Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Faces of Civil War Vets

 Favorite Photograph Friday.

Since Memorial Day has just passed and flags are flying all over town in tribute to our country’s  military defenders, it seemed appropriate to share with you this photograph of a group of Civil War veterans assembled in Reading, Massachusetts in 1894 on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the town. 

I love this photo because of the faces—especially of the older men.  Each one is worth a portrait.  And you can see how proud they are of their uniforms and accomplishments.  Some of the younger men, like the boy who’s second from the left in the back row, clearly are too young to have fought in the Civil War.  Perhaps only the front row are the Civil War vets.

This photograph, which is a large albumen print mounted on cardboard, is approximately 8 by 10 inches in size.  On the back someone has written, “Reading 250 Anniversary, Commander Harley Prentiss and staff, 1894.”

(Every time I find an identification like that on the back of any old photograph, I breathe a little prayer of thanks and vow that I, like my mother, will always identify photos before I stash them away.  Of course I don’t, especially because most of my photos exist only in my computer.)

A little Googling got me this information:  “Harley Prentiss served in the 50th Regiment of infantry of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia in the late war of the rebellion.”  

And in a listing of soldiers I found: “Sergt. Clerk Harley Prentiss. Age 18 – Reading. Enl. Aug. 11, 1862.  Mustered Sept. 19, 1862. Mustered out Aug. 24, 1863.  Subsequent service Co. E – lst Battery heavy artillery.  Died in Reading MA.”

Now I am not one of those photo collectors who specialize in the Civil War.  I know these collectors (who are mostly men)  could tell me everything about these medals and uniforms and insignia.  If someone would like to fill me in by leaving a comment below, I’d really appreciate it.

I’m guessing that the man  seated in the center  of the first row is  Harley Prentiss, with the feathers (cockade?) on his hat.  If he enlisted at age 18 in 1862, he would be 50 in this photo in 1894.

But this guy, with his dashing hat labeled “194, G.A.R.” also looks pretty important.  (I do know that G.A.R. stands for Grand Army of the Republic.)

And this man on the far right—what’s that stick he’s holding?  I notice that some of the belt buckles have stars on them and others have eagles but what’s on this buckle, I’m not sure.

I’m hoping some of you Civil War experts out there will fill me in.  But in the meantime, let’s all raise a glass to honor the men and women who have been risking their lives in defense of our country since 1776.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Executioner’s Granddaughter

The Story Behind the Photograph
Last week, as I was selecting antique photos of children with toys from my collection for my post of May 18, I picked up this one of a curly-headed moppet holding a toy lamb and a riding crop.  It’s a CDV (carte de visite) a calling-card-sized photo that could have been taken any time from 1854 to 1900.  The photographer is listed as “Samson” in Liege, Belgium.

Then I turned the card over and saw some words in French that set me on a path to a fascinating story about the man who executed King Louis XVI and nearly 3,000 others.  (His son guillotined Marie Antoinette.)
I didn’t need my high school French to translate the words on the back of the card as: “Louise Samson, Descendent of Sanson who decapitated Louis XVI, King of France.”

I don’t know why I never noticed this inscription before.  But thanks to the internet, which I didn’t have when I started collecting photos, I quickly learned the bizarre story of Charles Henri Sanson (1739 to 1806) who was the  fourth in a six-generation dynasty of Royal Executioners of France.  His great grandfather and grandfather and father were all named Charles Sanson too.

The Charles Henri Sanson who beheaded Louis XVI really didn’t want to be an executioner—he longed to be a doctor—but when his father became ill, his bossy paternal grandmother forced him to give up the study of medicine and take over as royal executioner to continue the income and position of the family.

