Life Styles Of The Rich & Famous & (Long) Dead Of Vineyard Haven
Our Year-Round Town In The Seriously Good Old Days
In the 1600s, the chummy little port of Holmes Hole, known to us today as Vineyard Haven and sometimes as Tisbury (yes, this town has identity issues), bars were all over the map.
Yes, bars, back in the day called “ordinaries”, served as the ATM machines of human thirst. This fact might cause a grim chuckle when we recall how throat-parchingly DRY this town has been for decades, only recently coming around to allow tightly-controlled wine and beer licensing in restaurants.
But back in the rockin’ ages, vessels touched down from St. Kitt’s, Barbados, and Jamaica, bearing rum and acqua vitae. Sailors sang “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”, and crammed into pubs for boiler-makers.
Our pioneering Holmes Holers already had their brewskies at hand: ale and all of its various beery cousins were in constant local production, swilled even by youngsters because, well, what else were they going to drink? Water?! Dig this: people in the 17th century drank three times as much as we do today! (For critics of contemporary culture who gripe about TV, smart phones, and computer games; think about this: without these distractions, we could easily booze it up 66% more!)
Yes, olde Holmes Hole was the citadel of simplicity, with log cabins and mud-roofed houses along the shore. Another sweet touch: there was no glass for windows: light was admitted through oil paper in wood frames.
Beds marked the single grand feature of the home – high four-posters with feather mattresses, downy pillows and posts draped with valences. Beds, therefore, reigned as the main bequests in wills. After that, the pickings were slim – a petticoat to this daughter, a beaver hat to this favorite nephew, a butter dish for an aged aunt.
The well-to-do of this era had wax candles instead of tallow, and at least a couple of books. There was, for instance, the wealthy Samuel Sarson who died in 1703, and left four whole books to his heirs, all tomes of a theological bent. Mr. Samuel Bassett, willed to his wife, “All the wood that she shall have occasion for or improve during her natural life and no longer.” (Did he believe Mrs. Bassett’s ghost would return from the dead and pilfer from the wood-pile?)
Marriage in those early days had its own quaint customs: The father of the bride signed over a dower of land. The dowerless bride, held to be naked of worldly goods, was obliged to wed semi-nude, which meant clad in a shift. Let us hope this custom was honored more in the breach than of the observance, but one of these so-called smock weddings was recorded in Edgartown as late as 1757. This comes with a large ick factor, but it was an old English bit of legal legerdemain that allowed the new husband to evade the debts of his wife’s family.
Divorce was rare; well, we already knew that. The first divorce recorded on island involved a certain James Skiff who severed ties with Elizabeth Smith, she having run off with another man to Roanoke, Virginia (not the most propitious choice, considering that same frontier town was decimated, either by Indians or by aliens – no one can say for sure – around the same time period.)
Health in Colonial times was a fairly straight-forward matter. You either had it or you were dead. No physicians resided on island until the end of the 1600s. Until then, innkeepers dispensed draughts, clysters (I looked that up in the dictionary – it means enemas), boluses (truly large pills, just the way it sounds), and herbs. These same on-the-spot medics set fractures and, most dramatically, performed blood-lettings. Some sufferers sought help from Indian pawwaws, and don’t we get a feeling these patients stood a better chance?
Should the blood-letting fail, defunct patients were dispatched to cemeteries with an expeditiousness that would have taken one’s breath away (and may very well have done so with folks who, by modern standards, may not have been completely, officially gonzo.)
Nonetheless, bury them, they must. To avoid what in the old country smacked of “popery”, the dearly beloved were disposed of without prayers or service. A pine coffin was hastily banged together. Neighbors showed up to carry it on a bier to the cemetery. The well-to-do had a black velvet pall with tassels. Burials often occurred at night by torch light.
Oooh, now we’re getting spooky!
Which brings up a final subject, that of old Colonial superstitions, some of which might be worth reinstating:
A walk in the rain attracts good luck.
When paying visits, always leave by the same door through which you entered, to avoid taking the family’s luck with you.
Sleep with your head facing north.
Place your shoes at the foot of the bed, toes pointed away, to curb nightmares.
Prop a broom outside the door to banish witches.
The only downside to this merry life style of old Holmes Holers was that, by the age of thirty, they more than likely had no teeth. Also, they could expire any time from a bad batch of their neighbor’s beer, or by a clyster administered with too much zeal, or a witch turning up unexpectedly, should they forget to set out the broom.
But aside from a few minor health considerations (and many people lived to ripe old ages, check out the ancient cemeteries of Vineyard Haven: you’ll be surprised at the amount of octogenarians planted at long last, the island was considered a natural sanitarium, or was that a mental sanatorium?; I forget).
Perhaps we can all agree that Holmes Hole, back in the day when the pressing question was what do you do with a drunken sailor?, stood as a far jollier spot than any other New England seaport in that time, or indeed in any time.