Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Arch Street Bones Project

This could be a long blog post. I have a lot of things to say about the surprise discovery of the remains of the historic burial ground of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, uncovered during a construction project on Arch Street last fall. As an archaeological site, the burial ground was partially destroyed by construction equipment operating there. It was only through the intervention of some dedicated (volunteer) archaeologists that any real archaeology was completed at all, and that work was speedy and only a few steps ahead of the backhoes. I could easily lament the rather shameful disengagement of various local and state agencies who claimed they lacked jurisdiction over human remains and/or the site.

And we could certainly discuss the lack of any real enforcement mechanism for the cultural heritage guidelines Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have on the books. I have strong feelings about how a city that prides itself on its cultural heritage simultaneously ignores the rampant destruction of archaeological resources on private land (often despite the laudable advocacy of organizations such as the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum). In 2014, for example, a site at the corner of Third and Market that included a number of eighteenth-century foundations, privies, and wells was destroyed and looted by private collectors. All legal. All to the great detriment of each of us, because each of us owns the legacy of the people, many anonymous, enslaved, and forgotten, whose only traces are things like broken bits of pottery thrown down a well and the human bones that lie buried under our feet. These are artifacts that can tell profound stories about our ancestors.

Photo by Evi Numen, from hyperallergic.com

But I want to get right to the point. Now that the eighteenth-century human remains found on Arch Street - over seventy individuals and many more fragmentary bits - are above ground, they are in urgent need of proper storage, conservation, and analysis. However you feel about the conditions of their recovery, we can probably all agree that the least we can do for the people who were buried on Arch Street - and for ourselves, because of all the things we can learn about our predecessors from studying their bones - is restore some sense of individuality and humanity to their remains. Thanks to the dedication of a few key volunteers, the Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and other institutions, this work has begun. It needs your support.

Take a minute to consider the Arch Street Bones Project, the crowdsourced funding campaign to support the urgent needs of this collection. You might be surprised at how much we will learn about the past.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part VII: Bucking

Once you have spun and hanked (wound into coils) your flax yarns, wrote John Wily in 1765, they should be "boiled in Water and Ashes, to make it soft and pliable, that it may weave the closer and tighter together" (49).

Wily was frustratingly vague here, but other sources help flesh out his meaning. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, defined "buck" as laundry, laundry water, and the act of laundering. So one could presumably buck your buck in buck. But more specifically, bucking was the first step in softening and bleaching flax for linen. A 1766 volume described in detail how flax yarns were bucked  by soaking them in water and treating them with lye (s.v. "Buck" and "Bleach"). One 1809 source even suggested boiling flax in seawater, unslaked lime, and potash before spinning it (265-266).

In 1765, a "lye" (a derivative of "alkali") was a very basic (versus acidic) solution. The most common household lye was rendered from potash. In short, water was passed through wood ashes (ashes in a pot) and a filtering medium. People used what trickled out for a variety of purposes, especially soap. Or, in the case of some farmers, softening and bleaching flax.

But, unlike other sources, Wily doesn't say to use lye or potash. He just says ashes. So, I experimented with these instructions alone. As far as ratios go, I decided to go with a source from 1769. Granted, it's talking about the treatment of grain to avoid fungal infections. But it's the closest I've found to an actual ratio: "Make some lye, such as is used for linen, in a bucking-tub, putting four pounds of water to every pound of ashes," (s.v. "Burnt-grain"). But instead of steeping the ashes in water to make lye, as these instructions suggest, I simply used the 4:1 weight ratio as the basis for otherwise following Wily's instructions.

That is, after I imposed on a friend to collect a bag of ashes from his wood stove (the handoff of this bag, of course, generated a number of tasteless jokes about drug deals and grandmother's ashes).

"You should boil it," wrote Wily," until you see it begin to lint, that is, when you see a Lint or Fuzz rise on the thread" (49).

Vague again, you Wily bastard (see what I did there?). More experimenting was in order.

After doing a small test to make sure that my linen wouldn't simply disintegrate, Nicole helped me dutifully measure out the appropriate amounts of water and ashes.



