Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“The Illusion of Daily Occupancy”: Period Rooms and the Colonial Revival

Period rooms are so much a part of our modern museum landscape that it’s hard to imagine that they have only been found in the United States for a little over a hundred years. The first American period rooms were created by antiquarian George Francis Dow for the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1907. It’s no coincidence that the three rooms—a kitchen of 1750 and parlor and bedroom of 1800—represented New England homes of the colonial era. The development of museum period rooms and the colonial revival were very closely related trends.

Period rooms first appeared in Europe. Artur Hazelius founded the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm in 1873. Hazelius set up vignettes or tableaux similar to those found in wax museums, using mannequins to display the costumes and furnishings of the various geographical regions of Sweden. In 1891, Hazelius opened the first open-air, “living history” museum, called Skansen, which incorporated entire buildings occupied by families who demonstrated their traditional crafts and trades to visitors. Like American proponents of the Colonial Revival, Hazelius was worried that rural, pre-industrial skills and values were being lost and needed to be preserved in a special setting.

Organ grinder and women in traditional dress at Skansen, 1905
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

By the 1890s, museums in Zurich, Nuremberg, and Munich also had period rooms. Previously, these museums, like most, arranged their collections by type or material. But in the 1880s, museum curators began to feel that visitors would have a better understanding of art and history if they organized objects by period and style, thus giving a total picture of the culture of a specific moment. While there were many people in the United States who were very interested in the “Skansen Idea” and period rooms, it took some time for the idea to be implemented in this country. In part, this was because many museums still resisted the idea of presenting early American furnishings and household objects as “art.”

New England Kitchen of 1750, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

George Francis Dow presented his period rooms at the Essex Institute as historical exhibits, rather than artistic ones: his aim was to give visitors the impression they were peeking into scenes of everyday life in colonial New England. In an article written for the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dow explained how he created this sense of reality:

“These rooms [the kitchen, bedroom, and parlor] were then furnished with every detail, however small, so as to show interiors in an old-time house of that locality. An effort was made to heighten the illusion of actual human occupancy by casually placing on the table before the fireplace in the parlor a Salem newspaper printed in the year 1800 and on it a pair of silver-bowed spectacles, as though just removed by the reader. Elsewhere was placed a work basket with a half-knitted stocking on the top of other work, the knitting needles in place; and in other ways the illusion of daily occupancy was created.”

Parlor of 1800, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

The period rooms were just the beginning for Dow; in 1910 the Institute acquired its first historic structure, the 17th-century John Ward house, and moved it to a lot behind the museum. Dow restored the building to what he believed was its original appearance, and, inspired by Skansen, had guides in colonial costume providing interpretation for visitors. Over the years, the museum purchased many more buildings, including a shoemaker’s shop and an elegant Federal mansion, which served as examples of the varied architectural styles found in New England before the Civil War.

Bedroom of 1800, Essex Institute
Postcard from the collection of the New York Public Library

Because Dow’s aim was to create an illusion of historical reality, he was happy to use reproductions in his period rooms and houses. Nor was he trying to recreate actual places; rather, his rooms were imaginative composites of “typical” rooms. This would not be the case in the period rooms established in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum in the 1920s and 1930s. Here, the goal was to bring together the finest pieces of decorative art and place them in worthy settings, generally by removing woodwork and other architectural elements from existing buildings and reinstalling them in the museums’ period rooms.

The opening the American Wing of the Metropolitan in 1924, the first permanent exhibition at an art museum of American furniture and decorative arts, marked an important turning point in the Colonial Revival. We’ll cover this key development in a future blog post.

The Essex Institute merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem in 1992 to become the Peabody Essex Museum. You can still visit their historic properties, including the John Ward House.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Every Christmas Card I Write...

Card from CCRS Grade 7A, 1923
The Alice contains many treasures, but if I had to pick a favorite, it just might be the greeting card collection. Assembled in nine enormous albums are the greeting cards that Alice and William Miner received between 1909 and 1925. There are Easter cards and Thanksgiving cards, but most of them are Christmas cards. This delightful collection gives us a window into the popular styles and themes of holiday cards in the early twentieth century. In addition, there is an album dedicated to the handmade cards and letters that the Miners received from students at Chazy Central Rural School in the 1920s. The museum archives also holds a number of examples of the elaborate Christmas cards that the Miners sent from Heart’s Delight Farm each year. The effort that Alice and William put into preserving these cards shows how much they valued these expressions of good wishes.

Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but we can trace their origins to holiday customs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Tradesmen sent new year’s greetings to their customers, and it was traditional to send holiday letters to family and friends at this time—by the 1830s it was possible to buy decorative stationery just for this purpose. Schoolboys made “Christmas pieces” on special paper printed with holiday borders to demonstrate their penmanship skills to their parents and visitors to their schools. Valentine’s Day cards also were common by the 1830s, and indeed many early Christmas cards simply reproduced the floral motifs of Valentine’s greetings.

The first Christmas card combined expressions of
holiday cheer with images of charitable giving.
Though it’s generally difficult to place a precise date on ephemeral holiday traditions, historians are fairly confident in saying that the first commercially produced Christmas card was made in London in 1843. In that year Henry Cole (who had played an important role in introducing the penny post to England in 1840) commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card, which was lithographically printed and then hand-colored by professional colorist William Mason. The cards (which were actually unfolded sheets of paper) sold for one shilling each—quite expensive by 1840s standards—but the idea quickly caught on.

