Wow, did I fall down on the promise to update weekly..

Luckily for me, the part-time work turned into full time work. But my energy and motivation levels have dropped to alarming lows. Looks like I’ll have to push again to get myself writing.

Last week someone joyfully shared with me Benjamin Vaughan’s papers. He got them online. He was in Bar Harbor. He didn’t have to go to Boston. I mentally kicked myself severely.

Next time I have time, I’ll be sending away a request for the digital copies of Vaughan’s papers to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. I got to scan through them quickly last week and I am still so excited to learn more about how awesome this guy is.

More to come tomorrow.

And now for something completely different, again. In a fit of Valentine-inspired research, I dug into my notes and books from the past and found lots I forgot about apples and love, or more precisely, apples and sex and poems.

Don’t worry, this is safe for work. It is Valentine’s Day, after all.

If you think about it, food is linked very closely with love, seduction, sex and reproduction. But I’m not gonna go all food revolution with this – if you read any contemporary writing about food (Pollan, Slow Food, any good food writing) you’ll find people are more and more linking the process of growing, harvesting, preparing and eating food to building friendship, family, and community. All that info is out there.

But aphrodisiacs, those are different.

I was shuffling through my random collection of books this morning and found “Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days.” It’s a cute read, lots of little facts and memories and recipes from the couple who wrote it. And tucked under “January 25″ is all this info about aphrodisiacs – substances thought to increase sexual desire or pleasure. Casanova, the Marquis de Sade, Napoleon, Montezuma, and Madame de Pompadour all relied on aphrodisiacs in an effort to either get themselves in the mood or increase their stamina. Chocolate, truffles, chilis, hot peppers, curries, and oysters can increase heart rate, enhance one’s mood by stimulating a release of endorphins, or increase testosterone and sperm count due to high levels of zinc. Other foods are thought to naturally enhance one’s sexuality because of their resemblance to the human body – asparagus, figs, caviar, sweetbreads, strawberries and avocados. In Aztec culture, women were not allowed to go outside when avocados were being harvested (the Aztec word for avocado also meant testicle). I also seem to remember reading somewhere that Victorian women were not allowed to eat figs because of their similarity to female reproductive organs, but I’ve scoured all of my books and notes and have not been able to find that anywhere. It may have been in an etiquette manual I was randomly reading about a year ago, or it might be something I made up. Personally, I can see a vague resemblance, but really?

This print goes for $287.50. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been busy. On Tuesday I decided to paint my living room; I’m not at a stage in my life to invest in a couch (I’m twenty-two, that seems like a big step) but apparently I’m comfortable paying money to cover up the orange walls. So Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to painting and the rest of the week I spent putting my apartment back together. I stupidly haven’t done much else. Apparently my slight obsessive-compulsive disorder goes into full drive when all the furniture from my living room is in my bedroom and everything smells like paint. It was a project.

I am still trying to figure out what to do with the hard facts I got from the Vaughan family correspondence that I went through two Fridays ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society. So if you’re curious about that stuff, I’m sorry but you’ll have to wait until I gather some more context. My budget may allow another trip to Boston in the coming days, perhaps next weekend, so that will happen soon.

I did have lots of time to think this week, while I was scrubbing the floor and airing out the apartment. And I thought a lot about the experience of holding an old letter in your hands. Although I guess you never really hold them, you try to flip them over without touching them at all. And there is most likely an archivist sitting a discreet distance away, but close enough to cough or even walk over to you and gently whisper what you’re doing wrong. I accidentally made the mistake of scooting one of the folders closer to me across the table so that I could lean back in my chair while deciphering a letter. The folder was apparently hanging over the edge (by about half an inch) which required the observant Society employee to come over and correct me. I felt bad.

So this thought crossed my mind while I was starting the second coat of paint. And if it is a naïve or pretentious thought, I apologize.

I only saw an original and real, real old handwritten document about two years ago. And I’m not talking about a middle-school field trip to a museum to see the Constitution or anything. These papers aren’t behind thick glass and there aren’t a bunch of other tourists jostling for position. You can touch these things, or you can touch them as much as the archivists will allow. So I wanted to explain how it is like to experience this stuff.

I was neither allowed nor equipped to take photographs while at the archive so to give you a sense of what these sort of documents look like, I googled “nineteenth century handwritten letter.” This is maybe the tenth picture that popped up. You can click the photo to get to the site.

http://www.loc.gov/wiseguide/apr10/letter.html

Envelopes were hand-made until the 1840s. But paper wasn’t as easy to get as it is today and making an envelope took time and an unconcern for the wasted paper left over from cutting the correct shape. Envelopes, that is, a separate paper container to put a letter inside, were for affluent people. I highly suggest reading this – a wonderfully long history of the envelope written by a very focused and I assume passionate man named Maynard H. Benjamin. I admit, I’ve only skimmed, but it is now on my list of things to read when I “have time.”