We prepared four small hanks: a control, one boiled for five minutes, one for ten, and one for twenty.

Three of the miniature flax hanks before boiling.
The problem, we instantly realized, was that it was impossible to see anything in the ashy water. I had assumed Wily meant you would be watching your flax while it was submerged, but clearly he wanted you to fish it out periodically to examine it. But even when we fished the linen out, it was hopelessly dingy and clotted with small bits of charcoal, making it impossible to see any linting. So we went with the timer method, even if it's anachronistic. This was an experiment, after all.

I was skeptical whether the ash had many any difference when we first removed the flax hanks from the water. But lo and behold, after I washed them clean and let them dry overnight, they did indeed show stark changes.




Each of our three tests showed that increasing the boiling time both softened the flax and significantly lightened its color. Wily never mentioned color changes, but that helps explain why bucking was a first step in bleaching flax to a pure white color.

I wish I had prepared a few more miniature hanks and really let them cook. I suspect a half hour would be about ideal under my stovetop conditions, but who knows what an hour or two would do? At some point, of course, the flax threads would begin to break down and the hanks would disintegrate, but I suspect that would take quite some time. People boiled linen textiles when they laundered them, after all, and they didn't disintegrate.

With my bucking experiment over, there is only one final step in this long saga of my journey from flax to linen: weaving. And that's a story for another day.


Thanks to Joseph Privott and Mark Hutter for their insights on bucking, Matt Mickletz for his ashes, and Nicole Belolan for her able assistance in all things.

Volumes linked above:

Temple Henry Croker, et al., The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences... (London: Printed for the Authors, 1766).

Evert Duyckinck, Valuable Secrets in Arts, Traces, &c... (New York: Published by Evert Duyckinck, 1809).

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language... (London: W. Strahan, 1755).

A Society of Gentlemen, Members of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, The Complete Farmer... (London: R. Baldwin et al., 1769).

Friday, February 3, 2017

From Trenton to Princeton

Last month, I arrived in my university’s health clinic with relatively unusual case for them. They diagnosed me with a “mild cold injury” resulting from “exposure to extreme, natural cold” (the way the nurse lingered on that second adjective – natural – made me wonder about the alternatives). According to my doctor, “frostbite” and “frostnip” are not very scientific diagnoses. But luckily for me, I’m not a very scientific person, so I can stick with the more dramatic description. I had frostbite.

In the doctor’s office, I had tried to dodge around exactly how I got frostbite. “Well,” I answered to their questions, “I spent a night outdoors… in New Jersey… in the snow… walking…” My voice trailed off until I barely muttered, “…wearingwoolclothesandleathershoes.” The nurse raised her eyebrow. The doctor, when he came in, finally settled the issue. “So you were at some sort of enactment?”

Yes. I got frostbite. At a reenactment.

The reenactment in question was part of a complex of historical programming meant to commemorate the 1777 Battle of Princeton, New Jersey, including events at Morven (an eighteenth-century house in Princeton), Princeton Battlefield State Park, and the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton. Part of this involved recreating an overnight march of the Philadelphia Associators, a unit in George Washington’s army, from Trenton to Princeton. It’s the second time reenactors have conducted this event. Matthew C. White analyzed the first one, staged in 2015, in "'Do You Guys Own Slaves?' A Case Study of a High-Minded Living History Event," ALHFAM Bulletin, 45, no. 4 (Winter, 2016). Like many of the young reenactors who attended this round, I seized on the opportunity to participate when it was repeated.

At the several associated sites, the event organizers had gathered a concentrated mass of dedicated living history interpreters and had plans for excellent public programs. The crew up in Princeton did manage to pull off some compelling scenes despite the weather. At the Old Barracks, where I spent Saturday, we had only perhaps a dozen visitors throughout the day because of how quickly the roads turned to ice. Nonetheless, we conducted drills, cooked our rations outdoors, worked on sewing projects, and fired our muskets. By mid-afternoon, we were beginning to operate smoothly as a two-platoon company, even in five inches of snow. 

