Gentle Readers, your Humble Proprietress is recovering from surgery and so shall share photographic images of antique and vintage buttons in lieu of a lengthy article.
Of buttons, Collector’s Weekly writes, “As long as human beings have needed to keep their clothing fastened, buttons have been there to do the work.” Buttons may be utilitarian, however, even well into the era of mass production, they were made to be reused on the garments of succeeding generations, resulting in little works of art that please collectors’s eyes today.
Many still recall our grandmothers’ button jars or boxes filled with delightful miniature wonders of carved shell, shiny metal augmented with brilliant cut-steel embellishments, luminous glass, light and fancifully shaped celluloid, and bakelite of eye-watering colors. I was born in 1963, my father in 1928, and my father’s mother in 1891. Some of my earliest memories are of Nanny, as I called her, sewing on a black Singer treadle machine richly decorated with Victorian gothic revival red and gold designs. As Nanny pumped the ornate foot panel in a soothing rhythm, I played in a pool of buttons scooped from the sewing machine’s cabinet drawers. I remember, especially, bakelite raspberries, as tart red as the real fruits, and a large navy blue button shaped like a bundle of roses. I have recently obtained a white version, seen below.
I’m especially fond of celluloid, a composition plastic made of cellulose dinitrate blended with pigments, fillers, camphor, and alcohol, that was invented in the mid-1800s and meant to mimic ivory. In some colors, it produces a soft, comforting glow when illuminated, rather like a glass of apple juice or beer.
And then there are the metal picture buttons. Oh my.
A visit to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., to view the fiendishly intriguing Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), regarded as the “mother” of forensic science, was also the first female U.S. police captain, although the title was honorary. In 1936, Glessner Lee came by a sizable inheritance—her father was cofounder of the International Harvester Company—and she used it to help build a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. It was during the decade afterward that Glessner Lee crafted many of the 20 known Nutshell murder dioramas.
Corine May Botz wrote in The Nutshell Murders of Unexplained Deaths that “[Lee] took a special interest in training police officers because, as the first to arrive on the scene of a crime, they had to recognize and preserve evidence critical to solving the case. At the time, most police officers inadvertently botched cases by touching, moving, or failing to identify evidence. Lee was also extremely interested in better integrating the work of, and communication among medical experts, police officers, forensic investigators and prosecutors.”
In the Nutshell Study above, farmer Eben Wallace was found hanged in his barn. His wife told police, “When things did not suit Eben he would go out into the barn, stand on a bucket, put a noose around his neck, and threaten suicide. I always talked him out of it. On this afternoon, he made the usual threats, but this time I did not follow him to the barn right away. When I did, I found him hanging there with his feet through a wooden crate.”
From this information, as well as studying the death scene, students could deduce that the bucket Eben usually stood on during his suicide attempts had been taken from the barn for other purposes, and drag marks indicated he’d replaced it with a flimsy wooden crate. A logical conclusion would be that the farmer fell through the crate and accidentally made good on his long-stated suicide threats. But did he? Perhaps one of the reasons we remain fascinated with the Nutshell Studies is because the mysteries do not have answers. They were meticulously crafted to tease the minds of investigators.
“Every element of the dioramas—from the angle of miniscule bullet holes, the placement of latches on widows, the patterns of blood splatters, and the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses—challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction. The Nutshells are so effective that they are still used in training seminars today at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore,” noted the Renwick Gallery’s Curator Nora Atkinson.
In the Nutshell study “The Dark Bathroom,” which Gleesner Lee created circa 1944, Maggie Wilson, an epileptic, was discovered dead in her tub. When police arrived they found the scene above: water pours from the faucet over Maggie’s face—although the tub stopper is not in place, which casts doubt on whether Maggie was drawing a bath at the time of her death. Her legs are stiffened by rigor mortis, indicating she may have died earlier than witness accounts suggest. A bottle and empty glass are knocked over on the bathroom rug—perhaps an indication that Maggie was “self-medicating” and slipped on her bath rug, fell backwards, and drowned under the running water?
In the “Red Bedroom” Nutshell Study, Marie Jones, a prostitute, was discovered dead by her landlady, Mrs. Shirley Flanagan, who gave the following statement: “On the morning of Thursday, June 29, 1944, she passed the open door of Marie’s room and called out ‘hello.’ When she did not receive a response, she looked in and found [Marie stabbed in the bedroom closet]. Jim Green, a boyfriend and client of Marie’s, had come in with Marie the afternoon before. Mrs. Flanagan didn’t know when he had left. As soon as she found Marie’s body she telephoned the police who later found Mr. Green and brought him in for questioning.”
