Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Lost America

The Lewis & Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University houses almost all the plant specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey, including many newly discovered species. The federal program Save America’s Treasures paid to rehouse the collection to modern standards.

We don’t usually editorialize or advocate here, but today I’m going to make an exception. As some of our fans may have noticed, blogging hasn’t been as regular around here as our usual standard. The reason has been a time-consuming job search for one-half of the writing team of “Frances Hunter.” Fortunately that’s now resolved. Hopefully that will free up time and emotional energy for fun things like this blog.

Anyone who has taken a peek at the bio section may have noticed that one of us has been fortunate enough to work in a history-related field. As of December 1, that will no longer be the case, for that job fell victim to the budget ax along with so many others in public history.

Consider the current state of this nation’s commitment to our own heritage (thanks to American Heritage magazine for their great editorial roundup of this information):

– Completely eliminated: Save America’s Treasures, the program that saved countless American courthouses, document collections, battleships, historic homes, Native American sites like the Acoma Pueblo, and artifacts like the Gettysburg Cyclorama, the Rosa Parks bus, and the Star-Spangled Banner itself.

– Completely eliminated: Preserve America, which helped small towns and ethnic neighborhoods plan how to preserve entire areas of historic character, developing programs like walking tours, markers, and historic drives.

– Completely eliminated: Teaching American History, which provides grants for public school teachers to undertake intensive study to better teach the American story to kids.

– Completely eliminated: We the People, which funded teacher training, purchased classic books and art for public schools, and sponsored the National Digital Newspaper Project, a program to digitize and put online historic American newspapers from the 1880s to the 1920s.

– Completely eliminated: The National Heritage and Scenic Byways program. Among many others, this ends support for the Heritage Area around the Knife River Village in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, eliminated the chance for a National Heritage Area to preserve Lewis and Clark’s legacy on the West Coast, and ends support for scenic byways along the Lewis & Clark Trail including the Native American Scenic Byway in the Dakotas and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Idaho — not to mention the Natchez Trace.

The Native American Scenic Byway guides visitors through four of the reservations of the Lakota Sioux. It encompasses many of the historic sites of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The program has been eliminated after a 20-year run.

I recently found a reprint of a great book called Lost America, by Constance M. Greiff. Originally published in 1971, Lost America is a pictorial tour of landmark buildings that had been destroyed by neglect and the wrecking ball. In her introduction, Greiff has an excellent analysis of what caused the wholesale destruction of thousands of architectural treasures in our country, particularly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Much of the demolition was the result of a promise made to the nation’s veterans. The GI Bill granted low-cost mortgages to the men who had fought so gallantly in World War II. To make way for the new homes, America’s small towns and villages were converted to suburbs. Urban renewal took much of the rest. After all, what were some crummy old buildings when people needed highways to drive in from their new homes and places to park once they got there?

Greiff identifies a particularly dangerous period for historical sites, writing, “We tend to denigrate the tastes of the generation or two immediately preceding our own at the same time we are attracted to the lifestyle of their predecessors, first, perhaps, as merely amusingly quaint, and then as the object of serious study and admiration … The buildings of [the] past were viewed with contempt as examples of crudity and bad taste. … They were objects to be discarded…” In another book from my library, The Gingerbread Age by John Maass (1957), the author writes of his efforts to photograph America’s Victorian heritage. There was a period of several years where Maass simply could not drive fast enough. He would get wind of a site to photograph and get there only to find out it has been torn down just days before.

The Genie Car Wash sign (1968), Austin, Texas.

My own city is a growing one in which the past is obliterated on an almost daily basis. Recently, citizens did battle to save a vintage neon car wash sign. The passion invoked by such an unremarkable object spoke volumes to the sense of loss experienced by ordinary citizens — again and again supporters  used the sad, desperate words: It’s all that’s left. (The sign was saved.)

The wanton destruction of the post-war era was symbolized most dramatically by the mindless demolition of the fabulous Penn Station in New York, which eventually led to the modern preservation movement. A lot of time has passed since then. The elimination of federal funding for historic preservation says it all about the nation’s current level of commitment to its heritage — it’s not worth a dime. Similarly, states are starving their historic parks and monuments with reduced hours and maintenance, and cutting back on access and preservation of historic archives. Though the battle is ongoing, budget cuts in Georgia aim to eliminate their state archives altogether, ending public access to hundreds of years’ worth of historical documents and artifacts.

