Tuesday, July 15, 2014

That Polecat Stinks To High Heaven


My home is located in the valley formed by the South Dry Run creek (pronounced crick, rhyming with 'pick'). Our three to four mile long valley, originating with a number of springs in the vicinity of Smith Corner, and culminating where it empties into the valley cut by the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, is one of the many hollows that cut into the Appalachian mountain range in this south-central part of Pennsylvania. On the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of my hollow lies Singer Hollow, and on the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of Singer Hollow lies PawPaw Hollow. Benton Hollow and an unnamed hollow lie farther to the south. And then, about three miles south of my home, "as the crow flies," stretches the Polecat Hollow.

And, in case you haven't guessed it yet, the polecat is the subject of this blog post. Many people, even many of those who have lived in this corner of the world all their lives, believe they know what a polecat is. Polecats, they believe, are those stinking varmints covered in black fur with blotches of white on their heads and stripes of white down their backs or sides and sometimes on the tips of their tails. What most of those people, who believe they know what a polecat is, don't know, is that those black and white animals are skunks; they're not now, nor ever were polecats.

The polecat ferret, or rather Mustela putorius, a member of the Mustelidae family (which includes otters, badgers and weasels), was common in Europe. Skunks, which were somewhat unique in the animal world for their jet black and pristine white fur, were native to North America. The skunk was originally believed to belong to the Mustelidae family, but more recently was moved to the Mephitidae family (which consists of mammals having a stench). Although the polecat ferret was similar to the skunk in many ways, it differed in that it bore cocoa brown fur over its back and lighter colored fur on its belly. The polecat ferret, having a strong musk odor, could easily be mistaken for a skunk at first smell.

When our ancestors came from the Old World, they found the black and white animals that sprayed an horrendous smell when startled, but they also found similar stink-spraying animals covered in fur that was a dark cocoa brown color with tan stripes or spots. They apparently weren't true skunks but they smelled alot like skunks. The immigrants from the European regions of Germany and Switzerland remembered the 'polecat ferret' of their homeland. When those immigrants encountered the foul-smelling brown and tan varmints, they associated them with the polecat ferret they knew back home. They probably assumed that the two animals, black/white and brown/tan were two different things, and so they called the black/white ones 'skunks' and they called the brown/tan ones 'polecats.' What the early European settlers in North America did not know was that the skunk did not necessarily have to be covered in black and white fur: the animal can bear cocoa brown and tan fur, just like the European polecat ferret. And so, the names of skunk and polecat became intermixed here in the wilderness of America. Eventually, as such things sometimes go, the names got so intermixed that the Euro-American settlers tended to call them all 'polecats'. It has come around to the point that today a large percentage of Americans call the black and white animal: polecats, and don't even know that a brown and tan variety exists (unless they encounter one in the forest).

The name polecat is believed to have been derived from a combination of the French word poule, meaning 'chicken' and puant, meaning 'stinking'. On the other hand, the name skunk is believed to have been derived from an Amerindian word seka-kwa, meaning 'urinating fox.' An English translation of that word, squunck is claimed to have been used as early as the 1630s in New England. 

Polecats (or rather, skunks) are generally avoided if at all possible. The threat of startling one, and being sprayed as a result, contributes to their being avoided by human beings. But in the past not all of them were avoided; sometimes baby ones would be treated as pets. In more recent years, laws have been enacted protecting these mammals, but in the past the scent glands would be removed from baby polecats. The animal, without its noxious odor, acted like an affectionate cat (that is if such a thing could actually exist ~ please don't hate me, cat-lovers). My mother told me stories about how her brothers would 'unscent' a baby skunk and it would become a very playful and fun pet. The current laws prohibit removal of the scent glands, and so you can't legally own polecats as pets. Unfortunately for them, polecats / skunks have very poor eyesight. They can only see about ten feet away, and that is a contributing factor in why most people only see one when it is lying dead on a road (having been hit by the car it couldn't see and from which it could not get away). The title expresses the concept that the polecat's odor was very strong ~ strong enough to reach as high as Heaven ~ which is indeed a very long distance away.

Monday, July 7, 2014

If You're Going To The Store, Get Me A Poke A Cherries


In 1978 Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley wrote a song that was first recorded by The Camera Club, and later by the Buggles. That song took its title from its opening line: Video Killed The Radio Star. The song bewailed the end of the popularity of radio occasioned by the rising popularity of video. My lament is that 'television killed regional dialects'.

