Archive for the 'Living History' Category

Lapham’s Quarterly: My Secret Life in 1848

hale_farmThe author, c. 2001, working at a living history museum. Photo by Rev. Brett R. Schutzman.

For five years as a historic reenactor, I could never escape the year 1848. I’ve got a piece up on the Lapham’s Quarterly blog about my past in a living history museum and the strange experience of living life in two timelines.

Our year was 1848. Several historic houses had been moved from northeast Ohio and arranged around a village green: this was our fake town. Visitors were free to roam the site, spending as little or as much time as they choose interacting with its townspeople. A family was cast in each house, and I “lived” with an older brother and sister, an Irish maid, and my mother—in this case played by my actual mother, one of the museum’s middle managers, who had decided when I turned seventeen that I was too old to sit on my ass over summer vacation. From June through August I spent more waking hours of my life in the nineteenth century than I did in the modern day.

Read more here.

Living History: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Welsh RarebitWelsh rarebit: cheese sauce on toast; all ready for my bedtime snack.

What do you get when you combine a Victorian preoccupation with bad digestion and one illustrator’s imaginative fantasy landscapes? Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1904-1912. McCay would later go on to create the better known strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, but his earlier, more grown-up strip was just as fantastic. In every strip, a cheese-on-toast dish known as “welsh rarebit” was consumed before bedtime, and then faulted for a night of  alarming dreams. The illustrated dreamscapes the McCay created would go on to inspire scenes in King KongDumboMary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Read the comic here.

After reading a book of McCay’s work, I wanted to know: would the dreaded rarebit give me bad dreams, too?

The History

In the final panel, the dreamer always awakens and curses the cheese.

In the early 20th century and before, we were preoccupied with bad digestion. Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times was blamed for a range of maladies, including troubled dreams. From The Psychology of Dreams, 1920:

“As is well known, dreams may be influenced by physical discomforts. Many individuals can, almost with certainty, bring on distressing dreams by eating at supper or near bedtime, certain combinations of food, as peas and salmon, Welsh rarebit, ice cream and oysters.”

That shit is well known. The general medical consensus was that those prone to bad digestion were prone to nightmares, and heavy foods like a rarebit made you prone to bad digestion. Case closed.

The Recipe

A silent film inspired by McCay’s comics. I enjoy the first few minute of this film; he is really chowing down on a welsh rarebit. Really shoving it in there.

So what is this wicked rarebit? A welsh rarebit is perfect comfort food, which is why nobody wanted to give the damn things up, despite the advice of their doctors. Invented sometime in the 18th century, it can be as simple as a few slices of melted cheese on toast, the preference being for cheddar or Gloucestershire cheese.  By the early 20th century, it was more common to make a sauce of American cheese, milk or cream, egg yolks, butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of red pepper–the recipes varied, and could be more simple or more complicated depending on what you had on hand. You can read a full history of this dish, along with theories about the origin of its name, on the incomparable Food Timeline here.

I made my rarebit with grated cheddar cheese, cream, good mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne. I melted it slowly on my stove top before pouring it over a slice of whole wheat toast. It was nice and spicy and I immediately wanted another. Then I climbed into bed and got ready for dreamland.

The Results

Although I felt sleepy immediately after eating the rarebit, it took me a lot longer to fall asleep than normal. It was a light sleep, shifting in between consciousness and dreaming. I didn’t have any long, lucid dreams. I had watched the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode about Israel/Palestine before going to bed, so mostly I was dreaming about eating delicious Palestinian food, particularly this one interesting-looking roast watermelon salad. At another point I was at a BBQ pouring hot sauce all over roasted meat. These are the scenarios my brain is pondering constantly, and in my agitated sleep state, I was just dipping in and out of them. If you were wondering what it’s like to peer into my psyche, there you go.

But I don’t think the rarebit was to blame for my dreams. Feeding a rarebit to my husband before bed was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. He came home from school late and hungry, so I offered him one; he said he didn’t like it because it tasted “unhealthy.” He spent the night thrashing around in bed, kicking and punching me in his sleep. He actually woke up several times to exclaim “It was the cheese!” Finally, he started crying because he dreamed his undead grandfather shot his brother.

