Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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

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


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


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


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

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

Sources:

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

Fergus Read, “Trench Art,” Imperial War Museums




Monday, April 10, 2017

The American Red Cross in the First World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sources:

“World War I and the American Red Cross,” redcross.org

“The American Red Cross,” wwionline.org

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


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Helen C. Gunsaulus: Collector and Curator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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


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Friday, March 10, 2017

A Partner in Collecting: Emma B. Hodge

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

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


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


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

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

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

Sources:

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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


Monday, February 13, 2017

William Lee and George Washington


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


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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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


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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Talking About the Things That Aren't There

February is Black History Month, which means that it’s the time of year when museums around the United States take the opportunity to highlight objects in their collections that tell the story of black Americans. And every year at this time I think about how the Alice can mark the occasion when the collection doesn't seem to include much of relevance to African-American history. In tackling this question, it’s important to think about why the Alice’s collection looks the way it does, and use that knowledge to shape a more inclusive interpretation.


One of the American Wing’s period rooms,
depicting the home of a wealthy Philadelphian.
The Alice is very much the product of an approach to collecting that was typical in the early 20th century. Collecting antiques was largely the hobby of well-to-do Americans of northern European descent, and for the most part they were interested in acquiring the sort of items that would have been owned by their ancestors or people like them. They wanted to collect items that were examples of fine craftsmanship, and ideally objects that had some connection to people who had played an important role in the founding of the nation. This was also true of the museum collections of early American decorative arts that were being founded during this period, such as the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Wing’s curator, R. T. H. Halsey, wrote in 1925 that the period rooms were “representative of the homes of men—parsons, planters, mariners, merchants, and tradesmen—by whose efforts and sacrifices the Republic was made possible.”

Historians, curators, and collectors of the early 20th century generally had a fairly limited view of whose “efforts and sacrifices” were worth remembering. Working people and the poor rarely played a part in their accounts of the past. The existence of slavery was acknowledged but its significance was minimized. In some cases, authors felt that slavery was an embarrassing aberration that was best glossed over, while others upheld the view that it had been a benign and paternalistic institution. And it must be said that many white Americans simply didn’t think that black Americans had contributed much to the nation, nor did they think they really belonged as members of the national community. 


Dr. Carter G. Woodson
1875-1950
However, during this same period, African-American scholars and activists were working to educate the public about black history. They wanted black Americans to realize that they had a history, and that history was not wholly defined by the experience of slavery. They hoped to instill racial pride by emphasizing the economic, political, military, and cultural contributions of African-Americans. At the same time, they hoped that these messages would reach white Americans and help to counteract assumptions about black inferiority. They wanted everyone to understand that black Americans had a distinct history, but one that was also inseparable from US history.

One of the most important individuals in this movement—and the reason why we have Black History Month today—was Carter G. Woodson. Woodson was born in Virginia in 1875, the son of former slaves. Largely self-educated as a young man, he eventually completed a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912, becoming only the second African-American to earn a doctorate. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and became the editor of the Journal of Negro History. Woodson believed that prejudice was “the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” Education, then, would be key to bringing about social change.


Negro History Week Bulletin,
1946, with message from
President Truman
To this end, Woodson and the ASNLH established Negro History Week in 1926. They chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14), two days that had long been commemorated in the African-American community. Woodson and the Association set a theme for the celebration each year, and distributed materials: “pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people.” Originally the object of Negro History Week was to encourage the teaching of black history in public schools, but it soon spread further. The growing black middle class was particularly receptive to Woodson’s ideas, and black history clubs were formed in many communities.

By the 1940s, Negro History Week had expanded to the entire month of February in some localities, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s encouraged the trend in that direction. The official shift from Negro History Week to Black History Month came in 1976, as it was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as part of the Bicentennial commemoration.

