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

Monday, April 10, 2017

The American Red Cross in the First World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“World War I and the American Red Cross,”

“The American Red Cross,”

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Helen C. Gunsaulus: Collector and Curator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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