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Monday, February 20, 2017

“Not keep a journal!”

“Not keep a journal!”

Thus exclaimed Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. “How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal?”

Jane Austen thus satirizes young ladies’ stereotypically frivolous behavior, recording every trivial instance of their lives in their journals—something like we see today on social media. (In fact, Henry Tilney would surely revise his speech for the modern woman: “Not post on social media! How are your 582 best friends to understand the tenor of your life without social media? How are the meals allowed in your current diet to be fully described as they ought to be, unless photographed and posted every day? How are your Pinterest images to be remembered, and the particular achievements of your internet games, and the latest jokes in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a posting timeline?”)

And yet, suggests Henry to Catherine, you do want to be able to use a journal to develop a thoughtful little piece of writing about the kind of life you may be leading while you are visiting a certain city. Maybe that life is trivial, and without a journal to tell you so, you might miss the quality of your days. (As you might if you spend all your time on social media.)

I have been keeping a journal for decades. I threw away a number of years’ worth, to the horror of my journal-writing-class-teaching relative, because they were the years of my depression and were way too painful to ever go through again. And I don’t wish that on anybody else, so I don’t regret them being gone. To me, throwing them out was symbolic of having successfully overcome the depression itself.

People have a lot of reasons for keeping a journal or a diary. My grandfather’s diary recorded the temperature every day along with the weather, what he ate, what he wore, and everything he did. They can make for very boring reading, but if you are patient and tenacious with them, you discover some tiny gems of humor along the way. He rarely commented on people or events, but when he did it was always something worth finding.

My grandmother on the other side of the family was a budding writer when she started keeping a journal at the age of 13. She recorded the witty and clever things she thought and conversations among her friends, along with her growing powers of analysis. By the time she was in her twenties and having all kinds of fun adventures, she was a talented writer for the immense practice she had had, and when she became a newspaper reporter, she was very good at her job indeed.

Naturally my grandparents wrote in longhand. My grandfather always wrote in ink, which was a pity, because the year the creek behind their house overran its banks and flooded the house, one of his boxes of journals was ruined. The ink had run so much that the pages were washed almost clean, and my aunt threw them out. He started writing in tiny wire-bound notebooks, sometimes bound on the sides, and sometimes at the top. Later on he wrote in standard page sized wire-bound notebooks, always on ruled paper. The ones that weren’t water-damaged are easy to read today. My grandmother wrote in pencil. It has not smeared, fortunately, nor faded, and so it is as good as the day she put the words down in her little books. She always had small, leather-bound books, rarely with ruled pages, but her writing is also easy to read.

However, it’s cursive writing. What are people going to do when they no longer can read cursive? Will they lose the ability to read charming entries in the diaries of their ancestors?

The other day I was reading a syllabus for a class on writing a personal history that includes a section on keeping a journal. The professor advocates using longhand to the exclusion of the computer. I disagree with the professor’s view, although I myself keep writing in longhand when I record things in my journal. However, there are too many people for whom that’s impractical, or awkward, or impossible to keep up the habit if it involves having to find a pen, a book or paper, and a writing surface. People who are good at typing and not so good at handwriting find it much easier to write at a keyboard. I know I do, but I make myself keep in the habit of what now feels clunky in comparison—writing by hand in a little book.

I try to make it more attractive by buying cool-looking books to write in. One year I had a journal with a cover that was illustrations reproduced from the Book of Kells. Another year the cover was a print of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I have used tiny books, medium-sized books, and one or two large books. I used binder paper one year and the computer one year. I don’t like this year’s book, one with a pretty cover but with stupid philosophical quotes on every other page with which I don’t even agree. I may have to abandon it and start over in something else so as not to outrage my feelings every time I turn the page.


I used a fountain pen until it got all clogged up and no amount of soaking in ammonia would coax it to behave nicely again. I love fountain pens, but they are an awful lot of bother.

I once attended a talk by David McCullough in which he suggested that if you want to become famous in a hundred years or so, write a journal every day in longhand, and have your heirs donate it to the Library of Congress when you die—as it will be the only longhand journal of your generation, it will no doubt be accepted and read and referred to extensively by the historians of tomorrow.

I reread last year’s journal the other day. It was very interesting to go back through the year and relive the feelings of the moment. The memories become a lot clearer when I do that. I reread 2008 a little afterwards, and I decided that I need to work on my writing identity somewhat.

