Mass-Produced Relics: The Story of a Mount Vernon Gem

Memorial to Washington mounted on wood from Mount Vernon, James Crutchett (manufacturer), American Bank Note Co. (engraver), and Hammatt Billings (designer), 1859. Anonymous donor, 1977.0586 A.

This past President’s Day there was much love for, and celebration of, our first POTUS, George Washington. This sentiment was widely shared by our mid-19th-century compatriots, who were enamored by the story and glorification of George Washington. Winterthur has a large collection of objects depicting the “Father of His Country,” including paintings, statues, printed textiles, clocks, glass flasks, ceramics, and more. But one item in particular, a framed engraving representing a medal of Washington in front of Mount Vernon and his tomb, highlights the exceptional Washington fervor of the 1850s. Beyond the antebellum idolization of George Washington, this delicate 3.3 inch engraving and its frame tell us a story of cultural entrepreneurship in the mid-19th century.

On the back of the medallion, a plethora of information is provided.

The very bottom portion contains information from similar pieces:

“THIS BEAUTIFUL GEM,

framed in Mt Vernon Wood,

can only be had, wholesale

and retail, at HORACE BARNES & CO,

123 WASHINGTON STREET, BOSTON

or their agents throughout

the United States.”

Rear view of the medallion.

The story of this memento starts with James Crutchett, the English-born civil engineer responsible for installing a large gas lantern on the dome of the Capitol. In the early 1850s, Crutchett set his eyes on Mount Vernon, which had become a pilgrimage for patriots. The current owner at the time, John Augustine Washington, was struggling to fund the plantation. Capitalizing on the George Washington fervor and the monetary problems of Mount Vernon’s owner, Crutchett approached John Augustine with a business proposition. Around 1854 the pair signed a deal, which Crutchett characterized as allowing him to purchase the “many thousand trees around the mansion and tomb, and all on the estate of the homestead at Mount Vernon, the sacred home and resting place of the immortal George Washington,” (1) with the purpose of manufacturing canes and wooden souvenirs. News of the sale was met with some consternation. The Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, MA) reported the deal in 1858, commenting, “We hope the bones of the ‘Father of his country’ will not be dug up to be manufactured into toothpicks.” (2) Regardless, Crutchett’s enterprise moved full steam ahead.

Crutchett first focused on manufacturing canes. He established the Mount Vernon Cane Manufactory near the Baltimore and Ohio depots, and used steam machinery to speed up production. (3)Crutchett quickly turned to other forms of Mount Vernon mementos, including pictures frames, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, goblets, and more—all using the Mount Vernon wood. On August 1, 1860, he posted an advertisement for one specific souvenir:

PATRIOTS AND LOVERS OF WASHINGTON can now be supplied with engravings representing Mount Vernon, east and west fronts, the Birth-place and the Tomb of Washington. Each are neatly set in a glass crystal, and framed in circular frames of wood grown at Mount Vernon, from three to four inches in diameter; each frame is stamped, polished, and warranted, and accompanied with the certificate of Mr. Crutchett, the publisher and proprietor of the Mount Vernon factory. These will be sent by mail free of postage in any part of the Union on receipt of 5[?] cents each, (where 3-cent postage prevails,) or $1.50 for the set of four. (4)

Out of many of the other items Crutchett claimed to have sold, this one seems to be the most enduring and these “Mount Vernon gems” can be found in the collections of the National Museum of American History, Historic New England, and private collections. The Winterthur collection has three! Crutchett believed that his customers were “Patriots, collectively and individually, and all who admire the memory and virtues of the late Gen. George Washington,” and he believed that they would be “neat, pretty presents, and rewards for societies, schools, &c.” (5) Though it is unclear exactly how the souvenirs in the Winterthur collection were initially acquired or used, at some point an attachment was added to two so that they could be mounted. Others on the market have also been fixed with a hanging attachment, all of which seem to be unique and probably done by the owner of the memento, while also giving a hint as to how these pieces were enjoyed.

James Crutchett (manufacturer), American Bank Note Co. (engraver), and Hammatt Billings (designer). Memorial to Washington mounted on wood from Mount Vernon, 1859. Anonymous donor. 1977.0586 B.

