Finding Oral History in Print is Validating

I feel like I owe my ancestors an apology, for having the doubts I once had about the history they passed down to me.

My great-great-grandfather Harry served as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War in the Union Army. He was in his late twenties when the war began. I don’t know when he immigrated to the United States, but I know that he was born in Cologne, which at the time of his birth was part of Prussia (now it’s part of Germany). A generation before him, Cologne had been part of France, and Harry’s mother had French ancestry. The oral history I heard is that he left Cologne/Prussia because he was opposed to the political direction that Prussia was going towards. He immigrated to the United States, which he perceived to be much more democratic. What I heard is that German immigrants were so devoted to the Union cause in the Civil War because, after having their political ambitions frustrated in Europe, they valued American democracy. And to them, plantation owners and the institution of slavery represented what they were trying to get away from in Europe. To hear the way it’s been described in my family, German-Americans were responsible for keeping many areas under Union control which otherwise would have become part of the Confederacy, heck, the Union might not have even won the Civil War without the German-Americans.

I’ve never exactly disbelieved this oral history, but…I’ve also questioned it. I could think of ways this could have been distorted through the generations. None of this was every covered in my American history classes in school. I remember learning a little bit about ‘the old immigration’ (i.e. Irish and German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century) but not how that related to the Civil War. I’ve occasionally encountered references to Irish-Americans in the New York Draft Riots (content warning: anti-black racial violence), but the only reference I can recall finding in print to German-Americans in the Civil War was a brief mention in a Civil War memoir.

That is, until now. Continue reading

Conclusion to the If Walls Could Talk Series

So I wrote more posts than I expected about the book If Walls Could Talk. Why do I find the topic so compelling?

Honestly, I find the topics of the book compelling for many of the same reasons the writer, Lucy Worsley, does.

Most history education does not focus on how people lived their lives in their homes, so most of us lack a historical context for much that we find and do in our homes. Thus, we sometimes underestimate or overestimate how unusual our home habits are. Take, for example, the ‘trend’ of people eating alone, or at least in very small groups. Most of what I read/hear about eating alone in contemporary media, whether it’s a lamentation that people are eating alone so often, or a defence of eating alone, saying it’s not such a bad thing, assumes that this is a new behavior. By contrast, Worsley says:

The beginning of the end of the communal meal can be seen much earlier than the seventeenth-century handover of the cooking from men to women in the grandest houses. It can be placed right back in the fourteenth century. (Or at least that’s when the rhetoric began. It’s amazing that people are still complaining about this to this very day: when they criticise families for eating in front of the television, they’re echoing sentiments which have been heard for six hundred years.)

I imagine that if it were common knowledge that these arguments about eating alone / in privacy were so old, the way people discuss it today would probably be different (and more interesting).

And near the very end of the book, Lucy Worsley says “Throughout all the periods of history, people have thought their own age wildly novel, deeply violent and to be sinking into the utmost depravity; likely, in short, to herald the end of the world.” I can feel this sometimes when I read Victorian novels, especially when they refer to the ‘nineteenth century’ as being an ultra-modern era where the appearance of anything ‘old-fashioned’ would be shocking while society was more depraved than ever before. Continue reading

Historical Cycles of Collecting & Minimizing (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

One of the many things I’ve learned from the book If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley is that, at least in the English-speaking world, there have already been a few cycles of a fad for collecting various material stuff followed by a fad for clearing out the ‘clutter’ to make the home simple and beautiful.

According to Worsley, in medieval England, anyone who could afford to have a lot of material goods had a very mobile lifestyle, and thus needed stuff that was easy to carry around. The king had to constantly travel from place to place within his kingdom, and powerful nobles had multiple manors and needed to travel between them in order to manage their domain. That meant that their stuff was both easy to assemble/dissemble and pack, and there was a practical limit to just how much stuff they had. “This was medieval life for the grand,” the book says “the temporary occupation of an endless succession of draughty castles, each furnished quickly but luxuriously for the occasion. It’s almost like camping: each night the whole set-up could be recreated somewhere new.”

There was another reason, however, that the powerful people in medieval times (and their servants) moved from place to place every few weeks. Worsley says “The difficulty of cleaning up after a huge household was one of the things that kept medieval noblemen on the move, trekking from residence to residence every few weeks. [Describing an incident when Queen Mary’s household was stuck at the same palace for a long time] …The squalor grew; the garderobes [equivalents of toilets] overflowed into the moat. The conditions grew so foul that tension between the English courtiers and the Spanish supporters of Mary’s husband Philip reached boiling point.” Continue reading

The Alienation and Then Disappearance of Domestic Servants (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley says:

Perhaps the biggest difference of all between [before the twentieth century] and now is the absence of this particular variety of intimacy in the home. People in the past took it completely for gratned that they’d have non-family members living cheek by jowl beneath their roof.

