Friday, September 26, 2014

Letters from Omaha

Alice and William in the early 1890s
In the summer of 1893, Will Miner was traveling the country as a representative of the Hutchins Refrigerator Company (a subsidiary of the California Fruit Transportation Company) and trying to sell his newly-patented tandem draft rigging on the side. Although Will was a determined and ambitious young man, two other things were very much on his mind that summer: his beloved Alice, and the great exposition then taking place in Chicago. Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, but to Will it was just "the Fair." 

During an extended trip to Omaha, Nebraska in August 1893, Will frequently wrote to Alice, and he talked about the Fair almost as much as he talked about how much he missed her! Will's letters show just how much this event meant to Chicago residents, and how proud they were of the great "White City" that had miraculously emerged on the shores of Lake Michigan.


The Court of Honor and Grand Basin, overlooked by the Statue of the Republic


Intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Fair opened a year late, on May 1, 1893. Like its predecessor, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the Columbian Exposition was designed to celebrate scientific and technological progress. But the organizers also intended to show (as one writer put it) "that the finer instincts of humanity have not suffered complete eclipse" in the drive towards progress and prosperity. Art and culture would also be on display, and the classically-inspired white exhibition buildings would provide an ideal setting for the moral lessons to be learned at the Fair.


"Chicago Day" set a record for attendance,
with 716,881 visitors
Will first mentioned the Fair in a letter to Alice written on August 15. He noted that Omaha was as quiet as Chicago on a Sunday, and observed, "There is certainly more business in Chicago than any place I have seen in this country, the Fair is helping us more than we realize untill we see how other towns are suffering from dull trade." In the summer of 1893, the United States was in the midst of a serious economic depression (known as a "panic" in those days), but the influx of visitors to the Fair (26 million over six months) surely helped Chicago weather the crisis.

Will wrote again the next day, saying, "I trust you are enjoying the events at the Fair which I see by the Chicago papers are very interesting. Yesterday was a day of events and I hope you saw the races on the lagoons." He also reported, "People out here are doing a great deal of talking about the Fair, they all agree that it is superb."


Ladies' Safety Bicycle, 1889
Alice must have reported to Will on her Fair-related activities, because in his letter of August 22 he said, "Am glad you are having such nice cool weather for wheeling and seeing the Fair." He looked forward to returning to Chicago, when they would "take some trips on the wheels." Bertha Trainer was taking riding lessons, and once she was done, the whole family would be able to cycle together. The introduction of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s led to a national craze for "wheeling." Unlike the old penny-farthing bicycle, with its enormous front wheel, the safety bike was stable and easy to use. Women, in particular, took to cycling with great enthusiasm, and the bicycle became a symbol of the freedom of the "New Woman" in the 1890s.

A week later, Will wrote that he was "getting anxious to hear from you as no letter has arrived up to date, suppose you are busy seeing the Fair this week with sister Lou." And "speaking of the Fair, I believe I can thoroughly appreciate it when I see it again, it seems an age since we were there last together, am sorry to be away from Chicago so much during the Fair for we both miss much of its best features."

Interior of Machinery Hall
Will and Alice likely had many more chances to visit the Fair before it closed on October 30, 1893. Given what we know about Will Miner's interests, it's likely that Machinery Hall and the Transportation Building were two of his favorite exhibits at the Fair. The Transportation Building contained 8 acres of space devoted just to railroads, including an extensive display by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, which showed "the development of locomotives and cars from the rudest and earliest days to the present time."
The Transportation Building's gilded and polychrome facade
stood out among the neoclassical structures of the White City
 

We don't have any letters from Alice written during this period, so we don't know exactly what she thought of the Fair. But for someone with interests in art and history, the exposition offered plenty of opportunities to study both. In my next post, I'll be looking more closely at the ways in which colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts were presented at the World's Columbian Exposition.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Alice!

