blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mozart's Mother

Before Mozart’s Birthday—January 27, 1756—six other siblings had been born to Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart. Their story is a sad one, but not uncommon for that time.  The Mozarts’ first child, a son, lived for six months. After that, each succeeding baby lived but a few weeks, going from Baptismal register to Register of Deaths in quick succession.  Today we can barely imagine this kind of outcome, or the fear that would grind out nearly every other thought by the time of delivery. The physical stress of poor nutrition and non-existent medical care would be as hard to endure as the grief when, one after another, newborn babies died.  Nannerl, Anna Maria’s  fourth child, was the first to survive infancy. (Born in 1751, she lived until 1829.) Two more infant mortalities later, Wolfgang, the seventh and final child, was born.
To his friend Jakob Lotter at Augsburg, Leopold wrote:
“…Moreover, I must inform you that on 27 January, at 8 p.m., my dear wife was delivered of a boy; but the placenta had to be removed. She was therefore astonishingly weak. Now, however (God be Praised) both child and mother are well. She sends her regards to you both. The boy is called Joannnes Chrisostomos Wolfgang Gottlieb.”
Mozart’s mother lived the home-bound, subservient  life of an 18th Century Frau. We don’t really know much about her, except that she seems to have had an earthy sense of humor (like her son) and that she adored her children. We can easily understand the physical state she was in by the time of Wolfgang’s delivery. Since her marriage, nine years before, she had carried seven pregnancies to term.
Leopold to Jakob Lotter:
“…I can assure you, I have so much to do that I sometimes do not know where my head is. Not, to be sure, because of composition, but because of the many pupils and the operas at court. And you know as well as I do that, when the wife is in childbed, there is always somebody turning up to rob you of time. Things like that cost money and time.”
Frankly, I’m glad that control freak Leopold couldn’t violate custom and keep Anna Maria’s visitors and well-wishers away. I think, by this time, she deserved a cheering section. Both of her children, Nannerl and Wolfgang, would prove to be musical prodigies. We treasure the music Wolfgang left us, but who knows what glories Nannerl would have created too, if only she’d been allowed to continue studying, traveling and performing like her brother.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Women’s Fashion Trends That Are Too Ugly to Die

By Barbara Yaga
When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of fashion trends come and go. You might not believe it to look at me now – what with my long, stringy gray hair, milky cataract-infused eyes and the obligatory wart on my nose – but at one time, I was quite the fashionista.

Granted, that “one time” hearkens back to the first Reagan administration, but my selective memory is still sharp enough to notice something: that the most hideous of women’s fashion trends for some reason keep coming back, like the arm reaching out of the grave at the end of “Carrie.”
An example: You youngsters out there probably don’t associate big, black-rimmed plastic glasses frames with anything but hipsterism. But when I was a kid, these were the exclusive eyewear of choice for science teachers and guys working the consoles in the NASA control room. Nobody cool wore horn rims: all the hip kids were wearing John Lennon wire frames and later, aviator glasses (another trend that’s made an “ironic” comeback amongst hipsters—and/or Chloe Sevigny).
I asked several fellow crones, huddled around the hearth in their thatch-roofed huts, what fashion trends of their youth they most regret, and the response was overwhelming. They mentioned many things: polyester pantsuits, flowing ties on women’s suits, harem pants, crop tops and anything made in a synthetic fabric known as Qiana, for starters. Luckily, these
once-happenin’ trends are long gone. But a few other trends that we repeatedly
remembered with regret are back in the fashion vanguard, if not the mainstream.
Such as:
High-waisted jeans. My daughter got the first three seasons of “Saturday Night Live” on DVD for Christmas, and I’ve been watching them with her. In my rosy memory of this show, I’d completely forgotten the first-season R-rated Muppets segment, some really awful home movies, and the horror that was high-waisted jeans, or high-waisted pants in general.
There are the female comic icons of their time -- Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Madeline Kahn, Candace Bergman – all wearing pants with the waistband hitting right around the top of the sternum.