According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, eating too close to bedtime can lead to “heightened metabolism and temperature,” which in turn “…can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.” Which means more dreams. It is inadvisable to eat “heavy or spicy foods” two to three hours before bedtime.

However, cheese also contains tryptophan, an amino acid “used by the human body to make serotonin.” It can actually relax us and help us sleep, which may be why it is often served as the last course of meals. Additionally, fat and carbs can make us sleepy, according to Scientific American. So it may be safe to say that everyone reacts differently to a welsh rarebit.

As for Brian’s undead grandpa: unlike Nemo‘s freeing fantasy landscapes, Fiend often dealt with the repressed anxietys of daily adulthood.

Living History: Tea and Two Slices


In the late 1920s, George Orwell compiled his first full-length book. Although Down And Out In Paris And London wasn’t an epic novel about a dystopian future, the origins of his later works could be found in this semi-documentarian, semi-autobiographical look at the criminalization of the poor.

In the first half of Down and Out…, Orwell gives a grueling account of the French food industry; he worked in Paris as one of the lowliest kitchen staff buried in the basement scullery of a hotel. But even more fascinating was when Orwell’s main character returns to his hometown of London, and through a series of misfortunes ends up living life as a penniless “tramp” for a period of several months. Orwell, too, lived amongst the homeless while he was a young journalist: he wandered in and out of shelters with the permanently poor, and became critical of the housing and diet of these men, the latter being “tea-and-two-slices.”

Ironically, just off the boat from France, Orwell”s main character orders tea-and-two-slices with a sort of welcome nostalgia.  Standard 1920s British diner fair, it’s a mug of tea with milk and sugar, and two slices of toast spread with margarine. But as he gets caught up in the system of cheap lodging houses, work houses, and prison-like shelters called “spikes,” it is the only food offered to the homeless.  “Food..had come to mean simply bread and margarine, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two,” Orwell writes.

“It follows that the ‘Serves them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken towards tramps is no fairer that it would be towards cripples or invalids. When one has realized that, one begins to put oneself in a tramp’s place and understand what his life is like. It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life…hunger, which is almost the general fate of tramps.  The casual ward [a sort of shelter] gives them a ration which is probably not even meant to be sufficient, and anything beyond that must be got by begging–that is, by breaking the law. The result is that nearly every tramp is rotted by malnutrition; for proof of which we need only look at the men lining up outside any casual ward.”

Orwell’s book goes so deeply, and personally, into societal views of poverty that I can’t even scratch the surface in this post. Go on and read it, it will fascinate you.  But in an odd sort of tribute, I’m going to reenact the part that fascinated me the most: the ongoing march of tea-and-two-slices, this very British meal that was the insufficient fuel for an army of homeless men. Four meals today: 8am, 12pm, 4pm, and 8pm–tea, bread and margarine only.  I’ll update this post with thoughts throughout the day.

Update 12pm: A few words on margarine: I hate it.  I hate the mouth-feel and greasy taste. My future husband & my temporary roommate LOVE it. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this experiment now, because there’s an economy sized tub of it in the fridge.  I haven’t been able to figure out why margarine was so incredibly popular in England – maybe someone out there can clue me in – but this line from Down and Out is particularly telling:

“An ordinary London coffee shop, like a thousand others…’Can I have some tea and bread and butter?’ I said to the girl.

She stared. ‘No butter, only marg,” she said, surprised. And she repeated the order in the phrase that is to London what the eternal coup de rouge is to Paris: ‘Large tea and two slices!’

Daily Mail UK online has some things to say about margarine.

Black tea with milk and sugar is one of my favorite things in the world, however. And sipped slowly over many hours, it does stave off hunger, as many an Irish domestic knew.

Update 4pm: I get really hungry about two hours after eating.  The tea always helps–I’m very happy when I’m filled with sugar and caffeine.  Tea is a drug, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, helped the poor get through their day and functioned as a substitute for food when there was none.  The “lower classes” were also constantly criticized for spending what little money they had on frivolities like tea and sugar; or so it was perceived, in England and on this side of the ocean. Perhaps today’s replacement is coffee or Mountain Dew.

