This Just In! What “The Night Before Christmas” Really Reveals About Santa

Screenshot 2015-12-20 00.58.41In elementary school they tried to make us all memorize Robert Frost — either “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” or (for our sins) “The Road Not Taken” — was it the same in your school? I gather that in Britain, “Adlestrop” is the equivalent. But in the United States, the poem people actually know best is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s kind of nice that they try to enforce certain kinds of literature, but people keep on loving what they love. All together now:

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a………..

You got it, right?

But even though people can repeat whole swathes of the poem, we have imposed so much of modern Christmas on the text that it’s easy to miss the surprising information it reveals about the St. Nicholas of nineteenth-century America — the St. Nicholas envisioned by the poem. I’m just going to state this outright:

St. Nicholas — Santa Claus, as we usually call him today — is miniature. By this I mean that he is tiny. Let me repeat that: St. Nicholas is miniature. He’s not human-sized. He’s diminutive; he’s eensy-weensy. This is so freaky to get one’s head around that I am going to repeat it: ST. NICHOLAS IS A TINY MINIATURE BEING.

Let’s look at the poem:

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick…
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow…
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf

Screenshot 2015-12-20 00.56.11

Nineteenth-century painting of St. Nicholas and the tiny reindeer — note his size in comparison to the chimney.

This small size explains how St. Nick is able to get up and down through the chimney. More importantly, this illustrates a perennial trend in the human interpretation of supernatural or magical beings. When they live apart from humans, like the Olympian gods or the Old Norse gods, these beings tend to be larger than life. Trolls, giants, and huge monsters like Grendel, who eats men for dinner after tucking them inside his glove — all these supersized beings live out in the wilderness. But when the magical beings move closer to human habitations, they tend to become miniaturized. Thus we get British pixies, fairies, sprites, brownies, and hobgoblins, German kobolds, Swedish tomtes, and a host of other folk, some good and helpful, some mischievous, some malevolent, but all smaller than humans. They tend to live in farmyards and around human dwellings. They interact with humans, helping the good and punishing the bad. The householders leave gifts for them such as bowls of milk. They frequent our dwelling places, but they’re rarely glimpsed. You can even see the themes of smallness and domesticity operating in the case of hobbits:

“I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves….There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.” (The Hobbit, chapter 1)

St. Nicholas was understood as miniature throughout most of the nineteenth century, as illustrations make clear. Obviously this required him to be miniaturized, as he began as a third-century bishop of Myra, and bishops are generally human-sized. He was magical before he was miniature: he became known as a present-giver in a miracle in which three unwed daughters had no dowry, and hence were going to be doomed to a life of sordid money-earning, if you catch my drift.  But St. Nicholas passed by their window and slipped gold into stockings which were hung before the fire to dry. It wasn’t so much a matter of rewarding good behavior as preventing the bad, which a stocking full of gold did very effectively.

A digression on stockings and mantels: I never quite understood why the stockings were hanging on the mantel until I lived in Britain, where dryers are rarer than they are in the U.S., and I tried to dry socks in a damp climate — when you live in a house without central heating, the only way to get stockings dry is to hang them by the fire. Those penurious daughters merely hated damp feet. They weren’t hanging their stockings on the mantel, though, since fireplaces in side walls, the kind of fireplace with a mantel, weren’t invented until the late Middle Ages. The three girls would have lived in a house with a central hearth, in the middle of the floor, with a hole in the ceiling above it. However did they hang their stockings up? History does not relate. And could supernatural beings descend carefully through that central smokehole in the roof, or would they just plummet into the house? This must be why St. Nicholas just decided to throw the money in through the window.

A late medieval fireplace and mantel, of the type unknown at the time of the real St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra.

A late medieval fireplace and mantel, sans stockings, of the type unknown at the time of the real St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra.

But anyway, in the development of the legend of St. Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem was a turning point. When Moore first published “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel, in 1823, St. Nicholas was known primarily as a legendary figure whom the Dutch had imported; indeed, the first Dutch ship to travel to the New World, the Goede Vrouw, in 1621, had St. Nicholas as its figurehead.

In 1806 Washington Irving described the legends of St. Nick as they appeared among the Dutch in New Amsterdam (later to be renamed New York):

“…in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass he never shows us the light of his countenance nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children in token of the degeneracy of the parents.”

A tiny St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast.

A tiny St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast.

From this description it’s not clear what St. Nicholas is riding, but in a later description Irving mentions that he has a wagon (spelled waggon). Irving concocts a vision of the founding of New Amsterdam, dreamed by a character named Olaffe Van Kortlandt:

“And the sage Olaffe dreamed a dream – and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees in that self same waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And the shrewd Van Kortlandt knew him by his broad hat, his long pipe, and the resemblance which he bore to the bow of the Goede Vrouw. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud over head. And the sage Olaffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country – and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvellous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all which lasted but a moment and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his waggon, he returned over the tree tops and disappeared.

