The Man Who Taught Newfoundland How To Can

It’s been known by names such as The Island of Cod, Vinland, Land of the Fish and Terre Neuve.  You’ll know it as Newfoundland.  Walter Winfred Chenoweth knew it as the island of the can. Or the canning jar to be specific.  That’s where he taught local inhabitants how to preserve harvests from the garden and the sea in glass jars for future consumption.

Walter Chenoweth (1872 -1945) was a professor and department head of Horticultural Manufactures at Massachusetts Agricultural College, now known as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Born in Grundy County, Missouri in 1872, Walter spent his entire professional career, researching, testing and educating others on agriculture and the science of growing fruit, mostly at MAC where he was a member of the staff from 1912-1941.

Walter hard at work in the lab. Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Library at the University of Massachusetts

Through years of trial and error, scientific study and hands-on testing, Walter became an expert in the area of food sciences, especially food preservation. In 1929, he went overseas to Newfoundland where he set up canning stations and taught classes to local inhabitants and British colonizers.

Newfoundland in the early 1900’s. Photo courtesy of the Town of St. Anthony

At the time of Walter’s trip, Newfoundland was in peril. Suffering drastically from results of the Great Depression and a financially crippled local government, the people of Newfoundland were in a state of crisis.  The train line that ran through the province ate up all the government’s resources. Vast holes were poked in the salt cod industry – Newfoundland’s main export- via trade halts due to the Depression and via competition from other countries like Iceland, who were developing more efficient fishing methods. These two factors meant that the local government couldn’t take care of its people financially and the sea couldn’t keep its villages afloat as far as income.

Early 20th-century travel photographs of Newfoundland. Photo Courtesy of the Town of St. Anthony.

Collaborating with British medical doctor Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940) who was trying to stop the spread of contagious diseases and malnutrition in Newfoundland’s fishing villages, Walter Chenoweth lent aid in the best way he knew how. Through preservation. For a year, Walter worked to make local inhabitants and newcomers more self-sufficient through food storage. By setting up canning station facilities around the island he taught all who were willing to learn how to can fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and poultry so that no food would be wasted or left behind to spoil.

Farm family in Newfoundland

This was an important skill for islanders to master in their subarctic climate.  With a slim gardening window of just 2-3 months, planting, growing, harvesting and preserving had to be done quickly and correctly to ensure beneficial results. Handled inappropriately, jarred foods could cause serious illness and even death due to bacteria. Stressing proper sterilization methods and practices to ensure safe food preservation, Walter taught islanders every aspect of canning from equipment to techniques, precautions to recipes.

Vintage Wheaton canning jar available in the shop.

In addition to common jarred items like wild blueberry jam and pickled vegetables, Walter also taught the islanders how to can freshly caught fish, boiled chicken, and roasted meat. These teachings came at a fortuitous time.  Two years later, after Walter was back home in Massachusetts,  two-thirds of island workers would become unemployed due to the unstable trade markets and the local government’s lack of proper financial planning.  Food would become scarce, morale would plummet and families would resort to inventive measures in order to stay alive. Canning skills would become an important component of survival.

Trading became an active currency when money was scarce. Here, families trade household items for clothes from a Grenfell mission nurse. Photo courtesy of thetelegram.com

During that time of island-wide poverty and hunger,  the only formal aid that would be offered by the local government was a meager food dole consisting of molasses, flour, cornmeal, fatback, split peas, and cocoa.  This care package provided only half of a person’s daily caloric intake. Preserved food helped bridge the gap between the dole and starvation.  Eventually, through fortitude and endurance, the island got back on its feet and money started flowing again into communities thanks to jobs and resources needed for WWII.

When Walter returned back home to Amherst, he compiled fifteen years of hands-on experience into a book called Food Preservation, which he published in 1930…

Part cookbook, part instructional guide and part natural science lesson it contained all aspects of the food canning process beginning with the understanding of how bacteria grew in 1765…

Lazzaro Spallanzani…an Italian priest, biologist and physiologist who discovered that air trapped in glass tubes caused the growth of bacteria. 

and how that led to the eventual creation of foods kept in sealed shelf-stable jars.  In between the anatomy of vegetables, lists of equipment, instructions on canning methods, and advice on troubleshooting, shelving considerations, and cleanliness factors, Walter included a host of recipes explaining how to preserve summer’s bounty for next winter’s nourishment. He explained how to build canning stations, storage rooms and simple farm factories to accommodate production. Everything from cider to syrup, carrots to kerosine, fruits to fermentation were tackled. At the time of publication, Food Preservation was the most concise book ever written on the topic of canning and was so thorough it became the go-to teaching tool in food science classrooms for decades.

Table of Contents for Food Preservation by W.W. Chenoweth

A once celebrated, but now forgotten pioneer in his field, Walter’s contributions to the people of Newfoundland has been long overshadowed by the lifetime efforts of Dr. Grenfell. It’s easy to understand how that happened – Grenfell made a HUGE impact on the island by building hospitals and schools and by bringing worldwide attention to the hardships of an isolated community.

Dr. Grenfell and his wife, Anne. photo courtesy of Grenfell Historic Properties.

Walter’s story in Newfoundland may not have been as lengthy nor as flashy as Grenfell’s but, like the products Walter represented, he gave the gift of long-term sustenance to a sea-island in need of a salve. What’s wonderful about a jar of pickled beets or canned tomatoes from last summer? It’s not just an example of previous effort spent,  it’s a symbol of security, an innate assurance that the past is vital to the future. That’s what Walter really gave the people of Newfoundland in their darkest hours – a promise that good things were coming soon.

Walter Winfred Chenoweth. Image courtesy of Credo Library at the the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cheers to Walter for teaching us how to enjoy our harvests year round and to the people of Newfoundland for never giving up.

Find Walter’s Food Preservation book in the shop here. Find the vintage Wheaton canning jar featured in this post here.

