Southern Collecting in the Post−Civil War Era: A Case Study of Barbara Fritchie’s Desk-and-Bookcase

Desk-and-bookcase, Frederick, Maryland, 1780−90. Walnut, poplar. Collection of the
Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), Winston-Salem, NC

On November 21, 1885, Ariana Trail wrote to her son-in-law, Reverend John Harding, 
with a tone of urgency, imploring him to send his wife, Nan, $18, “so that she can buy
Barbara Frietchie’s secretary, a lovely antique genuine, & in perfect order.” (1) The
desk-and-bookcase, dating from around 1780, was “perfectly clean” as “Mr. & Mrs. F were
the most orderly couple in the world,” and it had “the most fascinating drawers (secret
ones!).” (2) Harding should send the money quickly, Trail pleaded, or risk the rare piece
being “grabbed up by the rich Mrs. Buckler of Baltimore in a day or 2.”(3)

Cabinet card of Ariana McElfresh Trail, Gilbert & Bacon, Philadelphia, 1880−90.
Collection of Maryland State Archives

The perceived importance of the desk-and-bookcase was due to its ownership by
Barbara Fritchie, who died in 1862 at age 96 and was memorialized in 1863
by John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem bearing her name. The verses document how
Fritchie purportedly waved an American flag from the window of her home in
defiance of Confederate soldiers marching through Frederick, Maryland. In
Whittier’s account, Stonewall Jackson, confronted with the flag draping from
Fritchie’s window, gave the orders:

“Halt!”—the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”—out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff.
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
but spare your country’s flag!,” she said. (4)

Accounts of the incident have since established that the woman in question was Mary
Quantrell, not Barbara Fritchie. Nevertheless, as a result of Whittier’s poem, a
mythology emerged surrounding Fritchie, ultimately leading Ariana Trail to acquire
the desk-and-bookcase on behalf of her daughter and son-in-law. The purchase
importantly illustrates that collectors were interested in Southern-made objects as
early as 1885, much earlier than scholars of the antiques trade have previously
assumed. It also highlights the fact that items such as the desk-and-bookcase, locks
of George Washington’s hair, and Benjamin Franklin’s gold-headed cane were sought
after because of their associative qualities.

Barbara Frietchie, Brady & Co., Washington, D.C., 1862. Carte de visite
printed in 1863 or 1864 for the Great National Fair. Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division

After Fritchie’s death, her niece, Catherine Hanshew, inherited her estate. (5) Then in
the 1870s or 1880s, Henry Etchison, the operator of a popular furniture store in
Frederick, acquired the desk-and-bookcase. (6) Etchison dabbled in the antiques trade
alongside local auctioneers who regularly advertised antiques in Maryland
newspapers in the 1880s. Trail, an abolitionist and one of Frederick’s most prominent
citizens, visited the Etchison store in November 1885 before penning her letter to
Harding. After discussing the merits of the piece, she signed off, “Nan works so hard
over the holidays that I think she ought to be gratified, don’t you?”(7) Harding replied
two days later, on November 23, 1885: “Many thanks for your happy suggestion. Of
course I think Nan ought to be gratified and if she wants the secretary and bookcase
why here is the money . . . I’ve made it for $25 in case she should have to bid against
the rich Mrs. B. of Baltimore.”(8)

A strong candidate for “the rich Mrs. B. of Baltimore” is Eliza Ridgely White Buckler,
whose wealthy family had strong ties to the Confederacy. Following the
conclusion of the Civil War, the Bucklers moved to Europe, where they stayed until
around 1890. Despite their absence, the couple was listed in the Baltimore Blue Book
in 1888, and other period documents indicate that they maintained social connections
in the city throughout their time abroad.(9) Eliza Buckler, born the same year as Ariana
Trail, certainly fits the profile of the “rich Mrs. Buckler of Baltimore.” The wealth
of the Buckler and Ridgely families also helps explain why Trail was so adamant that
Harding send money immediately, and why Harding, upon reading the letter,
responded with nearly 40 percent more than requested.

