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Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln In American Culture

Posted by | December 10, 2014

steven wilsonPlease welcome guest author Steven Wilson, Assistant Director and Curator of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. Mr. Wilson has been with the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum for nearly twenty years, and is responsible for the development of fifteen temporary and traveling exhibits. He moved to Tennessee in 1977 and considers the Appalachian region his home. A novelist, five of Mr. Wilson’s works have been published by Kensington Books. He is currently at work on The Heretic.


Abraham Lincoln is claimed by at least four states, several families, one to two religions, and anyone else who finds Lincoln worthy of emulation. Lincoln would have been amused at his popularity considering his contemporary enemies and even some of his friends labeled him the “original gorilla,” the “Illinois ape,” or a “baboon.”

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.


Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture is an exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum that captures and interprets the material culture of an icon. Commercial, honorary, and commemorative artifacts illustrate the impact of Lincoln on American society. Some pieces, such as the Chia Pet Lincoln, or women’s stocking bearing the image of the 16th president, or Lincoln ashtrays, are tokens. Lincoln medallions, medals, pins, and ribbons were created to honor Lincoln. Posters or counter cards from a few of the many Lincoln movies, television programs, or stage plays, represent attempts to resurrect what many Americans remembered as a remarkable man guiding the nation in the midst of a great war.

Here is something that should be regarded about artifacts. Call them things if you wish, or objects, or relics. Without interpretation and analysis these items are useless, and the museums that hold them, warehouses. Perhaps this view is too harsh, and unfair to those scholars and curators who are diligent in their care and interpretation of the material culture surrounding a theme, a nation, or an individual.

Consider this. Humanity has to be linked to any artifact to give it value. In craftsmanship, creation, pedigree, or circumstance. The 1867 children’s block set “Parlor Monuments to the Illustrious Dead” commemorates Abraham Lincoln. It is one of three complete sets in the world. Two years after the president’s assassination children are encouraged to commemorate Abraham Lincoln with carefully stacked blocks in the parlor of the family home.

Lincoln ceramic and gifts

Although Lincoln is reduced to the status of a souvenir in some cases, or the subject of fine art, he is forever emblazoned in the nation’s consciousness. No rhetoric is as powerful as the fact that the 16th President is an American icon, or more importantly, an international champion of humanity.

This exhibit not only interprets the historical Lincoln, it presents the legendary Lincoln—a figure molded from the collective memories of Americans. Call it the creation of a folk hero, a self-perpetuating myth built on a number of salient points. Lincoln was a kindly man. Lincoln was humble. Lincoln was honest and fair. He freed the slaves. He bound the nation together. Partially true, but then isn’t some truth the basis for all myths?

Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture uses artifacts from three centuries to tell two stories. That of Lincoln, of course, but also that of the American societies who have embraced Lincoln in their own way for their own purpose. America during World War II enlists Lincoln’s aid to defeat the Axis Powers. The first decade of the 21st Century sees Lincoln fighting vampires, and to a lesser degree, zombies. Forty years before these fantastic battles we see a seated, gentle Lincoln, reading to a group of adoring children in a poster distributed to schools across the country. This time the foe is illiteracy, and the victory one of education.

Let’s stretch the two stories identified above to three. In the third Lincoln is interpreted as a citizen of 19th Century America.

It’s true that the souvenirs in the exhibit far outnumber the inspirational Lincoln posters, plaques, or medallions. But they both support an important theme of the exhibit—Abraham Lincoln is a timeless ingredient in the development of the nation. How else do you explain 16,000 books about Lincoln, or thousands of articles? Can one historical figure possibly be that interesting, or have that much of an impact on America? Abraham Lincoln was, as were his contemporaries, a product of the American experience.