“And Van Kortlandt awoke from his sleep greatly instructed, and he aroused his companions, and related to them his dream; and interpreted it, that it was the will of St Nicholas that they should settle down and build the city here: and that the smoke of the pipe was a type how vast should be the extent of the city; inasmuch as the volumes of its smoke should spread over a wide extent of country.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

This origin-story of New Amsterdam faded from legend, but the phrase “laying his finger beside his nose” has seized the attention of scholars, who are naturally reminded of the lines from “The Night Before Christmas”:

…He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose…

Notice, though, that whereas Irving’s St. Nicholas seems to be using that finger to glower at Van Kortlandt about founding a city, Moore’s St. Nicholas is using some kind of magical rising-up-the-chimney nose-finger device. Irving’s St. Nicholas is the imposing, adult, mythological St. Nicholas; Moore’s St. Nicholas is the child-oriented, magical, miniature St. Nicholas.   Where the Romans had their household gods, the lares and penates; where the British had pixies and the Swedes had tomtes, the Americans had St. Nicholas. Like the other supernatural beings, his ultimate home was in the unreachable wilderness; but like the little household sprites, he’s also a domestic character, coming all the way into the home — no longer throwing things in through the window or down the chimney, no more intimidating than a “pedlar just opening his pack.”

Yep, tiny.

Yep, tiny.

So how did St. Nicholas — or Santa Claus, as he had come to be known — get big again? It seems to have happened in the early years of the twentieth century, which is just when memories of the sprites and pixies and all the little folk were fading.   Brownies were popular in the 1920s (and had a baked good named after them!), but then they too faded from memory. And adults were impersonating Santa, and adults were adult-sized. So we not only lost the idea of Santa as a miniature being, but we lost the idea of all miniature beings as our domestic companions. Santa is the only one of that great legion of miniature domestic beings to have survived modern America, almost as if he really did come across the Atlantic as the figurehead of the Goede Vrouw. And even if we’ve forgotten how small he’s suposed to be, we still leave him milk, just as we used to do for so many other little folk, as a token of our thanks.

The forces of commerce try to coopt the human-sized Santa's snack.

The forces of commerce try to coopt the twentieth-century, human-sized Santa’s snack.


Here is the original version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” partially transcribed from a manuscript written out by Clement Clarke Moore in 1862. This preserves the original wording, which is often changed in modern printings, such as “…ere he drove out of sight” (where modern editions usually have “…as he drove…”) and “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And Mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


Dennis Severs’ House: “You Either Get It Or You Don’t”

History leaves so much out.  It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.                                                                   — J. G. Farrell

Sometimes they live in eras and decades that regularized humanity has abandoned … they have come to have a cavalier way with time.  What is wrong with that?  If regular people are finished with those days and times, why may not others use them?
— R. A. Lafferty

             In Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, an artist named Simon (Si) Morley takes Screen shot 2013-07-12 at 01.54.43part in a secret expensive government project to send a person back in time.  The idea is that it might just be possible to slip between ages by replicating all aspects of the past.   So to get back to a certain point in the 1880s, Si is sent to stay in a room in the Dakota building in New York, furnished for the period, with a view from the window that shows nothing from the modern age.  He wears nineteenth-century clothes, reads nineteenth-century books, and when he opens his door in the morning, the experimenters have left the newspaper for that day in 1882 on his mat.  Then one day Si opens his door — and walks out into the nineteenth century.

Dennis Severs' house, 18 Folgate Street, London

Dennis Severs’ house, 18 Folgate Street, London

           For some people this sounds like a tedious and gimmicky literary device.  For me it always sounded like the utmost heaven.  As a kid I experimented with the idea: could I make a dinner using only dishes from the nineteenth century?  (We had a lot of old dishes, which is why I started with dishes.)  Could I furnish a room using only furnishings from the nineteenth century?  What about a house?  This has led to a certain large-scale experiment along these lines in Indiana, but that’s another story.

The idea that surrounding yourself with things from another period leads to time-slip is really just a concrete expression of what happens when we read books from the past.  But the trouble with books is that they’re not three-dimensional.  You enter the world of the past, but that world stays inside your mind.

This is where Dennis Severs’ house comes in.

