As part of an exercise in analyzing the physical surroundings of Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, and more specifically the Cruiser Olympia, our Studies in Material Culture class took an hour to walk around the area and observe its “mnemonic landscape.” In practice, this meant that we examined the types and locations of various memorials, monuments, and historical markers that contribute to the neighborhood’s “feel,” and the spatial experience that a tourist or visitor to the area encounters even before they arrive at the museum and board the historic warship. I previously wrote about the museum’s interpretation of the ship (“Olympia in Juxtaposition”), expressing the opinion that Olympia’s contrasts (old/new, officer/sailor, luxury/austerity) are what make it uniquely interesting. My recent excursion among the monuments has convinced me that the same is true of the memorial-but-not-memory-heavy areas of Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. Although the indicators of contrast are less visible to the naked eye – thanks to the efforts of “urban renewal” – they remain embedded in the landscape.

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Cruiser Olympia viewed from the water: from here, you can’t even tell there’s a landscape beyond. Author’s photo.

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Marshes at low tide, Port Penn, Delaware. Author’s photo.
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The Cleaver House in Port Penn. Author’s photo.

This view of the marshy shore of Port Penn, Delaware looks charmingly bucolic, and it lends itself to imagining the lives of the people who lived and worked in this area at the turn of the 20th century. But looks, in this instance, are terribly deceiving. The landscape and culture that supported the sturgeon fishing industry in Port Penn from the 1830s to the 1950s are largely gone. Environmentally, the shoreline has changed due to dredging and commercial use, and the reedy plants (called phragmite or fragmite) easily visible at low tide were only introduced to the area in the 1930s.[1] Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, which once proudly led out to a commercial fishing wharf and steamship dock, now dead-ends in a gravelly, grassy lot next to the Cleaver House, a boarded-up historic site. Simply put, Port Penn looks different now.

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Map of Port Penn, Delaware in 1978, from the NRHP Nomination Form

Throughout the 20th century, a slew of changes in the area occurred including noxious pollution of the Delaware River, the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, fluctuation in the profitability of the fishing industry, and the endangerment of Atlantic Sturgeon and attendant legislative regulation. Historian Caroline Fisher notes in Marshland Resources in the Delaware Estuary, 1830 to 1950+/-: An Historic Context, “As the function of the river town diverged from that of being centered around life on the water, many of the physical resources associated with a small shipping port and maritime-oriented town began to change in function or disappear […] These changes significantly altered the appearance of the landscape on which maritime and marshland activities had once been very prominent.”[2]

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A sturgeon gill net and a set of gill net floats (From ISM collection 1987.074)

Initially, the Atlantic Sturgeon was cursed as a nuisance to fisherman’s nets. [3] European settlers in the area fished for shad, but did not bother with the large, bony, and menacingly prehistoric-looking sturgeon, and commercial fishing did not take off until the 1850s, when it was discovered that the fish’s roe could be sold quite profitably as caviar both domestically and internationally.[4] The spawning season would begin in mid-April and continue through the end of the summer, forcing a number of adaptations to fishing equipment, culture, and technique. Fishing Atlantic Sturgeon was still lucrative through the 1920s, but as catch yields waned, so did the commercial fishing industry for sturgeon in the region. The fish is now considered “endangered” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.[5]

Gilling skiffs, usually manned by two fishermen, were used to deploy the nets as the tide began to wane.[6] Sturgeon on their way north to spawn would swim in increasingly low water levels until they collided with and became ensnared in the gill net, which had been stretched or “drifted” at full length across the bottom of the channel. Wooden buoys, called floats or “dabs,” were strung along the top of the net and attached with rope to indicate the location of a catch.[7] A contemporary writer eloquently described the process:

As soon as a sturgeon butts or strikes the net with his head, or he becomes gilled in the mesh, the entire line of wooden buoys begin to dance; those directly over the gilled sturgeon disappear under the water and thus indicate exactly where to ‘cut-up’ the net for the sturgeon. A noose is then passed over the tail of the sturgeon and he is hauled into a large flat-bottomed scow, after which he is well clubbed over the head to stop his flopping.[8]

Following the catch, the sturgeon would be dried, cut up, and transported to market. The nets were spread out in the sun to dry and reveal spots in need of repair.

