Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Honoring the Heroes of 1814: Commemorative Medals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka Grain Cleaning Machinery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit of "Washington Relics" in the United States Building

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

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

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

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