I've been working on a post about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which is probably going to turn into two posts...) but couldn't let today pass without celebrating a very special occasion: It's Alice's 151st birthday! Let's take a little tour through the life of our founder to commemorate the day.
A young and very serious Alice
Alice Trainer was born September 23, 1863 in Goderich, Ontario. She was the seventh child of Bernard and Louisa Saunders Trainer, and their fourth daughter. Louisa Trainer died in 1870, and Matilda, the oldest daughter, took on the responsibility of helping to raise her younger siblings.

Some time in the late 1870s or 1880s, Alice's older brothers moved to Chicago for work, and in 1887 the rest of the siblings--Matilda, Bertha, Louise, Alice, and William--relocated there as well (Bernard Trainer had died in 1876).


Alice around the time she met Will Miner
While living in Chicago in the early 1890s, Alice met a young man named William H. Miner. How they met remains a mystery, but we know that they attended the Chicago World's Fair together and enjoyed "wheeling." Alice and William were married in June, 1895.


At home in Chicago with one of her many canine friends
Alice and her fellow Kamby Mandolin Club members in
Jackson Park, Chicago






In March 1902, Alice gave birth to a son, William Henry Miner, Jr., but sadly the baby died when he was only two weeks old. Although they never spoke of it explicitly, it seems likely that William and Alice's decision to embark on the ambitious project of creating Heart's Delight Farm the following year was connected to this tragic event.


Over the following decades, Chazy and the surrounding area would come to play a very important role in Alice's life as she and William expanded their activities beyond the farm to encompass the Chazy Central Rural School, the Kent-Delord House, Physicians Hospital, and of course, the Colonial Collection. Alice's sisters eventually moved to Chazy as well, and after William died in 1930, Alice decided to live at Heart's Delight year-round. 

Alice at Heart's Delight with a very small companion, 1934 
Alice presenting a new ambulance to Physicians Hospital, 1948
So, although it was William's family ties that originally brought Alice to the North Country, she developed a close relationship with its people and places over the 50 years she spent here. Until the end of her life in 1950, she remained an active member of the Board of Directors of Physicians Hospital, the Women's League of Physicians Hospital, and the Presbyterian Ladies' Aid Society.




Alice also continued to add to the collection of the Colonial Home, turning it into the historical gem that it remains today! She wanted to make sure that local residents did not forget the history of their community, and I think Alice would be very happy to know how many people came to visit the museum during the Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration weekend.

Thank you, Alice, and a very happy birthday!


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Among Friends: An Evening with Local Author Stephen Woodruff

On Saturday, August 30, the Alice helped kick off the first weekend of Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration activities with a visit from Stephen Woodruff, author of the young adult novel Among Friends: A Quaker Boy at the Battle of Plattsburgh. The book is about 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, a Quaker living in the settlement near Peru, who faces some tough situations as war approaches his home in September 1814. Stephen gave a wonderful talk in which he took the audience through the various influences that came together to give him the idea for this book.

Stephen grew up in Peru, and as a kid he heard reports of a deserted town outside the village. This was the Quaker Union--once a thriving settlement which had largely been abandoned by the 1850s. Later, as a teacher in the Peru elementary school, Stephen helped develop a local history program for fourth-graders in which students compared the present village to 19th-century photographs. Many of the buildings the students studied for this project later became settings in Among Friends.


Around this same time, Stephen encountered the journal of Henry K. Averill, which had been edited by local historian Keith Herkalo and published by the Battle of Plattsburgh Association. Stephen became interested in Averill's account of his experiences as one of Aiken's Volunteers during the battle. A group of teenage boys playing a pivotal role in the American victory certainly seemed like a intriguing premise for a novel...

All of these ideas were beginning to come together, but more research was needed. Stephen began to gather more information about the Quaker Union and about Quaker theology and practice. The Quakers (or Society of Friends, as they called themselves) originated in England in the mid-17th century when they broke off from the Church of England. Quakers emphasized the individual's personal relationship with God, unmediated by clergy or formal services. They believed that all people had an "Inner Light" that could be cultivated through communal, but largely silent, worship. Unlike many other Christian denominations, Quakers allowed women to speak publicly during meetings. They also supported abolitionism and pacifism, and were known for their plain style of dress and use of thee and thou as ordinary pronouns.