It was this Charles Henri Sanson who introduced the guillotine –invented by  Joseph-Ignace Guillotin--as the executioner’s weapon of choice, because it was more efficient and humane than previous methods.  He was no doubt inspired by a very messy and unpleasant execution when, as Wikpedia puts it, “In 1757 Sanson assisted his uncle Nicolas-Charles-Gabriel Sanson, executioner of Rheims, with the extremely gruesome execution of the King’s attempted assassin Robert-Francois Damiens.  Through his well-executed intervention he shortened the quartering of the delinquent and thus the pain  His uncle quit his position as executioner after this event.”  (Wikipedia also says of Sanson, “His hobbies included the dissection of his victims and the production of medicines using herbs he grew in his garden.  In his free time he liked to play the violin and cello.”)

Charles Henri Sanson put on the blood-red coat of the master executioner in 1757 and held the position for 38 years. He performed 2918 executions.  He executed Louis XVI on Jan. 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution which is now Place de la Concorde  He was assisted by his two sons,  Gabriel, the youngest, who was supposed to eventually take over the job, but Gabriel “died after slipping off a scaffold as he displayed a severed head to the crowd,” (talk about irony!) so the position fell to the older son, Henri (1767-1840) who took over in April, 1793 and remained the official executioner of Paris for 47 years.  Only six months after  he started, Henri  executed Marie Antoinette.

His son, Charles Henri’s grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, took over the job in 1840 and served until 1847.  He was the sixth and last in the dynasty of executioners.

One of my favorite stories  is this: “An anecdote reports that Charles-Henri Sanson after his retirement met Napoleon Bonaparte and was asked if he could still sleep well after having executed more than three thousand people.  Sanson’s laconic answer was, ‘If emperors, king and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?”

Thirty-seven years after the beheading of Louis XVI, Alexandre Dumas interviewed Henri Sanson—Marie Antoinette’s executioner--about the king’s behavior on the scaffold. Dumas asked about the report that there was a “wrestling bout” between the king and the four assistants at the foot of the scaffold. 

Henri replied, “The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free.  At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful.  So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him ‘It is necessary to tie your hands.’  On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion.  ‘Never!’ he cried, ‘Never!’ and pushed back the man holding the rope.  The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward…It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, ‘With a handkerchief, Sire’.  At the word ‘Sire’, which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced and…said ‘So be it, then, that too, my God!’ and held out his hands.”

As for little Louise Samson, the innocent child holding the lamb in the photograph above—she would not have been the grandchild of Charles Henri , because his son Henri died in 1840.  She could be the child of Charles’ grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, the sixth and last executioner, but I suspect she’s another generation removed. 

Notice that the family name Sanson has been changed to “Samson” for Louise, and the photographer who took the photo in Liege, Belgium, is also named Samson.  This child’s father may have changed his name and moved to Belgium to escape the blood-soaked history of his forefathers and open a photography studio.

Or the inscription on the back of the CDV may be wrong.  Maybe Louise is not really descended from the famous executioners.    But even if this is the case, I’m glad that the written words led me to a fascinating history that I’d never heard before. It’s accidental discoveries like this—sheer serendipity—that keep me collecting antique images and looking for the story behind the photo.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Amalía Does San Francisco & Wine Country, Part Two

On the second day of her San Francisco visit, Amalía, eight-month-old fashionista, headed for the wineries of the Russian River Valley with Tia Marina at the wheel and Yiayia Joanie and Mommy Eleni completing her posse.
Amalía visited three wineries in all:  first Copain in Healdsburg, noted for its Syrahs and Pinot Noirs and the view of the Russian River Valley.
Because Amalía is too young to drink, she enjoyed the crackers that came with the tasting wines.
And she met a dog named Max.

The next day she visited the Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville, noted for their, uh, champagnes, and had a delicious lunch.
The third winery was the DeLoach vineyards in Santa Rosa, noted for its Pinot Noirs.  It was so crowded with tasters that Amalía could hardly make it up to the bar.
They stayed in one of the western-themed cottages at Fern Grove in Guerneville, a quaint small town where Amalía saw her first five and ten cent store.

