Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Disturbing Tale

I was searching for information in old newspapers to document the layout and tone of Canton's Miner Street when I came across this story:

From the Potsdam Commercial Advertiser, April 24, 1895
In case you can't read the scanned text, I'll excerpt the important bits.
Parents Should Do as Tom Did, and Nip Wantonness in the Bud. 
Tom Helmer, of Stovepipe avenue, does not believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child: only, he uses his hand instead of a rod. 
On a recent evening his thirteen-year-old daughter Mabel asked permission to go to a show at the Town Hall, saying that she would accompany her aunt. To this the father assented. Along in the evening, however, he found the child on the street accompanied by the notorious Net Cameron. He ordered his girl to go home, and it appears slapped her quite soundly when she failed to comply with his commands. 
This little scene took place on Miner street and was witnessed by Mrs. Charles Bliss. She repaired to the office of Squire C. Y, Fullington and swore out a warrant against Helmer for assault in the third degree. [...] The case was ably prosecuted, but the jury evidently felt that it was better a young girl should suffer severe punishment than to come up on the streets in the company of such persons as the Cameron woman. They found Helmer not guilty.

(The Town Hall in Canton, at the corner of Main and Miner Streets, was also the post office and opera house. Fourth photo on the top row.)

The story illustrates some troubling realities of life - a young teenager possibly being tempted into prostitution, parental outrage and abuse, a legal system that condones hitting your daughter in the street - but it contains some mysteries as well, so I decided to look deeper.

Stovepipe Avenue

"Stovepipe Avenue" doesn't exist on any modern maps, although there are a lot of references to it in contemporary newspapers. These references are all negative - even when it's just given as someone's address, that someone was usually involved in public drunkenness or shooting at the rent collector.

My first thought was that it had been renamed something nicer since then, but then I noticed that other towns also had a Stovepipe Avenue mentioned in the papers, the name sometimes appears in quotation marks, and the surnames associated with Stovepipe Avenue in the 1890s and 1900s can be found on the census on a few streets clustered together at the south end of the village, by the railroad tracks. And suddenly I remembered Emily of New Moon - Perry Miller, the local boy who made good, came from "Stovepipe Town", the poorest neighborhood. It's very probable that Stovepipe Avenue was Canton's shantytown, located around Buck and Dies Streets, next to the railroad bridge over the river and literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

(In the 1900 census, Mabel Helmer was listed as still living at home with her parents on Dies St., working as a servant in the hotel. She married William H. Green of Oswegatchie in 1905.)

Disorderly Women

Prostitution was in no way a problem confined to cities - charges brought against "disorderly women" were reported in St. Lawrence County newspapers over and over.

A similar story played out with the Graham family, also of Stovepipe Avenue. In 1894, Gilbert "Weary Gib" Graham was sentenced to jail for public drunkenness, and while he was confined there his wife ran away to Syracuse with George Cameron, probably a relative of Net's. They brought young Rosa Graham with them, but she came back sometime later on her own and started "running around the streets with one of the notorious Cameron sisters" until she was arrested for being a "disorderly character". A year later, her father entered a complaint against her and had her arrested for the same reason. The charge was dropped when she married Charlie Cameron a couple of days later, who was probably related to George and Net. That's a little hair-raising itself, implying that her father didn't care about her being a prostitute as long as she was a married one. (On the same page as the second part of the story, Gib was also mentioned in connection with a street brawl. From later papers we know he lived in the county almshouse for a time and eventually drowned in the river. Here's his gravestone.)

Nettie Cameron's base of operations was apparently a lodging house on Water Street (now Riverside) run by William Henry Daniels, opposite a legitimate and reputable hotel - interestingly, he seems to have been or become a prominent member of society, as a member of the state Dairymen's Association, president of the county fair, and a player in local politics. Two other girls working there were Gertie Ward and Minnie Bush.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #4: Gender Bender

The Challenge: #4, Gender Bender. I know what you're thinking, but if we go back a few decades drawers were really controversial for women - they simply didn't wear bifurcated garments. So even though I'm not aware of the attitude that drawers were inherently gender-bending still existing in the middle of the nineteenth century, I'm counting it because I really need drawers for my presentation.

Fabric/Materials: White Pimatex cotton from Dharma Trading Co. at $6.79/yd. I'm not sure of exactly how many yards I ended up using - after making my chemise, there was only enough left for one leg, so I bought two more yards and didn't use all of that. I think it's probably about two yards in total?

Pattern: From the drafting instructions by Liz Clark on the Sewing Academy Compendium. I was going to get out a pair in the collection and pattern them and base mine off that, but then I realized that that made no sense. The instructions are very clear and simple and I recommend them.

