Thursday, August 22, 2019

Harvesting History in a New Field

Time for a pop quiz!


Can you identify this item? Here is a hint. It is a trick question.

It is literally the kind of thing you might find on the wall at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.


Most of us today have very little understanding of what it is, how it works or how it ties to our local historical landscape and artistic tradition. In this setting it is an obscure part of the jumbled decorative furnishings relegated to the background. However, the item takes center stage in this painting by Winslow Homer completed in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.


The painting, with the intriguing title Veteran in a New Field, can now be found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For more on this painting see this link.

This painting conceals a one hundred fifty-four year old controversy about the object the farmer is holding in his hand and the crop he is harvesting. It also serves as a key to unraveling an ongoing mystery and a deep misunderstanding by art historians about our local landscape and its relation to larger trends of American art. The fact is that without this tool we would not have most of the so-called Hudson River School landscape paintings, many of which actually feature Conway and the White Mountains - the twenty-seven towns covered by the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Most scholars discussing this image have explored its symbolic meanings, ranging from Isaiah 2:4 in the Bible, to the Roman legend of Cincinnatus, to George Washington's retirement, to the ancient image of the grim reaper and the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Instead, I focus on the actual activity and artifacts depicted. I would argue that new fields of study (crop identification and farm tool forensics) should be added to the curriculum at all art history programs. In fact, I would be happy to teach that class. Art history students are trained to distinguish between a Van Gogh and a Vermeer by studying a single square inch of paint on a canvas, but they often can't tell a depiction of hay versus grain in a scene showing a hundred acres of land.

So, our first question is what crop is being harvested here? The answer can be seen in the the color, character, and shape of the crop.



It is pretty clear that it is a grain, probably wheat, which is harvested when its large distinctive seed heads have matured to a golden brown, not hay which is cut when green.

The paradox is that the single-bladed scythe seen in the painting is for cutting hay, not grain. This was actually noted by a critic in 1865, the same year the painting was first displayed. The reviewer, quoted on page 434 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalog, questioned the accuracy of the painting and made the point that “...is is with a cradle, and not with a scythe alone, that he should attack standing grain.” You can read this book online or even download a pdf copy of it from their website here.

Mistaking the hay harvest for a grain harvest is all too common in art history. There is an interesting essay about some of the mistakes or “missed stacks” found on the website "Hay in Art" at this link here. This fantastic website includes almost seven thousand examples of hay in art and places hay into a larger historical and geographical context.

While the tool should tell us, in this case it conveys a confusing message. Part of the problem is the way Homer depicted the harvesting tool. At first glance, this looks like a hay scythe with a single blade implying the crop is hay.


However, a closer look reveals a "ghost like" image of a cradle made of five wooden "fingers" attached to the scythe. Cradle scythes were used to harvest grain. Here is what a cradle scythe should look like.


The single metal blade cuts the stalks of the grain while the with wooden "fingers" cradle the cut grain so it may be carefully laid into piles so as not to dislodge the precious seed heads thereby prematurely separating the wheat from the chaff.


This leads us to our second question. Why does the cradle appear in such a haunting and obscured manner? Was the cradle added to the painting after it was first displayed as a response to that criticism as some argue, or was it original to the painting and removed by being painted over to enhance its aesthetic and symbolic power as others argue?

I have reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the hope that their scientific analysis can help clarify and confirm which option is correct. It is hard to tell from the pictures in the books. I will update this blog when I find out.

The Met catalog cited above was published in 1985 and explains on p. 434 that Homer "...provided the harvester's scythe with a cradle" indicating that he added it in as an attempt to make it more accurate and to match the crop depicted. Perhaps the paint has faded since then? There are some paint pigments known as "fugitive colors" that over time when exposed to sunlight, humidity or temperature changes can make the paint almost disappear. Did this happen here?

Ten years later, in 1995, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Franklin Kelly took the opposite stance and argued that Homer intentionally painted the cradle out to make the image more symbolic (p. 24). They argue that the "...pigment that has become transparent over time reveals the cradled scythe that Homer deleted." You can check this book out from the Conway Public Library. 

They reasoned on the next page Homer "... saw, or soon concluded, that the image of the harvesting veteran could express something very much greater if he did not insist on the fact of agricultural technology: by the single-bladed scythe he made the veteran into a symbol of Death the reaper. And, by invoking an image that reminds us that the veteran peacefully harvesting grain was not very long before, in a familiar metaphor of war, a harvester of men. Homer charges his painting with vibrances of meaning that fact alone could not possibly convey."