His father, as a child, traveled along the Wilderness Road, within sight of the White Cliffs of Virginia, under the gaze of the brooding Pinnacle Rock, and over the Cumberland Gap, into the fertile lands of Kentucky. In 1809, amid the gentle hills of Hardin County, Abraham Lincoln was born. In 1816, “partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of land,” Thomas Lincoln took his family to Indiana. He was a portion of the great national migration that changed the face of the nation. From 1810 to 1820 the population of Indiana grew from 24,529 inhabitants to 147,178. Abraham Lincoln matured on the frontier, but a frontier that drew sustenance from its more established sisters.

Museum marketing oct 2014 047

As a boy, Lincoln recounted in an autobiography, he “had an axe put into his hands at once.” The two were inseparable, like Thor and his hammer, King Arthur and Excalibur. It was the young, scrawny Lincoln however who split more rails at any given time than a dozen men. As a product of the frontier he was expected to clear land, farm, and raise crops. Lincoln grew to despise physical labor. He was drawn to machines. Devices fascinated Lincoln. During his days on the circuit he would slip away from other lawyers just to examine farm machinery. He became an inventor and was awarded a United States Patent for a bellows-like device to lift boats off of shallow river shoals in western rivers. A facsimile of a 19th Lincoln invention proves it was an impractical device. A painting on a 1930’s issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine cover shows Lincoln and a hand carved model of his invention.

If the president had an opportunity to wander around the exhibit, strangely reminiscent of his management still, he would be fascinated by the items that filled the gallery, and by the process that manufactured them. But that is to be expected. The nation that produced Lincoln is the nation that was built on machines.

Consider this.

Many of the items in the exhibit are paper products—posters, counter cards, photographs, and ephemera. During Lincoln’s time high speed printing presses increased the production of books, papers, and other items. This to meet the demands of an increasingly educated middle class. Even Lincoln read Dime Novels, when he tired of Shakespeare, but they came to him, as well as printed materials to millions of Americans, by train. Webs of railroads crisscrossed the nation, linking America as it had never been joined before. Lincoln was the most successful corporate attorney in Illinois, specializing in railroads. The railroads that carried the nation’s commerce were the railroads that Lincoln’s army relied on during the war. Machines that like others, so fascinated the 16th President that he became a champion of the Monitor ironclad, and the Spencer repeating rifle.

The real memory and true accomplishments of Lincoln remain today because they represent the greatness of one individual in a time of great turmoil. No matter how commonplace or silly the artifacts associated with Abraham Lincoln are, or how they are viewed by today’s Americans, they were created, and exist, because Lincoln is embedded forever in the national memory.

Lincoln advertising and art, from the exhibit.

Lincoln advertising and art, from the exhibit.




We didn’t trim a tree at home; we didn’t have any trimming

Posted by | December 9, 2014

“I don’t think I was ever any more excited than on that last day at school before Christmas when Miss Dumire asked three of us girls to untrim the tree. She gave each of us a box and said, ‘Try to put the same amount in each box.’ So we were careful, helping each other as the teacher wanted. Then she said for us to be sure to put some of each kind of trimming in each one. Those soft, heavy icicles and the ropes of tinsel. The glass balls and the red candles clipped to the tree limbs.

When we finished, we set the boxes on top of the teacher’s desk, tied shut. Then at recess she called the three of us aside and asked if we would each take a box home with us so that it would get used over Christmas. Said she would get some new and different trimming for next year. She probably knew, and maybe I even had told her, that we didn’t trim a tree at home, that we didn’t have any trimming.”

“You probably asked for it,” Blanche chided.

“No, no indeed! I never would have done that; but I’m sure she could tell that I was one excited girl over the tree trimming. It was the prettiest stuff I had ever seen. It’s still about the prettiest thing I can think of.”

The reminiscence of this truly bright spot in Mamma’s life now brightened far more than the corner of her little home with the low ceiling and the unlevel floor. This was what home should be for her children and her man. As she opened the shoebox, the eager kids were almost uncontrollable with excitement over the dazzling tree ornaments for their very own tree; she struggled to keep them from spilling the ornaments all onto the floor.

