Self-watering insane asylum

Innocently enough, these obsessions begin most always.  My coworker was telling me in detail of the DIY self-watering planter she had constructed out of buckets with spigots and capillary action and other perfectly logical small is beautiful human engineering techniques.  Without a diagram it wasn't sinking in, or slow dripping.

So, there we were last week in Thomas Jefferson's incredible 80'x1000' vegetable garden, and my sons asked me about those terracotta things in some rows. Maybe self-watering contraptions? I would have to find out, and I would not sleep until I did. Not.

In Monticello's garden 7/5/13

Back home with my downloaded photo I learned that these terracotta gizmos were cloches, also known as bell jars. That's when things got crazy.  


 noun \ˈklōsh\
  1. : a transparent plant cover used outdoors especially for protection against cold
  2. : a woman's close-fitting hat usually with deep rounded crown and narrow brim

The week went along and went along, and I started reading about Nellie Bly going undercover at the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum. Bly went without sleep for several nights to seem crazy enough to be institutionalized, then had to pray her editor would eventually remember to get her back out.  After her release she powerfully described the inhumane conditions. Many inmates were poor immigrant women deemed insane when they could not speak English.  Matthew Goodman's book, Eighty Days is off to a good beginning. Reviews in Kirkus and Library Journal were intriguing.

If a cloche was also known as a bell jar, maybe I needed to read Sylvia Plath. Although I read J. D. Salinger's "Franny" (1961) several times, I somehow missed The Bell Jar (1971 first U.S. publication). Wasn't a bell jar like the German dome clock on my great-aunt's buffet?

That clock, now belonging to my brother, is a torsion pendulum clock. Thomas Jefferson's seven day clock in the entrance hall is a wonder with its cannonball weights dropping down through the floor. And haven't you ever wanted to just drop through the floor?

Great-aunt Emma's clock

Cover 1st U.S. edition 
Praying incessantly
Mom had one of these.

Diving bell, not Jacques Cousteau
So, what is a bell jar? What are those terracotta containers? Where is my hat?

cloche (n.) Look up cloche at Dictionary.com

type of bell jar, 1882, from French cloche "bell, bell glass" (12c.), from Late Latin clocca "bell" (see clock (n.1)). As a type of women's hat, recorded from 1907, so called from its shape.

It's so cool that this one word, cloche, relates to bells, hats, and clocks. Cloche hats were in style about 1908-1938.  The fitted, bell-shaped hats could have brims down near the eyes, or turned up. I turned up some wild hat photos of my Auntie Em, but no flapper cloches.

Plath uses the bell jar image to evoke bad dreams, lab experiments, and stewing in our own sour air. Many bell jars for the garden are equipped with an adjustable air vent. In lab experiments a bell jar can be used to create a vacuum. Specimen jars and physics experiment images appear often in Plath's novel, which I finally read last night and this rainy morning. The novel's description of descent into insanity and life in sanitariums is as chilling as Bly's, and maybe together they are too much for just one week.

Jefferson's terracotta cloches could incubate young plants from late frosts, protect them from birds, insects, deer, slugs, high winds, and hail. They were used to blanch vegetables to get a delicate flavor and texture bykeeping them in the dark. Apparently this Founding Father liked his sea kale white.

Glass garden cloches are more decorative, but just as practical. They warm the soil and hasten germination. I learned a great deal Barbara Wells Sarudy's Early American Gardens blog, and have placed a link in the right sidebar.

My Auntie Em models several styles of hats in these photos. She is always the person on the right.

© 2013 Nancy L. Ruder

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

I learned a lot here! Including not to wear a bell jar on my head!