washing money; and our emotions were divided between the agonizing uncertainty of Mrs. Moody’s finances and the inexpressible relief of the day behind us. (41)

Much of the latter half of the book concerns the shift from unregulated handwork to organized industry staffed by organized labor, both overseen by regulatory laws. Other types of factory work were more visible in society and came under regulation first, but by 1895, Malcolmson writes, laws began to encompass the laundry trade in so far as it involved employment of women in professional laundries.

It is the image of the isolated woman performing handwork that is most suggestive to me. Both my washing grandmothers were independents, I believe. My grandma Jennie, I know, was a servant to a “big house” and did all their laundry; whether she took in others’ as well I don’t know. But she worked at home or close to home. And I imagine that Jannette was similar, working on her own, in her home; “being your own boss” is a goal on that side of the family.

This description from Ronald Blythe’s The View in Winter of a servant’s life is heartbreaking:

She used to wash for the big house and all this linen was brought to her cottage in a wheelbarrow. How she used to manage all this washing in her cottage without the use of anything, I don’t know. She had an old brick copper. She said she’d stand up till two in the morning ironing with a box iron. Sixpence an hour she was paid. He husband was away in the army and she washed. (34)


Blythe, Ronald.The View in Winter: Reflections in Old Age. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. 117.

Thompson, Flora Lark Rise to Candleford, London: Reprint Society, 1948. 471.

Oren, Laura. “The Welfare of Women in Labouring Families: England, 1860-1890,” in Mary Hartman and Lois W. Banner, Eds., Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, NY: Harper, 1974. 226-44.

Woodward, Kathleen. Jipping Street: Childhood in a London Slum. London: Harper, 1928. 13.

April 22, 2006

Review: My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 12:18 pm

In this recent novel, a contemporary Irish expatriate travel writer—a character seemingly based on the author—explores her own personal and romantic impasses as she revisits rural Ireland to research a book. Kathleen de Burca’s subject is the historical, albeit minor, “Talbot Affair,” a scandalous case of adultery and divorce in a nineteenth-century Ireland still reeling from the effects of the Famine. Attempting to discover the truth of the case, the narrator embarks on a re-experiencing of the Ireland she abandoned for England as a young woman. This re-engagement of her native land involves a passionate and inappropriate love affair, one that echoes the tragic passion at the core of the Talbot divorce.

The novel is O’Faolain’s third book, following her two autobiographies and preceding her recent non-fiction book about the Irish expatriate and minor international criminal, “Chicago May.” Both later books intertwine the narrative of a historic subject with the personal travails of a solitary female Irish writer who seeks the truth of the matter.

Kathleen of My Dream of You has been so obsessed with passion that she has failed to form any long-term intimate commitments. Now nearing fifty, she finds her main companions in life to be her work colleagues, one a gay and high-spirited American who dies suddenly during the time of the novel, and the other her deeply private, unmarried boss, who by the end has been shattered by the death of his elderly mother and seeks to retreat to the order of Anglican monks of which he has secretly been a member. Kathleen herself is so self-alienated that she lives in a basement apartment in London, in between gadding about the world on a travel writer’s expense account.

Her choice to research “the Talbot affair” allows the novel to expound on both Irish history, specifically the Famine and its effects on the Irish, as well as the meaning of love and the meaning of life. (It is a long novel.) The research takes her to the county of her upbringing, prompting her to delve down, layer after layer, through the crushing and draining events her own life, from her bleak Irish family and rural narrowness to her peripatetic and unbounded personal life to the present emptiness of her life in middle age.

O’Faolain is a seismographically sensitive recorder of nuances in nature and in human interactions, and she writes eloquently of the profound ironies embodied by her main character: Kathleen is shown to be an educated, worldly woman, who has created a new identity for herself that belies the cultural impoverishment of her upbringing, who can quote Rilke and adores Schubert, and who travels the world as lightly as most of us cross a street. Yet she struggles to the end with the debased self-image, the lovelessness, the isolation, that are shown to be endemic in the provincial Irish mileu as a result of centuries of colonization and of the Famine’s devastation. (“It is our Holocaust,” Kathleen comments as, for the first time in her life, she takes a close look at the effects of British policy on the Ireland of the early 1800s.)