In the United States, where the primary, though not official, language is English, there are a number of regional dialects and accents. An accent is a variation in the way certain words are pronounced, whereas a dialect is a distinct variation within a language that encompasses more than just pronunciation. Pennsylvania Dutch is a well-known dialect within the English language. I'm sure that most people reading this post already know what is meant by 'Pennsylvania Dutch', but for those who do not, I'll provide a brief explanation. The word 'Dutch' in the name Pennsylvania Dutch is commonly believed to have been derived from the German word Deutsch, meaning German, or the German people. Although that sounds good in a folklore sort of way, in actuality the word Dutch had been in use for centuries (by the English, that is) as a name for the people who settled all along the Rhine River, which flows from the Swiss Alps in Canton Graubunden, Switzerland to the Netherlands, where it empties into the North Sea: the Low Dutch for those residing in Liechtenstein and Netherlands and High Dutch for those residing in Germany and Switzerland. Most of the Mennonite immigrants to the New World came from Switzerland and the German principalities of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wurttemberg and Hesse (i.e. High Dutch), and they settled primarily in Pennsylvania. Those emigrants retained their appellation of "Dutch" even after they established their new homes in Pennsylvania: hence they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. As noted, Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of the English language, and therefore employs English words, albeit in variations of grammar and syntax. There are even dialectical variations of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect ~ the Bedford sub-dialect, variously called the Central Pennsylvania dialect, being one of them. This region was settled by many Ulster-Scot, Irish and Scottish families in addition to German and Swiss ones who migrated westward from the Pennsylvania Dutch region of eastern Pennsylvania. It was inevitable that they should intermarry. And when they intermarried, their speech became curiously intermingled.

There are numerous websites on the internet and many books in libraries which provide examples of the idiosyncrasies of Pennsylvania Dutch, so I won't list them all here. The point I want to make here is that for many years my ancestors and I got to enjoy the uniqueness of our language. The way my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents spoke was familiar and comfortable to me. And then television came into our lives. Suddenly everyone was speaking an homogenized form of English. Regional dialects and accents were reserved for the hillbillies and hicks of the movies. Suddenly, Pennsylvania Dutch, and its sub-dialects, had become a joke. And that was definitely something to lament.

So last night ~ on the TV ~ on a show titled Our Secret Slang, devoted to telling about the origins of words we use every day, they talked about the word 'poke'. Many of the people they interviewed thought that the word referred to the verb meaning to prod, as with a finger, but I instantly knew they were talking about a small container. I remembered the many times that we went to a grocery for a poke of black licorice candy or to a hardware store for a poke of nails. Of course now, as I compose this post on my computer, I prefer to spell words as they should be spelled. Therefore, I choose to spell out 'poke of nails', denying my Pennsylvania accent to be revealed; but when I was younger I would have pronounced it 'poke a nails'.

The word poke comes from the 12th Century Old French poche, which meant 'purse', from which was also derived the Old North French word poque. The French comes possibly from the Germanic word puk, which was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root beu- meaning 'to swell'.
When I was a child, and pokes were in common use in south central Pennsylvania, they tended to take the form of small brown paper bags that measured roughly four inches by two inches by eight inches high, when fully opened. One of those pokes could hold ten or twelve pieces of delicious black licorice candy or 15 six-inch-long 20-penny nails. If you needed to buy a gallon of milk, three cans of peas and a loaf of bread, there was no way that you could expect to carry it all home in a poke; you needed a bag. And that is where the phrase a pig in a poke comes from: it would be quite an impossibility to fit a pig ~ any size pig ~ into a small bag. And so 'a pig in a poke' was used to describe some impossibly incredible claim.