A Quaker meeting in London, 1809. Men and women sat separately in the meetinghouse,
and there were no ordained ministers. Anyone who felt moved by the Inner Light could speak.
The Keese homestead. More early photos
can be found at the Town of Peru website.

Quakers were persecuted both by the Church of England and by Puritans in North America, but they were able to establish settlements in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Island, and Dutchess County. It was these Dutchess County Quakers who became the first settlers of the Quaker Union in the early 1790s. Many of the earliest residents, including William and John Keese, had worked as surveyors for Zephaniah Platt, and were paid for their services with land. By 1814, the Quaker Union was a prosperous settlement of 40 to 50 houses, a school, a tavern, and other businesses. But it was already beginning to feel the effects of what would ultimately become a schism in the community due to the radical preaching of Long Island Quaker Elias Hicks.

The main character of Among Friends, 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, thus finds himself facing a number of problems. In addition to the tensions within the Quaker community, he is frightened by the possibility of a British invasion. But he's also a little bit interested in the idea of boys his own age who are willing to fight--something that would be totally contrary to his Quaker beliefs. Plus there are troubles at home on the farm, where Elijah just can't seem to do anything right, and he's been having strange and ominous dreams. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that this is a very enjoyable book for teens or adults. Stephen Woodruff does an excellent job of blending fictional characters with real events and people in a believable way. 


Engraved plate from rifle presented by Congress to Martin Aiken,
in the collection of the Clinton County Historical Association.
This year's Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration (Saturday, September 13) will include a reenactment of the skirmish on Bridge Street, in which Aikin's Volunteers played an important role.

The Yellow Store in Goshen, where Elijah meets Henry Averill, was a real place and is now located at the Babbie Rural and Farm Learning Museum in Peru, which is raising funds for its restoration.

Among Friends is available for purchase at the Clinton County Historical Association and the Corner-Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh, and at Amazon.com

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Honoring the Heroes of 1814: Commemorative Medals

Among the items currently on display in our Battle of Plattsburgh exhibit are bronze commemorative medals honoring the two great heroes of the battle, Captain Thomas Macdonough and General Alexander Macomb. Macdonough and Macomb were both awarded Congressional Gold Medals in the aftermath of the battle, and our medals are replicas of those. 

The Congressional Gold Medal, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest civilian award in the United States. Initially, recipients of the medal were all military figures honored for their service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, but the scope of the medal has since been broadened to honor achievements by explorers, musicians, athletes, activists, scientists, and more. Each medal is designed by the U.S. Mint to commemorate the specific person and achievement for which the medal is awarded. 

The U.S. Mint also sometimes produces bronze replicas of the gold medals, but we can't say for sure if these particular copies were made in 1814, or were made in 1914 to commemorate the centennial.




Obverse of Macdonough's medal: THO. MACDONOUGH. STAGNO CHAMPLAIN CLAS. REG. BRIT. SUPERAVIT. (Thomas Macdonough Stagno Champlain classim Regis Britannia superavit: Thomas Macdonough defeated the Royal British fleet on Lake Champlain.)












Reverse: UNO LATERE PERCUSSO. ALTERUM IMPAVIDE VERTIT. (Beaten on one side, he fearlessly turns the other.) Naval action on Lake Champlain, between the United States fleet, carrying eighty-six guns, under Captain Macdonough, and the British fleet, with ninety-five guns, commanded by Commodore Downie. To the right, the city of Plattsburgh in flames. Exergue: INTER CLASS. AMERI. ET BRIT. DIE XI SEPT. MDCCCXIIII. (Inter classim Americanam et Britannicam, die 11 Septembris, 1814: Between the American and British fleets, September 11, 1814.)





