Friday, October 24, 2014

“In the Brave Days of Old”: Wallace Nutting’s Colonial America

“In the Brave Days of Old”
In the Miner Room on the third floor of the Alice, there are two photographs that look like they could have been taken in the Museum. One shows a woman descending an elegant staircase, and the other a woman stirring a pot over an open fire. Both photos are the work of Wallace Nutting, the man who perhaps did more than any other individual to popularize the Colonial Revival. Nutting’s vision of “Old America,” transmitted through historic homes, reproduction furniture, and most of all, photography, shaped the way Americans in the early 20th century envisioned the colonial past.
“The Elaborate Dinner”

Wallace Nutting was born in 1861 in Rockbottom, Massachusetts and enrolled at Harvard in 1883. During the summers he worked in hotels at various popular resorts in New England—Campobello Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket—that he would later return to as a photographer. After graduating from Harvard, he went on to Hartford Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in pulpits around New England.

In the early 1900s, however, Nutting began to suffer from neurasthenia--a disease peculiar to the Victorian era, characterized by fatigue, anxiety, and weakness, and thought to be caused by the stresses and strains of modern urban life. He left the church for good in 1904, and he and his wife, Mariet, purchased a derelict farm in Southbury, Connecticut. Nutting had been a dedicated amateur photographer since his college days, and photography was in fact often recommended as therapy for neurasthenia, because it combined artistic pursuit with healthful outdoor activity. He now turned to photography as a means of supplementing his income.
One of the many versions of “Cherry Blossoms”

The subjects of Nutting’s photos were almost exclusively rural, and rarely showed any indications of modernity. Pastoral fields of cows, country lanes, blossoming trees, and old barns were some of his favorite subjects. These scenes of an unspecified but clearly pre-industrial era were enormously appealing to middle-class urban dwellers.

Between 1905 and 1912, Nutting (with Mariet’s assistance) perfected a system for producing high-quality colored photographs on a large scale. The photos were printed using the platinotype process and then tinted with watercolors, following a model, by a carefully-trained staff of young women. Nutting produced his first catalog in around 1910; it depicted over 500 photos and noted that many more were available. Prices ranged from $1.25 for the smallest pieces (5” x 7”) up to $20.00 for the largest (20” x 40”)—well within the reach of most middle-class consumers.
A typical Nutting colonial vignette

While the outdoor views made up the bulk of the catalog, it was Nutting’s colonial interiors that were the most popular. By 1911 he was offering about 200 different interior scenes, which accounted for about a quarter of his total picture sales. Mariet Nutting had first suggested staging scenes with models—usually the young women who worked as colorists—to create “period vignettes.” 

Though Nutting was producing his photos in the age of the “new woman,” the suffragette, and the flapper, his pictures showed women in decidedly traditional roles. Either they were shown engaged in genteel leisure activities—reading, writing letters, drinking tea—or in productive (but still genteel) work—spinning, sewing, cooking. In a time when gender roles were rapidly changing, Nutting’s pictures offered a reassuring vision of the past.

In order to make sure that the settings in his photographs were authentic, Nutting began to collect furniture, rugs, costumes, and other items that could be used as props. Then, to ensure that he always had suitable backgrounds, he began to purchase the historic properties which eventually would become the Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses. The five houses, purchased and restored between 1914 and 1916, included the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut; the Wentworth Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the Hazen Garrison House in Haverhill, Massachusetts; the Cutler-Bartlett House in Newburyport, Massachusetts; and the Ironmaster’s House in Saugus, Massachusetts. 

17th-century cupboard made by Wallace Nutting
As a financial investment, the houses never lived up to Nutting’s hopes, because their opening coincided with the first World War and the imposition of gasoline rationing, which severely curtailed tourism. But they did help solidify his reputation as an expert on historic architecture and furnishings. Nutting also started to manufacture his own line of reproduction furniture in 1917. He considered the colonial-inspired pieces produced by the big companies to be “humbug furniture,” while his own pieces were worthy of being called the “antiques of tomorrow.” Nutting’s furniture was authentic in appearance, though his workers did use modern construction techniques and machinery.

In addition to all his other ventures, Wallace Nutting was a prolific writer and lecturer. In the 1920s he began writing travel guides, the States Beautiful series, that took readers on virtual tours (illustrated with his own photographs, of course) of the states of the eastern seaboard. He also bolstered his reputation as a furniture expert with three books on the history of American furniture: American Windsors (1917), Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1924), and Furniture Treasury (3 volumes; 1928 and 1933). Alice owned all of these books on furniture.

Photo by Wallace Nutting taken in the parlor of the Webb House.
Note that the murals depict two of Nutting’s other properties,
the Hazen Garrison House and the Saugus Iron Works.
Although Nutting was convinced of the superiority of the past, he nonetheless was a very modern businessman. Nutting employed an advertising agency beginning in the early 1920s, which produced print campaigns for magazines like Antiques. These advertisements were carefully targeted at middle-class customerspeople who did not have their own family heirlooms that “came over on the Mayflower” but liked to think of themselves as people who should have such fine items. All of his ventures were carefully planned to work together: the historic homes provided settings for his photographs; the books educated consumers about the furniture; and the photographs generated interest in the historic properties and the furniture. 

Above all else, Wallace Nutting saw himself as an educator, one with a very specific moral lesson to impart about the values of rural, pre-industrial America. That this idea owed as much to his imagination as it did to reality was unimportant. Nutting’s vision, combined with shrewd business tactics, tapped into a vein of nostalgia about the past and made him the foremost popularizer of the Colonial Revival in the early 20th century.


Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta, Re-Creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).