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Waterman Carl Morris knits a gill net, PortPenn.org, undated

Up until the invention of monofilament fishing wire, the nets were made of “heavy cotton twine well tarred” and were knit and repaired by fisherman themselves.[9] A wooden gauge helped to ensure that the mesh remained consistently sized during construction; this mesh measured about 16 inches square in the 1880s, but overfishing eliminated many of the largest specimens and so the mesh was reduced to 12 or 13 inches square in order to be able to net smaller sturgeon.[10] The average depth of a gill net was 30 feet, and depending on the width of the channel, the width might extend up to 1500 feet, or 250 fathoms.[11]

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Natural fiber cord knotted to create a diamond-shaped mesh.

Although ISM’s accession records indicate that the gill net and floats were created in Port Penn, Delaware sometime around 1910, it is probably not possible to find out who originally owned and used the items. Parsing through the 1910 U.S. Census I identified 31 residents of Port Penn that gave their profession as “Fisherman,” all white men with a basic education. The most dominant family names involved in the local industry were Eaton, Conard, Yearsly, Johnson, and Zackies. But several early 20th century photographs available through the Port Penn Interpretive Center show people of all races and genders engaging in fishing activities, which challenges the conclusion that the self-identified “Fishermen” were the only residents of Port Penn involved in the industry. Caroline Fisher notes this and repeats the speculation of Bob Beck (Port Penn resident, historian, waterman, and donor of the ISM’s gill net and floats) that the area’s people engaged in multiple seasonal occupations, often alternately farming, hunting, fishing, trapping, and working as a laborer or cannery worker at different points throughout the year.[12] This would explain the very large percentage of residents who identified themselves only as “Laborer.” This makes it challenging, if not impossible, to narrow down who might have originally constructed and used the objects.

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The final stop on the Port Penn walking tour. Author’s photo.

The survival of fragments of Port Penn’s historic maritime culture is largely due to the efforts of Bob Beck, who advocated not only for its material preservation, but for the close involvement of regional residents in folklife studies, oral histories, and the creation of the Port Penn Area Historical Society. Although he died in 1993, his influence permeates the village that he devoted so much time and energy to documenting. Port Penn has only four main streets and a handful of historic buildings, but they are all clearly interpreted by signs for visitors that form a short walking tour. As a Historic District, it is formally recognized for its past as a “river town,” which inspired a distinctive culture deeply tied to its physical environment.

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Interpretive panel about Bob Beck in Port Penn. Author’s photo.

The products of this remarkable material culture include objects like the gill net and floats, as well as examples of local architecture of buildings such as muskrat skinning huts and floating cabins. These objects remain thanks to Bob Beck, who accessioned, preserved, and even donated some of them to larger institutions. Although I can’t pinpoint the objects’ original owners, the historic import instilled in the net and floats are the result of his interest and stewardship; they gained the value that they have today when they passed through his hands. These items are relics of a largely disappeared culture. As a part of the history of the maritime culture of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay, they symbolize an overarching theme of the interconnectedness of nature, society, and industry, as well as the eventual ephemerality of what was at one time supremely tangible.

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More marshes at Port Penn. Author’s photo.

Bibliography

Cobb, John N. “The Sturgeon Fishery of the Delaware River and Bay,” Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1899. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900.

Eilperin, Juliet. “Atlantic Sturgeon Listed as Endangered Species,” The Washington Post, Health and Science Blog. February 1, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/atlantic-sturgeon-listed-as-endangered-species/2012/02/01/gIQARbAmiQ_story.html?utm_term=.b838ca1f5def

Fisher, Caroline C. Marshland Resources in the Delaware Estuary, 1830 to 1950+/-: An Historic Context. Newark, DE: University of Delaware, 1993.

Herman, Bernard, and Dean Nelson. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form: Port Penn Historic District,” 1978.

Roberts, A.W. “The Sturgeon,” Scientific American 43:7 (August 14, 1880). 103.

 

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My saber label in the WWI Olympia exhibit

This past week I boarded Cruiser Olympia at the Independence Seaport Museum for what I think was the fourth time. I’ve found myself getting more familiar with the space as I experience it in different ways: viewing it first as Artship Olympia, showing it to friends visiting the area, mining it for background while writing an exhibit label for World War I Olympia, approaching it from the outside via rowboat, revisiting my favorite spots and, finally, venturing into the engine hatches and the claustrophobic guts of the machine. A lot of the charm comes from the ship’s persistent atmosphere of what I can only think to call “in-between.” As Curator of Historic Ships Kevin Smith noted as he guided our tour through the ship, Olympia’s 1892 construction date (and the curatorial decision to focus interpretation in on the years 1902-1911) means that it remains indefinitely straddling eras characterized by extreme instability.

