Friday, May 26, 2017

Crazy for Chintz: A New Addition to the Sheraton Room

Bedspread, English roller-printed chintz, ca. 1820
This winter’s renovation project focused on the second-floor bedroom, also known as the Sheraton Room. A coat of paint, some rearrangement of furniture, and a few new highlighted pieces have made this room an even more inviting space. The beautiful Sheraton-style four poster bed has been the perfect way to showcase the wide variety of textiles in the Alice’s collection, such as the “Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington” quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell, Lena Olena Blow’s early-20th century silk crazy quilt, and the woven coverlet donated by Anna Ernberg. 

The bedspread currently on the bed is one that, as far as I can tell, has never been displayed before. It is made of a single layer of cotton chintz printed in a pattern that combines a variety of floral motifs in brown, pinks, blue, and green. The material is only twenty-six inches wide, and the lengths are sewn together with very narrow seams of less than a quarter inch. The top hem is faced with a strip of cotton in another print. The material was most likely made in England around 1820 using the roller-printing process.

An example of an Indian chintz made for the
European market, ca. 1750-1775
When British, Dutch, and French trading companies began importing textiles from India in the 17th century, Europeans were immediately captivated by the floral printed and painted cottons they called indiennes (in France) and chintzes (in England). These lightweight, washable, and colorful fabrics were much in demand both for household furnishings and for apparel, and European manufacturers soon began working to develop the technology to make their own versions. They were so popular, in fact, that French and English silk and wool manufacturers feared the competition and successfully agitated to restrict the manufacture and import of printed textiles. Despite these laws, the popularity of printed textiles only grew during the 18th century.

Block printer at work.
“Calico” was another general
term for a printed textile.
There were three basic ways to transfer a pattern to fabric: block printing, copperplate printing, and roller printing. Block printing uses carved wooden blocks, one for each color in the design, to which colorant is applied before being placed on the fabric and struck with a mallet to impress the pattern. Though the basic idea behind block printing is simple, it required great skill to precisely align the blocks to create the pattern, and the more colors used, the more difficult it was. Nonetheless, even as new technologies for printing were introduced, block printing remained the most common technique until the early 19th century.

In the 1750s, copperplate printing was introduced in Ireland. This form of printing fabric uses the same principles as printing on paper—a metal plate is engraved with the design and ink (or dye) is applied to the plate. Copperplate printing had some advantages over block printing: patterns could be much bigger (because the printing was done with a press in which the fabric was laid on top of the plate) and images could be much more detailed and realistic. Copperplate printing was used to produce the famous toiles de jouy, but was also used for chintzes.

A major revolution in printed textiles came at the end of the 18th century with the invention of roller printing. This uses an engraved plate fixed to a continuously rolling cylinder, which is refreshed with new coloring medium on each turn and prints the fabric in one pass from end to end. Roller printing eliminated the need to reposition the block or plate, as well as the fabric, after each impression. The advantages were immediately apparent—printing was much faster and thus, cheaper. For the first time, printed textiles could be produced on a large scale. This, combined with new developments in chemical dyes, meant that by the 1830s, they were no longer luxury goods exclusively for the middle and upper class, but were widely available (they lost much of their prestige among the well-to-do at this point—hence the term “chintzy” for something cheap or gaudy).

Detail of bedspread. Note that the pattern runs all
the way to the selvedge.
The narrow width of the material in the bedspread, combined with the crisp, detailed printing and use of multiple colors, suggests that this fabric was roller-printed. The muted color scheme, and the use of blue overprinting on yellow to produce green, suggests a date prior to the 1830s. The dark background is also more common in later printed textiles. This material still has its original glazing, produced through the application of friction to create a crisp, glossy finish. Normally glazing would wear off through use and washing, but a purely decorative bedcover like this one would not need much washing.

As is unfortunately the case with many of the items in the collection, we don’t know how Alice acquired this bedspread or what its history might be. But it certainly makes a fine addition to the Sheraton Room!


Printed Textiles 1760-1860 in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (Smithsonian Institution, 1987).

Eileen Jahnke Trestain, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1800-1960 (Paducah, KY: American Quilter’s Society, 1998).

“18th Century Printed Cotton Fabrics,”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Celebration That Wasn’t: The 1914-1915 Peace Centenary

The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent
by Amédée Forestier, 1914
Everyone loves a centennial celebration, and in 1910 a group of American and British citizens were already preparing for what they believed would be a significant anniversary. 1914-1915 would mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, ending the War of 1812 and beginning of one hundred years of peace between Britain and the US. Peace Centenary Committees had been formed on both sides of the Atlantic, and plans were being made to mark the occasion with the appropriate plaques, ceremonies, pageants, and monuments.

