Marco Polo and the Bank of St. George

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Camogli, Italy with the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the Ligurian coast. (QW 114)

Some of my most interesting research projects begin with something very minor, which leads me down a path that I never expected. This one began with a beautiful watercolor showing Camogli, Italy with a church and part of a castle behind it. That was a quick research project: get the history of the structures that are featured and the name of the body of water. Then I looked up the history of the artist, which is where it all unraveled into several days of research.

The artist is Admiral Bertram Mordaunt Chambers, a British naval official who was the principal port convoy officer of Halifax harbor during the December 6, 1917 explosion. His official reports state that he ate breakfast overlooking the harbor through his large glass windows, and then five minutes after he left the room the glass shattered into tiny shards that tore up the woodwork that had been behind his seat. He is one lucky guy!   Read more

Form Follows Function: Art of the Decoy

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Duck hunters in blind with decoys, Chesapeake Bay, date unknown. A. Aubrey Bodine, photographer. The Mariners’ Museum MSO466–004-15

The Drifter

I’m just an old has-been decoy
No ribbons I have won.
My sides and head are full of shot
From many a blazing gun.
My home has been by the river,
Just drifting with the tide.
No roof have I had for shelter,
No one place where I could abide.
I’ve rocked to winter’s wild fury,
I’ve scorched in the heat of the sun,
I’ve drifted and drifted and drifted,
For tides never cease to run.
I was picked up by some fool collector
Who put me up here on a shelf.
But my place is out on the river,
Where I can drift all by myself.
I want to go back to the shoreline
Where flying clouds hang thick and low,
And get the touch of the rain drops
And the velvety soft touch of the snow.   Read more

A Manuscript Volume

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Title Page.
VF145 .I6 Rare O (Mariners’ Museum Library and Archives)

The call number is VF145.I6. The work is entitled Instruction d’artillerie, 1818-1839. The volume was first encountered as a partially cataloged item in the Museum Archives and encountered purely by happenstance. The 38 centimeter-tall bound manuscript’s text is hand lettered, done in a bold style with almost mechanical precision. 

The book’s decorative embellishments are folksy, yet almost modern in their whimsy. The drawings are superlative. Perhaps the work was copied from another source, but never allow that consideration to detract from its wonder.    Read more

Hamlet’s Man Cave

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Cronenberg Castle, Denmark, 1808. Watercolor, Thomas Leslie, artist. Mariners’ Collections 2007.0023.000022

Sailor Made

Among my favorite past Museum exhibitions is Sailor Made, an amazing showing of the artistic talents of sailors, objects ranging from scrimshaw tusks to sea chests, knot boards to knitting needles, and carved coconuts to cameos. I was fascinated by what these mariners constructively and creatively chose to do with their spare time at sea.

I was glad to assist my Museum colleagues, Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of collections management, and Priscilla Hauger, director of exhibits, in researching and editing the text labels for this charming exhibition.

When I first reviewed the object list, I was immediately struck by the title of a watercolor: Cronenberg Castle, Denmark, 1808. I knew that Cronenberg had something to do with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This English major and lifelong theater lover said, girl, you gotta get a close look at this one!

The Artist  

Thomas Leslie served as a midshipman aboard HMS Centaur during the Anglo-Russian War of 1807 to 1812. The British were attempting to maintain their naval prowess in the Baltic region. Centaur, under the command of Captain William H. Webley, likely sailed the waters off the coast of Denmark where Cronenberg Castle towered over the Ore Straight, one of two entrances to the Baltic.

Thanks to the Lily Lambert McCarthy Foundation, the Museum was gifted a 26-page scrapbook and a larger watercolor, compiled by Rear Admiral William Webley-Parry’s daughter. Works by Webley and Leslie are signed and dated (1790-1814).

Matted, Cronenberg Castle measures 33” long x 21 1/8” high. Within this space lie many tales to tell. The work is inscribed at its center, Cronenburg Castle, Denmark; and at far left, is HMS Salsette and Leslie’s signature. The frigate Salsette (1805-1874), built in Bombay for the Royal Navy, appears under full sail at the left of the painting. In 1808, this ship was in service in the Baltic, under the command of Captain Bathurst. It saw action, capturing a Danish privateer, and later surrendering to a Russian cutter, but I digress…

Back to the inscription on the watercolor…. Just a bit to the right of the ship’s name is written: Hamlet’s Bower. What? Why, this was exciting! I remember studying Shakespeare, reading, and often reciting the Bard’s words. And right here, Hamlet’s man cave — close, but not too close to his family’s castle, a great view of the wide-open waterways out front; huge grounds to wander pensively about, and his own separate, private, secretive spot. Just what every brooding Dane needs!

 

 Location, Location, Location     

The setting for Shakespeare’s (and many say the world’s) most performed drama, Hamlet, is the town of Elsinore; also, the name he gave the castle. Cronenberg (Kronborg) Castle is a prominent spot in Elsinore (the English spelling of Helsingør), on the eastern coast of Denmark. A castle has stood in the town since 1420. After being burned, Kronborg Castle was rebuilt in 1574. An important military location in Shakespeare’s time, Denmark’s King Frederick ruled there, controlling a narrow (and strategic) stretch of the Baltic. He required ships to pay tolls, making the town an important, successful maritime spot.

