History from
the Bottom Up

The Schuylers

IMG_5905Last week I drove to upstate New York for my annual writing retreat. On the way, I stopped off at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. Philip Schuyler and his wife, Catharine van Rensselaer, lived in this house with their eight children. (They had a set of twins and a set of triplets that did not survive.) The eldest surviving child was Angelica. Another daughter, Eliza, married Alexander Hamilton. I’m researching Hamilton for an upcoming project. Have I mentioned I have the best job in the world?

The house is built on a steep slope, so it was hard to get a good shot of the front.

The house is built on a steep slope, so it was hard to get a good shot of the front.

There were only seven of us on the tour—me, a couple from Saratoga, and a family of four with two charismatic kids. The boy knew a lot about Revolutionary war battles, and the girl seemed interested in everything, which was a good thing, because I may or may not have co-opted the tour. Danielle, our tour guide, was wonderful and knowledgeable, but I always feel bad for tour guides when a writer, for instance, me, shows up for a tour. Obviously I didn’t feel bad enough, because I pestered Danielle with questions.

Unfortunately all the most interesting stuff (to me) about the house has not survived—namely, the slave quarters, the kitchen, and the necessary. But Danielle knew a lot about them, and answered my questions. And it was exciting to see the original portraits of ElizaIMG_5921

And Angelica (here she is with one of her ten children):IMG_5925It was cool to see field beds that can be broken down for travel, along with a bed key:IMG_5927Danielle obligingly held up a jar of leeches from Philip’s medical kit, so I could photograph it.

IMG_5930And here’s what may or may not be a cut from a sword or tomahawk on the banister. IMG_5931 In 1781, a band of British soldiers and local loyalists, operating out of Canada, attempted to kidnap Philip Schuyler. In one version of the story, which Danielle says is difficult to verify, Peggy had just grabbed her baby sister Catharine from the cradle, en route to fleeing upstairs with her, when someone threw a tomahawk at her and missed.

Here’s another version of the thwarted kidnap attempt, which doesn’t include the dramatic last-minute rescue of a baby, but is still pretty exciting.

Behind the Curtain

Jan Steen, Morning Toilet, 1663

Have you ever heard of a “curtain lecture?” (The above image isn’t actually a curtain lecture. I just liked the image.)

A “curtain lecture” (sometimes called a “bolster lecture”) is a private reprimand given by a wife to her husband. Back in the days when a bed was often a family’s most valuable possession, many were four-poster types with thick curtains. The curtains kept away drafts, and also, according to generations of male writers, allowed the wife to scold her husband in privacy.

I actually … Read more

Author Event

Connecticut friends: if you are anywhere near Guilford (near New Haven) next Wednesday, July 6th, please drop by the library for this super-fun—and free!–event:

Details: Join ten local middle grade and young adult authors–Sarah Albee, Hannah Barnaby, Ace Bauer, Leslie Bulion, Leslie Connor, Sarah Darer, Page McBrier, Adam Shaughnessy, Cat Urbain, and Sandra Waugh–for a celebration of summer reading featuring games, snacks, book talks, and author signings! Drop in whenever you can and stay as long as you like. Hosted by the Guilford Free Library. Book sales … Read more

Theodosia and Theodosia

A young Aaron Burr

Fans of the Broadway show, Hamilton, will be familiar with the beautiful duet, Dear Theodosia, sung by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda). It’s an ode to their newborn babies, Theodosia and Philip. (You can listen to it here.)

Earlier in the play, in the Story of Tonight reprise, Burr had confessed to Hamilton that he’d been having an affair with the wife of a British officer. That would be Theodosia’s mother, Theodosia. Let’s investigate the history … Read more

Mate and Create

Gray WolfPhoto: Gary Kramer, USFWS, Creative Commons

A classic favorite movie in our house is Napoleon Dynamite, and here’s one of our favorite scenes:his drawing of a “liger.”

But were you aware that ligers really exist?

My friend Laura is one of my go-to scientists. She not only teaches AP Biology, but also POST-AP Biology, for high school seniors who can’t get enough Biology. Kids flock to take her classes. I ask her for help on pretty much all my books. … Read more

That’s Harsh

I try not to discuss politics on this blog, but the widespread criticism of Hillary Clinton’s “annoying” voice begs for some historical context. The criticism tends not to be about what she is saying–it’s about how she’s saying it. You may disagree with her, or with Trump, or with Sanders. But of the three candidates, why is it Hillary’s voice that gets criticized so often?

A lot of commentators and news reporters comment on it. Many complain that she is loud, or shrill, or inauthentic.

Then there’s  … Read more

Knockdown, Drag-Along

It’s been a long time since I was in high school, but I’m still in touch with my favorite teacher—who taught history, naturally—Mr. Heller. (It took me about twenty five more years to call him by his first name, Miles.) Anyway he read my blog from last week about portable writing desks and messaged me:
Did you ever hear of campaign furniture?
In the Am Revolution, they carried huge collapsible furniture, like chests, tables etc. with arms on them so that they could be carried. Sometime, they … Read more

Desk Jobs

I’ve been researching the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I got curious about writing desks. They’ve evolved quite a bit over the past two hundred years, from this:To this:Yeah, that’s my treadmill desk. Not that my desk represents the most highly evolved of writing desks, but desks have definitely changed a lot.

Robespierre at his desk.

 … Read more

Read It And Weep

I’m researching colonial America, and just spent the morning reading a book written in 1660, by one Thomas White. The full title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but here it is: A Manual for Parents: Wherein is Set Down Very Particular Directions in Reference to the Baptising, Correcting, Instructing, and Chusing a Calling for Their Children : to which is Added A Little Book for Little Children : Wherein Besides Several Instructions, and Encouragements, Several Examples.

The book was later republished in Boston, in 1702, with the much more succinct title A Little … Read more

Racine and Reason

I have a couple of vivid memories from my high school AP French literature class. Our teacher, Madame Sorrell, was a lovely woman whose bright red hair tumbled in tendrils to her shoulders, and who was all chiffon scarves and jingly jewelry and heady perfume. Once she gave our class a cooking lesson. We watched her douse the baba au rhum with a healthy few glugs of rhum until it was deeply saturated. The cake tasted pretty much like a kitchen sponge soaked in rum, but I think we all thought … Read more

Page 1 of 11412345...102030...Last »