Captain Robert Henley of the Eagle and Lieutenant Stephen Cassin of the Ticonderoga also received gold medals in October 1814 for their role in the "decisive and splendid victory gained on Lake Champlain." Congress also requested that the President "present a silver medal, with suitable emblems and devices, to each of the commissioned officers of the navy and army serving on board, and a sword to each of the midshipmen and sailing-masters, who so nobly distinguished themselves in that memorable conflict."


Obverse of Macomb's medal: MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MACOMB. Bust of General Macomb, in uniform, facing the right.

Reverse: RESOLUTION OF CONGRESS NOVEMBER 3. 1814. The American army repulsing the British troops, who are striving to cross the Saranac river. To the left, Plattsburgh in flames; to the right, naval battle on Lake Champlain; in the distance, Cumberland Head. Exergue: BATTLE OF PLATTSBURGH SEPT. (September) 11. 1814.










The third medal in our display is one that was produced for the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1914, and honors both Macdonough and Macomb. Their portraits seem to be modeled upon those used for the Congressional Medals; the reverse shows a naval scene and a version of the New York State seal.

The medals were made by Whitehead & Hoag of Newark, New Jersey. Established in 1892, Whitehead & Hoag manufactured "buttons, badges, banners, flags and an almost infinite variety of taking advertising novelties in celluloid, metal, ribbons, silk and woven fabrics." At one time, they were the largest manufacturer of buttons in the world--their factory could produce over a million buttons per day!

Thanks to the Press-Republican for providing the name of the manufacturer and helping to solve part of this mystery! Information about Whitehead & Hoag was found at tedhake.com and oldnewark.com.

Information about the Congressional Medals was taken from The Medallic History of the United States of America, 1776-1876, by J. F. Loubat. You can read it online via Project Gutenberg.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Place is the Hero: Plattsburgh's Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley

The early 20th century was the great age of historical pageantry. In communities all over the United States, and especially in the northeast, people came together to portray their towns’ histories in elaborate performances combining drama, music, and dance. Like proponents of the Colonial Revival movement, pageant organizers and creators hoped to use history as a tool for understanding the present. Pageants were usually held to mark an anniversary of the town’s founding or a significant event. And in doing so, pageants attempted to present a community’s past, present, and future as a coherent whole.

Official Program of the Centennial Celebration
Residents of Plattsburgh and surrounding areas participated in this trend when they performed the “Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley” in September, 1914, as part of the Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Plattsburgh. This was an enormous undertaking, involving 1,200 performers, a chorus of 400 voices, and a 40-piece band. The Plattsburgh Sentinel estimated that about 5,000 people braved the chilly fall weather to attend the first performance (one of four), which was held on the parade grounds at the Plattsburgh Barracks.

Program for Margaret MacLaren Eager's Pageant of Utica
The Centenary Commission hired Margaret MacLaren Eager, a professional pageant director, to create and organize the pageant. Eager was at the peak of her career in 1914 and very well known in New York; she had directed the Pageant of Saratoga in 1913, the Pageant of Utica in the Mohawk Valley earlier in the summer of 1914, and would go on to direct the “Historical Pageant of Newburgh-on-Hudson: A Pageant of Peace and True Patriotism” the next year.

While Eager’s pageant incorporated people and events specific to the Champlain Valley, the general structure of the program would already have been familiar to audiences. The pageant was organized around a series of episodes depicting key historical moments, performed in pantomime, interspersed with symbolic interludes of music and dance. For example, in the “Pageant of the Champlain Valley”, Episode 8, depicting “The Coming of the First Settlers to Plattsburgh” was followed by an Interlude in which “the little wood creatures”—children dressed as butterflies, frogs, and crickets—“come out from among the trees, and glide stealthily about.”