In our last formation, one of our officers read Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, which was making the rounds of the Continental Army at precisely the time of the “Ten Crucial Days” of the battles of Trenton and Princeton in 1777. Facing the eighteenth-century stone barracks, under a cloudy sky with crows flying over, and the snow still falling heavily, we listened. I’d never read the whole thing – indeed, I think most people don’t realize that the compelling rhetoric about sunshine patriots and British tyranny actually bookend a long and less stirring (at least to listeners in 2017) middle section about then-current events. Every minute or two as he read it, the officer had to shake the paper to knock away the snow that piled up on it. Hearing it in such company was a remarkable experience.

Peale's Associators. Courtesy the Old Barracks Museum.

We all fell asleep that night in the barracks rooms, but I think most people were too excited and nervous to get much rest before midnight, when we were awoken with a harsh sergeant’s voice. “Up!” And so we stumbled around clumsily, dressed, and piled on our accouterments.

We marched thirteen miles that night. The snow had stopped, but as the clouds cleared off, the temperature fell, I’m told, below ten degrees. We marched through Trenton proper and passed a few bars that were still open. A couple hardy drinkers tumbled out and gawked at us. And into the suburbs, where two police cars passed us blaring a fife-and-drum “Yankee Doodle” from their loudspeakers. Other late-night drivers encouraged us with, respectively, “The British are coming! Kill them! Fucking kill them!” and “Vote Trump!” Some cars slowed down just long enough for the drivers to assure themselves we were real and snap a cell phone photo.

In Trenton. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.

Much had changed between 1777 and 1918, and we should be careful using sources from one period to understand another, especially when it comes to military experiences. But I've just begun research on a dissertation chapter about World War One, and infantry officer Hervey Allen wrote something about marching in his 1926 memoir, Toward the Flame, that resonated with my experience in New Jersey:

“You must imagine us moving along both sides of the road in single file with a couple of paces between each man, rifles slung and heads hung low, everyone trying to accomplish the next step with the least bit of energy possible… Everything we wore began to trouble us. My pack made my shoulders ache intolerably… Places on my feet and legs began to hurt. The outer world seemed to recede to a vast distance; the landscape took on an odd grey appearance. One became preoccupied with musing upon one’s self.” (101)

Back in 2017/1777, our own preoccupied column came to a halt in some woods near the Clarke House on Princeton Battlefield. Through some miscommunication, we were unaware that a large fire awaited us nearby, and instead we struggled to build our own from deadfall and tinder. We couldn't manage even that. In times past, this might have been fatal, or at least very dangerous. It made me think of a short story by Jack London that my grandfather first introduced me to, To Build a Fire (1902), that revolves around the halting and eventually disastrous attempt by a prospector to light a fire in the Yukon. Luckily for us, someone eventually located the existing bonfire and led our shivering column to it. The sight of it alone began to rejuvenate us before we ever got close enough to feel its heat.

On Princeton Battlefield. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.

We stood close to the fire, turned sideways so that more people could fit near, and watched our leather shoes begin to steam. A pot of coffee was there. Men began to smile again, and laugh. One young soldier, sitting with his arms on his knees and his pack still on, sat slightly slumped forward, fast asleep. Shortly after sunrise, we conducted a battle demonstration. Even this brief affair, marching and across a snowy field at Princeton, loading and firing, was exhausting. When we concluded, the last few hundred yards we marched to the Clarke House felt interminable.

On Princeton Battlefield. Photograph by Wilson Freeman, Driftingfocus Photography.

What I find particularly remarkable about this whole experience is that it was not even close to the real thing. For a few hours, we marched a few miles on sidewalks, paved roads, and farm fields. The original Philadelphia Associators, after their march to Princeton, continued on several more miles, without food or blankets until they finally stopped for the night and collapsed in exhaustion on the side of road. Other Continental and British soldiers conducted similar marches, almost routinely, over the course of the war. Some soldiers endured months and years of such labor. I got frostbite after only one night – and I had been vigilant about wiggling my toes, drying my feet, and changing into new socks as soon as we finished the event. One of my feet blistered so badly that it bled, but my feet were cold enough I didn't even realize it until later, when I removed my stockings. What would have happened to me if I had to continue on for days in such conditions?


