icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle



Fieldwork Update

Immature hemp in a planting near Starksboro


Since my last post on this blog page I've been able to schedule and complete one full round of fieldwork, conducted over a period of eight days in mid-July. (I also took a little time off for vacation immediately afterwards!) I should note that I tend to schedule fieldwork in one- or two-week increments, which enables me to immerse myself more fully in the fieldwork process, achieve some measure of momentum to drive that process, and quickly follow up on any leads I've developed within the timeframe of a given round of fieldwork. 


In this most recent instance, I visited various farms and other sites throughout northern Vermont, including brewery taprooms. Throughout I engaged in conversation with hops and grain farmers and other producers of raw materials for craft beer (and mead and cider), also talking with brewers, barkeepers (and their customers), beekeepers, foragers, and others who have a relationship to the craft beer industry, along with the mead and cider industries. At this early stage I'm focusing mainly on developing a network of leads for follow-up later on, as people become available for meetings and interviews. I'm also interested, at this early stage, in outlining broad parameters, i.e. the scope and shape of project content, in order to develop a functional conceptual map. And of course, I'm doing mapping of the more usual kind — locating the sites of various activities relating to this project and identifying any geographical patterning among those sites that may prove significant in some way.


During this most recent round of fieldwork I was able to schedule and record two interviews – one with a hops farmer who also taps maple trees and produces syrup, and the other with a former dairy farmer whose farm, though still privately owned and operated as a family farm, collaborates with the University of Vermont to conduct research on various experimental crops.


Together these interviews provide important information on some aspects of farming in Vermont, such as agricultural diversity within a given farm, and on emerging trends in non-dairy agriculture throughout the state. Given my interest in hops farms and farming, I was also interested during this field trip to have firsthand experience of an increasingly visible and possibly related trend – hemp farming!  Hemp farms are no longer hidden or otherwise protected from public view; they're beginning to appear along roadsides, cropping up variously on the landscape in Shoreham and Starksboro and Ferrisburg, among many other places.


Unsurprisingly, brewers and their customers have begun to consider introducing hemp into craft beer. In fact, some experiments along this line are already underway, though hemp doesn't appear to be forming a significant new direction in brewing at this time. In addition, some dairy farmers are devoting acreage to the hemp plant in order to diversify their farms sufficiently to enable them to continue milking cows, by providing a hedge against continuing low milk prices. Hemp provides returns to farmers in the first year of planting, unlike hops, which can take up to three years before a marketable crop can be harvested.


I'm in process of transcribing those two initial interviews and once completed, will offer the transcripts to interviewees for review, and for permission to eventually deposit them with a reputable local or regional archive. Ultimately I plan to transfer all documentation produced by this project to an archive that adheres closely to all currently accepted professional standards and practices – the Vermont Folklife Center comes immediately to mind, but there are others – in order to preserve the information and make it accessible to students, researchers, and to members of the general public with an interest in the subject.


More soon…



Be the first to comment

Hops Preliminaries

1875 map of Hardwick, Vermont, published by F.W. Beers & Co., showing the location of a "hop yard" on or near property owned by B.P. Colier, above Hardwick Center



Adam Krakowski has pointed out that Vermont was an important locale of hops farming during the 19th century, with production peaking around 1860, then entering decline through the rest of the century. Various factors contributed to this decline which, alongside the challenging nature of hops agriculture, included the gradual diffusion of hops farming to the Midwest and West in the latter part of the 19th century, and perhaps also the Temperance movement somewhat later on. But during the heyday of hops agriculture, Vermont produced more hops than any other state except New York.


Even so, as Krakowski notes, hops farming was a gamble in Vermont, especially if the season was too rainy. It seems that sugaring, the more traditional crops such as potatoes, oats, and wheat, and grass raised for hay to feed livestock, were more reliable mainstays for local farmers. Following its demise, hops farming would not be revived until a full century later, in the mid-1980s, amidst the surging craft beer movement.


