Archive for the ‘Cultural Brouhaha’ Category

From the Morning Courier and General Advertiser, (Providence, R.I.), January 17, 1840   Leave a comment

18400117 morning courier, ladiesTO BE READ BY THE LADIES.

We invite the attention of our fair readers to the following explanation of the principal causes of the decrease of marriages. We regret that candor requires us to bear testimony to the fidelity of the picture sketched. It however only exhibits another evidence of the oft repeated fact that the present generation, by pride, luxuries, and false delicacy, have heedlessly trampled under foot the excellent precepts and example of that Spartan band of mothers that flourished in the ‘days of auld lang syne.’ An inordinate thirst for wealth, show and distinction, has perhaps entailed more misery upon the human family than all the vices which flesh is heir too [sic]. The softer sex, whose peculiar province is to amend the manners and improve the heart, should be the pioneers in reforming the follies of the day. They should constantly bear in mind, under every temptation, ‘that worth makes the man, the want of it, the fellow.’

Principal causes of the decrease of marriages. I’ll tell you why young ladies do not go off so frequently as formerly — They are nice and too proud, &c.

I know a young lady — not very young now indeed, who, to my certain knowledge, has refused 15 offers.

One, because the gentleman could not keep a carriage.
Another because he could not speak the French language.
A third, because he knew nothing of the Italian operas.
A fourth, because he stooped in his shoulders.
A fifth, because he had not fortune enough.
A sixth, because he was a tradesman.
A seventh, because he was a tobacco chewer.
The eighth, was too bashful in company.
The ninth, because he wore spectacles.
The tenth was a politician, and did not bestow on her sufficient attention.
The eleventh could not dance, and consequently was a fool in our lady’s opinion, &c. &.

The lady’s own fortune is as follows:

In bank stock
In permanent bridges
Turnpike roads
Insurance company
Money at interest
Lottery Tickets


To which, in cash, diamonds, &c. may be added, 00,000

With a fortune like this, you may judge with what propriety a lady rejects a tradesman, or insists on keeping a carriage. — [New York Star.

Pep Song for Rhode Island   Leave a comment

by Mildred Harris

[With an obvious debt to Flanders and Swann, “Song of Patriotic Prejudice,” from At The Drop of Another Hat.]

Rhode Island? Rhode Island? Rhode Island is where?
Look in New England; it should be right there.
It’s neighbors are huge and prosperous as well.
But Rhode Island has chickens and it’s easier to spell.

Rhode Island is tiny; Rhode Island is small.
Rhode Island’s the littlest State of them all!

It’s proud to be known as State Number Thirteen
From 1790 and all in between.
It flies a State Flag of blue, gold and white.
With “Hope” as its motto, it’s future looks bright.

Rhode Island is tiny; Rhode Island is small.
Rhode Island’s the littlest State of them all!

You can pedal across from the East to the West.
Or walk North to South, whichever is best.
The Ocean State’s beaches draw tourists in droves,
Water sports, sunning and fishing in coves.

Rhode Island is tiny, Rhode Island is small.
Rhode Island’s the littlest State of them all!

Rhode Island is pretty; it’s summers are nice.
Sometimes in winter it’s covered in ice.
The chickens are red and delicious to eat.
And if you like quahogs, you’re in for a treat.

Rhode Island is tiny, Rhode Island is small.
Rhode Island’s the littlest State of them all!

You’ve heard about Newport and nothing much more?
There’s Providence—thrice!—and a whole lot of shore.
Central Falls, Cranston, Woonsocket are three,
Warwick, Pawtucket—and a red maple tree.

Rhode Island is tiny, Rhode Island is small.
Rhode Island’s the State that I like best of all!

Mildred Harris describes herself as a “foreign* admirer of The Littlest State of Them All,” (*as in ‘from one of the other (larger) States’).”