Update 8pm: I had my last tea-and-two-slices an hour early.  What I ate at 4pm didn’t satisfy me at all.  I was having trouble thinking and remembering by 5pm, and by 6 I had to go have a lay down. I feel weak, sick and confused.  When I ate my final meal at 7, I felt full, but gross. I really thought today would be a cakewalk–who doesn’t love tea and toast? But I cannot imagine eating this, and only this, day after day.  It would destroy you.

I think I might have a banana and some peanut butter before I go to bed.  Don’t judge.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: The Bimuelo Pan

familyAt the Lower East Side Tenement Museum with a photo of the historic character I portray (far right). Photo by Will Heath.

Happy Passover, everyone!  Tonight, millions of Jews are sitting down to a sumptuous meal of religious significance–and then a week of yeast-free food.

Even if you’re not Jewish, you’ll enjoy my most recent Etsy article about Bimuelos, a Pesach-friendly dessert made by Sephardic Jews, who are descended from Jews of Spain.  You’ll also get a behind the scenes look at my life as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum playing a Sephardic Jewish character. Read all about it here.

And if you are Jewish, you’re probably going to be sick of matzo by Thursday or Friday.  So allow me to recommend Manishevitts’ 1944 cookbook,
Ba’ṭam’ṭe Yidishe maykholim (Tempting Kosher Dishes).  Don’t worry, it’s in Yiddish AND English.  Need to liven up your matzo meal regime this week?  Try Pumpkin PancakesMatzo Meal Polenta, or Boston Pie.

Living History: Domestic for a Day

7:06 AM: I’m up.  Last night, Temporary Roommate Sarah T stopped by my room and said “I’m going to bed.  I’ve left my boots outside my door to be polished, and I expect hot water in the morning to wash my person.”  I accused her of being way too good at this and added “If you poop in a pot in your room, I’m not cleaning it up.”

My face is washed and I’m dressed in a black dress and white apron. My understanding is servants did not wear uniforms in the 19th century, but I’m not sure when they started.

I’ve got toast with butter and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. Tea to 19thc servants was like spinach to Popeye.

I’m going to finish my shopping list and meal plan for the day, then do dishes–there’s a sink full of them from yesterday, and if I were a good Maid of all Work, I would not have let that happen.


7:31 AM: In addition to taking cues from Hanna Cullwick’s diary, I’m also going to follow the daily tasks for a Maid-of-all-Work as laid out by Isabella Beeton in her Book of Household Management (first published 1859).  You can preview my day’s work here, and here’s what she says about my role:

The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration; her life is a solitary one, and in, some places, her work is never done.  She is also subject to rougher treatment than either the house or kitchen-maid, especially in her earlier career: she starts life, probably a girl of thirteen, with some small tradesman’s wife as her mistress, just a step above her in the social scale…she has to do in her own person all the work which in larger establishments is performed by cook, kitchen-maid, and housemaid  and occasionally the part of a footman’s duty, which consists in carrying messages.

I slept in my own bed last night, by the way, but if I were doing this right i should have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

8:15 AM: Dishes are done, cat is fed, and I started coffee brewing at the first sign of stirring in the bedchambers.  Here’s what Beeton says I do next:

The general servant’s duties commence by opening the shutters and windows if the weather permits of all the lower apartments in tho housoe,she should then brush up her kitchen range, light the fire, clear away the ashes, clean the hearth, and polish with a loather the bright parts of the range ;doing all as rapidly and as vigorously as possible that no more time be wasted than is necessary. After putting on the kettle she should then proceed to tho dining room or parlour to get it in order for breakfast.

I haven’t cleaned the stove yet, it may have to wait until after breakfast.  I’m heading into the “dining room” (read: only common room in my apartment) to tidy for breakfast.  Beeton says “Nothing annoys a particular mistress so much as to find, when she comes down stairs, different articles of furniture looking as if they had never been dusted.” Eek. The dusting may have to wait until after breakfast, too.