So, no envelopes in 1815. Instead, you would simply get a big piece of paper and fold it in half. Now you have at least three pages to write your letter on and the back page is where you write the recipient’s address. But some letter-writers needed to squeeze in an extra post-script, so the margins and front of the make-shift envelope were often scribbled on. And sometimes letters seemed to be used as scrap paper before or after they were sent, with notes in a different handwriting or calculations scrawled on the side that don’t relate at all to the content of the letter. This all makes things very confusing. Not to mention that a lot of the time the ink has soaked through the paper and because the second page is the back of the first page, one could spend a long time trying to translate what turns out to be a sentence unrelated, just a mirror image from the back.

Now lets talk about handwriting. Its cursive. And I have to say, I am one of those people who cannot easily read cursive. I can understand my mother’s handwriting, and my boss’s scrawl, but that takes practice. These are strangers and a few of them don’t even appear to try to make real words, just long horizontal squiggles. Every letter blends together; r’s and m’s and w’s and n’s and even o’s are pretty much the same thing.

So all in all it is frustrating. Especially when you aren’t really allowed to touch them.

But I still enjoy it. It’s a weird excitement, like a baseball fan that gets to go to the Hall of Fame and not only see their favorite player’s glove, but to try it on. But not really like that, because I don’t know these people, I only get a brief sense of who they were by what they are writing. And only a fraction of that. Maybe its like a baseball fan just trying on a glove from a nameless player from when the game began.

You get to touch something real, from two-hundred years ago. It something with mass and texture and a smell. It’s personal, whether it was a business transaction or a love letter, not like a public building or anything from a museum. Someone put time and emotion and thought into that piece of two-hundred year old paper. You can see where they chose the wrong word and had to cross it out. You can see when they were rushed and when they took time to write their signature with care. You almost picture them at their desk, grabbing an extra piece of paper to jot a note down on, then folding it up and sealing the wax for it to be sent off. It is a tiny but concrete piece of a person and their thoughts and concerns from a specific time. You can touch what they touched. It makes that person a bit more real, not just a fuzzy gray apparition from a history book. It’s like when you’re a kid and finally see a photo of your favorite musician. You knew sort of who they are from their voice and their songs, but then you see them and they coalesce into something actual.

That is cool. That is something to be excited about. But maybe this is where I’m naïve or pretentious. Lots and lots of people do this all the time. Perhaps I don’t need to explain what its like or how it can be frustrating and difficult and disappointing and mind-blowingly awesome. So if I didn’t, I’m sorry you read all this way to not find anything new.

But wait! Read this:

My dear sister,

My wits are not the brightest, nor have I any stock of news to tell you that I can now bring to my recollection, yet I think you will receive some little stream of pleasure on seeing my hand writing, or reading that I love you all with the same sincerity I ever did.

From what I can make out, that is from a letter to Sarah Vaughan from her sister on April 8, 1815. I wish I had a sister so that she could write me similar things. What a delightfully verbose way of saying “Hey sis. Nothing new here. I love you guys.” But I suppose it isn’t verbose; every word in that sentence was there to convey exactly how Sarah Vaughan’s sister felt.

Now tell me that isn’t fun to read. That language makes even the most banal business transaction (of which I read many) seem soaked in meaning. That makes it worth the effort, though I suppose to more time I spend reading, the less Romantic spin I’ll put on it and the more business-like this stuff’ll become. We’ll see – Boston soon again, fearfully and hopefully!

Boston was not a complete failure but I definitely wouldn’t call it a success.

The short story is that I paid thirty-six dollars (money that I really can’t part with right now) on parking fees to look at the wrong material. And I dislike driving in Boston. I dislike it very much. So I wasn’t really happy all day.

The historical society ended up ordering the wrong box from the off-site storage, so I couldn’t ask them to go get the other one. Instead of the miscellaneous papers of Benjamin Vaughan, I got the Vaughan family correspondence between 1815 and 1817.

But wait, you might say. That sounds like it would still be beneficial to read through! All of the Vaughans were fairly important around Maine, Massachusetts and England and they probably had their hands in a lot of fruit propagation; they probably talked about it in their letters to each other! You fool, Natalie, that sounds like an important source of historical information about the time period you are focusing on and the family you want to find more about. Why didn’t you just suck it up and read through all their letters?

