Four Bitters and a Life Line

It’s the 1870s, and we’re on the coast of Connecticut.  Mystic is a booming ship-building town.  Sailors are wandering the streets, as are people ready to take their money.

I sat me down to listen to David Iler sing Four Bitters.  Not sea chanties.  Those were working songs with calls and responses, to help load and unload the ships.  Just like on the plantations, sea chanties help with heavy lifting.

Four Bitters were sung on board.  The fiddler would be at the forward-most bitter, a big tub for holding blubber.  Yes, we’re talking whalers here.  When not in use, which was much of the time, the four bitters made good perches for the singers and players.

David says not all the songs were rousing.  Some were “pretty” like ballads, some sad, and some were warnings.  Like “Get Up Jack, John Sit Down.”  A ‘jolly rovin’ tar.’

See Jack would be trying to find his sea legs after 90 days sailing from Liverpool to San Francisco, with his $1 a day wages.  He might have appeared drunk, as he got used to being on land again.  With $90 in his pocket, and a meal priced at a nickel, Jack was plenty Jolly, and as a salior, was a Rover.  Sailors were often covered with tar from their work.  Jolly Rovin’ Tar.

The town was ready for the Jolly Roving Tars.  Ready to take their money for drinks all around and for and by women.

Worse, a friendly face might drug the Tar with laudanum.  Rob him?  Sure.  But Shanghai Brown would hire out the job of drugging the sailor, because the knocked-out boy would be ‘sold’ to packet ships that were short of crew, in return for the sailor’s first month’s wage.

The sailor would wake up out at sea, only to realize he was working the first month for no wage.  Impressment was a common tactic for navies and merchant ships.  Packets sailed on a schedule and had to have adequate crews.  Shanghai’s were one risk of being on shore.

These Four Bitters could serve as warnings, but David explained from experience the mad rush to get on shore will wipe away all logic.

(David Iler on his handmade “Dulcitar”–combination dulcimer and cigar box.  Sailors made use of everything.)

Sailors on the whaling ships fared no better.  They divvied up 1/3 of the whale oil profits.  Sounds like that could be okay.  But they were charged for every meal, the tobacco they became addicted to, and the rum.  They often ended up owing the ship money, which meant, yes, another term at sea.

So much for the romance of the sailing life.

2015-09-26 14.34.12Then of course, there were the storms and the shipwrecks near land.  Sailors would practice the life-saving technique of using the life line.

I watched them practice at the Mystic Seaport Village Green, David participating, too.

2015-09-26 14.39.31





They shoot a small rope from a canon that gets tied to the top of the mast rigging (or its stand in here).  Then larger and heavier ropes follow the line to get tied on. These larger ropes can hold the weight of a sailor.


One by one, the sailors from the shipwreck climb into the Britches Buoy and slide down the life line to safety.

Winslow Homer. The Life LIne. 1884.

Imagine doing that in the middle of a dangerous storm.  Winslow Homer shows us what that might have been like.


Amazing that these wooden figureheads could survive at all. Figureheads at the ship’s prow were meant to ward off evil spirits, and often represented the name of the boat, which is why many were carved as women.  Some even have portrait-like qualities, like this one of Abigail.  Abigail Chandler was this ship captain’s wife.  Imagine her withstanding a storm.



The full-body figures like Abigail, the Seminole, and girl in white weighed so much as to be counterproductive, and figureheads were soon reduced in size and scale to the head and shoulders.

These figures are so stern looking and fierce, I’d want them protecting my ship!










The “White Girl” probably never sailed.  Not only does she lack color, but that extended hand would be vulnerable at sea.

How did these figureheads survive the winds and the storms?  I learned a secret about how they might have.

A quick visit to the ship’s carving shop and a look at the David Crockett figurehead told all.

The David Crockett sailed around Cape Good Horn several times, safely.  No small feat.  How did the figurehead survive to look so glorious today, complete with that extended rifle?  It’s simple.  The sailors took it down a couple of days out of harbor and put it up again before coming back to shore.  Ah, very smart.

2015-09-26 14.54.31Of course, then the figurehead probably wasn’t protecting the ship, but that’s to consider another day.

2015-09-26 14.52.57

The 1841 Charles W. Morgan was in service for 80 years, making 37 voyages.  Look at how it dominates over the town.  What fun to climb aboard!