Dennis Severs was a Californian who left the land of palm trees and bright tan landscapes and came to London in the late 1960s.*  After giving up on studying law and driving a horse-drawn carriage, in 1979 he bought a derelict eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields, the most poverty-stricken area of historic London.  He already knew that he wanted to slip backward in time.  So he renovated the house slowly and in keeping with the age.  He washed the floors with tea, he acquired the right furniture, he toasted bread on the fire.  When I first heard of him in the early ’80s, the house was only partly renovated and he had just started showing people round.   As you might guess, I jumped at the chance to visit.  You walked through the down-at-heel streets with old burger wrappers blowing around your ankles, past badly kept-up eighteenth-century houses with bare bulbs at their doors, until you came to 18 Folgate Street.  There in the cellar window you could see the flickering light of a candle.  When I saw the candlelight, I began to get that tingling at the back of the neck that Si Morley must have had when he opened the door in the Dakota that one morning.

In those early days, Dennis Severs had obviously memorized a script, and as he took visitors from room to room he went nervously through his script until someone sidetracked him with a question, when he had to start up again several paragraphs back.  But he answered spontaneously when a woman pestered him for bibliography.  “But what books did you read?” she said.  “You have to read books to know how things work.”  He was spluttering with dismay.  “I don’t read books,” he said.  “I live it.”

The past -- so ridiculously enticing

The past — so ridiculously enticing

I’m sure he did read books, but I’m also sure he lived it.  He would talk, for instance, about men’s coats that had elaborate embroidery on the inside — what use could it possibly be for coats to be embroidered on the inside?  He’d take a seat on an chair with rolled arms and, still talking, calmly fold the bottom of his coat back over the arms, displaying the embroidery on the inside of the coat.   The chair was designed for the coat; the coat was designed for the chair.  There’s a reason reading about it isn’t as powerful as seeing it.

The chair with the rolled arms

The chair with the rolled arms

The drawing room had a table before the fire— a feature modern design has lost, and which I personally aspire to.  Severs talked about how people would play cards at the table, and a little scrap of fur would be hung under the table.  As the people played, fleas would jump off the people and onto the tempting scrap of fur.  At the end of the evening the host would throw the scrap into the fire.  A flea-catcher — ingenious!  And under the table at 18 Folgate Street there hung a scrap of fur.  As far as I’m aware, real fleas were not supplied, but you never know.

Severs invented a family who had lived at 18 Folgate Street, the Jervises, Huguenot weavers who had immigrated from France.  French weavers were abundant in Spitalfields, and the Jervises were a realistic invention.  As you moved higher in the house, which has five stories, the Jervises got more prosperous.  Mr. Jervis’s wig-powdering corner was in one room, where Dennis powdered his own wigs.  The idea was that the Jervises had left each room just before you entered.  When you walked in, the beds were mussed, the tea

The Jervises got up only moments before

The Jervises got up only moments before

was hot, the bread crusts were still on the plates.  And this was not just stage-management with fake props, because it was genuinely Dennis’s bed, Dennis’s tea, and Dennis’s crusts.  The house was genuinely lived in, halfway in the eighteenth century and halfway in the twentieth.

I went back to the house throughout the 1980s as renovations proceeded and Dennis Severs’ presentations become more assured (and less patient with visitors who demanded bibliography).  At a certain point he acquired a footman.  Pretty much every scrap of social history I know, I learned at Dennis Severs’ house.  (The rest of it I learned from the astoundingly well-informed guides at Mary Arden’s house outside Stratford.  Ask them someday about smocks or windows.)`

At Dennis Severs’ house, we would all go down to the servants’ sitting room — a dank, low room with an uneven brick floor and a small fireplace — and sit while Dennis Severs told us stories.  He mentioned that Spitalfields comes from St. Mary’s Hospital fields.  As the fire burned, he mentioned that such was the danger from fires in earlier eras that there were laws specifying the time they should be banked or put out: the couvre-feu (cover-fire), or curfew.

The servants' sitting room

The servants’ sitting room

This past winter I taught a course in London on the rich and their servants.  We read a lot of good stuff, including Margaret Powell’s spirited memoir of being a servant, Below Stairs.  (It was this book that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.)  But one of the students told me that she never really got it about servants until she saw the servants’ sitting room in Dennis Severs’ house.

One of the joys of the house is that not everything is tidy.  Going into conventional historic house museums, you’d think everyone in the past lived waiting for House Beautiful to come round and take photos.  In Dennis Severs’ house, beds might be unmade and things jumbled on the bureaux.  The house smells like a house.  It is not antiseptic.  The light is real.  There are the clip-clops of horses outside the window.  Surely those are real too?  Is time beginning to slip?

Why did the Victorians like to fill their rooms with so much clutter?  Now I get it.

Why did the Victorians like to fill their rooms with so much clutter? Now I get it.

          The New York Times wrote about Dennis Severs’ house, “Historical accuracy was no more important to his presentation than it would be in a lowbrow historical novel.”  I wish I could get hold of this writer and shake him.  For one thing,  in terms of furnishings, renovation, and upkeep, it is accurate.  And in terms of experience, even more so.  As another maverick would say, “Facts do not illuminate. The Manhattan phone directory has four million entries which are factually correct, but as a book it doesn’t really illuminate you.”  Send the New York Times critic to me, and we’ll have a talk.