I may not seem like the same person if I write in an optimistic attitude as when I write in a pessimistic mood. I am certainly not the same persona when I write more negative things than positive things. When I forget to pay attention to some important area of my life in my journal, then my persona changes. It’s interesting to see who I was in any particular time based on what I was either subconsciously or consciously choosing to write about. But I definitely enjoy my writing a whole lot more when I focus on more of the positive things than the negative things. Not that both are not the truth, but naturally there are biases that change the shade of the truth ever so slightly.

“What is truth?” is the classic question. It’s in my journal, I hope.

My favorite journal quote is by Oscar Wilde, from The Importance of Being Earnest: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Hatter of Broadway

As a break from an ongoing project, I’m going to write about a man with a hat shop. To introduce him, I have to go back to a previous post about my ancestor John Andrews, in which he described a trip he and his sister Harriet took from their home in southern Indiana to New York and Connecticut to see relatives and the New York World’s Fair of 1853 [you can access that post here].

He says they came “to New York, and Brooklyn, where we met for the first time some of our cousins, Mrs. Mary Taylor and her sister Miss Harriet Osborn. They were sisters of A.S. Osborn who had come west some years before” –and then they had gone with Harriet Osborne to Connecticut where all their older relatives still lived. The Osborne sisters were the daughters of Julia Andrews, one of John’s father’s younger sisters.

Here’s where he introduces our hat man:
“Returning to New York and Brooklyn we were helped in sight-seeing by some of our business relatives, Mr. Taylor, Mary Osborne’s husband who had a hat store on Broadway, another cousin Andrews who dealt in clothing etc. also on Broadway, and Samuel Andrews who, although a graduate of Yale College, and the only one of my kindred that I heard of who did, drove a dray to support his family, and perhaps he was more successful than his brothers.” [In my previous post I added a note about the humble occupation of driving a dray, but I now wonder if John meant to stress that Samuel was the only one of his family who graduated from college?]

To get back to hat making and such subjects—I decided I needed to know the name of this hatter. I had looked for him in the past with no success, but people are doing more altruistic work than ever these days, despite what we read in the newspapers, and all around the world there are folks photographing, scanning, uploading, and online indexing historical records for the fun of it—not for any pecuniary advantage—which is why I found him this time I looked.

I got on Ancestry.com and asked the search engine to look for a man surnamed Taylor with a wife named Mary, living in the vicinity of New York City in 1850, who did something with hats for a living. Bingo! The New York State census of 1855 popped up with the family of Anson Taylor, a man who made and sold hats for a living, born in Connecticut with a wife named Mary who was also born in Connecticut, with a few little children and a sister named Harriet Osborn who was also born in Connecticut. They lived in Brooklyn. This was obviously our man.

Top hat and Panama hat styles
Did you know that the bowler hat was invented in 1849 by James Lock & Co. of London? Perhaps Anson Taylor was creating the new design for sale in his shop. Certainly he was making top hats of all kinds. Panama hats were probably originally created in Ecuador and became popular worldwide by being sold to the thousands of 1849 gold seekers passing through the Isthmus of Panama. Anson Taylor would have had Panama hats in his shop as well.

Butch Cassidy and his wild bunch all wearing bowler hats

Men’s smoking hats of that day were modeled on the Turkish fez, and were intended to keep the smoker’s head warm and incidentally to absorb most of the smell of the smoke so that the hair didn’t smell. Smoking hats were made of luxury fabric such as velvet and were richly embroidered and adorned with tassels.

Various examples of 19th-century smoking hats, courtesy of Google
Top hat of the style worn in the early 1850s;
this daguerreotype was made on Broadway and
maybe this young man bought his hat from Anson Taylor
An interesting thing about making hats of felt—the Mad Hatter’s disease was a dreadful reality. Especially in the mid-19th century, immigrants and other workers made hats in close quarters with little ventilation and inadequate drainage, so that they were ripe for mercury poisoning during the felt-making process that released mercury vapor into the air. One of the major symptoms of the disease was tremors in the hands, eyelids, lips, and tongue, which were all dismissed as signs that the worker was addicted to intoxicating liquor.
Felt hat making processes

Could Mr. Anson Taylor have operated one of these unhygienic workshops in the back of his store or somewhere nearby? At the time it would have been seen as normal working conditions and practices to have such a setup.

It is very probable that Anson Taylor was not physically making the hats himself. He left his Broadway shop at night and went home to Brooklyn, where Mary and the children, his sister-in-law Harriet, and usually an Irish boarder or servant or both were living. (There was one Ellen McGonnagal from Dublin there in the household as a servant when the 1855 census was taken, and she was back again when the 1870 census was taken. Why she wasn’t there for the 1860 census is a little mystery.) At any rate, this was a well-to-do household, with all of the houses on the street worth from $4500 to $5000, located in the old Brooklyn Heights neighborhood running along the East River south of where the Brooklyn Bridge would be built beginning in 1869.

