Colonial Goodwife

Velya Jancz-Urban started her presentation of the not-so-good life of the Colonial American housewife by touring us through her 1770 farmhouse in Woodbury, CT.  She and her family continue to uncover colonial wonders in the house, so far revealing the beehive oven, the original hearth, and a storage area, as well as the “Indian” door–a faux door that wouldn’t fool much of anyone, much less an Indian who would be attacking the house.

The Colonial Goodwife, or Goodie Urban, we might call her, then filled us in on the un-niceties and inconveniences of the life of the Colonial woman, from menstruation, childbirth, child rearing, diseases, and what not.

Here are some tidbits I found especially interesting.

Colonial women typically got their first periods around age 17 and married at about 22, both older than I imagined.  She would have her first child 16 or so months later and continue, presuming she survived, until her last child would be about the same age as her first grandchild–on average 6-10 children.  When pregnant or breast feeding (basically her whole married life), she wouldn’t have a period.

Still she had to be prepared.  If you were to time travel, I’ll share the method of dealing with your period I think you’ll like best.  Take your sheepskin with you.  You can wash it out and reuse it, and it sounds better to me than cheesecloth stuffed with milkweed and moss or some of the less cleanly methods I won’t mention here.

Velya shared several recipes and concoctions for birth control.  I’ll spare you, other than to say, it takes a lot of work, and faith.  So if you do as most did, you’ll be pregnant a lot.

My favorite birthing aid for a difficult childbirth is the “quill baby”–dousing your feather pen with something that will make you sneeze.  A whiff and you’ll sneeze that baby right on out.  Right.

In New England, not just any ol’ lactating woman could be your wet nurse.  For example, if you have a boy, you would only hire a wetnurse who had birthed a boy.  Otherwsie, your boy would be feminized.  You can tell that good help is hard to find.

Child’s Pudding Cap

I knew about swaddling for infant and toddler safety and all children wearing dresses without undergarments to help with cleanliness.  I didn’t know about the ‘pudding’ stage of clothing, to help with those tumbles.  The pudding cap would prevent your child from becoming a puddin’ head, and the big round tube around the child’s stomach and bum, well, that softens the blow.


Small pox left people’s faces pockmarked.  I didn’t know that they used paper beauty marks (often hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs) to cover the the pocks.

Children were given dolls in coffins, to learn about death through their play.

Turnspitdog-1862.jpgI knew about dogs that worked in the home by walking on treadmills that turned spits of meat in the fire., much as donkeys worked in mills to turn the gristmill.  Velya showed us a picture of the now-extinct Turnspit Dogs, which she called household “slaves.”  Indeed their lives were so bad, often forced to walk on hot coals to speed up their work, that the ASPCA was formed in response.


Although this is also cruel, the image is a funny way.  One way to clean your chimney–remember this when you go back in time–is to drop two chickens down it.  Their startled, flapping wings will clean your chimney right up.  Forget poisoning a young boy with soot warts, by lowering him down.  Use your chickens.

So go ahead and set the dial on your time machine.  You now have all the facts you need to make a good colonial life.  Or you can be lazy like me and dwell in the present.


Guns to Apartments

I’m still musing on how I feel about two recent tours and guns pervading every aspect of our lives.  During the Hartford Blooms Garden Tours, I went to the top of the onion-domed Colt Armory–the day after the Orlando shootings.

Having passed the notable landmark so often on the highway, I was both curious and a bit repulsed.  No one else on the tour seemed to make the connection to Orlando.  So I decided to just experience and listen, not share my dis-ease.

We took an elevator almost to the top, only having to climb one flight of stairs.  Then we walked through an industrial, attic-like area to the stairs to the cupola.

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Yes, the view was interesting, as our guide told us how Sam Colt needed the nearby Connecticut River for transporting raw materials and manufactured guns.  She explained how important the horse at the top is to people in Hartford, who clamored, when it was removed from the building, for its return.

Still, I felt restless, just wanting to go back down and get out of the building.

