The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine. She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity. She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.
Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying. Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.
In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored. Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions. Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee. The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free. So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.
In the Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute is a placard describing a special pie that George and Martha Washington are thought to have served on Christmas at Mount Vernon.
First make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot over, and will take at least four hours.
I puzzled to imagine the result of this outrageous recipe: a stew in a deep pot, swimming in butter? Weren’t the Washingtons cooking up a food-borne disease? The realities of their experience, though, turn out to have been far more pleasant and sophisticated; to an informed sensibility, the virtues of their Christmas Pie were considerable indeed.
In November 1786, Washington’s old friend and military aide, David Humphreys, wrote the retired general regretting that he would “not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pie at Mount Vernon.” Afterward, Washington replied that he could have used Humphrey’s “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes . . . on which all the company . . . were hardly able to make an impression.”
Ivan Day’s research into food history illuminates what the Washingtons’ Christmas pie looked like and how the dish was actually consumed. The recipe above, meant to be eaten cold, was for a standing Yorkshire pie well known throughout Georgian England. According to an interview Day gave to The Hill, the crust served only as a standing vessel for the meats and was not meant to be eaten. Instead, the crust and the thick seal of butter encased the meat, preserving it air-tight, not just for days but weeks. The main ingredients, spiced and tightly packed inside one another, created concentric circles in the cooked pie when sliced. When the pie was ready to be served, the top was broken off and guests feasted on the terrine-like concoction resting inside. (For representative pictures, click here,here, or here.)
Victorian-era illustration featuring meat and game pies.
The Yorkshire pie was a towering work of gastronomy and ‘a universal favourite at Christmas time.’ Making such a pie demanded time, ample resources, and patience, but the result was a showy presentation of the choicest meat delicacies, baked in a fashion that sealed in their flavors.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the Yorkshire Christmas pie, which remained popular for at least a century, became a calling card of the powerful and wealthy. The Washingtons’ recipe, from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1784), explains that
This crust will take a bushel of flour. . . . These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore the walls of the crust must be well-built.
The Washingtons’ pie was not just massive and delicious, but a sign of their means and their ability to bestow largesse on other people. Around the same time, the future English abolitionist William Wilberforce was arriving at a similar understanding. Then a student at Cambridge, “he was truly hospitable,” for “there was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms, and all were welcome to it,” according to R. V. Taylor, in his Yorkshire Anecdotes, or, Remarkable incidents in the lives of celebrated Yorkshire men and women.
There is something particularly wonderful about gazing on the Nativity as presented in the Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche. Housed in a small, darkened gallery on the museum’s second floor, the crèche is displayed in a way that heightens its inherent magic and mystery. The effect owes something to the dramatic glass case that contains the nativity scene and the splendid cornice above it: their beaming draws viewers near to inspect the fantastic spectacle framed within their proscenium. Before this gigantic dollhouse of a crèche, adults stand and stare as if they were kids.
The urge to represent Jesus’s birth in a ‘living way,’ whether through tableaux vivants, Christmas pageants, or three-dimensional crèches has spanned more than a millennium. While two-dimensional depictions of the nativity date from within several centuries of Jesus’s death, the history of the crèche is associated with the work of Saint Francis of Assisi. Legend has it that, around 1223, he originated the custom of re-enacting the story of Jesus’s birth using human actors along with live oxen and ass. This tradition of pageantry grew and became intertwined with the custom of creating of lasting sculptural representations of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the unlikely birth of Jesus in a stable, an event whose significance was apprehended, according to Gospel, only by angels, shepherds, and three wise men.
By the 18th century, when most of the Art Institute’s crèche was made, the artists of Naples had pushed the art form of crèche-making to unprecedented heights. Patrons commissioned the artists to make crèches for palaces and cathedrals, encouraging the growth of a genre that became ever more elaborate and expansive. The Art Institute’s crèche includes some 250 figures—an amazing array of mortal and heavenly beings, all shaped, painted, and outfitted in lifelike detail.
Significantly, the crèche integrates the transformative moment of Jesus’s birth with the ongoing drama of human society. Naples was cosmopolitan, and the crèche includes people of many sorts and nationalities. As a host of angels and cherubs flutters down out of a hand-painted sky, and as Mary and Joseph beam on their newborn son, the surrounding human family parties on. The crèche’s conflation of past and present, its melding of spiritual joy with the worldly, is very much in keeping with the transcendent possibilities told of in Christmas’s original, earthy story.