My point here is not that people in the eighteenth century were in some way better, harder, or stronger than us. Yes, some (but not all) would have entered the army with two decades of strenuous prior life experience under their belts. But I don’t think it’s useful to revere our predecessors as somehow superhuman. They are inaccessible enough without crediting them with physical prowess. They were men and women, just like us. 

They were men and women, though, whose daily life involved more hardships, physical trials, and outright suffering than most Americans encounter today. For them, exhaustion, pain, and deprivation were not, as they are for me, remarkable exceptions to a comfortable everyday life. Instead, such experiences were at the core of everyday life. For many people in the United Staes and abroad, they still are. But for most Americans of a certain class level, such conditions are rare if not entirely absent from life in 2017.

Which brings me back to the doctor’s office. The doctor told me that the results of frostbite – tingling and numbness – can take weeks or even months to wear off. So I’ll have plenty of time to think about my experiences in New Jersey even when I'm enjoying my painless, everyday comforts. The doctor told me that he had once used acupuncture to treat a World War Two veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, who even fifty years later had painful frostbite symptoms. My cold injury is mild enough that no such treatments – and no such lingering effects – are at all likely. Instead, I’ll carry only memories and the historical insights I gained from this exceptional experience. I think those are well worth some temporary suffering, though my doctor might disagree. As I left, he had a wry smile on his face. “Thanks for your service to our country,” he said, “I think you should avoid winter campaigns from now on."

In the Clarke House. Photograph by Brandyn Charlton.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part VI: Heckling and Spinning

In my ongoing experiment in making linen from seed to fabric (about which you can read here), I've run rather behind (two growing seasons, in fact). But I've finally found the time to heckle and spin my linen into something resembling yarn!

John Wily, the author of the 1765 Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax, describes in detail how to make a heckle, the wooden-based, iron-toothed comb that you use to strip flax of remaining "hards," or pieces of non-fibrous core of the stalks. For the most refined flax production, Wily says, get yourself a graduate set of heckles, because you can work down to smaller teeth and thus finer flax fibers. "But," he concludes, "many People have only one, of a middle Size," (43).

Living as I do in 2016, and I have a much easier recourse to the internet than to a blacksmith capable of making the the 176 tapered, 4-inch long, steel teeth that Wily says you need to make a heckle. So I bought an antique one. It dates to the nineteenth century, and it's clearly seen some use.



Wily says to take a bunch of your flax, shake it to loosen it, wrap it around a couple fingers, and "fling the other Ends of the Flax on the Points of the Heckle Teeth." Do this enough times, and what you end up with is "the longest of the Flax," which "will make very good Thread," (45).



The problem, I discovered, was that if your initial twist of flax is too big (mine were), you end up hopelessly fouling both the twist and the heckle. Moreover, I suspect that my previous scutching/swingling had left many more hards than Wily would have liked, which also contributed to the mess.

Most importantly, I discovered, you need to keep your twist of flax well in hand, because as soon as I set it down and began to try to pick through it, the neat bunch of fibers transformed itself into a bird's nest.


I was rather crestfallen at the results. Bertie the cat was rather crestfallen to be trapped indoors.

What I ended up with was one small twist of pretty decent flax. As you can see from the picture below, as I heckled the flax, the lengths of my fibers decreased because I was breaking more and more of them as I worked them through the heckle's teeth.

Bertie inspects the flax.

I also salvaged a wad of "tow," the shorter, bird's nest fibers. Over a couple nights, I managed to pick most of the hards out of the tow wad so that I ended up with a softball-sized, puffy ball of tow. 

Tow before I removed the hards (visible here as lighter-colored splinters).

