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

An Introduction

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.