* * * * *

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Posted December 16, 2013 by stuffiex in Cultural Brouhaha, Facts & Folklore

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The Tale of the Clam   2 comments

Comoedia mollusca.
by Two Providence Boys
annotated by David Norton Stone

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To rescue from obscurity a one hundred and thirty year old illustrated poem about a talking clam by two anonymous juvenile authors is not without its perils and difficulties. Today’s reader probably knows, but it bears repeating, that attitudes about Native Americans were not what they should have been in the 1880s. Yes, the authors of the The Tale of the Clam were, by their own account, just boys (respectively seventeen and nineteen or twenty when the book was published), but that is not much of a mitigating factor to today’s reader. So hold your nose when you get to some of the more disturbing stereotypes in this story and enjoy the rest. There are only about a dozen known copies of this book still in existence, all in libraries, but the esprit de clam that animates this book merits its reintroduction to the reading public in 2013.

There are a few curious things about the cover of The Tale of the Clam. For one thing, the story is called Ye Tale of Ye Clam here, but not on the title page following, where it is indentified as The Tale of the Clam. Perhaps the publisher was trying to lend more of an old-timey charm to the book. Additionally, The Tale of the Clam appears to have been a Christmas release for its Providence publisher Tibbitts, Shaw and Company. The Christmas couplet on the cover (“E’en Christmas joys are not complete, Devoid of bivalve’s tender meat”), which is not drawn from the poem itself, suggests that the publisher was hinting the book would make a good Christmas present. There is also something suggestive of the December holiday about the use of the color red on the cover, even if the image of a clam on bended knee pleading for its life to a knife-wielding chef does not scream “peace on earth, good will to men.” The Tale of the Clam is listed in the weekly record of new publications in the January 13, 1883, issue of The Publisher’s Weekly, which described the book as “[a] comic history of clambakes, humorously illustrated.” The price was listed as “25 c.”

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The young authors of The Tale of the Clam were John Henshaw (November 4, 1865 to June 26, 1938), who perpetrated the verse, and Henry B. Dearth (1863 to February 3, 1922), who committed the illustrations. We can only speculate why they published their work anonymously as “Two Providence Boys.” Henshaw was seventeen when The Tale of the Clam was published in 1883, and his obituary in the Brown Alumni Monthly (he was a graduate of the class of 1887) offers this clue: “His grandfather, the late Rt. Rev. John P.K. Henshaw, D.D., was the first Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.” John’s father Daniel was also a clergyman. Perhaps this dignified clerical family did not want its name associated with an irreverent (c)lampoon of Rhode Island history. His obituary does not list The Tale of the Clam as one of Henshaw’s accomplishments, instead focusing on his accomplishments as a lawyer, businessman and “clubman.” However, the obituary states that Henshaw was a “familiar and friendly personality” in Providence. John Henshaw is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

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Who was Henry B. Dearth and how did he know John Henshaw? Henshaw’s obituary tantalizingly quotes Henshaw as saying that he prepared for college “at a great many different places”. Maybe the boys met at one of these schools. Dearth, in any case, was less reticent about his authorship. He added his initials “HBD” to many of the drawings in The Tale of the Clam.

A sub-par scan of the Ryder and Dearth advertisement in Industries of Providence (1889), captured from the Google Books version of the text.

A sub-par scan of the Ryder and Dearth advertisement in The Industrial Advantages of Providence, R.I. (1889), captured from the Google Books version of the text.

While Henshaw remained in Rhode Island and developed into a man of substance in the local community, Henry Bradford Dearth’s life (at least as much of it as can be discovered in the historical record) had a much more dramatic and peripatetic arc, like something out of a Jack London tale. He was the son of William G. Dearth, an officer of the Rhode Island Institution for Savings, and is listed in both the 1870 and 1880 federal census as living in the home of his father in Providence. He followed up his success as an author with a roaring entry into the Providence business community as a partner in his own engraving firm, Ryder and Dearth. A description of the firm in a book called The Industrial Advantages of Providence, R.I., published in 1889, paints a glowing portrait of Dearth and his partner Ryder: “They are both young men, thoroughly masters of their business, courteous and capable, eager to satisfy, progressive, enterprising, yet wisely conservative, with whom it is a pleasure to do business.” The article further boasts that Ryder and Dearth’s photo gallery “is the only and the first one in the State that uses the electric light in the business.” All that conservative progressiveness and electric lights too! A magnificent sample of the firm’s work, an engraving of Ryder and Dearth’s various departments (Designers Room, Wood Engraving Department, the state of the art Photo Gallery), shows an enterprise teeming with activity. This advertisement may also be the only surviving example of Dearth’s artwork other than The Tale of the Clam.

