Bookshelf

Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

A Good Start: The Aussteier or Dowry

by Jeannette Lasansky
Oral Traditions Project of the Union County Historical Society, 1990 (88 pages, paper, $22.00)

A Good Start chronicles the evolution of the dowry, or aussteier, as practiced by rural Pennsylvania-German and Anglo-Saxon farm families from the mid-eighteenth cen­tury to current and similar practices among the Amish. Liberally illustrated, the book shows how the “gifts from home” were – and, for many, remain – part of a complex inheritance system which begins in earnest for both young men and women in adolescence and which culmi­nates near their age of mar­riage. The results of extensive manuscript research among old indentures, family account books, letters and wills are contrasted to the evidence obtained during oral inter­views with members of con­temporary Plain sects. Ceramics, textiles, iron- and tinware, tools, vehicles, grains, animals and furniture forms (such as beds, desks, chests of drawers, tables, chairs and, sometimes, clocks) were among those items considered necessary for “a good start.” Some objects were often marked with names or initials and dates, and they are exam­ined for their dowry associa­tions. This book, an outgrowth of the Oral Traditions Project, is an interesting story of pre­scribed patterns of gift-giving and of gender in the work­place. It is also the tale of the addition of some items, the abandonment of others, and the evolution of yet others. Cultural exchange, the influ­ence of new technologies, in addition to differing family circumstances and personal preference, are all reflected in one’s own start – the aussteier or dowry. These “gifts from home” for young people, both male and female, were called the dowry by the Anglo-Saxon community, or aussteier by many Pennsylvania Germans. Also called “outfitting” and “advancement,” it was consid­ered essential in helping chil­dren make the transition to becoming responsible adults and heads of households. The dowry also symbolized prepa­ration for one of life’s major rites of passage. In a predomi­nantly rural and agricultural society it provided the neces­sary economic foothold for successfully continuing the family business. For some, it might have allowed for social mobility as well. (Its counter­part in today’s society is, per­haps, college education.) In addition, the dowry was part of a complex inheritance system – it was the first appor­tioning of family goods, lands and cash. Inherent in it were parental and community ap­proval and control during the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth century. It inevitably became a tradition central to rural life, but in urban environments the dowry appeared to lose its significance. However, it is still an important aspect in the lives of more traditional farm­ing groups, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. A Good Start examines the dowry as it evolved during more than two centuries in Pennsylvania and analyzes how the practice has evolved and will continue to be enriched by more recent immigrants. The Italians, Slavs and now the Hmong are among those groups who have brought diverse manifestations to this age-old concern with giving children a good start. Today – in the late twentieth century – where it remains a viable tradition, the dowry means the goods females bring to marriage – some traditional, some not. These goods, pro­vided in varying proportions by the girl, her parents, rela­tives or friends mark a rite of passage, as well as a transfer of goods, from the future bride and her family to the groom and his family or the new family unit.

 

The Oldest Delegate

by William G. Carr
University of Delaware Press, 1990 (186 pages, cloth, $29.50)

Subtitled Franklin in the Constitutional Convention, this first (and only) detailed ac­count of Benjamin Franklin’s role in the four months of Pennsylvania’s participation in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 finds his prestige and conciliatory skills essential to the success of the meeting. Although fully occupied with his duties as President of Pennsylvania and community leader, Franklin’s Convention attendance was more regular than that of most of his youn­ger colleagues. While some of his suggestions were politely ignored or blatantly rejected, seventy percent of the elder statesman’s proposals were approved by the Constitu­tional Convention. He success­fully opposed the provision of a final executive veto on legis­lation, supported a definition of treason that made dissent more secure, played a leading role in the crucial Committee on Compromise, argued suc­cessfully that impeachment be a remedy against improper conduct by the executive, and opposed a constitutional provi­sion to require ownership of property as a qualification for voting and for holding na­tional office. Franklin at­tempted, although without success, to deny Congress its power to fix its own salaries. He was in good health, wrote his own speeches, and spoke extemporaneously as occasion required. This book also suc­cinctly describes his involve­ment in the life of Philadel­phia, his relation to other delegates and his position on some of the controversial is­sues of the Constitution. It lists his recorded proposals whether adopted, rejected, or ignored; gives the main princi­ples of government that moti­vated him; analyzes his principles and techniques of conciliation; and summarizes his views on the nature of government. The Oldest Dele­gate also includes a detailed chronology of Franklin’s activi­ties during the Constitutional Convention and a calendar of related events.