2015-09-26 15.04.10

2015-09-26 14.59.50

2015-09-26 15.02.26

2015-09-26 15.03.52


The Big E

Less than an hour from my house is the largest fair in New England, The Big E.  It has all your fair stuff–fried foods, rides, the circus, farm animals, and products made locally, with a building dedicated to each state.
2015-09-20 11.47.40
I loved watching the butter carving, the judging of gorgeous cows, and the elegant girl-jumper competition.
2015-09-20 11.46.21
2015-09-20 11.45.24
2015-09-20 09.44.16
I bought myself an old milk bottle from a dairy in the town where I teach.  See it?  Butler’s…
2015-09-20 10.11.26

Those cheese curds hit the spot, as did the fresh lemonade with no sugar.

What would any New England site be without a historic home?  At the fair, I toured the 1790s farm house, large and comfortable, occupied by the farmer’s family being industrious.

My favorite moment of all was the pig races–separate for males (Kevin Bacon among the contestants) and females (J Lo Pigs was running), little pigs and big,  it was hilarious fun, as you may be able to tell from these videos.

And for the political-spinning pigs…

All for the winning prize of an Oreo cookie at the finish line.  If only all of life’s trials had such a sweet reward.


Painted Journey

Two colleagues Debbie Hesse and Melanie Carr have curated a new art show at Whitney Center, the neighborhood, artsy CCRC.  Their show “Shared Resources” balances the resident’s show, and today, two residents and two ‘community’ artists spoke at the opening.


Spencer Luckey, calling himself a “kid architect,” talked about these whimsical jungle gyms he creates around the world.  A model is in the show.  Most of what he said was hard for me to track, although this is not unusual for me with contemporary artists and architects.


Of the talks, which covered careers and visions, I was most touched by Georgia Jennings’ presentation.  She loves the “luxuriousness” of working with “creamy” paints.  She plays and experiments with paint and technique, with naturalism and abstraction.

The series she has hung in the gallery focuses on the five-month journey transitioning from her home to living in Whitney Center.  The works are small scale and so large in feeling.

2015-09-19 15.04.47The terror of it all, of realizing she was no longer middle-aged, leaving a home of 25 years and the 3 rambunctious boys next door.

2015-09-19 15.04.52Organizing, Sorting, Packing, Moving

2015-09-19 15.04.58Overwhelmed by stuff, even after giving so much away.

2015-09-19 15.05.14Making connections.  The blanks, the mysteries.

2015-09-19 15.05.11Harmonies, with darks and lights.

We’ve all been there and know the feeling.  This is likely Georgia’s last move.  I think of that, too.  Taking in those feelings in the luxuriousness of her paint brought it all home, in my body and heart.

Emma and the Prudes

No, ‘Emma and the Prudes’ is not the name of a new rock band.  It’s the title of a talk today by Wendy Lee for the Jane Austen Society in New York.  Was Austen’s Emma a prude by the standards of the day?

I was particularly interested in the topic, as a ‘prude’ myself, and having just schlogged my way through the rather awful Spinster for my book club

Lee was careful to distinguish being a prude from being a spinster.  Her source is 17th-century French literature and its female types–the prude and the coquette.  The Queen and the flirt

A prude is a woman who seeks social and political power.  Consequently, she is suspicious of marriage, even if she is married, and avoids it if she isn’t.  Being a prude has nothing to do with sexuality, having or not having sex, nor attitudes about sex.  Instead, the prude simply preferred fem-centric society.

Clearly, the term is derogatory.  The male equivalent is the misogynist.

Was Emma a prude? She states clearly that there’s no advantage to her marrying. She’s already financially secure. Only love would induce her. She certainly enjoys a circle of female friends. Sounds like a prude to me.

In the literature Lee studied, the prude was depicted as a hypocritical, judgmental killjoy, who could be hysterical and suicidal.  Iconoclast, heretic, vulture.  No one can know what she’s thinking, as she comes across as ‘unfeeling,’ with neither affection not animosity.  She certainly was the best of liars.  From the literature.  Lovely

A spinster had more positive associations initially, referring to 12th-century girls in France who worked as spinners, an acceptable occupation for unmarried women.  Over time, you know what happened.  The male equivalent was bachelor, never a pejorative

Basically, these ugly labels keep women in their place, towing the cultural line.  Lee’s literature included Prude, the novel, by a Young Lady.  I pointed out that whether or not the author was a woman, the point was to keep women in the marital way.  Lee shows how the husband in marriage replaced the circle of women, a sacrifice by the prude

I also asked Lee about the link to the history of feminism.  In the U.S. from the 1850s on, women who advocated for their rights were certainly considered difficult.  They merely wanted to be sovereigns of their own lives.  In other words, a prude.