Continued and well-merited success was predicted for the firm, but that does not seem to be how things turned out. Ryder and Dearth appears in Providence business directories up to 1891 (eventually expanding to two locations: 91 Westminster Street and 31 Exchange Place), but then disappears, as does Henry Dearth. From information I have located in genealogical websites, Dearth, who called himself “Harry,” became a world traveler, accumulating many books and souvenirs. He eventually settled in Havana, Cuba, where he worked as an engraver for the Bank of Havana. He married around 1907 and had four children, but appears to have often been in financial distress. He and his family eventually returned to Florida around 1920, with the help of the Red Cross, and Dearth died on February 3, 1922, of apoplexy. His death certificate incorrectly lists his birth year as 1874. His occupation was listed as “painter.” According to the records of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Tampa, Florida, Henry B. Dearth was buried in an unmarked grave in the Potter’s Field there. This is a far cry from the fine gravestone for his co-author Henshaw in Swan Point Cemetery.

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This invocation is rather grand considering what follows. The illustrations on this page do not bear Dearth’s distinctive style and may not be his.

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By this Greeting, The Two Providence Boys were clearly positioning their book to the widest possible audience and were eerily prescient in their confidence that the word “quahog” would become known worldwide. I wonder if the “rocky shoals” referred to here is a veiled reference to Rocky Point.

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Clambakes certainly were Rhode Island’s pride in the nineteenth century. At a clambake, clams are placed on hot rocks and covered with seaweed and then cotton bags to keep the steam in. Dragons were not traditionally used to cook the clams, but I’m still happy Dearth included an illustration of clams battling a dragon.

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This is my favorite page in the book, thanks to Dearth’s cartoons illustrating the “Digging of the Clam” and Henshaw’s comical exposition of the difficulty of digging up the clam. I love the timeless portrait of the Rhode Island shore, sailboats, gulls, a little piping plover, as well as the glimpse of beach fashions of 120 years ago, which were somewhat more formal than today.

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Dearth’s engraving of the scholar surrounded by clam books, including “Plato on the Clam” is good, silly fun.

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And here lies the crux of the tale. The clam learns he is about to be fried in a clamcake, and decides to “speaketh” to avoid such a fate.

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It must be pointed out that the Two Providence Boys were not stellar students of history. The historical personages mentioned in The Tale of the Clam do not align with the date 1684, which seems to have been randomly chosen. King Philip died in 1676 and peacefully “snoozled” in 1684 only in the sense that he was dead. It is best to read the poem as amusing nonsense rather than as the true story of anything, including the origin of clambakes.

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Canonicus was the peaceable sachem or chief of the Narragansett tribe, who welcomed Roger Williams to Rhode Island.

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The only thing I like about Dearth’s illustration here are the clams. I do, however, approve of Henshaw’s rhyming “sedate” with “masticate.”

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The portrait of the little clam in school here is precious.

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Dearth outdid himself with a drawing here of Canonicus being spanked by his mother, surrounded by the implements she used in doling out punishment: her hand, a shoe, a paddle, a cat o’ nine tails, a whip, and a branch! Ouch.

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The comedy on this page is the contrast between text and image. Roger Williams is described as “pious,” but he’s sitting in a tavern door smoking and drinking impiously. Even his cat is drinking.

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Accusing the Indians of swindling Roger Williams is so over the top wrong, given their generosity to him and the many general bad deals Native Americans received to induce them to sell their land.

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“Clammy handed” is an adjective that could be applied to many Rhode Islanders.

