The real stuff of history

Woman's shoes circa 1845 from the blog "In the Swan's Shadow"

Woman’s shoes, circa 1845, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.

As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before.  Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly.  Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.

The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing.  Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures.  Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.

Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years.  The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.

The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular.  There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it.  I love the items the “ebon swan” features.

Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs.  A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.

Fashion plate from the 1850s

1859 fashion plate featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow

Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved.  First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy.  The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.

Antebellum dress with black buttons.

Dress with black buttons in the Kentucky Historical Society‘s collection. Featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”

Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain.  Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling.  Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.

Ladies fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Click to go to the source.

Feathered fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”  Click here to go to the MFA site.

Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.

Small Red House

Small red house, © 2014 Susan BarsyThe South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest.  The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.

The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing.  All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined.  On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.

It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying.  So many places—and people—are just scraping by.  Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place.  Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing.  They are exiles from the land of opportunity.  Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing.  With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.

Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?

A Valentine’s Day Idyl

Idyl by Lorenzo Taft, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Idyl, by Lorenzo Taft, in the fern room of the conservatory

Thinking back on all the wonderful adventures my husband and I have shared this year, my mind turns to one particular autumn day, when we ventured to the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time.  We were both overwhelmed by the beauty of this enormous old hothouse, filled with ancient and awe-inspiring plants, which, though battered by time and a recent devastating hailstorm, seemed to distill all the wonder of the natural world, and the essence of our beloved city itself.

The tree, © 2014 Susan Barsy

An Eden of sorts

We wandered the place in the company of many other pilgrims, our necks craning this way and that, faces upraised, our reverence as thick as the air itself.  After we had ambled for several hours, we wandered outside, where the splendor of an autumn afternoon greeted us, and, with a scattered assembly, we gloried in the radiance of being alive.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Especially Bob.

Click on the images to enlarge.

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