In the northeast, the historical episodes tended to follow the same pattern, regardless of town: Indian life, discovery/exploration, early settlers, the Revolutionary War, 19th-century life, the Civil War. The “Pageant of the Champlain Valley” generally followed this model, though it was unusual in that concentrated on early history and skipped entirely over the 100 years between the battle and the present day—not surprising, however, given that the larger purpose of the celebration was to commemorate the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Ross Platt Lobdell as Judge Levi Platt
When casting roles in pageants, organizers loved to have descendants of key historical figures play their ancestors. This was thought to heighten the realism of the portrayal as well as make clear the connection between past and present. As an article in the Plattsburgh Sentinel reviewing the pageant put it, “The history of Plattsburgh and Clinton county is no longer comprised, limited, to the printed sheet. It is real and living and the grand-children of the grandparents have enacted the story.”

George MacDonough and his wife as
Commodore and Mrs. MacDonough
The Finale of the Champlain Valley pageant brought together past, present, and future. All of the actors from the historical episodes returned to the stage, and then were joined by residents of the towns of the Champlain Valley. “People of different and groups enter[ed], representing the various activities for good in the valley today.” Finally, the Spirit of the Mountains and the Spirit of the Valleys and the Waters entered, “form[ing] an aisle through which the Standing Army of the Future rides, led by the Angel of Peace.”

In September 1914, the war that had just begun in Europe was very much on people’s minds. Though the United States would not enter the war until 1917, Americans were concerned about the possibility, and Plattsburgh would soon become the center of the Preparedness Movement. While some Americans thought that pageants could act as a substitute for war, by providing a peaceful way of satisfying people’s needs for excitement and drama, others saw pageantry as an extension of military preparedness. Historian David Glassberg thinks that pageants “implicitly ‘prepared’ Americans for war through scenes that depicted past generations as at their best during wartime, exhibiting ingenuity, courage, solidarity, and a spirit of self-sacrifice.” This was certainly true in the 1914 pageant, with its emphasis on the Revolutionary War and, of course, the War of 1812.

Benjamin Mooers as General Mooers
We don’t know for sure if Alice Miner attended the pageant, but I like to think that she did. Certainly the ideas about history, community, and patriotism expressed in the performance aligned quite closely with her own values—the values she would express ten years later with the opening of her Colonial Collection.


Brief Outline of the Program for the Historical Pageant of the Champlain Valley

Prelude: The Face of the Waters and The First Indian
Episode 1: Discovery and Naming of Lake Champlain
Episode 2: A Party of French Soldiers and Long Sault Indians on an Exploring Expedition are attacked by Abenakis and Algonquin Indians
Episode 3: The Coming of William Gilliland’s artisans to Make a Clearing at Willsboro, May 10, 1765
Interlude: The Appeal of the Pines
Episode 4(a): The Coming of the Gilliland Family
Interlude: The Spirit of War
Episode 4(b): The Forming of the First Company in the Valley before the Revolution—Visit of General Gates and Benedict Arnold
Episode 4(c): The Arrest
Episode 5: Battle of Valcour
Episode 6: General Burgoyne Addresses Indian Tribes at the Falls of Boquet
Episode 7: The Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Departure of Peter Sailly for the United States
Episode 8: The Coming of the First Settlers to Plattsburgh
Interlude: The Creatures of the Wood
Episode 9: The Building of the First Sawmill, called “The Glory of the Saranac”
Episode 10: Market Place on Court Day—Peter Sailly appointed Collector of Customs for the District of Champlain—The First Trip of the Steamboat Vermont
Episode 11: The War of 1812—Arrival of Courier Announcing the Declaration of War—The Essex Company
Episode 12: Murray’s Raid
Episode 13: Macdonough and his Bride on their way to Burlington
Episode 14(a): The Approach of the British
Episode 14(b): The Town of Plattsburgh Honors Commodore Macdonough
Finale: Enter Heralds of the Past, Present and Future on Horseback

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

I was thinking about subjects for my next blog post when I came across this book that had been tucked away on a shelf in one of our collections storage areas. Well, I had already been planning to write more about the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, so clearly now was the time.