“Now, kids, just you wait; wait till I take it all out here so we can see what we have. Then we’ll trim the tree.”

The kids, watching from perches on the chairs, were fascinated. Ruth and Foster and Franklin oohed and aahed at the sparkling rope and the red balls. Then they all approached the bare, green, beautiful tree, and for a moment it was quiet.


source: “Sugarlands,” A family memoir by Foster Mullenax, McClain Printing Co, Parsons WV, 1980

Christmas+in+Appalachia appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


There’s more than one definition of fruitcake in Appalachia

Posted by | December 8, 2014

Yes, it’s heavy as a brick, and lasts long enough that you can re-gift it year after year without anyone commenting on its shelf life having expired. Blame the Scots.

Early versions of the rich style fruitcake, such as what we know today as Scottish Black Bun, date from the Middle Ages, and were luxuries for special occasions. Slices would have been served on Twelfth Night. The dessert was later known as Scotch Christmas Bun before becoming Black Bun. From the Irish and English some Appalachian residents have come to know this type of fruitcake as Scotch bun, or Dundee cakes.

The heavily spiced, dense, chewy black mixture is made with dried fruit, nuts and whiskey a few months in advance of Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) eating, in order to give it time to mature.

It’s wrapped in a shell of very thin, hard pastry to trap in the flavor over these months. It’s cut into slices for serving, as gingerbread would be, although it’s very different.

traditional fruitcakeOne’s definition of fruitcake in Appalachia depends on one’s ancestry. Folks in the region with English heritage might traditionally flavor fruitcakes with ginger and add candied peel to the dried fruits and nuts, sometimes soaking the cake in liqueurs, not whiskey.

And in German influenced households the stollen served at the holidays is fluffy and breadlike, much closer to the panetone found in Italian homes. Dresdner Christstollen, originating from Dresden, Germany, introduced marzipan into the mix.

“They always had fruitcake for Christmas,” relates Kentuckian Sidney Saylor Farr about her friend Nell Caldwell in More Than Moonshine. “But not your everyday traditional one made of candied fruits and nuts. There was no money to buy such things at the store. Instead she used homemade jams and jellies and preserves, and walnuts and hickory nuts gathered from the woods.”

‘Poor man’s fruitcake,’ by the way, is not fruitcake at all, but rather stack cake, the delicious dried apple cake found throughout the region.

Eugene O’Neill, in his 1914 play, ”The Movie Man,” coined a memorable simile: ”We sure are as nutty as a fruitcake or we wouldn’t be here.” Can the dense brown confection ever shed the stereotype that comes along with being, well, a fruitcake?

And, finally, in the spirit of the season, a recipe for fruitcake from the Capital Scot site; be sure to read carefully!

You’ll need the following:

1 C water
1 C sugar
4 large eggs
2 C dried fruit
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 C brown sugar
lemon juice
1 FULL bottle of your favorite whisky (single malts are best)

Sample the whisky to check for quality. Take a large bowl. Check the whisky again to be sure that it is of the highest quality. Pour 1 level cup and drink. Repeat. Turn on the electric mixer; beat 1 C of butter in a large fluffy bowl.

Add 1 tsp sugar and beat again. Make sure the whisky is still OK. Cry another tup. Turn off the mixer. Break two legs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit.

Mix on the turner. If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the whisky to check for tonsisticity. Next, sift 2 cups of salt. Or something. Who cares. Check the whisky. Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one table. Spoon. Of sugar or something. Whatever you can find.

Grease the oven. Turn the cake tin to 350 degrees. Don’t forget to beat off the turner. Throw the bowl out of the window. Check the whisky again. Go to bed.