A pamphlet issued in 1913 laid out the aims and plans of the Committee. The members especially wished to emphasize the special relationship among English-speaking people in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and their common cultural, legal, and political traditions. At a time when new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were arriving in ever-larger numbers, and African-Americans were pushing back against the restrictions of segregation and discrimination, many Americans of British ancestry sought ways to place so-called “Anglo-Saxon” heritage at the center of the culture—and by doing so assure the security of their own position as the political and social leaders of the nation.

Design for a commemorative postage stamp
The Committee suggested a wide range of commemorative activities for 1914-1915, from the traditional placing of historic markers to more grandiose plans, such as the erection of a companion to the Statue of Liberty, “Peace,” on an artificial island in New York Harbor. Other ideas included a ceremonial banquet to be held in Ghent on January 8, 1815, replicating the one held in 1815, “a great merchant marine parade from Buffalo to Duluth and return, with celebrations in the border cities and towns,” a “Museum of the Peaceful Arts,” to be established in New York, and memorial arches to be built at the US-Canadian border between New York and Quebec, and Washington and British Columbia. Most of these activities were to be planned and executed by local committees, of which the Northern New York Committee was by far the largest with over 300 members.

The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 put a halt to most of these plans. While the United States did not enter the war until April 1917, the general feeling was that celebrating peace in the midst of war didn’t make a lot of sense. Moreover, there was a reluctance to spend money on pageantry and monuments when those funds could be used to support the war effort. Cities like Plattsburgh and New Orleans that had already organized commemorative events for 1914 carried on as planned, but most of the other ideas were never carried out (Ghent was under German occupation by January 1915, so no banquet), or had to wait until the war was over (a Peace Arch was eventually constructed on the Washington-British Columbia border, but not until 1921).

One task that the Committee was able to carry out successfully was the purchase of Sulgrave Manor, the English ancestral home of George Washington. Lawrence Washington, great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of George, acquired the manor in 1539, and members of the Washington family lived there for about 70 years. The Committee hoped that in time, Sulgrave Manor would become a “shrine” and a place of pilgrimage for Washington’s admirers in Britain, just as Mount Vernon was in the United States.
Appeal for support of Sulgrave Manor
sent to William Miner

Washington’s connection to Sulgrave Manor was fairly tenuous. By the time his great-grandfather left England for Virginia in the 1650s, the family had long since left the village of Sulgrave. Washington probably didn’t know much about his “ancestral estate” or his English forebears. But what was important to the people who preserved Sulgrave Manor in the early 20th century was the link it provided to that precious “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. It allowed them to emphasize that Washington was English, the product of many generations of English traditions, and therefore imbued with all the virtues that they associated with England, particularly those found in small rural, pre-industrial communities.

Records in the Alice’s archives show that William Miner donated $200 to the Sulgrave Institute and $250 to the Washington Manor House fund prior to 1922 (the building was officially dedicated in June 1921). At this time, Alice and William Miner were involved with the restoration of the Kent Delord House in Plattsburgh, and plans were underway for the Colonial Home in Chazy. William Miner was also engaged in researching his own English ancestry. Supporting the restoration of Sulgrave Manor would have fit into their larger philanthropic goals and ideas about historic preservation.


Ethel Armes, The Washington Manor House: England’s Gift to the World (New York: The Sulgrave Institution, 1922).

American Committee for the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of Peace Among English-Speaking Peoples, General Prospectus of the Project to Celebrate the Centennial of the Signing of the Treaty of Ghent (New York, 1913).

Marquess of Crewe, “The Sulgrave Institution and the Anglo-American Society,” 1922 (pamphlet in museum archives).

“The Sulgrave Institution of the United States and of the British Commonwealth: A Statement and Programme,” ca. 1923 (pamphlet in museum archives).

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Transforming the Debris of War: Trench Art of World War I

Soldiers resting on a pile of shell cases after the
Battle of Passchendaele, September 1917
Imperial War Museums 
© IWM (Q 2915)
The technological developments of the late 19th and early 20th century meant that World War I was a new kind of warfare. Machine guns, mortars, and other field artillery vastly increased the range of munitions fire, but also discouraged troop movements. Instead, opposing armies dug into protective trenches from which they could fire at each other, with occasional attempts to gain ground by going “over the top.” The constant noise of artillery, and the massive numbers of shell cases and other debris left behind by this type of warfare, had a profound effect on the men in the trenches. One of the ways in which they processed this experience was through the production and purchase of so-called “trench art.”