Henry O. Woolley farmed about 136 acres in northern Vermont, near the town of Derby. According to his 1865, diary, Woolley followed an unsurprising pattern of agricultural activity. He or members of his household chopped and hauled wood in winter, sold corn, threshed oats and beans, and "broke" or opened the roads as Spring arrived. For example, as sugaring season approached, on 10 March 1865 Woolley "Went to mill/Broke road to Sugar house".  On Monday the 20th, Woolley purchased a sap pan from a neighbor who was perhaps a local merchant, and on Tuesday 21 March he began tapping maple trees. Woolley's entry for March 25th notes that he "Gathered sap and boiled all day", persisting in that activity nearly every day through about 10 April, after which he sowed oats and wheat, and planted potatoes.


An aside on sugaring: According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (available online by subscription at www.daredictionary.com), the term "sugar place", used to denote the site where tapping and boiling of sap take place, is virtually unique to Vermont; it has been recorded in parts of New Hampshire, but mainly in those places bordering Vermont.* The diaries I read at VHS, including Woolley's, use this term without exception. "Sugar place" appears in printed and archival sources from as early as 1825, through the 20th century; then as now, hops farmers may tap maple trees and boil sap in addition to growing hops. Needless to say, maple syrup is often added nowadays to craft beers, hard ciders, and some distilled spirits produced in Vermont.


Woolley records the first hops-related entry of that year on Saturday 25 May, when he notes that "Plowed hops/fore noon".  Over the course of the following week he "scattered Hop poles" and on the 16th and 17th he "set Hop poles" and "finished Hop holes".  By the 25th, Woolley had "Finished sticking Hop poles & worked in garden". These entries reflect the principal method of cultivating hops, which involves setting cedar poles in the ground and stringing wires to facilitate the climbing hop vines, which grow rapidly and aggressively. According to herbalists, the hops plant is dioecious, meaning that a given plant may contain either male or female flowers, but not both. The female hops plant, not the male plant, is used for brewing beer.


On the 19th and 20th of June he "howed [hoed] the Hop yard" and also hoed corn and potatoes, and around that time also sowed turnips. Woolley writes that he put ashes on the hop yard toward the end of June, and two months later, on 28 August he notes that he "Commenced picking hops", which activity continued for a few days, till September 1st. Woolley mentions hops only once more that year, when he notes on 17 November that he "plowed below the hop yard", a chore that was probably unrelated to hops cultivation on the Woolley farm.


It's unclear how much production Woolley derived from his hops acreage, or indeed, just how much acreage he devoted to cultivation of the hops plant. I was unable to review all the extant Woolley diaries at VHS, which cover the years 1865, 1870, 1871, 1873, 1876, 1877, and 1895, though I was able to go through the 1877 diary, which contains references to hops farming that are similar to those of the 1865 diary. Woolley records having "stuck hops" on Saturday 8 June of that year. Interestingly, he records having "Cultivated hop yard" on June 14th, and also that day, writes that "Mrs. Horton tied hops", suggesting that for the 1877 season, at least, he'd hired someone to help with gathering and processing of hops. Other entries provide a little more information about hired help, as for example on Saturday 1 September, when Woolley writes, 'rained/carried the hops Girls home".


It seems that Woolley may not have cultivated hops on consecutive years, or every year.  Skimming through the 1873 diary, for example, I saw no mention of hops in the entries for that year. By 1894, Woolley records what appears to be a valedictory entry, possibly indicating that he's no longer growing hops. On Wednesday 2 May he writes, "Planted a few potatoes by hop house"; there are no other references to hops for that year.


*Discussing maple sugaring terminology, Hans Kurath suggests as much in his classic A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, where he reviews the various maple sugaring terms that have been in use in the northeast: "New England itself has a variety of expressions. Maple grove is little used in areas where such groves are located, but it is common in southern New England from Boston to New Haven, especially in urban areas. Upland Maine and eastern New Hampshire have sap orchard, northeastern Vermont and the adjoining parts of New Hampshire have sugar place, the greater part of Western New England sugar orchard. Sugar orchard is used also on the lower Merrimack and, though less commonly, in other parts of Eastern New England. It is rather striking that none of the local New England expressions have survived west of the Hudson River." (p. 76)


A few words about oasts:


This word, "oast", designating a sort of kiln where hops are dried, was commonly used in England but appears to have been relatively uncommon in North American speech. Interestingly, "oast" does not appear at all in the online Dictionary of American Regional English. This is a telling absence. Instead, the word "kiln" may have been more widely used, though "oast" was probably known here, given that English publications on hops culture were imported and distributed in this country, according to Michael A. Tomlan in his book, Hop Culture in the United States. In fact, one of the diaries I read at the historical society in Barre makes at least one mention of a "hop house", which I assume to have been a structure, whether makeshift or purpose-built, where hops were processed and dried. The word "oast" doesn’t occur in these 19th century documents, though it must have been known in this country given the influence of the English manuals, whether or not it was used in everyday speech.