The book’s full title is Frank Leslie’s Historical Register of the United States Centennial Exposition, 1876. Embellished with nearly Eight Hundred Illustrations drawn expressly for this Work by the most Eminent Artists in America. Including illustrations and descriptions of all previous international exhibitions, and containing much useful information, and statistics of the foreign countries represented at the exposition. And it certainly lives up to its name.


Frank Leslie was the publisher of the popular literary and news magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. In an era before the development of the halftone printing process, which allowed for inexpensive reproduction of photographs, Leslie’s (like other periodicals) relied upon engravings for illustration. The Historical Register contains an impressive array of highly detailed engravings, many covering the full 11 x 17 page or even double-page spreads, depicting the buildings, exhibits, and events of the Exposition. Those who were not among the fair’s 10 million visitors could experience it through the pictures and descriptions in this book.

The Exposition was, of course, timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But more than that, it was intended to show just how far the United States had come in its relatively short life. Exhibits of raw materials and agricultural products demonstrated the natural bounty of the United States, while displays of machinery and manufactured goods showed the incredible progress of American science and technology. 

Eureka Grain Cleaning Machinery

E.J. Larrabee & Co., Manufacturer of Biscuits and Crackers

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Heinz ketchup, the Remington typewriter, and Fleischmann's yeast were among the many consumer products first exhibited to the public at the Centennial Exposition. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the fair, and of American progress, was the great Corliss Engine, a massive two-cylinder steam engine that powered the exhibits in Machinery Hall.

President Ulysses S. Grant and the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II,
started the Corliss Engine as part of the opening ceremonies.

There were also a number of exhibits that explicitly compared the America of 1776 with the America of 1876 in order to emphasize the theme of progress. For example, an exhibit of sewing machines in Machinery Hall also contained two “life-size wax figures, representing the different styles of dress work in 1776 and 1876, showing such a marked contrast that they were much admired and excited considerable amusement.” Visitors could also see the Centennial Brewery exhibit, which included a model of a “brewery of 100 years ago, when all the labor was done by hand under a shed, the roof rudely thatched with straw.” This was contrasted with “a neat model of the modern brewery,” showing “all the machinery in use at the present day.”

But perhaps the most popular, and most often remarked-upon, exhibit of this type was the New England Kitchen. The Historical Register described it thus:


“Near the summit of the hill, on the southern side of this valley, and snugly nestled among the tall trees which are now in the freshness of renewed life, is a quaint structure of that style of architecture which characterized the backwoodsman’s cot in Vermont or Connecticut one hundred years ago. It is called the New England Log Cabin. In connection with it is a building of familiar architecture, and called the New England Modern Kitchen. Taken together, they are designed to exhibit a comparison between the manner of carrying on culinary operations and attending table a century ago, and that of doing the same things at present in the Eastern States. A combination of quaint architecture, antiquated furniture, and the epochal costumes of the attendants, gives one a pleasing view of life in New England a century ago.”

Exterior of the New England Log Cabin
Inside the cabin, the exhibit’s organizer, Emma Southwick, had arranged “ancient articles,” interesting to visitors because of their age or connection to historical figures. These included the cradle supposedly used by Peregrine White, who was born aboard the Mayflower in 1620; John Alden’s writing desk, another Mayflower passenger; a chair owned by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock; a silver teapot used by the Marquis de Lafayette; and a sword used by Captain Nathan Barrett at the battle of Concord in 1775. These pieces were joined by a number of other anonymous pieces of tableware and furniture “said to be” anywhere between 100 and 400 years old.

Exhibit of "Washington Relics" in the United States Building


As a number of historians of the colonial revival have noted, for most of the 19th century, early American objects were considered worthy of preservation and display because they were “relics” of an earlier time, and because they had direct connections to important people or events. These objects were not antiques with aesthetic value in the way we might think of them today. Exhibitors like Emma Southwick were not particularly concerned with establishing the exact provenance or age of their collections—if something looked like it came from great-grandmother's time, that was good enough for most people.





