Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Honoring the Heroes of 1814: Commemorative Medals

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

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

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




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












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





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


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

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










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

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

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

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



Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

Eureka Grain Cleaning Machinery

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Exhibit of "Washington Relics" in the United States Building


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





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

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

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











Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Big Books, Little Books

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




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




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

Plate VIII: Three déjeûner pieces (1790s)

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

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

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

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

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


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










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





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






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

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




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What is the Colonial Revival?

Among the many colonial curiosities on display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, perhaps none was more popular than the New England Kitchen. The creation of Emma Southwick, the kitchen was both a restaurant serving “old-tyme” fare and a historical exhibit. The reconstructed log cabin displayed old-fashioned furniture and “Revolutionary relics,” while young ladies in “quaint costumes” served New England delicacies such as boiled dinner, beans, and brown bread. Similar kitchens had appeared at a number of fund-raising fairs during the Civil War, but it was the Centennial Exposition that brought them to national attention.

Historians generally date the beginnings of the Colonial Revival to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and consider 1880 to 1930 the peak of its popularity—though it’s never really gone away completely. During this period, many Americans were interested in collecting colonial furnishings and decorative arts, or reproductions thereof, and preserving or restoring colonial structures. But the Colonial Revival is more than an architectural or decorative style. It has also been a way for Americans to help ease their transition from past to present. Not simply an expression of nostalgia for a supposedly “simpler” time, the Colonial Revival became a vehicle for the promotion of ideas about patriotism, morals and family life, good taste, and democracy.


The New England Kitchen at the Centennial Exposition

Born in 1863, Alice Miner came of age just at the moment when the Colonial Revival was beginning to flourish, and she witnessed many of the key moments in its history: the Philadelphia Centennial and the Chicago World’s Fair, where yet another “Old-Tyme Kitchen” was on display; the creation of the first period rooms at the Essex Institute in Salem; the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. But Alice wasn’t content with just reading about these developments in magazines, or participating in the various collecting “crazes” of her day. After all, most Americans—even very wealthy ones—with an interest in the Colonial Revival didn’t start their own museums. Alice Miner did, and what she collected tells us as much about her, and the time she lived in, as it does about the colonial era itself.


In future posts we’ll delve more deeply into the Colonial Revival and Alice Miner’s place in it. What was happening in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that made the colonial era so appealing? How did people learn about colonial homes and furnishings, and how did they acquire items for themselves or for museums? What were their reasons for collecting, or for purchasing reproductions, or visiting Colonial Williamsburg? And just what did they mean by “colonial,” anyway?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hello! As the new director/curator, I'll also be taking over blogging duties here at Alice News. I thought I'd introduce myself and tell you a little bit about some of the things I hope to write about over the next few months.

I started working at the Alice in April 2013 as the assistant to Director/Curator Amanda Palmer, and it didn't take long for me to become enraptured with Alice and William Miner, the collection, and the town of Chazy (friends and family may have gotten a little tired of me continually dropping Alice Facts on them). Before I moved to Plattsburgh in the spring of 2012, I taught U.S. and European history at Saginaw Valley State University in Saginaw, Michigan, for two years, and before that I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia for seven years while completing my MA and PhD in U.S. History at the College of William and Mary. How fortunate for me that the Alice very nicely brings together colonial history with the late 19th and early 20th century!

I'll continue to blog about events at the Alice, provide updates on renovations and conservation projects, and highlight interesting objects in the collection. But I'm also planning to write a series of posts about the Colonial Revival movement, exploring how Alice Miner's collection fits into the larger context of collecting and preserving America's past. Some of the topics I'm interested in include the Colonial Revival at World's Fairs (did Alice and William eat at the New England Kitchen in Chicago in 1893?) and the china-collecting craze at the turn of the century (it was bigger than Pokémon).

Oh, and like Alice, I'm a great pet lover, so expect to see lots of dog and cat pictures here! My husband and I are the devoted servants of Peanut, a lively Jack Russell/corgi/beagle/???? mix, and Simon the cat, who I found hanging out behind the museum last summer.

See you around the Alice!


Some of Alice's animal pals

Such a dignified creature. 
Simon has no time for your antics.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Toys Built to Last

Museum friend John Southwick has a wonderful collection of (mostly) Model A Ford vehicles, and he recently spoke at the museum about Model As. In the garages and buildings he stores his vehicles can be seen numerous other cool objects he collects such as road signs, garage signs and license plates. He also has a very fun group of toy vehicles – most of them trucks. I had the pleasure of setting up an exhibit of some of my favorites at the museum.

Anyone who ever played with pressed steel toys knows the charm and indestructibility of such objects. One also learns the names of their favorites as they become imprinted on the brain at an early age… There are just a few brands represented in this group; Wyandotte or All Metal Toys, Buddy L and Tonka will be the most recognizable depending on your age and love of toy trucks.

Pressed steel became a popular material for toy trucks starting during the 1930s industrial boom. Steel scrap was often used and pressed incredibly thin by huge machines. The sheets could then be cut and pressed into molds to make all sorts of shapes and objects that were strong and could be painted in bright colors. These pressed steel toys were more durable than wood and seemed more like the trucks they were made to represent. The idea caught on like wildfire among toy enthusiasts and new companies formed to take advantage of the markets created.

