Written by Tricia Davies
When being introduced to the collection of American decorative arts at the Alice T. Miner Museum it is hard not to be impressed by the imposing piece of porcelain that looms large on one of the top shelves of the Ballroom. The stately punch bowl-like object, embellished with a purple and gilt border and the United States Coat of Arms, is striking on a purely aesthetic basis and yet it is the story of its provenance that suggests it could be a true American treasure.
Object XXXX.0907 in The Alice T. Miner Museum Collection
The porcelain piece in question was included in a 1917 inventory of Alice T. Miner's ceramics and glass. Conducting the inventory was noted scholar and collector Emma Hodge who called the piece a "Paris porcelain Wine Cistern" or "wine cooler" interchangeably, and described it as being part of President Abraham Lincoln's State dinner service. The wine cooler had been donated by Emma to her friend Alice for the Alice T. Miner Colonial Collection Museum which opened to the public in 1924.
It was with difficulty that subsequent staff at the museum sought out more information on the wine cooler. Emma Hodge may have inadvertently confused the situation by connecting the authenticity of the wine cooler to pieces from the Lincoln service reportedly in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Historical Society Rooms in Chicago. Evidence of the other pieces, which Emma suggested "have the proper documents attesting these facts" and could authenticate a link to the Lincoln White House, has not been found.
What has been found, following the publication of a catalogue of American Presidential China in The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), are similarities between the so-called wine cooler at The Alice and a chamberstick pictured in the new book and a slop bowl pictured on the PMA website. All three pieces feature decorations which not only echo the design of the Lincoln state dinner service, but feature extra flourishes. According to the catalogue, bedroom pieces ordered by Mary Lincoln as a "toilet set" were "differentiated by quatrefoil and tassel motifs." These are the same four-lobed flower-like forms painted on the wine cooler's purple border, and the same tassels which hang delicately down from the border decoration into the whiteness of the wine cooler's porcelain body.
Chamberstick from the Lincoln White House Toilet Set
Slop Bowl from the Lincoln White House Toilet Set
In an attempt to understand if and how a wine cooler might fit into a toilet set and in hopes of authenticating the collection object as a Lincoln White House piece, Tricia Davies contacted David Barquist who is the H. Richard Dietrich, Jr. Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and who wrote the introduction for the American Presidential China catalogue. Mr. Barquist responded immediately after receiving images and a description of the wine cooler. He related that the July 1861 invoice for Mary Lincoln's toilet set included a ewer, basin, chamber pot, soap dish, brush tray, jug, foot bath, slop jar, pair of chambersticks, powder box, and sponge bowl. He also asserted his belief that "the object in your museum's collection is in fact the foot bath from this set."
We still don't know exactly how Emma Hodge came to own Mary Lincoln's foot bath. A letter at The Alice indicates that a White House usher acquired the Lincoln piece while serving the Hayes through McKinley administrations. Further research needs to be done on this White House connection and efforts are being made to secure a copy of the invoice that lists the foot bath as part of the Lincoln set. David Barquist mentioned the possibility that the other porcelain Hodge references as being in Chicago may have been some of the numerous reproductions of Lincoln China made in the nineteenth century "and thus not retained by those institutions." Indeed, our research supports this theory.
The assertion that the object in the Alice T. Miner Museum is a foot bath has the power to change the way we look at the piece and how we share it with visitors. Previously imagined on a sideboard bearing wine, now the porcelain piece can be envisioned filled with water and, well, feet. The foot bath can be taken out of the formal context of the public state rooms and placed more privately in the family quarters of the Lincoln White House. The foot bath can also be reinterpreted as one of a set of twelve bedroom pieces, rather than one of a set of 658 pieces ordered by Mary Lincoln to complete the initial dinner and dessert service. No wonder one can't help but be impressed.
To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War this object is currently on exhibit in the Lincoln Library along with other images and objects representing or formerly belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Included in this exhibit are letters home written by local men during the Civil War. The Alice collection includes letters written by Charles Moore, and three of Will Miner's uncles who served during the war.