But the other joy about the house is its playfulness.  If you peer carefully at a shelf you’ll see a miniature tableau from a Beatrix Potter book.  There’s a drama going on about Mrs Jervis, and clues are here and there.  Mischievous invitations are found on mantels and bulletin boards.  Another room features a Hogarth painting of mayhem at a card party,

Card party mayhem

Card party mayhem

and when you look around the room, you realize it is the room in the painting, mayhem intact.  Up in the attic, where a Dickensian poverty has begun to reign, Marley’s chain hangs beside the door.   In one bedroom is an eighteenth-century engraving of a domestic scene.  The caption says “YOU ARE HERE-ISH.”
“I’m going to bombard your senses,” Dennis Severs said in an interview.  “I will get the 20th century out of your eyes, ears and everything.”  The Guardian said it was as if you are transported into a dream.  David Hockney described the house as one of the world’s greatest works of opera.

Dennis Severs said, “You either get it or you don’t.”

Dennis Severs died on December 27, 1999 — on the brink of the new century — at the age of 51, from cancer related to AIDS.   There was initially great worry about whether the house could continue as it was.  Finally it was saved, and visitors are still welcome, although there is no longer anyone to narrate the way through the house.  So the fur scraps, the embroidered coat, and the couvre-feu are no longer explained to visitors.  But the house is still used, so that when you enter the room and there is still tea in the tea cup, it is not staged tea — it really was someone’s tea. The house still shows that the Jervises were in the room only a moment before.  And now, in a very real sense, the house also shows that Dennis Severs was in the room only a moment before.  Christopher Wren’s epitaph might also apply to him: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”  He has slipped wholly into the past.  For the rest of us, 18 Folgate Street is still there for anyone who wants to try the door.Screen shot 2013-07-12 at 01.49.49

* His name is pronounced “Seevers,” not “Sehvers.”  No one believes me on this.  I know because I embarrassingly pronounced it the wrong way to the man himself.  Go ahead, ask one of the people who shows you around the house.  They’ll tell you: Seevers.

 The website for the Dennis Severs’ house, 18 Folgate Street, with visitor information:

 The Guardian obituary:

 The New York Times obituary:

Michael Boat a Gospel Boat: “Wild and Strangely Fascinating”

Today you were wondering, “What is the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs?” The answer is that the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs is “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”  It might even be the most amazing song in the history of any kind of song.  And I’m here to prove it.  Rowboat

In case it’s been a while since you sang around the campfire, here’s Pete Seeger singing the song with a large crowd.

Singing it in a group is appropriate, because “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” comes from one of the oldest traditions of songs — perhaps the oldest of all — which is work songs: songs you sing while you work, usually communally.  They tend to accompany rhythmical activities, such as walking, chopping wood, and the like, and they tend to have a call-and-response structure.  Work songs have pretty much died out in Western culture, but reminders of the tradition turn up in various byways.  In the U.S. the strongest survival of the tradition was among prison work gangs and slaves, who had brought the tradition over from Africa.  The African tradition shows up in the porter scene of the Stewart Granger version of King Solomon’s Mines (1950), a clip which annoyingly does not show up on YouTube, but which you can watch if you want to pay $1.99 for the full movie on YouTube.

But for those with less time and money, there’s a wonderful thirty-minute film made by Pete Seeger and others in 1966, capturing the tradition of prison work songs just before it died.  It’s called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, and you can watch it free here.   It’s worth sampling just the opening for the song the prisoners sing while chopping wood.

The Texas convicts in Seeger's film

The Texas convicts in Seeger’s film

And in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou?, the chain gang that opens the film are singing as they work, and the recording is taken from an actual chain gang, recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959.  It can be heard here.  The prisoners were singing “Po’ Lazarus” (lyrics here) as they chopped wood, led by a prisoner named James Carter.  They were recorded by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, and the song appeared on Lomax’s 1959 album Bad Man Ballads.  Skip ahead forty-one years and the recording found its way into O Brother Where Art Thou?  Subsequently Alan Lomax’s daughter became determined to find James Carter, the prisoner who had led the song, and finally located him in Chicago.  She flew there to present him with a royalty check from the film soundtrack, as well as the news that his singing was outselling Michael Jackson’s latest CD.  Carter replied, “You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.”  More details about all of this here.

Work songs are known worldwide; another type in the Western tradition is the waulking song, a type of song sung in Scotland while women waulked cloth.  Waulking consists of beating newly woven cloth to make it denser, an activity that was performed communally and that has the rhythmic properties necssary for a work song.  Here’s a nice example: “Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast” (“Horo Once More I Would Shout for Joy”), a Gaelic waulking song from Nova Scotia, where they call them milling songs.  (Lyrics and translation here.)

