Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Dear, Old-Fashioned Garden

When Arthur A. Shurcliff and other landscape architects of the 1920s and 1930s sought information about historic gardening, they frequently turned to the books of Alice Morse Earle and Grace Tabor. Both women were important influences on the development of Colonial Revival gardens. 

I wrote about Earle here, and though I focused on her writing on early American material culture, she was also quite well known as a writer on old gardens. Earle’s two books on gardens, Old-Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth (1901) and Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), were scholarly works, but they also were tinged with her own sentimental feelings about gardens—the garden of her childhood home in Worcester, Massachusetts, as well as the garden of her home in Brooklyn Heights, where her own children grew up.

The Earle children in their Brooklyn garden, 1880s
For Earle, gardens provided a direct connection with her Puritan ancestors and especially with Puritan women. She imagined that the women who first arrived in Massachusetts brought with them “across seas some little package of seeds and bulbs from her English home garden, and perhaps a tiny slip or plant of some endeared flower; watered each day, I fear, with many tears.” These flowers helped turn the houses they built in the new land into true homes. Now, said Earle, “when I see one of the old English flowers, grown of those days, blooming in my garden, from the unbroken chain of blossom to seed of nearly three centuries, I thank the flower for all that its forebears did to comfort my forebears, and I cherish it with added tenderness.”

Earle was especially fond of those plants she felt were most strongly associated with the colonial era. Like Arthur Shurcliff, she was a great lover of boxwood. While some people thought the aroma of boxwood was unpleasant, Earle found it “redolent of the eternal past; it is almost hypnotic in its effect.” Indeed, she believed the love of boxwood was a genetic trait: “This strange power is not felt by all, nor is it a present sensitory influence; it is an hereditary memory, half-known by many, but fixed in its intensity in those of New England birth and descent, true children of the Puritans.”

Other favorite plants included peonies, lilacs, and hollyhocks. “There is no more emblematic flower to me than the Lilac; it has an association of old homes, of home-making and home interests.” The hollyhock was “the most popular, and most widely known, of all old-fashioned flowers. It is loved for its beauty, its associations, its adaptiveness. It is such a decorative flower, and looks of so much distinction in so many places.” No surprise, then, that Earle chose a design of hollyhocks as the motif for the front cover of Old-Time Gardens. 

Gardeners who wished to create their own old-fashioned gardens could turn to the work of Grace Tabor, one of the first women to work as a professional landscape architect in the United States. Tabor was born in 1873 in Cuba, New York and studied at the Art Students League in Buffalo and New York City, as well as the New York School of Applied Design for Women. Tabor’s articles and garden plans appeared in popular magazines such as The Garden Magazine and Country Life in America. In 1920 she began writing a regular garden column for Woman’s Home Companion which would run until 1941. Tabor reached a wide audience through this magazine, which was one of the most influential women’s publications in the country.

Advertisement for Tabor’s column, 1922
Tabor began her book Old-Fashioned Gardening (1913) by cautioning readers that they would find no romanticism, no “lovely ladies nor courtly cavaliers” here. “Here all is sober reality and no dream; here is the truth about old gardens, not select glimpses of a path.” One of her goals was to pin down just what exactly was meant by “old-fashioned gardens”—a term that she felt most people used far too loosely and casually to refer to anything quaint or charming.

For Tabor, an old-fashioned American garden was one created between around 1635 (when the first gardens appeared in the English colonies) and ca. 1815 (so as to include the gardens of Mount Vernon and Monticello). Of course, there was a good deal of variation over time and in different regions. Tabor traced the history of five different gardening traditions in North America: the Spanish in Florida, English cavaliers in Virginia, the Dutch in New Amsterdam, Puritans in New England, and Quakers in Pennsylvania.
Tabor’s plan for a Spanish-style garden based on
those found in St. Augustine, Florida

Modern-day Americans who wanted “old-fashioned” gardens were advised to choose from among these five styles, according to their personal taste and circumstances. The compact Dutch garden, for example, was well suited to small, urban lots, while those with more space could use the plantations of Virginia as their model. Gardeners could simply draw on these garden traditions for inspiration, or if they were truly committed, they could attempt to reproduce an old-fashioned garden. “There is no reason against reproducing an old design,” Tabor wrote, “providing every phase of it receives proper attention and no anachronism is permitted.” However, she argued strongly that an old-fashioned garden built around a modern style house was “unpleasant.” Those living in colonial, Georgian, or mission-style houses, on the other hand, were advised that only gardens of old design were really suitable. Tabor provided simple plans and a list of plants known to have been used prior to 1815. She also reminded readers that old gardens were above all useful, providing food, beverages, medicines, and dyes, and that all plans should be made with that goal in mind. Otherwise, one risked producing something that was merely “a blank form and lifeless shell.”

