Winterthur is full of many treasures that are often overlooked or not on display in the museum or Galleries. In fact, with more than 90,000 objects in the collection, it is understandable that even our own tour guides routinely discover new things all the time.
A new “behind the scenes” tour has been introduced, aimed at discovering these secrets and treasures of the museum, Galleries, and the collection storage areas. Led by Winterthur curators, the My Favorite Things Tour focuses on a new theme each month. This month’s tour, “Remember the Ladies,” led by Catharine Dann Roeber*, emphasized historic objects in the Winterthur collection created or used by women.
The tour truly began behind the scenes—in the textiles workshop, generally off limits to the public—where the group admired select pieces of clothing, including children’s gowns, bonnets, and shoes from the 800 clothing items in the collection. The children’s gowns, dating to the 18th century and attributed to the Quakers, are currently being catalogued for the records. These gowns were most likely dresses for special occasions, such as a child’s christening.
Another interesting piece in the textiles workshop was a child’s toy, the old lady in a shoe. The whimsical gift, dating to 19th-century Europe, was modeled after the popular English nursery rhyme and features great detail.
It is important to remember the Winterthur collection is first and foremost the collection of Henry Francis du Pont. Although in some aspects Winterthur was heavily influenced by women—such in the garden, where landscape architect Marian Coffin left her mark—du Pont’s collection of Americana was not highly focused on women. Ruth Wales du Pont, his wife, did not partake in acquiring the collection found in the house; but there are subtle ways her influence is seen. For example, in her bedroom there is a table that descended from Ruth’s great-grandmother, Ruth Holmes.
Continuing into du Pont’s former home, the tour highlighted a case displaying a slave badge created by John Joseph Lafar in 1819 in Charleston, South Carolina. Slaves working off of the planation would commonly wear these badges. For example, women would wear such as badge when taking goods, such as vegetables, from the plantation to sell at market.
The last few objects seen were examples from the Winterthur collection of mourning jewelry, displayed in a case on the 7th floor of the house. The trend of creating jewelry to commemorate the death of a loved one saw a tremendous rise in popularity in the 1800s. Two catalysts are attributed to the rise in popularity: Prince Albert’s death in 1861 and the American Civil War. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria and members of her court wore black clothing and matching mourning jewelry for decades. It was also common for soldiers, before leaving for war, to clip a lock of hair and leave it for loved ones. Hair is one feature most often seen in pieces of mourning jewelry.
One of the most significant pieces of jewelry in the Winterthur collection is a brooch containing hair from George and Martha Washington. The locks of hair, cut by Martha Washington, are intertwined in the center of the brooch. The hair was given as a gift to Elizabeth Stoughton Wolcott in March 1797; although given as a gift of life before Washington’s death in 1799, the black border resembles mourning jewelry of that era. Elizabeth Stoughton Wolcott was the wife of Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the United States Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington.
Another piece of mourning jewelry displayed in the case is a mourning ring. The ring commemorates the death of Lady Elizabeth Bowdoin Temple in 1809. The daughter of Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin and Elizabeth Bowdoin, Elizabeth Temple, was married to Bostonian John Temple. Temple was a surveyor general of customs and lieutenant governor of colonial New Hampshire. The first British consul-general to the United States in 1785, Temple received the title Sir John Temple after inheriting a baronetcy in 1786 from Sir Richard Temple, 7th Baronet. Several mourning rings were produced to commemorate Elizabeth Temple’s death, most likely for her children. The outside of the ring reads “DOWAGER ELIZABETH LADY TEMPLE.”
While du Pont’s collecting focus may not have been intentionally on women, there are many objects in the collection that were influenced, used, and made by women.
In the upcoming exhibition The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament, opening August 23, 2014, in the Winterthur Galleries, women take center stage. For centuries women have used a needle to both earn a living and create objects of beauty. View exquisite embroidery from the Winterthur collection highlighting the fascinating intersection of “work” and “art.”
The next My Favorite Things Tour, on June 10, will focus on lighting objects, and will be led by Associate Curator Ann Wagner. For more information, please visit http://www.winterthur.org/?p=988.
Post by Hilary Seitz, Marketing & Communications Department
Catharine Dann Roeber, formerly in the curatorial department, is now an major gifts officer in Winterthur’s development department.