By now you can see where this is leading. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” is a gorgeous example of a work song, a rowing song first sung by slaves.  It was first collected by Charles Pickard Ware in two versions, both from South Carolina.  Ware included both versions in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States.Slave Songs

The preface of the book describes some of the slave work songs:

I have stood for more than an hour, often, listening to them, as they hoisted and lowered the hogsheads and boxes of their cargoes; one man taking the burden of the song (and the slack of the rope) and the others striking in with the chorus. They would sing in this way more than a dozen different songs in an hour; most of which might indeed be warranted to contain ‘nothing religious’–a few of them, ‘on the contrary, quite the reverse’–but generally rather innocent and proper in their language, and strangely attractive in their music; and with a volume of voice that reached a square or two away. That plan of labor has now passed away, in Philadelphia at least, and the songs, I suppose, with it. So that these performances are to be heard only among black sailors on their vessels, or ’long-shore men in out-of-the-way places, where opportunities for respectable persons to hear them are rather few.

These are the songs that are still heard upon the Mississippi steamboats–wild and strangely fascinating–one of which we have been so fortunate as to secure for this collection. This, too, is no doubt the music of the colored firemen of Savannah, graphically described by Mr. Kane O’Donnel, in a letter to the Philadelphia Press, and one of which he was able to contribute for our use. Mr. E. S. Philbrick was struck with the resemblance of some of the rowing tunes at Port-Royal to the boatmen’s songs he had heard upon the Nile.

So when the song calls upon Michael to help row the boat ashore, it is referring to its immediate situation — it’s not hypothetical; the singers are genuinely rowing as they sing.  But who’s this Michael?  He’s the archangel Michael.  Christian tradition had long considered Michael a psychopomp, the angel who conveyed the souls of the dead to heaven, based on Luke 16:22 and other passages.  The later verses of the song make the religious character of the journey very evident.

The Archangel Michael, the psychopomp, overcoming evil.  Presumably he's going to go boating on that water behind him as a little post-apocalyptic recreation

The Archangel Michael, the psychopomp, overcoming evil. Presumably he’s going to go boating on that water behind him as a little post-apocalyptic recreation.

Being a folk song, there are innumerable versions, but the one I learned back at Whispering Pines Camp was this:

Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore.  Hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sail.  Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is muddy and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul.  Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side.  Hallelujah
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore.  Hallelujah!

Some versions follow “The river Jordan is deep and wide” with “See my mother on the other side,” which makes the point even more clearly.  The river Jordan is the river that must be crossed before coming to Paradise and the afterlife — the land of milk and honey.  (Numbers 14:8: “If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.”)

So the song equates the rowing of the boat in the here and now with the rowing we do through life, asking the help of Michael to make us strong enough to reach Paradise.  I’ve seen poetry with this symbolic dimension — it’s what poetry does for a living — and I’ve heard working songs, but I’ve never heard a working song with this symbolic dimension, made all the more material because the singers would be pulling at the oars while singing.

The words are somewhat attenuated in the modern versions, and here we should look at the versions collected by Ware.  He notes that the wording is very fluid and sometimes improvised.  The version he heard near Port Royal went as follows:Michael Sheet music

Michael row de boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael boat a gospel boat, Hallelujah!
I wonder where my mudder deh ( = there).
See my mudder on de rock gwine [=go/going] home.
On de rock gwine home in Jesus’ name.
Michael boat a music boat.
Gabriel blow de trumpet horn.
O you mind your boastin’ talk.
Boastin’ talk will sink your soul.
Brudder, lend a helpin’ hand.
Sister, help for trim dat boat.
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.

In my campfire days I always wondered who the sister was and why Michael’s sister had no name, but this makes it clear: the sister is any of us, as is the brother.

Ware collected an alternate version from Hilton Head:

Michael haul the boat ashore.
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow.
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet sound the world around.
Trumpet sound for rich and poor.
Trumpet sound the jubilee.
Trumpet sound for you and me.

Local citizens of Port Royal

Local citizens of Port Royal

The English actress Fanny Kemble married the plantation owner Pierce Butler and wrote a shocking exposé of plantation life.  She described slaves singing boat songs as they rowed on the Altamaha in 1839, and one of the songs sounds very much like the Hilton Head version of “Michael, Row”:  “Another ditty to which they frequently treat me they call Caesar’s song; it is an extremely spirited war-song, beginning ‘The trumpets blow, the bugles sound — Oh stand your ground!”

On these boat songs she wrote:

 The way in which the chorus strikes the burthen, between each phrase of the melody chanted by a single voice, is very curious and effective, especially with the rhythm of the rowlocks for accompaniment.  The high voices all in unison, and the admirable time and true accent with which their responses are made, always make me wish that some great musical composer could hear these semi-savage performances.