There are very few images of 18th-c.
women working in gardens. This one
actually shows a French noblewoman
pretending to be rustic at Versailles.
While Tabor’s book was meant to provide practical advice to gardeners, it is clear that she was not immune to the romance of old gardens and that she, like Earle, was very much in sympathy with the Colonial Revival. Both she and Earle quoted the same passage in which Mrs. Anne Grant reminisced about the Dutch gardens of mid-18th century Albany: “I think I see yet what I have often beheld in both town and country, a respectable mistress of a family going out to her garden in an April morning, with her great calash, her little painted basket of seeds, and her robe over her shoulders, to her garden labours...A woman, in very easy circumstances and abundantly gentle in form and manners, would sow and plant and rake incessantly.”

Gardening had traditionally been the domain of women and was essential to the maintenance of the household. While that was no longer true for middle-class households in the early 20th century, Tabor and Earle hoped that women could recapture some of the virtues of their foremothers by creating gardens that were both beautiful and useful, and passing garden lore on to their children.


Alice Morse Earle, Old-Time Gardens (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1901)

Alice Morse Earle, Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1902)

Grace Tabor, The Landscape Gardening Book (New York: McBride, Winston & Company, 1911)

Grace Tabor, Old-Fashioned Gardening: A History and a Reconstruction (New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1913)

Friday, May 8, 2015

There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day that likely would have been tinged with sadness for Alice and William Miner, who both lost their mothers when they were very young. Will was only four when his mother, Martha Clapp Miner, died; Alice was seven when Louisa Saunders Trainer died. They were both fortunate, however, in that they both had older sisters who did their best to step into the places left vacant by the loss of their mothers. We have put together a new exhibit in the Weaving Room to honor Will’s sister, Jottie Mitchell (1854-1910), and Alice’s sisters, Matilda (1851-1916), Bertha (1856-1927), and Louisa Trainer (1861-1932).

Jottie in the early 1860s
Emma Josephine Miner, known as “Jottie,” was Will’s only sibling. She was born on April 23, 1854, in Salem, New York. In 1861, the family moved to Juneau, Wisconsin. Will was born here on October 22, 1862. Martha Miner’s health had always been fragile, and it grew worse after Will’s birth; increasingly, it was Jottie who took responsibility for taking care of her little brother. A visitor to the Miner home during this time recalled, “How brave dear Mrs. Miner was and how solemn it all seemed to me. A few more months and the dear wife and mother was gone and the little boy motherless. The daughter, some eight or ten years older, was the little mother of the family.”

Martha Miner died in March 1867, and William Miner soon married Janet Mitchell, a widow with a son of her own. The family relocated to Maumee, Ohio. In 1872, Jottie married Janet’s son, John B. Mitchell, and moved to Lafayette, Indiana, where he worked for the Wabash Railroad. William Miner, Sr., died in 1873, and Jottie—still only nineteen herself and with a newborn baby to care for—felt that the best course of action was to send young Will to live with his Uncle John and Aunt Huldah in Chazy.

Photo of Jottie taken in Ann Arbor
while studying medicine
Jottie and John maintained a regular correspondence with Will, and it was John who ultimately suggested that Will come out to Lafayette to learn the railroad construction business. Letters from the 1880s show that Will and Jottie sometimes had a difficult relationship, but they were fundamentally devoted to each other. As time passed, their roles seemed to reverse, as Jottie (who was widowed in 1892) drew more and more upon Will for financial and emotional support. 

With two teenage children to care for, Jottie was determined to find a way to support herself. She began taking science courses at Purdue University, with the idea that she might become a nurse or pharmacist. But Jottie found that she had a real aptitude for medicine, and determined to become a physician—a rather unconventional decision for any woman to make in the 1890s. Jottie persisted, and in 1901 she received her medical degree from the University of Michigan. After working for a time in Detroit, London, and Vienna, she returned to practice in Lafayette. Sadly, her medical career was a brief one, as she died of complications of tonsillitis in 1910.

Matilda Trainer, 1880s
Alice was the youngest of the four Trainer sisters. Matilda was the oldest girl and began helping to support the family when she was only fourteen, becoming a teacher at Goderich Central School. When Mrs. Trainer died after giving birth to twins (who also died shortly after birth), it was Tillie who stepped in as surrogate mother to the younger children. Around 1887, the sisters and their youngest brother, William, moved to Chicago so they could be close to their older brothers.

Bertha Trainer, ca. 1905
Though we don’t know much about the Trainer sisters’ life in Chicago, they seem to have enjoyed the many opportunities for music, art, theater, and shopping that the great city afforded. They all learned to ride bicycles and went “wheeling” at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Leisurely summers were spent at Paw Paw Lake in Michigan, and they were all adventurous travelers, even venturing out on camels to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Louisa and Alice, who were only two years apart, were especially close, and they took at least one long trip to Europe together in 1904.

As Alice and William began spending more time at Heart’s Delight Farm, the sisters decided that they too would live in Chazy. Eventually they moved into Hillbrook, a building William constructed in the village of Chazy in 1910. The bottom floor of Hillbrook held the power plant connected to the hydroelectric dam on the Little Chazy River, and the sisters had an apartment on the top floor. Alice frequently walked from Heart’s Delight to Hillbrook to visit her sisters, play cards, and do needlework, and when William was away on business she liked to stay there overnight. 