Now the thing about a dialect, as compared to an accent, using the word poke as an example, is that it was used for many years in the region of south central Pennsylvania where I grew up. And it was certainly not an example of an accent. It wasn't a matter of us pronouncing the word slightly differently from the way the people down in Alabama did; it was more of a matter of us using the word while those Alabamans didn't. Those of us and our ancestors who lived in this portion of Appalachia that cut through the center of Pennsylvania used a number of words that most people elsewheres did not ~ or at least in ways most did not. For example, some of them pertained to food. Most people used the two words of 'buttered' and 'bread' to express what we knew as a single word: butterbread. When we covered the butter on our piece of butterbread with about a quarter inch layer of sugar (enough to track a rabbit according to my grandfather, Eldon Smith) it became sugarbread. It is possible that our word butterbread was simply derived from the German word butterbrot and that our word sugarbread likewise came from a German word: suikerbrood, but who knows for sure? And our sense of the time-space continuum sometimes got skewed because we would think nothing of saying "I'll meet you somewhere around eight o'clock tomorrow at the church." The word somewhere referred to the time, not the place. The little nuances of our dialect hinted towards its relationship to Pennsylvania Dutch, but it wasn't as heavy on the 'Dutch' part as you might hear down east (such as the way we would add an 's' to the ends of words like 'toward' and 'end' that functioned just fine without). While we were comfortable when we spoke all of the usual, peculiar Pennsylvania Dutch words and phrases, such as 'redding up the room' when we knew that guests were coming, or that we planned to 'put up' (i.e. can) twenty jars of applebutter. But where Pennsylvania Dutch was practically one hundred percent German in origin, the dialect that thrived in our neck of the woods was German mixed with Irish and Scottish words. We thought that gas prices were 'gettin awful dear' each time they rose and we didn't like anyone 'messing around' when we wanted to be serious, so we'd tell them to 'scram'. Those words and phrases came from our ancestors that could trace their lineage back to the British Isles. So when mother ordered us to stop messing around because she needed to get the room all redd up, she was not strictly speaking Pennsylvania German.

You probably noticed that I used the past-tense of the verb 'to go' above when I remembered getting pokes of stuff. That's because we very seldom get pokes of anything anymore ~ they've become a thing of the past. It's partly because all of the stores you go to use the same size (different color) large plastic bags. Even if you all want is a pack of chewing gum or one birthday card, the clerk puts it in one of those same size (different color) large plastic bags. But it's also partly because of the fact that you never hear the word poke, in regard to a small bag, spoken on television anymore. The homogenized English spoken on television killed the regional dialects. Oh, and the photo at the top of this post is of a poke a cherries.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

There's Not Enough Room For A Bed In There


The invalid room was one of a number of rooms that once occupied homes, but which have almost completely disappeared from the modern contractor's lexicon. The word invalid was derived from the negated form of the Latin word validus. Validus meant strong, and the negated form was created by adding to it the prefix in: producing in-validus, meaning un-strong, or infirmed. Although seldom used today in our super-pc (i.e. politically correct) society, a member of the family, often elderly and terminally ill, was referred to as an invalid. The invalid room was the bedroom in which the family cared for their invalid member.

It's hard to believe, but at one time we residents of the United States of America, like residents of many other countries, cared for our loved ones, when they became elderly and/or terminally ill, in our own homes. The elderly family members were not exiled to 'nursing homes' as soon as they started to cough. They were provided with a bed in a room on the ground floor of the house, often close to or beside the kitchen. In some cases, a side room would be converted into an invalid room simply by the addition of a bed, in others a room would be dedicated to the function. During the Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries, houses were often constructed with an invalid room included in the original design. Until it needed to function as a bedroom for the infirmed member of the family, an invalid room might be employed as a 'den' or 'pantry' or a storage room. As noted, the invalid room was often close to the kitchen, making it convenient to provide for the needs of the infirmed person. Rather than having to carry trays of food or buckets of water to an upstairs bedroom, the family members simply needed to carry them from the kitchen into an adjoining room. 

Perhaps the reason that many modern day families do not even consider caring for their elderly and infirmed members in their own homes is because their houses are not equipped with a room that can even be converted into an invalid room. Accomodating their invalid loved ones needs may seem so overwhelming because of the lack of a space that can function as an invalid room. It's a shame that houses are no longer built with long-term care of our elderly family members in mind.

The diagram at the top of this post shows the plans for a house typical of the early 1900s. The room highlighted in red could be used for any purpose; it was perfectly suitable to be used as an invalid room.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kindest Regards And Greetings Gay



Merry Christmas; Happy Birthday; Easter Greetings; Be My Valentine; Congratulations On Your Graduation, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There are many holidays to celebrate and many sentiments to express, and there's a greeting card for every one of them.
And if you have a unique sentiment to express to a loved one (such as "Congratulation for advancing from party-pooper to grumpy-guss"), there's bound to be a blank card on which you can write that personal sentiment. There's even greeting cards shaped and sized specifically in which to hold a monetary bill or personal check (which the receiver hopes is at least a twenty), as if the cash won't fit in a regular card.