The legs of these pants were wide and belled and, if made of denim, frequently “accessorized” with some malignant form of applique, such as flowers or Peter Max-type designs. (In case you don’t know, Peter Max was a ‘60s-‘70s pop art designer whose work looked like what would happen if My Little Pony ingested too many rainbows, then puked all over the Lucky Charms

The high-waisted look of the late ‘70s is not to be confused with that truly hideous trend of a decade later: baggy, high-waisted jeans which tapered to the ankle, a design tactic that made the wearer look like one of the popular icons of the time—no, not Madonna, but William “The Refrigerator” Perry. (Full disclosure: I had a purple pair.)
And yet, like all monsters, just when you think they’re dead, some dumbass resuscitates them for a sequel. Yes, high-waisted, big-legged jeans are back. As are...
Shoulder pads. Oh, how we laughed at the 1940s-era pictures of our mothers, with their big frizzed hair, clown-red lipstick and shoulder pads. Just take a peek at any Joan Crawford
movie from the times and you can guess why Mommy Dearest despised wire hangers (they probably got caught on the massive shoulder pads).

For some reason we stopped laughing in the mid-‘80s, when once again, big, frizzed hair, red lipstick and shoulder pads made a comeback (just watch any John Hughes movie for a hot, heaping helping of this particular mess).
And another fashion trend from the past that's back:
The “Little House on the Prairie” look. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, girls going to prom
and brides had two choices in formalwear: they could look like disco divas or Victorian schoolmarms, with very little variance in between. By far the biggest purveyor of the latter look was dress designer Jessica McClintock, first with her Gunne Sax line in the ‘70s and later with her eponymous line of higher-end duds.
Kids today who hear “Victorian” in connection to women’s clothes are probably thinking, “Cool! Steampunk!” But these outfits were actually a kind of anti-steampunk. There was nothing goth, black or sinister about them. They were ruffly, lacy, and white or pastel or floral printed. There was no cleavage, no plunging backlines, nothing to suggest sexuality in any form.
Instead of strapping on a pair of goggles and flying a steam-engine-powered dirigible to rescue William McKinley, the gals who wore these dresses looked like they were about to get tied to some railroad tracks.

Jessica McClintock is still around. According to the corporate website, Jessica designed the dresses with “skills she learned from her grandmother.” (Gee, I'm shocked.)
Her current designs for bridal and formalwear don’t look any different than anything you’d see at – the obligatory strapless satin look. But back in the day, every self-respecting Sister Goldenhair was sporting one of these numbers for formal dressup.
And yet the prairie look is back, at least for the cutting-edge vintage crowd. Hip-ass Etsy lists more than 1,500 Gunne Sax dresses for sale, now categorized as “vintage” and available for a whole new generation to wear to prom, ironically or not.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Contraception: Civil War Style

In the decades before the Civil War, there was no organized movement to advocate or control contraception. Freethinking printers and publishers began spreading the word about reproductive choices. Fruits of Philosophy by Charles Knowlton was copyrighted in 1831 and originally printed anonymously. The advanced scientific writing on women's anatomy and reproduction was an innovative work. His response to moralists was that "Mankind will not abstain." In December 1832, Knowlton was arrested for obscenity.

Fruits of Philosophy went through many editions and by the 1850s was found in nearly every section of the country. Although some of the science was incorrect by today's knowledge, Knowlton was a visionary, predicting overpopulation problems and suggesting that women take control of their reproductive health.

Until Margaret Sanger coined the words "birth control" in 1914, there was no standard term for family planning. In the nineteenth century, metaphors such as "limitation of offspring," "preventatives," and "regulators" were used. Devices and methods had an equal number of euphemisms, including "womb veils," "wife's protector," and "female preventatives."

Coitus interruptus or "withdrawal" was commonly used in Victorian America. In 1831, Robert Dale Owen published Moral Physiology. He publicized the technique with his pamphlet, writing candidly and without many of the euphemisms characteristic of the era. Douching was another common method, both as a contraceptive and as an abortion technique. By mid-century, "prevention powders" and expensive bottles of "toilet vinegars" were sold commercially.