The Shakespeare Connection

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in London, ca. 1600-1602. It was performed for the first time in 1601 at the Globe Theater (the first place I had to visit after Harrod’s!). The playwright more than likely never visited Elsinore, yet, it is thought that Will Kemp, a member of Shakespeare’s acting company, had been to Helsingør to perform for King Frederick. Rumor also has it that a pair of Danish noblemen, Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstern, met the Bard during their stay in England in the 1590s. Anyway, word got out in London about the goings-on at Kronborg, the largest castle of its kind in Renaissance Europe. The town became famous as a cultural hub, the talk of sailors and royalty alike.

In 2000, Kronborg Castle was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take a virtual tour of the castle (currently closed because of COVID-19, as we are), here:

(An internationally renowned Shakespeare Festival is normally staged each summer.)

Hamlet

A lot takes place in the confines of Elsinore Castle, making Hamlet’s issues and angst even more pronounced. The girls, Gertrude and Ophelia, have their “closets” – AKA she sheds. Claudius has the private chapel.  And Hamlet, his bower (AKA man cave) up on the hill. These secluded spots are ripe for spying and perfect for delivering those passionate soliloquies.

 

After what I discovered in my quest to learn how Hamlet’s man cave was part of this watercolor’s story, Kronborg is now on my bucket list. And the fact that Denmark’s M/S Maritime Museum, is located there too, gives me another reason to visit (what do you say? A business trip – tax deduction?!). Be sure to check out this museum’s awesome architecture here:

‘Til next time, as Hamlet would say, remember, “The play’s the thing.”

 

References and more information:

“Hamlet at Kronborg – Castles and gardens – Royal castles,” kongeligeslotte.dk

sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet

study.com/academy/lesson/elsinore

visitdenmark.com

World Heritage Center, whc.unesco.org

 

 

 

A Toy’s Surprising Maritime Connection

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Slinky
Image credit: Roger McLassus

A lot of the research that is done to create an exhibit never makes it into the final product that visitors see in the museum.  The research eventually gets whittled down and fine-tuned until final decisions are made on the subject matter, story lines, artifacts, text and labels.  Many times the finished exhibit has very little in common with the original idea. So what happens to all that beautiful research that didn’t end up being used? It is saved in digital and paper files that are used to answer inquiries, create educational events and presentations, and as a starting point for other possible exhibits.  And in the case of our Toys Ahoy: A Maritime Childhood exhibit, the research files provides some great content for a blog post.

Initially some of the exhibit research looked for toys that were, or might have been, used on ships. As it turns out, Slinkys have ended up on military ships, private yachts and possibly even in the children’s nurseries on cruise ships. And the Slinky has another surprising maritime connection.

The idea for the Slinky toy began in 1943 when a mechanical engineer named Richard James was experimenting with springs. His goal was to find a way to stabilize and protect the delicate equipment on Navy ships from the rocking of the waves. One day he accidentally knocked one of his samples off a table and was surprised to see that the springs “walked” to the floor instead of falling. He may not have been too impressed, but when he told his wife Betty about the incident, they decided that the springs would make a great novelty toy. Which was a good idea because Richard’s experiments using springs to stabilize ship instruments failed to produce the results he wanted.

Richard experimented with different types of steel wire for about a year before he determined the perfect size, number of coils and how tightly they should be wound. He invented a device that could make one of the toys in just a few minutes and Betty consulted her dictionary to find the perfect name for their invention. She decided to call the toy a “Slinky” because it was graceful and sleek.

In 1945, they got a $500 loan and co-founded James Industries to mass produce the toys, but initial sales were slow. Their breakthrough came at Christmas that year after the couple got permission to demonstrate their Slinks on the end of a sales counter at Gimbal’s Department Store in Philadelphia. The Slinkys sold for $1 each and their entire stock of 400 toys sold out within 90 minutes.

Their business flourished, but by the 1950s Richard was somewhat uncomfortable with the material success they had achieved.   As time went on, Richard gradually lost interest in the business, and in 1960 he turned his attention to a religious cult in Bolivia and then left to join them. Years later, Betty would report that at the time Richard left, their business was a mess and they were on the verge of bankruptcy because Richard had given so much of his time and their money to the religion. In order to support her family, Betty had to become the driving force behind James Industries.

After several tough years, Betty decided to take a big risk in 1963, mortgaging their home and taking the Slinky to a toy show in New York to help revitalize her business. Her gamble paid off, renewing interest in the Slinky, and leading to the first TV commercials with the catch jingle “It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. For fun, it’s a wonderful toy. It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl and a boy.” Under Betty’s leadership, James Industries also created other Slinky toys including the Slinky Train and the now famous Toy Story movie character Slinky Dog.

Since 1945, over 400 million Slinkys have been sold. Not only have they been to sea, they have been used as classroom teaching tools, in Physics experiments by NASA, and on radios during the Vietnam War because they were easily carried and could be tossed over tree branches, creating a longer antenna capable of producing a clear signal. And in 1985, a Slinky even took a trip into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery where astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the effects of zero gravity on the Slinky. As Dr. Seddon reported, Slinkys don’t “slink” in zero gravity.

And in case you wondered, the plastic version of the slinky was also originally a failed experiment for another product. It was invented by Donald Reum while trying to develop a spiral hose for watering plants. His kids pointed out the result looked more like a plastic Slinky than a hose. Reum agreed, so he perfected his prototype design, took it to Betty James and ended up manufacturing the plastic Slinkys for James Industries for a few years.

While we don’t have a Slinky in our museum collection, we all have a shared connection with the toy.  Because the Slinky has a connection to the water, and we are all connected to each other because we are all connected to the water, those of us who have played with Slinkys over the years are all connected, too. #iamaMariner

Thanks for reading!