And not intending to offend the poorer residents of Planet Earth, I would venture to say to say that nearly everyone alive at this time has probably received at least one greeting card in his or her life. Greeting Cards tend to be ephemeral; they're like wisps of smoke from a fire, appearing to us and then vanishing as quickly as they came. Well the situation with Greeting Cards is not exactly like wisps of smoke. Greeting Cards don't really just vanish into thin air like smoke does. They get stuffed into drawers; they get stacked on shelves; they get pasted into scrap books; and they get bound together, fifty to one hundred perhaps, with a rubber band holding them tightly, and then placed in a box that is pushed into a corner of the attic.
Some recipients cherish and keep the Greeting Cards that brighten their day, while others detest having them invade their personal space, and throw them in the trash as quickly as they can (that is to say, as soon as all of the party guests leave).

I must admit that I am a cherisher of Greeting Cards. The serene, idyllic, snow-blanketed forest-scape that fills the six by eight inch surface of a Christmas card not only fills me with joy when I receive it in the mail on December 22 ~ it also gives me a warm fuzzy feeling on August 14 when I again fall under its spell it while looking for a relative's address on the envelope.
I also must admit that I just made that up to make my point ~ that is, the part about looking for a relative's address "on the envelope", because if the truth be told, I remove all my cards from the envelopes and throw away those disgustingly banal hindrances to my speedy enjoyment of the cards. I have saved most of the Greeting Cards that I have received since I was in my teens. Perhaps in another fifty years they'll seem as quaint and charming as the ones exhibited on this post.


The Greeting Cards which are exhibited on this post date from the 1890s through the 1930s. The predominantly popular art style for that period was Art Deco, and some of the cards are fine examples of that style. The Christmas card shown here which bears a ship sailing through frigid waters and the Birthday card which contains a turreted castle on the hill are examples of Art Deco that one finds in 'readers' and other children's books from the early 1900s.
Many of the cards were manufactured in Germany, and of course although the verses are in English, the style of those cards cannot help but to have been influenced by German culture at the time.


Notice the swastika that appears on one New Year's card; it had nothing to do with the German Third Reich. The card was produced in the year 1908, and the swastika was simply borrowed from the ancient Hindu symbol for peace ~ it actually at one time represented the sentiment of 'well-being', and was derived from the Sanskrit words: su (meaning 'good') and asti (meaning 'being'), combined with the diminutive suffix: ka.
Other cards bear visual symbols popular at the time, which stood for the sentiments of love, friendship and so on. For Christmas cards, the roly-poly figure of Santa Claus, popularized by Thomas Nast in his 1881 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was prevalent by the 1920s, but less jovial images of the bringer of gifts still appeared occasionally, as depicted in one card.

And it might not be readily noticeable from the images, but all of the cards shown here consist of a single layer of heavy card stock, printed only on the front side ~ as compared to modern day folded paper cards that are printed on the inside in addition to the front.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In The 1970s, Many People Got Their Clothes At The Fripperer



I'm sure that every reader of this blog post already knows what a frippery was ~ assuming, that is, that we are living in the 1700s. And therefore every reader will also know, again assuming that we are still living in the 1700s, that a fripperer was a person who worked at the frippery. What? You don't know what I'm talking about? Well apparently you're the only one, because everyone else knows that the frippery was where you took your old, worn out or damaged clothing to be refurbished and resold to someone else. Now, does that ring a bell in your memory?

The fripperer, according to the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, was a 'dealer in cast-off clothing'. Clothing has always been expensive. Look at today's prices. A man's dress shirt costs around sixty dollars; a pair of children's shoes can cost over sixty dollars. If you want three pairs of pants and two shirts, you better take two or three hundred dollars with you when you shop. Two hundred years ago, clothing was just as expensive, though in a different way. In the day and age when the lady of the house had to spin her own thread from flax plants or sheep shorn wool, the 'cost' of producing the material to be used for clothing, in addition to the actual making of the clothing, was expensive in terms of her physical labor and time spent. And even after spinning the thread, the housewife had to either weave the thread into cloth herself, or barter with the local weaver to have her cloth woven. And then, on top of that, she had to cut and sew the cloth into pants, shirts and coats for her husband and children. 

