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A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester

May is Preservation Month, a celebration that promotes our heritage through our historic places. As such, I’m glad to share my impressions of a preservation-related title, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester.

I was first introduced to this book years ago, by my friend Leslie Simpson, who said, “One of the best ways to learn about the history of a community is to study its buildings.” Indeed, architecture has a story to tell. But first, we must learn to listen. Through this title, McAlester teaches us how to listen to the stories of American domestic architecture.

Spanning centuries of the development of American houses, from the 17th-century to present, this guide is for anyone interested in learning how to identify the style of American houses through architectural features, from frame and form to embellishments or the lack thereof.

Initially published in 1984, McAlester expands the 2014 revision to include an overview of the house styles built during the millennial housing boom, 1990-2008, and a section on neighborhoods that describes the ways American houses are usually grouped together. Also, the second edition provides new information based on research that wasn’t available at the time the first edition was written.

Readers may reference this book in a variety of ways, as discussed in the brief ‘How to Use This Book’ portion, which I recommend (actually) reading. For quick identification or for a sort of crash course in the basics of American houses, both the Pictorial Key and the Pictorial Glossary that follow the how-to section are helpful. Roof form, chimneys, railings, windows, and more are depicted in the Pictorial Key, whereas the Pictorial Glossary depicts common descriptive house terms as well as classical elements often applied to houses.

The first chapter is an overview of American houses, including information about style, form, structure, and neighborhoods. The seven chapters that follow go into greater detail about the types of houses found within specific styles. For example, Native American, Pre-Railroad, National, and Manufactured houses are types of houses within Folk Houses. Italianate and Gothic Revival are types found within Romantic Houses (1820-1880); Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Shingle are found within Victorian Houses (1860-1900); Craftsman and Prairie within Modern Houses (1900-present); and so on. Frankly, the fun is in the details rather than the overview, though the latter is the foundation for the former.

In addition to abundant depicions of architectural elements, photographic examples, and textual information, McAlester chronicles how geography, innovation, materials, weather, and more have impacted the development of American homes. Heating innovations, for example, literally shaped American houses, as did automobiles. In fact, automobiles continue to shape our homes: the space used to house automobiles when compared to a 1,000 square foot house in 1915 was 0%, which grew to 15% by 1930; to 25% by 1950; to 45% by 1970; and to 75% by the 2000s. McAlester also touches upon some of the sufferings of old houses brought on by so-called improvements.

McAlester’s book is comprehensive, including something for everyone and for anyone with a desire to know more about how our dwellings came to be, how they’ve developed over time, how we have shaped them and, interestingly, how they have shaped us. I recommend this field guide to everyone, whether the desired outcome is to simply identify the house up the street or to survey and develop a narrative for an entire neighborhood.

I might add that we are able to provide a copy of this title for checkout, rather than for reference-only, as is typical, thanks to a donation made by the Joplin Historical Society in memory of Martha Elizabeth Belk. You’ll find A Field Guide to American Houses in our Memorial Book section, which is located at the beginning of our New Nonfiction.

Happy Preservation Month and, as always, happy reading.

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Antique Photographs on Display

Gone are the days of laborious photographic processes. Most of us use cellphones rather than cameras to take photos. No doubt – and more often than not – the photos we take remain stored on electronic devices or in virtual clouds instead of tangibly tucked away in albums gracing our shelves or frames decorating our walls.

With modern technology, it’s understandably easy to forget about historic photographic processes, such as those used to make ambrotypes, CdVs, and tintypes. Fortunately, we still benefit from the results of these processes by way of antique photographs, such as those in Allen Shirley’s collection, a selection of which we’re showing now through March 2019.

Although the display is largely comprised of tintypes, a photograph made by a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark enamel, it includes a small selection of ambrotypes, a positive photograph on glass, and carte de visite photos, a type of small photograph patented in Paris. The photographs depict George and Martha Washington; Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; Edgar Allen Poe; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Frederick Douglass; Albert Einstein; Sitting Bull; Calamity Jane; Annie Oakley; the aftermath of Gettysburg and other Civil War era photographs; and more.

