Friday, August 19, 2016

The Elusive Alexander Hamilton

Timothy Cole, Alexander Hamilton
Artist’s proof of wood engraving, 1922
Since the museum opened for the season this spring, a number of visitors who are fans of the musical Hamilton have asked if we have any Alexander Hamilton items in the collection. But while George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson are well-represented at the Alice, Hamilton is hardly to be found. You will see a portrait by engraver Timothy Cole in the ballroom, and a letter from Hamilton to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler (mostly concerning a horse) in the manuscript collection—and that’s all. I became curious about what Hamilton’s reputation among historians and the general public was during the period when Alice was collecting, and whether this might have influenced her decisions about what to acquire—or not.

People have been expressing strong opinions about Alexander Hamilton since he rose to prominence as an aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War. To some, he’s the archetypical American story, an immigrant who came from humble beginnings and achieved dazzling success; a brilliant political and economic theorist; and one of the few founding fathers who accurately foresaw the direction the new nation would take. But others had doubts about his Americanness and his commitment to democracy, accused him of being a secret monarchist, and questioned his moral character (he admitted publicly to at least one extramarital affair). Hamilton died in 1804, when he was only in his late 40s, while Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (two of his most prominent detractors) lived well into old age and were able to shape Hamilton’s reputation. 
Portrait medallion of Thomas Jefferson

For the first half of the 19th century, Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian nation of independent farmers whose primary ties were to the individual states, rather than the federal government, predominated. But this started to change as tensions built between north and south leading up to the Civil War. Jefferson’s reputation suffered because of his authorship of the 1798 Kentucky Resolutions (which argued that each individual state has the power to declare that federal laws are unconstitutional and void) and because of his position as a slaveholder. Jefferson’s beliefs about the power of the states seemed to lead directly to the Civil War, while Hamilton was vindicated in his advocacy of a strong national government.

This view of Hamilton was supported by two biographies published in the post-Civil War period. John Torrey Morse’s The Life of Alexander Hamilton (1876) was highly critical of Jefferson while depicting Hamilton as nearly flawless. Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge published a best-selling biography of Hamilton in 1882 and edited the nine volumes of Hamilton’s writings that appeared in 1885-86. Lodge, too, argued that Jefferson’s view of the nation as a “confederacy” of states had led to war. It was Hamilton who had truly understood that the future lay with the federal government.

Advertisement for The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds 
in Exhibitors Herald, 1918
These historical works, which reached a broad audience, may have led to the spate of Hamilton-themed novels, plays, and films which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. These works tended to emphasize the dramatic and romantic aspects of Hamilton’s life, such as Gertrude Atherton’s The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton, published in 1902. George A. Townsend’s Mrs. Reynolds and Hamilton: A Romance (1890), makes Hamilton the hero, and Aaron Burr is decidedly the villain of the piece. In this telling of the story, Burr conspires with Maria Reynolds’s husband to blackmail Hamilton in order to keep their affair a secret—all part of Burr’s larger plot to destroy Hamilton. This book later was turned into a film, The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds, released in 1918. This was just one of the movies about Burr and Hamilton made in that year—in the other, My Own United States, a young man attempts to exorcise his ancestor’s treasonous support of Aaron Burr by enlisting to fight in World War I. Another film was made in 1931, called simply Alexander Hamilton and starring George Arliss, based on a stage play he had written and performed in 1917.

So it seems that by the time Alice Miner was collecting items for the museum, Hamilton’s reputation had been restored, both as a politician and as a flawed but essentially good human being. But because he was so controversial and disliked in the early 19th century, he was never seen as a suitable subject for the kinds of commemorative prints, ceramics, and other household objects on which other figures of the revolutionary era appeared so prominently.

Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin, eds., The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York University Press, 2006).

Friday, July 29, 2016

1926 Meets 1776 at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial

In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition kicked off the craze for world’s fairs that would grip the United States into the 20th century. Each subsequent fair was bigger and more successful than the last—Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904, San Francisco in 1915. So when it came time for Philadelphians to start planning a fair to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it was only natural to assume that it, too, would succeed wildly. After all, they were returning to the site of the first American fair, it was a period of economic prosperity, and the Colonial Revival was in full swing. 