Still, the word is interesting, perhaps because of its seemingly exotic nature, though oast has a long history in English, going back to at least the 11th century. It appears in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary as āst, where it's defined as "kiln" though the entry also cites the word "oast" in quotation marks, indicating that āst eventually developed into the latter form. The etymologist Walter W. Skeat suggests that "oast" is a "purely English” word, and following certain developments in the written language, was probably originally written as dst, changing to "oast" later on -- much as dc became "oak", and dr became "oar".


Oast probably goes back even farther, however. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the root form for "oast" is ai, whose original meaning is "to burn", but this source confirms that, in developing as an English word, ai later became āst, and eventually, oast. The word indeed appears to be narrowly distributed within the Germanic family of languages, mainly to Old English. It doesn't appear, for example, in any of the Scots dictionaries I've looked at.


Oast may have fallen out of use at some point, or perhaps was never part of everyday speech in this country. But for whatever reason the word isn't entirely obscure. On meeting recently with Kevin and Karen Broderick in East Hardwick to discuss their hop yard, Kevin later showed me around the property, pointing out his harvesting apparatus, his pelletizer, and his hops drying set-up. I don't think that Kevin volunteered the word, but when I asked "So this is your oast?", he without hesitation replied, "Yes". 



I'm appending a selection of entries from Henry O. Woolley's 1865 diary, which relate mainly to the cultivation of hops. According to Adam Krakowski, 1865 was likely the apogee of hops growing in Vermont. He suggests that production probably peaked around 1860, based on his review of 19th century US decennial census returns.



May 1

"Sowed Wheat on the old hop yard"


[Woolley records doing additional work on the wheat ground here and there on following days.]


June 21

Sowed turnips


[Early March — "broke" roads (plowed and opened roads)]


10 Fri March

"Went to mill

   Broke road to Sugar house"


20 Mon March

"Bought sap pan of [S Kisner?]"


21 Tues March 18

"Taped [tapped?] Sugar place"


25 March Saturday

"Gathered Sap and boiled all day"


[Woolley continues gathering and boiling sap through about 10 April, then sows wheat and oats, and also "borrows" potatoes and plants them.  Note: I read somewhere that it was common practice in some areas to plant potatoes on hop yards to improve hop yield, which were planted later in the year on the same ground.]


7 Saturday May

"Plowed hops

 fore noon"


[On following days Woolley works some with hops and oats, then on the 13th and 14th (Friday and Saturday) he notes that he "scattered Hop poles", and on Monday 16 May "set Hop poles" and on the 17th "finished hop holes" then visited this uncle.]


24 Tuesday May

"Finished sticking hop poles & worked in garden"


[Woolley hoed the hop yard on 19 June, and finished work in the hop yard on the 20th; then went visiting both days.  Around this time he's also hoeing corn and potatoes.]


Wednesday 28 June

"Sold hops for 12__[?]"


Friday 30 June

"put ashes on Hops and Corn"


Monday 28 August

"Commenced picking hops 

killed sheep";  [it appears that Woolley slaughtered sheep until 1 September]


Friday 17 November

"plowed below the hop yard"  [this is the last entry for hops in the 1865 diary]


Be the first to comment

Hops Hemp Herbs*

Humulus Lupulus in the Linnaean classification, otherwise known as Hops


Some random but loosely connected thoughts in initiating this series. I first encountered the word oast while doing fieldwork in Charleston, South Carolina. There's a craft brewery and taproom there called Edmund's Oast, a popular place featuring good beer in plentiful variety, great food, and a convivial crowd of regulars. That one evening, as I sat at the bar waiting out a tornado warning, I sipped a perfectly made negroni that was available there on tap. Which seemed strange, though as I thought about it I recalled having a decent red wine drawn from a spigot at a bar in the Adirondacks, and thinking it over still more, I remembered imbibing an excellent boulevardier, pre-mixed in quantity and tapped to order from a small keg at the Farmhouse Restaurant in Burlington. Back then in Charleston, however, oast wasn't part of my vocabulary. Until recently.


