Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

In 1765, one such visitor, Richard Chandler, re-discovered the cave, which he described in his Travels in Greece or an Account of a Tour Made at the Expense of the Society of Dilettanti (Oxford 1776, p. 150). “You descend through a small mouth; the forked trunk of a tree… serving as a ladder. At the landing place is a Greek inscription very difficult to read. It is cut on the rock first smoothed, and informs us, that Archidamus of Pherae made the cave for the Nymphs, by whom he was possessed… When you are down and face the stairs, at the extremity on the right hand is an ithyphallus, the symbol of Bacchus… Under small niches in two places, is inscribed, “Of Pan”… Beyond there is a very rude figure of the sculptor represented with his tools, as working, and by it his name, Archidamus, twice repeated, the letters irregular and badly cut…”

Plan and section of the Vari Cave as published in AJA 1903.

Its excavation seemed like a worthy project for the group of young, adventurous, and aspiring archaeologists attending the school in 1901. The original idea belonged to Weller, a recent PhD from Yale University, who invited the slightly older Maurice Edwards Dunham, also from Yale, to join in the endeavor. Soon, two more students, Lida Shaw King and Ida Thallon, offered to take part and contribute $10 each; Edward D. Perry, the Visiting Professor for 1900-1901, chipped in another $15. With this funding (the equivalent of $1,000 today) and the approval of ASCSA director Rufus B. Richardson, the team made plans for a two-week excavation. It would be the School’s first new project since 1895, when it launched the Corinth excavations and digs at Eretria and the Argive Heraeum, which were now finished. “Gone were the days when the School could spread devastation over the face of the land by attacking theaters and ruined Byzantine churches in seven different sites in one season” wrote Louis E. Lord summarizing the ASCSA’s new excavation policy after 1895 (Lord, History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1881-1942, Boston 1947, pp. 84-85).

Charles Weller, an ardent biker, on his way to Greece, 1900. Source: ASCSA Archives, Charles H. Weller Papers.

Just a year before, Richardson had not allowed Harriet Boyd to participate in the Corinth excavations on the grounds that women “could not endure the hardship of an active excavation” (Lord 1947, p. 95). Proving him wrong, Boyd went on to lead her own field mission on the island of Crete, excavating first at Kavousi in 1900 and a year later at Gournia. Creating her own legend, Boyd became a source of inspiration for many women at the School in the early 1900s, including Ida Thallon (later Hill).

“She has a man servant who rejoices in the name of Aristeides and who wears a fustanella. The only other fustanella servants in town belong to the Queen and the Schliemanns, but Miss Boyd is far too grand when she has him on the box,” wrote an impressed Ida to her mother in the early months of 1900.

Despite his initial permission allowing the two women (King and Thallon) to participate in the excavation, Richardson soon reneged, using as an excuse the absence of a chaperone. This feeble logic must have been particularly galling since one of the women, King, was 33 years old and an instructor of Greek and Latin at Vassar College. She had “chaperoned so many parties that it had not occurred her” that she would need a chaperone herself to dig at Vari (Weller to his wife, Feb. 15, 1901). In the end it was agreed that the women could participate in the excavation if they did not stay overnight in the dig house.

Charles Weller (second left) and Ida Thallon (right) excavating the Vari Cave, 1901. ASCSA Archives, Archaeological Photographic Collection.

On February 19th, 1901, Weller, his team, and ten workmen from the neighboring village began the excavation of the cave. He described a slow project since “each basket full or half full of dirt had to be pulled up by a rope by two men, while a third unties the rope and empties…Oh, I suppose we are getting pretty good work from them but it seems pretty slow from an American point of view.” The same evening Weller’s workforce went on strike for more pay and he noted in a letter to his wife that he was forced to “yield though not till after a struggle. It is no snap to face a strike with a language that you don’t know.” A few days later he admitted that the work was hard enough to justify raising the workers’ wages.

“I enclose for you a picture of our gang at Vari. [Herbert] De Cou says they look like a ‘precious lot of cut throats,’ and I guess they do, but I can testify to their good and jolly character. I think too that I could get them to defend me in great shape. I know they will be willing after they each get the pictures that I am going to send them” (March 13, 1901).

Weller’s gang at Vari, 1901. Source: ASCSA Archives, Charles H. Weller Papers.

The excavation uncovered a number of marble dedicatory reliefs, hundreds of lamps, fragments of figurines and pottery, and many coins. On the last day of the excavation, March 1st 1901, the team packed all the finds for the trip to Athens. “Have 50 fragments of marble reliefs, about 150 coins, 4 baskets of lamps, 2 or 3 baskets of the best pottery fragments, a number of terracotta statuettes including three or four very good heads and several inscriptions. Feel much pleased with the results,” wrote young Ida in her diary. The study of the finds showed that the cave had been used from the 6th century B.C. until well into the Roman times. Weller not only dug the cave but also published the results of the excavation in a collaborative spirit. The long report in the American Journal of Archaeology (AJA, 1903) listed a number of contributors besides Weller, who provided the overall account of the excavation. They include Dunham (inscriptions), Thallon (marble reliefs), King (vases, figurines, and small finds), Agnes Baldwin (coins), and Samuel E. Bassett (lamps).

