"When cabbage and peas were often our best meal"
November 5, 2015 5:03 PM   Subscribe

In late October 1716 Jacob Arend, a journeyman cabinetmaker, was 28 years old and at a crossroads. He and his fellow journeyman, Johannes Witthalm, had recently finished work on a writing cabinet.... The writing cabinet was a masterpiece but Jacob felt the need to write a letter and conceal it in the cabinet. He made sure it would not be easily found and he was very successful in this endeavor. The letter was not found until December 1967 and it wasn’t until 2014 that the letter was translated and studied.
posted by bonobothegreat (45 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
 
Very groovy.
posted by vrakatar at 5:16 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


To your health and eternal rest Jacob and Johannes!
*sips some Trader Joe's port wine*
That desk is awfully ugly but the V&A is one of the coolest museums in London. And that is some impressive detective work with the weather.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:30 PM on November 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


I will drink to him. I like the idea of him writing a note to us through time.
posted by librosegretti at 5:48 PM on November 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


I'm curious about why the letter wasn't translated or studied for almost 50 years. Is it in an obscure dialect or something?
posted by Sara C. at 6:15 PM on November 5, 2015


Just the other day I found, wedged behind a drawer in the very desk I'm sitting at now, inherited from my grandfather, a lithographed invitation to the thirty-first annual Military Ball held by the Highland Fusiliers of Canada, dating all the way back to the year 1984.

Drawers: Hey! There's something back here!
posted by Sys Rq at 6:19 PM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


This makes me feel better about slipping a text file with my name, a message, and my mark into most of the software I've ever written.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:31 PM on November 5, 2015 [20 favorites]


That's really fascinating, and the craftsmanship is magnificent. What a gorgeous piece of work.

On December 26, 1967 two young Gibbons boys were searching for secret compartments and found Jacob Arend’s letter.

Right, but the unspoken thing here is that the two young Gibbons boys were being destructive little shits since the boards that covered the secret compartment were actually glued down! Maybe "destructive little shits" is extreme, but in any case they were pretty much dismantling the thing. I hope they didn't do lasting damage. From the pictures it doesn't look like they did, which is a nice bit of luck.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:32 PM on November 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


I love this. A note from the Extreme Maunder Minimum! I'm glad at least one of those guys is known to have had a decent life.

When I was a kid, my parents got an antique secretary-style cabinet with an enormous bottom cupboard. I, being short and curious, was the first one to open that cupboard.

Inside was a thick layer of dust, broken by two small sets of bare footprints. The toes pointed outward.

I've always hoped that this was the result of a couple of small children playing hide-and-seek, who knows how long ago.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:32 PM on November 5, 2015 [21 favorites]


Oh but mudpuppie, come on, if you saw out-of-place boards when you were a kid of COURSE you would go after them. I used to tug and tug at this one brick in the fireplace wall that stood out proud enough to grasp with both hands. It looked exactly like the key to a hidden dungeon. Eventually, the brick came forth and the grand secret was revealed: nothing.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:35 PM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


A man in the 1700s wrote a letter for posterity. Not the 40 year planned obsolescence posterity we have now, but true posterity, centuries away. And what did he talk about? War, work, meat and booze. The same as ever. And what a beautiful, ornate, and intricate work. Thanks, great post
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:42 PM on November 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


Sara C.: the 2014 date seems to be a reference to this paper where the author puts the letter's contents into context. From the paper:
To date, scholars have failed to acknowledge the note’s multiple meanings and wider significance. The following discussion is an attempt to redefine the status of Jacob's note by engaging with the place of writing in early modern artisanal culture, as well as the nature of the journeys young craftsmen like Jacob were required to undertake to reach social, professional and cognitive maturity. By examining the recollections of other early modern craftsmen regarding their journeyman travels, it is possible to appreciate just how dangerous, gruelling and potentially fatal these experiences could be. This approach also produces the wider contexts that will reveal the emotional charge embedded in Jacob Arend’s brief note.
posted by coolname at 6:46 PM on November 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


I've toasted Mr. Arend... And salute the craftsmanship that went into that desk..
posted by HuronBob at 6:51 PM on November 5, 2015


Wow! Thanks for finding the originating paper coolname. I didn't even think to look.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:54 PM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


The letter inspires a great feeling of affection in me. It's a very human thing, to want to be thought of after we are gone. It reminds me of a poem by Osip Mandelstam (who deserves his own FPP), who wrote this a year before his death from starvation in Stalin's USSR:

Mountains of skulls vanish on the horizon,
I must decrease, and be seen no more;
Yet in the embrace of books and in children’s games,
I will rise from death and sing: “Behold the sun!”

posted by Joe in Australia at 6:59 PM on November 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


Maybe "destructive little shits" is extreme, but in any case they were pretty much dismantling the thing.

But who else but destructive little boys would ever have found it? It's almost like it was there just for them.

This was a great story thanks for posting.
posted by bleep at 7:01 PM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


What a simple, lovely story, and such a baroque, beautiful cabinet.
posted by Edgewise at 7:18 PM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh but mudpuppie, come on, if you saw out-of-place boards when you were a kid of COURSE you would go after them.