Indeed, the Famine, with its dark origins in English land-grabs and mass evictions, is as much a player as background in the scandal of Marianne Talbot’s purported affair with an Irish stable hand. Marianne is revealed as a woman famished for passion despite her marriage to an English lord; his high-toned British emotional rectitude and arrogant, deliberate cruelty converges in his treatment of his wife and of the Irish, a population deemed less than human by the English overlords.

For its portrayal of the Ireland so many abandoned for America, the book is a black treasure, as it records the remnants of a now-ancient crime scene: the British having driven the Irish off their land, sent them into the streets and into earthen burrows, to drinking the blood of sheep they are too weak and helpless to steal, to lingering tortuous death. The remoteness, the dismissive, depressive aura of provincial Irish family life seems to devolve from that era of such struggle and failure. Hope for the future seeps in as O’Faolain shows the current Irish personality to be more expressive, more open, more trusting, than that in the Ireland of her youth.

March 7, 2006

Review: The Ordeal of the Longhouse

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 5:14 pm

The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: UNC, 1992. Daniel K. Richter.

Focusing on the Iroquois, a culture of five tribal groups who lived to the west of the Hudson, this book delves deeply into original texts and documents to provide a detailed history of the interactions of the Iroquois with Europeans from first contact. Author Daniel K. Richter writes that “this is a story of European colonization viewed from the Indian side of the frontier” (viii).

The value of this book for me, as I study the history and culture of the Hudson Valley through the late 1800s, is that it gives such an exhaustive account of how Indians conducted their affairs with the Europeans. Richter notes that many native groups shared cultural perspectives and behaviors with their neighbors, even those of distinct groups. The communal lifestyle; the community-oriented religion; the elaborate rituals of unity; the emphasis on consensus and the reality of independent, even renegade, action; the matrilineal family structure; the gender divisions and the predominance of divorce are all traits that appear to be broader than the Iroquois groups. The book adds dimension to the early colonial world.

The four “ordeals” of the Longhouse people (their name for themselves) were: disease; economic dependence on European trade; involvement in the power struggles of the French versus the Dutch and then the English over territory; becoming overrun as Europeans moved onto and claimed their land.

Richter especially concentrates on a reconstruction of the religious dimensions of Iroquois culture and throughout the history shows how the Iroquois view of death and ceremony affected their interactions with Europeans.

The pre-colonial Iroquois culture embodied values and behaviors quite alien to the European mindset. The religion of the Iroquois was characterized by the vision of a “peacemaker” who offered a new way of dealing with grief that emphasized consolation and ritual rather than war-making, an ideal not always lived. Native religion focused on ceremonies of burial and “requickening,” by which a lost family member was rediscovered in another living person. Often that person was someone captured from another tribe or enemy. The increased fatalities resulting from European contact initiated increased captivity raids. In addition, the adoption of new, more lethal weaponry—metal tipped arrows and then guns—escalated battle mortality and inspired even more captive-seeking. Parallel to the capturing, rituals of torture, execution, and dismemberment also played a part as a communal response to threats and attacks.

A second major component of Iroquois culture was the prominence of what to Europeans were time-consuming ceremonies, endless speechmaking, and rituals of gifting. Possessions created status not by conspicuous consumption but instead by increasing the owners’ ability to give gifts and provide for others. Europeans often ignored the elaborate interactive practices of the pre-literate culture, practices designed to define and inculcate historical knowledge and create unity of understanding as well as group bonds; in doing so, colonists identified themselves as outsiders, boors, and threats.

Village life was communal. Mainly agricultural, the Iroquois built large settlements characterized by the longhouse, in which families lived in compartments along the sides and shared central fires were spaced out along the main axis of the building. Matrilineal families were the norm, with maternal brothers, not husbands, the main male authority.

Richter follows the economic and lifestyle disruptions brought about by European desires for pelts, the importing of European manufactures, and the missionary activities that were often intertwined with politics.

Christianity itself was disruptive; the Christian saga was bizarre to native people, and Indians could not understand why a people whose religion focused so much on sin were themselves so prone to cheat, lie, drink and be all kinds of evil. Most missionaries believed that only some natives were worthy of baptism and that faith had to be accompanied by a change in lifestyle, in everything from clothing to sexual behavior and family structure. Many posited that Indians could only become Christians by relocating from their tribal homes, and missionaries established separate settlements for Christian Indians. In times of warfare, these settlements were safer than other areas and attracted adherents as a result, but the conversion process itself split Indian communities.

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