Friday, April 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

Interpretive panel about Pliny Moore’s home in Champlain.




Friday, March 27, 2015

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Sources:

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

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

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

Colonial Williamsburg Gardens

F. S. Lincoln, “James Galt House, Exterior From Left,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015, https://rocklib.omeka.net/items/show/320

F. S. Lincoln., “Governor's Palace Garden,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015, https://rocklib.omeka.net/items/show/589

Friday, March 13, 2015

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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





Friday, March 6, 2015

The Makers of the American Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, February 19, 2015

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

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


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


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

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

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


Early 19th-century foot stove

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



Friday, February 13, 2015

Will You Be My Valentine?

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

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

Postcard sent to
Mrs. George W. Clark,
1905
The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love may have its origin in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (1382), in which he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan eury bryd comyth there to chese his make”—that is, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” However, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting flowers and offering confectionery as well as sending hand written greeting cards. 

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


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
















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

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













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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Testing the Waters: The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909

The story of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in 1924, really begins with the museum’s Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909. The first exhibit of American furniture at an art museum, the Hudson-Fulton served as a way to “test the waters” to find out if there was an audience for American decorative arts. At the time, there were still many people who doubted the artistic value of American things and did not consider them worthy of being in museums. 


Portrait of Robert W. de Forest from
the collection of the Metropolitan Museum
But a group of progressive museum administrators who had come to the Met in the early 1900s believed that exhibiting American decorative arts would help open the museum to a broader audience. People who were not regular museum-goers might be intimidated by their lack of knowledge about fine art—painting and sculpture—but ordinary household things were potentially more accessible. Museum administrators also hoped that decorative arts displays would help teach good design and workmanship to visitors, who would use that knowledge to beautify their own homes and communities. 

The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum was due largely to the work of two administrators, trustee Robert de Forest and his assistant, Henry Watson Kent. They planned the exhibit to correspond with events that were happening all over New York to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the Hudson River as well as the (slightly belated) centennial of the launch of Robert Fulton’s first steamboat in 1807. De Forest and Kent hoped to capitalize on the excitement generated by the celebration, as well as a planned exhibit of Dutch master paintings at the Met, to draw visitors to the American decorative arts display.


Promotional brochure produced by the
New York Central Railroad
Because the Met had no permanent collection of American objects, everything in the exhibition had to be borrowed from private collectors. The task of finding suitable objects fell almost entirely to Henry Watson Kent. Over the course of his career, first at the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut, and then at the Grolier Club in New York, Kent had made many personal connections with collectors all over the United States. He was able to recruit R. T. H. Halsey and Luke Vincent Lockwood, two well-known experts on American furniture, to serve as advisory members of the exhibition committee.

Most of the seventeenth-century pieces on display were owned by a single collector, H. Eugene Bolles, a somewhat eccentric Bostonian lawyer who began collecting American antiques long before it became fashionable to do so. His cousin, George Palmer, lent many pieces from his collection of eighteenth-century furniture, while R. T. H. Halsey lent items from his collection of furniture made by Duncan Phyfe in the early nineteenth century. Other collectors lent portraits, silver, ceramics, and pewter, in addition to furniture.


Late-17th century chest with drawers
from the H. Eugene Bolles collection
The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was a wild success, setting a record for attendance that would stand until the opening of the American Wing. While art critics had focused their attention on the exhibit of Dutch painting, visitors flocked to the furniture galleries. De Forest and Kent were vindicated in their belief that Americans would accept decorative arts as museum pieces. Soon after the exhibit ended, the Met acquired the Bolles collection for its permanent collection (philanthropist Margaret Olivia Sage purchased it, then donated it to the museum), intending for it to become the nucleus of a future American Wing.

However, the exhibition also made museum curators realize that some changes needed to be made to the way the items were displayed. At the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, the furniture pieces were lined up in chronological order along the walls of the galleries. This method of organization was in accordance with accepted curatorial practice, but was thought by some observers to be a bit dull. Moreover, the relatively small scale of the pieces meant that they looked inconspicuous and out of place in the soaring Beaux-Arts galleries of the Met.


View of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition. Note architectural wall fragment at far right.
Creating a series of period rooms seemed to be the perfect solution. The smaller scale of the rooms would complement the furniture as well as provide the broader context for the history of American decorative arts. Creating home-like settings would allow visitors to enter imaginatively into the scenes being depicted and, it was hoped, encourage them to think about the ways they could apply ideas from the exhibits to their own homes.

Over the next fifteen years, Robert de Forest and Henry Kent, along with curator R. T. H. Halsey, would work to build the Met’s collection of American decorative arts and to create a proper setting for their display. By the time the American Wing opened in 1924, much had changed in the world of art and antiques—and the colonial revival was about to become more popular than ever.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“The Illusion of Daily Occupancy”: Period Rooms and the Colonial Revival

Period rooms are so much a part of our modern museum landscape that it’s hard to imagine that they have only been found in the United States for a little over a hundred years. The first American period rooms were created by antiquarian George Francis Dow for the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1907. It’s no coincidence that the three rooms—a kitchen of 1750 and parlor and bedroom of 1800—represented New England homes of the colonial era. The development of museum period rooms and the colonial revival were very closely related trends.

Period rooms first appeared in Europe. Artur Hazelius founded the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm in 1873. Hazelius set up vignettes or tableaux similar to those found in wax museums, using mannequins to display the costumes and furnishings of the various geographical regions of Sweden. In 1891, Hazelius opened the first open-air, “living history” museum, called Skansen, which incorporated entire buildings occupied by families who demonstrated their traditional crafts and trades to visitors. Like American proponents of the Colonial Revival, Hazelius was worried that rural, pre-industrial skills and values were being lost and needed to be preserved in a special setting.