In Tudor and Stuart time, between a quarter and a half of the entire population were employed in domestic service at some point in their lives, and the bond between master and servant was one of the most important social relationships. Being a servant wasn’t something of which to be ashamed: you gained protection and honour by association with your own particular lord… People were proud to serve the man who in return met their physical needs.

Clearly this attitude was long gone by the beginning of the twentieth century, but in 1900 domestic service remained the single largest source of female employment … In the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history, by 1951 a mere 1 per cent of households had a full-time residential domestic servant.

It is clear that Lucy Worsley really does consider the disappearance of domestic servants to be ‘the most significant upheaval in a thousand years of domestic history’. In almost every part of the book, she discusses how essential servants were to the life of middle-to-upper class households – which, in turn, were also lower class households, because they were just as much a home to the lower-class servants as they were to the upper-class masters. Continue reading

Closets: the Shift to Seeking Solitude (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In chapter 5 of If Walls Could Talk, “Praying, Reading and Keeping Secrets”, Lucy Worsley says:

The closet was used for solitary activities – for praying, reading, meditating – or for storing precious art, musical instruments and books.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, as literacy spread, we come across a novelty: people willingly spending time by themselves. This new trend for solitude, linked to the rise of reading, called for new, small and private rooms.

…Closets, these new rooms for solitude, also developed out of a tradition of prayer… Indeed, the forerunner to the closet was the private oratory, like the one just off Edward III’s bedchamber at the Tower of London.

Apparently, literacy was what prompted so many people to seek solitude. (And I guess Christianity had something to do with it too). The spread of literacy also motivated improvements in indoor lighting – if people are not reading (because they can’t) they don’t need good lighting in the evening.

I find this major shift – from people not seeking solitude to seeking solitude – very interesting. If one never wants to focus on read or study, and in the absence of electronic devices, prayer and meditation may be the only activities one would especially want solitude in a quiet enclosed space for, and some people do not particularly want to pray alone or meditate.

But with reading – and composing one’s own thoughts to write down on paper – being alone in a quiet enclosed space becomes much more desirable.

According to Worsley, the ‘closet’ was only popular in England for a few centuries before falling out of use.

Secondly, the Pilgrim Fathers took closets over to America, and to this day personal possessions in the US are stored in ‘closets’. The shoe-filled walk-in closet in her tiny New York apartment represents Carrie’s hopes and dreams in Sex and the City.

Back in the British bedroom, though, the closet died out.

Wait, what? People in the U.K. don’t have closets??!! I had no idea. Do they all store their clothes in wardrobes? (In San Francisco, many people *cough* prefer having an extra bedroom over having a dining room, so rooms which were originally built to be dining rooms have a tendency to morph into bedrooms, and lacking closets, they often have wardrobes. Thus, in my experience, wardrobe = mod for converting non-bedroom into bedroom).

Until the rise of electronic devices, reading, writing, and study (and maybe prayer) were the major activities for people who wanted to mentally shut out their physical environment so they could immerse themselves in a particular mental environment. But now, in addition to reading/writing/study/prayer, we have: radios, recorded music players, television, electronic games, and more examples which I am probably overlooking. Not to mention that there is now more written content to read that ever before: besides books, newspapers, magazines, and letters, there is so much material on the internet, including blogs like this one. Though listening to the radio/recorded music, watching television, and electronic gaming can be communal activities, they are also often done in solitude. I suspect people today, especially but not only in first world societies, are choosing to spend more time in solitary activities than ever before (for example, I am writing this blog post in solitude).

What does it mean if people have shifted towards putting more time into solitary activity than before? I’m not sure. It’s something to think about (probably in solitude, since I don’t know whether I’ll ever have a conversation about this).

All-Purpose Rooms to Separate Rooms to All-Purpose Again (If Walls Could Talk Series)

I read If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, which provided me with much food for thought, and is inspiring multiple blog posts. Such as this one.

In the beginning of the book, it explains how, in medieval England (and medieval Europe in general?) most rooms were used for all purposes, and even the few rooms with specialized purposes were used more broadly than they are today. Few medieval people had their own dedicated bedroom; most of them slept in the same room where they did things while awake. People who worked in a kitchen would probably pull out straw mattresses and sleep there at night too. Practically nobody slept in a private bedroom; even the nobility, who had partial privacy within their four-poster bed (if they could afford one) would have some of their servants sleeping in the same room as themselves. And even the ‘bedrooms’ of the nobility were used for many purposes in the daytime, and were not treated as strictly places to sleep.

