The Sole of Connecticut

Loving the quirky little exhibit here and there and relishing shoes as art, the shoe show at the Connecticut Historical Society is just the thing.


These well-heeled shoes for the well-heeled woman were not only owned, but also made by Hannah Edwards in about 1746.  Looking pretty sharp for 260 years old.  I would let Hannah make me a pair of shoes any day.

Like many Colonials, she made and repaired shoes at home, buying leather tanned by Native Americans.  Vegetarian spoiler alert:  the Indians used animal brains to tan the hides.

Even from early on, when shoes were made in small workshops called tanneries, chemicals from the process were dumped in our rivers.  Sigh.


These shoes were made from a military flag carried in the American Revolution.  Really!  Red silk damask and painted with gold.  Made in about 1780, they are a remarkable blend of patriotism and “waste not, want not.”

These shoes come from an era when many people went barefoot.  See this 1776 ad that offered a $5 reward for the return of an African-American man named London, who had run away with a coat, vest, leather breeches, two pair of trousers, and notably two pairs of shoes.


I’m very committed to flats, so marveled at this wisp of a shoe.

Colonial Ballet Flats

Colonial Ballet Flats

2016-10-13-17-31-49Owned by Ann Francis Darling in about 1865, I don’t see how this shoe could get a lady through a war.  These wedding shoes on the right from 1876 look like they would only last for that special day.


Mid-1800s N. Hayward & Co. shoe advertisement

1888-1893 Colchester Rubber Co. advertisement



Rubber has been big business in Connecticut since Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize it for durability in 1844.






Rubber shoes and boots showed up not long after.  In 1893, displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair, U.S. Rubber displayed these miniatures as advertisements for their full-sized counterparts.  They were sold as tchotchkes, too.  Instant nationwide marketing.

Attach canvas to a rubber bottom, and you get that feeling of walking barefoot.  Yes, back to our roots, when shoes were a luxury good.

Comfort and canvas and rubber and voila!, you get sneakers, a Connecticut invention.  These shoes were dubbed sneakers because the rubber soles allow you to sneak around very quietly.  Shhhh.


In 1916, U.S. Rubber consolidated 30 companies to form the Keds brand.  Soon athletes adopted Keds, as did just about everyone else, me included.  I’ve had some pretty sharp Keds in my day–colors, patterns.  Pretty groovy!

As was the pop culture section of the “Growing Up in Connecticut” exhibit also at CHS (it could have been Growing Up in Anywhere, U.S.A. after WWII).

This tv is so cute, it makes me reconsider having one of my own.


I was a Beatles fan, but don’t recall the baseball cards, like the one here on the left of John Lennon.  My brother and I would have loved those.


We did definitely play with lots of plastic dinosaurs and creepy figures.


Oh what memories!


Preserving Memory

I love a good story and a great storyteller.  This week, I had two encounters worth noting.

Tammy Denease knew her great-grandmother who was enslaved and lived to be 125.  Wow!  Mississippi, her home state, is a place that only recently actually outlawed slavery, and Tammy knew the mindset of slaves first hand.

Now in Connecticut, she tells the stories of incredible women from history, preserving the memory of their humanity, as well as who they were and what they accomplished.  At the New Haven Museum, she performed the story of “Sara Margu: Child of the Amistad.”  And what a story it is!.


Sara Margu was one of four children captured and put on the Amistad, which ironically means friendship in Spanish.  The ship was a slave vessel.  Sara’s name in her native Mendeland (now Sierre Leone) was Margu.

The Amistad story is probably more familiar now due to the Stephen Spielberg movie.  It tells of the remarkable case of a slave revolt in 1839, with the captured people taking over the ship.  Although they wanted to return to Africa, they couldn’t make that happen. The boat was captured in Long Island Sound by a US ship, and everyone on board was brought to shore in Connecticut.

The people declared themselves free, and the remaining crew and Spain labeled them property.  In an internationally famous case, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mende people, declaring them free, becoming a major marker for abolition.