Though the Centennial Exposition as a whole was designed to play up the theme of progress, the historical exhibits ultimately had the effect of raising interest in and appreciation for America’s colonial past. Over the next decades, Americans would become increasingly enthusiastic about collecting and preserving colonial furniture, ceramics, textiles, and decorative arts, along with houses and even entire towns. They would also come to better understand the historical context of these items as well as to appreciate them as art objects and as examples of a distinctly American cultural tradition that could compare with the best of European design.

As the frontispiece for the Historical Register illustrates, the Centennial Exposition was a way for Americans to show the rest of the world that they were products of a venerable past and that they had a boundless future to look forward to.

You can browse a digital copy of the book here: Frank Leslie's Historical Register











Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

In the early 20th century, when collectors of antiques, curators of museum exhibits, and directors of pageants needed information about colonial American life, they frequently turned to the works of Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911). Earle began her writing career in 1891 with the publication of The Sabbath in Puritan New England, and over the next twelve years she would produce sixteen more books on the life, manners, customs, and material culture of colonial America, including Colonial Dames and Goodwives (1895), Home Life in Colonial Days (1898), Old Time Gardens (1901), and Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 (1903).


Alice's copy of China Collecting in America
 In our library here at the Alice, we have a copy of Earle’s China Collecting in America, originally published in 1892. Alice Miner’s copy is the 1924 edition, acquired just as she was opening her own collection of china to the public. It seems quite likely that she also consulted Earle’s other books as she was making purchases and deciding how to arrange the rooms of the museum. Historian Susan Reynolds Williams’s new book, Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, provides us with some very interesting insights into what was surely a significant influence on Alice Miner’s ideas about the colonial era.

Earle’s books were carefully researched and thoroughly documented, but because she wrote for a popular audience, she was dismissed by some academic historians as a writer of mere “pots-and-pans history.” It was not until the 1980s, with the development of women’s history and material culture studies, that Earle came to be appreciated as a pioneer in both of these areas. However, very little has been written about her, in part because she left behind no personal papers and hardly any other biographical material. Williams thus had to piece together Earle’s life and career from a variety of other sources—genealogical research, scattered correspondence in various archives, conversations with descendants, and Earle’s own published works.

Alice Morse in 1873, just before
her marriage to Henry Earle
Alice Morse was born in 1851 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edwin and Abigail Clary Morse. Alice had a comfortable, middle-class childhood which included an excellent education and time at a fashionable finishing school in Boston. In 1874, she married Henry Earle, a stockbroker, and moved to Brooklyn Heights, where she would live for the rest of her life. Alice devoted herself to the traditional concerns of middle-class women—home, husband, children (the Earles had four), as well as the many social, literary, and historical organizations that flourished in late-19th century Brooklyn. She began publishing her historical writing in 1890, and very quickly became both a popular author and a respected authority on the colonial era.


Earle frequently photographed her children in gardens and
historically-inspired settings 
Earle saw herself as a representative of white, middle-class American culture, and specifically that of families with roots in rural New England of the 17th and 18th centuries. In a time of rapid urbanization, technological change, and large-scale immigration, Earle looked to the past as a source of timeless values. While she rejected the harsh Calvinist doctrines of Puritan religion, she felt that Puritan attitudes toward home, family, duty, and industry were worthy of emulation. Earle hoped that by introducing her readers to the material world of colonial America, they could recreate something like the environment in which those values had originally flourished.


Earle preferred to use photographs to illustrate her books whenever possible,
believing they were more accurate than drawings. This one is from Stagecoach and Tavern Days, 1900.

As Williams notes, Earle felt some ambivalence about her role as both wife and mother and professional writer. She took her mothering duties very seriously but also felt constrained by middle-class gender norms at times; she felt that women had a duty to improve themselves and their communities but never publicly aligned herself with any of the groups advocating for radical social change (we don’t even know if she supported women’s suffrage). Similarly, while her books celebrated women’s traditional domestic role in the colonial era, they also made it quite clear that women’s work was absolutely central to the social and economic fabric of pre-industrial America.