When you think about it, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

In front of, and behind, the scenes

I’ve long wanted to go to the exquisite Roseland Cottage, but it is a bit out of the way.  In the “quiet corner” of Connecticut, and on a Labor Day Saturday, it took me 90 minutes to get to Woodstock and the house.  Basically, nothing in Connecticut is further away.

Roseland CottageIt is clearly worth the trip though.  What a beauty this house is, with its meticulous care inside and out and its picture-perfect gardens.

Yes, the house is Gothic Revival, not something you see everyday in historic New England.  And like it’s not too distant neighbors in Newport, this house was built as a summer cottage for wealthy New Yorkers.  So why doesn’t Roseland look like a Newport ‘cottage’?

Asymmetrical gardens

One guide today speculated that the association of the Gothic style with cathedrals and religious piety was the driving factor.  Henry Bowen, whose wealth stemmed from silk textiles before turning to insurance, was a Temperance man.  No drinking or smoking for him.  He even had his seven sons sign a Pledge of Temperance before going off to college that they would not only refrain from drinking and smoking, but also avoid gambling, going to the theater and opera, and somewhat peculiarly, boating.  Note, no mention of the fairer sex.  The boys did sign, but were, to the man, known as notorious party-ers.  A bit of rebellion anyone?

Gothic arches.  You can just make out the lincrusta, a textured linoleum made of linseed oil and wood pulp, on the walls. That’s not wallpaper.

Anyhow, the pointed arches of the Gothic style, for the exterior styling and interior windows and doorways, even in the servant areas, suggest that Bowen wanted to remind all householders of aspirational Christian values to inspire each to live a better life.  An intriguing thought.

The stained glass looks like it’s right out of 1960s Pop, but is original to the house’s 1846 origins.

Our guide said that Bowen was an abolitionist, and I asked whether he was bothered by working in textiles and doing business with the South that clearly relied on enslaved labor.  She said he stated, “my goods are for sale, not my conscience.”  Hmmm.  I’m not sure that addresses the issue, if he profited off of the system.

Regardless, the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction era meant that his Southern clients were unable to pay his bills.  He had to close his business and shifted his energies to insurance, where he built a billion dollar business.  I’m sure that was none too clean either.

But I’m not here to debate the morals of a pious, rich man.  Instead I enjoy his house.

Apparently, it’s always been pink, as you see it, with perhaps a reference to rose color, the rose being his first wife’s favorite flower.  She konked after giving him 10 kids, and he married again, leading to one more son.  By this time, after the Civil War, he was uber-wealthy and attracted U.S. Presidents to visit his hometown of Woodstock and stay with him at the cottage.

Roseland was known for its July 4 celebrations.  Each year, the party was so huge that it spilled out from the house and into the park Bowen built for his entertainments.  Voluminous amounts of bunting decorated the grounds.  Forget the barbecue.  You received your pretty little printed brochure listing all the lectures taking place under the tent and when you could catch the day-time fireworks–a Japanese technology.  You could enjoy a pink lemonade while strolling through what the New York Times called a “fairy garden,” if you were one of the lucky 1000 or so people who began coming, along with the sitting President.  Of course, there were fireworks at night, too.

President Grant, during his 1870 visit also learned a new skill.  Bowling.  The house features a bowling alley completely made of wood.  The ball and pins were made of wood, too.  Grant had never bowled before, and on his first try, he got a strike.  So delighted was he that he broke out a cigar.  Bowen wasn’t having it and shooed the president outside to smoke.

Even the outbuildings (ice house and privies) had Gothic styling

Even the outbuildings (ice house and privies) had Gothic styling


Also outside was a new privy, erected for a presidential visit.  Since you know I’m already familiar with Connecticut’s privies, I can knowledgeably comment that these were pretty high end.  A wall separated the holes, and the president could close the door for some additional, ahem, privy.  These niceties were not available in Roseland’s indoor privies.

Such were the details learned on the behind-the-scenes tour.  We crawled around the cellar, shining our flashlights to see early construction (and a dead mouse) and marveled at the height of the attic rafters and their intricate carpentry.  We slithered down creaky staircases, imagining servants carrying tea trays.  We wondered how the very heavy furniture in the attic got there, other than on the backs of servants up narrow stairways.  We saw how water for baths upstairs had to be pumped up three flights from the cellar cistern.  Sheesh.  Forget “Downton Abbey.” Servant’s lives were impossibly hard.

What they apparently did so well was make the life upstairs beautiful and seemingly effortless.  Perhaps pride (and the privies) were enough reason to stay with the Bowens.  One servant worked for the family for over 50 years!  Imagine…