Also in 1995 Nancy Rash wrote a "A Note on Winslow Homer's "Veteran in a New Field" and Union Victory" in the periodical American Art (Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 88-93). You can access it at this website.

She agrees (p. 88) that the cradle was painted over and states that the cradle is "... today visible in pentimenti, rather than the simple scythe Homer decided on in the end” suggesting that he painted over it removing the cradle to emphasize only the single metal blade.

Pentimenti can be defined as a visible trace of an earlier image beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. It indicates that the artist has changed their mind and painted over an earlier version of the image. The word comes from the Italian for repentance, from the verb pentirsi, meaning to repent.

Personally, I also think whether the cradle was painted in or painted out, whether it is an example of fugitive colors or pentimenti, I feel that the single-bladed scythe makes the composition and color arrangement stronger, simpler and more balanced. However, the tool still does not match the crop being harvested as seen today.   

Rash's artical also leads us to our third question when she mentions on the same page the the wheat crop that year was "... abundant enough to demand an up-to-date cradle scythe." Rash is not clear on where she got her info about the scythe not being “up-to-date.”

Our third question is about the chronology, possible evolution and relationship of the hay scythe and the cradle scythe. A number of sources in addition to Rash suggest that the single blade scythe was replaced by the cradle scythe in an example of technological evolution and that the single blade scythe was old-fashioned or obsolete in 1865.

A Met website refers to the tool as "old-fashioned" at this link here.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Franklin Kelly said that "Homer knew just as well as his critic did that by the 1860s a cradled scythe would have been used to harvest a large field of grain; that, after all, is what he originally depicted."

In John Casey, Jr's book New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture (published in 2015 and available to read online here) on p. 53  states that “Art historian Mark Simpson notes in his analysis of the image that Homer had originally given the veteran a cradle scythe, a multi-bladed cutting implement that would have allowed him to collect the cut grain into sheaves rather than leaving it in a pile at this feet. At some point in the composition process, however, Homer decided to paint over the extra blades on the scythe, burying the veteran in a pile of grain. This decision on the part of the artist to turn away from strict fidelity to agricultural practices at the time reminds us that the painting is meant to be symbolic. Homer is less interested in the process used to harvest wheat in 1865 than he is in the fate of this representative man. Standing alone in a generic field of grain, the veteran in Homer’s composition embodies the thousands of other former soldiers coming home from war and searching for work.”

Based on an analysis of prints and books on farm tool history, I argue that it is not a question of chronology or evolution but rather form and function. My understanding is that the different types of scythes were simply tools for different crops. In a future blog we will explore more about the difference between these tools and crops.

In the mean time, please let me know what you think. For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Make hay as they say...

... while the sun still shines. It's about time and timing.


 Intervale, North Conway by Benjamin Champney, 1852.
Courtesy, Woburn Public Library, Woburn MA

It is with deep appreciation to Tom Doyle, Archivist, Dr. Thomas J. Glennon Archives and the Trustees of the Woburn Public Library, Woburn MA for allowing us to use this image (see this link). 


... and time is running out for summer. While subtle, there are signs that summer is starting to fade. Metaphorically, the shadow of autumn is creeping in from the right of this painting. Note the tree at the left showing just a tinge of fall color (click on images to enlarge them).

We can notice the change of seasons first in small patches in environmentally stressed areas such as this where erosion allows nutrients to leach out of this naturally thin and rocky soil depicted so well here by Benjamin Champney. This area has been additionally impacted by a dugway road that leads down into the more fertile intervale. Now we are seeing bits of fall color around the edges of the swamps and this will soon progress into our annual full blown magnificent crown of purple, red, yellow and gold.

Note also the hints of the now blooming goldenrod at the bottom corners of the painting. Plant identification can be a useful forensic tool for art historians to trace time. You may also enjoy the seasonally specific flowers of mullein and clover in Albert Bierstadt's Moat Mountain, Intervale, New Hampshire, c. 1862 at the Currier Museum (see this link). This is a great painting to compare to Champney's Intervale above and to a photo by the Bierstadt brothers at the Currier as well here.

Telling time can be challenging. The almanac tells us that there are 38 days until autumn begins. New Hampshire played a key role in publishing almanacs (The Old Farmer's Almanac in Dublin and Dudley Leavitt in Meredith). According to archaeoastronomy these almanacs played the same function as Stonehenge, New Grange, Mayan temples and the Pyramids. They told us when to plant and when to pick, the phases of the moon, and when to celebrate the seasons. Paper replaced stone and now you can get all this information on your phone.