Yet the 1926 fair was plagued with troubles from the start, and it had hardly begun before the general consensus emerged that the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition was a disappointment and a failure. Some observers even argued that the great age of fairs was over—there were simply too many other entertainment options available competing for attention. Why should someone travel to a fair when he or she could experience the world via radio or the movies, or just by going to a department store?

Colonial musicians parading on High Street
But there was one part of the fair that succeeded, and in fact prevented the whole thing from being a complete financial disaster. This was High Street, made up of reproductions of 21 structures from various parts of colonial Philadelphia, brought together to create an imagined 18th-century neighborhood. Organized and operated by the Women’s Committee, High Street was intended to provide fairgoers with “a temporary escape from the complexity of modern society.” Here there were “no radios, no Charleston Dancers, no automobiles, no skyscrapers, no night clubs, no traffic semaphores.” Instead, there were town criers, hostesses in ruffled caps, and (of course) weekly pageants. In its own way, however, High Street did address the world of 1926 by suggesting ways in which Americans could come to terms with modernity by looking to the past.

The President’s House, based on the Philadelphia
residence of Washington and Adams
High Street directly or indirectly addressed three main issues: anxiety about excessive materialism and consumerism, the changing roles of women in the wake of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the shifting demographics of Philadelphia (and the nation as a whole). In all of these cases, looking back at the colonial period provided reassurance that these changes were not as dramatic as they seemed. 

The buildings of High Street were each run by a different organization, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Women Voters, which used their building to promote their ideas and sometimes to sell products. Most of the houses were decorated with modern reproductions of colonial furnishings, provided by department stores and other businesses. The sponsoring companies then produced pamphlets that were essentially catalogs telling visitors where these items could be purchased. The overall impression created by these interiors was that “colonial people had been surrounded by the material abundance of modern society,” and that consuming material goods “was a longstanding American tradition.” Americans in 1926, then, need not feel anxious about their own consumption habits.

Pageant performer
In a similar fashion, the organizers of High Street tried to show visitors that they should not be worried about women’s expanded public roles because women had in fact always been important parts of public life, even in the 18th century. The exhibits showed that even when women were not directly involved in politics, they still were essential to the civic, economic, and social life of the nation. At the same time, the domestic setting of the High Street exhibits assured visitors that women were not going to abandon their responsibilities at home. Modern women were simply adding electoral politics to these other activities.

The question of racial and ethnic diversity was harder to handle. The organizers of High Street were members of Philadelphia’s old-stock, white Protestant elite, and they believed they should continue to be the city’s cultural and political leaders. They thus used the fair to reassert their own (largely fictive) versions of a homogeneous past dominated by their ancestors. On High Street, for example, the only non-white people to be found were the black musicians performing “plantation songs” in the tavern.

Circular advertising the pageant
“Loyalty’s Gift”
UMass Amherst Special Collections
However, the fair’s organizers did not achieve their goal of making sure that their vision of the past was the only one represented—largely because African-American and immigrant organizations pushed back strongly against their exclusion. Irish, Polish, Italian, Swedish, and Jewish groups held exhibits, parades, and pageants in order to demonstrate the contributions they had made to American history and to show that they were also loyal Americans. 

For African-Americans, efforts to include black history at the Sesquicentennial were part of a broader movement among black leaders to find a “usable past.” Their messages were intended for both white and black audiences: to counteract portrayals of the past that excluded or denigrated African-Americans, and to strengthen racial pride. Historical exhibits, pageants, and speeches aimed to correct the notion that blacks did not have a history in America, or at least not one that was relevant to white Americans. They demonstrated that blacks had a distinct history but one that was also inseparable from wider American history. 

Historians still disagree about the reasons for the Sesquicentennial’s low attendance, though the weather certainly had something to do with it—it rained 107 out of 184 open days. And as it turned out, the era of world’s fairs was not over. The Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933-34, and the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 would both be very successful fairs. Both of these fairs took different approaches than the Sesqui, fully embracing modernity and looking to the future for inspiration. In some ways, we might see 1926 as the last of the “Victorian” fairs, but in others, such as the way High Street tried to make the past relevant to the present, it was decidedly of the 20th century.


Lydia Mattice Brandt, ”Picturing Female Patriotism in Three Dimensions: High Street at the 1926 Sesquicentennial,” in Meet Me at the Fair: A World’s Fair Reader (2014).