One of the reliefs discovered at Vari Cave (now at the National Archaeological Museum). Source: ASCSA Archives, Archaeological Photographic Collection.

The excavation of the Vari Cave was the first career step for many of the participants. Weller, after teaching at Hopkins School in New Haven, would move to the University of Iowa to teach Greek and art history until his death in 1927. In 1924, inspired by his love for good photography and his talent for writing, Weller established and led Iowa University’s School of Journalism. His youngest daughter Ruth Weller Nelson McCuskey would become a professional photographer, and it was in her basement that her niece (Weller’s granddaughter, from his older daughter Clara), Jeanne Perrin, would discover a treasure-trove of photos from Weller’s time in Greece (1900-1901 and 1910.)

Dunham, after a brief career as a professor of Classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, would die two years later, just as his article on the Vari inscriptions was going to press. Ida Thallon would continue her studies at Columbia University where she received her PhD in 1905.  Dedicated to Vassar, Ida would return to her alma mater to enjoy a distinguished teaching career as a professor of Greek and Latin until her marriage to Bert Hodge Hill in 1924.  From that point on Ida Thallon Hill and friend Elizabeth Pierce Blegen would become key figures in the Athenian archaeological community (both women are featured in many of my posts). Ida would maintain her close relationship with Lucy Shaw King.  After completing her study of the Vari figurines, Lucy became a university administrator, serving many years as the dean of Pembroke College at Brown University; unfortunately, she never returned to Greece.  Unlike the others, Agnes Baldwin had not participated actively in the Vari excavation; however, her publication of the coins from the cave was the first step in a long and illustrious career as a numismatist. She became the first female curator of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in 1910 and her photographic collection in the Archives of the ANS, available online through FLICKR, is a treasure-trove of information about life in Athens at the turn of the century.


In addition to Weller’s and Baldwin’s photos of Athens in the early 20th century, one learns a lot about everyday life in the city at the turn of the century from Weller’s letters to his wife and the letters that Thallon sent to her mother (transcripts of which are saved in the ASCSA Archives). To these we could add a third source, a wonderful guide-book by George Horton (1859-1942), the well-known philhellene diplomat, titled Modern Athens (1897, 1901). (Modern Athens is available online, and it has also been translated into Greek by Alcestis Dema, Patakis Editions, 1997.) Horton served as U.S. consul in Athens in 1893-1898, and again from 1905 to 1906. Shortly after the Olympic Games of 1896, Athens became a popular destination for British and Americans tourists. To assist this new clientele, expatriates with long-term residency in Athens, such as Horton or Rufus B. Richardson, Director of the ASCSA (1893-1903), produced literary travelogues.

While all three sources (Weller, Thallon, and Horton) agree on many aspects of everyday life in Athens, their accounts also differ, as expected, in some areas. Weller, a scholar of modest means and a married man with two toddlers in America, avoided unnecessary expenses. Unlike Ida Thallon who could afford to stay in and eat multi-course dinners at the lavish Merlin House, Weller boarded with the Poulios family on Demokritou street.  He frequently ate his meals, which consisted of “fried eggs, bread, a cup of chocolate and a rizogalo [rice pudding],” in the town’s milk shops, and his letters home often make mention of his threadbare clothes.“The pair I last sent in the wash were mostly holes. The wash lady put in whole new heels and toes but in such a way that with close shoes I can’t begin to wear them” (March 11, 1901). I also suspect that Weller’s lack of suitable clothes did not allow him to attend the New Year’s ball at the Greek Palace, which  Ida attended twice (1900 and 1901), having come to Athens with a wardrobe appropriately equipped for such occasions. For the court ball, she wore her “white,” which was not as stunning as her black, which she could not wear because, as she explained to her mother, of the two rules about formal female clothing in Athens. “First can’t wear black; second must be off at the shoulders or at least very low. No white feathers or long train unless you like” (Jan. 12, 1900).

Boarding with Charilaos Poulios’s family on Demokritou Street. Source: ASCSA Archives, Charles H. Weller Papers.