Building and maintaining buildings are expensive. Keeping buildings warm when it is cold outside is challenging. And in societies which are prone to frequent outbreaks of violence, defending buildings is also a challenge. In medieval Europe, which lacked many of the resources we take for granted now in first world countries today, it made sense to get the most use out of those buildings which were built, maintained, kept warm, and defended. To let a room be left idle in daytime or night-time was wasteful.

People in medieval Europe had much less privacy in where they slept that most affluent people in the first world today, but more people = more warmth, and keeping warm is a higher priority than privacy (not to mention more protection from potential enemies).

Before chimneys started to appear in the 13th century, the only way to heat a room – besides body heat – was an open fire. Since each fire could only heat one room, and each fire required maintenance, that was a reason to minimize the number of rooms (and maximize the use of those rooms). Chimneys made it possible to heat multiple rooms with a single fire, yet were still inefficient. As heating technology improved over the centuries, it became more feasible to heat more rooms with a given amount of fuel.

(Worsley focuses on British history, but in warmer climates, such as southern China, heating is much less important. There tulou homes in Fujian province that were built in the 14th century and have over 200 rooms.)

Gradually, there was more separation of functions of rooms, though the change was gradual. The idea of a bedroom being an exclusive place only became widespread in the 18th century, though ‘bedrooms’ were still used frequently for social gatherings. Heck, according to Worsley, corridors only started to appear in British homes towards the end of the 17th century – before corridors, people had to move through bedrooms rooms which happened to have beds to get from one place in a house to another. And it was only in Victorian times that bedrooms became firmly established as private places. To quote Lucy Worsley “The activities of the bedroom were now [in the Victorian Era] limited to sex and sleeping alone, and the other social purposes of the room fell away.” Continue reading

Alliance of the Non-mono Folk in the USA, Part 3: Ties among the 19th Century Groups

In the previous post, I introduced some prominent groups in the United States which practiced non-mono relationships, either celibacy or poly relationships. In this post, I will discuss how groups who sometimes had very different ideas about how to do non-monogamy became allies.

Their Rejection of Monogamy Was a Part of a Greater Context

None of these groups rejected monogamy just for the sake of rejecting monogamy – they all saw it as a part of something bigger. This was all going on as the United States was becoming an industrialized society.

Ann Lee herself, the founder of the Shakers, grew up in Manchester, England. When she was born, Manchester still had a predominantly agricultural economy, but by the time she left Manchester, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the living conditions of the working classes was far more miserable than the lives of the townspeople Ann Lee would have known as a young girl. It has even been speculated that, due to the increasingly crowded living conditions in Manchester caused by the industrial revolution, sex became increasingly public, and problems caused by unplanned pregnancies became increasingly obvious, and that all of this might have led Ann Lee to have become more anti-sex than she might have been if she had been born a century earlier. Though the Shakers are best known nowadays for their crafts and for being celibate, there is a reason why they rejected private property, and to a large extent they were trying to create an economic model which could compete with capitalism while being much more humane. Shakerism greatly influenced Karl Marx and other communist intellectuals. In fact, it could be argued that the greatest impact Shakerism had on the world was economic (or rather, the way people thought about economics).

It was not just the Shakers – all of these groups rejected the institution of private property to some degree. Even the Mormons, who in the 20th century gained a reputation for being anti-Communist, experimented with abolishing private property in the 19th century. And all of these groups considered private property and monogamous marriage to be so deeply intertwined that one could not truly eliminate private property without also eliminating monogamy. To them, the purpose of monogamous marriage was to sustain private property over multiple generations, and to assert men’s ownership of women.

That brings us to another issue – all of these groups were much more strongly in favor of gender equality than mainstream American society in the 19th century. Most of these groups saw monogamous marriage as one of the primary ways that men oppressed women, which for them was all the more reason to reject monogamy.

I do NOT think it is a coincidence that the Icarians – the only major ‘communitarian’ group which not only practiced monogamy, but which forbade poly relationships and was also anti-celibacy – was also the only group which did not allow women to vote in community governance meetings.

