Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Resorting With People of the Finest Sort

“Calvin: I like to verb words.

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. . . . Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.”

We 21st Centurions did not invent “verbing”.  Mars and I spent the past week in Cape May New Jersey – the seaside vacation locale to which large numbers of the newly emerging Victorian middle class “resorted” in the later 1800s.   

The twisting of defenseless nouns into service as verbs was one of many such affectations – linguistic, social and architectural – that we (and twenty-nine other “people of the finest sort”) studied at “A Victorian Primer in Cape May” Road Scholar program.  It was our first time ever in that vacationland, or anywhere along the Jur-zee shore.

Our accommodations…I’m sorry, I meant to say, we were accommodated at a circa 1890 wooden hotel of the “eclectic” Victorian style.  One of the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages that haul tourists around town proclaimed our temporary residence as the first local guesthouse to have running water and electricity.  It wasn’t.  It did however have the earliest working elevator in town – a product of Connecticut’s Otis Elevator Corporation who provided documentary proof to that fact in a memo prominently displayed on a sidewall of the device.  It is still in service, holding four reasonably thin riders and one professionally trained operator.

There were ninety-nine rooms – we know because we stayed in the penultimate one – and we had to ascend sixty-six steps to get to the fifth floor that houses room number 99. 

In keeping with the complicated nature of Victorian design there was of course not one continuous staircase but rather four distinct sections each separated by a fair amount of floor space and, in two instances, hidden from view until you were directly in front of them.  Because of the resulting high guest-to-elevator ratio we mostly walked up and down – except when suitcase lugging was involved.  (Let’s see – 5 days times 5 trips per day times 66 steps up plus 66 steps down - Fuh-gedda-boud-dit!)

The Victorian middle class traveled via boat from New York City and Philadelphia to the then newly constructed hotels of Cape May with their servants in tow.  Room 99 was used to house some of those minions.  Nowadays it is spiffed up with a king-sized bed, wicker furniture, an indoor toilet, a voting booth sized shower, and an eye-level view of sea gulls coasting past the three rooftop-view windows.

The schedule called for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. in the hotel’s glass enclosed porch dining room – which provided plenty of time for Mars, our traveling companion Sandy, and me to perform our ablutions and promenade for an hour or so along the sand and strand next to the Jur-zee war-der.

(Although we also had significant opportunities for a ”taking of the waters” by bathing in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, we declined.  As part of preparing for this junket Mars and I reread “Close to Shore”, a non-fiction book by journalist Michael Capuzzo about the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916.  It’s been almost 100 years  – but still, why take any chances.  Besides, as the Victorians would say, the surf was friggin’ cold.)

There were historical reenactors of such real-life Victorians as the eponymous Queen, her husband Prince Albert, John Phillip Sousa, Cape May luminary Dr. Emlen Physik and others – but no real survivors of the era other than the buildings.  Many of the wooden structures had burned down during the great fire of 1878.  But many more were spared in the inferno or were constructed or rebuilt after that – some out of brick.  (The Victorian Age ran from 1840 to 1910.)    

Like virtually every aspect of Victorian life the architecture reflected the lifestyle, beliefs, and priorities of the people – the major point of which was to impress other people with their social standing and wealth.  Victorian houses were status symbols – and the guiding principle was that there was no such thing as too much.

General Victorian architectural features are bay windows, Palladian windows, roof ornaments, Gingerbread trim, and large porches.  The various styles are Italianate  (1840-85), Gothic Revival (1835-75), Mansard or 2nd Empire (1855-85), Stick (1865-85), Queen Anne (1875-1910), Shingle (1880-1915), Colonial (1885-1915), Eclectic, and (everyone’s favorite) “Drunken Architect”.  The houses and hotels on Cape May were multi-colored and painted in what were considered earth tones  which seemed to include dull greens and maroons.

The list of Victorian architectural terms is equally as poetic as the houses themselves: acroterion, balustrade, cupola, finial, shark’s tooth shingles, jerkinhead roof, pediment, turret, vergeboard and vestibule – inspiring haikus such as:

Finials aren’t a

couple of cupolas, they’re


I can actually picture the Victorian architects and builders picking through Lego-like piles of the above pieces plus chamfered posts, fanlights, et al – while the owners stand in the background shouting “More! More!”

My favorite Victoriana architectural feature however is the hanging bathroom.  We were told that in order to ensure that everyone knew when a person could afford an indoor toilet they would add it conspicuously to the side of the house on the second floor – with no other structure beneath it.  We saw several of these pendent privies on our guided architectural tour and our own un (or possible mis) guided strolls through town.

Our class didn’t go into much detail as to exactly how this new middle class came about but the June 17, 2013 Hartford Courant had a syndicated “At Work” column by Rex W. Huppke, which explained:

“As we evolved and got meaner, slave labor made up the bulk of many civilization’s workforces, eventually giving way to lower classes who were paid meager sums and treated horribly.  Work was toil.

“In his book ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears: The Evolution of Work,” Richard Donkin details how technological advancements brought forth factories and mass production, which required layers of management instead of one tyrannical boss.”

Some former servants even rose in class and became masters.

Mars and I wondered under what circumstances we might have come to Cape May in our prior Victorian lives.  I suspect that, given my family background, I would have been more likely to be schlepping trunks packed with frock coats and top hats than to be wearing them.  Or I might have been toting hoop skirts and poke bonnets for m’lady.  After which I would trudge up what remained of the sixty-six stairs to room number 99 – minus the wicker furniture and the loo.

But now, thanks to still more technological advancements, a few successful investments, and lots of good luck Mars and I are able to pay big bucks to be accommodated in the very same place.


Photos by Mars.  More pics coming soon at http://www.viewmars.blogspot.com/

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