Wednesday, July 25, 2012

That Sinking Feeling: Victorian Kitchens

When my family moved into an 1885 urban Queen Anne house in 1976, probably the most depressing rooms were the kitchen and its adjoining summer kitchen.  The original cabinets and wainscoting were intact, but painted.  A rusting Homart sink had replaced the original sink; a 1950s electric range and refrigerator were modern additions.  The 10-foot ceiling had been lowered, covered with waterstained sheet-rock.

Shortly after we moved in, we were sitting in the kitchen with a couple of friends, bemoaning the deplorable state of the room.  After about 20 minutes of discussion, we all agreed that it was time to take action.  Fetching hammers, sledgehammer, and crowbar from the cellar, we went at the false ceiling, bringing most of it down that evening.

In the decades that passed since that night, the kitchen has been updated with a gas range, refrigerator, fruitwood sink cabinet, and tile floor.  However, the original heart pine cabinets and wainscoting have stayed--stripped of paint, coated with shellac.  The original ceiling was repaired and repainted.  This is not the usual scenario for rehabbing an old kitchen.  I know that from experience.  The first thing most new owners--especially ones with lots of money-- do when they acquire a Victorian house is to gut the kitchen and replace it with a contemporary one.
My 1885 kitchen as it appears today.  The appliances, table, and sink cabinets are modern, but the room layout is similar to what it was in 1885.  Note the cabinet (left) built into the chimney that accommodated the cook stove.
I have no objection to this practice, although it's not what I have chosen. What does get my blood boiling are decorators who advertise that they'll design a "Victorian kitchen" for you.  Case in point--a blog I found about such a redesign:
According the blogger, Helen Creen, this is a true "Victorian" kitchen. Yikes, Helen! You apparently have never actually looked an unaltered 19th-century kitchen.  For one, they never, ever, would have hung crystal chandeliers there.  For two and three, there would have been a free-standing table, with simple chairs.  The kitchen was a work area, where housewives or servants labored away, a room often infested with bugs and other vermin.  In Britain, it was the place where lower-order servants slept. 

In doing research for Darkness Visible, I found that, as in my house, the standard urban 1890's kitchen was fitted out with a sink, cook stove, large table, chairs, and shelves and racks for pots, pans, mixing bowls, cooking implements and utensils. To make cleaning easier, the wooden floor was covered with a linoleum "rug".  Food was stored in a separate adjacent area, the pantry.  The ice box would be in the kitchen, or perhaps, in larger homes, built into the back wall so it could be filled from the outside.
A typical freestanding ice box, the only kind of refrigeration available in Victorian kitchens.  When I was a kid, people frequently called refrigerators "ice boxes," a reminder of the days when the iceman cometh.
The cook stove in the 1890's Woodruff House kitchen in New Jersey.  It took lots of experience and skill to cook and bake on one of these stoves.  No timer and thermostat, no piped-in fuel, no instant flame adjustment. The dishwasher was a woman, not a machine.
Working- and lower-middle-class women would have spent much of their day in the kitchen, cooking, baking, ironing, washing up, doing laundry. Affluent middle-class homes would have cooks and maids doing this work.

In the summer, cooking was often moved to a nearby or adjacent structure called a "summer kitchen."  This was a practice going back to colonial times, when during warm weather, the hot stuff was removed from the living quarters.  My house has a summer kitchen, common for 1880's houses in Minneapolis.  When we acquired the house, it was in its original state. Built onto the back of the house, it was uninsulated, with a limestone foundation and dirt crawl space. An outlet for the smaller summer cook stove exhaust pipe was cut into the chimney that served the kitchen proper. A two-landing staircase on the north wall led to a loft with a doorway to the second-floor hallway--the way the servants got from their quarters on the third floor to the kitchen, cellar, and barn.  In the northwest corner was a closet that had originally been a servants' privy. (You don't want the hired help using the indoor bathroom, do you?)  Doors were placed on the south and west walls, and the area had only three small windows.According to the woman whose parents owned the house from 1912 until 1942, the room had held bins and cabinets for food storage. Truth to be told, it was a dark, nasty place covered with a century of dust and grime that was impossible to remove completely.

The summer kitchen at the Mennonite museum in Manitoba.  The counter, glass wall, and coffee urn obviously are newer, but the photo gives a good idea what a summer kitchen looked like.

So, in 1996, the summer kitchen was transformed into what I call "the Outback", a room built under the original roof, with the same wall configuration.  The privy was replaced with a modern bathroom (with the old privy door), and the stairway was removed. (No need for servants to get down that way now.)