Organ grinder and women in traditional dress at Skansen, 1905
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

By the 1890s, museums in Zurich, Nuremberg, and Munich also had period rooms. Previously, these museums, like most, arranged their collections by type or material. But in the 1880s, museum curators began to feel that visitors would have a better understanding of art and history if they organized objects by period and style, thus giving a total picture of the culture of a specific moment. While there were many people in the United States who were very interested in the “Skansen Idea” and period rooms, it took some time for the idea to be implemented in this country. In part, this was because many museums still resisted the idea of presenting early American furnishings and household objects as “art.”


New England Kitchen of 1750, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

George Francis Dow presented his period rooms at the Essex Institute as historical exhibits, rather than artistic ones: his aim was to give visitors the impression they were peeking into scenes of everyday life in colonial New England. In an article written for the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dow explained how he created this sense of reality:

“These rooms [the kitchen, bedroom, and parlor] were then furnished with every detail, however small, so as to show interiors in an old-time house of that locality. An effort was made to heighten the illusion of actual human occupancy by casually placing on the table before the fireplace in the parlor a Salem newspaper printed in the year 1800 and on it a pair of silver-bowed spectacles, as though just removed by the reader. Elsewhere was placed a work basket with a half-knitted stocking on the top of other work, the knitting needles in place; and in other ways the illusion of daily occupancy was created.”

Parlor of 1800, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

The period rooms were just the beginning for Dow; in 1910 the Institute acquired its first historic structure, the 17th-century John Ward house, and moved it to a lot behind the museum. Dow restored the building to what he believed was its original appearance, and, inspired by Skansen, had guides in colonial costume providing interpretation for visitors. Over the years, the museum purchased many more buildings, including a shoemaker’s shop and an elegant Federal mansion, which served as examples of the varied architectural styles found in New England before the Civil War.


Bedroom of 1800, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

Because Dow’s aim was to create an illusion of historical reality, he was happy to use reproductions in his period rooms and houses. Nor was he trying to recreate actual places; rather, his rooms were imaginative composites of “typical” rooms. This would not be the case in the period rooms established in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum in the 1920s and 1930s. Here, the goal was to bring together the finest pieces of decorative art and place them in worthy settings, generally by removing woodwork and other architectural elements from existing buildings and reinstalling them in the museums’ period rooms.

The opening the American Wing of the Metropolitan in 1924, the first permanent exhibition at an art museum of American furniture and decorative arts, marked an important turning point in the Colonial Revival. We’ll cover this key development in a future blog post.

The Essex Institute merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem in 1992 to become the Peabody Essex Museum. You can still visit their historic properties, including the John Ward House.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Every Christmas Card I Write...

Card from CCRS Grade 7A, 1923
The Alice contains many treasures, but if I had to pick a favorite, it just might be the greeting card collection. Assembled in nine enormous albums are the greeting cards that Alice and William Miner received between 1909 and 1925. There are Easter cards and Thanksgiving cards, but most of them are Christmas cards. This delightful collection gives us a window into the popular styles and themes of holiday cards in the early twentieth century. In addition, there is an album dedicated to the handmade cards and letters that the Miners received from students at Chazy Central Rural School in the 1920s. The museum archives also holds a number of examples of the elaborate Christmas cards that the Miners sent from Heart’s Delight Farm each year. The effort that Alice and William put into preserving these cards shows how much they valued these expressions of good wishes.


Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but we can trace their origins to holiday customs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Tradesmen sent new year’s greetings to their customers, and it was traditional to send holiday letters to family and friends at this time—by the 1830s it was possible to buy decorative stationery just for this purpose. Schoolboys made “Christmas pieces” on special paper printed with holiday borders to demonstrate their penmanship skills to their parents and visitors to their schools. Valentine’s Day cards also were common by the 1830s, and indeed many early Christmas cards simply reproduced the floral motifs of Valentine’s greetings.






The first Christmas card combined expressions of
holiday cheer with images of charitable giving.
Though it’s generally difficult to place a precise date on ephemeral holiday traditions, historians are fairly confident in saying that the first commercially produced Christmas card was made in London in 1843. In that year Henry Cole (who had played an important role in introducing the penny post to England in 1840) commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card, which was lithographically printed and then hand-colored by professional colorist William Mason. The cards (which were actually unfolded sheets of paper) sold for one shilling each—quite expensive by 1840s standards—but the idea quickly caught on.

Louis Prang (1824-1909)
The Christmas card tradition spread to the United States by the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that they became really popular. This was due almost entirely to the work of Louis Prang, “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Prang was born in Breslau, Silesia (now Poland) and learned the trade of printing and dyeing fabrics from his father, a textile manufacturer. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States and established a business in Boston, printing business cards, advertisements, and other ephemera. 

Prang returned to Europe in 1864 to study the newest techniques in printing, and came back to the U.S. prepared to introduce chromolithography. While lithographs were printed in black and white and had to be colored by hand (like Cole’s Christmas card), chromolithography produced a full-color image. This was a difficult and labor-intensive process, and Prang considered his chromolithographs to be true works of art. 


Elihu Vedder’s prize-winning card, 1881,
from the collection of the New-York
Historical Society
Prang produced his first Christmas cards in 1875, and they were an immediate success. Between 1880 and 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of up to $1000 to the first place winner. Esteemed artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge served as judges. Prang’s cards, with their meticulous printing techniques and aura of fine art, dominated the Christmas card market until the 1890s, when inexpensive postcards from Germany began flooding the American market. Prang got out of the card business and focused on producing art supplies and educational materials, but his designs set the standards for Christmas cards well into the 20th century.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s online exhibit, American History Through Christmas Cards, has a wonderful selection of 19th and 20th century cards that you can browse.

Information about Louis Prang comes from the New-York Historical Society Library’s blog.