While the sun and stars tell us one thing, television tells us something different. Astronomically summer started in June and continues into September. However, television commercials tell us summer is over by marketing back to school sales and fall fashions. It won't be long before we see displays for Halloween in the stores. The tourist chamber promotes summer from Memorial Day in May through Labor Day. Which drum do we march to? Money or the stars?

Much of our philosophical and religious ideas about eternity may come from the cyclical nature of farming - seeds to flower to fruit to seed again. For farmers in the Mount Washington Valley this was, and is, time for rowen. This is the second cut or second crop of hay in one season.

Now that we have looked at nature and time, and the nature of time, let's look at technology and evolution.

I considered giving this blog the dramatic evocative title "Conway Windrows Found in Woburn" evoking a "breaking news" kind of vibe.

We introduced windrows in a previous blog here. We looked at each step of horse powered haying. Now we are harkening back to an earlier phase. This painting offers an encyclopedic look at hand powered hay techniques.

The closest you can easily get to this view today (without trespassing) is from the Intervale Scenic Vista. See this map and this street view here showing the matching profile of the mountains. However, since most haying has stopped in the fields, the trees have grown up and you can't see the fields as well today.

Here is a detail from this painting (click on images to enlarge them).



This small detail of the small painting (18 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches) depicts four hay wagons and twenty people working in the fields. When we arrive on the scene, the hay has already been cut and dried and raked into windrows (more on cutting hay later in a future blog).

Towards the left you can see two men using hay rakes to pile up the windrows into rounded domes called hay cocks.


Notice the hay cocks are about knee high and the hay is green. These tips will come in handy later when we explore harvesting of other crops in a future blog.

In another section of the painting to the right six men work around an empty wagon. The wagon tongue points to the right and the oxen are to the left. Perhaps they are tethered or hobbled so they can graze while waiting to work.


On the right foreground at the edge of the shadow you can see a team of three men working around a hay wagon and a fourth raking up the last of a windrow.


The person by the hay cock is using a pitchfork to throw a "jag" of loose hay to the top of the wagon where another person carefully loads it. It was a real art to load a wagon.

In the front a teamster uses voice commands and a goad to work the oxen when needed. Oxen were more common during this time than horses.

Other than the oxen, all the work here was done with manpower. As time went on manpower was replaced by horse powered machines and then by today's tractor powered equipment. While the power source and tools changed, haying is still the same process.

I leave you with this mysterious painting by Winslow Homer intriguing title Veteran in a New Field.


We will look at the controversy over the thing he is holding in his hand that has raged in art history circles since it was painted in 1865. Start preparing our next lesson by reading at this link.

For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Conway's Gold Factory

In New England, local native sweet corn is a midsummer harvest that just recently showed up at our roadside markets. But this fresh corn only lasts for a few weeks or so when it matures without freezing or refrigeration. How was this summer bounty preserved in the past? 


One answer was to "can" it. The idea of canning food started with stoneware crocks.



The idea was to try to get the food items hermetically sealed. For an interesting tangent on the mystical linguistic origins of that term see this link here.

Later specialized glass containers became more popular. The Mason jar was patented in 1858.


Tin was another option for canning corn. More on this later.


Did you know that Conway once had a factory for canning corn? (click on images to enlarge them).



This photo from the collection of the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room shows the building with the workers posing outside. According to David Emerson's book The Conways p. 59, it was owned by the Baxters of Portland, Maine. The Corn Shop was a seasonal industry employing many of the village young people. The photo reveals the age and gender diversity for this important industry. At first, the corn was husked by hand, later the factory became automated. The building was later sold to Fred Merrow and Walter Burnell to house a wood-turning business.

Notice that the two story section seen in the photo above is seen on the north side of the building in the print below. The Sanborn insurance maps further below indicate that this section of the building was the soldering room for tin cans and that it had a slate or tin roof while much of the rest of it was wood shingle or composition materials at that time.  

You can see an illustration of the Corn Factory listed as number 30 (H.C. Baxter & Bro., Canning Factory) on Conway's 1896 Bird's Eye View. Come to the library to see if you can find it on the original.


The view shows it had a pair of chimneys belching out black smoke.You can see smokestacks throughout Conway Village. During the period they were considered symbols of progress and prosperity, not the pollution we would associate with them today.

Here is a closer view of that building complex.