Library exhibitions and displays are curated by Post Art Library. Their mission is to enrich the community of Joplin by perpetuating Dr. Winfred L. and Elizabeth C. Post’s love of art, architecture, history, and history preservation through public access to arts-related library resources and services, educational programming, events, and exhibits. Visit www.postartlibrary.org for more information.

Women of the Blue and Gray: True Civil War Stories of Mothers, Medics, Soldiers, and Spies by Marianne Monson

Lately, I’m of a mood to read everything nonfiction. As such, I presently have nine new nonfiction books checked out from the library. Which is to say it was challenging to decide which book to read in its entirety and to write about for this review.

Although Karen Blumenthal’s Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend was good, to say the least, you no doubt are familiar with their story, including their brief stint here in Joplin, which resulted in those playful, infamous photographs the gang left behind as they fled town.

Another contender was Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Admittedly, I’ve yet to finish that one. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Brown’s untraditional (for a biography) formatting, but, frankly, I find Princess Margaret exhausting in a gossipy, spoiled sort of way. I started to feel as if I was glimpsing into a collection of US Weekly or People magazine articles. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

After reading, if one only in part, these two titles, as well as perusing the others, which range in topic from American capitalism to feminism to language to politics to reading (Yes, a book about reading!) and to travel, I settled on a history. Specifically, Marianne Monson’s Women of the Blue and Gray: True Civil War Stories of Mothers, Medics, Soldiers, and Spies.

Monson’s well-documented account tells the story of countless women who participated in the American Civil War: those who fought on the frontlines alongside men (often while disguised as men); those who formed so-called beardless brigades to protect their hometowns; those who nursed soldiers after, as well as during, combat; those who smuggled food, people, supplies, and weapons across enemy lines; those who created extensive spy networks; and those who otherwise contributed to the efforts of that long, bloody war.

This collection of histories and brief biographies is introduced with a discussion about woman’s veiled role throughout history and the importance of lifting that veil. And not just from women of certain or particular perspectives or upbringings, but from women—black, immigrant, Native American, white, poor, rich, middle-class, educated, uneducated, freed, enslaved, and all others, and, especially in the case of this book, northern and southern women alike.

Researching the history of women, particularly enslaved or uber-marginalized women, is a challenging, frustrating endeavor. Oftentimes, information was not recorded about women as it was about men, especially during eras when women did not own property, work outside of the home, or keep their maiden names when married. Monson’s research, which she carefully notes at the end of each chapter, is impressive, as are her chapter-by-chapter suggestions for further reading.

Monson refreshes our memories of well-known voices from this era, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Marie Child, the Grimké sisters, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, and others. Further, she restores the histories of women who are likely lesser-known, such as Susie Baker King Taylor, Frances Clayton, Mary Jane Richards, Belle Boyd, the Sanchez sisters, Rebecca Wright, Anna Ella Carroll, Rachel Moore Brownfield, Mother Bickerdyke, Dr. Mary Walker, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Chipeta, Hanging Cloud, Sallie Peacheater Manus, and numerous others.
Through the varied voices of these women, we not only gain a better understanding of what life was like in that era, but we discover the emergence of patterns and themes that continue to be relevant in contemporary America.

As always, happy reading.

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The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

This book review is not for the faint of heart nor for the weak stomached. Imagine: You’re out for a stroll in Victorian London, prepossessed with the styles of that era’s architecture as you take in the crisp, comforting wintry air. In your prepossession, you fail to notice a spot of ice ahead on the walkway and, whoops, you slip. In doing so, your tibia breaks and, very unfortunately, protrudes through your skin. Seeing your plight, a passerby summons a constable and the two carry you to the nearest hospital, where, for one reason or another, the surgeon decides that your broken leg must be amputated mid-thigh.

