Thursday, September 14, 2017

Making a New Life in Canada: The Saunders Siblings

Immigrants are welcomed by a woman
symbolizing Canada, 1880
In our last blog post, we looked at the life of the Saunders family in England and their arrival in Ontario. Beginning after the War of 1812, there was a significant wave of immigration from Britain and Ireland to Canada, mainly to Ontario. Most of the Saunders brothers and sisters married men and women like themselves, who had also come to Canada with their families as children or young adults. 

The desire to find suitable husbands for five daughters may have been one of the motivations behind the Saunders family’s emigration. By 1850, about one quarter of the female population in the United Kingdom between the ages of 20 and 45 was unmarried, and the 1851 census showed that women outnumbered men by as many as one million. The problem of the so-called “surplus woman” was one that would occupy commentators in Britain for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th. But in many parts of Canada, there were more men than women, particularly in newly-settled areas with large immigrant populations.

If seeing their daughters married was indeed one of their goals, James and Jane Saunders were very successful. Shortly after their arrival, daughter Emma (1827-1917) married William Skinner, a family friend from Crediton who had come over to Canada on the same ship. William Skinner, like James Saunders, was a shoemaker, and he established a successful business in London. Emma and William had five children, one of whom, Lillian, was sadly a victim of the notorious 1881 Victoria disaster, in which an overloaded steamboat capsized, killing 182 passengers.

Illustrated title page from Louisa’s
autograph book
The next daughter, Louisa (1829-1870), also married soon after her arrival in Canada. How she met Bernard Trainer, or indeed anything about his early life, remains a mystery. They were married in 1850 and lived in London until around 1855, at which time they moved to Goderich, where Bernard Trainer joined the Huron County constabulary. Louisa and Bernard had twelve children (Alice was number seven) before Louisa died in childbirth in 1870. Unfortunately, we have little personal information about Alice’s mother, and no photographs, but an autograph book in the museum’s archives which she assembled before leaving Crediton suggests that she was a young lady of refined tastes and genteel aspirations.

Ann (1832-1864) seems also to have married in the early 1850s, as did brother Stephen (1824-1889), though I haven’t been able to find out much information about either of them or their spouses. Next in line was Bertha (b. 1834), who married Robert Lynch Patton in 1856 and moved with him to Montreal. The officiant at this wedding was Rev. J. H. Robinson, and a year later William Saunders (1836-1914) married Robinson’s daughter Sarah Agnes. As I noted in my previous post, William was apprenticed to a local druggist and soon opened his own pharmacy. His interest in pharmaceutical plants, horticulture, and entomology led to his appointment as director of Canada’s Experimental Farm system in 1886. William and Sarah’s five sons also went on to have notable careers in science, music, and literature—they’ll get a blog post of their own. The youngest daughter, Mary (1839-1907), was married in 1870 to William Gurd, a gunsmith whose family immigrated from Ireland in the 1840s, and they had three children.
Mary Saunders Gurd

All in all, the Saunders siblings seem to have led mostly ordinary, middle-class lives. No doubt the parents were happy to see their daughters married to respectable and prosperous men, and two of their sons established in their careers, with William ultimately achieving great success and a national reputation. Edwin (1822-1895), the oldest son, chose to follow his own path, however. Soon after the family arrived in Canada, he moved to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, where he built a small log cabin and lived by hunting, fishing, and gardening. His nephew William Saunders kept a diary of a family visit to Manitoulin in 1880, during which Uncle Ned helped the five brothers indulge their interests in fishing, hunting wildlife specimens, and sailing. Although Uncle William Skinner is said to have claimed Ned “never did any work,” residents of Manitoulin remembered him as an important part of their small community.

So, although Bernard and Louisa Trainer had both died by the time Alice was a teenager, she and her siblings still had an extensive network of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom lived nearby in London. They would continue to maintain these ties after they moved to the United States in the 1880s.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

From Crediton to London: The Saunders Family Arrives in Canada

Both of Alice Miner’s parents, Bernard Trainer and Louisa Saunders, were immigrants from the British Isles to Canada. Unfortunately, we have very little information about Bernard Trainer’s early life. The notice of his death that appeared in the Goderich Signal in September 1880 stated that he had lived in Goderich for about 25 years. He was believed to have been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, of Irish parents, and had come to London, Ontario “when quite young.” Without any more information, such as the names of his parents, it has proven very difficult to trace his history. 