The fact that the factory now has been converted into apartments seems weird and ironic to me.

Who would want to let guns so palpably into the space where they nourish, refresh, restore, and relax?  Their home?

My presumptions were challenged again, with today’s tour of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and its tour with New Haven Preservation Trust of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  I have been curious about this site and the transition to living spaces, curious enough to overcome my distaste.

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Yes, at its peak, 30,000 people worked here.  Yes, they produced washing machines and sporting equipment, as well as rifles and ammunition.  And yes, the factory buildings are being converted to office and apartment spaces.

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Yes, I support adaptive reuse and get excited when old buildings find new energy.  Yes, the restoration has preserved a historic character combined with modern sensibilities.  Yes, wonderful Susan Clinard has created art from the wood no longer usable, now hanging on the walls and above the old fireplace (as seen above).

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But somehow, I would rather leave the ruins (knowing that’s not good for New Haven).

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A reminder that guns are not so central to every aspect of our lives.  Or leave some of these dilapidated messes as a balance, a reminder that some things are better left in the past.

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I asked one of our guides about bad juju, cleaning the energy.  He didn’t know what I meant.  He commented on how Winchester labor and workmanship are being celebrated with new life in the old building.  They discovered and restored this ceiling mural from a 1904 wing.  Reinforcing the complex’s past.

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The apartments feature original wood with those fashionable industrial finishings.  And the place is 90% occupied.

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Obviously, many people don’t feel the same way I do.  They aren’t put off by the ground water contamination and hot spots, the lead and asbestos (remediated, of course), the years of water accumulating in derelict structures.

They can look beyond whatever history happened here and throughout Connecticut (Remington was manufactured in Bridgeport) that led to guns, guns, guns, everywhere, all the time.

Maybe I should be celebrating the conversion from guns to apartments.   I just don’t know.  What do you think?

Famous Artists School

Here’s an article just published on The Famous Artists School.  Thank you, and Connecticut Humanities!

Group photo of Famous Artists School Faculty

Group photo of Famous Artists School Faculty. Left to right: Harold von Schmidt, John Atherton, Al Parker, founder Al Dorne, Norman Rockwell, Ben Stahl, Peter Helck, Stevan Dohanos, Jon Whitcomb, Austin Briggs, and Robert FASwcett – © Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. All rights reserved.

Elected Dads Elect Fathering Styles

Father’s Day is here, perfect timing for the launch of Joshua Kendall’s book First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama.  I heard his highly entertaining and insightful talk at the New Haven Museum.

Grant and family

Grant and family

President Grant fell into the ‘Sweet Dad’ category, one of six Kendall used to group the 43 Presidents, all of whom had children (5 adopted).

No surprise that Mr. Obama also falls in the Nurturer category.







And so did Truman.  When Margaret was criticized for a concert she gave in 1950, Truman turned ferocious with the media.  The mail that came in overwhelmingly supported the father standing up for his daughter.  Kendall suggests that this fierce, fatherly protectiveness led Truman to make the decision to drop the bomb–to protect American boys from harm.

Just so you know, George Washington was apparently very sweet to Martha’s children, whom he adopted.

The Preoccupied Dads will come as no surprise to you.  Those ambitious politicians focus all on career and little on family.  Linda Johnson had to read the Congressional Record to get LBJ’s attention.


Carter and Amy, 1974

Carter and Amy, 1974

Surprisingly, Carter was tough on his three sons, reflecting his own upbringing, his military training at Annapolis, and the practice of spanking.  Jack didn’t speak with his father for two years, but when he did tell his father of his pain, to his credit, Carter reflected and learned from what he had done:  passing on harsh parenting that he received, without thinking.  We consider Carter a Peacemaker now, and Kendall makes the case linking the personal growth that came from learning about his parenting.