Over the past few weeks I've begun working on a new project, whence I hope to produce some writing for publication on this website and elsewhere. But first, some background. Some years ago I'd written an article for American Public House Review, published online at americanpublichousereview.com (I've posted that article, Tessaro's, in the "Works" section of this website.) Which gave rise to a thought. After relocating to Burlington and setting up as a writer, it occurred to me that, given the robust nature of the craft beer industry in Vermont, and the many taprooms and pubs offering Vermont ales, that I might write a series of articles on those pubs and taprooms for that selfsame online publication. So far, that hasn't panned out – it's not clear whether APR is still publishing articles these days. Undaunted, I decided to develop the series anyway.


I've mentioned that I'm a fieldworker, and that I've made a living doing contract ethnography for many years. But I may not have mentioned that fieldwork has been a constant source of inspiration for me, feeding my writing and providing a sense of connection that isn't available to me sitting solo at my desk. So then, seeking to hit upon a workable balance between writing and fieldwork, I decided to approach the new project ethnographically, and venture forth once again into the field. Of course, given the nature of the project my first question was, what's at the back of beer? What provides the distinctive taste experience of a well-made ale? Of course, that's an easy question to answer: HOPS!


The really interesting discovery, however, which is widely known but was unknown to me until recently, is that in some cases, the hops used to brew local beers are sourced locally, from growers in Vermont. As it happened, this interesting tidbit would provide entrée into what was already emerging as a viable fieldwork project: identify local hops growers, visit their farms, and explore their relationship to the local brewing industry. That would make a good start to what I believe can be developed into a much larger project.


Before launching into fieldwork, however, I wanted to learn more about local beers. As it happens, there exist a couple of fine books on the subject. The one by Kurt Staudter and Adam Krakowski is especially good, detailing the history of craft beer in Vermont, rendered more or less chronologically, beginning with the first pub to open in Vermont -- in Burlington as it happens -- then covering the many subsequent developments till recent times (their book was published in 2014). That first brew pub, by the way, is the Vermont Pub and Brewery on College Street, established in 1988 by Greg Noonan and still going strong. (Noonan himself wrote an influential text called Brewing Craft Beer, published in 1986.)


Staudter and Krakowski's book is Vermont beer: History of a brewing revolution. (Interestingly, though purely coincidentally, their book was published at Charleston, South Carolina, where I myself first learned the word oast!) Adam Krakowski has also researched 19th century hops production in Vermont, under the auspices of a grant from the Vermont Historical Society, who published his results in their journal, Vermont History (Volume 82, No, 2, Summer/Fall 2014). Needless to say, Adam Krakowski's work is foundational.


I felt, however, that my approach would be different, providing a more comprehensive and possibly more in-depth perspective on craft beer and other artisinal products grown or produced in Vermont, by focusing on the many individuals who contribute in many and various ways to the presentation of Vermont terroir. Beginning with hops farmers, I could gradually widen the project's scope to encompass much related activity, such as grain farming (for use in distilled spirits as well as beer), malting of grain, distilling, and maple sugaring (a common ingredient in Vermont beers and ciders, especially during the sugaring season). I could also explore the very interesting worlds of beekeeping (important in flavoring some beers and some distilled spirits, not to mention the array of products made from honey), and herbalism more generally, including research into hemp farming -- because hemp and hops are closely related botanically.


Hoping to learn whether anyone was already engaged in such a project, I got in touch with Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont, who offered to circulate a brief description of my project to members of the Center's listserv. I provided something to Richard, and he quickly sent it out. That message has already produced a number of very helpful responses. I later revised the text a bit, and have since sent it along to other individuals as a way of introducing myself and my project to them. I'll wind this post down by including the most recent version of that introductory message:


Query for Hops Hemp and Herbs Fieldwork


I'm a folklorist and oral historian with lengthy experience as a contract ethnographer, working in communities throughout the northeast and other parts of the country for nearly 40 years.  I've recently relocated to Vermont on a full time basis.  While doing exploratory fieldwork here, I've become interested in hops farming in the region, though my plan is to gradually expand the project to include grain farmers and maltsters who supply the craft beer industry, and to clarify that network of relationships.  In addition, I also want to explore farming or foraging activities somewhat related to hops, under the broad rubric of herbalism — the hops plant ( and botanically related plants such as hemp) is well known to herbalists besides being of long-standing interest to brewers.      