8:45 AM: Dining room is tidied! I even got in a little dusting.  I’m ditching my apron and putting on a little makeup, and heading out to do the marketing.  I live in New York, so I have to walk and take a basket with me–not much has changed since the Victorian era.

diningroomThe dining room is read for breakfast.

Fiancee Brian just woke up and asked “What’s for breakfast? Is it old timey or is it bacon?”

“Bacon is old timey!” I replied, and is for breakfast.  Beeton’s suggestions for a proper breakfast can be read here.


9:30 AM: Back from the store-it’s about a 1.5 mile round trip.  Getting up breakfast: toast, butter, jam, eggs (scrambled–poached is more period appropriate, but the Master of the House doens’t like the that way), bacon, fruit, coffee, orange juice.


10:30 AM: Breakfast got on the table, hot, at 10 on the dot. I even put on a clean apron to serve.  I left Brian and Sarah T to make idle chit chat, and hit the bedchambers.  Opened the sashes and dusted.  Changed the sheets in the master bedroom; this room will need more work later.  Thus would also be when I would “empty the slops,” meaning the chamber pots, but thankfully it’s 2013 and we have a bathroom.

Next, I’m going to clear and wash the breakfast dishes and sweep and mop the kitchen and dining room floor.

I mentioned to Sarah T that I felt weird that they were talking to me like normal.  She offered to jump in to character, but then hesitated and decided she couldn’t order me around.  I told them if they needed anything, just to let me know.

I was so hungry when I was cooking breakfast.  I’ll have the leftovers–some eggs, a slice of toast with jam, maybe another cup of tea.

In case you were wondering what the rest of the household should be up to while I’m working, here’s a source from 1780–a little early for the Victorian era, but not much would have changed:

I’ll give you an account of one day, and then you will see every day.  (Her day began at 9, with breakfast at 10) And then about 11 I play harpsichord, or draw; at 1 I translate at 2 walk out again, 1 I generally read, 4 we go to dine, after dinner we play backgammon, we drink tea at 7 and I work or play on the piano until 10, when we have our little bit of supper, and 11, we go to bed.


12:00 PM: Clear’d breakfast dishes and washed up.  Swept whole house–kitchen, living room/dining room, bathroom, and hall.  Swept outside hall and welcome mat, too.  Brian complained about trash smelling, so I took trash out.

Now it’s time to get dinner up.  It’s the largest meal of the day; for a dinner on a Thursday in January, Beeton suggests: ” 1. Vegetable soup (the bones of the beef ribs should be boiled down with this soup), cold beef, mashed potatoes. 2. Pheasants, gravy,  bread sauce. 3. Macaroni.”  I’m going to sear a beef roast with butter and onions, then cover it up with water, and add half a cabbage, and a butternut squash, salt, pepper, “made mustard” and a slice of toast to thicken it, as per Beeton’s suggested recipe. I’ll simmer low two hours, and when the meat is done, I’ll pull it out and slice it.  Soup will be served first, then meat with potatoes and a scoop of macaroni and cheese–blue box, but 19th-centuried up with a blade of mace in the boiling water, and topped with fresh grated cheese and nutmeg.

On my second cup of tea with milk and sugar.  Did I mention I only slept about 5 hours last night?

So far the cat has been the most demanding member of the household.


12:35 PM: I also have some veal bones to throw in the soup to make it richer.  I’m going to add wine and celery salt. Turns out I have no mustard, or even vinegar, so I put in lemon juice and dried herbs instead.  It’s going to simmer for an hour.

Brian was in the kitchen chatting with me; I could barely respond.  I was both tired, and focused on getting my task done.  I certainly didn’t feel pretty or amorous.  I don’t know how Hanna Cullwick did it.


1:45 PM: I am all kinds of achey so I took two Tylenol.  Sarah T. just asked if we could have bread crumbs on the macaroni, so I guess I really am 19th-centuring it up and doing it casserole style. I’ve been cooking the last hour.  I’m going to sit down and eat at 2; not at the table, but at the kitchen counter.  I think Brian and Sarah were to weirded out this morning when I went to do more work while they ate. I’m about to dish up dinner, and I’ll post some photos afterwards.