No, I get it. The amateur woodworker and the amateur historian in me are having a really fierce and uncomfortable battle for my emotions right now.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:38 PM on November 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


In doing house renovation on our first house back in the eighties, the kind that involved opening walls and floors, we left behind current editions of then popular magazines. Someday someone will want to refurb the bathroom, and when they do....
posted by BWA at 7:49 PM on November 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


The letter feels timeless in its irreverent humor and observations. What a fascinating momentary window into another time. The desk is not at all to my tastes, but they were obviously good at their craft.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:13 PM on November 5, 2015


Pity the poor saps who had to move that monstrosity from central Germany to England in the early 1800s. That thing probably made the trip on a horse cart.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:14 PM on November 5, 2015


In doing house renovation on our first house back in the eighties, the kind that involved opening walls and floors, we left behind current editions of then popular magazines. Someday someone will want to refurb the bathroom, and when they do....

I recently helped build a sauna, and we left a number of messages to the folks who will eventually either repair it or tear it down on the joists and sheathing. Also a small amount of money, encouraging them to invest it in good booze and one last shvitz, should it come to that.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:15 PM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


A man in the 1700s wrote a letter for posterity. Not the 40 year planned obsolescence posterity we have now, but true posterity, centuries away. And what did he talk about? War, work, meat and booze. The same as ever.

And climate change!
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:20 PM on November 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


mrbigmuscles: " Not the 40 year planned obsolescence posterity we have now, but true posterity, centuries away. "

This level of durable furniture is still being produced but as in 1716 the clients are the .01%. No one else is going to be able to afford a desk that encapsulates hundreds (thousands?) of man hours. Your average person did not have this level of craftsmanship in any of their furniture. The vast, vast majority of common furniture from 1716 has been regulated to the the burn pile.
posted by Mitheral at 8:59 PM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


I used to tug and tug at this one brick in the fireplace wall that stood out proud enough to grasp with both hands. It looked exactly like the key to a hidden dungeon. Eventually, the brick came forth and the grand secret was revealed: nothing.
posted by Countess Elena


So love to see this perfect use of "proud."
posted by yesster at 9:17 PM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found a letter in our house's wall dating from the 1930's. In it, the sister writing from the midwest complained of how little they'd had to eat, and how envious she was of seeing her sister's fat figure in a picture she'd received.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:11 PM on November 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


Can you imagine the excitement of finding that letter? I dreamed of finding secret notes hidden with some sort of magic writing on them when I was a kid. I would totally have wrecked that cabinet and thought it a job well done as long as I was holding that paper at the end of it.

Of course, as a mature adult, I would now be looking back and wanting to lock my younger self in a coal cellar for years so my destructive impulses would not inflict ruin on the world and cabinets.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:09 PM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


That desk is awfully ugly

Jacob Gallus von Hohlach’s arms kinda look like an Elder god, doesn't it?
posted by mikelieman at 1:03 AM on November 6, 2015


I once owned a house in upstate New York, it was an 'old' house, built around 1880 or so and in the basement there was a wall that ended four feet before the end of the kitchen. Yes, it should have been only a half basement there, and for years I assumed that was the case. Then, in the course of running new water lines to the kitchen sink, I realized that the wall did not hold back dirt - behind that wall there was open space. Unfortunately, I couldn't get my head into the space between the joists (that rested on the top of the wall) and so couldn't see down into the space. But what wonders must have been hidden behind there! Cask of Amontillado?! Hello? At least a letter, maybe a pipe or two or…who knows. I told my neighbor up the street about it. My neighbor is/was a builder of repute, he was the builder of record with the Historical society, etc etc etc, more importantly, he had a small video camera (this was long enough ago that that would be a thing.)

We drank some beers, rigged up some lights to shine into the space behind the wall, we devised a holder/armature/gimble to bring the camera over the wall, between the joists and then pan around the other side. We shot maybe five minutes of footage, hoping we had caught every corner of the space, then went back up to the kitchen.

The screen was tiny, but big enough. Our gimble was a bit of a wonder and we were able to see, faithfully, into each corner of the space, all along each wall. It was immaculate. Like, broom clean.
Which I could respect, as that is how these spaces should be left, but at the same time - let down. Such an opportunity to reach out to the future, tell them 'we have grown fat on peas and cabbage' and let the full weight and meaning of that sink in.

Well, maybe in my next house.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:11 AM on November 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


When I was younger, a friend and I spent an afternoon recording every rude word that we knew onto a cassette tape, and giggling a lot. Then we got scared that we'd get in trouble if anyone ever found the tape, so I hid it in this little nook I knew about at the back of the cupboard under the stairs.

I enjoy imaging an amateur historian stumbling across the piece of obsolete technology in years to come, painstakingly restoring the degraded tape, converting it into a usable format, only to hear "tits, hehehehehe".
posted by Ned G at 1:47 AM on November 6, 2015 [49 favorites]


I'm restoring a boat that I live in, and that involves adding battoning and insulation panels to the walls, so of course, behind every piece of insulation I (and my helpers) have written on the painted steel walls.
Where the boat is, what the date is, bits and bobs like that, whatever comes to mind.