Calista K. Cleary, “The Past is Present: Historical Representation at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition,” PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1999).

Ellen Freedman, “The Women’s Committee and Their High Street Exhibit at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926,” MS Thesis, University of Pennsylvania (1988).


Friday, July 15, 2016

Of Railways and Balloons

As we prepare for our program next week on Benjamin Franklin’s kite, we have been looking through the collection for Franklin-related items. One of the things we found, a facsimile of a letter written by Franklin on balloons, is interesting both for its subject matter and for the story behind the document’s owner. William K. Bixby printed 250 copies “for his friends,” presenting the letter (nicely bound along with a transcription) to Alice and William Miner as a New Year’s gift in 1924. Like William Miner, Bixby was a railroad man, though by this time he had retired to devote himself completely to collecting and philanthropy. There are a lot of similarities between the two Williams, as a matter of fact, and it’s not surprising that they became friends.

Cover (featuring a design adapted from an 18th c. toile de jouy) and title page

William Keeney Bixby was born in 1857 in Michigan. At the age of 16, he left home to work as a railway baggage handler in Texas. Here he caught the eye of H.M. Hoxie, president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, who eventually convinced W.K. to come work with him in St. Louis. In 1883 he made what would turn out to be a wise decision, switching from railway management to railroad car manufacturing; by 1887 he was the vice president and general manager of Missouri Car and Foundry. In 1899, he led the consolidation of eighteen railway supply companies into the American Car and Foundry Company, of which he was the president. The St. Louis-based company controlled all aspects of railroad car production, from ore deposits and timber tracts to the car-building shops.

W.K. Bixby (1857-1931)
After just six years as president, at the age of 48, W.K. Bixby retired from business and turned his attention to collecting art, rare books, and manuscripts. He was a great admirer of Robert Burns, and is said to have developed such expertise that he could identify a forged Burns document from a single letter. Bixby also endowed institutions such as the St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University, and served as president of the Missouri Historical Society. Bixby produced several dozen books of facsimiles of manuscripts from his collection, which he had printed in small editions and gave to friends and fellow collectors. The reproductions themselves are collectors’ editions, with great attention being paid to illustrations, covers, and paper—for Benjamin Franklin on Balloons, Bixby used paper made by the same company that provided the paper used to make the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon!

Charles and Robert’s first (unmanned) balloon,
which was destroyed by the residents of Gonesse
The letter itself is one written on January 16, 1784 by Benjamin Franklin, who was then United States Ambassador to France, to his friend and fellow scientist Jan Ingenhousz. Ingenhousz had evidently asked Franklin for information about the balloons that had recently been launched in Paris, with the idea that he might try to construct one himself. Franklin sent him this information along with some advice not to promote a ballon launch unless he was really sure it would work! As Franklin said, “It is a serious thing to draw out from their Affairs all the Inhabitants of a great City & its Environs, and a Disappointment makes them angry.” A would-be balloonist at Bordeaux had learned this the hard way, when the crowd tore down his house when he failed to deliver the promised spectacle.

The “Charlière” rising above the Tuileries
Franklin himself had recently attended two historic ballooning events. First, on August 27, 1783, Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched the first hydrogen balloon (which ultimately crashed outside Paris and was destroyed by alarmed villagers). Then, on December 1, Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert made the first manned hydrogen balloon flight. Charles and Robert launched their balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries and ascended to about 1800 feet and traveled about 22 miles in two hours. Charles then made a second ascent to nearly 10,000 feet, but had to return to earth when he began feeling the effects of altitude. It is said that some 400,000 spectators witnessed the launch, 100 of whom had paid a crown each to help pay for the balloon’s construction and had access to a special enclosure where they got a close-up view of the takeoff. Franklin was part of this group, and presumably he and his fellow spectators felt that they got their money’s worth!

The second Montgolfier balloon
This launch came only ten days after the first manned hot-air balloon flight, during which Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier piloted a balloon designed by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. Thus, in January 1784, Europe seemed to be poised on the brink of a new era, when the possibility of flight would reshape geopolitics. As Franklin said to Ingenhousz, “Five Thousand Balloons capable of raising two Men each, would not cost more than Five Ships of the Line: And where is the Prince who can afford to cover his Country with Troops for its Defense, as that Ten Thousand Men descending from the Clouds, might not in many Places do an infinite deal of Mischief, before a Force could be brought together to repel them?” In fact, it would be a long time before aircraft played a significant role in warfare, but Franklin was certainly correct about its far-reaching possibilities. 