Brian: “Why are we eating dinner at two??” Me: “Dinner is in the middle of the day.” Brian: “Well, that’s old-timey and weird!!”


2PM: Brian: “Is there bread”  Me: “Of course, sir! Right away!”  Sarah T: “You have to cut it in front of us, so we know you’re not stealing it.”


3pm: Some photos from dinner.

dinnerMace, for the water to boil the pasta.


dinner1The soup.

dinner2The Table.



 3:30 PM: I cleared the dinner dishes and I’m working on washing up.  I’ve decided to get my cooking done for the rest of the day–tea and supper are served cold, so if I cook now, I can tidy the kitchen and not have to fuss with it the rest of the day.  That involved making a tart for tea, from puff paste I have in the freezer and homemade jam from my mom (here’s Beeton’s recipe) and roasting a chicken to serve cold at tea/supper.  Luckily, I don’t have to pluck and gut it.

dishesNeverending dishes.

 Fowls to be tender should be killed a couple of days before they are dressed when the feathers come out easily then let them be picked and cooked In drawing them be careful not to break the gall lag as wherever it touches it would impart a very bitter taste…(Mrs. Beeton’s roast fowl recipe)

4:30 PM: I have to admit, that at three pm, I wanted to quit.  I am EXHAUSTED.  It is unfortunate I didn’t get a full night’s sleep last night, but at the same time I think it’s more accurate to how I would have felt EVERY DAMN DAY if this were my life.  I just wanted to quit and go take a nap in my bed.

But I didn’t. And I found a second wind.  Chicken and Jelly Tart went in the over.  I took out the recycling. I did all the dishes, again. I wiped down the counters.  I will keep going until 10:30 pm, when my day is done.

Even Brian is sad.  “I don’t like this. You’re my partner–I don’t like you calling me sir.”

I’m even too tired to talk to anyone.  I just don’t have the mental fortitude.


5PM: One of the jobs I was supposed to do this morning was shine the boots.  I don’t even own any shoe polish, so the best I could do was take three pairs of boots out into the hall and waterproof them, which did need to be done.  I also “delivered a message,”by spending a few moments on Facebook inviting a few friends to an Epiphany party on Sunday.

I’m taking a moment to check in with Cullwick and Beeton to see what I’m supposed to do the rest of the evening:

  • Finish cleaning kitchen: mop, and wipe down stove and clean oven, when it cools.
  • Clean and dust the Parlour
  • Clean Window Sills
  • Clean Pantry
  • Unpack a Hamper
  • Tea & Clean Away
  • Clean the “Passage” – hang up coats in hall
  • Clean “Privy” – Bathroom
  • Supper & Clean away
  • Turn Down Beds
  • Wash sink down

Mrs. Beeton also thinks I should find time to “do a little needlework” but I say screw her.

5:05 PM: I realized I forgot to baste the chicken.  Like, at all. motherfucker.  I hope it’s not too dry…


6:45 PM: Photos of Tea Time: roast chicken, breand and butter, blackberry jam and puff paste tarte.



Have to clear away, strip the chicken carcass and put away; then, into the passage to hang up coats, then clean the privy.


8:30 PM: Clean’d the bathroom on my knees.  My hands are dry and my knuckles and back hurt.

My friend Eva reminded me of this image shot by photographer Hal Hirshorn.  Recreated domestic servant at the Merchant’s House Museum.  Eva is the model.

10 PM: Supper.  Just a little nosh at the end of the day: bread, butter, cheese, cold beef, leftover tart.



10:30 PM:

  • Finish cleaning kitchen: mop, and wipe down stove and clean oven, when it cools.
  • Clean and dust the Parlour
  • Clean Window Sills
  • Clean Pantry
  • Unpack a Hamper
  • Tea & Clean Away
  • Clean “Privy” – Bathroom
  • Supper & Clean away
  • Turn Down Beds
  • Wash sinks down

Bet I could have cleaned that pantry if I wasn’t blogging.

And now, I’m going to end my day just like Hanna Cullwick: “Wash’d in a bath & to bed.”

