Category Archives: The Last of the Blacksmiths: A Novel

Posts directly related to history included in the historical novel

Traveling musicians of the 19th century

art music bandBrowsing through photos of my visit to Germany a few years ago, I came across this image of a traveling music band, a photo I took of a display at the Culture House Museum in Bad Dürkheim.

lichtenberg castleThe scene reminded me of a wonderful museum I visited during my travels: the Pfälzer Musikantenland-Museum in Kusel at the Burg Lichtenberg. It’s a stunning setting, a former castle that’s now something of a village, with shops, a dining hall and a family and youth hostel guest house.

At the Musikantenland Museum, I picked up a flyer that provided “A Little Bit of History.”

The western Palatinate (primarily the area comprised by the former Bavarian Rhine Landkommissariate of Kusel, Hornburg, Kaiserslautern and Kirchheim), known as “Musician Country” is one of the few regions of the German-speaking cultural world with a tradition of itinerant musicians or Wandermusikanten.

After the Palatinate attained freedom from French occupation in the era of Napoleon (1797-1814), one encounters the vocational description of musician more and more often in western Palatinate archives. The freedom from guild obligations allowed a considerable number of local popular musicians to make a living from their natural talents. Economic causes (overpopulation, famine, bad harvests in the poor soil of the western Palatinate, similar to the reasons which drove many people from the Palatinate to emigrate to America in the 19th century) were also responsible for the first travels of musicians around 1830. They traveled first to neighboring countries (France, Switzerland) or to other German states (Prussia), then to the rest of Europe (Spain, Holland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia etc.) and finally — after the middle of the century — literally to the entire civilized world.

After thorough practice during the winter, these western Palatinate musicians set out in the spring and remained away until fall, if they were seeking to make their living in Europe, or came home after two, three, or more years if they traveled overseas.

In the prime years around the turn of the century, approximagely 2,500 musicians were traveling about, earning the considerable sum of many millions of gold-marks annually.

The Musikantenland Museum at Burg Lichtenberg houses not only instruments, uniforms, and so on, but also souvenirs the men carried back from their travels. More information about the itinerant bands (and their demise) can be found at a brief history of Itinerant Musicians.

Dawn of petroleum

I love old city directories — they have the coolest ads revealing the zeitgeist of the age. In this 1864 Cleveland directory, I snapped a photo of a page about the oil industry of Civil War days.
1864 Baker's Directory, Cleveland

Okay, first, Neat’s Foot Oil? Apparently, it comes from the bones of cattle, used to soften leather. (Wikipedia) While we grieve for the cow’s shin bones and feet, from which the oil is extracted, in fact for millenia, most oil was derived from animals. In the Morehouse and Meriam add it lists the following:
Sperm, seal, whale, elephant, and lard oils.

But topping the Morehouse and Meriam list in 1864 are the dawn of the new petroleum age, that is, Carbon and Mecca oils. Carbon oil was no doubt kerosene, refined from the newly discovered petroleum. But Mecca oil? That one leaves me mystified. Here’s one reference that might offer a clue. A write-up in this Oil and Gas Fields of Ohio Map by the DNR. It starts out by stating:

Ohio has a rich history of oil-and-gas production that began nearly 150 years ago. The first well drilled in the state for the specific purpose of producing petroleum was completed in Mecca Township of Trumbull County in late 1859, just a few months after Colonel Edwin Drake’s famous oil well was completed near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Within a few years, several hundred wells had been “dug” in and around Mecca. This new industry attracted thousands of tourists to Mecca as well as many prospectors hoping to strike it rich.

The first of May

AvalancheOnce a pagan festival honoring fertility and spring, the Festival of the Maypole is still celebrated today in many regions of Germany. It’s said the custom of the maypole began around the tenth century, a tidbit I found here.

I think it might date earlier, however, to Roman times. Romans used to celebrate a feast called Floralia from April 28 to May 2 (according to Holiday Spot), so it could be an amalgamation of early European tribal customs and the Roman feast. In some parts of Germany, there was once the tradition where a bachelor would leave a “secret admirer” gift at the door of his beloved on the first of May.