According to Hounsell's history of Conway it only operated for a short time each year. The community pitched in and it was both a social event and a way to earn hard cash. Our digitized copies of the Reporter Newspaper have many references to all the gossip and goings on at the area corn shops. You can search for all the news at our website here.

The workers started out young and stayed at it. Fred Lucy worked there as a teamster driving horses at age four bringing the freshly harvested corn from the fields to the corn factory. Jonathan Emery husked at eighty-three years old. The Reporter relates that "His smiling face is seen in the husking yard almost every day, husking corn as accurate as the young ones. He is very genial and has a kind word for every one."

As can be gathered from various sources, the greatest number of people were needed to husk the corn by hand. Arthur Hill started husking at age twelve.

As time changed all but the husking became mechanized. Here is a detailed description of the process from Hounsell at that time.

After husking the corn on the cob was carried on a belt to the top of a chute, where two men pushed it down into the cutting machines with paddles. Six women were needed at the cutting machines. The cobs were inserted small end first, in order to remove more of the corn from the cob. The cobs were carried off via a belt and dumped into a huge pile. The corn went from the cutter to a sieve where is was shaken so that bits of husks were removed. The corn was fed into a mixer, where it was combined with sugar, water and salt until creamy. Next it went to the cooker to cook for a few minutes. Cans came from a chute on the upper floor and were filled at the rate of a hundred per minute.

The cans were then carried on a run to a sealing or capping machine. Having been sealed, the went to a table where a man with a large strap secured then into pans that were loaded on small trucks and taken into the "retort room," where they were cooked at a high temperature. After this, the produce was cooled under a spray of water on a platform. Women inspected the cans, then the other workers sat at a table affixing labels to them. Once boxed, the cans of locally grown and packaged corn were ready for shipment. Shipment to where? Somewhere in New England, one might suppose, but instead, they were bound for the Pacific Coast for voyages to China and Japan as well as Liverpool and London, among other foreign markets.

Perhaps the most important person in the shop was the "syrup man." According to Steve Smith in his article "Corn Shop Days Remembered" from The Reporter, January 20, 1988, pp. 1-2, the role of the syrup man was to get the right mix of ingredients so the canned corn would taste right. It took some finesse and flexibility. This happened in the "mixing room where the golden kernels were blended with the proper balance of water, sugar and salt under the watchful eye of the "syrup man." The formula had to be changed depending on how hard the corn was when it was cut off the cob."

His informant, Arthur Hill recalled that "in the 1930's one of his jobs at the shop was relaying this vital information to the syrup man and sealing machine operator so the formula could be altered and the grading codes changed on the cans."

A detail of Conway's 1908 Sanborn insurance map shows all the buildings of the Conway corn factory were made of wood (represented by yellow in the map) and uses a dashed line to trace out the outline of the open air husking shed. 



A variety of Sanborn maps at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room reveal more details and documents the changes from 1908 to 1923 and 1929. These maps provide an interesting "accidental" source of history.

These maps were intended to furnish insurance agents with details to help figure fire risk such as night watchman during the season, the lights lit by coal oil, and fire buckets distributed throughout. The map indicates that the heat and power was provided by an eight horsepower steam engine. The furnace was fueled by wood and there was a one hundred gallon gasoline tank buried eight feet under the ground as well. A key was included for numbers and symbols that indicated the details such as the material used to roof the buildings.

According to the book Canning Gold: Northern New England's Sweet Corn Industry: A Historical Geography (from whence I take the title of this blog) there were four towns in New Hampshire that had corn shops while Maine had 121, many built by the same company. So we can see more of what our corn shop may have looked like from the Maine Memory Network website.

They show the same kind of open sided shed seen in the illustration above and the map below.




After the corn had been shucked it had to be shelled. A number of specialized knives were developed to perform this task.




The knives pictured below are particularly interesting in that these were exhibited in the Circuit Court case John Winslow Jones versus Henry Clark, April 1872. See Maine District Circuit Court 1872. The case is about patent infringement on the design of these tools.


For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Take a Hike!


... if only in your mind's eye.

Today is National Mountain Climbing Day. Not all of us can still climb mountains with the gusto of our children, but with the help of the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room you can enjoy the prospects just the same.

A good place to start is with a recent donation of thirty scrapbooks from a very experienced mountain climber who has hiked Everest, Kilimanjaro, and the highest peaks in the Andes. We are honored that he thought of us to preserve these priceless treasures.




Part of our job here is to help guide you to other collections that hold special items related to our local history. The drawing below from the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society reveals that there were a number of ways people summited mountains over the years.