The Story on the Table and the Collections They Inspire

There are sibling rivalries, legendary love affairs, epic business successes and terrible company failures. There are cross-continent travelers, centenarians who never age and homebodies who would never think of leaving. There are the everlasting partiers,  the quiet dignifieds, and the rebel-rousers with battle scars to show. Forget all the drama that’s occurring on your tv screen or on your phone. Compelling, real-life adventures are happening right in front of you, right on your kitchen table. Welcome to the dramatics of the age-old dishes. They carry the stories of what we’ve eaten across our imaginations and over time.

Today we are highlighting some of the stories that make table settings more interesting and conversations more memorable. When we stock plates and curate collections in the shop we are looking for unusual designs and elegant patterns that can easily be incorporated into your everyday routine for a splashy bit of decadence in both the thought and feel department. We like old china to look old because that’s what ignites the imagination. To us, there is nothing more disappointing then standing in front of a dish trying to decide if it’s new-to-look-old or old but so brand-new looking that you just know it’s never ventured out of the china cabinet.  In the Vintage Kitchen, we like dishes that bring some story to the table with an extra added dose of depth and charisma to enhance the food that we prepare.

A few weeks ago on Instagram, we did a before and after photoshoot of a simple yogurt and coffee breakfast to demonstrate the difference and the impact of ordinary vs. extraordinary.  On the left is plain, modern, basic American-made dishware.  On the right is colorful vintage handpainted dishware that is more than 60 years old and comes from another country. Don’t you think the mood of the morning changes dramatically just with a hint of some old time interest?

The dishware on the left are all modern pieces in basic white. The dishware on the left features a 70 year old handpainted saucer and a 60 year old gold rimmed monogrammed teacup.

A plate is a plate, you might say. But it’s really so much more than that too. It’s someone’s artwork. It’s a town’s business and a country’s export. It’s an owner’s style expression and a collector’s pride and joy. It’s a plate but it’s also a passion.

Take this one for example… a 9.25″ inch white ironstone plate with a 10- sided polygon shape. It’s hefty, weighing close to one pound, and its speckled with age spots that resemble the shadowy craters of the moon. There is a long delicate crack that measures almost 7″ inches right across the middle and I fear that any day now, it will split the plate in two. When it touches down on another surface, no matter how gently, it broadcasts a two beat thump like a hollow footstep.  I think that’s the history of the plate trying to talk. A spirit wanting to tell some secrets. This plate carries a lot of those. It’s 183 years old.

If it was used once a day, every day, for 183 years it would have served a total of more than 60,000 meals throughout its life so far. A remarkable feat for any piece of kitchen equipment, let alone one of a fragile, easy-to-break nature. How many times over the course of its life has this plate been set down and picked up? Whose hands touched it and where did they carry it?

Made in England by  C & WK Harvey between 1835-1853, it tells the story of the hustle-bustle days of English pottery making. The Harveys were a father/son team made up of the Charles’ (Sr. & Jr.) and William K.  Their pottery plant was located at the Stafford Street Works in the town of  Longton, Stoke-on Trent, England – a section of town that Charles Sr. built in 1799 to house factories for a number of different pottery makers.

Stafford Street Works then and now.

In the early 1800’s, Stoke-on- Trent was the hub of pottery manufacturing for the entire country of England and employed hundreds of thousands of workers.  Parts of the Works are still there today, although now it is a mixed-use commercial neighborhood, primarily consisting of retail storefronts. Almost all of the potteries once associated with it are now gone.

For things like salads, and cheese and crackers, fruit, scrambled eggs and dessert, the old Harvey plate gets used all the time.  It’s shiny and smooth and substantial under the touch of fingertips. It’s bright white and pale tea and watery grey in color. It’s got so much crazing, you barely even notice all those zillion fine lines running every which way. It’s simple and it’s extraordinary all in one. It appears often in the Vintage Kitchen photo shoots.

Photos clockwise from top-left: The prop behind the pineapple; serving Carrot Risotto, breakfast time with Jessie Hartland’s Crepes, holding onto the frozen figs and behind the stacks of sugar cookies.

Now so rare in availability pieces from this pottery maker are mostly seen only in museum collections.  It’s moved with me four times since I found it more than 10 years ago. With each move, it gets wrapped in a thick sweater and then an even thicker blanket and then transported in the clothes boxes (the best place to pack your most treasured dishes!) to ensure a safe arrival.  The crack hasn’t gotten the best of it yet.  Fingers crossed, that it never does.

Somewhere along the timeline of its long life, the Harvey plate crossed the ocean from England to America and eventually found its way into an antique shop in the rural South where I found it. Exactly how it got from the U.K. to the U.S.A. is where imagination takes off and the topic of conversation begins.  Perhaps it came by boat, packed in someone’s steamer trunk in the late 1800’s. Maybe along with a matching set of dishes destined for a new home in a new country. Or perhaps it embarked on a lengthy 1930’s journey through the mail and then via train where it chugged through cities and states, time zones and territories.  Maybe it sat on a festive dinner table celebrating the end of slavery or the rise of the civil rights movement.  Or maybe it arrived in America much later – in the 1980’s via  airplane – a treasured find from a jet-set vacationer who fell in love with the antique history of England.

We’ll never know the exact story but it is fun to speculate on all the possibilities. Many a dinner party have been enjoyed discussing this very plate’s past. Often times, the more wine poured the better the story gets. Since it is an active worker in the Vintage Kitchen you’ll never see it available in the shop but we do offer many others with equally interesting stories to tell.

Clarice Cliff and her pretty floral plates were designed in the 1930’s for Royal Staffordshire. Clarice was a legend in the English ceramics world from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, designing hundreds of eclectic pieces that were admired by collectors the world over.