So when I opened yesterday’s newspaper and read how  police were hunkering down for the possible violence of another Seattle May Day, I suffered cognitive dissonance. The mental image of the Festival of the Maypole, gaily dressed boys and girls dancing around a maypole hung with ribbons and flowers, did not compute.

The distress signal “Mayday! Mayday!” was a much better fit. Which got me wondering: if the traditional first of May was a sunny rite of spring, how on earth did “Mayday” become a standard signal of distress?

I found my answer at the usual source: WikipediaAs it turns out, “Mayday” derives from the French “m’aidez.” That makes much more sense. “M’Aidez!” means “Help me!”

1848: It’s complicated

I just finished reading The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, wherein I was reminded that European history is … complicated.

Case in point, the 1848 uprisings in Europe. Or should I say, revolutions? Rappaport calls it 1848: Year of Revolution in his 416-page (not counting index and footnotes) book on the subject.

Several times now, after I’ve read excerpts of my novel to one audience or another, someone invariably comes up afterwards and says: “I had no idea there was a revolution for democracy back then.”

Back then? Right, mid-19th century Europe, the time in the U.S. of Emerson and Thoreau, of Alcott and Margaret Fuller, the transcendalist movement and antebellum period of President Zachary Taylor. Back in 1848, Germany was not even a country. That didn’t happen until 1871. Back then, the German-speaking regions of Europe were comprised of around 60 feudal states left over from the Holy Roman Empire, each with its own king, prince or duke.

The revolutions for a 1848 1849 rebellionconstitutional government, the right to assemble, freedom of the press, the right to vote, etc. spread not only in those duchies, but all across Europe. I’ve read many different accounts of that time, but a book I encountered recently: The Illustrated History of the 19th Century, puts it most succinctly:


Revolution characterizes the 1840s. … Nationalism and liberalism … simmer until, in 1848, they finally erupt in simultaneous revolutions throughout Europe. Famine and hardship too are key causes, often generated by the harsh social effects of industrialization. … [Revolts against King Ferdinand II in Sicily and Louis-Philippe in France] spur on a revolt in Austria leading to the resignation of Prince Metternich (1773-1859), the conservative and repressive chancellor of state. Further revolts erupt in Venice, Prussia, Poland, Milan, Hungary, and Parma against Austrian rule, as a revolutionary mood spreads throughout Europe. Pope Pius IX is forced to grant a constitution to the Papal States, but eventually has to flee to Rome. … The ending of the liberal movement in the German states sends a wave of immigrants to Wisconsin.

And Ohio, Illinois, and other U.S. States, I might add. These “liberal” scholars, lawyers and intellectuals came to the U.S. just in time for the anti-abolition fervor that would give rise to the Republican Party. 1848 revolutionary Carl Schurz was a key friend of Abraham Lincoln. So the year of revolution may have occurred across the Atlantic, but its after effects helped transform our country.

A glimpse of the ancient, charming town of Freinsheim

Freinsheim Ringmauer

Check out this new promotional Youtube spot about Freinsheim in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Visiting there is such a fun-loving, picturesque experience. You can even hear the tolling of the church bells in one part. (Sure, it’s narrated in German, but you’ll get the idea.) I clipped one of my favorite shots, this picture of a kid leaping to touch the top of the tunnel along the inner ring of the towns ancient fortified wall.

Freinsheim an der Deutschen Weinstrasse

Ancient Freinsheim

Dialects and archaic words

My cousin in Germany found land records for my ancestors (in the Landesarchiv in Speyer) and her English skills are impressive, so she did me the favor of translating and explaining the documents.

“The sizes of the land pieces are measured in an old Bavarian unit. Tagewerk, which means ‘a day’s work’ and Dezimalen, which is the 100th part of one Tagewerk. One Dezimal is 34.07 square meters, and one Tagewerk is 100 Dezimale, or 3,407 square meters.” [I found substantiation of this measurement, and others, in a google books document: The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey by H. Arthur Klein. 3,407 square meters equals .84 of an acre.]