Thanks to Ida, we have a blow by blow description (three single-spaced pages) of one court ball. Unlike Horton who found Greek upper class women quite fashionable (p. 21) as well as “dashing horse riders” (p. 71) -Horton would marry a Greek in 1909- Ida did not have one good word to say about the women she met at the ball. “Of course there were some pretty ones but very few and the rest were such guys. They are either very thin with washboard necks or very much the other extreme and they get to look old very soon; they do not hesitate to improve on nature and lay the paint on with whitewash brush. They look terrible disagreeable too, as if they had nasty tempers. They like white dresses and wear them very low. Some of the hair was astonishing to see. The women are not as polite as the men, they shove fearfully; of course there were some nice ones, but on the whole, they couldn’t touch American girls for looks” confided Ida to her mother. On meeting the Queen, Ida “made a grand courtesy, you can imagine about as graceful as a cow and took her hand but she wouldn’t let us kiss it, she shook hands instead and was so nice. She did let Greeks kiss her hand” (Jan. 18, 1900). Ida’s chauvinism, however, suffered a blow a few days earlier at the Merlin House. When she asked one of her boarding mates, Miss Kohler, “the exceedingly queer little English girl who follows the dowdy rather than stunning type,” if she was going to the court ball, Kohler responded: “Oh, no, when you have a court and a Queen of your own, things here look very small!” (Jan. 12, 1900).

Ida Thallon Hill, ca. 1900. Source: ASCSA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill Papers.

A month later Ida with Lida would also attend Madame Schliemann’s ball “which was a great success.” They had not been in the Schliemann house but had heard a lot about it. They expected to find a “very gorgeous and giddy” place, but instead found it “very attractive and in spite of its palatial size… very homelike and comfortable.” They were also impressed by Madame Schliemann and her lovely daughter Andromache Melas. Although “the Greeks do not, as a rule, introduce people, and we understood from Mrs. Richardson that Mme Schliemann didn’t,” both girls were pleasantly surprised when they were introduced to lots of men. “There were a great many naval officers there so we frisked about gaily with these gorgeous uniforms.” As always, I found their descriptions of the food interesting. Ida noted to her mother (Feb. 5, 1900) that instead of a single meal the supper room was open all the time “and you go and come just as you like. They don’t have hot things like consume [sic] or oysters; only hot things are tea and coffee and they have the greatest assortment of drinks, beer and punch, champagne, lemonade, etc. and fine fancy cakes and ices, candies, etc.”. Another surprising observation is that these fancy balls went on until early in the morning. “We came home about half past two… but it didn’t end till six.”

The Schliemann House in Athens, ca. 1890. Source: ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Ida was not excessively wealthy, but she had the means to sustain an upper-class lifestyle while a student in Athens. Unlike Weller who constantly worried about money, Thallon rarely expressed similar concerns in her letters. Without neglecting her obligations as a student at the American School, Ida and Lida led a busy social life with lots of tea and dinner parties organized by Mrs. Richardson, members of the U.S. legation, and a few Americanized families such as the Kalopothakes or the Schliemanns. In January 1900, she added one more activity to her weekly schedule.

“You will never guess what we were doing; playing golf,” she wrote triumphantly to her mother. “They have had the links ready for two or three weeks, but this was the first time we had gone out…Of course, they are not very wonderful links, but good fun and in the loveliest situation, you can possibly imagine, almost under the side of Hymettus and with such a view… I am glad I brought my clubs which have been collecting dust at a fearful rate for some time… We had only one set of clubs for three but that is a trifle; of course you can’t buy them here” (Jan. 25, 1900).

During another visit to the golf course she scribbled that “it took us a long time to go around for the King was playing right in front of us and we did not want to yell “fore” at him too vigorously, neither did we want to hit him in his royal head with a golf ball…” (March 6, 1900). Searching the history of golf in Greece on the internet revealed no information about this course which was later replaced by the new links in Glyfada in the 1960s (I welcome any information).


One subject that the two men, but not Ida, described in great detail and with some humor, despite its macabre content, is the spectacle of a Greek funeral. Horton suggests that “nervous foreigners would do well to avoid, the possibility of getting an unexpected view of the corpse, which is carried exposed in a shallow coffin” (p. 65), but he feels that he has to include it in his guide-book since the “dead were borne for the last time through the streets of the city which had been their home.” No did Weller shy away from the spectacle.  He instead “got a fine picture of a part of it, including the gentleman most interested… To see the open coffin with the body rolling back and forth occasionally is quite interesting” (Jan. 22, 1901). In fact, after the funeral, one of the relatives tracked Weller down and asked for a copy of the photograph! As photographs were rare at the time and most people were photographed only in a photographer’s studio, an extra portrait of the deceased would have been a valuable addition to the family’s small photographic collection.

Greek funeral as illustrated by Corwin Knapp Linson. Source: George Horton, Modern Athens (1901), p. 66.


The rituals of Greek Easter have always had a special appeal to foreigners visiting Greece. Both Horton and Weller describe at length the procession of the Epitaph on Good Friday and the midnight celebrations with the crowd kissing each other and exchanging good wishes: “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.” “Then the congregation breaks up and goes home, still carrying the lighted candles that soon scatter all over the city, like little lines and squads of moving stars. The first thing the Greek does when he reaches home is to light, from his candle, the lamp which burns before the icon, then he breaks the long fast with a dish of soup, made from the entrails and feet of the Easter lamb, seasoned with egg and lemon [i.e., mageiritsa]. But a small portion is taken, for it is necessary to prepare the stomach for the feasting of the morrow. It is a pretty poor Greek who cannot afford at least a piece of lamb on Easter Sunday, although he may not eat meat any other day of the year” (Horton, p. 70). Weller, who was writing to his wife (and not trying to impress his readers), gives his own version of the Easter preparations.