Our only individual portrait
of Louisa Trainer
Though they were newcomers to the town, the Trainer sisters became beloved figures in Chazy. Matilda died in 1916, but Bertha and Louisa had many years to become part of the community. Louisa was known for her dedication to Physicans Hospital, and received a medal for her Red Cross service during World War I. It must have been very difficult for Alice, losing both her husband and her last surviving sister within such a short period of time. While Alice had many friends in Chazy, Chicago, and Goderich, nobody could ever replace her beloved sisters.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Boxwood on the Brain: Arthur Shurcliff’s Colonial Revival Gardens

Arthur A. Shurcliff as a young man
Long before he took up the position of landscape architect at Colonial Williamsburg, Arthur A. Shurcliff had already begun his love affair with boxwood. Thirty years before he arrived in Williamsburg, in the summer of 1898, Shurcliff and his friend Bob Bellows took a bicycle tour of the historic town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. At this time, Shurcliff was working as an apprentice in the landscape architecture office of John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., so this was a working vacation as well as a pleasure tour. Shurcliff kept detailed notes of his trip in a notebook entitled “Log of 5 Days in Newburyport, August 1898,” and he wrote in this journal that it was “Dedicated to an old box hedge.” This shrub, of the genus Buxus, was first introduced to North America in the mid-17th century but would reach its peak popularity in the 20th century as the quintessential Colonial Revival planting—thanks, largely, to Arthur Shurcliff.

19th-century botanical illustration
of Buxus sempervirens
 Arthur and Bob visited old houses, made gravestone rubbings, and sought out what they called “antique” gardens. Shurcliff wrote in his journal, “Wednesday morning saw me in the old-fashioned gardens of the heart of the town. These old places although now gone to decay are filled with a kind of golden glory which is lacking in the new gardens. The old lattice trellises and ruined box hedges and even the weedgrown paths seem to have the glamor of the sunshine of the olden days that are only to be lived over again in books or in these old gardens themselves.” In addition to these musings, Shurcliff drew garden plans and made a list of plants he had been informed were “old-fashioned.”

It’s clear that Shurcliff felt that there was something special about boxwood, perhaps because it was one of the few plants that could potentially have survived since the time when these antique gardens were new. A few years after his trip to Newburyport, Shurcliff published an article in House & Garden about two Nantucket gardens that dated from the early 19th century. He also believed that there was “evidence to support the tradition that they were copied from much older gardens then in their prime”—but what this evidence might be, Shurcliff did not say. Nonetheless, here, too, boxwood played an important role. Boxwood hedges marked the main outlines of the garden's plan, and boxwood was used for decorative effects, being planted and trimmed into “ribbons, strings, and knobs.”

Foliage of Buxus sempervirens, or American boxwood
It comes as no surprise, then, that when Arthur Shurcliff became Colonial Williamsburg’s landscape architect in 1928, one of the first things he did was begin a collection of boxwoods. First he gathered them from Williamsburg and the immediate vicinity, but soon had to go further afield, to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, in order to supply the demand created by his plans. In addition to the plants that were grown in Williamsburg, entire mature boxwood hedges were purchased and transplanted to the historic area in order to create instant fullgrown plantings. By March of 1934, the Restoration had purchased and transplanted one and a half miles of boxwood.

Although there was very little hard evidence for the presence of boxwood in Williamsburg’s gardens in the 18th century, Shurcliff felt that his studies of other southern gardens justified their presence. In his first report to Restoration architects Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, he argued, “in replanting the Williamsburg places much use should be made of Box even to the extent of allowing it to dominate the parterres and bed traceries of which it once formed only a part.” Along with Shurcliff’s romantic love of boxwood was a practical reason—“Generous use of box in this manner is also justifiable because the display and upkeep of flowers especially in the dry season would not be necessary.”

St. George Tucker House before restoration
To Williamsburg residents, Shurcliff’s obsession with boxwood was a bit puzzling. Mrs. George Coleman, who lived in the St. George Tucker house, wrote in her diary of an encounter with Shurcliff in January 1931: “Today I was asked to go over the Tucker House yard with Mr. Arthur discuss the laying out of brick walls, boxwood hedges, etc. I found him a very alarming person! Somehow the idea of changing the yard and garden is much more repellent to me than changing the house, and this is such a terribly enthusiastic man!”

Boxwood in the restored Tucker House garden
In May 1931, Shurcliff was back, “[coming] down like a wolf on the fold again today. He rushed in and out several times with charts and plans for all sorts of alarming ‘landscapes’ in our yard. He has boxwood on the brain.” However, like most people, Mrs. Coleman found it impossible to resist the force of Shurcliff’s ideas, and even ultimately came to like his plans for the Tucker house garden. 