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The game of painting stones green to look like watermelons is not one to which I can find any other reference. Henshaw’s text says it was quite old, though it never had a name. We’ll have to take his word for it.

Note that Dearth’s illustration here references the Kickapoo Medicine Agency. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, which marketed its patent medicines by claiming they were composed of roots and herbs from tribal recipes, opened a storeroom in a Providence hotel in the early 1880s, featuring actual Indians and a simmering pot in a teepee. It is tempting to think that John and Harry visited The Kickapoo Medicine Agency, providing a spark to their imaginations and, perhaps, Native American models for Dearth’s engravings.

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This far-fetched talk of heating the painted stones is needed to explain the origin of baking clams over hot rocks in a clambake. Roger Williams has exchanged his pilgrim hat for a soldier’s cap in Dearth’s illustration.

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This for me is the toughest page to tolerate in the book. The violence done to the Narragansetts here cannot help but summon thoughts of the Great Swamp Massacre in Rhode Island. Roger Williams is done a disservice here as well. He had great respect for the Narragansetts and his first published book was a guide to their language.

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I can’t help it. The baked clam in this illustration makes me hungry. My conscience is assuaged by the image of the sacrificed clam flying away on angel’s wings.

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Run, little clam, run.

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The clam narrating this tale thinks having his body fried in a clamcake is an ignoble way to die. I say that depends on the clamcake. Like a lyric poet of old, the clam holds a lyre in Dearth’s illustration.

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Our hero who discovered the talking clam looks much thinner and younger here at the end of the book than he did at the beginning digging the clam. He’s even a little dashing. I wonder if this is a self-portrait of Harry Dearth. Notice that the talking clam is reunited in death with his brother who was eaten by Roger Williams. Henshaw’s bishop grandfather would likely have been pleased with this ending.

“Our epic ends, the tale is done, /The clam is gobbled up.” My hope with this republication of The Tale of the Clam is that the story of The Tale of the Clam is not done and that it will find a new audience.

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Scans of an original (rebound) copy of Ye Tale of Ye Clam by Two Providence Boys are courtesy of the Rhode Island Collection of the Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.

coversDavid Norton Stone is the author of Clamcake Summer (2012), Stuffie Summer (2013), and the forthcoming Chowder Summer. A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Yale and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Stone lives in New York City and Warwick, Rhode Island, and once worked at the former Rocky Point amusement park, which made some world famous, and sorely missed, clamcakes.

Nineteenth Century Clamcake Humor   Leave a comment

Clamcakes from Iggy's Doughboys and Chowder House, Warwick.

Clamcakes from Iggy’s Doughboys and Chowder House, Warwick.

Frittering away.
by David Norton Stone

Clamcakes are delicious. There’s also something amusing about such a homely looking and improbable food, and people were laughing about clamcakes even in the 1800s.

In fact, the first reference I located to a clamcake (as opposed to a clam fritter) in print is in a book called My Diary in America in the Midst of War by George Augustus Sala, published in 1865 in London. The reference is a joke of sorts. Griping about the lack of mystery in American religion while attending a Fourth of July political celebration in New York City, Sala complains that “The ‘Episcopal Methodists’ have ‘hot turkey supper celebrations’ and the ‘Church of the Holy Trinity’ advertises a ‘clam-cake feast and strawberry ice cream festival.'” Nowadays, the funniest thing about this is the notion of clamcakes being served in New York.

Magazines are the most fertile source of clamcake humor. Here’s an example from Puck‘s “Puckerings,” with a vintage of August 8, 1883:

A man left the surf at Cape May not long ago, and rushed up to the cottage in which he boarded. They had fritters on the table. “Give me another clam-fritter,” he said, after he had finished the first. The plate was passed to him. He took one, ate it, and said: “Give me another clam-fritter.” He got another, and said, this time to the landlady: “Will you please pass the clam-fritters?” “Them ain’t clam-fritters,” replied the lady. “Ain’t clam-fritters?” gasped the boarder. “No.” “Then what are they?” “Corn-fritters.” “Well, I’m blowed!” said the guest: “I ate seven of them, and thought they were full of chopped clams.” After luncheon the landlady remarked to her sister that the surf was such an appetizing affair that corn could be palmed off on bathers for chopped clams, and that stewed tripe passed for chicken fricassee, and that she would make enough money this season to take her to Europe in the winter.

