Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ink update

For those who might remember the 18th century recipe I've described at presentations, posted elsewhere, and probably somewhere here (ie oak gall, rainwater, iron sulfate, gum arabic), one small addition I neglected to mention in online discussions:


Some old recipes add cloves to the ink mixture. The idea is that cloves prevents or at least inhibits growth of mould in the organic concoction. I've wondered. I've tried it, with some success, but unsure of the correct amount to work.

A new experiment using a 1/4 tsp in a 1/4 C. of the liquid drained off oak galls soaked in snow water has now been mould free for almost a month (though the tannic acid is beginning to etch the plastic container). Previously, this same liquid had moulded within 3 days of being drained.

Too small a sample, perhaps, to make a general assertion, but . . .

Friday, April 24, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . first stanza

As a clerk in the fur trade I am always asked "How much does that [fill in the trade good] cost?"

Of course, the historian in me wants to open with "Well, it depends." But that isn't either the answer or even the opening gambit to conversation desired by the visitor. They want something concise, without all the background and context (which admittedly can get quite convoluted).

So, a straightforward answer is required and generally is stated in terms of beaver pelts, the plus in the terminology of the fur trade (as traders in what became "Upper Canada" there isn't any coinage, nor the need; we operated on the barter system).

But the real answer is much more complex, and really much more interesting. Those involved in reenacting and interpretation here in the Great Lakes understand that and actually ask to hear "the rest of the story".

When I chose the personna of a clerk, I quickly became aware of the need to understand the rudiments of the business transaction. This swiftly slipped into accounting procedure, then inventories, and tumbling into what sort of profits were realized, which resulted in what was a beaver pelt worth and what was the wholesale cost of trade goods. . .

I took as my "standard" the 2 1/2 point blanket. Of course this, too, lead into another convoluted labyrinth of how blankets were produced (which, mercifully, I will spare you the Reader). However, this side excursion was pivotal in my making sense of the financial data I was reading.

In a nutshell, inventories and other such documents mention "prs" or pairs of blankets. At first I glossed over that note, not giving much thought to it. A "pair of pants" after all refers to one, 1, uno, eine, en, un, a singluar piece of apparel. A "pr of blankets" must be the same, right?

Wrong. Blankets were created on12 ft. wide looms in long lengths. Hung on tenterhooks on tenter racks to dry in lengths of 24 blankets or so after fulling, they were eventually cut into the appropriate sizes for shipping. The piece size for shipping was a two blanket length, of whatever blanket size area (or point).

The point refers to the blanket size. "Pr" refers to the fact that blankets were shipped as a double length (we'll come back to this).

So, "how much does that 2 1/2 point blanket [about a twin bed size] cost?"

According to the trade lists and journals, the quick, straightforward answer is "Generally, 3 plus, or beaver pelts."

But what does it mean that a single 2 1/2 point blanket equals 3 beaver pelts? How much is that in "real money"? What is "real money", or rather in what currency do you figure "real money"? What is a beaver pelt worth in "real money"? What did that blanket cost?

The answer to those questions and more in the following postings on currencies, prices of goods, and prices of beaver peltry.

The Clerk

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's in your wallet?

For most of us these days the answer is probably, "Not much." But even when there is something, at least for those of us living in the United States, figuring out what money you have isn't too difficult. Legal tender here is basically United States currency, with the occasional odd Canadian coin tossed in for those of us in the North. Lately, even our neighbor's small coins are being rejected.

Figuring out "what was in your wallet" wasn't always quite so easy. In our time period, the eighteenth century, there was a plethora of currencies in use. Of course today there are dozens of currencies, but they aren't circulated nor used world-wide.

In establishing a personna as a clerk in the fur trade, I've pretty much thrown myself into the study of eighteenth century finance (and its antecedents), accounting, currency and exchange, and so on. A clerk in the fur trade, supervising a trading post in North America, probably would not need as extensive a knowledge perhaps. But, somewhere, someone had to have knowledge of and be keeping track of the various components of the financial underpinnings of trade between the Canada, London, and the rest of the world.