What Denease does so well is skirt the famous portions of the story for the personal, the human.  She preserves the experience of Sara Margu by telling her very particular story–the horrors of the slave ship from a child’s perspective and her healing through education.

Sara Margu worked off debts her father accrued in Mende and was taken when she was already separated from her family.  She tells how the horrors didn’t really stop when the captives arrived in Connecticut.  Many were housed in New Haven, while figuring out next steps.  She describes that people paid 25 cents to look at the Africans, as locals had never seen or heard anyone like them before.

She also recounted how Josiah Gibb wanted to help and cleverly learned how to say the numbers 1-10 in Mende, then walked through black communities saying the numbers out loud until he found someone who understood what he was saying.  That man then became the translator for the interactions in New Haven.

Sara Marrgu was moved to Farmington where she lived with a family who had a deaf son and a kind woman named Sara (where she took that portion of her  name).  She communicated naturally with the son and began to learn English.

With the trial, she understood that the central issue was, “Am I a person or am I property.”  It was election year, and President Martin Van Buren said, property.  The Queen of Spain said, property.  But the US Supreme Court disagreed by a remarkable 6-1.

The Mende people could go home, but they had no money or sailing skills to get them there.  So they did the American thing and went on a speaking tour, telling of their “adventure” on the Amistad.  Sara Margu also singly demonstrated that Africans were intelligent by reading from the Book of Psalms.  Sigh.

But however demeaning, the tour was a success.  Sara Margu and the others raised enough to return home, and although they were not allowed to eat with white members on board, the travel was much more comfortable.  The missionaries who accompanied the Mende hoped they would help the whites start a school and convert the Mende.  One responded by ripping off his clothes upon return to show his tribal markings.  But Sara Margu helped as she could.

The missiona2016-03-10 18.14.42ries then paid for her to return to the US, to study at Oberlin, a college that accepted blacks.  Sara Margu was 14 years old.  It was 1844.  Although it wasn’t all peaches and cream, despite the liberal stance, she did learn and became the first black to graduate.

She returned to Africa and felt the outsiderness of not fitting in anywhere easily.  Still, she worked in the school, embracing Christianity along with her Muslim upbringing.  She married and had a child.  Not everyone who survived the Amistad to return had such a good life, and Denease relayed those stories, too.

For her, the world of the Amistad is more than a powerful legal case.  And one thing I really loved is that she doesn’t ever tell about the death of her historical figures.  Sara Margu can live on in our minds and hearts.

Carol Highsmith sees her work as preserving memory, too.  2016-03-09 18.23.41She has collaborated with the Library of Congress for 35 years, photographing America.  To the tune of 30,000 photos so far.  She is 70 and expects to continue for the next 15 years.

She just finished documenting Connecticut and told that story at the Connecticut Historical Society.  And she does consider her work documentary.  She is thinking about researchers in 500 or 1000 years wanting to understand the culture of the United States.

Diminutive in stature, but huge in confidence, bon amie, and story telling through photography, Highsmith is truly a national treasure.

She mixes and matches images because that’s how she sees America.  In her presentation, she might have an image of Lincoln’s coat he wore when he was shot next to Yellowstone and an image of the Mona Lisa on a barn.  She calls them all iconic.  And because nothing stays the same, she repeated, “that’s why we need to record ourselves.”

The entire archive of her work is downloadable and free via the Library of Congress.  You can have so much fun browsing it, looking for your state or favorite place.  Go for it.

Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin

Carol Highsmith, Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin

Beautiful things of late

Winter sensations all around.

The print show at the Yale University Art Gallery contains so much stunning beauty, and for me, a major revelation: Mortimer Menpes, the Australian who made a big career in London. Look at how the light and lines make the water ripple and sway around the piers.

Mortimer Menpes, A Narrow Canal, Vencie, 1912-3

Mortimer Menpes, A Narrow Canal, Vencie, 1912-3

In the age of the Grand Tour, his prints and paintings were wildly popular.