Having begun working on this project, I'd be interested in learning about others who are working or have worked with communities of farmers and foragers in Vermont, either directly or tangentially while working on other projects.  More immediately, I'd also be interested in knowing of any contacts or leads among hops growers and grains growers statewide, and related processors.  I suspect that the hops and hemp growers community in particular is relatively small, with hops playing a minor role within the more diversified agricultural or horticultural activity of smallholders.  At some point I expect to widen the hops research to incorporate work with brewmasters, and do fieldwork at sites of consumption such as taprooms and brew pubs.


I want to emphasize, however, that alongside the hops project I hope to significantly broaden and deepen that work to develop relationships with herbs growers, wildcrafters, foragers, and herbalists, especially those community-based individuals who function within longstanding and somewhat localized traditions of botanical knowledge and practice.  


I'd appreciate having any information or suggestions that readers of this query can provide.  For information on my background, please visit my website at tdcarroll.com. I've only just begun to  build the website, but expect to begin incorporating Vermont fieldwork there in the relatively near future.


In my next post, I'll introduce some historical material gleaned from research I conducted in the archives at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, in this case relating to hops, though I plan to do archival research on related topics as this fieldwork project unfolds. In that next post I'll also revisit the subject of oasts.


*Hops Hemp Herbs is my working title for this project.

Be the first to comment

What's so special about Paterson?




In this post I reflect on a question that's been on my mind for many years – the special nature of my hometown of Paterson, New Jersey – and briefly explore the reasons why people feel so deeply about the city. Given the shared nature of the question, I touch here upon psychogeography, which, coupled with what I believe are powerful and affecting symbolic forces in play at Paterson, help to create an authentically singular place.


A Chat with the Mayor


I've always felt that Paterson is a special place. An authentically singular place. While working on the Paterson project for the Library of Congress, I had the opportunity to meet with then-mayor Bill Pascrell, who has since gone on to Washington to serve in Congress. We met in his office that day of our meeting, and the first thing he asked was, "Why is Paterson so special?" At first I could only marvel that we two natives had separately arrived at a shared understanding of the city. I recovered, and tried to answer, though my reflections didn't satisfy either of us. Mayor Pascrell shook his head, I shrugged my shoulders, and we moved on.




I've thought about that conversation quite a bit since then. Here's my current thinking. First, Paterson is relatively small – it's about two miles in any direction from the geographic center of the city. Second, it's clearly outlined by the Passaic River, which flows "over" Paterson. Meaning, that on reaching Paterson the river flows north, looping over the top of the city to form a kind of dome, then flowing south to form the eastern boundary before continuing onward towards its ultimate destination at Newark Bay.


This feature alone may qualify Paterson as a propitious locale. But there's also the Passaic Falls – the second highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Those falls long ago convinced Alexander Hamilton to promote the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.) at Paterson, in 1791. Hamilton imagined that the falls would form the nucleus of a planned industrial city at that site. Pierre L'Enfant was enlisted to design an elaborate system of raceways to deliver waterpower to local manufactories, and the plan took on life.


The S.U.M had a rocky beginning, though it would eventually succeed quite well, and according to expectations. But I mention the falls for their symbolic power rather than their historical interest. The falls are more or less centrally located – a bit to the west of center – within the small geopolitical space of the city. Situated on the edge of downtown, overlooking the historic mill district, located within relatively easy walking, busing, or driving distance from every city neighborhood, they play a significant role in everyday life, but more specifically, in the formation of local consciousness. It's as though everyone is touched by the falls at a psychosensory level, and perhaps that, having once experienced the visceral impact of the falls at first hand, people can subsequently "hear" or "feel" them wherever they may be in the city. The Passaic Falls, cascading within the enclosure formed by the looping river, have been useful for power generation, but beyond that, they produce an intensity of experience that arises within the individual self, then radiates outward to form a widely shared experience.  


Of course, Paterson has its problems – poverty, crime, inadequate food and housing, lack of opportunity – but for the most part, other residents I've spoken with feel the way I do about the city. So what's so special about Paterson?