The “in-between” is one of the things I love most about the Gilded Age (my area of specialization). Its defining characteristic is the push and pull of radically different methods of governance, foreign policy, social stratification, and implementation of rapid technological innovations. It’s impossible to categorize this era as either opulent or squalid. It wasn’t either socially progressive or fervently militaristic: It was both. I find that tension fascinating. Olympia’s embodiment of these contrasts is what makes it so exceptional.

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Drawing of the Grand Staircase of the RMS Titanic, 1911 (Public domain)

Smith also mentioned that he sometimes has to address visitor misconceptions, including reiterating that the Olympia is obviously not the Titanic. It might seem like a stupid comparison. But I think that’s actually a pretty valuable insight on the part of visitors, specifically the type who have had limited exposure to vessels of any kind circa 1912. They’re signaling that they already have a certain amount of cultural understanding of the site: they probably understand, for instance, that there were obvious and stark divides along class and rank lines. They may also understand something of the geopolitical situation of the time period, including difficult topics like American discrimination, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. If the visitor is already primed in their knowledge of these broad issues, even just by having seen a ridiculously inaccurate mid-1990s blockbuster film, this saves everyone the work of having to explain these things before they can even board the ship. So my question is: How can Olympia best acknowledge the cultural familiarity that visitors already have, and use it to deepen their understanding of the ship from 1902-1911? (more…)

The first time I remember seeing the ocean, I was ten years old. My family was in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the launch of the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission. The launch was delayed several times due to poor weather conditions, but not until after we’d arrived to watch it, and we spent a lot of time staring up at the night sky that trip. My encounter with the ocean, sandwiched somewhere in between these unsuccessful launch attempts, stunned me. I remember being awed at the smell and feel of it and the way it seemed to stretch out eternally. I remember being frightened of it the same way that I was when thinking about the vast emptiness of outer space. For me, the two will always be linked.

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Bob Beck and Carl Morris sturgeon fishing, circa 1954. From the Port Penn Area Historical Society.

When I read John Stilgoe’s “Alongshore,” and when I settle in and think about the life cycle of my net and floats and the intimate maritime connection of the historic sturgeon fishermen of Port Penn, Delaware (which is a sentence that feels absurd to type), I get caught up on their devotional attachment to something that I personally find slightly sinister. It’s weird to think that our encounters with the same body of water could be so completely diametrical.
Upon reading Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia,” I think I know why: We navigate different, if parallel, landscapes.
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I made the acquaintance of my gill net and floats one week ago, and it is time to begin situating how I will apply some of the theory readings in its interpretation and analysis.

I found this week’s reading of Martin Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America” particularly compelling in relation to my objects. I’ve read this article before, but in the context of Progressive Era housing reform debates. To approach it with tangible (not to mention portable) objects in mind is equally fascinating, but in a different way. Ames argues that artifacts used together form “artifact constellations,” which in turn can reveal values and patterns of behavior inherent in microscopic moments. The encounters a Victorian might have in an entry hallway- hanging a hat, leaving a calling card, standing awkwardly waiting to be permitted (or not) into the private areas of the house- might have taken mere seconds, but the setup of the hall furniture illuminates the layers of meaning inscribed into this brief cultural action.

My net and gill floats are parts of a whole; they were used together, probably stored together, and certainly compose an artifact constellation. Without one piece of the collection, the others would be useless or at the very least would not communicate the same meaning. The accession record also specifies a hook that came with the other stuff- this, too, would be a part of the artifact constellation- but it wasn’t set up there in the archives.

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This week, I was introduced to my very own objects to get to know, analyze, and research for Studies in American Material Culture. These items, a gill net and wooden floats, are in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum. I was also offered a catfish net, but it seemed tangential to the other objects; perhaps I’ll take it up at a later point. My classmates were assigned a variety of other maritime-related items (fishingwear, a firearm, a knifegoose decoys, etc.) We will spend the semester learning more about these objects, as well as what their context can tell us about the LESLEY. Our research on these artifacts will make them more accessible to researchers at ISM and enrich our understanding of the methods of material culture study.

The first step in the process is to follow the methodology of Jules Prown, whose article “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” established a guide for using artifacts as primary source evidence of human culture of the past. This method is intended to force close observation and minimize internal bias or assumptions.

The process of sketching, observing, and willing myself not to peek at the artifact’s documentation laying in an envelope just inches away was more challenging than my introduction to LESLEY had been. This time, I was preoccupied with documenting all of the details while cautiously trying to be aware of any assumptions I was making, and wondering where I might include them in the object analysis.