As I noted above, there were a number of currencies in play: French, English, Dutch, German, Spanish, and on (much later U.S. currency). Each had a rate of exchange in play by which one currency was measured against the other (usually figured upon the amount of silver in the "hallmark" coinage, shilling, pound, livre, ecu, pistareen, etc. whether or not that "coin" actually existed or not). Think of the "exchange rate" between Canadian and US dollars, and its variability and you will have some sense of what is involved, then multiply it by 6 or 7 different currencies traded or used for payment.

Add to that a perennial coin shortage, discussions in other message boards notwithstanding. Coins did circulate, but the availability was more famine than feast, whether in Canada, England, or elsewhere on the Continent or North America. There was a constant competition to manipulate the exchange rate in order to attract coins, and governmental decrees to prevent the export of coins and metal.

In 1788 the Quebec customs collector noted that, "It is very rare I receive at my office either Bold or Silver . . . I generally accept notes." (in "Money in Canada", McCullough, p. 78) In 1792 three fur trading partnerships (Phyn Ellice & Inglis, Todd McGill & Co., Forsyth Richardon & Co.) were prompted by acute coin shortage to declare they would establish a bank (the bank ultimately failed).

These "notes", bills of exchange or commodity notes or other paper tender, also had their own exchange rate, whether drawn on London, New York, Canadian concerns, and discounts depending upon the length of the note before being redeemed.

All of these factors and more, could make the life of a simple clerk, or even a trader or partner increasingly complex as they sought to negotiate profit and loss on their business.

From time to time, I'll revisit this issue in some specifics as it may relate to one project or another in which I'm involved. Some very good references, though, on currencies, exchange rates, coinage available (and the coin famines) are: "Money and Exchange in Canada to 1900", AB McCullough, Dundrun Press, Toronto, 1984; pretty much anything by John McCusker though "The Economy of British America", U of No. Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1985 and "Money and Exchange in Europe and America 1600-1775: A handbook" UNC Press, Chapel Hill, 1978 revised/reprinted 1995.

Final note, especially for you fur trade reenactors: What coins, if you had them (and being in Upper Canada, so named after the division of Quebec in 1791, why would you need them? You wouldn't; barter and company book earnings/debt is the "currency), would you most likely have in latter eighteenth century?

British coins, you say? Nope. How about the French écu and the Spanish pistareen? Yep. Those were the main circulating coins. There's some backstory there, but it's complicated and more than you want in this post.

The Clerk

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt. 2

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history?

This thought provoking question has kept historians awake at night, but I doubt many of us as interpreters have considered the issue. How DOES living history interact with the enticing "spell" of the Past, both to be affected by the Past, and to reshape that Past through modern attempts at re-creation and re-storation?

Can we really escape our modern aesthetics? Our tastes or comforts? Though one might argue that a living historian or history interpreter (call it what you will) can overcome modern "tastes" for food (though how many of us have suffered privation, totally inadequate diet and starvation?), electricity, and the like, and even the comfort of modern heating (even interpreting while living in -50 degree weather, I knew there was real, modern shelter nearby, contrary to the living conditions of my personna), sleeping accommodations, and other material goods (even contemporary goods used for interpretation made in traditional ways are still the product of a modern period), the question still remains:

Our Past is now, and always has been, shaped by the present. Else, how could historians of successive generations drawn such starkly differing messages and images from the primary documentation. At various times, those documents have produced patriotic, economic, nostalgic, and even cynical viewpoints. The present, indeed, does have the ability to change the Past.

Historical "insight" really is nothing more than our interpretation of the past from our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary knowledge, with our contemporary understanding of the "world". As Stacy Roth puts it in her book, "Past into Present", "History is not 'the past.' It is an interpretation of the past, ever shifting because our uses for it change."

There is, then, no pristine absolute Past, or truth of the Past. The Past is ever clouded by our own wants, desires, politics, understanding of "how the world works." Should that paralyze those of us who wish to recover the Past, to understand and interpret it?

No. But it should create in us a humility in approaching this enterprise, a self-awareness of our limitations and prejudices present in the task. So that recognizing the imperfections in approaching historical realities we take seriously our need to research honestly with a humble understanding so that we can reflect our Past as we are given the light.