Mr. Green, when questioned, said, “He met Marie on the sidewalk the afternoon of June 28, and walked with her to a nearby package store where he bought two bottles of whiskey. They then went to her room where they sat smoking and drinking for some time. Marie, sitting in the big chair, got very drunk. Suddenly, without any warning, she grabbed his open jackknife which he had used to cut the string around the package containing the bottles. She ran into the closet and shut the door. When he opened the door he found her lying as represented by the model. He left the house immediately after that.”
By studying the crime scene above, trainees might agree that the booze bottles indicate hard drinking, but why is there blood on the wooden floor and the rug, if Maggie stabbed herself in the closet?
The deceased, Ruby Davis, is just visible, lying facedown at the foot of the stairs in this Nutshell Study, “Living Room.” According to her husband, Reginald, the couple “spent the previous evening, Thursday, May 21, quietly at home. His wife had gone upstairs to bed shortly before he had. This morning he awoke a little before 5:00 a.m. to find that his wife was not beside him in bed. After waiting a while, he got up to see where she was and found her dead body on the stairs. He at once called the family physician who, upon arrival, immediately notified the police.”
Richard Harvey, foreman in an ice-cream factory, was found dead by his mother in the “Striped Bedroom.” Mrs. Harvey gave the following statement: “On Saturday night, April 27, Richard came home for supper as usual and after supper went back to work. He always worked late Saturday nights to get ready for the Sunday trade. She didn’t know when he came in as she went to bed early.
“Sunday morning she let him sleep while she went to church and then, as usual, proceeded to her sister’s for the day. When she returned home Sunday evening, Richard wasn’t around so she opened his door and found the premises as represented by the model. Richard was married about a year ago and brought his wife home to live. She was a nice girl and they were very happy. His wife was away now visiting her parents for a few days in another state. Richard was a good boy but sometimes he had a little too much to drink, especially on Saturday nights. The dishpan belonged in the kitchen. She didn’t know how it came to be in Richard’s bedroom.”
The body of Arthur Roberts, a local insurance salesman, was found by police who responded to a call from a friend of the victim, Mrs. Marian Chase. His body rests just inside the open door of the Nutshell Study “Log Cabin.”
Mrs. Chase was questioned and said, “She had met Arthur Roberts at the log cabin on Wednesday, October 21, 1942, at 5:15 p.m. They were in the habit of meeting there. Roberts was married and was living with his wife. Mrs. Chase was also married but was not living with her husband. Roberts had told her at this meeting that the affair between them was ended. There was no quarrel. Mrs. Chase and Mr. Roberts were standing at the foot of the bunk. He turned toward the door, took a package of cigarettes from his outside pocket, selected a cigarette, but dropped it. As he stooped over to pick it up—a shot was heard—he fell flat—a gun dropped beside him. Mrs. Chase said she picked up the gun but then replaced it. It did not belong to her. She then ran out of the door, jumped into her car and drove to summon the police.
“The gun was identified as belonging to Arthur Roberts. Mrs. Chase identified the handbag on the bunk as hers. A single bullet had passed entirely through Mr. Roberts’ chest from front to back and the powder around the entrance hole indicated that it had been fired at fairly close range.”
“Although the past century in forensic science had yielded many innovations, few women have been credited with advancing the field. A notable exception is Frances Glessner Lee,” wrote Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and prolific author.
“In written instructions, Lee urged those who were preparing to observe a scene to imagine themselves as less than half a foot tall. They must look at the entire scene, searching for clues that might not be obvious, such as a bullet caught in a ceiling, a weapon in an odd position, or evidence of behaviors that deflected a determination of suicide. They were urged to think carefully before they developed a theory.”
Those lucky enough to view the Nutshell Studies at the Renwick three-quarters of a century later were identically urged. Among the cheek-to-jowl crowd assembled on that frigid winter day were scores of young people, their parents in tow, enthusiastically searching for the clues in each diorama. Among these will be at least a few of criminal investigators and forensic scientists of the 21st Century. Frances Glessner Lee still teases minds today. By that, I think she would be well pleased. Ω
Continental Square in York, Pa. Courtesy of the York History Center.
The metallic reverberating sound of gongs repeatedly sounded throughout downtown York, Pa., in August of 1925. It was a sound people recognized as the alert on a fire truck. Somewhere in York, a fire was burning.