Louis Prang (1824-1909)
The Christmas card tradition spread to the United States by the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that they became really popular. This was due almost entirely to the work of Louis Prang, “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Prang was born in Breslau, Silesia (now Poland) and learned the trade of printing and dyeing fabrics from his father, a textile manufacturer. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States and established a business in Boston, printing business cards, advertisements, and other ephemera. 

Prang returned to Europe in 1864 to study the newest techniques in printing, and came back to the U.S. prepared to introduce chromolithography. While lithographs were printed in black and white and had to be colored by hand (like Cole’s Christmas card), chromolithography produced a full-color image. This was a difficult and labor-intensive process, and Prang considered his chromolithographs to be true works of art. 

Elihu Vedder’s prize-winning card, 1881,
from the collection of the New-York
Historical Society
Prang produced his first Christmas cards in 1875, and they were an immediate success. Between 1880 and 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of up to $1000 to the first place winner. Esteemed artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge served as judges. Prang’s cards, with their meticulous printing techniques and aura of fine art, dominated the Christmas card market until the 1890s, when inexpensive postcards from Germany began flooding the American market. Prang got out of the card business and focused on producing art supplies and educational materials, but his designs set the standards for Christmas cards well into the 20th century.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s online exhibit, American History Through Christmas Cards, has a wonderful selection of 19th and 20th century cards that you can browse.

Information about Louis Prang comes from the New-York Historical Society Library’s blog.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Have a Colonial Christmas

Over the past few weeks, as we’ve been preparing for the holiday season here at the Alice, one of the questions that’s frequently come up is “What was a colonial Christmas like?” This is a really tricky question to answer for a number of reasons. For one, “colonial” as a term encompasses more than 150 years of history, a large geographical range, and many religious and ethnic variations. Christmas in a 17th-century New England village would have looked very different from Christmas on an 18th-century Virginia plantation. Second, there are very few contemporary historical sources that describe what Christmas was like in North America—most of what historians think about colonial Christmases is based on the assumption that they followed English customs.

Many Americans first saw a Christmas
tree in this illustration of Queen Victoria
and her family, published in Godey’s
Lady’s Book
in 1850.
One thing we can say for certain is that many of the things we associate with Christmas today—trees, gifts, Santa Claus, cards—were not introduced in the United States until the 1830s at the earliest, and didn't become common until later. The image of an “old-fashioned” Christmas that many of us probably have is very much a product of the 19th century. That was when Christmas became the family- and child-oriented holiday it is now—and it should also be noted that it didn’t take long for people to start complaining about the commercialization of the holiday, either.

In the 17th and 18th century, Christmas was for some people a religious holiday that should be observed solemnly in church and quietly at home. In Puritan New England Christmas was not celebrated at all, and in fact was outlawed between 1659 and 1681. Puritans objected to Christmas because they felt that the commemoration of Christ’s birth on December 25 had no scriptural basis, and because of the holiday’s association with Catholic customs. The Puritan opposition to Christmas as a time of feasting, drinking, gambling, and general merriment suggests that for many people, the winter holiday served as an excuse for revelry during the darkest days of the year.

The centerpiece of “Christmas in the Country,” as depicted in this
18th-century print, was a large bowl of punch.
For those who celebrated Christmas, December 25 was just the first day of a nearly two-week festive season that extended until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. During this period, people might attend special dinners, parties, or balls, and pay extended visits to family and friends. Having plenty of good food and drink available for guests was important, but there do not seem to have been particular foods that were associated with Christmas. 

In some places, a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to organize and encourage revelry and even mild disobedience. Christmas was a brief season during which normal rules and routines were overturned, when servants could demand gifts from masters and peasants demand drink from the local gentry, as in the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” So although Christmas wasn’t yet a truly gift-oriented holiday, there was a certain kind of non-reciprocal gift-giving that was expected during the season. On Boxing Day (December 26, St. Stephen’s Day), parents and masters gave presents (usually food, clothing, or money) to their children, servants, slaves, or apprentices. 

Another 18th-century depiction of holiday festivities.
Decorating indoors with greenery—holly, boxwood, fir, mistletoe—is a midwinter tradition that long predates Christianity. These pagan customs were later reappropriated by the Church and given Christian symbolism. An English poem of the 1770s gives us an idea of how greenery was used to decorate:

From every hedge is pluck’d by eager hands
The holy-branch with prickly leaves replete,
And fraught with berries of a crimson hue;
Which, torn asunder from its parent trunk,
Is straight way taken to the neighboring towns;
Where windows, mantels, candlesticks, 
and shelves,
Quarts, pints, decanters, pipkins, basons, jugs,
And other articles of household ware,

The verdant garb confess.

So, in decorating the Alice for the holidays, we’ve had to use our imagination a bit. We have used mostly natural elements for decoration—greenery, fruit, berries, nuts. And we do have a Christmas tree, which we’ve decorated with a combination of glass and homemade paper ornaments, like this cornucopia—perfect for holding candy or other treats!

If you’d like to make some 19th century-inspired holiday decorations, please join us on Saturday, December 13, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. The crafts are best suited for children ages 5 and up, but all are welcome to pay a visit to see the Alice dressed up for the holidays and have some treats!