You know I like the Playful-Pal Dads.  Grant loved playing with his children, and Kendall attributes his alcohol problem to missing his children when he was stationed in California.  Teddy Roosevelt was a playful dad, and Alice was frisky right back.  With lifelong asthma, TR couldn’t tolerate cigarette smoking and told his daughter, “no smoking under my roof.”  Alice complied, by smoking on the roof.

Having three daughters may have swayed Woodrow Wilson to finally relent on Suffrage.  I don’t know though.  He was verbally brutal about the protesters, that he found so annoying when he was trying to deal with ‘weightier’ matters.  Kendall also suggests a Freudian interpretation (he does psychiatric research), when one of his daughters married the best dancing bachelor, to mimic her father’s dancing prowess.

Double-Dealing Dads had children outside their marriages.  One of LBJ’s secretaries said the president offered to set her up in an apartment in New York.  While she turned him down, others didn’t.  Harding apparently had sex in a White House closet in 1928.  Careful where you hang your coat!

An older Grover Cleveland married his young ward, not a pleasant thought, and then cheated on her, fathering a child with a mistress.  He verbally slammed the mistress as ‘a drunk and a slut’ when he was the alcoholic with loose morals.  He won the election anyway.  Being promiscuous doesn’t necessarily mean being a bad president.  ‘Grover the Good’ was an honest politician, known for his integrity with a budget.

Now, what’s really cold are the Antebellum cheaters.  Tyler and Harrison both had slave children, and Kendall has tracked paperwork showing Tyler sold his own children, including Sylvanius Tyler, who recorded that Tyler had 52 children.

Tiger Dads are authoritarian, and the tendency seems to get passed down.  John Adams told John Quincy he would be a failure if he didn’t become president.  John Quincy Adams told his son George Washington Adams that JQ wouldn’t attend his Harvard graduation unless he was among the top five.  At age 28, GW committed suicide, likely from mental illness, no doubt exacerbated by parental badgering.

Jefferson was so controlling, he gave his daughters lists of what clothing to wear.

The Bush family, 1964

The Bush family, 1964

The challenge of losing a child either makes or breaks a president, per Kendall.  The grief Lincoln felt over losing beloved Willy made him step up as a war leader, while Piece suffered a breakdown from the loss of his third son, while in office.

As a side note, when Robin Bush died, Barbara, in her late 20s, suffered from depression, and her hair turned white overnight.  George W. turned into a clown to cheer her up.  At least we know the source of that behavior now….

The difference between the public and private man, of course, can be striking.  FDR was like a father for so many.  He saw people through the Depression, through war.  He seemed so strong.  But he leaned on his own son, needy, yet also preoccupied.  His younger sons had to make appointments to see him.  Eleanor was distracted with her many involvements.  Perhaps as the result of their own parenting, the five Roosevelt children had 19 marriages among them.  Chaos!

The Roosevelts, 1939

The Roosevelts, 1939

Kendall said that Hillary Clinton has a male parenting style, whereas Obama’s approach resembles female parenting.  You know, nurturing, involved, inclusive.  Bill and Hillary told Chelsea about disparaging remarks being made about her philandering father.  She was 6.  Chelsea still relates to her parents via politics.  Kendall described Trump’s children as “more normal than he is,” and they are involved in his business as Vice Presidents.  Both sets of children meet their parents on the parents’ turf.

Toward the end of his talk, Kendall differentiated between fathering and mothering.  Traditionally, mothering is about nurturing; fathering is about procreating.  He assured us that things have shifted since the 19th-century origins of those gendered distinctions.

Here’s to all our fathers – human, fallible, foibled, and doing the best they can!




‘Tis the Season, the Summer Season Up the Hudson

Since the early 1800s, flocks of painters would leave New York City in the summer, with its sweltering heat, and head for the countryside.  The first bunch to make a name for themselves doing this were the Hudson River School.  Those intrepid artists ventured up the Hudson River to the Catskills and beyond, when traveling was tough.

In my comfortable car, I followed in their tracks, to visit the upstate New York homes of Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey.  I can’t tell you how much you will fall in love all over again with their paintings, when you spend time in their homes.  They become, well, real, and you can see what they saw and feel what they felt.

