Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Painting and the Patent

The Painting

Perhaps the largest single item owned by the Conway Public Library, this painting nearly fills one of our reading room walls. Contrary to the common assumption of many casual observers, they are not deep frying a turkey here.

This painting has more to do America’s first patent than with Thanksgiving. To understand this rather odd connection between a painting and a patent, and to mine the meaning of this often misunderstood work of art, we will follow clues from France to Fryeburg to Florida and back again.  

So what’s in the pot? Our first clue to this mystery is the wooden barrel in the background near the base of the big tree on the left of the painting. Click your mouse on the picture to enlarge it. Notice how the barrel is raised up on boards above the ground. It is leaning forward away from the stone wall due to a cobble sized stone set under the back of the barrel.  There is a wooden board on top and there is a pail underneath. If you lived during the 19th century, you would immediately recognize this as a lye leaching barrel.

How does this barrel make lye? Basically a hole was drilled near the bottom of the barrel and it was filled part way up with layers of straw and gravel.

The Barrel

Ashes from the fireplace were then placed on top of these filters and finally water was poured over the ashes. The water would leach out the lye from the potash in the fireplace ashes.

Potash has been used since ancient times for many things including manufacturing glass, fertilizer, dyeing fabric, baking, wine and gunpowder. But none of that is happening here.

The best water to use was rain water. Rain water is naturally “soft.” Soft water is water in its purer form and contains low concentrations of ions and in particular is low in ions of calcium and magnesium that make the water “hard” after it hits the ground and collects in rivers, lakes or underground aquifers.

The Patent

Signed by George Washington on July 31, 1790, the first patent issued by the United States government was for the design of a new and improved process for making potash and pearl ash (a refined version of potash) from wood ashes. The original document is now in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. To read it more clearly click on the image to enlarge it.

The 1790 patent was issued to Samuel Hopkins for his improvement to the traditional process seen in the painting. Instead of just dumping ash into a barrel to be dissolved and leached, Hopkins innovation was to cook the ash first in a furnace, effectively burning the ashes again. This helps rid the ashes of free carbon in the ash by increasing its carbonite load and the resulting ashes had a much greater potash yield. This first American patent was part of a movement towards the industrialization and commercialization of manufacturing. As a result, the item they are making in the pot was no longer made at home on the farm.

But back to our barrel. How can you tell when your lye water is ready? You can’t touch it as the alkaline (base) nature of the solution would burn your skin and irritate your eyes and nose. The traditional way to know when the solution was ready would be to dip a chicken feather into it. It’s ready when the liquid dissolves the feather’s barbs.  

So now you have lye ready for the next ingredient for our mystery product and the answer to what they are making in the pot.

To answer this question, let’s consult some old farmers for their advice. By old I mean 15th century medieval French farmers. Over five hundred years ago in medieval France, few people could read, and important lessons were taught in a couple powerful ways that made them easier to remember: one through pictures, the other through rhyme (oral tradition). We will look at an example of each related to our story. Let’s start with an illuminated manuscript from 15th century France.

Les Tres Riches Heures

The semi-circle (tympanum) over the rectangular landscape shows the season through the signs of the zodiac, in this case, depicting Scorpio at left, Sagittarius at right, indicating the month of November. In the center of the tympanum is a classical image of a sun chariot. In this case, the figure can be specifically identified not as Apollo, but as the Emperor Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem.

The subject of the scene below is the annual late autumn acorn harvest. From left to right, you can see a pig herding dog, a man with a stick, and pigs eating nuts on the ground. In the woods behind you can see more pigs and men with sticks. The men are hitting the tree branches and knocking down acorns to fatten up the pigs.

Pigs were not the only ones enjoying the late autumn harvest of nuts. Nutting was a popular activity especially for children in the past.

Winslow Homer print. Chestnutting.

Nutting parties were a popular pastime during late autumn according to Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of writer James Fenimore Cooper. 

In her book, Rural Hours published 1850, she notes that in November, “The children are out nutting; it is the chestnuts which are the chief attraction with them–they are very common here. A merry group of boys and girls were chatting away in the "Chestnut Grove" this afternoon, as we passed. Black walnuts are not so frequent, and the butternuts in this immediate neighborhood are rare; in some parts of the county they abound. Beech-nuts are plenty. Hazel-nuts are rare, and our hickory-nuts are not as good as "Kiskytoms" should be. Still, all things with kernels are "nuts" to boys, and the young rogues make furious attacks upon all the chestnut, walnut, and hickory trees in the neighborhood; they have already stripped the walnut-trees about the village of all their leaves; these are disposed to fall early, but the boys beat the branches so unmercifully that they become quite bare as soon as the fruit is ripe.”

But back to the pigs and what is going on in the pot! We gain gain a little more understanding of the picture Thomas Tusser’s poetry of the 16th century. In a long series of rhyming couplets he offers seasonal farming advice.

Some of his advice for November is:

“Let hog once fat,
lose nothing of that.
When mast is gone,
hog falleth anon.”

Mast refers to the nuts that have fallen in the forest. He is talking about the very process pictured in the illuminated manuscript. The process is to fatten up pigs for butchering.

So how does all this relate to this other ingredient in the pot besides lye that I keep hinting about?
It is about fat pigs, but not about food. It is an important pig product, but it’s not bacon or ham. It has to do with washing up before dinner rather than with dinner itself. It is related to fat pigs.