 

A Treasury of Amish Quilts

by Rachel and Kenneth Pellman
Good Books, 1990 (128 pages, paper, $19.95)

This volume offers a de­scription and pictorial record of the “golden years” of Amish quilts, and discusses a number of issues which intrigue soci­ety, including why quilting has thrived among the Amish, the characteristics of antique Amish quilts and the making of contemporary Amish quilts, in addition to exploring the unusual ways and customs of the sect. The authors have created a collection of jewel­-like quilts, gathered from Amish communities through­out the United States and Ontario, Canada, which they use to illustrate this handsome volume. Extensive captions detail the date and settlement from which each quilt origi­nated and highlight its particu­lar features of interest. A summary chart gives distin­guishing features of antique Amish guilts made in the oldest Amish communities in North America between 1890 and 1940. One chapter even includes insightful commen­tary by contemporary Amish quilters about their love of quilting. In essence, A Treasury of Amish Quilts is a richly-hued patchwork of brilliantly col­ored textiles and exciting nar­ratives. Illustrations capture the quilts’ vibrant color and energy of design , while the text reminds readers that the quilts are, in themselves, crea­tive expressions of an often misunderstood community. Born of austere and rigidly disciplined communities, these quilts seem to hold se­crets about life, tradition and inspiration.

 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History

by Dan Cupper
Applied Arts Publishers, 1990 (48 pages, paper, $5.50)

The Pennsylvania Turnpike commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Common­wealth’s first major toll route­ – whose critics claimed would only carry 715 vehicles a day, and were later disproved when it actually handled an average of 6,575 vehicles daily during its first year of operation! It is also the saga of the many “behind-the-scene” activities which spawned what its pro­ponents called “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and “America’s Super Highway” (for a full-length account, see “America’s Dream Highway” by Dan Cupper in the fall 1990 edition). Eventually the finan­cial success of the 470-mile long Turnpike sparked the creation of many super high­ways across the nation before the advent of federal free inter­state highways in 1956. (Today, toll-road financing has re­turned as a means of building new roads, and the Pennsylva­nia Turnpike is again building highways needed for eco­nomic revitalization.) Offering a full-length account of the Turnpike, this book begins with a brief discussion of Pennsylvania’s transportation history, including canals and the railroads, and focuses on the failed South Pennsylvania Railroad, whose right-of-way became, a half century later, the key building block of the nation’s first super highway. What makes this book special are the anecdotes and memoirs offered by both officials and motorists, one of whom in 1940 likened the tunnels to “a fairy land.” In addition to numerous vintage black and white illustrations, The Pennsylvania Turnpike features a color portfolio which includes early post card views of the highway, toll tickets and a map. The author concludes his fascinating account with an epilogue, noting that ” America will likely never again see the pace and scale of public high­way construction of the 1950s and 1960s,” adding that the Pennsylvania Turnpike, much like toll roads, “has come full circle.”

 

Pittsburgh Then and Now

by Arthur G. Smith
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990 (325 pages, cloth, $35.00)

Pittsburgh Then and Now portrays the city through one hundred and sixty-one pairs of matching photographs. The subject of each archival image, culled from old books, munici­pal records and library collec­tions, was again photographed between 1986 and 1989 from the same camera position, forming an evocation of the past and a record of urban continuity and change. The book graphically recalls spe­cific locations in the city of the past and compares them to the present, showing both how much – and, often, how little – ­Pittsburgh has changed. Most of the pairs of photographs illustrate continuity with the past, features that have sur­vived during the ensuing decades. A steep residential street in Perry Hilltop, for example, is little changed, and a jagged hillside staircase on the city’s South Side is still in use. Other images document urban change, however. Mas­sive Duquesne Gardens on Craig Street in Oakland is shown in tandem with the present-day University Square Apartments. Photographed in 1935, the old Loew’s Penn Theater on Sixth Street is compared to its modern mani­festation as Heinz Hall a half century later, and the pre­-Renaissance corner of Stanwyx Street and Penn, Avenue is depicted before the dramatic Gateway buildings were con­structed. This photographic journey into the past illustrates how change and continuity have mingled in the city land­scape, revealing Pittsburgh as it has evolved from architec­tural traditions that reflected turn-of-the-century eclecticism to more recent styles labeled “modernist” and “postmod­ernist,” from horse to streetcar to automobile, and from steel mills to high-technology cen­ters. Pittsburgh Then and Now is a treasury of photographic images for those who remem­ber the old Pittsburgh, those who are curious about both its past and present, and those interested in the evolution of a fascinating American city.