Friday, March 17, 2023

The Amish come for furniture, and how to age a dovetail joint

Last summer, I went to northern New York, to work on a construction project on a family property and blog about genealogy and family history when I could. Here is an anecdote that relates to antique furniture and a visit from an Amish family.

We are demolishing an old structure. There are lots of items to give away, as well as a smaller number of special things we want to keep for the new cabin that will be built on the site.

We have already given a wood-burning stove made of iron and several beds to a local Amish family, whose two middle sons, aged 18 and 19, loaded it up on the biggest horse-drawn wagon I have ever seen:

Amish taking furniture
I was about to give away a chest of drawers to them. It's a piece of so-called "brown furniture" that is well made but not very popular nowadays.  

“Don’t give it away," my parents said. "It’s a nice piece of walnut furniture with dovetail joints.”

That interested me. Dovetail joints are an old-fashioned method of manufacture. It went out of style 150 years ago, but furniture made this way is renowned for quality construction.

I looked on the outside of the chest and couldn’t see any dovetail joints.

My father took out one of the drawers and showed me. I couldn't believe how small and fragile they looked, but they had held together this chest of drawers since sometime in the 1800s!

dovetail joint antique furniture
“The smaller the dovetail, the older the piece,” my father said. They are indeed tiny, a testament to the skill of the artisan who made it.

We are keeping the chest. But I also took a lesson to heart: Important details are easily missed. Sometimes, you need to look twice. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

A brick wall breakthrough for Granny Wallace

granny wallace

The lady in the photo above is my great-great grandmother, or "Granny Wallace," as my great aunt used to call her.

We didn't know much about Granny Wallace. She was born in the 1830s or 1840s. She moved around, living in 3 or 4 countries over the course of her life. She married twice.

I recently made an unusual major brick wall breakthrough, thanks to FamilySearch's database of free genealogy records. I typed in my great-great grandmother's maiden name in the basic records search. There were only three results, but one of them was pure genealogy gold!

It was Granny Wallace's 1891 marriage record from what is now Niagara Falls in Ontario. It showed her second marriage, and confirmed a story that my great aunt had told me decades ago - that after Granny Wallace's first husband died, she married the brother. Indeed, the marriage record showed that she married the younger brother. She was 50 at the time, and her new groom, himself a widower, was 41.

Crucially, the record confirms the birthplaces of the newlyweds. It also contains the names of both sets of parents, which I had not known. It further lists their religions - she was Baptist, he Presbyterian. It's enough information for me to dig further back in time on both lines over the winter.

It was an unusual find because I have searched FamilySearch hundreds of times for my great-great grandmother. She never turned up under her maiden name. But one of the wonderful aspects of FamilySearch is the regular addition of new records from all over the world. The 1891 Canadian marriage record must have been added in the last year or two.

The lesson for family historians: For genealogy brick walls, the passage of time can loosen the mortar. Re-check online databases and family trees to see if any new information has turned up since the last time you looked!

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Favorite holiday traditions, and revisiting Ebenezer Scrooge

Japanese Santa Claus illustration, 1914
Nearly everyone has a favorite holiday tradition. Small children gravitate toward opening presents. Some people love shopping for presents, or wrapping them in a very creative way. For our daughter, it is decorating the tree. Our son still likes to leave out cookies for Santa, even though he is a teenager!

For several Jewish families on our street, it's lighting the menorah. For some Catholic neighbors, it's attending midnight Mass.

Music is popular, from religious songs to modern seasonal hits. Performances of The Nutcracker are frequently sold out in Boston. One of Nicole's colleagues has attended the Boston Pops annual holiday concert every year since 1987!

One of my favorite traditions is watching a film version of A Christmas Carol. There are more than a dozen movies dating back to the early 1900s, ranging from by-the-book renditions to musicals to modern adaptations. I prefer the 1951 black and white film starring Alastair Sim

This week, I read Dickens' original novella, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. I expected it to be dated in language and plot, but that was not the case. Indeed, it was a gripping story that brings together horror, drama, and even a touch of humor - I couldn't stop reading! You can read it online here. Take a look at the vivid description of Ebenezer Scrooge on the opening page:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Then we come to Scrooge and Marley, Ebenezer's place of business and the single-minded focus of his life - making as much money as possible, no matter the cost to the people around him:

The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

No wonder "Scrooge" is now a noun for miserly tightwad! I won't spoil the ending, but A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and finding humanity even in the most unlikely of characters.

Dickens' story was a hit the moment it was released in England in December 1843, nearly 180 years ago. It would have been a story treasured by generations of our English-speaking forebears, first in book form, then on the stage, and later in film.