If you would like to learn more about Benjamin Franklin and the world of 18th-century science, join us at the museum on Friday, July 22 at 7:00 p.m. for “Secrets of Benjamin Franklin’s Kite.” The program is free and open to children of all ages.

You can read the complete text of Franklin’s letter here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pageants and Greased Pigs: The Glorious, Complicated Fourth of July

John Lewis Krimmel, Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819)
John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail in the summer of 1776, was certain that he had witnessed a day destined to be celebrated “as the great anniversary Festival.” “It ought to be commemorated,” he wrote, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Adams, of course, was talking about the 2nd of July, the day on which the Second Continental Congress had voted to approve a resolution of independence. Ultimately, Americans would come to celebrate on July 4th, the date shown on the copy of the Declaration of Independence that was made public. But Adams was right that Americans would commemorate their independence with “pomp and parade.” For much of the United States’ history, the Fourth of July has been one of the most significant holidays of the year.

Advertisement for Fourth of July
picnic in Cincinnati, 1877
(Library of Congress)
When William Miner was a boy, July Fourth celebrations, especially those in big cities, tended to separate along class and ethnic lines. Fraternal, labor, and ethnic organizations hosted their own festivities for their members, which included picnics, athletic competitions, and other boisterous amusements. Members of elite groups, such as the Society of the Cincinnati, attended official public ceremonies and private banquets. These more genteel citizens often criticized working-class celebrations as “reckless tomfoolery,” “lawless saturnalia,” and “desecrated by rowdyism.” By the end of the 19th century, municipal governments had begun to try to control holiday celebrations by enacting regulations on parades and the detonation of fireworks, and by increasing police patrols on the Fourth. They also began to sponsor their own Fourth of July celebrations, which helped maintain public order while also boosting the popularity of city officials. City governments organized “carnival processions, fireworks, balloon ascensions, picnics, dances, bicycle races, and athletic contests.”

Immigrant children in colonial pageant, Portland,
ca. 1926 (Maine Historical Society)

In the early 20th century, “growing fears about fires and vandalism, immigrant mobs, and injuries and accidents” coalesced with the emerging Progressive movement to create the “Safe and Sane July Fourth” campaign. Launched by the Playground Association of America, the Safe and Sane movement campaigned to ban the private sale of fireworks. However, leaders also recognized that they would have to provide alternative forms of entertainment. Their goal was to find activities that would appeal to a mass audience but still had some redeeming social value. Folk dancing, athletic drills, pageants, and crafts—especially those associated with the American past—were popular choices. Activities that incorporated lessons from history were seen as particularly valuable to the groups that playground and settlement workers aimed to reach: children and immigrants. 

These workers had much in common with proponents of the Colonial Revival movement, who also believed that the past had important lessons to teach the present. Here at the Alice, it sometimes feels like every day is the Fourth of July, surrounded as we are by images of George Washington and other reminders of early American history. But as we’ve seen, Independence Day has always been a lot more contested than these straightforward expressions of patriotism might suggest. Who celebrates the Fourth of July, and what form those celebrations take, can get pretty complicated.


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration...” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1990)

Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1983)

Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, “Bonfires, Greased Pig Races, Pickle Contests, and More: Historic Fourth of July Celebrations from Chronicling America,” NEH Division of Preservation and Access.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Visible Astronomy: Colonel Clapp Takes on Newton

William H. Miner’s maternal grandfather, Ephraim Wheeler Clapp, was born in 1796 in Salem, New York. He was one of the six children of Stephen Clapp, a Revolutionary War veteran who operated a mill, and Catherine Wheeler. Ephraim served in the War of 1812, and was thereafter known as “Colonel Clapp.” He married Sarah Rice in 1814 and they established a farm at East Salem and had nine children. Martha, their second daughter, was William Miner’s mother.
Title page of Ephraim Clapp’s manuscript

Sarah Small, a cousin of William’s, recalled that Grandfather Clapp was “a great student. Could tell you all about the different planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and which one would be the ruling planet for the year, and tell of the big and little dippers and where they were placed, and each year would write it all down. He had complied quite a book on different subjects. He was always pleased when some of the friends came in to visit them, and would be interested in his writings on these subjects.”