 William Francis Allen, the cousin of C. P. Ware, heard it in 1864, as he noted in his diary:

 Sunday, March 20, 1864…. we had wind and tide against us, and a heavy load, so we were not home till near seven … there was a full moon and the men sang most of the way as they rowed.  It was curious to see how their rowing flagged — for they were quite tired — the moment the singing stopped.  It wasn’t a very good set of singers, still I was very glad to hear them, for I have heard very little boat music.  They sang “Michael row,” “Hold your Light,” and several others…  (from Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals,  p. 353)

 Even gathered into collections, the vast majority of these songs have died out of popular tradition, and the voices of the slaves, convicts and workers are silent.  But isn’t it amazing that one of their songs has endured?  Simultaneously you can see them pulling on the oars in the great waters of South Carolina and as they enter Paradise.  And when you listen to the song in your mind, you can still hear them singing.


Extra bonus info:

 A wonderful page on work songs, from Shakers to the Song of the Volga Boatmen, with some recordings.

On early American black music: Dena J. Polacheck Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War

And a memory of a solitary English maiden singing her work song, in a poem that expresses the unknowability and the haunting qualities of the past —

The Solitary Reaperreaping
by William Wordsworth

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;–
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Crowd-Sourcing Private Life, plus free recipe for Biskit Pudin (with Suckit!)

“I never travel without my diary.  One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”                            — Oscar Wilde

A handdrawn illustration from an Iowa cookbook. But what is that under the table — a platypus?

Even better than one’s own diaries are other people’s diaries.  So when I found out that the University of Iowa needs us all to spend a little time poking through other people’s diaries, I said Sign me up!  That is, I said it to myself, since you don’t actually have to say it to the University of Iowa.  You just go to the website and start poking through a bewildering line-up of fascinating documents.  And here’s the thing — it’s not nosiness, it’s scholarship.  Disguising nosiness as scholarship — my modus operandi!

It works like this: archives with piles of unedited material post the photos online, and civilians like you and me do the transcription.  To give it its official description, the transcription is crowd-sourced.  The page is open before you on the site, and you just type your transcription into a little box undernearth.  You do as little or as much as you want.  Someone will come along later and check your transcription — or you can spend some time checking someone else’s.

The University of Iowa library’s “DIY History” site is bulging at the seams with documents to be transcribed: diaries, letters, and cookbooks.  Or you can go for pictures and tag historical photos.

They have a whole collection of Civil War diaries waiting to be transcribed.  Among the other diaries is a set called the Iowa Byington Reed diaries.  Here the “Iowa” is misleading — the author of the diaries was named Iowa.  This leads me to think of all kinds of lame jokes, but thankfully I’ll move on to a description.  Iowa Byington was a housewife, teacher, and seamstress who married a farmer named Will Reed.  She left eight boxes of diaries — 2.25 linear feet — covering her courtship, wedding preparations, news, family, wars, celebrations, and everything in between, from 1879 to 1936.  She’s not a particularly elegant or effusive writer, but somehow her ordinariness speaks volumes.  As you can imagine, you could easily get resolve only to peek into a page or two and end up getting lost for an afternoon.

The cover of Iowa Byington Reed’s diary

The part I’ve been transcribing comes from 1920, when Iowa (the person, not the state) was 69.  She appears to be living with her daughter.  What was there to do in the long winter months?  No television, of course, and apparently no radio.  Visitors drop by, she goes on visits, and she spends much of her time making coverlets and writing letters to her sister Hattie.  She doesn’t seem to note Valentine’s Day.  But her late husband Will is never far from her mind.  She writes:

Thursday February 12 1920. Fourteen months today and same day of the week since we put Dear Will away. I looked over our papers and crocheted.

Friday February 13 1920. A cold day.  Read my papers in forenoon and worked on Venes spread in afternoon and evening.

Saturday February 14 1920. A very cold unpleasant day.  Lora went to Peoria. I crocheted some. Wrote Hattie and sent papers to Aunt Sarah. Vene and Edith busy with the work.

Sunday February 15 1920. Still cold. I read the papers some. Wrote … Lawrence. We had our dinner in the kitchen.  Lora went to church.

Monday February 16 1920. I was home all day.  I kept busy with my crochet work.  It was 19 years ago today since Will and I moved to Coralville, to make the house that he loved so well and now I have neither him or that house. 

Browsing around in her earlier life provided some flashier spots, but somehow I found the sameness of her later life quite moving.  Similarly moving was the Civil War diary I transcribed.  In the part I tackled, the man hadn’t yet left home; he was a bachelor doing farm chores, rising at dawn, to bed at nine o’clock.  He didn’t know that soon he would be off to war and that the hard round of farm chores would soon seem paradisical.