“Easter is a big season here and the lambs have to suffer for it. I do not know yet the significance of them, but each well to do family has one or two and sometime tomorrow there will be a general butchery of the innocents… The lamb at Poulios house is quite a pet today. He was even under the dining table when I ate today… I don’t know how many times I have remembered today the ‘As a lamb before his shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth’” [Isaiah 53:7].


George Horton in Modern Athens recounted a tale of two cities, “each differing from the other in climate, in traditions, and to a great extent, in character of population.” Horton’s winter city, was  a European city, “the resort of tourists, diplomats, and climate seekers,” where one ate “course dinners at the Angleterre Hotel,” attended service at the English church, danced “the barn dance at Madame Schliemann’s,” and played “charades in the library of the American School” (p. 1). This state of affairs lasted from October until May. “Then all changed. The diplomats and the climate-seekers hide them away, and the tourists cease to come” (p. 2).  The summer city swarmed with Greeks from Egypt, Turkey, and Roumania, who drank resin wine and masticha, ate “pilaf, stuffed courgas, and fish with garlic-sauce, by candle light in the squares,” and attended open-air theaters.

In 1900-1901, Charles Weller had experienced Horton’s winter Athens without the course dinners and the fancy balls. When he returned to Greece in 1910 for a brief visit, it was late June. He described the days as scorchers, but, to his surprise, summer Athens “pleased him more than ever” (letter to his wife on June 28, 1910). “This is a great town in summer. I have just been down in front of the Zappeion listening to an open air vaudeville and drinking coffee and masticha… I am learning how the Athenians live. The days are so hot that life at night must be busy.” A few evenings later he was back at the square watching moving pictures.

“When I left the square this evening the seats were still well filled and only half the program of music and moving pictures finished. I wish we had that sort of thing [in the] summers. The crowded square under a clear sky is great. Why hustle so much? These people do things as well as we and without half the hustle and worry… Oh I like the life all right. My sole sorrow is being alone.“

To cope with the day’s heat, Weller adopted the afternoon nap. “Since luncheon I have been asleep for an hour. I have taken to undressing and going to bed just as at night. One is up late nights and needs the day’s sleep” as he explained in another letter (July 7, 1910). In Horton’s Modern Athens, “everybody, except the bustling foreigner, respected the noon-day nap in Athens” (p.9)—proof that by 1910 Weller was turning into a Greek.

The Constitution Square as illustrated by Corwin Knapp Liston. Source: George Horton, Modern Athens (1901).


Horton’s summer Athens was also the land of purple sunsets (p. 90). “It will pay us to keep our eyes fixed upon the slopes of Hymettus just as the sun is going down. During the few moments immediately following the disappearance of that luminary the sides of the mountain are bathed in a deep, soft, yet quite vivid violet hue. This is the most transporting, most poetic spectacle on earth—the far-famed transfiguration of Hymettus… The poet or the dreamer who has looked but once upon that violet glow is homesick for it ever after,” according to Horton (p. 27).

On July 12, 1910, Weller experienced his own Attic sunset “sitting before the west end of the Parthenon watching the sun go down—with my back to it.” The light on the building is wonderful. I like to dream here at sunset and forget for a time the problems that the Parthenon presents to the archaeologist. There is nothing quite like the crimson light on this building and the mountains beyond for rousing reveries. There. It’s over, and in a moment the whistle of the guard will tell me to go. I will go down to the square and sip a coffee while reading the evening paper. There’s the whistle…”

The Parthenon, 1901. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Note: The second phrase in my title “A sentimental capital and a resort of scholars” comes from George Horton’s Modern Athens (1901, p. 85).

Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan Wars

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor's letters to her mother, October 1910

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor’s letters to her mother, October 1910.

“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor.  In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens.

Zillah Dinsmoor, ca. 1910

Zillah Dinsmoor, ca. 1910

Considered “as somehow inferior, less political, or less significant texts,” familial letters have been neglected by historians.  In the past decade, however, there has been an upsurge of scholarly publications studying social issues, such as the rise and strengthening of the middle class in America and Britain, based on private correspondence. I mention in passing Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families (2008), Eve Tavor Bannet’s, Empire of Letters (2005), and Konstantin Dierks, In my Power: Letter Writing and Communications (2011).

I recently revisited Zillah’s rich correspondence, especially the letters she wrote from 1910-1912, looking for information about daily interactions, social and professional, between American and German archaeologists working in Greece at the end of the 19th/early 20th century. Yet, what caught my eye were Zillah’s detailed descriptions of dinners she hosted or attended in Athens. Because she was particularly interested in cooking and entertaining, her letters trace the culinary profile and social aspirations of the city’s upper middle class, a mixture of foreign expatriates and a local westernized aristocracy.