Earle hoped that this book cover, designed using the
blue-and-buff color scheme of the Colonial Dames of
America, would appeal to members of that organization.
Earle's writing blended conservative and progressive ideology, suggesting that it was possible to embrace the benefits of progress while striving to improve the present by looking to the past. Like many of her contemporaries in the Progressive movement, she believed firmly in the ability of furnishings, houses, and gardens to influence behavior. Earle did not question the power of white, middle-class, native-born Americans to set cultural standards, and she assumed that her primary audience would be people like herself. But she also believed that these standards could be met by anyone willing embrace them, regardless of class or ethnic background. Not everyone had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, but anyone could own (or at least appreciate) a Staffordshire plate, a Queen Anne chest, or a pewter porringer.

All of Alice Morse Earle's books are in the public domain, and can be found in digital libraries such as Google Books and the Internet Archive.




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Big Books, Little Books

Alice Miner collected books of all shapes and sizes, but in our current exhibit in the Weaving Room, we're focusing on some of the biggest and the smallest books in the museum! Some are so big I can almost hide behind them...




...while others easily fit in the palm of my hand.




Old Wedgwood, by Frederick Rathbone (1898), just might be the largest book in the collection. It's 20 inches high, almost 15 inches wide, and a solid 2 inches thick! Rathbone was the foremost expert on Wedgwood china at the turn of the century, and the book is a comprehensive biographical and historical account of the company and its founder. But the highlight of the book is the 67 full-page colored engravings of beautiful 18th-century Wedgwood pieces--vases, plaques, coffee pots, urns, cameos, and statues.

Plate VIII: Three déjeûner pieces (1790s)

Plate XII: Vase in grey-blue jasper, with reliefs of the Muses, etc. (1782)

This particular copy of Old Wedgwood is signed by Frederick Rathbone and was given by him to Alice's friend Emma Hodge and her sister, Jene Bell.

These next two books, at 4 by 3 inches, are pretty wee compared to Ol' Wedgwood (but still not the smallest!). 

William B. Tappan, Poems of the Heart (1845)

Rev. William Bingham Tappan was (in the words of one of his contemporaries) “the most industrious and voluminous of our religious poets.” Tappan (1794-1849) was the Superintendent of the American Sunday School Union; most of his verses are religious in nature and many concern the work of missionaries (“The Missionary’s Grave in the Desert”) and the temperance movement (“Song of the Three Hundred Thousand Drunkards in the United States”). He was also a prolific writer of hymns.


A Lady, Teachers' Offering;
or Interesting Stories for School Children
(1854)










Children’s literature as we know it today began to emerge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. New ideas about the innocence of childhood along with new educational theories led to a burgeoning marketplace of entertaining and instructive books aimed at children. Many of these books were sternly moralistic; in one of the tales in Teachers’ Offering, a young boy is “deprived of the use of his feet” as punishment for carelessness. Children would have to wait until the later 19th century for more humorous and imaginative stories of fantasy and adventure.





These three books (3 1/4" by 2 1/4") are 
all the work of John Stowell Adams (1823-1893), a writer of inspirational short stories and editor of numerous poetry anthologies. In each, Adams chose verses to suit the theme of the book. Floral Wreath (1851) concerns the “language of flowers”; The Crystal Gem (1853) celebrates the many forms and beauties of water; and The Seasons (1853) contains poems suitable for spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Little books like these were very popular in the mid-19th century as gifts or as tokens of affection.






Hardly bigger than a dew-drop!
And finally we have our very smallest book, Dew-Drops. At just 2 inches high and 1 1/2 inches wide, this miniature volume contains a short Biblical quotation for each day of the year. Its publisher, the American Tract Society, was founded in 1825 to produce and distribute evangelical Christian literature. Small books like this one could easily be carried in a purse or pocket, and consulted frequently.

These books, along with many other treasures large and small, are on view at the Alice Tuesdays through Saturdays.