Others were much more easily won over by Shurcliff’s garden designs. As soon as Colonial Williamsburg officially opened in 1934, his Colonial Revival style gardens—and boxwood—began appearing all over the United States. However, there is still some debate as to whether boxwood can successfully be grown in this part of the country. If anyone has experience with it, we would love to hear from you!


M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996).

Elizabeth Hope Cushing, Arthur A. Shurcliff: Design, Preservation, and the Creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Landscape (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., “The Colonial Revival in the Public Eye: Williamsburg and Early Garden Restoration,” in Alan Axelrod, ed., The Colonial Revival in America (Winterthur: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1985), 52-70.

American Boxwood Society

F. S. Lincoln, “St. George Tucker House Kitchen,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed April 29, 2015,

“St. George Tucker House Before Restoration,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed April 29, 2015,

Friday, April 17, 2015

“Where Liberty Dwells There Is My Country”: Anna Hubbell’s Quilt

I recently had the opportunity to take a closer look at the quilts in the Alice’s collection when Hallie Bond came to document the quilts for a project she is working on with Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (she also gave a fantastic talk on Adirondack quilts). Some of these quilts don’t get to come out of their boxes very often and there was one that I had never even seen that I found particularly interesting.

The whole-cloth quilt was made by Anna Moore Hubbell (1793-1861), the daughter of Judge Pliny Moore of Champlain and wife of Julius C. Hubbell of Chazy. Unlike the patchwork quilts (made of many small pieces of material sewn together) that became common later in the 19th century, this quilt is made of just one fabric—and it’s a very unusual textile with an interesting history of its own.

Textile historian Whitney A. J. Robertson has written about this pattern, which is known as “The Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington,” and is one of the most common textiles of its kind to appear in museum collections. You can find it in at least 18 different places, including Colonial Williamsburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Old Sturbridge Village, and the Winterthur Museum. As Robinson notes, it’s hard to say “whether this fabric is so ubiquitous because of its popularity during its own time, its appeal to collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries or both,” but I think it’s easy to see why many people might have been attracted to its wealth of patriotic imagery.

Robertson explains that patterned cotton and linen bed furnishings became popular in Britain in the 17th century as washable, inexpensive alternatives to wool and silk. These early fabrics were printed with wood blocks; initially they were imported from India and later were produced domestically. In 1752, Francis Nixon of the Drumcondra Printworks in Ireland figured out how to use the copperplate printing technique used on paper to produce patterns on textiles. Copperplate printing allowed for more detail and larger pattern repeats than wood-block printing, though it was limited to a single color.

Copperplate-printed fabrics, also known as “toiles,” frequently borrowed designs directly from existing engravings. Pastoral scenes and landscapes were common, as were political and military subjects. Many of these fabrics were made by British and French manufacturers specifically for the export market. This market really boomed after the Revolution—American industry wasn’t advanced enough to produce these textiles, but English tradesmen realized that there was a good deal of money to be made in providing fashionable and patriotic materials to Americans.

The unknown maker of “The Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington,” which was produced in England ca. 1785-1800, clearly felt that it was a good idea to put as many different symbols into the pattern as possible. In one scene, George Washington drives in a chariot with a female figure wearing a plumed headdress, representing America; she carries a caduceus, symbolizing the blessings of commerce. The chariot is pulled by jaguars and is led by two Indians, one with a trumpet and a “Unite or Die” flag and one with an early version of the American flag. In the background are scenes from the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In another scene, Benjamin Franklin, accompanied by Liberty, is being led by Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, to the Temple of Fame, where two cherubs hold a map of America. Over the heads of Franklin and Liberty is a banner reading “Where Liberty Dwells There Is My Country.” Liberty carries two conventional symbols, the liberty pole and liberty cap, while Minerva holds a shield decorated with thirteen stars. In addition to these two major scenes, the textile also depicts a Liberty Tree with a copy of the Stamp Act tacked to it, instruments of war, and distinctively American flora and fauna such as the beaver. While all of these symbols would have been familiar to most people in the late 18th century, it is definitely unusual to see so many different forms of iconography in one place.

So how did Anna Hubbell come to make this quilt? Because she signed it with her married name, we know she must have made it some time after her marriage in January 1812—probably many years after this textile was first produced and became fashionable. A label attached to the quilt gives us some clues. According to the writer of the label, the quilt was taken from a bed in the home of Pliny Moore by M. A. Mygatt—presumably Anna and Julius’s daughter Martha Anne Mygatt (Martha’s daughter Isabella donated it to Alice Miner). There is also a barely legible line that says something about “bed curtains.” 

Did Pliny Moore once have an entire set of bed furnishings made from this textile? Moore permanently settled in Champlain in 1789 and built a fine Federal-style house in 1801. He is said to have owned the first piano in Champlain, and he sent his daughter Anna to Litchfield Female Academy, one of the most important institutions for women’s education in the early republic. As a wealthy landowner, judge, and Revolutionary War veteran, he was just the sort of person one might expect to purchase a fashionable toile like “The Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington.” Champlain may have been considered the frontier in those days, but clearly its residents were aware of the latest styles in furnishings. 