Joyce P. Barendsen, “Wallace Nutting, an American Tastemaker: The Pictures and Beyond,” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 2/3 (July 1, 1983): 187–212.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Colonial Revival Heads West

In the years between the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, interest in and knowledge about early America had grown enormously. In fact, there were more examples of the Colonial Revival on display at the Columbian Exposition than had ever been brought together anywhere before. Moreover, this was the first time that the Colonial Revival had been exhibited extensively outside the eastern seaboard, meaning that for many native midwesterners, as well as foreign immigrants, this was their first exposure to the style.

Pennsylvania State Building
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Colonial Revival were the state buildings. Of the 39 states represented at the Fair, 21 chose to erect colonial-style buildings. Most were loose adaptations of local colonial architecture, while four states chose to adapt or replicate historic structures. Pennsylvania based its building on Independence Hall, Massachusetts on John Hancock's house, New Jersey on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, and Virginia on Mount Vernon. 

In explaining the reasons behind Massachusetts’s choice of architectural style, the Board of Managers described its “air of aristocratic distinction and reserve and dignity” while still retaining “a homelike and comfortable appearance.” States wanted their buildings to impress visitors while also presenting a welcoming exterior to fairgoers. Colonial styles, because of their associations with a historic and patriotic period in America’s past, seemed especially appropriate for official buildings.

Massachusetts State Building

Except for Virginia’s building (the only one that was a true replica inside and out), none of the state buildings attempted to recreate an accurate colonial interior. The state buildings had to serve a variety of functions, and needed office space, meeting and reception rooms, and restrooms which could not be accommodated in a colonial floor plan. They did, however, include colonial furniture (some antique, but mostly reproduction), woodwork, and wall and window treatments.

Essex Institute exhibit
Most state buildings also housed exhibits of colonial artifacts, including furniture, textiles, ceramics, and portraits. For example, the Essex Institute of Salem contributed an exhibit for the Massachusetts State Building that included 41 pieces of furniture from the 16th through the early 19th centuries, pictures “showing well-known houses in Salem and representative of the various styles of architecture in use in Colonial and pre-Revolutionary times,” and 10 display cases crammed full of coins and paper currency, almanacs, pamphlets, newspapers, needlework, manuscripts (sermons, letters, account books), medals, snuffboxes, shoe buckles, and more. 

“Mother Southwick” and her assistants
On the Midway--the Fair’s entertainment district--visitors would find that Emma Southwick Brinton, proprietor of the New England Kitchen at the Philadelphia Centennial, had reproduced her popular restaurant and museum. “Ye Olde Tyme” kitchen still served traditional New England fare such as pork and beans, puddings, pumpkin pie, doughnuts, and flapjacks with molasses. While the exhibit didn’t make quite as much of a splash in Chicago as it had in Philadelphia--it had more colonial competition now--Brinton and her assistants were chosen to represent the United States in a souvenir photographic portfolio of “Midway Types.”

“The Ripe Fruit of Freedom”
Colonial-themed entertainment also included impresario Imre Kiralfy’s Grand Historical Spectacle, “America,” which “presented in music, dance, costume and scenery the story of the nation.” Then there were quirkier manifestations of the Colonial Revival, such as the three different replicas of the Liberty Bell--one made of wheat, oats, and barley; one made of citrus fruits; and one made of melted-down colonial relics. 

Virgina’s Mount Vernon
One of the most interesting aspects of the state buildings is the extent to which women were responsible for coordinating the exhibits. In many cases, the state simply turned the whole project over to a State Board of Lady Managers and left it to them to figure out how to get the job done. For example, the Virginia legislature appropriated only $25,000 for all aspects of the state’s participation in the Fair. The Virginia Board of World’s Fair Managers then appointed a special women's committee, charging them with the “patriotic duty” of raising funds to duplicate Mount Vernon in Chicago--which they did, very successfully. For the most part, the women on these boards had no formal experience in handling historical materials, but they nonetheless managed to persuade owners to lend items for exhibition and then took full responsibility for the safe packaging, shipping, display, and then return of every item on exhibit. The experience that the “lady managers” acquired at the Fair would later be put to use in museums and historical societies across the country.

The enormous size and location of the Columbian Exposition, and its massive attendance, were significant factors in the popularization of the Colonial Revival. The Fair received over 20 million visitors--more than twice as many as had visited the Centennial. Many of them were people who had had little or no exposure to the historical sites of the original thirteen colonies, and the novelty of the style attracted much attention. The wide variety of regional colonial architectural styles and colonial artifacts, gathered together in the heart of the midwest, helped to solidify the Colonial as the country’s national style. 

It seems quite likely that the World’s Fair was one of Alice Trainer’s first encounters with the Colonial Revival. Though it would be another ten years before she became a collector, the boom in research and publications about the colonial era that was triggered by the Fair would provide valuable resources when she began to gather items for her Colonial Collection.

The photos of the state buildings and the Liberty Bell are taken from the Field Museum Library’s flickr album.

The photo of the Essex Institute exhibit comes from the Report of the Massachusetts Board of World's Fair Managers.

The photo of Emma Southwick Brinton and her assistants is from the Smithsonian’s collection, and is reproduced in The Colonial Revival in America.

Much of the information in this piece is drawn from Susan Prendergast Schoelwer, “Curious Relics and Quaint Scenes: The Colonial Revival at Chicago’s Great Fair,” an essay in The Colonial Revival in America. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Letters from Omaha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Alice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Alice, and a very happy birthday!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Among Friends: An Evening with Local Author Stephen Woodruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Honoring the Heroes of 1814: Commemorative Medals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka Grain Cleaning Machinery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit of "Washington Relics" in the United States Building

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

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

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

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