The answer is pig fat. They are making soap in the large pot by combining soft water, lye leached from fireplace ashes and pig fat. Heating this combination of ingredients over a fire starts a chemical transformation that makes soap.  

Of course you could just look at the title of the painting on the little brass plaque attached to the frame at the bottom of the painting, but where’s the fun in that? The label reads
“Making Soap, Painted by Benjamin T. Newman, Gift of the Artist.” The painting is signed and dated “BT Newman 1892” in lower right hand corner.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Henney History Room!

… and don’t forget to wash your hands before dinner.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

You Don't Know Jack ...

... English Jack that is!

English Jack, the Hermit of the White Mountains

Postcard showing the gap of the White Mountains in Crawford Notch

While he was referred to as a "hermit" his house was actually close to a large hotel and he was visited often by tourists. There is a great article written about him on the website. 

Detail showing sign

He referred to his ramshackle abode as his "ship." 

Interior of English Jack's house

Notice the canes hanging on either side of the doorway. 

Example of cane made by English Jack from the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society
English Jack, the Hermit of the White Mountains was part of a long tradition dating back at least to ancient times of specially costumed characters whose job it was to entertain visitors with their "rustic" behavior. English Jack was known to tell outrageous stories and amaze tourists by eating frogs and snakes.
There was also a dramatic tourist attraction type character over in Franconia Notch known as the "Philosopher of the Pool."
For more information "comment" us or visit us at the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library.
Just for fun, Here are a couple other English Jacks!

God Save the Queen

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eleven, Eleven, Eleven: Remembering our Veterans

Today we continue an old tradition and start a new one.

For all of my life, we have displayed a red poppy to honor Veterans. The wearing of poppies in honor of America's Veterans takes its origin from the poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by John McCrae.

Tonight we start a new tradition by displaying a green light. America’s veterans are some of our nation’s bravest, hardest-working men and women. However, it’s hard to show them the appreciation they deserve when, back home and out of uniform, they’re more camouflaged than ever. Greenlight A Vet is a campaign to establish visible national support for our veterans by changing one light to green.

Green is the color of hope, renewal and well-being. “Greenlight” is also a term commonly used to activate forward movement. The simple action of changing one light to green is intended to spark a national conversation regarding the recognition of veterans, and "greenlight" them forward as valued members of our communities.

The Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress is a modern, digital way to honor their stories.

There are a number of Veteran memorials in Conway’s villages. Hounsell’s Conway, New Hampshire 1765-1997, lists a number and surveys their history including Center Conway triangle, Conway Public Library, East Conway, Kearsarge, Memorial Hospital, Redstone, North Conway (at the foot of Bowling Alley Hill) and Schouler Park North Conway.  

In 1943 a large painted plywood Veterans Honor Roll stood in Conway Village in Railroad Park in front of the Conway train station about where the current Conway Chamber of Commerce information booth is now. It has a golden eagle at the top.  

In 1991 a committee was started to create a more complete Veterans Memorial to replace the wooden honor roll with a carved stone one. This is now located in the front lawn of Kennett Middle School.  

Monday, November 9, 2015

November... all the leaves are brown … A season for hunting historic vistas

As I write this, I am watching a gentle breeze blowing the leaves off the trees … and the sky is a hazy shade of winter, signaling the beginning of a time during which views of hidden past landscapes will be revealed, allowing an opportunity for following in the footsteps of nineteenth century White Mountain artists.  

Smillie Print
You can see an enlargement of this historic print on the stairway down to the Henney History Room. The view is from Sunset Hill, now the site of the Red Jacket. It was a popular spot for artists and photographers for many years.

Kensett Painting
The print at the library was based on this painting Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway by John Frederick Kensett, 1851.  It is now in the collection of the Wellesley College Museum. The painting was purchased by the American Art Union and made into an engraving by James Smillie, and distributed to 13,000 Art Union subscribers throughout the country.

Today, you can’t see this view most of the year due to the trees that have grown up since the days when this was a farming landscape and the fields were more open.  While the scene vanishes from view for most of the year, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Seasons change with the scenery” (or actually the scenery changes with the seasons) and for a brief time this will be a good time for peaking (hills and mountains) and for peeking a little into the past, allowing us to unweave time like in a tapestry at least until the lime green leaves of spring return.

Currier and Ives published their version of the painting around 1860. Later their image was used as inspiration for wall decoration in the Currier and Ives room at the Eastern Slope Inn.  

Currier and Ives Print
For more on these images, contact the Curator at the Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room.

With apologies to The Mamas & the Papas “California Dreaming” and Simon and Garfunkel, "A Hazy Shade Of Winter"

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Relief Maps

Frances Richardson recently donated a remarkable series of relief maps from the 1930s along with a complete set of molds used to make them and archival papers documenting their history.

Her father, Rodney Woodard invented the process. He made these small "Pocket" size maps for Mount Washington (Pinkham Notch), Crawford Notch and Franconia Notch. He also made a wide variety of related flat maps, photo maps, map post cards and so on. 

Plaster forms used to make metal dies. 

Metal dies to mold the plastic sheets into relief maps. 

Print blocks to print labels and map features onto the plastic. 

As always, if you would like more information on this subject let us know through a comment or contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.