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

Considered one of the most remarkable ceramic artists of the 20th century, Clarice is revered not only for her artistic merit but also her devotion to finding beauty in unusual shapes, colors and designs that were considered very unorthodox in relation to other kitchenwares produced during her lifetime. She was also a brilliant businesswoman – savvy not in an aggressive sales-driven sense, but intrinsically smart, using her own intuition and infectious love of her craft to guide her career, thus attracting a devoted fan base. Her Dimity pattern plates burst with the bright colors of spring. We paired them in two different mix and match collections combining similar colors and unique shapes to compliment the bright and fun-loving personality of Clarice herself.

The Springtime Bouquet collection on the left and the Gold Meadow Collection on the right.

There is the story of the Willow pattern that has been captivating romantics since the 1850’s. The tale is English in origin but it was based on the original Blue Willow porcelain pattern that was made in China during the 1700’s. The tale involves a wealthy girl who falls in love with her father’s accountant. Her father, who does not approve, forbids the romance and arranges his daughter’s marriage to another man more suited to the family’s prominent social standing. The night before her arranged marriage, as the Willow tree starts shedding its blossoms, romance wins and the accountant and the girl run away together living happily for many years. One day the other suitor finds out where the couple is living and kills them. After death, the young lovers are reunited in the form of birds flying high above the landscape.

All the elements of the story are drawn out on the plate. You’ll notice the palace where the girl grew up, the bridge that takes her and her lover away, the island where they live happily together and the birds they eventually become overhead. Lots of china companies caught onto the fact that this was a popular pattern and an even more popular story and began producing their own versions in different colors. This red willow plate was made by famous American pottery company Homer Laughlin in the 1940’s.  We combined it with two other Asian inspired plates to create our own fabled love story collection…

A three-piece set containing Asian themed dinner plate, bread plate and mini dish.

Similiar to the story of the Harvey plate, the Meakin brothers, Alfred, George and James, ran several potteries in Stoke-on-Trent and Tunstall, England. Alfred,  produced this stunner, the Medway Blue under his own pottery label Alfred Meakin England in 1897. Exquisitely detailed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could or would part with this beautiful plate, but like the Harvey, it somehow migrated over to America. Its journey wasn’t without fault or flaw – there’s a sign of adventure lurking in a small very old pencil point sized chip near one side of the rim.

Celebrating over 120 years of life, this plate holds all the dinnertime stories. 44,000 of them. When we look at it, we see the pretty pattern but we also see faces. People through history who stared down at its contents. Their hair-dos and their makeup, their tuxedoed bow-ties and their evening gowns, their earrings and their mustaches. We imagine the conversations while they ate their chicken and fish and game meats. Would we be discussing the same dramas of the day if we served a slice of pizza on top of the same plate?

Other patterns on other dishes ignite similar questions and thought process. When we look at this golden-edged Pope-Gosser plate made in Ohio in the 1920’s we see Jay Gatsby written all over it. Funny enough, it’s pottery founder I . Bentley Pope, an English transplant to America,  was a swashbuckler of a salesman and a charming wordsmith. Perhaps he had a bit of the Gatsby or the F. Scott in him too.

Last September, when we discussed the book A Taste of Paris, we learned from author David Downie that the original dinner plate was nothing more than a flattened loaf of bread on which food was piled high. Between that primitive time and now, it is amazing to think how far we have come since the days we ate our dishes. If you are interested in learning more about other plate histories, visit the shop and see which ones spark your heart. We’ve listed both collections and single plates in case you want to mix and match yourself. If you have a favorite from any featured above, share it in the comments section below. We’ll be excited to learn which ones appeal to you and why!

These are some of the other unique stories… feuding brothers, vanishing nature and celebratory statehood. Find them all in the shop here.

To celebrate all the ladies in your life that would appreciate a homemade dinner served on a lovely plate we are having a 20% off sale in the shop which runs now thru May 13th.  The discount is available for all items in the shop and will be applied to your entire order.  Use the coupon code MOTHERSDAY at checkout to receive the discount.

Cheers to all the adventurers out there who keep life interesting, both plates and people! May the stories continue and the memories bloom.

Gender Discrimination in the 1940’s: Why a Correspondent Turned From War to Cookbooks

Betty Wason (1912-2001)

In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event.  She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen.  She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.

And that affected everything.

Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by.  One of those rules concerned women. Women  simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air.  It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air.  This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.

Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide.  As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.

Vintage 1930’s travel posters to Czechoslovakia show the beauty and attraction of foreign travel. This was one of the countries Betty would visit and report from.

Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on,  so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.

Betty’s contact at  CBS was Paul White who was in charge of news broadcasting.

There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.

A 1940’s radio

Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis.  But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch).  It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.

Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.

Winston went on to have a lengthy career as a broadcast journalist at CBS. In 1955, he admitted to being a communist spy during the 1930s and 1940s when Betty worked with him.

Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”

Betty Wason in Greece. She made her own uniform to appear more professional since there was no dress code for correspondents. Photo courtesy of Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism.

As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.

Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.

After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing.  Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life.  Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.

A sampling of Betty’s cookbooks published from the 1950’s-1980’s

Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking…  Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places.  That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…

How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)

In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.

 

If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail.  In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.

Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks.  In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season,  it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.

Betty Wason’s recipe for Spanakopeta, A Greek version of Spinach Pie

It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too.  It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.

Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA

Serves 6

12 phyllo pastry sheets

2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)

1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Salt to taste (optional)

2 eggs

1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)

1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…

At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.

Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.

Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.

Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.

Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.

Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.

Ready for the oven!

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,

then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).

Back into the oven!

Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts,  prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.

Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.

It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.

Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

The Pineapple, The Sea Captain and How A Legend Began…

Sailors are known for their stories. You’d be hard-pressed to go to any ocean-enthusiasts house and not hear a tale of the extraordinary fish caught, or the summer storm turned sour or the port city that lured like a siren song.  But did you ever hear the story about the pineapple? The one that tells how it became one of the most iconic symbols in the world? Today in the Vintage Kitchen, we’ve got a legend on the table.