As Crutchett worked to produce his Mount Vernon mementos in various formats, he partnered with other entrepreneurs. Along the top perimeter of the print, an inscription claims, “DESIGNED BY H. BILLINGS, ENGRAVED BY THE AMERICAN BANK NOTE CO.,” and around the bottom half, “Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1859 by H. Barnes in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.” Horace Barnes was a Boston merchant who sold looking glasses and picture frames. Advertisements from the period indicate that he would sometimes exhibit works of art by local artists in his shop windows to sell, so it is entirely possible that he commissioned famous Boston architect, illustrator, artist, and designer Hammatt Billings, who also completed the original illustrations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the design for that National Monument to the Forefathers at Plymouth. Crutchett may have known Barnes from his gas lighting business, since the Boston man was listed as the president of the East Boston Gas Light Company during this time in the Boston City Directory. It is likely that the two went into business together on the mementoes with Barnes focusing on the prints, and Crutchett focusing on the frame.

Close-up of the memento.

Even though Crutchett aimed to capitalize on the Washington craze sweeping the nation, he seemed concerned that these mass-produced relics would be perceived as exploitative. He attempted to paint his endeavor with a noble brush, dedicating a portion of his sales to “ultimately [aid] the building of the ‘Washington National Monument,’ and also the purchase and restoration of the ‘Home of Washington.’” An 1860 Boston Courier advertisement explicitly stated that one-tenth of the proceeds would go to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and Crutchett bragged in 1861 about the multiple thank-you notes he received from the Washington National Monument Board and Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for his contributions.

The Mount Vernon Cane Factory after it was turned into a Soldiers Rest. Soldiers Rest, Washington, D.C., Charles. Magnus, 1864. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011647024/.

George Washington’s popularity soared during the antebellum period as people tried to use his image to unify an increasingly divided country, but as the Civil War broke out, the focus on Mount Vernon and George Washington waned. In 1861, the Union army seized Crutchett’s house and factory, converting the house into a headquarters for the officers and the factory into a soldiers’ retreat. The army maintained control of the property for five years, during which much of his material was “used, destroyed, and taken away, and the larger portion, which has required the longest time and the largest outlay to prepare for final use, […] rendered unfit and valueless.” (6) During his deposition against the U.S. government in 1871, Crutchett grumbled that this loss made him unable to “resuscitate and revive his former business.” (7) He attempted to sell his mementos again in 1881, though he was not as successful since the popularity for cheap, mass-produced Washington mementos had declined.

While the “Mount Vernon gem” highlights the enduring popularity of George Washington, it also provides a window into the spirit of antebellum America. Manufactured on the cusp of the Civil War, the memento celebrates the unifying “Father of His Country,” who fought a war to create the nation that was about to be torn in two.

Post by Amanda Hinckle, Robert and Elizabeth Owens Curatorial Fellow, Museum Collections Department, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Winterthur is very grateful for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which has given us the ability to photograph and digitize works on paper in the collection, including these souvenirs.

References

O’Gorman, James F. Accomplished in All Departments of Art: Hammatt Billings of Boston, 1818-1874. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Rotenstein, David S. “The Civil War, George Washington, and the Mount Vernon Factory.” History Sidebar (blog). July 18, 2011. http://blog.historian4hire.net/2011/07/18/mount-vernon-factory/

1.  Crutchett, Appeal.

2. James Crutchett, Before the Joint English and American Commission: James Crutchett (British Subject) vs. The United States (Washington, D.C.: National Republican Office Print, 1871), 4.

3. James Crutchett, Appeal of James Crutchett to the Government of the United States for Property They Forcibly Seized and Destroyed. Washington, D.C.: 1861.

4. The Lowell Daily Citizen and News, January 2, 1858, 2.

5. “Washington Canes,” Farmer’s Cabinet, Jan 5, 1858, 2.

6. “Mount Vernon Mementoes,” Daily National Intelligencer, Aug 1, 1860.

7. “Mount Vernon Mementos, Mount Vernon Mementos, Mount Vernon Mementos!” Daily National Intelligencer Feb 26, 1859.

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