Salt Life and Death

“In terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand.”

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Nautical-themed memorial brooch to M. Thayer. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This unusual mourning brooch, which dates to between 1830 and 1840, is a late example of the sepia painting technique popular up to a century earlier. Sepia miniatures in the neoclassical style, such as the one below right, were painted with dissolved human hair on ivory tablets and typically feature weeping women and willows, funeral urns, graves, and other scenes and symbols of loss.

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This gold brooch in a navette shape, circa 1790, features a sepia painting of a grieving widow with the bust of her husband. Courtesy C.J. Antiques.

This brooch is dedicated by reverse inscription to “M. Thayer,” but little more can be known about the deceased, as the inscription includes no dates of birth or death. Thayer was likely occupationally connected to the sea, although the image may be wholly allegorical. A ship sailing toward a distant safe haven, accompanied or guided by birds, may be read as the soul journeying toward the afterlife in the company of angelic beings.

“Being lost at sea strikes an image of loss and departure that evokes the very essence of sadness. In the very literal sense, there is the loss of the body that prevents the kind of closure that physical remains offer. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the loss of the soul is the same as that of the body, representing a crossing over to a place that we do not know or understand. It is not surprising that symbolism featuring the sea has been appropriated by mourning jewellery. The physical and symbolic departure of the soul away from the mourner as a result of a death at sea, during both peace and war times, are depicted in 18th and 19th century jewellery,” writes Lord Hayden Peters at the magnificent site, The Art of Mourning. His article on this topic deserves to be read in full, rather than summarized by me.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A mourning piece connected to a sailor or ship’s officer would have been worn by someone like the young woman above, were she widowed. In this detail of a circa-1850 daguerreotype, the couple were portrayed likely on their wedding day. The groom wears gold hoop earrings, marking him as a career sailor who may have transversed the world several times.

“Men’s earrings are nothing new, old salts will tell you. Even before the days of pirates, mariners who had sailed the China seas or had done any Asiatic duty took to wearing earrings as a mark of their service in the Orient. It was the campaign ribbon of its day. The modern gob, after he has sailed in Asiatic waters, gets his ears pierced and a ring inserted, then goes to a tattoo parlor and has various Chinese legends etched on the shank of his left leg. But not all men who wear earrings are veterans of Asiatic sea service. The custom has been adopted by many who have sailed in the Central, South, or Southwest Pacific without entering the waters of the China Sea,” wrote Hal J. Kanter in the Saturday Evening Post, December 8, 1945.

Sailors of old believed that piercing their earlobes increased their eyesight and hearing or would prevent sea sickness. They were also quite concerned about dying at sea and not receiving a land burial. Sailor victims of shipwrecks hoped the value of their gold earrings would be put toward a proper Christian burial by those who found their bodies washed up on shore. Ω

Postcards: Email by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

“Thank you dear for the nice letter you sent us and all the kisses. Hope you are a good boy. Did you throw Herbert out of bed Sunday morning?”

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Today’s postcards convey “Wish you were here!” almost exclusively, but in the first decades of the 20th Century this method regularly moved information to friends and family who resided even just a few miles away. The short messages often read much like modern email, and when in combination with the photos on the front, can seem like old-school versions of modern Facebook posts.

On 4 March, 1914, this cheerful, beautifully colored postcard of Hagerstown, Maryland’s Broadway (above) was sent to Mrs. C. L. Pennison, Newton, Massachusetts, care of Peckitts on Sugar Hill. The message reads, “Dear Catherine, I was pleased to get your card on Monday while at home. But surprised to hear you are in the White Mountains. I hope you will soon recover your health up there. We were in the midst of a blizzard Monday but are enjoying pleasant weather now. I am well and enjoy my work. Yours, B.”

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Ann Longmore-Collection.

This postcard of the Washington Street Bridge, Monticello, Indiana, was addressed to Miss Ruthie Brown of Modesto, Illinois, and mailed 4 July, 1913. The reverse reads, “Dear Ruth: This is where I am spending the day. This morning our car struck a buggy just as we were going up the hill beyond this bridge. I hope you are having a lovely vacation. Would like to hear from you very much. Grace Mc. 1 Danville, Ind.”

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Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

Beverly Wilgus, the owner of this example, writes, “This postcard was mailed by a grandfather to his granddaughter in November, 1912. The caption ‘Tommy’s first and Turkey’s last picture” [has an] unpleasant edge. The image is embossed and gives the figures a slight 3D effect. It was sent to Dorothy Flower in North Uxbridge, Massachusetts, by Grandpa Midley.”

The message reads, “Dear Dorothy: How would you like to have your picture taken this way? I suppose you would rather have some of the turkey to eat. Hope you will have some for your Thanksgiving dinner. Am going to try to get to No. Uxbridge to see you soon.”

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Courtesy James Morley Collection.

Margaret Ripley was a nurse in France during World War I. The above is one of a series of postcards she sent to her sister back in Surrey, England. “Had 2 nice days here unfortunately Louvre & all museums shut but seen as much as possible. Off to Dunkirk tomorrow to typhoid hospital—so glad to feel we may at last get real work in connection with war. Have enjoyed our week’s holiday very much & were hoping to stay on here a few more days. Love to E & children. Hope they are well again. Mar.”

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Although the photographic image is from a decade previous, this postcard’s stamp was cancelled 24 December, 1922. Addressed to Mr. S. Schmall, 4549 Calumet St., Chicago, Illinois, the delightful message reads: “Thank you dear for the nice letter you sent us and all the kisses. Hope you are a good boy. Did you throw Herbert out of bed Sunday morning? Love to you & all. Aunt Alice.”

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

Postmarked 30 October, 1917, this postcard was sent by the United Brethren Sunday School of Myersville, Maryland, to Helen Keller and family. “U B ready for the U.B. Rally. We need you on Rally Day. Remember the date: Nov. 11th. Do not disappoint us. Help us make this our best Rally Day.” (If there was a smiling emoticon after “Do not disappoint us,” I would feel less creeped out.)

According to Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, “In liturgical Protestant churches, Rally Day marks the beginning of the church calendar year. It typically occurs at the end of September or the beginning of October. Although not all Protestant churches observe this day, the customs associated with it include giving Bibles to children, promoting children from one Sunday school grade to the next, welcoming new members into the church, and making a formal presentation of church goals for the coming year.”

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Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

Beverly Wilgus writes, “This multiple-print, real photo postcard shows two soldiers in a studio prop biplane flying over a real San Antonio streetscape. A banner reading ‘San Antonio 1911’ flies from the wing. Even though the plane is obviously phony, the two airmen appear to be real pilots since the message on the back reads, ‘Our first lesson what do you think of it? Geo.’”

I’m thinking Photoshop, version 1.911. Ω