Matchbox cover decorated with insignia of the
Royal Canadian Artillery
Imperial War Museums  © IWM (EPH 4285)
Trench art encompasses a whole range of objects made from shells, shell cases, detonators, bullets, shrapnel, and other scrap metal both during and after World War I. During the war, many of these pieces were made by off-duty soldiers as a way to fill their time and make some extra money. They fashioned items like cigarette lighters, matchbox covers, letter openers, and pens from scrap metal, sometimes personalizing them or decorating them with the insignia of regiments stationed in the area. After the war, economic deprivation, combined with the widespread availability of war débris, produced a thriving civilian trench art industry in France and Belgium. Individuals continued to produce items for sale to war widows, pilgrims, and battlefield tourists until war broke out again in 1939. 

Battlefield souvenir crucifix 
Imperial War Museums 
© IWM (EPH 1915)
Nicholas Saunders, who has written extensively about trench art, notes that the large number of soldiers declared “missing,” along with the British decision not to repatriate the dead, meant that there was a continuous stream of visitors to the old Western Front between 1919 and 1939. Many of these visitors appear to have returned home with some sort of trench art souvenir. “Such objects,” Saunders writes, “were often the only material reminder of the dead.” Widows and family members purchased trench art for a variety of reasons: “as souvenirs of a visit, as acts of worship to the deceased’s memory, and of solidarity and empathy with local people for whom their loved ones had died and whose economic hardships were everywhere apparent.” There was an additional layer of irony here, too, as many of the women who later visited the battlefields had themselves worked in the factories that produced the weapons of war.

Trench art of unknown origin and purpose
The origin and purpose of this piece of trench art from the Alice’s collection is unknown. It is made of scrap brass and a bullet, and is decorated with a German Iron Cross medal and a flattened metal disc, possibly a coin or button. It may have been intended for use as an ashtray. The nature of the item suggests that it was made by a soldier during the war, rather than as a later souvenir. It is possible that this item, like the German helmet we featured last week on our Facebook page, was brought back by local soldier Ralph Worthley Wheeler. Wheeler went to France with the 26th Engineers, which was responsible for ensuring a steady supply of clean water for soldiers and animals at the front, as well as at hospitals and encampments. He returned to the United States in June 1919 and was hospitalized in New York. He was finally discharged in January 1920, but died just a few weeks later as a result of illness acquired during his service. It is likely that his parents, Ralph and Fannie Wheeler of Chazy, donated his war souvenirs to the Alice after his death.

The meaning of trench art is ambiguous. On the one hand, the fragmented nature of the objects can be seen as reflecting the literal fragmentation of objects, landscapes, and bodies during battle. On the other hand, trench art might be looked at as an attempt to exert some kind of control over the chaos of war, by turning its débris into something useful and even beautiful. For civilians, trench art provided a link to absent loved ones, and by bringing these objects into their homes, they in a sense “domesticated” the war, making shells, bullets, and grenades an everyday part of their environment. 


Nicholas J. Saunders, “Bodies of Metal, Shells of Memory: ‘Trench Art’ and the Great War Re-cycled,” Journal of Material Culture 5, no. 1 (March 2000): 43-67. 

Fergus Read, “Trench Art,” Imperial War Museums

Monday, April 10, 2017

The American Red Cross in the First World War

When the German Army invaded Belgium in August 1914, it sparked a massive humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Belgian civilians were desperately in need of food, clothing, and medical care, and as the war advanced, this need extended to the occupied regions of northern France as well. Americans quickly moved to support the organizations that were formed to address the crisis. Future president Herbert Hoover first came to national attention as the chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, administering the distribution of over 2 million tons of food in two years. 

Poster for Red Cross clothing drive
Also at the forefront of humanitarian aid was the American Red Cross. First established in the US in 1881, the Red Cross was still fairly small, but it was one of the few national organizations that was prepared to take on this kind of work. The ARC was able to launch a ship, the SS Red Cross, within a few weeks of the war’s outbreak, carrying medical personnel and supplies to be distributed in England France, Germany, and Russia. Although the United States was still neutral at this time, in September 1914 the ladies of West Chazy were busy making up garments from material donated by local businesses, which they sent to the American Red Cross offices in New York. 

When the US officially declared war on Germany in April 1917, the role and responsibilities of the Red Cross changed dramatically. The ARC would continue its humanitarian work with civilians in Europe, but would now also take on the responsibility of attending to the needs of American soldiers and their families both at home and overseas. In May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a War Council to direct the Red Cross and appointed New York banker Henry P. Davison as its chair.