There are a few versions surrounding the pineapple and how it became known as the universal symbol of hospitality. Some stories claim it was a gift of peace offered to foreign explorers by local Caribbean tribes.  Other stories state it was a sought-after souvenir traded around South America until it eventually was welcomed in Europe for experimental gardening. Another explains that it was a status symbol of the very rich and the very royal who used it as a party decoration to signify the extent of their wealth, visually reinforcing the fact that they could indeed offer the best of everything to their guests, no matter what the cost. But our favorite version in the Vintage Kitchen, of how the pineapple came to be a hospitality icon, is the one that dates to the 1700’s in the time of the sea captains.

That legend states that merchant trading ships like this…

A Chesapeake Bay style sloop was a common merchant ship traveling between the West Indies and the Eastern Atlantic coast.

carried cargo (mainly sugar, tobacco, rum, and molasses) back from the Caribbean islands to various ports in New England. Included in their bounty was the exotic tropical pineapple, a fruit so unusual in its beauty, so incredible in its sweetness and so valuable in its price, it was treated delicately just like its most precious counterpart, sugar.

When the ship was back in port and safely unpacked, the captain would return home to his New England house with a pineapple in hand.  He would spear this fruit on the front garden gate to signify to friends and neighbors that he had returned from his ocean voyage and was ready to entertain visitors with good stories and good food.

The centuries-old houses of Kennebunkport, Maine where many a sea captain lived.

With just the right amount of whimsy and practicality, it is not hard to see how such a story and such an action could have spread throughout the village, and then the state, and then the coastline, so that within time, hundreds of garden gates across many states were bearing pineapples – a symbol of friendly invitation, warm welcome and kind generosity.

Pineapple gates in Odessa, DE

No one yet has accurately been able to authenticate the first-time connection between pineapples and hospitality, but this sea captain story may help explain why you’ll find pineapples incorporated into outdoor architectural details all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida.

Appearing in gardens both ancient and new…

Permanent pineapples in the garden.

…history tells of America’s long-standing love affair with this hospitable fruit.  You’ll see it on the front doors of old houses like this one…

The historic Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island built in 1748.

 

There’s the pineapple above the door, welcoming all who enter.

and this one…

Virginia’s Shirley Plantation, completed in 1738, which boasts a three-foot tall pineapple in the middle of the roofline…

and in the decorative details of brand new, modern days houses…

Pineapple themed door knockers, welcome signs, doorbells, and house number plaques announce an age-old symbol on brand-new exteriors.

You’ll also find them indoors…

Most often as finials front entry staircases…

blending classic and traditional elements from past centuries to the present century…

Pineapples in all modern ways useful… ice bucket, lamp,bookends, flower vase.

Last week we added a new vintage pineapple to the shop…

This one was neither a finial nor an exterior facade detail but instead at one point in its life had adorned the top of a fountain.  The fountain wasn’t as big as Charleston’s famous Waterfront Park pineapple…

Waterfront Park, Charleston SC

but she is an ideal size for many design possibilities including lighting, decoration, and display.  And she carries forth the sea captain’s theme of good stories and good food in a most beautiful way.

Even though we might never be able to uncover where and how the pineapple became involved with the convivial idea of good hospitality, we still love the idea of one fruit bringing together three centuries worth of parties and people. Critics would say that the sea captain story is flawed because pineapples were expensive and traders wouldn’t put a small fortune out in plain view for anyone to steal. But hospitality is about extending and offering, not squandering and hiding, so clearly, the argument could go either way.

If you a were a sailor in the 1700’s, at sea for long stretches of time, with life and death equally close at hand, perhaps you needed a little frivolity upon returning home to family and friends and the pineapple provided just that. A simple yet beautiful billboard. One that symbolized rich with life lived instead of rich with monetary wealth.

Cheers to the legends that stick around and to the fruits that travel through time!

Channel your own inner sea captain and set the stage for your next nights of entertainment. Find the vintage fountain topper pineapple piece in the shop here!

 

 

Four Little-Known Faces Behind One Big American Icon: The Building of Betty Crocker

97 years ago one of the most famous women in the world was born. She wasn’t a movie star or a political figure or an artistic phenomenon. She wasn’t an athlete or a poet or a musician nor a doctor or a scientist or a spiritualist.  She didn’t even have a face in the beginning – she was just a voice and a pretty, handwritten signature. She called herself Betty and when she signed her name she wrote it out completely… Betty Crocker.

In the 1920’s, Betty came alive as a spokesperson for the Washburn-Crosby Company, a Minnesota-based milling factory that rose to fame for their Gold Medal flour brand.  Betty signed off on letters written into the company asking for baking advice which in turn naturally led to general household advice, quickly establishing herself as an authoritarian presence on all domestic issues.

By the 1930’s, Betty became even more familiar to Americans as her voice was launched into households across the country via the radio. With her program, Gold Medal Home Service Talks (which would eventually be called the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air) she discussed various culinary tasks like how to make husband’s favorite dinner or how to whip up homemade lemon pie for 15 people. Here’s a clip from a holiday episode where she features sweet treats that the whole family will enjoy…

Because of her wise words, handwritten signature, and engaging radio personality, everybody believed in Betty. They formed a deep attachment to her as a real champion of the cause for good housekeeping and enjoyable cooking endeavors.

By 1945, Betty became the second most recognized woman in the world trailing just behind Eleanor Roosevelt, and when the  1950’s and 1960’s rolled around Betty was a regular face on television, hosting cooking shows, appearing in commercials and making guest appearances.  To millions of Americans, Betty was a real-life person just like them.

Only she wasn’t.