Workers' houses in 1890's Homestead, as far as I can tell, did not usually have summer kitchens.  They would have been more common in fancier houses on larger lots.

As the owner of a Victorian house, I understand why it's necessary to make alterations to old kitchens.  But please, don't say that your contemporary kitchen is "Victorian"--unless you want to use the word to emphasize the excessive, overwrought, and tasteless aspects of 19th-century decor found so frequently in these  pseudo-historic remuddlings.

Believe me, you would not want to eat and cook in a real, authentic Victorian kitchen.
A state-of-the-art 1890's kitchen sink in a Vermont museum house.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fashion Victims, 1890's Style

    With this terrible heat wave afflicting most of the nation, my thoughts have turned to what it was like for people to survive hot summer days in the 1890s.  There were no electric fans, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration.  On top of that, both men and women wore clothing that completely covered the body.  If someone were to walk down the streets of an American town in the 1890s wearing a modern tank top and shorts, s/he would promptly be arrested for indecent exposure.  Even women's bathing suits were actually dresses, often made of wool, with sleeves to the elbow and hemlines below the knee.  When wet, these suits weighed nearly 10 pounds.  The pull of gravity on the heavy garment could produce embarrassing exposure for Victorian swimmers.
This studio photo from the 1890s shows a couple in beachwear.  Note that the woman is wearing stockings.
        In researching period clothing for Darkness Visible, I turned to Ed Gleeman, costume designer extraordinaire for Bloomington Civic Theater.  He loaned me some books showing what men and women of various occupations and social levels wore in the 1890s.  I used the pictures in these books, plus images of  Victorian dresses from the Internet to describe the clothing of Sarah and Carrie and other characters.
      Ironically, the clothing of poor and working-class women was probably more comfortable in the heat than that of middle- and upper-class women.  The latter were required, for appearance's sake, to don various foundation garments, then finish them off with frocks fitted out with stays, buttons and hooks.  The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate--and probably more uncomfortable--the dress.
     Underneath their frocks, fashionable women of the time wore a number of foundation garments.  They did not use modern bras and underpants, but rather chemises and bloomers topped with corsets or cinch belts. Over these went petticoats, garter belts, and stockings.
An illustration of a corset from an 1890 catalog.
Needless to say, just getting dressed was an ordeal for these women, requiring the assistance of servants or family members.  As anyone who has read the description of Scarlett O'Hara's sartorial trials in Gone with the Wind knows, Victorians admired hourglass figures with diminutive "wasp waists".
     Cinching up the fashion victim to produce such an effect was often quite a chore, involving much pulling and straining on the corset strings. Once the lady had the corset on, she had to be careful not to eat or exert herself too much for fear of fainting. This crazy practice of midriff-squeezing frequently caused not only discomfort, but serious internal injury.
     Much has been made of the difficulties in undressing Victorian women for sexual liaisons.  Bodice-ripping, however, would have been for naught, as the man would have discovered much more fabric and hardware underneath.    
     In the 1880s bustles were all the rage, with short trains.  Around 1890 the bustle started to shrink, eventually disappearing by the turn of the century. The bustle was replaced by burgeoning sleeve sizes. By 1895 the huge leg-o-mutton sleeve had become standard on bodices, even for daily wear.  These puffy, gigantic upper sleeves stayed in vogue into the 20th century.
Images of 1890 evening attire: A black silk and pink velvet jet-beaded bodice and skirt sold on Ebay in May for $150. The back of the dress isn't shown, but it is likely that there is no bustle. 
     If you were a woman in the highest circles of society, you could wear ball gowns that exposed much of your arms.  But then, you would have to cover up much of them with dress gloves.  The middle-class characters in Darkness Visible would have worn more discreet dresses to dinner parties, ones with long sleeves.
Photo of an evening dress by Herbert Luey, c. 1890. Note the high neck and long sleeves--and the sumptuous fabric and elegant detailing.  This designer dress would have been owned by a wealthy society lady.
     A quick glance at the photos of actual dresses from this period is ample proof that women then did not dress for comfort.  During warm weather, the misery involved in wearing all these layers of clothing--very tight clothing--undoubtedly increased.  No wonder ladies carried around hand-fans in the summertime.
     It wasn't until the Roaring 'Twenties that women were liberated from constrictive garments.  We can thank the Flapper, with her short bob, raised hemline, and natural waistline, for setting the fashion trends of the 20th century.  It should come as no surprise that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that gave women the vote, was ratified in 1920.* 
     Women today have a choice over whether they become fashion victims or not.  One hundred years ago, they did not.
1920's Flappers living dangerously on the roof of a New York skyscraper.
*The State of Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984, sixty-four years after the law was enacted nationally.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