Official Red Cross pajama pattern
Image from Unsung Sewing Patterns
Davison, with the assistance of other men from the banking and business communities, completely reorganized the Red Cross. They created 13 geographical divisions, which were further subdivided into chapters (e.g., the Plattsburgh Chapter, which encompassed all of Clinton County) and then into branches (Chazy, Champlain, Mooers, etc.). As Davison wrote, each chapter was “a complete miniature Red Cross” with its own offices and committees. The goal was, as much as possible, to standardize the production, collection, and distribution of the items being made at the local level—socks, bandages, pajamas, “comfort kits,” etc. The Red Cross issued official patterns for knitted and sewn items, and set standards for everything, down to the number of bandages that should come out of each yard of gauze.

Red Cross War Fund Week poster
In addition to producing clothing and other items for soldiers and refugees, the Red Cross raised funds to be used for war relief work. Most of this fundraising was concentrated into two “war drives,” one-week periods when Americans were urged to focus their efforts on the financial needs of the Red Cross. The Red Cross set a goal of $100 million for each drive (June 18-25, 1917 and May 20-27, 1918) and both times exceeded that goal, collecting over $283 million total.

Alice Miner played an important role in helping Chazy raise its share of the second drive’s goal. War Fund Week began with a patriotic meeting at Chazy Central Rural School, at which representatives from the chapter offices spoke about the work of the Red Cross. Three days of canvassing to collect donations followed. Alice, as head of the entertainment committee, organized a screening of the film “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” at the school auditorium, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Glee Clubs performed, raising additional funds. The week culminated with a tea at Heart’s Delight, followed by a dance at Harmony Hall. Guests were free to stroll about the grounds, which were furnished with chairs and hammocks. In all, Chazy raised $1394.59 during War Fund Week in 1918.

Louise Trainer’s Red Cross Service Medal
Alice’s sister Louise Trainer must have also contributed to War Fund Week and other Red Cross activities in Chazy, because she was awarded a service medal for her work in 1918. While the higher levels of administration were mostly filled with men, at the local level, Red Cross work was largely in the hands of women like Alice and Louise. Providing medical care, clothing, and “comforts” for soldiers and their families fell within the realm of activities thought suitable for women, and many of them already had experience working with charitable, missionary, and other volunteer organizations. For people who were unable to fight due to their age or sex, the Red Cross was the ideal organization into which to channel their energy and patriotism.


“World War I and the American Red Cross,”

“The American Red Cross,”

Henry P. Davison, The American Red Cross in the Great War (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Helen C. Gunsaulus: Collector and Curator

Frank and Helen Gunsaulus, 1915
Frank W. Gunsaulus is a recurring character in the story of the Alice T. Miner Museum, appearing most recently in our last post as a mutual friend and fellow collector of Alice and Emma B. Hodge. The close relationship between the Miners and Frank Gunsaulus extended to the rest of the Gunsaulus family and particularly his youngest daughter, Helen. As a young woman, she worked closely with her father to curate and research his collections, and eventually came to occupy an important position in the Chicago museum world in her own right. A recognized expert in Japanese art, she cataloged Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints in 1927.

Helen C. Gunsaulus was born in 1886 in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was the pastor of Brown Memorial Church. The following year, Rev. Gunsaulus was called to the Plymouth Congregational Church and the family settled in Chicago. Helen attended Ferry Hall School, a girls’ preparatory academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, and then went to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1908. Like many young women of her class and background, she spent a year traveling in Europe after completing her formal education. 

Helen’s work in museums began through her own collecting (a selection of surimono from her collection was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1912) and her work with her father. In 1916, Frank Gunsaulus donated his collection of Japanese sword mounts to the Field Museum of Natural History, and Helen took on the task of preparing a catalog. Three years later, she was formally hired as assistant curator of Japanese ethnology, which (as the museum’s annual report stated) would permit “the systematic and intelligent study and disposition of considerable material in this division...Miss Gunsaulus brings to the work she has undertaken, studious habit and special training, with enthusiasm and aptness for museum practice, as the work thus far done upon the collections in this division gives evidence.” 

Helen Gunsaulus in her office
at the Art Institute, 1920s
In the early 20th century, as more white, middle- and upper-class women were joining the workforce, they found the museum field one of the most friendly and open to them. Unlike professions like law and medicine, which had educational and licensing requirements that were difficult for women to meet, museum work had no universal qualifications. The world of art could also be seen as an extension of the domestic sphere. Women like Helen Gunsaulus, who came from well-to-do families and had been raised to appreciate art and had the means to travel, in addition to being college-educated, were in many ways ideal museum workers.