The Crediton parish church, where James Saunders
and Jane Woollacott were baptized
The Saunders family is more abundantly represented in the records that are available to us. Louisa’s parents were James and Jane Woollacott Saunders, and they were both born in Crediton, Devon, England. James, the son of William and Eunice Saunders, was born in 1792; Jane was the daughter of William and Jane Woollacott, and she was born in 1795. They were married in August 1817, and their first child, Thirza, was born a year later. She was followed by eight more children: Edwin (1822), Stephen (1824), Emma (1827), Louisa (1829), Ann (1832), Bertha (1834), William (1836), and Mary (1839).

Early Methodist meeting
James Saunders was a shoemaker, and he also served as a Methodist lay minister. The Saunders family’s Wesleyan Methodism was a central part of their identity. Methodism was still a fairly new denomination in the early 19th century, but it was growing rapidly. Begun as an effort by Anglican clergymen John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770) to address what they saw as some of the shortcomings of the established church, it placed great emphasis on preaching, and members were encouraged to meet regularly in small groups for spiritual fellowship and guidance. John Wesley urged members to pursue personal holiness and a disciplined (or methodical) Christian life. He believed that individuals are free to accept or reject God’s grace, and that it is possible to attain perfection, or the overcoming of a will to sin, in this life. Eventually, Whitfield and Wesley divided over doctrinal issues, and the term “Wesleyan Methodist” was used to distinguish his followers from those of Whitfield, known as the Calvinistic Methodists.

Lay ministers such as James Saunders played an important role in Wesleyan Methodism, which originally did not have established houses of worship and relied upon traveling preachers and lay ministers to guide worship and manage the administration of the church. Methodism grew the fastest in those parts of Britain that were being most affected by the Industrial Revolution, and it was most popular among members of the working class and others on the fringes of 18th-century society. Wesleyan Methodism’s emphasis on simple living, self-discipline, and virtuous behavior would have appealed to working people with strivings toward respectability and middle-class status, like James and Jane Saunders.

Mint Lane Chapel, Exeter, ca. 1900
All nine of the Saunders children were baptized at the Methodist chapel in Mint Lane, Exeter, about seven miles from Crediton. The building of permanent chapels was a product of the period after around 1800, when membership numbers were on the rise. In 1798, there were only about 70 members of Wesleyan Methodist societies in Exeter; by 1815, there were almost 300. In 1808, Exeter had become the center of a circuit, or a group of local churches under the care of a minister who traveled among them, and in 1810 the Trustees decided to begin building a new meeting house that would accommodate 700 people. The first services were held at the Mint Lane chapel in 1813.

We don’t know what prompted James and Jane Saunders to leave England in 1849, but they may have been encouraged to do so by their son Stephen, who had already gone to Canada. James, Jane, and seven of their children (Thirza was married by this time, and stayed in England) boarded the sailing vessel Margaret in Torquay in the spring of 1849Like many immigrants, the Saunders family traveled with friends from home, William and Sarah Woodley Skinner and their children. The Margaret made regular trips between Torquay and Québec, carrying emigrants west and returning with loads of timber. This part of the journey took six weeks. After traveling past the falls of the St. Lawrence, they then boarded another boat which would take them up the river to Hamilton, Ontario. There they met up with a Mr. Pickard, who drove them the last 80 miles to London—another two days of travel. The Saunders family arrived in London in late May, 1849.

Photograph of James and Jane
Saunders, taken after their arrival
in London
There the Saunders family would have found an established Wesleyan Methodist community and perhaps reunited with other people they knew from England. Certainly they seem to have settled into their new home very quickly. Later that same year, daughter Emma married the Skinners’ eldest son, William, and in 1850 Louisa married Bernard Trainer. William Saunders became an apprentice to druggist John Salter, and in 1855 opened his own pharmacy, which would eventually lead him to a long and distinguished career in science. The other daughters, Ann, Bertha, and Mary, also married prominent London men, while Edwin, the oldest son, became something of a local legend as “the Hermit of Misery Bay.”

