Lois Leveen

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February 7, 2012

Great Sporks of the 19th Century!

Great sporks of the 19th century! Sounds like a Victorian curse, but actually it's literary inspiration.
AND it's today's Fascinating Fact in the 100-day countdown.
Wooden Spork Photo
A few years back, I snapped this photograph while visiting a bunch of plantations and other historical sites in Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana, to research how they represented slavery. This picture was taken in a reconstruction of a slave cabin. I doubt the glass window was original; glass was expensive, certainly more of a luxury than most slave owners would have seen as befitting a structure that they perceived as more like a barn than a home. But the unfinished walls and mismatched furnishings give us some sense of how slaves lived.

The wooden utensils especially stuck in my mind. A wooden knife--who could imagine such a thing?--probably wasn't very useful. But the other sporkish cutlery . . . that was a perfect example of the everyday experience of enslaved people. As I was writing *The Secrets of Mary Bowser,* I wanted readers to understand in visceral, specific ways what it would be like to grow up surrounded by wealth and luxury--and yet live as a slave. For example, I wrote one scene in which Mary, still a child and still a slave, is asked to sit down to dinner with a white family. She is astonished at the difference of eating food "served hot in the dining room instead of snatched down cold afterward in the kitchen," and finds "the heavy silverware felt cumbersome compared to the wooden spoons" with which she always ate.

It's only a small detail. But in some ways the small details can help us understand the enormity of history.
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