Category Archives: Photos

Before ‘Drain the Swamp,’ Washington Filled It In. Now We Have Potomac Park.

Incoming president Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” of political insiders in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his efforts to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

Eliza Scidmore, the subject of my book in progress, was working as a young newspaper correspondent in the 1880s when she reported on a literal swamp clean-up in Washington.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

The “swamp” was actually an area of marshy tidal wetlands. Today we know that part of Washington as Potomac Park—home of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Tidal Basin and the city’s famous Japanese cherry trees. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore as Wall Art

“Eliza and the Emperor.” That’s the title of an Eliza-inspired mixed-media canvas produced last year for the Carlyle Hotel in Washington by artist Anna Rose Soevik.

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“Eliza and the Emperor,” mixed media on canvas, by Anna Rose Soevik

Sovevik, who studied painting in London, lives and works near Washington. She likes big canvases and has done art installations at offices, bookshops and galleries around Washington and in several countries. Her work includes a series of portraits of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, and Elvis Costello.

Her description of the Eliza piece is as creative as the art.

Eliza Scidmore and her cat sailed over the rainbow to Japan. She fell head over heals in love with Emperor Keita’s cherry trees and spent many many years finding the perfect spot for the trees in America. She brought back seeds and trees in a beautiful Pea Green Boat. Finally the cherry trees took root around the Jefferson memorial. The birds got a new home and the fish jumped for joy. To celebrate a Japanese lantern was lit, and the Cherry Blossom Festival began.

To my knowledge Eliza never had a cat, though she did have a small lapdog late in life that she spoiled rotten.

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The Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s blooming time in D.C. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin. Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage early Saturday morning, under a clear but chilly sky.

Today is the trees’ official birthday. The first ones donated by Japan were planted in Washington on March 27, 1912.  Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of First Lady Helen Taft on hand to witness the small private ceremony.

Eliza, who was the first person to suggest planting flowering cherry trees along the Potomac, said she got the idea while visiting Japan in the 1880s. One cherry-tree park in particular inspired her: Mukojima, a mile-long avenue of trees along the Sumida River in Tokyo.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan. It looks very different today, but the spirit of fellowship and good will that so inspired Eliza is still evident today in the ancient ritual of hanami — cherry-blossom viewing.

Eliza wrote that she wanted to create a “Mukojima on the Potomac.” Here are some historic photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

 

 

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‘Downton Abbey,’ An American Heiress and Eliza Scidmore

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Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”

OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said that Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the often-impoverished British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”

The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.

Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. And Eliza Scidmore’s world intersected with that of Mary Leiter.

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American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

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Eliza Scidmore Slept Here …

In the course of research I’ve been finding addresses of various places where Eliza Scidmore lived or stayed over the years. Since she was such a vagabond, there were many! Here’s a photographic chronology of a few of them.

David Atwood House, Madison, Wisconsin.
David Atwood, editor and publisher of “The State Journal,” married the sister of Eliza’s mother. As a young woman Eliza was close to her cousin Mary Atwood. Eliza stayed here with the Atwoods during visits back to Madison, where she spent her early childhood years. (Source: Wisconsin State Historical Society)

Georgetown Visitation.
Eliza attended this Catholic boarding school in Washington from 1862-63, when she was around 6 to 7 years old. It opened in 1799 and is still operating today. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

“Idaho,” Juneau, 1887.
Eliza slept in a cabin aboard this steamer in the summer of 1883 when she made her first trip to Alaska via the Inside Passage. The wharf shown here was named for the ship’s captain, James Carroll, who became an early promoter of Alaska tourism. (Source: Alaska State Library)

 

Club Hotel, Yokohama.
Eliza and her mother stayed here on their first trip to Japan in the summer of 1885. The hotel, next to a popular men’s club, overlooked the harbor on an avenue known as the Bund. Later, Eliza and her mother lived next door, at No. 6 Bund, while Eliza’s brother George was a consular official in Japan. Today the site is occupied by the Hotel Monterrey. (Source: MeijiShowa)

 

Brunswick Hotel, Boston.
A lot of Washington residents fled the muggy city in the summer for fashionable spas or cooler places in New England. Eliza and her mother stayed at times at this popular hotel in Boston. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

Shoreham Hotel, Washington.
Built in 1887, this apartment hotel at H and 15th Streets, N.W., became a popular residence for members of Congress. Eliza was staying here in the fall of 1895 when she wrote to John Muir describing her recent “circumnavigation” of the Far East. It included a trip to Java she wrote about in one of her books. The hotel was razed in 1974 for an office building. (Source: unknown)

1837 M St., N.W., Washington.
Eliza resided in this house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood from around 1910 to 1912 [view is seen from around the corner, on 19th Street]. So she was probably living here when she attended the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park on March 27, 1912, as a guest of First Lady Helen Taft. The American writer John Dos Passos later lived here for a time. (Source: Library of Congress)