Jane Woollacott Saunders died before Alice was born, in 1862, but James Saunders lived until the age of 87. Although London and Goderich are some 70 miles apart, it would not have been impossible for the Trainer siblings to remain in contact with their Saunders relatives, and indeed there is evidence that they did. We will look at the next generation of the Saunders family—Alice’s mother and her siblings—in our next post.


Information about the Saunders family comes primarily from the birth, christening, and marriage records in the International Genealogical Index, available online at FamilySearch. The family was also recorded in the 1841 England Census (this is the earliest census available).

The account of the family’s journey from Crediton to London comes from Elsie M. Pomeroy, William Saunders and His Five Sons: The Story of the Marquis Wheat Family (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1956).

Information on Wesleyan Methodism comes from Allan BrocketNonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875 (Manchester University Press, 1962) and A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Volume 2 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Becoming Canadian, Becoming American

Catharine Parr Traill
As I recently noted on Facebook, we have been doing some research into cake recipes of the mid-19th century in preparation for Alice’s birthday party in September. One of the most interesting sources we found is a book called The Female Emigrant’s Guide by Catharine Parr Traill, first published in 1854. Traill’s book is similar in some ways to the domestic guides being published around the same time in Great Britain, such as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and in the United States, such as The American Woman’s Home by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But Traill’s book is unique in that it was written from a specifically Canadian perspective, and was intended as a guide for women who were emigrating from the British Isles to Upper Canada (later known as Canada West, and now the province of Ontario).

Catharine Parr Strickland was born in 1802 to a middle-class family in Suffolk, England. Her brother, Samuel, emigrated to Upper Canada in 1825, and in 1832, Catharine, her new husband Thomas Traill, her sister Susanna, and her brother-in-law John Moodie followed him there. The families settled on Rice Lake, north of present-day Peterborough. The Stricklands were a literary family, and Traill had already written a novel set in Canada while still living in England. Thus, when the Traill family was in need of money, it was natural that Catharine would turn to her experiences in Canada for material. Her first nonfiction work was The Backwoods of Canada, published in 1836, and based on the first few years of her life in Canada.

Illustration of a Canadian log house
The Backwoods of Canada
By the 1850s, the Traill family was living in much more settled conditions, and Catharine had many more years of experience to draw upon. Traill had two audiences in mind when writing The Female Emigrant’s Guide (or The Canadian Settler’s Guide, as it was called in later editions). One was women like herself, who came from genteel, middle-class backgrounds and who did not necessarily have the skills that they would need in the more remote regions of Canada—knitting, making candles and soap, baking bread (which might require making one’s own yeast as well). The other potential readers were women who came from more modest backgrounds and had limited resources, and who already had these basic household skills, but would need advice that was specific to Canada. These included how to grow and cook with corn, how to make maple sugar, and how to find and prepare local foodstuffs, such as “Indian rice” and wild berries.

Alice’s mother, Louisa Saunders, immigrated to Canada with her family in 1849. She was twenty years old, and thus was part of the group to whom Catharine Traill often directed particular advice. She urged “the daughters of the intending emigrant to acquire whatever useful arts they think likely to provide serviceable to them in their new country,” and cautioned them not to feel that it was unbecoming to a “lady” to engage in practical household tasks. Traill also reminded girls that one of their most important jobs was “cheering and upholding their mother in the trials that may await her.” 

Panorama of London, 1855
From the London Historic Maps Collection
The Saunders family—parents James and Jane, and eight of their nine children—settled in London, which was a rapidly growing city. In 1846, it had a population of about 3500 people, and boasted a theater, ten churches, and a weekly newspaper; by 1855 it had a population of 10,000 and was officially incorporated as a city. So they would not have experienced the kind of frontier or “backwoods” conditions that Traill described. Still, making the journey from England to what was then the western limits of Britain’s North American colony would have required some adjustment to new circumstances (including learning the difference between English and Canadian pumpkin pie!). 

