Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Praise of Out-dated History Books

One of my favorite things to do is seek out old history books at used book stores. One of the first one's I ever bought was a history of Europe that was written pre-World War I. I learned so much that helped me in researching my Domelle line (they come from what is now Romania, but what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they emigrated) that from that point on I always kept my eye out.

On that same line, I also like when I find books that are very local - not the books that so many people write about counties and towns around the turn of the 19th century, but the one's that were written about people's customs and local stories.

Here's a few I've found over the years:

"Home Life in Colonial Days", by Alice Morse Earle, published 1898

"The Cultural Life of the American Colonies", by Louis B. Wright, published 1957

"Landmarks in the Old Bay State", by William R. Comor, published 1911

and the latest one I just finished reading:

"It's an Old New England Custom", by Edwin Valentine Mitchell, published 1946

Edwin had a great writing style - very informal - as if he was in the room telling you the cool stuff he found out.

Two things from this book really made an impression on me - one chapter was on eating pie for breakfast. Yes, pie! And cake too! Apparently people used to be way more flexible in what was considered an appropriate breakfast food. Edwin lamented the habit of a continental breakfast, brought back by people traveling in Europe. And let me tell you, Edwin knows how to turn a phrase, tell me you aren't hungry after reading this:

"Gone are the great juicy steaks, the red-hot chops, the vast platters of smoking ham and eggs, the hashed-brown potatoes, and the steaming stacks of buck-wheat cakes brought on in relays and eaten with maple syrup from the Berkshires or the Green Mountains."

He also quoted from an account written by English traveler John Lambert, who stopped in at a Vermont farmhouse after having troubles with his boat. He and his traveling companion just busted into this guy's farmhouse at like 4am and woke up the farmer. And he welcomed them! Boy have times changed. Anyway, John Lambert wrote:

"The master of the house, with two of his sons, were soon up, and, having put the kettle on the fire, made preparations for breakfast. About six o'clock, his wife and daughters, two pretty little girls, came into the kitchen, where we were assembled, and in the course of half an hour we had the pleasure of sitting down to a substantial American breakfast, consisting of eggs, fried pork, beefsteaks, apple-tarts, pickles, cheese, cider, tea, and toast dipped in melted butter and milk."

Now THAT'S a breakfast! Especially the cider part. I think I would like to bring back drinking hard-cider all hours of the day.

I consider all these little tidbits so interesting, it really rounds out your knowledge when you are researching ancestors to know a little bit about what their life was like when it comes to the mundane stuff.

One other really cool thing I came across in the book was an awesome turn-of-phrase. He has a chapter on epitaphs found on grave-stones across New England, and in describing how sometimes crimes were recorded on the gravestone, instead of the phrase " old cemetery" he uses:

"old skull orchard"

Come on, how awesome is that!!!!! What a great phrase, I am totally using it from now on.

So anyway, if you come across an old local history, or book on customs or folklore for your area of interest (I also have some old books on New England folklore), I suggest you grab it, you never know what you'll find!

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