A seaside scene from the August 27, 1859 issue of Harper's Weekly.

A seaside scene from the August 27, 1859 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Clamcakes (or at least a corn imitation) in Cape May, New Jersey! This story reminds me of jokes that you still hear today about the difficulty of finding an actual bit of clam in a clamcake. But there are some people who prefer their clamcakes relatively clam-free and who prefer the merest hint of seashore taste in their fritters. In fact, a friend of mine likes to say, “There’s no crying in baseball, and no clams in clamcakes.”

Nineteenth century humorists enjoyed making fun of the numerous ways clams were enjoyed in Rhode Island (and elsewhere). Take this “Out of Town” item from the August 1889 Judge’s Serial:

At a Stamford Hotel.
Guest: “Bill-of-fare, waiter.”
Waiter: “Bill-of what?”
Guest: “Bill-of-fare.”
Waiter: “Wait’ll yerget yerfare, an’yer’ll be blamed sure to git a bill of it. What yer want?”
Guest: “What have you?”
Waiter: “Boiled clams, clam fritters, stewed clams, fricasseed clams, roast clams, clam patties, chopped clams, clam hash, and clams.”
Guest: “Give me some plain clams.”
Waiter: “Now you’re talkin’. Peck’r nudes in a bucket, Jimmy.”

No one disputed that clams and fritters belonged together. The February 14, 1889 edition of The American Stationer told this Valentine of a story: “Miss Clam, of Bad Man’s Gulch, Ariz., recently married a Mr. Fritter, and now she has her cards printed ‘Mrs. Clam-Fritter.’ This marriage could not possibly turn out a failure. The lady was good enough and sweet eno’ to eat.”

The Shore Dinner Hall at Rocky Point, circa 1907. From the postcard collection of Louis McGowan.

The Shore Dinner Hall at Rocky Point, circa 1907. From the postcard collection of Louis McGowan.

A Rocky Point clambake, circa 1907. From the postcard collection of Louis McGowan.

A Rocky Point clambake, circa 1907. From the postcard collection of Louis McGowan.

The writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about a Rhode Island clambake he experienced on August 15, 1871. Nine years earlier, Higginson had received a letter from a shy young woman named Emily Dickinson enclosing some poems. Tom told her they had promise, but warned her not to try to publish them because she used too many dashes and her poems were a little weird. So Tom continued his life as a celebrated author, while Emily Dickinson toiled in obscurity in Amherst. To this day, the name Thomas Wentworth Higginson is synonymous with bad career advice. Is it any wonder then that this same man dissed Rocky Point clamcakes?

Here we are soaking up a day at the Rhode Island shore with Thomas Higginson, while poor Emily Dickinson never even saw the sea. Higginson is in conversation with a shore dinner waiter from Rocky Point:

He had served tables, it appeared, at Rocky Point, the climax and glory of “shore” places; he knew what waiting should be; he knew what to exact from his humbler fellows, and by what taunts to rouse their flagging ambition. He pointed out and encouraged those who excelled, and gave me the names and genealogies of the more eminent waiters, and especially of the chief of staff at Rocky Point, who could carry on his arm no less than sixteen plates of clam-cakes “to wonst.”

“The baked clams,” he obligingly told me, “is the only clean things to these dinners. You won’t get a waiter to eat a shore dinner; they know too much. Have their separate meal. Pie and tea.” [What a picture!].

—”A Day of Scottish Games” by T.W. Higginson, Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. 3-22.

Telling Emily Dickinson not to publish was strike one against Higginson in my book. Strike two is that he sums up his clam bake experience by telling the world that he hopes he never has to attend another one. Even though he has eaten moose, bear and alligator with pleasure, he is just not into clams. By the way, the clamcakes at the meal Higginson wrote about were served for dessert! That’s pretty funny itself.

