Last week, a storm brought 10 inches of snow to Western Maryland and turned my mind to snowmen of old.
In all probabilty, humans have sculpted snowmen for millenia. In 2007, Bob Eckstein, the author of The History of the Snowman: From the Ice Age to the Flea Market, told NPR that in writing his book, “I wanted to make it clear that snowman-making actually was a form of folk art. Man was making folk art like this for ages, and…maybe it’s one of man’s oldest forms of art…. [T]he further back you go, you find that people were really fascinated with snowmen.”
Eckstein says that building snowmen was “a very popular activity in the Middle Ages…after a snow came down and dumped all these free-art supplies in front of everyone’s house.” The earliest known representation of a snowman dates to that era, drawn in a 1380 A.D. Book of Hours. A century later, in 1494, Michelangelo was commissioned by Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Gran Maestro of Florence, to practice his art with snow. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, “de’ Medici had him make in his courtyard a statue of snow, which was very beautiful.” Sadly, no one drew it for posterity.
In 1510, a Florentine apothecary, Lucas Landucci confided in his diary that he had seen “a number of the most beautiful snow-lions, as well as many nude figures…made also by good masters.” Another notable snowmen outbreak occurred just a year later, when folk in Brussels built more than 100 of them “in a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511,” notes Atlas Obscura. “Their snowmen embodied a dissatisfaction with the political climate, not to mention the six weeks of below-freezing weather. The Belgians rendered their anxieties into tangible, life-like models: a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and womenfolk getting buggered six ways to Sunday. Besides your typical sexually graphic and politically riled caricatures, the Belgian snowmen, Eckstein discovered, were often parodies of folklore figures, such as mermaids, unicorns, and village idiots.”
On a sunny day in the winter of 1853/1854, early female photographer Mary Dillman Welby, then aged 37 and sister of the better-known photographer John Llewelyn Dillwyn of Penlle’r-gaer, Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom, captured the collodion glass-plate image seen at the top of this page. Hidden away in the National Museum of Wales, it was rediscovered by an historian researching extreme weather images who recognized it for what it was—the first photographed Frostie. Ω
“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
During World War I, soldiers on both sides ceased dealing death for one joyous Christmas Day.
It came and then was gone, but for a while death held no dominion on the battlefields of France. Soldiers on both sides were entrenched, following killing orders from generals and cousin kings. “You no shoot, we no shoot,” the signs Germans troops held up supposedly read. So, the British did not shoot. Instead, they all met in the middle—a muddy No Man’s Land. They decorated tiny Yule trees and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, tinned foods, and even helmets. They buried their dead; they sang carols and played football, too.
According to historian Gerard DeGroot, a professor at the Unversity of St. Andrews, “The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternisation. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might ‘destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks’. Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.
“The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’ [‘Silent Night’] echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in.”
In a letter home, Frederick James Davies, a private in the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, wrote of 25 December, “We had a good chat with the Germans on Xmas Day. They were only fifty yards away from us in the trenches. They came out and we went to meet them. We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam, and corn beef. They also gave us cigars but they didn’t have much food. I think they are hard up for it. They were fed up with the war.”
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather recalled, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…. The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
Henry Williamson, 5th Battalion, The London Rifle Brigade, City of London Regiment, Territorial Forces, wrote to his mother on 26 December, “It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?…. Our men are speaking to them now. They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.”