After the Battle Ended

     One hundred twenty years ago, around 3 o'clock on the morning of July 6th, striking workers at the Homestead Works of Carnegie Steel, on the watch downriver from the mill, spied two large barges being hauled upstream by a single tug boat.  They spread the word by telegraph, steam whistle, and horse messenger.  By the time the barges reached the landing site at the Works two hours later, thousands of townspeople stood on the steep banks of the Monongahela River, determined to stop whomever--scabs or guards--from entering the mill.
     The workers did stop the Pinkerton guards on board from disembarking--the only time in American labor history that the workers held off militia during a confrontation.  But it took a ten-hour running gun battle to do so, ending with the deaths of nine strikers and seven Pinkerton guards (The exact number is disputed, but the total surely exceeded these numbers on both sides).
The battle as illustrated in the  National Police Gazette, July 23, 1892
     Most accounts of the 1892 Homestead Strike cover the events of 1892-93, but do not go into what happened to the town in the long run--except to say that the company successfully stopped union organizing in the steel industry for nearly 40 years. (A notable exception is William Serrin's 1993 work, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, which traces the history of the town up to the closing of the Works).  When Hamlin Garland visited Homestead in 1893, he found the town "squalid and unlovely," a casualty of the failure of the strike and the so-called Panic which had plunged the US into a severe depression.
     Nevertheless, some former strikers who were blacklisted from steelmaking  managed to find work and remain in town.  The descendants of two of these strikers are the Debolt family, which still operates a bus company out of Homestead, and my cousin Grace Jack Krepps.  In fact, Grace and her brother Ronnie are some of the few people who can say they had grandfathers on both sides of the Strike--Jack (striker) and Busch (replacement worker).
       Grace told me that after her Grandfather Jack lost his job in the Works, he found another at the Homestead water works.  He didn't want to have anything to do with steel making, but he did not stop his son David, Grace's father, from taking work in the mill.  Dave Jack became a roller, a skilled worker who shaped hot steel into finished products.
A rolling mill crew from the Homestead Works, 1906 (photo from Gaughan collection, U of Pittsburgh)
    During my first visit to New York City in 1955, my parents took me on a visit to the Empire State Building.  "Your Uncle Dave rolled the beams used to the build this," Dad said, pointing upward.  At that time, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, an engineering marvel that is still admired today.  I accepted Dad's word on faith, but found corroboration of this claim via a TV documentary about the construction of the building (1930-31).  The beams were on rush order from the Homestead Works, rolled in the structural mill and placed on fast freight trains headed for New York.  The delivery was so speedy that often the beams were still warm from rolling when they arrived at the building site.
The famous photo of a high-steel crew resting on one of the beams used to construct the Empire State Building. This is not Photoshopped.  The workers are hundreds of feet up, with no safety net or ropes. The death toll during the construction phase was one fatality per floor, with a total of over 100.
     Despite these success stories, however, the large majority of 1892 strikers were not re-hired and forced to look for work elsewhere, in another industry.  For example, John McLuckie, the former Homestead burgess and strike leader, wandered out West, eventually finding work as a foreman for the Sonoma Railroad in Mexico.  Who knows what happened to hundreds of other outcasts from the mill who left town, never to return?
       The descendents of those who replaced the strikers--myself included--understandably did not dwell on this aspect.  Everyone, unionist or scab, got the message of the strike's outcome:  Don't mess with H.C Frick and Carnegie Steel, for you will lose.  In those days, as now, property rights were held sacred in the United States.  Those who own the property can rely on the government at all levels-- local, state, and federal-- to send in troops to "restore order" in labor disputes, as they have countless times before and after the 1892 strike.
Federal troops fighting striking workers during the violent Railroad Strike of 1877.  Over a hundred people died, but the outcome was the same as with all 19th century strikes:  a victory for the company.
      The English critic and reformer John Ruskin, writing 42 years before the strike, observed: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.” (Pre-Raphaelitism, 1850)  By this yardstick, very few, if any, workers in the Homestead Works before or after the strike could have been happy.
     When those thousands of strikers and townspeople rushed down to the river to stop the Pinkertons in the early morning hours of July 6, 1892, they thought they were waging a just war against the company.  Whether or not their cause was seen as just depended on the point of view of the observer.
     Yet the fact remains that in entering into battle with the company-hired Pinkertons, the workers of Homestead did an amazing, unique feat: the defeat of a trained, armed militia by a motley assemblage of workers.  For that, the name Homestead will always have a special place in American history.
The fortified Homestead Works aka "Fort Frick."  In the weeks before the battle the company erected a fence around the entire mill site.  During the battle, the workers broke through the fence, but mended it the next day, naively assuming that they would soon be returning to work.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor. Not!