My theory is that Anna may have used some of the bed hangings and refashioned them into a quilt—perhaps during the War of 1812 when nationalistic fervor was running high and the British naval blockade limited the importation of new fabric. A close examination of the quilt shows that the material was patched in one spot, the pattern carefully matched so that it is hardly visible. Stories that are still told about Anna Hubbell’s actions when British troops were quartered in Chazy before the Battle of Plattsburgh indicate that she was a spirited and patriotic woman; as the young wife of a newly-minted lawyer she probably also had to be economical in her housekeeping. By refashioning an older textile, Anna would have demonstrated both her patriotism and her resourcefulness.


Whitney A. J. Robertson, “Sleeping Amongst Heroes: Copperplate-printed Bed Furniture in the ‘Washington and American Independance [sic] 1776; the Apotheosis of Franklin’ Pattern,” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, Paper 739, 2012.

Walter Hubbell, History of the Hubbell Family (New York, 1915).

Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, New York (Philadelphia, 1880).

Nell Jane Barnett Sullivan and David Kendall Martin, A History of the Town of Chazy (Burlington, 1970).

Litchfield Historical Society, Ledger of Students at the Litchfield Law School and the Litchfield Female Academy.

Interpretive panel about Pliny Moore’s home in Champlain.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg

Garden and Nursery, Colonial Williamsburg
It may technically be spring, but as I look out at the snow falling, it sure doesn’t feel like it. I spent some time in Colonial Williamsburg last week, and even in Tidewater Virginia, it’s been a hard winter—but I did see some signs of life. Daffodils are blooming and some courageous vegetables are growing under their glass cloches. It got me thinking about gardens and what ideas from Colonial Williamsburg we might incorporate into the grounds at the Alice.

Colonial Williamsburg was originally conceived of as primarily an architectural restoration, but landscape gardening was an important component of the overall appearance of the historic area. The Foundation hired Arthur A. Shurcliff, a Boston landscape architect who had worked closely with Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn, the architectural firm in charge of the restoration, to design gardens and other outdoor spaces that would complement the restored structures. Shurcliff served as Chief Landscape Architect from 1928 to 1941, and his vision of the colonial garden proved to be enormously influential for decades.

James Galt House after restoration, 1935
Gardens are by their very nature changeable and ephemeral, and there was very little physical evidence left by the 1930s of what Williamsburg’s gardens had looked like in the 18th century. Shurcliff and his staff had to piece together many small bits of information and add a good dose of imagination to come up with their garden plans. They read travelers’ accounts, letters, and journals; they looked for accounts by explorers and naturalists who described local flora; they examined tax records and insurance policies, which sometimes included sketches of lot layouts. Some archaeological work was done, which uncovered landscape features such as the foundations of outbuildings, walkways, paved service areas, and wall and fence lines.

Shurcliff based the Custis Tenement garden
on one of Sauthier’s designs.
Shurcliff also studied surviving plantation homes and gardens in the region. He was particularly influenced by the 18th-century towns of North Carolina and the gardens designed there by Claude Joseph Sauthier, a French landscape gardener, surveyor, and mapmaker who came to the colony in 1767. Sauthier left detailed plans of his urban gardens, which indicated that the garden plans fashionable in the colonies were very similar to those that had been popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th century.

These colonial gardens were characterized by “geometric symmetry within an enclosed space.” Walls and hedges delineated the space of the garden, and plantings kept to defined spaces separated by straight walkways. By the mid-18th century, more “naturalistic” gardens were becoming fashionable in England, but these did not appeal to colonists, who had more than enough nature to contend with. To them, “a garden was nature tamed, trimmed, and enclosed within a fence or hedge.”

Kitchen garden behind Wetherburn’s Tavern
Shurcliff and his staff worked with the best information available to them, but over the years it’s become clear that they (like everyone) were influenced by the aesthetic tastes of their own time. Today, Shurcliff’s gardens are considered better examples of the Colonial Revival than they are authentic recreations of colonial gardens. As new sources are found, changes are being made to Williamsburg’s gardens. New archaeological techniques have been particularly valuable—traces of plants and even pollen have been found and identified, leading to more accurate information about what species were known in the area in the 18th century. As CW comes to focus more on the everyday life of ordinary individuals, kitchen gardens, where vegetables, fruit, and herbs were grown, have joined the more elaborate formal gardens of the Colonial Revival era.

Hand-colored lantern slide showing the formal gardens
of the Governor’s Palace, 1935
We have very little information about what the Alice’s grounds looked like during the early days of the Museum, but the Colonial Williamsburg style of garden was so wildly popular from the 1930s to the 1950s that I have to think Alice Miner was influenced by it. If you have any photographs that show the outside of the museum during this period, we would love to see them! In the meantime, I will be continuing to research this fascinating topic—and dreaming of warmer days.


