Collecting Delaware Books
When Edward Noble Vallandigham wrote Delaware and the Eastern Shore in 1922, he said his task was "to interpret to the people themselves of this Peninsula, as also to strangers, the land and its inhabitants, in the past and in the present, to convey the rare and somewhat elusive charm of the region without the splendor of bold topography, yet distinguished for the variety of its mainly quiet landscapes, the rich freshness of its woodlands, and the unique beauty of its waters."
In many ways he succeeded. The 325 page book with its 80 photographs gives a pleasant glimpse of local life 75 years ago. That is not to say there are not dull parts. The introductory history and geography are provided as framework but do not provide many highlights.
Chapter III, however, includes a description of a steamer trip, leaving Philadelphia in late afternoon and traveling the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal by moonlight. The canal at that time still included three locks. Supper in the steamer's impeccably neat saloon and the sights and smells of the darkened shore add to the picture.
Another chapter tells of the pride and the follies of old families. There are many clues to old-time speech patterns and expressions. The plural of "house" was "housen," "corn" was pronounced "karn," and "can't" was "kaint." A mill in western Sussex founded by a cooperative was called "Mung-'em's-Mill" because the legal papers said it was owned "among them." The Purnell family accented the first syllable of the name while in Worcester County Maryland and the second syllable when traveling in Sussex County Delaware.
Vallandigham refers to Sussex County as imperium in imperio, a province to itself. He tells several tales of Sussex people far from home who recognized a Sussex accent in another traveler and were even able to identify the hundred from which the person came.
Hunting, fishing, and yachting are the subject of another chapter, though the Delaware references are few. The chapters on architecture and churches include much of interest. The chapter on county seats identifies Seaford with a long tradition of shipbuilding and as the home of old sea captains who traveled the world in trade.
Political ins and outs of building Coleman Du Pont's highway the length of Delaware are detailed, though it is mentioned that the Maryland Eastern Shore was years ahead when it came to good roads.
There is a lengthy history of Wilmington, complete with colorful politicians and a lineage of local newspapers.
Vallandigham seems to enjoy himself most when writing of food. After praising local buckwheat hotcakes "fragrant from a greaseless griddle, foam-light, not crudely freckled and disfigured with inky blotches, but delicately golden-bronze ...," he goes on to describe another dish.
"Better still are corncakes, like the coiffure of Horace's Roman beauty, simple with neatness. They come sizzling from the oven, but with no slightest taint of acrid grease, never above three inches in diameter, preferably less, almost wafer-thin, in complexion from brown to delicate amber, and edged with a deliciously crisp lace-work, itself a triumph of decorative art. You eat the first two dozen or so with fresh butter, perhaps as many more with spoonfuls from the rich brown sea of gravy surrounding those perfect sausages, and finally a moderate stack from the last running of the batter, with honey, or with syrup from the native sorghum, or from the half-alien maple."
Indeed, the writer makes setting a bountiful table the chief characteristic of early Delmarva residents, rich or poor. He says, however, (in 1922) that it is 25 years too late to collect the definitive Delaware cookbook.
A list of local foods includes candied sweet potatoes, ring muffins, frozen peaches, and scores of styles of cooking oysters, crab, terrapin, and clams.
The national drink of Delaware was said to be "peaches-an'-honey," Despite the prohibition amendment, the author hints that this drink has an alcoholic content and was still being distilled in "deepest Sussex" in places safe from "prying eyes and sniffing noses."
There are many more chapters worthy of attention from the social historian. One of the author's final chapters is titled "Education and Uplift in Delaware." (Vallandigham also wrote Fifty Years of Delaware College, 1870-1920.)
Copies of Delaware and the Eastern Shore are fairly easy to find. They are usually priced well under $100, but pay attention to condition. The paper is often fragile and the illustrations loose. There should also be a foldout map in the back, dated 1906 and reprinted by permission of the Baltimore, Chesapeake, and Atlantic Railway Company.