Stoneleigh Courts, Washington.
By 1920 Eliza lived in No. 510 at this luxury apartment building that had as its major investors the former Secretary of State John Hay. Located at Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues, now Dupont Circle, [Correction: located on Connecticut Avenue, just north of Farragut Square], it was built in an innovative horseshoe layout, with a central courtyard that allowed light to interior apartments. Eliza’s neighbors included many eminent people. (Source: Library of Congress)

31 Quai du Mont Blanc, Geneva, Switzerland.
This shows the site of the apartment building facing Lake Geneva where Eliza was living in at the time of her death in 1928. She had moved permanently to Geneva in part to follow developments at the League of Nations. She found the weather dreary much of the year, so she vacationed regularly with family and friends in southern Italy and France. (Photo: Jacques Lasserre)

 

Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama.
Eliza’s final place of sleep is in a cemetery in Yokohama, where her ashes were laid with those of her mother and brother. Her inscription on the gravestone is beneath the cross. The overhanging cherry tree in bloom  was planted by Japanese who pay tribute to her every spring. It was propagated from one of the trees Japan gave to Washington in 1912. A plaque by the grave reads: “A lady who loved cherry blossoms rests here in peace.” (Photo: D.L. Parsell)

 

 

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New York’s Sakura Park, and a Hop Over to Brooklyn

I went to New York recently for the annual Biographers International Organization conference. It gave me a chance to follow a couple of research leads for my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

One morning I headed off with a writing colleague to chase down an important document at the Brooklyn Museum. I also took an unexpectedly long walk — more than 80 blocks, as it turned out, from my hotel at E. 45th Street to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Sakura Park in New York, with a stone torii from Japan (Photos: D. Parsell)

We hear a lot about the cherry trees Japan donated to Washington in 1912. But few people know a similar shipment of trees was planted in New York around the same time. It was the project of a group that called themselves the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York. They arranged to donate a couple thousand cherry trees in 1909 for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, marking the centennial of Robert Fulton’s demonstration of a steam-powered boat on the Hudson River and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.

The committee of Japanese residents included Jokichi Takamine. Early in the 20th century he was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. He  lived in an elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. (between 105 and 106th Streets) that became famous for its splendid interior featuring Japanese design and furnishings. A longtime acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine also played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. 

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A Gift of ‘Sakura’

On its evening news program last Saturday (March 30), NHK television in Japan aired a 10-minute segment about my research on Eliza Scidmore. It included scenes at a popular spot in Tokyo for viewing sakura (cherry blossoms).

Among the viewers who responded to the program was Akira Yamamoto. His chief hobby is photography, and he thought I might like having a photo he took that captured the meaning of sakura in Japan—the spirit of goodwill associated with cherry-blossom viewing.

With Akira Yamamoto and his photo of “sakura” (Photo by Yoshiko Yamamoto)

Today he and his wife, Yoshiko, invited me for coffee and presented me with a gift of the B&W photo, beautifully mounted in a frame. I look forward to hanging it in my home office in the States as a wonderful reminder of my trip to Japan. Continue reading

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Yokohama Nursery Company

Trademark coat (Photo: D. Parsell)

That coat. I knew it at first glance.

On Friday morning I took a bus across town to attend a ceremonial planting of dogwood trees at Honmoku Sanchou Park in Yokohama. They were part of a consignment of 3,000 dogwood trees that America gave to Japan last year in exchange for Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington 100 years ago.

The mayor of Yokohama and the U.S. ambassador to Japan were on hand for the event. But what caught my eye was the back of the Japanese gentleman who took the seat in front of me. He was wearing an indigo-blue cotton coat emblazoned with the words “The Yokohama Nursery Co.” Turns out he was the company’s executive vice president, Kazua Ariyoshi.

Gardener at Yokohama Nursery, 1901 (Photo: David Fairchild, “The World Was My Garden”)

I remembered seeing  a photo of that coat—or one very much like it—in David Fairchild’s memoir The World Was My Garden.

Fairchild was a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who traveled the world seeking different kinds of edible and ornamental plants to import to the United States. During a plant-prospecting trip to Japan in 1902 he learned about the country’s flowering cherry trees and their beautiful blooms. Fairchild imported several varieties in 1906, a few years before they were planted in West Potomac Park, to test their growing qualities in a test garden he established at his country home just outside Washington, D.C.

Fairchild described visiting the Yokohama Nursery Co. and the friendship he developed with one of the owners, Uhei Suzuki.

Color plate from seed and bulb catalog of the Yokohama Nursery Company, 1909-10

The nursery, founded by a coalition of gardeners in 1893, did a booming business shipping plants to buyers in the West. It had branch offices in New York and London. The company’s most popular export was lily bulbs, but it also provided many other plants, including shrubs, ferns and trees.

Eliza Scidmore visited the nursery during her frequent travels to Japan. She wrote a lot about the Japanese passion for flowers and gardens—a trait I’ve seen in the past two weeks during my first trip here.  Scidmore described the Japanese as “necromancers” who coaxed something magical from plants.