Steel was to be used only for the war effort during WWII and production naturally dropped off. After the war, however, these toys were in high demand and became more detailed and realistic. With the introduction of plastic into the construction there was no end to the details and features included in the vehicles. Because of the basic steel construction, however, the durability remained. Many of the cars in John’s collection are still strong enough to withstand some serious play!

1930s Wyandotte dump truck, pressed steel



1930s Wyandotte dump truck, pressed steel



1930s Wyandotte Art Deco livestock trailer







love the spare tire!

Wyandotte – All Metal Products Co

These trucks are my personal favorite because of their design. The lines and windows and curves appeal to my love of 1930s-1940s cars. They seem to have more character than the later vehicles.

All Metal Products Company was an American toy company founded in 1920 and based in Wyandotte, Michigan for most of its history. It produced inexpensive pressed metal toys under the Wyandotte brand name, and was the largest manufacturer of toy guns in the US for several decades in the 20th century. The company’s slogan was “Wyandotte Toys are Good and Safe.” To keep costs down, the company used scrap and surplus raw materials whenever possible, often manufacturing their toys from scrap metal obtained from local auto factories.

1930s Buddy L fire truck, pressed steel




1960s Buddy L fire truck hook & ladder, pressed steel, plastic



1960s Buddy L pickup truck, pressed steel, plastic



Buddy L Toys

Buddy L toys were first manufactured by the Moline Pressed Steel Company, started by Fred A. Lundahl in 1910. The company originally made fenders and other stamped body parts for the automobile industry. The company primarily supplied parts for the McCormack-Deering line of farm implements and International Harvester Company trucks. Moline Pressed Steel did not begin manufacturing toys until 1921. Mr. Lundhal wanted to make something new, different, and durable for his son.

Fred Lundahl started by making a toy dump truck out of steel scraps for his son Buddy. Soon after, he began selling Buddy L “toys for boys” made of pressed steel. Buddy L made toy cars, dump trucks, delivery vans, fire engines, construction equipment and trains. Many were large enough for a child to straddle, propelling himself with his feet. A pioneer in the steel toy field, Lundahl persuaded Marshall Field’s and F.A.O. Schwarz to carry his line. He did very well until the Depression, then sold the company.

1930s Keystone Ride 'Em wrecker truck, Packard Model, pressed steel



Keystone Manufacturing Company

The founders of the company were Chester Rimmer and Arthur Jackson. Originally Keystone specialized in movie machines and producing comedy films for young children from 1920-1924. (Remember the Keystone Cops?) By 1924 they changed course and started to produce the Keystone brand of pressed steel toys.

Keystone started out big - they made larger-sized toys, and they produced lots of them. They were given permission by the Packard Motor Company to create reproductions of their well known full sized truck models. In addition, they made toy airplanes, trains and construction oriented toys.

Keystone also made toys for J.C. Penny – under the name “Ride-Em”, these toys entered the market in 1932. Each toy made of a Packard truck had the famous Packard logo placed at the front of the truck, along with the Keystone logo – usually on the side of the toy. In 1937 the Packard line of toys was phased out along with the Packard logo. After WWII they began producing wooden toys including train sets, by the 1960s they had sold out to various companies and Keystone ceased to exist.

1950s Structo car hauler, pressed steel

1950s Structo car hauler, pressed steel


Structo Manufacturing was founded in Freeport, Illinois in 1908. It was originally known as the Thompson Manufacturing Company — and later changed to “Structo Manufacturing” in 1911 — a play on the “inde-structo-ble quality of their steel building sets. Their motto was “Structo toys makes men of boys!” – and some of their earliest toys were steel construction kits - forerunners of the “Erector” set. Included in some of the builder sets were roadsters and trucks, launching many years of pressed steel vehicle toys produced all the way into the 1950s and 60s.

1960s Tonka dump truck, pressed steel - with tin cat pull toy



Tonka Toys

Mound Metalcraft was created in Mound, Minnesota in 1946 by three partners; Lynn Everett Baker, Avery F. Crounse, and Alvin F. Tesch. Their original idea was to manufacture garden implements. The building’s former occupant, the Streater Company, had made and patented several toys. E.C. Streater was not interested in the toy business so they approached Mound Metalcraft to buy the company. The three men at Mound Metalcraft thought the toys might make a good side line to their other products.

After some modifications to the design and the addition of a new logo with the Dakota Sioux word “Tanka” or Tonka, which means “Great” or “Big”, the company began selling metal toys. This soon became the primary business. In 1955 Mound Metalcraft changed its name to Tonka Toys, Incorporated. The logo at this time was an oval – showing the Tonka Toys name in red above waves – presumably honoring nearby Lake Minnetonka.

The impact of the Tonka truck concept has been enduring and pervasive, especially the Mighty Dump Truck and associated “Mighty” line of construction equipment models introduced from 1964. The all-metal “Tonka Trucks” were sold throughout the world and earned a reputation as being indestructible, although the steel has been increasingly replaced by plastic from the late 1980s onwards.