It was true that in the very beginning Betty was nothing more than a figment of the imagination. A creative marketing concoction whipped up by a Washburn-Crosby executive in order to sell some flour. But behind Betty’s make-believe identity stood some very remarkable real-life women who helped build an authentic character. It was their efforts and their abilities that made Betty the national treasure she became.

Back in the early hand-written signature days, Betty replied to various questions about cracked cake tops, burnt pie crusts, and budget-friendly meal planning.  The real-life woman doling out solutions on behalf of Betty was Marjorie Husted Cumming, the company’s field rep in home economics. Marjorie established the original writing voice of Betty Crocker… the tone, the phrasing, the kind counsel that made readers feel like Betty truly understood their needs.

Marjorie Husted Child (1892-1986)

Marjorie studied education in college, so she knew how to teach people. She worked as a Red Cross nurse during WWI so she knew how to treat people with an appropriate amount of kindness and compassion and she had experience in business working for a well-known pasta brand before she went to work at Washburn-Crosby, so she knew how to talk to industry consumers.  It was the trifecta of the three T’s – teach, treat and talk – all of which Marjorie creatively instilled in Betty, so that when questions were answered via mail about cracked cake tops it sounded as if Betty herself had experienced a similar issue and had just figured out a crafty yet easy solution to the problem. Soon so many letters with so many questions were coming in daily, Marjorie had to set up a staff of employees to tackle all the correspondence.  America was smitten.

When Betty spoke on the radio, her voice was at first, Marjorie’s voice. But Marjorie had a lot to do – managing the correspondence staff, writing the radio scripts and training workers in Betty’s style of communication. So company home economist and recipe tester Agnes White Tizard stepped in to portray Betty on air and stayed there for 20 years.

Agnes White Tizard portrayed the on-air voice of Betty Crocker for 20 years.

In 1936, celebrated illustrator Neysa McMein gave Betty her first-time face…

The first portrait of Betty Crocker was achieved by combining features of female employees working for General Mills at the time the portrait was commissioned.

From the very beginning, it was decided that Betty was going to be an everywoman – a typical reflection of the values and traditions held in regard by most American women. Betty was friendly and helpful. She was a comforting and reassuring presence in the kitchen and a trusted role model with attainable skills that all women could assimilate if they followed her lead. In order to achieve this everywoman persona visually, Neysa studied the faces of the female employees working at Washburn-Crosby’s newly renamed corporation, General Mills. Combining their features just like you would combine ingredients in a cake, Neysa adapted a little bit of this skin color, a little bit of that eye shape, a pinch of this hairstyle and a smidge of that cheekbone, etc, etc. until the “official” first portrait of Betty Crocker emerged.

Ironically, as the artist commissioned to paint Betty’s portrait, Neysa McMein, was anything but typical. She lived a life far removed from the traditional role that most women possessed in the early years of the 20th century.

She was a bohemian in all ways – changing her name from the practical Marjorie Frances to the exotic Neysa, attending art school,  establishing a sought-after creative career, traveling internationally in support of war efforts and women’s rights, developing friendships that swam in prominent literary circles, and  participating in an open marriage with lovers on the side that included Irving Berlin and Charlie Chaplin.

Samplings of Neysa’s cover art for various women’s magazines.

Neysa was a lively conversationalist, a natural gatherer of people and a free spirit known for hosting fun parties with an eclectic mix of guests in her art studio. She was also one of the most well-regarded female illustrators of her generation, working prolifically for her entire career. Neysa was an “it” girl in the art world while Betty was an “it ” girl on the home front. Together the two made an indelible mark.

For 19 years Neysa’s depiction of Betty loomed large over the General Mills brand and was the image that came to mind when people around the world discussed their culinary pal, Betty Crocker. Outliving Neysa by six years, Betty’s image didn’t get an update until 1955 when she was modified by artist Hilda Grossman Taylor (1891-1967)  to reflect the style, attitude and values of a typical mid-century woman…

This was Betty’s official 1955 portrait. Note that her eye color has changed from brown to blue here – a color that would remain with Betty for all her successive portraits up until the latest one in 1996 where her eye color becomes brown again.

But by the time this new image of Betty was introduced, more people knew the face of Adelaide Hawley Cumming than Betty’s updated portrait. Adelaide played television Betty in commercials, featured guests appearances and as a cooking show host from 1949-1964. Here is Adelaide as Betty in a 1950’s cake mix commercial…

Adelaide came from the Vaudeville singing scene and was a popular radio show host before she became the on-screen presence of Betty Crocker. For 15 years, General Mills kept Adelaide and Betty busy, introducing special cooking segments on popular nighttime comedy shows as well as hosting her own cooking programs, The Betty Crocker Show, Bride and Groom and Betty Crocker Star Matinee.

Adelaide Hawley Cumming (1905-1998)

Originally inspired to be an opera singer, Adelaide worked in broadcasting for 35 years focusing particularly on stories surrounding women’s issues and strong female figures of history. Like Marjorie, Neysa and Agnes, Adelaide was an educated career woman who championed female empowerment and education. After she was let go from General Mills in the mid-1960’s, considered no longer a sophisticated enough image to portray Betty, Adelaide went back to school to teach English as a Second Language and continued that career path up until just days before her death at the age of 93.

What is interesting about these four women and their formation of the character that became the famous Betty Crocker, is that they were all incredible, independent role models in their own right before they had a chance to make their mark on an indelible kitchen icon. By the time the opportunity of building Betty came about, their seasoned professionalism enabled them to mold this fictitious character of Betty Crocker just like a wise mentor guides a young protegee. By securing a valid connection between Betty Crocker and her customers they managed a relationship that lived not only through their present generations but then continued into our present generation today. That’s pretty spectacular!

