Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Historical Myths: Age at Marriage and at Death

the wedding of Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

We know that women usually married as teenagers back in the day, right? Well, age at marriage was, and still is, a function of time, place, race, religion and culture. Marriage in Europe and the Colonial United States was based on a man's ability to support a family. When land was scarce or economic conditions poor, some couldn't marry at all. In the modern US, the female marriage age has crept up as women achieve education and career employment. My mother married at 27 years in New York, 1953; her mother at age 26 also in NY, 1923; her mother at age 24 in 1885 in Vermont. My great-grandmother on another line married at age 37 in Massachusetts, 1894. Her husband was 40. First marriages for all.

not my family but they look like fun people!

The post-famine Irish typically married at an older age, and hundreds of thousands not at all. My great-grandparents mentioned above who married at 37 and 40, were Irish immigrants. The pattern shows up in all of my Irish lines. It is thought that the reason for this was due to the lack of arable land with which to support a family. Yet that pattern continued once the Irish moved to the US to work in factories and on building railroads. Non-marriage has been an Irish scourge. My great-grandfather was one of nine children, and the only one who ever married.

not my family but I wish we had a photo this charming!

Early death was a common curse in past centuries. Families were devastated when a child died. What had greater negative effect was the death of a parent with minor children. Besides the emotional grief, there was danger of these families breaking up. Children were often separated and placed in different families, or in orphanages. But. I've seen statistics claiming that the average life expectancy in 1900 America was in the mid-40s.

Katie Cannon, who runs the website Historic Myths, says, "You hear this one all over the place: “Everyone died young back in the old days,” or “You were lucky if you lived to age 40,” and so forth.

"You can crunch some numbers and certainly come to this conclusion, but the big problem with this is infant mortality. If you include the (generally high) infant mortality rate of early America, life expectancy plummets. However, if you calculate life expectancy past infancy and childhood, people in historic periods could expect to live to ages not that different from today.

"In Massachusetts in 1850, an infant at birth could expect to live 38-40 years. Pretty bleak, right? But, if that same infant survived to age 20, he could expect to live another 40 years, to age 60. Quite an improvement! Compare that to the Center for Disease Control statistics for 1998, in which a person’s life expectancy at birth was 76, and at age 20 was 77, hardly any difference because we’ve managed to sharply decrease mortality in infants and children. And remember, “life expectancy” does not mean everyone suddenly drops dead at that age. There are plenty of people today who live past 77, just as there were plenty in 1850 who lived past 60.

"Here, for example, are the ages at death of the first 10 presidents of the United States, from oldest to youngest: 90, 85, 83, 80, 79, 78, 73, 71, 68, 67. Most of them were older than the life expectancy in 1998! And, since those are all men, here are the ages of their wives at death (John Tyler married twice, so there are 11 women accounted for): 89, 81, 77, 74, 71, 69, 62, 61, 52, 36, 34. Almost half made it into their seventies at least; of those under 70, five died from disease (including 2 strokes) and one from the complications of childbirth. True, in general they were not as long-lived as their husbands, but it’s still a far cry from the bleak “dead-at-forty” report you may have heard.

"The big killer, as you may have noticed, was disease. The age of antibiotics changed many things, and today far more infants are expected to reach adulthood, so the average life expectancy has indeed gone up. But, old folks were not an endangered species in early America!"
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Myths of History, Part 1

your immigrant ancestor did NOT change their name at Ellis Island

Historical and social myths float around and snare plenty among us. I'm a historian and may or may not have fallen for a few fictions in my time. Here are a few common myths which I will now debunk. These are a burr under my saddle.

all are scrubbed clean and smiling; I wish that was the truth

A common social myth:  Life was so much better for children in the past. Oh dear. "Little House on the Prairie" has become entrenched in our psyche. How very tragic childhood once was. Children expired in droves from diseases we now prevent with vaccines or treat with antibiotics. Safety measures in vehicles, on playgrounds, and in the home have prevented maiming and deaths of children. We regret that children are no longer encouraged to run wild and free, yet maybe that wasn't a great idea anyway. Too many suffered harm due to lack of supervision. Children once played in the railroad yard around moving trains and dangerous equipment, horsed around at home near red-hot wood-burning stoves, and jumped off high bridges into swollen rivers. Poisonous substances were routinely used around home and farm, and house fires trapped young innocents. Maybe you were careful, but your neighbor might not be. What a heartbreak for me to be in the midst of a research project and see a death register or gravestone listing every one of the children in a family.