Who likes fruitcake anyway?

sources: Appalachian Home Cooking, by Mark F. Sohn, University Press of Kentucky, 2005
More Than Moonshine, by Sidney Saylor Farr, Univ of Pittsburgh Press, 1983

fruitcake Christmas+in+Appalachia Hogmanay appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


All I want for Christmas is a whimmy diddle

Posted by | December 5, 2014

The whimmy diddle (sometimes called a Hooey Stick or Gee-Haw) is an Appalachian folk toy that has been around for centuries. It’s fashioned from two sticks of laurel or rhododendron into a rubbing stick and a slightly thicker notched stick. The whimmy diddle makes a characteristic sound when the one stick is rubbed back and forth across deep notches in the other. A spinner nailed to one end of the serrated stick revolves in response to the vibrations.

By knowing the secret of the whimmy diddle you can make the spinner turn right or left at will, hence, the name “gee-haw.” Of course, you should try to keep time to music. Legend has it these “gee” and “haw” movements also serve as a reliable a lie detector, but if you believe that there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in buying.The gee and the haw commands come from the days when horses and mules pulled wagons and plows.

Today, thousands of wooden versions are sold each year, and a Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle Competition is held every summer at Asheville NC’s Folk Art Center. The top whimmy diddlers receive moon pies and T-shirts. The champion is presented with a certificate, and of course entitled to all the bragging rights.


There wasn’t a prouder boy in all Steubenville when I gave mother that hat pin

Posted by | December 4, 2014

As long as I can remember there has been a Spies Jewelry Store in Steubenville, OH. The one I am thinking of now was on Market Street across from Beall & Steele’s Drug Store. Spies was not ordinarily important to a boy, since it sold only a lot of worthless stuff like solid gold breast pins, shiny diamonds and jeweled combs.

Came a Christmas when I was in the money and I decided to go all out and buy mother a really fancy present instead of giving her one of those fat old pin cushions we made in school, or a button hook with genuine pearl handle for 10 cents from Billy Beerbowers.

By “in the money” I mean I had 75 cents to blow in on mother. The word “Spies” came to mind. In my family it was a solid gold word, denoting the very best. With nose pressed to glass, I appraised the costly wares in the window. Inside, everything was very dignified and quiet, like in church, as fine ladies and gentlemen fingered the watches and brooches.

My head scarcely came to the counter top, but finally Mr. Spies saw me. He was a pudgy little man, and I can still see his disembodied head peering at me thru heavy spectacles. My eye had singled out a tray of hat pins in the window. It was brought out. Some of the hat pins were modestly jeweled with tiny seed pearls, a few with fine filigree work, others plain ovals waiting to be monogrammed.

But one alone took my eye-it boasted a magnificent blazing ruby, as big as a robin’s egg, set in a fancy frame. I was sure it was absolutely genuine. Spies never sold imitations, did they? I asked the price. $1.25. The tag was old and shopworn.

I gazed longingly at the hat pin as Mr. Spies momentarily waited, then he said, “You chuss keep on looking, son, I’ll be back”. Customers came and went. The minutes melted into almost an hour, when the proprietor no doubt began to think about his supper. I told him I wanted this pin but had only 75 cents to pay for it. He suggested cheaper ones, but I said, “I want this very one. It’s for my mother and she won’t think it’s good unless it comes from your store.”

Mr. Spies glowed. He lived for words like that since he was proud of his reputation. His daughter and helper (Miss Lulu or Miss Marie) saw me and whispered to her father. He came around in front of the counter, and saw all of me for the first time.

“You Chimmie Mosel’s boy, yes?” he asked.

“Yes sir, but how about the pin?”

“Vell, I tell you vhat. You chuss give me the 75 cents and take the hat pin. Here, I put it in a fine box for you with my name on it.”

There wasn’t a prouder boy in all Steubenville when I gave mother that hat pin with the blazing ruby on top. She wore it many times, mostly at night, to visit my grandmother or Aunt Emma Ewing, but never to church where there were very many people around.

It never occurred to me to wonder why.

Under the Buckeye Trees, by George A. Mosel, publ. Hamilton I. Newell Inc., Amherst, Mass., 1962

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