I took these rather underwhelming materials to a friend, Heather Hansen, who is an accomplished spinner and knitter. Luckily for me, Heather has a flax wheel and the knowledge to operate it. Lucky because, I'll be honest, the spinning part of this process is what I find most confusing, even now that I've done it with Heather.


In theory, spinning makes sense. You just twist the fibers together like a very tiny rope, and this tension holds them together. But in practice, spinning flax on a wheel is like playing a drumset (I've never played a drum set, but I can barely rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time, so you get where this is going). You power the wheel with foot peddles, the wheel spins and engages with various mechanisms, and you manipulate the raw flax with your hands so that it is gradually spun and sucked up onto a revolving spool. Even with Heather's patient tutelage, I found the my hands and feet were often out of sync. I ended up spinning too fast, creating something that looked far more like twine than thread, or breaking the yarn.



Luckily for me, Heather was able to produce a more continuous thread (I contributed by operating the foot peddles). Even with my tow ball, which I had neglected to card as Wily instructed. He recommended processing tow with cards, the same sort of toothed paddles used for processing wool, in order to gather up and align short flax fibers. In fact, Heather, perhaps because she is more familiar with spinning wool, found it easier tow work with the ball of tow fibers than with the finer bunch of flax.



Our result is clearly much heavier than the yarns that early Americans would have wanted for weaving fine linen textiles, but it's still within the realm of possibility for use in things like upholstery webbing.


All told, we ended up with 236 inches (19.66 feet) of tow-based thread and 388 inches (32.33 feet) of finer linen thread. A better heckler could almost certainly have salvaged more fiber from my bird's nests, and a practiced flax spinner could have spun far finer threads and thus produced much more.

But for what it's worth, my 52 feet of yarn is the product of my eight square feet of mediocre soil, planted at the seed ratio Wily recommended in 1765 (which, when reduced down from acres, means two teaspoons of seed per eight square feet). If we assume that average for a whole acre of flax planted in 1765, based on the math I did when I planted back in 2014, we get a result of 278830.5 feet of linen yarn, or a remarkable 52.8 miles! And that's certainly on the far low end of what you could produce with an acre of flax.

So just how much finished textile can 52 feet of coarse linen thread produce? To find out, I need to boil my thread and weave it. Why boiling, you ask? Stay tuned to find out.

Monday, September 19, 2016

An Early American Slop Shop, Now in Full Color

Last year, I published an article on slop shops and the ready-made clothing they offered in early America, and I included the only two known images of early American slop shops. One of these, drawn by tinsmith William Chappel and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows a New York City streetscape in the early nineteenth century. Using Chappel's location description, I was able to identify this shop as that of Jacob Abrahams, who owned a clothing store on Water Street in 1813.

When I published my article, Chappel's image was only available in black-and-white. I'm delighted that you can now view it - and Chappel's many other fascinating paintings - in full color and stunning detail as part of the Met's Open Access for Scholarly Content program.

The detail below captures the garment variety, cloth color, and display techniques of a slops-seller like Abrahams. Chappell even delineated the tiny buttons of the trousers and coats hanging from Abrahams's storefront. He drew the shop years after 1813 and as background to a gruesome dog-catching scene, but Abrahams's store clearly left an impression on Chappel, who remembered how important slop shops once were to American waterfront communities.

Detail, William P. Chapel, "The Dog Killer," from The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 54.90.513.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Perfect Souvenir

Stopping dead in my tracks, I stared at the ground where a small object had caught my eye. Wedged beside a root in the narrow jungle path sat a dusty grey sphere the size of a marble. Picking it up, I could feel the solid weight of a two-hundred-year-old .75-caliber lead musket ball settle into my palm. Long ago, some idle soldier whittled large gashes into the bullet while passing time in a far-flung post of the British Empire.