    Mortimer Menpes, The Piazza of St. Mark, Venice, 1910-11

Mortimer Menpes, The Piazza of St. Mark, Venice, 1910-11

The man himself…

Mortimer Menpes, Self portrait, 1916–17

Prints are all about loving the details.  As is high fashion.  The current Downton-Abbey inspired exhibit “From High Collars to Bees Knees” at Connecticut Historical Society is wondrous in the details.

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The 1920s changed the silhouette to simple, straight lines for very thin women.  Connecticut’s Cheney Mills brought French fashion sense to the state, with their fabrics manufactured in Manchester.

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Simple rhinestone embellishments and fresh-as-a-garden fabric.

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How nice for some winter beauty!


Riffs on Art and Quirky Toys and Games

As you know from Artventures! Game, I’m so happy to play with the over-seriousness of art.  One thing we need more of in the world right now is laughs.  So I’m delighted to introduce you to Bjorn Okholm Skaarup’s work currently on exhibit at the Bruce.

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Riffing on Degas.






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Ingres’ Odalisque

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Sphinx cat and Nefertiti







Just what I needed after a tough day.

Being a game inventor now (really?), I was especially interested in the look at historic Connecticut toys and games today at the Connecticut Historical Society.

I know that you like me can’t wait to play these games!

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In particular, I can hardly wait to play the board game ‘Connecticut’s Great Blizzard’.  Not.  Today, temps reached into the 60s.  Global warming has given us an incredibly mild fall.  Imagine during that first big storm calling out, “honey, want to play the Great Blizzard?”

The game is about getting all your errands done before Snowmageddon.  Really.

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Maybe in the 1980s, people loved just this kind of thing, cuddling up with a big mug of tea.  Would that be more fun than, say, ‘Campaigning for Election’–a game that seems to be about fundraising, too.  Both are a little too Reality-Showish for me.  Hilarious nonetheless.

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I’m getting a sense of my age, because toys from my childhood have hit the historic ranks.  We played telephone, my brother and I.  And with the Erector Set and Silly Putty and Whiffle Ball–all Connecticut-made.

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In that era of gendered toys, I’m pretty sure my brother had a chemistry set.

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We definitely had the toys that teach about the world of work–banks, fire trucks, and peculiarly here, a delivery truck of G. Fox & Co.  Maybe to help children to grow up to aspire to work there?  Or just good ol’ fashioned promotion.


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I’ve always found dolls creepy, and this c1902 doll in its underwear is absolutely no exception.  But below may be the first Teddy Bear I have ever found off-putting, this one made by the German Steiff Company.

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Gilbert was a New Haven company

Gilbert was a New Haven company





Some toys don’t seem to go out of favor and even become timely again–the Star Wars Pez dispenser heads, Barbie Dolls, and this James Bond Action Figure, strongly resembling the young Sean Connery.

Tough enough for boys, buff enough for girls.

How do you like that ad slogan I just invented?


I’ve written before about the Frisbee game invention that started with Yalie’s tossing the Frisbee’s 2015-12-12 14.28.25Pie tins.  What I didn’t know is that the Frisbee was originally called the ‘Pluto Platter’, a tie-in to the craze from Pluto’s discovery.  Which do you think works better–Frisbee or the Pluto Platter?

These hotly-debated questions fill my mind as I curl up with my hippo odalisque.





Revolutionary Stuff and Stories

We’re all starting to think early Colonial, big thanks, and bigger turkeys, but today I immersed in the end of the Colonial era, with the behind-the scenes tour of Revolutionary War stuff and stories at the Connecticut Historical Society.

You may have hea2015-11-21 14.10.47rd of Nathan Hale, wishing he had more than one life to give for his country.  He certainly could have used more than one.  This Yalie made a terrible spy, hanged at age 21.  George Washington had recruited Hale to carry messages behind the lines, but he was found out either by the British Major Roberts who pretended to be a patriot or by his cousin Samuel Hale, who exposed him.  I don’t know if this diary gives any clues to his cluelessness, but it’s there to be read.



Who wouldnCHS 1896.9.1‘t love the battle of the red’s?  This red coat belonged to Redcoat Munson Hoyt, a Connecticut loyalist fighting for the British.  The coat, as you can see, is in remarkable condition, given that Munson fought while wearing it.  After the war, he moved to Canada, taking advantage of the reward for his military service of a plot of land.  That didn’t keep him out of the new United States though.  He moved back to Long Island, where he met his wife and settled.