Carter Woodson hoped that Negro History Week would eventually die out because it would become commonplace to teach black history as an integral part of US history. That hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly is true that Americans today are more aware of the importance of black history (witness the overwhelming response to the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture). And the more I thought about it, the more  I realized that since black history is so intertwined with broader US history, it shouldn’t really be that difficult to find it at the Alice—we just might have to look a little bit harder to find it. Over the next month, I’ll be telling some of these stories.

Sources:

“Origins of Black History Month,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Lamb’s Wool and Smoking Bishop: Christmas Punch Traditions

No “Christmas Gambols” would be complete
without a bowl of punch (1783)
In my last post I talked about how Christmas traditions in Britain and North America changed from the 18th to the 19th century, as the holiday became more domestic and child-centric. One thing that remained constant, however, was the place of punch in Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Closely related to the tradition of wassail (a mulled cider or ale also known as lamb’s wool) punch obtained an almost iconic status in the 19th century through the writings of Charles Dickens.

Punch itself has its origins in India, and its first mention in European historical sources comes in a letter from one English East India merchant to another, written in 1632. From India it spread, via merchants and sailors, to the Caribbean, and on to the eastern seaboard of America and to Europe. There is some speculation that the word “punch” derives from the Hindi word panch, meaning five, for the five ingredients, but many punches have more or fewer ingredients.

Majolica punch bowl by George Jones, ca. 1875
Mr. Punch supports an orange-rind bowl
In any case, by the early 18th century, punch had settled into a consistent formula: one measure of something acid (usually citrus juice), two of something sweet (sugar), three of something strong (brandy, rum, sometimes wine), and four of something weak (water, tea, milk). In the 19th century, punch recipes began to change again. As punch historian Elizabeth Gabay notes, “The fixed proportions were no longer always followed; many different fruits, liqueurs, wines, and even beer were added and generally punches became less acidic and more sweet and rich. At the same time, the nature of Christmas and New Year celebrations changed, becoming more dramatic and ritualised. The same punch every year became an essential part of the festivity.” Special punch bowls and cups, intended to be used just for the holidays, also became common.


Scrooge and Bob Cratchit
Illustration by John Leech (1843)
Charles Dickens’s descriptions of yuletide celebrations, particularly Christmas Carol (1843), helped to solidify punch’s status as central to the holiday. Scrooge sees a vision of an ideal Christmas, which includes “seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” At the end of the story, a reformed Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” Smoking bishop was made with port and a roasted orange; Dickens himself seemed to prefer a rum punch:

“To make three pints, take a strong, common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) and in it place the finely sliced rinds of three lemons, a double-handful of sugar lumps, a pint of dark rum and a large wine glass of brandy. Set alight and allow to burn for three or four minutes (extinguish by covering with a lid). Add the juice of three lemons and a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, leave for five minutes and stir again. Taste and sweeten if necessary, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour into an ovenproof jug or bowl and cover with a leather cloth. Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon rind before serving.”

In the American colonies, punch developed in its own way, eventually producing that classic Christmas drink, eggnog. Egg punch was common in Britain, but the Americans made it richer and more custard-like. One observer in 1815 noted that in “the South it is almost indispensible at Christmas time, and at the North it is a favourite at all seasons.” George Washington’s recipe for eggnog included rye whiskey, Jamaican rum, sherry, eggs, sugar, cream, and milk. Eggs and milk were harder to come by in the winter, and more expensive, so eggnog was a true holiday treat.

Pressed glass miniature punch bowl and cups,
probably late 19th century
There are a number of large bowls in Alice’s ceramics collection that look like they could hold a fine batch of punch, but none that are specifically identified as such. There is, however, a very small punch bowl, with six matching thimble-sized cups. This miniature set would have been a salesman’s sample, carried by a traveling sales representative of the manufacturer to display to potential retailers. Perhaps it was passed on to a lucky child after the model was discontinued, to be the star of a dolls’ Christmas party!


This post is largely drawn from the site A History of the World Through a Bowl of Punch, particularly the post “Celebrating Christmas and New Year with Punch.” This blog holds a wealth of information about punch, including recipes!