Like many immigrants, the Saunders family traveled to Canada with friends from their home town. The Skinners were also from Crediton in Devon, and the two families would soon be united—William Skinner and Emma Saunders would marry shortly after their arrival in London. The families also would have been able to join a strong Wesleyan Methodist community. This support system undoubtedly helps to account for the relative rapidity with which members of the Saunders family were able to achieve positions of prominence in Canada.

In the 1880s, Alice and the rest of the Trainer siblings would themselves become immigrants, moving from Ontario to the United States. Given her own family history, it may seem surprising that Alice later embraced the Colonial Revival movement, which was in many ways nativist and saw immigration as a potential threat to “American values.” But for Alice and her contemporaries (both in the US and in Canada), there was a great deal of difference between immigrants like themselves—English-speaking, of British descent, white, and Protestant—and those who were coming from southern and eastern Europe. The early 20th century was also a period during which some Americans were trying to strengthen the ties between the US and Britain by emphasizing their shared cultural heritage. Thus there was no resistance to someone of Alice’s background claiming American identity. 

In future blog posts, we’ll tell more stories of the Saunders and Trainer families, and further explore these issues of national identity. 


Most of Catharine Parr Traill’s books are available in digital form through sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive. A recent print edition of The Female Emigrant’s Guide, edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas, includes extensive supplementary material, including modernized recipes. Library and Archives Canada has put together a website of material—including original letters and other documents—on Catharine Traill and her sister Susanna Moodie.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Railroads and Refrigerator Cars: An Episode in the Career of William H. Miner

Charles E. Russell (1860-1941)
One of my favorite things about my job here at the Alice is that I never quite know where my research will take me. The collection is so wide-ranging, and William and Alice’s interests so broad, that anything could happen. Thus it was that I recently found myself reading a book called The Greatest Trust in the World by Charles Edward Russell. Though not as well known today as figures like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, Russell was also a muckraking journalist, and the book grew out of a series of articles he had written for Everybody’s Magazine in 1905. Though most Americans didn’t realize it, there was an entity that wielded enormous power over their daily lives—and it would ultimately cause the downfall of the California Fruit Transportation Company, William H. Miner’s employer for most of the 1890s.

This entity was the Beef Trust—an organization so powerful, according to Russell, that it had “impoverished or ruined farmers and stockmen, destroyed millions of investments, caused banks to break and men to commit suicide, precipitated strikes, and annihilated industries.” In some places, the trust had so much power that citizens, “even in the privacy of their offices or homes,” dared not speak a word against it. Most Americans thought of companies like Standard Oil as “the ultimate of monopolistic achievement,” but the Beef Trust was “far more vast and powerful.”

A refrigerator car from the 1870s. Ice was used in all cars until
mechanical refrigeration was introduced in the 1950s.
The origins of the Beef Trust (always capitalized by Russell) could be traced back to the invention of the refrigerator railcar in 1874, which transformed how and what people ate—and the biggest effect was on the meatpacking industry, centered in Chicago. Each packing house had its own refrigerator cars, and many railroads maintained their own cars, which could be used by packers at no charge. As Russell explained it, “The railroads were under obligation as common carriers to deliver in good condition the goods that they handled. The refrigerator car was merely an appliance to insure delivery in good condition.”

The Armour packing plant in Chicago, ca. 1910
Inevitably, the meatpacking companies consolidated into four main firms: Armour, Swift, Hammond, and Morris. The “big four” were then able to persuade the railroads (Russell doesn’t explain exactly how) to compensate them for using their own refrigerator cars for shipping. In the end, the railroads agreed to pay 3/4 of a cent for every mile hauled. That didn’t sound like much, but it added up to about $7.50 per car for every trip between Chicago and New York. This made it very difficult for companies that didn't own their own refrigerator cars to compete, and allowed the Beef Trust to control the prices of cattle and dressed beef.