The fripperer, usually a man, in trying to make a living, provided a much needed service to people who couldn't afford, in time, material or skill, to make their own clothes. Townsfolk, who couldn't raise either sheep or flax, or at least couldn't raise enough of it to produce the amount of cloth they required for their clothing, might take advantage of the services provided by the fripperer. In the same way that a cordwainer made new shoes while a cobbler repaired old shoes, the tailor made new clothes while a fripperer mended old ones. The fripperer not only collected the 'cast-off clothing', by accepting free donations or paying a fraction of their true worth, but would sew and darn any holes in them.
He would sew on buttons where missing and replace lace where it was torn. He would have washed the clothing and perhaps even ironed them in an effort to make them desirable to his customers.

Certain sources note that fripperers dealt not only in 'cast-off clothing', but also in used furniture and household goods.

So do we have to be living in the 1700s to avail ourselves of the services of a fripperer? Certainly not ~ I can find great bargains in used and refurbished clothing at the local fripperer ~ the Goodwill store. That explains the title of this post. After the 'summer of love' in 1969, as young people cast off the shackles of conventional society in favor of becoming hippies, many found that their newfound lack of money left them without the means to buy expensive clothing. The Goodwill Store became a mecca where they could find cheap, but good clothing. And today, this modern-day fripperer still provides that service to either people who can't afford the high cost of new clothes, or who want 'vintage' clothing.


By the way, the shirt and pants exhibited on this post did not come from a fripperer, although they look like they might have. They are just some of the clothes I wore in the 70s ~ in my 'hippie' days. I simply thought they'd illustrate some clothes that might have been mended and resold by a fripperer ~ they certainly were 'mended'.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Let's Try To Win A Prize On The Midway


People spend money on carnival glass items most every day. The beautiful bowls and drinking glasses and goblets and vases shine in iridescent golds, like the breast feathers of a ring-neck pheasant or in iridescent bronzy-purples, like the head feathers of a grackle. This glass artform, which was variously called rainbow or aurora glass, supposedly got its name from the fact that it was often given away as prizes at carnivals. Despite its exquisite colors and designs, this type of glass, the poor-man's Tiffany, was inexpensive to produce, and therefore could be purchased by common people.

The item which is the subject of this post, and pictured above, is also carnival glass. I'm not joking; it is truly carnival glass. I know this because my father told me of how his mother, Jennie, had actually won it as a prize at a local county fair or carnival in the 1920s.

The type of glass shown here is more formally called "red cut to clear" glass. Cut glass is not actually 'cut'. It is produced by taking pressed glass (i.e. glass blown or pressed into a mold) and sanding (i.e. cutting) certain parts with a sanding wheel. In this case, the glass is clear with a thin layer of red over the surface, and when the glass is sanded, the thin layer of red is sanded or cut off 'revealing' the clear glass underneath.

So although an antiques dealer would probably refuse to acknowledge that this goblet is carnival glass, there is no denying that it was won as a prize at a carnival. And you know the saying: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...it probably is a duck.

Friday, June 13, 2014

These Shoes Are Enough To Curl Your Toes


The phrase used for the title of this post is one that has, traditionally, been used to describe a taste sensation that is extremely sour or bitter, such as eating a lemon. We're not eating any lemons here, but the shoes pictured on this post surely look like they could force your toes to curl if you wore them all the time.

The fact of the matter is that this style of shoe was (and still is) considered comfortable in some parts of the world. It's called a Jutti, and originates in the Punjab, a portion of the Indus River Valley in (what is today with recent geopolitical divisions) northwestern India and southeastern Pakistan. The shoes are just one example of the fabulous leatherwork that has come from the craftsmen of the Punjab over many centuries.

Jutti resemble what we in the United States of America would call a 'loafer', usually having a flat sole and a closed upper (meaning the top portion covers not only the top of the foot, but also wraps around to encompass the heel). The Jutti's cousin is the mojari, which has an open back and resembling what we would call a sandal. Both, jutti and mojari, are distinguished by elaborately decorated uppers in which colored beads, pieces of mirror and shells are used to create bold designs. Juttis for men and women are made in practically the same shape, but with the one exception that for men, the toe of the shoe is extended toward a point and then folded, or curled, back upon the vamp.
Tradition states that the curled toe was meant to mimic the curled tips of Punjab men's moustaches.

The example exhibited here is possibly dated to the 1800s. The pair had been part of a collection exhibited in the Crawford Museum in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. When the museum was closed, many of the items in its collections were sold, and that is how I came to possess this pair of shoes. As can be seen from certain of the photos, the soles and heels of these shoes are fabricated from layers of leather sewn together with leather thread. The uppers appear to have been constructed of a combination of leather and fabric.