A portion of this manuscript, written between 1846 and 1850 and titled “Visible Astronomy,” is in the collection of the Alice T. Miner Museum. Colonel Clapp began his text with a bold claim: “In the following work I propose to introduce a new System of Astronomy, and if in so doing the Newtonian system, should be assailed as incorrect, or if it should merely be annihilated, my only apology is that I have not at any time of my life fully believed in that system.” 

Portrait of Newton by
Godfrey Kneller, 1702
Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In this book, he laid out the laws of motion and of universal gravitation, and showed that these laws—which could be expressed mathematically—explained both celestial and earthly phenomena: the motion of the planets, tides, equinoxes, and so on. Newton’s work was seen by many as definitive proof of the validity of the heliocentric theory, and by the mid-18th century the Newtonian model of the universe was broadly accepted across Europe and North America.

However, this did not mean that Newton was universally accepted, or that people agreed with all aspects of his work. Challengers to Newton ranged from those who saw unexplained problems in his theories (such as the precise nature and source of gravity) that they attempted to resolve, all the way through proponents of fringe theories like Flat- and Hollow-Earthers. Others objected to Newton on scriptural grounds, arguing that his picture of the universe was contrary to the Bible’s description of sun, moon, and stars fixed in a firmament that revolved around the earth. Some people felt that Newton’s mechanistic universe, running on mathematical principles, opened the door to rationalism and free thought.
Clapp’s diagram showing Newton’s supposed error
regarding the size of the sun.

Still, by Ephraim Clapp’s day, anti-Newtonianism was a pretty eccentric position. His objections to Newton seem to have come from his belief that Newton was mistaken about some fundamental facts. Clapp argued that the sun cannot be as large as Newton says it is, because if it were, the earth would never experience days and nights of equal length. Moreover, Clapp claimed, if Newton were correct about the size of the sun and the distance of the earth’s orbit around it, the earth would have to be moving so fast that gravity would cease to function and “every thing moveable would fall from the earth.” (This is just in the first two pages of the manuscript, by the way.)

Page from Principia Mathematica
I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that Clapp’s theories are doubtful, to say the least. But his manuscript does raise some interesting points about how ordinary people understood science and tried to incorporate it into their own lives. It would be very interesting to know where Clapp got his knowledge about the Newtonian system. Principia Mathematica is a dense text, full of mathematical equations and diagrams—and it was in Latin. So relatively few people actually read it in its original form, instead relying on translations and books that simplified Newton’s work for a general audience, such as The System of the World, Demonstrated in an Easy and Popular Manner: Being a Proper Introduction to the Most Sublime Philosophy, published in 1740. Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries also had access to a wide variety of encyclopedic works on natural history aimed at the general public. Astronomy had an important place in these texts. In addition, lecturers traveled around the country, giving talks and performing scientific demonstrations. Ephraim Clapp might very well have read these types of books and attended scientific lectures. But his ideas about the nature of the universe seem to have been entirely his own.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Webbs, Morgans, Delords, and Halls: The Family Story of a Sampler

Lavinia Morgan’s sampler
In my earlier post on samplers, I noted that it was often difficult to uncover much information about the lives of the girls and young women who made these pieces. Most women left little mark on the official historical record. However, if a woman has a connection to a “notable” person or family, that makes it more likely that something about her will be preserved. That turns out to be the case for Lavinia Morgan, whose sampler, stitched in 1806 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is in the Alice’s collection.

Lavinia Morgan (1798-1874) was the first cousin of Frances Webb Hall, daughter of Henry Livingston Webb and Frances Delord, and the last member of the Delord family to live in the Kent-Delord House in Plattsburgh. Lavinia’s mother, Sarah Webb Morgan, was Henry Webb’s sister. Sarah and Henry were two of the ten children of Joseph Webb, Jr., and Abigail Chester Webb, prominent and well-to-do citizens of Hartford, Connecticut. The Webb home (built in 1752 by Joseph Webb, Sr.) was known as “Hospitality Hall,” and on one memorable occasion hosted George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, who met there to plan the Yorktown campaign in 1781. (The house later became one of the sites in Wallace Nutting’s “Chain of Colonial Picture Houses,” and is now run as a museum by the Colonial Dames of America.)