By around 1900, the Beef Trust owned about 80% of all the refrigerator cars in the United States, and were transporting all manner of perishable goods, not just meat. Rival firms that did have their own cars “found that the cars of the bigger and more aggressive packers were favored by the railroads, handled more rapidly, sent back with less delay; that the car of the big house was in fact a club to beat the smaller firm to death; and they gradually got out on the best terms they could obtain. Thus the refrigerator car formed the Beef Trust.”

Shipping fruit was serious business, and
all communication had to be in code.
So where do William Miner and the California Fruit Transportation Company come in? CFT was a subsidiary of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company, a pioneer in the industry. Around 1886, Carlton B. Hutchins of Detroit developed an improved refrigerator car that used wool scraps from the garment industry for insulation. Hutchins went into partnership with F. A. Thomas, a Chicago fruit and produce dealer, and in 1888 they transported their first cars of fruit from California to Chicago. This was a risky business—Thomas had to purchase the fruit outright from the growers, who were skeptical of the refrigerator cars’ ability to keep the fruit from rotting. But it worked, and the California Fruit Transportation Company was born.

At first, the owners had every reason to think that “they had something better than a gold-mine. They voted themselves good salaries as officers...they voted themselves fat dividends as stockholders therein, and nothing seemed as easy as making money.” It was during this flush period, in 1890, that William H. Miner was hired as a mechanical superintendent for the company. His work at CFT would have shown the importance of improved draft gears to cushion wooden railcars shipping delicate cargo, and soon after being hired, he filed a patent for what would become known as the Miner tandem spring draft rigging.

Earl Fruit Company employees, ca. 1910
But thanks to the Beef Trust, these good times were not destined to last. In stepped one Edwin Tobias Earl, owner of the Earl Fruit Company, who supplied close to 80% of the fruit shipped by CFT. Earl requested a commission of $10 per car of fruit shipped—which California Fruit refused to agree to. So Earl went to Armour and rented cars from them instead, and “when the California fruit season reopened the CFT suddenly found that wherever it went the Earl Fruit Company was there also, making war and using a familiar and effective weapon; that is to say, it was offering rebates and getting the fruit.” CFT made an arrangement with the Southern Pacific Railway to haul their cars exclusively, but somehow this “exclusive” arrangement did not preclude Earl Fruit Company from shipping in Armour cars.

California Fruit attempted to find a new market by shipping fruit overseas to Liverpool, but this venture failed, and the company lost more money. To satisfy bank loans, they were forced to transfer 500 of their railcars over to Swift. “A period of febrile existence followed for the California Fruit Transportation Company. It became involved in a business tragedy, features of which were a bank failure, a resulting suicide; and made an end in the transfer to Swift of all the remaining California Fruit Transportation Company’s cars.”

Russell does not give the dates of these events, so it is not clear if they happened while William Miner was still working for CFT, which he did until 1897. But certainly the company’s troubles would have provided him with additional motivation to make a success of selling his draft gear, and eventually go into business for himself. We can speculate, too, as to whether this experience of the power of large conglomerates influenced Miner’s lifelong determination to keep his business in his own hands and personally control all its aspects. Russell wrote in 1905, “To all intents and purposes Swift is Armour, and the California Fruit Transportation is Swift, and the Fruit-Growers’ Express is the California Fruit Transportation, and the Beef Trust is one and all of these together.” But such a thing could never be said of W. H. Miner, Inc.


Charles Edward Russell, The Greatest Trust in the World (New York: The Ridgway-Thayer Company, 1905)

L. D. H. Weld, “Private Freight Cars and American Railways,” Studies in History, Economics and Public Law 31, no. 1 (1908).

Friday, July 28, 2017

Everything Is Lafayette: The Last General’s American Tour, 1824-25

Dedicated readers of this blog (if indeed there are any) may recall back in November 2014 when I included Lafayette commemorative ceramics in my series on New York scenes on transferware. The featured items depicted the Marquis de Lafayette’s arrival in New York harbor on August 16, 1824, at the beginning of his tour of the United States. I thought it would be fun to return to this topic and take a closer look at Lafayette’s grand tour, and some more of the items made to commemorate it.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, had first come to North America in 1777 as a 19-year-old full of enthusiasm for the cause of independence. Now he was in his late sixties and had survived both the American Revolution and the French Revolution and its aftermath (and would experience one more revolution, in July 1830). He was accompanied on this trip by his son, Georges Washington Lafayette, and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur, who would later publish an account of the tour. Originally, Lafayette planned to visit the 13 original states and stay for four months; such was the response that he ended up visiting all 24 states over the course of 13 months.