Fort Shirley, or what’s left of it, sits between two large hills known as the Cabrits on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Once upon a time, Dominica was a booming sugar colony of the British Empire. But by 1854, the fort had outlived its strategic importance, and Britain abandoned it. It took another century for Dominicans to achieve full independence. Today, the island is in the midst of reinventing itself as a natural and cultural haven, and it seems like an anachronism among its Caribbean neighbors, without the cruise ships, duty-free shops, and mass tourism of other places. I arrived there as a guest scholar and crewmember aboard a Sea Education Association sailing school vessel, the Corwith Cramer, after an Atlantic crossing in late 2014. Shortly after we made landfall, I hiked up to the site of Fort Shirley.


The Cabrits, Dominica, 2014. The restored portion of Fort Shirley is visible midway up the hill on the left. Photo by Jeffrey Schell.

For some years, historian Dr. Lennox Honeychurch has directed a small museum and an ongoing restoration project at Fort Shirley. But most of the fort, including the ruins of dozens of stone buildings, remains deep in the jungle. I studied historical archaeology as an undergraduate and worked briefly as an archaeologist, so as I hiked around the overgrown portions of the site I noticed dozens of pieces of Chinese porcelain, British stoneware, and American earthenware scattered on the surface. I picked up a few ceramic fragments, scrutinizing them and imagining what sorts of plates and bowls and cups they were once part of, and then carefully replaced them on the ground. It was only when I found the musket ball that I thought about taking a piece of Fort Shirley home with me.






A handful of the more remarkable sherds on the surface at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014.

Most professional archaeologists argue that all artifacts should remain untouched and in place – in situ – until someone can conduct scientific excavations and capture the precise spatial and temporal relationships of objects in the ground. But many archaeological sites have been disturbed by natural and man-made events. Artifacts, especially ones on the surface, can end up quite a distance from the spot where someone discarded them years ago. Some scholars believe that casual surface collecting has its benefits. The preeminent historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume felt no compunction over pocketing sherds from sites on the islands of St. Eustatius and St. Lucia to compare with those he excavated in Virginia (see his books Martin's Hundred and If These Pots Could Talk). Other people, billing themselves as amateur archaeologists, metal-detectorists, and treasure hunters, advocate for even more aggressive collecting. What good is an artifact above or below the ground surface, they ask? This musket ball, they would point out, was just one of thousands likely scattered around Fort Shirley. And a natural disaster or greedy treasure-seekers could destroy this site long before any professional archaeologist arrives.

Ruins and cannon at Fort Shirley, Dominica, 2014

And so I paused, hand halfway to my pocket, wondering whether I could justify taking this musket ball home as a souvenir. Twice in the past few years during visits to London, I happily “mudlarked” along the tidal shore of the River Thames, collecting ancient bits of pottery, clay pipe stems, and broken glass. I still use these artifacts for teaching, and I didn’t worry about collecting them because the Thames is an undeniably disturbed site, jumbled by centuries of tidal flow, construction, and demolition. In fact, the Museum of London encourages mudlarks to report spectacular finds and reserves the legal right to acquire such objects for the their public collection.



Thames artifacts, 2010

But Fort Shirley was archaeologically pristine. And this one piece of Dominica’s history was part of something much greater than a single musket ball. It was part of the cultural patrimony of a place where I was just a visitor. As a historian and archaeologist, I'm a steward of our collective inheritance. In this place, every bit of pottery and shard of metal was a sentence in a grand story waiting for an author. This small artifact – and its part of that story – didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to any one person, really. It belonged to Dominica, and to all of us.

I tucked the musket ball back under its root, where it had rested for two centuries, and watched as the steady rainfall covered it again with dark Dominican soil.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Transcription as Translation

I've been thinking a lot about translation recently, in part because of a fortuitous international conversation about an object in a Japanese museum's collection. But I've also been involved in a less obvious form of translation. Last winter, I completed a contract project with the USS Constitution Museum (Boston). Meanwhile, I conducted a series of oral history interviews with reenactors for my dissertation research. Both of these projects involved a lot of transcription. Or, cast in another light, translation.