M. Kent Brinkley, The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996)

“The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg,” special issue of The Architectural Record (December 1935)

Marley R. Brown III and Edward A. Chappell, “Archaeology and Garden Restoration at Colonial Williamsburg,” Journal of Garden History 17, no. 1 (1997): 70-77

Colonial Williamsburg Gardens

F. S. Lincoln, “James Galt House, Exterior From Left,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015,

F. S. Lincoln., “Governor's Palace Garden,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015,

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Homes of Our Ancestors: R. T. H. Halsey and American Decorative Arts

One very important person was not included in my last post about the makers of the American Wing: Richard Townley Haines Halsey. He deserves a post of his own, because Halsey did more than any other individual to determine how the American Wing would interpret decorative arts.

R. T. H. Halsey in 1941
R.T., as he was known to his friends, was born in 1865 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to a well-to-do family whose ancestors had come to North America in the 1630s. Halsey graduated from Princeton in 1886, and his father purchased him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Though he had a very successful career in finance, Halsey also devoted his time to collecting, researching, and writing about American antiques, and he published his first book, Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Staffordshire Pottery, in 1899 at the height of the china-collecting craze.

Halsey was involved in nearly every important early exhibition of American decorative arts in the United States. He wrote the catalog for the 1906 exhibit of American silver at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; he lent pieces from his collection to the Hudson-Fulton and the 1922 Duncan Phyfe show at the Metropolitan. In 1914, he was elected as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum and became chairman of the Committee on American Decorative Arts. By this time, plans for the new American Wing were well underway, and Halsey eventually gave up his seat on the Stock Exchange to devote more time to his curatorial work (technically, he remained an unpaid volunteer who “perform[ed] the function of curator”).

18th-century silver bowl once owned by Halsey and
exhibited in Boston, 1906, and at the Hudson-Fulton.
Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Like Robert de Forest and Henry Watson Kent, Halsey took great pride in the American past and personally identified with figures from the colonial era. He was very proud of the fact that his grandfather had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite organization of former Revolutionary War officers. Halsey believed that there was a direct connection between the heroic individuals of the past and their surroundings: their elegant homes reflected their cultivated taste and education, which in turn contributed to their sense of civic responsibility and patriotism.

Although Halsey’s vision of the past could be very romantic and selective (the rooms of the American Wing were furnished only with objects that had belonged to the very wealthy and elite), he was also a careful historian. His two books on the collection, A Handbook of the American Wing and The Homes of Our Ancestors, situated the American Wing’s rooms in their historical context and explained how curators used inventories, wills, newspaper advertisements, travelers’ accounts, and design books to make appropriate selections of furniture, wallpaper, carpets, window treatments, and upholstery.

Room from the Powel House, as depicted
in the Met Bulletin, November 1924
In the American Wing, Halsey celebrated not only the founding fathers who had purchased decorative arts, but the artisans and craftsmen who produced them. The items in the Met’s collection were valued for their historical associations and because they were unique, handmade pieces that (at least in some cases) could be identified as the work of a specific individual. Halsey set 1825 as the cut-off for the American Wing, believing that nearly everything made after that date was hopelessly tainted by mechanization and mass production.

Halsey hoped that the refined and gracious rooms of the American Wing would foster an appreciation of the values of the past. Modern Americans, especially those who lived in cities in impersonal apartment buildings with machine-made furnishings, and who sought out entertainment at movies and amusement parks, needed to be shown a better way of living—which would help them become better citizens. Halsey was particularly thinking of the many immigrants who had come to the United States since the 1890s; like many white, native-born Americans, he felt that they had failed to become thoroughly assimilated.

It’s no coincidence that the American Wing (and the Alice) opened in the same year that Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, a highly restrictive immigration law that was specifically designed to reduce the numbers of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe. The Colonial Revival and the Immigration Act of 1924 both originated, at least in part, from concerns that the United States was rapidly changing due to the combined forces of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. As Halsey put it in The Homes of Our Ancestors, “The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked, may shake, the foundations of our Republic.” Restricting immigration was one way to stem this “influx of foreign ideas”; educating new arrivals about American history and culture through decorative arts was another.


R. T. H. Halsey and Charles O. Cornelius, A Handbook of the American Wing (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1924).

R. T. H. Halsey and Elizabeth Tower, The Homes of Our Ancestors: As Shown in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1925).

Wendy Kaplan, “R. T. H. Halsey: An Ideology of Collecting American Decorative Arts,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (April 1982), 43-53.

Jeffrey Trask, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Makers of the American Wing

The opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924 was the culmination of decades of work by a dedicated group of collectors, scholars, curators, philanthropists, and museum administrators. We’ve met some of them already as organizers of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909, but let’s get to know our cast of characters a little better. 

Robert W. de Forest
 Robert W. de Forest (1848-1931) came from an elite New York family. His maternal grandfather was the president of the New York Stock Exchange and his father a prominent attorney. In 1872, he married Emily Johnston, the daughter of railroad president John Taylor Johnston. By the 1890s, de Forest had largely retired from his legal practice and commercial dealings to focus on philanthropy, and was deeply involved with the work of the Charity Organization Society and the Russell Sage Foundation.