“During the disturbance patrons of theaters, hurriedly snatched their wraps and fled from the amusement places to ‘go to the fire.’ Others telephoned or went to their homes,” The York Dispatch reported.
People attending a municipal band concert at Farquhar Park heard the gongs over the music and streamed out of the park, seeking the fire or their homes to make sure that it wasn’t burning.
The problem was that there was no fire. “A callithumpian band mounted on a truck which also carried, despite their objections the bride and bridegroom, coursed about downtown streets for about an hour last evening,” The York…
“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel
Unless otherwise noted, all images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe
This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.
The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.
Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.
The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.
Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.
The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.
My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.
Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”
I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.
Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.
After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”
When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω
New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31 December for the first time in 45 B.C. when the Julian calendar came into effect.
Happy New Year, Gentle Readers. Thank you for following me on this journey this far. Leave a comment, if you can. It is always deeply appreciated. And heed Benjamin Franklin, who advised, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.
A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.
“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM
“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”
The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.
McGrawville, Cortland County, New York, was once home to New York Central College, an institution of higher learning founded by the antislavery American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1848 and which held its first classes in 1849—a date congruent with the fashions worn by Flora and her mother.
The college “opened its doors to any student able to pay the modest tuition regardless of sex, race, or religion. Blacks constituted an estimated half of its enrollment,” explained historian Catherine M. Hanchett. “Some came from New England, from Virginia, from Canada West [Ontario]. Some where fugitive slaves, others newly freed. Several were members of prominent black families.”
The college employed at least three Black professors—Charles Reason (1818-1893), George Boyer Vashon (1824-1853), and William G. Allen (1820-aft. 1878), the latter of whom was at least two-thirds white, but who would cause scandal by asking for the hand of a Caucasian student, Miss Mary King.
Fittingly, the college also served as a stop along the Underground Railroad that assisted escaped slaves heading to Canada.
A smallpox epidemic in 1850 led to the deaths of some of the college’s African-American students—all were buried on the campus beneath tombstones extant today. Illness at the school seemed persistent, as student William Austin wrote to his family on 23 May, 1852, “There has been and is at present a considerable sickness among students but Mumps and Measles are to blame but I think they will not injure me.”
Otherwise, Austin found the nearby villages and the college bucolic. “This is a beautiful section of country, somewhat uneven, but just enough to awaken mankind to the romantic beauties of nature,” he wrote. “The boarding hall is some thirty rods [165 yards] from the college so that we have a pleasant walk to get there to meals which are at 6 1/2 o’clock in the morning, at noon, and at 5 P.M. The Ladies all room at the hall. The Gentlemen at the College.”
Throughout its existence, New York Central College faced constant racist and misogynist criticism from both southern and northern states. It was “an institution confessedly established for the purpose, figuratively speaking, of whitening the blacks and blackening the whites,” pronounced the Buffalo Courier of 4 July, 1851, during a state funding appropriation battle. “It is said that one of the professors, an accomplished and skilled teacher, has crispy hair and a southern skin,” the Orleans Republican of Albion, New York, snickered on 9 July. The article continued with a quote from a Mr. A. A. Thompson, who was of the opinion that “‘Rather than give $4,000 [in state money] to that vile sink of pollution … they ought to give it to a mob that would raise [sic] it to the ground.’” Later in July, the Albany Argus called the college, “an institution repulsive in its objects and character.”
However, one female graduate had another opinion of the school that recognized her innate equality. Angeline Stickney wrote of her alma mater, “I feel very much attached to that institution, not withstanding all its faults, and I long to see it again, for its foundation rests upon the basis of Eternal Truth—and my heartstrings are twined around its every pillar.”
The inscription states that Flora was three when the daguerreotype was taken in McGrawville, which, when fashions are considered in tandem, makes the approximate year of her birth between 1848 and 1850. On 30 October, 1862, the writer was in the parlor with Flora, then in her teens, speaking about the ongoing Civil War. The indecipherable surname of Henry, who was buried that day, might lead to a breakthrough, but thus far no guesses of mine have yielded results.
How was Flora’s family connected to McGrawville? Was she the child of a teacher, an administrator, abolitionist Baptists, or simply part of a local Cortland family? Where did Flora and her people go after leaving McGrawville? Why did the burial of Henry raise memories of the more than decade-old daguerreotype, and what motivated the writer to pencil the poem and message in the case at that time? These questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Ω