The handwritten cookbooks are equally fascinating.  From an American cookbook of 1850-1870: “Pickled oysters.  Take a hundred and fifty-five large oysters…”  A cookbook from the 1920s features Divinity Pie and Butterscotch Pie.

And here for your delectation is a recipe from the euphoniously named Penelope Pemberton, dating from 1716.  I’ve added punctuation, but this is otherwise a faithful transcription.  You can tell how Penelope pronounces her words by her phonetic spelling, e.g. “crame” for “cream.”  “Orring” must be an orange.    A “pudin” is of course a British pudding, i.e. a dessert, not the creamy American kind of pudding.  I wonder if biskits/biscuits refers to American-style baking-powder biscuits or British-style cookie-like objects? “Sack” is wine.  But — what is suckit?  Or have I transcribed it wrong?  Suggestions? (The original is down below, atop the rest of the transcription.)  The suckit doesn’t actually seem to figure in the recipe, so perhaps you have to bring your own suckit to the feast.

Biskit Pudin with Suckit.

Penelope Pemberton’s recipe for Biskit Pudin — with Suckit!

Take 1/2 pound of savi biskits, poiver [?] one gill [?], a quart of crame boyld, when coldd masht too gether. 

Beat 8 eggs, lave out 4 whits, mix with yr biskits, sweeten it to yr tast. yr have rady cut in thin short slises 2 ounses of canded Lemmon, 2 of orring. Stir it with yr outher things. If it be too thick, ad some spoonefolls of crame more too stir it up, when yll put it in yr dish which must be butterd and past laydd a bout. Be quick with it into oven when it is stord up, 1/2 an ouer or 3 quarter will bake it.  Sarve it with sack, butter & suger.  If yll plase yll may make 1/2 pudin and put in 3 ounses of all Lemon or 3 ounses of all orringe or 3 ounses of sittron.

Those spare minutes and hours spent noodling around on the internet can now gratify your nosiness be both entertaining and helpful!  As you eat yr Biskit Pudin, wander over to the University of Iowa “DIY History” project and have yrself a look.

Boy-Life Among the Cherokees

In 1888 the Reverend F. R. Goulding published Sal-O-Quah; or, Boy-Life Among the

A most extraordinary book

Cherokees.  Some parts of this extraordinary book suggest that the author is drawing from memories of his own boyhood.  Others are most remarkable for the propaganda which no doubt seemed plausible to the author at the time; but they certainly stick in the craw now.  I cannot resist citing this section from the first chapter, in which the boy narrator goes with his father to visit a local inhabitant of Cherokee Territory.  Ah, the advanced civilization that brings picturesque climbing vines to those in need!  A climbing vine and some white clay absolutely purify things, don’t they?  And purity (which equals non-Indian ways) equals happiness.  What a telling symbol: making things white on the outside.   I can’t speak for other aspects of the passage, but this is certainly an authentic record of how the nineteenth-century missionaries to the Cherokees viewed themselves, as well as how the prosperous viewed their affluence — as a virtuous object lesson for the benighted.  With picturesque vines!

            Without further ado:

 The house was white, as if covered with a coat of lime; and there was a piazza-like shed in front, supported by posts set in the ground.  The floor of this piazza was of earth, a little raised above the surrounding level; and the eye was delighted with the sight of a luxuriant vine gracefully climbing around each post.

            “That my house,” said Kaneeka, pointing to it, with pride.

            “A very different house from the one in which I first saw you,” said my father.

            “Had not been in white man’s country then,” returned Kaneeka, quickly; “had not learned white man’s ways.”

            “Is your pretty house white-washed with lime?” cousin Aleck asked.

            “No, only white clay,” Kaneeka answered.

            “It certainly is very pure and very pretty,” said my aunt, with delight.

            As we drew nearer, we saw Saloquah’s pony hitched near the gate, for the house was surrounded with a little stockade fence, giving to it, and to all around it, a very picturesque appearance; to add to which we saw Yellow-Bird (or Chescoo-teleneh,) Kaneeka’s wife, standing in the doorway, holding little Sallicoo by the hand, while a boy, seemingly eight or ten years of age, dressed in fringed deerskin, was running as fast as his nimble legs could carry him to meet his father.

            “We are glad to find in these wild woods such a happy-looking home,” said my aunt. “I was hardly prepared for it.”

            “Few homes in my own dear Scotland seem to be happier than this,” said cousin Aleck.

            Kaneeka’s eye kindled.

            “Not everybody so in Injin country,” said he.  “I not so either till he come,” he added, pointing to my father, who, with a blush of pleasure, hastily inquired:

            “And pray what did I do to help your cause so much?”

            “You show me white man ways,” said Kaneeka, with enthusiasn, and growing eloquent as one thought suggested another.  “You read me white man Bible.  You tell me white man Saviour.  You teach me and my wife love God, love pray, love good, love everybody.  Then our corn begin to grow, our hog begin to get fat, our cow give plenty milk.  We get happy, and we get rich.”