Another member of Williamson’s unit, Rifleman Graham Williams, recollected, “Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air! First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Wrote a German soldier, Josef Wenzl, “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches—by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items. A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”
And then there was the footie—a match between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against Scottish troops. The 133rd’s War History, says that someone produced a ball, and that this “developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the center. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”
Why do we remember this blessed peaceful night? It was a beacon of light in a useless apocalypse that killed 18 million people and wounded 23 million more. British soldier Alfred Anderson recalled at the end of his life, “It was then we discovered that those on the ‘other’ side were not the savage barbarians we’d been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?” Ω
This English carte de visite (CDV) is one of the most popular in my collection, if Flickr views and Pinterest re-pins equate to evidence, that is. It shows a young British widow—identifiable as such by the white ruching on her black bonnet—squatting in the background, having just propelled her black-clad daughter toward the photographer. The widow stares forward forlornly, her hand over her mouth, indicating without words her shock and concern for their future. It is a candid, painfully honest pose, and one rarely seen in types of images. She is no “Hidden Mother,” but a vital element of a tableau meant to convey the message, “This is his orphan.”
The reverse stamp on the CDV reads “T. Bennett, Photographer, 46 Foregate Street and Church Street, Malvern.” According to research conducted by the creator of Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland, 1840-1940, Thomas Bennett “opened his first studio in Worcester in 1856. At different times, he operated at five studios in Worcester and three in Malvern under his own name and the business continued under the name of Bennett & Son and Bennett & Sons until at least 1916.”
“The 1861 census records the [Bennett] family living at his shop at 46 Foregate, Worcester, where he is described as a Lay Clerk (of the church) and photographer. His firm Thomas Bennett and Son is thought to have been established about 1856. His branch in Great Malvern was possibly the second photographic studio” in that town—this information gleaned from the Malvern Records Office. Bennett threw open the doors of his Malvern studio in 1868 and the CDV of mother and daughter could not have been taken long afterward.
Helpful Flickr historians pellethepoet and EastMarple1 spotted one of Thomas Bennett’s studios in the foreground the CDV below. The building at bottom righthand corner, with the word “photos” just visible above the door, was almost certainly where this Worcestershire widow brought her daughter to mark their terrible loss in a fixed image that could never be altered.
My CDV appears on many Pinterest pages, and in particular, one where in the comments it is suggested that this little girl is dead, held up by props, or suspended with wires.
This is not a deceased child. In the photo, her eyes were caught while tracking the photographer, and she supported herself to a degree through her hand, wrist, and arm. One of her feet was slightly lifted as she prepared to take a step.
Bodies were not embalmed at the time this image was taken. That preservation process came into practice during the American Civil War as a way of returning bodies of dead Union soldiers to their families. It was not widely used in the United States or Great Britain for another 40 to 50 years.
Dead bodies that are not embalmed do not stand on their own, even during rigor mortis, without some sort of brace or rigging. There is no evidence in the historic record that these types of devices were used during regular postmortem photography. Sometimes unidentified bodies or murder victims such as Katherine Eddows, a victim of Jack the Ripper, were propped up to be forensically photographed.
Further, it should be asked why a mother would chose to allow the corpse of her dead daughter to be held up by wires or clamped in some sort of brace when she herself could have cradled the body—as is seen in so many other postmortem images?
The props that photographers did use were to keep people still, not to hold them up, as is clearly seen in the photograph below. Ω
In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.
Charles Stuart, later King Charles I, was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to then King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.
Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.
As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”
Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”
During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.
“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….
“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….
“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”
Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.
JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω
Long before the London Eye there was the Earls Court Gigantic Wheel, which gave passengers a bird’s eye view of the capital city and beyond.
This British postcard was mailed to Mr. W. Roberts, 3302 Lindell Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri on 22 January, 1904. The unknown sender posted it from what is today an upscale area of South Kensington, London. The message reads, “34 Brechin Place. Received yours today the 22nd. Thanks so much, am delighted with them. This is a little of Earls Court exhibition. Will write.”
The wheel at Earls Court, London, was built by Maudslay, Sons, and Field, for the Empire of India Exhibition, and opened to the public 17 July, 1895. The project’s engineer was H. Cecil Booth, who recalled, “One morning in 1894, W. B. Bassett, a retired naval officer, one of the managing directors of the firm, entered the drawing office and called out ‘Is there anyone here who can design a great wheel?’ There was dead silence, whereupon I put up my hand and replied, ‘Yes, I can, sir.’ Basset’s answer was ‘Very well, get on with it at once. It is a very urgent matter!’” (Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman D. Anderson.)