In 1926, Helen became assistant curator of Oriental Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although the Department of Oriental Art was only established in 1921, the museum had been collecting Japanese prints and other artworks since the early 1900s and had presented a groundbreaking exhibits of prints (organized by Frank Lloyd Wright) in 1908. Clarence Buckingham’s extensive Japanese print collection was first shown in 1915 and was formally accessioned in 1925. After the death of long-time curator Frederick Gookin in 1936, Helen Gunsaulus took over as Curator of the Clarence Buckingham Print Collection. Though Japanese prints were her specialty, she also wrote on a variety of other subjects, including Japanese textiles, clothing, and masks, Near Eastern embroidery, and Persian pottery.

Helen Gunsaulus (far right) at Heart’s Delight Farm, 1917
It was shortly after her appointment as curator of Oriental art that Helen came to Chazy to catalog Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese prints. The print collection had been assembled by Emma Hodge, perhaps with Helen’s advice. After her visit, Helen wrote to William Miner, saying, “Do not ever mention being indebted to me and mine after all of the generous and beautiful evidences of your friendship. I can never ever repay either if you for your kindness. Anything I can do for you is the greatest satisfaction to me. It was a pleasure to work on the prints and I learned a great deal in studying them and working out their meanings and the names of their makers.” 

Helen lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood with her partner, Helen Mackenzie, who also worked at the Art Institute of Chicago (first as curator of the Children’s Museum, and later as the curator of the Gallery of Art Interpretation). They both retired in 1943 and moved to their summer home on Cape Cod, where they were active members of the community, organizing exhibits and other programs at the South Yarmouth public library. When Helen Gunsaulus died in 1954, her extensive collection of Japanese prints went to the Art Institute of Chicago.


Information about Helen Gunsaulus’s life was drawn from census and other records available through, articles in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum publications, and the Chicago Tribune.


Friday, March 10, 2017

A Partner in Collecting: Emma B. Hodge

Publicity photo of Emma B. Hodge
After Alice T. Miner herself, the individual who probably did the most to shape the way the museum looks today is Emma B. Hodge. Her influence is most evident in the ceramic collection, which Alice acquired under her mentorship, but she also donated books, textiles, Japanese prints, and ephemera such as Valentines. An early collector of American folk art, Hodge also played an important role in the Art Institute of Chicago as a patron and a donor.

Emma Blanxius was born in 1862 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of Christian and Amelia Petterson Blanxius. Like Alice, Emma came from a large family and had three older sisters. By 1870, the Blanxius family had moved to Chicago and as a teenager Emma—whose parents were both immigrants from Sweden—joined the Freja Society, a Swedish and Norwegian choral group. Through the Freja Society she met Walter Hodge, an English immigrant working in a dry-goods store. They were married in 1879 and had three children.

Frank Gunsaulus (left), Emma Hodge (second from right),
and other Central Church Choir members at Heart’s Delight
The 1900 census shows that by that time Hodge was a widow living with her children, her mother, and her sister Jene (both also widowed). She supported her family as a professional musician, singing in the choir of the Central Church in Chicago. This nondenominational church had been established in 1875 and was as much a theatrical venue as it was a religious one. Music was a focal point of its services, and in 1879 it had moved into the newly built Central Music Hall, a multi-use building that held shops and offices along with an auditorium. Emma Hodge had previously been a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church choir, but when its pastor, Frank W. Gunsaulus, moved to Central Church in 1899, she came with him. In addition to singing at church services, the Central Church quartet performed widely throughout the United States, often accompanying Gunsaulus in “musical lectures.”

Quilts from Emma Hodge’s collection on display at
the Art Institute of Chicago, 1915
It’s not clear if Alice Miner originally met Emma Hodge through her friendship with Frank Gunsaulus, or the other way around, but the three of them shared interests in collecting books, ceramics, textiles, and other decorative arts, and were early supporters of the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1912 and 1915, Hodge and her sister, Jene Bell, lent and then donated over one thousand pieces of American and English ceramics to the Art Institute in honor of their mother Amelia. Hodge also became interested in collecting textiles, particularly quilts and samplers. To Hodge, quilts represented “the story of American women from Jamestown and Plymouth down; the story of their thoughts and hopes and dreams, as well as the skill of their fingers.” Though Hodge and her fellow Colonial Revival-influenced collectors tended to romanticize the past, they also were some of the first people to recognize quilts, samplers, and other women’s work as art.

Embroidered Russian towel
Art Institute of Chicago,
gift of Emma Hodge (1919)
Emma Hodge also understood the power of art and museums to shape public opinion. In 1918 she organized an exhibit at the Art Institute of textiles from Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia—all areas that experienced profound suffering during World War I. As one newspaper reporter observed, knowledge of what was currently happening in those regions “looms like a ghost at the feast of enjoyment of color and design.” The beauty of the textiles stood in contrast with the suffering of their makers, and helped to humanize people who might otherwise have seemed distant and foreign to Americans. By generating sympathy for those ravaged by the “war machine,” the exhibit also had the potential to encourage support for organizations like the Red Cross.