The sorrow of a life without ornamental vines

            My father looked down for a moment, then, seemingly impressed with Kaneeka’s assemblage of facts, he turned to cousin Aleck, and asked:

            “Do you recollect the thought you read to me the other day about the ancient patriarchs? that in those days, when men had little faith in a future life, God gave great prosperity to Abraham, Job, and other of His distinguished servants, in order probably to convince men by sensible signs that godliness is gain.”

            “Yes,” replied cousin Aleck; “and I recollect you added to it the thought, that it was probably for a similar purpose toward the present heathen, that God causes Christian countries to be so far in advance of pagans and anti-Christians in all that pertains to worldly well-being.”

It leaves one speechless, doesn’t it? Except for that one give-away word, “probably.”

Excuse me while I go plant some climbing vines.

A State of Perfection Never Before Attained

The advertisements in newspapers of the 1820s rival modern ads for extravagance of claims. You’d think everything was impeccable, especially in schooling — unless you’ve taken the precaution of reading Dickens.  The brutal and squalid Dotheboy’s Hall in Nicholas Nickleby comes to mind. The first one of these ads below sounds sincere and upright, but it is outdone by the sincerity and comprehensiveness of the second.  Everything for the education of the young Gentleman!  But one wonders why young Gentlemen would need to know merchant accounting … perhaps the students are not quite so high in station as the proprietor would like to imply.  And as for morals,  the final claim of the second ad makes one think.  Am I wrong, or does that imply — ?

Without further ado, here are two ads for schools from the London Times of 1827, and one additonal bonus ad:

EDUCATION. — At Mr. CLARKSON’S ACADEMY, Bowes-hall, near Greata-bridge, Yorkshire, BOYS are liberally BOARDED, furnished with books, &c., and carefully instructed in every branch of education necessary to qualify them for any situation in life, at 20 guineas a year; the French language is taught by a native of France at half-a-guinea per quarter extra.  Mr. Clarkson pledges himself that every indulgence is afforded his pupils, consistent with health, morality, and religion; and that his friends and the public in general may be thoroughly convinced of the truth of what he asserts, it is his particular wish that parents and guardians travelling into the north should, if convenient, call at Bowes, and inspect the above establishment.  For cards, and references to parents of youth who have been educated at this Academy, apply to Mr. Smith, the agent, 26, Lombard-street.  Mr. Clarkson is in town, and may be consulted daily, between the hours of 11 and 1, at the Carolina Coffee-house, Birchin-lane, Cornhill.


 ADVANTAGEOUS PLAN OF EDUCATION. — At an established BOARDING-SCHOOL, pleasantly and beautifully situate, 14 miles from London, a limited number of young Gentlemen are BOARDED, and EDUCATED in the Greek, Latin, French, and English languages, reading, writing, arithmetic, elocution, history, astronomy, geography, use of the globes, mathematics, merchants’ accounts, &c. with a monthly lecture in philosophy, chemistry, mechanics, mineralogy, etc. with the use of an extensive apparatus: terms, including all the above branches of education, books, stationery, washing, &c. 50 guineas per annum, and no extra charge whatsoever: no entrance required: gentlemen above 14 years of age are charged 60 guineas, and no extras. It is presumed the plan of education is calculated to promote with unusual facility the improvement of the pupils, while their morals and domestic cleanliness and comfort receive the greatest attention: the pupils occupy separate beds. Cards may be had of S. E. Sketchley, Esq., Kensington, Mr. Smith, optician, Royal Exchange; and of Mr. Bagster, bookseller, 31, Strand.  Several London coaches pass daily.


 Other enterprises are not to be outdone by the claims of schools!  Here is the most extravagant advertisement in the same paper — soda water!  In a state of perfection never before attained!  —

SODA-WATER, in a state of perfection never before attained, prepared with patent Glass Machinery to prevent any unwholesome metallic impregnation to which all other Soda-Water is liable, being made with brass and copper pumps, tubes, and vessels.  As this is a matter of some importance to the drinkers of soda water, they are respectfully infomred that this superior Water is manufactured and sold by R. JOHNSTON, chymist, No. 15, Greek-street, Soho, in oval glass or common stone-bottles, at the same price as the common Soda Water is sold.  The great celebrity of this Patent Water, has induced the common Soda Water-makers to imitate the patent oval bottles; the intention is obvious; and to guard against the imposition, consumers will please to observe the genuine has the following inscription in the glass: ‘Hamilton’s Patent, sold by R. Johnston’ as above.  These waters are exported safer, in better condition, and cheaper than any other.  For the convenience of merchants and shippers, orders are received at 60, Cornhill.