Thomas Cole came first and became the titular head of the (non-physical) Hudson River School.  Although not a teacher, almost everything he painted and the way he created his compositions informed artists for several generations.

Even though Catskill, NY was already crawling with tourists by the time Cole lived at Cedar Grove, he painted its wilderness.  You get a sense of what he saw from his porch.  Those beloved mountains.

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I could look at that view for hours, dreaming.  I could also meditate on the up close and personal, seen from another porch angle.

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What stories this tree can tell, and knowing that trees were hugely symbolic for Cole–a symbol of the nature we must all work to preserve–I can imagine he heard them all.

The house has been a restoration-work-in-progress.  And you can really see the progress now, compared to my first visit several years ago.  Now it includes Cole furniture, like his working desk.  Notice the handles on the side for portability.

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I have a thing for artist studios, and two of Cole’s are so lovingly recreated now.  He designed them, of course, with that wonderfully consistent northern exposure, here through that window high up.

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Can you make out on the easel below the notches on the side?  That’s so Cole could raise and lower that horizontal stabilizer for his canvasses, which were huge.  Then he could work more comfortably on different parts of the canvas.  Clever!

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You can also get a sense of how large the studio is, and this is the small one.

Cole made use of a camera obscura, which I didn’t know.  The device uses mirror-lenses and light to create depictions (albeit upside down) of a targeted scene.  The artist then has a way to create accurate details, by tracing the projected image.  Maybe you can get a sense of it here.

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I don’t know if Jasper Cropsey used a camera obscura for accuracy, but I’m sure the Ever Rest guide Tony would know.  The Cropsey scholar gave me a private tour of the 1830s house that Cropsey and his wife bought later in life, well after the Civil War.

You can probably see why they were so attracted to this Hastings-on-Hudson cottage, despite the town’s industrial dominance.  This picture, the first approach, makes the house look deceptively small.

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This one gives you a better sense of the scale.

Carpenter Gothic style; this is the ‘front’ of the house with the peekaboo view of the Hudson

The inside is a revelation, particularly the studio Cropsey built for himself.  The house has always been with the family and is now run by a foundation, so all the furnishings and art are intact from when Cropsey lived here.  His presence is palpable.

Unlike so many other artists that wanted privacy and quiet in their studio, Cropsey made his workspace part of the house and the flow of activity.  At one time, two pianos filled the room with music and laughter from his daughters’ playing.

Now the room has only one piano, and the walls are filled with his canvasses.  All the paintings had to be repurchased.  When he died, his wife sold off all remaining his paintings to pay off their debts.  Unfortunately, the Hudson River School artists in 1900 were out of fashion, and she sold them for a song.  By the 1970s, descendants began buying their family heritage back, still for depressed prices.  They have recreated the atmosphere of the studio when Cropsey worked there.

Ever Rest Studio of Jasper Cropsey

And boy, is there ever atmosphere.  Every object has a story, and Tony knows them all.  But the space is commodious and certainly doesn’t feel crowded.  He and I could talk for hours in there.  What fun that would be.

So your homework now is to go look up these two quintessentially American artists and plan a trip to see what they saw.  Who knows?  You might want to paint it all, too.

P.S. If you hurry, you can see this marvelously evocative Cole painting “Architect’s Dream” at the newly opened exhibition space on the site of his second studio.  The painting apparently never leaves the Toledo Museum of Art, but Cedar Grove snagged it for this inaugural exhibition featuring Cole’s architectural work.

Thomas Cole. The Architect’s Dream. 1840.

That’s likely Cole lounging in the foreground with his architectural drawings, in this dreamscape of architectural styles.  The patron refused the painting (!), which is why it hung over Cole’s mantle in Cedar Grove through several descendants.  The patron wanted more landscape.

I reveled in this painting, with its Grand Tour of architectural stylings.  It’s truly a must see.  A rare and delightful display of Cole wit and whimsy!

