Monday, December 28, 2015

Sights of the Season: The Gift of Christmas Past

For most blog posts we focus on items we have in the collection of the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. The focus of this post is "What is missing for our collection?"

The answer is you!

As we approach the new year it is time to reflect on the past and ponder about the future.

In his last “Conway 250th” column of the year, Brian Wiggin recently wrote about the history of the enchanting decorations and simple presents of the past that he remembered from Conway village of years ago. However, there are very few pictures to show this aspect of our past.

While we may have many books, films and and even poetry about White Mountain holidays, our collection of photographs is rather limited.
In fact, one of the few pictures that depicts Conway's historic holiday decorations is the one below from Janet Hounsell’s wonderful book.

Conway Christmas Scene, 1936, Hounsell, Conway p. 323

I thought this newspaper advertisement fit my story well as it promotes photographs as the perfect holiday gift.  

Reporter Newspaper ad, p. 1 November 14, 1918

Your photographs can be the gift that keeps on giving!

I bet that there are hundreds and hundreds of photographs in your home, in scrapbooks, shoe boxes in the attic and hidden corners of the cellar.

So now that there is a break between holidays and you may have a little extra time, and the weather is not so great, please think of sharing your 2015 holiday pictures and pictures from the past with us. I guarantee that in 100 years or 250 years from now patrons of the Henney History Room will want to see them. Help us build a strong representation of our present for our town's future generations.

With our PastPefect software, we can even attach audio, video, and text to these photos!

Here are some photos from my family for you to enjoy,

1962, ages left to right 4, 2 and 6

1969 (printed Mar 1970) age 11

Past or present your contributions are very appreciated and will be a cherished addition to our archives.

 With our busy lives we don't think of preserving today's history for the future. Please think of recording and sharing your 2015 holidays with us. 

Happy Holidays from our family to yours!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tidings from the Asclepion


What do these two pictures (carolers dressed in Victorian costume and ancient Greek ruins in Turkey?) have in common?

I’ll give you a hint. Next week is the winter solstice. For thousands of years people have celebrated this annual return of light to lift their spirits during the darkest, coldest, hardest time of the year.

It is no coincidence that the richest traditions and festivities of the year come when we need them the most, when the nights are long and dark and cold due to the axial tilt of the earth that creates the winter solstice.

We know from numerous archaeological sites around the world that many ancient cultures knew how to measure time and mark this event. (But that is not what’s going on at this ancient archaeological site).

The Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room has many resources to help understand the wide variety of historical and scientific influences that have led to our annual holiday celebrations.

There are books and films and even a telescope you can borrow to track time and direction with the stars. (no need for a GPS).
So back to our question, what do these pictures have in common?
To explore this connection let’s go back a few thousand years. The ruins pictured above are some of what remains of the ancient city of Pergamon or Pergamum in Turkey.

For library lovers, this was the home of the second largest library in the world, after Alexandria in Egypt. According to Plutarch, the library held over 200,000 volumes.

Historical accounts claim that the library possessed a large main reading room, lined with many shelves. An empty space was left between the outer walls and the shelves to allow for air circulation. This was intended to prevent the library from becoming overly humid in the warm climate of Anatolia and can be seen as an early attempt at library preservation.

There was an interesting history of competition between the two libraries. At the time papyrus made from plants was the main writing medium. Earlier libraries consisted of clay tablets. Fearing that Pergamum’s library would become larger than the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, the Egyptians stopped exporting papyrus to Pergamum. As a result, and out of necessity, Pergamenes invented parchment (paper made out of animal skin) as a substitute for papyrus.

However, according to legend, after the burning of the library at Alexandria by Julius Caesar, his successor, Mark Anthony gave the entire collection of the Pergamum library as a wedding present to Cleopatra, emptying the shelves and ending the dominance of the Library at Pergamum.

To add insult to injury, much of the architecture and sculpture was also taken away and passed from one empire to another. The Altar of Zeus was taken to Berlin in the late 19th century. During World War II, the Pergamon Altar was dismantled and hidden near the Berlin Zoo to protect it from Allied air raids. It later fell into the hands of the Red Army, who took it to the Soviet Union, where it was stored in the Hermitage Museum. In 1958, the Altar was returned to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in East Berlin, which at the time was also under Communist rule.

Pergamon Temple of Zeus, now in Berlin Museum


Detail Altar of Zeus, in Berlin Museum. Notice the same type of dentil molding used here can be found carved in wood at the Conway Public Library

Our focus now however, is not on purloined temples or pilfered libraries. In addition to a great library and an elaborate temple, Pergamon was also the home of an early form of a mental hospital or rehab center.

What we are looking for is actually underground, still in its original location in what is now Turkey. The image below is of the entrance to a specially designed tunnel using the most up to date therapies for the time.


Treatments included herbal remedies, mud baths, musical concerts, drinking water with radioactive propreties, and an early form of psychotherapy.

Here is a view from inside the tunnel. Notice the openings along the ceiling.  

As they moved through the tunnel, patients would be treated with a kind of sound therapy. The practitioners above would use comforting sounds of running water, like many of us find by going to Conway’s own Diana’s Baths waterfalls. They would also provide supporting positive phrases, poetry and song.

Now hopefully, you can see the comparison with the carolers and the tunnel. Holiday songs and the sounds of the season (bells, drums, even kazoos) serve like a tonic for the darkness and cold, salves for the solstice, remedied with tidings of comfort and joy. (We heard a lot of this at the recent concerts at Kennett High School).
Drop by the Henney History Room to check out our music collection, including music used by Thomas Murphy, Lady Blanche’s husband. You are also welcome to send us a comment or give us a call to learn more.

By the way, did you know Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, was from Turkey? and his bones were stolen and taken to Italy? but that is another story for another time….

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Token of the Season

Cover, Christmas Bells by Ruth Burnham D. Horne, Christmas 1940, Conway Public Library's Henney History Room Collection

The tradition of giving books as Christmas gifts is well represented in the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. Ruth Burnham Horne's Christmas Bells from 1940 was written and published by her as a small token to her friends.

Inscription page, Christmas Bells by Ruth Burnham D. Horne, Christmas 1940, Conway Public Library's Henney History Room Collection

We have a number of other gift books from her in the collection, as well as several of her larger books on Conway history.

Title Page, Christmas Bells by Ruth Burnham D. Horne, Christmas 1940, Conway Public Library's Henney History Room Collection

Special editions of popular books were published around the holidays. Today, Finland is one of the leaders in this mode of celebration known as the "book flood." See

Seeley and Lane, Chinook and His Family

This book teaches children how to make their own books. For more information contact the Curator at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Happy Holidays!

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"