The favorite discovery I made in the course of my research into the annals of clamcake humor is an extremely rare (I know of only eight copies that exist) and entirely forgotten book called The Tale of the Clam, An Historical Reminiscence of Rhode Island, Explaining the True Origin of Clambakes. The authors are “Two Providence Boys.” This work was published in Providence by a company called Tibbits, Shaw & Co. in 1883.

The cover of this slender book (just a longish, illustrated poem really) shows a clam kneeling in front of an aproned chef, who threatens the clam with two long knives. A book called Cookery of Clams is in plain view next to the chef. With the type of swagger all of us Rhode Islanders adopt when writing about bivalves, the Two Providence Boys call it an “epic” and begin with the obligatory tribute to the muses. The story begins in the 1800s with a man on the beach digging for a clam. After a lot of effort, he pulls the clam from the muck. The man is flummoxed about what to do with his prey, but decides that the best course is to chop him up and fry him in a clamcake. But this is a talking clam. In pleading for a nobler death, he tells his tale. It’s a first person plea from the clam asking to be spared the fate of being chopped up and fried in a clamcake.

Could the talking clam be related to the magic clam that, according to legend, helped found Quahog on Family Guy?

Could the talking clam be related to the magic clam that, according to legend, helped found Quahog on Family Guy?

This long-lived clam narrates a bizarre story about King Phillip and Roger Williams, that purports to explain the historical accident that led to the first clambake. One day in the 1600s, the Wampanoag sachem Metacom, or King Philip as he was known to the colonists, went to visit his mother. She was hungry and asked Philip for a clam, so he dug up the unnamed clam who is the star of this epic, as well as his younger brother. Philip gives the clams to his mother and leaves to go hunting. In the meantime, some other Indians have played a trick on Roger Williams by trading him a skunk pelt. In retaliation, Williams steals the clams from Philip’s mother. The Wampanoags paint a stone green and heat it up, then throw it at Roger Williams hoping he will think it’s a watermelon, and pick it up, burning himself. Instead, Roger puts the little brother clam on the rock, and little brother then bakes to death. This, according to the Two Providence Boys is the historical origin of the clambake. But our history lesson is not over yet, because Roger Williams then proceeds to dice up the Indians. The illustration of the body parts rather disturbingly looks like clams diced for a fritter. The older brother clam, meanwhile, runs as fast as its little clam legs will take him, across Narragansett Bay, where he had evaded capture until his current calamity.

His tale over, the clam pleads for mercy. In particular, he begs that he and his liquor not become the clam and seashore flavoring in a clamcake. The man takes pity and swallows the raw quahog whole, like a cherrystone. “Our hero puckered up his lips,/ And whistled for his pup;/ our epic ends, the tale is done, the clam is gobbled up.”

It’s hard to say what’s more insensitive, the text or the illustration, to the native Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians they lampoon. Even Roger Williams has his halo tarnished. Some of the illustrations, however, are simply amazing, evoking the carefree spirit of a summer day, with the flair of French Impressionism. It is clear that this Providence Boy had talent, and it is not surprising that this book found favor with a publisher. But who was he and did he continue to work as an artist? I may be the only person alive to have figured that out (or who cares).

I had a couple of clues. The library’s catalogue actually identified the Providence lads as John Henshaw and Henry B. Dearth. I asked the librarian if there were any record of where they came up with those names. From their records, the attribution came from the National Union Catalog of Pre-1956 Imprints, a mammoth listing of books catalogued by the Library of Congress and other libraries. The cataloguer lifted the information from there, as the library doesn’t do its own cataloguing. The trail was cold.