But walking across the historic Guernevillae bridge proved exhausting-- perhaps she had partied too late the night before.
Best of all was the Amalía's first sight of the Redwoods in the Armstrong Redwood Park--now part of the state park systems.  She was awed by the trees--so tall,

with such big roots
and so ancient that some are more than 1,400 years old.

On the way back to San Francisco they stopped at a house party at the home of a college friend of her Mommy's.  There, in the back yard, Amalía got a chance to practice her walking and her crawling while wearing her psychedelic dress and the retro-hippie headband that she'd packed specially for San Francisco.
Amalía was very sad saying good-bye to Tia Marina before she and her posse left for JFK on the red-eye, but she managed to sleep the whole way back, which is a lot more sleep than her Mommy did, and Mommy  had to go to work as soon as the plane landed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Amalía Does San Francisco (Part One)

 Recently People magazine had a page of photos of Suri Cruise, fashion guru of the pre-school set, hitting the hot spots in Manhattan with a stuffed giraffe as her constant escort (although he looks more like a deer to me.)

During the same week, my granddaughter Amalía, eight months old, fashion guru of the pre-walking set, flew to  San Francisco with her Mommy and Yiayia Joanie to hang out with her Aunt Marina (known as "Tia Marina"), attend a book event presenting her Mommy’s new novel “Other Waters” and take a quick tour of Wine Country and a hike through a redwood  forest.
She didn’t have a stuffed animal as an escort, although a teddy bear was seen atop her head at the Fairmont Hotel, and a certain mooing cow went AWOL before the flight back, but Amalía still managed to flaunt the latest fashions while partying like a rock star on the  Left Coast.
She chose psychedelic clashing colors for brunching at the famous (since 1918) St. Francis Diner in the Mission District near Tia Marina's apartment.
It was Cinco de Mayo, so there was a lot of celebrating (including dancing Skeletons) in the streets.

Amalía admired the fabulous murals on nearly every wall in the Mission District.

She took in the view from the roof of Tia Marina's building in the Mission.
And in downtown San Francisco, on the roof of the buiding where Tia Marina works for BAR Architects, there was a giant heart.

From the Fairmont Amalía walked with Yiayia Joanie to Chinatown.  (It was a very steep hill.)
One day her Mommy spoke at Book Passage in the Ferry Building, about her new novel "Other Waters." That's the Ferry Building in the background below.

Afterward some friends stayed for dinner at a restaurant in the same building.

That night there was a wine and cheese pajama party at the Fairmont, but Amalía, in her jammies, was all partied out.

(Tomorrow--Partying through wine country and the Redwood forest.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Found Art: Postage Stamps Celebrate U.S. Poets!

It happened on April 21, but I didn’t realize it until I went to the post office recently and learned that the USPS had issued a sheet of stamps immortalizing America’s Twentieth Century Poets.   This made me very happy, because I think poetry is perhaps the most difficult form of literature, but poets today are the least appreciated and the least financially rewarded of any writers (and that’s saying a lot.)

“Throughout the ages, poetry has been regarded as important and providing unique value, giving us all a better understanding of life,” said David Williams, the U.S. Postal Service vice president, Network Operations, on the day the stamps were introduced at the 17th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “That is why the Postal Service is so proud to be dedicating a new commemorative Forever stamp pane that celebrates 10 of our nation’s most admired poets, which include United States Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners.”

Even better, the back of the page of stamps had brief quotations from their works, which really made you want to go back and re-read the poems.

I feel especially close to Sylvia Plath—because she, like me, was a Mademoiselle Guest Editor, (about ten years before I was) and wrote about it in “The Bell Jar”, including the nervous breakdown she had right afterward which led to her first suicide attempt.

I also have a special interest in Elizabeth Bishop because she lived for a while in Worcester, MA, as I do now.

So get over to your nearest Post Office and help celebrate our country’s modern  poets.

(You can see I already used up one Joseph Brodsky to send a letter—Good grief!  I see he’s only a year older than I am, but died in 1996!)