The Statue of Liberty, who lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door, aka the New York City Harbor, is famous world-wide as symbol of Freedom and of the United States itself. The statue, a gift to the US from the people of France, has stood on Liberty Island, just a short distance from Ellis Island, since its dedication in October of 1886.  Lady Liberty was introduced with great fanfare, including a parade and speeches by dignitaries, including President Cleveland. Some estimates put the size of the crowd assembled around the harbor at nearly one million.

A bronze plaque bearing the lines of Emma Lazarus's 1883 sonnet, "The New Colossus," was mounted inside the lower level of the statue in 1903.
However, not everybody was participating in the jubilation surrounding the dedication of this icon of Libertas, the Roman Goddess of freedom.  An op-ed piece in the Cleveland-Gazette, an African-American newspaper, blasted away at the government's failure to support the civil liberties of black citizens:

"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.
Eastern European immigrants arriving in New York Harbor.
On the other hand, for very different reasons than the Gazette gave, the US government had already begun regulating who could enter the US.  In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislation to prohibit free entry to a particular group. (The act was renewed in 1892 and 1902).  The motivation for this act was spawned by the large influx of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855)   After the Civil War the building of the Transcontinental Railroads brought another flood of Chinese immigration to provide more cheap labor.  By the 1880s the Chinese in California were being blamed for a number of problems, most notably for unemployment among whites.

This Act was the first in the series of moves designed to control the admission and freedoms given new immigrants. For example, in 1887 Henry F.Bowers founded the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic group. Its aim was to "protect" white Midwesterners from the latest immigrant groups from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The fear and prejudice directed at these groups was well illustrated in 1891 by the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants (who had just been acquitted of a murder charge) by several upstanding citizens in New Orleans.

On January 1, 1892, the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in New York harbor to accommodate the masses of immigrants pouring into the U.S. from Europe. (The peak year 1907 saw more than one million arrivals pass through its doors.) During the period 1880-1930 immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy outnumbered the immigrants from Anglophone countries more than 3 to 1. Some of these new immigrants (including my grandfather, Anton Katilius, from Lithuania)  found their way to Homestead.  
A boatload of a number of the "huddled masses" headed for Ellis Island.
 At the time of the Strike, Slovak workers constituted a large portion of the unskilled workforce in the Works.  Although they initially supported the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Association in the strike, by its conclusion in November, many of the Eastern European workers returned to their low-wage jobs. while the AA members and higher-paid workers were shut out by the company.

As in every industry from railroad building to steelmaking to mining, although initially these immigrants were welcomed--and often offered incentives--by the companies they worked for, inevitably the two forces would come to blows.  As the newer immigrants assimilated, they became ambitious for better pay and working conditions, and so began organizing.  The companies would crush them or shut them out, starting a new turn in the endless cycle in  American industry's quest for cheap labor.
A newly-arrived immigrant family gazes at Lady Liberty from Ellis Island.
The period of great European immigration saw continued strife between older immigrant groups and new arrivals.  If any in the former group couldn't find work, they would blame the recent immigrants for taking their jobs.  Each immigrant group has tried to slam shut the Golden Door behind them as they passed through--as of course is continuing today in the numerous efforts to control and.choke off immigration from Latin American countries.  Latino workers are the most recent in a long line of immigrant groups exploited in low-wage jobs, then vilified when they try to break into better-paying ones.

As the strikers at the Homestead Works found out in 1892, economic hard times significantly reduce the power of the workers: The number of workers exceeds the number of available jobs. Companies argue that they need concessions by the workers to keep afloat.  The wealthiest have control not only over the nation's workers, but over legislatures, courts, banks, and police. The rich get richer while all the rest get poorer.

As I showed in a previous blog post, the economic situation today in the US eerily parallels the  conditions following the Panic of 1893, with similar causes and results. Let me therefore conclude with one of the many charts available on the Net showing the gross inequality in distribution of wealth in the US today:
 Who's responsible for this shocking disparity between the Rich and the Rest of Us?  Believe me, it ain't the Mexicans.