The rise of professionalization at the end of the 19th century did not leave cooking unaffected. Although recipes still passed from mothers to daughters (sometimes as well-kept family secrets), the Boston Cooking School project –which was initiated in 1876 and the first to categorize different kinds of food, standardize quantities, and study the relationship between food and health– elevated cooking to a science. In the spirit of the time, an Italian cook Pellegrino Artusi also published La Scienza in Cucina e l’ Arte di Mangiar Bene (1891) which was soon translated into many languages including German. A few years later, in 1896, Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School Cookbook. (See Alex Ketchum’s, “Fannie Farmer and the Boston Cooking School Cookbook [1896]: A History of Science, Gender, and Food”). Interestingly enough, Bert Hodge Hill, director of the ASCSA from 1906-1926, owned a copy of Farmer’s 1918 edition. Although it does not show any signs of wear (unlike my own cookbooks), except for occasional checks in pencil, it must have been consulted by the School’s hosts and hostesses before dinners.

Bert Hodge Hill's own copy of Fannie Farmer's Cookbook. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers

Bert Hodge Hill’s own copy of Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers

Zillah’s time in Athens coincided with the rise of Nikos Tselementes (1878-1958), perhaps the most famous and influential Greek cook, who took it upon himself to “clean” Greek cuisine of oriental influences, thus banning olive oil from cooking and introducing butter and creamy sauces. Moussaka and pastitsio, signature dishes of modern Greek cuisine, were his creations. Originally from Siphnos, Tselementes learned to cook in his uncle’s hotel, the luxurious “Aktaion” in Phaleron. After spending time in Vienna, Tselementes returned to Athens to establish himself as the best cook in town, working for the Austrian Embassy (and other embassies later). Talented, ambitious, educated, and trendy, he soon distinguished himself from the other local cooks by publishing the first Greek cookbook in 1910 (Οδηγός Μαγειρικής και Ζαχαροπλαστικής).

“Fortunately I have not met the octopus yet”

After spending several days with her husband Bill (the architect William Bell Dinsmoor) and other members of the American School in Central Greece, Zillah described the local food as monotonous. “They soak everything that they possibly can in tomato sauce and while that is very good in itself it becomes a little tiresome when it flavors everything.” She continued with a description of the local products available for sale on the stores: “The front of all the stores are the same, one keg of pickled herring, a [?] of ripe olives, a big barrel of cheese, a big barrel of tomato sauce and a confection made of honey and sesame seeds called halva. Fortunately I have not met the octopus yet.” But she raved about the Greek honey, “[it] is the most delicious I have ever tasted. You almost think you are eating flowers.” (Oct. 20, 1910).

Zillah’s Chafing Dish

Zillah travelled to Greece with her own chafing dish, and she tried to use it to make fudge. Although it came out “beautifully creamy,” it tasted funny because she and Bill couldn’t make the shop keeper understand that they wanted unsweetened chocolate. “…We came home with some miserable Greek sweet chocolate.” While in Corinth at the excavation house, she cooked their breakfasts in the chafing dish, but her attempt to cook lamb proved unsuccessful: “the roast lamb was a fizzle. The oven was too hot at first and by waiting for it to cool enough to put the meat in, it was not hot enough to cook it through…” she complained to her mother (Nov. 15, 1910).


“I wish you could see my kitchen. Dirt floor, a long zinc table in the middle…, candles for light…, and about half of the room is piled up with excavation picks, shovels, baskets, etc. I have a box with a hinged cover to keep groceries in and I can’t leave a bit of milk or meat there for the two cats get in through the window the minute I leave the place… Even the hens walk in the kitchen when I am there and the goat has pushed his nose in inquisitively on several occasions.” Unlike other Americans who describe with disgust the goat’s milk, Zillah enjoyed the flavor, eggs, and local bread. “It is a pleasure to cook with it and the eggs also. Scrambled eggs puff up as light as a feather.” “I wonder how they make bread here. They only bake once a month but the bread seems fresh. It is very different from ours rather brown with a hard crust but I like it.”

Zillah Dinsmoor in front of the Corinth Excavation House, ca. 1910. ASCSA Archives, William Bell Dinsmoor Papers.

Zillah Dinsmoor in front of the Corinth Excavation House, ca. 1910. ASCSA Archives, William Bell Dinsmoor Papers.