George Washington's magnanimous act of owning up to cherry tree destruction is a famous American historical myth. We believed it as children, then were shocked to discover it was not true.

All Americans know the first Thanksgiving was at Plymouth a year after the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. They set up hand-hewn banquet tables and invited all the Native Americans they could find, right? Ummm, no. Evidence of a harvest feast exists, with local Indians attending, but it was certainly not a Thanksgiving dinner and celebration of gratitude as we practice it now. Thanksgiving as an acknowledgement of blessings was created during Abraham Lincoln's presidency. There is no harm in having fun with the myth, as long as we know the truth.

In past generations married women stayed home with their children.  Women's Lib movement paved the way for employment in the 60s and 70s.  Not really. As with many social standards, female employment outside the home was a function of time, place, culture, race and religion. And need. My great-grandmother worked as a nurse circa 1900 after her husband died at age 40. My grandma worked for S.S. Kresge beginning in the 1930s to help grandpa put food on the table, and my mother went to work about 1968 for the local school district after her children were all settled in school. The Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro Vermont and M.J. Doyle Printing Company in Holyoke Massachusetts are two companies I personally know of that relied on female employment, even of married women. The difference between then and now is that women can expect career advancement in their field.

People didn't used to move (change residences) like they do now. Seriously, why would anyone think this is true? I hear it regularly in my work with people seeking out their family history. It appears this myth comes from the fact that because we have better transportation and greater opportunity for locating new employment, we move more often. But think about it. In the past folks were not as burdened with 'stuff.' If they found cheaper rent, well then, off they went to the new digs. In cities with a surplus of tenements, landlords could offer several months free rent to entice tenants. A family could live almost rent free, and some did, by constantly moving for the freebie. New work positions often passed by word of mouth, and folks were not averse to moving for a new position immediately; two weeks' notice was not a thing until about mid-century (20th). Very few owned their own homes in large eastern cities and rents were collected weekly. Folks could move on a dime. People were as mobile in the past as we are now.

Women were barred from owning property before modern times. I've seen many deeds issued to women purchasers of land and property in the 1800s, in parts of New England. Again, time and place matter, and culture, race and religion affected public policy all over the world. In plenty of places restrictions dis-allowed women from land ownership and other advantages, just not always, and not everywhere.

And now, Ellis Island:

It is commonly heard that a person's ancestors had their names Americanized at Ellis Island. They may have been born Wiznewski, but the kindly immigration agent felt sorry for them, and gave them the surname Wise. This one is 100% untrue, yet I not infrequently hear it repeated in a firm, factual tone by a third or fourth generation American who has not dived deep enough into their family history to know any different.

In the 'old country,' which refers to an immigrants homeland, the names of those leaving for the US were entered onto the ship manifest using the spelling they commonly used. Those manifests were carried to the port in America, and immigrants were processed using those manifests. With hundreds, and later thousands of immigrants passing through ports every day, the exhausted agents could not possibly worry about the spelling of a name. It was not in their job description.

Here is how immigrant names were actually simplified: the immigrant changed it himself, either formally or informally. My Grandpa came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. His surname was Bubnas, with a hacek over the letter "s," giving the end sound of 'sh.' Sometime between 1920 and 1930 Grandpa began using the spelling of his surname that we commonly use now, Bubnash. His life was probably less confusing when his surname's spelling conformed to English sounds. There are endless examples of these kinds of changes. Szorokacs became Sorokes or Sorokach. Pehanics became Pehanich, Maczko became Matsko, and so on.