In 1853 when John and Harriet Andrews visited the Osbornes, over in New York Boss William M. Tweed was just coming into full power and starting his system of graft in the Tammany Hall district. As tourists, the Andrews siblings wouldn’t have come into contact with any of the corruption of the city government, of course.

They would have appreciated the sights of the Trinity Church, the tallest structure in Manhattan at that time; the Church of the Holy Trinity with the first stained-glass windows to depict figures; perhaps 1 Hanover Square, which was the newly-opened site of the Hanover Bank (later to be the site of the New York Cotton Exchange and then the India House); and the big old round fort building at the Battery that was once known as Fort Clinton, but then was known as Castle Garden, a place of entertainment. The renowned soprano Jenny Lind had sung there a year or two before, and the notorious Lola Montez presented the infamous “tarantula dance” there the next year. They might also have visited Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, as it was a popular tourist place. Before Boss Tweed was buried there in the 1870s, no one who had been convicted of a crime, or even had been in jail, was allowed to be buried there. The cemetery’s popularity in the 1850s led directly to the competition to design and develop New York’s Central Park. Perhaps on a Sunday they attended Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn and heard the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, whom many considered to be the most famous speaker in America, preach a sermon against slavery. Scattered about the still-mostly agrarian area were homes, schools, and other buildings made famous by the American Revolution or by surviving from the earliest colonial days.

In addition, as John wrote, “While in New York a world’s fair was in progress. . . . in one building there was a great many things on exhibition that were new to me, interesting and useful. Typewriter a novelty and a wonder to most every one, sewing machines, and other household appliances, agricultural machinery in variety, such as plows, cultivators, mowing machines, reapers, etc.” The Fair buildings were built in what is now Bryant Park.
Lower Manhattan Island in the 1850s. Note the spire of Trinity Church. Brooklyn Heights is on the lower right.
On the lower left of the island is the round Castle Garden building.

It’s probably useful to think about what was not in New York yet in 1853. No skyscrapers. No Brooklyn Bridge, which was the first bridge over either one of New York’s rivers, as it was not yet planned. Central Park’s creation was just then being funded by the legislature, although winter ice skating was popular already on the lake there. Macy’s first store in New York City was still five years away from being started. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wouldn’t be started on Fifth Avenue until 1870. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was not built until 1910.

But our hat maker Anson Taylor and his family would have seen some of these changes as they continued to live there. One line in David McCullough’s famous book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge says that a Brooklyn hatter was among those who walked across the temporary wooden footbridge during the construction of the mammoth bridge. The hatter was one of those who unfortunately froze with fright midway across and had to be helped back (page 407). I hope that wasn’t Anson! The stereoscopic view below, taken in the late 1870s during construction, shows how scary that footbridge was.

The construction footbridge was used by quite a few intrepid people until a man had a seizure in the middle and nearly fell. After that, the construction foreman stopped issuing anybody a pass to go up. Besides, people were getting in the way of the building of the bridge.

Funny thing is, Anson disappears from the records of New York between 1860 and 1870. His wife and some of the children still live in the same house in Brooklyn in 1870, and then they too all disappear.

An Anson Taylor surfaces in Illinois in 1870, married to a much-younger Irish immigrant named Marianne Barrett originally from Dublin. They have two children, a 15-year-old boy named John (who might have belonged to Marianne from a previous relationship), and a little girl named Monica. I wondered if our Anson had been caught in an affair and divorced from Mary Osborne Taylor. It happened to many folks—but there is no telling here for certain.

I did discover that a lot of people online seem to be looking for an Anson Taylor born within the same 10-year period as our Anson, and all seeming to disappear from families where curiously, only one or two children were ever born, and always in the month of March. Maybe our Anson was a serial bigamist who took annual trips?! Little Monica was born in March . . .

Maybe he came down with Mad Hatter’s disease and could take it no longer and left.

Serious researchers, you’ll have to pardon my taking liberties with the gravity of the facts you seek. I actually seek facts too and try to identify my flights of fancy as such. Note to everyone: the preceding three paragraphs contain speculation about facts. Do not treat my “wonder” as truth! My apologies to all you who are literate enough to understand the difference, but these days explanation is safer than subtlety.

These days “facts” have become whatever suits the imagination. We are living in an age where fantasy is sliding into propaganda. By the way, I have a bridge to sell you, though I may be “talking through my hat.”