Suddenly and shockingly, you find yourself on a blood-encrusted table in a stifling operating theater. At least one hundred spectators, some of whom have little or nothing to do with the study of medicine, and none of whom you know, are transfixed by the surgical sport of your leg being lopped off. Luckily, your surgeon was London’s most renowned at the time, Robert Liston. Unluckily, Joseph Lister was yet to arrive on scene and, though you survived the amputation, you died an all too common death—that of hospitalism. Or, as simply stated in today’s terms, infection.

Sparing no detail, Lindsey Fitzharris’ The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine is itself a grisly, though wonderfully written, account of the horrors of Victorian medicine, specifically those of surgery and post-operative infection. The bulk of Fitzharris’ history regards, as its title suggests, one Joseph Lister, who, most graciously, spared us from the brutal, Dickensian-like world she describes. In her words, Victorian medicine was “the age of agony.”

Victorian era British hospitals lacked cleanliness, to say the least. In one account, a patient was found convalescing in damp sheets covered with mushrooms and maggots. Putrid odors permeated the facilities, as well as the doctors and the medical students who worked within. Operating tables were not cleaned from one patient to another, instruments were not sterilized between patients, and employees’ hands, let alone the wounds of the afflicted, were scarcely washed. Surgeons and their assistants performed grimy operations, haphazardly throwing limbs and flesh into buckets or onto sawdust-covered floors. Literal body snatchers disturbed the dead by digging them up and delivering them to hospital dissection rooms, where men carved them up in the interest of medicine. This is but a sampling of pre-antiseptic conditions.

At the time, surgeons were paid less than those whose job it was to rid the hospital beds of lice and, often, those who chose to specialize in the field were stigmatized. Surgery was considered manual labor rather than medical practice. In part, no doubt due to the fact that, in its infancy, surgery was an absolute last resort primarily comprised of the quick lopping off of limbs. Not only was surgery dangerous for the patient, but for doctors and their assistants. Take, for example, a man who once assisted the aforementioned Robert Liston. Quick with his saw, Liston accidentally sliced three fingers off of the assistant when removing the patient’s limb. Both patient and assistant died of post-operative infection.

Enter Joseph Lister. Born into a Quaker family, it’s somewhat ironic that Lister chose to become a physician, as the Quakers were known for their disbelief in medicine. Fortunately, Lister’s family was very supportive of his medical endeavors. Lister and his father had a common bond–the microscope. Lister’s father made a number of improvements to the device and Lister was one of few students in medical school acquainted with it. In fact, his professors and  contemporaries alike thought the microscope either frivolous or superfluous to medical pursuits. Yet, and thankfully for us, Lister persisted.

While Lister’s predecessors and peers were more interested in treating the symptoms of infection, Lister was more curious about discovering its causes. He spent countless hours peering through the lens of his microscope, viewing, sketching, and painting human tissues, fibers, and the like. He acquired specimens from others within his field, as well as harvested from his own body. He was so devoted to his cause, that he and his wife, Agnes, who was the daughter of his mentor, spent their honeymoon collecting frogs for Lister to dissect. Throughout their marriage, she was often in his study or lab with him, taking notes and essentially acting as his assistant.

Eventually, Lister gained an understanding of infection, of how hospital environments impacted the outcome of procedures and the well-being of both patients and staff. Although his theories were initially rejected by the Victorian medical community, over time Lister was able to prove them and he received a number of awards and recognition throughout his career. Conditions improved, not only in British hospitals, but in hospitals everywhere, as cleanliness became increasingly practiced.

Fitzharris’ narrative of the transformation of Victorian medicine is altogether fascinating, if gruesome and not for the faint of heart nor for the weak stomached. Although she writes in a manner that speaks well to those outside of the world of medicine, I wrote this review after reading this title twice. Trust, it’s a lot to take in and a lot to process.

As always, happy reading.  

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