Victoriana and Frogs

As many days as I commuted to Willimantic to teach last fall, I didn’t realize that it and Windham are gifted with so many Victorian and even older homes.  Because of the mills, these towns thrived with the Industrial Revolution, particularly after the Civil War.  Now, as with most other post-Industrial cities, life is a struggle.

So here’s to the brave homeowners who fight to keep the vintage alive, one going so far as to house his carpenter on the 3rd floor!  That’s really taking home repairs to hearth, all puns intended.

I started by visiting one of the mills that brought great wealth to Willimantic, an east coast train hub (who knew?).  The Willimantic Linen Company made its fortune, go figure, with cotton.  After all, attempts to grow flax for making linen really wasn’t practical, and why import when cotton was grown in the States?

Civil War military demands made the first wealth for the company.  As you know, I love the origins of words.  So t2016-06-04 11.09.59he Union Suit, what now we call onesies for infants and long johns for adults, came into being as the cotton underwear for under those scratchy Union Army uniforms.

And “all the bells and whistles.”  That comes from the bells and whistles in the mill’s tower to communicate with the workers.

A glimpse of mill grandeur; Greek temple front, Palladian windows, stone-built to last

A glimpse of mill grandeur; Greek temple front, Palladian windows, stone-built to last

This mill clearly no longer has all the bells and whistles.  Mill #2 has been converted into office space, but I was more taken with the “ruins” on site.  Who needs Europe?  Just tour post-industrial towns.  Imagine what Detroit looks like…

Nearby ruins

Nearby ruins

I visited 6 of the 10 houses on tour and was completely surprised that the Nelson Daniels House was built as a factory.  Yes, really.  From about 1902 to 1927, the Thread City Collar Company operated out of the building/house.  Like a cottage industry, although no doubt much more machine based, the 20 to 40 employees turned out men’s collars and cuffs, as well as tuxedo vestibules.  I wondered what that stiff stomacher of men’s tuxes was called.  Now we know–vestibules.

Carousel Porch

Carousel Porch

The Willimantic homes were definitely on the strolling path of neighbors, and I adore how the George Tiffany House’s porches were named.  The ground level porch is called the “carousel porch” because of its shape and the passion for carousels in the 1890s when the house was built.  Lounge on the carousel porch to let everyone know you are feeling sociable.


Look up for the Gossip Porch

Look up for the Gossip Porch




The upstairs porch is called the “gossip porch.”  Why?  When you sit up there, you are communicating to passersby that you do not want a visit.  Instead, you can hide and listen in on the conversations to catch the latest gossip.




I also learned a new term at the Wilton Little House, built about 1896.  The house style was described as Queen Anne-Folk.  Hmm.  Not too sure what Folk means, I said to the owner.  The example he used to make the point are these original stained glass windows.




Queen Anne

Queen Anne

Weir House decorative facade

Weir House decorative facade

Originally, I wanted to go on this tour because the Impressionist artist J. Alden Weir’s house was open in Windham Center.  Weir Farm in the Western part of the state is a wonderful national site that I’ve written about here.  At the current Weir exhibit, curated by wonderful Anne Dawson, at the Lyman Allyn, I learned that Weir also lived in the Quiet Corner of the state, in Windham.  When his first wife died, he married her sister, and they split their time between the two farms.

I really enjoyed seeing 3 viewing stations, where the scenery could be compared to Weir’s paintings.  Weir bragged about his “hollyhocking,” changing scenes for aesthetics, adding a hollyhock, moving a mountain, etc.  So those tweaks were fun to actually see.  Others have been transformed by modern life and more than 100 years.

Photograph in the house of Weir sitting in front of this view

Photograph in the house of Weir sitting in front of this view

The Great Frog Battle of 1758 is a Windham Colonial legend, and one of its key participants lived at the Eliphalet Dyer House, built in 1704.  Colonel Dyer was called out one night during a dry, hot summer, when loud, strange noises led residents to conclude they were being attacked by Native Americans.  Cautiously waiting until morning to check out the cause of the ruckus, the Colonel found that frogs had ferociously fought to the death over the remaining water in a nearby pond.  Sheesh.