For the USS Constitution Museum project, I transcribed all the surviving logs from that ship for the War of 1812 period (1812-1815). Ships' logs were functional documents in which officers tracked weather, movement, supplies, and events. The data they contain is very valuable from a historical standpoint, telling us much about how ships functioned. Ships'  logs betray little emotion and less of the personal side of life at sea than other sources. But among the courses and currents and wind directions and latitude and longitudes and barrels of pork and boxes of cheese in the Constitution's logs are occasional, remarkable narrative passages. There are hints of personalities, notes about both dedicated and reluctant sailors, records of long days and nights far from land, and traces of lives and deaths that played out at sea and in port. 

Sometimes I laughed out loud when reading the logs. On August 18, 1812, the Constitution sighted a sail and made chase. The vessel she pursued, presumably thinking the Constitution was a British ship, attempted to escape. When she caught up, the Constitution "found her to be the Private Brig of War Decatur of Salem, Captain Nichols of 100 Men, and 14 Guns 12 of which she threw overboard during the chace." The poor brig Decatur was so anxious to escape from what she thought was a powerful British ship that her crew frantically pitched their heavy cannons over the side to lighten their load.

Years later, on February 25, 1815, the Constitution was hosting captured officers from HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The prisoners from these ships were well-behaved, the log-keeper wrote, "except some of the British officers of whom this ship’s ward room officers complained, that they did not conduct themselves below, like gentlemen, being in their language indecent, vulgar, and abusive to each other." So much for polite decorum.




The Constitution, Cyane, and Levant, from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The Constitution's log-keepers were not writing in type, as I am now. They wrote by hand, in ink, and although they mostly wrote in crisp, legible script, converting their writing into type is, at base, an act of translation. Like all translation, it is full of interpretive decisions. Is that mark a comma or a period? Did they even make that distinction when they wrote it, or was it just a dash of the pen that signified a sentence break? Is that letter capitalized or not? Is that number an 8 or a 9? 

These might seem like obsessive, antiquarian questions, but they are not. Periods and commas change sentence meanings (as in the famous elementary school lesson of "Let's eat, grandma" versus "Let's eat grandma"). Whether letters are capitalized or not impacts how we read (and how people in 1812 read) their importance, RIGHT? And the difference between 800 gallons of water and 900 gallons of water could mean life or death on a ship at sea, and its record can impact how we understand the choices the Constitution's officers made about how long they could stay at sea. 

Translators make choices. And so, knowing full well the weighty consequences, I sometimes had to make my best guess regarding both the action of the writer (whether a particular mark he made was long enough to be considered a comma) and his intention (whether he intended that comma to end a sentence or separate a clause). 

When it comes to oral histories like those I've been conducting, transcription is no easier. People don't speak many of the parts of speech we include in writing. There are rules about how to use commas, dashes, and slashes when we use the language we call writing. But as for the language we call speaking, things get trickier. Was that a comma I just heard in your sentence, or a period? Or rather, was that a comma I just heard in your sentence? Or a question mark? When you transcribe what someone says, you introduce new parts and new meanings. 

Just like I had to make decisions about the Constitution's logs, I had to make decisions about what people had said to me. The difference between a spoken "because" and a shortened, spoken "'cause" is infuriatingly miniscule. When I'm converting speech into writing, how much emphasis did someone have to place on a word for it to qualify for italicization? How do you even write out the noises people make when they crunch filler words like "you know" into something that we hear and understand just fine but that realistically sounds something like "unuh"? As a transcriber, you have to make decisions that may have bigger implications than you might think. Century-old transcriptions that attempted to mimic the dialects, for example, of African Americas, seem to us today both mildly racist and infantilizing. How I transcribed the words of my speakers determines whether readers might view them as polished and precise or sloppy and casual. 

As a historian, I work with words a lot. Normally, I'd tell you I only speak and read one: English. But when you think about it, that's far too simple. I can never hear the spoken voices of the Constitution's officers in 1812. I read their words in a written language. And when I listen to a recording, I hear and assert all sorts of meanings that might never appear had the speaker written those same words. As a transcriber, I translate these languages, and no translation is perfect. As a historian, I take these languages and interpret them again, into new stories. And what a challenge that turns out to be.