De Forest also followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, who had been the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a trustee in 1889, secretary of the board in 1905, and president in 1913—a position he would hold until his death in 1931. De Forest and his wife were themselves both collectors of American antiques, and it was largely due to his influence that the Metropolitan began to exhibit and collect American decorative arts. In 1922, Robert and Emily de Forest announced that they would donate the funds needed to build the new American Wing of the museum, ultimately contributing $272,000 to this endeavor—about $3.5 million in today’s dollars.

John Fox Slater Memorial Museum
When de Forest took up his position as secretary of the board of trustees in 1905, he hired Henry Watson Kent as his assistant. Although Kent came from a much more modest background than de Forest, the two men shared many of the same ideas about the importance of making art widely accessible to a broad audience. Kent (1866-1948) began his professional career at the Boston Public Library, and in 1888 was hired as the curator of the just-completed Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut. In 1900 he left Norwich to become the librarian of the Grolier Club, a private society of bibliophiles, in New York. Kent’s work at these elite institutions allowed him to form connections with important figures (mostly men) in the world of business, art, and philanthropy. Kent and de Forest worked closely together to organize the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, and in 1913, when de Forest became president of the Met, Kent stepped into his vacated position as secretary of the board. 

It seems to have been Henry Kent who first raised the idea, even before the Hudson-Fulton, that H. Eugene Bolles might be willing to sell his collection to the Metropolitan. The matter required some delicacy, and Kent approached Bolles’s cousin and fellow collector, George S. Palmer, to ask if he thought the collection might ever come on the market. Palmer replied that it was quite likely—Bolles and his wife had no children, and the collection was getting so large that it was beginning to feel like something of a burden. Palmer wrote to Kent, “He is inclined to look for a suitable place for its permanent keeping. As he cannot afford to furnish such a place himself and cannot afford to present his collection to a public institution, he is approaching the point where he will be willing to sell it to be kept together in some public place.”

H. Eugene Bolles
H. Eugene Bolles (1838-1910) began collecting in the 1880s, at a time when it was still considered unusual and even rather eccentric for a man to collect American antiques as a hobby. Bolles was a lawyer and lived in Boston, but he spent most of his spare time scouring the countryside for old furniture. He also worked with dealers and attended country auctions, and was known to be willing to go to great lengths and endure extreme discomfort to acquire the objects he sought. The Bolles home was crowded with furniture—an inventory taken at the time of the collection’s sale showed that in the parlor alone were “five Bible boxes, three chests, two court cupboards, a highboy, a lowboy, a desk, three tables of various sizes and shapes, four armchairs, a roundabout chair, three Chippendale chairs, eight mirrors, a Hepplewhite dressing case, a bodice with embroidered front, and smaller objects of pewter and other metals, wood, bone, and glass.”

It was clear to Robert de Forest and Henry Kent that the Bolles collection was ideally suited to become the nucleus of the Met’s American decorative arts collection. Actually acquiring the pieces was more difficult, since the museum had no designated funds to purchase American art. It was fortunate, then, that de Forest was the legal adviser to one of the wealthiest women in the United States, Margaret Olivia Sage, and that Mrs. Sage had long been a proponent of public service and philanthropy.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage
in 1910
Margaret Olivia Slocum (1828-1918) was born in Syracuse, New York, the only child of middle-class parents. Despite her family’s financial struggles, she was well educated, graduating from Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary. Margaret worked as a teacher and as a governess in Syracuse and in Philadelphia, and in 1869 she married financier (some might say robber baron) Russell Sage. When Sage died in 1906, Margaret inherited his entire fortune of $70 million, which she was free to use however she wished. Mrs. Sage chose to dedicate herself primarily to educational causes, donating funds to Syracuse University, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Vassar, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also founded Russell Sage College in her late husband’s hometown of Troy, New York. In 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation, which worked to address issues related to immigration, labor, city planning, health care, and other matters of social policy.

Mrs. Sage agreed to purchase the Bolles collection in the fall of 1909, as the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was coming to an end. She then made a gift of the entire collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one stroke, the Met had acquired a comprehensive collection of American antique furniture from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century. Items from the Bolles collection were put on display almost immediately, but de Forest and Kent were dissatisfied with the way the pieces looked in the museum’s galleries, and the collection was so large—886 pieces in total—that most of the items had to be kept in storage or in study rooms. Clearly, a dedicated wing for American art, one with rooms of an appropriate scale, was necessary.

Part of the Bolles Collection as it was displayed prior to the construction
of the American Wing, ca. 1915

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Settles, Stoves, and Screens: Staying Warm before Central Heating

How did people keep warm before the development of central heating? I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the very cold winter we’ve been having here in the northeast, and I recently came across an article that sheds some light on the strategies people used. In “Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, not Place,” Kris De Decker explains that instead of trying to raise the temperature of the air in an entire room, “they used radiant heat sources that warmed only certain parts of a room, creating micro-climates of comfort. These people countered the large temperature differences with insulating furniture, such as hooded chairs and folding screens, and they made use of additional, personal heating sources that warmed specific body parts.”