On that note, on this hot day, I thought it was time to exit before I encountered an aggressive frog.  I like my frogs cute and cuddly.

Watch for killer frogs if you get near the Eliphalet Dyer House!

150 years and things

Time to stretch my brain with a visit to the Peabody Museum of Natural History, now celebrating its 150th anniversary with 150 distinctive objects from the collection.

You know me and science.  When people ask what a particular plant or tree is in the garden, I usually reply, “pretty” or “yellow.”  Astute, don’t you think?

So you can imagine how accomplished I was during the behind-the-scenes tour today.  My group visited mineralogy and anthropology (I thought I might have a chance with something humanish).

2016-06-02 16.43.51I liked the mineralogist, Stefan Nicolescu, short in stature, tall in passion.  Fortunately, he didn’t tell us about the 40,000 specimens in the collection, but focused instead on some history of the museum and a couple of good local stories.  He explained his accent, since he is from Transylvania.  One of the tour participants noted Transylvania was the origin place of the Unitarians.  Another quipped, “aren’t they the ones that stay up all night?”  Smart group.

They tracked with Stefan on all his explanations.  I played on the surface, liking the story of the meteor that landed nearby in Connecticut – yikes – which allowed Yale scientists to deduce for the first time that meteors are extraterrestrial.  And the explanation that 9 new species of minerals (minerals have species? Yes!) were discovered in the nearby Branchville quarry.  Each specimen makes the reference point for all other identifications!

Spodumene-top shelf, on the right

Spodumene-top shelf, on the right



There you go.

When you need to identify spodumene, I suggest you take your sample and compare it to this beauty at the Peabody.





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How do you talk about two million objects in 20 minutes?  I’m not sure, and maybe Roger Colton, curator, wasn’t either.  We found ourselves deeply admiring the 1930s storage compartments, which could be a study in themselves.  Dovetailed just like a good piece of furniture.

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A behind-the-scenes tour that is object-based would probably last 3 hours.  And that truly would be amazing here.

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One fact that stuck with me is the interesting find from a nearby rock shelter–a dolphin vertebrae.  Now how did that get here?  Deer bones, fish skeletons, fossilized birds, yes.  But dolphin?  There’s always more to discover with science.



Richard Conniff, author of House of Lost Worlds, then told us stories about the museum.  I liked the movie stories.  How the brontosaurus at the Peabody served as the model for the dinosaur Cary Grant’s character in “Bringing Up Baby” works on for years and years, before Katharine Hepburn brings it crashing to the ground in love for him.  Did I mention that Hollywood created a bone-by-bone replica?

The Peabody’s work on dinosaurs provided source material for Godzilla, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, based on the Yale explorer Hiram Bingham.

Life magazine’s cover from 1953 that excerpted from the 110′ long mural at the Peabody inspired a generation of budding scientists, including Richard himself.

You can glimpse the mural in the background, by looking through the dinosaur bones.

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From the exhibit, I was enchanted by Stumpy, the Archelon fossil of the largest marine turtle species ever found.  Incredible to be in its presence.  Richard calls this mammoth turtle Stumpy, due to that missing foot, taken off by a shark perhaps?  The Archelon may have eaten giant clams that grew up to 4′ wide.  Yes, the clam that ate New Haven is on display nearby.  I suggest you run…

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No need to run from this Olmec Colossal Head.  This king doesn’t scare anybody, not even this pint-sized girl with her stuffed animal.

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I have a particular fondness for statues with tongues sticking out, so you can imagine how much I like this debating stool from Papua New Guinea.  Carved from one piece of wood, his eyes are made of shell.

The stools are not for sitting but for formal debates.  The speaker strikes the stool with a bundle of leaves to reinforce a point.  Maybe Hillary needs one.

For most of my Peabody visit, I felt just as wide-eyed as this guy!