Somehow the bright red cloak of 22-year-old Deborah Champion not only retained its brilliance, but also didn’t get in the way of her spying activities.  Red is a color that catches the eye, a 2015-11-21 14.22.37notoriously bad choice for sneaking around.  But Deborah, who carried messages from her father to George Washington, apparently was all success.  Whenever she felt threatened, she could hide under a calash bonnet, also known as a ‘bashful bonnet’, with its broad hood, disguising herself as an old lady.  Of course, we all know that old ladies couldn’t possibly be spies!

Although Connecticut didn’t see a lot of battle action as the ‘provision state’ (supplying all of George Washington’s armies’ needs), some memorable battles did happen here.  In 1781, Benedict Arnold betrayed his home state and his mentor Washington with his insider knowledge.  He knew that the signal for an enemy ship along the Connecticut River was two cannon shots, with three for a friendly ship.

The hole on the right shows where he was stabbed.

The hole on the right shows where he was stabbed.

When a British ship was sited and two shots were fired, Arnold had the third fired as well, delaying the patriot army’s response.  Also outnumbered, the patriots lost the battle at Fort Griswold at New London.  Even though the patriots surrendered, fighting continued.  Imagine this vest on Colonel William Ledyard, who in the act of surrendering his sword, was bayoneted 14 times by an unnamed British soldier.  Yikes!  So much for a gentlemanly engagement of war.

The vest came to the Historical Society, blood and all, in 1841.  A diligent curator thought the blood stains would upset the ladies and had the vest cleaned.  All curators since have been turning in their graves and sighing, including the two interns leading our tour.  Still you can clearly see where the bayonet penetrated, making this soldier’s unjust fate all the more real..

Imagine the day-to-day life of a patriot soldier.  You had to “grab your gun and go” to war, bringing your squirrel-hunting rifle, or whatever was handy.  Wear any garments you had that might keep you warm and dry.  Not like the British soldiers who were outfitted in red coats and the latest armament technology–the flint-lock rifle.

Imagine marching with a gun as big as you are!

Imagine marching miles and miles with a gun as big as you are!

You would wear your shoes out marching, so that you’d be better off barefoot.  Your clothes would be in tatters.  Why?  Not only are you carrying a 10-pound rifle, but also your bedroll and all your supplies.  With malnutrition and disease limiting growth, the gun might be as big as the man.  That was verified by the tiny red coat on display and the 5’2″ intern with a rifle.

What a life.  It did help to believe in the cause.  In Connecticut, only 50% were patriots, while 20% were loyalists.  30% probably wanted to see who would win.

Phineas Meigs’ broad-brimmed hat

Phineas Meigs would never find out.  Ostensibly the last Connecticut soldier to die in the war, his hat made it to the Historical Society in 1859 and clearly shows the entrance and exit sites of the bullet that killed him.

Age 73, this private fought in the Battle of Madison on May 19, 1782, when the war was winding down.  Meigs left his home to respond to the alarm.  Armed British ships had been chasing a merchant vessel that sailed for cover in Madison.  The resulting skirmish left one British soldier and Meigs dead, the latter close to his own home.  Someone included his hat when returning his body home.  The family clung to if for 75 years.  It’s chilling to see in person, taking the war out of the history books and onto a real guy’s head.

2015-11-21 14.30.23Maybe one of the last things he would have seen would have been his regimental flag.  Here’s a remarkable flag that was “raised 1640” and still flew in the Revolutionary War.  Its red color suggests it was a state militia flag originally, then appropriated later by the patriots.  Betsy Ross didn’t make any kind of flag in time for the war.  That’s all myth, and another story.  But this flag is the real deal.  Its silken tatters are a reminder of the remarkable stories that make the past seem like just a moment ago.



