Reviving Traditions

As we often discover in the process of producing each issue, new facts emerge to offer a different perspective on what we think we know. Several of the articles in these pages concern the return of objects and traditions once thought lost, or that have been interpreted in new ways.

For instance, Ray and Janet Carney, long-time residents of New York’s Genesee Valley, decided to tackle one last house restoration somewhere with milder winters than the blizzards that often blow down from Lake Ontario. Working with Preservation North Carolina, they qualified to restore a National Register house in historic Pittsboro.

After ten years (and counting), they learned not only how well late-1700s carpenters had built the framework, but that the building is both the town’s oldest house and its first tavern. In 1792 owner Patrick St. Lawrence advertised “for sale, or to let” the two-storey structure “well fitted for a tavern,” with a separate billiard house, a stable for twenty horses, and a carriage house, with the added enticement of being within a mile of a mineral springs.

Not mentioned in the ad were the two hinged wall panels separating two downstairs parlors from the entry hall— when raised they opened a 27-by-27-foot room suitable for dancing, dining, or meetings. The Carneys’ thoughtful restoration preserves or replicates the tavern’s Georgian/ Federal features while creating a livable modern home.

Articles about foot baths (most are more vintage than antique) and Martha Washington’s recipe for pepper cake (which failed to list “pepper” as an ingredient) offer new information based on the research of assistant editor Ware Petznick.

Bathing one’s feet, practiced for millennia in China, eventually became common in Europe, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that England’s Staffordshire potters, particularly Spode, began molding porcelain tubs to mimic wooden versions. Much later in the century, Chinese potters renowned for the export porcelain so popular among wealthy Americans a century earlier began producing foot baths with traditional designs. Collectors should be aware that a “Chinese foot bath” on today’s antiques market likely dates to the 20th Century, not to be mistaken for a Chinese fish basin, bidet basin, garden planter, or food server.

If adding black pepper to a dessert cake seems counterintuitive, it probably was in the 1600s and 1700s as well. Most food historians believed that the recipe Martha Washington inherited from her first husband’s mother used the oriental spice for its preservative properties, despite the cake being a dessert. Instead, Martha’s recipe used Jamaican allspice, also called “pepper” in the period.

Despite the Crown’s mandate to American colonists to import goods only from Britain, the colonists traded with the West Indies, where “Jamaican pepper” originated. Before Independence, Americans could buy allspice more readily than black pepper. The cake, made without eggs or butter, produced a crispy treat akin to gingerbread.

Other unexpected cross-cultural influences arise in the scant biographies of young girls who stitched samplers, show towels, and other textiles. A thread of their cultural heritage, geographic region, or religious influence can often be teased out from the designs they created, highlighted in the Stitched in Time exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg.

Roddy Moore, former director of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum at Ferrum College, shares his research into baskets made by a 20th-Century Virginia woman, who added her own interpretation to the painted designs on baskets made by Native Americans possibly a century or more earlier.

These cross-cultural influences, much like the work of today’s artisans who re-create the material culture of the past, help keep our traditions alive.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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