My cousin also noted the four fields in four separate locations were described as being hinter der Burg (behind the castle), in der Thalweide (in the valley pasture) and so on. “The first piece is a vineyard (Wingert) of 32 Dezimale. The second piece is a field (Acker) of 34 Dezimale.” An interesting side note is that the fields were not located all in one place. My cousin tells me this was a kind of insurance, to protect against total crop loss if, for example, one field was hit by hail, or another by frost, etc.

The land records were in the “Kataster-Buch,” which was started by the Bavarian state (rulers of the Palatinate in that time period) in 1840 noting each landowner of the community and his property for tax reasons.

Persons who know German will have paused above at “vineyard (Wingert)” because the German word for vineyard is “Weinberg.” Isn’t it?

Now we’re talking dialects. When I briefly studied German in college, I learned there were two varieties, High German and Low German. I had no idea that each of those were also splintered into many different dialects.

Today, the German word most commonly used for farmer is Bauer, but in my ancestor’s day, the farmer (as opposed to the wine grower–Wingertsmann) was known as an Ackermann. Wait, Ackermann, as in “acre man?” Sorry, while my brain makes that association, the direct translation is husbandman, an archaic word by English standards, too. According to Merriam-Webster, a husbandman is one who plows and cultivates fields.

Regional dialect in the Palatinate is not as common as it once was, but it is still in use. This humorous book by Uwe Hermann, Die Abenteuer von Weck, Worscht & Woi: Der Wegweiser zur Pfälzer Lebensart (Weck meaning bread in Palatine dialect, Worscht meaning wurst or sausage, and Woi meaning wine) gives a glimpse into the dialect and culture. My relative Matthias sent it to me when I kept nagging him about Palatinate words. A translated title of the book would be: The Adventures of Bread, Wurst, and Wine: The Guide to Palatine Living. In the book, a cartoon bread, sausage, and bottle of

Weck, Worscht & Woiwine explore the humor, confusion and frustration sometimes created by the Palatine dialect, and also the fun-loving spirit of the people. A helpful glossary is provided beside each cartoon. Even some French words have seeped into the dialect (for instance, bottle is “Buddel (bouteille)” instead of “Flasche”). In part, this French influence came about because France ruled the Palatinate from 1794-1815, first by the French revolutionary armies, later by Napoleon.

Letterheads of yore

To be historically correct, the term letterhead did not appear until 1890. Before then, it was called “letter paper.” (Yes, there is actually a History of Letterhead on the web.) I went searching for information on this subject because letterheads of the 19th century can be especially eye-catching.

Some are dry, business-style designs.
Union Bank and Savings, Cleveland, Ohio
Harm & Schuster business letterhead

Others can be show-stoppers.
Harm & Schuster letterhead
Deutscher Gedenktag

(“Deutscher Gedenktag” means German Memorial Day–perhaps this elaborate letterhead has to do with an organization or event through the German Concordia Lodge of Cleveland?)

Apparently, before radio, TV and the Internet entered the scene, “letter paper” was a chief form of advertising, something businesses offered free to make themselves known. Over time, it seems to have grown into a cultural phenomenon, designers aiming to make as big an impact as TV advertisers on Superbowl Sunday.

I am particularly amazed by this one, from Bremen. Drawn before airplanes, the bird’s-eye view is striking.
mid-19th century bird's-eye view of Bremen

It’s unclear what business the letter paper is supposed to be touting, but since Bremen was then a major port of departure for German emigrants, I have a hunch it was a travel agency.

Emigration table of Freinsheim 1853-1881

In 2010, when I traveled to Freinsheim, it was my privilege to have a meeting with Dr. Hans-Helmut Görtz, a local scholar of Palatine history. He openly shared his knowledge and supplied me with many materials, including journal entries of the Protestant parish priest in the era my novel is set, articles about emigrants from Freinsheim during the decade my great-great grandfather left for Cleveland, and a book he had authored about local historical figure Johann Bartholomäus von Busch (Der kurpfälzische Vizekansler Johann Bartholomäus von Busch (1680-1739) und seine Familie). At the end of our meeting, Dr. Görtz assured me I should feel free to email him with questions. For the past couple of years, from time to time I have taken him up on his offer.