Whatever holiday tradition you observe, enjoy the time to celebrate traditions and connect with family and friends.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

We remember

Continuing the I Lamont family history series, this time prompted by Veteran's Day. More than a century ago, my great uncle Adrian stepped off a troop transport in France and into the maw of the greatest war Europe had ever experienced. 

It would in fact be known as the "Great War" for several decades, but we now call it World War I. By April 1917, the European powers had been pounding away at each other for 3 years. Millions had died. The fields of northern France and Belgium were pockmarked by craters and crossed by trenches and fortifications. It was a stalemate.

The American "doughboys" were there to break it. My great uncle, along with most of his all-male college classmates, enlisted as soon as exams were over in the spring of 1917.

He was sent to officer’s training camp in Plattsburgh, New York, and by the end of the summer was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the field artillery, assigned to the 18th Calvary. He was commissioned 1st Lieutenant that fall, and sent to San Antonio that winter. The photo below is from the training period. He's on the right:


American doughboys WW1 photo 1917
The following May, in the spring of 1918, they were thrown into the war. I can only imagine the feeling of foreboding as his unit traveled inland to eastern France, passing blown-out buildings, blasted trees, military camps, and wounded and dead being brought back from the front. There would be the sounds of conflict. Artillery. Machine guns. Gas sirens. Airplanes.

This was different than their training experience back in the U.S. Now it was for real. A few miles away, German forces were firing guns and dropping bombs, in an effort to maim or kill them and stop the reinvigorated Allied forces from advancing. And the doughboys were trying to do the same with their weapons. This map shows the approximate location of the front from 1916 to 1918:

WW1 western front map U.S. Army
Much later, his sister penned a family history. She said he participated in the Battle of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensive that ended the war. Another source, a 1922 reunion note for his college class, described a recognition he received:
“For distinguished conduct in action, for exceptional devotion to duty, energy and courage. On the day of November 7, 1918, while at a forward observation post adjusting fire in preparation for firing accurate barrages, was subjected to heavy enemy shell fire but displayed great courage by remaining at his post until the work had been accomplished. This is in the vicinity of Jaulny, France."

November 7, 1918, was the 6th week of the Meuse-Argonne offensive and a mere four days before the Armistice. He almost didn't make it. We still have one of his medals, from the earlier battle at the St. Mihiel salient:

St Mihiel salient medal WW1
But we have an even more important reminder of the bravery of this young man more than 100 years ago. We named our son after him.

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Influences: Punk rock

There's a video doing the rounds titled "how to write a hardcore punk riff" (see below). I never learned much music theory, other than what my high school bass teacher imparted to me regarding basic major and minor scales and the structure of blues-rock. So the video was interesting, as 12tone breaks down some of the patterns behind hardcore punk-rock. 

But I think he missed a few things, too. I say this as someone who used to write this type of music in the 80s and 90s in bands like Mr. O, Uckfay, and Feiwu

feiwu taiwan punk rock

Let's start with something 12tone nailed: "It's really easy to make boring punk music." So true! It was easy to identify the greats back in the 1980s, some of whom the narrator cites - Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Dead Kennedys. We found out about these bands through word of mouth, live shows, fanzines, listening to records at friends' places, or college radio. 

But boy, was it hard to write songs as good as them. I realize why. It's not just a question of getting the theory wrong. In our zeal to reject everything about "classic rock," and the 80s electronic influences that were taking over the pop charts, we were listening to too much punk and hardcore. It wasn't until Feiwu (1997-1999) that I really began to consider other influences, including Taiwanese nakashi music.

It's very clear that the most creative and impactful musicians and artists are usually the ones who are doing things differently, not blindly adhering to the "rules" for whatever came before.

All of those seminal hardcore bands not only had fantastically skilled musicians (including vocals), but also they were coming from a much different place than we assumed, something I didn't find out until later. It's a mistake to think of them as amateurs who only knew the Sex Pistols and Ramones before they picked up their instruments. 

Bad Brains started out as a jazz/pop band. Greg Ginn of Black Flag also had a jazz backgroud. I read somewhere that one of Black Flag's favorite albums in the tour van in the early 80s was ZZ Top's Eliminator - Texas blues rock meets synth drums. 

Flea, who played bass in Fear before cofounding RHCP, was a high-level trumpet and French Horn player in high school, and grew up listening to his stepfather's jazz influences. East Bay Ray of the DKs - surf and jazz. D Boon of the Minutemen studied flamenco guitar at one point, which you can hear on Double Nickels on the Dime.

There's a great book by Michael Azzerad (Our Band Could Be Your Life) which gets into the influences of many 80s/early 90s bands including Minor Threat, who late in their existence were veering off into U2 influenced rock.