None of these four women were the typical stay-at-home example of happy housewife and perfect domesticity that Betty represented. They were all career women reaching their own dreams and aspirations independent from family, home and husbands. Marjorie and Agnes added their real-life sense of competence and confidence to the voice of Betty, Neysa lent her glamour and sophistication and Adelaide brought professionalism, conviviality, and validity to a spokesperson who could have easily felt outdated as the years progressed.  Betty herself may have been a fantasy but she was built by real people for real products. In the 1940s, when rumors first started to spread that Betty wasn’t a real person, some people felt hoodwinked by the Betty Crocker brand, but most people didn’t care. They loved Betty for what she represented and for the undisputed help she gave them in the kitchen. It’s not important that Betty wasn’t real.  She was raised by real women and that’s really all that matters.

Cheers to our four ladies, Marjorie, Agnes, Neysa and Adelaide for their efforts in building one of the most prolific brands in the history of the American food industry. And to Betty, who continues what these women started.

Betty Crocker – through the years…beginning in the top left corner with Neysa’s portrait  – 1936, 1955, 1965, 1969. Bottom left…1972, 1980, 1986 and 1996.

Interested in learning more about the recipes of Betty Crocker? Find some of her vintage cookbooks, like this one here, in the shop

The 1972 Edition of Betty Crocker’s world famous Picture Cook Book published in 1950.

Happy New Year: A Recap and What’s Ahead!

Happy New Year dear readers! Hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are now ushering in the new year with a zesty amount of excitement and joy.

2017 was an action-packed year in the Vintage Kitchen as we launched Ms. Jeannie on her around-the-world adventure…

opened the vintage kitchen shop…

moved to a new section of the neighborhood…

Indie made sure we didn’t forget her!

and welcomed a bevy of new readers to the blog thanks in part to a feature on WordPress Discover!

WordPress Discover Feature – December 2017!

From January to December, we cooked in the kitchen, whipping up these vintage recipes…

Clockwise from top left: Anna’s Tomato Soup circa 1928; Tandoori Chicken, Jessie’s Crepes (inspired by Julia Child), Vintage Black Velvet Cocktails, Russian Tea Cakes, Smoked Salmon Roulade, Katharine Hepburn’s Lace Cookies, Pastel Petit Fours circa 1960, Cold Roast Beef circa 1962

and marveled our way through the wiggly world of vintage gelatin molds alongside fellow cross-country-kitcheners Olivia, Harpie, Marianne and Manny…

Clockwise from top left: Jellied Cheese Ring Salad, Molded Cucumber Mousse, Spanish Cream

We learned about old house kitchen renovations with Renee and Michael, old house histories with Ken, and old time collecting with Cindy and her vintage tea towels…

Clockwise from top left: Renne & Michael’s 1940s kitchen renovation, Ken Staffey’s historic house stories and Cindy’s colorful tea towel collection.

and we celebrated a range of holidays from St. Patricks Day to the 4th of July to Christmas with hand pies and bar nuts, brown bread and turkeys…

Clockwise from left: Citrus Brined Turkey, Cherry Hand Pies, Molasses Brown Bread and Sweet Spiced Bar Nuts

We traveled to the two Washingtons – D.C. and Seattle. One in search of the great Julia Child and the other in search of great-grandma Mabel…

We wrote mini-stories on Instragram…

and celebrated year five of the blog!

We read and we watched, listened and researched  and last, but definitely not least, we paired up old items with new owners in an effort to ensure that the stories of time-laden treasures were never forgotten, just  like the 1950’s Chinese enamelware mug that originated in Tianjin, China and now adventures with Sally in Mississippi.

From the shop to Sally’s!

Based on all the fun we had last year, we can hardly wait to get started on 2018!

This January, we’ll be sharing our favorite list of books discovered over the course of the last 12 months, interviewing an inspiring international jet-setter, exploring an ancient art form born out of a kitchen catastrophe and celebrating a very special kitchen companion’s birthday. And since it is the new year and everybody is wishing each other good health and happiness, we will also be cooking up a few vintage health-conscious recipes that were made for dieting (or reducing, as they liked to call it) in the 1940’s. New vintage items, and all the stories they hold will continue to be added to the shop every week, so stay tuned for a colorful and eclectic month here in the Vintage Kitchen!

Cheers to a cheerful January, with much love from The Vintage Kitchen.

{Old} House Stories: An Interview with Ken Staffey

The Ephraim Burr Beers House, circa 1810 – Clapboard Hill, Westport CT. Read more history about this house here. Photo by Ken Staffey.

Nora Roberts once wrote “it was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”

Recalling those faded voices, those human experiences, those memories, the forgotten details and the covered over contributions of the places that Nora nuanced, in today’s post we are tackling a discussion about the very interesting life found in and around old houses of early America as discovered by a modern day history lover. If you are a fan of any old house photo feeds on Instagram, chances are you have come across Ken Staffey’s gorgeous account simply called House Stories.

Ken features primarily photographs of historic homes in the Northeastern United States and dives into the interesting family histories behind them with a mix of interesting facts, personal details, and quirky insights. Most often he features houses from the 18th and 19th century that tell the story of how New England grew up. The places where merchants, farmers, sea captains, doctors, writers, politicians, extraordinary people and everyday citizens raised their families and found their footing among the blooming new frontier called the United States.

Located in Marblehead MA, the Sandin House was built in 1714 for fisherman William Sandin and his wife Joanna. Marblehead was once deemed the greatest town for fishing in New England.

From the bones that make up the frames of these centuries-old places, Ken has pulled stories about past occupants, owners, and architects; about city plans gone awry and country enterprises gone right; about dreams found and opportunities lost, about big events and tiny details, all of which remind us how the past is still very much present in our modern daily lives. We’ve caught up with Ken interview-style to learn more about his passion and his process of bringing history home. Included are his top-picks of places to visit for any architecture enthusiast and his thoughts on where current trends are headed when it comes to living with old houses in a new world.