Bonus!  Non-Revolutionary-War gowns being staged for an upcoming Downton Abbey exhibit

Bonus! Non-Revolutionary-War gowns being staged for an upcoming Downton Abbey exhibit

Yankee Character and Curiosities

Connecticut Historical Society currently has a crowd-sourced exhibition of 50 Objects/50 Stories.  Community members provided the uncurated objects, and they are on display through the end of the year.  Here’s what stood out for me.

2015-10-13 13.17.50I know sailors had a lot of time on their hands to whittle, create intricate sailor’s valentines out of shells, and carve ivory.  I hadn’t seen anything though that combined that past-time with a game.  This carved walrus tusk has a cribbage board for decoration.  Clever way to provide endless hours of fun, created around 1905vby Harry, a native of Hudson Bay.


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Sailors also brought nutmeg back from their travels, and Connecticut became known as the Nutmeg State.  This nutmeg, actually carved wood from the Charter Oak, references a hoodwink pulled by Yankee peddlers.  No problem huckstering the fake nut apparently.  And there’s the other link to the state’s history.  The Charter Oak, a huge, 400-year-old oak in Hartford, was hollow and apparently served as a hiding place for the state’s charter, preserving a measure of independence for the colony.  Due to a storm in 1856, it fell, and remnants show up in intriguing ways like this fake nutmeg.


2015-10-13 13.20.15Although I hadn’t thought about it before, now it makes sense.  During World War II, at war with Japan, silk wasn’t available to make parachutes.  But nylon was (sorry, ladies, there goes your hosiery).  Pioneer Parachute Company, still in business in Connecticut providing parachutes to NASA, developed a ‘ripstop’ nylon for parachutes, first tested when Adelaide Gray jumped from a plane in 1942.  You go, girl!2015-10-13 13.20.20




Those courageous women.

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I was part of the ERA push, modeled by my politically-active, lawyer aunt who fought for the ERA in Texas.  Sigh.  What I don’t remember was a suit like this, apparently worn by supporters, along with the banner, in Connecticut.



2015-10-13 13.20.53I’m pretty fascinated by all things buttons, inheriting a jar of buttons my mother saved from her seamstress mama.  Waterbury was the historical center for button manufacture here, and I love this centennial display of U.S. Button Company’s brass buttons from 1876.  Just gorgeous.


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You know I love the quirky.  In Windsor, the springtime shad run (that’s a fish, folks) is now celebrated with the Shad Derby, complete with passing this derby hat on each year to a new festival chairperson.  A tradition since 1970.  Museum-worthy?  Apparently yes!




2015-10-13 13.28.22Yes, that ritual-oddity quirk is part of the Yankee personality, and so is Yankee ingenuity.  In 1821, Sophia Woodhouse patented this Leghorn Bonnet, woven from reeds collected from the Connecticut River.  Women like Maria Francis continued to make the hat to supplement household incomes.  The bonnet is famous enough to be the subject of a satirical poem, also on display at CHS.


2015-10-13 13.24.35In the mid 1800s, the West Hartford School for the Deaf and Dumb used these teaching scrolls as a foundation for learning concrete cooking and farming words.  Students would link pictures to the words, later adding more complex, abstract ideas and written paragraphs.  Considered innovative, I think reading learning may be taught the same way now for the hearing, too.


2015-10-13 13.28.39Stephen Walkley, Jr, a Southington soldier in the Civil War, was issued this piece of hardtack in 1864.  That it’s intact today suggests a couple of things.  One, it was so awful, Walkley likely ate anything but, and two, it was made to last.  Flour, water, and salt was all it took to make hardtack, used since 1588 by the Spanish Armada.  Civil War soldiers were lucky enough to be issued hardtack dating from the Mexican War 13 years earlier (I guess that’s better than centuries-old hardtack).  Hopefully this piece isn’t infested with any weevil larvae!


2015-10-13 13.36.32A different kind of war was fought in the Tobacco sheds in the Connecticut River Valley.  Women would ruin their fingers sewing cigar leaves together, until this sewing machine was invented.  Working in the tobacco sheds was apparently a local rite of passage.  Glad I missed that one.

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Bandaged fingers, a rite of passage