Self-conscious, the process reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: As the blind men attempt to describe this mysterious creature, they mistake its parts for its whole, describing it as a rope, a wall, a spear, and a fan. Despite Prown’s painstaking process, I was unsure how much bias would slip into my analysis. Given my limited time with these objects, I didn’t want to miss the proverbial elephant, so at first I waffled about where to start. I then began to take measurements and photos, and to touch and smell the objects.

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This week’s reading: Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2013): 40-43.

I’ve been looking forward to taking this class, Studies in American Material Culture, since I visited Temple’s campus way back in the spring of 2016. As this semester’s project will focus on study and documentation of the LESLEY, a 1930s era racing boat, class is held at the Independence Seaport Museum (which was generous enough to let my classmates and I contribute to an exhibition recently, and which I previously wrote about visiting). Into the idea of an off-campus course but unsure what to expect, I arrived at the museum yesterday for class with bated breath… in a quite literal sense, as I’d also managed to pick up a sinus infection in the preceding week.

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A smudgy rendering of the octagonal opening in question

What I did not expect was a meditative experience. Perhaps I should have, given that the assigned reading for this week centered on the importance of teaching patience and deep reflection. But I was pleasantly surprised to be instructed to observe, study, and otherwise commune with the boat, silently, for an hour. I sketched what grabbed my attention most immediately- an octagonal cutout in the top of the ship (deck? gunwale? prow?) and began to describe it, starting with the granular attributes: its edges retain flakes of orange-red paint; it appears to be reinforced with a strip of steel on either side of the opening; the area inside the hull remains cool despite direct the direct sunlight and smells like cedar, to my amateur nose and via congested nasal passages. Using graph paper, I was able to measure the hole: it is roughly 7″ in diameter, and cut 4″ deep through 3 layers of wood.

Having examined the tree, I began to better understand the forest, only then noticing an enormous mast laying next to the boat that I had been stepping over to get closer. The octagonally carved base- aha! A perfect match to the cutout, and a conclusion I probably could have come to sooner had I more experience with boats. Thinking now of the whole, my observations became more general: it was built for speed and/or shallow water; the planks of the prow are wider than those of the top of the boat; it is equipped with gas tanks and must have held a motor at some point.

All in all, I appreciated the experience and did feel that I came to be more familiar with the boat and its intricacies through careful observation. When the hour was up, I wasn’t impatient or uncomfortable; in fact, I might have been able to continue as long as the three hours that Roberts reports observing a painting, in her essay. Then again, I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of doing anything too rapidly; by nature, I am slow and careful and explorative in approach to just about everything I encounter. I love to think and discover and daydream. Slowing down is something I am already too good at.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, I’ve had a draft of a blog post rattling around in my head for the better part of a year now about mindfulness and the museum experience. I learned about Slow Art Day several years back, shortly after I’d begun a regular meditation practice, and I fell immediately in love with the idea. Rather than rushing through a space trying to see everything, I began to build in extra time during trips to new places, historic sites, museums, etc. just to wander or to sit and absorb the atmosphere. I resisted the urge to fire off my impressions on social media, the impulse to share a new and thrilling experience with others who might find it equally interesting. I started to take a couple of days to digest what I’d seen, look at photographs, and reappraise what I had learned. It was a game-changer.

And then, serendipitously, in early 2016 I followed a Twitter conversation discussing “digital life creep” in these spaces which led me to this mind-blowing, very meta article that I recommend reading in its entirety. If you opt out of that, however, I’ll give a brief and incomplete summation: In short, slowing the process of doing (being mindful and intentional, or whatever else you want to call it) can lead to deeper insights, greater empathy, and more nuanced understanding of the connections between people and things. This has the potential to transform museums into places that are more edifying because they are centered on the human experience. In other words, it inspires a sort of recognition of emotive knowledge that ISM curator Craig Bruns touched on while speaking to the class yesterday.

The article concludes with a quotation from Zen Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. Preconceptions shut down potential avenues of thought, but if one approaches new things and ideas with a “beginner’s mind”- open, curious, engaged, and humble- it allows for that many more possible outcomes. To me, new outcomes to old questions are what scholarship is all about. I think yesterday’s exercise sparked my imagination, and I’m eager to see what more LESLEY will teach me in the course of the semester.

[Maddeningly, I was so detached from my phone that I neglected to take an actual photo of the LESLEY. No worries, I’ll remedy that soon enough!]