It's good to know that it's part of a glorious tradition of hiding messages in your handiwork.

I like the idea of hiding newspapers and magazines though.
The ceiling insulation is in two parts, so I might sandwich some newspapers wrapped in plastic up there.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:35 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one who is puzzled by how a diet of cabbage and peas could make someone fat? I don't normally think of them as fatty foods. (Maybe they were cooked in a lot of butter?)
posted by andrewesque at 5:42 AM on November 6, 2015


Fat I think is an attempt at humour: either they were bloated from the gas, or worse, they had a malnutrition disease similar to kwashiorkor.
posted by snakeling at 5:46 AM on November 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


- Am I the only one who is puzzled by how a diet of cabbage and peas could make someone fat? I don't normally think of them as fatty foods. (Maybe they were cooked in a lot of butter?)

- Fat I think is an attempt at humour: either they were bloated from the gas, or worse, they had a malnutrition disease similar to kwashiorkor.

Tsk tsk, bad MeFites, go sit in the corner and write "I will read the FPP" fifty times.
Jacob writes in a joking manner, “…we have grown so fat that we can hardly climb the stairs any more.” The V&A analysis indicated the term fat may mean bloating from the diet of cabbage and peas or could be the much more serious symptom of prolonged starvation. In the German text there is some ambiguity on whether Jacob had written about the lack of ‘broden’ (bread) or ‘braden’ (roast meat). If they were at the point of a scarcity of bread their level of hunger was more severe.
posted by fraula at 5:50 AM on November 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


Mea culpa!
posted by andrewesque at 5:56 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great find, great post! As a copyeditor, though, I am professionally obliged to complain about this:

Jacob’s letter gives us a window into a workshop capable of producing a writing cabinet using materials from at least three continents while the craftsmen were living in very straightened circumstances.

That's straitened, unless the circumstances had been curved and were now pulled straight.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on November 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


I read it as sarcasm, but, yeah, OK, maybe bloating. Cabbage is pretty bloaty, especially if you're eating a ton of it.
posted by Sara C. at 9:44 AM on November 6, 2015


I once owned a house in upstate New York, it was an 'old' house, built around 1880 or so and in the basement there was a wall that ended four feet before the end of the kitchen.u

Only in the US is a house from 1880 old. Ironic that it appears here in an article about a desk from the early 1700's likely builtin a structure of much greater vintage.
posted by Jim_Jam at 6:08 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also a small amount of money, encouraging them to invest it in good booze and one last shvitz, should it come to that.

Should have left an actual bottle of something that would age well!
posted by mantecol at 6:40 PM on November 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


A house built in 1880 in the US isn't like crazy old. It's older than a lot of houses/most houses, but it's not like HOLY SHIT THIS IS ONE HELLA OLD HOUSE or anything, either.
posted by Sara C. at 7:50 PM on November 6, 2015


Only in the US is a house from 1880 old.

...and basically everywhere else outside Europe and Asia

...and mostly there too
posted by Sys Rq at 7:50 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


A house built in 1880 in the US isn't like crazy old. It's older than a lot of houses/most houses, but it's not like HOLY SHIT THIS IS ONE HELLA OLD HOUSE or anything, either.

That depends on where you are living. A house from 1880 would be one of the oldest in this entire region, where there wasn't permanent European settlement until about the 1860s, and only incrementally more until the railroads arrived around the turn of the century. There are quite large swaths of the US where an 1880 house is hella old, which is indeed peculiar from the perspective of areas with much older european settlement (like the northeast, California, or parts of the south and southeast, for example).

I can still vividly remember the first time I walked into a structure in Europe that was more than 1000 years old and how that totally blew my mind. I'm pretty sure that previously the oldest building I had ever been in was built in about 1945.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:25 PM on November 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: "Hey! There's something back here!"
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:29 AM on November 9, 2015


When my house was rebuilt, the owners found a board with the date of the original construction (1921), hidden behind the plaster wall...they incorporated it into the wall of my office.

As a kid, about 1965 or so, my mother put a sun porch on her house... after the cement foundation was poured and the contractors left, I sunk a glass canning jar into the cement with all of my wisdom written on a couple of sheets of paper...I think I put some other stuff into the jar as well.

Someday I'll go and rip out that corner of the house to see if it's still there... I hope the new owners don't mind....
posted by HuronBob at 11:03 AM on November 11, 2015


When we did some demolition in our front yard a couple houses back we found a number of trophies - like, the kind you get as a child and you've just participated in AYSO soccer? No names on them, even - underneath the concrete pathway that led to our front door. We felt bad tossing them since clearly they'd been intentionally preserved, but we figured they couldn't be much older than 1980 vintage anyway, and come ON if you're going to do a time capsule leave a note or something. Sheesh. Amateurs.
posted by town of cats at 9:37 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


The vast, vast majority of common furniture from 1716 has been regulated to the the burn pile.

Some people got it, some didn't. Oh well
posted by mrbigmuscles at 10:32 AM on November 26, 2015


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