Research to discover what was common, not to jusitfy wants and wishes~ My eyes can read the past, but my other senses are severly neglected -- David Schmid

The Clerk

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quills, pt. 2

"First, Whoever would be a Man of Business, must be a Man of Correspondence; and Correspondence can never be so commodiously, or at all to the Purpose mantain'd, as by the Use of the Pen . . . " (An Essay on the Proper Method for forming the Man of Business, Thomas Watts, London, 1717, p. 18)

Period "how to" manuals, and there were many from young clerks to aspiring businessmen and merchants to young surveyors and on, stressed the importance of "Writing [as] the First Step, and Essential . . . beautiful to the Eye . . . it proceeds from the Eye and the Hand; from the one we have Size and Proportion, from the other Boldness and Freedom " (ibid).

Writing could take a variety of forms: the Gothic lettering of the legal documents, the old style Secretary hand or perhaps the Italian hand (what we term "italic"), or the simple and elegant Running hand which we know as "copperplate", the straightforward and clear hand of business. (This is distinguished from the Round hand, by Ware.)

Writing, as the product of artful skill just as the table is that of a wood crafter, also had its tools, its instruments. Learning to use those tools was seen by the manual instructors as important as a violinist knowing how to tune that instrument.

From The Young Clerks Assistant; or Penmanship made easy . . ., Richard Ware, London, 1764, pp. 5 ff.

"In order to mae a good Pen, you must provide a good Knife; or if you have two, one for the shaping, the other for nibbing, you will find the Benefit. I find that the Blade, if strong and large, take off the Nib the cleaner, the Weight of the Blade requiring less Pressure: The Edge also ought to be strait, and not too keen; the round-pointed Blades hinder nibbing the Pen square, and if too keen when nibbing a strong Pen, the Edge is apt to turn.'

After instruction on the "Ways of manufacturing [the quill], called dutching and clarifying", correct desk (flat, so the ink does not "recoil"), posture and the like, the instructor proceeds to describe "How to make a Pen" (pp. 22 ff).

Much depends on the nature of the quill itself. The strength or weakness of the "Cheeks", the sides of the nib edge, will determine the length of the slit, short in the weak, "if strong, it matters not how long." "If used by an obedient Hand, it hath a Spring, and opens and shuts at pleasure, as is evident in Striking, or Command or Hand".

Ware notes that he differs from other "Writing Masters" in that he recommends to "Make each Cheek, of Side of the Slit, as equal as possible . . .", rather than nibbing the "Part next your Hand . . . the narrowest and shortest." He goes on to describe the defect in this latter method, which I won't descibe further.

"Nibbing the Pen square . . . must be the only true Method.

""In order to write the Running Hand, or the Hand for Business, the Method of nibbing is the same, as to being even, but not so square, and the Cheeks something stronger than in the Round Hands, and not so much slant taken off, --letting the Back of the Knife incline towards ou, which causes the Nib to be of a hollow Round, and in your Writing causes a sort of half-full at the Tails or free Turns . . ." (p. 26)

Thus the Running hand has a shallower, flatter nib it seems. Ware describes nibbing for other Hands even the "Law Hand", though the legal hand (German text letters) is rather outdated since the Act of Parliament rendered all proceedings in English.

This rather long, and I hope not too tedious, discourse of quotation is intended to give you, the Reader, a sense of the rather craftsmen's outlook on what would otherwise seem such a mundane task.

The work of forming the tools of the trade seems to have been as much a chore to be learned through practise then as it is now.

The Clerk "who now returns to the mighty struggle of man and feather"

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt 1

A confluence of circumstances this past week, yet another round of name calling over the conflict between “stitch counters” and “regular hobbyist folk”, and reading Stacy Roth’s “Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation”, lead this week’s Muse into a couple of parallel but related reflections.

How do we understand our “role” or interest in historical interpretation and reenacting (this week)? And,

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history (next week)?

The first seems at first glance to be the more practical and straightforward question. The second perhaps seems too abstract and, to some, not worth the time for consideration. But I would argue that they are both critical. They underline the difference in paradigms, the way we view and understand something, under which “stitch-counters” and “hobbyists” operate. The questions, especially the second, whether considered or not impact our attitude toward the Past, our relation to the Past, and our self-awareness as interpreters of the Past.

Roth, I think, sums up the dichotomy present among historical reenactors, or history simulators as she terms them, in her introduction. Her presentation is tailored to the “dedicated” interpreter, the first person interpreter from her title, but I think applies to all who wish to understand their “role in history interpretation.