I then tried to see if I could discover anything about John Henshaw or Henry B. Dearth. Perhaps I was right to spot promise in those drawings. There was a celebrated American painter named Henry Golden Dearth, who was born in Bristol in 1863. In his later years, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and, after winning prizes for his landscapes of the Normandy Coast, spent winters in New York city and summers in Normandy. I wish my research budget allowed to travel to Normandy to find his house and studio in Montreuil-sur-Mer, along the English Channel. An appreciation of his work that appeared in Century Magazine in 1905 praised his painting “Sunset in Normandy for its “almost naive arrangement of trees, earth and sky, the cattle being the merest suggestions.” It would not be any surprise that this dignified painter put his boyish tale of the clam behind him.

But his middle initial was G and not B. What are the odds that there were two artistic boys named Henry Dearth running around Rhode Island in the 1800s? Well, it turns out there were. Unfortunately, the historical record on Henry B. Dearth is not as complete as for Henry G. However, I have located an advertisement for the firm of Ryder and Dearth, Designers, Engravers, Printers & Electrotypers, located at 91 Westminster Street in Providence. The advertisement is full of funny sketches of the Designers’ Room, the Photo Gallery, the Wood Engraving Department and other aspects of the enterprise. There is no question that the boy who made the pictures for The Tale of The Clam grew up to be the man who made the drawings for this advertisement. The sense of humor is as recognizable as the artistry.

Grave of John Henshaw at Swan Point Cemetery, Providence.

Grave of John Henshaw at Swan Point Cemetery, Providence.

John Henshaw, who wrote the poetry, graduated from Brown in 1887 (in the same class as Theodore Francis Greene) and, in a loss to light verse, later became a lawyer in Providence. It gives me pleasure to unmask the identity of these once anonymous, naughty Providence boys who, in my opinion, were the greatest Nineteenth Century clamcake humorists of all.

There is only one animal with a lifespan long enough to have been laughing at clamcake humor from the 1800s to today. That is the quahog itself, which has been found to live as long as 400 years.

coversDavid Norton Stone is the author of Clamcake Summer (2012), Stuffie Summer (2013), and the forthcoming Chowder Summer. A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Yale and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Stone lives in New York City and Warwick, Rhode Island, and once worked at the former Rocky Point amusement park, which made some world famous, and sorely missed, clamcakes.

Big Hair   Leave a comment

On the trail of a Rhode Island fashion phenomenon.
by Tracey Minkin

[The following article originally appeared in the January 1991 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]

* * * * *

'Bang Tsunami.' Illustration by Christopher Martin.

Big hair… big hair… big hair.

It haunted me like some sort of conspiratorial secret handshake. Here I was, new to Rhode Island, doing my level best to eat New York System wieners, locate Leo’s on a city map, and remember which bridge connected which damn island, and I hadn’t spotted any big hair. Lord knows I’m looking. I prowled the streets, looking for wild, vertical, careening coiffures that would live up to that simple but loaded label.

Well, as they say in politics, expectations are everything. While I had my eyes trained upward, hoping to spot high-altitude bouffants straight off a B-52s album cover, I was apparently missing the real thing right under (or actually, a bit above) my nose. A friend pointed it out to me one night at the Warwick Showcase Cinemas. She, a Rhode Island native, directed my gaze to a pack of teenagers. “That,” she said authoritatively, “is big hair.”

So this was it? But this wasn’t so big really as it was extreme. What I saw was frontal-attack hairstyling: bangs poised, claw-like, on girls’ foreheads, curls pumped up into exaggerated silhouettes. It wasn’t hair. It was architecture. It was theater. It was mesmerizing.

I had to know more. It was kind of like art, people told me: you knew big hair when you saw it, and it was a Rhode Island phenomenon whose epicenter was found in Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence: the Golden Triangle of Big Hair. But when it came to details — the hows and whys of big hair — everyone came up blank.

I went to the pros, and started to get some real answers. Miss Mary, an instructor at Costin’s Warwick Academy of Beauty Culture, rattled off a taxonomic model as though she had it written down next to the phone: “There are three types of big hair,” she said. “Spiral perms, the spike look, and the big tease look.” The common link was hairspray. Lacquer hairspray with names like Vavoom and Stiff Stuff. Lots of it.