“Evangelos is a Genius”

Zillah spared no words when it came to praising Evangelos, the School’s cook. Unfortunately, no picture of him survives; we don’t even know his last name. But Evangelos must have belonged to the new generation of Greek cooks like Nikos Tselementes, who were willing to experiment and learn from their foreign employers.  I was surprised to read some of the seven-course menus he prepared more than a hundred years ago. (When was the last time more than a three-course dinner was served at a formal meal at the ASCSA?) For Thanksgiving in 1911, Evangelos served a fish soup, followed “by cold jellied pigeon with little individual salads with whipped cream, turkey with chestnut dressing, another kind of salad, potato ball, quince jelly, and the most remarkable ice in fancy shape, salted almonds…” (Nov. 27, 1910)

Two months later, in February 1911 when Zillah and Bill Dinsmoor hosted their first dinner at the American School, which was attended by Mr. and Mrs. Steele of the U.S. Legation, Miss Nicholls (a teacher at the Palace), professor Alice Walton, Dr. Georg Karo of the German Archaeological Institute, and Dr. Chester Alan Johnson, “Evangelos cooked himself with glory.” “We had a thin consommé…, then tarts with mashed birds on them (purée of snipe), then fish made into pears covered with crumbs and fried a perfect golden brown, potatoes, carrots and peas all cut in small round balls (but the peas). After that came roast of turkey with salad of apples, lettuce and nuts and mayonnaise, then ice-cream chocolate made into big eggs with sugar browned and made into fine strings over the top to represent straw and the nest of cake. It was very pretty. Fruit came last and on the table were salted almonds, peppermints…” reported a happy Zillah to her mother a few days later (Feb. 7, 1911).

The Dining Room of the ASCSA, ca. 1915. Indoor photos are very rare in people's personal papers until well into the 20th century. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records.

The Dining Room of the ASCSA, 1915. Indoor photos are very rare in personal papers until well into the 20th century. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records.

“Tour la Reine”

Fancy dinners but with a limited wine selection. White or “green” Rhenish was the wine of choice for all courses. On one occasion Samian wine was served at a dinner in the U.S. Legation (Mar. 24, 1912). For their first formal dinner Bill and Zillah went shopping for wine, cigarettes, and flowers. “Wine is very cheap here (the only thing) and we bought the kind Mr. Hill always serves, a very light wine called ‘Tour la Reine.”

The wine took its name from a royal estate in Attika (near Nea Liosia) built by Queen Amalia as her personal getaway. At some point in the late 19th century it was bought by the Serpieri family and transformed into a plantation producing many goods including wine. (Ο Πύργος της Βασιλίσσης has now been renovated and a visit there is a wonderful weekend excursion. Read here about Queen Amalia’s gardens in Greece.)

Six, Seven, and Eight-Course Dinners

The multi-course dinners described by Zillah started with a soup (beef consommé, chicken or fish soup). During lunches and informal dinners Zillah would also serve fish chowder which “Evangelos makes as well as I do now.” (Feb. 17, 1911). “I cook the fish first, then take it from the stove and remove skin and bones; put it back and add one onion and sliced potatoes. When these are cooked, I add milk and before taking them from stove put some butter… I think I must have gotten the recipe from you at some time” she wrote to her mother a few days earlier (Feb. 7, 1911).

For the second course Evangelos usually served game, either cold, jellied pigeon or tarts with mashed birds, which Zillah also described it as “purée of snipe.” There is a great recipe of “Purée of Snipe a la Creole” in David S. Shields’s Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (2015, p. 88). One must use fresh snipes which “should always be kept four days at least, before cooking. Never pluck them until you are ready to cook them…”. For Cyrus Ashton Rollin Sanborn’s birthday (Sanborn, aka CARS, was the School’s Secretary until 1912), Evangelos served fish as a second and game as a third course: “a pretty dish with mashed partridges made in a jelly mould with daisies near the top of the jelly, the petals made of hard boiled white of egg…” (Mar. 20, 1912).

"Birds on Canapes" from Fannie Farmer's Cookbook (1918, p. 375)

“Birds on Canapes” from Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook (1918, p. 375). ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

Game and fish alternated as a second and third course, or game was skipped when the courses were fewer than six. For fish, Mrs. Gale, the wife of the U.S. Consul, served sole fried in batter; Mrs. Steele (whose husband was the manager of the Lake Copais Company) offered fry red mullets (μπαρμπουνάκια), while the incoming director of the German Archaeological Institute, Georg Karo, spared no cost serving broiled live lobsters with mushrooms (Mar 24, 1912 and Apr 20, 1911). On another occasion, Evangelos served “a delicious fish dressed with cream sauce and garnished with mushrooms and potatoes.”

Meat came next, served in one or two courses. Turkey with chestnut dressing was served for the School’s Thanksgiving of 1910, “roast turkey with salad of apples, lettuce, nuts, and maynonnaise” for Zillah’s first dinner at the School as a hostess, and “a big fat bird from Lake Copais” for Mrs. Steele’s dinner. Since the director of the School, Bert Hodge Hill, was a bachelor, the wives of the Visiting Professors would frequently act as hostesses for the School’s parties, or when the director was absent, Zillah and Bill would also be allowed to host parties at the School.  Roast beef, steaks or lamb was the other choice. In addition to mushrooms, artichokes were a favorite side-dish of the local cooks and their foreign mistresses. On two occasions, chicken was served after the beef: at Karo’s dinner it was served broiled with lettuce salad, while at Mrs. Gale’s in the U.S. Legation, the “roasted chicken came with wonderful salad and currant jelly, delicious French peas” providing “a course by themselves” according to Zillah’s description (Mar. 24, 1912). This, after they had already consumed fried sole and roast beef with mushrooms and artichokes.