This drawing, depicting a group ascending Mount Kearsarge from Conway on September 8th, 1875, is one of many on a continuous panoramic scroll depicting a trip taken by a New York family to the White Mountains. Notice the ladies riding side saddle in long dresses and the man with the umbrella. Sun tans were not fashionable during the period.

The drawing is from one of my favorite items at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord - a "crankie" or panoramic device. You can learn more about it here.


The tourists apparently stayed at Mrs. S. D. Pendexter's boarding house in Intervale.  See our previous blog here to find the Pendexter Mansion at the top of on an old map.  

Winslow Homer depicted the bridle path to the top of Mount Washington in a famous painting at the Clark Art Museum here and his not so famous sketches at Cooper Hewitt here.


Homer did a particularly good job here capturing the character of the "felsenmeer" (German for "sea of rock") at the summit.

Riding a horse to the top of a mountain might seem very tame for today's rock climbers. A unique map in our collection artfully displays the vertical trails and natural features on Cathedral Ledge long with detailed technical descriptions.


The dominant feature near the center of the cliff is known as The Prow as it is shaped like the front of a boat. At its base is a triangular shaped accumulation of broken rocks known as a talus slope. Notice the colorful names of the climbing trails.


The Prow and talus slope can also be seen in a painting at the New Hampshire Historical Society by Thomas Hill.


For more information on the painting see this link.

Asher B. Durand did two paintings of Cathedral Ledge. One can be found at the Albany Institute here and in a private collection here. The large rocks at the base of the talus slope formed a feature promoted to tourists as the Devil's Den. We will explore this attraction in a future blog.

The earliest artistic portrayal of the Prow on Cathedral Ledge was done by Thomas Cole in one of this three visits here in 1827, 1828 or 1839. It is now at the Detroit Institute of the Arts and info on it can be found here.


A book in our collection combines research on art, maps and place names.


The NH Stone Wall Mapper website allows you to zoom in and view a variety of layers to study a specific spot. (click on images to enlarge them).


On this 1896 USGS map Kearsarge is labeled Pequawket Mtn, and Cranmore is called Lookout Point. By 1942, these mountains had the names we know today.


We have a number of relief maps available to study in the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. The map below shows a good stretch of the White Mountains.


This one shows many of the 4,000 footers.


...with a detail showing the Mount Washington area.


As part of the 250th anniversary of Conway's grant students at the Pine Tree School created a relief map from corrugated cardboard featuring the relationship of Redstone village, its quarry and the nearby mountain.





Would you like your own pocket sized relief map to carry with you out into the field? If you line up the small 3d printed model in the foreground with the large version of Kensett's view of Mount Washington from Conway, you can actually match the peaks up pretty well. For more on this view see this blog here.


At the Conway Public Library we can help you make a relief map like this for about $2.00 on our 3d printer.


For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Fire on the Mountain

... and up in the sky ...and under the ground ...and on top of the water


Old Home Days are coming! 120 years ago in 1899 Governor Frank West Rollins invented and promoted the event.



For more information on the history of Old Home celebrations and the Rollins family check out this blog at Cow Hampshire. While you are there search for all kinds of subjects on this wonderful site. Rollins also wrote a "red book" on New Hampshire published in 1902. See pour revious blog on those "red books" here.

In his 1904 Old Home Committee report, then Governor Nahum Josiah Bachelder, who founded the series NH Farms for Summer Homes (see this previous blog) wrote an "Official Invitation" to "Absent Sons and Daughters of New Hampshire." (click on images to enlarge them).


He announced that "Our greeting will be expressed by the fires on the old hill tops, flaming from peak to peak our great joy at your return..." Throughout the years, the Old Home reports listed towns that had these fires.

In Madison they celebrate Old Home Week by building a fire in a hole in the ground and then cover it up...



...oh and they put a bunch of enamelware pots of baked beans in the hole too.

 
The next day they dig them back up and serve them to the waiting throngs of people. 


The firemen frequently take to the lake to cool their heels after standing in the pile of hot coals.


At another Old Home celebration, author Tom Curren uses the more traditional cast iron pots for his bean hole beans. Other foods featured at Old Home Days include pancake breakfast, community picnics, lobster dinners and s'mores with fireworks.


Tom wrote the booklet ...



On Chocorua Lake they hold a twilight lantern parade.



This year they are doing a lantern making workshop to prepare.


Donald Hall wrote a book on "Old Home Day" in which he summarized the history of the event.

For a list of Old Home celebrations see this link.

For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.