Nowadays the Mormons have a reputation for sexist, but in the 19th century Mormon women had more rights and privileges in the Mormon community than most American women did in their communities. For example, the 19th Century Mormons supported women’s education, and said that if women had adequate education, they could do many things just as well as men. Mormon women could vote in community affairs, and Utah had women’s suffrage in 1870 – only one other state/territory in the USA (Wyoming) granted women’s suffrage even earlier than that. I’m not an expert on Mormon history, but I wonder whether or not it is a coincidence that they gave up the practice of plural marriage around the same time they became more supportive of capitalism and less supportive of gender equity than mainstream USA society.

(Side note: I used to think that polygyny was inherently more patriarchal than monogamy – I no longer think this. There are certain polygynous systems which are less patriarchal than certain monogamous systems – for example, the polygynous 19th century Mormons were less patriarchal than the monogamous Icarians. What matters is the details, not whether it’s polygyny or monogamy).

In addition to being concerned about economic justice and women’s rights, all of these groups also tended to support other ‘liberal’ causes of the day, especially abolitionism (that made things really interesting when these non-mono groups tried to set up communities in the South – especially if it was a community which accepted black members). Vegetarianism was also very common – for example, many Shaker communities set aside a table in the dining room just for vegetarian members of the communities – and most of the Oneida Perfectionists were vegetarians. There were even a few people who nowadays would be labelled as ‘vegans’ or ‘animal rights activists’ (most famously Amos Bronson Alcott).

So How Did These Groups Ally with Each Other?

First of all, everybody loved the Shakers. They were the oldest and most visibly successful of all these groups, and everybody wanted to copy at least some aspects of Shakerism. Sometimes the Shakers responded to this by saying “well, since you think we are so wonderful, why don’t you join us?” Obviously, some of the people who admired the Shakers did not want to, for example, take vows of celibacy, which is one reason why they set up their own communities rather than just join the Shakers.

The 18th century Shakers wanted to withdraw from the world, not participate in it. In fact, withdrawing from the world was an important strategy for them, since they were often assaulted, particularly during the American Revolution when they were often suspected of being agents of the British (in truth, the Shakers were neutral in the American Revolution, and refused to fight on the behalf of either side of the war). In the middle of the 19th century, the Shakers were much more involved in worldly affairs, for example, many Shakers were abolitionists who worked with non-Shaker abolitionists (Frederick William Evans is the most famous of the Shaker abolitionists).

These groups sometimes traded communities with each other – for example, the Harmony Society sold one of their communities (by ‘community’ I mean ‘land and buildings’ and not people) to the Owenites (who named it ‘New Harmony’). Also, when people became dissatisfied with one group, or when a community failed, it was common for them to move to a different group.

The Shakers used the Gospel of Matthew (22:30) to justify their rejection of marriage – and since they did not support sex without marriage, that also meant no sex. John Humphrey Noyes, the leader of the Oneida Perfectionists, used the very same line in the gospel as evidence of why monogamous marriage is wrong – but to him, it said nothing about sex, which meant that sex was still okay.

I find the relationship between the Shakers and the Perfectionists a perfect example of how celibate and poly groups could be allies. On the one hand, the Oneida Perfectionists, like everyone else, loved the Shakers. When the Oneida community finally dissolved, some of them chose to join the Shakers (in particular, the ones who believed that ‘special love’ was wrong thought that it was better to be celibate than to enter a monogamous marriage). Likewise, when there was an organized campaign against Oneida community, some of the local Shakers came to their defence, and one say that the Oneida complex marriage was “vastly purer than some of the most respectable marriages of today” which demonstrates that, to some Shakers, monogamy was more abhorrent than sex, and that they did not consider poly sexual relationships any more immoral/sinful than mono sexual relationships.

The Attacks Were the Same

Even though these non-monogamous groups were so diverse, many of their critics launched the same kinds of attacks on them. For example, the Shakers were sometimes accused of being harlots and promiscuous because they allowed unmarried men and women to live together (did the critics not get the part about Shakers being celibate, or did they simply refuse to believe that men and women could live together without having sex?)

Likewise, even though the Oneida Perfectionists were the most enthusiastic about having multiple sexual partners, some of their critics accused them of emasculating and reducing the sexual ability of their men (to be fair, this may have had more to do with the Oneida Perfectionists’ peculiar birth control method – which was actually as effective as modern day birth control pills at preventing pregnancy – as with the Oneida Perfectionists’ rejection of monogamy).

Often, one group was pitted against another, with rhetoric like ‘even the ghastly Mormons maintain the distinction between husband and wife, unlike free love commune over there’.

So, next time…

Though I know something about the practice of non-mono relationships in the United States in the 20th century, I know nothing about how non-mono groups with different philosophies related to each other. Therefore, I am going to skip the 20th century completely, and go straight to the 21st century in the next part of the series.