You might even be thinking to yourself that I, a New Yorker and therefore required by a blood oath taken at the age of thirteen to dislike Boston, was letting the irritation of traffic and Boston road work ruin my day of research. You would be a bit right. But it wasn’t all that bad when I finally got to the society’s building. It was one of those classically scary New England-y buildings with the big foyer: dark green carpet and a lonely looking guy behind the welcoming desk. I am pretty sure my voice echoed when I said my name. I was ushered into a side room to fill out paperwork and receive a nice little orientation from one of the archivists. It was all nicely choreographed and welcoming. They even let me keep my laptop.

I got to settle myself in a quiet corner in their reading room, right next to the sun soaked window and grandfather clock. I spread my notes out on the wide wooden table, with one of those pretty glass lamps that looks like its been there since the nineteenth century. Everything was so traditionally scholarly I could barely stand it. I forgot about the traffic roaring past my right ear. I began to enjoy Boston. I changed my mind about the whole state of Massachusetts.

The very accommodating librarian brought over my box of goodies and, even though I realized it was the wrong one, I didn’t care so much. I was just content to sit in my seat and quietly pore over original handwritten letters from the early 1800s. It was with much joy that I deciphered word after word on each page from the first folder of letters. Oh, those silly pre-Victorians! How did they understand each other’s cursive back then!

That was my first hour there. I was still giddy in the novelty of being able to touch those letters. [A giddiness that I don’t think will ever go away. My current employer brought back original family letters from the Civil War and I had to contain my glee when I got to hold them. I don’t know what it is, but the mix of excitement and guilt at holding stuff from a long time ago is weird and everlasting.]

My second hour was when the thought of the price of parking crept in, as well as the growing frustration that Benjamin Vaughan’s son, William Oliver Vaughan, was the only no-good merchant in the whole dang family that could pick up a pen and write a letter. Another guy, Gideon Snow, was apparently really into correspondence and I guess he owed Oliver V. a bunch of money because every other letter for two years was from O’s “Good and loyal friend, Gideon Snow.” There were some random business transactions and a couple of inquiries after the family, but most of Box Four from the Vaughan Family Papers collection were letters dealing with money and the shipping and lumber business around Maine and Massachusetts, mostly between Gideon Snow and Oliver Vaughan.

Now, I admit, I should have stayed in the society reading room. I should have sat there until they closed and gone through the box of letters. I should have spent the next two hours with my head bent over these beat up letters, straining by the fading sun light to piece together Mr. Snow’s horribly mangled handwriting. I know, I can hear my adviser’s voice in my head: “And why didn’t you go through the whole box again?”

Because.

One: I had already arrived much later than I wanted to at the society and I didn’t want to stay too late and get back to Bar Harbor at midnight. Two: I was beginning to wonder how much the parking garage would charge me for leaving my car there. Three: I had lost the joy of research and was rapidly spinning into hating the entire Vaughan family. These three emotions quickly coalesced into two rationalizations. One: I can come back to Boston, ditch my car at a friend’s house so I don’t owe money, get the right box and spend at least the entire day at the society going through the rest of the correspondence along with the miscellaneous papers. Two: I better leave as soon as possible so that I can get home before Friday becomes Saturday and I don’t feel dead all weekend from the drive.

So I left. I felt like a cheat for a little while, making those really nice people at the historical society drag that box all the way from the off-site storage area so that I could disdainfully decline to absorb all its contents. But then I got over it when the parking garage charged me thirty-six dollars for leaving my car there for just less than a three hours. The lady at the booth did not look understanding when I scrambled for cash and then sheepishly asked if they took credit card. It was a resentful and slightly stressful drive back to Maine.

That is the long story. I have a bunch of information but none of it really relates to what I went there to find. Again, I can hear my adviser’s voice: “That is just how historical research goes!” It would have been slightly annoying when I was still in school and then quickly forgotten but I’m still chafing a bit from the amount of money I spent on that trip. But, it means that next time I get paid I’m hiking it down to Boston again to hopefully have a more fulfilling time at the historical society. And for now, I will be looking at historical societies and libraries closer to home. Although I did just stumble across a collection of Benjamin Vaughan’s papers at the University of Michigan. That won’t be happening anytime soon – I can barely make it to Boston.

And, as a final note, I have nothing against the city of Boston, the state of Massachusetts, or any of the people who reside in it. My best friend lives there. I have family there. I almost went to school there. This was mostly composed the night I got back and was still angry at the roads and the cars and myself. And I may have been kidding about that blood oath thing.. I am fairly certain that is just for people in NYC.

I’m in the reading room of the historical society. Whispering is encouraged.

college of the atlantic

A recent graduate attempts to continue uncovering the story of apples, cider and farmers in Maine. Can she maintain her motivation and write something important that people want to read?

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from the Herefordshire Pomona

from the Herefordshire Pomona

from the Herefordshire Pomona

by Margaret Senior

by Margaret Senior

by Margaret Senior

by Margaret Senior

by Margaret Senior

by Margaret Senior

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