Eliza Ridgely White Buckler. Courtesy Hampton Historic Site, National Park Service

It seems unlikely, however, that Mrs. Buckler would have been aware of, or interested
in, Barbara Fritchie’s furniture. The Etchison Furniture Store was located in
Frederick, but the Bucklers’ social connections were primarily in Baltimore.
Additionally, the political leanings of the Ridgely and Buckler families suggest that
the Fritchie provenance would not have appealed to them. If Eliza Buckler was the
Mrs. Buckler identified in Trail’s letter, her interest in the object challenges
assumptions. It is likely that Trail mentioned Mrs. Buckler to her son-in-law simply
to encourage him to send money expediently.

In 1929 Florence Trail, Ariana’s daughter, explained why her mother was so intent
on acquiring Fritchie’s desk-and-bookcase. She wrote that her mother,

remembered distinctly hearing all about Mrs. Barbara Fritchie’s keeping out her flag
while the Rebels passed her house, and as the immense flag which waved from the
cupola of our house was always taken down . . . under similar circumstances, Mother
at once gave expression to her admiration for the old lady, and ever afterwards used
to say that ‘Aunt Barbara’ was the only person who had ever excited her envy. (10)

The object about which Trail wrote served to reinforce the mythology surrounding
Barbara Fritchie and helped to sculpt a post−Civil War American history that focused
on valor and heroism.

Creations of legends and mythologies often exclude more complicated aspects of the
past. Fritchie was not, to modern understanding, a model Union supporter, as she and
her husband owned two slaves. (11) Furthermore, Fritchie’s father-in-law, Caspar Fritchie,
was a Tory who was sentenced to be drawn and quartered in Frederick in 1781. (12)
Despite these questionable circumstances, Barbara Fritchie became a symbol of
patriotism and American values.

After Nan and the Reverend Harding acquired the desk-and-bookcase, they
bequeathed it to their daughters, who in turn left it to a neighbor, Julia Hanna. (13) In
1989, Frank Horton, the founder of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
(MESDA), acquired the piece for the museum. In his correspondence with Hanna,
Horton noted that he appreciated its fine condition and thought that “it would make
a real important statement of the skills of the cabinetmakers of the Frederick area of
Maryland,” omitting any mention of Fritchie. (14) His writings highlight how motivations
for collecting Southern objects had shifted over the course of a century, from one
premised on an object’s association with historical figures to one that valued
connoisseurship and visitor experience.

Ariana Trail and John Harding were part of a rich network of early collectors
interested in Southern objects, and they were attracted to those objects primarily
because of their association with historical figures, even if those associations were
apocryphal in origin. Such objects now form the core of numerous museum collections
across the country, and it only by studying their histories, including who collected them
and why, that one can begin to reveal the complex issues they illuminate.

Post by Trent Rhodes, Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Culture.

This article originally appeared in the 54th Annual Delaware Antiques Show catalogue and was generously sponsored by Tom Savage. The Delaware Antiques Show takes place November 10–12 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, Wilmington, DE.

Footnotes:

1 Ariana Trail to John Harding, Frederick, Maryland, November 21, 1885, MESDA object file, acc. 3985.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 The verses here are an excerpt from the poem: John Greenleaf Whittier, “Barbara Frietchie,” Atlantic Monthly 12, no. 72 (1863).
5 Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629−1999, images, FamilySearch,
: Frederick, Wills, 1860−1865, vol. 15, image 117 or 173, Hall of Records, Annapolis.
6 Julia Hanna, object history, MESDA object file, acc. 3985.
7 Trail to Harding, November 21, 1885.
8 John Harding to Ariana Trail, Frederick, Maryland, November 23, 1885, MESDA object file, acc. 3985.
9 Dr. & Mrs. Thomas H. Buckler, Baltimore Society Visiting List (Baltimore: Thos. E. Lycett & Co., 1888),
10 Florence Trail, A Memorial of Ariana McElfresh Trail (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1929), 72.
11 Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629−1999, images, FamilySearch,
: Frederick, Wills 1849−1854, vol. 1, image 34 of 210, Hall of Records, Annapolis.
12 Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), August 18, 1781.
13 Hanna, object history.
14 Frank Horton to Julia Hanna, Winston-Salem, N.C., MESDA object file, acc. 3985.

This entry was posted in Academic Programs, antiques, Decorative Arts, Delaware Antiques Show, Furniture, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *