May flowers bring … Pilgrims???

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Model of Mayflower
Mariners’ Museum model of the merchant vessel Mayflower (1606-1624)

The rainy weather this last week of April caused me to make an idle remark to my husband about April showers bringing May flowers. With a sly look on his face, he asked me what May flowers bring.

Now I am the youngest child of 2 youngest children and have no children of my own. I had absolutely no clue he was talking about the groan-worthy second grade joke about Mayflowers bringing Pilgrims. I can see you now, gentle reader, wincing at the memory.

But beyond the famous Pilgrim-carrying ship of the early-17th century, there were lots of ships named Mayflower, some with storied pasts, and other just beautiful to behold.    Read more

Ice Boats on the Delaware River

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Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Every American know the glorious painting by Emmanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”. It is one of the most inspiring paintings of the American Revolution, showing the heroic Washington standing on the prow of a small boat crossing the ice-choked river on Christmas Day in a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey. What strikes me, as a weather guy, is the extent to which the river in that painting was already iced over! Not just iced over, but there were small bergs in it!









I suppose that was rattling around in the back of my mind when I was working on photographs of Ice Boats No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3, operated by the city of Philadelphia. According to the City of Philadelphia’s records, “The purposes of the Trustees of the City Ice Boat(s) was to operate a vessel on the Delaware River which would be instrumental in breaking the ice during winter months and ensuring a free and open passage on the river to the Port of Philadelphia.”

The Delaware is one of our most important rivers in terms of tonnage of freight carried. It is also one of our last free-flowing rivers, with no dams or impediments. So if it ices over so badly in the winter, as early as December 25, why don’t we hear about ice breakers moving up the river to open up the ports of Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, and others? Because the river doesn’t ice up as badly as it once did!

In 1907, Philadelphia disbanded its Bureau of Ice Boats, established in 1837, and turned the vessels over to the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries. The City’s records indicate that the boats were eventually used only for dredging, ” due to the gradual disappearance of ice from the Delaware River.” Wow!

Is this perhaps a really early harbinger of human-caused global warming? Well, probably not, it seems. Washington’s crossing of the river, the inception of the Philadelphia Ice Boats, all of those really cold winter scenes we see from the 18th through early 20th centuries, are part of a climatic period called “The Little Ice Age”. One of the particularly cold periods came around 1850. Modest cooling, climatically speaking, but cooling. It is tempting to see the rapid industrialization and pollution of the Delaware Valley as the cause of this warming.  My reading of the climate science, however, seems to indicate the two are unrelated. In these days of super-hot summers in so many places on Earth, many of us wish we could have a return of another Little Ice Age!


Rum, Buggery and the Lash

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For Pride Month, I wanted to think about the countless hundreds of unnamed gay and lesbian sailors who lived and worked on board Navy ships in the days before our rights were broadly recognized and respected. I owe them so much as an out and proud American citizen! Their honorable service and their refusal to stay silent anymore contributed heavily to the ultimate court decision that gave us our rights.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Winston Churchill’s quip that British Royal Navy tradition consisted of nothing but “Rum, buggery and the lash”! It appears that Sir Winston himself denied he ever said it, saying when asked about it that “I wish I had said it!” It also appears that the origins of the expression itself are lost in the annals of naval lore.

Drunkenness and sodomy were indeed often greeted by the lash in Royal Navy ships from the 1660s onward. Sodomy, i.e. same-sex acts, was specifically the subject of Article 29 of the Articles of War. The prescribed punishment for an Article 29 violation was death, and indeed sailors of Royal Navy ships were executed for these violations up until the 1820s. The 1749 version of the British Articles of War states: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by sentence of a court martial.” (See the book by N.A.M. Rodger).

Not so in the American Navy. John Adams drew up the equivalent of the British Articles of War, known as the American Articles of War of 1775. According to “The Background of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” prepared by the Judge Advocate’s General’s School of the US Army, these American Articles were based on the British Articles of 1765 and on the Massachusetts Articles. John Adams, it seems, had a horror of matters regarding sexual practice and chose not to include any mention of any homoerotic acts. Captains were left to deal with alleged incidents on their own. Indeed, there are vanishingly few cases in which captains or other officers chose to bring cases like this to any trial. Usually they preferred to just let it drop, or send the accused home, or punish them for some other charge. (B.R. Burg, “Sodomy, Masturbation, and Courts-Martial in the Antebellum American Navy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 1).

The kind of official quiet on homoerotic love among shipmates, a sort of Victorian version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” comes to an end in the early 20th century. From then until the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional in 2013, gay and lesbian sailors and officers were hounded out, given “blue” or dishonorable discharges, allowed to serve only to have pensions and their GI Bill benefits revoked, physically and verbally assaulted, outed to their friends and relatives, investigated by the FBI, and far worse. This Gay Pride Month, we in the GLBTQ community celebrate the remarkable changes since 2013 that have made our lives, and particularly those of many of our serving personnel, so much better. Battles remain to be fought for true equality within the Armed Forces and without, but we already stand on the backs of heroes! Happy Pride!!!!!

Remembering the end of a world war

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Deck scene, Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese signed surrender documents aboard USS Missouri (BB-63). Courtesy of the Daily Press.
Deck scene, Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese signed surrender documents aboard USS Missouri (BB-63). Courtesy of the Daily Press.

Today I am thinking a great deal about the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. My father and millions of other men and women fought in this conflict that re-shaped the psyche of the entire nation. To me, the photograph below, formalizing world peace, is the most inspiring photograph of that war.


I am grateful that we have been able to move on in international relations, embracing both Japan and Germany as strong allies who have turned their backs on war-making against their neighbors. I am also glad that President Truman learned the lessons from the end of World War I and chose to help rebuild Japan and Germany.

Library receives major grant!

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CLIR logo
CLIR, the Coucil on Library and Information Resources

After a long hiatus from this blog, the Library is back! We want to announce here to those who don’t already know that the Museum has received a $325,500 grant to catalog several of our negative collections in cold storage. This is big news, and we are so grateful to the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for funding our proposal.

The three-year grant is part of an initiative CLIR developed with the Mellon Foundation to give museums and library funding to hide deeply hidden collections. The collections we proposed for cataloging are indeed very deeply hidden! They are collections of negatives, over 48,000 of them, that the Museum has accepted into its collections and that are now stored for their longevity’s sake in our Cold Storage unit. Some of the negatives are printed, but by far not all. In some cases, such as the Edward Hungerford Photographs, not even staff knew what these images looked like! Now we are making a concerted effort, not just to catalog, but also to digitize negatives that haven’t been examined for a very, very long time.

We want to invite you to follow this blog to find out week by week, as our three new project catalogers (Matt, Kit and Alison), explore and learn these collections and help us know better what we have. It’s going to be great fun for all of us!