Year: These could work for a good portion of the century, stylistically, from the 1840s (at least? I don't know much about 1820s-1830s drawers) through the 1880s and into the beginning of the 1890s, until sheerer cottons and lace and ribbons started to become a big part of lingerie. Although there are certain decorative trends you see changing through the years - cutwork in the 1850s, handmachine whitework in the 1870s, etc. - they can basically work for a broad swath of time.

Notions: They will have a button at the center front, but I really need to move on and get cracking on the corset for the current challenge.

How historically accurate is it? As usual, I'm aiming for high accuracy! The end result looks exactly like extant drawers I've handled in museum collections, although my tucks are maybe a little bigger. Next time I do any tucked underthings, I'm going to aim for 3/8" instead of 1/2", and I should have done the gathers by hand instead of by machine (both for accuracy and, because I have a Tension Problem, the fabric was really hard to gather after doing the two lines of stitching). But if I didn't have confidence that this long-legged diaper was historically accurate, would I show you how completely unflattering it is?

Hours to complete: I should just stop keeping this line in my posts, because I will never remember to keep track of my time. I think I worked on it on about five non-consecutive days.

First worn: July 30-31, 2016 - Civil War Weekend

Total cost: Roughly $13.58.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nostalgia for the Ordinary

This past month, my director was out on medical leave and I was technically acting director, if only in my mind. (To people walking through the door, I was still "probably the receptionist".) This led to my having to write down notes to remember to ask the director about when she came back, and the writing led to more ideas. Like ideas for exhibitions!

Last month we also had a children's program on one-room schools, with a guest speaker who actually put the kids through their paces in writing and arithmetic. It was so popular! Making the past personal helps everyone connect to it. So what about an exhibition looking into the inhabitants of an ordinary street in a St. Lawrence County village?

In order to tie this to Remington for the Remington Arts Festival, the street I chose in 1900 housed both a paternal uncle's family and a maternal uncle's family. The census doesn't list street numbers, though! So I've been on a quest to both research about ten households on Miner St. and to figure out how these families were configured geographically. Using a spreadsheet, all the censuses available from 1880 to 1930, deed grantor/grantee indexes, and some fire insurance maps from 1898 and 1905, I have a pretty good idea. At least roughly.

Miner Street in 1864
What this has really brought home to me - as so many things do, working in a museum - is how many ordinary things have been lost to history. "Daily life" in a general way gets a lot of press, but specific aspects of daily life aren't usually of broad interest. I don't just want to know how people shopped in the late 19th century, I want to know where people in Canton bought groceries in 1890, and who worked the counter. I want to know how the Ellsworth shoe store was laid out. I want to know what it was like to walk along that particular main street between the American House and Hodskin House, the two hotels in town (now the site of the American Theater and the post office, and an H&R Block and a Family Dollar, respectively). And I can't! I mean, I could find out where Cantonites bought groceries, but it's impossible to understand what it was like to experience life in the past. You can do an immersion reenactment with no spectators at a contained site, but even if you could fill a larger site with progressive reenactors and close it off for a week, you'd still be a modern person, without the mindset, prejudices, and background knowledge that a person of the past would have had.

(A good example of this kind of lost background knowledge - lost to Americans, anyway - is highlighted in C.S. Lewis’ Greatest Fiction: Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight. There's also the pop culture references in the original lyrics of songs like "Anything Goes," and so much about the Galerie des Modes plates.)

Most people disparage nostalgia for a time that you don't actually remember. They say it can only come from romanticizing away the boring or dirty parts of the past and imagining yourself as a rich person. Midnight in Paris says that people have always had this nostalgia, even when they lived in the time you feel it for, so what's the point? And to be fair, the word "nostalgia" does imply a rosy view, as it's meant to be applied to the things you miss from home - anemoia is a neologism created to express never-been-there nostalgia - so maybe I shouldn't use it for this, but I think a lot of people would apply it to the feeling I'm struggling to describe that I had when I finally put together a workable map of Miner Street and short biographies of the families who lived on it.

Miner Street in 1900 ... probably
The people who lived on the east side of the street generally owned their homes, and lived there for decades - the Sackriders, the Champlins, the Gaineses. Their occupations and ancestors were fairly well documented by their obituaries, even if their personalities tended to be described only in clichés. (Men were upstanding, responsible citizens; women were good neighbors and gracious hostesses.) People on the west side along the river rented, and almost all were transient. They did blue collar work, and their death notices were short or non-existent. Ada Merriman rented no. 27 for a short period of time around 1900 while her daughter Lelia taught school and her son Leslie attended St. Lawrence University, but before and after that she drops from the record. She wasn't a local - she apparently came from and went back to Pennsylvania. She wasn't from one of the earliest families to settle Canton, and she didn't sit on the board of the bank. By many standards, she - and Nelson Brown the boatmaker, and Celestia Squires the servant, and Clara Bragdon the dressmaker - was not important.

But like the Doctor, I've never met anyone who wasn't important before. So I hope that with this exhibition I can bring all of these people back to life in a small way.