Roth notes that simulation of the Past has been carried on since, well, since the Past was the Past. Goethe celebrated Roman spectacle and costume. British officers, during the Revolutionary War, dressed as medieval knights for a farewell party. Throughout our (U.S.) history we have marked the commemoration of historical events through pageant with historical costuming.

The difference, Roth writes, is that modern simulators are much more technical in concern for “authentic detail, fidelity to documentation, and the appropriate application of research”. Modern simulators are motivated “by an academic thirst to unlock the secrets of the past and a search for personal identification and deeper meaning.” (p.2)

There is a range, I think, in the extent to which one chooses to adhere to these technical concerns and motivations. This is part of paradigm conflict. Most reenators have an impetus toward “doing the right thing”, seeking documentation, applying research, and so on. But this impetus seems to run in to impediments of time and money, and access to information, according to some of the arguments.

Further, there seems to be what Roth terms an “Interpretive Impetus”, a level of consciousness that draws the interpreter from a merely personal relationship with the Past to an interpersonal one that seeks to make the Past meaningful to others. This impetus has implications not only for engaging others with the Past, but for a personal dedication to a level of authenticity of one’s material goods in that presentation.

The so-called “stitch counters” and “hobbyists”, to set an arbitrary sliding scale, really are talking past each other, not understanding that they are operating out of differing understandings and commitments. Often times those with an Interpretive Impetus can seem over-bearing or demanding, by the hobbyist, in their desire for authenticity.

On the other hand, the hobbyist needs to recognize why they are involved with the hobby of simulating the Past—out of a personal motivation or a thirst for “knowing” the Past. Reenacting history at events which seek to honestly depict the Past requires a level of commitment to authenticity. Too often, hobbyists and some more “dedicated” reenactors wanting to “jump in with both feet” offer excuses for lack of authenticity in order to have equipment or portrayal they desire, rather than scaling back their portrayal to what can be authenticated.

For those that cry that such requirements are unfair or restricting to one’s expression, I would reply that the historical interpreters I know are more than willing to share knowledge and resources, and even material goods in order to give others “a hand up”, so that the level of interpretation for all rises.

Next week: Does our manipulation of the Past to create history simulation affect or “change” the past?

The Clerk

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Quill is Mightier than . . . well, Me, betimes

Between struggling with email client software, building puppets and devising a new show for April 11 (my other life), and reading piles of "finances of the eighteenth century" tomes, finding a relaxing "occupation" or time for such has been at a premium. I have tried my hand at knitting a couple of monmouth caps which, as it turned out, was quite successful.

One small skill, however, I am really trying to master (if not perfect) is the cutting of a quill. Some people find whittling wood relaxing, and turn out fine products, not to mention piles of chips. Cutting a quill is a bit less messy, but much more challenging I find.

Although I've read a number of old and new how-to's (one of my favorites being "The Young Clerk's Assistant . . . " Richard Ware, London, 1764 because of, among other things, it's pretty complete instructions for how to write, how to assess your ink, how to cut your quill correctly) and looked at many online instructionals, I still find that each quill seems to have its own nib hidden within its barrel, and doing its best to keep a fine writing point from me.

Actually, I can cut a pretty good nib. I have a good quill knife for the task, although I wish I had one of Stan Knight's (sadly out of production). And the quills work pretty well, too. I just find that finding the "sweet spot" of a well defined nib with just the right balance of rigidity and flexibility is till difficult.

A task that was so common to do so well (or perhaps I'm exaggerating the merely middling ability of most writers to cut their quills) seems so much like a craft or art today.

Tenacity, thy name is cutting the perfect quill.

Still, the neatest demonstration of quill cutting (though with a modern twist) is calligrapher Martin Jackson's online instructional video. Check it out.

The Clerk

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Weekend Muse takes a break

The Weekend Muse takes a break this weekend, well, last weekend, due to a flurry of online gremlins that soaked up most of my time and energy. And still do. Wish I had a fist shaking icon that I could place next to the email client at fault. grrr.

The Muse's subject was to be Stacy Roth's "Past into Present", a wonderful tome on first person historical interpretation. Perhaps this coming weekend. A number of events this past week became fodder for the Muse, but then it was nibbled away by bits and bytes.

The Clerk