Bowl from the Elias Morgan dinner service, now in
the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sally Webb (1775-1805) married Elias Morgan (1770-1812) in 1796. This was Morgan’s third attempt at marriage; his previous two wives (who also happened to be sisters) had both died within a year of their weddings. Sally and Elias had five children, of whom three—Lavinia, Mary Ann, and Henry—survived to adulthood. Although we don’t know much about Lavinia’s childhood, it seems safe to assume that she enjoyed the advantages of growing up in a wealthy and well-connected family. Elias Morgan was a merchant, and evidence of his success can be found in the large set of Chinese export porcelain dinnerware featuring the family coat of arms that he had made ca. 1785-90. A 19th-century family history noted that Lavinia and Mary Ann were still using the set; a number of pieces are now in museum collections and occasionally turn up at auctions.

Photo of the Elias Morgan house, ca. 1900
Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society
A photograph of a building identified as the “Elias Morgan House” in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society is another hint at the family’s wealth. Although it isn’t clear whether Elias Morgan actually lived in this house or just built it, the large, fashionable home suggests prosperity and refinement.

Lavinia lost both of her parents when she was quite young—her mother died when she was about 8 years old, right around the time when she was making her sampler, and her father seven years later. It is likely that her Webb aunts and uncles then became her guardians. Elizabeth, Frances, and Amelia Webb never married, and they would have been the obvious choices to look out for their teenaged niece. Lavinia, too, would remain unmarried, and when young Frances Delord Webb came to live with her aunts after Henry’s death, Lavinia was living with them as well. Although Lavinia and Frances were first cousins, Lavinia was so much older that she was probably more like another aunt to Fanny.

Check for $89.50 paid to Lavinia Morgan from
the bequest of Henry L. Webb
A woman who did not marry often found herself in a precarious position in an era when there were few economic opportunities for women. Fortunately for Lavinia, her family’s wealth assured that she would be able to enjoy some financial independence, although she always lived with either her aunts or her married sister. In addition to whatever money she inherited from her parents, her Webb relatives made sure she was provided for. Both Henry Webb and Frances Webb made wills in the 1840s that included bequests providing Lavinia with a regular income. Aunt Frances’s will, made shortly before her death in 1844, left the three Morgan siblings with $1000 each to be invested on their behalf. Henry Webb, making his will in 1845, left $500 to Lavinia, and instructed his executors to make investments that would provide her with an income of $200 per year for the rest of her life. (As a point of comparison, a woman working in one of the Lowell mills at that time made about $1.75 per week.)

Abigail Chester Webb, grandmother of
Lavinia Morgan and Fanny Webb Hall
Both of these wills are part of the Kent-Delord Collection held at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library. The collection also includes letters written from Lavinia Morgan to her Uncle Henry, checks and other financial documents related to the money left to her by Henry Webb, and documents connected with Lavinia’s estate at the time of her death in 1874. Thanks to Lavinia’s connection with the Delord/Webb/Hall family, we have these items to fill out the story behind the sampler. Exactly how the sampler ended up at the Alice T. Miner Museum is not known. We can guess that Lavinia bequeathed the sampler to her cousin Fanny Webb Hall, and that after Fanny’s death in 1913 her personal belongings were scattered. Documents in the museum archives suggest that Fanny’s sister-in-law, Frances Hall Sargent, donated a number of Webb family items to Alice, which may have included the sampler. 

Lavinia’s sampler is currently on loan to the Kent-Delord House, where you can see it along with many other artifacts from the Delord, Webb, and Hall families. The Kent-Delord House will be kicking off its season with Museum Weekend, June 4 and 5, and will be offering guided tours all summer long, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

From Academy to Seminary to College: Women’s Education in the 19th Century

In my last post, I noted that the practice of making samplers in American schools started to die out in the 1830s, in part because of changes in attitudes toward female education. By that time, activists like Catharine Beecher, Zilpah Grant, Emma Willard, and Mary Lyon had established schools in the northeastern US that aimed to give girls an education equivalent to that available to boys. These female seminaries were also intended to train women as teachers during a period when America’s public school system was rapidly expanding. 

A book in the Alice’s collection provides a window into this pivotal moment. William Woodbridge and Emma Willard’s Universal Geography was co-authored by one of the pioneers of women’s education, and this particular copy was owned by a young lady who would later attend a pioneering institution for women’s higher education. 