“Welcome La Fayett” jug by an unknown maker,
in the collection of the Alice T. Miner Museum
President James Monroe had chosen an auspicious moment to invite Lafayette to be “the Nation’s Guest.” The United States was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and new roads, canals, and steamboats made travel around the country relatively quick and pleasant. By the 1820s, Americans were becoming ever more aware that the Revolutionary generation was passing away. Lafayette was the only one of George Washington’s major generals still alive in 1824; he was a significant figure in his own right for his military contributions, and as a close friend of Washington he provided a personal link to the great men of the past. As one Lafayette biographer has written of the tour, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”

Lafayette gloves in the Alice’s collection
Lafayette and his companions passed through our part of the country in late June 1825. They arrived in Burlington, Vermont, on June 28. There they admired the city’s “beautiful situation” on Lake Champlain, and were greeted by local citizens and the militia. There was a public dinner, and many speeches, after which Lafayette was taken to lay the cornerstone of the new South College building (now known as Old Mill) at the University of Vermont. After a reception at the home of Governor Cornelius Van Ness, Lafayette boarded the steamboat Phoenix, which would take him to Whitehall via Lake Champlain. En route, they passed through (in Levasseur’s words) “that movable field of battle on which Commodore M’Donough, and his fearless mariners, covered themselves with glory, on the 11th of September, 1814.” According to Levasseur, they would have liked to visit Plattsburgh, but were expected to arrive in New York by July 4th, and did not have time. They did make a brief stop in Whitehall before boarding the carriages that would take them to Albany, where Lafayette was greeted by “an arch formed of 200 flags of all nations, by the sound of artillery, and two rows of little girls, who covered him with flowers, the moment he passed before them.”

Memorial ribbon from the Alice T.
Miner Museum collection
The parades held and triumphal arches erected for Lafayette’s visit were ephemeral, but there were more lasting souvenirs. Just at the moment when English ceramic manufacturers were beginning to truly tap into the American market, they had the perfect subject for transferware. Lafayette arriving at Castle Garden, Lafayette visiting the tomb of Washington, and Lafayette’s famous face (both old and young, rather in the manner of Elvis memorabilia) decorated plates, jugs, washbasins, saltshakers, and household items of every description. Bandanas and gloves and ribbons were printed with his image, and countless engravings rolled off printing presses. One Philadelphia newspaper commented, “Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet. We wrap our bodies in Lafayette coats during the day, and repose between Lafayette blankets at night.”

Lafayette spent his 68th birthday in Washington with President John Quincy Adams, and departed for France the next day. When he died in 1834, President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette receive the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington in 1799. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Memorial services were performed in his honor all over the United States—and more souvenir items were made.

These items would later become treasured pieces for collectors like Alice Miner and others of her generation. They, too, admired Lafayette, but they also saw these mementos as evidence of the greater patriotism of early 19th century Americans—and they hoped that by preserving and displaying them, they would inspire their fellow citizens to follow that example.


Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; Or, Journal of a Voyage to the United States (2 volumes, 1829)

Marian Klamkin, The Return of Lafayette, 1824-25 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975)

Stanley J. Idzerda, Anne C. Loveland, and Marc H. Miller, Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds: The Art and Pageantry of His Farewell Tour of America, 1824-25 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989)

Jhennifer A. Amundson, “Staging a Triumph, Raising a Temple: Philadelphia’s ‘Welcoming Parade’ for Lafayette, 1824,” in David Gobel and Daves Rossell, eds., Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2013)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Crazy for Chintz: A New Addition to the Sheraton Room

Bedspread, English roller-printed chintz, ca. 1820
This winter’s renovation project focused on the second-floor bedroom, also known as the Sheraton Room. A coat of paint, some rearrangement of furniture, and a few new highlighted pieces have made this room an even more inviting space. The beautiful Sheraton-style four poster bed has been the perfect way to showcase the wide variety of textiles in the Alice’s collection, such as the “Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington” quilt made by Anna Moore Hubbell, Lena Olena Blow’s early-20th century silk crazy quilt, and the woven coverlet donated by Anna Ernberg. 