{Note: Ken’s house photos have been featured throughout this interview. Click on each image to read Ken’s Instagram enties.}

In The Vintage Kitchen: What ignited your idea of posting house stories on Instagram?

Ken Staffey: In the beginning, I posted random photos like everyone else. I found that the house photos seemed to get the best response.  Then I started to add a bit of history along with each home and eventually it evolved into what it is today, House Stories – history told one house at a time.

This house was part of a planned community built in the 1870’s as imagined by Alexander Turney Stewart, a dry goods entrepreneur who emigrated from Ireland to New York.  Read more about this house here.

ITVK:  How do you decide which houses to feature?

KS: I pretty much photograph whatever catches my eye.  Later the challenge of finding some history that goes with the home is a big part of the fun. Just about all the homes I have featured date from the colonial period to about 1920.

In Ken’s post about the 1871 Wells-Catlin House, in Brookline, MA  he talks about the history behind the name of the town. Read more about it here.

ITVK:  Explain a little bit about your process of researching these old houses. Do you find that their histories are pretty easy to obtain or do you find yourself knee-deep in archive vaults and old records?

KS: Thankfully, I am never knee deep in archive vaults and old records, but I am often in deep with virtual equivalents, which is much easier thankfully.  Many old directories and records have been scanned and are now online.  Usually, I will just start with the address and see what I come up with there. Often once I get past the online real estate listing for a home, I can find something interesting about the home or its early occupants.  And thank God for historical societies and preservation groups that have not only saved these wonderful old homes but also recorded a good deal of their history.

Yale graduate Nathan Hale taught school in this shingled house in New London, CT in 1774, a few years before he was accused of being a spy and hung by the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The schoolhouse has been moved several times around town but through the support of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it is being well maintained and offers tours for visitors.

ITVK: Do you ever speak with the property owners to learn more about each house? If not, do you think that most homeowners are aware of the interesting histories their homes have?

KS: Typically I do not speak with the property owners, but I have had a good handful of requests from owners to feature their homes.  They often know a bit of the history about their homes, but that sometimes can be inaccurate. One family had been retelling stories from their home’s history.  Once I dug a bit, I found that the history had been twisted in the retelling over the years, so it was fun to set the record straight for the owners.

City streets and neighborhoods, in particular, are home to a slew of fascinating stories with so many people moving in and out and coming and going. Ken writes about the history of this street in NYC’s West Village here.

ITVK: Do you live in a historic house yourself? If so, does your house have a fascinating story too?!

KS: I grew up in a house that was built in 1940 and since college, I have always been drawn to apartments in older buildings, most of them over a century old.  The home I now own is 89 years old and was built as part of a wave of new housing to accommodate the thousands of factory workers who found work in the once-thriving factories here in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My home is not historic and the funny thing is that I have never even tried to find any history. I do know that the same family owned the home for decades and people have told me a bit about them here and there.

ITVK:  What are three things that modern architecture lacks that all these great old houses contain?

KS: I am a big fan of all types of architecture, but I am partial to the homes of the past.  I think modern architecture has a style all its own, but what modern homes lack is a history and stories about the people that lived there and the surroundings.  Over time even the most modern of homes will have a story to tell.

One great example of a modern house having a fabulous “new” story to tell was Ken’s post on the First Year Building Project designed by students at the Yale School of Architecture. One hundred years from now (fingers crossed that it survives that long) this house will have made a  marvelous contribution to its neighborhood. Read more about the project here.

ITVK: If you could live in (or own) any one of the houses you have featured to date, which would you choose and why?

KS: I am not sure about a particular house, but I was enamored by the recreated New England village circa 1820-1830 at Sturbridge Village. It is a living museum with interpreters who go about their business as New Englanders did two centuries ago.  The buildings were moved there from around New England, so you can see a village that is free of modern structures and vehicles, which gives you a good idea of life in that era.  Also, you can watch the interpreters engage in activities like farming and weaving as they would in Early America.

Old Sturbridge Village – an 1830’s living history museum.

ITVK:  If you could have cocktails with any famous person, living or dead, in any house in the world, who and where would you choose and why?

KS: It would be interesting to have drinks with someone from the colonial era.  Many of the colonists brought the tradition from England of having beer as a drink instead of whatever and a review of their habits show that it was not unusual for them to have a beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport RI was founded in 1673 making it the oldest operating bar in the US. See more historic libation stations on the oldies list here.

ITVK: One of my most favorite houses you’ve featured so far is the Jonathan and Abigail Starr house in Guilford, CT that was built in 1732…

The Jonathan and Abigail Starr House, Guilford CT built in 1732.

You shared this information about the house:

“This Church Street home was built for Jonathan and Abigail Starr in 1732 on land obtained from Jonathan’s father, Comfort Starr. Jonathan was a fourth generation New Englander. His great- great-grandfather was a surgeon, also named Comfort Starr, from Ashford, England, who sailed to America aboard the ‘Hercules’ in 1634. Joining him were his wife, Elizabeth, their three children and three servants. Dr. Starr’s parents clearly had a preference for unique names. His sisters were Suretrust and Constant and his brothers were Joyfull and Jehosaphat. The Starrs of Ashford lived a comfortable life with an estate about 60 miles southeast of London, but their move may have been motivated in part by grief as the grave of their son was said to be “not yet grass-grown” when they set out from the port of Sandwich for the “Plantation called New England in America.”

Do you have any other fun details about this house in particular?

KS: I do not, but I did love the names of the Starr children.  I featured the Comfort Starr house (below) a few days after the Jonathan and Abigail Starr post.

Portrait of Comfort Starr and one of his daughters alongside Ken’s photo portrait of Comfort’s house built in the mid 1650’s and a detailed side view sketch of it’s traditional saltbox style.