Emma Hart was born in 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut to a farming family. When she was only twenty years old, she became the principal of Middlebury Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, where she also met her husband John Willard. She gave up teaching after her marriage, but a few years later, with the family in difficult financial circumstances, she opened her own school with a more rigorous curriculum than the one offered at the Seminary.
Emma Hart Willard 

Willard’s experiences at Middlebury led her to become more active in the movement for female education, and in 1819 she published An Address to the Public...Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. While nominally addressed to the members of the New York State legislature, it was really meant for a wide audience. In it, Willard laid out what she thought were the defects in the current system of female education and made an argument for publicly-supported female seminaries. 

Although the legislature rejected her proposal, the Willards moved to New York, first to Waterford and then to Troy, where the Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821. Although she was very careful not to refer to her school as a college, Willard clearly modeled it on those elite male institutions. At Troy, girls could learn mathematics, philosophy, and science, in addition to the subjects that were traditionally thought appropriate for women (reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps a little history and French). Willard felt that the “ornamental” branches of drawing, music, and dancing could be part of a seminary curriculum, but needlework, other than the purely useful sort, she regarded as “a waste of time.”

It's literally a Temple.
John Willard died in 1825, and thereafter Emma Willard depended upon the income from the school and her writing to support herself and her son, John Hart Willard. She was the author of a number of textbooks which were widely used in American schools, and she introduced some truly novel ways of graphically representing knowledge, such as the “Temple of Time” to depict history. The Universal Geography was really two texts packaged together—William Woodbridge’s A System of Universal Geography (which covered the modern world) and Willard’s Ancient Geography. First published in 1824, it went through at least ten editions and was still being used into the 1850s.

The copy of Universal Geography in the Alice’s collection belonged to Margaret Tufts of New Haven, Connecticut. Margaret was born in 1815, the daughter of Matthias and Matilda Tufts. Matthias Tufts was a ship carpenter and a member of the New Haven School Society (essentially the board for the city’s public schools), which suggests that he had an interest in the subject of education. We don’t know where Margaret was a student in 1833, when she acquired this textbook—she could have attended one of the half a dozen young ladies’ academies in New Haven, or been a boarding pupil at a school like Troy Female Seminary. But wherever it was, her education did not end there. In 1837, she became one of the first students at a new institution that was just opening in Massachusetts, the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Mary Lyon
Mount Holyoke’s founder, Mary Lyon (1797-1849), came from a similar background to Emma Willard. Also from a New England farming family, she became a teacher as a young woman and then helped to run two female academies started by Zilpah Grant. When it came time to open her own school, she was determined to offer the best education available to women at the time. Entrance requirements were rigorous and aimed to admit “young ladies of an adult age, and mature character.” Mount Holyoke’s curriculum was modeled upon—and indeed was nearly identical to—that of nearby Amherst College. At both institutions, students were required to take courses in ancient history, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geography, geology, logic, philosophy (mental, moral, and natural), political economy, and rhetoric. Lyon also encouraged students to take Latin, classical languages and literature being the key subject that had always distinguished male education from female learning.

Despite the similarities between Amherst and Mount Holyoke, one was a college while the other was a seminary. There was simply too much resistance to the idea of admitting women to the power and prestige associated with a college education. As one historian has written, “The college world was a fraternity all its own, a time-hallowed preserve of masculine identity, masculine knowledge, masculine privilege, and masculine society, where the elite white men who regarded leadership and public power as their birthright were trained. To either admit women to that fraternity or countenance their acquiring too many of its trappings was more than undesirable; it was inconceivable.”

Over the next few decades, some of that resistance would be chipped away, and true colleges for women, offering bachelor’s degrees, would be founded. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary would become a college in 1888. However, neither Mary Lyon nor Margaret Tufts lived to see that happen. Margaret became a teacher in New Haven after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1840. In 1842, she married Sherman Booth, a noted abolitionist, and in 1848 they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so he could establish the abolitionist newspaper that came to be known as the Wisconsin Free Democrat. The Booths had three children who died in infancy, and Margaret herself died in 1849 shortly before her 34th birthday.

Many thanks to my grad school colleague and dear friend Caroline Hasenyager, for patiently answering my questions about early-19th century women’s education, and allowing me to quote from her dissertation, “Peopling the Cloister: Women’s Colleges and the Worlds We’ve Made of Them.”