In the 1840s, the rhythm method was introduced. Unfortunately for many women, the most common advised time of coitus in the 1850s through the 1870s was right at the time when they were most likely to conceive. In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber which gave rise to the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Before this time, condoms were made from animal membranes and had been associated with the stigma of being a preventative for syphilis in the brothels. Due to improved technology and lower costs, rubber condoms came into widespread use during the 1850s.

Womb veils were cervical caps or diaphragms. By the 1860s, these contraceptive pessaries were advertised under a variety of names, including "French shields" and "womb guards." Secrecy and non-interference with sexual pleasure were promoted with their use. Why secrecy? Not all men were reliable with coitus interruptus or in wearing a condom. As well as that, some men were unsympathetic to a woman having reproductive control.

Contraceptive sponges were mentioned in the advice literature as early as the late 1700s. Opinions varied as to a sponge's reliability, but they became commercially available by the mid-nineteenth century. Druggists sold wide varieties or a woman could buy a sponge of the correct size and attach a silk thread to make her own.

As in modern times, abortion was a controversial subject during the nineteenth century. While the exact abortion rate is impossible to calculate, historians agree that the number escalated from one abortion in every twenty-five or thirty live births to one for every five or six births in the 1850s and 1860s. The law as to when a fetus became a full-fledged person has been argued over for centuries. Antebellum Americans adopted the medieval common law from Thomas Aquinas that the soul entered the fetus at the time of quickening or with the first movements.

Originally, lawmakers believed that abortion was mainly utilized by unmarried women to avoid disgrace. But by the late 1830s and early 1840s, abortifacients became a commercial business. "Regulators" or "preventative powders" came in the form of pills or fluid extracts for a woman to induce an abortion in the privacy of her home. Along with drugs, abortion instruments were readily available through mail order and drug stores. "Female physicians" cropped up in urban areas with Madame Restell among the most famous, running a mail-order business and abortion service from the 1830s through the 1870s.

During the Civil War, women were forced into many nontraditional roles. Yet little notice has been given to reproductive control during the era. Contraceptive knowledge became public before the war, and with a growing awareness of science and choice, demand came about for better methods that paved the way for modern birth control.


Brodie, Janet Farrell,Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1994.

Grossberg, Michael, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Knowlton, Charles, Fruits of Philosophy: An Essay on the Population Question, 3rd new ed., with notes. 1878 reprint ed. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972.

Tone, Andrea, ed., Controlling Reproduction: An American History. Wilmington,Delaware: SR Books, 1997.

Tone, Andrea, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York:Hill and Wang, 2001.

Kim Murphy

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How I Met Alexander Hamilton

For his birthday, our least appreciated member of the American Trinity:
Washington, Jefferson -- and Alexander Hamilton, the "bastard brat" who didn't start life
owning a plantation.
Hamilton was the man who miraculously managed to pay off a crippling war time deficit budget,
encouraged the introduction of new, innovative industries, and figured out how to run a brand
new radical social experiment on a shoestring by minimally taxing--gasp--the rich!

 (Where are your inheritors now?)

In a dim '50's bookshop,
where a huge, bad-tempered charcoal
cat with yellow eyes glared in the sepia shadow
of a fly specked window,
I found you.

A worn olive drab
with a bold gold title
on antique spine, the date, 1902.
Mother must have bought you,
because the cost was a whole $2.

There was a black and white
reproduction of
a painting by Trumbell,
and there you were!

You—ecstatic, thin, red head thrown back,
face shining, 1776 on fire!
No wonder your new friends,
fellow aides-de-camp to the great
George Washington, nicknamed
you “The Little Lion.”

Accustomed to escape like this,
I read and read, oddly compelled to
struggle through a dense jungle
of Edwardian prose,
the work of a once lauded,
but now forgotten
Lady Novelist.

Oh, but how well she knew you!
Baby-faced orphan who withstood the scorn
of a world where you were “baseborn,”
who held on somehow,
to your God Inside.