It’s a teen thing, I was told, with tendrils into the fledgling college years. When the sun goes down, look for it at nightclubs such as Barry’s in Warwick and Club Confetti in North Providence. And yes, it certainly is a Cranston-Johnston-North Providence phenomenon. Robert Lombardi of Dellaria Salons in Cranston’s Garden City hazarded the sociological assessment that everyone else was ducking. “It’s a middle class thing,” he said. Lombardi laid out the scenario: style-hungry kids with not a lot of expendable income see big heads of hair on MTV and in the movies, and they try to do it themselves. Lombardi can spot a big hair case as soon as she walks in the door and utters the telltale words: just a trim. “I try to talk them out of it,” he said, “or at least show them the right way, so they don’t look absolutely ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, I was getting so good at spotting big hair, I believe I’ve discovered a new variation. I call it the El Capitan. It’s a reversal of the claw — a girl takes her bangs, and instead of yanking them forward and spritzing them into place, she sweeps them up and back, way up and back, forming a vertical wall, like the face of a cliff.

Whaddya know? Big hair is mutating, it’s adapting. Despite fashion trends that whisper short hair for spring, I think big hair may continue to prosper here in the Golden Triangle for an indefinite period. Lombardi, the philosophical stylist, agreed with me and put it in perspective. “Look,” he said, “there are people out there who are still doing the Hustle and wearing gold chains.” Perhaps the Big Hair Era has only just begun.

Tracey Minkin has written about Rhode Island places and people for regional and national magazines for more than twenty years. She lives in Providence’s Fox Point with her two kids, who are real Rhode Islanders.

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Editor’s Notes

Cartoon by Charlie Hall © 2006, used with permission.

Cartoon by Charlie Hall © 2006, used with permission.

Ocean State Follies, Rhode Island’s premier comedy cabaret, has been poking fun at our state’s foibles since 1992. Two recurring characters are Chevyl and Vhonda, a pair of big hair geniuses with sexy Cvaanston and Johnston accents who run a salon on Mineral Spring Avenue in Nort’ Providence called Slut Cuts. Even nearly twenty years later these stereotypes are still recognizable and eminently mockworthy. Since this article was published in 1991 only the styles have changed; the aesthetic remains. We proffer the following evidence:

Dave Gilmartin, in his 2006 book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America, cited Cranston as one example of the nadir of human civilization. Selections for the book were based on submissions from people all over the country, such as this one from a woman named Pam Oakman: “AquaNet and hair salons will never go out of business as long as Cranston exists. Big hair and nails are still in style there, like it’s New Jersey circa 1987 or something.”

In a 2006 article for the North Providence Breeze, comedian Frank O’Donnell did the math and found that North Providence had more hair salons per capita than any other Rhode Island municipality — one salon for every 490 residents. Johnston and Cranston came in second and third with one salon for every 512 and 524 residents, respectively.

In 2009 the MTV reality show Jersey Shore debuted, spotlighting eight vain and vapid twenty-somethings sharing a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Among them was Johnston’s Pauly DelVecchio, a club DJ with a super-gelled slicked-up tuffet of hair that immediately became known nationwide by its owner’s name. God help us, but it’s true — people have actually been requesting the “Pauly D” at their local salons. Pauly’s MTV bio notes that he “keeps a tanning bed in his house. He orders gel by the case and does his hair twice a day — once in the morning and once before hitting the town.”

So it would seem that the Golden Triangle continues to exert an influence over the hairstyling decisions of the youth of Johnston, Cranston, and North Providence.

Leo’s, by the way, was a popular bar and grill located on the corner of Chestnut and Clifford Streets. Because its clientele was heavily weighted with the literati of Providence, the Phoenix‘s Phillipe and Jorge dubbed it the “Providence Night School of Journalism.” Leo’s, Barry’s Nightclub (1473 Warwick Avenue, Warwick), and Club Confetti (393 Charles Street, Providence), are all long gone.

Hey, did you have big hair in the ’90’s? Do you still have big hair? Send us a picture! This article needs illustrations!

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