Hodge’s 1918 textile exhibit was held in Gunsaulus Hall, a recently opened addition to the Art Institute which had been funded by a $50,000 gift from William and Alice Miner. Even as the Miners turned more of their attention to Chazy and Heart’s Delight Farm, they remained connected to Chicago’s art world through friends like Emma Hodge. As for Emma, she became nationally known as an expert in antiques, and was the frequent recipient of queries from people who believed—or hoped—that they were the owners of some rare and valuable piece. As her obituary notice in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago stated, “It was often her uncheering task to reply that these cherished possessions were worth little or nothing, a duty she accomplished with rare tact and kindness.” Until the end of her life in 1928, she remained an “enthusiast and delver into the historical past,” and an “unfailing and patient adviser of the new collector.”


In 1924, Emma Hodge presented Alice Miner with a massive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, programs, photographs, and other material about herself and their mutual friend Frank Gunsaulus. Much of the information in this post comes from the scrapbook. Information was also drawn from Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski, For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (2012). 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“A Negro girl five Years old named Phillis”: Slavery in Northern New York

Detail of quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell.
Textile ca. 1785-1800
This post begins with a return to an item from the Alice’s collection that I’ve discussed several times before, on the blog and on North Country Public Radio’s “Adirondack Attic.” The quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell using a patriotic textile is truly one of the gems of the collection due to the unique nature of the object itself, as well as its connection to local history. Anna (1790-1861) was the daughter of Pliny Moore, one of the founders of the town of Champlain, and the wife of Julius C. Hubbell, a long-time prominent citizen and lawyer in Chazy. The quilt was donated to Alice T. Miner by Anna’s granddaughter Isabella Mygatt.

The textile that Anna Hubbell repurposed to make the quilt was originally part of the furnishings of Pliny Moore’s elegant residence in Champlain. In this post, I want to take a closer look at the residents of that household, which included not just Pliny Moore and his wife and seven children but an enslaved woman named Phillis. Although very little information about Phillis has entered into the official historical record, her life nonetheless opens a window into the often-neglected history of slavery in northern New York.
Map showing location of Kinderhook
and Champlain

First, let’s look at how and why Pliny Moore settled in Champlain. Moore was born in 1759 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Like many 18th century families, the Moores made several moves in search of new prospects—first to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and then to Spencertown, New York, near Kinderhook. During the Revolutionary War, Moore enlisted in a regiment commanded by Colonel Marinus Willett and earned a lieutenant’s commission. Moore’s Revolutionary War service would prove to be significant in a number of ways, not least of which was the fact that his second enlistment took place under a new law which offered land bounties for soldiers; as an officer he was entitled to receive 1,000 acres. As early as 1782, Moore began purchasing claims from fellow soldiers, or taking on the job of locating land on their behalf in exchange for a portion of their claims. Why, exactly, Moore was drawn to northern New York, remains unknown, but he began to formulate a project for a grant along the Canadian border in 1783.

For several years, Pliny Moore traveled back and forth between Kinderhook and what would become Champlain, surveying land, laying out lots, building dams and sawmills. During this time he also married Martha Corbin and their first child, Noadiah, was born in 1788. In the spring of 1789, the family settled permanently in Champlain, which was now part of the newly-created Clinton County. Moore tried his hand at almost every kind of business that could be done in northern New York—timbering, making potash, milling, carding and fulling wool, maple sugaring, along with farming and livestock raising. He became an agent for John Jacob Astor and others, receiving furs coming into the United States from Canada, and served as postmaster for the town of Champlain and county court justice and later judge.
Pliny Moore’s home, as depicted in an 1869 publication

During this period, Moore maintained his connections to the southern part of the state, where many members of the Moore and Corbin families still lived. In 1793, he purchased a slave from Isaac Van Slyk of Kinderhook. The deed of sale simply describes her as “a Negro girl five Years old named Phillis”; Moore paid £14 (about $65) for her. Moore likely purchased Phillis with the idea that she could provide domestic assistance for his growing family, which by that time included three young children. Owning a slave was also a sign of status. Like many people who moved to frontier regions during this period, Moore was eager to find ways to demonstrate that he was nonetheless a man of gentility. The house he built in 1801, furnished with fashionable items like patriotic textiles, would be the ultimate symbol of refinement, but even before then, Moore was showing his neighbors he was a man of substance by purchasing a slave.
New Amsterdam, engraving ca. 1640

For five-year-old Phillis, moving 200 miles from her home in Kinderhook to the remote northern outpost of Champlain could only have been deeply traumatic. Although we don’t know anything about her life in Kinderhook, it seems safe to assume that she was taken away from her parents and perhaps siblings and other relatives. Her first language may have been Dutch. In the 18th century, New York State had the largest population of enslaved people in the north, and most of them were concentrated in the Hudson Valley, where the early Dutch settlers had established large landed estates. Phillis thus would have been leaving a place where she was part of a large and long-standing black community, and going to a part of the state where she was one of a small handful of people of color (the 1790 census counted only 33 nonwhite people in all of Clinton County) and would be the only enslaved person in the Moore household.