A number of Lewis & Clark sites are seriously endangered. Just to cite the most recent example, a high-ranking official of the National Park Service warned that Lewis & Clark National Park in Astoria (site of Fort Clatsop) will be forever changed if a proposed terminal for liquified natural gas is built just three miles away. Visitors will no longer be able to experience the Lower Columbia River with a sense of the beauty that Lewis and Clark experienced.

Paddlers experience the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. Courtesy Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

What do you think? It’s all up to us, and we can’t count on any help from Uncle Sam this time around. If I ever saw a time when “think global, act local” applied, it is in the siege now underway on America’s historical treasures. What books will go unresearched and unwritten when archives are shuttered? What architectural treasures will be neglected, burned, or razed for short-term economic gain? Which of the post-war buildings, now aging themselves, will be labeled monstrosities and meet the fate of their Victorian predecessors? What sites of the Lewis & Clark Trail will be despoiled? What photographs will represent our era in a future Lost America? What will our children and grandchildren say about us?

Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever: Penn Station, 1910-1963. The New York Times wrote, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

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Inside the recreated pantry at Fort Mandan near Washburn, North Dakota

It’s been a while since I did a “writing” type post, but I was put in mind the other day of exactly why people still turn to historical fiction and what it can be at its best. My local newspaper was heralding the return of the TV series “Mad Men” and urging readers to throw a Mad Men party with foods from the early 1960s. The only trouble was that the writer, who seemed to be a very young person, had no idea what to suggest and the article spluttered out with the mention of deviled eggs.

While I’m no big fan of Mad Men, I think the show’s popularity highlights the desire we still have to experience the world of our parents and grandparents. Food is a terrific aspect of the past to explore, and it’s a shame the writer didn’t get hold of a cookbook from the show’s era. Cookbooks, especially the practical, everyday variety, can be an amazing way to immerse yourself firsthand in the customs, technology, and values of days gone by.

Coconut pie, a Better Homes and Gardens favorite

My mom was of the Mad Men generation, and I was inspired to pull out my copy of the legendary Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I inherited from her. Continuously in print and revised since 1930, the plaid notebook has faithfully recorded America’s culinary habits for generations. I remember many of these recipes from my childhood.

From the history point of view, the jewel in the crown of Better Homes and Gardens is the “Special Meals and Foreign Cookery” section, which offers dozens of set menus for different occasions. It is here that we get our most unwavering look at the Mad Men era, from bridge parties to cocktail parties, from “For Stags at Eve” (bean and ham chowder; men like it with apple pie, we’re told) to hobo hikes (tie up your fried chicken, a waxed-paper cup of beans, and banana in a kerchief).

Every conceivable holiday is celebrated, even Washington’s Birthday, complete with lattice cherry pie. The Better Homes and Gardens book reflects a determination to have fun, to make every day special dammit, tackled with all the determination of a generation creating explosive prosperity after coming of age during a ghastly Depression and the most blood-thirsty war in history. Treasure hunt, anyone? Serve hamburgers, popcorn corsages, and hot chocolate, and in the name of God, give good prizes.

If the recipes of 50 years past seem a bit quaint, they are still recognizable things that most of us have eaten, at least at grandma’s house. Go back a century and you’ll immediately realize the truth of the saying that “the past is another country,” complete with foreign food. We recently picked up The Economy Administration Cookbook at a used book sale. This 1913 cookbook was, according to its foreword, put out to encourage Americans to return to the “simple and natural life” while fighting the “high cost of living.” The recipes were contributed by the wives and daughters of public officials in Washington, D.C. and include gems such as Democrat Cookies and Temperance Pie. Many of the dishes that appear to have been quite common were unknown to me. Timbales were a type of savory muffin or tart; apparently dasheens (taro roots) were a common starch in the American South and could be baked, boiled, stuffed, or fried. Oysters were cheap and could be used to make pigs-in-a-blanket. A breaded squash could stand in as “mock duck” and a calf’s head for “mock terrapin.”

Beef a la mode. Courtesy The Historical Dish.

There are a great many prize recipes for dishes it is almost impossible to imagine anyone wanting to eat today, from roasted squirrel to “old hare,” from escalloped brains to “kraut wickle” (a cabbage and ground beef loaf). Some of the contributed recipes are written in Negro dialect. Food was often prepared in mass quantities (one sausage recipe calls for 18 pounds of lean meat), and total pulverization is a not-uncommon method of preparation. A recipe for “beef a la mode” suggests the following:

To twenty pounds of round beef (large cuts) take two and one half pounds of suet, chopped very fine and mixed with black pepper until almost black. Mix with this one handful of whole allspice and one of whole cloves; punch holes through the meat and stuff with suet; sew up in a bag very tight, and cover well with a brine made of four gallons of water, one and one half pounds of sugar, two ounces of pulverized saltpetre and six pounds of common salt. It will be ready for use in three weeks. Boil well and when cold remove the bag and slice. Delicious relish for cold supper or lunch.

Thanks, Mrs. Henry L. Edmonds of Princeton, New Jersey! By the way, she notes that this recipe “has been used in our family for generations and is much liked by gentlemen.” (Kind of makes you think twice about that time machine fantasy, doesn’t it?)

Cookbooks imported from England were commonplace in America by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were born in the 1770s, though the first cookbook of American origin was not published until 1796, just a few years before the Expedition. This was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, and it was revolutionary (pun intended) in showcasing American ingredients. Simmons’ cookbook was the first to include recipes with cornmeal as an ingredient, with instructions for Indian pudding and hoecakes, and the first to suggest that cranberry sauce was the perfect accompaniment for turkey.

Indian pudding. Courtesy Simply Recipes.

(Interestingly, Simmons’ book contains a recipe for beef a la mode that is very similar to the one included in the Economy Administration cookbook published more than a century later, suggesting that tastes have changed more in the last century than they did in the first hundred years of American cookbook history.)

Simmons’ book also reflected the divergence in culture and technology that was carrying American cooking away from its British roots. She offers recipes and tips on using “pearlash,” or potassium carbonate, which was at the time a major American export. It seems that the vast hardwood forests of the United States afforded the raw materials for ash for use as fertilizer and lye. The ash also enabled the clever cook to make a primitive baking powder for biscuits and cakes.

Every household needed lye, a caustic agent made by repeatedly passing water through a barrel of hardwood ashes. Once you had the lye, you could use it to make soap by boiling it with fat, or you could dry it to make potash (fertilizer). The potash could be further refined into pearlash. Initially used for glassmaking, someone discovered it lightened breads and made a good quick substitute for yeast. The American embrace of practical new technology and willingness to break with old-world traditions are fully on display in Simmons’ cookbook, which remained the standard for 30 years.

There is no evidence that Lewis and Clark took a cookbook with them on the Expedition. However, the Missouri Historical Society has a collection of the recipes of Julia Hancock Clark, the wife of William Clark, that appears to be in William Clark’s handwriting. Here Clark records pudding recipes, instructions for making “orrange” preserves, a recipe for making catsup with Missouri walnuts instead of tomatoes, and “light roles.”

Apparently these household notes were edited by Robert G. Stone & David M. Hinkley in the 1990s and published as Clark’s Other Journal: William & Julia H. Clark’s Household & Homemaking Recipes, Home Remedies, & A Partial Inventory of the Families Personal Belongings as Recorded by William Clark 1820. I have never been able to find a copy of this book; if you have it and would like to sell or trade, let me know!

For more reading:

The Historical Dish (great blog)
Feeding America (historic cookbooks)
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (Google Books)
American Gingerbread Cakes (demonstrates how to use pearlash in a Simmons recipe)

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Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans

Highly desired for gracious living today, the courtyards in the French Quarter homes of the Creoles were more practical affairs, where you would find carriages parked and slaves working on household tasks.

In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.

What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).

Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.

Creole woman with maid, by Edouard Marquis (1867)

Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.

Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.

As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.

When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.

This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).

Creole men of New Orleans in a vintage photograph

If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening.  Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.

I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.

After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.

We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.

So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.

Le Monde Creole Tours

Laura Plantation

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When Lewis and Clark were boys, there was no system of public education in America. Children were schooled by friends or relatives either in their own home, or at somebody else’s home nearby. Well-to-do families sent their children to schools run by private tutors, which usually meant that the child would have to leave home and live with either the tutor or with a relative. But these private tutors were expensive, and even many wealthier families could afford only a few years of education.

Early American schoolroom

Schoolroom in early America - learning at home

Meriwether Lewis was thirteen or fourteen when he left his family in Georgia to return to Virginia for school. According to Lewis’s biographer Richard Dillon, Lewis attended school for two years at the Albemarle Classical School, which was held in a “in a rude log building on the lawn of the Edgeworth farm.” The tutor was Parson Matthew Maury, the father of the boy who would become Civil War naval hero Matthew Fontaine Maury. From Maury, Lewis got a foundation in the usual subjects: reading, writing and arithmetic, plus a smattering of Latin, Greek, and natural science.

Young Napoleon

Young Napoleon Bonaparte - a dead ringer for Lewis?

After two years, Lewis moved on to the school of a Dr. Charles Everitt, which proved to be a miserable match. One of Everitt’s other pupils wrote, “We disliked the teacher. His method of teaching was as bad as anything could be. He was impatient of interruption. We seldom applied for assistance, said our lessons badly, made no proficiency and acquired negligent and bad habits.” Despite Everitt’s faults, Lewis was a doggedly persistent pupil. Lewis’s kinsman and classmate George “Peachy” Gilmer recorded this impression of Lewis as a young student:

He was always remarkable for perseverance, which in the early period of his life seemed nothing more than obstinacy in pursuing the trifles that employ that age; of a martial temper and great steadiness of purpose, self-possession and undaunted courage. His person was stiff and without grace; bowlegged, awkward, formal and almost without flexibility. It bore to my vision a very strong resemblance to Buonaparte.

Lewis endured Everitt’s teaching for only a short time before transferring to the school of the Reverend James Waddell, whom he liked better and considered a “very polite scholar.” He wanted to stay at Waddell’s for a couple of years, but the press of business at his late father’s plantation was growing. By the summer of 1790, Lewis was spending a lot of his time working at Locust Hill. The death of his stepfather in 1791 ended Lewis’s hopes for formal education, and he reluctantly traded in his schoolbooks for the plow.

Lewis had dreamed of going to college at William and Mary, which was the only choice for Virginians who could not afford to go North or travel to England for higher education. Despite the fact that it was Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater, William and Mary had a mixed reputation. Many young men of the First Families of Virginia attended there, but both students and faculty were known to get rowdy. One critic complained the he had “known the Professors to play all Night at Cards in publick Houses in the City, and … often seen them drunken in the Street!”

The College of William and Mary

The College of William and Mary: #1 Party School in Early America

Little is known of the education of William Clark. Clark was likely taught at home, along with his nine brothers and sisters, or at the home of a neighbor. Had the Clark family stayed in Virginia, William might have studied with a tutor, but the family moved to the Kentucky frontier in 1784 when young William was fourteen, and such amenities were simply not available. Clark may have been tutored by his older brother, George Rogers Clark, who had a year or so of formal education and a lifetime of wilderness skills to teach his young brother.

Noah Webster's Speller

Noah Webster's Speller (1820 edition)

Despite Clark’s lack of formal education, he was obviously intelligent. Clark rose to the rank of captain in the Kentucky militia by the age of 20. His skills included military command, engineering and construction; he could survey land, draw maps, and lead pack trains through enemy country. Clark knew how to fight the Indians on their own ground and how to negotiate with them from a vantage point of respect. He also managed his family’s finances.

It is easy to make fun of Clark’s creative spelling, but phonetic, non-standard spelling was nothing unusual in those days. Nobody even proposed a standard method of spelling in America until Noah Webster’s Speller came out in 1783. By that time, William and his family were packing up for Kentucky, and he had other things besides schoolwork on his mind.