What have I taken away from this?  I realized what I did today is about the same workload of your average stay-at-home Mom or Dad.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

moxyMoxy Kitty helps me earlier today.

Tomorrow: Living Life as a 19th Century Servant

Hanna(h) Cullwick, scrubbing the floor. (source)

After the Famine struck Ireland in 1847, millions of Irish immigrants landed on America’s shores.  Many of them were women, young and unmarried.  In fact, it was far easier for a single woman to get a job in America than a man–because there was a huge demand for domestic servants.

In England and America in the 19th century, housework was incredibly laborious.  If you could afford it, you got a servant.  A household with just one servant had what was called a “Maid-of-all-Work,” a lone woman that was responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, and general maintenance of the members of the household.  If you had more money, you could get a cook, a housemaid, a lady’s maid, a butler, and a valet.  Some households were even so large there were complex hierarchies among the servants.  Even the servants had servants.

Domestic labor provided an open door to new Irish immigrants–they could get a job almost right after they landed and room and board was included, which allowed them to save money and send it home.  Often, after they married, they would leave service to manage their own households and raise their own families.

But did the next generation, the American born daughters, follow in their mother’s footstep and go into service?

Hell. No.

Because being in service was terrible.

The servant we know the most about is an Englishwoman named Hanna Cullwick.  She entered service at the age of 8, and remained a servant until 65.  She kept a diary of her daily doings from her mid-twenties to her mid-sixties–from about 1853-1893.  A typical entry looks like this.

Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire.  Shook my sooty thing in the dusthole & emptied the soot there.  Swept & dusted the rooms & hall.  Laid the hearth and got breakfast up.  Clean’d 2 pairs of boots.  Made the beds & emptied the slops.  Clean’d and washed the breakfast things up.  Clean’d the plate, clean’d the knives & got dinner up.  Clean’d away.  Clean’d the kitchen up; unpack’d a hamper.  Took two chickens to Mrs Brewer’s & brought the message back.  Made a tart & pick’d and gutted two ducks & roasted them.  Clean’d the steps & flags on my knees.  Blackheaded the scraper in front of the house; clean’d the street flags too on my knees.  Wash’d up in the scullery. Clean’d the pantry on my knees and scour’d the tables.  Scrubbed the flags around the house & clean’d the window sills.  Got tea for the Master and Mrs. Warwick…Clean’d the privy & Passage & scullery floor on my knees.  Wash’s the dog & cleaned the sinks down.  Put the supper ready for Ann to take up, for I was too dirty & tired to go upstairs.  Wash’d in a bath & to bed.

It’s thanks to her tedious diary that we know anything about a typical servant’s daily life.  But the reason she kept this diary at all is quite interesting: for 36 years, she secretly dated then married her employer, Arthur Munby.  The diary was for him.

The marriage wasn’t made public until Munby’s death, when he willed her his fortune and estate (she was already dead by this point, so it’s all a little confusing).  When they were alone, she was the lady of the house.  When guests were visiting, she returned to her role as servant.  As Bill Bryson describes it in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “At his bidding, she called him ‘massa’ and blackened her skin to make herself look like a slave.  The diaries, it transpires, were kept largely so that he could read about her getting dirty.”  Other accounts say she cleaned his chimney naked and licked his boots clean.

Mundy seemed to fetishize servitude, and the work of a housemaid.  They had this sort of dom/sub roleplay relationship that for many years kept them quite happy.  I say good for them. (although there is nothing funny or lighthearted about actual slavery).

All that aside–I’m going to spend tomorrow living the life of a domestic servant of the 19th century.  My day as a Maid-of-all-Work will begin at 6:30 am.  Breakfast will be served at 10 am, Dinner at 2, Tea at 6, and Supper at 10 pm.  And my apartment could use a post holiday scrub, so I’m going to be doing all the cleaning as well.  I’ll be updating the blog all day, so check back frequently to see what I’m up to. I will not be licking anyone’s boots clean.

See you in the morning.


I first read about Hanna Culwick in At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  Her diaries have been published, but are out of print.  Tomorrow, I’ll also be using descriptions of servant life from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (buy it here).