In 1799, New York passed a gradual emancipation act, which freed children born to enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799, though they would serve a period of indenture until the age of 28 (for men) or 25 (for women). Anyone already enslaved as of July 4, 1799 would be reclassified as a permanent indentured servant, but effectively was still a slave. In 1817 a new law was passed that would free those slaves born before July 4, 1799—but not until July 4, 1827. When, exactly, Phillis became free is not clear. In 1818, Pliny Moore wrote in his will, “I gave her her freedom many years since[. S]he has hitherto chosen to remain in my family as before her freedom.” However, the 1810 federal census recorded her as a slave in the Moore household. In a society where slavery was disappearing but still had no real place for people of color, “freedom” was a slippery concept.
There are no images of Phillis.
This drawing of a cook is by
Anne-Henriette-Marguerite de Neuvelle,
a French émigré who lived in
New York from 1807 to 1814.

How much difference it would have made to the material circumstances of Phillis’s life whether she was a slave, an indentured servant, or a free person of color, is a difficult question to answer. Moore framed Phillis’s decision to remain with the family as a choice, but her options were probably fairly limited, particularly because she had children to provide for. Moore stated in his will that Phillis had, in his opinion, “conducted vilely in lewdness & occasioned much trouble & expence with her children yet she has many good qualities is patient honest kind to all my family & much attached to them all.” He left her $10 per year, “as long as her conduct is virtuous,” and hoped that one his children would bring her to live with them after the death of Martha Moore.

Moore’s words raise as many questions as they answer. We can guess that her “vile” and “lewd” conduct was probably having children out of wedlock, but we don’t know for sure. How many children did Phillis have, when were they born, who was their father, and what happened to them? 

Moore believed that Phillis was “much attached” to his family, and she probably was—but again, she didn’t have a lot of choice, after being taken away from her own family at the age of five. Moore’s financial support was contingent upon Phillis’s good behavior, though it must be said that he used similar leverage on his own children, threatening to disinherit his son Royal, who had eloped with a “worthless Strumpet.” However, Moore also expected that his children would eventually become independent, whereas he assumed that Phillis would continue to be someone’s responsibility for the rest of her life.

Because everything we know about Phillis comes through the writing of Pliny Moore, she disappears from the historical record after his death in 1822. She probably continued to work for Martha Moore until Martha died in 1825, but what happened to her after that remains a mystery. As is so often the case when researching the lives of non-elite Americans, there are a lot of holes in our knowledge. Still, just acknowledging that Phillis was part of the Moore household and a member of the Champlain community helps to enrich our picture of life in northern New York in the early days of settlement. Pliny Moore is known today as a pioneer, but Phillis was, too. Her labor, and the labor of other men and women, enslaved and free, remembered and unremembered, was essential to the development of the North Country.


Pliny Moore’s papers, including documents related to the life of Phillis, are part of the McLellan Collection, Special Collections, Feinberg Library, SUNY Plattsburgh.

Information about the life of Pliny Moore and his family comes from Allan S. Everest, Pliny Moore: North Country Pioneer of Champlain, New York (Clinton County Historical Association, 1990).

An excellent overview of the history of slavery in New York is Slavery in New York, a book edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, and published in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name held at the New-York Historical Society in 2005.

Monday, February 13, 2017

William Lee and George Washington

Washington and His Family, engraved by J. Sartain,
published by Wm. Smith, Philadelphia, ca. 1850
One of the first things that visitors to the Alice notice are the many images of George Washington to be found throughout the museum. In sculpture, on ceramics, in print, and in painting, his familiar face is everywhere. While many of these images emphasize his military career, others depict him in a more domestic light, as in the engraving of Washington and his family that hangs in the second-floor hallway. This engraving, produced around 1850, is based on a portrait painted by Edward Savage in the 1790s. Savage himself made a number of different engravings of Washington and his family, and its many variations were popular throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Detail of Edward Savage’s painting
Both the painting and the engravings depict George and Martha Washington seated at a table at Mount Vernon, on which plans for the new capital city are displayed. Standing with them are George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, two of Martha’s grandchildren, who came to live at Mount Vernon after the death of their father in 1781. Standing behind Martha Washington is William Lee, an enslaved man who served as George Washington’s personal valet and had accompanied him throughout the campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

