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

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.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

First Impressions

after - including the settee and barometer
Every winter we keep our maintenance man Steve busy by renovating a room in the museum. In all of the rooms and halls, with the exception of the third floor ballroom, the wallpaper dates to some time in the 1950s or 60s - it is dingy and repaired in places. The tired old wallpaper does nothing to accent the collection or the wonderful building details and construction. So we remove the paper and choose an appropriate paint color - and then move objects around to fit the space and the theme of the room or hall better. Often the pictures on the walls seem haphazardly hung so this is our opportunity to bring an aesthetic eye to the walls and to create a more inviting and lovely room.

looking north - before
after... this little south hall holds the Battle of Plattsburgh exhibit
After finishing renovation of the third floor last winter, this winter we moved to the first floor hall and Steve renovated this very important space over the months of January, February and March. The results are stunning. The collection shines and the hall is so inviting now! I have taken the liberty of placing the wall objects so they relate better to the furniture and themes. I have also moved a few pieces that were easily overlooked in their previous homes, such as the handsome barometer.

below the stairs - before

Along with new paint and a fresh view, we have the newly conserved settee back from Williamstown Art Conservation Center. It is a George III carved mahogany settee from 1820 that has received a new show cover of crisp black hair cloth. You can read about the process and what the conservators discovered in my Wednesday, October 2, 2013 post, Touring the Settee. Stay tuned for a post about the completed settee. And come in for a tour! We are open Tuesday - Saturday with tours at 10am, Noon and 2pm.

look at the lovely settee!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Carpet Bag's Story

I recently came across this accounting of one of the objects in the museum collection. This carpet bag belonged to William Miner's uncle John, and is now safely tucked away in storage. Its history teaches us of Uncle John and Aunt Huldah's lives as well... John and Huldah raised two orphans - Dora and their nephew William. I hope you enjoy the tale. To read more about Eva and Dora see my blog post from September 12, 2008, or click this link http://minermuseum.blogspot.com/2008/09/family-returns.html

"Written by Eva Simonds Vincent, daughter of Dora LaPorte Simonds, in her late eighties. She donated the carpet bag to the Alice T. Miner Museum.

After Eva's death in February of 1983, her sister Anna had Eva's story typed and gave it, too, to the Alice T. Miner Museum.

As we grow older our memory wanders back to days of long ago. I opened my closet door one day and found my old - but not quite forgotten - carpet bag hanging there. That old bag seemed to be trying to tell me a story, so I listened to what it had to say.

A Carpet Bag's Story

Many things have happened to me in my life - me, an old carpet bag! Did you know that Eva you are the third girl to care for me?

But my story begins with a very young man. Oh, he was tall, handsome, and very anxious for travel and adventure. He came into the store in this very small settlement in Northern New York State and bought me. My colors were bright, and fine leather handles had I then. I was very excited, for he packed me with what clothes he had and we headed for the west coast! a far place from my little settlement home.

It was 1849, and many times I heard men whispering the words "Gold in California!" The trip was not easy, but my new master, John Miner and I were young and eager for adventure.

While we were prospecting, a different kind of fever than the one that brought us out there broke out in camp. John, only 20 years old, came down with yellow fever. The Doctor did all he could for him, but John was very bad. Water was forbidden to the sick, but that was what he craved.

Now young Master John had a belt around his middle. In it he kept the gold nuggets that he had collected. Even while he was so sick, he bribed a small boy who ran errands for the men to bring him a watermelon. He hid that watermelon under his cot with me. He would suck on it piece by piece for the water that he craved.

When the Doctor visited again, Master John's condition was very much changed! The Doctor claimed that John had 'fever-eating watermelon', and that's the reason he lived to bring me back to the east and my home again.

When we returned, John decided to take part of the homestead and marry. He found a pretty young girl named Huldah. She was very young - yes, twenty years younger than John. Huldah was the first girl to love and care for me, and she layed (sic) me safely away with the belt in which my master had carried his California gold. The gold was gone now. Some of it John used to buy gold banded dishes for his bride.

When John and Huldah had been married for three years, Dora, a child whose mother had died, came to live with them. She became the second girl to love and care for me. When she was old enough to play dress-up, she carried me everywhere!

Dora, Uncle John, and Aunt Huldah, ca. 1867
Many happy years passed and before I knew it, it was time for Dora to be married. She was married in John and Huldah's home, but afterwards I lost sight of her for awhile. It was a very lonely time for me.

Before I knew it though, Dora's children came, and I was happy again! Her little girl came to visit Aunt Huldah and Uncle John and to play with me. What happy years those were!

Then came a time when Master John grew sick. He had no 'fever-eating watermelon' this time. It was very sad for me when my young Master John died.

Dora is the woman seated on the left... and could that be Aunt Huldah next to her?
Dora and her family came to live again in Master John's house with Huldah. We were to have a happy time again. My first and second little girls were together again. Dora's child, Eva, was the third little girl to love and cherish me.

Eva and Anna Simonds
As time goes by, those we love pass away. Huldah, my first little girl, went to be with my Master John. 

Dora packed me away for a long time in her closet. When she went to live with her daughter, my third little girl, I was happy once again. Eva took very loving care of me for I was nearly one hundred years old! Many happy years passed.

My Dora is long gone now, but I am still with old friends. Eva has no little girls to pass me on to, but she has arranged it to return me to the very spot where I was bought so many years ago by my young Master John! Where the old store stood, there is now a very fancy stone museum! It will be wonderful to be loved and at rest - and home!"