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The Game of Fives

18th century men playing fives

18th century men playing fives

In one of my favorite scenes in The Fairest Portion of the Globe, young ensign Meriwether Lewis plays a game of fives with the treacherous general James Wilkinson.

He dove after Wilkinson’s next serve and got a miraculous lucky bounce. Wilkinson raced forward but couldn’t get to it. As the dead ball rolled at his feet, Lewis picked it up and held it for a moment, turning the ball in his hands. He pushed his damp bangs out of his eyes and looked at Wilkinson. “That’s three all, sir.”

Wilkinson stepped forward and took the ball. “Give it here, Lewis. I don’t want you to mistake my meaning.” With visible fury, he turned and sent the ball slamming into the wall. Startled, Lewis lunged for the ball but collided with Wilkinson’s flying elbow instead. He tripped and crashed onto his hands and knees, face-first into the wall. His head rang and he tasted grit and blood.

“Lewis, let me tell you something for your own good,” Wilkinson jerked him around and stood over him, his hands digging into Lewis’s skin beneath his thin shirt. “Anthony Wayne has been a thorn in my side for twenty years, going back to the Revolution. Wayne has had his time here. Soon it will be a new era at Fort Washington. Jefferson’s time. My time.”

Lewis gaped up at him, warm blood trickling down his lip. “What? You and Jefferson? Sir, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—”

Wilkinson gave a little chuckle of pity—or was it contempt?— then leaned down and tapped him on the forehead. “Use your head, Ensign Lewis. You’re a Shakespeare buff, I understand. Wasn’t it in Coriolanus, where the bard said, ‘Nature teaches beasts to know their friends?’”

Lewis swallowed, remembering the next line in the play. Without thinking, he whispered aloud: “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

“Precisely, ensign.” Wilkinson let out a mirthful titter. “The lamb.”

Fives was a ball game that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Similar to handball, it was formally played on a stone or brick court, and informally against a stone wall in a churchyard. The purpose of the game is to hit a small, hard leather or rubber ball over a line on the back wall so that your opponents cannot return it before the second bounce. The game is fast-paced and requires sharp hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and agility.

General Thomas Sumter

General Thomas Sumter, the "Carolina Gamecock"

Fives was a favorite pastime of country gentlemen in the late 18th and early 19th century. American Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, known as “The Carolina Gamecock,” was known for his abilities on the fives court. The most famous fives player who ever lived is said to be John Cavanagh, an Irish house-painter who played on the fives court in St Martin’s Street in London, remaining undefeated until his death in 1819.

David Herbert Donald, in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, records that while the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago was deciding who was to be the presidential nominee, Lincoln was quietly going about his business in Springfield. Up early on Friday, May 18th, the day when nominations were to be made, Lincoln passed some time playing fives with some other men in a vacant lot next to the Illinois State Journal Office. After he got the news of his nomination, he spoke “to the ball players who broke off their game to congratulate him.”

The popularity of fives waned in the United States in the 19th century, but the game became even more popular in Britain as it was institutionalized as a sport in Britain’s elite public schools. The most well-known variety of fives is Eton Fives, which originated at Eton College in England. The side of Eton’s chapel is supported by buttresses that form perfect three-sided fives courts in which the students can play. The bay at the foot of the chapel steps is different from the rest, because the steps’ handrail forms a hazard that complicates the game, and a landing between the two flights of steps extends the playing area. Another popular variety of fives, played on a four-sided court, originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire.

The original Eton Fives court

The original fives court at Eton Chapel, England

Though not the craze it once was, Eton Fives and Rugby Fives are still enjoyed by schoolboys and “old boys” in England. Modern Eton Fives is played on courts built to resemble the unique bay at the foot of the Eton chapel steps, recreating the handrail hazard that has long been the bane of many a young scholar-athlete. In the United States, the only known fives courts that are still in use are in Massachusetts: at Groton School, St.Mark’s School, the Union Boat Club, and the A.D. Final Club at Harvard University.

For everything you ever wanted to know about fives:

The Eton  Fives Association

The Rugby Fives Association

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