22 March 2009

Penitentiary Life, Week 1

This past Friday, I finished my first week of training for my new job as a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary. (We finish training this coming week.) So much to learn, and then also remember! But it has been really interesting, and also a lot of fun, as there are some really nice people who are being trained along with me. There's even a knitter and a spinner!

Believe it or not, there was even some knitting-related information during the week. When Eastern State was first opened, the philosophy behind it was that every person had an "inner light," and could be reformed if they had enough time to meditate on their wrongs, and be sorry for them (the "penitent" part of the word penitentiary). The way they hoped to accomplish this was by having each prisoner be in a cell alone (before solitary confinement was considered to be punishment), where he would have time to think about why he was there.

As part of this practice, the prisoners and the guards were forbidden to talk, sing, hum - well, you get it, it was supposed to be as quiet as possible. We learned that the prison guards wore wool socks over their shoes so that they wouldn't make any noise walking through the corridors. Interesting, but it also got me to thinking about how quickly the socks were probably worn out. The floors in the beginning were bricks, so it wasn't like today when we wear socks around the house, and are on carpeting or hardwood floors. Plus, if your socks were over your shoes, they were even getting extra wear and tear on the inside.

Which also led me to think that it was likely the prison guards' wives who had to knit their socks for them. They must have had to really crank them out. If it is true that sock-knitting machines did not show up until the later 1800s, it wouldn't have been likely that you could head over to ye olde general store and buy a 3-pack, like you can today. I also doubt that prison guards were paid well enough to be able to afford to hire someone outside of their family members to knit their socks.

This whole concept has really taken a spot in my brain lately. Then on Thursday, we were supposed to bring something from home and give a 3-5 minute presentation about it, so that the instructors could get an idea of how well we could do speaking in front of a group. I decided to take in double pointed needles, since I suspected that few people would have any clue what they were, or how they were used. And I thought it fit in nicely to the whole sock-over-the-shoe thing that I kept thinking about.

Besides the previously mentioned knitter and spinner, no one had a clue what they were. I passed them around, and talked about them, and you should have seen the looks on their faces - it was like I was standing there cooking bacon on my head or something! I had also brought a sock-in-progress so they could get a true visual of how double pointed needles might look while in use. I could almost literally see the light bulbs go on over their heads as they "got it!" To be honest, it was pretty cool - they had all kinds of questions, and were very enthusiastic.

But I still keep thinking about the socks worn over the shoes, on the brick floors, and how much more work that must have made for the knitters in the guards' families.

It makes me appreciate even more the fact that I can knit socks just because I like to knit them, not because someone is counting on me to do it!


Lisa said...

Ahem...my hot pink "Lisa got knocked up with twins so she's in serious need of socks!" are rather worn. But my "Lisa bought a new house and needs a dish rag!" lives on.

Just thought I'd mention these things. ;)

And I'd run over a basket of kittens to watch you cook bacon on a range, let alone your head.

I'm glad you're having fun. I'm jealous of your new coworkers--they should feel lucky to have you.

Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting. It's good to learn something new every day. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting new job! I guess we'll both be frequenting prisons.

Speaking of forced knitting - you'd probably be interested in this post by Needled - another historical perspective on knitting not as a hobby but as a necessity.

Good luck with the new job!

Lorraine said...

Bridget- How did you get interested in doing that? I guess it wouldn't be for everyone, but some of it is fascinating.

Lynn said...

This is very interesting!!! I can't imagine having to knit socks for the OUTSIDE of the shoes! They would have to be mended at least once a week!

Claudia Bugh said...

How on earth did you find this job!!! It sounds quirky - just like you :) I once gave tours of the SB courthouse during Fiesta week and enjoyed myself.

I particularly like that they have a "haunted house." I can see how that could be creepy if you had murders lurking in the dark or grimacing in their cells.

Lisa said...

Eastern State rules at Hallowe'en, truly scary and a hell of a lot of fun, especially if you conveniently find yourself at the way back of the group, slightly separated, with full permission to scream like a banshee when spooks mysteriously appear behind you. Granted, your husband may move forward and join the rest of the group, if only to protect his hearing. :)

Maureen said...

Well darn that bloglines!! I hadn't seen any updates for your blog for so long, I'd thought you were on a sunny beach in the tropics. This morning bloglines tells me you have 7 postings.

As a result I missed wishing you a happy birthday. So belated birthday wishes and best of luck with you new job. It sounds so interesting!

Anonymous said...

Lisa better not run over a basket of kittens just to watch you cook bacon on a range standing on your head! Although it would be entertaining.

That's a nice unique take you brought in! I take it the penitentiary isn't currently in use as such?

Walking w/socks over shoes. Oh, I can just imagine how that one went over.

Lisa said...

Carrie, I could run over some bacon whilst Bridget cooks kittens instead. ;)

Anonymous said...

i've been out of the loop so congrats, happy birthday and all that jazz ;)

and la-la the kitten thing is a step up from baby eating, good to see you branch out ;)

Lisa said...

Mmm...babies...bacon-wrapped babies...with kitten kebabs.

April, you're a culinary genius!

Brigitte said...

What a cool job!!! Um. Should I tell you about the episode of...some show, not sure which, that investigated the haunting of Eastern State? I remember it being Eastern State, because they talked about the unique design. It just makes the whole thing even more exciting!

I am a huge history geek... Can you tell?!