The design and build process resulted in a 440-ton wheel that reached a height of 220 feet. It had 40 cars, each of which carried up to 40 passengers. On a clear day, from the apex, riders could see out across London and as far as Windsor Castle. At night, the wheel was a sight in itself, with a spotlight affixed to it and the entire structure and passenger cars decorated with incandescent lamps.
“Those who make the ‘circular tour’ will be able to enjoy most of the advantages of being up in a balloon without any of the risks attendant upon aerial navigation,” assured the 2 February, 1894, Westminster Budget, before the public opening. Anderson reveals in his book Ferris Wheels that the first passengers were probably George, Duke of York (later King George V), and his wife, the duchess (later Queen Mary). Bassett was one of the Duke’s old shipmates and arranged the clandestine ride.
The Earls Court Wheel was based on the magnificent Ferris Wheel built for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition by the eponymous George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896). There had been smaller “pleasure wheels” in the past, but the Ferris Wheel overshadowed them at approximately 26 stories tall. Although the wheel was a singular success, carrying an estimated 38,000 passengers daily who each paid 50 cents per 20-minute ride, Ferris was cheated of his percentage of the take and was in litigation up until the time of his death, which occurred not long after the Earls Court Wheel opened.
The 23 November, 1896, issue of the New York Times reported, “George W. G. Ferris, the inventor and builder of the Ferris wheel, died to-day at Mercy Hospital, where he had been treated for typhoid fever for a week. The disease is said to have been brought on through worry over numerous business matters. He leaves a wife in this city, and friends in mechanical and building circles all over the country.”
The Earls Court Wheel was equally moneymaking. A 19 December, 1896, Guardian newspaper article discussed its use and profitability, “From the opening of the wheel in May till [sic] it closed in October, [it] carried nearly 400,000 people, and earned from rides on the wheel alone £20,237. The bank holidays were one of the principle sources of revenue. At the August Bank Holiday last year they took over £621. This was largely composed of first-class traffic at 2s. each.”
During its years of operation, the wheel experienced only one incident of note: On the evening of 28 May, 1896, the drive mechanism broke, stranding those in the cars. “Everything possible was done to calm the trapped passengers. Seamen climbed the wheel’s framework, carrying food and drinks. When the wheel still was not repaired by midnight, Grenadier guards gathered around the wheels base and played music to entertain those who were spending the night in a way not expected. Although mechanics worked throughout the night, the wheel did not start turning again until 7 o’clock the next morning. As the weary passengers disembarked, each received a five-pound note as a benevolent gesture on the part of the management,” wrote Anderson in Ferris Wheels.
A more humorous view of the event was published in the 2 June, 1896, issue of The Journal: “At first the people in the wheel went into a panic. The crowd below knew that they were stuck, yet they could not resist confirming this impression by throwing out of the windows frantic notes and statements of their helplessness. The rapid American communicated with the crowd by putting a note in his silver cigarette case and tossing it down to become a highly prized souvenir in the pocket of a street arab. The cook used bad language, the married woman out for an innocent lark wept copiously, the mother of five bestowed her children as only a mother of five can do, and went tranquilly asleep, while her husband paced the aisle of the car and kept informing an old and aged maiden lady that he would give a sovereign for a cigarette. The servants of the Great Wheel Company scaled the outer skeleton of the frame and put ropes in the hands of those who were suffering for food, telling them they could draw up whatever they wanted. As far as I can make out from the newspaper reports, starving people in London, having an opportunity to gratify their appetites, are given to demanding beer and whiskey; for it was beer and whiskey that went up in the greatest quantities.”
Always envisioned as a temporary attraction, the Earls Court Wheel closed in October 1906 and was slowly demolished during the following year. In its lifetime, it carried an estimated 2.5 million riders. Ω