While known as the Comfort Starr House, this Guilford home was actually built for Henry Kingsworth around 1646. Mr. Starr, a tailor, purchased the home from Kingsworth’s heirs in 1694. He and his wife Elizabeth raised eight children here: Abigail, Elizabeth, Hannah, Comfort, Submit, Jonathan, Jehoshaphat, and Amy. The home was in the family for almost 200 years. Among the last to live here were seven Starr sisters, who were nicknamed ‘Pleiades’ for the seven sisters constellation. When the last sister, Grace, died at 83 in 1874, the home was sold outside the family. Today it is one of the oldest homes in Connecticut that is still a private residence.

ITVK: Is there one New England town, in particular, that should be on every house enthusiasts must-see list?

KS: I think that depends on what type of architecture you like. If you are a fan of first-period homes (1625-1725), Ipswich, Massachusetts has the highest concentration of those homes in the country.  There are enough clustered together that it is not too hard to imagine what the area looked like centuries ago.

Ipswich, MA. Photos courtesy of the Ipswich Visitor Center.

If Victorian architecture is your thing, you could head to Willimantic, Connecticut.  The town saw rapid growth as the textile mills expanded there.  Because Victorian architecture was in style at the time, there are many Queen Anne homes along with other Victorian treasures.  In both cases, the prevalent style reflects a period of growth followed by an economic downturn, which is why the homes were not updated or replaced with more recent styles.  But those are just two examples, you can find architectural gems just about anywhere.  Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

A collection of Victorian, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles houses that can be found in Willimantic, Connecticut

ITVK: What is your most favorite style of architecture, and why does it appeal to you?

My tastes have definitely changed to favor the simple early American homes.  If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Victorian homes, but I have grown to appreciate plain design with few distractions from the colonial period. Also, the history from that period is fascinating.  Life was harder in so many ways in terms of having to work hard to get things done, but there was also simplicity to life without all the distractions of today. That being said, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I can appreciate a simpler existence.

In addition to telling house histories, Ken also incorporates fun facts and other interesting tidbits relating to holidays or customs or historical pop culture which keeps each post from being formulaic.  Read more about this 1720 Brookfield, CT house here.

ITVK:  Have you had the opportunity to look inside any of the houses you’ve featured? And if so, do you have any memorable kitchen stories from them?

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts is a treat. Because 80% of the furnishings are original to the home when the Alcotts lived there, you can see how the author and her family lived.

Orchard House – home to Louisa May Alcott. Read more about her and her house here.

They often endured lean times, but Louisa and her sisters enjoyed putting on shows for guests right there in the parlor. Upstairs, you can see the small desk where Louisa wrote her best selling books. It’s really nothing more than a shelf along the window, but it was there that she produced works that touched readers the world over.

The kitchen at Orchard House where the entire family spent time together. Photo courtesy of louisamayalcott.org

The kitchen is another wonderful window on the past. It was here that the Alcott women cooked, cleaned and drew water from the pump beneath the trap door in the kitchen floor.  The author herself says, “All of the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and cleans.” I highly recommend a visit to this house museum.

ITVK: So many old houses revolve around the idea of family, whether they were built to accommodate them, or given as wedding gifts or passed down through generations. Because we are such a transient society these days, and on average only stay 7-10 years in a house before moving on, do you think we are slowly losing a sense of place in our modern day world that connects us to the history of our land? Do you think this is why, fundamentally, old houses still hold so much appeal and nostalgia for us?

KS: Overall we have definitely shifted to a more disposable society, but if you look more closely, there is a quieter celebration of the past. People are still restoring our treasured antique homes and many others will furnish their homes in a throwback style such as farmhouse, colonial or even midcentury modern.

This house was built in Fairfield, CT in the 1990’s but the exterior contains elements of classic French chateau, colonial and federal styles that could give the impression that it is older than it actually is. Read more about it here.

 

This house in Westport, CT was also built in the last 20 years. New to look old, it was modeled after early colonial designs. Read more about it here.

Also, there are more people drawn to be what we now call “makers.”  They may be crafters, foodies, or designers and together they have recreated an echo of the cottage industries of our ancestors.  Two centuries ago, artisans worked and sold their goods out of their homes and today there are plenty of people working, living and creating from their homes.  So, I think we are more connected to our homes than we realize today.

The Roe House, built in the 1680’s, now serves as the Port Jefferson, New York Chamber of Commerce. Read more about it here.

 

In New York City’s Soho neighborhood this building originally hosted a tobacco shop in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a clothing store with a 19th-century murder story to tell. Read more about it here.

 

This house built in 1781 in Litchfield, CT has been home to a number of cottage industries throughout its life including an apothecary shop, a grocery store and now a doctor’s office. Read more about it here.

Does place dictate who we are or who we have the potential of becoming? Not always.  But it certainly does have the opportunity to indulge us and to nurture our life’s pursuits just like Orchard House had done with Louisa May Alcott who drew so much of her own environment into her works of fiction. Had Louisa never grown up in that brown clapboard house would Little Women have been the same book we know today?

Orchard House photographed sometime between 1860-1920. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Images.

Like dipping your toe into the pool of history and watching the ripple effect the entire body of water, Ken’s House Stories are mini in content but mighty in impact. He shows us that behind every person stands a physical structure that was impacted by them or for them. He reminds us that a person’s individual history, although singular at the time eventually becomes our collective history as a nation. One country formed by billions of individual contributions. Big, small, humble, grand.. the old houses stand as truth showing us where we have been and where we have the potential to go.

A sampling of houses Ken has featured on House Stories that range in age from the 1670’s to the 1860’s.

A very big cheers to Ken for spotlighting the stories of our country’s founding families. Find him on Instagram here. And cheers to all the people who loved, saved and protected our early American architecture from re-development and decline and continue to do so every day.

Other historic architecture-related posts from the Vintage Kitchen can be found here…

Other interviews by artisians, craftspeople, collectors and interesting characters from around the world can be found here.