City in Shadow


After moving back to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in 2003, I was determined to identify a local fieldwork project. I'd continue to travel, but I wanted to dig more deeply, and have the opportunity to follow up. To make a very long story short, I discovered that opportunity in Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia.


At that time, Camden had the highest homicide rate in the country. It was ravaged by poverty, by crime, and in my view, by corruption too. Development dollars had been pouring into the city, with little tangible result showing in the neighborhoods (Cooper Medical Center was benefiting, as it grew into a major regional provider around that time; so too had the waterfront been developed for tourists).


Meanwhile, I was hired by a local arts organization and began going over to Camden on a regular basis. I don't own a car, so most days I took the PATCO train across the river to Camden, or walked across the Ben Franklin Bridge. Once there I continued walking, from station or bridge, fanning outwards into the neighborhoods. Although the city may have been a dangerous and difficult place, people there still love, work, raise kids, gather, party, and garden. Which is to say that people carried on in the Camden neighborhoods pretty much as they do everywhere. The neighborhoods tended to be lively places, as in Paterson. I felt comfortable being there, and was soon able to develop a functional network of contacts.


The Likening


My first experience of the city was in North Camden, and the place at once seemed strikingly familiar. Examining that feeling, I quickly realized that Camden felt very much like Paterson! Maybe it had something to do with the layout of streets, the arrangement of houses, the people? I didn't know. But when I took bus or train through the city to some faraway destination, as I sometimes did, it was clear that, seen from a broader perspective, Camden is actually quite unlike Paterson. So what had produced that feeling of sameness, and recognition?


I've always worked extensively with maps. And of course, doing fieldwork in the days before GPS, I relied on paper maps and atlases to navigate to various places, and find my way around once on site. I still do. I also use maps to plot any significant social, cultural or geographical features I've identified while doing fieldwork. When I first looked at the map of Camden, I was surprised to find that, like Paterson, it too was enclosed within a dome formed by a river – or in this case, two rivers. At Camden, the Delaware River flows in from the north, forming the western boundary, but also edges easterly, spreading out over the top of the city to meet the Cooper River, which flows in from the south and east. To the south, Newton Creek feeds into the Delaware, jabbing inland to form a truncated southern boundary. Newton Creek has silted up quite a bit over the years, but at one time it had formed a confluence with the Cooper River, forming Camden into an ad hoc island.


Two "Special" Places


In Camden, I found the same shared feeling among residents that I'd discovered in Paterson. But in Paterson, I hadn't associated that feeling with the doming river until I arrived at Camden and noticed that the geography, and the riverine context, were quite similar in both places. Both cities have roughly the same land area (just under 9 square miles, though Paterson is the more densely populated). Camden doesn't feature a significant waterfall, but the Philadelphia skyline is visible to the west, and exerts a palpable influence throughout the city. Perhaps that looming skyline, rising into view across the majestic river, provides the same symbolic punch that the waterfalls at Paterson do! That, and the two river "domes", may suggest an answer to my longstanding question.


The foregoing is speculative, and impressionistic. But my feeling is that everywhere, our sense of place touches some fundamental part of our humanity, and profoundly influences our experience of being-in-the-world. Which may suggest why the felt experience of living in Paterson — and Camden too — inspires a feeling of uniquity among the people who live in those places.




Be the first to comment

Christopher Witt

Commonplace Book of William Bartram, opened to the page containing the Star Pills formula, at top left



Pushing the current thread a bit further, I want to mention another person who's been very supportive and helpful, and taken a genuine interest in the historical figure of Kelpius. Joel Fry is the archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, where he has been working with the voluminous papers of John Bartram, and conducting his own research into that period of Philadelphia history. I should note that Joel was among those attending the McNeil Center meeting I wrote about in a previous post. I might also note that it was Joel who recommended I read Josephine Herbst's book on Bartram, wherein I discovered the brief reference to Kelpius, and which launched my ongoing interest in him. Witt is mentioned in the Herbst paragraph, and he's also mentioned by Bartram in several of his letters. For example, writing to Peter Collinson, the London-based naturalist, in 1743, Bartram recalls a recent visit with Christopher Witt:


I have lately been to visit our friend Doctor wit where I spent 4 or 5 hours very agreeable sometimes in his garden where I viewed every kind of plant I believe that grew therin which afforded me a Convenient opertunity of asking him whether he ever observed any kind of wild roses in this countrie that was double   he said he could not remember that he ever did  so being satisfied with this amusement we went into his study which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning as Phylosophy natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystick divinity all of which was the subjects of our discourse within doors which alternately gave way to botany every time we walked in the garden…


What's striking about this paragraph is first, the description of Witt's library, with its books devoted to "different kinds of learning", but also Bartram's judgment that Witt seemed most at home in the environment of his garden.