If you are interested in learning more about the history of women’s education, here are a few good books:

Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1976)

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed., 1993)

Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2006)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Concerning Samplers

Sampler made by Margaret Platt,
1736. Margaret was a cousin of the
Platt brothers who founded Plattsburgh
and the great-grandmother of Lucretia
Maria and Margaret Davidson.
As we prepare to reopen the museum in May, I have been working on some new labels for the samplers in the Weaving Room. I’ve tried to find biographical information about the girls who made the samplers and other needlework pieces in the collection—a difficult task. Like most women who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, they left little mark on the official historical record. However, their samplers were treasured and handed down in their families until they were “discovered” by collectors in the early 20th century. In the age of the suffragette and the flapper, samplers became powerful symbols of the industry, piety, and domesticity of early American women.

Until relatively recently, needlework skills were an essential part of female education. All girls learned basic sewing skills, and some pursued more advanced embroidery. The sampler emerged sometime in the 16th century and was originally a pattern record of stitches and techniques (the term sampler comes from the Latin exemplum, or example). Colonists brought this tradition of sampler-making to North America in the 17th century, though very few examples have survived from that period. By the 18th century, distinctive sampler styles were beginning to develop, identified with specific regions and often with particular schools or teachers. However, American samplers shared common elements: alphabets and numbers, religious or moral verses, names and dates (often in the form of a family record), floral motifs, landscape scenes including people, houses, and animals, and geometric patterns.

Scenes from a Seminary for Young Ladies,
ca. 1810-20
Saint Louis Art Museum
In the years after the American Revolution, educational opportunities for girls expanded dramatically. Historians have identified this push for female education as part of an ideology they call republican motherhood. If the new nation was to survive, its citizens must be virtuous, and children’s first lessons in virtue came from their mothers. Therefore, women had to be educated in order to transmit republican values to future generations. Although the emphasis of republican motherhood was on women’s roles in the home, it opened the door for arguments in favor of broadening education for girls. As author Judith Sargent Murray wrote in 1798, “Female academies are everywhere establishing and right pleasant is the appellation to my ear.”

These new academies offered girls the chance to learn the same subjects as boys did: not just reading and writing but mathematics, geography, philosophy, and Latin. However, there was still a great emphasis on fashionable accomplishments or what were called “ornamentals”—embroidery, painting, drawing, and music. Most of the samplers that are in museum collections today were made during this post-Revolutionary period, and almost all of them were produced in schools, under the direction of a teacher.
“Miss Godchild's First Sampler,”
English print, 1793

A girl generally made her first sampler between the ages of five and nine. This would usually be a marking sampler, intended to teach basic sewing and literacy skills through the stitching of letters and numbers. In a time when household linens were extremely valuable, every sheet, napkin, pillowcase, and towel had to be marked with initials to ensure that it was returned safely from being sent out for laundering, and with numbers so that items could be rotated for even wear. If her education continued at a female academy, the young lady might then make a more decorative sampler or needlework picture. This piece might be part of an exhibition at the school, demonstrating her skill to family, friends, and local dignitaries, and would serve as an advertisement for the school. She would then bring the framed needlework home to be displayed as a sort of “diploma,” testifying to her educational and artistic accomplishments.

Colonial Revival sampler, 1917
Samplers began to fall out of the school curriculum in the late 1830s, as educational reformers argued that girls should receive the same education as boys. By the mid-19th century, they were generally found only in Catholic schools and in some frontier areas. In the 20th century, colonial-style needlework enjoyed a revival among middle-class women, who could purchase commercial patterns and kits to make their own “heirlooms.” It was at this time that collectors began to take a second look at the productions of 18th and early 19th century needlewomen. Virginia Robie, writing in House Beautiful in 1902, noted that the sampler had “not yet become a fad”; it was still lumped in with the fancywork of the Victorians and “mildly ridiculed or completely ignored.” But within a decade, the first scholarly works on samplers would appear, and they would be eagerly sought out by collectors like Alice T. Miner.


Early works on samplers include Marcus B. Huish, Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries (1913) and American Samplers, published by the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1921. For recent scholarship, the works of Betty Ring, particularly Girlhood Embroidery and American Needlework Treasures, are invaluable.