The "saloni" in the Director's House, 1910s. A rare indoor photo from the ASCSA Archives.

The “saloni” in the Director’s House, 1910s. A rare indoor photo from the ASCSA Archives.

To describe these dinners using modern dietary terms, I would say they were rich in protein and fiber and low in carbs, since starch was limited to potatoes. Rice was completely absent. In Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook, although there are a couple of recipes for Turkish pilaf, rice does not constitute an important ingredient in North American cuisine. Likewise, the new generation of Greek cooks such as Tselementes and the School’s Evangelos, wishing to modernize the Greek cuisine by removing any Turkish influence, would have been equally happy to ban recipes with rice from the menu.

Dishes with macaroni or spaghetti are also missing from Zillah’s accounts. Although there are a few recipes for macaroni in Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, pasta may have been considered too ethnic and thus inappropriate for these social settings. In Greece, egg pasta such as χυλοπίττες, was also considered peasant food which had no place at a formal dinner, especially one prepared for foreigners.

What’s for Dessert?

It wasn’t pudding or cake or pie (although Zillah herself made delicious mince pies), but ice cream. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook lists a host of recipes for making ice cream in many flavors. For Zillah’s first dinner at the ASCSA, Evangelos outdid himself by serving a chocolate ice cream “made into big eggs with sugar browned and made into fine strings over the top”. On another occasion, a dinner she hosted at the “Continental Hotel,” the dessert was orange ice cream, while Mrs. Gale’s guests at the U.S. Legation were offered “ice cream with preserved ginger and sauce” (Mar. 24, 1912). There is also mention of Evangelos serving “Spanish cream filled with candied fruits and nuts” (Feb. 12, 1912). Cakes were reserved for special occasions, such as birthdays.

Dessert was followed by fruit, candies, salted almonds (Zillah does not miss a chance to mention the latter), and port. At Mrs. Gale’s dinner “coffee was served in an odd way. Instead of bringing in the cup quite prepared on a tray” coffee, milk, and sugar were brought in separately so that the guests could fill their cups as they wished (Mar. 24, 1912).

Recipe for Spanish Creme from Fannie Farmer's cookbook (1918, p. 423). ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

Recipe for Spanish Creme from Fannie Farmer’s cookbook (1918, p. 423). ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.


Letters Do Count

I started writing this post just before Christmas while cooking and baking for the holidays, and finished it in Rome between Italian lunches and dinners. It never felt like the work was spoiling the vacation.

Although Virginia Woolf, an avid diarist herself, remarked that women’s letters did not count in history writing, the letters of the School’s women, students or companions, do count.  They are troves of microhistory which can be expanded into larger social history once enough information and context have been gathered (see Susan Whyman’s review of Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century). Nellie Reed, Ida Thallon, Zillah Dinsmoor, and Dorothy Burr were keen observers of local life and customs, whether travelling in the country or living in a Balkan capital.  “The people and modern things [as opposed to the ancient things that interested her husband Bill] interest me so much through the customs and habits” wrote Zillah to her mother during her first month in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910).

The transcription of Zillah Dinsmoor’s letters is an ongoing project which so far has depended on volunteer efforts.  Her letters continue well into the 1920s, so there is much still to transcribe.  This challenging work will, however, make valuable information available to scholars addressing gender and mobility studies, and the early history of the American School.

Καλή Χρονιά (και καλή όρεξη)! – Happy New Year (and bon appétit)!

The Man from Damascus, the Good Wife, and Baby Solon: R.I.P. at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

ASCSA Library, 1902

ASCSA Library, 1902

“You enter a reception hall of marble and go up a flight of marble steps which give the effect of entering a museum, as there are marble busts and old sculptures round that have been dug up…” Major A. Winsor Weld wrote to his wife on October 26th, 1918, upon entering the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter). He and six other officers of the American Red Cross including Lieutenant Colonel Edward Capps would live in the School’s premises until July of 1919. (At the time one entered the Library through the Director’s residence.) Although the ASCSA was already building a small collection of antiquities –mostly pottery sherds and other small objects picked up on walks and informal surveys– the antiquities Weld described are of a different scale. The busts he refers to must have been plaster casts of originals similar to the one displayed above the fireplace mantle in the Library in a photo from 1902. I believe that the other “old sculptures” on display, the ones that “have been dug up,” were three Roman marble funerary reliefs unearthed in 1894, at the corner of Vasilissis Sophias (then Kephissias) and Merlin (then Academy) street, exactly opposite the Palace (now the Greek Parliament), during the construction of a mansion by Charles Edward Prior Merlin (1850-1898). Named after one of Merlin’s French ancestors, the “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” has housed the French Embassy since 1896.

“Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

The “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

“In digging for the foundations of the large house which Mr. C. Merlin, the well-known artist and photographer of Athens, is building at the corner of Academy and Kephissia Streets, the workmen came upon considerable remains of an ancient cemetery. At my suggestion Mr. Merlin made over to the American School the right of publishing these discoveries, and afterwards generously presented to the School three reliefs and one other inscribed stone, together with some smaller fragments. The finds were made in the autumn of 1894. Only a part of them came under my observation at the time; hence the description of the graves and their location rests in part upon the accounts of Mr. Merlin and his workmen” reported Thomas Dwight Goodell a year later (American Journal of Archaeology 10, 1895, pp. 469-479).

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Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold War

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.

“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.

DancingDark_smallIn 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »

Gertrude Smith: A Classic American Philhellene

Posted by Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. The essay he contributes to “From the Archivist’s Notebook” was inspired by his summer experience at the School.

“Summers at the ASCSA are a vibrant time for the School, full of students and scholars, with the buzz of activity and chats at Ouzo Hour. Taking on the role of the Assistant Director of the School last year, I was intrigued to learn that each Summer Session Director is given the title, “Gertrude Smith Professor.” At first, I was only vaguely familiar with Smith’s scholarship on Greek law. So, why would the School associate SS Directors with her? This led me on a quest to find out more about Smith—and to find out what her story exactly was. She must have had a passion for Greece, but why? And in what ways did she spread this love to others?”

Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950.

Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950. Photo: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Gertrude Elizabeth Smith (1894-1985) spent most of her adult life in Illinois. Born and raised in Peoria, Smith would later go on to receive her education at the University of Chicago, writing a PhD dissertation on Greek law– after which Smith would begin teaching at the university, eventually becoming the Edwin Olson Professor of Greek in 1933. From 1934 until her retirement in 1961, Smith was the Chairman of the Department of Classics at Chicago, making her a prominent female figure in the field of Classics in America in the 20th century. Smith also served as a founder of Eta Sigma Phi, the national Classics honor society, was the first woman to serve as the president of both the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS, 1933-1934) and the American Philological Association (1958), and was a long serving member of the editorial board of the journal, Classical Philology (1925-1965). After her retirement from Chicago, Smith would go on to teach briefly at the University of Illinois, Loyola University in Chicago, and Vanderbilt University (Gagarin 1996-1997). Read the rest of this entry »

“Dollars and Dreams”: American Archaeologists on the Hunt for Greek American Money in Chicago

A still from The Aunt from Chicago (Η θεία από το Σικάγο) with the eccentric aunt (played by Georgia Vasileiadou) in the middle.

A still from The Aunt from Chicago (Η θεία από το Σικάγο) with the eccentric Greek American aunt (played by Georgia Vasileiadou) in the middle.

The Aunt from Chicago is one of the most beloved films in the history of Greek cinema. Produced in 1957, it became an instant hit and remained in demand for many decades. The movie had all the ingredients of a successful production: a great set and superior performances by the best actors of its time. As much as the film is a satire on the conservatism of the Greek family, it is also a subtle mockery of the “aunt’s” Americanization.

Proud of their successful relatives in America, but also feeling uncomfortable with their rapid assimilation by American culture, Greek intellectuals such as novelists Elias Venezis and Yorgos Theotokas tried to rationalize the loss of national identity by the Greek migrants.  If, before WW II, stories of hardship and suffering prevailed over stories of success, after the war America’s new supremacy left little room for a narrative of failure. Instead, a new transnational narrative wanted Greek migrants — with their age-old values and in light of the bravery they had demonstrated during the war — to have contributed to the building of a new America. Novelist Yorgos Theotokas in his Essay on America (Δοκίμιο για την Αμερική), in the wake of a visit to the United States in 1953, would go so far as to claim that “From now on, the American people will be—to a small, but considerable extent—descendants of Greeks also” (Laliotou 2004, p. 86). (For a thorough study of the Greek migration in America, see Ioanna Laliotou, Transatlantic Subjects: Acts of Migration and Cultures of Transnationalism between Greece and America, Chicago 2004.)

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Dorothy Burr Thompson’s Love for the Spirit of the Primitive

Dorothy Burr photographing wedding dance at Parapoungia 1924.

Dorothy Burr photographing wedding dance at Parapoungia 1924. ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

“By myself in a Boeotian village, with the cry of the wind and drunken men in my ears! I love this place; it is so full of interest and a sense of real thing – seeing weddings whereat one reddens a finger… plodding one’s weary way homeward over purple fields to the din of bells like an organ cadence, knowing villagers… Oh, it is so full of life…” scribbled Dorothy Burr in her personal diary on November 9, 1924.

She was twenty-four years old and had come to Greece the year before, to study at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter). Before that, she had lived in Philadelphia and studied at Bryn Mawr College. After attending the year-long program of the ASCSA, she and Hazel Hansen, another student of the School, were invited by archaeologist Hetty Goldman to dig at the Neolithic site of Eutresis, not far from Thebes, in Boeotia. Read the rest of this entry »