John Watson, whose Annals provide an interesting perspective on Philadelphia history through the 19th century, provides a neat summary of Witt, taking note of the variety of his activity while also emphasizing the mystical pursuits of his subject:


DOCTOR CHRISTOPHER WITT  was born in England (in Wiltshire) in 1675; came to this country in 1704, and died in 1765, aged 90.  He was a skilful physician and a learned man; was reputed a `magus' or `diviner', or in grosser terms a `conjuror'; and was a student and a believer in all the learned absurdities and marvellous pretensions of the Rosicrucian philosophy.  The Germans of that day, and indeed many of the English, practised the casting of `nativities' -- and as this required mathematical and astronomical learning, it often followed that such a competent scholar was called "a fortune teller".  Doctor Witt "cast nativities", and was called a conjuror; while Christopher Lehman, who was a scholar and a friend of Witt, and could cast nativities, and did them for all of his own nine children, but never for hire, was called a notary public, a surveyor, and a gentleman.


The persistence of these sources in identifying Witt with natural magic is significant. And in fact, Witt was probably among that small but significant group of distinguished individuals known as "cunning folk". As English historian Owen Davies explains in his book Popular Magic, Cunning-folk in English History:


The cunning element of cunning-folk comes from the Anglo-Saxon cunnan, meaning to know. Wizard similarly derives from the Old English wis, meaning wise, so can be seen as a variant of wise-man. Both definitions tell us something fundamental about how these people were perceived. They were individuals who stood out in society for possessing more knowledge than those around them, knowledge that was acquired either from a supernatural source, from an innate, hereditary ability, or from being able to understand writing.


The reference to writing is interesting, but I'll not pursue it here, not just yet. However, and to continue, Witt is widely believed to have been a doctor specializing in herbal medicine -- which is why a recent discovery by Joel Fry is of such great interest. Working with a Commonplace Book kept by William Bartram (son of John Bartram), Joel came across a reference, in William Bartram's handwriting, to an herbal formula which Bartram attributed to Christopher Witt. He noted this down as the "star pill" formula, and then gave the recipe.*


The ingredients of Witt's Star Pill formula appear to be as follows: "colicynth" (probably colocynthus citrullus); "gamb" (possibly gamboge, or garcinia hanbury); and "ol mentha", (possibly oleum menthae, or essential oil of mint).  The fourth and final ingredient in this formula, written here as "Fenicis" is probably fennel, whose botanical name is foeniculum vulgare.  Fennel is a carminative herb, and possibly operating in conjunction with mint, might be present to ameliorate the potentially toxic effects of the main ingredients.


These four ingredients are first prepared in some way not specified by the formula, or have already been so prepared, and are then combined with three parts (indicated in the formula by "xxx") "syr", (possibly indicating a syrup), "enough to make the whole into a Mass for Pills".  Witt's formula (as reported by William Bartram) continues: "Divid [divide] it into 24 gr. pcs. each of which divide into 4 pills.  Dose 3 Pills, lye 2 hours on the left side to prevent being sick.  This most excellent, to purge off Water.".


The formula can thus be divided into six parts: 1. the initiation of the process (indicated  by the opening word of the formula, "take"); 2. a list of ingredients and their proportions; 3. the mixing of ingredients and forming of the pills; 4. dosage ("dose 3 Pills");  5. special instructions for the patient ("lye 2 hours on the left side"); and finally, 6. a clear indication of the efficacy of the pills ("most excellent to purge off water").   


At some point I may want to revisit this subject, to describe the formula ingredients in greater detail. I present it here, however, as a tantalizing fragment pointing to Witt's activity as herbalist, and to the Bartram family's continuing relationship with him.


*In a personal communication dated 27 October 2011, Joel Fry suggested that if I were to publish the star pill formula, I use the following credit:


Private collection, John Bartram Association, Bartram's Garden digital copy


Be the first to comment