The bedspread currently on the bed is one that, as far as I can tell, has never been displayed before. It is made of a single layer of cotton chintz printed in a pattern that combines a variety of floral motifs in brown, pinks, blue, and green. The material is only twenty-six inches wide, and the lengths are sewn together with very narrow seams of less than a quarter inch. The top hem is faced with a strip of cotton in another print. The material was most likely made in England around 1820 using the roller-printing process.

An example of an Indian chintz made for the
European market, ca. 1750-1775
When British, Dutch, and French trading companies began importing textiles from India in the 17th century, Europeans were immediately captivated by the floral printed and painted cottons they called indiennes (in France) and chintzes (in England). These lightweight, washable, and colorful fabrics were much in demand both for household furnishings and for apparel, and European manufacturers soon began working to develop the technology to make their own versions. They were so popular, in fact, that French and English silk and wool manufacturers feared the competition and successfully agitated to restrict the manufacture and import of printed textiles. Despite these laws, the popularity of printed textiles only grew during the 18th century.

Block printer at work.
“Calico” was another general
term for a printed textile.
There were three basic ways to transfer a pattern to fabric: block printing, copperplate printing, and roller printing. Block printing uses carved wooden blocks, one for each color in the design, to which colorant is applied before being placed on the fabric and struck with a mallet to impress the pattern. Though the basic idea behind block printing is simple, it required great skill to precisely align the blocks to create the pattern, and the more colors used, the more difficult it was. Nonetheless, even as new technologies for printing were introduced, block printing remained the most common technique until the early 19th century.

In the 1750s, copperplate printing was introduced in Ireland. This form of printing fabric uses the same principles as printing on paper—a metal plate is engraved with the design and ink (or dye) is applied to the plate. Copperplate printing had some advantages over block printing: patterns could be much bigger (because the printing was done with a press in which the fabric was laid on top of the plate) and images could be much more detailed and realistic. Copperplate printing was used to produce the famous toiles de jouy, but was also used for chintzes.

A major revolution in printed textiles came at the end of the 18th century with the invention of roller printing. This uses an engraved plate fixed to a continuously rolling cylinder, which is refreshed with new coloring medium on each turn and prints the fabric in one pass from end to end. Roller printing eliminated the need to reposition the block or plate, as well as the fabric, after each impression. The advantages were immediately apparent—printing was much faster and thus, cheaper. For the first time, printed textiles could be produced on a large scale. This, combined with new developments in chemical dyes, meant that by the 1830s, they were no longer luxury goods exclusively for the middle and upper class, but were widely available (they lost much of their prestige among the well-to-do at this point—hence the term “chintzy” for something cheap or gaudy).

Detail of bedspread. Note that the pattern runs all
the way to the selvedge.
The narrow width of the material in the bedspread, combined with the crisp, detailed printing and use of multiple colors, suggests that this fabric was roller-printed. The muted color scheme, and the use of blue overprinting on yellow to produce green, suggests a date prior to the 1830s. The dark background is also more common in later printed textiles. This material still has its original glazing, produced through the application of friction to create a crisp, glossy finish. Normally glazing would wear off through use and washing, but a purely decorative bedcover like this one would not need much washing.

As is unfortunately the case with many of the items in the collection, we don’t know how Alice acquired this bedspread or what its history might be. But it certainly makes a fine addition to the Sheraton Room!


Printed Textiles 1760-1860 in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (Smithsonian Institution, 1987).

Eileen Jahnke Trestain, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1800-1960 (Paducah, KY: American Quilter’s Society, 1998).