Immigrants were also known to simplify their surname to one that sounded similar in English. Or they could completely abandon the old for a name they liked the sound of. A friend of mine with the surname Scorup told me that her ancestors were Danish Christensens. And there were so doggone many Christensens that when they saw the name Scorup somewhere, they adopted it, definitely distinguishing themselves from the oodles of Danes all around them.

Note: Hundreds of myths are listed here

Monday, November 26, 2018

Puzzles and Pysanky

We brought a couple of puzzles to Finland to do with our grandies. Several of them really got into them. Even some of the neighbor children enjoyed working on them. It was a hot summer, so sometimes sitting indoors in the middle of the day felt just right.

Around Easter time we do pysanky at our house, only our Finn girls are never at our home at that time of year. So, we hauled pysanky supplies to Finland. The two girls and a couple of their friends participated. I think they enjoyed it!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Korpoo, an Island in the Finnish Archipelago

Scenes around Korpoo

the viewing tower gave us a bird's-eye view of the archipelago

love this sign! if you plunge to your death it's your own fault!

more Baltic Sea therapy for my foot; I had three foot surgeries in the months before coming to Finland; my foot was not entirely healed, and the Baltic waters did it some good

the moose warning was not on the island, but closer to Bridget's house; I love this sign enough to covet it for my family room wall

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Ferrying Through the Finnish Archipelago, Summer 2018

We spent several days enjoying the Finnish Archipelago. There are over 20,000 islands. We visited every blasted one. Haha, not really. We took many ferries from island to island until we reached Korpoo where we had overnight reservations in a complex of small cabins on the sea. 

It was fun to cross each rural, scenic island to catch the ferry at the other end. Bridget's car fit two bicycles on top. She and Craig did a lot of riding, and I did some using her bike. Sometimes on landing on an island, two of us would ride the bikes to the next ferry while the other drove the car. All three grandies were with us.

Road trip!

Clever warning of ferry up ahead! We got used to waiting in line for the ferry, and guessed how many of the cars were going to fit. Though not large, the ferries hold more vehicles than you'd think.

A couple of ferry approaches.

Our car was easy to spot. Larger ferries had multiple decks, with cars below, passengers above.

We enjoyed the shimmering day on the Baltic.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Jousting in Finland

This summer we watched two jousting tournaments in Turku! One was a free demonstration in a field by Turku Castle. A large area was roped off so spectators could sit on the grass around the ropes. The wood lances used were constructed with perforations every few inches. They were meant to snap on impact rather than impale and harm an oncoming rider. 

The second jousting show was in an arena at the Medieval Market, an annual event held between the cathedral and the Aura River. We bought tickets and found good seats on the bleachers. The woman in the first photo was sort of an emcee, the person who told the story of the knights and ladies who acted out the scenes. Naturally, there was a bad guy and a good guy. 

The horsemanship displayed was fantastic. The beasts were in tune with their riders, could stop and twirl on a dime, and they didn't seem to fear the lances. 

All of these photos are from the paid show inside the arena.

The show began with a parade of knights and their horses. The caparisons (horse's sheeting) was stunning. These are heavy duty horses! They must be bred special to carry an armored knight. The armor is genuine.  Notice their shields are concave to catch the point of the lance to prevent injury.

I have no photos of the actual jousting. But uh-oh. This knight was unseated from his horse and very hurt. He was on the ground for a while. Eventually his helpers removed the armor piece by piece, and all of the under-lying padding. He was helped to his feet and was able to hobble off the field. An ambulance was standing by. Later on it was announced he had a separated shoulder and a few other injuries. 

After the show the knights and ladies stayed around to talk to the spectators, answer questions, and show off their period clothing and gorgeous mounts.

If it appears this knight is drowning in sweat, he was. What a hot summer Finland had. He is probably suffering terribly in that heavy armor.

The beautiful standards were displayed near the tents where the participants camped out.

The medieval Turku Castle provided the backdrop for the demonstration tournament.