People (and cat!) enjoy the warmth of a tile stove in this painting
from 1867 by German artist Albert Anker.
Most modern heating systems are based on the principle of convection—the heating of air. Older methods used conduction—heating through physical contact—or radiation, heating through electromagnetic waves. Conduction and radiation are both more efficient methods of heating, since they transfer heat directly to people, but they also have drawbacks.

This seat in the Alice’s collection (which also
converts to a table) would protect the sitter from drafts.
The Colonial Revival movement of the twentieth century romanticized the big open-hearth fireplaces of the eighteenth century, but as De Decker points out, fireplaces “are hugely inefficient, because most of the heat escapes through the chimney. They also suck in large amounts of cold air through cracks and gaps in the building envelope, which cools the air indoors and introduces strong drafts.” To counteract these issues and to compensate for the fact that fireplaces don’t heat a room evenly, people used a variety of contrivances to contain heat and create smaller zones of comfort.  High-backed settles and folding screens were two of the most common devices.

Brass bed warmer
When people had to leave these warm spaces, they used portable, personal heating devices to transfer warmth from place to place. Sleeping spaces were rarely heated, so bed curtains helped hold in heat, and bed warmers—metal pans on long handles that held hot embers—were used to take the chill off cold sheets before hopping in.

Foot warmers kept extremities warm and could be used while traveling in a carriage or in unheated spaces like churches. Foot warmers were generally made of wood and metal, and like bed warmers, they were filled with embers from the fireplace. A long skirt or robe also helped to trap heat from the foot stove and warm the lower body. Similar devices—along with hot bricks, stones, or even potatoes—were used to warm the hands. In the nineteenth century, ceramic hot water bottles and foot warmers became more common. Using hot water instead of coals was also much safer!

Early 19th-century foot stove

Stoneware “pig” foot warmer
De Decker suggests that by combining these older concepts of radiant and conductive heating with modern technology, we might be able to heat our houses in a way that uses less energy. In the meantime, what are you doing to keep warm this winter? Personally, I find that a dog makes an excellent foot warmer!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Will You Be My Valentine?

Postcard from Catherine North to
George W. Clark, Jr., 1907
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and in honor of the occasion, we’re featuring some Valentine cards from the Alice’s collection. Although Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in some form for a long time, cards are a relatively recent development.

Some authors have claimed that Valentine’s Day had its origins in the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, which was held in mid-February and was dedicated to fertility. In the fifth century, the Roman church is supposed to have co-opted this rite and turned it into a Christian festival in honor of several early Christian martyrs named Valentinus, celebrated on February 14. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a direct connection between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, but over time various legends about “Saint Valentine” developed, including the belief that he was a priest who was imprisoned by the emperor for  performing secret marriages for soldiers in the Roman army. While in prison, he supposedly wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter, which he signed, “Your Valentine.”

Postcard sent to
Mrs. George W. Clark,
The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love may have its origin in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (1382), in which he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan eury bryd comyth there to chese his make”—that is, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” However, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting flowers and offering confectionery as well as sending hand written greeting cards. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, hand written valentines started going out of fashion, giving way to mass-produced greeting cards, largely due to a British publisher who issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1797), which contained sentimental verses for someone unable to compose his or her own. Using these verses printing companies began producing a small number of cards that combined different images and verses, called “mechanical valentines.” These cards were so popular that by the early nineteenth century, “mechanical valentines” were being assembled in factories. In the United States, the first mass-produced Valentines were made in 1847 by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, who had received one of these English Valentines.

This mid-nineteenth century Valentine was given to Alice Miner in 1916 by Emma Hodge, who addressed it to her “Partner in all sorts of collecting.” The original inscription reads, “Were riches rank and power/This day within my grasp/I’d give them all to gain thy love/No greater bliss I’d ask.”

Emma Hodge gave this Valentine to “dear Miss Matilda Trainer,” also in 1916. The inscription reads, “All I have I freely offer thee,/My heart my hand my Liberty.” Both Valentines are about 8 by 10 inches, made of hand-painted floral embellishments applied to paper embossed with lace.

In the early twentieth century, Valentine postcards joined the more traditional Valentine cards. Prior to 1898, only the United States Postal Service could produce postcards, but once that prohibition ended, the postcard business boomed. The cards themselves were inexpensive, and could be mailed for only a penny. Valentine postals could be romantic, humorous, saucy, or even mean—so-called “Vinegar Valentines.” The postcards shown here were sent to George W. Clark Jr. (father of Dr. George Clark), his mother, and his sister Mattie between 1905 and 1907.

Thanks to Becca Belton for researching Valentine’s Day and scanning the cards for this post!