“18th Century Printed Cotton Fabrics,”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Celebration That Wasn’t: The 1914-1915 Peace Centenary

The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent
by Amédée Forestier, 1914
Everyone loves a centennial celebration, and in 1910 a group of American and British citizens were already preparing for what they believed would be a significant anniversary. 1914-1915 would mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, ending the War of 1812 and beginning of one hundred years of peace between Britain and the US. Peace Centenary Committees had been formed on both sides of the Atlantic, and plans were being made to mark the occasion with the appropriate plaques, ceremonies, pageants, and monuments.

A pamphlet issued in 1913 laid out the aims and plans of the Committee. The members especially wished to emphasize the special relationship among English-speaking people in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and their common cultural, legal, and political traditions. At a time when new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were arriving in ever-larger numbers, and African-Americans were pushing back against the restrictions of segregation and discrimination, many Americans of British ancestry sought ways to place so-called “Anglo-Saxon” heritage at the center of the culture—and by doing so assure the security of their own position as the political and social leaders of the nation.

Design for a commemorative postage stamp
The Committee suggested a wide range of commemorative activities for 1914-1915, from the traditional placing of historic markers to more grandiose plans, such as the erection of a companion to the Statue of Liberty, “Peace,” on an artificial island in New York Harbor. Other ideas included a ceremonial banquet to be held in Ghent on January 8, 1815, replicating the one held in 1815, “a great merchant marine parade from Buffalo to Duluth and return, with celebrations in the border cities and towns,” a “Museum of the Peaceful Arts,” to be established in New York, and memorial arches to be built at the US-Canadian border between New York and Quebec, and Washington and British Columbia. Most of these activities were to be planned and executed by local committees, of which the Northern New York Committee was by far the largest with over 300 members.

The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 put a halt to most of these plans. While the United States did not enter the war until April 1917, the general feeling was that celebrating peace in the midst of war didn’t make a lot of sense. Moreover, there was a reluctance to spend money on pageantry and monuments when those funds could be used to support the war effort. Cities like Plattsburgh and New Orleans that had already organized commemorative events for 1914 carried on as planned, but most of the other ideas were never carried out (Ghent was under German occupation by January 1915, so no banquet), or had to wait until the war was over (a Peace Arch was eventually constructed on the Washington-British Columbia border, but not until 1921).

One task that the Committee was able to carry out successfully was the purchase of Sulgrave Manor, the English ancestral home of George Washington. Lawrence Washington, great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of George, acquired the manor in 1539, and members of the Washington family lived there for about 70 years. The Committee hoped that in time, Sulgrave Manor would become a “shrine” and a place of pilgrimage for Washington’s admirers in Britain, just as Mount Vernon was in the United States.
Appeal for support of Sulgrave Manor
sent to William Miner

Washington’s connection to Sulgrave Manor was fairly tenuous. By the time his great-grandfather left England for Virginia in the 1650s, the family had long since left the village of Sulgrave. Washington probably didn’t know much about his “ancestral estate” or his English forebears. But what was important to the people who preserved Sulgrave Manor in the early 20th century was the link it provided to that precious “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. It allowed them to emphasize that Washington was English, the product of many generations of English traditions, and therefore imbued with all the virtues that they associated with England, particularly those found in small rural, pre-industrial communities.

Records in the Alice’s archives show that William Miner donated $200 to the Sulgrave Institute and $250 to the Washington Manor House fund prior to 1922 (the building was officially dedicated in June 1921). At this time, Alice and William Miner were involved with the restoration of the Kent Delord House in Plattsburgh, and plans were underway for the Colonial Home in Chazy. William Miner was also engaged in researching his own English ancestry. Supporting the restoration of Sulgrave Manor would have fit into their larger philanthropic goals and ideas about historic preservation.


Ethel Armes, The Washington Manor House: England’s Gift to the World (New York: The Sulgrave Institution, 1922).

American Committee for the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of Peace Among English-Speaking Peoples, General Prospectus of the Project to Celebrate the Centennial of the Signing of the Treaty of Ghent (New York, 1913).

Marquess of Crewe, “The Sulgrave Institution and the Anglo-American Society,” 1922 (pamphlet in museum archives).

“The Sulgrave Institution of the United States and of the British Commonwealth: A Statement and Programme,” ca. 1923 (pamphlet in museum archives).

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. 


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