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo (Photos: D. Parsell)

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmores footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at a place called Mukojima. A mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River, it was the chief inspiration for Eliza’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

It wasn’t just the trees that Eliza wanted to import. She found herself captivated by the spirit of cherry tree viewing, and it was that experience she wanted to see re-created in Washington. She described, in the late 19th century, the Japanese turning out in many parks to see the trees at peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking. The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!  Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore and Earthquakes in Japan

Last Friday a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck in the seabed of the  Pacific Ocean about 150 miles off the northeastearn coast of Japan. It caused severe shaking, but no reported deaths, along a coastal area known as Sanriku.

That’s near the region devastated in March 2011 by the catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed about 19,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Aftermath of earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s Sanriku coast, 1896 (Photo from “National Geographic”)

Sanriku lies in an area of the world prone to earthquakes because of the underlying plate tectonics. More than a century ago, Eliza Scidmore reported on the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast on the evening of June 15, 1896. Her article appeared in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic.

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Guest Blog Post on Eliza Scidmore

Ken Ackerman, the author of books on J. Edgar Hoover, “Boss” Tweed and other larger-than-life characters, writes a blog on people, politics and the world, Viral History. He offered me space today to write about Eliza Scidmore while the cherry trees are in bloom. Visit his blog and check out my post.

Geishas at a tea ceremony, hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore, from the early 1900s (Source: National Geographic)

 

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Happy Birthday, D.C. Cherry Trees!

Helen Taft in 1908, a year before she became First Lady and planned the cherry tree project in Washington (Source: UDSA)

The cherry trees are blooming, and Washington is now celebrating a special event: the centennial of its first trees donated by Japan. On March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife stood alongside the Tidal Basin  and planted the first of 3,000 flowering cherry trees sent from the mayor of Tokyo. Eliza Scidmore was one of the few people present that day.

Read my article about it on National Geographic’s “News Watch.”

 

 

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Eliza Scidmore Profile in ‘The Washington Post’

The special cherry blossom section in today’s Washington Post had a good article about Eliza Scidmore by staff reporter Michael Ruane. Includes quotes by me based on a phone interview.

Hand-colored photo of cherry trees in Japan, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

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Smithsonian Collection of Eliza Scidmore’s Photos

Chilkat women and girls in Alaska, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Remember back in the ’60s and ’70s when travel was such a big deal that everyone took hundreds of slides? And insisted on sharing them. As you sat for what seemed like hours watching poorly cropped and focused images projected on a white sheet hung across a wall in the living room. Today, with cellphones, digital cameras, TV shows and relatively cheap air fares, we’re all so jaded about the wonders of distant places.

In Eliza Scidmore‘s day, travel was still exotic. The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives has a collection of photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading

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At National Geographic, Eliza Scidmore’s Photos and Samurai Statesmen

Photographs Eliza Scidmore took in Japan are going on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington starting today, accompanying an exhibit on samurai. The exhibit features two dozen of Eliza’s hand-colored photos from the early 1900’s. Some were published in National Geographic in the early 1900’s, others are from the Society’s archives.

Koto player, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

 

Worker in Japan, headed for home, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Eliza was affiliated with the Geographic for nearly 20 years as a writer, editor, photographer and member of the board. Her illustrations accompanying a 1914 story titled “Young Japan” are the first time the magazine carried photographs taken by a woman.

The related exhibit offers a very different view of samurai than the image we have of feudal warriors of great military prowess who served noble families from the 12th to the early 19th centuries.

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Video: Eliza Scidmore’s Journey to Glacier Bay

Of all that I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska, in the summer of 1883. Maybe her story speaks to me so powerfully because I see in her life echoes of my own early hunger to leave home and know the world. At 26, Eliza was smart and ambitious and probably headstrong and already fiercely independent when she traveled across the country from Washington, D.C., and boarded a mail steamer in Port Townsend, Wash., for the journey north.

Although Alaska had been a U.S. territory for 16 years, it was still a remote wilderness. To Eliza, a young newspaperwoman in search of the next big story, it had the smell of opportunity. When her ship, the Idaho, veered off the known course that July, Eliza and her fellow passengers were the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. Writing about it brought her fame, and laid the foundation of her long career as an author and travel writer. I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic voyage in this video, which I made in a recent Technology Tools for Writers class at Johns Hopkins, offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate). I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her assistance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Japanese girl in kimono, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Ah, the pain of hindsight. If only I’d stumbled upon Eliza Scidmore’s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first cherry trees in Washington next spring, on March 27. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Eliza Scidmore it just didn’t hit me at first that the centennial was imminent. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Eliza. Once I realized the significance of the date I sent queries late last year to several publications (Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian) proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza — after being largely overlooked for a century — is emerging as the new “it” girl in town. Continue reading

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