Cathedral at SpeyerHistory Museum of the Palatinate at SpeyerOver the holidays, Dr. Görtz sent me a pdf of a “Survey in table form of emigration to overseas countries from Freinsheim.” He found a copy in the Landesarchiv in Speyer (where one also can visit the 11th century cathedral and History Museum of the Palatinate, both pictured here). So far, I’ve been able to discern the following names: Wiegand, Selzer, Höhn, Schneider, Hoffmann, Kaufmann, Gumbinger, Diehl, Schulz, Amend, Retzer, Depper, Bisgen, Schwab, Bloch, Drescher, Haas, König, Kirchner, Weilbrenner, Weibert, Schalter, Arter, Reichert, Heinz, Schmitt, Först, Fränkel, Aul, Adler, Heim, Hermann, Jacob, Kohl, Köhler, Bawel, Debus, Schaadt. Check it out for yourself: Tabellarische Übersicht der Auswanderungen. The table is not complete (my ancestor Michael Harm, who left at age 15, is not listed), but I include it here for others who might have better luck, both with finding their ancestors and/or deciphering the Alte Deutsche Schrift.

The Rheinpfalz ladder wagon

A couple of years ago on the way to the Bewartstein Castle (near Erlenbach in the southern Palatinate forest), my cousin and guide Matthias got excited at the sight of this wagon sitting in a meadow by the side of the road.

“Oh look, it’s an old Leiterwagen,” he said, careening the Opel over to the shoulder. “I want you to see it. It was once very common in our region. The design is very clever– it can be used as one wagon with four wheels, or pulled apart into two separate drays. When it wasn’t in use, they would collapse it for easy storage.”

This Leiterwagen appears to be from the 19th century. Note the iron tires, iron fittings and chains, no doubt pounded into place by the village blacksmith. These wagons could haul hay or timber. With boards fitted over the side ladders, they hauled manure to the fields. This one is more elaborate for its covered top — most were left open to the air. The sleekness of the design was important for fitting the wagons down narrow village streets.

and grape rows.

At my relatives’ house in Freinsheim, they still keep their Leiterwagen, mainly as ornamentation.

In the New World, economy of space was not so important, so ladder wagons did not come into vogue. It seems the heavy-duty drays, Prairie Schooners, even the massive Conestogas (precursors to semi-trucks) were the wagons of choice.  At the Colonial Williamsburg web site, I came across this slide show about early American wagons.

Oh, the calliope

Reading David Yost’s “The Carousel Thief” in The Cincinnati Review‘s Summer 2012 issue (*great* story), I came across the word “calliope” again, triggering a vague memory from my research about life in Ohio in the 19th century. The reference occurs in Yost’s story thus:

She glanced around the carousel house with distaste, and for a moment I saw what she probably saw: her friends pacing the orange polyester carpet, staring out at the maples and sweetgums of Washington Park as the calliope played and they snacked on caviar and quail brains or whatever rich people serve to other rich people to impress them.

In context, you get the idea of what “calliope” signifies — not the Greek muse of epic poetry, but that flutey, jangling music that accompanies rides on historic carousels. In the 21st century, to our refined ears that sound is enough to make one cringe, but in the mid-19th century, the music of the calliope was a brand new wonder, a triumphal herald of the modern steam age.

Circa 1858, this 44-pipe Calliope announced the arrival of the Nixon & Kemp Circus in town. The instrument could be heard for ten to twelve miles, was drawn by a team of 40 horses, and cost a fortune ($18,000) to build. It also cost a fortune in upkeep (all those horses to stable and feed, for one thing) so the Calliope was not practical in the long run. But while it lasted, making its circuit through Ohio and other of the U.S.’s 31 states, it created quite a sensation.