I plan to keep the rest of the stamps as a souvenir of my fellow Americans who have conquered the highest peak of literary accomplishment.   May their memory be eternal and may we continue to get pleasure and knowledge from their work.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tots with (Antique) Toys—Boy or Girl?

Favorite Photos Friday
(Click on these photos to enlarge them)

(Pushing the wheelbarrow is John Butler Woodward, Jr., photographed on Dec. 9, 1892, 3 years old.)

While collecting vintage photographs, I’ve always gravitated toward photos of children. Even better are images of children with toys, because these are sought by doll collectors, teddy bear collectors; all sorts of people who are willing to pay for a glimpse of the nineteenth-century toys cherished by children over 100 years ago.

Here are photos from my collection of children with toys. You can help me figure out if the adorable urchin in each photo is a boy or a girl.  Remember that boys did not put on pants until they were about five or six.  When we see a tot in a lace dress with a large hair bow, today we assume that it’s a girl, but I only have to recall a photo I have of my father, circa 1908, when  he’s about 2 years old, wearing long blond sausage curls, a big white hair bow and a white dress. BUT his hair is parted on the side.  That’s one of the clues:  inevitably in Victorian photos, boys have their hair parted on the side and girls are parted right down the middle—unless the little angel has hair so curly or so sparse that you can’t part it.
 (A sweet little girl holding a boy doll, photographed by Warren in Cambridgeport, Mass.)

Here are some other clues that the kid in the photo is a boy: he has  a plaid or tartan sash, he’s holding a riding crop.  But as you’ll see below, these are not sure-fire clues.
Carrie Taylor—A big girl with a big doll from Ulrichsville, Ohio

 Schenectady, N.Y.
 (I’m betting this one’s a girl even though her doll has a mustache)

This is  Marion Hillard ????ward Photographed in Wilkes Barre, PA on  Dec. 1897 at the age of 2 years, 5 months.  Someone has written under her photo “See!  The pussy cat!” but all we can see is a doll in a little carriage and a wicker child’s chair in the photographer’s studio.

 This dour-looking toddler may appear to be a girl, but I’m betting it’s a “he” because of the side part.  If that teddy bear has a button in its ear, meaning it’s a Steiff, it would sell for a small fortune today.
  This wide-eyed tot (side part=boy?) probably is too young to read the book on the chair:  “Little People.”  He seems a bit overwhelmed by the fancy wicker chair and elegant furnishings of   H.M. Smith’s studio in Portland, Maine.

A popular accessory was the hobby horse or some other kind of steed—probably belonging to the photographer and useful because the child would sit on it and stay still for the photo.  This is a CDV (carte de visite or visiting card)-sized photo taken  by J Edwards in Skaneateles, N.Y.—clearly a little boy, proudly wearing knee pants.
This little one at first seems to be a girl, but I suspect it’s actually a boy, leaning against this fine hobby horse.  No part is visible in his hair. The  necklace of beads around his/her neck would be coral, traditionally given by the god parent.
This curly-headed cherub could be boy or girl. She doesn’t seem too sure about what to do with the riding crop, intended to drive the team of horses pulling the little carriage.  She/he was photographed in Diedenhofen Germany
Boys and bikes seem to go together and there’s no question that this is a boy—Clarence Kimball (written on the back in pencil.)  He was photographed on this bucking bronco/tricycle by J. C. Higgins in Bath Maine.  I wonder if the excellent tricycle belonged to Clarence or the photographer?

Here’s another boy—old enough to ride a two-wheeler and wear knee pants.  I’m pretty sure he brought his own bike to the photographer’s studio to illustrate his skill.

Finally we have this curly-headed tot, sitting on a fur rug and holding a stuffed lamb and a riding crop.  I know she’s a girl, because when I turned over the CDV, I found her name written on the back as well as some words in French that told me she is the descendent of a family steeped in blood and known for literally thousands of murders.  It’s such a good story (a story that I would have never known if I didn’t turn the card over and then research the facts written there) that I’m going to save it for next Friday’s “Favorite Photos” post.