During his lifetime, William (also known as Billy) Lee was something of a celebrity, and was probably one of the best known African-Americans in the nation. Because of his long and close association with Washington, we know much more about him than we do about most enslaved people of the Revolutionary era. Lee was also the only one of Washington’s slaves who was granted immediate emancipation upon Washington’s death. Billy’s story is therefore a good way to examine George Washington’s relationship to slavery, and particularly the tensions between the ideals of liberty and the reality of bondage that were at the heart of the Revolution.

George Washington became a slaveowner at the age of eleven, when his father died and he inherited ten individuals. Over the years, Washington purchased additional slaves, and inherited others. By the time of his death in 1799, he owned 123 people. Also living at Mount Vernon were 153 enslaved men and women who had belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Although they were part of Martha’s property during her lifetime, neither she nor George owned them outright. They could not be freed, and after her death they would pass to the remaining Custis heirs. 

Another (probably imaginary) depiction
of William Lee, by John Trumbull
William Lee was one of the slaves that George Washington purchased. He and his brother Frank came to Mount Vernon as teenagers after Washington bought them from Mary Smith Ball Lee. In addition to his duties as valet, Lee also accompanied Washington on surveying expeditions and served as huntsman during fox hunts. George Washington Parke Custis recalled that Billy “rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling, a French horn at his back, throwing himself almost at length on the animal, with his spur in flank, this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.”

In addition to his skill as a horseman, William Lee was known for serving George Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. Lee accompanied Washington on all his campaigns from 1775 to 1783, and was responsible for transporting and safeguarding Washington’s “most precious papers.” Washington and Lee returned to Mount Vernon in December 1783 and resumed their regular patterns. However, during a surveying expedition in 1785, William fell and broke his kneecap. It never healed correctly, and three years later, he fell and broke his other knee. Despite his limited mobility, Lee was determined to accompany President Washington to the capital at New York in 1790. Washington expressed his willingness to “gratify him in every reasonable wish” in recognition of his faithful service, but William Lee stayed only for a short time in New York before returning to Mount Vernon.

Detail of census of enslaved men and women
at Mount Vernon, 1799
Nine years later, as George Washington made his will, he again singled out William. His other slaves would only be freed after Martha Washington’s death, but Billy Lee was to be given immediate freedom, if he chose. Or, “if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment),” he could “remain in the situation he now is.” In either case, he was to be given an annuity of thirty dollars “as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” William lived at Mount Vernon until his death in 1810, and was the object of much interest among the many visitors who continued to visit Washington’s former home.

For over two hundred years, commentators have used Billy Lee’s story as a way to make their own points about race and slavery. For slavery apologists, Lee was an example of a good slave, one who had earned his freedom through good behavior and loyalty to his master. His life after emancipation, when he developed a drinking problem (no doubt due to his ongoing physical ailments), was seen by some as proof that black people could not really survive outside slavery. Others have looked to the relationship with Billy Lee to find  evidence of Washington’s true feelings about slavery. To some, Washington’s relatively indulgent treatment of, and his decision to emancipate, Lee, suggest that Washington came to question the morality of slave ownership. Their documented close relationship seemed to offer proof that friendship and genuine affection between slave and master could exist. 

On the other hand, Washington could have freed Billy, or any of the 122 other slaves he owned, before his own or Martha’s death. A law passed in Virginia in 1782 made it possible to emancipate slaves by deed (prior to that law, manumission required the approval of the Governor and council). However much he may have come to dislike owning slaves, Washington chose to defer any concrete action until after his death. He had no way of knowing, when he made his will, that Martha Washington would free his remaining slaves a year later, prompted by several suspicious fires that stoked fears of an uprising. When Martha herself died in 1802, the Custis slaves became the property of her grandchildren, but descendants of Washington and Custis slaves continued to live at Mount Vernon and in the surrounding neighborhood for generations, long after the Washingtons themselves were gone.


Most of the information about the life of William Lee comes from Mary V. Thompson, “William Lee and Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington and Slavery,Journal of the American Revolution. Additional information on Washington and slavery can be found at Mount Vernon’s website.

Two popular 19th-century accounts of the life of Washington that discuss Billy Lee are George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859)  and Benton J. Lossing, The Home of Washington: Mount Vernon and Its Associations (1871).

For an example of one of Washington’s contemporaries who did free his slaves during his lifetime, read about Robert Carter III.